(I spoke at Altona United Church on May 15. This is the content)
PREFACE: Yesterday my wife and I visited the Red Dress Project on display in Morden to bear witness to the more than 4,000 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada. When we were done we walked safely and without fear back to our historic stone home and went about our lives.
According to Matthew 13:31-33 Jesus said – “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.'” He spoke to them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a person took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”
We get the idea. Jesus was great with parables. A born teacher. The kingdom of heaven, or God, is small, nearly invisible, while at the same time acting to become a nurturing force that gives life and provides hope, nourishment and safe harbour. Simple analogies to describe that which people have arguably been trying to understand and define since we could understand and define things.
The kingdom of God…so many people spend their lives hoping for the kingdom of God to break forth, they look for signs and wonders; some get morbidly excited about wars and rumours of wars, pandemics and general global tragedy as they gleefully await escape from what they consider this prison of a planet – failing to recognize that we do not go to the kingdom of God – the kingdom of God comes to us and the kingdom of God is now…it is present…it is not coming, it has come.
How terribly, terribly disappointing. It’s like being a video gamer and told by a clever troll that the world’s greatest, most graphically astounding and realistic MMORPG simulation has been developed and when you ask to try it you are told – you’re in it right now – it’s called life.
Ugh. You roll your eyes with wild disappointment. Even though what you were told is true you don’t want life. You want to escape from it.
The idea that the kingdom of God is not yet here but is coming – this is a theology that results from a people being unable to explain how pain and suffering continue to exist despite being told that the kingdom of God has been established.
When we look around and we see what is happening in Yemen, in Ukraine, in Palestine, between Canada and First Nations, the struggles of the BIPOC and 2SLGBTQ+ communities; when we look to the past and are confronted with the holocaust or the Armenian genocide and more we can be excused for wondering “where in the world is the kingdom of God in all of this? Where in the world is God in all of this” and while we could be excused for such doubt the Kingdom of God is here nonetheless. It is this kind of struggle that drives people away from faith, not simply Christianity, but faith of all kinds. It was this kind of struggle that drove famous Canadian evangelist Charles Templeton, the founder of the first church I ever preached in, to atheism…and I have no doubt more will follow.
I entitled this – The Present Absent Kingdom of God and subtitled it Schrodinger’s Kingdom in an attempt at cleverness and as a nod to the renowned quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger. Like a good teacher Schrodinger was trying to find a parable to communicate a very difficult concept in an easy to understand way. The concept was called quantum indeterminacy which states that an atom and sub-atomic particles can exist in two states at the same time until they are measured or observed (this is my over-simplification).
To do this he imagines a cat sealed lovingly into a box with a vial of poison that is set to break when a particular atom decays. But until the box is opened and the decay is measured the cat exists in two states – alive and dead. Not theoretically or philosophically – but actually in two states at the same time. It’s a very frustrating analogy that annoys many other physicists and it twists my brain every time I try to grasp it but it is apt when we think about the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is like this…alive and dead. Alive in promise, alive in word, dead until enacted. The message of the gospels is clear in this sense – the kingdom of God is not coming…the kingdom of God is here, inaugurated and demonstrated by Christ. This is why we end up with two very distinct kingdom theologies, or ways of understanding what the Bible says about these things. A social gospel theology that says the kingdom is here, now, let us enact it, and another that says, the kingdom is not here and we need to prepare and build our bomb shelters and hide out until it arrives. Like the idea of quantum indeterminacy it is annoying and confusing and much easier to avoid anything that is complex…but to do this does disservice to the truth.
A farmer in spring stands at the edge of their field after planting and sees the harvest they hope for. They look to the person next to them and say “this is a field of oat” and the person next to them says – “I see nothing.” Who is right? Is it a field of oat? Is it a field of mustard? Or is it nothing? In a very real sense this field exists because of the investment the farmer has made in terms of sweat equity and dollars. It has to exist, survival depends upon it…but it is fragile.
A baker sets aside dough and says to a customer – “here is bread and buns” and the customer says “it’s just a pile of dough.” Who is right? Are they both right?
One thing is sure – for the farmer and the baker – the certain hope they have requires action. The field requires sunlight, rain, pollination, fertilization etc. The dough requires a measure of heat. The kingdom of God is like this – it has existed, it exists, and it will exist but to be fully effective in this reality – it requires action, or we might also say, it needs to be acted upon otherwise it remains barren, lifeless and without hope, as if it did not exist at all. Useless in the lives of those who needed it, like yeast in the fridge instead of the dough or seed in the silo instead of planted in the field. Merely words and one cannot eat a word.
God is powerful as Word and nowhere is this better described then in the Gospel of John chapter 1, verse 1 where the author writes “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We could stop here and feel something of awe at this description of that mystery which creates and moves all things but to do so would not be enough. God is powerful as that Word which speaks things into existence however God is most powerful as John continues to say, when that Word puts on flesh and tabernacles, that is to say dwells, among us; when that Word becomes action – this is God, the Kingdom of God, at its most powerful and effective.
A parent on road trip says to children fighting in the backseat – “If you don’t stop fighting I will…turn this car around.” Powerful words to an eight and nine-year-old on the way to Disneyworld but not as powerful as the action they threaten. This is what we call motivation. Perhaps you are from a bygone era where the words were “if you don’t stop crying I will…give you something to cry about.” The idea is the same. Words are powerful BECAUSE of the act they infer…alone they are empty.
I love you. I. LOVE. YOU.
No more powerful words exist in any language but the power of these words comes from the action they promise and commit to and not from the words themselves – love enacted in the life of the one loved. An embrace. An act of caring. Sacrifice. Love enacted. I love my wife and children even when they are not around. My love for them is real even when it is not being enacted because of the commitment and promise to enact it the word represents when I am with them. This is the kingdom of God – the Word love enfleshed and living intentionally in the world and the lives of the people around it.
When Adolph Hitler said “The holocaust is the solution to the Jews final question” these were powerful, horrible, evil words but not nearly so horrible or powerful as when they were enacted at the cost of more than six million Jews dead and with them all of their hope and all that they would ever be. To quote Clint Eastwood from the film Unforgiven – ““It’s a hell of a thing; killin’ a man. You take away everything he ever had and ever would have.”
Words are powerful. The words enacted, are more powerful.
Some words of bright promise are so powerful in the face of the dark, so overwhelming, that when they are not enacted, it is as if they never existed. The promise of the kingdom of God is like this. Perhaps the most promising and powerful set of words to be uttered and so painfully, obviously absent when not enacted.
We are the seeds to be sown, we are the yeast to be used. We enact the kingdom of God in the world and the lives of those around us. This is how the kingdom of God is present…and when we fail to act in love, forgiveness, grace, compassion, peace and understanding, this is how the kingdom of God is absent.
In his remarkable book Night, that tells of his experience as a Jew in Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel wrote “How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent?”
Where was the kingdom of God? For Wiesel and others like him – it was absent. He wrote “It seemed as impossible to conceive of Auschwitz with God as to conceive of Auschwitz without God.” God was…but God was not. The kingdom of God was present, but it was not. Elie’s full Hebrew name is Eleazar which means in, ironically, “God has helped”. Eleazar who lost his father, mother and sister in Auschwitz.
The power of this kingdom that we and people everywhere wield is immense beyond measure. It is enough to move mountains literally. It was enough to stop the holocaust before it happened. But – it didn’t. Where was the kingdom of God for six million Jews? I would suggest to you that as present as it was in the lives of people everywhere it was also absent from those lives who needed it most. It was not present in any way that counts. It was present in the every single German SS officer in Auschwitz but it may as well have been seed stored up in silos and left to dry out or rot. It was meaningless and absent and the effects of its absence are far reaching in time and space.
The Italian writer of the book If this is a Man (which I recommend) and Jewish survivor of the holocaust Primo Levi committed suicide at the age of 67. In response his friend Elie Wiesel wrote “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.” The consequences of the kingdom of God’s absence are far reaching in time and space.
When the kingdom of God is absent you have night. You have darkness, you have despair, and ultimately you have death.
Art Spiegelman, author of the astounding Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus (M A U S) which chronicles his father and mother’s experience of the holocaust recalls his father Vladek’s words about Auschwitz – “But here God didn’t come. We were all on our own.” Spiegelman’s mother Anja committed suicide in 1968 at the age of 58.
The consequences of the kingdom of God’s absence are far reaching in time and space.
But thankfully – death is not the only word. The kingdom of God is present in each of us right now. You don’t have to end a holocaust to exercise it. Our collective work through our enacting the kingdom in the lives of others can do this, but as individuals our acts can be as small as a smile in the face of anger and pain sending a life in a better trajectory than before. It can be love in the face of hate. It can be a donation to a newly arrived Ukrainian or Palestinian refugee. It can be the raising of children in a house of compassion and tolerance. Each of these acts, like the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings in Argentina and causes a tornado in Texas, has enormous potential to enact the kingdom of God and bring light to the seemingly ever present darkness that threatens to engulf us.
Remember the words of J.R.R. Tolkien (who had no small understanding of the kingdom of God) as presented in a dialogue between Frodo and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo who is bone weary of the dark times he lives in and the burden he carries to do something about it:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
As we prepare to go from this place may we consider what to do with the time we have been given and may the kingdom of God explode from us as a light that shines in a deep darkness through our words, through our actions large and small and through our lives as they intersect with others. Where we go we bring the kingdom of God and this is enormous privilege and an enormous responsibility. There is no question of where the Kingdom of God is when we act…there is no doubt of its absence when we do not act.
Remember the words of Elie Wiesel as we once again consider for instance the more than 4,000 MMIWG spoken of at the beginning in reference to all we know about our role in the kingdom of God – “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere. ~ Amen.