Matthew 3:1-3, Mathew 10:7-9, Mark 1
By John Roy
Pelham Road Church
Greenville SC April 2016
It started with a conversation about parking lots.
Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, a senior rabbi at Temple Israel, a Reform Jewish congregation, was speaking to Bob Freeman, past president of Temple Israel, about building a new place of worship. They both remarked how nice it was to share parking lots with a Methodist church and an Omaha theater on High Holy Days.
They planned to relocate to West Omaha and contacted Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, president of the American Muslim Institute, whose group was also relocating. The conversation moved from sharing parking lots to wondering about a campus where three communities — Temple Israel, along with Muslim and Christian houses of worship — would share what is now known as the Tri-Faith campus.
Temple Israel, the American Muslim Institute and the Episcopal diocese of Nebraska purchased the land in December 2011. A founding partner, the Episcopal diocese transitioned the partnership to Countryside Community Church, a United Church of Christ congregation, in April 2015.
Azriel, who is retiring in June, said he is not focusing so much on the Tri-Faith Center’s impact on the rest of the world. “I’m just interested in doing something here in Omaha, making sure the relationships are solid, meaningful and just,” he said.
He added that it is possible that the same sort of initiative could work elsewhere, but “we have a long road before we accomplish this neighborhood that will be established finally in 2018.”
Temple Israel opened on the campus in October 2013. The American Muslim Institute broke ground in May 2015 and Countryside Community Church is in the midst of making plans with an architect. A Tri-Faith Center, which will be shared by all three groups, will break ground sometime in 2016.
“We are going to call it Abraham’s Tent,” said Mohiuddin. “He’s the father of all three religions and the building will be shaped like a tent.”
From Nebraska travel with me to Kenya, in East Africa violence broke out in 2014. An American journalist was covering the violence as was trying to get a little background to what was going on. He was interviewing a knowledgeable Kenyan about the situation.
“The tension is between the Luo, Luhya, and the other fifty tribes in the country,” is how the Kenyan explained the situation.
The journalist ask, “Which tribe are you from?”
The Kenyan said, “I could answer that question I am not ashamed of my tribe. It is part of who I am. But at the risk of sounding rude I would rather not answer.”
The journalist of course could not let that go, “Are you afraid.?”
“No” said the Kenyan, “In every country there are only two tribes those who have and those who don’t have. It is enough to know I am one of the haves. But I don’t exist to serve my tribe, I am here representing Kenya—all tribes, all people.”
Like this Kenyan I know who I am. I know the tribe I originated in. I love my heritage, from old hymns to fried chicken, and I am grateful for it. But my identities as a Christian cannot become a barrier or a wall. Being a follower of Jesus, the one who welcomed all to his table, my priority must be to make welcome all people from all tribes.
From strangers we become friends, then we become co-workers, and eventually partners. If we remain in tribes, we will remain fractured and broken. Of course we would be beyond foolish to think there are not differences. Differences, however, are not barriers. Barriers are fear, hatred, prejudice, and an unwillingness to listen.
Jews, Christians, Muslims, just to reference the tribes sharing the campus in Nebraska, are not identical. Our dietary requirements even differ. But we all believe God is the answer, not money or power, but God. Flowers are not identical either but they live in harmony, and so can sincere people of ALL faiths.
Beyond religion we break our world down into many tribes—tribes based on bank accounts, color of skin, sexual orientation, education, and the list really could go on and on. The first point of the morning is that tribes divide and division is not an answer. Yet how does Christ overcome these barriers?
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God] 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15).
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(Matthew 3:1-3).
7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand,] 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. (Matthew 10:7-9).
The Kingdom is AT hand.
Jesus did not say the Kingdom was beyond reach. There is no indication in scripture that Jesus believed the things he was teaching were for some future time. Pray for your enemies, turn the other cheek, and love one another, these were real practices to be extended to their world/ our world. The Romans and Pagans to the earliest believers were to be loved, forgiven, and welcomed. For us it is other religions and the mosaic of tribes we call neighbors that are to be loved.
Neither did Jesus say the Kingdom is IN HAND already accomplished. That the walls had been replaced by bridges and the barriers removed.
The Kingdom of God is both in reach yet not possessed. A gift given but not completely received.
Jesus was about one tribe and everyone was included—God’s Kingdom. All are welcome in God’s commonwealth—remember your scripture—Jesus offered a place where the Pharisee and prostitute were both at home, the chief priest and the Samaritans sat side by side with Christ, the Sadducees (Jesus theological rival) and the Roman Centurions ( Jesus’ ethical rivals) were both included at the table of our Lord. This commonwealth would test the boundaries of polite society—gentile and Jew, male and female, the slave and the slave owner were all welcomed. What eventually became our name Christianity was not the point. For Jesus and the New Testament authors the point was the Kingdom of God.
The way some people today talk about Jesus you would think he is private property, their deity, reserved for their needs, tribe, and worship. We dare proclaim that Jesus is larger than us, he cannot be held hostage—“God so loved the WORLD he gave his only Son.” The world is much bigger than Christians, America, or however, we define our tribe. The world includes the Shik, the Muslim, the Wall Street Banker, and Black Lives Matter. We call them tribes, but God calls them his creation, his beloved. Christ was sent, and thus belongs, not to us, but to the world.
What did Jesus mean by the Kingdom of God? Jesus resisted boxing himself in on a definition. I imagine though he meant something larger than religion could contain. It has something to do with growing and transforming and becoming. Growing beyond our tribe and being transformed beyond our comfort zone.
Jesus once preached–
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus was a Jew of modest means, his tribe did not have all the power but Jesus was not blind, he was not a captive, he was not oppressed, those were not his tribes—but he came representing God, who invites all tribes and all people. The pressure is on us to follow the example of our savior and break down the modern barriers.
How do we overcome these modern barriers—-Jesus answer is the Kingdom of God, preach it, welcome it, live it, share it and the barriers will be broken. It’s that simple and that challenging.
The Kingdom of God is at hand. The barriers are already falling.
When we try to decrease the gap between rich and poor by planting a garden or giving to the Frazee Center so children can break free of the cycle of poverty, barriers are falling.
When we teach our children to love all people the walls are crumbling.
When a church, synagogue, and Mosque share property in Nebraska the fortress is falling.
When we serve brownies with Gospel Love to graduating seniors at Carolina High who are overcoming poverty, troubled homes, and social disabilities, recognizing their accomplishment and that they may the first in their family to attend college barriers are falling.
When we march with others in our community to raise awareness that children are gifts from God and need love and protection walls are falling.
The Kingdom is at hand so we must keep the doors of the church open wide. God’s message is being heard, captives are being released the oppressed are being liberated.
In the end, at the Apocalypse, the seventh angel blows the trumpet and shouts—-“Everyone has joined our religion or been destroyed.” No . . . never, they shout, “The Kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord.” Yes.
Prejudice replaced by love
Fear replaced by hope
Enemies replaced by friends
Hatred replaced by worship
That’s a kingdom worth following.