November 25, 2018

Christ or Caesar.jpg

When I was in Seminary our professors would ask us to refrain from a preaching technique they called “dualism”. You will have heard preachers and other public speakers use this technique, to suggest all important issues can be distilled to a choice between two opposites. It will not surprise you to know the preacher would weight one of the choices in very flattering terms and the other choice in stark and scary images. The reality of life we all know is filled with gray; the colour of nuance, the space we usually locate uncertainty/mystery, that large void between where we live and where we might want to live. I have always believed the choices in life are often less about choosing right from wrong but instead finding a way to navigate from the complicated place where we are to the ideal place we want to end up.

So when I read Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis talk about Jesus’ expression "My kingdom is not from this world,” I worried I was in for more “dualism”, the kingdom of the “other” world being sanctified, pure and perfect while the kingdom of my world all warped and corrupt. Instead Lewis offered refreshing insight, she wrote of our text this morning this is a rather difficult challenge when it (Jesus’ kingdom) seems so far away from the reality that we know and in which we live. The kingdoms of our world could hardly be more opposite than the kingdom Jesus has in mind. Indeed!

What kind of kingdom does Jesus propose? Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, kingdom language in John is rare, used only here (John 18:33-37) and in the conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:3-5). Interestingly, Jesus’ reference to kingdom in the Gospel of John comes up in dialogue with those who represent the kingdoms of Jesus’ present day world. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus represents the kingdom of the Jews. As a Roman, Pilate represents the Roman Empire. It seems that the kingdoms of the world as it was known back then are called into question by Jesus who is the Word made flesh loving the world (John 3:16).

God’s kingdom is not opposite of our kingdoms, it has to be more than -- it just has to be. In other words we don’t sit back and choose between kingdoms, like some electoral ballot, we go into our messy, conflicted, sometimes beautiful, sometimes tainted, world and strive for Jesus’ kingdom to come, now. That kingdom may not be of this world but it is part of our world and it is in a very real way our “North Star”, our bright shining light to guide us on our way.

I know that when we hear about the kingdoms of this world there is a certain nostalgia about the way things used to be. Surprisingly this often comes to me from younger people. Whoever the source it is misguided. For every “sin of our age” I can list equal volumes of pure evil in ages gone by. Try me sometime. I am not a believer in progress, I have no rose coloured lenses when I look at the state of the world today or where we are heading. But the past is filled with its own sins and in our honest moments we know this, you know this. The reference to the kingdoms of this world is less about a certain age, generation or tradition and more about what happens when we try to remove the underlying assumption that a Creator’s love gave every living thing a sacred status and a loving embrace. If God’s love gives everything life and meaning then privileging some more than others is false, the purpose of life becomes less a search for community and partnership and more a quest for empire and superiority. Thus my kingdom is not of this world is less about geography or being “successful” and more about measuring one’s life on connecting to the purpose God gave it, living into that kingdom as if it were the only one that mattered.

And yet…it’s unfeasible, even ridiculous to think that our efforts and energies can turn a world around into the world God sees it can be. Here is a quote to ponder, “Changing the world begins with a small group of people who simply refuse to accept the unacceptable” (Richard Branson). As Karoline Lewis says, It is beyond hard to believe that we can stand up against the unacceptable, but we have to believe it -- we just have to. It is our calling to strive for different. It is our calling to bring about “thy kingdom come” even with the promise of God’s kingdom coming.

And this kingdom does not result from force, control or manipulation, it comes when people truly open themselves to its reality. Jesus’ kingdom is not about amassing additional amounts of control. Jesus’ kingdom is not about his ultimate rule over and above others. Jesus’ kingdom is about relationship. “My kingdom is not from this world” because it is from God. One forms a relationship with the Giver of Life, the giver of purpose, the naming of truth and then one forms community with others of similar vision to be the kingdom they are seeking to find.

Can I share a story that illustrates these kingdoms, especially as we sit in church on a baptism Sunday? (I will admit to telling this story on numerous other occasions, it is one of my favorites.) Note that we all live in the gray, that land that separates these kingdoms. So any judgment or self-righteous sneering you might want to offer toward the father in this story needs to be held in check.

Retired Methodist Bishop and well known author and preacher William Willimon tells a story about receiving a telephone call from an angry father while he was serving as Dean of the chapel at Duke University. The father began by saying, “I hold you personally responsible.” “For what?” Willimon asked. The father replied, “My daughter. We sent her to Duke to get a good education. She is supposed to go to medical school and become a third generation (doctor). Now she’s got some fool idea in her head about Haiti, and I hold you responsible.”

Turns out, his daughter was involved in the chapel, various campus causes, and was one of the organizers of a spring Mission trip to Haiti. The father said, “She has good grades and a chance to go to medical school…now this.” “Now what?” Willimon said. The father shouted into the phone, “Don’t act so dumb. Even if you are a preacher, you know very well what. Now she has some fool idea about going to Haiti for three years teaching kids there. None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for you. She likes your sermons and you’ve taken advantage of her at an impressionable age. Now she’s got this fool idea about going to Haiti!”

At this point, Willimon says he was getting a bit energized himself. So he responded, “Now just a minute. Didn’t you have her baptized?” The father replied, “Well, yes, but…” “– And,” Willimon continued, “didn’t you take her to Sunday School?” The father stammered in reply, “Well, uh, sure we did. But we never intended for it to do any damage.” “Well, there you have it,” Willimon said. “She was messed up before she came to us. Baptized, Sunday-schooled, called. Don’t blame this on me. You’re the one who started it. You should have thought about what you were doing when you had her baptized.” “But,” the father pleaded, “We’re only Presbyterians. We just wanted her to be a good person. We never wanted anything like this.” “Sorry,” Willimon said, “You’re talking to the wrong person. If you want to complain, take it to her third grade Sunday School teacher or your church leader. Take it up with your wife. You’re the ones who got her into this when you had her baptized. Thanks.  Have a nice day.”

Just like with Jesus’ baptism, our baptism can often start a fire that soon burns out of control. Baptism, you see, isn’t about a cute little thing we do at the church before the champagne brunch or the family party. Baptism is about putting our feet, our children’s feet, on a pathway whose twists and turns we cannot always foresee. Baptism isn’t about how much water we use – a splash or a dunk.  Baptism is about immersing ourselves and our children in the wild and unpredictable Spirit of God, who works its way on us, pushing us to that kingdom we all know is real and we also know is hard to find, harder still to live.

Thy kingdom come. Amen.