Luke 10. 1-11, 16-20
The kingdom of god isn’t a there-and-then king of thing;
it’s a here-and-now one!
A woman dies and goes to heaven where she finds herself third in line at the pearly gates. God’s just instituted a stricter screening policy and, now, each person is required to state their former occupation and yearly salary. The first person tells St. Peter, “I was an actor and, last year, I made five million dollars.” “Thank you,” says St. Peter, “You can go in.” The next person tells St. Peter, “I was a lawyer and, last year, I made two hundred fifty thousand dollars.” “Thank you,” said St. Peter, “and welcome.” Finally, the woman gets to the pearly gates and St. Peter says, “And you?” She said, “Last year, I made fifteen thousand dollars.” St. Peter looked up and smiled. “Oh! And what did you teach?”
That was the joke of the week for September 20-26, back in 2010! And you have no idea how long it took to find a joke I could use in a sermon! Politically correct! Socially acceptable! But I knew it had to be about St. Peter at the pearly gates. Over the past few months, I’ve talked a lot about popular theology. Land this is what popular theology looks like. It’s what it sounds like. Bottom line, it’s all about heaven. Getting past St. Peter. Getting through the pearly gates. Getting onto the streets of gold. We hear the phrase “the kingdom of god,” like we did, this morning, and that’s the image that comes to mind. A world up high and far away. A place above and beyond. Pie in the sky, bye and bye. It’s all St. Peter at the gates. Everyone lined up. Waiting patiently. Given the chance to argue their case for getting in.
Now I have to admit, up until a couple weeks ago, I thought African American spirituals were about the same thing. Dying and getting into heaven. “I looked over Jordan and what did I see / Coming for to carry he home / A band of angels coming after me / Coming for to carry me home.” “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder / Every rung goes higher and higher /
Keep on climbing, we will make it / Soldiers of the cross.” To me, these were the yearnings of a people possessed. Literally possessed. Hungering, thirsting, for the glories and the joys of heaven. For something better. For something more. “The music of unhappy people,” W.E.B. duBois called it, “the music of the children of disappointment.” Singing of suffering and death, of longing too deep for words. And in my whiteness, in my privilege, I thought it was all about that happily-ever-after. “O Canaan, Sweet Canaan, I’m bound for the land of Canaan.” “Run to Jesus – shun the danger – I don’t expect to stay much longer here. I’m gonna leave you. I’m bound for the promised land. On the other side of Jordan, I’m bound for the promised land.”
I hear those words, those phrases. I’ve sung them, sometimes, at school. I’ve sung there, here, with the church. And I thought they were all about heaven. Life after death. Life beyond the grave. Life on the other side of tomorrow. The kingdom at the end of the rainbow. I’d sing the songs and I wouldn’t think twice. Surely, there was more to faith, to believing, than that. But I was watching tv, the other morning. One of those “breaking news and in-depth analyses, commentary and informed perspectives about the latest headlines” shows. There were talking about a book that just came out. Songs of America was the title. Patriotism, Protest, and the music that made a nation the subtitle. It was written by an historian Jon Meacham and, believe it or not, co-authored by Tim McGraw. They talked about music from the beginning to the present. But one thing, in particular, that they talked about were the spirituals.
They said, most of us – just like me – think they’re all about heaven. They aren’t. The songs are about freedom! They’re about deliverance! They’re about redemption! That fiery chariot? The one that swings low? That’s comin’ for to carry them home? It was the Underground Railroad! It was people like Harriet Tubman! Canaan? The Promised Land? That was the North! The Jordan dividing the world into Salve and Free! The dream of the spirituals – like the dreams of the enslaved – wasn’t for a spiritual heaven. It was for freedom right here! Right now! Freedom from the taskmasters! Freedom from the forced labor! People aren’t patient when it comes to suffering, to oppression, when they build cities for other people to live in. Just like the Hebrews, enslaved Africans here in America groaned under their slavery. And they cried out … for their husbands and wives! For the lives of their children and their grandchildren and their children after them God heard! And god saw! And god took notice! And that … THAT … is the kingdom!
It’s not a gated community among the stars. It’s god taking notice! It’s god taking notice and doing something about it! Kingdom here! Kingdom now! Not a year from now! A decade! A generation! Not a thousand years! Not a thousand thousand! It’s god taking notice and god setting free! Us! Ours! And leading us through the wilderness! Through the wilderness and into a place of our own! Jesus says, “The kingdom of God has come near to you!” It’s not a then-and-there kind of thing. After the suffering. On the other side of the cross. Beyond the grave. It’s right here and it’s right now. Smack, dab, in the middle of everything. A promise of hope. A promise of life. A promise of love. God hears the groans and sighs. God sees the tears. And god takes notice. Then, god does what needs doing. “Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land; Tell old Pharaoh To let My people go!” But for me – and for those like me – in the name of faith, of believing, I put that kingdom off. Around the bend. Over the hill. On the other side of the sunrise. And because of that, love has remained a distant thing.
So, a woman dies and goes to heaven. At the pearly gates, she’s met by St. Peter … We groan. We roll our eyes. In a weak moment, we might, even, chuckle. We go on our way. Entertained. Amused. But make no mistake, Saint Peter has no role to play. Not in the kingdom of god. And pearly gates have no redeeming value. The good news isn’t that we’ll make our way past and through and onto. The good news is that God set that all aside coming to us! Living with us! Living for us! Living among us! God still sees the oppression! God still hears the groans! God still takes notice! And god still sets free! Sets free from all that binds! From all that holds captive! And because of that, the kingdom continues to come near! My friends, this is our Canaan! This is our Promised Land! For our sake, god is still crossing the river!