November 27, 2016

The Difference We Can Make


Text: Colossians 1:13: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son….”

Maybe it’s just a gift of providence that this last Sunday of the church year always falls in November. It’s a gift because it gives us a moment, after the seasons of campaigns and elections has come to an end, to reflect on an aspect of our own belief that we often overlook—about who Jesus is supposed to be for us, not back then, but right now.

The way the church does that is to conclude our curious calendar with an emphasis on the idea that Jesus is not just a figure in history—not just an ancient teacher, not just a complicated theological proposition, not just the baby in the manger.

He is the conqueror of death and sin. He is the final winner over evil. He is our king. Not our governor, not our president—our ruler.

We are not necessarily people who like the idea of being ruled. Governed, maybe. Consulted, certainly. Respected, ideally. But ruled?

Democracy is almost always messy, but at least we feel like we can raise our voices in protest when we don’t like the outcomes we get. But heaven is, well, the kingdom of heaven. It’s not the republic of heaven. We don’t get a vote. We get a ruler.

The good news is, this is not a ruler like any we’ve ever known.

Today the gospel gives us a glimpse of Jesus doing something characteristic of a ruler; he is sitting in judgment, handing out forgiveness. You might even imagine him issuing pardons for convicted criminals—in a spiritual sense.

Of course, the thief in this story knows he’s in need of forgiveness. Down through the ages he’s been called the “penitent thief,” because he has the wisdom to acknowledge his guilt and to ask for forgiveness.

But Jesus doesn’t just offer forgiveness to those who know they need it; he offers it also to people who are absolutely certain they’re in the midst of doing the most righteous thing they’ve ever done by killing him.

And this is where the story gets hard, because Jesus is doing a kingly thing from a very unkingly place. He is passing judgment, and extending forgiveness, to everyone else—even to us—while he himself is being executed on a cross.

Just bring that image to mind for a moment, and consider what an upside-down picture it is from the images we have of leadership in our own day. We don’t have to look very far to see leaders in very kingly places doing very unkingly things. Shepherds who scatter and destroy the sheep.

The Kingdom of Heaven is a place where the charter of citizenship is written in the commandments given to us by the king, the king that Jesus is finally revealed to be in the end. Those commandments are very simple: Love God, as fully and as completely as you can; and love your neighbor as you do yourself.

That is the constitution of the Kingdom. All the rest are details. All of the judgments, all of the laws, all of the parking ordinances, all of the zoning restrictions, even all of the immigration rules—all of it is subject to those two constitutional foundation-stones. Love God, and love each other like we love ourselves.

And—again—we don’t have to look very far to see governments that don’t work anything like that.

When we go home to Newton, or Watertown, or Waltham, or Worcester, or Brookline, or to any of the other places that we come from, we go back to places that are smaller expressions of the order of this world. At least in those places we get a voice to change things, and we can use the things we learn here to try to make those places more, well, more merciful. More just. More hopeful. More loving.

But when we gather together here, things are different. When we cross the curb and come on to the grounds of Saint John’s, we are entering into an embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven. We are the sovereign territory of our King here on earth. When we are here, we are subject to the rules of this Kingdom. Here our citizenship depends on learning the disciplines of encouraging each other, forgiving each other, caring about each other, and being strengthened by all of that to go represent this place in that world.

But there is one way in which that world and this world are alike—one way in which our citizenship in both places has a common responsibility.

You see this coming, don’t you? I mean, you can look at your calendar, and hear Tim Strayer’s voice saying these words to you, and it’s almost as though the slant of the sun through those windows at this time of year just prepares you for what is coming next.

But yeah, it’s true. Both of those places, our republic in this world and our kingdom in God’s universe, both of them need the substance of this world to run in this world.

No one—not the insurance company, not the electric company, not the painters, not the roofers, not the boiler repair man, not the oil delivery company, not the garbage collection folks—no one gives us things for free just because we are a church. Saint John’s—this outpost of the kingdom of heaven—has to have money to do its work.

Some of it comes in the form of the endowment left by the people who built this place long before any of us ever showed up. Some it comes from the wonderful school with whom we share our home. But most of it has to come from us. That is our responsibility—and that responsibility, in no small way, is our privilege.

How you respond to this privilege is between you and God, but here’s a good place to start. I would bet that this place, these people, this community, is not something that makes no difference to you. I’ll unwrap that double negative: It matters to you that Saint John’s is here. Maybe this has been a place where you could find comfort, or make relationships with people who weren’t all competing with you for something. Maybe the place came through for you when you were in a fix you never thought you’d be in. Maybe you’ve just seen how much we have meant to someone else who came here when they weren’t really very welcome anywhere else.

Whatever it is, my guess is that it makes a difference to you that this outpost of the Kingdom is here.

So, if you take that seriously, probably what you choose to offer back to the king in this place—what you offer back in gratitude for all we do here—should make some difference to you, too. It shouldn’t be something you can give without really thinking about. You are loved here in a thoughtful and intentional way; the way you respond to your responsibility here should be just as thoughtful and just as intentional.

And I’ll just stop with this: It may be that we have a lot of work to do in the days ahead of us to heal the divisions in our republic, to bind the wounds that have lacerated and bruised our lives together as citizens. Whatever you think of where we have ended up after November 8th, how we got here has to be a matter on the hearts of anyone who lives by that “love your neighbor as yourself” rule.

No matter what else that might mean, it will surely mean this: The things we are taught here, the community we create here, the support we all receive from each other here, all of that will be more and more important in equipping us for our tasks as citizens out there.

The invitation for all of us now, in this place that offers us so much, is to offer back something thoughtful and intentional—not a quick reply to the stewardship packet, but a deliberate act of responsibility and privilege here in this small outpost of Christ’s kingdom. Amen.