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Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Kingdom is Near

Pentecost 6C, 2010

2 Kings 5:1-14

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Once upon a time, as all good stories begin, there was a rooster who believed that his crowing made the sun rise. Every morning while it was still dark, he would emerge from his coop, face the east, and begin to crow. Sure enough, the sky would begin to grow lighter and lighter, and sooner or later, the sun would raise its fiery orb over the horizon, answering the rooster’s call. The rooster was very proud of his work, and made sure that everyone else in the barnyard knew the full extent of his power.

The other animals tried to explain to the rooster that the sun rose quite independently from his crowing, but the rooster would have none of it. Finally, the other animals hatched – pun intended – a plan to teach the rooster a lesson. One night they threw a party, and made sure the rooster stayed up late into the night. Finally, exhausted, the rooster collapsed in his nest, and slept through the sunrise.

When the rooster finally woke around noon, he was devastated to see that the sun had risen without his crowing. “What’s the use of living?” he asked. “I have no purpose at all. It makes no difference whether I crow or not.” And the rooster settled into a deep depression.

The next morning the rooster slept in. The sun rose on its own. But the farmer and all the barnyard animals slept through their morning chores as well. The rhythm of the whole farm was upset. “Rooster,” exclaimed the hen, “you have to get up and crow in the morning!”

“Why?” replied the rooster. “The sun will come up on its own without me. I’m useless. I have no purpose in life.”

“Not so,” answered the hen. “You may not make the sun come up, but you let everyone else know it’s coming. We need you to wake us up every day, so we can do everything we need to do. We need you to do your job, so we can do ours!”

The rooster lifted his head, puffed out his breast, and let loose with a full cry. And the next morning, and every morning afterwards, he rose while it was still dark, and let the whole farm know that their day was beginning.

Jesus sent his disciples, like roosters, into the towns and villages ahead of him, to announce that the Kingdom of God had come near to them. The Kingdom of God – the reign of God’s justice, love, compassion, and mercy – was breaking upon the world like the sun rising in the morning. It was a new day, and now people were to live in the light of God’s presence with them.

When you enter a new place, Jesus said, greet the people in peace. Stay there, eat what is set before you, cure the sick, and announce that the Kingdom of God has come near. The disciples are the sign of the Kingdom, announcing peace, enabling healing, and pointing to the Messiah who is just over the horizon. By the way, in the passage the disciples are suddenly not twelve but seventy. We know there were an inner twelve, but there were many more people following Jesus than just Peter, Andrew, James, John, the Marys, and the other folks whose names we know. Jesus puts the whole bunch to work. Church, do you get the message? It’s not just the Church Council who is called to ministry. But seventy, in the Bible, means everyone. In Genesis chapter 10, there’s a list of all the nations of the earth. Guess how many are in the list? Seventy. So Luke is pointing to the ministry of all who follow Jesus: to proclaim peace, heal the sick, receive what we are given, and announce the Kingdom of God.

But Jesus, ever the realist, knew that not everyone would believe this was good news. Not everyone loves the sunrise. Not everyone loves the light. Preachers know that not everyone loves the new guy. We are all Virginians. You know the joke: how many Virginians does it take to change a light bulb? Ten. One to change the bulb, and nine to talk about how much better the old one was. Jesus knew there would be people who did not welcome the good news. So, he told the disciples, when you go to a town and people throw you out, shake the dust off your sandals and leave, but know this: the Kingdom is coming anyhow.

So, the message to those who receive the good news and to those who reject it is exactly the same: The Kingdom of God has come near to you. Near does not mean close but not yet. All of Jesus’ preaching, beginning in the synagogue in Nazareth, is that the Kingdom is here. At hand. Where is your hand? Attached to your body. Jesus is the sign that God now lives in the midst of his people, and the healings and miracles are proof that the sun has risen on a world that loves darkness.

So, if the Kingdom has come near to both those who receive the light, and to those who reject it, what does that mean for roosters like us? We Christians really are roosters, you know. Havre you heard the story about the statue of Jesus in the square of a European town, whose hands were destroyed during World War II? They decided not to replace Jesus’ hands, and put plaque on the base of the statue reading, Jesus has no hands but our hands. It’s a great story, worthy of the rooster – God can’t get any work done without us. There’s just one problem: the story isn’t true. There is no such statue. And that’s a good thing, because God is at work with us and without us. Whether we believe it or proclaim it, the Kingdom of God has come near. That’s pretty humbling, isn’t it?

But it’s also freeing. Knowing that the presence of the Kingdom doesn’t depend on our success means that we can do what God has called us to do and go where God has called us to go with joyful abandon. We are free to fail, free to be ridiculous, free to be fools for Christ, as St. Paul said to the Corinthians. We go where Jesus sends us, receive what Jesus gives us, heal the lives sick with despair and loneliness and grief, and announce that the sun is rising.

One of my favorite and most influential teachers in college was David Baily Harned, who taught Religious Studies. In a book called The Ambiguity of Religion, Harned gave a definition of the church that has stayed with me all my ministry. As I come to be your pastor, you need to hear what I believe our job together is. Harned said:

The church does not have a mission, the church is a mission; it is constituted by its missionary task. This task is absolutely inclusive, directed toward all people, no matter whether they are insiders or outsiders, yet with a particular bias toward the outsider. . . What is this mission? First it is not primarily to convert the nations. The world does not exist for the sake of the church, the church exists for the sake of the world. The world is not to be transformed into a church; it is to be liberated as a world. Secondly, it is not primarily to serve the nations. The church is not simply one more community agency, distinguished by its less efficient administration and more exalted name. The mission of the church . . . is the task of interpretation. Its business is to point out the idols in the marketplace and in the land in which it dwells, and to point toward the particular times and places where God is at work freeing the slaves. Its business is to open the deaf ears and the blind eyes – and not least of all its own.[1]

You and I are roosters. We don’t make the sun of God’s Kingdom rise. Jesus did that for us, and we gather here every week to praise him for it. We gather every week to thank God that it’s not up to us, because if it were, it would still be dark. But what we do is shout from the rooftops that God’s sun is rising upon all the world; that those who insist on living in darkness are liars; that there is healing for mind and heart and body in the power of God’s grace; and that nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Brothers and sisters, if we’re clear on that task, then there’s nothing that you and I can’t do together for God for a very long time to come.

[1] Harned, David Baily, The Ambiguity of Religion, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1968, pp. 79-80

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