On Not Building the Kingdom

If you hang around with a certain kind of Christian long enough,
you’ll hear it.

You’ll hear them make the audacious claim that
through our prayers and through our actions
we are building the Kingdom of God.

Now this is the sort of Christian who sees social justice projects
as the building blocks of God’s Kingdom…
the sort who is predisposed to see God’s Kingdom
as just a few progressive social uprisings away from fruition.
And this sort of Christian has sometimes been me…

But…as you might guess, when I really think about it…
I find this all more than a little theologically problematic.

Because I think that these sorts of assertions tend to simultaneously
over-estimate the importance of our good deeds
/and/ under-estimate the radical nature of God’s Kingdom.
These kinds of assertions permit us to write our good deeds,
firmly into the narrative of God’s redemptive work,
without really inquiring much into what sort of thing
the Kingdom might actually be
and what full participation in the Kingdom might require of us.

So, we can very easily end up
with a domesticated vision of the Kingdom
and then begin attempting to construct it for ourselves,
even though we haven’t the faintest idea
about what materials and methods are necessary…
…and even though we have no real blueprint.

Indeed,
as far as I have been able to ascertain,
the Kingdom just isn’t something
that can be humanly constructed.
It isn’t something that can be /achieved,/
even through our very best efforts.
The Kingdom is something to be received,
rather than something for us to make.

And this is uncomfortable knowledge.
It doesn’t match our understanding of ourselves
as people who want to do good,
who want to make the world a better place,
and who think that trying harder is almost always the best way forward.

Indeed: to say that the Kingdom is not “achievable”
seems almost to say that it is impossible,
that it is beyond our reach and our striving,
and that, as a result,
it might not even be worth hoping or yearning for.

And this all just feels pretty darn nihilistic.
So we tell ourselves that we must hold onto the belief – at all costs –
that we can and should try to build the Kingdom
through our projects and through our efforts.
Because if we let go of this belief, what hope would there be
for a more peaceful, prosperous future?
We’re supposed to yearn for the Kingdom,
and the scriptures depict the Kingdom as something worth yearning for.

But if we can’t do anything to get it,
anything to make it arrive more quickly…what’s the point?

Perhaps, to get a better sense of the point,
we’ll have to start by getting a better sense
of what the Scriptures really say about the Kingdom.

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In our reading today from Matthew’s Gospel,
we hear a succession of brief, pithy statements
about what the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven is like.

First we hear:
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.
And then, the Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast.

So the Kingdom of Heaven, it seems,
must be something very small and almost imperceptible.
It must be something hidden and practically invisible.
And yet, it must also something that grows.
Something that multiplies and proliferates.

If we take these statements at face value, then,
it becomes fairly clear that the Kingdom of Heaven
is not really a place or a thing.
It’s not something we can really locate in space or time.
Rather, the Kingdom seems to be “pure potentiality.”
The Kingdom seems to be raw reproductive power –
much like the power which is contained in a seed or in yeast.

But what, precisely, is being reproduced
in the Kingdom of Heaven?
What exactly is the content of the Kingdom of Heaven?

Of course, people have been talking about this for a long time,
trying to make sense of the abstract concept of Kingdom
that seems to be so central to Jesus’ teaching.
One of the reasons that it’s so challenging is that,
theologically speaking,
the “location” of the Kingdom is in God’s future.
And any experiences we might have of the Kingdom
are an in-breaking of the future into the present.
Which means that the Kingdom is necessarily
“insubstantial”…more of an idea than a territory.
But also /more/ than an idea…more than a vision.

Indeed: the Kingdom only begins to take on flesh
in and through Christian practices:
particularly the practice of self-forgetting love.
Because love –
love which frees people to both give and receive,
generously and without calculation –
IS the Kingdom’s animating force and energy.
So, wherever self-sacrificial love grows,
the Kingdom comes into focus –
focuses as we remember our capacity as human beings
to dignify and to be dignified;
our capacity to help one another re-member
that we are God’s image bearers.
And this, I think, is one of the most potent forms of love there is.

Still…we often get confused about the kind of love
that Jesus is talking about in the Bible…
the kind of love that is the animating force
of the Kingdom of Heaven.
And we often seem to accept a watered-down understanding of love
in place of something requiring more courage and fierceness…
…something far more valuable.

Indeed: today’s Gospel tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven –
and by extension the love that animates it –
are both immensely valuable:
much like a rare pearl or a field containing buried treasure –
things for which a person might spend all that he or she has.

Now I don’t think that many of can imagine
spending /everything/ we have on any one thing.
Could anything ever possibly be that valuable?
Could we ever be enamored enough to take such a big risk?
What could /possibly/ provoke us to spend everything we have,
to go for broke?

Certainly: the only thing I can really imagine prompting
this kind of exorbitance in me
would be love.

And not just some sort of bland, trite, easy love.
But a complex, nuanced, even difficult love.

What do I mean?

A friend of mine recently posted a message on Facebook that really got me thinking. He said this:
The use of the passive voice in the phrase – You Are Loved – is nonsensical and trite. Love always has a subject, or it is not love.

Again:
The use of the passive voice in the phrase – You Are Loved – is nonsensical and trite. Love always has a subject, or it is not love.

In the past week, I’ve seen the phrase “you are loved” copied hundreds of times across my social media channels. In most cases, people were trying to communicate their support for trans folks in light of this week’s proposed transgender military ban.

And while I think it’s quite wonderful
that so many people were speaking up about
injustices facing the trans community,
I couldn’t help but wonder about the subtext conveyed
by the use of the passive voice.
What does it mean when we choose to say
“You are loved”…
…rather than saying
“I love you?”

Now perhaps this might all seem like a whole lot of semantics.
But I think it’s more than that.
I think we hesitate to say
“I love you”
because we know that love takes work.
And we’re not quite sure how many people we can really love
if we want to do it well.
We’re not quite sure there’s really enough love in us to go around.
And I think that part of the reason for this
is that we’ve mostly forgotten
that the love we see on display in the Gospels
is self-sacrificing love.
The love we see on display in the Gospels
is an inconvenient kind of love,
a demanding kind of love,
a risky kind of love.

And mostly,
when I’m reminded of the existence of this kind of love,
I just want to go and hide.
Because it feels like too much.
Too much to ask.
I’m supposed to have good boundaries, right?
Not be too nice.
Not let people take advantage of me
by being too caring or too available.

Now boundaries are generally very good things.
But self-sacrificing love isn’t about negating boundaries.
At least not boundaries that help us remember
how we deserve to be treated by others
and how we ought to treat them.

Yet we sometimes over-extend our healthy boundaries:
extend and expand and enlarge our boundaries
in order to absolve us from getting too involved in other people’s lives,
especially if their lives look a little too messy.

But if we look closely at our Scriptures,
we find Jesus often getting inappropriately involved in other people’s lives.
Inappropriate at least by the measure of the Pharisees.
Yet for Jesus, this involvement was entirely appropriate
because real love requires it.
There’s really no way around it.
You can’t really, truly love someone while holding them at arm’s length.
Intimacy is required.
And yet, we’ve been taught that intimacy is something
to be reserved for a very small number people:
perhaps only our spouses and children
and maybe a very close circle of family and friends.

But what if our Christian calling is a call – always and everywhere –
to get more involved and intimate in the lives of others,
rather than simply to declare God’s love for them.
Because it’s pretty easy to say that God loves everyone.
It’s easy because if exempts us from getting too involved,
from expending our finite store of love
on someone or something who might not be worthy.

So maybe this is where we have to go back to basics…
…all the way back to the notion that the Kingdom
is something to be received
rather than something we can construct.

You see: I don’t think we could possibly construct it.
Because the Kingdom’s building blocks are love,
and we’re always afraid of running out,
of not quite having enough,
of being betrayed.
So if it were up to us,
the Kingdom probably wouldn’t stand much of a chance.
But the good news is that God loves us
with a love that is stronger than death.
God loves us with a love that is inexhaustible and insatiable.

And when we taste even a bit of that love,
we find that we suddenly have more to share.
We find that the supply is not limited,
but infinite.
We find that, when we’re not so worried
about who’s deserving and who’s undeserving,
life becomes a lot more joyful,
a lot more generous,
and a whole lot more playful.

We can get involved,
love fiercely,
and let the chips fall where they may.
And…caught in the act of loving,
the Kingdom just might come into view.

We didn’t even have to work for it.
We just had to let down our guard enough
that love could flow in and through us…
…love from the divine well that never runs dry.

So let’s stop trying to build the Kingdom.
Let’s stop trying so hard to do good.
Let’s become conduits for God’s love,
and let’s revel in the world that love creates.

Amen.

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