Sermon for Sunday, December 21st, 2014 || Advent 4A || 2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16; Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 26-38 || Dr. John Whiteside, Director of Music Ministries
At Thanksgiving a few weeks ago, my son David opened the dinner conversation, after we said the blessing, with a statement: “You do know that the land we are sitting on was stolen from the Wampanoag Indians.”
As you can imagine, there was a rather pregnant silence and finally one friend spoke up and said, “Well, OK then. Will you pass the gravy?”
David did not know that his question was directly related to the Kingdom of God.
We have been hearing a lot about the Kingdom of God during Advent. A few weeks ago we heard John the Baptist, quoting Isaiah, proclaim that we need to make straight the way of the Lord, and warning that there was one who would follow who baptizes not with water, but with fire.
Before you think too harshly of my son’s words remember that John the Baptist himself was not such a warm fuzzy person. He dressed in camel hair, ate locusts in the desert, and as the Rector of Grace Church in Keswick, VA proclaimed when I worked there, if he were to show up in the back of the church right now, no one would want to go near him: no one would want to talk with him or bring him Coffee Hour – who wants a smelly old crazy person who lives in the wilderness and eats insects to invade their conversations after our worship services?
Now I am not saying that my son – or John the Baptist either – is crazy or saying stupid things, but both of them, whether they know it or not, are speaking about the Kingdom of God.
Here’s a disclaimer: you need to know that I do not think it is possible for me or anyone else to speak with any certainty about the Kingdom of God, and rather than tell you about what it is or how we get it I would rather hear from all of you about what you think the Kingdom of God is, and how we get there, and together arrive at some kind of understanding about how we can achieve it. But I do find it fascinating that the one who is arriving to take on the Kingship is worshiped not as someone powerful or important, with fancy clothes and a fine horse – but rather a little baby, about to born in a manger to a young, frightened unmarried woman. His horse will be a donkey and his kingly raiment will be gravesheets, but his gift will be our salvation, and will point the way to the Kingdom.
So if I cannot tell you what the Kingdom is, perhaps we can talk for a few minutes about what it is not.
It is not something that is given us from on high: it is not something that comes from a conversion experience to accept Jesus as your personal savior. No, it is not something that we are given; it is something that we work for. The Kingdom of God is not granted us by God, but it is shown to us, and we are an invitation to make it happen, if we wish to do so.
My son’s rather inflammatory statement was not prompted by unknown forces. He lives in Canada, and has become very involved with the Indian community there, partially through his efforts to combat climate change by trying to prevent the Keystone Pipeline Project, designed to deliver oil from Canada through the United States to a loading point on the Gulf Coast. I am not interested in debating the merits or lack thereof of the pipeline itself, except to say than many Canadians are very upset by the project for a number of reasons, but partly because the process of extracting the shale oil will destroy the Reservation land where the Indians make their home.
In later conversations about his strong feelings about preserving the Indians rights to their own land, we had several conversations about the processes by which the powerful white settlers were able, throughout the United States, to find ways to take land from the Native Americans, who were at the time in possession of it. These early American settlers were successful partly because the Native Americans had very different concepts of aggression and property ownership, and had fewer ways to defend their rights in the face of the more dominant, and powerful, culture that had invaded them. And they justified their actions by pointing out that the natives were non-believers, that they were not Christians.
Here is where we come to my interest in this subject, for it is true that we, and our ancestors, did use that excuse. To my mind that taints our faith – and my son has, in whole or in part, rejected Christianity because they did do this.
How do you explain to someone about justice, when they see an unjust act that was wrongly performed in the name of Jesus that subjugated or destroyed a whole class of people? How do you explain to someone who has rejected his faith that the brother of a close Canadian friend is an Episcopal priest who has spent his life working for justice on the Indian reservations of northern Canada not seeking conversion, but reconciliation? How do you try to get people to understand reconciliation, and the incredible number of faithful people who are willing to give their lives to see prejudice removed: to see justice given to those from whom it was taken, and for whom these are the fundamental acts of their faith?
And here’s the kicker: we cannot separate the Kingdom from the social issues that surround us, and in fact if we are to be a part of the building God’s kingdom we have been talking about all Advent we need to embrace them, and confront them. Note I do not say that we should agree, nor that I know of a way to solve them, nor that there is only one way to achieve the Kingdom — but we must have the dialogue, and we must do it in the light of Christ so that we find a way to fulfill God’s vision for us and for all the people who live on our earth.
And that’s where I need your help. Sermons are circles, and we have come back to the beginning of this one, where I said I wanted to engage in a dialogue with all of you about what the Kingdom of God is – and hear from you about how we achieve it. I hope that we all have conversations with me and with each other about just these issues. Many of you have shared some extremely moving stories about things you have done or seen after the killings in Missouri and New York. That is a wonderful beginning. And please remember that there is no better place to discuss what happened in Ferguson, or New York City, or on Cape Cod to the Wampanoag Indians, or on the reservations of Canada, or in the Middle East where many of our sons are serving, than right here in our church. Somehow we need to figure out what Jesus wants us to do. And if we do this well, we will give the world hope, and we will give ourselves hope as well.
Make straight the way, says John. It is easy to see the highway as part of an old Biblical prophesy that doesn’t really touch us, but was about other people at other times. Make straight the way, says my son. It does touch us, it is touching us right now.
My son brought with him a documentary that a friend of his made about the Wampanoag Indians on Cape Cod. I was very moved by the story of a Wampanoag woman who was trying to learn the Wampanoag language. Their language is considered dead and gone – no one speaks it now, and there is no institutional language memory. As a result, she no longer had an understanding about her cultural background. So she went to MIT, where Noam Chomsky established a program that explores language and culture, and became a protégé of the person who was trying to reconstruct the Wampanoag language. There are very few sources, but they believe that they have been successful in rediscovering their language – and are now learning, through speaking it, how their culture worked and how it can inform what they are doing today, and how it can renew and refresh their community by reconstructing their institutional memory.
I found this to be a very moving movie, and hope we can show it here sometime – for it gives me hope that, by looking forward and exploring the things around us that make our own and other cultures work we can find ways to renew our own spirituality, and see how God remains at work in our world — and we can, at last, begin to build the house that God asked David to build: that we can, at last, begin to find a home for God, and we can at last make a place where the peoples of the world can live in peace. Together, we can make it happen.
In the name of the infant Jesus, coming to set us all free, Amen.