August 16, 2020
Hi everyone- my name is Andrew Zhao and I am the Minister of Emerging Generations. For those who haven’t had my role explained to them yet, I oversee our ministries for Children’s & Family, Youth, and Emerging Adults and I also help coordinate the worship for the alternate service.
Today, I will be continuing our Kingdom of God series by engaging with this idea of “Already and Not Yet”. This inherent tension we have as followers of Christ for what our general attitude toward life should be because on the one hand, Jesus has come- we know of His life, death, and resurrection and this should be cause for great joy and profound peace within our very beings. This is the ‘already’- this is the foundation of Christianity. Yet, we look around and even though Jesus has conquered the grave, we still see pain and sorrow and anguish. A lot of what we see, hear, and experience rattle our very beings. It still seems like things aren’t the way they should be in the world, in our relationships, sometimes even within ourselves. This is the ‘not yet’. While we still view God with great reverence like when we start the Lord’s Prayer with “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”, we still maintain a hope for what has not yet happened — that redemption and reconciliation for ALL of creation can come true — between God and humanity, human beings with one another, humanity with creation…for me, I believe that’s why we continue the Lord’s prayer with the words “thy Kingdom come.” We as followers of Christ exist in this in between, the tension of those two realities. And the question as always is what then should we do and how should we be?
I became a Christian when I was in high school as my closest friends would all go to youth group on Wednesday nights and I was not about to be left out. One could say FOMO brought me to faith. And for folks who don’t know what FOMO means it stands for fear of missing out and it’s what the kids are saying these days (at least they were a couple years back) and I still want the kids to think I’m cool.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”..for many listening, you’ve probably recited the Lord’s Prayer hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. I first heard it when I was about 16. One of the clubs I participated in while in high school was show choir –singing and dancing (go ahead and envision that)– and we would compete in tournaments on the weekends throughout the year. I remember, even though I attended a big public suburban school, there would be a group from the show choir who would get together and pray before we performed. Quick side note—I am not making any kind of commentary about prayer in schools with this story. I’m sure there’s many opinions on that topic within our congregation and I am not currently sharing mine. Cool.
So, some of my classmates would lead this prayer and the first time I caught wind that they were doing this, I was like, “Oh, I’m a Christian now. I go to youth group, I’m down with the big G-O-D. I should be a part of this…” so I joined. And students would pray for the performance to go well and for fun and safety, and I’m like ‘this seems uplifting and positive, I’m into it’ and then out of nowhere, about a dozen of my fellow show choir-ians all in unison start praying “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” and my eyes snap open. And I’m like how do they all know this already? Is this some sort of show choir ballad that I missed the practice for? And I’m looking around at all of them with their eyes closed and wondering why they are all saying it in that same monotone voice. and I’m thinking… Huh! I thought I was a Christian already, but maybe I’m not quite there yet.
In the couple years that followed, I joined a confirmation class at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in my hometown of Palatine, Illinois. I recall crying the day I got baptized and during our time of worship singing songs like “You are my King (Amazing Love)” by Chris Tomlin. This was big. It was official. I just got baptized! This was my symbolic gesture to show the community, show God that I was a believer. And indeed I believed! I affirmed it all: “that God was the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, that Jesus was his only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, descended into hell, rose again from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and would one day come back to judge the living and the dead…” And yeah all the stuff about the Holy Spirit, too. The less talked about, more confusing part of the Trinity for new believers. But yeah, I affirmed all of it! I was in. I was a Christian.
I went off to college really zealous with my faith… joining at least four campus ministries when I got to the University of Maryland-College Park. And I was super green. I didn’t know the difference between the different denominations. I played bass guitar for the Lutherans, I joined a Pentecostal group for a little while but that experience freaked me out (probably cause they were super into the Holy Spirit and I didn’t know what that meant). I dabbled with Cru and spent most of my time with the Reformed Presbyterians.
My degree in college was business-operations management. Recently born again Andrew was going to be the most ethical, spiritually-faithful businessman to ever live. And I have this distinct moment that totally shifted my career trajectory. I’m a sophomore and I’m sitting in an Introduction to Information Systems class. Dr. Weiss, our professor, was telling us this framework for understanding people and their motivations in life. He drew three giant circles on the board and in them he wrote the words “power, sex and money” and then he drew 2 little circles and in them wrote the words “duty and good will.” He then turned to us and said “Here are the reasons why people do everything in the world. There are a select few in society who do things out of duty or goodwill like soldiers in the military or philanthropists. But nearly everyone else, the majority of people you will encounter will make decisions and interact with others with these three as their motivation” and he kept tapping ‘power, sex and money.’ And then he ended by saying “and for most people this is their main passion in life” and he kept circling and tapping the money circle.
I was shocked. That didn’t resonate with me at all. I was going to be a really ethical businessman, someone who did things the right way and wasn’t motivated by greed or wealth. I was a follower of Jesus. I loved God and loved others. That’s why I did things. I looked around the lecture hall incredulously because surely this declaration by Dr. Weiss was rattling others as well, but to my surprise I see a lot of heads nodding, some knowing smiles and a couple of bros in the row in front of me turn to each other with a fist pump.
After class I was having a full blown existential crisis. I wrestled with the question of ‘Is this my path?” for a month or so and came to the realization that if I were truly honest with myself, I was pursuing a successful career with a big salary to appease my father. Me trying to be really ‘moral’ with that trajectory wasn’t a passion, it was a compromise. And even though it was painful and even though I had to have a difficult conversation with my dad about it, I embraced the idea of calling and realized that the best part of my year was working with students at a Christian summer camp in Wisconsin. I decided that when I finished with my undergraduate degree, I would go to seminary and try to be a youth pastor. At the time, I felt dissonance not incorporating my faith into all aspects of my life. I felt passionate about youth ministry and if I were to live that out I had to pursue it. Even though I thought I was a Christian already, I determined that right living meant being authentic and I was not yet doing that.
So I decided to go to Bethel seminary in Arden Hills, Minnesota to get my Master of Divinity. Fun fact, Senior Associate Minister Sara Wilhelm Garbers was my recruiter from Bethel’s Admissions Department. It wouldn’t be the last time she recruited me somewhere!
It was at Bethel that this question of the ‘already and not yet’ got even more messy. With an array of professors both progressive and conservative and classmates who were all across the spectrum in terms of theological beliefs, personality styles, and professional contexts, I heard everything. We didn’t agree on what ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ even meant! On the one end I heard people basically say only soul saving matters. That’s why we’re here on earth. To save souls. Nothing else was important. We shouldn’t devote energy to anything else as long as we were converting people. But on the other end, I met folks who said, ‘not only does soul saving NOT matter, basically nothing matters.’ Religion has done harm. Christianity has done harm. Christians have done harm, so it’s all meaningless. The time was formative but confusing.
Fortunately during my time in seminary, I was connected to two really incredible communities. One was here. I had an internship at this church, thanks to my friend Greg Meland, and worked with Brian Jones and Nicole Smalley (Nicole Lindsay at the time). Being connected to the youth groups helped me feel grounded in why I wanted to get into youth ministry to begin with –the relationships, the creativity, the community of students. The other community was St. Paul Mosaic Church in Frogtown where I attended church. It was here that my faith became enriched in a new way and I learned the importance of viewing Christianity on a global scale and ultimately the importance of how we show up now in community and pursue reconciliation in all aspects of our lives. It was a call to live Christian lives in a way that wasn’t about soul saving and definitely wasn’t about nothing mattering, but was about loving our neighbors in a wholistic way. Not seeing individuals as objects to be loved, but as complex beings who are shaped by culture, family, and context, who self-identify by a plethora of factors, and who exist in systems and environments. People are not simple. So our love and hope for them should not be either. And that excites me and it’s a big reason why I’m here.
I have told you some of my story and that was intentional. I want folks to get to know me a bit more, see more clearly the guy tasked with ministering to the emerging generations here in our community. And I, in turn, am looking forward to learning about each of you and your stories as we continue to look to be the church together, to grow, to learn, and to do good for Christ’s sake.
So the natural question to ask is how do we collectively experience this tension between the “already” and the “not yet” and again, consequently, what are we to do and how are we to be? I’ve learned that one of the defining characteristics of Congregationalism is our eclectic nature. What unites us isn’t necessarily airtight specific dogma or that we’re all cut from the same cloth, but it’s our united commitment to living our journey of faiths together, embodying our core values in all that we do and serving Christ by being a good neighbor.
Let’s start with the “already.” For each of us the beginning of our faith journey looked different. For some here, it was growing up in a supportive and loving Christian home where it was impossible to not fall in love with Jesus because you saw what life looked like dedicated to following him. For others, it was that sense of genuine care and welcoming you experienced from Christians that was so inviting — that was genuinely the case for me with the youth pastor and adult volunteers at youth group when I was in high school. For others, it was a raw and vulnerable redemption story. Where you were in life, your situation, your choices… and then realizing the groundbreaking truth that you are loved and you are the beloved and God has a plan for you and those around you for flourishing and a life that is whole and filled with peace and joy and you were never the same after that. For others still, perhaps it was the person and life of Jesus Christ of Nazareth who seemed to have a special place in his heart for those in the margins, those wrongly looked down upon by society —reaching out to the sick and hanging out with outcasts— and that resonated with you. And for some, you’re still figuring things out/not quite sure what you think, and that’s perfectly alright.
This is our “already.” This is why we’re here. This is why we choose to live this Christian life and show up to be the Church.
The more difficult aspect of the tension we have is the other side of the coin: the ‘not yet.’
Let’s put the ‘not yet’ into context into the greater narrative of God and God’s people because in the beginning we had a good thing going on. God created the heavens and the earth, the waters and the sky, vegetation and fruit, birds and animals and each time God saw that it was good. And then on the sixth day, God created humankind in God’s image and there was Eden. There was human relationship, connection to God, connection to the land that provided nourishment —this was the original shalom, universal shalom, wholeness, flourishing for humans and animals and land— and God was the creator of it all. It really feels like this is the way things ought to be.
This is the beginning of the Christian narrative in the Bible and then you jump to the end, you read about the New Heaven and the New Earth in Revelation 21 and there’s this clear restoration for humanity back to what it was in the beginning. Verse 4 says, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And it goes on to talk about the New Jerusalem, which sounds really impressive with its streets of gold and gates made of precious stones I’ve never heard of and there’s a water of life and a callback to the tree of life…
With these literary representations of our faith tradition’s beginning and expected ending, it’s clear we’re not quite there yet.
Another example is when the prophet Isaiah talks about the Peaceful Kingdom in Isaiah 11, he foretells of a future ruler who has a lot of characteristics we’re familiar with when we think of Jesus (he’s wise and understanding, powerful and obedient to God), and in this new kingdom there is justice for the poor and equity is restored. The imagery of the Peaceful Kingdom is incredible. It has the lamb and the wolf hanging out, cows are grazing with bears and a little child plays around a snake’s den. So the question is: Is Isaiah talking about the kingdom of God? The one we talk about? With Jesus and how he overcame the grave and rose again to redeem the world?
The answer might very well be… “sort of.” We can rest assured if the only question was salvation, Jesus says in John 5:24 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” But as participants in God’s kingdom is that our only purpose? Just check the salvation box and cruise to the finish line? Are we to not also engaged with this idea from the Lord’s Prayer ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ and be actively working towards God’s will for creation and humanity? To be embodiments of God’s justice and love? Now whatever metric you have for heaven, whether it’s the Garden of Eden, the new New Heaven and Earth or New Jerusalem or the Peaceful Kingdom or just us chilling on some clouds… that is not our reality right now.
Again, this is the “not yet.” You look around and things are not the way they ought to be. Just do a quick reality check of our current existence. On the mega scale there are natural devastations, hurricanes and earthquakes; there are human generated devastations like rising water levels and global pollution; and there are pandemics and cancer still exists. And we still see world hunger and human trafficking and wars and racial injustice and extreme poverty and detention camps and the marginalization of all sorts of communities… and that’s just the big picture.
We know pain here in our own city and in our own families and in our personal lives: losing loved ones to illness or separation or even political differences, the constant attacking of the other side of any issue, struggling with physical health, emotional health, mental health, feeling stuck, unfulfilled, frustrated or helpless with our own lives or for those close to us… on and on it goes.
This is all Christian Doubt 101: “if there exists a loving God, why is there suffering in the world”? A question we need to embrace and lean into and not be afraid of because any answer to that question, that seeks to dismiss or minimize the heart of that inquiry, ultimately dismisses or minimizes God’s ability to be present and grounded with humans in our suffering and pain.
Shalom and wholeness for all of creation has been disrupted. How do we orient ourselves in life, knowing this reality that Paul acknowledges in 2 Corinthians 4:12, that death is at work in us, but life is at work in us as well? I believe we start by establishing a foundational belief: if we’re talking about “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we too need to be for reconciliation for all aspects of life and relationality like God is. We need to align our will with God’s will because in the most basic sense heaven is where only God’s will exists while with earth it’s kind of a crap shoot of everybody’s will.
Let’s not be people who idly wait for heaven as if it’s this other faraway place.
Let’s work to embrace what God is doing and bring heaven here. This mentality encourages us to stop believing that heaven is more attainable when we’re dead, that we’re closer to the New Heaven and Earth when our bodily existence ends.
God has not abandoned humanity in the present. God is still guiding and inspiring and caring about humanity, urging us to engage in heavenizing earth and it’s on us to listen and act.
In this vein, my last suggestion is that we remind ourselves about a core essence of the kingdom of God. It is viewing the world through God’s lens that puts restoring and valuing relationships at the forefront, not the standard systems of power that deemphasize relationships for the sake of hierarchy. Any time we pursue this perspective of aggressively drawing lines to determine who’s in and who’s out of any place: heaven, this church, the countries we live in, the group we determined is right; any time we do this we are actively contributing to this ‘not yet.” We’re not seeking restoration and redemption and progress towards the new Heaven and Earth, we’re seeking further division and perpetuating the old understanding of kingdoms.
Instead perhaps, in our seeking to live in this tension of ‘already’ and ‘not yet,’ we actively seek to bring heaven to earth with a new understanding of humanity and people and relationships. One that takes the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and his subsequent resurrection, and understands that when we seek to have a right relationship with God we ought to strive to uplift everything and everyone being reconciled to God in His love and justice and pursuit of shalom.
This is my hope for this place. Because in many, many ways, that is this church’s “already.” This church has a 75-year legacy of being a prominent presence in the neighborhood, caring and supporting those within the community, and going out and building partnerships and serving those all around us. The “not yet” for us is what the next 75 years will look like. I’m excited for that journey!
Let us pray.