We often talk about the Kingdom of God without knowing exactly what it means—or, more specifically, what Jesus meant when he said it. Brian McLaren suggests a number of alternate descriptions that may help us to grasp the core of Jesus’ teaching ministry. My favorite among those alternate descriptions is God’s sustainable society. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God, translate God’s sustainable society, is at hand or within reach. Not someday, but now—within reach. If Jesus was only talking about what heaven might be like, he would not have caused such a stir. There is an immediacy to Jesus’ teaching that seeks to disturb the status quo to such an extent that Jesus is considered dangerous by those who wield power, religious and secular. Jesus talked about real issues and proposed real solutions. He assumed that the most important of God’s laws were already written in people’s hearts. For instance, here’s a no-brainer: treat people the way that you would like to be treated. That’s found in all of the world’s religions. God has already written that on our hearts. Our conscience alerts us when we treat another person in a way we would not want to be treated. Sure, we can learn to silence our conscience, but the law has been written on our hearts.
Jesus studied the world around him, looking for signs of God’s Kingdom—where it thrived and the kinds of things that thwarted it. In much the same way that the Ten Commandments teach positive behaviors that build community and prohibit behaviors that destroy community, Jesus helped people recognize how their own behaviors revealed God’s Kingdom or prevented God’s Kingdom from thriving. He told stories about situations that the people of his time would recognize—about baking, fishing, farming, and families. The stories are open to interpretation and invite contemplation and conversation. His stories are full of common metaphors. The Kingdom of God is not a philosophical treatise, it is like a man who sews seeds, or a bush that grows from a tiny seed, or a woman who loses a coin. “Here’s a story,” Jesus says, “see what you make of it.” Parables are stories with a wealth of meaning that are designed to make us think. They woo us into a new discovery about God, about each other, and about ourselves. A woman makes bread using three bushels of flour. Say what?! A farmer decides to pay the day laborers that he hires as the end of the day the same amount that he pays the workers who started in the early morning and worked all day in the fields. Is that fair?! What’s that about?! A sower scatters seed all over the place, (seriously wasteful) and surprise! Only the seed that falls in the prepared ground produces a harvest. Discuss! Go deep inside yourself and see if you don’t already know what people need to live—not just to live, but to thrive.
We tell parables today about things we are familiar with. Some inspire us and some are cautionary tales. I grew up in the desert southwest and this is one of our parables. You may already be familiar with it. A man climbed high up in the mountains. When he neared the top, he came across a rattlesnake lying on a rock, dying from the cold. The snake begged the man to put him in his pocket so that his cold blood might warm so that the snake might live. The man said, “But you’re a snake. You might bite me.”
But the snake said, “I promise I won’t bite you if you will only save my life.”
The man relented and placed the snake in his pocket. As the man continued on his journey the snake suddenly bit him. “Why?!” the man gasped. “You promised not to bite me!”
The snake simply slithered off saying, “You knew I was a snake when you put me in your pocket.”
Didn’t you see the end of that parable coming? Jesus tells us what we already know deep in our hearts, but for unbelievable reasons we choose to ignore. We put our trust in the wrong things: markets, political systems, status, independence, our desires, the list goes on. The only thing that will create God’s sustainable society is love and just relationships. There are any number of things that will prevent God’s Kingdom from being realized.
Jesus didn’t limit his teaching to parables. He also engaged in public demonstrations as when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey or called Zacchaeus out of a tree. He engaged in an act of civil disobedience when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple. And even in his death, he revealed the brutality, horror, and senselessness of violence through his own non-violent response. Following his example, the disciplined non-violence of the civil rights marches of the 1960s revealed the ugly brutality of the violence born of racism and an unjust society.
We are once again looking at the ugliness of racism and at the growing gap between the very wealthy and the very poor. Once again we are demonizing whole groups of people because of the actions of a few. We are letting our fear cloud what we know in our hearts about how we should treat one another. The good news is that God’s sustainable society is within reach, but it demands that we actually reach out our hands. Every day we make choices on behalf of God’s Kingdom or against it. Some choices are obvious. Others require some real study and discernment. Many of us, and I’m speaking about myself first here, have stopped listening to what we know and act out of guilt, or a sense of duty, or even misplaced kindness—for instance what happens when someone tries to help a butterfly break free from its cocoon. The butterfly dies.
How do we discern whether our decisions and actions work toward or in opposition to the Kingdom of God? I think the answer lies in the wisdom of the community. In telling our stories and sharing our concerns, we can help each other listen to the law that is written in our hearts. Jesus addressed so many questions. It seems to me that there was not a one-size-fits all solution, in spite of what I said earlier about love and just relationships being the values that cause the Kingdom of God to be revealed and to thrive. What does love look like? How does it act? Is it always quick to forgive or is accountability part of the fabric of love? What creates a just relationship? Jesus didn’t answer a brotherly quarrel about how to divide an inheritance. But he did talk about how to treat a rebellious son who repents and a jealous son who harbors resentment. He did teach how to lessen and forgive real financial debts. He did propose a solution for corrupt business and religious practices—borrowing a line from a modern parable, the movie “War Game” released in 1983 about the threat of thermonuclear war, “the only winning move is not to play.” God’s sustainable society is within reach. We need to be stretching toward the goal. How do we do that?
1. We need to learn from Jesus. We need to stop looking at the Bible as a means for our personal ticket to heaven and start reading it as a way to live an abundant life together.
2. We need to talk about the issues that challenge us. I am so proud of this church for taking on some serious conversations about ministry: ministry to and with homeless and addicted persons, ministry to and with gender minorities, and ministry to and with children or teens. Did you know that we have task forces considering all of these issues? You might want to be involved in these important discernment discussions.
3. We need to listen prayerfully to God’s law written on our hearts. It astonishes me how often listening to my heart trumps my opinions, my guilt, my shoulds, and even my poor judgment. Here’s a crazy example from this week. I usually don’t take time to look at Facebook. But I was looking for a photo from my nephew on Saturday when I came across a set of photos from a party thrown by one of my colleagues and attended by many other colleagues. I wondered if I had missed the invitation if it was on Facebook. So I looked everywhere before realizing I hadn’t been invited. Then I was hurt. It took me awhile to realize that I wouldn’t have gone to the party, I just wanted to be invited. Truly, I didn’t have time to go, or want to go—I just wanted the invitation so I could choose not to go. Oh my goodness, is that true of me?! When we listen for God’s law in our hearts, we also hear our own hearts—our needs, our hopes, our fears, our confusion.
4. We need to tell our own faith stories, because God is teaching us in our stories. I learn from your stories as well as from my own.
5. Like Jesus, we need to pay attention, to notice what happens—what gives us and other life, and what drains life from us. Then we need to adjust our actions. Here’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. It’s from Ignatian spirituality. God does not work at cross purposes. If something drains life from me, it is not of God. God’s gift is abundant life. Where my bliss meets the world’s deep need is my call. Someone else will be called out of their bliss to the ministries that are not life giving to me.
Learning to live in God’s sustainable society isn’t easy. It takes some risk and involves some failure and it is best done in and with a community. It’s part of the adventure of following Jesus.