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.