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A sermon by Kevin Carson for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on August 24, 2008

Building the Kingdom

A few months ago, I was asked to speak about the Green Sanctuary program at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. If you ever have the opportunity to visit that beautiful gothic style church built in the early 1900s, you’ll be impressed by the magnificent stained glass windows in the sanctuary. They were designed by the American impressionist painter Robert Reid, and on the back wall, directly opposite the pulpit, there is a trio of windows that depict Jesus in flowing white robes with his arm outstretched, flanked on each side by kneeling disciples.

And this is no ordinary-sized Jesus either—I would guess the larger-than-life figure is some 10 or 12 feet tall. I must admit that I felt a little intimidated speaking from the pulpit with such a powerful image staring back at me. I am thankful this morning that we have no such image in the back of our sanctuary, as I speak to you about the Kingdom of God and presume to suggest what Jesus really meant by all this talk about "the kingdom."

Beyond the intimidation factor, I also mention these images to help illustrate the point that until about the last fifty years of our movement, the Judeo-Christian idea of the kingdom of God remained an integral part of our theology, and the idea of "building the kingdom" provided a powerful motivation for social justice work.

Even if it is rare to hear a sermon on the Kingdom of God in a UU church today, I suggest that "kingdom theology" still resonates in our Seven Principles when we talk about "the inherent worth and dignity of every person"; "justice, equity and compassion"; "peace, liberty and justice for all"; and "the interdependent web of all existence." The values are still there, but I fear we may have lost something in translation by moving away from the metaphor of the kingdom.

To understand what is missing, we need to understand what Jesus meant by the kingdom and see how that might translate into our postmodern world.

I believe religious liberals were too quick to cede the language of the kingdom to those who either equate the kingdom with "heaven," or hold a more apocalyptic vision of some supernatural future time, when God Almighty reigns over the righteous true believers, and the rest of humanity is condemned to persecution and ultimate annihilation. This is not the kingdom that Jesus speaks of in the parables, nor is it a kingdom that many Unitarian Universalists would ever wish to build.

Before I go any further, I think it is important to look at the word "kingdom" as it is used in Christian scriptures and whether it is even appropriate for us to use this term today.

When the scholars of the Jesus Seminar wrestled with the translation of the numerous kingdom sayings attributed to Jesus, they decided that the best translation of the original Greek word basileia would be "imperial rule" rather than "kingdom." The Greek root connotes the act of ruling, as well as power and dominion. For anyone listening to Jesus in first century Palestine, a phrase connoting "God’s imperial rule" or "Heaven’s imperial rule" would have been immediately recognized as the opposite of "Rome’s imperial rule." Oppression under the heel of Roman occupation was the status quo.

While I appreciate the nuance of "imperial rule," I prefer the term kingdom because I feel it has a more positive connotation to the modern ear. For those of us who grew up on the Star Wars films and lived through the Reagan years, the term "empire" seems to carry with it an implicit prefix of "evil." Kingdoms, on the other hand, can be magic, animal, or even peaceable.

I also believe "kingdom" is one of those bridging words that can help reach across ecumenical boundaries with a common language of reverence.

If your egalitarian, democratic ears still revolt when you hear the word kingdom, perhaps you should adopt the phrase preferred by the seventeenth century religious reformer Gerrard Winstanley: the Republic of Heaven.

The idea of a coming Messianic Age when, as we sang in our last hymn, "justice shall roll down like waters and peace like an ever flowing stream," was a common belief among Jews, including Jesus, in the first century. Certainly, there were different ideas about what such an age must look like, with some looking for a more militant solution to the Roman problem than others.

John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul, and most of the early Christian movement seem to have believed in some apocalyptic end times that would soon come to pass.

For example, writing shortly after the Romans had crushed an unsuccessful rebellion and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the author of the gospel of Mark has Jesus predict the events he has just lived through and ends with an apocalyptic message of hope:
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. (31)Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Mark 13:30-31 NRSV)
Mark tried to comfort his early Christian audience with a message that things will get better for them soon, but there is little chance Jesus actually said any of these passages.

It is very possible that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist initially, but that doesn’t mean he shared John’s apocalyptic vision later on. Many scholars suspect, as I do, that Jesus awakened to a new vision of the kingdom, and that is precisely why he parted ways with John and his followers.

But what did Jesus mean by "Kingdom of Heaven" or "God’s imperial rule"?

The gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were written during the last decades of the first century, some thirty to sixty years after Jesus was crucified, and their authors were more concerned with their own agenda for explaining who Jesus was than they were about documenting the historical facts of his deeds and sayings.

Nevertheless, in the parables scattered throughout these canonical gospels, as well as those in the gospel of Thomas, we see a recurring theme where Jesus is asked about the kingdom and responds with metaphorical language that seems elusive and filled with hidden meaning to our modern ears. To a first century Palestinian Jew, some of the responses would have been downright shocking.

Consider the parable of the leaven for example. This parable is found in slightly different forms in the canonical gospels of Matthew and Luke as well as the gospel of Thomas. The version in Luke was the one I read earlier, so let’s look at this in more detail.
What does God’s imperial rule remind me of? It is like leaven that a woman took and concealed in three measures of flour until it was all leavened. (Luke 13:20-21, Scholars Version modified)
So... God’s imperial rule is like leaven, that is to say "yeast" or more accurately, something like a sourdough bread starter. To a Jewish audience, leaven represented corruption and impurity. There are several examples in the New Testament where leaven is used as a metaphor precisely because of its negative connotations.

As the proverb goes, "a little leaven leavens the whole lump." A more contemporary equivalent would be, "one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel."

Continuing on, we have "that a woman took and concealed" ... further shock ... "in three measures of flour." At this point, the audience would have immediately recognized the allusion to the story of Isaac’s birth in Genesis 18, when three angels visit Abraham, and to feed them, Sarah prepares cakes made from three measures of flour (which incidentally is about 50 lbs ... enough to feed many people). This is no accidental amount—it connotes the presence of the holy or sacred.

Finally, we get to the real shocker: "until it was all leavened." In short, as a good teacher in the Jewish Wisdom Tradition, Jesus has flip-flopped the sacred and the profane in the parable by saying the kingdom of God is like corruption that mixes with the sacred until all is corrupt. What is he saying?

Ultimately, the meaning of a parable is left for the listener to work out. My take on this parable is that in the kingdom, the sacred or good permeates the world to the point that the sacred and the profane become indistinguishable.

The parable of the mustard seed is another excellent example. The version in Thomas 20 reads:
The disciples said to Jesus, "Tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like."

He said to them, "It is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. But when it falls on tilled soil, it produces a great plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky." (Thomas 20:1-2 Scholars Version)
In this parable, Jesus uses the ironic image of smallness instead of greatness in his choice of plants—mustard bushes were a weed that any peasant would know about. The "shelter for the birds" is a play on a passage in Ezekiel where Israel is compared to the great cedar. The kingdom here proliferates like a weed from the smallest seed. I believe Jesus’ vision of the kingdom lies entirely within this secular world and has nothing whatsoever to do with concepts of "end times" or heaven. Furthermore, it is small acts of justice that ripple through the human community that ground this kingdom theology. Concepts like the nature of God, the divinity of Jesus, or any beliefs necessary for salvation are simply irrelevant.

I have little doubt that Jesus held traditional beliefs about God that were consistent with other first century Jews, but that is not important to the kingdom. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now.

The kingdom that Jesus describes is already here, within us and among us, but this is not some utopian denial of the realities of the world we live in.

Apocalyptic views of the kingdom are world-negating and stress imminent divine intervention. They also allow for easy absolution of responsibility and short-term thinking.

Reagan’s infamous Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, was a firm believer that the end was near. In an interview about his approach to managing our natural resources, he once quipped: "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns."

What kingdom theology stresses is divine imitation: we must act. We, not God, are the agents of change that can bring about the kingdom.

This simple idea has provided the spiritual drive for abolitionists, Social Gospelers, Civil Rights advocates, and reformers of all kinds, and I believe it could drive our social justice efforts today.

As religious liberals, we have a special mission to challenge the status quo and embrace tolerance, peace, sustainability, reason, and other virtues that are threatened by ignorance and greed, even if this path requires personal sacrifice and peril. We need a metaphor like the kingdom to sustain us.

The kingdom we are called to build is the kingdom of our highest values and aspirations in opposition to the rule of corporate imperialism, environmental destruction, human degradation, and unrestrained consumerism.

For two thousand years, theologians have been arguing about whether the kingdom was within us, among us, or a future that is yet to be realized. Paradoxically, I suggest it is all three.

The kingdom is within us when we awaken to our full humanity and embody the principles we cherish—when we choose to "live deliberately."

The kingdom is among us when we struggle for social justice and refuse to say, "it is enough."

The kingdom is before us as a constant enabling dream that beckons us onward even though we know we will never achieve it.

Peace be with you.