Last Sunday night we were discussing the Lord’s Prayer at Brunswick Street United Church and the person sitting next to me leaned in and said, “When we live out the justice and love God intended us to embody as a community, as a world, we find the Lord’s Prayer alive and real.” He looked me in the eyes and repeated, “Thy Kingdom Come.” Indeed.
This was NOT the image I carried of the Lord’s Prayer when I was a child, an adolescent or an adult. Throughout most of my life when I heard the expression, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven” I was aware of two different interpretations. On one hand there were those I called the “escapists” who believed that one day, in the sweet by and by, all injustices would be made right. Thy Kingdom would come, but not until the next life, Heaven, and we could only wait with eager anticipation for that utopia to come true. To those living through slavery, drudgery, a painful life, such a conception of Thy Kingdom come must have felt like a Divine escape, to leave behind the wretchedness of the now for the beauty and truth of tomorrow.
But the more familiar and attractive interpretation of Thy Kingdom come was summed up in Tommy Douglas’ familiar speech, “To build a New Jerusalem”, that is naming our task as the building of this New Jerusalem, God’s Kingdom, brick by brick, until one day the world we know with all its warts will be that shining city on a hill imagined by Jesus himself. That is what I thought of when I repeated the Lord’s Prayer, reciting the line “Thy Kingdom come”, that one day we will get there. Martin Luther King Jr. would often say that “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Justice.”
When I was in seminary studying to become a Minister the dominant theology of the time for mainline churches was Liberation Theology. To sum up Liberation Theology believes that God is not neutral in the world, God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. If you want to understand where God is in the world you need only look for the poor and oppressed and find God on their side. And this theology fit well with my notion of Thy Kingdom come being built, one brick at a time, one social change at a time, one economic change at a time, until one day, perhaps quite some time in the future, our great, great, great grandchildren would live to see the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, become a reality.
I asked a former colleague of mine who once worked in a very economically challenged country, a place known as a hotbed of Liberation Theology in the 1980’s, why churches there were turning their backs on Liberation Theology and instead focusing on that uniquely American theology called the Prosperity Gospel. His answer surprised me, he said that if you were a very poor family and one group of Christians came along and told you that one day God would liberate you and all of the poor of this land but not for many generations and another group of Christians came along and said if you believe in the literal truth of the Bible, if you believe God has a plan for you to be wealthy, if you work hard, be loyal to your family, you can escape poverty now, which group of Christians do you think the poor family will join? The truth is whatever you think of a theology that suggests God wants everyone to be wealthy by asking the people to work hard and be loyal to their families this group of Christians is suggesting a small change in behavior that can make some difference in a family’s livelihood, wealth or no wealth. People crave the presence of the Kingdom now, in their lifetime.
It was about that time I came to read Tom Wright’s and William Willimon/Stanley Hauerwas’ books on The Lord’s Prayer and the way they interpreted the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God was not as escape from the ugliness of present times or the long wait for the coming New Jerusalem. Rather it was an event, an experience that occurred when Jesus was alive, when the presence of Jesus came among us and we celebrated together as God’s people. Jesus had told us that he would be present in the sacred meal, in the people as we shared in a gathering that turned the wisdom of our present world on its head.
Wright points out that the people in Jesus’ time were searching for a King and for a Kingdom. “Jesus contemporaries were longing for God to become King. They were fed up with the other kings they’d had for long enough. As far as they were concerned the Roman Emperors were a curse, and the Herodian dynasty was a joke. It was time for the true God, the true King, to step into history, to take the power and the glory, and claim the Kingdom in God’s holy name.” And this anticipation of a King and a Kingdom had long been foretold, hear Isaiah, “There will be a highway in the wilderness; the valleys and mountains will be flattened out; the glory of God shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Jesus took Isaiah’s kingdom-message and set about implementing it. Somehow Jesus seemed to be saying, through his strange work the kingdom was appearing, even though it didn’t look like people had imagined.
And how do we know that Jesus and his Kingdom is present in our world? William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas write, “When we see Jesus healing people, casting out demons, we are to know that the kingdom of God has come upon you. Mark 1:14-15 says Now after John was arrested Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news. Faith in Jesus is not simply an idea or emotion, it is a concrete reality that we are joining forces with.” In times of inclusive celebration, in times of healing, in times of unexpected good news, we experience the Kingdom.
Hauerwas and Willimon suggest that how we practice our citizenship in this kingdom is as important as the oath we take to join it. “To say Your Kingdom come, is to be willing to become part of the rather weird gathering of strange people, often people whom the world regards as outsiders, who are now in the inside with Jesus. One of the most persistent criticisms of Jesus was the charge that he hung out with disreputable people. Hear Matthew 9:10-13 (The Message) Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?” Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”
You know that Jesus wants us to build this kingdom now. You know from every chapter in the Gospels, from the Book of Acts, that Jesus wants us a Christians to be participants in the cause of justice, to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed, to set the captives free. But as we work for the Kingdom to be real to more and more people surely we can take the time to experience Thy Kingdom come now, on earth as it is in Heaven.
My friends I have seen this Kingdom alive here at Bethany. Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in Heaven has come to this little piece of earth and you and I have seen it with our own eyes. Perhaps you have something else in mind, perhaps you’ve been looking for what our world calls Thy Kingdom come and thus you are missing the Kingdom as it has come alive here and now. Perhaps you’re looking for a full church, full of the right people, with a full choir and shiny well-kept building, where everything matches and everything is just so. But I imagine Thy Kingdom come right here on earth as it is in Heaven when someone loses a loved one and the church is there to offer unconditional, sustaining and unrelenting love. I’ve seen this Kingdom come when someone who did not look like or talk like most of our church community walked into a Christmas service and you treated him like a brother. I’ve seen this Kingdom come when a group of 40+ amateurs came together to be in a play, filling all of us with a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves. And I’ve seen this Kingdom come at the early Christmas Eve service when the most amazing readers in church you’ve ever heard bring the story of Mary and Joseph to life.
I leave you with the words of Willimon and Hauerwas, “The Christian faith is kingdom based, always leaning into the future, standing on tiptoes, eager to see what God is bringing to birth among us.” Amen.