Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 23:33-43
It’s Thanksgiving week, but it hardly feels like it. Typically, at this point we’re fully immersed in plans to mark the holiday. Not this year. I don’t know about you, but we will not have our usual house-full. Like many of you, we plan to have a family Zoom visit on Thanksgiving Day, but it won’t be the same.
We’re in the phase of the pandemic many public health experts and scientists warned us about several months ago. The incidence of Covid infection is skyrocketing, the availability of ICU beds is dropping dramatically every day, and it will only get worse, depending on what we all do. The CDC is urging people not to travel to be with friends and family this week, but not everyone will heed that call to stay put.
If ever there were a time when we needed to pull together in the same direction as a nation, this is it. We need a sense of shared purpose. We need common commitments. We need mutual support and willingness to look out for one another.
Part of the problem, of course, is that we are hardly one nation, one people, anymore. We have competing sources of news, differing takes on reality, and opposing narratives about Covid – and most everything else. We live in a disjointed world, where life is divided between those we can trust and those we cannot, between those who think like us and those who do not, those who belong and those who do not.
We’re missing the national connective tissue that would allow us to move through this crisis together, and then face other challenges before us as a people.
James Baldwin was an astute observer of America. His novel If Beale Street Could Talk will be our All Church Book Read book in January, and I encourage you to participate. A few months before Baldwin died, frail and exhausted from cancer, he spoke at the National Press Club. “We are living in a world,” he said, “In which everybody and everything is interdependent.”
This was 30-plus years ago.
“It is not white, this world. It is not black, either. The future of this world depends on everyone in this room. And that future depends on to what extent and by what means we liberate ourselves from a vocabulary which now cannot bear the weight of reality.” (Eddie Glaude, Jr., Begin Again [New York: Random House, 2020], p. 199)
Eddie Glaude, Jr. says Baldwin wants us to “imagine ourselves without need for enemies.” (p. 212)
That sounds an awful lot like Jesus, who had the audacity to tell us to love our enemies, to imagine a world where “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
Frankly, the world as it is today – torn apart by politics, riven with anger that slides so easily into hatred, refusing to acknowledge facts, held captive by systems based on privilege and race and identity – that kind of world is antithetical to the world as imagined in the gospel.
Next week we step into Advent, that great seasonal do-over in the Christian conception of how time turns in our life together. We get to begin again, to use Baldwin’s phrase, and it starts when we hear the angel Gabriel announce to Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Of his kingdom there will be no end.
The life of Jesus is framed with kingdom language. To try to understand the significance of Jesus is an invitation to explore what kingdom terminology means. These days that word, with its hierarchical and male undertones, is giving way to other, more felicitous and less freighted alternatives. Reign of God. Sovereignty of God. Kin-dom.
I think the term realm effectively reflects the biblical concept of kingdom. It also happens to be the name of the new database system for our church, to which we are converting right now, so we talk a lot about Realm these days at Westminster. The term realm commonly refers to a specific geographic royal domain, as in the realm of England, or – and this is what I really like – realm can also be untethered to geographic monarchy and instead point to, as the dictionary says, “a domain within which anything prevails, such as the realm of dreams.” (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/realm)
The kingdom of God is like a realm of dreams, in which hope prevails, in which kindness dominates, in which the truth is told, and in which justice is established. That vision of life on earth infuses scripture and is found throughout the Bible. We hear it in the prophets of old:
“The days are surely coming, says the LORD,” – the prophet Jeremiah reports – “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
The days are surely coming…
The ancient seers looked out past their own disjointed world, past their own time of crisis, past their own shattered hopes, and were sustained by summoning up a realm of dreams, where one who would come as a good shepherd would lead the sheep to still waters and green pastures, where they might lie down and rest in peace and restore their souls.
Our nation needs such a place. You and I need such a place.
Before Jesus begins his ministry, John the Baptizer talks about that place, that realm, and insists on letting everyone know they had better get ready for it: “Repent,” he says, “For the kingdom of heaven”– the dream realm – “has come near.”
That’s where we are now, on the edge of Advent. The after time, as Baldwin called it, when we can start over.
Jesus uses that same kingdom wording as he starts his ministry, and then speaks of the reign of God over and over again as he teaches and heals and shepherds his people. He understands his ministry as a window into the realm of God. “Drink deeply,” he says to the woman at the well; taste and see that it is good. “Open your eyes and look,” he says to the man who had been blind; observe the wonder of the beauty of the world. “Be healed and go,” he commands the one who had been cut off because of his illness; join the journey toward justice.
These are foretastes of the realm of God, offered by the one who leads us to that place.
At the end of the life of Jesus, kingdom language makes one more appearance. In the Good Friday scene, royal terminology appears in the inscription tacked above Jesus’ head on the cross: “This is the King of the Jews.” It’s meant to humiliate, but one of those crucified with him disarms the cynicism of the principalities and powers, when he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. I’ve looked across the abyss into the realm of God, and I know you can take me there. In those words, we finally have someone who understands what God is up to in Jesus. Jesus promises fullness of life in this world and the next.
“Today,” Jesus says to the dying man on the cross next to him, “You will be with me in paradise.”
In that moment, in those words, in that possibility extended to one without hope, we see the dream realm of God. The convicted thief belongs in it, as does the ostracized man living with leprosy, and the woman whose bleeding won’t stop, and the tax collector who promises to make reparations, and Lazarus whose sores are being licked by dogs as he lies begging at the gate, and the little children who come to Jesus.
You and I follow a dreamer, one who sees the world as it is and refuses to concede that’s how it has to be. Our purpose as Christians and as a congregation in this city is to pursue that vision with everything we have, and not merely in our worship and prayers, but in how we live in the world. What we do. How we speak. To whom we listen. We bear the realm into the world by refusing to give in to the same cynicism today that showed up long ago on that hill called The Skull.
Today we welcome new members into the life of Westminster These individuals have told us that our congregation’s commitment to be witnesses to the dream of how the world might be, has drawn them into this community. And with them alongside us, our witness to that vision grows stronger.
The days are surely coming, the prophet says. And we reply: Yes, they are. As people of faith we hold that promise to be true, and we carry it with us wherever we go. We’re not perfect. We will make mistakes. We will lack courage sometimes. We will fail in making this world a better place – and when that happens we will, as Samuel Beckett writes, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Glaude, p. 202)
And occasionally we will catch a glimpse of the realm of God, and when we do, we will find ourselves bathed in the light of hope. C. S. Lewis called it being “surprised by joy.”
That happened, a glimpse like that, three weeks ago at the ordination service of our daughter Madeline that took place right here. Normally at such a service other ministers and elders are invited to come forward and lay hands on the one being ordained. At Westminster that means scores of people. This time, only her mother and I could be there in person, with our hands resting on her. I thought that would be the part that swept me away, but instead it was the collection of photos scrolling on the screen, pictures of hands outstretched.
There were hands from friends and family here in Minneapolis, hands of saints on earth and saints in heaven, hands in Portland and Salem, Oregon, in Albuquerque and San Francisco and Los Angeles, in Austin, Texas, and Louisville, Kentucky, and in other places across the land and around the globe. Hands from Warwick, England and Bethlehem, Palestine, and Havana and Matanzas, Cuba. The hands of the people of God, reminding us that belonging in the realm of God is not reserved for any one people or any one culture or any one identity or nationality, but for all those who bear the image of God, as does every human being.
In his poem, To You, Langston Hughes, invites us to embrace that vision of the realm to which we all belong:
“To sit and dream, to sit and read,
To sit and learn about the world
Outside our world of here and now—
Our problem world—
To dream of vast horizons of the soul
Of dreams made whole.
Unfettered free—help me!
All you who are dreamers, too.
Help me make our world anew.
I reach out my hand to you.”
Langston Hughes (1902–1967)
However we mark the coming national day of Thanksgiving, perhaps alone or in our small, safe groups, let us, on that day, at least pause long enough in our gratitude to sit and dream. To sit and dream of the world as it might be, to move beyond our problem world, and imagine the days that are surely coming.
Our future depends on dreaming – and as we do that, we will be joined there by the one who is the dream.
Thanks be to God.