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Six Great Ends of the Church: 6. The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World

I had a conversation last week with someone whose adult child is in jail. Having a child in jail is not something any parent aspires to; there’s a lot of heartache involved. “But Joanne,” said this parent, “you should see the friends we’ve made in the visitors’ waiting room. We all know each other; we greet each other like family. We hug each other; we all know what the rest of us are going through.”

The visitor’s waiting room at the jail isn’t the way any of us would choose to make our dearest friends. But it occurred to me that everyone’s life is a little bit like the lives of those folks. Everyone has heartaches and heartbreaks; everyone has fears and losses. Everyone of us, when we’re honest, knows a little or maybe a lot about what the rest of us are going through, not because they’ve told us, necessarily, but because we’re going through that … crap … too. Whether it’s a kid in trouble or a scary diagnosis, an addiction or a job loss, a divorce or any of the other million and one losses and traumas that we face in life, we’ve all been through something. And then it occurred to me, that being the case, the visitors’ waiting room is a pretty good image for the church when it is faithfully fulfilling our 6th Great End of the Church: the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.

We talk a lot about the kingdom of God here at First Presbyterian Church. The Kingdom of Heaven is the same thing; it’s just that the Gospel of Matthew uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” instead of “the kingdom of God.” In either case, it’s Jesus’ primary metaphor for what God wants for God’s world. Jesus’ audience knew about kingdoms. They had a history of one bad kingdom after another, from the pharaoh in Egypt through their own corrupt monarchs and, during Jesus’ time, the Roman Empire. These human kingdoms were alike in three ways. First, they were oppressive. Ordinary folks had no voice or power. Second, they were structured so that over half of the annual production of wealth ended up in the hands of the wealthiest one to five percent of the population. This beginning to sound a little more contemporary; right? And third, these ancient kingdoms were religiously legitimated. The king claimed that he ruled by divine right, and that the social order, however grossly unjust, reflected God’s will.

When the people heard Jesus talk about the kingdom of God, it would have been one of those, “Oh my gosh! You mean it could be like that?” moments. Jesus reminded them of all the Scriptures explaining that God is passionate about justice; God desires peace and freedom; God created the world of abundance. Jesus showed them a radically different approach to power and authority. He didn’t use power or authority to impress or coerce. He expressed his power in acts of service: restoring health, raising people to life, breaking down social taboos, providing for people’s needs – in other words, demonstrating the love, justice and goodness of God. This is the model of radically different power he passes on to the disciples, and through them, to the church.[1]

Demonstrating the love, justice and goodness of God is, in a nutshell, what it looks like to join in the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world. “Exhibition” is different from the “proclamation” of the first Great End and the “promotion” of the fifth Great End. “Exhibition” implies showing, making visible, “witnessing.” In the Acts passage, before Jesus says farewell to the disciples for the last time, he says, “you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.”[2] We inherit this charge to be Christ’s witnesses. His message was that the reign of God is already present and active; it is here, available for those who see that everything is holy, everything and everyone is precious to God and belongs to God. We, Christ’s church, are called to make that message visible in us, and in our church. That is how we “live a life worthy of our calling,” as the Ephesians passage puts it.

There are many ways a church can demonstrate the kingdom of God to the world. Last week someone told me they’d been going to a meditation group at another local church. The folks there asked where this person had been worshiping, and when the answer was First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo, they replied, “Oh, that’s where all those activists are.” We brought ten overtures to Presbytery for our Presbyterian General Assembly in the last ten years, having to do with justice in Israel/Palestine, divestment from fossil fuels, and equal inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters; that’s more than all the other churches in the presbytery combined. We showcased both our commitment to the planet and our commitment to anti-racism at the February Presbytery meeting we hosted. These are all ways to exhibit or demonstrate the kingdom.

But we begin right here in church, among us and between us. If the church does not demonstrate the kingdom of God within the church itself, then who on earth will take it seriously? If the church does not demonstrate that God is a generous, loving and accepting God, who could believe it? And that’s where the church feels like that visitors’ waiting room at the jail. We exhibit the kingdom of heaven when we welcome and accept others as fellow travelers on this journey, whether or not we have anything in common beyond being perfectly imperfect human beings, going through a lot of crap; when we embrace them whether or not we agree with each other about politics or religious doctrine or any of the other distinctions that human beings use to define “us” and “them.” We exhibit the kingdom when we treat each other as God’s beloved children. We exhibit the kingdom when we recognize, as someone said Thursday morning at centering prayer, that “After all, we’re all in this together.”

Baptism, which we celebrated today, is one of many ways we say, “We’re all in this together.” We don’t baptize people because they’ve earned it. We don’t baptize people because we want to make them insiders in a special club. We baptize to say, “God loves you. God claims you. We see God’s mark upon your life, whether you will always see it or not.” I told you this story many years ago but it’s a good story, worth retelling. Michael Lindvall writes about a baptism in a little Presbyterian congregation in North Haven, Minnesota. One day Angus McDowell, the patriarch and an elder of the church, came to the pastor and informed him that his son, Larry, and Larry's wife, Sherry, who lived in Spokane, would be visiting for Thanksgiving weekend and they had just had a son, named Angus Larry. Angus wanted to know if the pastor could baptize the baby while they were in town.

The pastor, good Presbyterian that he was, talked about the integrity of the sacrament of baptism, and asked about Larry and Sherry’s church affiliation. He explained that it would be best for a child to be baptized in the church where he would be raised. Although they’d been in Spokane for nine years, Larry and Sherry just hadn’t settled into a church. The pastor talked about the importance of the parents’ commitment to a church – any church – and the weighty promises they would be making, and Angus caught the drift: Larry and Sherry ought to find a church home out in Spokane, and then they could have a baptism, either in Spokane or in North Haven.

Angus listened with quiet dignity, and the pastor thought the matter was settled. Angus left the meeting, and called all the session members about a special meeting to approve the baptism of Angus Larry. They had the meeting, and voted nine to zero to approve the baptism.

So on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, little Angus Larry was baptized. In that congregation it was the custom for the pastor to ask, “Who stands with this child?” and then the whole extended family of the little one would rise and remain standing for the baptism. So, with Angus Larry in his arms, the pastor asked, “Who stands with this child?” and Angus and his wife Minnie, and Sherry’s parents and a couple of cousins all stood.

After church, everybody rushed home to turkey leftovers and the pastor went back to the sanctuary to turn out the lights. There he found a middle-aged woman in shabby clothes, sitting in the front pew. The pastor had seen her before but didn’t know her name. She hesitated, but then said her name was Mildred Cory. She said it was a lovely baptism. After another long pause, she said that her daughter, Tina, had just had a baby, and, well, the baby ought to be baptized, shouldn’t it?

The pastor suggested that Tina and her husband should call him and they would talk about the baptism. Mildred hesitated again, and then took a deep breath and said, “Tina’s got no husband. Tina’s just 18 years old and she was confirmed in this church four years ago. She used to come here, but started seeing this boy and dropped out. Then she got pregnant and decided to keep the baby and she wants to have it baptized here in her own church, but she’s nervous to come and talk with you, Reverend. She named the baby James, Jimmy.”

The pastor said that he would bring the request to the church session for approval.

When the matter came up at the session meeting, there were a couple of moot questions about why in the world Tina Cory was keeping the baby. The pastor explained what they already knew: that Tina was a member of the church, not married, and he didn’t know who the father was. Everybody else knew, though, because it was a small town. The father was Jimmy Hawthorne, who was now at basic training at Fort Bragg. Some asked if Tina would stick to the commitment she was making in having her child baptized. The pastor remarked that she and little Jimmy were, after all, right here in town where they could give her support. He didn’t have to say, “and not in Spokane.” They all thought it.

They approved it, but it hurt to picture it: the teenager Tina holding little Jimmy, and Mildred the only one to stand when the question was asked.

It was the Sunday before Christmas, and the church was full. The elder read the 3 by 5 card the pastor had given him. “Tina Cory presents her son for baptism.” She came down the aisle, nervously, shaking slightly with month-old Jimmy in her arms, a pacifier in his mouth.

The pastor began the baptism liturgy. “Who stands with this child?” He nodded at Mildred, coaxing her to her feet. She rose slowly. The pastor’s eyes went back to his service book and he was ready to proceed when he noticed some movement in the pews. Angus McDowell was standing, and Minnie beside him. Then a couple of other elders stood up, then the 6th grade Sunday school teacher, then a new couple, and soon, the whole church was standing up with little Jimmy. Tina was crying, of course, and Mildred Cory was holding on to the pew in front of her as though she were standing on the deck of a ship rolling in a great wind, which, in a way, she was.[3]

Every baptism is an occasion for reminding us of our own acceptance by the grace of God. God loves us. God chooses us. God loves and chooses you. God, in Christ, chose to stand with us, not because we try hard enough but because God loves us anyway. And so when we are baptized with Christ, we are baptized into his ministry of grace, into his ministry of exhibiting the kingdom, by standing with the little one, the weak, the outcast, the lonely, and the forgotten. We are baptized to stand with all the Tina Corys and baby Jimmys, as well as with the Angus McDowells. We are baptized to stand with the very young, the very old, and everything in between. We are baptized to stand with Lorna and Cecilia; we are baptized to stand with the hurting, the doubting, and the questioning. We are baptized to stand with the migrants at the border, with the whole creation as the icecaps melt, and everybody in the visitors’ waiting room at the jail. We are baptized to stand with each other, because there are times for each of us when life feels like a rolling ship in a great wind, and we need to hold onto the pew in front of us. And even then, just as Christ was, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to show the whole world what it looks like to choose to live in the Kingdom of God.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.

[1] Darrell L. Guder, The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World (Louisville, KY: Witherspoon Press, 2007), 13.

[3] Michael L. Lindvall, The Good News from North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town (New York: Crossroad, 2002).

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