I have bad news: the Kingdom of God is not like Burger King.
Really, this is Good News, we might even say it’s the Good News, but just like the questioners in John’s Gospel this morning, I wonder if we often expect that the Kingdom of God, that the way of Jesus, that the call of the Cross, will be somewhat more familiar than it is, that the habits we’re called to take up would fit a bit more seamlessly into our lives as is, that the modes of thinking and talking and relating that God often inhabits himself would be a bit more accessible, comfortable, more common sensical to our current proclivities and desires.
“Tell us plainly,” they say, “are you the Christ?” Remember, these are not strangers off the street, they are not pagans who have never heard a word of Scripture in their lives, they are not even worshippers of some other religion, used to sacred words but not familiar with the proclamations of the God Yahweh. These are people who have heard the words of the God of the burning bush and of the great prophets since they could understand language, and probably even before that; the voice of God ought to be one of the most familiar to their ears, one of the most identifiable to their minds and hearts, and yet as they are faced with the very Son of God, the man who proclaims, “the Father and I are one,” they eye him suspiciously — even more than that, the verse after our Gospel lesson ends today, their response to his saying that he’s one with God, is to pick stones up to kill him. No joke.
How is it that these religious people, who had been fed the milk of God since their childhood, couldn’t recognize God when God was literally staring them in the face? I wonder how we might be, like them, so uncomfortable with the presence of God, with what God stirs up in us, and what God wishes for our good, that we, too, might miss the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, the signposts and hints at Jesus’s presence. So, I suggest that we spend a few minutes this morning considering how to recognize Jesus our Lord, and his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, that we might be ready to hear his words a bit more clearly here in 2019.
Indeed, I believe that’s why you’re here this morning — you’re here be trained and indoctrinated in seeing and staying in the Kingdom of God.
You’ve come to a building that looks like no other buildings you sit in during the week, to sing songs that probably don’t sound like the songs or lyrics that you hear all week long, to hear words that are not the kind of talking or language that you listen to in supermarkets or on the radio, or at the water cooler in your office — you have come here to be made uncomfortable, so here I am, to help you (and to help myself) settle into this discomfort, even for a little while.
I was reading this week about churches and church communities, and whether they’re supposed to make you feel comfortable, or uncomfortable, whether you’re supposed to feel at home and at ease, or whether you’re supposed to feel at least a little bit weird when you show up on Sunday morning.
Isn’t that a counter-cultural thing to do? To drag yourself every single week to that same place that makes you feel kinda awkward? And yet, if we’re doing church right, that’s exactly what happens. Really, it’s a little bit like sticking to a meal plan, or to a work out schedule, except this one is for our hearts and souls. It stretches muscles that we sometimes forget we have, and it assigns us things to digest that don’t feel very exciting. So why would we stick with it? Why do we keep doing uncomfortable things and listening to these weird prayers and subjecting ourselves to these all-too-authentic people?
Because, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me… no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus says.
There’s something about the voice that we hear when we come to this place, there’s something that we recognize in the midst of all the strangeness and awkwardness and formal pomp of liturgy and the uncommon words of Scripture that resonates so deeply in our souls that we can’t deny its importance, even if it’s not the necessarily the funnest thing or the shiniest thing or the easiest thing that we do all week.
Perhaps, like the questioners we encounter this morning, we, too, are drawn to the voice of God like sheep follow their shepherd, knowing his footfall, possessing an almost-involuntary response to our Shepherd’s voice.
But once we get close to the Shepherd, once we’re in the thrall of that voice that speaks most deeply to our souls and spirits, to the very core of our creation, sometimes we get a little skiddish.
The closeness gets to feeling like we’ve ended up using the map backwards and we didn’t end up where we thought we were supposed to, or we’ve been dropped in a foreign country without a translation dictionary, so we start to wonder whether maybe that voice wasn’t so familiar, or so deeply resonating after all. We get caught in that tension between that deep longing in our hearts and the weird, uncomfortable land where the Shepherd has led.
What was it that Jesus said to his sheep, the disciples, as they cowered in fear after his resurrection? What does Jesus the Good Shepherd say to all his flock who are fearful or uncertain? Through the breath of the Holy Spirit upon each one, he says always, “Peace be with you.”
The Kingdom of God is not a place or a people that feels comfortable to anyone on this side of the grave. It’s always the place that has people we don’t quite agree with in it, it’s always the place that we want to look sideways at, even just a little bit. It reminds me of the quotation from Fr. Jordan’s favorite preacher: “If you agree with everything the Gospel says, you’re not paying close enough attention.” The Kingdom of God, where Jesus is Shepherd, where Jesus is Lord and ruler, is a place where we will feel a little bit uncomfortable, because on this side of the grave, we still have sin clinging to us, we still get distracted by other voices that vy for our attention, we still have prejudices and proclivities that don’t jibe with God’s vision for us, and the tension between the desires that we hold dear and the desires that God has for us create friction, create discomfort.
So because of the ways that we cling to our precious sins, whether they’re sins of familiarity, or disdain, sins of pride or of worthlessness, whatever it is that whispers that you don’t belong in church or that you don’t belong to this Good Shepherd, is a lie, and is darkness, and is a sin. To the voice that insists that we can’t be sure of this Good Shepherd unless we’re told “plainly” or on our own terms in words that we can understand simply, and words that we can then control and can manipulate — this voice is temptation to ignore the glorious discomfort and the holy growth of the Kingdom of God. May we not doubt God’s gentle call to each one of us by name, may we know that we are close to God’s presence and close to God’s Kingdom, and close to God’s heart even, and especially, when that discomfort comes, and may we praise the Lord for it. Amen.