Mark 4:35-41 This past week at our presbytery gathering, we were challenged by Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of our Office of Public Witness in Washington DC. You may remember him– he is good friends with James Parks and preached here at Hunting Ridge one Sunday when I was away. He praised our Presbytery for being willing to confront the issues of racism, classism and poverty, and told us the rest of the denomination was watching us. Because of the unrest last year and the ongoing anxiety about the upcoming trials of the police officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray, Nelson noted that if Presbyterians don’t move forward in being faithful to God’s plan for justice, security, community and healing for all of God’s people, God will certainly move on and use someone else to accomplish the plan! He told us this was our time, a unique moment in history. And then he said: “Don’t blow it.”
Don’t blow it. I took that to mean….Don’t get so tied up in internal issues of the church that you forget your calling to go out to serve. Don’t get so focused on your own spiritual growth that people could say: “those Presbyterians– or that church– or that person– they are so heavenly they are no earthly good.” Don’t miss the opportunity for real change in this city. Don’t ignore your neighbors. Don’t stop searching for the kingdom. Don’t blow it. Nelson describes our work as kingdom work. That is because we are following in the footsteps of Jesus, and his work was to bring in the kingdom of God, not to train the religious establishment, not to pack the pews, not even to grow church membership. Jesus has left us to this kingdom work. On Sunday mornings this Lent we will be unpacking that kingdom work. Where will we find the kingdom? Who makes up the kingdom? And so what is kingdom work?
Some people prefer to avoid the masculine imagery of seeing God as a king who is removed from the common people. Instead they see that our work is to bring in the kin-dom, that is a world where all of us truly become brothers and sisters, kin to each other. Isn’t that what we are looking for in this world of political, racial, economic and gender divides? In this country where leaders are calling for deportation of neighbors and erecting walls? In this city where police officers don’t live and there is a place called Jewtown and neighborhoods where whites won’t live and others where blacks are still not welcome? We are looking for kinship. Connection. Understanding and recognition. We are looking for God’s reign.
Whether it is the Kingdom or Kin-dom, it is not immediately obvious. You can not draw a line on a map around the reign of God. No political nation can claim to be God’s kingdom on earth. There is no visible palace or White House as a seat of power. Jesus describes this kingdom with parables– you know them. The parable of the farmer with his seed, the parable of the lamp under a bushel basket, the parable of the mustard seed. The kingdom grows when the word of God is received and nurtured, the kingdom grows from something very tiny to something very big. After using images to describe the kingdom, he lives out the kingdom of God with his actions.
Imagine after a long day of teaching to a growing crowd of Jews, the sun is going down, and you hear him say: “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” He is going to head out at night to the other side. Night is the time to shut the door and curl up on the couch with a book. To gather around the table with your family. To rest. Not to leave what is known, what is comfortable, what is familiar. Not to go to the other side. Yet he expects his disciples to go with him. He gives no reason, or at least Mark does not bother to record it. It is the end of the day, this is a clear shift from one kind of teaching to something very new and very different.
You see, the other side of Lake Galilee is a foreign place. It is not home to Jews, but to people who did not share in their faith in God, people who were outsiders, unclean, better left alone. The other side of the lake was Gentile territory. And everyone knew it. Jesus does not just happen to find himself in Gentile territory. He chooses to go to the other side. He is modeling for us what it is to be unharbored. I picked up that image from another preacher, and I share it with you because it is so telling as we go searching for the kin-dom of God. We will not find it if we remain safe and secure in our own harbor, in our own church family, in our own neighborhood, in our own comfort zone. Jesus is unharbored, setting out for the other side. The disciples become unharbored too. Likely more than a little nervously. Likely full of misgivings and doubts– why in the world does he want to mix with “them”? What is going to become of this movement? Other followers cannot really be expected to cross over. They are just too different over there. They won’t understand his message. This has got to be a colossal waste of time. Being unharbored is not a comfortable feeling.
When the storm came up, the disciples must have been muttering to one another: “I knew this was not a good idea. We should have stayed home. Now we are all goners. And he is sleeping through it?” Rev. Brian Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary, focused multiple hours of teaching on this one text during the Church Educator’s conference downtown a year ago. He pointed out that there is a storm brewing inside the boat as well. It is the storm of fear of the unknown, of discomfort of leaving the predictable, of anxiety of being unharbored, of blaming one another and the sleeping teacher, and the storm of desperation leading to giving up.
Jesus has no intention of letting storms inside the boat or outside the boat keep him from reaching the other side. His kin-dom work is not limited to his neighborhood. It includes the foreigners on the other side. His work is always to connect rather than divide. Mark describes multiple encounters between Jesus and Gentiles– remember the non-Jewish woman who begged for healing for her daughter? The norms of the day would not have allowed Jesus to reach across the divide between Jew and Gentile. The woman insisted. The woman’s faith was unharbored, out in uncharted territory. She knew that there were enough crumbs left to help her daughter. And indeed there were. Jesus heals Gentiles on the other side more than once–removing an unclean spirit on this trip, and then, later in the gospel, restoring hearing and speech to a Gentile unable to communicate. He even duplicated his crowd feeding miracle on the other side. He fed a crowd of Gentiles, breaking all kinds of tradition, all kinds of religious rules, all kinds of social boundaries.
What is on the other side of the lake for us? Where is a place we avoid? What kind of people do we steer clear of? What are we afraid to talk about? This past week, several of us attended the first of a year long series of conversations sponsored by the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies here in Baltimore. We heard a Christian perspective first. The next two speakers will bring a Jewish perspective and a Muslim perspective. Then the Institute is calling for a city wide conversation in small, diverse groups. The whole series is called “Imagining Justice in Baltimore”. Right now we have to imagine it. Imagine what this city will be like after the trials of the police officers are over. Will we be a place where God’s kin-dom is visible? Will boundaries have been smashed and new relationships formed between people who once lived on the other side? I am not naive enough to think we will repair the broken-ness of centuries in such a short time. But if we do not imagine, if we do not start talking to one another, if we are not willing to be unharbored, we will never reach the other side. Storms come up, both outside and inside the boat. But a storm is not a reason to stay home. If we are going to hunt for God’s kin-dom, we have to get out of the harbor. We have to be willing to go with Jesus to the other side. As unfamiliar as it might be for us, he is already there, already at work, just waiting for us to show up and dig in. What boundary can you break? What conversation can you begin? How do you get involved in the upcoming election process? How do you imagine justice in Baltimore? That is justice for all, not just for some. We can not say, “It is not my problem.” As long as justice is missing, it is our problem.
Ready to be unharbored? We have one small opportunity this Lent, to be a part of a weekly small group with brothers and sisters from two other Presbyterian churches- one mostly white and one mostly black. It is venturing out from your own harbor. It is breaking some boundaries. It is crossing over to the other side. I challenge you to commit to a small group– to participate, to listen, to learn. We are in this kin-dom hunt together. We will not find the kin-dom if we stay in the harbor. We must become unharbored. We must cross to the other side. If we don’t do it, God will use someone else to get it done. In the words of J. Herbert Nelson: “Don’t blow it!”