The Kingdom of God Among You
Sermon Preached at the November 12, 2016 Meeting
of The Presbytery of the Miami Valley
Rev. Diane Ziegler
Isaiah 12:2 – Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. (NRSV)
Luke 17:20-21; 33-35 – Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” . . . . Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left. (NRSV)
Startle us, O God, with your truth and open our hearts and our minds to your wondrous love. Speak your word to us; silence in us any voice but your own and be with us now as we turn our attention, our minds and our hearts, to you, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Rev. John Buchanan)
My husband is a car enthusiast. He would love to drive a Bugatti, or a Koenigsegg, or a Pagani. But instead he drives a grey Honda Accord that he treats like a Bugatti – – washed and shined regularly and meticulously cleaned. This morning I drove here with an open cup of coffee – – SSSHHH – – Don’t tell him!
Two grey Honda Accords ago he bumped someone in a parking lot and the “H” on the front of his Honda broke off. It was weeks before he found a replacement “H” that met his price point, but he was so glad when he did. The car was back in pristine order. For a bit anyway. At least a week. For not too long after he had that “H” back in place on his pristinely maintained Accord, he found himself headed up I-75 on a routine ride that would change him forever.
He was driving north, our younger son – – then about 5 – – with him, on the way to pick up our older son. The highway was packed. He was in the third lane from the right, vehicles all around him. Directly in front of him was a pick-up truck loaded with a household of furniture, topped with a metal bed frame, and tied up with string. As he drove in the traffic, at the speed that 75 demands, he watched, with distress, the bed frame begin to bounce and loosen and he knew it was coming off.
He could not brake. Or go right. Or left. Or catty-cornered either way. Even if they survived the frame’s impact on the car, he thought a huge accident would follow. He thought they were going to die. He said he watched his whole life run before his eyes, just like “they say”. He looked at the kid in the car for what he thought was a last time. Wondered how long the other child would be left waiting, and how I would find out what had happened to them. He thought about who he loved. What he valued. What he had done and what he had not done that he wished to do. And he wondered what life for his family and for his corner of the world would be like if he was no longer part of it. He maintained his speed, steadied his hand on the wheel and prayed a last prayer to Almighty God.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
Facing death is hard. Our physical death. Communities as we grew up in them. Congregations that served generations of the same family now in steep decline or closed.
The death of life as we know it, the death of life as we remember it in a time gone by – – facing death is hard.
Remember when the pews at church were full? When you could hear the lock-step of the Elders returning the offering plates or the communion trays to the front of the sanctuary? When Presbytery meetings were the place to be? When the Establishment seemed unmovable?
When we see life lived and longed-for slipping from our very hands, our grasp, our memory, our ability to hold on, well, it is very hard. And we struggle, we struggle to hold it so tightly that we clasp and grasp, and cling, turning inward to shield ourselves from the change to come.
And that is exactly what we have done. We’ve planted our feet unwilling to move. “I’ll die before I change!” one frightened church member exclaimed.
Our faces and faith have turned inward, my friends. Maybe more so today than a week ago. Individually, in our particular churches, the Presbytery of the Miami Valley, the Synod of the Covenant, and the PC USA. And we tremble. We tremble.
We don’t want to die. We don’t our memories of full churches to fade any further. Facing death is hard.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid.
Seemingly quick or simple solutions are the first to surface in our minds and hearts and faiths turned inward – – we just need a charismatic pastor, or for churches to just do what they are supposed to do, or to cut out the troubled spots, to get rid of every one not like us; and then we can begin again.
These quick solutions aim to remove us from the muck and the mire and the hard work of following Jesus. They remove us from being part of the solution. Like the Left Behind messages that have for years taken people captive with a false comfort – – like those bumper stickers “in case of rapture this car will be unmanned” – – simple solutions hope for something to take us, remove us, lift us like Elijah out of this hot mess of a world in which we find ourselves.
But the solutions aren’t simple. And Christ didn’t take the easy way out. And Christ doesn’t intend to pull us from bed, or the grinding stone, or the field, or the workplace, or the school bus, or the retirement home, or the pew, and lift us to some heavenly realm where we can escape the trials of the world.
Instead, “in fact”, he says, “the kingdom of God is among you”. My friends, “in fact, the kingdom of God is among you”. In Belle Center and Huntsville; Urbana and Springfield; Huber Heights and Downtown Dayton; Eaton: Oxford; in Bellbrook; Middletown; Blue Ball; Monroe; in Reily; in Morning Sun; Sugar Creek; Fairborn and every other town great or small with the presence of the people of God. We, my friends, are to manifest the Kingdom of God in our individual lives, our congregations, and the Presbytery of the Miami Valley. “The kingdom of God is among you.”
We are called not to turn inward. We are called not to look to the skies to be drawn up in a chariot. Instead, we are called to look down upon the holy ground on which we walk. We are called to look onto the faces that we pass. We are called out into the places in which we find ourselves each moment of each day; called to live and carry and forward the kingdom of God.
For it is among you. It is among you. Brothers and sisters the kingdom of God among you! Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
But let’s be honest. We have failed. We have fallen to fear and dusty memories and hopes unrealized; longing for a time when the world seemed less complex and divided, less violent, less apathetic. We have not done what we should do, loved as we should love, given as we should give, trusted as we should trust. We’ve embraced isolation at best, and at worst, hatred and division at times too. We are Presbyterian but not Presbyterian. Christian but not Christian. Followers of Jesus as long as Jesus doesn’t put us at any risk. Because we are afraid. And our fear is deep and wide. Our uncertainty is great. Our self-preservation high.
Lift us away, O God, and leave the others behind.
But self-preservation is not the Kingdom. It does seems much less risky, much more secure. When hear Jesus say that those who try to make their life secure will lose it, and those who lose their life will keep it – – well, it makes no sense at all – – how can that be? If we just wait a little longer, keep the doors open a little longer, keep COM and Leadership Council running a little longer, show me some signs and some indicators so that we can say, “Look, here it is!” . . . the kingdom will surely come.
All the while ignoring those words already spoken. “in fact, the kingdom of God is among you”. All the while ignoring those words that those who lose their life will keep it, those who lose their life will keep it. The Kingdom among you!
The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
My son started High School this year and that has brought some new phrases. One day he was telling some story about something that happened and I honestly don’t remember the story at all except for the ending statement about whoever had misfortune in it, “sucks for him” he said.
At first I was rather mortified. My younger son has the potential to make a sailor blush, but my older son, he’s like Ghandi shoved in a 14 year old’s body! What? What just spewed from your mouth, child? But then I was fascinated. Leave it to a teenager to understand how the world really is. Sucks for him. Sucks for you! It’s the descriptive phrase used among these 14, 15, 16 year olds for the person who did not have things go his/her way, for the one who was defeated, for the one who was left alone, or whatever their misfortune may be. Sucks for you.
How sadly reflective that phrase is of our world, our nation, our communities, our Presbytery, our congregations, even in our own lives.
Sucks for you.
“In case of rapture this car will be unmanned.” Sucks for you who are left behind. To heck with everyone else; I am out of here.
Sucks for you Syria and Yemen and Iraq where violence and starvation take life after life, for the women and girls who suffered under Boko Haram and then again under those in the camps where they sought refuge. Sucks for you. For Italy and the earthquakes, for Haiti battered and beaten by water walls and storms, for Chicago with over 600 homicides. Sucks for you. For Democrats and Republicans and everyone in between, our national division deep and wide. Sucks for you. Hungry child killed not too far from where we worship today for seeking something to ease the pain of a stomach that was empty too long. And child’s mother who took her child’s life in mental illness, poverty, adrenaline, anger or whatever evil it may have been. Sucks for you. The list goes on and on. Sucks, sucks for you.
O God, pull us from here!
Churches who leave.
Churches who stay.
Churches we’d like to see leave.
Sucks for you.
For Presbytery meetings we skip rather than endure. Committees and networks we do not want to take the time to help staff. Support dollars we withhold. People we “minister” alongside for years and never say much more than hi.
For pecking orders among pastors, and congregations, and members. For people we don’t like. For the “crazy” people who take all of our time.
For good pastors and faithful congregations, large and small, seeking to do the work and will of God who seem to get lost, or ignored.
All the while we wait to be beamed up, lifted, removed.
Our outdated understandings of our roles, our congregations, of what effective and faithful means. Our seeking to be members of the Church of Comfort rather than disciples of the Crucified God.
What we know and cling to is so much easier than what the Spirit of God says.
No worries. It doesn’t matter anyway.
Sucks for you world. We’ll be gone and you’ll be left behind.
But that isn’t what Jesus says at all, is it? “In fact,” he says, “the kingdom of God is among you”.
Something does happen to us when we think we, or what we know, or what we love, or what we remember may die. But Jesus isn’t much for hunkering down and hoping things will pass. He’s not a “sucks for you” guy at all. In sharp contrast, to proclaim that “sucks for you” does not have the last word, he stretched out his arms on the cross and he died.
Jesus doesn’t leave the mess. He’s smack in the middle of it. With tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers and fishermen!
Jesus is in the mess, in the midst, with the sick and the sinners JUST LIKE US! Because he knows where the Kingdom of God is. It is among you. It is among you! The kingdom of God among you! Look around! It is right here!
If we’ve had bad theology, or unfaithful service, or poor performance, it is not the end. Looking death in the eye, facing the prospect of a loss, is sometimes is cleansing. It gives us an opportunity to think hard about what matters to us and where we have been faithful and where we have failed miserably.
And if we are graced to see Death’s face but still live, that is a gift. In that gift we see our lives are resurrected. In that gift we do not seek to be lifted out, but to be faithful and intentional with every single second of every single day.
Yes, the prospect of death, the prospect of loss, can be a gift if we choose to see it as such, and if we choose to rise from that prospect, from the waters of baptism, and live. Live. For the kingdom of God is among you! The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
Death is right before us. And we can choose to hunker down and hide until our last breath. Or we can live. And if we choose to live, then we’ve got some work to do. Work to let go of our preferences, our pretenses, our certainties. Work to release our judgements of one another, of this Presbytery, of what we are called into. Work to discern a future of collective, connected, covenantal ministry that isn’t based on a longed-for past, or ease, or our preferences, or who we like and don’t like, but on the true realization of the words of Christ Jesus.
The kingdom is not coming with things that can be observed. For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. It is among you. It is among you. It is among you! The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
Our time today is sacred. The ground on which we gather holy. The community to which we belong redeemed and saved. Knowing that, may we take on this task with sincerity and integrity, with dedication and faithfulness. May we allow ourselves to be startled by the Living God who called the church into being for the sake of the world and called each of us to be a part of that church – – particular and Presbytery. Pray, discern, be faithful, my friends. Not to what you want. Not to what is easy. Not to what is comfortable or familiar. But to the future to which the Spirit calls us. For the Kingdom of God is among us. It is among us.
The world desperately needs us to stop seeking to get out, stop trying to save ourselves, stop being okay with sucks-for-you. And instead, to proclaim salvation and justice and mercy and peace to the ends of the earth. To preach and live and proclaim the kingdom! This is our calling, our charge, our task, our life, my friends. Surely God is our salvation; we will trust, and will not be afraid.
We have no reason to fear. We are baptized – – we have already died and risen again in new life.
Our physical death is now just a detail.
Our old selves, old lives, old ways, those are the things Christ calls us to leave behind. And rise, and be, and live into the Kingdom among you!
My husband maintained his speed, steadied his hand on the wheel and prayed. The frame flew off the back of the truck, smacked in to the front of the car, and bounced in a perfect arc over the car in the far left lane, landing with a single bounce in the grass between highway north and highway south. Traffic moved forward as if nothing had happened at all. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. When he got to where he was going, he got out of the car, gasping for the air that had been squeezed from his lungs and legs shaking in fear. He walked to the front to see what damage was done. The car was not scratched. Except the “H”; it was gone. Sucks for you.
Let us not be afraid, my friends. Let us not turn inward. May we not seek what is easy or familiar. Instead, with courage and hope may we receive the presence and power of the Holy Spirit who seeks to guide us as we work and discern and covenant with one another over how to faithfully live out the Kingdom of God that is among us.
For the Lord God is our strength and our might. He has become our salvation.
Trust. And do not be afraid. The Kingdom of God – – it is, my friends – – among you. Among you. Among you.
All glory be to you, O Lord. Amen.