Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Not Far from God's Kingdom" (Mark 12:28-34)

It’s been a rough week in California, hasn’t it?
We had Election Day on Tuesday. Election Day is a great symbol of democracy, but it does take an emotional toll on us, even if we’re pleased with the results…
Then we had a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks. I have many relatives who live in or grew up in Thousand Oaks, and perhaps some of you do as well. Doc Rogers, who grew up here at BKCC, had been scheduled to play with his band at the Borderline Bar & Grill the day after the shooting.
And then of course we have the fires. 100s of thousands are evacuated. Many have lost their homes, and more than a few have died. First Christian Church in Paradise, a Disciples congregation I’ve visited several times, burned to the ground, along with the homes of many of its members. Possibly you know people who have been evacuated, or who have lost their homes.
It’s been a rough week. We’ve all been affected by these events to some extent, and we will lift up those more directly affected in our time of prayer.
I’ll say a little more about this shortly, but now I invite you to turn your attention to our scripture story. The setting is the temple courtyard, a noisy, bustling place, with all sorts of people meeting, gathering, and passing through. Folks on their way to present their offerings. Merchants selling items suitable for those offerings, and moneychangers exchanging Roman currency for acceptable temple currency.
Some had gathered to discuss issues of religion or politics; sometimes these discussions turned into friendly debates, or not-so-friendly disputes.
A certain scribe walking through the temple courtyard overheard one of these disputes. Some Sadducees and Pharisees were challenging a man named Jesus of Nazareth over some issue. Although Jesus was somewhat of an outsider, being from Galilee, the scribe was impressed with how he answered the questions. He sounded like someone who really knew what he was talking about, although many of his answers were unexpected, and some seemed to go against Caesar and the kingdom of Rome.
This made the scribe nervous.
The scribe decided to test Jesus. He wanted to know if Jesus was for real, if he really had the authority that he appeared to have, or if he was just kind of faking it.
The scribe decided to test Jesus with what he thought was the ultimate question, the question to end all questions:
“Which commandment is the first of all?”
Jesus turned and looked at the scribe. Since he was a scribe - one who makes copies by hand of the ancient law, and one who interprets the ancient law - then he (because he was a scribe) should have already known the answer to the question he was asking.
It would be like my auto mechanic asking me how many turns to tighten the oil filter on my 2010 Toyota Corolla. It would be like Clayton Kershaw asking me to explain the infield fly rule. The one asking the question should already know the answer.
And probably, the scribe did know the answer. But he asked Jesus to test him, so he could make a judgment of him, and decide whether or not he was legit.
“Which commandment is the first of all?”
Jesus looked at the scribe, and replied: ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one…”
Shema yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad.
This declaration is the beginning of the Shema, which appears in the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy. The Shema is among the best-known, most-recited phrases in all of Jewish liturgy, and the most essential declaration of the Jewish faith.
Shema yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”
According to Deuteronomy, the words of the Shema are to be recited day and night, when you rise, and when you go to bed. They are to be taught to your children. You are to bind them as a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead. You are to inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
After saying this, Jesus went one step further. Having answered what the first commandment is, Jesus then said that the second commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It makes sense that this is the second commandment. From our recent study of James we learned that one cannot really love God without loving one’s neighbor. If you say you love God, but you do not love the person you see in front of you, then you don’t really love God. But if you do love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, then it goes without saying that you will also love your neighbor as yourself.
The scribe couldn’t help but be impressed by Jesus’ words. Jesus spoke with authority, and he was true to Jewish teaching. There was no way to argue with what Jesus said.
So the scribe said to Jesus: “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and besides him there is no other; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.”
Keep in mind that he said this in the temple courtyard even as people were walking past with their burnt-offerings and sacrifices! An entire temple economy was built around burnt-offerings and sacrifices, and this economic activity was taking place all around them, yet the scribe agreed with Jesus that burnt-offerings and sacrifices weren’t as important as loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. He agreed, and he said it out loud. That was a very bold and daring thing to say in the temple.
Even Jesus was impressed. Jesus said to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Was that a compliment? It sounds like it.
Then again, “You’re not far from the kingdom of God” could imply that one is not yet in the kingdom of God, which makes it sound almost like an insult.
Or maybe it was a threat.  In the kingdom of Rome, to be associated with any other kingdom was dangerous, to say the least. It was dangerous to talk about the kingdom of God as a distinct, separate kingdom outside of the realm of the Roman Empire.
Or, maybe I'm just reading too much into this. Maybe it's just a statement of fact, spoken with no prejudice and no hidden implication.
However Jesus intended it, it is clear that the kingdom of God was always on his mind. In Mark’s gospel, the very first words Jesus spoke are: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
Here it comes! God’s kingdom is now arriving!
The kingdom of God is the world God wants. And the world God wants is a world in which all people are cared for.
In the kingdom of God, power is used to help the less fortunate, the poor, the needy. Strength is given to the vulnerable, and those at the top use their position to help those at the bottom. There is an even-ing out of the social hierarchy.
It is made plain by reading the Bible, from the books of Moses, to the writings of the prophets, to the teachings of Jesus, that this is what the kingdom of God is about.
The Bible says that in the kingdom of God, special attention is given to orphans and widows. In biblical times, orphans and widows were extremely vulnerable to all sorts of calamities. Legal standing and recognition went to adult men, so orphans and widows lacked legal recognition. They lacked the ability to control their own finances, their own property, their own wealth. Only an adult male could do that. That’s why scripture lifts up the plight of orphans and widows so often.
It is this kingdom, in which everyone cares for one another and shows love to one another, and where no one lives in fear, that Jesus says is not far from us.
And yet, it often seems that this ideal world is actually very far from us. We don't seem to be anywhere near God's kingdom.
Widows and orphans needed protection because they lacked legal status.  We know that, today, people's rights are under attack. The rights of transgender people are under attack. The Trump administration is literally trying to legislate them out of existence.
We know that some of the most vulnerable people in the world are immigrants and refugees. They are fleeing danger and violence, trying to find a place where they can simply live. Because they are vulnerable, because they are desperate, they find a special welcome in the kingdom of God.
But today's news headlines are enough to tell us that this world is not the kingdom of God. This world is not the world God wants.
In the kingdom of God there is no war. How can any nation go to war against another if we truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves?
It was exactly one hundred years ago today - November 11, 1918 - that World War I officially came to an end. It was “the war to end all wars.”
Well, what happened? We’ve had so many wars since. So many deaths, so much violence.
In the kingdom of God, swords are beaten into plowshares. Guns are melted down and remade into garden tools. Instead of taking life, they are made into tools that are used to sustain and nurture life.
In the kingdom of God, young people enjoying a night with friends at a bar listening to country music are able to return home, return to school, return to their families, instead of being gunned down in yet another mass shooting.  In the kingdom of God, legislators care about people more than they care about the radical gun lobby that funds their campaigns.
In the kingdom of God, people are able to live in their homes, and feel safe and protected. Climate change is threatening our safety, it is contributing to increasingly devastating wildfires, and our leaders are not taking this threat seriously. Homes are burning. Lives are being destroyed.
This world is not the kingdom of God. This world is not the world God wants. That's true today, and it was true during the Roman Empire.
And yet, Jesus said that the kingdom of God is at hand. The kingdom of God has come near. The kingdom of God is NOT far away from ANY of us.
How can that be? How can the world God wants be so near to us, when it seems so very far away?

In the gospel of Luke, there is a story of some Pharisees coming up to Jesus and asking about the kingdom of God. They wanted to know: “When is God’s kingdom coming?” They had been waiting for a long time for God’s kingdom to come.
Generation after generation had been waiting… waiting for a messiah who would bring God’s kingdom to fruition. Waiting for an end to oppression. Waiting for an end to death.
Now, with the Roman Empire in control, it seemed to them that God’s kingdom was further away than ever. They wanted to know: how much longer would they have to wait?
Jesus said, “Don’t you see? God’s kingdom is already among you. It is among you. It is within you. It is already present.
You can live in God’s kingdom whenever you choose.
It sounds too easy… but this is how you can choose to live in God’s kingdom now:
By loving your neighbor as yourself.
By comforting those who mourn.
By defending the rights of transgender persons and all those whose rights are threatened.
By always seeking peaceful, win-win resolutions in each and every conflict.
By actively working to overcome racism and prejudice.
By welcoming strangers, refugees, immigrants...and also by welcoming voters with cookies and coffee.
By visiting with those going through rough times, letting them know that whatever they're going through, they aren't going through it alone...just like all those who are reaching out to fire victims, offering meals, clothing, shelter...
By finding the peace within yourself: breathing deeply, walking in nature, spending time in prayer and meditation… whatever it takes to center yourself in God, to hold on to God, so that God’s peace will overflow in you and reach through you to those around you. Find that peace for yourself, and you can be a foundation of peace for others in these difficult times.
A person whose heart is centered on God has a powerful effect on those around them. In the presence of such a person, one feels a calm peace. If you can find that center, that focus, you can be that person for others.
And the kingdom of God will be present in your midst.
It takes a lot of practice, a lot of discipline, to reach that point.
But here’s a good place to start; if you want to find God’s kingdom, start by doing this...
Spend a few moments, take a few breaths, and say to yourself:
“Hear this, O my soul, and know that the Lord our God, the Lord is one…
In fact, repeat this after me:
The Lord our God, the Lord is one…
And I will love the Lord my God…
With all my heart...
With all my soul...
With all my mind...
With all my strength...
And I will love my neighbor as myself.