June 18, 2017/ Summer NL Lord’s Prayer 2// First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Teach Us To Pray: Against the Disorder of the World”: “Kingdom of God,” by Frederick Buechner; Luke 11:1-13; New Zealand Prayer Book version of the Lord’s Prayer

 

Intro

I’m not sure what time of year it was, I only know it was hot. My best middle-school friend and I stood an arm-span apart, sunscreen slathered, holding signs to form with others a mile-long human chain down Claremont Avenue, in Ashland, Ohio. Our signs that day proclaimed “Choose Life!” In that town, we could safely bet the majority of passing motorists would honk and wave and give us thumbs up… rather than other fingers. My best friend’s mother was president of the local chapter of Right to Life, which is why we were there. And in our 12-year-old earnest creativity, we’d come up with all kinds of ideas. (Our best one was to form a club called FOFFL, “Former Fetuses for Life.”) Fast-forward 25 years, and there’s me on Twitter, sending out a selfie snapped in my attic office, shelves packed with theological books behind me, confirming my recent donation to Planned Parenthood, hashtag #I StandwithPP. (Pause) A lot changed in those 25 years in between. A lot changed in my understanding of who and where I was located in the Realm of God, and how what I did affects other people. A lot changed in what I mean when I pray Jesus’ prayer: “They Kingdom come.” (Pause)

 

Trans.

Jesus started this trouble. (Pause) Jesus started this trouble just as he did with abolitionists hundreds of years ago and just as he does with people speaking out on climate change or demonstrating against police brutality… Jesus starts it when his followers advocate on behalf of immigration justice or those imprisoned around the world with international debt… Jesus starts it with these and any of the other ways Jesus’ friends get political in the world today. For better or for worse, Jesus starts it. This is going to be bad news for anyone who believes religion and politics don’t mix: Jesus starts it by giving us an explicitly political prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” (Pause) We’ve been trying to figure out what in the world that should mean ever since.

 

I.

In scripture, in the Bible, “king” and “kingdom” are completely political terms referring to the government of nations. One of my teachers, Donald Gowan, writes that “Jesus, living under Roman rule, thus took a considerable risk when he chose ‘kingdom of God’ as one of the key elements of his teaching.”[1] But whereas the elder testament uses it most often as an image for God as cosmic sovereign over all nations, in the younger testament Jesus uses it differently. It’s the part of his message most misunderstood, certainly by Pilate the governor who ordered his execution, but often also by his own friends and followers who in many places were hoping for and expecting an armed insurrection. Jesus’ kingdom is unlike any other political kingdom in some significant ways: It’s given to the poor, for one thing. It’s experientially available in the healing activity of Jesus. And marginal people – tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes – all get there ahead of the rest of us. In what kingdom is that true? Using the Greek word for kingdom, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza describes the basileia vision of Jesus as an imminent heavenly banquet rather than a future eternal judgment. “While there is much discussion as to whether miracles are scientifically possible and whether the miracle stories are historically ‘authentic,’ there is insufficient attention paid to the vision of being human that is realized by the power of God active in Jesus,” she writes. “The basileia vision of Jesus makes people whole, healthy, cleansed, and strong. It restores people’s humanity and life. The salvation of the basileia is not confined to the soul but spells wholeness for the total person in her/his social relations.”[2] This makes it hard for us to really grasp because Ancient Roman Empire or contemporary Global Power, I know of no “kingdom” where that’s true. So we struggle to understand the political statement embedded in Jesus prayer. And sometimes we end up on one side of the sidewalk with our placards and other times we end up on the other side of the sidewalk with our posters, trying to figure out what it means to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” (Pause)

 

I.

For a long time, I wouldn’t say the word “kingdom.” (And I am using it a lot this morning, I just want to alert you, we don’t usually use it so much in here. We change the word to “kin-dom” for some of the same reasons.) In my own spiritual journey, I wanted to diverge from the patriarchy in the very foundations of Christianity and the misogyny that a masculine image of God perpetuates. So, for a long time, I used other words, like we do traditionally here in worship at Ashland UCC when we substitute “kin-dom” in our common prayer. In the 80s and 90s of the last century, many feminist theologians instead just used that old Green word basileia. It still means kingdom, but somehow in a less-familiar language from another century basileia differentiates itself from the kingdom of Henry the IV or King George the III or even the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Lately though, I’ve been coming back to that word “kingdom,” not because I think we have a big white-haired God-king up on a throne up in the heavens, but because there are so many alternative kingdoms and fiefdoms and regimes wrestling for power and our allegiance – or at least our acquiescence – in this world. Although our attempts are incomplete… I like the way Frederick Buechner describes it in the reading you just heard… though our attempts are at best “half-baked and half-hearted,” we’re still struggling to live, to figure out our understanding and our location as citizens of the basileia tou theou, the “kingdom of God.” (Pause)

 

I.

One of the problems of prayer in general and even the Jesus Prayer in particular is that for some decades now, prayer has become, in collective consciousness, a substitute action. “God is brought in when human intelligence and power cannot do anything or can no longer do anything.”[3] You will see this happen on social media. You will see good, well-meaning folks start to condemn one another in social media for offering “prayers for…” the victims of the latest tragedy but not changing legislation to prevent future victims. [And what is with this week?! There’ve been at least 5 tragedies, if not more… an apartment building going up in flames, a shooting at a congressional ball game practice, the acquittal of Philando Castille’s killer, another black mother shot by police when she called to report a burglary… the list goes on.] In the wake of these tragedies, you will see and hear the implication that prayer is a cheap substitute for acts of resistance. But I don’t think it ever was for Jesus. I think Jesus’ prayer fueled his resistance and kept re-orienting him to that Reality of God in which he lived. “When you pray,” he tells the disciples, “pray this way: Abba, Our God, thy kingdom come…” It’s not a throwaway phrase before the petitions of bread and forgiveness. He’s connecting action, faithful living and prayer. “If prayer is highly suspect as a substitute for responsible action, than an activism without the perspective of prayer… is also a theological temptation.”[4] We have world leaders today who sit on gilded thrones right now. Praying this prayer is an act of resistance, a way in which we can join in the alternative Reality of the early Christians who lived with a Caesar, Caesars on gilded thrones, Caesars defended by phalanxes of armed soldiers, early Christians who lived in an subverted kingdom, an alternative kingdom, who understood that part of what this kingdom reality of Jesus was meant to flip it on its head so that the only leader on a throne was a slain lamb, someone who’d been abused and abandoned and ultimately dies, someone who for them showed God’s strength and power in weakness, someone whose only weapon would be Love. When Jesus is describing the “Kingdom,” he doesn’t waste time measuring out the boundaries, the latitude and longitude about where it begins and where it ends. He spends a lot more time describing what it means to be a citizen of this basileia. He describes citizens of this basileia as people of righteousness – not rightness, but people who show up to relationship. He describes these citizens as people who are willing to risk all, who are open to radical change. However half-baked and half-hearted and ill-informed our efforts at living out this prayer are, “Thy Kingdom come” is the cry of a soul who doesn’t just seek the re-ordering of the world, but offers their own life as an outpost of that new order. A little bit later in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Look! The basileia is among you.” Among you.

 

Concl.

There’s a lot that mid-century theologian Karl Barth gets wrong, but there’s a lot he gets right about prayer. He writes, “To fold one’s hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”[5] It’s where we remember who we are and what our identity is and what Realm we really are a citizen of. It’s where we allow the Spirit to pour into us and empower us to stand up for that wholeness that Jesus describes not just for ourselves but for others. You don’t have to use the words I use. Words matter and you should use the words that work for you. Just know that in this politically dangerous prayer of Jesus’, the basileia tou theou is a whole lot “less a place than a condition.” It is an area within which God’s love reigns and we are part of that. We are little embassies of the Reality of God wherever we go. Maybe someday I won’t be able to pray this prayer at all. There is a lot more that is complicated about it. But until that day, I do pray. I pray this prayer of Jesus with those ancient Christians and with so many other resisters since. I live and pray “against the disorder of the world.” If that is something that is worth doing together, I invite you to join me as we enter into silence in preparation for prayer.

 

[1] Donald E. Gowan, “Kingdom of God,” The Theological Wordbook of the Bible, p. 274.

[2] [qtd. in] Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p. 123.

[3] Lochman, p. 6.

[4] Lockman, p. 7.

[5] Jan Milic Lochman, “The Lord’s Prayer in Our Time: Praying and Drumming,” The Lord’s Prayer, The Princeton Theological Seminary Bulletin, Supplementary Issue, No. 2., 1992, p. 18.