Saturday, June 13, 2020

JUSTICE: The Kingdom of Heaven

The promise of Heaven is not a license to exploit people on Earth, but an invitation to transform our systems and bring them into conformity with the heavenly vision.

"And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matthew 10:7 KJV)

These are the words of Jesus Christ. We all are familiar with the various issues of justice, the different ways that people use to try to divide humanity into different groups and turn them against each other for their own purposes, and to keep them from uniting against oppression of any of them. 

But our inclusiveness statement for our church says, "We invite everyone to share fully in the worship services, life, ministry, and leadership of Briensburg United Methodist Church inclusive of age, race, nationality, gender, LGBTQ, theology, politics, and legal status."

Transcript of sermon Recorded for June 14, 2020 at Briensburg UMC

The Bible invites us to listen to what God has to say about justice throughout all the scriptures, as it's one of the main themes that flows throughout all of the Bible. The statement that Jesus made on the kingdom of heaven being at hand is just as radical now as it was when he first began to preach it. The kingdom of God being at hand, the kingdom of heaven being close to us and manifesting itself in the earth is the spiritual realm being a part of our daily lives and not just a side part, but a central, governing, directing, organizing, ordering part of our lives as individuals and as the faith community and extending into all the realms of society.

The promise of heaven in the next world can no longer be used as a license to exploit people in this world. That has been a problem down through the ages as people would oppress people and expect them to just take it with the promise that in the next world, it'll all work out. Everything will be rosy in the next world, but in this world, you should ... They want you to just accept whatever they deal out to you without complaining, and then just to use people and for their own profit and discard them as though they were without value in this world. But the governments of this earth are expected to mirror the kingdom of heaven. Jesus taught us to pray, 
"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Salvation is often construed in manipulative terms and defined in ways that make it be something that people do or receive or respond to for someone else's profit, for someone else's goals and agenda. But the word that is translated salvation in the scripture is also translated healing in the scripture. 
"I am the Lord that healeth thee." 
Every place that Jesus went about preaching about salvation, he also healed the sick. It was a big part of what he did. And in this passage about where he sent the apostles out to preach the gospel, he gave them the authority and told them to heal the problems of the people.

And so there's not really a difference there. There's not salvation, and then just this little side thing to prove a point as some would say, as to demonstrate the power. But the real goal was salvation. It's all the same goal, to save people, to heal them, to preserve us to everlasting life. The kingdom of heaven that Jesus preached is fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, 

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulders: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this."

Jesus sends us, you and me and the others, to heal, to help and to liberate the victims of oppression and injustice. In our baptismal vow, in our United Methodist baptismal vow, we are asked, 
"Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil and injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?" 
Our resistance is like a spring, a steel spring, not in every respect is like a spring, but in this respect that, when the spring is compressed, then it pushes back with an equal force to resist and recoil against the pressure.

And in that sense, our resistance is like a spring, that when we see injustice and oppression in whatever of these many forms it takes, whatever the issue is, whoever the particular group of people is that's being oppressed or that individual who's being oppressed, wherever we see this oppression and injustice and evil, and we absorb it and then we push back, we recoil and we push it away. We have many peaceful ways of doing that. We are a people of peace. We don't violently respond to evil and oppression. As followers of Jesus, we do it the way he did. You can look at all of his life and see how peacefully he did. Even in the garden of Gethsemane, telling Peter to put his sword away. That wasn't the way that he was going to battle. It's a spiritual warfare.

And so for us every prayer, every message, every contribution, every act of kindness and mercy pushes back, gently but forcefully and with a meaningful resistance. As the hands and feet of Christ, we continue his earthly ministry, which he declared and stated for us in Luke 4, when he quoted again, the prophet Isaiah, 
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."
In this passage of scripture, Jesus was going around. He had made that declaration and he was getting resistance for it, but he was going around and healing everybody anyway. He was getting pushback for his mission that he declared of healing and ministry and healing the brokenhearted and all of this preaching of deliverance and all that he was standing for. But his response was compassion. He looked out across the people, and it says that when he saw that ... This is in the English Standard Version, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd."

We're like sheep, not in every respect, but in this respect, in the respect that we're like sheep in that like of being frightened and scattered by both religious and secular politicians acting like wolves to divide and conquer us. In the King James Version, it says they fainted. And here in the English Standard, it said there were harassed and helpless. The people that Jesus was looking out across and feeling compassion for were not unlike us in many ways. Consider the situation for them and how similar it is to our situation right today.

  • One way was that they, like many of us today are in our world during this pandemic, they were victims of dreaded diseases for which there was no cure or immunity. 
  • Another way, they were victims of racial injustice and institutional injustices that were instituted by the Roman government, and that were perpetuated, these injustices, by many in the religious community. 
  • Another way is they were victims of economic disparities, highlighted in the New Testament by the system of taxation personified in repentant participants like Matthew and Zacchaeus. 
Jesus' empathetic response to their unbelief and pushback against his ministry was to have compassion on them.

Unlike a lot of times when we have people that don't like what we're doing, the response sometimes is different than of Christ, but we're expected to respond as Christ responded to their pushback when he stood up for these people, when he stood up for healing and wholeness and for the liberation of those who were in prison and stood up for the oppressed. And he said that people would treat us in the same way they treated him. Of course, it hasn't been as bad for us yet for many anyway, as it was for him anywhere near, there's hardly any comparison at all.

People didn't like it when he stood up for justice, when he stood up for people, when he stood up for and stood against their oppressors. But yet his response was to have compassion on them and to teach them and to heal them. His response was to have compassion and to teach and to heal and to preach the gospel of the kingdom to them. Jesus told us to pray. Tells us to pray in a lot of different situations. But in this situation, he said, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." That's in Matthew 9:37-38 in the English Standard Version.

It's not enough just to say, we're going to pray about it. We're expected to actually pray. Another part of that is that people know that a lot of times someone will say, they'll pray for you, or they'll think about it in lieu of actually doing something that's in their power to do. When we pray, part of our prayer is the work we do to accomplish it while we're praying for it. So part of our prayer is that God will show us what our part is in the answering of that prayer, not just to say we'll pray and then go off and not even give it another thought, or just to say a prayer, but not be paying attention to what God is instructing us in that prayer.

Remember that James said, 
"The heartfelt prayer of a righteous person availeth much." 
So the prayer itself helps. Somehow in ways that we can't know, God uses our prayers as a part of the work that He is doing, the work of creation and the work of sustaining and redeeming the world. We're a part of that in our prayers. God also uses our prayers as an opportunity to communicate with us and to share with us of the changes that we need to make in our personal lives. And also God uses that opportunity to help us understand what we need to do ourselves to shape and transform the world and to bring the kingdom of God to bear in the various situations that we are a part of, and that we have voice in, that we have a vote in, or that we have opportunity and influence.

So God uses prayer to shape us. And of course, there's a lot of teaching about prayer in the Bible. There's an invitation through Isaiah where God says, "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord," to come and just spend some time with the Lord. And through that, our sins get clarified and washed away. And their guidance is opened up for us, and our relationship with God is built, and we are strengthened and given our guidance and direction.

Jesus also suggested that when we pray, we should go in a private area and really pour our hearts out to the Lord, where nobody else was around. We could just be free to talk however we wanted, and really good things worked out with God. Hear Him and speak to Him and share our thoughts together. So he says for us to go and pray, pray about these things. Not just say you'll pray about it, and not just say it to make other people feel good, but actually pray. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send laborers. 

Now, the harvest is the people who are ready to make changes in their lives.

When he looked out across, there were all these people, they were like sheep without a shepherd, they were helpless. They were hurting and they needed someone to help pull them together and guide them, and to do the work of unity and love and of resistance to oppression and the work of justice. There were people there that were ready to make a change. That's the harvest. When we look out and we see people, we see the people of our world rising up, it's because they're ready. They're ready. They're ready to make changes in their lives and in the life of the community. And we see many of those changes already going on. Sometimes at a pace that's hard to even believe, because people are ready and the people that are ready are the harvest. The Bible speaks of them in this passage, that's who Jesus is talking about.

Look at all the people that are ready right now for change, ready for transformation and reshaping of our society and of our world, and of their own personal lives and attitudes. They're ready to be a part of something new, something better, a more just, and an equitable system. They're ready to do the work that is necessary to bring that about, the work of justice. And so we pray for those in the harvest, and we pray for those that God sends out to do this work, to organizing and the preparation on the study and the actual making of the rules, changing of the laws, changing of the system and procedures and the policies.

The laborers are those who work for reform and justice and the implementation of God's peace and justice throughout society. Those are the laborers that we probably are sent. Jesus sends us as laborers into the field. And in Matthew 10:1, this is the way it's said in the Message, "He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives." Power is authority, but we're not just the authority of being told we can do something or certified with a piece of paper, but the authority along with the capability, along with in our way of looking at it in the body of Christ authority with the spiritual gifts that are necessary to actually carry out while we're authorized to do. We have that.

The Holy Spirit working within us and among us provides us with the spiritual gifts that are necessary to carry out whatever it is God is calling us to do in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves. With our authority comes the resources under the providence of God and the methods that are needed to exercise that authority. Our instructions are the same as he gave these apostles when he sent them out. The instructions are to stand against the demonic influences of injustice and oppression in whatever forms they may present themselves, racism, discrimination, exploitation, and violence, just to get started with the list, all of these ways that people find to divide people and to oppress them and to crush them, to put their knee on their neck, all the ways that people discover new ways all the time too, but yet they're the same old things, the old wine in new skins in a way.

They're the old ways just finding new ways to put people in their place and then make people feel that they're second class citizens of this world. All those ways that there are, that's what these people were encountering there. People that were sick and had no hope of health care, people that were tormented by the demons, which we often like to think of as those spiritual entities beyond our understanding or someplace in the spirit realm, but just think about how much of that demonic torment is by people who enjoy causing trouble, starting up trouble or pitting people against each other for their own gain. Dividing people in order to further their own agenda, rather than standing up for what's right and for standing against oppression or being that spring that resists and recoils against discrimination and oppression and all these various other things in whatever forms they take.

We're sent to heal, and that healing includes body, mind, spirit, and soul, includes our relationships, includes the relationships of those around us. It includes all the struggles and difficulties that people go through, that's what salvation and healing is all about, is to make the world a better place for everybody and to make each person's life and situation better in some way. Most of us don't really have a lot of ways that we can do that, but we do have some. One of them is a sacramental way by prayer and laying on of hands and anointing with oil as described in the Bible and in the liturgies and history of the church.

This is like an outward invisible sign though, of what is happening and empowering how the spirit is empowering us with the grace and the gifts to heal in more practical day by day ways. We have the outward sign. We have the things that the laying on of hands for example, is an outward sign, but it's a sign of something inward and powerful and real that is happening, to bring the answer to the prayer is the wholeness and the healing of individuals, but also of communities and societies.

So we're called and sent to do whatever we can do. First of all, to prevent harm. First do no harm. The first way to heal is to not make it worse, "do no harm," to prevent the spread of diseases or prejudices or brokenness and heartache. And then to support those who are working to bring healing. Everyone involved in providing humanitarian relief services, we support them in our prayers and by contributions that we can make wherever we can make them, whatever is practical for us in our personal situation. And support everybody and all the service industries and on the mission fields and those in Christian vocations and other religious vocations that work to bring relief and wholeness and justice and peace and harmony. And to restore where there has been disasters and to stand against oppression.

All the ways that we can support each other in preventing the spread of anything that hurts other people and where we can support each other in the building up of doing good, and building people up and making life better for people. In our heritage, we have a saying that was attributed to John Wesley about doing good and being kind to everyone whose paths we cross. 
Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can.
Another way might be the way that Isaiah put again, 
"Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God." 
Jesus sent with authority to heal and cast out the demons, and we take that in the broadest sense of the authority that God has given us in its broadest definition of healing and casting out evil. He also sent them to preach and to liberate, tell them ... This is how it says in the Message, 
"Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons." 
The kingdom of heaven is among you and within you was one of the things that Jesus used to say. And through the scriptures and through our conversations, he still says it, the kingdom of God is within you. The kingdom of God is among you. The kingdom of God, as he says, here has come unto you.

What a radical statement, because the kingdom of God is a form of government, kingdom, government, reign of Christ. We say the reign of Christ in our lives. The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven is God's law governing us. There are many types of government where we usually associate first off the geographical boundaries of different countries of the world or different states, or even our counties or whatever cities and everything. But in geographical terms, we think of our government.

But within that is also the political realm, and oftentimes that crosses all these boundaries. So we have the political government and that changes back and forth regardless of what the boundaries are. It kind of goes with the politics of the day and who's leading, and who's in charge. In our country who got elected, in some countries who took over, but we think of that government like that, or groups like that that rule either by election or by force. But government also includes our social groups, the different organizations we belong to that they have bylaws and they have rules and they have procedures as to how things are done.

Our churches, our families, all of the different ways we associate with each other and make rules to govern our behavior and our work and whatever it is that we're doing, line out the scope of what that group is doing. In many cases, the rules aren't ever even written down, we just know what they are. Or we kind of learned through experience like in our families or with our friends and everything. Thinking about it, you have some rules that guide, you know what you can do and what you can't do, you know what's expected of you. That is a form of government.

The children of Israel when they left Egypt, before they went to the promised land, there was a 40 year period there where they received the Torah through Moses, and that became their organizing document, their constitution, their law. And for those people and for that society, they were a nation. They were considered a nation, but they didn't have any geographic property. They were on the move. They were wandering in the wilderness, according to our scriptures and tradition of the Judaic tradition that they had to be in a land, but they were slaves in that land.

And so they left and they had land that was promised to live in the future, but the generation that left Egypt and was promised this land in the future, they didn't make it to that land. They just saw that and moved around. And it was their succeeding generations that entered the promised land and occupied that physical, geographical territory. But the people who were wandering in the desert were still considered a nation and they still had a law. They still had these rules and that was their government. So, however, that we're organized, that is our governing principle. That's the way we operate. That's the way we're governed.

The kingdom of heaven is a spiritual government. Jesus told Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world." We don't have a military that rises up to protect it or replace another government or anything like that. This is a spiritual kingdom. The law of this government is love. This government has as its task to work to transform this world into a reflection of the very best that heaven has to offer. I love to think about heaven. It's my favorite thing to think about. My favorite songs of the faith are songs about heaven. Now, when we all get to heaven, what a day, a glorious day that will be, and on and on. I better not start in on that because when we think about heaven, our minds go to the sweet by and by, and what is offered in the future, like the promised land that was offered to the children of Israel as they wandered in the desert.

As we wander in this life, we are comforted by the hope of heaven in the future. We're often manipulated by that, by people like I brought up in the beginning by people saying, just put up with injustice in this world, not complaining about all the ways you can get ripped off and just go ahead and take it, and then just look forward to what you're going to have in heaven. We should look forward to what we're going to have in heaven. It's a beautiful thing to think about all the beauty, all the joy that is prepared for us, and all the very best of this earth and of our relationships and of our life, all brought to its fulfillment.

All of our friendships and kinship, all of our family and friends that have gone before us for generations before, how we'll be united with them, most of them, we have never met yet. Many people that we have, and that we've loved here in the earth and they've gone on to be with the Lord and now we're going on and soon we'll be with them. And those that follow us will eventually join us there too. And we have everlasting life and we have all of these things that God promises. I love in the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, where John saw the city and that represents so much of the beauty and glory of God, just in that small little picture there of the city of new Jerusalem.

He said that the tabernacle of God is with people and God Himself shall wipe away every tear from their eye. There shall be no more tears, no more crying, no more pain, no more suffering, no more sickness, no more sin, no more death. All of those things are themselves passed away. The Lord Himself would do this, he said. And then it has all that imagery that speaks to us so eloquently. All through the Bible, another one of the great threads of the Bible is the heaven and the perfection of love and fellowship and kinship and friendship and all that we seek for. It just makes us feel so good in our hearts when we think about the glory that awaits us in the life of the world to come.

"They sing the lamb in hymns above, and we in hymns below." (Charles Wesley)
 It's all so close. It's all part of this spiritual life that God brings us into. But it's not just over yonder. It's not just some day yonder. We are expected and called and invited and encouraged and sent to make everything that we can do here as reflective of everything we dream of there as absolutely possible each day. We are invited and sent to love today, as perfectly as we can in the same ways that we envision we will love in heaven. The justice that we certainly expect there to be in heaven, we're supposed to be working on that here as well. Maybe we can't get it all done today, or even each of any one of us in our lifetime, but together we can work on making it a little closer, a little better, a little more like heaven.

And so the radical thing about Jesus preaching that the kingdom of God is present, is at hand, is that expectation that whatever governments we're a part of here are supposed to be reformed to be like the expectation and the joy and the anticipation that we have of heaven in the world to come. That didn't sit well with people back then, and it doesn't sit well with people now. People often use the Bible and religion, not the way that Jesus described here in sending people out and not the way he described in the Sermon on the Mount. But they use them as an excuse and a license to manipulate and to oppress, which is completely antithetical to everything that the Bible is about and everything Jesus and his teachings are about.

The kingdom of God is present in our hearts and minds. We speak it into new degrees of existence in our own lives when we pray, as Jesus taught us, thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven. And then the lectionary passage for this second Sunday after a Pentecost concludes with a verse that in the King James, it says, "Freely you have received, freely give." I like how Peterson translated that in the Message, "You have been treated generously, so live generously." Don't get sidetracked from your mission, the mission of Christ by greed or what James referred to as partiality toward those who have other agendas. Trust God for the resources. Don't let the cost of ministry hinder the work of the kingdom.

You've been treated generously, be generous. In the way that you minister freely, freely and generously pray and work for the up building of the kingdom of God in this life and in the life of the world to come. Generously and freely work for justice, and for the fair treatment of everybody everywhere, for equality, for good to be for everybody without any kind of limitations or without putting people in categories and then dividing them against each other. Freely work for unity and stand against evil and injustice and oppression and whatever forms they may take.

So go, we're always ... He's always saying, "Go." Go.
"And as you go, preach, saying, the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

In the all powerful name of Jesus. Amen.

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