So, Jesus summoned his disciples and sent them out with these instructions: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
The kingdom of heaven has come near? Really? Did I…miss it? It’s such an interesting statement for our rather cynical modern world. I’d like to think it’s a glass-half-full/glass-half empty kind of thing–like, if you can’t see God’s kingdom that is presumably near, it’s just because you’re a pessimist and not because it’s not there. You know…perspective, not fact.
Weeks like this past one sure do challenge the idea that there’s anything more to this world than what’s directly in front of our eyes. How do you see something called the kingdom of heaven–how do we trust in its proximity–when someone opens fire at a congressional baseball practice, or when yet one more African-American is dead while his killer is acquitted? If the kingdom of heaven seems blurry to you these days, a little out of focus, or like some pie-in-the-sky dream, there’s good reason. We’re surrounded by events that can’t possibly fit into that kingdom.
I spent this past week at Lutheridge, our Lutheran camp and conference center just outside of Asheville. Camdyn Pacheco and Ryan Schang were there as well, engaged in Confirmation classes each morning. We joined several other congregations and the pastors shared the responsibilities for teaching. If you went through confirmation growing up, and this sounds different, you’re right. My mom talks about how, when she went through confirmation as a Lutheran youth in the Ohio in the 1960s, they were required to meet every Saturday for three years and memorize Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, the book he wrote to help parents teach their children the basics of faith. Though Confirmation has certainly taken on a different shape today, the goal is primarily the same: to teach the faith so that our children our encouraged, as Jesus instructed his disciples, “to proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” It’s like Jesus knew that we’d be dealt weeks like this past one, when we’d be tempted to doubt the presence of God’s kingdom, and when we’d need a reminder or two that it’s there.
Of course, it helps to have experienced the kingdom of God in order to proclaim that it has come near. Part of the way we help our Confirmation students see God’s kingdom is by placing them in a setting where the kingdom of God is more visible. You may have heard the phrase “thin places” to describe settings like this. It’s a term used mostly in Celtic spirituality to refer to places where people tend to gravitate to God–and, as a result–God’s kingdom. One New York Times article describes them as “locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent, or as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever.”* Camp, for middle schoolers, is often one such place.
Because we live in a world filled with shootings, and bipartisan tension (we might even say “hate”) and racism, we need people who have witnessed the kingdom of God to point the rest of us to that kingdom–to keep us from losing hope when we become discouraged and when all else seems lost. That’s I asked both Ryan and Camdyn to share a little bit of their week with you. Neither one of them could be here today (summer is a busy time for our youth!), but they agreed to write something down for me to share with you about where they saw God this week and just how near the kingdom of God actually is.
This week at camp was AMAZING. We had a great time hiking, swimming, and learning more about Jesus. But was he there with us? I think so. I found Jesus with me in the counselors, campers, and pastors. All of them were great new friends, helpful, and unique. I found God’s kingdom in the huge mountains of Asheville. We took a hike to a waterfall and even though it was raining, thundering, and flooding, we had a great time (NOT in the waterfall, of course!). The mountains and waterfall were for the most part peaceful and beautiful. Lutheridge was a great experience.
Camdyn points to both the importance of relationships and creation in revealing God’s kingdom. It’s especially important for us to hear the peace of which she speaks, because such peace, even in the midst of thunderstorms, is a drastic change from the violence of the news, but also promises that God can work such peace into a tumultuous climate–a tumultuous weather climate and a tumultuous political climate. The kingdom of heaven has come near.
Hello! I’m sorry I couldn’t be here this morning. You would expect that at a “church camp” God would be easy to spot. What I’ve come to realize through this camp, though, is that God comes in the unexpected. Whether it’s sitting still reading on our bunks, or playing water polo in the pool while rain is pouring from the sky, God shows itself in others, and embraces unity in between us. When my mom and Pastor Emily first told me about this camp opportunity, I had mixed emotions. “Ugh, another week away from my house, pets, family, and more,” and, “Maybe I’ll meet a new friend or two,” filled my head. God doesn’t always make the path clear, but wants us to trust in each other and that God will hold us up each new step we take. When we fall, we’re here to help each other up. God wants for us to be here for each other. Friendship and unity are all ways that we can see God in everyday light.
Ryan talks about not necessarily knowing where God will show up, but trusting that God will. That’s incredibly important when it comes to experiencing the kingdom of God. For one thing, it keeps us attentive, expectant even, but it also allows us to be surprised when God shows up in ways we could never imagine. In response to shootings and violence and racism and all the stuff that blurs our vision, this says, “Don’t lose hope,” because even when you think all hope is lost, God can–and will–still show up. Sometimes, it’s in the form of friendships and fun; other times it’s in the form of relief efforts and the unity–or solidarity–of which Ryan speaks. The kingdom of heaven has come near.
I’ve heard one of the program directors at camp say that at the end of the summer when the college-age camp counselors are getting ready to go back to school, they’ll lament the fact that they have to return to “the real world.” She quickly corrects them: “This is the real world,” she says, for God’s kingdom is real. It’s all the stuff that clouds our vision that’s fake.
The kingdom of God has come near. Ryan and Camdyn are telling us that. They are witnesses to grace. We are fortunate to have such wise young voices among us. When our world becomes dark and seems to block the kingdom of God from our vision, when the events of the news push it aside, they remind us that there are thin places where God’s kingdom breaks through, where the distance between heaven and earth collapses. May we use this hope, this promise, to pull us forward into a future of endless possibilities and into a future where God’s peace and justice are for all, so that our voices may join their voices in proclaiming, “The kingdom of God has come near.”