"Is the Kingdom of God Really At Hand?" - from July 29, 2012
A Sermon by Alex Evans
From Sunday, July 29, 2012 at
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Texts: Philippians 4:4-9; Mark 1:14-15
“Is the Kingdom of God Really At Hand?”
The great writer, theologian, Holocaust survivor, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, once asked the question – “Who do you think is the saddest person in the Bible?”
There would be many candidates for this – “the saddest person in the Bible.” We could all think hard about the Biblical story and come up with answers. Maybe it is Eve, the first woman of the Bible. She did get blamed by Adam. Then in Genesis 4, there is the very sad story of Eve’s sons: one of her sons, Cain, kills her other son, Abel, and Cain runs off far away. That is a story of extreme sadness. Losing a child is so very difficult; having a child murdered is worse, especially if it happens at the hand of your other child.
Maybe the saddest person in the Bible is Moses. Moses served God so well, with countless acts of courage, setting the people free from Egypt, guiding them with fortitude and faith. But then Moses never got to see the Promised Land. He died just before that.
Maybe the saddest person is Job, the quintessential suffering servant. Or maybe it is the rich young ruler whom Jesus encountered, who was so ready to enter the Kingdom, but could not relinquish his wealth, which is what Jesus asked him to do. So the rich young ruler walked away sorrowful. Or maybe it is Jesus, as in the shortest verse in the whole Bible when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died: John 11:35 says, “Jesus wept.”
We could come up with many candidates for the saddest person in the Bible. But here is what Elie Wiesel says. The saddest person in the Bible has to be God. God has to be the saddest because of his continuing disappointment, heartbreak, grief, that the world and God’s beloved, chosen people remain so far from what God intends for us. Created for life, we seem to gravitate toward death. Shaped for love, we seem more inclined toward hatred and violence. Offered light and joy, we stay so enfolded in darkness and despair. Shown the way toward the Kingdom, toward a new heaven and new earth, we keep shooting each other, and acting with selfishness and greed, and wandering far from the peace and purposes of God. Wiesel argues that God has to be the saddest person in the Bible.
Today’s sermon emerges from another of your requests – in response to my invitation to you, the congregation, to let me know what would be most helpful subjects for sermons for you and your faith journey. Here is what the email says:
“Thanks Alex for being open to our ideas. . . .I would like to hear a sermon on Living in the Moment or as Jesus says "the Kingdom is at hand".....a sermon on this topic would speak to my heart, inspire and energize me. …. I think that being human we carry so much "baggage" around with us....people are really hurting inside and we cover that hurt up in so many ways....we need to hear the positive, transformational message that Jesus came here to give....(instead of the subtle message that we are sinners and in some way damaged ...which is the message I got as a child). Jesus gives us the tools to loosen the baggage that weighs us down and it’s by living in the moment, by leaving the past in the past, not worrying about the future, and letting go, that this can be achieved. Each moment provides us with a chance to make a decision to forgive, to love more, to give more, to care for the sick, to feed the poor, to not be angry or jealous, or judgmental, … i would like to hear more on this....Thanks! :)
So this intends to be a sermon about “living in the moment,” and responding to Jesus’ words: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
Is the Kingdom of God really at hand, especially as we consider God’s sadness?
I want to share some words from a author, Frederick Buechner:
It was a couple of springs ago. I was driving into New York City from New Jersey on one of those crowded, fast-moving turnpikes . . .It was very warm. There was a brilliant sunshine, and the cars glittered in it as they went tearing by. The sky was cloudless and blue. . . I had music on the radio, but I didn’t need it. The day made its own music – the hot spring sun, the hum of the road, the roar of the great trucks passing and my own engine, the hum of my own thoughts. When I came out of the Lincoln Tunnel, the city was snarled with traffic as usual, but at the same time there was something about it that was not usual.
It was gorgeous traffic, it was beautiful traffic – that’s what was not usual. It was a beauty to see, to hear, to smell, even to be part of it. It was so dazzlingly alive it all but took my breath away. It rattled and honked and chattered with life – the people, the colors of their clothes, the marvelous hodgepodge of their faces, all of it; the taxis, the shops, the blinding side-walks. The spring day made everybody a celebrity – blacks, whites, Hispanics, every last one of them. It made even the litter and clamor and turmoil of it a kind of miracle.
There was construction going on as I inched my way east along Fifty-Fourth St, and some wino, some bum, was stretched out on his back in the sun on a pile of lumber as if it was an alpine meadow he was stretched out on and he was made of money. From the garage where I left the car, I continued my way on foot. In the high ceilinged public atrium on the ground floor of a large office building there were people on benches eating their sandwiches. Some were dressed to kill. Some of them were in jeans and sneakers. There were young ones and old ones. Daylight was flooding in on them, and there were green plants growing and a sense of deep peace as they ate their lunches mostly in silence. A big man in a clown costume and a white face took out a tubular yellow balloon big around as a noodle, blew it up, and twisted it squeakily into a dove of peace, which he handed to a big-eyed child watching him. I am not making this up. It all happened.
In some ways it was like a dream and in other ways it was like waking up from a dream. I felt like I had never seen the city so real before in all my life. I was walking along Central Park South near Columbus Circle at the foot of the park when a middle-aged black woman came toward me going the other way. Just as she passed me, she spoke. What she said was, “Jesus loves you.” That is what she said: “Jesus loves you,” just like that. She said it in an everyday voice as if she had been saying good morning, and I was so caught off guard that it wasn’t till she was lost in the crowd that I realized what she had said and wondered if I could possibly ever find her again and thank her, if I could ever catch up with her and say, “Yes. If I believe anything worth believing in the whole world, I believe that. He loves me. He loves you. He loves the whole doomed, darned pack of us.”
For the rest of the way I was going, the streets I walked on were paved with gold. Nothing was different. Everything was different. The city was transfigured. I was transfigured. It was New York coming down out of heaven adorned like a bride prepared for her husband. “The dwelling of God is with mortals. God will dwell with them, and they shall be his people . . . God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4). That is the city that for a moment I saw.
For a moment, it was not the world as it is that I saw but the world as it MIGHT be, as something deep within the world wants to be and is preparing to be, the way in darkness a seed prepares for growth, the way leaven works in bread. (Secrets in the Dark, p. 157f.)
Is the Kingdom of God really at hand?
There are plenty of signs that it is not. God has to be sad. We all have our heartaches and challenges. We have our pressure points and worry places. Some of us have new issues and upcoming dilemmas. We live in a dangerous and uncertain world where there are too many guns, and other circumstances that generate fear, and various issues polarize us across the globe.
Yet there are good words that want to shape our lives toward the Kingdom that is indeed at hand. Paul reminds us in the face of all things: “rejoice in the Lord, always, . . . do not be anxious. The Lord is near.” We are invited to keep our lives rooted prayer, connected to God’s promises. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” And we are urged to keep on with all that is true, honorable, pure, just, and commendable.
And we have Jesus’ confident and hopeful words: “the time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” These are the first real words that Jesus speaks, and they want to orient our lives in living into the Kingdom, which IS emerging in our midst.
Is the Kingdom of God really at hand? We have to say – “No,” there are many places where it is not here. The sadness that we might carry, the challenges we face, the heartache of loss, the prevalence of violence and death around us, all remind us that we do not live in the Kingdom of God.
But we also have to say, “Yes, indeed.” We do see moments of God’s Kingdom present. Maybe it is in certain moments when the world looks a certain way, people look a certain way, and “the streets even seemed paved with gold” and God is clearly present all around. We get a glimpse of God in particular encounters, or in moments of revelation, and our vision – so often blurred – becomes clear and we see, thankfully – “God will wipe away every tear, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
Following our worship this morning, some of us will re-group in this sanctuary to give thanks and give witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ in memory of Al Winn, who served as pastor of this church beginning in the mid- 1970’s. About a year after I arrived to be the 12th pastor here at Second, I received a note in the mail. On the back of the stationery, the envelop read “Albert Curry Winn.” I opened the note with extreme appreciation and anticipation. The note said this: “My receipt of your September Second Pres (newsletter), prompts this letter. . . . I had been in academia for many years. But my first love was always the pastorate.” He said that he especially wanted to be in a church in the center city, a church that had determined not to move out to the suburbs. Second was that church. And he came with high hopes and intentions to help Second be “an urban church that ministered in the city as a whole, and especially to residents of the inner city, including the homeless.” Al was the driving force when the Downtown Community Ministry came together, and downtown churches started feeding hungry people for lunch on all the days of the week. Our “Walk-In Ministry” continues from those days, an important part of our presence and participation in God’s work downtown. Al was here when the church got engaged in what has become known as CARITAS – where the city cares for the homeless neighbors. Al’s legacy is pervasive in this place as we carry on in faithful downtown ministry. And what Al’s note really said was how delighted he was that these vibrant ministries were all continuing to shape the life and focus of this church in Richmond. Al’s note said this: “(Your newsletter) paints a picture of my dreams for Second all coming true. I am profoundly grateful and will keep you in my prayers.”
Last Sunday, a dear friend of Al’s, and also a friend of mine and many in this church, Willie Thompson, attended worship here. After worship, Willie handed me three photos, all of Al Winn. These were photos of Al at the US Capitol in 1987, where he was standing in his preaching robe, reading the Apostles’ Creed, in protest and getting arrested to make a statement about injustices and practices in Nicaragua. Willie had these photos because he was there getting arrested too.
On the date of those photos, 1987, Al was back living in Richmond, teaching a class at Union Seminary on Christian Spirituality. I was one of his students in that class. And when he got back from that trip to the capitol and to get arrested, he asked all of us why we, students of the gospel and future ministers, did not accompany him on the trip. Though he never told us beforehand that he was going to Washington, it was a powerful and formative moment for all in that class. This most peaceful man, teaching Christian Spirituality, about prayer life and ancient practices, was living out Christian faith to the fullest, representing Christ, serving God.
Many of us have indelible marks on our lives and on our faith that were made by Al Winn as he worked and served Jesus in the coming of God’s Kingdom. We will keep nurturing those memories and continue to be inspired by his witness. But here is the point – Al, like many others have done, lived a life that confirmed that the Kingdom of God IS AT HAND. That Kingdom is not all the way here yet. There is work to do, love to share, hope to convey, light that needs pouring into darkness. But the Kingdom IS AT HAND. We know we belong to God, so we seek to serve God – we seek to spread kindness and joy, justice and peace following Jesus. We seek to live in every moment – not trapped in the past but looking toward God’s future, not contributing to the violence but working for God’s peace, not pursuing meanness and death, but pointing to God’s light. This is what God calls all of us to be about. Each moment provides us with a chance to make a decision to forgive, to love more, to give more, to care for the sick, to feed the poor, to not be angry or jealous, or judgmental. This is the way of Jesus.
Here is another way to think about it: we are each to “be such a person, and live such a life, that if every person were such as you, and every life were like yours, this earth would be full of God’s light and hope, joy and justice, and Kingdom!” (adapted from Phillip Brooks and B. Witherington III, Incandescence, p. 28). Indeed, we are all called to be such a person, and let ours be a voice for HOPE, that God’s kingdom emerges in our hurting city, across the whole world, and God’s light illumines every corner, and God’s peace and promises prevail everywhere. We want to let our kindness, our love, our actions for life and hope transform our lives and the whole world this summer season and forever as we live into the Kingdom of God. Alleluia. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment: You have shown us the way, O God. Guide us in that way of Jesus as we commit again to following Jesus. Amen
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during morning worship on Sunday, July 29, 2012. This is a rough manuscript.