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Josef Stalin led the former Soviet Union from the mid-1920’s through the early 1950’s. Within the first decade or so of his autocratic rule, Stalin transformed the Soviet economy from a premodern relic into a model of industrialization in the factory and on the farm alike.

With the world in the grips of the Great Depression, the Soviet economy grew. Soviet estimates placed growth at 13.9%. Western estimates range from 5.8% to 2.9%. 
Whatever the truth of the growth rates, it is clear that Stalin accomplished a remarkably rapid economic revolution by implementing successive Five Year Plans. Equally clear is the cost in human life and dignity. Stalin achieved industrialization by a process of purges, deportations, collectivization, imprisonments, forced labor, and executions.

David Kakabadze’s “Industrial Landscape”

Official totals vary widely. Stalin’s regime is said to have put to death anywhere from 3 to 60 million people. Around 1.7 million met their death in Gulags. Another 390,000 died in forced resettlement.
A story goes around about how Stalin illustrated the principles of his leadership style. One version of that story goes like this.

Surrounded by journalists, Stalin strolled through a chicken yard scattering feed. One journalist asked Stalin how he could bring about such radical change so quickly and still maintain control of the people.
Stalin reached down and grabbed a chicken. Holding the bird firmly he began plucking it alive. After ripping all the feathers from the squawking bird’s back, Stalin set it down and immediately fed it.
“That is how I do it,” Stalin said. In other words, he maintained control by leveraging fear of violence and hope of reward.
The Bible talks about this kind of leadership style. Many contemporary scholars refer to it as the way of Empire. Pharaoh in Egypt exemplified it. So too did Babylon, Persia, and then Rome. Empires use coercive power to maintain the status of the ruling class and to control the behavior of the masses.

James Tissot’s “Pharaoh and the Midwives”

The story of the Exodus is the story of God saving his people from the dehumanizing grip of Empire. So too is the story of the return from Exile. God does not strive to erect an alternative Empire. God’s mission is to cast down all Empires and to establish his reign. A very different kind of reign.
And that is precisely what Jesus is talking about at the very beginning of his ministry when he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Or, to put it in different words. God is really at work right now. Go with the holy flow, even when it seems crazy.
Jesus embodies the Kingdom of God. Or more accurately, Jesus embodies the Reign of God. Jesus is how God enters into, interacts with, engages, and shapes our life, our world, the entire creation. To use a contemporary way of talking, Jesus embodies God’s leadership style.
When we say the word “kingdom,” some of us are likely to think of a place. Heaven in contrast to hell.
Others hear “kingdom” and think about a future social order characterized by perfect peace and justice.
Jesus does impart eternal life and he has come to bring peace and justice. But when Jesus talks about the Kingdom, he means the shape of God’s engagement with the creation.

Vincent van Gogh’s “The Sower (Sower with Setting Sun)”

God the creator and redeemer of all things is interacting with his creation right now. To put it another way, when Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God he is talking about God’s way of being with us, his way of influencing the life of the world.
Again and again God is displacing the coercive, violent power of Empire with the liberating, healing, nurturing power of love. Mark does not use the terminology of Empire. Instead, he contrasts Jesus’ Kingdom authority with the power of Satan. He identifies Empire with the demonic.
When Jesus heals the sick and exorcises demons, he is dismantling the coercive, violent forces of this world that rebel against God and disfigure God’s beloved creatures. He is overthrowing Empire.
Jesus illustrates the principles of God’s leadership style in parables of the Kingdom. In the parable of the growing seed we see that God plants the potential for full and rich life. He nurtures growth in mysterious and surprising and even baffling ways. And he gathers the harvest.
Notice that he does not differentiate the harvest into wheat and chaff, into acceptable and disposable. He harvests it all. He draws it all into relationship.
The parable of the mustard seed tells us that God’s power is great and yet seems small to the world’s eyes. As Paul put it, God’s wisdom appears foolish. His might looks like weakness.
God’s power is the power of love. Love redeems. Love restores. Love nurtures and heals. And love is frightfully vulnerable. 
We can see love’s vulnerability clearly in the Incarnation. God became a human. A poor child from a crummy neighborhood with no connections in the halls of power. His earthly father was a common laborer. So was God incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth. God came to heal by dwelling among us. 
God does not order us to shape up and extract compliance with threats of punishment and promises of reward. God shows up at the backyard barbecue, in the grocery aisles, and amid the family squabbles. 
That’s the reign of God. He shows up where we are and adds a love that gives breadth and depth eternal to our life.
My wife Joy shared a story about our son Andrew and his dog Zoe that gave me a glimpse of how God reigns.
Zoe had gone with Andrew and Joy down to Chandler’s, a nearby gas station and convenience store. As Andrew opened the door, Zoe leapt out of the car and sprinted for the newly tilled corn fields surrounding the store.

Louisa Matthiasdotter’s “Boy and Dog in Icelandic Landscape”

Andrew calmly watched as she ran and sniffed. Then he ran out into the field with Zoe. He wasn’t chasing her. He was running around just like she was, excited by the tilled dirt and the new smells and the freedom to run. When Zoe stopped to sniff something, Andrew came over to her and asked with great enthusiasm, “What is it? What is it?”
They ran around a little more, and then Zoe walked with him back to the car.
Zoe wanted to run and play. Instead of shouting at her or even running her down, Andrew joined her in play until she remembered that she always prefers to play with him. Not exactly the Reign of God, but it bears a family resemblance.
If we get our hearts and minds around the Reign of God, I believe that we might do things differently in this country and around the world.
America incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation. Louisiana is first among the states. So, here in Louisiana we incarcerate more people per capita than Iran, Russia, or China. We have relied upon punishment to heal our broken communities. That sounds like Empire.
Love might look more like quality education for all of our children, fair wages for hard working people, policies that ensure increased opportunity for everybody, and access to affordable health care.
The Kingdom refers to God’s leadership style, to love’s persistent engagement with the world. And as we follow Christ, his style becomes our substance.
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, husband, dad, and movie-goer

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