You Are Not Far from the Kingdom of God

Mark 12:28-34                                                                                 November 4, 2018

What will we do with ourselves until election results come in on Tuesday night?  The campaigns are at the fever pitch of a World Wide Wrestling cage match.  The difference is we know pro wrestling is fake, whereas politics effects our real lives and live ammunition is often involved.  We have seen all the greatest hits of the past, a Willie Horton from Mexico ad, rants about Jewish Bankers that could have been written by Father Coughlin in the 1930s, new Jim Crow laws, and proposals of internment camps and the use of the military to guard the borders.  Every hour I get an email urging me to vote or give a dollar to put Beto O’Rourke over the top, remember this is the most important election of our lifetime, alright already, I’ll vote.  

But what do we do in the meantime?  As with test results, waiting is the hardest part.  I’m not capable of tuning out politics completely.  After all, I’m supposed to keep up on current events. At best, I ration myself to one hour of Rachel Maddow and a couple of more in-depth articles and then try to focus on the good I can do for today.  Throw the starfish back into the sea.  It may not seem like a big difference, but it matters to that one starfish, right?  What will I do on Wednesday, when the votes are finally counted?  What will I do if my side wins?  It’s only one battle in a larger struggle.  What will I do if my side loses?  Get a stiff drink and binge watch “The Man in the High Castle,” a TV show premised on Germany and Japan winning World War II and splitting American in half.  

What would Jesus do?  I’m glad you finally asked!  Our Gospel reading is the Great Commandment about loving God and loving neighbor. You may know the words, and we quote it as foundational for our ethics.  Today let’s talk about the context.  Why was Jesus saying this when he did?  In Mark’s Gospel, these verses occur after Palm Sunday, during his last week. Jesus has already predicted three times that he will be crucified in Jerusalem.  I was curious how Jesus spent his time between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and for the most part, he was preaching and debating theology.  He told parables, condemned excesses of wealth and power and injustice, cleared the Temple, denounced false theology and answered theological questions.  This is how he wanted to spend his last week.

A scribe comes to ask a question.  Usually, when scribes and Pharisees question Jesus it is to trap him.  “Should you pay taxes to Cesaer?  Is divorce allowed?  Who gave you the authority to attack the temple?”     Was the young scribe hoping for a gritty argument about Roman imperial policy?  “Are taxes too high, should crucifixion be abolished, should we be more civil in our discussions about Rome?  Instead, he asks, ‘What is the greatest commandment?”  What would you pick, out of the top 10?  Don’t kill.  Don’t steal. Honor your father and mother. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife? 

Jesus gives a fairly standard answer.  First, he recites a line from the schema, the daily Jewish prayer, from Deuteronomy 6, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  This was Moses’s prayer before giving the ten commandments. Next, Jesus quotes straight from Leviticus 19:18, which is a chapter of commentary on the Ten Commandments. Leviticus says to be holy, don’t take vengeance on others, don’t hold a grudge, don’t profit by the blood of your neighbor, don’t slander people, don’t tweet about them, but love your neighbor as yourself.  Why? Because you are one, and if you hurt them you have damaged the fabric of life itself.   Love is having a great passion for the well-being for others, for of all life, for God and acting upon it

The scribe says, “You are right, Teacher; …‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  Wait a minute, loving is more important than the offering?  More important than serving on a committee, more important than all the stuff we do to make ourselves look good to God, to make ourselves feel better rather than solving our real issues?  This scribe gets it.   This is true religion, not just self-gratification or institutional advancement.

Jesus says, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”  How often do debates end this way?  Each party says, “You know, you are right….you are right too.  We are not far from the Kingdom of God! ”   Very few of my recent debates have felt like we were anywhere near the Kingdom of God.  

So why does Jesus say this?  Is the reign of God any closer just because one scribe agrees with him about what is most important?  All the other religious leaders still hate him, Rome is still in power, the poor are still hungry and none of this stops Jesus from being executed after an unjust legal proceeding.  Close to the Kingdom of God? Seems unlikely.  Remember too, Mark’s Gospel is written a generation after Jesus, and Jerusalem had just been destroyed by the Roman Legions, and Nero was Emperor.  

Why am I telling you this?  It may sound like I’m preparing you to be disappointed.  I am.  But we will not be disillusioned unless we believe in illusions.  Here are two big ones.  #1 is “If we do the right thing, we will be successful.” Honestly, the results are out of our hands.  #2 is “We keep looking for the perfect solution – the right person, party, policy or moment-that will change everything, perhaps even usher in the Kingdom of God.”  

Christianity was not spreading throughout the world because it was winning the political battles of the day.  Jesus’s political strategy was universally disappointing to people.  Christianity spread because people found hope and value as human beings.  People found a way to live, to heal and to belong in a community.  despite the continued inhumanity, violence and onward march of Roman legions to crush all resistance.  

I have been talking with clergy friends,  and many of us are wrestling with similar questions.  What should we be doing right now, when it seems that racism, sexism, and homophobia is on the march?  How can we be most effective?  How can we use our scarce time, energy and resources for the greatest good?  Do our sermons matter?  These are all important questions, but are they the right questions? One pastor whom I coach said, “I feel like this is a Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment.”  I asked her what that meant in practical terms.  She talked about needing to take a strong stand against undemocratic forces and racist speeches and policies and that we cannot be silent in the face of what is happening.  I agreed, and also said, “You know Bonhoeffer was not very successful.  He saw the true nature of evil as Hitler took power.  Despite challenging the Nazi takeover of the church, at best he only convinced one-third of the German clergy to join him in signing the Barmen Declaration.  And the majority of people who did support Barmen did so not to protect Jews, but to protect the authority of the church.  The Nazi regime rolled right over the church, and Bonhoeffer died in prison. So what do we mean when we say it is a Bonhoeffer moment?  

My friend said, “Well, whether we are successful or not, we are called to be faithful, and we are called to do the right thing.  I guess success is out of our hands and that is really hard for me because I like to win.”  So true. And she is not far from the Kingdom of God.

Neither Bonhoeffer or Jesus enjoyed worldly success.  No Nobel Prizes.  Both were executed as enemies of the state.  Yet we only remember the names of the successful religious leaders as obstacles to Jesus and Bonhoeffer.  Who was the Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Germany?  Anyone know?  

And yet Bonhoeffer was not far from the Kingdom of God, though he lived in the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer actually did some of his best writing in prison.  He came to the conclusion that the only God that made sense amidst the Holocaust was a suffering God, not an all-powerful God.  His writing inspired many theologians in the post-war period, including Martin Luther King, Jr., liberationist theology, and movements to emphasize the role of discipleship in the life of the church.  He is one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.

Being faithful is much like the 12 steps of AA.  It is impossible to figure out the whole process, as we work at changing our lives or our world.  We just keep doing the next right thing.  Then, no matter what, you are not far from the Kingdom of God, because you are living it. 

I would love it if the reign of God was revealed in one grand moment, like a decisive election. But I think the Kingdom of God comes in inches, and we must learn to recognize and celebrate every inch.  That inch might be the election of the first black woman to govern the state of Georgia, or helping a homeless man find shelter.  It might be welcoming one refugee family or changing immigration policy.  The inch might be voting to preserve transgender rights or helping one person love themselves as they are.  The real goal is to pay attention and recognize that when we are loving with all that have, then we are not far from the Kingdom of God.

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