The Expansive Kingdom of Heaven: With Video!

Sermon preached on Jan 26, 2020

Annual Meeting Sunday,

Opening and Closing prayers for annual meeting (below) are meant to be heard in context of this sermon.

In this morning’s Gospel from Matthew Jesus’ ministry finally really begins. “Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[1]  This is the heart of Jesus’s message and mission. This is the invitation so powerful and compelling that poor fishermen drop everything, give up life as they know it, and follow Jesus.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repent: Μετανοεῖτε (Metanoeite), from μετανοέω which translates literally to: “think differently afterwards, change one’s mind, change one’s inner being (particularly with reference to acceptance of the will of God).”[2]  I’ve read commentators who put it this way: “Be of a new mind!” Or, perhaps as “Change your way of thinking!” Or most simply, “Wrap your mind around this!”[3] So, Jesus was walking around literally proclaiming: “Change your mind/your being…. the kingdom/ the reign of heaven is near!”

This is the call to the disciples, to all those who will decide to walk in the way of Jesus during his life, and, after his crucifixion and resurrection, to all who will walk in the Way (like Matthew’s community). It’s a call to change a way of being and thinking: to be willing to see the world as it is, and then imagine how it could be in God’s reality. It’s a call to be agents of bringing in the reign of heaven.

Fast forward to our own day and time. On Monday evening I had the opportunity to join the “Episcopal Table” at the MLK dinner and program. Bishop Brown gave the benediction at the event, and our diocese sponsored a table.

It was a four-hour program, much too much to describe in detail, but truly worth every minute. The theme was “Race, Sovereignty, & Maine at 200 Years; Where do we go from here?” based on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final manuscript – Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community?

The program was divided into three sections: Examining the Past, Understanding the Present, and Where do we go from here? The initial underlying question was – “Who are WE?” Before we can own OUR past, see the truths of OUR present, and begin to answer where do WE go from here – we need to understand who we mean when we say ‘WE’. Who does “WE” include? (And who are not included?)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus, a Middle Eastern Jew, is walking around, proclaiming: “Change your way of thinking, seeing, and way of being…. for the kingdom of heaven is near!” As he walks around the sea of Galilee, he collects a few poor, subsistence fishermen, and together – they go throughout the area proclaiming this good news – and curing everyone who was sick. This kingdom is for everyone – the Jews, the Gentiles, those who are poor, those who are sick and in need of healing, everyone. The verses which complete the rest of chapter four describe how Jesus’ fame spreads across the surrounding areas – all of Syria, as he heals everyone who is brought to him, from all over. ‘Great crowds’ follow him – Jews, and Gentiles from the entire region. The WE Jesus is sent to and for – includes everyone.

Everyone – which is wider and more expansive than most of us can imagine. The key is to expand our imagination to include everyone. In order to grasp the kingdom of heaven we have to imagine a great deal more.

The parameters we use to delineate our understanding of ‘WE’ have to expand, be opened up wide – as wide as God’s understanding and mercy. And that kind of expansive vision takes WORK to accomplish. We have to be willing to own our past, see our present honestly, and really understand how our being US affects the ability of others to live life abundantly. How does our being: majority culture, white Americans of some affluence contribute to the pressure others’ experience as they struggle to be included in the WE of our culture?

That’s the work some of us have been doing through the Sacred Ground Adult Education program this year. It’s challenging work, often foundation-shaking work. The history we thought we knew is expanded to show us a more complete story, the readings and films are often heartbreaking and disturbing, as we glimpse the experience of the ‘other’. The treatment of Indigenous Peoples who’ve inhabited this continent for thousands of years. How America’s system of chattel slavery has perpetuated racism for 400 years. Chattel slavery allowed people to be bought, sold and owned forever, imposing slave status on children of the enslaved at birth – thus enslaving generations in a single purchase. By equating slavery with being black, and crafting laws which defined black and brown men as less than fully human – our country took over the land of Indigenous people and built its prosperity on the backs of Black laborers. The historic treatment of Hispanics laid the foundations for our country’s current animosity toward all those of Hispanic origin – characterizing them as unworthy immigrants – even in the portions of this country that were originally Mexico. (Including all or parts of present-day Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and of course, Texas.) Our history of exploitation of Asian Americans predates the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Prejudice against Asians begins in earnest with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. That paved the way for the sweeping Immigration Act of 1924 – which restricted immigration and refused citizenship to other “undesirable” groups such as Middle Easterners, East Indians, and the Japanese. “The act was supported by federally-funded eugenicists who argued that “social inadequates” were polluting the American gene pool and draining taxpayer resources.”[4]

Much of our history feels incongruous with our innate understanding of what it means to ‘American’, yet in 2020, it sounds frighteningly familiar. In the words of the Equal Justice Initiative: “Until we confront our history of racial injustice and its legacy, we cannot overcome the racial bias that exists today.”[5]

Which is why Monday’s MLK program began with confronting our history. Walking us through a brief overview of a history of Maine that included the experience of Maine’s Indigenous People, the history of Maine’s black and brown people. Describing Maine’s shipping industry’s significant role in the slave trade, even though Maine entered the union as a ‘free’ state. This is the history of who WE are when we think of ourselves as ‘Mainers.’

The second panel discussed who we are NOW. The group spoke about the situation in our schools, our prisons, our prisons for youth and children, our policing of black and brown people, the disparity in economic well-being between white and black families. The profiling of black and brown people, and how difficult seemingly simple things are – like getting a loan, being admitted to an advanced math class, or AP course of any kind, being stopped by police for a traffic violation, exercising the right to vote, keeping that right, obtaining medical insurance, and getting appropriate medical care. The list seemed endless.

The final panel tried to answer the biggest question of all: “Where do WE go from here?” How do we find a way to something more life-giving and hopeful than this? We heard from: a high school student, a young man working with inside-out and the youth at Long Creek Detention Center, a representative of our legislature who’s a farmer and a slam poet, a chief of the Penobscot nation, a woman working for the rights and assimilation of refugees and asylum seekers. All spoke to how we might find our way to Community out of our current Chaos.

That’s the core question before us – that’s the Gospel question. How do WE (the widest possible definition of WE) – move toward a way of life that supports and sustains us all? How do WE stop our spinning towards chaos, and build a Community of compassion and empathy, justice, and peace for ALL of God’s people?

This is the completely different reality that Jesus walks about proclaiming, and he lives out – a reality marked by: healing and restoration to community, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the reconciliation of all people to God.[6] This is the beautiful community Jesus is declaring – this is the kingdom of heaven. A place for all of God’s people: for people of all abilities, sick or well, of all ethnicities, races, genders and religions. This is what Jesus asks us to wrap our minds around – the beautiful vision of the kingdom. A “reality in which sins are forgiveness, graves are split open, lives are transformed, and God’s alternative-and-preferred future for the world”[7] breaks into the here and now.

Once we can imagine it, then we set to bring God’s preferred reality into being. Beginning with our own work: examining our participation in the injustice others experience, owning our own complicity in the systems which perpetuate the status quo, digging into our history, opening our eyes to our blind spots, with all the culpability and vulnerability this work requires. In the last four years at St. Bart’s, our image of WE has expanded to include those who are brown and black, who speak other languages, and come from vastly different cultures than ours. With their help, we’ve been searching our own hearts and minds, unpacking our prejudices and perspectives, to better comprehend the injustices of our culture, and seek to do better. I am incredibly grateful that we are doing this vital work together – following Jesus’ Way of love, striving to create a new reality – one where kindness, justice and mercy flourish – on earth as it is in heaven.[8]

Patterns, a prayer by Rev. Jan L. Richardson[9] (Opening Prayer, Annual Meeting)

Forgive us, God,

when we live our lives

within the lines,

when we say

this is the shape of our work

this is the boundary of our habitation

these are the limits to our love

these are the lines of our vision

these, and none other.


Draw us beyond our patterns into yours:

shifting, moving,

curving, spiraling,

many-colored, every-changing,

stretching, pushing,

challenging, renaming,

unsettling, disturbing,

casting forth,

and welcoming home.


By Hand, a blessing by Jan L. Richardson[10]  (Closing Prayer, Annual Meeting)

Bless the hands

smooth, supple

that create with power;

rough, weathered

that touch with integrity;

scarred, bent

that move with grace;

dark, pale

that work for justice.


Bless the hands

shackled, free

that point toward peace;

graceful, longing

that tend the weary;

young, old

that feed the children;

yours, mine

that move the world.


[1] Translated from the Greek: 17Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς κηρύσσειν καὶ λέγειν, Μετανοεῖτε· ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. OR: Apo tote ērxato ho Iēsous kēryssein kai legein, “Metanoeite; ēngiken gar hē basileia tōn ouranōn.”

[2], Strong’s concordance number 3340:

[3] Rolf Jacobson, “A Beautiful Community” for ‘Dear Working Preacher’, Sunday, January 19, 2020 9:17 PM

[4] As published by the EJI, The Equal Justice Initiative,

[5] As published by the EJI, The Equal Justice Initiative,

[6] Based on ideas presented by Rolf Jacobson, “A Beautiful Community” for ‘Dear Working Preacher’, Sunday, January 19, 2020 9:17 PM

[7] Rolf Jacobson, “A Beautiful Community” for ‘Dear Working Preacher’, Sunday, January 19, 2020 9:17 PM

[8] Based on phraseology from Reign of Heaven: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary For Epiphany 3,, Jan 19, 2020

[9] Patterns, by Jan L. Richardson, published in Night Visions, by Wanton Gospeller Press, 1998; p 25.

[10]  By Hand, by Jan L. Richardson, published in Night Visions, by Wanton Gospeller Press, 1998, p 87.


Production Note: In addition to the audio file, I was working on the St Bart’s live stream and made a recording of the stream, the quality of the video is not stellar and the audio is not quite as good as it should be. I was distracted enough by getting the parts together to record the stream ( about a mile from church) that I didn’t get the recorder in place for the service. I apologize, but it was a good sermon and I didn’t want to lose it forever.