READING: Genesis 12:1-4; Romans 4:1-5,13-17
SERMON : "A Kingdom People"
The following Sermon was delivered by the Rev. Debra Bowman,
Executive Secretary of the BC Conference of The United Church
of Canada at the semi-annual meeting of Kamloops-Okanagan
Presbytery on the Second Sunday of Lent, (Feb 24) 2002.
Recently we have received several calls at the office, and Tanis has received calls,
asking what the church is doing about the cutbacks the provincial government has
announced. These phone calls have brought to the front of my mind and heart
questions about how Christians are called to live out our faith.
For a long time I thought I knew the answer to this question. I was gone from the
church for many years and returned in part because of the commitment that I saw the
United Church has to social justice. I thought our denomination’s efforts to bring
about God’s kingdom put us on the side of the angels.
My newly found confidence in my faith and my church was rocked for a bit in my final
days at seminary. When I was defending my position paper in order to obtain my
Masters in Divinity one of my professors significantly unsettled me with his
question. Harry Maier is a Lutheran, and so was asking the question as someone who
stands outside our denomination. His question was: “As a United Church person, do
you believe that God would be able to bring about the kingdom if you stopped your
The first thing I knew in response to this question was that I should never have
invited Harry to be on the committee that interviewed me. I could feel a trap
opening up before me. I knew, even in my rookie state, that for a social justice
oriented United Church person the answer should be “no” – God’s realm will not
come if we do not strive for justice. But there was a little bit of me that knew
that answer might be a heresy. How dare we doubt God’s ability to bring forth
God’s realm, with or without our help. I don’t remember my answer, but I know it
was inadequate. Or maybe, as at many times in our faith life, it was indeed
quite adequate to say simply: “I don’t know.” Maybe having the wisdom to admit I
did not know the answer explains how I passed.
I see now that Harry was pointing me towards the two strands of our faith that we
can follow all the way back to the New Testament. One strand holds that in order
to enter into the kingdom of God we need to act in particular ways. We need to
respond to God’s invitation to live righteously. We need to be faithful to God’s
will for creation. We need to be alert and ready for the coming of God’s kingdom.
The other strand says that there is nothing we can do to earn our way into the
kingdom. No matter what, we are children of God, welcomed into the realm of God.
Nothing is beyond God’s forgiveness. And the realm of God is already amongst us.
The reason Harry asked the question is because he is Lutheran, a member of a
denomination that leans more towards the strand that believes God’s future is
amongst us and we are swept up in it. The reason the question stumped me is
because I am formed in United Church tradition, which tips more towards the need
for us to strive towards the attainment of God’s kingdom. What I have come to
see in the last few weeks is that in order for us to live fully and hopefully as
Christians, these two strands must be woven together.
This morning we heard about God’s call to Abraham and Sarah to: “Go from your
country and your kindred and your father’s house to a land that I will show you.”
Abraham and Sarah are often held up as examples of courageous servants of God.
They exemplify people who did the right thing in response to God’s call.
Striking out and doing what God wanted. Leaving behind all that they knew for
an address unknown.
After the Genesis reading we heard Paul’s interpretation of Abraham and Sarah’s
actions. Paul was an early Christian teacher and evangelist. When we listen in
on Paul’s letter to the Romans we are overhearing him grapple with the two
strands of our faith. In his letter Paul praises Abraham and Sarah not for
their actions, but rather for the spirit in which they lived out those actions.
According to Paul, Abraham and Sarah behaved as people who believed the promise
of God. They believed so much in God’s promise for the future that they could
live with confidence in the present, no matter how harrowing and uncertain their
journey appeared. Abraham and Sarah let go of their comfortable and familiar
present and allowed themselves to be pulled into God’s future.
Paul argues that it was this letting go and allowing themselves to be pulled into
God’s promise that makes them righteous. It was not that they did what God said,
but more the spirit in which they did it, which puts them in the company of the
The familiar Protestant work ethic indicates that we should work, ever harder,
towards bringing about the kingdom of God. It calls us to push for God’s domain,
to create and work towards a better world. I picture us as miners working in a
pit, trying to get closer and closer to the light at the end of the tunnel.
God’s future is ahead of us and we strain to move closer, dragging all creation
behind us like a heavy backpack. Much of the dynamic and strength seems to come
from us, and we put all we can muster into the effort. We sometimes function as
if the hope and promise of God exist only in the future, waiting for us to
attain them. Paul is arguing against this way of living our faith.
In the other way of standing in faith the future is already breaking in upon us.
Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s future has
already become a part of our present. We are already living in God’s dwelling
place. From this faith stance our work is to seek and celebrate where we see
the light. The dynamic and energy comes from God, pulling us into God’s
future. Paul would say that it is into this future, into this new realm, that
Abraham and Sarah released themselves.
The question for us then becomes not “what work do we need to do” but what is
holding us back from being pulled into God’s future. Not how can we work
harder but what are my fingers and heart wrapped around that is holding me in
a present that is not fully the promise of God. What keeps me from being
pulled into God’s abode, into that address unknown with Abraham and Sarah?
There is a reason that a United Church person might be nervous affirming our
faith in God’s ability to bring about the kingdom without us. We might worry
that we and everybody else will become complacent and lazy. If we believed
that God’s promise is already upon us we might get comfy and sit back and
wait for it. We might put down tools, stop baking pies and having auctions,
stop petitioning and making Christmas hampers and just live happy in God’s
However, believing that God’s future will not come without our participation
has its own dangers. We could begin living as ‘functional atheists’. Parker
Palmer writes: “…functional atheism, [is] the belief that ultimate
responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious,
unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we
are the ones who must make it happen – a conviction held even by people who
talk a good game about God. It often leads to burnout, depression and
despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will and we become
embittered about that fact...” (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p.88)
If we really believe that God’s promise has been fulfilled amongst us we
would abandon ourselves into this vision of the future and live as if it
existed now. We would seek signs of God’s justice, and raise a fuss when
what was called justice fell short of the mark. We would love kindness.
We would treat ourselves and others not as means to getting something we
want but as ends in and of themselves. Our very way of living would embody
and give shape to the prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in
heaven.” Our joy, our confidence would be contagious and others would want
to know about what sustains us. We would live lives of courage and hope, and
cynicism would be a thing of the past.
All that we did would not be in order to bring about God’s righteous realm,
but would be because we live in God’s realm and we could behave no other way.
We would not be seeking to create some utopian order but would be the flesh
and bones manifestation of what we believe is the future promise of God.
It’s possible that living as a kingdom people might not look all that different
from how we’d live if we thought the kingdom depended all on us. Where we
would know the difference would be in our hearts. As citizens of God’s Shalom,
we would have an energy that springs from the joy of living in God’s future,
rather than an exhaustion that comes of wishing we were.
A friend of mine was telling me about her father-in-law who many years ago was
involved in the formation of the CCF, the party that eventually became the NDP.
He was a committed Christian. Pat told me that it was evident in her father-
in-law’s stories about those early days that the actions of he and his
colleagues were not part of a political manifesto. They acted the way they
thought people would act when one lived in the kingdom. They didn’t take on
the issues they did in order to create the kingdom but because when one lives
in the kingdom one makes right those things that aren’t consistent with how the
kingdom should be.
The other evening I had dinner with an old friend whose integrity and commitment
I have always admired. Things are made a bit awkward by the fact that he is one
of the government ministers central to the changes that are taking place. We
got to a place where he was talking about how his people have to discern between
what one can change and what one can’t change. Their job is to focus their
efforts on what they can change. I said to him that my people believe that not
only can all things change, they have changed through Christ. And that our job
is to point out where some things don’t measure up to God’s house rules.
I am no longer convinced that it will be helpful for the church to act as the
conscience of the nation. It will not serve for us to act as if we are fully
righteous and the other/the government is fully wrong. With all due respect, it
doesn’t work to ask, Is the Government Christian? To be Christian is not
something they claimed. It is not something any sitting government has claimed
for quite some time. It is our confession, our claim. We are entering into a
time when our engagement with other bodies needs to be more in the spirit of
interfaith dialogue. We need to engage in the spirit of a people of God,
listening and holding God’s other children with respect and openness. And then,
and here’s the hard part, we need to witness to our faith, to our conviction of
another reality, another possibility.
What will the church do? I believe our call is to watch and celebrate where we
see God’s future amongst us. Our call is to hold up situations where God’s
future is impaired. Our call is to give witness that not only can things
change, the world has changed and God’s promise is fulfilled amongst us. And
then to live as citizens in that future, even if the exact address is unknown.
copyright - Rev. Debra Bowman, 2002, 2005
- page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2005
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.