Saturday, September 02, 2017

September 3, Proper 17; Space / Practice / Vision #1: A Vision of the Kingdom of Heaven

Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

I’m starting a new sermon series today. It’s called A Space, A Practice, A Vision, and for the next ten Sundays I’ll be asking the scripture lessons every week to speak to one or more of those three themes: a Space, a Practice, a Vision.

Why those three words? I have taken them from the draft new mission statement for our church that our consistory has been working on. You see, when I came here sixteen years ago, one of my first jobs was to develop a mission statement, which we did, and that mission statement has been guiding us since, and you hear me quote from it every Sunday as the welcome in our service. It has served us well, but over the years I’ve come to feel it as too inward—welcoming people in, but not directing us back out, nor speaking of God’s mission to the world outside our doors.

So now the consistory is working on a new mission statement. This time it’s being drafted by them and not by me. When the drafting team gave its first report to the consistory last Spring, I was so moved by their proposal I got emotional. It’s not final yet, and it’s part of a larger process of casting a vision for Old First. So why not contribute to the process with a sermon series, to let the Bible speak to the statement, to give some better certainty that is what God wants for us.

So here it is: Old First Reformed Church is a community of Jesus Christ in Brooklyn, offering a space of unconditional welcome, a practice of worship and service, and a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven.

You will notice that the first part of the statement is the same as our current one. Our church is a community, a community defined by our source and center in Jesus Christ and not by any other commonality of identity. Our community exists not just for ourselves and our benefit, but to offer something, something for God, and something for the world around us.

What do we offer? Three things. First, a space of unconditional welcome. Space that is literal and figurative—physical space, sanctuary space, big space, beautiful space, sacred space, shelter space, meeting space, concert space, rehearsal space, public space, and also social space, spiritual space, healing space, emotional space, inclusive space, room, room for you, room for individuality and diversity. Absolute hospitality, unconditional welcome.

But not empty space, for in this space we offer, second, a practice of worship and service. We practice certain practices designed to worship God in a way that leads to welcome and inclusion and healing and service to each other and also service to the world. Our practices make movement in the space, in and up and down and out again. This part of the mission carries us out beyond our inwardness.

Please notice that our first lesson from Exodus speaks to Space, and our second lesson from Romans speaks to Practice.

In Exodus, from the burning bush, God makes a promise to Moses: “I know the sufferings of my people, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land (that’s the Space), a land flowing with milk and honey (it’s not an empty Space, it’s a healthy Space, a healing Space), to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.”

So no, it’s not empty space, there are other people living in it. It’s not a welcoming space or inclusive space, and for the Israelites to take that Space they’ll have to remove the other people from it by violence with a Holy War. Which is what Peter was expecting the Messiah do with the Romans.

There are Christians today who are saying on the media and in support of this current President that because that holy violence is in the Bible it is Biblical for us to do. But St. Paul says quite clearly otherwise in Romans 12, in his list of Christian practices of worship and service. 

When he says “leave room for the wrath of God, make space for the wrath of God,” he means the space of judgment and wrath is off limits for us who follow Christ. In that space, we are not allowed. “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them drink. Never avenge yourselves. So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Of course that is difficult, of course that’s challenging and maybe costly and dangerous. It may feel like giving in, surrender, even collaboration, if you enemies are the ones in power.

The only way to sustain it is by practicing the practices of worship and service laid out clearly in the chapter. We are told to “Rejoice in hope,” so we practice rejoicing and hoping counter-culturally. We are told to “Be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer,” which is not passive indifference but active intervention but knowing our limits and lifting the trouble up to God. We are told to “contribute to the needs of the saints,” so we support this community of Jesus with our money, and we are told to “extend hospitality to strangers,” so we labor to keep a capacious building open that does just that.

It is rewarding and fulfilling. But you have to get over the hump and through the resistance of it feeling like sacrifice, because it means the sacrifice of your entitlements according to the world. The Lord Jesus does want you to gain your life, but his counter-cultural challenge is that in some real sense you have to lose your life in order to find it. The sacrifice of your natural entitlement is what he means by taking up your cross. And to take up your cross, you also have to let go of your sword and self-defense.

That’s what Peter did not see yet. Peter wanted to say, “Blood and soil, our blood, our soil,” and he wanted the Messiah to fight for that. He figured it was Biblical, like the Christian-nationalists today. But to this temptation we have to say, Get thee behind us, Satan. Not because we are more righteous. But because we have met the enemy and it is us. We are the enemy whom Jesus feeds, with his own broken body. We are the enemy whom Jesus gives to drink, with his own blood.

Peter did not yet see the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus could see. Yes, Peter would see it before he tasted death, but only after the death and resurrection of his Lord. St. Paul came to see it too, and life inside it is what he describes in Romans 12 with his list of practices. The practices of worship and service are meant to be evidence of the over-arching vision, the dream, the hope, and the third part of our draft new mission statement, my favorite part, a vision of the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven is not for escape to heaven but for the full salvation of this world. And maybe other worlds and planets too, who knows. We believe that the salvation of this world requires us to pay attention to this world, but if we see the world from only within in the world, our sight is distorted, depressed, and distracted.

If we see the world only from within the world, then we’re going to be like Peter and reject the way of the cross, of death and resurrection. If we see the world from only within the world we’re going to want to carry guns instead of our crosses. We think we are being realistic, but the world in itself does not know itself. In order to see the world rightly we have to see it from the perspective of heaven. To serve the world with both love and justice we have to view it with the x-ray vision of the kingdom of heaven.

I invite you to look for the kingdom of heaven, because only then can you make sense of losing your life to find it. And I invite you to believe the promise of Jesus, that when you lose your life for his sake you will find it, because when you accept his promise you will start to see the kingdom of heaven. I know it’s circular and also counter-cultural, but I invite you into it.

One last word. He told us to pray for it. He told us to pray: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heaven. Because it hasn’t fully come we pray for it. On earth God’s will is certainly not being done. But it is being done in heaven. It’s not just that God gives space to our resistance and rebellion, but God is so subtly powerful to weave our disobedience into God’s grander strategy and great design.

Yes, not just powerful, but weaving, embracing, incorporating, absorbing—in other words, loving. We want this church to offer a vision of the kingdom of heaven because we want this church to offer the overwhelming height and depth and breadth and length of the love of God.

Copyright © 2017 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved. 

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