Saturday, November 25, 2023

God's reign on earth as in heaven

This last Sunday of the Church’s year is often called “the feast of Christ the King” and while that might sound strange, in fact, you pray that Christ will reign in glory all the time, don’t you? Yes, you really do!

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, as a group or on our own, we pray that God’s will and God’s Kingdom will happen on earth as it happens in heaven.

Nice idea. But exactly what would that look like?

Well, I suppose it depends on what your idea of heaven is.

If you think that heaven is like all those cartoons and jokes … filled with puffy clouds, where everyone has a halo, wings, and a harp, after getting through pearly gates and past the heavenly Maître d, then I guess then you either want heaven to be really peaceful and quiet with harp music over the loudspeakers—or maybe you want a place to get away from it all.  And how would that show up on earth? Probably in a kind of religion that says we don’t ever talk about things that are hard: like poverty…or war… or sickness… or ethics…. We'd just speak comfortable things, focusing only on ‘being saved’ or spiritual gifts without ever thinking about the ethical demand that grows out of following Jesus, and the grace and power of the Holy Spirit to live a transformed, compassionate, active life of service and prayer.

If you think that heaven is filled up with people who think and act just like us, then I guess that heaven will look a lot like our Facebook pages, and wouldn’t that be a sad, boring thing? Imagine eternity living itself out in pretty familiar ways, as we do right now. We would only watch what we like, hang out only with people just like us, and with folks that pretty much believe and act the way we think they’re supposed to. I don’t know about you, but I doubt that this what Jesus had in mind when he taught us his prayer, or when he talked about the ones who enter into God's reign in today's Gospel.

And how we view heaven and God’s reign has an impact on our everyday ethics and behavior because if you think heaven is only going to be filled up with people who do right or believe right or think right, then you probably think that life today should be managed and governed only by people who do, believe, and think the right way—however you define that!

The problem with these approaches is that we end up spending a lot of time trying to manage how other people believe, feel, think, and act. We want to make them straighten up and fly right.

Another problem is that this turns our biases, prejudices, and assumptions into different kinds of idols. Because we try to get heaven (and God) to conform to our image not the other way around

But if we really believe what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, then our prayer is that God will act and be present in our lives every day just as God is present and at work in heaven. What will that look like?

Well, let’s ask Jesus—or at least today’s Gospel lesson! — where Jesus asks simply “did you do on earth what God does in heaven?”

We tend to think of God’s final judgment as something big, and cosmic and grand. We think of God sorting out the good from the bad. What I love about this story is that Jesus’ sets it up exactly as how we would expect it—and then turns it upside down!

In today’s Gospel, we see that Christ returns in glory surrounded by angels. And he separates the nations into those who will enter heaven and those destined for eternal punishment.

And what’s the criteria for entrance?

Is it right belief? Nope!

Is it belonging to the right religion or denomination? Nyet!

Is it doing the right ritual at the right time? Uh-uh!

In this passage, the criteria for entrance into Heaven turns out to be simple kindness. How simple? So simple that the people being welcomed—or not—did not even notice that they had the opportunity to act.

When did we feed you? When did we clothe you? When did we care for you? When did we visit you?

Jesus’ answer: when you took care of anyone who was hungry or naked or sick or in prison or alone or in trouble.

The Bible Scholars may laugh me out of the room, but I see this passage in Matthew 25 as a kind of commentary on the Lord's Prayer in Matthew chapter 6. It is an image and description of how God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

One of my all-time favorite movies is “42”, the story of Jackie Robinson (played by the late Chadwick Boseman) and his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black player in Major League Baseball in the modern era (since Moses Fleetwood Walker played for Cleveland in the 1880’s). Today’s Gospel made me remember a scene in the film when Branch Rickey, the manager of the Dodgers, played by Harrison Ford, gets a call from Herb Pennock the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1947. Pennock wants Rickey to leave Robinson in Brooklyn, saying that if Robinson comes to Philadelphia, the Phillies won’t take the field.

Branch Rickey asks Pennock “You think God likes baseball, Herb?

“What - ?” replied Pennock. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means,” shouts Rickey into the phone before slamming it down, “someday you're gonna meet God, and when he inquires as to why you didn't take the field against Robinson in Philadelphia, and you answer that it's because he was a Negro, it may not be a sufficient reply!”

At this time of the rolling year, I start following my personal annual tradition of re-reading Charles Dickens’ famous little book A Christmas Carol. I especially like to hear the version acted out as a one-man show by Patrick Stewart (not the TV movie), while I drive.

One of the things that stands out for me every time I read it, either in print or on audio, Dickens idea of hell. Hell is not a place where “goats” and “sheep” (as they are called in Jesus’ story today) are separated into camps but someplace far scarier. Instead of going to fiery pits, A Christmas Carol describes the eternal wailing and gnashing of the condemned, the "goats," if you will, happening right here on earth.

As Marley’s ghost leaves him, warning of the three spirits yet to visit him, a shaken and startled Ebenezer Scrooge looks out the window of his bedroom and sees a world where “the air was filled with phantoms,” all carrying chains, cash boxes, safes, and bags of gold, wailing “mournful dirges.” And they wail because they see poverty and want all around them and wish to intervene for good but have lost forever the power to do so.

Marley’s ghost moans his plight, holding up his own chain that bind him, explaining: “I wear the chain I forged in life.... I made it link by link, and yard by yard….” He says he forged the chain in life and that Scrooge's own spiritual chain was even longer and heavier than his.

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” 

I think about that scene as every day and every week we pray that simple, radical prayer that Jesus taught us and which we learned as children. And in that prayer, we pray that what God wills in heaven will be done on earth.  Unlike Marley’s ghost, we have the power right now to intervene for good.

As you think about the blessings you’ve received, and contemplate how to return those blessings to God through your pledge and giving to this church and elsewhere, as you think about how you might use your time, talent, and treasure for God’s purposes think about the lesson of today’s Gospel. God has given you the tools, the grace, the means, and the power to participate in God's reign, but has left us the choice to take that up in practical ways every day. 

Notice that in Dicken's story, one of the things that changes for Scrooge after his conversion is his relationship to money. Instead of hoarding it and, in a way, fearing it; his wealth becomes his power for good.

How we respond to the people God has given to us will depend largely on how we use our treasure, time, and talent for good. In the story, Scrooge's money becomes, after his conversion, the way that he touches the lives of not only the Cratchits, but his city and community. His transformation is halting at first but grows, as illustrated in how he joins in with the worship of his local church at Christmas, how he repents to the two 'portly gentlemen,' and how he helps the Cratchits, at first in secret and then in a renewed relationship. Dicken’s describes the effect of his spiritual transformation in terms of both his ethics and his generosity, as well as his personality.

For Jesus, the key to the kingdom—what makes God’s kingdom and God’s will happen on earth just as it happens in heaven-- is so simple that we can overlook it…. Or we can just as easily practically and usefully participate in God’s reign by serving the ones described in today’s Gospel: the hungry, the sick, the lonely, the naked, the homeless, the imprisoned. Here is the mark of God’s work being done on earth as in heaven. It is when people act in kindness, have the eyes to see God’s face in the people God gives to us, the ears to hear God's voice in them, and the willingness to be God’s hands, feet, and voice, to those who seek him and cry out for justice and compassion. 

Every day we pray to live and do God’s will, no matter where it takes us; and every day we have the power in our own small ways to do just that.

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 26, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on November 26, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on November 26, 2023.

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