July 7, 2013
2 Kings 5: 1-14
Luke 10: 1-11
“The reign of God is at hand” (American Standard Version) or “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Jesus gives his disciples the same message to share with the people they will meet, whether they welcome the apostles, or not. So, if the disciples came into our congregation, offering us the blessing of peace, would we recognize that we are in the presence of the kingdom of God?
How do we know what values are guiding us, as individuals, as a congregation, and as a country? Are we able to recognize opportunities to bring peace & cooperation, when we are in the midst of conflict? Are we able to see the potential to promote the healing of past hurts? If we are in the presence of God, then we should be looking for the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, and patience & self-control.
The Old Testament prophet, Elisha, having just inherited the spirit of Elijah, was able to help both the king of Israel, and the commander of the King of Aram’s army, by miraculously curing Naaman’s leprosy. Elisha did not accept the gold & silver and valuable treasure that Naaman had brought to pay for being cured, because the gift or the blessing of God’s Healing Power can not be purchased. Naaman was demonstrating that it does not take great works or vast treasures to receive God’s love, but it does require changing our assumptions, changing our attitude, and understanding that God’s Kingdom is here, if we can just open our eyes and our minds to this new perspective.
When Jesus sent the additional 72 apostles out to share the good news of the kingdom of God, he was asking them to step-out in faith. He told them not to carry any gold or silver, or even the basic necessities of a walking staff or a backpack to hold a change of clothes. They were not to call ahead and make reservations at a nice air-conditioned condo with a tiki bar next to the pool! No, they were to step-forth in faith, knowing that the kingdom of God is already surrounding them and they did not need to worry about their own comfort. Jesus had taught them to live in faith, and the result was that they were able to perform miracles as if Jesus was right there with them. At the end of Luke 9, just before this Mission of the 72 apostles, Jesus had just taught them about who among them was the greatest, by taking a small child and teaching that whosoever welcomes a young child like this, welcomes Jesus himself. And just after the apostles return, Jesus gives thanks to God, saying, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven & earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise, and revealed them to infants.” Jesus was emphasizing that the apostles were able to use the power of the holy Spirit, not because of their individual talents, wisdom, wealth, or prestige, but because they were putting the vision of God’s Kingdom first. They were recognizing how God wants us to treat ourselves and each other every day.
When the band of Pilgrims left Europe in 1621, during what historians refer to as a “Mini Ice Age”, to sail across the North Atlantic and land on Cape Cod in November, they were also stepping out in faith. They were not the first to make it across the Atlantic, but they were not just going on a fishing trip or a vacation, they were dedicating themselves to settling in a New Land. They have left us documents like the Mayflower Compact, showing what they were thinking. And they were definitely stepping-out in faith. Their little colony barely survived the harsh winter and the meager supplies of food & other essentials. However, they were guided by a very real sense of God leading them, teaching them how to treat each other, how to work together peacefully, in order to make a community that would survive in this New World. Everything did not turn out exactly like they had expected, but they held to a vision of creating a “shining city on a hill” that would demonstrate to all the world how God is calling us to recognize God’s power and blessings all around us. If you ever get a chance to visit “Plimouth Plantation” on Cape Cod, you will see a working replica of the Pilgrim’s little village, and you can imagine that people could easily have been overwhelmed by the dangers and problems, instead of recognizing God’s Kingdom being present. Life was hard, death was near, and there was no guarantee their little community was going to be able to survive. Yet they felt God’s presence around them, and gave thanks for God’s blessings.
People kept coming to America throughout the sixteen-hundreds and seventeen-hundreds. People who were looking for a better life. People who heard that there were opportunities to worship, opportunities to work, and opportunities to live in a society where all people respected each other’s rights. This week we celebrated the anniversary of the birth of our country, & you may have taken some time to reflect upon what it means to be part of this great experiment in self-government called Democracy. If you are an astute student of our history, you know that all people were allowed to vote in elections ever since this country began; all people who were white, male, adult land-owners, anyway! But the amazing thing about our country is not that we have never made any mistakes, rather the amazing thing is how our sense of justice, freedom, & equality under the law has continued to grow. Sure there is room for continued improvement, but our growth has come from people who took the values of their religious faith seriously, and worked to build a society where all people deserve respect. People who stepped-out in faith, to create a better country.
Whether your family’s roots go back to the Mayflower and the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1776, like some of my ancestors, or whether your family arrived in the eighteen-hundreds or the twentieth century, like some of my other ancestors, or whether members of your family first came to the United States in the current millennium, we know there are some basic ideals about what makes our country great, some core values that we want to pass on to our children and generations after them. Now, I know there are many strands that go into making the true American Experience. We do not all come from The Puritans & Pilgrims that grew into the Congregational Church. Some of our forms of government do seem to come directly from the experiences of our Pilgrim forebears, but the point is that there are many other strands which also contribute to making our society the vibrant, diverse culture it has become. When I read about the prophet Elisha healing a foreign general, and when Jesus sent the 72 apostles out to spread the Good News of God’s Kingdom far and wide, I get the sense that God’s Kingdom is bigger, more diverse, and has more creative potential than anything any one of us could do on our own. We need the dynamic & creative energy that comes from conservatives and liberals listening & understanding each other. We need the United Church of Christ and the Mennonites, the Dutch Reformed and the Roman Catholics, the Baptists and Episcopalians, and the people whose faith is just starting to grow, & may be searching for a church home. We need people who are able to study history and learn from it, and then teach us what they’ve learned. We need people who can study the stories of the Bible, and can apply the lessons to the challenges we face today.
Now, certainly there are differences between what we can learn about the implications of the Kingdom of God being near for each of us as individuals, compared to the implications of the Kingdom of God for a country. As an individual, the presence of the Kingdom of God may offer me peace and a sense of security when it feels like my whole world is coming apart. The kingdom of God opens the power of the Holy Spirit to be with me as I step out in faith to deal with challenges. The presence of the Kingdom of God comforts me while we wait for confirmation of medical diagnosis for my little brother, which is most likely going to bring very bad news. As individuals and as a congregation, we have an understanding of what the Kingdom of God means, and an awareness that Jesus was talking about a spiritual reality, not a political reality.
In contrast, the implications for our nation that the Kingdom of God is near means that we are called to continue to work for liberty & justice for all, not just for those who have the most power. We are to use the values of our faith to show our fellow citizens that we have the potential to work cooperatively, to form coalitions that will create better living conditions for all of us. Spiritual values help us be less self-centered, fearful, or mean, but then translating these ideals into reality requires that we work with political systems which require compromise and strategies to confront problems that threaten our common welfare. When the Pilgrims arrived in Cape Cod on the Mayflower, they were hoping to create a Community of God, a spiritual community where they could practice their faith. Within twenty years, their neighbors up in Boston, the Puritans, also seeking to create a Godly Community, were dealing with the emerging political realities and challenges of their time, and we begin to see the differences between a political government and the Kingdom of God that Christ taught. Political power is one of the realities that we need to understand, but the values that guide us toward justice and liberty do not come from political alliances or strategies. We need our foundation of spiritual truth, our awareness that God loves all peoples of the earth, and our experience of God’s grace, so that we can understand the ideals that we are growing toward. For when we are in-tune with God’s Love and seeking to recognize God’s Kingdom, then we able to see Christ’s face in all of the people we meet and work with every day. When we realize that God’s Kingdom is near, we can cope with our challenges and create better ways to treat our neighbors. The question for us today is, “Can we feel God’s presence as we witness to the power and love of the Lord of all creation?” I believe we can!