Sermon: The Soul-Size Kingdom

“The Soul-Size Kingdom” was preached after an emotionally draining week watching one of Shepherd of the Hill’s members take a turn for the worse in the memory care unit here in downtown Chaska, MN. Toward the end of the week I stumbled upon a sermon by Robert Hamerton Kelly, New Testament scholar and gentle soul, the former Dean of Chapel at Stanford University. His sermon spoke so meaningfully to me that I delivered Roberts’ entire sermon six years to the day after he had preached it on Christ the King Sunday. Robert died in July of 2013. “Well done, good and faithful servant.” RIP

Is there no cure for these?

Gordon C. Stewart April 11, 201

Today the Senate begins a floor debate on gun control that brings to mind an earlier “floor debate” several months ago in Chaska, Minnesota.

Ever since the community Dialogue on “Gun Violence in America,” I’ve searched for answers to what happened.

A crowd of 138 people came out on Tuesday night to chime in following the tragedy at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut.

As the night wore on, it became clear that there would be no real dialogue, no moderated discussion. No give-and-take. A series of monologues, without interruption and with a time limit, was the best we could expect.

Fear, anger, hostility and suspicion were in the room. The room was hot.

The months following have been a personal search for understanding of what happened that night, and how we in America move forward together on such a divisive issue.
———————————-
Imagine two people going into separate audiologist booths for hearing exams.

John grew up in rural America. Betty grew up in the city.

In their hearing booths Betty and John repeat the word they hear.

“Say the word ‘gun’, says the audiologist.

“Gun.”

Their hearing is good. They say the same word.

—————————–

After the hearing test, John and Mary are taken to different rooms for interviews. A social psychologist wants to know what emotions and thoughts are triggered when they hear the word ‘gun’.

“I’m going to give you a word. After you repeat the word, I want you to give me the other words that come to mind. It’s called “word association”. Don’t think about it. Just say whatever comes to mind.

“Gun”:

    John:

“Safety, protection, coyotes, wolves, cows, cattle, sheet, careful, responsibility, civil right.”

    Betty:

“Run, violence, threat, death, war, robber, gangs, school massacres, NRA, Sandy Hook.”

NRA:

    John:

“Second Amendment, right to bear arms, protector of civil liberties, defender of the Constitution.”

    Betty:

“Right-Wing, powerful, myopic, out-of-touch, vigilantes, white supremacist, radical, dangerous.”

Gun control:

    John:

“Government, anti-democratic, anti-Constitutional, intrusion, loss of freedom, fear, police state, socialism.”

    Betty:

“Safety, safe home, necessity, protection, peace, hope, end of fear.

Kingdom of God:

    John:

“Hmmm… Soul, salvation, heaven?”

    Betty:

“Hmmm… Safe streets, the common good, love?”

————————

Both are church members. They are practicing Christians. Betty and John pray the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy (Your) Kingdom come; Thy (Your) will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.”

Could the common bond of Jesus’ prayer bring the two into the same room in a shared search for understanding and action? Or are the formative cultural experiences so determinative that faith and religion are what Marx said they were – blinders that prevent them from seeing anything but what we’ve already chosen to see?

Perhaps some singing might help – a hymn or two – and reflection on the lyrics, like those of Fred Pratt Green (1969):

O Christ, the healer, we have come
To pray for health, to plead for friends.
How can we fail to be restored,
When reached by love that never ends?

From every ailment flesh endures
Our bodies clamor to be freed;
Yet in our hearts we would confess
That wholeness is our deepest need.

How strong, O Lord, are our desires,
How weak our knowledge of ourselves!
Release in us those healing truths
Unconscious pride resists or shelves.

In conflicts that destroy our health
We recognize the world’s disease;
Our common life declares our ills:
Is there no cure, O Christ, for these
?

God of the Profits or God of the Prophets?

October 14, 2012 at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska

Text: Amos 5: 6-7, 10-15, 18-24

This morning I ask you which of the gods we will bow down and serve: the god of the profits, the organizing principle for those who were at ease in prophet Amos’ time, or the God of the Prophets who thundered against excessive profits in the marketplace?

Some will say that’s too simple.

Amos didn’t think so. Isaiah didn’t think so. Micah didn’t think so. Jeremiah didn’t think so. Jesus didn’t think so. Mohandas Gandhi didn’t think so.  We’ve heard from Amos and from Jesus.  Here’s what Gandhi called the Seven Deadly Sins of Society. The first sin on Gandhi’s list is

  • “Wealth without Work,” and the last is
  • “Worship without Sacrifice.”

Less than one month before we go to the polls to cast our votes for candidates for public office, I put before you from this pulpit the question of which God you will serve.

Will you commit yourself, or re-commit yourself, to the God of the biblical prophets, or will you line up your life and your values behind the god who thinks there’s no problem with wealth without work, worship without sacrifice?

I have never been more troubled in my life than I am today. It’s not because belong to a political party. It’s not that I want my team to win and the other team to lose. It’s because I believe in the God of the Prophets. I wake up every morning to scripture. And what do the scriptures say?

There were two sets of scripture that informed Jesus’ life. The Torah (also referred to as “The Law”) and the Hebrew prophets. “All the Law and the prophets are summed up in this: You shall love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus put the Voice of the prophets in the center of Jewish faith and life. Often he sounds like Amos.

We celebrate the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain. We read in Luke’s Gospel:

“He lifted up his eyes on his disciples and said,

  • ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
  • ‘Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.
  • ’Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.”

And our hearts rejoice. Because some of us, like Jesus’ first disciples, live in poverty; some of us know what it is to be hungry. Some of us are weeping now, wondering when we will laugh again.

Jesus consoles us. And these words of consolation are lifted up in the churches, as they should be.

But you can’t stop reading there if you want to follow Jesus. For in the very next lines of Jesus’ Sermon to his disciples, he echoes the thundering voice of the prophet Amos and his Woes:

  • “’But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.
  • “’Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.
  • “’Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.’”?

Jesus is calling it like it is. He is describing the revolution of economics, political power, and redistribution of wealth that is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is an economy – God’s economy. The economy preached by the biblical prophets and Jesus. The world of our best dreams where no stomach is empty, no one goes hungry; no one goes without health care. No one lives on the street under the viaduct, or in a car. No longer will those who have laugh at or pass by those who don’t.

The message of Jesus does console. It comforts the afflicted. But it also afflicts the comfortable. It causes trouble. It makes waves. It speaks the truth. It cuts through the lies that keep the privileged privileged.  It calls us to take responsibility in the here and now – to implement in the most practical ways the summary of the Law and Prophets. The over-riding question for the Christian is HOW to love my neighbor as myself? How to live now in the economy of God as the protest of hope and love within the economy of greed, disparity. How to live NOW as those whose worship DOES mean sacrifice.

A businessman notorious for his ruthless pursuit of profits once announced to Mark Twain that before he died, he meant to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. “I will climb Mount Sinai,” said the ruthless profiteer, “and I will read the Ten Commandments out loud from the top of Mount Sinai.”

“I have a better idea,” said Twain, with a twinkle in his eye. “You don’t have to go to the Holy Land. You could stay home in Boston and keep the commandments.”

Earlier in his life, Samuel Clemens (who became known as Mark Twin) had been a young reporter in Virginia City.  He was walking along the street one day with a cigar box under his arm when a wealthy lady acquaintance said to him scornfully, “You promised me that you would give up smoking.”

“Madam,” he said, “this box does not contain cigars. I’m just moving.

Today we are asked to make a decision of stewardship. In three weeks we will make other decisions in the voting booth. As we consider these decisions, remember Amos yourself which God of the Prophets/Profits your decisions will honor. Will your action bear witness to the economy of greed and extravagance, the world of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins?

  • Wealth without Work
  • Pleasure without Conscience
  • Science without Humanity
  • Knowledge without Character
  • Politics without Principle
  • Commerce without Morality
  • Worship without Sacrifice

Or will your decisions proclaim with Jesus the different Kingdom for which every heart longs to celebrate?

In conclusion, a writer named Ted Kooser invites you to think of yourself as a Daddy Longlegs.  You know the Daddy Longlegs, those strange creatures with those tiny little brown bodies like a small brown pill, walking across the floor on those eight long legs.

“Here, on fine long legs springy as steel,

A life rides, sealed in a small brown pill

That skims along over the basement floor

Wrapped up in a single obsession.

Eight legs reach out like the master ribs

Of a web in which some thought is caught

Dead center in its own small world,

A thought so far from the touch of things

That we can only guess at it.

If mine, it would be the secret dream

Of walking alone across the floor of my life

With an easy grace, and love enough

To live on at the center of myself.

You don’t have to go to the Holy Land to read the commandments from Mt. Sinai. Walking on your eight long legs across the floor of your life, you can walk with an easy grace, and with love enough to live on at the center of yourself…You can make love real today right here in Minnesota.

The “Nones” at the coffee shop

The “Nones” are the fastest growing group in the United States religious landscape. Time publicized the story in its March 12, 2012 issue.

Last week Rose French, religion editor of the Star Tribune here in Minneapolis, personalized the Pew Forum research in  “Fastest growing group in religious circles? The ‘Nones’”  (10.15.12).

The story begins with Marz Haney, a young woman who grew up attending an evangelical Christian church every Sunday. But she had questions. And, it appears, the church she attended wasn’t big enough for her big questions.

Questions and doubts are not enemies of faith. They are the friends of faith. They refine, correct, expand, and reform faith. They challenge what Jean-Paul Sartre called “bad faith.”

Sartre, of course, thought that all religious faith was bad. Some of the “Nones” agree with Sartre. Others still profess faith or “spirituality” but live it outside the boundaries of the traditional institutions that no longer hold meaning for them.

“I had some doubts all along. I was sort of in continual doubt about my personal salvation,” says Marz Haney.

That Marz and others have concluded that spirituality/faith/religion is all about personal salvation brings me great sadness. That she would think so is a reflection of the right turn that began to dominate the American religious landscape beginning in the 1950s.

To many of the “Nones”, fear and hate have become the face of Christianity. Sometime in the late ’50s, the televangelists began to change the face of Christianity to the world. Those who tuned in watched and heard the voices of snake oil salesmen selling purple handkerchiefs that would heal, if only you purchased one and put the hanky on your television screen while the evangelist prayed for you. Intelligent faith was turned into an oxymoron. One either is intelligent and without faith, or full of faith and without intelligence.

At the coffee shop recently, the proprietor who greets me “Good Morning, Your Reverence” with a smile, invited me to join a conversation he was having with two other coffee drinkers. “You can help us here,” Mike said. His grin told me this was a set up. “If God created the world, who created God?”

“Hmmm. Interesting question. Really good question. Really, really, really good question. It assumes, of course, that everything is created. That’s the way we think. If something’s here, it has to have been created. But that begs the question endlessly. So….maybe some things are not created. Whatever that is ultimate reality. In theology, the word we use for the ultimately real is ‘God’.”

Several weeks later a young couple sat at the table at The School of the Wise, a coffee shop and wine bar humorously named after the euphemism for speakeasies during the era of Prohibition. The couple had sent a message through the church’s website inviting a conversation about their needs and whether Shepherd of the Hill Church might be a good fit.

They were “Nones”. I love this couple! They made my evening. So honest. So genuine. So open. Wondering and hoping that perhaps Shepherd of the Hill might be a place unlike that mega-church up the road whose very small print declares belief in “the intention, eternal punishment of the wicked”. They were cautious but feeling the need for a community that welcomes rather than scorns, unites rather than divides, thinks as well as feels, and moves them beyond self-absorption in the comfortable but confining precincts of economic privilege.Sitting in a coffee shop with The New York Times on Sunday Morning over a cup of coffee was no longer enough.

Which, of course, is what the gospel is about, as I understand it.

Jesus had one message: “the Kingdom of God/Heaven is at hand.”  A “Kingdom” is a society, a commonwealth. A society is people in relationship. “At hand” means “Now!” The kingdom of Heaven was something like the heaven the young couple and I were experiencing right there at the back table in The School for the Wise – real people in real relationships, exploring ultimate reality over delicious mocha-mint-lattes, looking beyond our privilege and celebrating the magnificence of a moment that is at the very heart of  creation as we know it.

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The Sin of “American Exceptionalism”

Last night I watched Mitt Romney at a campaign rally in my home town, Broomall, Pennsylvania. What I saw sent chills down my spine. Demagoguery was on display. The people from my home town applauded the scolding of American President for apologizing. No apology for the tragedy of an American soldier(s) walking into the homes of families in Afghanistan to kill. No apology for … well…for ANYTHING. America is the greatest country in the history of the world. We should make no apology, said Mr. Romney.

In light of that speech, I am reposting this piece first published in February. It’s Holy Saturday for me. The one who lay dead on this day was killed, without apology, by The Myth of Roman Exceptionalism. The Roman Empire is long gone. But the myth never goes away. Only the name of the nation changes. Here’s the piece:

Jacket of “My People Is the Enemy”

“The stairway smelled of piss….This [a tenement apartment in East Harlem] was to be my home.  I wondered, for a moment, why. Then I remembered that this is the sort of place in which most people live, in most of the world,  for most of the time. This or something worse. Then I was home.”  – William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic.

I’ve been holding my breath, wrestling with whether to speak aloud what I hear and see.

I’m a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, in the debt to the bold witness of the late William Stringfellow, lay theologian. I’m also a religious pluralist. I believe with Chief White Calf of the Blackfeet that there is not just one way, there are many sides to the mountain and many paths on which the Divine Mystery is experienced.

I have learned over the years to respect the multiplicity of ways different sides of the mountain experience the living God. I work hard to understand my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors. I often experience these discussions as encounters with God whose vastness, like the ocean, is so much greater than any of the tea cups in which we hold a few drops of the sea.

I also know that some forms of religion are just plain nuts. The religion of Jim Jones whose followers drank the purple Kool Aid in shared suicide in the jungle of Guyana is only the most ludicrous example of why we need to join comedian Lewis Black’s raging objection to political distortions of the truth: “You can’t just make s—t up!” Religion represents the best and the worst of the human psyche (the Greek word for ‘soul’).

Joseph Campbell, among others, long ago opened the aperture on my theological camera. He helped me to see that what we are all dealing with, on all sides of the mountain, is myth, the human spirit’s uniquely creative meaning-making activity that expresses both the grandeur and the terror of finite experience. Myth is not the opposite of truth; it is the story that points us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal.

My way of looking at the world is shaped by a vast variety of voices. Among them are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose experiences of the horror of the absence of God caused them to poke their fingers in the eyes of prevailing religious traditions whose tidy moral worlds turn God into a cosmic sadist.

Any religion worth its salt in the 21st century has to pass through the existential protests of these thinkers and of the shrieks and cries that still echo across the world from Auschwitz and Buchenwald that poke holes in every theory of a morally ordered universe. The Garden of Eden was lost a long time ago and, in the wake of the closing of the gates to it, any religion has to take account of the human history that looks much more like the trail of tears paved by Cain’s slaying of Abel than like two innocent people in Paradise before the fall.

Yet there is a deep longing for something more tangible, more trustworthy than myth. Something one can touch, see, feel, smell – a story that is not a story but fact. The longing is strongest when we experience great uncertainty and insecurity.

With this perspective, I have been looking again at the fastest growing religion in America, Mormonism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS).

My first experience with the Mormons came quite by accident thirty years ago. I was riding a bus in New York City on my way uptown to visit African-American theologian James Cone at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem when I noticed the sign “Mormon Visitation Center.”  Already stressed by an unfamiliar transit system and feeling quite alone, I decided to get off the bus and take the tour.

Unlike the streets outside that were filled with trash and lit by flashing neon signs, the Visitation Center was spick-and-span. Everything was in perfect order, complete with a hologram of a Mormon family in a tranquil woods sitting in a circle, listening to the white upper-middle-class family’s father sitting on a stump higher than the other members of the family, reading from the Book of Mormon to an enthralled wife and two perfect, obedient, happy children. The hologram elicited two responses. One was amazement. I had never seen or even heard of a hologram. The other was a sense of outrage at the perpetration of a promise that was, in short, nothing but a hologram, the illusionary projection of someone’s idea of Eden that would strike a chord with visitors who long for the lost woods of the Garden of Eden. It offered a world of perfection: orderly, tidy, white, rural – nothing like the urban world on the street outside – the antidote to the realities and complexities of life in New York City.

When I left the Mormon Visitation Center it never crossed my mind that the Mormon vision or mythology would become the fastest growing mythology in America in the 21st Century. I was relieved to get back on the bus on my way to Harlem.

I ask myself now why this is so. I look again at Mormon beliefs and practices to try to understand.

In Mormon teaching, the Garden of Eden was a historical place, and it was not in the Mesopotamian Valley by the Euphrates River, as in the original biblical myth of Genesis. It was in North America…in Missouri.

“According to Joseph Smith [Mormonism’s founder] the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Missouri and following his expulsion from the Garden, Adam traveled northward to a place near modern-day Gallatin, Missouri. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt stated that the name Adam-ondi-Ahman “is in the original language spoken by Adam, as revealed to the Prophet Joseph” (Journal of Discourses 18:343) – Bill McKeever, Mormon Research Ministry.

It is to this very spot of physical geography that Jesus will return at the Second Coming. None of this is in the realm of myth. It’s fact. You can go there to touch it and  walk on it, knowing that Adam was there long before you and that, after you have walked there, it will prove to be the epicenter of the universe, the very spot where Christ will return.

Why is the Mormon myth gaining such traction in America? And why would I break the code of silence, the well-advised reticence to those of us who share White Calf’s belief that the Divine Mystery is known differently on different sides of the mountain?

Some things are too important to leave unaddressed. The Mormon mythology is quintessentially American.

The myth that America is the center of transcendent goodness and power, the world’s epicenter, the original Garden of Eden and the place of Christ’s return, the people of “Manifest Destiny”, the one exception to the rising and falling of empires and nations, is losing its hold on us at home and abroad. We are losing our sense of innocence. Yet there lurks the nostalgia for the secure home provided by the illegitimate marriage of Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God with America, “the City set upon a hill” of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and of John Winthrop’s sermon to English settlers on their voyage to the new world.

As Nietzsche knew, such gods don’t die easily, even when they’re already dead. When the town crier takes his lantern into the darkened town square at midnight crying “God is dead! God is dead!” in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, the rest of the town regarded him as a madman. But it would be only a matter of time before the news would reach their ears.  It was the god of Western civilization that Nietzsche’s madman pronounced dead.

When something dear to us dies, especially when it is the prevailing religious myth of a nation about its own holiness and invulnerability, we become like starving people who continue to look in the same old bare cupboard for bread.

What better place to go than the reassurance that America is still the center – the ancestral home of a real man named Adam, who came complete with his own (now lost language, the special place to which Jesus (who visited the lost tribe of Israel in the Americas between his resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven) will return? When the Christian story the story is concretized to a finite, mortal place, it power as myth – pointing us beyond ourselves to the transcendent and the eternal – is not only lost but turned on its head.

There are many sides of the mountain, and it behooves all of us to approach people of different religious traditions with open ears and open minds. But approaching another’s religious beliefs respectfully does not require that we pretend not to see what we see or that we conclude that all religions are really the same or that one opinion is as good as another in the free market of religious truth claims. “You can’t just make stuff up!”

Let me say without hesitation that what I see in Mormonism is but the most exaggerated illustration of the idolization of the nation that includes so much of the American churches of whatever stripe where the nation is enshrined as God and where patriotism is the unspoken highest virtue with the cross wrapped in a flag.

The American wars of foreign intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not have happened without this widespread faith in American goodness and exceptionalism. It is the cardinal sin that afflicts us across all denominational and religious lines. Whenever the Jesus executed by the Roman Empire becomes the Imperial King of a new empire, those who continue to hear the shrieks and cries of the world that suffers – and who continue to smell the piss on the stairway in the place we call “home”- are obliged to break the silence, violate the code, and get back on the bus to Harlem.

The Wafer and the Loaf: the Pope and Raul Castro

I woke up this morning to read “Pope calls for ‘justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation’ in Cuba. He was greeted by Cuban President Raul Castro, who promised religious freedom in his Communist nation.”  What follows is my reflection on this piece in light of three weeks in Cuba in 1979..

Curious. The headline and the story are curious.

Pope Benedict arrives in Santiago, Cuba. In Mexico he has just criticized Cuba’s Marxist model as obsolete and has called for a future of “justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation” in Cuba.

The President of Cuba, Raul Castro, welcomes the pontiff to Cuban soil.

The media focuses on the Pope’s call for change in Cuba, on the one hand, and Mr. Castro’s promise of  religious freedom in Cuba, as though the latter were a new development.

In 1979, on the heels of the Catholic Bishops Conference in Puebla, Mexico, I spent three weeks in Cuba, one of 75 churchmen and theologians invited by the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba and the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba.

Most of the guests were from Central and South America. Others were from France, East and West Germany, Rumania, the Soviet Union, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe. There were four of us from the U.S: Professors Harvey Cox, , Robert McAfee Brown and a tag-along practicing pastor and college chaplain from Wooster, Ohio.

What do I remember most about that trip? Five memories:

________________________________

1) Approaching Cuba from the air, looking down at this island 90 miles from the coast of Florida, asking how this little David had managed to slay Goliath at the Bay of Pigs, and wondering what was so threatening to us that the U.S. government continued to punish it with an economic embargo. I felt like a bully. Guilty. Ashamed. Humble.

2) Getting sick on a collective farm, sitting under a tree after drinking a complementary glass of banana juice. I was quickly tended to by Cuba’s medical and pharmaceutical system. They continued to check on me until all was well. Everyone gets health care.

3) The Cuban pastors’ response to a long breast-beating speech by Robert McAfee Brown, one of the foremost theologians in the U.S.  Brown spent 45 minutes in a biblically based sermon apologizing to the Cubans, a kind of cathartic confession in full public view. I was with him all the way. The Cuban response? Stop that. You didn’t do this. The American people haven’t done this to us. Your government has. Wallowing in guilt won’t help you and it won’t help us. We all need to find ways to promote justice and peace in our own contexts. We are all here as friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.

4) Walking through the streets of Matanzas in the evening. Children playing freely in the streets. Windows and doors wide open. Neighbors talking and laughing with next-door neighbors. This could not be staged. This was the real Cuba.  As Harvey Cox, the charming professor from Harvard Divinity School who is fluent in Spanish, led the three of us through the streets, children followed him like the Pied Piper. Harvey would laugh with them and they with him. We would sing and walk. It was playful, like nothing that was happening back home.

5) A conversation with Communists on the veranda of the home of the President of the seminary. Raul Castro was among them. They were there to welcome us to Cuba. They also wanted to talk theology and society. They wanted to know what we really believed about God, about the Kingdom of God, and about social justice and economic equality. I don’t remember his name now, but I do remember the long one-on-one conversation during that cocktail hour with a member of the Communist Party. He had grown up Roman Catholic but was no longer a believer. The Church, he said, had kept the people in their place before the revolution. The Party had raised them up to believe in themselves. The Church had given them a wafer; the Party gave them bread, real food, real nutrition. The Church proclaimed the Kingdom of God after you die; the Party proclaimed a society of justice and peace that could be achieved in this world.

He asked what I thought. I told him that the version of Christian faith that he had described was not my faith. It was something else, but it was a very popular distortion of the life and teaching of Jesus. I told him that I shared his hope, that what he called “the classless society” I called the Kingdom of God, and that, to the extent that we were each working for the elimination of poverty, the end of starvation, and the health and joy of all God’s children, we were working toward the same goal under different names.  I rehearsed my history of Christian-Marxist dialogue dating back to seminary and the summer of 1966 living in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia as the Experiment in International Living Chicago Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. I told him of Josef Hromadka, the Czech theologian who had begun this dialogue because, said Hromadka, there was only one reason that the Bolshevik Revolution was atheistic: the sin of the Church. Its failure to align with the poor rather than the rich. The Church and the Czar had become of one cloth, just as he had been describing. The Church was giving people nothing but a wafer; the bread would come only after death. Lenin and Trotsky were insisting that to be genuinely human was to eliminate the economic structures that produce poverty and despair and that delay the distribution of real bread until an afterlife. Like Marx, they saw religion as the opiate of the people, the ideological blanket that blinded people to their earthly reality. But the biblical Kingdom is not about the Church, it’s about the new society in which the love of God reigns everywhere. It’s the NEW city, the new Jerusalem, and, in that new city, there is no longer any temple. There is no longer any need for the church because the Kingdom has come.”

The man from the Party’s eyes were wide.

I asked the man on the veranda where he thought his hope for such a society came from. “I don’t know,” he said, “I think it’s just part of being human.” “Yes,” I said, “but why? How’s that hope get there? Why should we hope unless there is something in being itself, something in the deepest part of us, that holds out the promise of its fulfillment, an inner sense that beckons us beyond the present conditions? The name for me is God.  None of us has ever seen God, yet I see God in Jesus of Nazareth, a worker, a carpenter, preacher of the Kingdom of God. I hear in your visions an echo of the Sermon on the Mount. I get the clearest sense of it when we share the meal at the Lord’s Table, the sign of the Kingdom.  The Kingdom will not come by Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. We have to work for it, but we also ‘wait for it with patience.’”

“Thank you, I’ll have to think more about that. You sound like Jose.” There’s a long pause. “Well…We’ll have to wait and see. I guess only time will tell who’s right,” he said. Like Harvey and the kids on the street that evening, we shared a good laugh, shook hands, and moved on to another conversation.

_____________________________

It’s now 33 years later and I’m reading about Raul Castro’s “promise” of religious freedom, the very same Raul Castro who was on the veranda at the seminary, who graciously welcomed the guy with the wafers to Cuban soil, except for kissing his ring. Priests and lay people from throughout Cuba throng to the site. None of them is hungry for bread.

Curious…for a country with no religious freedom. Don’t you think?