Sunday, November 21, 2010

C: Christ the King

     Colossians 1:11-2
Luke 23:35-43
Jeremiah 23:1-6


As many of you know, my father was born and raised in Brazil. He immigrated to this country when he was in his twenties, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen when he was about forty. Being Brazilian, of course, he knew nothing about that quintessential American pastime—baseball.  I, on the other hand, was raised in the suburbs of Chicago, so, despite my Brazilian ancestry, I was keenly interested in baseball. When my dad, being the dutiful father that he was, took me to my first big league ball game, he brought along a news magazine to keep him occupied! There’s a certain subtlety and relaxed sophistication to the game of baseball that causes those who are not brought up on it to find it boring. When you’re raised on soccer, a baseball game must seem like nothing’s going on most of the time. That isn’t true, of course, but it seems that way. Until you reach a certain threshold of knowledge and experience, baseball can be both confusing and dull. But when you cross that threshold, a baseball game becomes a work of performance art, always a potential masterpiece in the making, a thing of beauty and a source of joy. 

I cannot help but reflect that there is a similar dynamic at work in the liturgy of the church, the worship of Almighty God. There are those who attend church—certainly the majority of our “Christmas and Easter” friends, but even many who attend more frequently—for whom the liturgy is like a baseball game for my Brazilian father fifty years ago. There are those for whom being in church is something to be endured—patiently much of the time, but often with a good bit of fidgeting and even resentment. Their minds are not challenged by the mystery of the gospel, their hearts are not uplifted in praise to the God of all creation, and their wills are not moved to obedience and sacrifice in the cause of Christ. Our response to being present at Christian worship is commensurate with our experience of the living God. Experience shapes perception

Imagine for a moment that you work for the newspaper, The Daily Planet, and one of your colleagues is a reporter named Clark Kent. You’re likely to think of him as a nice enough guy, a good reporter, good-looking, perhaps, and a decent human being. But if I were to suggest that you should be in awe of Clark Kent, respectfully silent in his presence, because he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, you would think I’d gone round the bend. And your opinion of my suggestion would be based on your experience of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter.

Two of our readings from scripture today lead us to perceive our Lord Jesus in the same light in which a reporter for The Daily Planet might perceive Clark Kent. Jeremiah describes a wise and righteous king whom the Lord will raise up to rule over his people. The church has always understood this passage to be a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. But the king that Jeremiah describes is not a conquering hero, not overflowing with machismo, not enthroned in royal splendor. Rather, this righteous king rules over his people with the gentle care of a shepherd. Talk about a mild-mannered profession! A shepherd-king is not likely to evoke a sense of awe and wonder.

The reading from Luke’s gospel is even less flattering. Jesus hangs on the cross, in abject weakness. The guards and the soldiers and the temple authorities are mocking his claim to kingship as he hangs there bleeding to death. Every indication is that they will indeed have the last laugh. This scene is poignant, and it may evoke pity. But taken by itself, it does not present us with a picture of the kind of king we would want to pay homage to.  Experience shapes perception, and the experience of a mild-mannered shepherd king, and a young man dying in weakness on a cross, does not lead us to a perception of Jesus Christ as a king worthy of our adoration and worship. We are like the foreigner who finds baseball confusing and dull. We have not crossed the necessary threshold of knowledge and experience.

The epistle reading appointed for this last Sunday of the Christian year comes at the mystery of the kingship of Christ from an entirely different direction. Listen to the words of St Paul to the Colossians:

          He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.

This is no docile shepherd, no dying figure on a cross. This is the Lord of the universe, the be-all and end-all of everything that is. This is Ultimate Reality.

So why aren’t we shaking in our boots?

We remain unmoved because it seems so far away. If the portrait of Christ painted in the letter to the Colossians were the only one I had, my attachment and devotion to him would be about as profound as that which I feel toward the manufacturer of my iPhone. It is intricately designed, with a great deal of sophistication that is beyond my comprehension. But one of these days it will break or wear out, and be beyond repair. It will then be unceremoniously thrown away, and the person or persons who made it will neither mourn nor even know of the demise of their handiwork. If our perception of Christ is like our perception of a cell phone maker, it is no wonder that our minds and hearts and wills are left cold and unmoved by worship. We have not yet experienced an object of worship that is worthy of free-flowing praise and adoration.  It is only when we combine the images of Jeremiah’s shepherd-king, and Luke’s dying savior, with Paul’s pre-eminent cosmic Lord of all creation, that we begin to get a clue. It is when we bring those visions into coherence and focus that we leap over that threshold of perception that moves us from boredom and confusion into wonder and awe.

And the clue that makes this movement possible is this: it is precisely through—not in spite of, but through—his suffering servanthood that the cosmic Christ demonstrates his worthiness of our praise and adoration and thanks.  This is the mind-bending, heart-warming, action-inducing paradox of the gospel. This is the mystery which, if embraced, will make regular worshipers out of Christmas and Easter churchgoers, and devoted followers of Christ out of complacent pew-warmers. There is no illustration that can do justice to this paradoxical mystery of divine kingship revealed through suffering servanthood. But there are any number of telltale traces in our experience; it’s as if Christ our servant-king has left markers all over the place which, if we will observe them, will lead us to him.  In the early 1980s, when Great Britain mounted a successful military campaign to oust Argentine forces from the Falkland islands, many were impressed that the Queen’s own blood was on the line, in the person of her son, Prince Andrew, who was the pilot of a Royal Navy helicopter. More recently, one of the Queen’s grandsons was for a brief while in harm’s way as a member of the British military in Afghanistan. The sight of royalty putting its own neck on the block is ennobling, and stirs the spirit. It is a marker that points us to Christ the king who was obedient unto death, even death on a cross. 

Every Holy week, on Maundy Thursday, the Bishop of Rome, spiritual father to a billion Christians, humbles himself to wash the feet of twelve members of the congregation in St Peter’s Basilica. Of course, the pope is himself waited on hand and foot the rest of the year, but his actions on Maundy Thursday nevertheless are a marker that points us to Christ the King, in all things pre-eminent, in whom and through whom all things were created, but who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. When we follow these and other markers that God, in his mercy, has left in our path, we come to know Christ the King. We cross that vital threshold of knowledge and experience that elevate us from grudging observers of worship to full-throated participants.

In time, my father learned the game of baseball. At the meal following his funeral, we all wore Cubs hats specifically in his honor, because he had become a true fan of both the Cubs and the game of baseball. And if my Brazilian father can become a baseball fan, that, to me, is a sign of abundant hope that, even as we are here today in the very courts of the Most High God, the scales can be lifted from our eyes and we can catch such of glimpse of his glory that our hearts will burn within us and our voices will shout with praise to Christ, who is our tender shepherd, and our crucified savior, and our heavenly king. All hail the power of Jesus’ name, who alone is worthy to be crowned with many crowns. Alleluia and Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

C: Proper 28

 Luke 21:5-19
II Thessalonians 3:6-13


I’m the oldest of seven siblings. The one who’s closest to me in age is my brother Phil. Phil is a prankster. He loves to play practical jokes. And he discovered very early that his older brother is a really easy mark. When I was in college, and he still in high school, Phil had me on the phone to an auto parts store inquiring about the price of a quart of “piston slap.” His biggest offense, for which it took me a long while to forgive him, was when he coaxed me to put my high school class ring into a length of pipe that he presented to me, on the pretense of “show[ing me] something,” and then going outside and tossing the ring around with a friend of his until it fell into a flower bed. I have to think it might still be in that flower bed, because we never found it.

It’s no fun to be tricked, no fun to be deceived, is it? I occasionally look at the comic strip Close to Home. Recently it depicted a drug store pharmacist holding up a bottle and saying to a customer, “The bad news is, it costs $700 and your insurance won’t cover it. The good news is, it will absolutely cure you of being gullible.” I have to admit, I had a moment or two of identifying with that poor customer! In the Great Litany, which we will pray at the beginning of Mass a couple of weeks from today, there’s a petition on behalf of “all such as have erred, and are deceived.” It’s not only not fun to be deceived, taken, swindled, conned, led down the primrose path; sometimes it can be dangerous, and downright deadly.

Today we are with Jesus in the last few days before his passion. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph, and now he’s with his disciples in the temple. A couple of years ago, I walked in that same area. There’s only one wall of that temple still standing, and that was impressive enough. But I did get to see a large scale model of the way in looked in Jesus’ day, and it was stunning. It had a ground footprint, and took up an amount of airspace, comparable to a major professional sports stadium today. It was massive. Somebody remarks to Jesus about how beautiful it is, and Jesus immediately predicts its destruction. So they ask, in effect, “When? How are we going to know that this is about to happen?” And Jesus says—and, again, I’m paraphrasing—“Watch out! People are going to try to con you. People are going to try to tell you that they speak for me, or are me. People are going to give you all kinds of ‘evidence’ and try to get you to go along with them. Don’t do it!”

Apparently, it didn’t take too long for people in the earliest Christian communities to illustrate exactly what Jesus was talking about. St Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians are probably the earliest written documents in the New Testament; we’re talking barely twenty years after Jesus walked on the earth. Already there are those who are laboring under the impression—or not laboring, actually, which is the point—the impression that Jesus has already returned to this world and inaugurated God’s heavenly reign. So there’s no need to work. It’s time to just kick back and let God run the show. “Not so fast!” says Paul. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat. Got it?” He actually had to be a little stern with them. Some of the Thessalonian Christians had been deceived—led astray, hoodwinked—by false teaching. They had allowed to happen to them what Jesus warned against that day in the temple.

What makes this so difficult—at least for gullible people like me—is that it’s pretty darn easy to be deceived. I’m a terrible liar, and I’m terrible at spotting liars. How can I know that I’m not being taken for a ride—especially when it comes to what’s true about Ultimate Reality, about God? How do I avoid ending up like those poor Thessalonian slackers that St Paul was yelling at? I suspect that many of you have had moments when you’ve asked yourself the same question.

So what I need to do now, I’m afraid, is talk some serious theology with you. In his message to the Thessalonians, Paul tells them—commands them, actually; quite strong language—to “keep away from any brother or sister who is living in idleness, and not in accord with the tradition that you have received from us.”

Not in accord with the tradition that you have received from us.

Here’s the clue we’re looking for, I think; the cure for gullibility. Only it won’t cost us $700 a bottle. The word “tradition” might be a little scary at first. It might call to mind frozen attitudes, antiquated ideas and procedures, or something that is of human rather than divine origin. Some of us would walk over glass in bare feet before hearing ourselves labeled as “traditionalists”!  So I offer you this image: Think of a relay race at a track meet. A team of runners participates in this event, but they don’t all run at the same time. At designated points during the race, one runner passes a baton to another runner on his or her team. In order to prepare for this exchange, the new runner starts out and picks up speed so that the handoff of the baton can take place without breaking stride. For a little while, both teammates are running side by side. Then, after passing the baton, the first runner drops away and the second runner continues the race.

The New Testament Greek word that gets translated as “tradition” literally means “handing along.” It refers to precisely what takes place in a relay race when the baton is passed. Possession of the baton is the outward sign, the guarantee, that the race is being run in an orderly fashion. The holder of the baton is the legitimate representative of his or her team. And you don’t get to hold the baton unless you hang out with the team, unless you participate in the community that is the team. If you don’t operate as part of the team, you’re not in the right place at the right time, and you miss the handoff of the baton.

My friends, the Catholic Church is the team. (Sadly, it’s still necessary to qualify a statement like that: I’m not speaking of the Roman Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church of the creeds, the body of which Christ is the Head and all baptized persons are the members, the visible body of which we, as Anglican Christians, are a part.) And the content of our faith—our tradition—is the baton.  Possession of the baton is the outward sign that we’re running the race in an orderly fashion, that we have received the faith from the previous generation, and they from the one before theirs, and so on back to the generation of Paul and the Thessalonians.

And what is this “baton” that we have received, and which we will hopefully pass on, made up of? There are many ways we could answer that question, but here’s one that is probably as good as any other. Back in the 1886, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Chicago, adopted a statement of principles on which this church would base its conversations with other Christian bodies. A couple of years later, this statement was adopted, with minor modifications, by the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from around the world. It became known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, because it has these four points:

1.     The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the revealed Word of God.
2.     The Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
3.     The sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, using the words and elements ordained by Christ himself.
4.     The Historic Episcopate—that is, the line of succession of bishops, a visible sign of continuity that can be followed back to Christ and the apostles.

There is certainly more that we would want to say about the content of our faith, about the “baton” that we are presently holding as we run our leg of the journey, but these four points give us a base from which to operate in our relations with other Christians. I would suggest that they also give us a base from which to insulate ourselves from the danger of deception. If we don’t every stray too far from the scriptures, the creeds, the sacraments, and the ministers of the sacraments, it’s hard for me to imagine that we would fall victim to false teachers or false prophets or just garden variety sloppy theology.

The “baton” of sacred tradition has been handed off to us from previous generations. Some of us are just now getting up to speed to receive the baton. Some of us are in the midst of the race. Some of us are approaching the handoff point and are looking for the next runner. Together, we are all awaiting the appearing of our Savior, not resting from our labors until we hear him call our name, and greet his return, not with shame or fear, but with great joy. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

All Saints (2010)

I’ve always been particularly fond of the opening words of the Prayer Book collect for All Saints’ Day: “O God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord…” Knit together. It’s such a homely image; “homely” in a good way—comforting, familiar, “warm and fuzzy.” I don’t myself knit—hopefully you don’t find that too much of a shock!—but I’ve watched people knit—well, not “watched” actually, but been casually in their presence while they’re knitting—and I’ve always found the process rather amazing, almost magical. There’s a skein of yarn on the floor, with a line leading up to a person sitting in a chair wielding a pair of needles, usually looking quite relaxed and contented and able to carry on a more-than-decent conversation and possibly even follow the plot of a TV show at the same time. And then, pretty soon, I’m looking at a pair of baby booties, or a sweater, or a shawl, or some other product that has been “knit together.” It’s something tangible and coherent and useful. A ball of yarn is just a ball of yarn, but a sweater is … something.

So, according to the Prayer Book at least, God knits. God has knit together his elect, his chosen ones—and that would presumably include you and me—God has knit us together—we who are just a ball of yarn on the floor—God has knit us together in “one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of [his] Son Christ our Lord.” It’s important to keep two things firmly in mind here: First, the “one communion and fellowship” into which God has knit us includes both those whom we would call “living” and those whom we would call “dead.” The line in the creed about the “communion of saints” means, among other things, that the membrane separating this world from the world to come is an awfully thin one. Second, the phrase “mystical body” is biblical and theological code language for the Church. Through the waters of baptism, we, the living and the dead, have been knit together in the fellowship of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. We’re going to baptize a couple of little ones today, Isaiah and Mallory. Together, we are going to be God’s knitting needles, and take these two precious children from being part of a ball of yarn on the floor to being part of the one communion and fellowship that God is continuously knitting together. It’s an exciting moment when we stop and think about it!

I take the trouble to remind us of these facts because it is of the nature of our actual human experience in actual human life to make us forget them. Instead of feeling like we’ve been knit together into anything, we’re more likely to feel like we’re unraveling. Unexpected misfortune happens—our favorite restaurant or store closes, our favorite team loses, the elections don’t go the way we think they should, the stock market tanks, the real estate market capsizes, energy prices force us to change our lifestyles, seniors are forced to choose between the medicine they need and the food they need, we get an acid stomach when the first news we hear in the morning is of more casualties in Afghanistan, or floods and volcanic eruptions in Indonesia. The people in our life, from restaurant servers to spouses, let us down and fail to be what we need them to be. Too often, the people we need the most abandon us twice—first in their living and then in their dying. We experience loneliness and isolation and quiet desperation in abundance as we negotiate the hazards of life in this “broken and sinful world.”

In the end, we become depressed and cynical en route to terminal despair. This is the default condition of our society, my friends, and I’m not just talking about those who are on the margins—the poor, the homeless, those whose lives have been trashed by addiction. I’m talking about people who hold respectable jobs and live in respectable neighborhoods and who give every appearance of having their act together, of being on top of their lives. If 21 years of pastoral ministry have taught me anything, it’s not to automatically trust the fa├žade. I’ve seen behind it too many times. Americans are endemically lonely. And it’s no wonder; we are the descendants of people who made some very risky individual decisions, leaving countries where their ancestors had lived for generations and heading into uncharted territory. Without a strong sense of individualism, they would never have made it. But there’s a cost. They passed on their individualistic DNA to us, and we’re lonely. Medieval Europeans knew something about being “knit together.” Theirs was a communitarian society, and in many ways it was a more natural fit with the Christian notion of being “knit together in one communion and fellowship” than ours is. So we’re lonely. And loneliness leads to cynicism, and cynicism leads to desperation and despair, and desperation and despair lead to violence and all sorts of other mayhem. So much of the world’s suffering is the result of violence, and so much violence is the result of desperation, and so much desperation flows from cynicism that is rooted in loneliness, a sense of being disconnected, unraveled, no longer knit together, no longer knit together in one anything, let alone one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And so we come back to the objective fact of our baptism, which Isaiah and Mallory remind us of in a very tangible way. They are signs to us of our connection, our being a part of something—not a skein of yarn on the floor, but a sweater, or a shawl, or at least a pair of baby booties. We have been knit together—knit together with Christ, and knit together with one another. We have been knit together with the communion of saints, the assembly of God’s holy ones, gathered around the heavenly throne waving palm branches and wearing white robes that have been washed in the blood of the Lamb of God. We are no longer lonely, because we are connected to the mystical body of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Church—the Church Militant feebly struggling on earth, the Church Expectant being led from glory to glory in Paradise, and the Church Triumphant in Heaven, those whose heroic witness to Christ we especially honor today. We are no longer lonely because we have been knit together into a fellowship of love and prayer. People may let us down, but we have been knit into Christ. Troubles may multiply, but we have been knit into Christ. We are part of the one communion and fellowship of all the saints, a fellowship of love and prayer that forms a support system in this world and a celestial cheering section in the next. This provides us with abundant hope in this world and unending joy in the world to come. All saints, all holy men and women of God, pray for us. Amen.