Thursday, January 25, 2018

It's Here!!

"After John had been imprisoned, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God, saying:  "Its time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near; change your mind and thinking and believe in the gospel." 
--Mark 1: 14-15 (P.H. Epps translation)

He said that the Kingdom of God has come near.  Really?  Are ya sure, Jesus?  I look around and sometimes have a really hard time believing that.  I see people so splintered and divided by their own versions of truth that they can’t listen to each other.  I see men with great power, privilege, and responsibility abuse those things and bring great suffering.  I see a world, much like the one Jesus knew, where the poor are beaten down, the rich just keep getting richer, and the measure of a nation is the size of their weapons, not the amount of mercy in their hearts.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that the Kingdom has already come. 

But that’s what he said.  The very first words out of Jesus’ mouth in the very first Gospel is this:  the Kingdom of God has come near.  The Greek word that’s used here is engizo, which is a present-tense verb that means something is here, present, or at hand. This is why translations like the King James Version say that the Kingdom is at hand, while others like the New International Version say that the Kingdom is here.  Regardless of how you translate the verb, the meaning is still the same:  Jesus is telling us, plain and simple, that the Kingdom is a present reality!  You don’t have to keep wishing and hoping for it in the far off future.

So much of our faith is based on the promise that the Kingdom is coming in the future; after all, we say it in the Lord’s Prayer—“thy kingdom come,” future tense—and we have the promise of it in our Nicene Creed—“his Kingdom will have no end.”  It’s engrained in us to look to the future, as though the Kingdom of God is something that is far off, distant, and on the horizon.  Someday it will come, we say, and so we keep waiting and hoping while we remain here in this cruel world.

A wise teacher once admonished a would-be student.  “All his life has he looked away to the future, to the horizon,” said the teacher, poking the student with his cane.  “Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing!”  The student’s name was Luke Skywalker, and the teacher’s name was Yoda.  Luke had always dreamed of something bigger than himself, some grand and glorious destiny as a galactic hero, and so he traveled to the far off world of Dagobah to seek the counsel of the wise old Jedi Master Yoda.  He thought the Force was something far away, something he had to obtain, but what he didn't realize, and what Yoda kept trying to get him to see, was that the Force was right there, inside him all the time.  He dreamed of something far away, but if he would only open his eyes and see that which was right in front of him, he would know the Force in ways that he could not imagine.  If you’ve seen The Last Jedi you know that, even as an old man, Luke still has a hard time seeing the present reality.

A wise teacher, who understood that the Divine is not far, far away, but is right here!

Brothers and sisters, our present reality is that the Kingdom of God is not some far-off, distant dream for which we hope and pine.  No, it is here!  It is in you, and it is around you.  Much like the Force, which Luke thought was so very far away and impossible to obtain, the Kingdom of God surrounds you, penetrates you, and binds the very galaxy together! You don’t have to travel far to find it, and you don’t need to sit around and wait for it to be revealed to you. We can all know the present reality of the Kingdom.  We can see it, and we can be participants in it if we only allow ourselves to do so.  I wonder:  do you really know that the Kingdom is already here, and that it is in you and all around you?

I know that the Kingdom of God is here whenever I sit with people who are dying.  They tell me about their hope in God, and it is seldom a hope in something that is future-based, instead it is present, sustaining them, lifting them up in their final days. I know the Kingdom is here when I talk to men in prison, who get by only because they know Jesus is there with them.  I know the Kingdom is real when I see people who have suffered tremendous heartache put one foot in front of the other and not only face each day but bring light and love to those around them and let those folks do the same for them.  And I know the Kingdom is here is those little ways that are anything but little, like when I see strangers helping one another when their cars get stuck—as a very nice young man helped Kristen and me when our car went sideways in the snow lastThursday.  I know the Kingdom is here, and I know that it is good!

The thing about Greek that is so cool is that a present-tense verb doesn’t just mean that something is happening in the present moment, but that it happens right now and will continue to happen into eternity until something compels it to stop.  So when Mark uses the verb engizo to say the Kingdom has come near, he means it’s come and it’s going to continue into eternity until something causes it to stop.  Well, we know that there ain't nothing causing the Kingdom of God to stop!  It is here, and it ain’t going nowhere, brothers and sisters!  We need only have eyes to see it and ears to listen for it. 

Yes, our hope is in something that has not yet happened, the coming of God’s Kingdom in that final, glorious day, but sometimes we forget that it has, in fact, already come.  That already-not yet is one of the greatest tensions of the Gospel, but it’s also a beautiful tension.  We don’t just hope for something in the future, we experience it in the present reality.  That word Gospel comes from evangelion, from which we get the word evangelist, and it means “good news.”  This, then, is the good news that Jesus was proclaiming, what he calls us to proclaim:  the Kingdom of God has come near!  While the world may be filled with anger, fear, pain, and suffering, God is good—all the time!—which means that all things that come from God are good.  This world is good.  You are good.  And if you are good, then you are well-equipped to go and proclaim that good news to others that they need not look for the Kingdom on the horizon but inside themselves and all around.

So where have you seen the Kingdom?  Who are the folks who have shown you glimpses of that Kingdom?  Maybe you’ll hold them in your prayers today.  In what ways will you go from this place and proclaim that good news to those you meet? How will you be an evangelist, reminding them of that good news, that what they seek is not so very far away, but it is right here, and it is good?  The time is fulfilled, brothers and sisters, so let us go and proclaim in word and action that good news: the Kingdom of God has come near!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Because We Are Called

'Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”'
--I Samuel 3: 1-10

Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”'
--John 1: 43-51

It was the summer of 2007, and I was just a few months into the ordination process and was working as a counselor at a church camp, where the director was also rector of the little parish across the street.  I had hoped to pick his brain, to hear about how awesome and cool it is to be a priest, what I could expect from seminary, and all of that stuff.  But when we would sit out on the porch in the evenings what I heard most in his stories were complaints.  He had bumped heads with his bishop, called seminary the worst three years of his life, and each day there was a new parishioner who was getting under his skin.  And when I asked him why he stuck with it all, why he didn’t just do something else, he said, “Because I’m called to it.” 

Being called, I came to find out, was not about saying yes to God and then having everything run smoothly.  As I learned on that porch at that camp, being called is deeper than that.  It’s something that never goes away, a voice that keeps speaking, a finger that keeps tapping us on our shoulder, even when we are totally baffled by it, or when we push back against it.  That’s what we see today in our Scriptures.

Samuel is called by God as a young boy.

The prophet Samuel is just a little boy when he first years the voice of God calling to him.  It takes God four tries to finally get Samuel to realize what is going on, but when he does he finally says, "Your servant is listening."  In the gospel we find Nathanael--a man only seen in John's gospel--who makes fun of Jesus' hometown, and even when he meets Jesus scoffs and says, "Where did you get to know me?"  He might as well have said, "You don't anything about me, you nobody from Nazareth!"  But when Jesus says he saw him under the fig tree, something clicks in Nathanael, and he realizes that this guy not only saw him but heard the prayers of his heart that he offered under that tree--the fig tree represented peace in ancient Judaism, and it was there that folks would go to pray and find solace. This encounter stirs Nathanael to follow Jesus from that day on. 

Nathanael scoffs at the invitation to see Jesus given to him by Philip.

These two individuals were separated by more than 600 years years, yet both were called by God. Samuel didn't understand, and it took a while for him to even say yes. Nathanael made fun of God standing in front of him, but he eventually ceased his push-back and said yes. They were called--of course they were, they're in the Bible! The truth, though, is that every person enters the world called!  We are, like Samuel and Nathanael, crafted by a loving Creator who sends us all into this world for a purpose, a purpose that is unique to each of us.  There was certainly a lot that Samuel and Nathanael did not understand about their respective calls—why was this happening to them, what did God have in-mind for them?  Yet these two were able to say yes, and I suspect it was because they understood a couple of things about call.

First, they understood that our call is not a goal to be achieved, instead it is a gift to be received.  The question associated with call is not “What should I do?” but rather “Who am I?”  For Samuel and Nathanael it wasn’t about what they were suppose to Do, but rather who they were suppose to BE--for Samuel it meant being a prophet, for Nathanael it meant being a disciple and apostle.    When I tell folks that I am a priest, that’s not what I do, it’s who I am—what I do is serve as the rector of my parish.  If you talk to any artist they’ll say the same thing.  It's not about what they are doing but how their art speaks to who it is that they are. When we begin to answer that question we can discover our true call.  

Second, they knew that call is not about staying comfortable and remaining in the same place, but it  is about moving forward, usually in an uncomfortable manner.  Samuel and Nathanael could have remained where they were--the temple and the fig tree seemed mighty comfortable--but their calls moved them into some really uncomfortable places--as a prophet Samuel seldom was taken seriously, and Nathanael, history says, died a martyr in Armenia.  Yet they still moved forward, still kept going because they knew their inspiration was coming from God.  Today, of course, is Martin Luther King Day. I suspect when some of us think of Dr. King we tend to think of his "I Have a Dream" speech or the Montgomery bus boycott or registering folks to vote in Selma. Prophet that he was,  Dr. King did so much in so many places, moving from one location to another, from one cause to another; in fact, the night before he died he gave a speech in Memphis in support of the rights of sanitation workers. He didn't stop after the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were passed, but he kept moving forward, knowing that his call to work for justice and freedom was one that came from God, and Dr. King knew that such a call was not about remaining comfortable and still, but steadily and faithfully moving forward to whatever and wherever God was calling.  God kept moving Dr. king forward, and that same divine call, no matter who it's for, is always shaking us up and moving us forward.  Among the many legacies Dr. King left us is the example of what a call from God looks like--seldom stationary, often difficult, always holy.

A man who understood what call looks like.

You, brothers and sisters, are called.  Each and every one of you.  I wonder what yours looks like.  Sometimes the call takes a long time for us to answer.  Sometimes we fight it tooth and nail.  Still, it never goes away, no matter how difficult things get.  That’s call!  So how about you?  Are you Samuel, called to be a prophet?  Are you Nathanael, called to follow Jesus and be sent out with his message?  Are you Martin, called to speak out and stand up for justice and freedom and, if need be, to die for that stance?  No, you’re neither!  You are you!  You are a beloved child of God, called to something that is unique, something that is yours and yours alone.  Only you can know for sure, only you can hear God's voice, and only you can answer that question "Who am I?"