Insist on Nothing Less than the Kingdom of God

Easter 2014
Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church

Last weekend, I was walking my dog Gabby past Penny Park at the corner of Lake and Ashland. There is a smallish hill in the southeast corner of the park and kids love to run up and down that hill – perhaps some version of the “King of the Mountain” game that was popular in my own childhood.  In any event, I looked over and there was a little girl probably two years old at most – pretty knew on her feet, if you know what I mean.  She was holding a ball bigger than her head and began running down that hill – full speed, not knowing – not caring even – whether she would fall or stay upright but, rest assured if she did fall, she’d be back up again running at that same full speed down the hill.  That is the kind of excitement and energy Matthew’s account of that first Easter morning brings to my mind. “Suddenly there was a great earthquake” – “go quickly and tell his disciples” – “so they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples” – “Suddenly Jesus met them” – suddenly, quickly, running.

Cameron Murchison of Columbia Theological Seminary nails it on the head when he declares there is nothing “subtle” or “quiet” about this Easter dawn – it is “disruptive, powerful, earth-shaking!”[1] Literally, the earth shakes as an angel of the Lord breaks through from the realm of the divine, arriving on the scene to roll back that stone.  If there is one thing that the Gospel of Matthew wants to make very clear it is that SUDDENLY EVERYTHING changed!  

  • Everything changed for the two Mary’s who arrived just as the darkness was changing over to the first light of early dawn. 
  • Everything changed for the guards at the tomb who, when the women left to go tell the disciples, themselves ran off into the city to tell the chief priests what had happened.  And the greatest cover-up of the Bible (which appears only in Matthew) unfolds before us as the gospel-writer tells us:  “After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ . . . So they took the money and did as they were directed.”[2]
  • Everything changed for the disciples who soon would be hearing the news from the women and then from Jesus himself who would command them to continue his work in the world – as Matthew puts it, to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that” Jesus had commanded them.[3]
  • And, my brothers and sisters in Christ, everything changed for you and for me on that first Easter morning.  Suddenly, everything changed! Do you believe it? Are you living it?

Change – Karl Deutsch who “was one of the world’s foremost social scientists” of the last century “devoted his life to the study of war, peace, and national cooperation. He commented that the single greatest power we possess is the ‘power to change,’ and the most ‘reckless thing we can do in the future would be to go on exactly as we have in the past.’”[4] But, oh, how we hate change.  We cling to the familiar, the comfortable because . . . well, because they are familiar and they are comfortable.  But we have arrived at our celebration of Easter and there is nothing familiar or comfortable about what has happened.  The women arrive at the tomb, an earthquake occurs, an angel of the Lord tells them, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.”[5]  He is not here and, as a result, “there is deep hope for the world.” Deep hope for the world.’

But this deep hope is not the end of the story, it is the beginning. Because the disciples are reminded of Jesus’ promise to meet them in Galilee. The angel tells the women to deliver this reminder to the disciples.  Then, Jesus himself meets them on the road and tells them “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”[6]  Why Galilee? Because this is where Jesus lived. It is where Jesus called the disciples. It is where Jesus offered rest to the weary, fed the multitudes, blessed children, challenged a rich man, spoke in parables, and taught any who would listen.  Galilee represents all the places the disciples are to expect the risen Jesus – “the places of his once and future ministry . . .those places of grace-full endeavor.”[7]  And the place where Jesus will issue his final command to his disciples, “Go” and do as I have done. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[8]

In light of the resurrection, will you and I dare to go on exactly as we have in the past?  Or will we take Jesus’ challenge to “go and do” with the utmost of seriousness recognizing that with these words Jesus has instilled us with the single greatest power we possess – the power to change.  And on this day, I want to take that challenge a step further.  I want to be daring and risky with you. I want to borrow the title of Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor’s book and suggest that it is the risen Christ’s invitation to us:  A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity. Yes, heretic.  I want us to begin right now, right here in Evanston to live our lives as heretics.  Before you panic or begin to worry that your pastor has gone off the deep-end, let me say a bit more about what I mean.  In the introduction to their book, Burke and Taylor write: 
“. . . we need heretics today. . . heresy can be a positive rather than a negative force in our spiritual journey. . . . Whereas the medieval heretic created ruptures in the existing order, contemporary heresy is a means to a new end, a way out of what no longer works. . . . . Every age needs heretics – people who will push past and beyond the accepted conventional wisdom of the dominant group and pull us across sacred fences that hold us back and keep us tied to perceived orthodoxies.”[9]
This is what I’m talking about – Matthew’s account of that first Easter morning has an earthquake announce that the old order has passed away.  Everything that once was true had been turned on its head permanently.  The resurrection plays the trump card – even death is defeated. And isn’t that what Jesus had been demonstrating all along? “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”[10]  Jesus was his generation’s heretic. “Christianity was Judaism’s heresy.”[11]  And in the resurrection appearances to the disciples, Jesus invited them to be the next generation of heretics and they, in turn, invited a next generation and a next and so on down the centuries until we arrive at 2014 when you and I gathered here together at the corner of Ridge and Grove in St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on the eve of our sesquicentennial celebration are invited to be our generation of heretics – a generation that will stand up and question the status quo.[12]
We are the disciples that are invited through the resurrection of Christ to stand up and question the status quo.[13]  

We are the generation that must see the homeless men, women, and children living on our streets and not look away but instead look into one another’s eyes with nothing less than the love of Christ.  Two years ago this month, Mayor Tisdahl prepared an open letter to the citizens of Evanston. In it she wrote:
“Evanston has always been a community that has prided itself on its compassion, diversity and depth of services to help those in need. Yet. . . the problem of homelessness is getting worse. . . . It is time not just to ‘manage homelessness’ but to move forward in solving the issues creating and sustaining it.”[14]
St. Mark’s has been housing the Interfaith Action of Evanston’s Hospitality Center which offers a safe place for our homeless brothers and sisters to gather five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.  We have housed this center for more than two decades.  But we have to ask ourselves, Is that enough?  What can we do to prevent homelessness? What can we do to end homelessness? And, more importantly, what will we do?  Will we fight alongside our homeless brothers and sisters to increase the amount of affordable housing and rental subsidies in Evanston – even in our own backyard?  Will we support local businesses that are creating job and vocational training opportunities? I dream of a time when the Hospitality Center closes its doors – not because St. Mark’s says “no more” but because there are no more homeless neighbors to serve.  That is what the Kingdom of God looks like. That is what resurrection living is about.

We are the disciples that are invited through the resurrection of Christ to stand up and question the status quo in our generation.[15]  We are the generation that must see the young people in our community and not look away but instead look into one another’s eyes with nothing less than the love of Christ.  Each year in the United States there are approximately 30,000 firearm-related deaths, 20,000 of these deaths are of children and youth under age 20 and approximately 11,000 of those deaths result from homicides.[16] These numbers are considerably higher than in any other developed, industrialized nation.[17]

Nine months ago Illinois passed its controversial concealed-carry gun law and the first permits were issued at the end of February.  Under the law, those with a concealed carry permit are prohibited from bringing their guns into casinos, airports, schools, hospitals and courthouses.  But they are not prohibited from bringing them into houses of worship. For this reason, St. Mark’s vestry will be voting Monday night on whether or not we will post state-approved signs which will ban guns from our property. I think we all recognize that putting up a sign will not deter someone who is intent on committing a heinous act of violence from doing so but it is certainly a statement that says to the community that we refuse to accept the status quo.  But again, we have to ask ourselves, Is that enough?  What can we do to prevent gun violence? What can we do to end the senseless deaths of young people on our streets? And, more importantly, what will we do?  There is no single policy or solution to ending youth gun violence, but accepting the status quo is reckless and un-Christian. Will we talk to our children about gun violence and commit ourselves to knowing whether guns are in the homes of our children’s friends?  Will we actively support legislation that regulates guns as consumer products so that safety features on guns are regulated and evaluated for effectiveness? And, because poverty, discrimination, and violence are often linked, will we work to address economic inequality and social injustice in our community so that young people no longer feel the need to arm themselves for self-protection? Will we commit ourselves to our young people? I dream of a time when we don’t need to ask these questions because the senseless violence has stopped.  That is what the Kingdom of God looks like. That is what resurrection living is about.

When we refuse to accept the status quo, when we refuse to accept the world as it is and insist on nothing less than the Kingdom of God then we too are living the resurrected life that is demanded of us even as we celebrate the triumph of life over death once and for all in the resurrection of Jesus.  “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.”  He is not here and, as a result, “there is deep hope for the world.” Jesus promised to meet the disciples in Galilee where his work of offering rest, feeding, blessing, challenging, teaching and healing continues.  And the risen Christ meets us in all of the places of grace that we inhabit – our neighborhoods, our homes, our schools, our places of work, and our places of worship and rest.  Jesus meets us and commands us to “go and do” as I have done “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Alleluia. Amen.

[1] D. Cameron Murchison, “Easter Vigil,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching theRevised Common Lectionary, Vol. 2 (Lent through Eastertide), (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
[2] Matthew 28:12-13, 15.
[3] Matthew 28:19-20.
[4] Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 227.
[5] Matthew 28:5-6.
[6] Matthew 26:32, 28:7, 10.
[7] Murchison.
[8] Matthew 28:20.
[9] Burke and Taylor, xxiii.
[10] Matthew 11:5.
[11] Burke and Taylor, xxiv.
[12] Burke and Taylor, 225.
[13] Burke and Taylor, 225.
[14] Elizabeth Tisdahl quoted in Jordan Graham, “City Council Agenda: Five-Year Plan to End Evanston Homelessness,” Evanston Patch, April 16, 2012 online at evanston.patch.com.
[15] Burke and Taylor, 225.
[16] Barack Obama, “Memorandum for the Secretary of Health and Human Services,” (Washington, DC: The White House, January 16, 2013) online at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Kathleen Reich, Patti L. Culross, and Richard E. Behrman, “Children, Youth, and Gun Violence: Analysis and Recommendations,”  The Future of Children 2002: 12(2), 1.
[17] Robert A. Hahn, Oleg Bilukha, Alex Crosby, et. al., “Firearms Laws and the Reduction of Violence: A Systematic Review,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2005:28(2S1) online at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Salvation is Coming!

Palm Sunday Reflection
Here he comes!  The Messiah!  Are you sure?  Of course, I’m sure! Haven’t you been paying attention:  this is the man who told the Samaritan woman everything she had even done as if he’d known her all of his life!  I heard he even made a blind man see! I didn’t see it myself, but I understand he raised Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus from the dead!  This must be the Messiah! 
I can see him! I can see him!  He’s riding on a . . .  a donkey?!  Who’s that behind him?  Just a small group of men and women.  I don’t see any weapons.  But. . . this is the Messiah, isn’t it?  He’s come to save us from oppression under Rome.  Let’s run out to meet him.  Let’s throw our cloaks on the ground to show him our support!  Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the LORD! Hosanna!
But, a bit quieter, beneath the loud Hosannas, I imagine a rumbling:  a donkey? No army? No shields, no swords?  No trumpets leading the way --- wait! I hear music. . . . an accordion??!!*  This is the long-awaited Messiah – this can’t be.  This is foolishness. . . . Something isn’t right here. 

Oh come on! Join the fun! It’s a great celebration!  And everyone is saying he is the Messiah.  This is probably just some trick to confuse the Romans.  I’m sure it’s the Messiah.  Salvation is coming to Jerusalem. What could possibly go wrong. . .

**St. Mark's Palm Sunday procession included David Plank on accordion!