The Prayer Wheel: Your Kingdom Come
A sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, May 13, 2018
Rev. Paul E. Ellis Jackson
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news[i] of God,[j] 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;[k] repent, and believe in the good news.”[l]
32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Last Sunday, Robin started us on a new path with her first sermon in our series on The Prayer Wheel. Recently rediscovered, the prayer wheel is a medieval tool used as a spiritual practice. So, how many of you used the prayer wheel to assist you in your guided meditations this week? That many? Wow! I’m impressed. For me, a simple tool such as the prayer wheel can greatly assist me in my meditative practices. It’s a reminder that I need to spend some time—alone—with just me and my spirit—and try and listen for that calm, quiet voice of God. So, just a quick reminder on how to use the prayer wheel. You start on the outer-most ring and work your way into the center and just past God. Hmm. That’s a sentence they never tell about in seminary. Anyway, the outer most ring is the framework of the Lord’s Prayer, the next ring in is representing the Gifts of the Spirit, the next one in after that shows events from Jesus’ life and the innermost ring circling God are the beatitudes. We’ve shaded the path for your convenience. So for the coming week, the idea goes, that you would start on day one meditating on entering the path. It’s sort of an overview of this entire section of the prayer wheel. Then on day two you would meditate on the phrase “Your Kingdom Come” and then the next day: Understanding. The fourth day: Baptism and then the two beatitudes for the next 2 days: In this case, Clean of Heart and Seeing God. On the seventh day you we are instructed to pray the whole path—to review all of the previous sections and then connect our hearts to the next section of the wheel. If you need some help understanding how to use the prayer wheel, just see me or Robin and we’ll do our best to help you.
YOUR KINGDOM COME
So what does it mean when we talk about “Your Kingdom Come”? Robin preached on it a few weeks ago and we just prayed it a few minutes ago: Our Father, Who are in heaven hallowed be thy name, Your Kingdom Come. What are we praying for? Jesus’ entire ministry was believed to be a revelation of God’s Kingdom. Most biblical scholars believe that when Jesus was referencing God’s Kingdom he was referring to an ideal state or future society that was understood to be more egalitarian and equal for all. For me, the word “kingdom” is problematic as it reinforces a hierarchical society—it was the context in which the Bible was written, so it reflects an imperial or “kingly” society. I usually replace the word kingdom with community as for me this better reflects my interpretation of God’s intent for how we are to live together. A community of equals fits my theology much better than a “kingly” realm with courtly behavior—which is simply a reflection of Imperial Rome. I believe the Gospel asks us to resist Empire and instead love our neighbors, our community, as we do ourselves. When I pray the words “Your Kingdom Come” I am praying for God’s beloved community to live together in a spirit of shared abundance. Many of my seminary professors and my peers use the word “kin-dom” meaning a community of shared kin. I like that as well, but I often stumble over the word “kin-dom” when I speak it, so I just use the ancient word as it is, knowing that it is a metaphor for a better future for all of us.
I also love when Jesus speaks in a sort of koan, a mystical puzzle or riddle, when he replies to the scribe in the 12th chapter of Mark. It’s in your bulletins. Jesus has just avoided falling into the trap set for him by the Pharisees when he was asked about the greatest commandment. Jesus responded in a way that was counter-cultural. Instead of replying that one should obey the laws of the Empire first and foremost, Jesus simply said love God and love your neighbors more than you love yourself. The scribe who had challenged him replies to Jesus that he is right. That love of God and love of neighbor is more important than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices. Jesus replies to the scribe that he is “not far from the Kingdom of God.” Imagine that scene for just a moment. Jesus is teaching a radical proposal about a law that supersedes the Emperor’s laws. And one of the Pharisees (men who were complicit in supporting the Roman occupation of the Jewish land) took this opportunity to trap Jesus into publically committing, not only a secular offense, but also a very serious offense to Jewish law. And Jesus gives his answer and then one of the Pharisees goes: “Huh, what do you know, you’re right”. And Jesus looks at him and says…you’re not far from the Kingdom of God. What an ambiguous answer. But an important one, I think, because Jesus is acknowledging a change of heart in this man. Imagine the perplexed looks on everyone present. Not just the Pharisees who’s been beaten at their own game of legal “gotcha”, but imagine how that scribe felt when he answered that the words of resistance that Jesus proclaimed rang true to him and he responded affirmatively. He probably expected Jesus to just nod and acknowledge his slight turn away from Empire, but instead Jesus quizzically says…you are not far from the Kingdom of God. Perhaps, our acknowledgement that we might be wrong is a Holy act. So important is this moment that the words that follow are prophetic “after that no one dared ask him any question.” It was clear that the moment had ended. Truth had been proclaimed—no matter how enigmatic that truth.
Next we move to understanding—the next part of this week’s meditative practice. To pray for understanding is to ask for a calm and welcoming receptivity so that we may penetrate the surface of things and get to the depths. The first step of understanding is the stark realization that we don’t know everything—in fact, it seems that every day we know less and less. To me, wisdom, understanding is that moment when I just think I’ve figured something out and then I realize that it simply turned me down a path where lie more and more things I don’t know or understand. It seems the longer I live the less I actually know. And that’s okay. I’ve been trying to make sense of my own faith—to gain better understanding of it—and it seems the perhaps, since the days of my coerced baptism at Pleasantview Baptist Church, I have indeed been blessed with a prevenient grace that has nurtured and sustained me throughout my life. From that moment in time to this one. My understanding of my faith is rooted in that one moment in time. All because of one of Christianity’s simplest, yet most important, acts. Baptism.
So, back to our Prayer Wheel. Imagine us listening to an itinerant preacher down by the banks of the Little Arkansas, right there in Riverside. He’s been in town a few days now and we’ve heard about him before. He’s a bit of a rabble-rouser and he’s come to town to remind us, again, that the stuff of this world doesn’t really matter—what matters is how we treat each other and how we think about God…that’s basically what John the Baptist was doing during his ministry on earth. He was resisting against the existing social structure and saying that there is a better way. And to signify to yourself and others that you reject the existing way of being, John the Baptist will cleanse you with water and your soul will become clean. Most people thought him a fool or a clown–not someone to take seriously—in fact, Herod is going to have him beheaded here shortly—but right now he’s in the Little Arkansas, halfway across the river, standing thigh deep in the water, baptizing anyone who wishes it. Now, baptism is an ancient Jewish practice that signifies to all present that the person being baptized is choosing to live life in a new way. They are resisting the way they have lived their life to that point in time and that are saying, with this water, wash away my old life and allow me to become something new. I think maybe we should be baptized routinely as we rethink our positions on things and wish to better order our lives to live in community.
So, there’s this traveling crazy preacher guy, John the Baptist, and a few folks are being baptized, and I imagine there were plenty of hecklers and I bet the authorities were keeping a very keen eye on this man because he was a nuisance. And into this scene come this other, pretty popular itinerant preacher, a humble rabbi, a former carpenter, who asks the crazy guy in the river if he would baptize him. Jesus decides that he needs to wash away his old life and be born anew into something different, something that more resembles God’s beloved community. And the story then has the heavens opening up and a dove descending as we hear God’s voice say…this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. God is well pleased in the one who rejected his old life and chose to return into relationship with God and God’s people.
CLEAN OF HEART
So then it follows that in the next beatitude for our contemplation, where we are told “blessed are the clean in heart”, we might assume that a baptism has taken place. The association between baptism and “clean of heart” is beautifully intuitive. For me, clean of heart means that I’m back in relationship with God. Or with my community. Separation from God, and my community, can take many forms—distractions, anger, apathy, addiction, violence—all of these separate us from God and God’s people. But when we wash those things away—thoughts of hatred and division—the need to be right—the need for justice—when we wash all of that away and are but clean of heart, we are reborn into new people. It’s a metaphorical act that has us pouring water on our past, washing it away and leaving only the original, unblemished spirit behind. A new person. New people who can face the day with fresh eyes. Eyes ready to see God in a new light. I think we need to routinely wash away our past—in fact, I believe this a bit of what we are doing together, each Sunday in this place. We’re facing the messes we have made, the hurts we have cause, the injustice we have been complicit in, and we’re asking the God of the Cosmos for another chance. For a clean heart and a clean mind and just one more opportunity to maybe get it right. To possibly see God where we have missed the presence of God up to that moment.
Where do we see God? A better question might be: how are we attentive to God? I see God in the beauty and complexity of the natural world. I look at the Arkansas River as I bike alongside it and wonder at its current and eddies, its white caps on a windy Kansas spring day. I contemplate the spirit that infuses the muscles of my body as I propel my metal machine along the streets of Wichita and I breathe deep of the spirit of God. I see God in the joyful faces of our children when they rush up here for their time together with us in worship. I hear God in their questions. I sense God’s presence as we sing their dismissal song and wish them well on their way to Sunday school. I see God in YOUR faces every Sunday. Attentive and otherwise. Sometimes perplexed, sometimes nodding in agreement, but always supportive of the work Robin and I do. I hear God in the music of our choir and I sense God’s presence when one of our college student’s asks of me a challenging question. I see God at work in Michael as he leads our music department and binds our worship together. I feel God’s presence when Helen and Laura provide such powerful music. I hear God’s voice when Robin challenges us with a difficult idea or a new way to look at something. I sense God in this place. And I also sense God in the outstretched hand of the woman at QuikTrip, asking for some money to tide her over. I sense God’s cries for help when I hear of some terrific need of a family that frequents our hygiene pantry. I hear God begging for us to live together in peace, yet more and more afraid that it might be impossible. Unless there is some great cosmic baptism that washes away all of our animosity towards one another and restores us to right relationship. We can do this work—you and I—if we but take the responsibility on ourselves to try—each day—to fix the broken relationships in our world. To repair the loss of communication. To remind each other that we are all in this together and that the alternative is something we will not stand for. Someone has to heal our community. Why don’t each of us start doing our part?
I sense God at work in this congregation. I am confident that God is using this congregation to further God’s Beloved Community, Your Kin-dom Come, right here and right now, with the gifts of each of us—cherished gifts that continue to shine bright and show the world, that, yes indeed God’s kingdom will come—as a better world for everyone—it is attainable. One heart, one person, one conversation, one act of forgiveness, one kindness, one good effort at a time. These are the things that will build up, bit by bit, over time and become a wave of cleansing water that washes over the world and shows us a new, bright humanity. A humanity that right now is starved for a place to belong. Starved for community. I’m so grateful to be part of this community that is working each day to make our world just a little better, just a little kinder, just a little closer to being a truer reflection of God. AMEN
Patton Dodd, Jana Riess, and David Van Biema, The Prayer Wheel: A Daily Guide to renewing your Faith with a Rediscovered Spiritual Practice, (New York: Convergent Books, 2018)
The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV
The Holy Bible, NRSV