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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Anna V Copeland, Preaching

Text: 2 Samuel 7:1-17

         The upside down kingdom of God catches us by surprise. We think we know God and we think we know what God wants. Then something happens that reminds us that God’s grace is unmerited, unearned. It has not and never will ever be a reward for something we have done, even when we do it with good intentions and for God’s glory.

Here’s a kingdom story that reminds us of God’s surprising grace:

        This story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, three-term governor and reformer of New York, and lifelong Episcopalian. “When he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, he was called by adoring New Yorkers 'the Little Flower' because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. 

Within a few minutes, a tattered older woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter's husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honor," the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson." LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said: "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions--ten dollars or ten days in jail." But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: "Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat.

Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant." So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah, 1990, pp 91-2.

         Success in the upside down kingdom is defined by God and not by us. Whew! Thank God. In God’s kingdom the greatest are the least and the lowly are lifted up.

In God’s upside down kingdom, God says to David, “Who told you I wanted you to build me a cedar house to live it? I’m the one giving out the presents here. I took you from the pasture where you were a shepherd and made you a prince over my people. I provided protection for you from your enemies so you and your people could live in peace. I gave you a homeland and fair leaders and rest. And I will make of YOU a house.

“I don’t know what you were thinking David, Maybe you were thinking if you do this for me I’ll do that for you. Maybe you were just feeling grateful and wanted to do something nice for me. But here’s the deal. I don’t want stuff from you, I want you. I want a relationship with you. I want you. I’m going to give you descendants and through your line I’m going to give the world Jesus. All this is MY doing. I’m God. So relax David, chill out. Sell some pumpkins if you want, have a good time. But make no mistake. I live everywhere people are faithful to me, not just in a house you build for me. I live everywhere my people live: in deserts and refugee camps, in city towers and on farms, in cathedrals and in tents. Wherever two or more people are gathered in my name, there I’ll be. I always have been. I always will.”

Here God changes the equation from any sort of transaction into an unmerited gift. David need not build God a house in order for God to build David’s house. And David need not do something to pay God back before God does something more for David. God’s lavish graciousness is revealed in today’s Bible story, where God makes it abundantly clear that in addition to all that God has done for David, God will continue to do more.

Furthermore, God’s promises don’t stop there! The unconditional nature of this covenant continues as God explains that it is not based on David’s descendants behaving perfectly. In fact, God says that when -- not if -- the son commits unfair or unjust behavior, there will be consequences, but God’s steadfast love will not depart from him.

From King David in the Old Testament to the Pharisees in the New, to you and me today, people of faith have always had a tendency to act as though the kingdom of God depends on us. King David imagined for a moment that God’s continuing presence depended on his building a permanent and stable house of worship instead of the tent where the ark of the covenant had traveled since the time of Moses.

 It’s easy to understand how David might have gotten this wrong. We too imagine that the kingdom of God depends on us and on what we do most of the time. Our tendency is to think that the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven depends on our actions or good works. This view is shaped by the very teachings of Jesus. As Christians we take seriously Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

It’s true that Jesus asked us to engage in acts of healing and mercy in his name, but I suspect not for the reason we think. Jesus does not issue the invitation to participate in kingdom life in order to make God show up or to single handedly bring about the completion of God’s kingdom through our actions. Rather, the world simply witnesses these actions as our faithful response to God’s unmerited love. Success in the kingdom of God is focused more on faithful response to God’s unconditional love and care for us than it is on our outcomes.

We humans are forgetful creatures. We forget that God desires nothing so much as a relationship with us. God gives us birthday presents whether we say thank you or not. God gives us THE Christmas present, every year, even if we’re too busy getting ready for the holiday we’ve made up to notice. God gives us food and first aid and people and creatures to love.

This God who kept gifting David regardless of what David did for good or for ill, keeps gifting us with Christ without our earning or deserving it. We may not notice. We forget that our life is hid in Christ in the upside down kingdom where the poor become rich and the proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts. The one who gives us these presents and all good things is God, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Trusting that God’s commitment to us and God’s care for us continues regardless of what WE do frees us in every possible way. We don’t have to get things right. We don’t have to finish the honey-do list of stuff we imagine has to be accomplished. We don’t have to be more cheerful or more generous or more forgiving. This is shocking news. It was shocking to David that God didn’t need him to build him a house of Cedar. It’s shocking news to us.

         But here’s the deal. When we’ve received an enormous gift from somebody who loves and cherishes us all the way down, we practically fall into their arms in gratitude. We lean into the relationship, rest in their care. When we’re loved wholly and perfectly we want to please and respond to the one who patiently and tirelessly loves us. Nobody has to tell us to be grateful or kind. It will flow out of our sense belovedness like well-water.

         I realize this puts me out of a job. You don’t really need me to stand here and tell you how to behave as Christians. The best thing I can ever do for you is to remind you of how precious and beautiful and cherished and beloved we are as God’s children. In case you forget, it may be helpful if I reassure you once in awhile that the God who kept God’s promises to Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Ruth and Naomi and Esther and Moses and David and Elizabeth and Mary and on and on, will certainly keep God’s promises to you.

And in case you don’t know the story, or set it aside to consider twice a year, it might just transform your life if I remember to tell you that God loves you so much that God entered the very matter of creation that God made through the life and person of Christ. The best present I could share with you is the one that long ago captured my life, that through this gift you might come to fully know the unconditional love of God who brought you into being, is with you throughout your earthly life and embraces you with all the saints in light even to the end of time. God does this not through what you earn or do, as Paul said, so that you could boast about it, but simply because you are cherished as you are.

“When a person works an eight-hour day and receives a fair day’s pay for his time, that is a wage. When a person competes with an opponent and receives a trophy for his performance, that is a prize. When a person receives appropriate recognition for his long service or high achievements, that is an award. But when a person is not capable of earning a wage, can win no prize, and deserves no award—yet receives such a gift anyway—that is a good picture of God’s unmerited favor. This is what we mean when we talk about the grace of God.”(Features for Church Newsletters, G.W. Knight, p. 53)

This is God’s good news for you and for me.  God’s ways are not our ways. The kingdom of God is at hand.