Preached 7/7/13 at Head of Christiana PC. The title is taken from the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which we sang immediately following the sermon.
I have to admit that this week is always a little hard for me. The fourth of July, our celebration of independence from Britain, has come to mean so many big, abstract things: freedom, liberty, equality, and generally Americanness. Maybe you’ll call me a pessimist, but I have trouble celebrating when it feels like all I see in the news is hatred and violence, with occasional beautiful things that feel like progress canceled out by five steps backward toward fear and distrust.
As a nation, we sing of freedom, while locking up a greater percentage of our population than any other nation in the world. We talk of equality under the law, while leaving it up to state governments to discriminate against whomever they choose. We hold up an ideal of democratic participation, while dismantling the laws that protect access to voting booths. We speak of justice, while a few people get unconscionably rich at the expense of the majority who toil under crippling debts.
Even the lofty ideals we celebrated this week, in reality have never been as true as we like to pretend they are. We have set out incredibly high standards for ourselves as a people, and yet we so rarely actually try to meet them. We see the injustices, usually, but they don’t fit into this image we’ve created for ourselves, and so we dismiss them. We think we know who we are, as a people, and so if something doesn’t fit, it must not really be true, or it really must not be as serious as it seems.
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Except that we as Christians should know what this is like, to be part of a community that is so close to being made real, but is not quite, yet. We are citizens of a new kingdom, which is unlike any the world has known before. And it is so close sometimes that we can reach out and grasp it, but it slips through our fingers because this kingdom is not of this world. We live every day in this tension between the world we would like to live in, and the world we do live in.
We proclaim a world where the sick are healed and the outcasts are welcomed in and the poor are filled with good food, and we may even live that way in bits and pieces and fragments of holy moments, but we also know that this world is just not yet present to the degree that we believe is possible. But still, we work toward it. We envision this new way, which is sometimes so unlike the way of this world in which we live, and we make it real in all the little ways we can. We bring God’s peace with us and share it with all those who have it. We walk on in the faith that God’s kingdom can be real, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
We live in this tension between the already and the not-yet. We know that we have already been chosen and loved and forgiven, that already God lived (and lives) among us and brought the kingdom to earth, that already this world is God’s world. And yet even though we know these things, and we understand them to be deeply and essentially true, we look around us and we see a world that sometimes seems to be so far from the world God imagines that it is no wonder people don’t believe us when we say God’s kingdom has come near. Near is just not close enough!
We don’t see God walking among us, and the sick are not healed, and so often we feel only broken and alone and not at all forgiven, and we yearn out of those broken places towards the kingdom that has been promised, envisioned by prophets and painted by Jesus in parables and stories and dinners with friends and strangers.
But this kingdom we proclaim, as we hear this charge from Jesus to the people he has chosen and sent out, as we take on that mantle and march out into the world with a message of peace, this kingdom is one that baffles the world’s kings. Naaman came to the king of Israel looking for healing, and the king did not know what to do! That is not what kings are about! And the prophet’s instructions to Naaman are no grand and kingly thing, either, worthy of Naaman’s station as a mighty warrior and a noble man of Aram. Just wash in the river, Elisha says. Ridiculous. What could possibly be special about this river??
But Naaman does it, and he is healed, and believes. Israel’s claim to fame, then, more than anything the king could control, more than wealth or power or might, the one thing they are known for is God. And it is God working quietly through simple water and trust and healing that does it for Naaman.
What is it that our nation, our kingdom will be known for? What is it that would make us say, oh, if only you were part of my community? How do we proclaim our God to the world?
Do we bring peace and healing, accepting what hospitality we are offered? Do we reach out in love, offering God’s peace to any who will take it? Do we hold up to the light the ideals of the kingdom to which we belong, knowing that these things are somehow so far from being reality, but that we can see the possibilities so near we can grasp them?
Or do we let ourselves rest on those ideals, and miss the ways they are not the reality in our world? Do we sing of dreams so loudly we forget that they are yet dreams? Do we let those values become empty words by accepting the ways we don’t live up to them?
Or do we confess, to each other and to God, where we have failed. Can we look to our communities and recognize how we have missed the mark that Jesus set out for us, and can we look also to our nation and see the places we have fallen short of our words? The call is to each one of us to go out and proclaim God’s kingdom. We proclaim not that this kingdom has been achieved but that this kingdom is possible. We claim not that we are done the work of loving our neighbors and loving God wholeheartedly and welcoming the stranger in our midst – or for that matter, that we have built a perfect nation that has fixed all problems of injustice and inequality – but that this is the goal toward which we are walking.
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And we march toward that goal knowing that not everyone will like it. Not everyone will welcome those who bring peace. The kingdom of God is not what we are used to, and that makes it something of a threat. New things are always threatening in some ways, but more than that, preaching peace and healing to a world which seems to be built upon wars and sickness is a threat. Helping someone to quit smoking is a threat to the industries that would profit from their lung cancer. Welcoming the stranger is a threatening idea for those who have made their livelihoods on fear and distrust of those who are different.
We are sent out to preach love and hope and healing, but in the words of Luke’s Jesus, we are sent like lambs to wolves. If we speak peace, some will get angry. And we are not always called to sit in those angry places, letting ourselves be talked out of the peace we have received. No, Jesus gives practical and lovely instructions: wipe off the dust of this place that will not hear the peace of God, and walk on.
But even so, for them, the kingdom has come near. Even if they refuse to see it – even if we can scarcely believe in the possibility of a better world – it is shimmering there underneath the dust of reality, so close we can reach out a hand and touch it.
And we walk this line: seeing the promise of God’s kingdom of peace in everything we do, letting our hope guide the choices we make, but never forgetting that we still live in a world of dust. For now, God’s kingdom will not just happen. The justice and love and unity that has inspired us is not the way our world works most of the time. We do not fool ourselves, but we do cling to a vision that often seems like foolishness in this broken world.
We are not yet able to sit back and celebrate a world where our ideals have been made real. We can not yet say that all our historical wrongs have been righted. But we do insist that another kingdom is near. The kingdom Jesus proclaims is for all of us, and it becomes real for us when we reach out and grab it and start to live as if that kingdom is real for us today.
And the even better news for us is that even though that world where God’s way rules is not quite as solid as we’d like it to be, our God is just as solid and tangible – or ineffable – as ever. In all of God’s bigness and transcendance and mystery, we affirm that God is real for us here in this place because we have felt God’s presence. That God is the fixed and immovable star that lights our path, through all these journeys of peace and not-yet-peace, of freedom and of not-yet-freedom, of kingdom glimpsed and of kingdom hoped-for. We walk on knowing that we are part of something greater, and that we are loved. Our God sends us out and does not leave us unprotected.
We gather together in this place, and we are fed at God’s table, and God’s peace is poured out again and again for us. And we are sent out, citizens of the Kingdom of God, to bring this peace with us everywhere we go. And our God will be there with us, always, a beacon of hope and possibility in a world where that hope may be hard to see. God’s peace is within us, and we walk on.