What if there were here in Killeen a place that, whenever you went there, without fail you got the one thing that is noticeably absent in the rest of your life, the one thing you crave in the midst of the craziness and selfishness, the one thing that settles your soul and gives you perspective: Peace? How often would you go? How often would you take your friends? How popular would it be among the people of this town, of this county, of this state?
Such a place exists. In fact, there are many of them. One such place is in the largest city in the world. The place is so large you can see it on Google Earth from a mile above the city. The largest church on the property can seat 10,000 people. It holds what brings the people there, the tilma or poncho of Juan Diego. People come there from miles away, some of them on their hands and knees. It is the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Without exception and without equal, what people get when they go to a place of pilgrimage, is by a sense of peace and tranquility. They can get that peace in these places, but not in the rest of their world. These places stand as witnesses to an alternate reality, a different dimension in stark and sudden contrast to the world in which we normally live. And they stand as witnesses to the Church that the Gospel we preach is a Gospel of peace, not as the world knows or gives, but as God alone gives. We call it "The Kingdom of God."
The Kingdom of God is that alternate reality in which what is true and right and good and living holds sway. In the final analysis, it is not just an alternate reality, one among many, but the only real reality. The other world we live in, the world of power-driven self-centeredness, is the alternate reality, the less-than-reality that we project on one another. Whenever these two realities, these two great kingdoms collide there is an upheaval, as the real reality begins to reorder and remake the less-than-reality we still believe in.
Today's readings all deal with that upheaval. In the Old Testament lesson Jonah is sent to Nineveh to preach the judgment of God. Much to his chagrin the people repent and turn to the Lord. In a sense what Jonah preached did come to fall, because in the face of truth the people chose truth over their own previously held world, and the old passed away, a new city was born. But Jonah is not impressed. He is thinking in the ways of the kingdoms of this world, and not the Kingdom of God. He desperately wanted to see God wipe out this ancient enemy of Israel for moral decay. God sets up a parable of a vine and a worm to help Jonah understand his own message. God is truly the God of unexpected and undeserved mercy.
One of the reasons we baptize infants is specifically because they cannot respond for themselves. It makes it abundantly clear that God is the one who grants mercy, for God's own sake, and ultimately it has nothing to do with our worthiness. It has everything to do with who God is. God does not ask, "What if this person goes out to become a axe murderer or a drug pusher?" God has already extended His mercy to that person, and laid it on the table, right there for the taking. We are offered forgiveness even before we have a chance to sin. If God is that reckless in dispensing mercy, should not we be the same? Who is it that has offended you? The sooner you forgive the sooner you see the Kingdom come.
In the Epistle lesson Paul struggles with his desire to be with the Lord and the need of the church. What a quandary, to be caught between the delights of heaven and the joys of earth! He settles on this life, for it is necessary for the good of the church, and offers that struggle to the Philippians to inspire them to sacrificial living in a world that doesn't believe in it. He chooses to stay in order to share the blessings God brings in community, for God is truly the God of unexpected graces.
God is truly the God of unexpected graces in the community of believers. Since the beginning of the fire season more than 1500 people have lost their homes in Texas, 800 of them in the Bastrop area alone. Some lost literally everything but the shirts on their backs. To respond as the world’s kingdom suggests would be to blame the victims for their suffering: “They deserved it. God is punishing them.” “If they hadn’t built where they did this wouldn’t be happening to them,” and “it’s not my problem.” But as a nation we have touched another dimension and responded differently. People from all over are rising to the challenge of their need. They are the hands and heart of God, walking with them through the suffering, into newness of life to come. We know that nothing happens without God knowing and being there with us. We are not alone, there is always hope. If we hang together there is nothing we cannot weather, for God is with us. When two or three are gathered in His name there He is among us. It’s a Kingdom thing to do.
In the Gospel lesson Jesus tells the parable about a landowner and his day-laborers. The scandal of this story is in his remuneration of the people who worked for him. It had nothing to do with the amount of work they had put in, and everything to do with their need. There are two clues in the text that show us this. First, those hired first complain that he has made those hired later “equal to us…” Their mind is on their honor, not the welfare of the others. But the landowner clearly works from a different kind of place, for he promises those he hires at nine o’clock to pay them what is “right.” “Right” to him is a day’s wage, enough for them to satisfy their obligations. The landowner obviously is not worried about his bottom line, he is concerned with his employee’s bottom line—the welfare of others. He operates from a mentality of abundance, not scarcity; an assumption of plenty, not want, for God is the God of unexpected abundance.
The church has already set up pathways by which you can respond to the needs of those in Bastrop. Just like the landowner who valued the people more than their contribution, our brothers and sisters in Bastrop are important to us. There is an abundance in our hands out of which to share, not a scarcity to protect. If we reach into our pockets in love and faith we will find that they are deeper than we thought. We can give out of the abundance the Lord has given us to make sure they are alright. After all, it is a Kingdom thing to do.
In our lives and in our worlds two kingdoms constantly collide. In which one will you live? The real one or the less-than-real one?