Get invited to eat at someone’s house on a Friday evening, and should you go, you will likely experience the following: something to snack on, then a salad, a main course and side dishes, and finally dessert. It is the order in which we eat, most likely learned at home from our parents and reinforced by most restaurants, not only in the order in which the food is served, but also in the very order that the foods are listed on restaurant menus. It is such a strong convention that even some doctors tell us that we have sweets at the end of the meal because the sweetness gives a signal to our brain that the meal is over. And let’s face it. It is also a strong convention because there is something slightly virtuous-feeling in forcing someone else to wait for dessert, as in when we see the child eyeing the chocolate chip cookie. “No, keep your hands off dessert until you finish your peas” or “broccoli” or “Brussels sprouts” or whatever vegetable it is that is currently out of favor among the young.
But it has not always been so. In medieval years people sometimes ate sweets in the middle of the meal as a way to prepare the stomach for what was to come, and in Roman days there was something of a scandal when certain patricians began eating their salad early on rather than at the end of the meal. Some first-century doctor of sorts must have been proclaiming that the salad gets the stomach ready for what is to follow. It seems we will try anything difficult if it might prove rewarding down the road. But try telling such a thing to the five-year old who is eyeing that chocolate chip cookie.
The story of how we eat our meals is a story about order and timelines: What comes first, what comes next, and what must be waited for until the end. That sort of reasoning has been part of the larger human story for such a long time. And nowhere has it been more fundamentally important than in the church. We have taken profoundly deep human longings for connection and meaning, a universal desire to be known and loved intimately and not to suffer the separation of death, and we have wrapped it in the language of the future of heaven and hell and all that must be done to prepare to attain one and avoid the other. “Eat the salad first. Save dessert for last.” The language of the coming of the kingdom of heaven is frequently the language of waiting, of expectation, of an orderly preparation for something that will take place in the future, most likely after death. It rests on our very linear interpretation of time. Things were, things are, things will be. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We baptize, we confirm, we marry, we bury, we wait for the resurrection of the dead. We keep waiting for the kingdom of heaven. Time, it seems, is very linear, very predictable.
But about a hundred years ago the scientific world turned our sense of time upside down. Physicists showed us that time is but another dimension, that time itself is relative depending on where one stands or how fast one is moving. The past and present and future are not so distinct, not so linear. That discovery helped me, by the way, make better sense of God. I can now say that God does not see into the future, as if God has extraordinary powers of foresight that humans don’t. Instead, if God is bigger than anything there is, including time, then for God everything simply IS, whether it is Eve in the Garden, or Jesus on the cross, or the u unemployed teenager in the Delta. God looks on all three simultaneously. If time is but a dimension, God can break it down, simplify it.
And that truth can change the way we Christians look at the kingdom of heaven. We don’t have to wait for it to arrive as if time is an absolute that cannot be tampered with. In this new world we can break down time, simplify it, make the present moment the most important one. Discover dessert waiting for us rather than us waiting for it.
About two months ago I was at a meeting of the theology committee of the House of Bishops. We were discussing whether or not people who are not baptized ought to receive Communion. It was a question that did not arise two hundred years ago when it was assumed that people would be born into, and be a part of, a society that has its proper order of Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Marriage, and preparing for death. And the Book of Common Prayer, by its very ordering of the church’s worship life, copies that order, sort of like the restaurant menu that reinforces the convention of how we are to eat our dinners. We put the liturgy for Baptism in front of the Eucharist and we follow it with Confirmation and marriage and prayers for the sick and the Burial of the Dead. I reminded the committee that part of the reason the question of Communion for the unbaptized has urgency now is because our sense of time has changed. Time is no longer simply and absolutely linear. Stories are taken apart and rearranged in this new world, and perhaps at some level the people outside the church who concentrate on physics, not theology, understand better than we do what Jesus meant when he said that the first will be last and the last first. Do we have to keep waiting like that small child for a dessert that we have our eye on? Do we have to keep waiting to be admitted finally into the kingdom?
That is where today’s gospel comes in to play. In a story in which Jesus has not yet been crucified, he tells his disciples that they must take up their cross and follow him. In a story that doesn’t make sense from our historical perspective, he tells his disciples that there are some standing with him who will not taste death before they experience the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. For Jesus, the kingdom is a current reality, not merely a wish. Apparently, the writer of the book of Matthew knew more about 21st century ways of deconstructing a timeline that we in the church are sometimes willing to admit.
The world loves ordering things. Well-off, educated folk (like most of us in this room, I dare say) on one end, with less well-off, somewhat educated folk in the middle, and poor people with little education on the other end. And we know who has been told to wait for dessert in that ordering. Or the whitest of skin on one end and the darkest of skin on the other. We certainly know in this nation who has been told to wait for something better. Or the perfect nuclear family with two children on one end and the unmarried, alone, pregnant teenager on the other, with a host of other living arrangements, straight and gay, in between. We love to order people.
When the church is at its best, it takes the normal worldly order of things and rearranges them, sort of like Jesus being able to talk about carrying crosses even before he goes to Golgotha. When the church is at its best, it proclaims by word and deed that we will not delay ushering in at least partial glimpses of the kingdom, sort of like Jesus saying that some will not die before they experience the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
This evening I am not preaching to people who have no experience inside the church. I am preaching to the choir, as we so often like to say. And most Sundays I am preaching to the choir as well, in rooms filled (or sometimes not so filled) with people who are the heart and soul of the institutional church. This gospel message is a challenge to us who are on the inside, who so frequently live by the timeline. And the message is simple: We are standing on the threshold of the kingdom of heaven. The time for proclaiming our message is now. We don’t need to wait until we die.
Remember what Jesus said in the parable of the Great Judgment. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” We don’t so much prepare people for the kingdom of heaven as we discover that we are in the midst of it by looking around at what we have already been doing.
Hear clearly part of that quote. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” I invite you to find ways to welcome the stranger in our midst. It becomes OUR good news, and when we start welcoming others, we discover the kingdom ourselves. We are changed. The kingdom is not that hoped for dessert that we dangle in front of people. We are going to turn convention upside down and say that the best part of the meal is now. I make that assertion, not because of hoped-for increased donations or hoped-for increased attendance, but because it is the gospel imperative. Jesus tells us that some standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom, and we in this church in Arkansas are going to live into what Jesus has to say. The poorly educated worker in the Delta doesn’t need to taste death. The student struggling with trying to find meaning in life doesn’t need to taste death. The homeowner who has lost both job and home doesn’t need to taste death. The widow whose friends have died doesn’t need to taste death. In fact, we in this room don’t need to taste death. When we start looking for Jesus in the people around us, we will instead find life, and they will find life, and we will all find the kingdom. We will look on the world with the eyes of God who is larger than time itself. The thing that we will die to is acting as if others need just a little more starvation to make them better people. Exist that way, and we will find our own selves starved.
I invite you to welcome the stranger in our midst. I invite you to find yourselves changed as all of us realize that the world is a different place than it was a hundred years ago. I invite you to live as Jesus lived, to start proclaiming to anyone who will listen that this church is where the doors are wide open, and people are being offered a feast with rich food and drink, a feast where all are not only welcome at the table, but where the newcomer, the stranger, is indeed the guest of honor. Live that way, and we will find that we don’t have to wait until we taste death to see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. We are standing on the threshold of the kingdom of heaven, and that is exactly where God want
Larry R. Benfield
Bishop of Arkansas