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God and Empire

Sermon - 5/18/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 1:14-15

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God,* 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;* repent, and believe in the good news.’
 

Our family is anxiously anticipating the summer release of that sophisticated spy thriller, Get Smart, which of course is a remake of a popular TV comedy from the early 70s that made fun of the whole spy film genre like James Bond and Mission Impossible. In the latter series, both TV and the more recent movies with Tom Cruise, each episode began with a seemingly impossible assignment which ended with these words, “Your mission Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it…” I always wondered what would happen if Mr. Phelps did not choose to accept it. It would make a pretty short film. Of course he always did.

Like Mr. Phelps, Jesus is given a seemingly impossible mission: to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. Lest there is any misunderstanding, we need to be clear on what this mission of Jesus was not about. Jesus did not set out to establish a fan club nor did he show much interest in forming a cult devoted to worshipping him. He certainly did not give his life for the sake of denominational doctrines and he really was not all that big on philanthropy, though he had a lot to say about money.

He was executed for a political crime, though he turned his back on political office. He was called a teacher, but he didn’t start or belong to any school. So what then is the mission of Jesus? Mark makes very clear with the very first words spoken by Jesus in the gospel that Jesus’ first and foremost purpose was to proclaim the immediacy of God’s domain here on earth.

And please note that Jesus does not say that the Kingdom of God is going to come some day. He does not say that we will discover it in the next life. He did not come to tell people, “Take your time, there’s no hurry.” Do you hear what I am saying? Jesus did not say to those folks back then and he does not say to us folk today, “Just live anyway you want, you can straighten it all out with God later. Don’t worry, be happy!”

There are an awful lot of folk who are living precisely that way. The truth be known, we all live that way at one time or another. Thus when we really hear Jesus, especially when we hear the urgency in his voice, we are caught off guard. “The time has come,” says Jesus, “it is here, now. God’s realm is at hand, it is in our very midst.” This is the mission of Jesus, to make the Kingdom, or to use a more contemporary word, the Realm of God known and present in our world.

Ken Callahan is one of those church consultants who gets paid $1,000/day to come in and tell you what’s wrong in your church and how to fix it. From his years of studying churches across this country he has concluded that the key factor in the demise of most churches is the loss of mission. Too many congregations, he says, are overly concerned with whether or not they are growing when they should be concerned whether or not their mission is dying. Mission does not die because the church dies, rather the church dies because the mission dies. On Monday evening Marilyn Reid laid out the challenge to our elders of becoming a Global Mission Church, making our support for the incredible work being done by Disciples around the world not something that is an after thought but central to our life and work and every bit as important as our local work. It is a big challenge.

Empty Tomb, Inc, a Christian research organization, did a comprehensive study several years ago of giving and attendance patterns in 29 Protestant denominations ranging from Quakers to Seventh Day Adventists. Across the board they found downward trends prevalent in all denominations with one notable exception. That exception was this: on a whole, congregations which adopted a broad mission that extended beyond their own walls were more likely to show gains in members and giving than congregations with a narrow mission focused on their own needs.

Of course anyone who is familiar with the teachings of Jesus will not be surprised by this. “Those who save their life will lose it,” said Jesus, “and those who lose it for my sake will save it.”

Two veteran pilots from WW II met and began comparing notes of their experiences in the war. One was an American pilot, the other Japanese. They discussed the capabilities of their aircraft, the battle plans, the friends lost in action. With a proper sense of pride and accomplishment, the American related that he had flown 300 missions. The Japanese pilot lowered his head and quietly said that he had flown 50. “Fifty?” replied the American. “Fifty is good, you shouldn’t be ashamed that you only flew fifty.” “Thank you, thank you,” answered the Japanese pilot bowing his head. “But I Kamikaze pilot.”

Here is my point: Jesus does not ask us to give to this mission from what we have left over, to help when we have some spare time. This is a mission that requires commitment and dedication. Jesus asks for our all, heart, body and soul. If we are going to have that kind of commitment, we need to understand this mission of Jesus, the mission God gives to us as well. So listen up, our mission, should we choose to accept it, is no less than to continue the proclamation of Jesus, to enact the reign of God and to live it out in our midst here and now.

What does this mean? Three things:

First, it requires a different orientation from the world. Jesus begins his mission with one word: repent! Repent is much more than renouncing sin. The word literally means to turn around, to go a different direction. To repent is to turn back to God, to live a God-centered life.

Philosopher William James spoke about the difference between first hand and second hand religion. Second hand religion is when you believe what you have been told, be it from the Bible, your Sunday School teacher, your parents or preacher. Second hand religion is good, assuming you can believe your preacher! You ALL believe your preacher, right? But if we want to live in the presence of God, if we want the Reign of God to be a reality in our lives and world, second hand religion is not enough, it is never enough. Like those hand me downs from an older sibling or cousin, there comes a time when it just doesn’t fit any more.

First hand religion comes from our own religious experience. No longer do we have to believe what we learn from someone else because we have experienced it ourselves. We discover first hand religion when we have a living relationship with God, when Jesus moves from being an historical person of the first century to Lord of our lives today. In the words of Job when he meets God at the end of the story, “I heard about you from others, now I have seen you with my own eyes.” To see God with our own eyes, to hear God with our own ears, to feel God with our own heart, that is our quest. That is one of the reasons we are organizing prayer triads again, to provide people with the opportunity to experience directly the power and presence of God that often comes through prayer.

Our mission begins with God, but it does not end there. To make God the soul focus (a little pun there!) is to miss the point. Getting right with God is not the goal of our mission, it is just the beginning, the foundation.

Second then, to enact God’s reign in this mission requires us to strengthen our relationship with others. Jesus used the term “Kingdom of God”. A kingdom was the dominant political reality of his day, ours is a democracy. Both involve human relationships in a structured order. This mission is not something we do in a vacuum. It is in our relationships that the presence of God is most visible.

Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors and then illustrated that love with the story of the Good Samaritan who rescues a man left for dead along the road. I do not know if it is possible for anyone to help every single person we encounter in the ditches of life—we would likely be quickly over whelmed. But certainly there are many we can help and even need to help for our own good.

When I first came here 17 years ago, we received maybe five to ten requests for assistance in our office every week. Today we receive ten to fifteen every day. I came in after lunch a couple weeks ago and we had seven people in our office seeking assistance of one kind or another. We give out around $200 a month in gas and drug vouchers, bus tokens and tickets, utility and rent assistance and the like, hardly enough to do much good but every now and then we discover that that little bit of help can make a tremendous difference in someone’s life. Listen to this letter we received several years ago from a man who was trying to get his little brother through school without getting arrested--something no one else in his family had been able to do:

I have not found anything that can even remotely express the appreciation that I feel for you and all the other folks here at the church that have come together and helped us through these really rough times. … It looks like [my brother] may be getting straight As for the first time in his life, also neither one of us has been in any kind of trouble with the law which is also rare in my family. Within two weeks I shall get my first check from my new job. … I wouldn’t have been able to have even taken this job without your trust in me… I’ll always be in your debt for believing in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. Thank you very, very much.

I have served the last year on the United Way’s Healthy Economy/Healthy Families initiative that brings together a broad range of community leaders in business, education, banking, health care, social service, faith communities and government to strategize ways we, as a community, can be more proactive in providing more opportunities for people to improved their own lives so that they are not dependent upon charity or public assistance for their well-being. The longer I am engaged in these kind of efforts, the more it becomes abundantly clear, providing charity is not enough. No one wants to depend on charity for their well-being.

This leads me to the third element of enacting God’s reign in our midst: being advocates for the voiceless by working for economic and social justice.
We constantly see in the news how the income gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow--the rich become richer while the poor become poorer. To respond to this problem with simply more charity only continues the unhealthy dependency that leaves those at the bottom of our society at the mercy of those who control the wealth and power.

The very phrase used by Jesus to describe his mission, “Kingdom of God”, suggests a different way for running the world. In contrast to the kingdom of Caesar, the kingdom of politicians, the kingdom of free markets, and the kingdom of Wall Street, Jesus gives us a vision for the way God would run the world if given the chance. I love the way John Dominic Crossan puts it: “Kingdom of God” is the shorthand Jesus uses to say what the world would be like with God instead of Caesar on the throne, how we are called to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, not just as individuals, but as a whole society.

In this vision of Jesus the first will be last and the last first, the poor will inherit the earth, the hungry will be filled with good things, the captives will be set free, enemies will be loved, peacemakers will be blessed and wealth will be redistributed, as illustrated by the example of the tax collector Zacchaeus. Throughout his ministry Jesus is consistently the champion of the downtrodden—the blind and lame, outcasts and sinners, the ill and alienated, widows and orphans—all find in Jesus physical and emotional as well as spiritual salvation. If we want to be serious about living in the realm of God, we must provide more than charity, we must speak up against the harmful ways of the world and the injustices of society.

One positive example from the real world of politics: For a number of years I was deeply involved in the struggle of farm workers to gain the right of collective bargaining. That right has been affirmed over and over again by many church groups as an essential human right affirmed in scripture, including by the General Assembly of our own church as well as the national bodies of Catholic and most Protestant churches. Early in the first term of Governor Kulongoski, I had the opportunity to meet with his staff as part of a delegation from Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. The Governor was working on legislation to provide Oregon farm workers the same rights that non-agricultural workers had and invited us to provide input into that process.
Our message to the Governor was simply that farm workers must be given an effective voice through their chosen representative in labor negotiations, something that was then excluded in labor law for agricultural workers. The position of Ecumenical Ministries was that our failure to make that change would perpetuate the systemic racism in our society, which traps farm workers in low wage, difficult jobs with no benefits and little opportunity for advancement. As we were leaving the meeting, one of the Governor’s staff told us something I did not expect to hear in that place. Firmly shaking our hands he said, “You are really doing the Lord’s work.” I can only hope that is true in all that we do.

These three elements, reaching up to God, reaching out to others and becoming an advocate for the least of these, are the very core of our mission as followers of Jesus. To be the Community of God is to have a heart for God, hands for others and a voice for the voiceless. This is how God would rule the world, or how God would that WE rule our world.

It was on that pilgrimage in Turkey, which I took in 2003 that I first realized that the difference between this vision of Jesus for how God wants us as human beings to run this world and how it is actually run, is fundamentally a difference in how we see God present and active in the world. When Octavian defeated his opponents to end the years of war that threatened the Roman world, he simultaneously brought an end to the republic of Rome and established the beginning of the Roman Empire. To symbolize this new age, he took the name Augustus. The Roman Senate declared him the Son of God and the divine savior of the world. This was not just a lofty title, it was the fundamental belief of the Roman Empire. If you wanted to know who God was, what God was doing in the world, look no further than Augustus Caesar.

It was not accident of history, I am convinced, that Jesus was born not under the reign of Julius or Titus, but precisely Augustus when coins were stamped not with “In God we trust,” but with “Augustus, Son of God”, the only one to be trusted. When you see those ruins of the massive temples all over the Mediterranean world built to honor various gods, you realize these people took their religion very seriously. When you see “dedicated to the Divine Augustus, Son of God” etched in stone at site after site, you realize, they took Augustus very seriously. How would they see this new Son of God who had no temples, no armies, no throne? It becomes quite apparent that there was an enormous difference between how the people of that world saw the God of Augustus and how the first Christians saw the God of Jesus.
On the sabbatical I will begin next week, I propose to immerse myself in that first century world so that I might better understand those contrasting perspectives and how the message of the coming Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus would be seen by those who lived under the present Kingdom of Caesar established by Augustus. (Of course to do so, you understand the great sacrifices I’ll be making by going to Greece and Italy in order to do that!)

In so doing, I share with you a fear and a hope that I have. My fear is that, though we say all the right words, the image we have of God is not the God of Jesus, but the God of the Roman Empire. It is that image which makes us often behave not as Jesus would, but as Caesar did. My hope and reason for this sabbatical, is that when we rediscover the God of Jesus who reveals the God of empire to be the projection of our own desires for power and control, we will find there, in that moment of choosing life over death, love over hate, good over evil, ecology over economy, peace over war, we will find the coming Kingdom of God in our midst. If you do not hear the urgency in the voice of Jesus, please hear it in mine. The time has come, that Kingdom is available to us now and it has never been more needed than in this time of empire.

Our mission, should we choose to accept it good followers of Jesus, is to live out this Realm of God with our heart, our hands and voices.

It is indeed a tough mission, but if we give it our all, if we give God our all, it is not an impossible one.

 


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