Shuck and Jive

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Father's Imperial Rule? -- A Sermon

The Father’s Imperial Rule?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 1, 2011
Pluralism Sunday

Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.
Billy Collins, Nine Horses (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 69-70.

Gospel of Jesus 15:1-11

One time, some members of the Purity Party started to argue with him. To test him, they demanded a sign from heaven. He groaned under his breath and says, “Why does this generation insist on a sign? I swear to God, this generation won’t get any sign!”

And turning his back on them, he got back in the boat and crossed over to the other side.

His disciples said to him, “When will the Father’s imperial rule come?

[He said], “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘Look, over there!’ Rather, the Father’s imperial rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”

On another occasion Jesus said, “You won’t be able to observe the coming of God’s imperial rule. People are not going to be able to say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘Over there!’ On the contrary, God’s imperial rule is right there in your presence.”

Jesus prayed, “Father, impose your imperial rule.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 83, 84. Mark 8:11-13; Matthew 6:10; 16:1-4; 12:38-40; Luke 11:2, 29-30; 17:20-21; John 2:18; 6:30; Thomas 113:1-4

Today is Pluralism Sunday.

It is not a big day on the church calendar but maybe it should be.

Pluralism Sunday is the dream of Jim Burklo of The Center for Progressive Christianity. Our congregation pays a modest fee once per year to be connected with this movement that is primarily a website. You can find the website at It is money well invested as folks have found our church because they saw us listed there. We also make use of the eight points of progressive Christianity as a helpful signpost of what we value.

Point Two of the Eight points is this:
2. Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;
That makes sense to me. It doesn’t seem that radical, really. Yet in some circles even the suggestion that another’s spiritual path is as good as mine is heresy. So, yes, I guess it is a radical notion. Our congregation makes a mission of being radical. According to our mission statement:
[we] Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.
The point here is that not only do we recognize the faithfulness of other traditions we explore their knowledge and wisdom because these other traditions may enrich us.

For instance, today, we are having a Beltane celebration. This is a coincidence that it happens to fall on Pluralism Sunday. Elaine organized it without knowing that I was going to emphasize pluralism. In fact, I forgot about the pluralism thing until the last minute. It goes to show that every Sunday is Pluralism Sunday whether we recognize it or not!

The Beltane service will be enriching. It is a Celtic festival that celebrates new growth and fertility. We will celebrate tonight with dancing and dining. It starts at 6 p.m. Bring a dish. Foods for Beltane are dairy or the season’s first produce. If the weather stays nice we will have it outside. Bring ribbons or flowers to decorate the festival site.

We honor our Christian heritage and we explore and celebrate other traditions. Not either/or but both/and. I am not bragging, just stating a value. Pluralism Sunday is a special day to remind us to be intentional about that aspect of our congregation’s mission. Perhaps you know of ways that we could be even more intentional about that.

Revisiting the figure of Jesus is an important part of this work of being intentional. Jesus has served too commonly, unfortunately, as an icon of exclusivity. “Jesus is the only way” and so forth. We all know about that. That is why scholarly work on the origins of Christianity can be a helpful tool in re-shaping the figure of Jesus for the work of peace and justice. That is good work. But it is up to each individual to find her or his own way. We find our own personal Jesus.

My personal Jesus doesn’t have to be boss of the planet. He is happy to share the space.

Here is a song about Jesus for Pluralism Sunday. It is called “I Love You and Buddha Too." I am going to play it for you, but I want to make sure you have the lyrics. It goes like this here:

Oh Jesus, I love You
And I love Buddha too
Ramakrishna, Guru Dev
Tao Te Ching and Mohammed

Why do some people say
That there is just one way
To love You, God, and come to You?
We are all a part of You

You are un-nameable
You are unknowable
All we have is metaphor
That's what time and space are for

Is the universe Your thought?
You are and You are not
You are many, You are one
Ever ending, just begun

And it has a catchy tune to go with it. This is Mason Jennings:

The Jesus that I embrace loves Buddha, too, and Krishna and Mohammad, and the whole gang. My personal Jesus, would, if here today, join us in our Beltane celebration. He would be all about dancing and dining with us.

I think he would be dismayed at the enmity between religions and would inhabit that place that is both beyond and betwixt them. He would be found dancing in our midst and inviting all of us to let go of our exclusive claims and honor the other. He would lightly poke fun at us and make us play together.

And he’d probably get crucified for it again.

But not even that would stop him.

That is why he is more than historical as are other figures and symbols in our spiritual traditions.

Jesus liked to talk about something that is translated “kingdom of God.” It is also translated as “realm of God” or “empire of God” or “the Father’s imperial rule” or even as we said in our communion liturgy last Sunday, the “kin-dom of God”. The way it is translated provides its nuance for you.

Jesus used playful parables, aphorisms, and other examples to point to this image. When people heard the phrase “kingdom of God” they had an association with it as we may have an association with it.

  • For some it might have been the apocalyptic and triumphant return of the Israelite monarchy.
  • The glory days of David and Solomon.
  • Maybe it would be everyone sitting under his or her own fig tree.
  • Maybe economic justice with poor rich and the mighty thrown from their thrones.
  • For others, it would be the temple where the all the nations would come and worship.
  • For others, there would be no temple at all.
Imagine the perfect world. What would it be like for you? Take a moment and do that. If all the politicians and world leaders suddenly did what you wanted them to do, what would the world look like? If you were the king or queen of Earth, what would you do? What would the world be like if God’s kingdom were to come on Earth as it is in heaven?

Take a moment and imagine it. Got something?

We all want the world better in some way. We all want the kingdom of God as we imagine it.

Jesus tapped into that desire. He played with that image, the kingdom of God. He toyed with it and told parables and aphorisms about it, because it isn’t something you can really define outside of playing with metaphor.

Folks would ask him, “When is this kingdom of God” this “Father’s imperial rule” that you keep talking about coming? How will we know? Or in the words of George Carlin, “When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops?”

Jesus would just smile.

I included this poem from Billy Collins because I thought it was a fun, playful poke at that aspect of us that holds tightly to our treasured images. When our metaphors become too airtight, along comes the poet to pop them. When we get a bit too intense with our dreams and images, the poet and the teller of parables asks us,
“Are you sure?”
The poet says:
“You may think of yourself as the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine. OK. But it is also possible that you are the pigeon on the general’s head. But we’ll let you think you are the crystal goblet.”
The poet prods us about our dreams and visions. The poet says to us:
“In your dream of a perfect world, what if it was so perfect that there was no room in it for you?”
So when his eager followers asked Jesus,
“When will the kingdom come?”
Jesus replied,
“The Father’s imperial rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”
And at other times he said,
“It’s right here in your presence.”
At and other times he prayed,
“Father, impose your imperial rule.”
Still at other times he said it is a woman kneading dough, or a mustard seed out of control, or an empty jar spilling its meal on the road. He compared it to the Good Samaritan, your enemy helping you when you are in trouble.

Perhaps he even said it is the crystal goblet and the wine. If he did, I am sure he followed it up with the thing about the pigeon.

I think, at least my takeaway, is something like this. I think Jesus poked at his friends and he poked at that exclusive aspect within all of us, that part of us that wants the world to be better and wants the world to embrace our religion, our politics, our wisdom.

Maybe my personal Jesus is telling me something like this:
“If you want to change the world, John, that is cool. I do too. But as you go about it, don’t forget to look within. There are others who want to do the same thing. Who knows? They may have something to offer. Oh, and by the way, try not to take yourself too seriously. After all, there is a pigeon on your head.”


  1. The hostile in-group/out-group mindset could have been a good survival instinct in caveman days, but seems less relevant today. Maybe in the next stage of evolution we will be able to say "My way is good" without then feeling we must say "and therefore your way is bad".