When the Kingdom Calls
Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time/11th February 2007
It was Reverend Parker’s first Sunday at his new church. After worship he stood to greet members as they were leaving the church. A long-time member of the church came up to him and she said, “Mr. Parker, I had heard about you before you came to us. I had heard that you were difficult, that you could be controversial and outspoken. But I want to tell you that I listened carefully to you and I was pleased that in your sermon, I can say that you said absolutely nothing. Nothing! I’m sure that you will do so well at this church.”
Implied in this statement is the belief that should the sermon actually say something, as opposed to nothing, or should a sermon actually do something or cause something to happen, that would be a cause for concern in the church. Also implied in this comment at the door is that ministers should not be “difficult,” “controversial,” or “outspoken”; there’s the implicit assumption that ministers ought to behave, not rock the boat, conform. Now there are plenty of ministers who are difficult, controversial, and outspoken in ways that are – I’ll be polite here – unbecoming. The way some carry on often gets in the way of the gospel and the church’s ministry. People can and will get angry with what’s preached in the pulpit. But sometimes the anger focused on the preacher is misplaced, when all the preacher is trying to do is faithfully preach the gospel and be true to what the text requires, not to the crowd or the congregation. Sometimes sermons are difficult and controversial and the preaching prophetic because the gospel is difficult and the kingdom controversial, and the preacher, under the conviction of the Spirit and the burden of responsibility – first! – to God speaks out and proclaims a Word of hope that puts him or her at odds with everyone because one has to. Sometimes our dis-ease with a sermon might have less to do with the preacher, and more to do with our dis-ease with the gospel and the prerogatives of the kingdom.
I wonder what the woman from Mr. Parker’s congregation would have said after hearing Jesus’ sermon on the plain here in Luke 6? Because you can’t say of this exceptionally brief sermon that nothing was said. In fact, so much of what Jesus said was and remains difficult and controversial and stands out as a condemnatory word over all of our lives. The gospel is difficult and the kingdom controversial and Jesus’ call to follow involves speaking out against everyone and everything that hinders God’s vision for the world.
Why is the gospel difficult? Yes, it is good news and a word of comfort. But before it’s a word of comfort, it’s a word of challenge. To embrace God’s vision for this world puts us at odds with the values of a society that insists on organizing itself around the very things that are opposed to God – like our obsession with wealth and consumerism and ignoring injustice everywhere.
Jesus did not come only to save our souls for a spiritual, heavenly realm. This often comes as a complete surprise to many Christians. Jesus did not come only to save our souls for a spiritual, heavenly realm. Read the gospels carefully and you’ll see they “give little or no attention to the salvation of individual souls, instead,” as Obery Hendricks, Jr. makes clear in his ground-breaking new book, The Politics of Jesus, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ “focus [was]on the welfare and salvation of the entire community.” Listen to how Jesus summed up the purpose of his ministry: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God…for I was sent for this” (Luke 4:43). Many have wanted to spiritualize the kingdom. In Matthew’s gospel, for example, Matthew has Jesus preaching about the kingdom of heaven. Being a faithful Jew, Matthew says “heaven” instead of pronouncing the divine name. This has been misconstrued to mean the kingdom of God is “up there” or a state of things beyond this world in heaven. Many have tried to personalize it and transform the gospel into personal piety. Even Matthew has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in the spirit” (Matthew 5:3).
But Luke will have none of that. He’s not making a virtue out of being poor, hungry, or hated. But saying all this injustice must come to an end and God’s people have to seek it, because it’s God will. The good news for the poor, the hungry, and the hated cannot wait, but must come now. Remember Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth which was the lectionary text just a few weeks ago: “The Spirit of God has anointed me,” he said, “to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to declare the year of the Lord’s favor, jubilee” (Luke 4:18-19). By “poor,” Jesus refers to a whole class of people weighed down and crushed by the wealthy and powerful; “release” refers to those unjustly imprisoned – as the Roman prisons were full of political prisoners and the poor. To let the “oppressed” go free means relief for those being crushed under an unbearable weight, the weight of the Roman Empire exploiting Israel.
The reason why Jesus attracted so much attention and why the crowds followed him and the authorities considered him a threat was precisely because of the good news he was bringing with his message, which would mean the undoing of the very political, economic, and social systems that were crushing God’s people, which is never God’s will. God’s will for the way things will be is summed up in the word “kingdom” or “realm” of God. The kingdom is both coming and is here. It is now. “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” Jesus said, now; he did not say, the poor will be eventually blessed – in time, just be patient. Blessed are the hungry, now, for they will be filled; he didn’t say the hungry will eventually be fed – in time, just be patient. And if you’re weeping because life is unbearable he didn’t say just be patient, instead, you will laugh. “Justice delayed is justice delayed,” as William Glastone (1809-1898) said, the British Prime Minister who was a goad to Queen Victoria (1818-1901). “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Jesus doesn’t say in Luke, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but “Blessed are the poor.” Because good news is coming to them, that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven.” The conditions that produced their poverty will be changed, the systems dismantled, for the tables are being turned.
This is why talk of the kingdom becomes controversial and makes us uneasy because it turns everything upside down and inside out. It’s revolutionary. When the British commander Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805) surrendered to the Continental Army in Yorktown, 1781, effectively ending the American Revolution, his fife and drum corps played a special tune. As the British army marched through the American columns, laying down their arms, the band played an old song called, “The World Turned Upside Down.” So it was – who would have believed that a rag-tag army could defeat the largest military might of the age, igniting this “lively experiment” of democratic government of the people? Jesus’ kingdom message is like that, a “too-good-to-be-true” message of God’s revolutionary mercy, turning the world upside down – or perhaps the right way up. And inevitably someone is not going to like this.
Kingdom values put us at odds with society’s values. That’s why when Jesus invited us to believe the gospel he also asked us to “repent.” By repent, Jesus didn’t mean give up personal sins or to change behavior or accept a new set of beliefs. To “repent and believe the good news” means “give up your agendas and trust me for mine.” That’s what Jesus is effectively doing with his students, and he selects twelve apostles or messengers to go out and preach a sermon that does something, to invite people to give up their comfortable agendas and take on his. Give up the ways that lead away from God and take up the way of God. Make God’s vision your vision. In other words, invite people to get with the program, God’s program. Will we align ourselves with God’s vision or not? This isn’t easy – then or now – because to say Yes to God’s way inevitably involves saying No to our way. Saying Yes to what God values inevitably involves saying No to what we or our society might value.
Thus Jesus says, “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” Because if we are tempted by the need for approval and worrying about what everyone else thinks, saying Yes to God’s agenda becomes all the more difficult. There are four woe statements to contrast the four blessing statements. We probably gravitate to the statement on money, because we know how wealthy we are and that makes us uncomfortable. Jesus had lots to say about money, about how wealth is obtained and how it should be used and shared. He does not condemn the rich per se, “but those who gain or maintain their riches through unjust means: theft, subterfuge, exploitation, greed, stinginess, and especially violence.” If money is what matters most in life, then we will be consoled by it, making Jesus’ message irrelevant because our poverty of need makes God a curiosity or just one more commodity to be purchased or controlled by our money.
Jesus’ statement of warning to those who are full, speaks volumes to our consumerist mentality, where we are expected to buy, buy, buy more than we need or even want and feeling all the more empty. And for those who are laughing, having a good time, not weighted down by the plight of the poor or the oppressed, the wrongfully imprisoned or hated, living easy as if these people with these needs don’t even exist, there will come a time for weeping.
But it’s this last “woe” statement that is often overlooked, yet connected to all of them, which says something about our own resistance to Jesus’ difficult and controversial message of kingdom life. “Woe to you if all speak well of you.” If we’re worrying too much about what others think, instead of what God thinks, then we are far from the kingdom. I once heard a Franciscan describe this condition as the “sin of human respect.” It is prizing what others think over God. We have to be very suspicious if our service to God doesn’t put us to some degree at odds with the world. If society is applauding us and always praising the church, then we have to ask if, unwillingly, we have not sold out to the culture; have we been co-opted by society, thus becoming complicit in the injustice society is inflicting upon God’s people? Does our desire for everyone’s approval, prizing conforming above all else, to be socially acceptable, hinder us from following Jesus and being the church? I think we know the answer.
I know this is a very demanding text, because there’s much in here that we don’t like to see. It’s difficult. There is so much that tries to lure us away from kingdom living. No one comes out looking innocent here. We’re all in this together. I struggle with this text, especially this last woe statement. I struggled writing this sermon and the thought of preaching it, because the radicality of the gospel shakes us to the roots. I’m not trying to be difficult or even controversial, the text is already this and more – so don’t be angry with me. Or go ahead, be angry with me. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is our calling. But who wants to be called to this? But do we really want to be called if this is what’s involved? Did the disciples know what they were getting into when they said yes to Jesus’ call? They didn’t have a job description before following. I wonder how many of them wanted to change their minds. Who is called to such work? The church of Jesus Christ. Tough – you better believe it. But I don’t think it’s tough because God is trying to make it difficult for us, to set the standard high and then judge us for not attainting it. That would be abusive, right? Christ summons us to kingdom living because he loves us, he loves us and everyone weighed down by injustice and doesn’t want anything or anyone hindering this love for us. Jesus gives us this alternative vision because he loves us. God loves us and doesn’t want anything or anyone getting in the way of this vision for all God’s beloved children. It is in love that he calls us and asks us to take up his vision. Imagine then, what our lives would look like, imagine what the church could be like if we
aligned ourselves with that vision,
aligned ourselves with that hope,
aligned ourselves with this love?
 Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 6. This observation is evident particularly in Luke’s Gospel. See Simeon’s prayer in Luke 2:25-35. Obery was a classmate of mine at Princeton Seminary.
 In John’s Gospel, Jesus says his kingdom is not of or from this world, but he doesn’t say it isn’t realized in this world (John 18:36). See also John 3:16-17.
 Hendricks, 7-8. The Greek here, “ptochois,” refers to the collective or class identity of the poor; “thrawo” means “oppress” or “crush.”
 See Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 56ff.
 An English ballad written in 1643.
 The reference to “lively experiment” refers to Roger Williams (1603-1684) formation of the Rhode Island colony upon democratic principles of religious liberty and the separation of church and state. It also refers generally to the new undertaking of democratic government after the American Revolution.
 From the worship bulletin: “…when injustice is reigning, the world will have to be turned once more the right way up for God’s justice and kingdom to come to birth. And that will provoke opposition from people who like things the way they are.” N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham Cathedral. Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 71.
 This was the Jewish historian, Josephus’ (37-c.100) understanding of the word “repent.” Cited by William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, February 11, 2007, 26.