The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregationall UCC
What do you think of when I say the word “kingdom"? Is the first thing that pops into your head the Magic Kingdom or the United Kingdom? Well, God’s kingdom is not about territorial borders. It’s not so much of a place as it is a process. That may sound a bit vague and undefined, so you’ll just have to hang in there with me and see if I can help clarify that term a bit.
The kingdom, of course, is something we pray about twice every time we say the Lord’s prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth” and “thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.” And there are different ways to interpret that compact and somewhat loaded theological phrase.
The kingdom isn’t an easy thing to get a hold of and understand, which is why Jesus continually described it with parable, aphorism, and metaphor. Some people interpret the kingdom as being the life hereafter or life after the second coming of Christ. But, when Jesus says, it “is among you,” he is using the present tense. That sentence can also be translated as “the kingdom of God is in your midst.” It’s not wishful thinking about a future life, but an aspiration for today.
That concise passage of scripture is perhaps the most important sentence to me in the New Testament: “the kingdom of God is among you.” It’s brief, but it’s absolutely critical. The odd thing is that these two critical verses, which tell us that the kingdom of God is in our midst, are nowhere to be found in the Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the three-year cycle of texts used in many churches. Why?! Perhaps it’s a concept that’s a bit too radical for some in the church to digest!
Imagine if those words were preached and internalized in the heart of American Christians. Would it shift our focus from there hereafter to making God’s world a better place here and now? What would be the implications for climate change? …for immigration reform? …for stemming gun violence? …for ending homelessness? …for access to healthcare? What would be the implications in your own life? How would you live your life differently if you knew that the kingdom of God is among you right now?
There is perhaps no theology that has shaped the United Church of Christ than the theology of the kingdom of God, here and now. I say that because of the predominance of “Kingdom Theology” in the Social Gospel movement in this country, which spanned from the days following the Civil War through the end of the First World War, roughly 1865 to 1918.
Some of you will recognize this old war horse, The Pilgrim Hymnal, which was used in most Congregational UCC churches from 1904 until The New Century Hymnal was published in 1995. The first editor of The Pilgrim Hymnal was Washington Gladden, senior minister at First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio. Gladden was called the father of the Social Gospel movement. Now, some of you think that the theology of The New Century Hymnal is a bit radical, but The Pilgrim Hymnal had an entire section called “The Kingdom of God on Earth.” Let me read you the words to a hymn by Frederick Hosmer, a Unitarian minister who taught at Harvard Divinity School:
“Thy kingdom come, O Lord, wide-circling as the sun; fulfill of old thy word, and make the nations one.
“One in the bond of peace, the service glad and free, of truth and righteousness, of love and equity.
“Till rise in ordered plan, on firm foundations broad, the commonwealth of man, the city of our God.”
Saying those things in certain circles today will have you branded as a liberal! It’s radical stuff with serious political ramifications, and it’s been part of our tradition for a century.
The most influential theologian of the Social Gospel movement was Walter Rauschenbusch, a German-born American Baptist, who served in Hell’s Kitchen in New York and taught at Colgate-Rochester School of Divinity. “The kingdom of God,” he wrote in 1907, “is a collective conception involving the whole social life of man. It is not a matter of saving human atoms, but of saving the social organism. It is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming life on earth into the harmony of heaven.”
Because of the dominance of this theology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I think one can make a case that it helped shape the politics of the Progressive Era, when government came to grips with the Industrial Revolution. And I think one can make a case that it also informed the New Deal and increased governmental involvement in providing jobs and relief for those who were battered by the Great Depression. If you were to say the phrase, “the Kingdom of God” to Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt, they would have known that you were talking about God’s liberating reign of justice, here and now.
So, what is the good news? It is that the kingdom of God is here among us. That can fuel hope enough for a lifetime.
Vida Dutton Scudder, an Episcopal Social Gospeler and Wellesley professor, listed three ways Christians can respond to a growing awareness of human suffering: direct charity, social reform, and social transformation. Charity involves giving to those who are suffering (when you give shelter to a family experiencing homelessness); social reform means creating and supporting organizations for their care (like Neighbor to Neighbor); social transformation is about justice and changing the structures that cause suffering, which often seem intractable. The aim of the kingdom is radical, and includes dramatic social transformation.
Virtually every church in Fort Collins will respond to crises with charity. But our congregation is one of the very few that has a calling and an ability to concentrate on advocacy: on changing systems that allow homelessness, hunger, and inadequate education to persist. That’s the reason that when Moms Demand Action shows up at our senator’s office to talk about sane gun laws, half of the 40 people there are Plymouth members.
And yet, if you are like me, sometimes you find it easy to lose hope that justice will prevail in our nation and even that the kingdom of is among us. And in times like these, we need to remember that the long arc of history bends toward justice. It is a very long arc, so people like you and me need to keep the faith in the meantime. Good things eventually happen when we work together and when we work with God: things like the Good Friday Accord that ended years of violence in Northern Ireland. Here are some lines from the Irish poet Seamus Heaney:
“Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard. …
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime,
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge….
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.”
The word of hope is this, my friends: that the kingdom of God is among us, and that we are a part of a force for goodness and wholeness in the world…that the kingdom of God is still unfolding. And that in your lifetime, hope and history will rhyme.
 Frederick Hosmer in The Pilgrim Hymnal. (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1958), number 448.
 Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis. (NY: Macmillan, 1907), p. 65.
 I am indebted to Marcus Borg for this analysis. See The Heart of Christianity. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 201
 Seamus Heaney, from “The Cure at Troy” in Opened Ground, (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1996) p. 305
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.
2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,
"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3 So he told them this parable:
4 "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them,
does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness
and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?
5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.
6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors,
saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'
7 Just so, I tell you,
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8 "Or what woman having ten silver coins,
if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp,
sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?
9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors,
saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.'
10 Just so, I tell you,
there is joy in the presence of the angels of God
over one sinner who repents."
What was the last thing that you lost? Mine was my keys! This week. Replaced but the originals not yet found. I am still searching. Losing something. Getting lost .... really vulnerable feeling. We all hate to be lost! It's very uncomfortable. We don’t like to lose things. We really don’t like to lose our way, literally or metaphorically. Even with Google maps it still happens. How many of you really don’t like to ask for directions when you are lost? Come on, be honest! Its hard to be lost!
Lost .... a bad, gut wrenching, sometimes guilt producing, feeling. For human beings since time immemorial. Jesus knew that people hate to be, to feel lost. It’s a primal fear. Our text today gives us two of Jesus’ most familiar stories and you might know that they are the first two in a trilogy. The third being the story of the prodigal, or lost, son who returns home to a joyous father and a resentful elder brother.
As our passage opens, Jesus is gaining notoriety for his stories, his teachings, his healing. And not with the popular people in town, but with the sinners and tax collectors. The tax collectors were those who made their living collecting taxes for the Roman empire and adding a bit (or more) of interest to the top for themselves. They made their living by raising taxes on the middle class and poor. And it was condoned by the government. And sinners? They could be any number of folks. Technically “a sinner” in the theological parlance of New Testament theology is one who is separated from God, one who “misses the mark” of relationship with God in someway. In view of the purity laws of the Pharisees, sinners were most likely those on the margins of society....from prostitutes to thieves to beggars or those who simply did not or more likely could not keep all the purity laws because of income or illness. They could be the poor, the lame, the lepers, the mentally and physically ill. Outcasts for whatever reason. Something made them ritually impure and so separated from God in the eyes of the religious establishment. Jesus was welcoming “sinners” and eating with them. They were seeking him out. Instead of scolding them for impure living he welcomed them!
So the religious elite, the keepers of the purity laws grumbled. Complained. Pointed fingers. Folded arms and pursed lips. They were scandalized and they were jealous. Crowds did not come to hear them teach in the local synagogue the way they flocked to hear this rebellious rabbi, Jesus. They were mad because Jesus welcomed all the people, not just the people who kept the religious laws. I suspect Jesus even made an effort to welcome the scribes and Pharisees but they didn’t want to hear it. And when he heard his religious brethren grumbling and saw their sour faces, he tells them stories about being lost.
Because Jesus knows that everyone knows what it is to be lost or to have lost something or someone dear to them. He knows that the desperation of being lost is universal. In his two parables the shepherd and the peasant woman lose something of great economic and maybe sentimental value. Something that affected their livelihood. A sheep and a coin that was probably a drachma, worth the price of a sheep or a fifth the price of an ox. And in each story the shepherd and the woman goes to great lengths to find what is lost. There is story hyperbole going on here that makes a point we could almost miss.
Think about this....the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep in the wilderness to go and find the one. Doesn’t leave them in their nice safe fold all tucked in at home, but in the wilderness. This says to me that as soon as he notices the one is gone he goes in search. That’s how precious each sheep is. Not waiting to secure they others....boom...where is my lost sheep? Gotta find my sheep! And when the sheep is found he calls together his friends and neighbors to celebrate. You might think he would just want to crawl in bed exhausted but no he has a party! And the woman cleans her house in a way she never has to find where that coin has gone, to discover what crack it has fallen into. She lights the lamp with precious, expensive oil to find this precious coin. And when she finds it she, too, throws a party! Which may have cost a lot more than the coin was worth. Both of these people have extravagant celebrations to celebrate that the lost is found. And Jesus says “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance... there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." That would be one sinner, one person, who is no longer separated from the love of God....one person who now knows that God seeks and welcomes and loves them.
And isn’t that what we all want to know ... that we are sought after, welcomed and loved. All the good works that we want to do as followers of Jesus, do not make us the seekers. God is the seeker. God is the shepherd in the wilderness seeking, the woman cleaning house with a lighted lamp and seeking. God pursues us for we are the precious things, like the sheep and the coin. And we do not have to do a long enough list of good things or live in certain ways so that God will find us. God seeks and finds us! And then we join God’s party!
I speak with people all the time who are seeking faith, who worry they have lost their faith, who don’t know if they ever had a faith. And I confess that I have those times myself. I count myself humbly as one of the sinners who wonders away from God, is separated, loses the lifeline, feels completely lost and desperately in despair. Seeking love in materialism or the escape of entertainment. My friends, “what is it to “lose faith,” but to lose the conviction that one has been found, to begin to wonder if one is sought at all?” And to be completely in the dark about what to do....to not know how to seek. Yet with God our seeking is simply the willingness to be found. The openness of heart and mind. The willingness to throw up our hands and say, “I can’t find myself! Please find me!” The willingness to sit waiting in the dark.
That’s the difference between two groups of folks listening to Jesus, the sinners and the Pharisees. Pharisees are not willing to be found. And they do not join the party where all are welcomed into relationship with God! So I wonder who are really the lost ones in Jesus’ parables.
I’d rather be a sinner. I’d rather be willing to be found. I’d rather go to the party!
So I found this crazy video on Facebook of all places and it spoke to me about the extremes God will go to just to find us.
God will go this far, my friends. We are not really lost because we are sought.
By the continually seeking God of love. The shepherd, the house cleaning woman. Let’s have a party!
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. May be reprinted outside Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC, by permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
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