I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 22, 2020 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46.
Good morning and thanks to Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me back to the pulpit and for you welcoming me.
The kingdom of God is such a basic Christian concept that sometimes it goes without careful examination. After a while, with our private thoughts, we might end up assuming entirely different concepts, some colored by cultural norms or personal desires. I’d like to defend us against that today, by dealing with some of the assumptions and conflicts we have when talking about, understanding and living in the kingdom of God. In the process I hope we will approach the kingdom of God not just as an idea of something to anticipate, but also participate in it as a practical reality today.
And it helps if we can consider this together. A kingdom, if anything, is communal. It’s a political polity centered on a particular personality, and extended through family relationships. The kingdom of God is centered on our relationships with God, individual and collective.
But kingdom is a concept that’s practically alien to us. Even a hundred years ago much of the world lived in kingdoms or in colonies subject to kingdoms. Some of those monarchs were constrained by parliaments or a shared authority, and others weren’t. Some survive today, but they are the minority, and most of those are practical democracies.
It’s easy then, perhaps a bit too easy, to speak of kings and queens and princes and princesses with a childlike glee or tasteful nostalgia; Disney has done its damage. While monarchies fell over the twentieth century, some were revived in order to bring about national unity (I’m thinking of Spain and Cambodia particularly) and proposed in other places. For the most part though, at least formally, more of the world is governed by the consent of the government than at any time in history. And recent events show how fragile and important this concept is. Making that work politically, while holding an idea of a divine kingdom religiously takes some work.
Why? Because attaining the kingdom of God can become an excuse for human beings to take on the divine prerogative in governing the world. Dystopian fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale comes to mind) and real-life theocratic terror organizations (the so-called Islamic State, for instance) show that the kingdom of God can be made an ideological weapon. The profound moral collapse of organized Evangelicalism in the Trump administration rekindles fears of theocracy overcoming democracy in our governance. I can’t blame anyone for resisting when religious people talk about God’s plans for the world, myself included.
So we should be circumspect, perhaps cautious, not only for our neighbors’ sake, but for our own as we approach the Almighty, who surely knows the hearts of would-be demigods and self-appointed spokespersons. For God has challenged prophets with power. Can we make life? Do we control the seasons or the rising of the sun and the setting of the same? Do our governments and still wonder and laughter? Do rulers comfort the inner soul?
The kingdom of God touches this world but is not restricted to it. And so as Christians we need to be careful to distinguish between what’s God’s and what belongs to the common human family, whether Christian or not.
But theocratic overreach is not only a problem with right wing and authoritarian power.
There’s a temptation in liberal political and theological circles, even though these are different if someone overlapping things. That is, to hope for the kingdom of God without God, or to assume it would be more appealing if were described publicly as a strictly human endeavor. The twentieth-century rise of religious humanism made this transformation complete.
The problem is that there is no appeal to a higher authority when we start confusing what we like and what we esteem with what is actually good.
There’s a little example from the history of our own church. Each week, we recite the declaration of faith that our church adopted a few years ago. It was based on a denomination declaration of faith from 1899, which itself was an authoritative interpretation of a statement of faith from 1803. (You’ll hear more about these some other time.) The funny thing is that there was a denominational statement developed after 1899, the Washington Declaration of 1935, as an interpretation of the interpretation, updated for the modern age. As the name suggests was adopted by a convention in our own city: at the then-new Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue, to be exact. (There were religious services at our then-new church building.) But even thought it was officially adopted in the denomination, as far as I can tell it was never used (or used regularly) by our own church. I suspect because it was over-optimistic, a last gasp of pre-World War One, pre-pandemic, pre-ecomomic collapse theology, being sold in the depth of the Great Depression to local church members, some of which were surely in government service or came to town with the New Deal. (I remember of the last, now gone almost twenty years.)
The 1935 declaration declared as an essential feature of Universalist faith, belief in
the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.
Certainly some people do good, but this affirmation (in context) suggest a concerted, almost tidal effort to overcome the past and enter a new age by the work of our own hands on God’s behalf. We did not march shoulder to shoulder into the dawn. The Second World War and particularly the Holocaust, and other horrors enacted by a set of equally dedicated men put that misplaced hope to rest.
But kingdom isn’t the only concept for us to work with, as we turn to today’s lessons.
How many of us work regularly with sheep and goats?
I think the closest I get is a goat cheese sandwich. I have a friend who had a flock of goats come over to eat up the weeds in her backyard, and that was such a strange but delightfully comic situation that she took video to share. You might know something about their little square eyes and horns, or the different kind of sheep and the wool they produce but these are optional things to learn today. In Jesus’ time, sheep and goats were central to the economy and therefore well-being of the people who heard him. They knew these beasts.
We can infer from the gospel lesson that sheep and goats are not well-behaved. There’s only so much grass to be eaten. The pushy sheep gets more. The domineering sheep eats. So a big sheep is a metaphor for someone who takes at the expense of others. Jesus taught his that the kingdom of God inverts our expectations. In those days, God will push aside the greedy and give good things to those who have gone without. This relies on God’s purpose and will, an eternal intention, and not our own. If we correspond to God’s ways, we will see the rightness of living in goodness, and put aside our own pushy, domineering ways. The more selfish and domineering, the more violent and cruel the more there is to give up. But the final say is God’s. This is what we should understand when we hear threatening of "eternal punishment." This is punishment from the Eternal, namely God. And I trust God will act with justice befitting deity and not a human tyrant.
How will this change take place? That part is less clear. Some of it will surely happen in God’s ineffable and eternal way. But the fact that the prophets proclaimed this, that Mary sang it, that Jesus preached it but that for millennia even the richest and most powerful people in the world have not expunged it — indeed, some having been transformed by it — gives me hope. I believe the kingdom of God will be revealed to us individually and collectively. Our portion is not to construct it, but to anticipate it. As Jesus said, "the kingdom of God is within you" so how shall it be known and released.
How then? Conscience has a role, as does teaching the young and advising the mature. Societies have a role in constraining the violent and viscous. We better identify it by reflection and prayer. Be patient for it.
I suspect that patience is the last thing some of you want to give. What makes the last four years so hard is to think about all of the progress that we had made be reversed or destroyed. We’ve lost four years on a very quickly winding down climate clock, and I’m worried that future courts can undo lifetimes of work in a flash. Time, when gone, doesn’t get a do-over. Also, the current crisis over the truth is very troubling. Elections come and go, but whether people can be trusted to see the good and do it depends on them understanding the truth and doing it. People resisting masks because they think it’s a conspiracy or thinking that that QAnon might be true or that the president actually won reelection all discourages me gravely. But human nature comes with its own set of self-deceptions and I know that I’ve not been true to the facts, have chosen something that benefits me over others and I might finesse it in ways that make it sound like less than self-benefit. Mask-denying conspiracy-theory grievance-seeking neighbors are doing something bad and ultimately destructive, but I’m not immune to this way of thinking and acting and neither are you.
Patience, seeking and the understanding that follows is a better place to stand. So the kingdom of God, as an ideal rather than a lived reality, depends on us knowing that our actions are always approximate and tinged with failure.
We keep it as an ideal, in part because we trust God, but also knowing that our contributions have to be tested, reviewed and open to criticism. What seems right in the moment will have consequences, and many of them unintended. We wish to do good but will often find the easiest way to accomplish it even if the results are not very desirable. Think about all the wasted recycling that props up a plastics industry that never believed in it. Or think about all of the tailors in low in middle-income countries put out of work because of floods of used clothing from rich countries. Our good intentions are not enough. Our plans are not enough. We need that spiritual core that guides us with care towards the good.
Dearly beloved: the kingdom of God is within you. Within you, but hidden yet ready to grow. The law of God exists, but is not written on our hearts. The age which is to be is present to the Eternal One, but is so distant from us as to be distorted, or at best seen in fleeting glimpses.
But do not despair. Day by day, if we are careful, caring and kind, we shall make more sense of the promises God has made for us.
God bless us today and forever more.