Kingdom Work

Comments Off on Kingdom Work

Preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church – Tifton, Georgia

Mark 13:1-8

As a child of the 80’s,
I was raised to believe
there was nothing
we as a species could not do.

By the time I came along,
we were finally on the right trajectory.
We had fought all the good fights.
We had won all the world wars.
We had civil rights.
We had space shuttles.
We had Steven Spielberg.
We had prosperity to spare.

I think a lot of us believed this,
and for many of us Christians,
it became grafted to our religious beliefs as well.

It felt like we humans had evolved,
like we were finally on the brink
of where God always wanted us to be.

And in the not-too-distant future—
if we were all just loving enough,
if we could all just be kind enough,
if we could all just strive hard enough—
maybe, just maybe the day would come
when we would finally usher in
the Kingdom of God . . .
that peaceable kingdom
he’s been “dreaming” of
since the beginning of time.

What hubris.
What arrogance.
What pride.

Turns out, we stink at being our own saviors.
We need an intervention.

*    *    *

I don’t know if you’ve noticed,
but we’ve come to that point in the church year
when all of our readings suddenly become . . . apocalyptic.
The theme of God’s “final things”
will carry us now through all of Advent.

So here we are in the thirteenth chapter of Mark.
The disciples are standing with Jesus in Jerusalem
just days before his death,
marveling at the grandeur of the Temple.

God bless ‘em.
It must have been something
for some of those Galilean good ol’ boys
to see the big city for the very first time.

“Wow,” they say.
“Look at these huge buildings, Jesus!”

Jesus, though, has weightier matters on the mind.
“Boys, boys, boys,” he says.
“Don’t you know that nothing
made by human hands lasts forever?
Not these buildings.
Not this temple.
Not anything.”

In other words,
if you’re putting your faith and hope
in this—in human ingenuity—
you’re putting it in the wrong place.

He then goes on to speak of a time to come
when there will be wars and rumors of wars.
Nation rising against nation.
Kingdom rising against kingdom.
Earthquakes, famine, fear,
and false leaders who will stand and say,
“I alone can fix it.”

“Be not alarmed,” Jesus says,
“but beware of it all.”

Back in the 80’s and 90’s—
heck, back in the 2000’s,
heck, back even just a few years ago—
some might have heard those words and scoffed . . .
or at least wondered,
“What in the world are you talking about, Jesus?”

But these days, those words feel a little too familiar.
These days, they hit a little too close to home.

Our world is in turmoil,
or at least in fear:
socially,
politically,
even meteorologically.

And where we once thought
we had it all figured out—
like we had the whole world in our hands—
many are beginning to look around
like they did the day the Temple fell
and are beginning to ask,
“Can we possibly fix this?
Can we possibly put it back together?”

Wildfires.
Hurricanes.
Mass shootings.
People who survive mass shootings
only to be killed in a different mass shooting.
New missiles.
Old missiles.
Politics.
Partisanship.
Empty promises.
Wars and rumors of wars.

Like I said,
we need an intervention.

*    *    *

See, here’s the thing.
The Gospel makes two bold claims.

The first is that—
as good as we can sometimes be—
we humans are colossally bad
at running our lives
and running the world.

We are selfish.
We are sinful.
We make bad decisions.
And we feel the pain
and see the consequences of that
every day.

But here’s the second claim of the Gospel:
We are not in this alone.

In the end, this is not our project;
this is God’s project.
What God has faithfully started,
God has faithfully redeemed.
And what God has faithfully redeemed,
God will faithfully bring to completion. [1]

I say we need an intervention,
but the Intervention has already begun.

It began 2,000 years ago
in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
and part of the great hope of the Christian faith
is that he intends to finish what he started.

We never really were the ones
who could bring about the peaceable kingdom.
We never really were the ones
paving the way for God,
as though he couldn’t do it himself. [2]

No, God is already out there ahead of us,
paving and preparing his own way. [3]
The closer his Kingdom comes,
the more pressure it exerts on the present. [4]
The closer God gets,
the more feeble and frustrated we become
if all we think we have to rely on is ourselves.

But that’s the thing.
We have so much more than ourselves.
More than our feeble plans.
More than our frail ingenuity.
More than our best intentions
and worst inclinations.

We have a God who loves his creation—
who made it and bought it at great cost to himself—
and he has not brought us this far
just to drop us now.

So, if you and I are not the ones
to usher in the Kingdom of God—
if that enterprise belongs squarely to him—
then what are we supposed to “do”?

We are to wait,
and to be humble in our waiting.

We are to trust,
and to know that God
will finish what he has started.

We are to proclaim the Good News
that God is on the move
despite all our worst efforts to stop him.

And we are to read the signs of the times
and to look—in the midst of all the turmoil—
for God’s work already occurring . . .
and join in readily where we can. [5]

*    *    *

This weekend I was supposed to fly up
to Greenwich, Connecticut
for a “preaching gig.”

I had been asked to preach at a monthly prayer breakfast,
and while I didn’t make a big deal of it down here,
I’ll be honest: it was a big deal to me.
I have a lot of respect for the host,
and many other preachers and writers I admire
have spoken at this event before.

So, I was singularly focused
on flying up to Greenwich on Thursday,
preaching Friday morning,
and flying back Friday afternoon.
No room for surprises.
No time for anything else.
Everything had to go according to plan . . . my plan.

It’s amazing how one can get so focused on working for God
that one can easily overlook the workings of God.

Just as I was about to go to bed on Wednesday,
I received a text from Deacon Leeann Culbreath
telling me she planned to bring a special guest to Morning Prayer.

“Cool,” I said. “I won’t be there.
I’ll be driving up to catch a flight from Atlanta.”

“Great!” she says.
“You can give my guest a ride!”

Leeann’s guest had just been released
from our nearby immigration detention facility.
(If you don’t know that we have
an immigration detention facility
right here in our own backyard, we do.
You need to know that.)

She was a twenty-year immigrant to our country
who had been detained six months ago
and was finally being released to rejoin her children.

“If you could get her to the Greyhound bus stop in Macon,” Leeann said,
“it would get her to her family in North Carolina so much sooner
and cost less than half of what it would take to send her from here.”

As I read the text, I thought,
“Yikes, I don’t know.
I don’t know this lady.
I don’t know that I have the time.
I have this important thing I’m doing tomorrow.
I can’t have anything go wrong.”

But then I saw my reflection
in the black mirror of my phone
and realized that sometimes
God calls on you to do a thing
for the good of his coming Kingdom,
and if you don’t say yes,
he’ll pass you over and keep going
until he can find a less selfish soul
willing to be on his side.

I said yes.

For an hour-and-a-half the following day,
I listened to this amazing woman
sitting in my passenger seat
as I drove up I-75 to the Greyhound bus stop in Macon.

Whatever you picture in your mind
when you hear me say the words “detained immigrant,”
wipe it out of your head and throw it away.
She was none of that.

She came here as a student from Africa almost 20 years ago.
She speaks perfect English.
She has three teenage kids.
She has a demanding, highly skilled job.
Until she was detained, her life—like ours—
was ruled by the schedule on her iPhone:
get up,
get the kids to school,
get to work,
get to the grocery store,
get the kids to soccer practice,
get home,
get supper cooked,
get to bed.
Do it all over again.

She told me about the hardships of being detained;
of being in a “dorm” with 100 women,
most of whom do not speak English.
She spoke of the total lack of privacy;
of rejoicing the one day of the week they got chicken;
of not really wanting to go outdoors
because coming back in was just too depressing.

I listened to her story,
how she waited and waited on God with such patience
these last six months of her life,
and I asked, “What do you wish people could know?”

Her response blew me away.

It wasn’t about the injustice.
It wasn’t about hardship.
It wasn’t about the resentment to which I felt she is so entitled.

Instead it was, “I want people to know that God is good.”

“My life fell apart six months ago,” she said,
“and I would never wish this experience on anyone,
but I have received grace upon grace.
I was once a Christian who squeezed church in where I could,
but when you have nothing else to do but pray,
you realize how close at hand God really is.”

She spoke of the community of love and care
that God is pulling together there,
even in that dark and difficult environment.
Women who speak Korean, Spanish, different African dialects
are praying for one another,
lifting one another up,
offering one another hope,
communicating in snippets and sign language . . .
waiting for God together.
“There’s a revival going on in there,” she said.

Let me be clear:
I do not want to Pollyanna-ize this situation.
I do not want to baptize it
and make it sound like a good thing unto itself.
It’s NOT.

But . . . here is a woman in the crosshairs
of all our feeble, fearful human efforts to impose order
in the face of wars and rumors of wars—
a woman separated from her children
for more than six months—
and in her waiting,
what came out is the story of God
taking a “dorm” full of people
that an entire nation doesn’t seem to want
and forging them into a community
of love and prayer.

When the times get bad,
when it feels like the Second Coming
must be just around the bend,
when it feels like this present age
cannot bear the weight of its own resistance
to the coming Kingdom of God . . .
look for the signs.
Look for the movement of God.
Look for the Good News
in the shadows and recesses of all the bad.
Like a baby in a manger,
like a criminal on the cross,
it’s never where you expect it to be,
and it always looks like love.

*    *    *

So how’d my preaching gig go?
I never made it.

Oh I got to the airport in plenty of time,
but snow delay after snow delay at LaGuardia
meant that our plane never took off from Atlanta.
After all that planning—
after all that worry about my important work for God—
I ended up driving home from the airport late that night.

You see, I thought I was supposed to go
build up the Kingdom of God
with all my wise and eloquent words.
I thought my plan—my work—was the thing that mattered.

But God was already at work.
God was already building his Kingdom.
God already had other plans in mind.
In the end, my only job that day
was to shut up, listen, and drive.

Late that night
as I drove the three lonely hours
back from the airport,
Leeann texted me to say,
“Hey, I just heard from her.
She finally made it home.”

And there it is.
In the shadows and the recesses,
in the mangers and the crosses,
in the detention facilities and the Greyhound stations,
in all the places we’d never dare to look . . .
the coming Kingdom is already at hand.

Come Lord Jesus.
We need an intervention.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Rutledge, Fleming. Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018. 24
[2] Rutledge, 26-27.
[3] Rutledge, 26-27.
[4] Rutledge, 20.
[5] Rutledge, 24.