Beginning a new job carries with it many firsts: first paycheck, first vestry meeting to lead, first major decision, etc. Most of these get covered in seminary, or at least a nice pamphlet from Forward Movement or the Alban Institute. (Tips: only change things you really have to at first. This should never include the early service. Befriend your office staff and Altar Guild.).
What they don’t cover is the first time you get up in the pulpit and preach a “our government is doing something awful, and we should do something about it” sermon in a new place. These sermons are never the easiest to preach in general, but they become far easier, and indeed—are impossible to give without– a solid pastoral relationship with your congregation. When you can look out over your people, and consider how what you’re about to say will hit each person, preaching tends to go better all the way around. (This person has members of their family serving in law enforcement; this person lost a parent recently; this person has adopted kids, etc.)
But, sometimes things happen. Sometimes the Attorney General stands up and says something insane, like invoking a Bible verse last used by slaveholders in the South to justify his new policy of family separation at the border. And, you have to jump in and hope that you’ve learned your people well enough over the few short weeks you’ve been there to talk to them about this.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
June 17, 2018
Proper 6, Year B
Earlier this week, if you were on social media, you might have noticed a lot of hubbub about a raccoon. All of a sudden, Twitter started to get very excited about a raccoon that found itself scaling a 35 floor office building in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. It’s the sort of thing that happens more often in the internet age; something odd starts to happen, someone shares it, and now the whole world is watching a raccoon sit on a window ledge 25 floors above the street, and suggesting ways to help the little guy. It was pretty strange: social media has gotten noticably grimmer since the 2016 election, but here were avowed conservatives and hardened progressives, talking to each other, expressing concern about some random raccoon, who—as several people pointed out—was probably rabid, since raccoons don’t come out in the daytime, much less try to climb a building for 2 days straight. But here we were—people from all over the world, watching this raccoon climb with bated breath, hoping against hope. Til finally it was over, at 3am on Monday morning, when the raccoon had finally made it to the roof, and was promptly fed some wet cat food by the fire department, and carted away by the relieved wildlife department. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief. HE MADE IT! (Though, it turned out to be a girl. SHE MADE IT! SHE WASNT RABID!) And if she could make it, then gosh darn it, we could survive this year, too.
This brief flash of global togetherness felt a lot like the kingdom of God. Here we all were, brought together in this unexpected way, from all these diverse backgrounds and experiences and places, but together in solidarity for another living creature, in a way no one could have foreseen. (Really, if you called the whole “raccoon climbs up an office building” then you need to go to Vegas.) And that happens so rarely these days.
When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he says that it comes suddenly, and unexpectedly—like a farmer who does the planting, sowing, weeding—then one day, when he’s not paying attention—bam! It’s harvest time. Or a mustard seed, that in some mysterious way grows from a tiny thing, into an enormous thing to shelter all the birds of the air. He’s using a lot of metaphors, but there’s definitely some way in which we can prepare for the kingdom, and some way in which it is entirely beyond us. That seems to be where he’s going with this. We can do all the work in the world, but that will only get us partially there. The rest is God’s doing, and that is up to God.
What struck me as I was thinking on this sermon earlier this week is that there’s no announcement when the Kingdom arrives. In both of these images Jesus presents to us, the final product grows organically from what has come before. At no point is there a trumpet fanfare, and a voice from on high proclaiming, BEHOLD. IT IS HERE NOW. But in both examples, the growth is so incremental that you can really only see it in retrospect. It arrives before you know it. So there is also a way in which the Kingdom sneaks up on us as well, perhaps.
In case you’re wondering, or trying hard not to wonder, the phrase Kingdom of God gets a TON of play in the gospels, but it’s a term of art—it means something very specific, which we don’t often actually define. The kingdom of God was a phrase used in Judaism to mean when God decisively acted to rule events on earth. It was a state of being—a thing that happened on and off, but also an occurrence that was understood to happen definitively once and for all at the end of time when the dead all arose, and God perfected the world, and all that. So the kingdom of God both exists all the time—anytime God acts to rule events on earth, and exists in fullness at the end. (This is not to say that in the meantime God is not entirely in charge, but the in the meantime, the human proclivity for sin keeps mucking things up. Another sermon.)
So, Jesus spends a lot of time, trying to explain this to disciples, so they know what it looks like when God is fully in charge of events on earth, because they have gotten used to other ways of being. But if they know to recognize the kingdom, then they’ll know how to welcome it. How to cooperate with it when it emerges.
How will it look when God is fully in charge? The last shall be first and the first, last. How will it look when we’re all living under God’s reign? The poor will be fed, the widow and orphan protected. How will it look? The meek will inherit the earth, the peacemakers will be blessed, the mournful will be joyful—the children will be cared for. And love will be the order of the day.
Now—that’s all really great to say. But as I stand here this morning, you and I both know that the world is a long way from this kingdom of God. The world does not appear to be bringing forth any great harvest of righteousness—rather we appear to be salting our fields and burning whatever crops we had.
This week, we didn’t only witness the exploits of a brave raccoon. News also broke that between April 16 and May 31, nearly 2,000 children have been taken away from their parents, upon entry into the United States as a result of a new policy—this is all from the Associated Press, mind you. These include children who fled here with their parents to seek asylum—which is perfectly legal—and those who were just caught at the border.
Now–I am not so worried about which party came up with this policy. I am not worried about whose fault this is. I am not worried about who you voted for in the last election–this isn’t about that. What I am worried about is that there are currently so many children in detention that a new tent city is being planned in Texas. And what I am worried about is that on Thursday, the Attorney General defended the new policy, by saying that it was very Christian, indeed, biblical to do so. He pointed to Romans 13:1 as justification.
Setting aside for a moment that the Attorney General charged with safeguarding our justice system, and not our religious traditions, and so his biblical scholarship is perhaps not the strongest, a public figure did claim to be practicing a policy in the name of Christianity—and that’s us. That’s you and me. So no matter how you voted, no matter what you think of this present government, whether you like it or not, we, as Christians, better decide what we think about that. Because now our name is in play.
So how does Christianity feel about this? Is what’s happening Christian?
There are people who take children away from their parents in the Bible—there are people who do nearly everything in the Bible, but there are definitely people who do this. Namely, Pharaoh who ordered the death of the Hebrew boys, and Herod who ordered the death of the Jewish boys. So this is quite biblical—but not in a positive way.
But more to the point: to be Christian is to seek the Kingdom of God on earth, to try to emulate the path of Christ in our lives and to prepare the way for God’s reign to break out among us.
THERE. IS. NO. PART. of Christ’s life that suggests that he condoned hurting children. None. There is no part that suggests Christ sought draconian punishments for the law-breakers either.
Instead, what we get is a Jesus who became a refugee himself fleeing one of those draconian leaders into a foreign land! What we get is Jesus treated as a criminal, shamed, beaten, and killed by a law-following governor! What we see in Jesus is someone who tells us, through his words and through his actions, and through his very being, that God is with the marginalized. God is with the poor, the imprisoned, the scared child, the refugee, the person wanting a better life for their children—and if we want to find God, then that is where we need to be too.
So if we want to find the Kingdom of God here on earth, if we want to prepare the way, and do our work and prepare for it to appear—if we want to plow the ground and till the soil and fertilize it and water it—then we need to be very clear about where God is. We can’t expect God’s reign to be springing up in the courts of the powerful—if we spend our time preparing that ground, we’re bound for disappointment. The kingdom will not burst forth in the halls of the rich and powerful.
No, our work here is to heed the cry of the suffering. That is the ground we are called to. And while we can’t eliminate injustice, and we can’t right all wrongs, and it isn’t our job to write government policy—but we can try. We can do something. We can pray, we can protest, we can call the powerful and pester them, we can send money and legal aid, we can vote—and we can keep our gaze fixed on where we know God will show up as we do our kingdom preparation.
Because I don’t know how to solve all our immigration problems–I don’t know how to fix our laws, or write public policy, but what I do know? I do know this: God is going to show up. Sooner or later, when we least expect it, God is going to show up, and in that moment, the work we have done will make sense, and the God who cherishes the little children, and who makes the last, first, will bring the harvest of justice. But until that day comes in its glory—it’s up to us to get plowing.