“cantus firmus : A Fixed Prayer for All Occasions, Part 2”
Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden
>>Let thy kingdom come, and let it come today through our hands, our feet, our prayers. Amen.<<
In April of 1989 I was at a Billy Graham crusade in the Syracuse Carrier Dome with my church youth group. The final night of the crusade was on April 30, 1989. Nearly 21,000 people filled the dome; and more than 8,000 of them went forward to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, as the hymn Just As I Am played in the background. 
The response was so overwhelming that even Billy Graham was floored, saying, “I [see] there is a great hunger for the word of God here.” “ I think,” he continued, “you are the warmest and the most wonderful, hospitable people that you can find anywhere in this country.” And then he joked, “ from now on … [when I] see ballgames on television from the Carrier Dome, … unless its North Carolina, I’m going to be pulling for the Orangemen.”
I don’t remember him saying any of that back in 1989, but I was only 12 years old and it was all new to me: the packed stadium, the carefully orchestrated alter call accompanied by Just As I Am , and the golden-tongued preacher who skillfully and passionately broke the faith down to a few simple steps to peace with God. After his death on Wednesday, The New York Times wrote that Billy Graham was “a riveting presence” on stage: “6-foot-2 with a handsomely rugged profile fit for Hollywood westerns, he would hold his Bible aloft and declare that Scripture offered ‘the answer to every human longing.’”
The Times went on to call Billy Graham “the most important evangelist of the 20th century,” able to hold a crowd spellbound like some of America’s greatest evangelists from George Whitfield in the 18th century to Charles Finney and Dwight Moody in the 19th century to Billy Sunday in the early 20th century. A wiz at organization and use of mass media, it’s been said that Billy Graham personally preached to 215 million people in 185 countries, and reached hundreds of millions more through radio, television, and the internet in his 60 years as a preacher. He called it “personal evangelism on a mass scale.” There are pictures of him preaching to 100,000 people packed into Yankee Stadium in 90 degree heat, and to 30,000 more jammed in front of the Stock Exchange on Wall Street, and to 80,000 in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, where the German press dubbed his “staccato preaching” style, “God’s machine gun.” He had a “titanic legacy,” said one op-ed. He even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Billy Graham was the first evangelist to speak behind the Iron Curtain; he preached at churches in North Korea; he was a pastor to presidents from Truman to Obama; a friend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s – together they traversed New York City, preaching to more than 2 million people; during the Nixon years he was caught on tape making anti-Semitic comments – comments he later asked forgiveness for, accompanied by the words, “There’s a little
Watergate in all of us”; he laid the foundation for modern-day evangelicalism – a movement he distanced himself from later in life, saying, it’s better to “stand in the middle, [and] preach to all the people, right and left” instead of fighting culture wars; he was criticized for not welcoming gay Christians “just as they are” at his Crusades; and for holding conservative views of women; and for “conflating faith with patriotism.” Some have said he “dumbed down [Christianity], instead of helping it to address the challenges of modern times.” But others have taken solace in his hope for humanity and in his light-hearted humor: “I’ve read the last page of the Bible,” Graham once said, “it’s all going to turn out all right.” “The one badge of Christian discipleship,” he said, “is not orthodoxy but love.” And about prayer, he once said, “The only time my prayers are never answered is on the golf course.”
I don’t remember much of my time at the Billy Graham Crusade in the Carrier Dome, but when I got older and worked for World Impact Incorporated in Newark, NJ, I would stand on the corner of the drug-infested and violent 8th Street and Central Avenue and pass out Billy Graham gospel tracts called “Steps to Peace with God,” believing that personal conversion to Christ was the only hope for advancing the Kingdom of God in Newark. I gave those pamphlets to drug-dealers and to addicts and to homeless wanderers, and never really paused to think, “What is this broken person going to do with this?” I guess I believed that God would just take care of it. I was a zealous 22-year-old back then in Newark, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve found that passing out gospel tracts to the downtrodden, and hoping for the best is not how the Kingdom of God works. The Kingdom of God is not a “dollar and a dream,” like buying a New York State lottery ticket and hoping to hit the jackpot. Advancing God’s Kingdom takes more effort from God’s people.
…Today we continue our sermon series in The Lord’s Prayer with the second phrase, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And we ask, What does the Kingdom of God look like on earth as it is in heaven? The word “kingdom” appears throughout the New Testament, in the sermons and parables of Jesus, in St. Paul’s letters, and in that great promise sung by heavenly voices in the Book of Revelation and in Handel’s Messiah : “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God.” But a “kingdom,” as feminist theologians remind us, is a dominion ruled over by a “king” – a man. And so, some have suggested removing the “g,” and using the word “kin-dom” instead. Not a dominion with a male king, but a family, a society, a kinship group marked by shared equality across the gender spectrum. As a feminist, I appreciate this suggestion. I get the point being made. But praying “Let Thy kin-dom come” doesn’t feel right to me, because it dulls the political edge of The Lord’s Prayer. What does a “kin-dom” have to do with drug dealers and addicts in Newark? A place where so many political and social ills – from racism, to injustice, to failed public policies, to failed policing, to poverty – intersect and form a web of oppression. What does a “kin-dom” – no “g” – have to say to victims of the school shooting in Florida – victims of lack of political will on the issue of guns? No, when Jesus teaches his followers – and by extension us – to pray, he speaks of a king -dom. It’s a political term about another realm, another reign beyond the kingdoms of the world. His first sermon in Mark’s gospel after rising from the waters of baptism and setting foot on soil claimed by the Roman Empire was just one subversive line: “the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good new,” or, in modern language, “prepare yourself! God’s reign is breaking in all around you! Believe it!” It’s a reign – a realm, a kingdom – more potent and omnipotent that than of Caesar. It’s a kingdom of “justice and peace and joy,” wrote St. Paul. A kingdom that pushes evil away, as the Hebrew prophet Zephaniah in today’s Old Testament reading put it. It’s small like a mustard seed, said Jesus. But, once it takes root, it grows like a weed, disrupting the well-manicured gardens of the world in places of power and privilege. In my office hangs an abstract painting called “Light of the World.” Feel free to wander in there when you get a chance to look at it. It’s one of those paintings that means different things to different people. When I look at it, I see yellow light pouring down from the heavens like a waterfall, cutting through the dull purples, reds, and blues on earth, splashing and then spreading, infiltrating the darkness. The Kingdom Jesus brings, says John’s gospel, is like light penetrating shadows. “It’s the light of life,” writes John.
The Kingdom of God – the Kingdom of Light – is something we live into . It’s a realm we call into being when we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” The Greek grammar in this phrase, and throughout The Lord’s Prayer, is not request language. It’s command language. It’s an imperative in Greek: “ Let your kingdom come”; “ make your kingdom come.” This is not a request; it’s a demand – a demand like the demands the Psalmists made of God in prayer: “Show mercy now, O God!,” said one Psalmist; “How long will you look on and do nothing?,” demanded another; “Listen to me,” demanded still another, “save me! Be a rock of refuge for me!” “Let Thy kingdom come,” demanded Jesus, “Let Thy will be done.” As a cantus firmus , as preacher William Sloane Coffin once called The Lord’s Prayer – a fixed prayer, rhythmically recited from memory each Sunday, and even three times a day by ancient Christians – it’s easy to miss just how edgy the words are. Jesus teaches his followers – and teaches us by extension – not to ask , but to demand , with all the intensity of a Psalmist. This kind of prayer, writes Richard Foster, is a “prayer downward.” Like calling down waterfalls of light from the heavens. “We are “command[ing that] something be done.” Commanding the light to spread; the mustard seed to grow – praying, as if into a mirror, to remind ourselves that the light shines through us , and the seed grows because we water it. As the great philosopher Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings once put it: “it’s the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” “The most eloquent prayer,” said Billy Graham, “is the prayer through hands that heal and bless.”
…So, what does the Kingdom of God look like on earth as it is in heaven? Where is its light? Where is it growing? I think we see it growing – we see its light on earth as it is in heaven in the words of Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who called out the politicians and the gun manufacturers and the lobbyists for their, in her words, “BS,” saying: “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because … we are going to be the last mass shooting. … [W]e are going to change the law. [It’s] going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas [you read about] in that textbook; and it’s going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most of all the students.” What does the Kingdom of God look like on earth as it is in heaven? I think it looks like Dearborn, Michigan. If the white supremacy on display in Charlottesville, VA last August is “the disease,” writes journalist Brian Stone, “Dearborn is the cure.” “Dearborn was once the most racist bastion of the North,” writes Stone. “[Its] former mayor, Orville Hubbard, [made] racist comments [that] were published far and wide. He enjoyed the negative publicity and many of the citizens either agreed with him or simply looked the other way because the streets were swept on time. [But the weekend after the violence in Charlottesville, the new mayor] Jack O’Reilly, was speaking in front of a diverse crowd denouncing the hatred and bigotry we see elsewhere in the country. Dearborn is a testament to [our] ability to reinvent [ourselves, he said] . Where once our police were enforcers of racist segregation, today, they’re praised across the country as an example of how to do community policing right. Where once we were an embattled city closing itself off to our neighbors in Detroit, today we are a place of peace and healing where our citizens pride themselves on our welcoming attitude.”
What does the Kingdom of God look like on earth as it is in heaven? I think we see its light in the Amish community of Nickel Pines, PA, after a shooter “stormed into a one-room schoolhouse and shot 10 young girls, killing five” in October of 2006. Sociologist Donald Kraybill said of the Amish reaction to the shooting: “I think the most powerful demonstration of the depth of Amish forgiveness was when members of the Amish community went to the killer’s burial service at the cemetery. [Many who] had buried their own daughters just the day before were in attendance and they hugged the widow, and hugged other members of the killer’s family.” What does the Kingdom of God look like on earth as it is in heaven? It looks like a 30-something African American preacher standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963, saying, “I have a dream.” We hear of the kingdom in the voice of Orthodox Jewish singer Matisyahu, who sang, “One day this all will change. Treat people the same. Stop with the violence. Down with the hate.”
What does the Kingdom of God look like on earth as it is in heaven? It’s sometimes two steps forward, one step back, as columnist Charles Blow wrote back in July. “[We] regularly experience bouts of regression,” he wrote, “but fortunately, it is in those regressive periods that some of our greatest movements and greatest voices had found their footing. President Andrew Jackson’s … American Indian removal program gave us the powerful Cherokee memorial letters. The standoff at Standing Rock gave us … ‘the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years.’ Crackdowns on gay bars gave us the Stonewall uprising. America’s inept response to the AIDS epidemic gave us Act Up … . California’s Proposition 8 breathed new life into the fight for marriage equality and led to a victory in the Supreme Court. The racial terror that followed the Emancipation Proclamation gave us the anti-lynching movement, the N.A.A.C.P., W.E.B. Du Bois, [and] Ida B. Wells … . Jim Crow gave us the civil rights movement … . The … rash of extrajudicial killing of black people gave us Black Lives Matter. The financial crisis … gave us Occupy Wall Street … . [The] assault on women’s rights … gave us … the Women’s March, likely the largest march in American history. … [T]he fiery crucible,” concludes Blow, “is where the weapons of resistance are forged; it is where the mettle of those crusading for justice, equality and progress are tested.”
…What does the Kingdom of God look like on earth as it is in heaven? It looks like a young rabbi from Nazareth, who marched through the Roman Empire leading an uprising that changed the world with fire in his belly, compassion in his heart, and the words “Let Thy Kingdom Come” on his lips. Amen.
2 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/21/obituaries/billy-graham-dead.html ; here’s a video remembrance: https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000002670039/billy-graham-dead.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FGraham%2C%20Billy&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=6&pgtype=collection
6 Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’ True Home (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 229, 238.
10 It’s worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXACMQtuuZI