Thursday, September 1, 2011

First Things First

Once Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

Last Sunday was the First Sunday in Kingdomtide; at least that’s what it was when I was growing up. In the old United Methodist liturgical calendar the Sundays from the end of August to the beginning of Advent were known as the season of “Kingdomtide.” It was a time to reflect on the biblical promise of the Kingdom of God and to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we were serious about building the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus preached the “good news of the Kingdom of God.” For Jesus, the Kingdom of God was the Gospel. He announced that God was already at work in the world, and we were invited to live in the new reality that God was creating.

The idea of Kingdomtide as a liturgical season began in 1937 and lasted for barely half a century. Kingdomtide just never caught on. Initially, it seemed to have a lot going for it, not the least of which is that stretching out Pentecost, and counting the Sundays after Pentecost, is pretty boring. It also made sense because the fall lectionary texts emphasize building up the Kingdom of God. And after all, Jesus’ whole message was about the Kingdom of God. That was what he called “the good news.” But the season of Kingdomtide was doomed by the combined weight of liturgical purity and the concern (which I share) for looking beyond exclusively masculine terms for God. God is not a King.

When the “new” United Methodist Hymnal was published in 1989, Kingdomtide was gone. I didn’t notice the change for several years. When I saw my error, I briefly surrendered to liturgical conformity and abandoned the season. But it was not long before I changed my mind.

How can we abandon the only liturgical season that is focused on what Jesus actually taught?

Whatever we call it, we need to do it.

Some time in the middle of the last century one of the great preachers said that our greatest task is keeping the idea of the Kingdom of God alive in the human spirit. In the hyper-competitive winner-take-all culture of the twenty-first century, that task is even more urgent. Notions of economic justice, concern for the poor, non-violence, and simplicity are often seen as naïve or un-American. We need to reclaim the language of Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is a profoundly political idea. But it does not translate directly into what we popularly associate with “politics.” It is not about political parties or political labels. As Robert Bellah wrote, "Politics are never ultimate, never absolute. We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world. But our hope does not depend on any political outcome. Our faith and our hope derive from Jesus Christ, who survives all nations and all politics."

When his disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he told them to pray first for the Kingdom of God to come on earth. Two thousand years later, that should still be our first concern.

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