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March 20: Proclaiming the Kingdom

Matthew 5:1-2a

Matthew 7:21-29

When I was a student at Duke Divinity School, studying to be a pastor, I was required to take a course on the history of the Methodist Church in America. About halfway through the semester, we had to write a research paper that explored some aspect – we could choose the topic – some aspect of the Methodist church in 19th Century America. I've been fascinated by the American Civil War since I was in elementary school, so I chose to write about the differences in how Methodist preachers in the north and the south reacted to the war.

I spent hour after hour, day after day, in the libraries at Duke. Duke's library is amazing, and the rare book room had all these old diaries and journals and sermon manuscripts from Methodist preachers – some of them were the original copies, in special protective cases – I had to sign them out one by one and wear special gloves to touch them and couldn't bring water into the room where I was reading them. Anyway, what I discovered was that, well, Methodist preachers north and south, on the whole, had just about the same reaction to the war: they thought their side was right, that the other side was wrong and – most importantly – the thought that God was on their side. There were, of course, dissenting voices – there are always people speaking out against the status quo – but, most of the time, what I found was people quoting the same passages of Scripture to make opposite points, calling for God's protection, believing that their side's cause was holy and the other side's cause was evil.

All of which is to say that they were, you know, just like most of the people around them. I remember sitting there, reading one southern Methodist preacher describing in awful detail why slavery was a good thing – why God supported slavery – and defending the evils of slavery in all its brutalism, the way it ripped families apart and treated people as property – and I remember sitting there, reading this sermon defending slavery and supporting the cause of the Confederacy specifically because, this preacher said, God wanted slavery to continue – and I remember feeling sick to my stomach. How could this be?

It should not have been, because, the thing is, the Methodists knew better. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, in the 1700s in England, when the US was just a bunch of colonies, took an early stand against slavery. He denounced it as evil. When one of his colleagues was trying to build an orphanage in Georgia and decided to use slave labor to do it, Wesley went beserk – he called what his colleague was doing evil, and said, essentially, that you can't fight against one evil by promoting another. Wesley published pamphets against slavery. He forbid Methodists from owning slaves or profiting from the slave trade – if you wanted to join the Methodist movement, among the requirements was rejecting slavery. This was in the 1740's, lest we pretend that people in America didn't know any better at the time of the Civil War.

In fact, when the Methodist movement came to America, it was very clear: slavery was forbidden for Methodists. Early on, one of the most important preachers in America was a Black Methodist, Harry Hosier. Hosier traveled with Francis Asbury, the leading bishop of American Methodism, and Asbury considered Hosier his partner – and willingly admitted that people often came to hear Asbury preach only because they knew Hosier would be preaching afterwards. The Methodist church, at its foundation in America, was committed to the equality of all people, regardless of race.

But, then, something unexpected happened. The Methodist church started growing – really fast growth, explosive growth. It started appealing to more than just the poor and the working class – all of a sudden, the rich and the powerful started being interested. And many of those people had slaves or benefitted from slavery. And so, pretty quickly, within a few years, those pesky lines about slavery being unacceptable and anti-Christian were deleted from the Methodist Church's rule book. The rulebook still required that Methodists pray every day and commit to studying their Bible, but they decided to leave out the part about slavery being evil, because it was just too inconvenient.

Or, as Jesus puts it in the passage of Scripture we read this morning, they were crying out "Lord, Lord" – doing all the religious-sounding thing – but they did not do the will of their heavenly Father – they sang hymns and studied their bibles but ignored the demands of justice.

But, of course, it's not like those southern Methodist preachers whose sermons made me sick to my stomach had a monopoly on hypocrisy. In a northern Methodist church in the late 18th century, a black man, Richard Allen, was kicked out of church because he refused to sit in the balcony – where black folks were required to sit – and instead wanted to come down close to the front of the church to pray. Hear that again: ushers forcibly removed him because he wanted to pray in an area that was reserved for white people. And so, he left and never turned back – he formed a new church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church – a church that empowered black Christians and black leaders and renounced the white supremacy that was so deeply ingrained in the white Methodist churches he knew.

And, of course, the Methodists weren't the only ones wallowing in this kind of hypocrisy. The story I told could be repeated in just about every American Christian group that existed in the 19th century. We American Christians have a bad habit of letting our American culture override our Christian commitments – and so we tend to replicate the divides of our day in our churches, we tend to take the popular sins and hatreds of our moment and find some Scripture passages that make us look right and feel holy, and pretend that whatever we want is also what God wants. It happened then, it happens now. You can find Christians defending White Supremacy, and conspiracy theories, and dangerous lies. You can find Christians on the side of dictators and would-be authoritarians, Christians supporting hatred and violence, Christians spewing anger and hatred – and then telling you about the love of God. We get it wrong, quite frequently. But, of course, it's not just Christian folks – we human beings have a real gift for deceiving ourselves, for telling ourselves that what we are doing is OK, that it's not that bad. We have a gift for saying one thing and doing another, for posting on social media or telling people about how much we care about some cause – and then doing nothing about it.

The passages we read today come from the Sermon on the Mount – the first passage we read is the very beginning of that sermon, and the second passage we read is the end of it. This sermon that Jesus preached, the Sermon on the Mount, is often understood as the heart of Jesus's ethical and moral teaching. In this sermon, Jesus presents a vision of the thing that was the very heart of his teaching: the Kingdom of God. God's Kingdom was the thing Jesus talked about more than anything else – more than having faith in him, Jesus talked about God's Kingdom – a vision of the world as it should be – with God as the true king and all of us living as citizens of that Kingdom – living God's way of love. God's Kingdom, as Jesus teaches about it, is a future vision. The Kingdom of God is the world as it should be, the would as it would be without sin – the Kingdom of God is the world as it will be, in the end, when God makes all things right. In the Kingdom of God, the haughty are cast down from their high places and the poor are lifted up. In the Kingdom of God, the hungry are fed and justice is done. In the Kingdom of God, war and violence are put to an end, death is defeated, and every tear is wiped from every eye.

The Kingdom of God, in other words, is upside-down. It takes the values of our world and turns them on their head. It judges everything – it judges us – by the standard of the cross. On the cross, Jesus – God-in-the-flesh – shows us that true power looks like weakness, true victory looks like defeat, true life looks like death. On the cross, we put God to death, and God uses our violence to bring about peace, our failure to bring about our salvation. That's what the Kingdom is like – the weak are honored, the poor are lifted up, and everything we thought we knew about how the world works is transformed into something more beautiful than we could possibly imagine.

It's a vision for the way the world should be, how the world will be in the resurrection – but it's also something that happens right now. When things are as they should be in this world, we get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. When God's people care for the outcast and love their neighbors and organize for peace and feed the hungry – when we do that, we catch a glimpse of God's kingdom, what has often been called a foretaste of the kingdom – like a little bite of an appetizer to prepare you for the main course. One pastor described our job as Christians as putting up signs that point to the Kingdom – doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God, making the world now look a little more like it will look, in the end, when God's Kingdom is fully established, when the King of Love and Life has remade this world in the image of Jesus, when God is all in all. We do our little bits now, we plant our little signs, we share grace and put love into action – and, when we do that, God's Kingdom shows up, God reveals a glimpse of the glory that is to come.

Anyway, that's what Jesus taught about. It what he calls us to. When he preaches the Sermon on the Mount, he's telling us about what it looks like to be a faithful citizen of God's Kingdom – faithful citizens of God's Kingdom are humble, and they honor the poor and brokenhearted, and they know how to put money in its proper place – in service to God – rather than allowing money to become a false God, an idol. Citizens in God's Kingdom pray with simple words rather than showy ones, and depend upon God to care for us. Citizens of God's Kingdom love more deeply than is required and offer more grace than is imaginable. Citizens of God's Kingdom, in other words, live in a way that is beautiful and powerful, multiplying life in our world, drawing other people towards God through our service and our faith and our mercy and our justice and our love. That's what it means to be a member of this new people that God is creating in Jesus.

And, so, here at the end of the Sermon on the Mount sermon, after laying out a vision for the beauty and power of God's Kingdom, of the life we are invited to live, Jesus gives us a choice. He says, in essence, that we can either build our lives on a firm foundation, or we can build our lives on sand. When the storms of life come – and they will come, they come for us all – the house that is built on sand will wash away, while the house built on the firm foundation, on the rock, will endure.

And what is the difference between those two houses? It is whether, having heard the words of Jesus, we listen to them; whether or not we choose to live as citizens of God's Kingdom in the present tense. The house built on sand is the person who cries out "Lord, Lord" but doesn't live the way of God's upside-down Kingdom. The house built on the solid rock is the person who hears these words, who sees God's Kingdom of radical, boundary-breaking love, and lives as a citizen of that Kingdom right now.

Now, hear me – and this is important – the rock isn't us, and it's not what we do. The rock is Jesus. Jesus is the firm foundation. Jesus is the one who sustains us, who holds us up when the storms of life rage. We simply choose which house to build – where to build it – will we listen to Jesus, and make our lives into something that matters, into something that lasts? Or will we be yet another Christian who adds to the stories of hypocrisy, who history will look back on and see for all we failed to do, who cries out "Lord, Lord" – singing songs and praying prayers – but ignores the work of justice and love, fails to live as a citizen of God's Kingdom?

The answer, of course, is that, at best, we're going to be a little bit of both. We are going to get it wrong. The Christians who got it wrong in the past were not all evil, they were not entirely bad – they were human beings, flawed and broken and sinful and also creatures of their time. So are we. We are not better than they were, nor are we better than those who claim the name of Jesus while shouting out words of hate and hypocrisy. Hopefully, we are doing a better job at living the way of love, but I am certain that we have our own blind spots, we have injustices we ignore and would rather not notice, ways in which we are part of the problem rather than the solution. Remember, the rock isn't us – the rock, the firm foundation on which our lives are built is Jesus Christ.

So, yeah, we are going to get it wrong some. We are going to be hypocrites, at least on occasion. We are going to cry out the name of Jesus while failing to live like he told us to live.

But that doesn't make this vision of the Kingdom any less true – or any less essential to our lives as Christians. Again, the rock is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our firm foundation. He's the one who saves us – he pours out God's love on us whether we deserve it or not, whether we are worthy of it or not. Those slavery supporting Methodist preachers, God loved them – God was against their efforts, because God is always against racism and white supremacy and sin of all kinds – but God loved them, Jesus died for them and invited them to be citizens of his Kingdom. And when they got things right, as they sometimes did – feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and the suffering – God was working through them, they were, in their flawed and limited way, showing the world glimpses of God's Kingdom. And, when folks stood up against white supremacy, and worked for true justice and true peace – when folks did that then and when folks do that now, Jesus is there, and glimpses of God's Kingdom are being revealed.

So, the point isn't that we will get it right all the time. And it's not that we need to be good enough for God to love us – God loves us regardless of what we do. The point is that Jesus has shown us a vision of something beautiful – something that's worth staking our lives on, that's worth living for – Jesus has shown us a vision of how things should be – how things could be – Jesus has shown us a vision of God's Kingdom. And he has invited us to live as if that vision is true. When we do, we are building our lives on solid rock – we are building our lives on Jesus, the true rock, the foundation of all that is. May we live in this beautiful way, may we experience glimpses of God's Kingdom, may we place signs that point to God's radical love – and may we trust that, even when we don't, Jesus is the rock, and he is making room for us in his Kingdom, no matter what.

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