Tuesday, February 24, 2015

People of the Cross

“The Kingdom of God has come near”
Jesus begins his ministry with this announcement.
It doesn’t seem like it always.
If the kingdom of God means a place without pain, death, and sin it doesn’t appear that Jesus knew what he was talking about.
We don’t have that here right now.
We see proof all the time.
For example, I along with all of you was horrified this week over the killing of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS.
I don’t believe that we are living in any worse times than any other time throughout human history.
There has always been horrific violence that people do against others.
But what I was thinking was how far away we still are from the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced.
The problem I have with this particular killing is that it is just so barbaric.
I can’t understand how much hate you need to have for someone, how much you need to dehumanize someone to be able to take a knife and cut off someone else head.
So it appears that what Jesus said was just untrue.
That this kingdom that Jesus said was coming is really not here at all.
And it doesn’t appear that we are going to see it anytime soon.

That is until we look closer at this incident.
First of all, the terrorists called the Coptic Christians that they beheaded, “People of the Cross”.
That is a mantle we as Christians should be happy to accept.
We are people of the cross.
We are people whose leader was killed in the most barbaric way possible.
For most the idea that your religious leader would die is not a good story.
It is a story about a loser.
But what we as Christians believe is that it is there on the cross that God revealed God’s true heart.
As Martin Luther said, “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”
In this instrument of death God was working the whole time.
God was working to bring life out of the dark places of the human heart.
It was there on the cross that God entered into our human pain, knowing what we suffer.
This is the scandal of God in Jesus Christ.
That God used this instrument of death to show us God’s ultimate love.
Think about how much the image of the cross has changed because of Jesus Christ.
The cross is now jewelry.
We have domesticated it, but it is supposed to be shocking.
It is the place that God shows up.
Not in a military triumphant victory, but on a cross, dead.
God is hidden.

In fact, within the Gospel of Mark the people who experience Jesus do experience the kingdom of God.
The blind see, the lame walk, demons are cast out.
5,000 people are fed with only five loaves of bread and two fish.
Storms are calmed.
But the Kingdom is still hidden from people.
Jesus tells us that the kingdom is like the smallest of all seeds hidden from the sight of those who are looking for something bigger and better.
It is found in children, love of our neighbor, in the poor widow’s feeble offering.
The Pharisees they demand from Jesus a sign from heaven as proof of the kingdom.
Jesus tells them that the kingdom comes from denying ourselves and picking up our cross.
Jesus tells them it is not to be found in religious triumphantlism, but in service and love for neighbors.
One of the Coptic Christians before he was beheaded yelled the name of Jesus, maybe out of defiance, but also as one who has followed him to death.
And yes, within these deaths the kingdom of God is at work.
It is hidden, but even there it is present because God through Jesus Christ has told us that God is present even in death, even amongst the most barbaric heinous death we can imagine.

If we dig a little deeper we see that the response to this horrific act has not been to make people afraid, or to turn them away from each other, but has brought people together.
As Father Hani Bakhoum Kiroulos, Coptic Catholic Patriarchate secretary said in a statement.
“This tragedy is uniting the entire country, Christians and Muslims. If their aim was to divide us, they have failed.
Immediate harsh condemnation came from Cairo’s Al Azhar University (the most important theological centre for Sunnite Islam: editor’s note:).
And the swift retaliation on the part of the Egyptian air force on Islamic State bases in Libya also demonstrated that for the Egyptian government its citizens are all equal and that Egypt is suffering as a nation from the bloodthirsty delirium of the terrorists”.
God is hidden in suffering, in death, in the poor, the widow, and in children.

This is not the same thing as saying that God has plan.
That God wanted to these 21 Coptic Christians to die in this horrific way so we could come together and learn a lesson.
It is saying that the world is filled with horrific things that happen all the time.
But that God is in the midst of those things, often hidden from us, working to bring God’s kingdom to earth.

Because what Jesus says to us is that the reaction to this kingdom is to repent, and believe in the Good News.
The action items for you and I are not about retaliation.
It is about us turning around, to be turned around so that we might be able to experience and see this hidden kingdom.
Because what sin does is have us look for it in the wrong places.
We try to find it in shiny things in money, in power, in control over others, in our own safety, and selfish acts, instead of finding it in love, forgiveness, community, and mercy.
God hidden in the things often rejected and despised by the world.
God is hidden in things that the world calls week.

Now, we are rightfully upset, angry when 21 people are beheaded on a beach.
We might even feel fear that this could be us someday.
But the question that we have to ask ourselves is what will be our response.
I don’t mean, what do you think President Obama should do?
I mean what is your response to things like this that we see.
What does it do to our spirit, to our soul?
As people of faith our response has to be a faithful one.
That what we are about is Kingdom building.
We are people of the Cross who see God hidden in the world.
We see God working through things that others don’t see or understand.
Because of this we will not act out of fear.
We will pray for the lives lost.
We will pray for those who committed this heinous act that they might turn from their ways.
We will pray that God forgive them.
We will pray that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
We will repent of our own hatred and prejudice.
We will repent and turn to God so that we might follow Jesus and pick up our cross and follow him.
We will receive the Good News that God has won the victory over death and sin.
We will receive the Good News that God forgives sinners.
We will receive the Good News that even though it is hidden we still do experience God’s kingdom now.
We will receive the Good News that the blind see, the lame walk, people are fed, the poor are uplifted, and children welcomed.
Because we believe what Jesus told us, that even though the Kingdom is small and hidden like a mustard seed, it still grows to something more than we can imagine.

I want to end with saying that we had two members of our congregation die this week.
We had another member who lost his 2 ½ year old nephew.
It was another one of those weeks for me that I needed God.
I needed to believe that God was in the middle of it all.
Not that all of those things made sense, or had some greater purpose (because a 2 ½ year old dying make no sense, and has no purpose.)
But that God was here now, hidden among those deaths.
I needed to believe in it this week, as I do all weeks.

I thank God that we are people of the cross.
That Jesus came to show us the depths that God goes to show us God’s love.
That Jesus came to show us this kingdom hidden in those small things that everyone else discards.
And this lent let us repent and believe in the Good News so that we can see that God’s kingdom is here hidden amongst us.

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