Friday, December 30, 2016

The Kingdom of God is People

Those of us who are old enough will remember Charleston Heston's role in the dystopian sci-fi classic "Soylent Green". The movie was titled after a fictional nutritional substance that humanity depended on for survival. In the movie he plays an detective who investigates a murder. He follows the evidence to its end. When he realizes the truth, he belts out that iconic line, "Soylent Green is people!"

In many ways this movie was a product of its time. The era produced an entire genre of post-apocalyptic movies. Certainly they were all a  commentary on our fears and self-destructive tendencies. Perhaps even on consumerism's endpoint where we consume ourselves. Those would all be a topic for another blog. For now I want to focus on "people".

Throughout His ministry, Jesus tried to convey truths about the Kingdom of God to people. Think of all the metaphors Jesus used to describe "Kingdom of God". A treasure  hidden in a field. A pearl of great price. A mustard seed.

When he sent his disciples out, he instructed them to say "The Kingdom of God is Near". He never told them how to describe or define this kingdom. They were simply to announce it's nearness.

So what is the Kingdom of God? What was it that Jesus alluded to, told parables about, announced the presence of, but never directly defined? It was hidden in plain sight, right in front of everyone. The Kingdom of God is people! People following Jesus. It's that simple.

The Kingdom of God is people following Jesus. They adhere to his teachings. They follow his example. If Jesus said "love your neighbor", then they love their neighbors. If Jesus said be kind and hospitable to marginalized people ("the least of these"), then his followers are kind and hospitable. If Jesus said forgive enemies, then they forgive their enemies. If Jesus said "love one another as I have loved you", then his people, kingdom people, love one another.

The Kingdom of God is built with rejected and marginalized people,  the people no one else wants. Jesus' followers love them,  re-humanize them, and build a family out of them. That is how the Kingdom grows.

The only evidence of this Kingdom is the lives of its people. Their disposition and actions towards others. When people are re-humanized by Jesus,  have their dignity restored, when people feel like people in the presence of Jesus' followers, the Kingdom is near. Because The Kingdom of God is people!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Advent - One Single Change

"Something burns in our hearts that would gladly come out.  Something often flames up in our soul that we would like to call out to all people — a question, a complaint, a word of defiance, a rejoicing, a stark truth — something of the sort that a person simply cannot keep to himself, once it is there. It saddens us to be so alone, to be unable to share with anyone what moves us....Above all it saddens us that we are so cut off from each other, that there are always such different worlds — you in your house and me in my house, you with your thoughts and me with mine.  This is simply not the way life is meant to be, this separate life we all lead.  But with one single change we could have infinitely more joy and good fortune and righteousness among us, if we could open our hearts and talk with each other." - Karl Barth "To Believe" Advent Meditation 

As Advent 2016 approaches, I am brought back to this reading. Again it is as if Karl Barth's message was a personal letter to me and to so many of us. Barth describes a fire in our soul that finds no outlet for expression.  He laments our isolation, how each of us inhabit separate dwellings. When we do venture out, we mute our desire for heartfelt conversation. We are afraid and resort to small talk. Barth compares this to Zechariah's muteness after his encounter with the angel.  This is the isolation of modern society. For if there is no one to hear our voice, to share our griefs and joys, then how are we even alive in a way that makes us human?

That is why Christ came into the world, to make us human. To re-humanize us. But to do this, he had to experience the world with all its barriers and isolation. His entry into the world began with a frantic search for somewhere to enter it. Door after door was shut on them until at last Mary and Joseph had to settle for a stable.  Instead of being welcomed into the warmth of a household, Jesus was welcomed into the chill of night air among the animals. An event which should have been shared with family and friends was shared with strangers, shepherds in the fields who were called by the angels.

There was no peace on earth for the child Jesus. Shortly after his birth Herod attempted to kill him. His family fled to Egypt and waited there until Herod's death. Because Herod's son ascended to his father's throne, his family bypassed Bethlehem and settled in Nazareth. His family had to settle in a strange town and make a life there.

The story of Jesus' family is a story many in this world can relate to. If you can't relate, take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine yourself as the target of ethnic cleansing or your city bombed into oblivion. Imagine running for your life. Imagine travelling at night through the woods. Imagine taking rickety boats to cross rivers and seas. Imagine giving your life savings to smugglers to get you through to safety. Finally you arrive at a safe place but in that place you are a foreigner. You don't speak the language. People stare at you. You keep your head down. You feel isolated. Dehumanized. Rejected. Again the barriers.

God, incarnate in Jesus, could barely find a way into this world. Once here his life was in danger. He became other, vulnerable as anyone  could be in this world. Yet he came anyway. He demonstrated hope aginst insurmountable odds. He crossed the barrier between heaven and earth, between God and man, between man and man. He "destroyed the dividing barrier of hostility". In his person he brought the Kingdom of God to earth. 

We look back and romanticize his coming with all the cultural trappings accumulated over the centuries. We celebrate the miracles that happened so long ago. Yet the miracle awaits each of us. The words he spoke still echo down through the centuries. The challenge: Follow me. The miracle happens in our lives the moment we take up that challenge.

When we decide to follow, our preoccupation with tradition, gifts, token alms, and what is written on our coffee cups fall by the wayside. We fix our eyes on Jesus and his path. There will definitely be barriers. Following Jesus, we dare to cross them. Following Jesus is "one single change" after another that combine to form a path. A narrow way. We change our habits and practices. We notice people. We linger a bit longer in conversation. We listen, We knock on a door for the first time. We mend fences. We forgive. We notice the pan handler, not to fling a coin, but to ask his name. It's not easy, but it is the only way. We can take courage from those who have discovered the words of Jesus and followed. Some have written their journey down. We should read their stories. In the end, their journey began with "one single change".