Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Lord’s Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come

Matthew 6:10

            I first moved to York five months after the riots which began on July 17, 1969.  The community was still reeling. Feelings ran high. People were talking. They were talking a lot. They were angry. Those in the city and those outside of the city were frustrated and they were fearful.

For some those events built an unseen dividing wall around the city.  They would never again cross that line between suburb and city.   They were afraid.  They did not want to get hurt. So, they stopped shopping at Bear’s and Shelly’s and McCrory’s and Jack’s and Bon Ton.  Those stores are not there anymore.  They closed or moved to the suburbs.  It’s almost fifty years now and the city has never fully recovered.  Almost every child in the York city school system qualifies for Title 1 assistance because their families fall beneath the poverty line.  It’s getting worse.

            Another, even more dangerous consequence of that unseen dividing wall built that day is that there is for many little contact with someone of another race.  People in the city stay in the city.  People in the suburbs stay in the suburbs.  Birds of a feather flock together in schools and communities and in churches. Someone once said Sunday morning is the most segregated day of the week.

            After a while tensions eased and life got back to normal, but evidently the problem, the misunderstanding, the suspicion, the mistrust remained. It lingered and festered and simmered.  Over the last couple of years racial unrest has reached a boil once more and expressed itself through an ad hoc grass roots movement called “Black Lives Matter” which came to be after Treyvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman. Protests in the streets followed Zimmerman’s acquittal. Closer to home we saw riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died while in police custody. More recently we have seen anger which prompted a man to kill five police officers in Dallas because of the color of their skin.  There are victims black and white.

            No one wants to live like this. No one wants to fear for their life.  We know this is that way it’s supposed to be.  It is not our vision for America.  It is not what we pray for every Sunday when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”     

            This morning we’re going to think a little more about that prayer for God’s kingdom to come.  How would we recognize it if it did come, even if only in part?  That’s are question.  Let’s pray for an answer:

            Deep in our primeval memories, O Lord, is a remnant of an idea, a vision, and hope of a world kinder, gentler, more compassionate and more just.  That is not our present reality and so we pray and work for change.  Give us a vision of what might be, of your will fulfilled in our world as it is in heaven.  Amen.

The kingdom of God was central to the teaching and mission of Jesus. It is mentioned dozens of times throughout the gospels. But the concept is a hard one to understand. Jesus didn't give us a bullet point summary of the kingdom. He did not offer a legal definition. Instead, he paints a picture. He told stories and used metaphors and similes in order to expand our understanding of the kingdom of God.

Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a banquet and a great wedding feast; the door will be closed to those who have no interest. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field; you would be wise to sell everything you own to buy that field to get the treasure. The kingdom of heaven is like a net cast wide; it pulls in all sorts of fish, and the good fish must be separated from the bad. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who hired laborers to work in the fields. He hired them at different times of day, but at the end of the day, he paid them all equally.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed; from a small beginning comes a great tree. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast; it permeates all, silently and pervasively.

That’s what Jesus said. That’s how he understood the kingdom.

 How have people understood the meaning of kingdom through the years and in our world?  Mostly, it has to do with control and power and who has it.  For centuries everyone understood this. The king ruled the kingdom, the chief was in charge of the tribe.  Everyone in the kingdom was subject to the whims and wishes of the king or chief. If the king told you to jump you asked “How high?” If the king was good – great! If the king was bad – too bad he is still the king. You still had to do what he said or bear the consequence.

The great experiment in democracy created by our founding fathers changed all that. Now the people can decide who will be President or Senator or Governor or dog catcher.  We now have control and vote over who will be in charge.  That will be your choice in November – God help us.

So, in a way we create our own kingdom. It is the place you have arranged to suit your purposes and your values. It is an environment arranged according to how you like it. You decide where the couch goes and where the T.V. should be. One preacher said, “My car is my kingdom. I arrange it to suit me. I have my seat set just right for me. I have my mirrors adjusted for my height. I tune my radio to the stations I like. It drives me crazy when my teenage son sits in the passenger seat and starts punching buttons, resetting my stations and messing with my treble and bass. He doesn’t realize my car is my kingdom! Hands off!”

So a kingdom is one's sphere of control and we don’t want anyone messing with that. Today everyone wants to be the captain of their ship and the master of their fate. And if someone else’s sphere of control conflicts with mine, I will at the very least express my displeasure on Facebook or through Twitter or any of the other social media platforms that appear to be designed to let bias and prejudice, ignorance and anger and hatred move and multiply at the speed of light.

When the words don’t seem to be enough, or because the words incite, some will pick up a gun, or a knife, or pack a pressure cooker with explosives and set it off.

That’s where we are today.  Everyone is trying to rearrange the world so that we can all live in justice and in peace, but we’re not even close.  We can’t even see it on the horizon because every time someone wants to change a rule so they can use the public bathroom they want to, someone else says, “wait a minute I don’t want to worry about who is going into the restroom with my daughter.”  Everyone’s vision of justice is a little different.  People have different understandings of right and wrong and what is fair.

Politics is the way we try to work that out and today.  Politics today as it has always been about power and control.  Who has it? Who wants it?  How do you get it?  That’s how we try to build our kingdoms.

That’s what James and John were thinking about when they asked Jesus for places of honor in God’s kingdom.  The other disciples were not even mentioned because sharing with other is not how you get ahead in a dog-eat-dog world. You try to get yours even if it means others don’t get there’s.

Jesus responded, “You do not know what you are asking, for whoever will first in my kingdom must be last, whoever would be the greatest must become a servant.”

In other words God’s kingdom is not about who has the most power or greatest control. It’s not about the title on your door or the gun in your hand. It is not about boasting and bravado.  It is not for those who make the most noise.  It is for those who are willing to do the will of God.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. That was Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane only hours before his arrest and trial and crucifixion.  He knew what was coming, and like you and me looked for another way, an easier way, a plan B. Surely God could accomplish his will without too much bother.  Make it easier Lord and I’m with you.  I’m just not into sacrifice or commitment.  Frankly, for a moment that was Jesus prayer.  Then he caught himself and prayed, “Not my will be done.”  He laid down his life for you and me.

I saw a more contemporary example of that on Wednesday night on a sport’s award show called the ESPY’s.  The Arthur Ashe Courage Award is given each year to an individual "possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost."

This year it was presented posthumously to Zenobia Dobson on behalf of her son Zaevion.  He was a fifteen year old African American student and high school football player from the inner city of Knoxville Tennessee.  Two years ago during a wild, random and senseless drive-by shooting he shielded three of his friends, saving their lives but losing his own.

Zenobia, who was accompanied on stage by her two sons, pleaded the athletes in the audience to use their influence to prevent gun violence. 

"All the athletes in this room, you have a lot of power, people look up to you. I know Zaevion did. I urge you to think tonight about why he died and what you can do to prevent the next innocent young man or woman from being lost as well," she said. "If my son were here tonight I knew what I'd say to him, Zaevion, you're dream and visions are here with us to prove that your act of bravery and boldness revealed to the word the real you – handsome strong and with a beautiful spirit you were, and remain, a guardian angel to us in heaven is where you belong. Fly high our falcon…" 

            Now, until a few nights ago I never heard of Zevion Brown.  I’ve heard of Trayvon Martin, and Freddie Gray.  I’ve heard of the shooter in Dallas whom I will not name.  I’ve heard about every dark and depressing story the media wants to share about racial division and conflict, but I never heard of a young man who out of love and out of his sense of right and wrong made the ultimate sacrifice.

            Maybe we can begin there.  Maybe we can tell more stories about those who work in the trenches each and every day to make sure a kid has a backpack full of food to get him through the weekend.  Maybe we can tell more stories about those who go downtown to help kids learn how to read.  Maybe we can honor those who work for positive change more than we highlight those who just want to tear it all down. Maybe we take out light out from under a bushel.  Maybe we can be partners with God in building his kingdom.

For God's kingdom is the place that perfectly reflects his character and values. It is the place where things operate the way he likes them. It is a place of joy, truth, grace, health, light, and shalom. God's kingdom is a good place because he is good; it reflects him. People don't lie in the Kingdom; they love the truth because he is there and he is truth. People don't use each other in God's kingdom; no, they honor each other. They don't cheat; they love. That's how God likes it.

            I remember speaking once with a member of a church I served named Jerry.  He had just returned from our church mission trip to the country of Ghana in Africa.  He said one day while riding one of the local buses a native stared at him for the longest time.  He was clearly trying to work something out.  Finally, Jerry asked him why he was staring at him?  The man responded with his own question, “What color are you?”

            If Jerry were here today you would identify him as African American because clearly his ancestors came from Africa. It was the American part that puzzled this man from Ghana because the color of Jerry’s skin was clearly not the same as this African bus-rider.  If Jerry would take one of those DNA tests you see advertised on T.V. it would probably come back as most of ours would as a stew of genetic material from many racial and ethnic backgrounds.  We are a melting pot in more ways than one.

            Americans are not purebreds. We are all mongrels so there isn’t a one of us better than the other, more entitled than another, more deserving than the other.  That’s kind of the point of our country and it is certainly the point of Christ’s gospel.

            The Bible says, God shows no partiality.  God does not pick and choose favorites. If we do we are not following the will of God nor do we have a place in his kingdom.  We need to learn to see as God sees, for we look at the outward appearance but God looks to the heart.  For in Christ there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek or Jew, black or white.  We are all one in Christ Jesus.

            That’s what you are praying for when you say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  You are praying for the day when people do what they do not to build their own little kingdom, but to build the kingdom of God.

            We are never going to build a perfect or even a great society by getting our politics right, or our social welfare system right, or our economic system right or our judicial system right.  We continue to work on them and make them better, but anything created by sinful humanity and going have sin and selfishness built right in.  It is inevitable.

            Our only help, I think, is to turn to the one who is without sin, the one who was willing to sacrifice his life so that we might have life.  He is the one who taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Amen.