Lord’s Prayer Series, part 2
In the early days of Late Night with David Letterman, back when it was on NBC, back when I was in college and seminary, back before any of you students were even born – that’s how long ago it was – Dave would sometimes do a segment called “Brush With Greatness.” Audience members would share a real-life encounter they had had with a celebrity. It was weird because for 95% of these people, talking to Dave would be a far greater Brush With Greatness than whatever story they had to tell, but that’s the way it went. People would tell their story and then Dave would give them a gift certificate for dinner in New York City or a canned ham or some other fabulous gift.
To be honest, most of my brushes with greatness have not been all that great. What does come to mind is that several years ago, a number of us from First Baptist attended the New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta – the idea was to bring together Baptists of all different sorts, different conventions and conferences, different races, different theologies, from all over North America. It was a great gathering, and there were several well-known Baptists who spoke in different sessions. One session was running pretty long and I decided to head for the rest room. There were a bunch of big guys in suits standing around the door – I didn’t pay that much attention because a lot of people were wearing suits – but I went in, and there was Bill Clinton in the men’s room.
Other than seeing a Disney Network teen star, I don’t even remember who it was, when we went to see the Hollywood Walk of Fame, that’s about it for my brushes with greatness.
If you think back on your own brushes with greatness – your encounters with famous people, celebrities, and so forth – I wonder: has anybody here ever met a king or queen?
What kings are we even familiar with? There is King James – LeBron James of the Miami Heat. I sometimes drive by a little hole-in-the wall restaurant near the corner of Merle Hay and Hickman Road in Des Moines, maybe you have been there – George the Chili King. I remember King Friday the 13th on Mister Rogers Neighborhood. And, oh yeah, of course, there is Burger King.
That’s about it. The British, of course, have a lot more experience with royalty and an actual ruling monarch, but even then, it ain’t what it used to be. The power of modern kings and queens is severely limited compared to the olden days.
We are not personally familiar with kings and kingdoms, certainly nothing like the kingdoms Jesus knew, and it can be hard for us to translate Biblical ideas into our day when they are based on metaphors we don’t really understand.
This is not just a minor issue, because the main idea that Jesus spoke of and preached about and taught over and over was the Kingdom of God. In Mark’s gospel, for example, Jesus’ very first words are: “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the Good News.”
We hear of the Kingdom of God and sometimes think of something very ephemeral and spiritual, something other-worldly. Last week, when we talked about hallowing God’s name, taking God seriously, we noted that the ancient Hebrews were very cautious about speaking God’s name. And so Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” rather than “kingdom of God,” simply because writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, he didn’t want to offend by overusing the word God. “Kingdom of Heaven” meant the same as “Kingdom of God,” without having to actually use God’s name. But we hear Kingdom of Heaven, and this adds to our thought that what Jesus is talking about is a future life with God, after we die, in another world.
But when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it is clear that we are praying for something here and now. As John Dominic Crossan said, “Heaven’s in great shape; earth is where the problems are.” We are praying for God’s ways of living and being and relating to be the way things are done here and now, in this world.
The idea of the kingdom of God had real meaning, real appeal, because folks knew what it was to live under earthly kings, and 90% of the time it was not pretty.
Most of us have no experience with monarchs, and the minority that have perhaps lived in a country with a king or queen have not experienced the kind of despotism and absolute power that was once characteristic of most rulers.
Henry VIII stripped a man of his lands and his title for laughing at the wrong time. Louis XIV of France imprisoned a man for life – because he didn’t like the way he looked. Tamerlane, the Mongol ruler, destroyed entire cities and made huge pyramids of the inhabitants’ skulls. The worst part is that this kind of stuff was common.
The Hebrews suffered through a succession of lousy kings, each seemingly worse, more corrupt and blasphemous and arbitrary and inept than the one before. The Hebrews came to look back longingly and nostalgically to the reign of King David. David wasn’t perfect, far from it, but at least he had some integrity. At least his heart was in the right place. Deep down, he was in it for the good of the nation, not for his own personal gain. He was known, after all, as a man after God’s own heart.
David was more and more idealized and was identified with a coming messiah, one who would bring in a kingdom of justice and righteousness. This kind of longing is found all over the place in the prophets, including our reading from Jeremiah:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.God spoke through the prophets and promised a righteous king, a coming messiah in the line of David. What the people really wanted, most of all, was for God to be king, for the kingdom of God to replace the kingdoms of this world. As John Killinger puts it, when we pray “thy kingdom come,” we are praying for the antistructures of God to replace the structures of this world.
In other words, God’s kingdom would mean the opposite of the way things are. The world would be turned upside down and all of those things that are wrong would be made right.
If the world was built on the antistructures of God rather than the structures of this world, what would it look like?
In Luke chapter 4 we read about Jesus’ inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue. He read from Isaiah,
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,What he is talking about is the kingdom of God.
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
Susan and I went to the Theologian in Residence program at the UCC church yesterday. The speaker was Gary Dorrien, who gave a historical perspective on the progressive theological tradition in the United States. The first session was about the Social Gospel movement, and largely about Walter Rauschenbusch.
Rauschenbusch was a German Baptist who served a church in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York City. He later taught at Rochester Seminary and is a kind of American Baptist hero for a lot of people.
Anyway, Rauschenbusch served in this neighborhood filled with need and poverty and squalor. He came in preaching personal conversion, but his experience taught him that personal salvation was not enough. Particularly the experience of again and again officiating at the funerals of children convinced him that social action and social justice was an indispensable part of Christian faith. He turned to scripture and found that Jesus’ central teaching was the Kingdom of God. Jesus said very little about the church but an awful lot about the Kingdom of God.
Rauschenbusch believed that salvation was both personal and social, and that Christianity is to transform the structures of society toward justice. The Kingdom of God on earth is not just a collection of individual Christians, it means a just and peaceful and fair and society. And this kingdom is not just a part of Jesus’ teaching, not just a minor point, it’s not just the caboose, but it is the central idea.
In God’s kingdom, everyone has enough and the bounty of the earth is shared by all. No one is put down or disadvantaged because they are poor or lack education or because of the color of their skin or where their family came from. No one faces a tough road because they are too young or too old, or because they are gay or because they are single or because they are female. The courts and justice system are fair to everyone. The weak and vulnerable are protected. Children are valued. Those with power don’t game the system or profit through corruption. People are not driven by mass consumption and consumerism and greed and the pursuit of power.
In God’s kingdom, conflict is settled peacefully, the streets are safe and wars are a thing of the past. The earth and all creation is valued and protected. Compassion and kindness are values shared by all and people look to God for wisdom and strength.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying for things to be radically changed. In heaven, presumably, everybody does God’s will. This is obviously not the case on earth. None of us, even when we have the best of intentions, carry out God’s will perfectly. To pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven is to pray for things to be changed dramatically. The thing is – this includes us.
I don’t think it is possible to truly pray for God’s kingdom to come and yet not lift a finger towards that end. We cannot genuinely pray this prayer and do nothing at all to help it come to pass.
I mentioned that Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement focused on the Kingdom of God. It was interesting yesterday to hear Gary Dorrien talk about Reinhold Niebuhr, the leading theologian of the next generation. Niebuhr was a Christian Realist who thought that Rauschenbusch and his ilk were too romantic, too idealistic. Their hopes for God’s kingdom on earth were weak-minded dreaming. In fact, thinking of the Social Gospel folks, Niebuhr said, “Forget the Kingdom of God. It is wildly naïve, it’s not realistic, and I wish the words Kingdom of God were never even in the Bible.”
Niebuhr may have stated things a bit strongly to make a point, but you can see why a person would. And that’s the issue for us: are we just kind of winking at each other when we talk about God’s kingdom on earth? Did Jesus really mean all of this, or is this just an impossible ideal? Or maybe more to the point for us, can we just go back to worrying about ourselves and not have to be concerned with doing God’s will in our world?
Well, Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom might be helpful. He said that the kingdom was like a mustard seed – the tiniest of seeds, you can barely even see it, but it grows in to this great bush in which birds build their nests. Or it is like a woman putting a little yeast in the dough – just a small amount leavens the whole loaf. And he said, “the kingdom of God is among you.”
If Jesus is to be believed, the Kingdom is here – not fully, to be sure, but it is here among us – maybe like a mustard seed. And we see glimpses of it, if we will open our eyes.
In his book Praying Like Jesus, James Mulholland writes that after he graduated from high school, he wondered what he should do with his life. He said, “I went to my father and asked, ‘Should I become an actor, a writer, a counselor, or a teacher?’”
His father answered, “I’m not concerned about what you do. I care about who you become.”
Mulholland wrote, “I didn’t like his answer back then, but I have grown to appreciate its wisdom. I think God shares this attitude. God is less concerned about the specifics of our lives and more interested in the kind of people we become.”
Reading the Bible, you get the feeling that God really doesn’t care how much money we have, or where we live, or the clothes we wear, or what cars we drive, or the degrees we have earned. But God does care about the kind of people we are becoming.
Are we compassionate?These are the kind of questions that the kingdom asks of us. And to the extent we see these actions in our world, in our friends, in our church, in ourselves, we are seeing glimpses of the kingdom. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that these glimpses might grow and become the way things are.
Are we caring?
Are we loving?
Are we forgiving?
Do we share with the poor?
Are we more interested in others than ourselves?
Do we work for peace?
Do we advocate for the homeless and the abused?
Do we advocate for the weak and the vulnerable?
Do we speak words of healing and encouragement?
Do we truly seek the common good, what is best for all?
Are we willing to take risks for the sake of what is just and good and right?
Is life about us or is it about God’s will being manifested in us and through us?
We are only a couple of weeks into it, but it is already clear that this prayer that Jesus taught is a revolutionary prayer. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come – you will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Amen.