Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Thy Kingdom, COME!
I am back from Sabbatical. I returned to church on Monday, July 29. Thankfully, that first Sunday back, August 4, the retired pastor who moderated Session agreed to preach. He had hoped to reconnect the church to me and me to the church, to hand us back to one another. Alas, there were two mass shootings in America, and he faithfully and wisely spoke words of pain and hope, grief and grace instead.
Sunday, August 11, last Sunday, was my first Sunday back in the pulpit. They say, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." Well, the first sermon after a three-month sabbatical is pretty close to a second chance to make a first impression. What to say? What scripture to choose? If I only say one thing about God and God's kingdom, what is it this first Sunday back?
One goal for the Sabbatical was to focus on my own faith. Pastors can spend so much time on other things, tasks, issues, or other people's faith, we might neglect giving attention to our own. I asked myself faithfully throughout the Sabbatical, "What is faith?"
The Lectionary text for August 11 was Hebrews 11. In that Scripture, faith is defined.
“Faith is the assurance of things only hoped for, and the conviction of things not yet seen.”
Hebrews then uses Abraham as an example of faith, and tells us about Abraham setting off, not knowing where he was going, how or how long to get there, leaving behind former things to move himself and his family toward what Hebrews calls, “the city of God,” a more holy, more perfect community on earth.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and Abraham hoped for the City of God on earth. Faith is the conviction of things not yet seen, and Abraham was convicted about the goodness of the city of God for all people even though he couldn’t see it yet.
Faith then for me, is seeing the city of God in my mind, hoping for and being assured of the coming city of God in my heart, and as I am ready and able, speaking and working for the city of God with conviction in every relationship, in my family, in church and in the community, in all areas of my life.
The Greek word in Hebrews, translated as City, is polis. I shared this with the congregation and helped them see the connection. Hebrews is saying Faith is seeing and hoping for, speaking about and working for the polis… the politics of God.
My first sermon back, and I brought up politics.
Now, I am no Abraham. But I too left behind many things, many ways, and opinions when the reality of Christ’s faithfulness awakened in me at a deeper level.
As a child and youth, we did not do church. After the death of my father by suicide when I was six, Mom never went back to church, and so neither did I for over 12 years. I continued to feel the pull of God, and I wrestled with God logically and theologically but did so beyond a community of people trying to live faithfully.
In college, I met Jill and began to hear through her and a Presbyterian Church in Macon a different way of reading scripture and talking about God. I was baptized at the church on Sunday, October 15 when I was 20 years old. Jill and I were married at that church the next summer. Then we moved to Montgomery, AL for my first Engineering job, and became charter members of a new church, Immanuel Presbyterian. Five years later, we moved to Greenville, SC and joined Fourth Presbyterian.
For those young adult years, I attended church semi-regularly. We were raising children, trying to get by, paying bills, figuring out how to be married. Sometimes we did classes and groups at church. Sometimes I argued with Jill or with pastors over sermons or the social or political issues under their lessons and sermons. There were differences. I didn’t quit Church because of our differences. They didn’t stop teaching or preaching about the Kingdom of God.
In February 2000, my mom died. Adam, my oldest son, was six. I was six when I attended the funeral for my father, and the pastor spoke words about God that were not true but stuck with me for years. I was a layperson, a semi-regular church attendee, but I felt called to lead and preach her funeral. I began to feel a depth of faith I had not felt before.
In September 2001, the towers fell. So many of my customers were in Manhattan. I had been scheduled to arrive in Newark early that morning but had moved my flight to that afternoon. In listening to them, setting aside business to listen and to shake our fists at evil and God together, I began to feel a depth of faith I had not felt before.
Faith expanded in me and flooded me. It changed the way I thought of death and life. It changed the way I saw evil in the world, enemies, the way I saw myself and my closest friends and family. I began to see glimpses of what Jesus talked about so often, the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven. Its the same vision Hebrews calls the City, the polis, the politics of God. Its the same vision and hope preachers and teachers and friends at church had discussed, and that I had debated or argued because it meant too many changes in my professional or personal life.
Then, one day, we were praying the Lord's Prayer by memory, again, as I had now done for eleven years or so, and I heard it as if for the first time... "Thy kingdom, COME! Thy will, BE done, on earth as it is in heaven."
Church and faith changed for me after that. At church, I felt myself in a crowd around Jesus, not around a preacher. I felt Jesus' eyes on me and words for me and for that crowd in a new way. I felt the love in his words, yes, yes, very much so. I also saw the tear in his eye. I felt the quiver in his voice, the concern and the longing in his words, for us to see and believe the Kingdom. Jesus wanted me to see the polis of God, and to see myself and others and the whole world headed toward the Kingdom of Heaven together. He was willing to risk everything to help that Kingdom come on earth. He spoke and taught and showed us how to bring Kingdom on earth. Then he commissioned us to continue bringing Kingdom on earth until it comes.
I would hear Easter sermons differently. He died trying to bring in Kingdom. The world would rather keep things as they are than lay down our lives so that we might find the true life he promised. Yet, even death did not keep him from the Kingdom journey or the Kingdom promises. Because of who Jesus is and what Jesus has already done, the Kingdom is promised, is coming, and in some mysterious way is already true.
Faith changed for me. I only got a glimpse of all that, but at the center of the change was the revelation of the Kingdom, the city, the Polis of God. I was 32, and I quit a well-paying job. We left behind that life and neighborhood and house, and we went to seminary with no income, because I believed I had caught a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven, the politics of God, and because I had begun to believe it was always true, it is already true, and it is coming toward us no matter our mistakes, no matter my mistakes. I was beginning to believe life on the path toward the kingdom was a truer and fuller life. I was told it wouldn’t be easy, but I was promised it would be whole.
On this gift of sabbatical, I remembered some things about my faith and my role as a pastor. A central core part of faith is hoping for, being assured of, and being convicted to the polis of God. Its why I talk about politics sometimes in church, so the people I serve might feel its hope and promise, and so that we might imagine together ways we could help it come even sooner, as we are able, willing, and ready.
As a pastor whose faith is centered on seeing and hoping and moving toward the Polis of God, I serve a congregation with political diversity, and I am grateful for that. Our nation is in a uniquely divided time, politically, and I don’t anticipate it will get much better for a while.
So I accept that some come to Church looking for clarity amongst the political chaos. I cannot promise clarity. As a pastor of faith, I do promise to teach and preach from Scripture about the coming Kingdom of God, to help us all see and hope for it, to believe and work for it. Jesus taught about and died for the Kingdom of God. As His servant. I promise to help us all see it, remember it, and believe it is coming and is already true, because of who Jesus is and what Jesus did.
I also accept that some look to Church for calm from the political chaos, and would like for all politics to be separated from the church. I have no intention of preaching red or blue, left or right, your or their or my politics. But as a pastor of faith, I cannot stop teaching and preaching the polis of God into a faithful church. If we are a church of Jesus the Christ, we must constantly remember, hope for, encourage one another to believe, and (when able) work for the polis of God. That vision, that promise is what Jesus taught, and why he died. As citizens of that coming Kingdom, we believe it and help it come. We anticipate with hope the very wholeness and joy we seek. We celebrate the justice, love, and peace it brings for all God’s people.
A pastor of Jesus Christ, a church of Jesus Christ, cannot avoid talking about the politics of God. My job as pastor and preacher is to invite us all to see the kingdom Jesus taught about and died for... and as we’re gifted, to believe it... and when able, to center our hope around it... and when its time, to imagine with each other various ways to help it come sooner. I believe a faithful church remembers and lifts up the polis of God. I believe that is why he taught us to pray... "Thy Kingdom, COME... Thy Will, BE done... on earth as it is in heaven."