“Do we actually believe it?” – Gospel and Sermon for Sunday August 28, 2022

The text of the sermon follows:

The idea of Money vs. actual money – which one has an actual impact on people and causes things to change?  Real money, right?  

The idea of a Vehicle vs. actual keys to a car – which has an actual impact on people and causes things to change?  Real keys to a real car, right?

The idea of the Kingdom of God vs. Jesus saying “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” which has an actual impact on people and causes things to change?  

It’s one thing to say we believe something when it is in the abstract.  It’s quite another when we take that abstract idea and put it into action.  That’s when there is an impact. That’s where transformation happens.  That’s where God encounters us and makes the Kingdom of God present and real in our midst.  We can then see and experience what the unfolding of the Kingdom of God really is.   

Walter Brueggemann once said, “Worship that does not lead to neighborly compassion and justice cannot be faithful worship of God.” 

In other words, Christianity isn’t about just proclaiming what you believe and then sitting back and expecting someone else to carry it out.  Our faith isn’t just an intellectual set of beliefs.  Faith flows through our entire lives to the point that it can’t be contained within us and must come out in how we live and what we do – the practical application.  It’s about turning the belief of loving God and neighbor into action.

So, let’s take the abstract ideas of the Kingdom of God and lay them out. 

Jesus talks about setting people free throughout the Gospels.  What does it look like to really set someone free?  First, we need to acknowledge what holds people in bondage.  Debt does, so do addictions, prisons, I’m sure you can come up with other things.  What would it mean to put the abstract idea of setting someone free into practice?  Do we still believe Jesus when he talks about setting people free once we get down to specifics and actual implementation, or should we just set it aside because it’s controversial or difficult?  It’s so much easier when it’s just an abstract idea, isn’t it?  Nothing changes and no one is changed.  I don’t have to change, and the status quo remains when it’s just an abstract idea. 

How about grace and mercy?  What would they look like in a practical sense?  Grace being that you get what you don’t deserve and didn’t earn.  And Mercy being that you don’t get what you do deserve.  Where have we seen examples of this in the past week?  And seen pushback on grace and mercy?  Because grace and mercy are not fair.  Often implementing the Kingdom of God isn’t fair.  Maybe we should just set these aside too.

How about the way of peace or being a peacemaker in the midst of a society addicted to violence?  What does it mean to actually implement peace?  Can you imagine how disruptive that is?  It might cause people to fight over a number of things they hold dear.  Do we still want to claim we believe in it?  Or should we set this aside as well?

How about shalom?  The sense of wholeness and completeness that runs through Scripture – what does that look like in practice in a society that is broken because far too many people look through the lens of partisan loyalty, economic and social standing, education level, and more as their primary way of interacting in the world.  Wait, you’re asking me to change Jesus?  I don’t know if I can get on board with that.  Maybe I should set this aside.

How about seeing the image of God in others?  What would that look like in practice?  Sounds tough.  We’re supposed to see the image of God in “Those” people?  Maybe we should set this aside.

How about loving our neighbor?  Being in community?  What does that look like being lived out?  What are the things that each of us are responsible to do.  Community isn’t something that just happens.  We have to work at it.  Maybe we should set this aside too because it sounds like a lot of work.  

How about loving our enemies?  Can you imagine how earth shattering it is to actually love our enemies instead of trying to kill them?  The poor arms dealers and advocates for war would have to find another way make a profit off of spilt blood.  Loving our enemies is a tall order Jesus, maybe we should set this one aside.  

How about caring for the outcast?  Who are the outcasts in our society?  What would it mean to care for someone who is trans or LGBTQ+, or homeless, or has mental illness, or physical deformities?  I’m asking in actual practical terms.  Passing laws that make their lives harder or efforts to just make them go away, so they are someone else’s problem don’t seem to match up with the belief in caring for the outcast, does it?  Do we believe Jesus when he calls on us to actually care for the outcast?  Or is that a bridge too far?  He couldn’t really mean it, could he?  Maybe we should set this aside as well. 

How about feeding the hungry?  What does that look like?  It’s far easier to come up with excuses as to why we don’t have to.  And if that’s the case, we can set this one safely aside.  

How about welcoming the stranger?  Show me what that looks like in a practical way?  Do we actually believe in welcoming the stranger or are we more concerned with how that affects us politically and prefer to hear the anxiety filled messages about how dangerous “those” people are – especially the ones from certain countries or people who are another faith tradition.  Jesus said to welcome the stranger – do we actually believe it?  This one’s a really hard one Jesus.  I’ll have to put it aside as well.  

How about Good News for the poor?  What would be actual Good news to the poor?  I’m willing to bet it deals with money, especially for someone in poverty.  That might be difficult to follow Jesus.  Is our faith in an economic system, or is it in Jesus?  Better put this one aside too – sounds too divisive.  

So, what’s left of faith and the Kingdom of God?  What we end up with is a whole list of things about the Kingdom of God that we set aside because we have trouble getting on board with them, or they are too controversial, or divisive, or they conflict with our preferences when they are implemented in practical and concrete ways.   

I challenge you this week to turn these abstract ideas of the Kingdom of God into concrete examples.  Ask yourself this question – Do I actually believe Jesus and what the kingdom of God is about?  If so, how am I living into it?  Where’s the evidence of my belief?  If not, why not?  And who needs to change – Jesus or me?

See what happens.  I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t struggle with this.  Jesus knows that.  If we had it all figured out, the world would look far different.  And because of that, Jesus keeps offering his way and giving examples of how to live the faith that he gives us.  He translates the Kingdom of God as some abstract distant idea to something real and impactful in the lives of people here and now.  

Often, what I have observed is that we have no problem claiming to believe all these aspects of the Kingdom of God when they are abstract.  But as soon as they are put in real practical ways, there is immediate and vocal opposition.  “It’s not fair!” becomes the cry.  “I had to suffer, so you should to!” is stated loud.  “How do I benefit from this?” is the key question raised.  “That’s not what Jesus meant!” is the excuse twisting what Jesus said to better match our own preferences and let ourselves off the hook.   

Too often the church, the bearer of the message of the Kingdom of God, who proclaims a message of hope, of setting people free, and justice for the poor and oppressed, becomes the biggest stumbling block to the implementation of the Kingdom of God in the here and now.  Because there’s a difference between the abstract ideas of the kingdom and the practical implementation of it.  

And if we’re honest, we don’t like it when it’s implemented.  We struggle with it because more often than not, we’re more concerned with how it affects us than how it offers hope to others, sets people free, and improves other people’s lives.  Too often we think that if someone else is improving or they are gaining, that must mean that we are losing something, as if life and faith is some kind of zero-sum thing.  It’s not.  There’s plenty to go around.  Why shouldn’t we be happy for people when their burdens are lifted or made lighter.  We can celebrate with and for them, even if we don’t benefit ourselves.  That’s kind of the whole point of faith.  It’s not just about each of us individually.  It’s about everyone.  

Earlier this week, I wrote the following statement – “The thing that is the most difficult for Christians to really grasp in practical terms is grace. Grace is getting something you don’t deserve, and you didn’t earn. Everyone loves the concept in the abstract. But as soon as it is expressed in a concrete practical way lots of people oppose it because of how unfair it is.”

In the Gospel, Jesus is with a leader of the Pharisees and is eating a meal with him.  He’s a religious man who follows all the religious customs and practices.  He’s got all the correct beliefs.  And Jesus tells him a parable about humility and hospitality.  

And then gives him a concrete example of what to do to make the parable and the abstract idea come alive.  In essence Jesus is saying to the man – don’t bother to tell me what you believe.  I’m sure you have lots of great words to express your beliefs.  Instead, Show me.  Because what you do and how you act, displays for all the world what your actual core belief really is.  

Jesus is challenging us with the same thing.  What do we actually believe?   Not the spoken words of the answers that we are convinced are right or what think others want to hear.  Rather, our actual beliefs.  Deep down inside beyond the words that are spoken, what do we actually believe that we are willing to act upon?  Don’t bother to tell me or anyone else.  Show it. Live it.  Be those beliefs.  Amen.   

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