Monday, November 26, 2007

C: Christ the King (25 November 2007)

Luke 19:29-38

One of the frustrations of life in this technological age occurs when something goes obviously wrong with us, or with one of the things we use, but it’s not at all obvious what the problem is. That strange feeling that you get when you turn your neck to the left needs to be diagnosed. That strange sound that your car makes when it’s backing up needs to be diagnosed. But diagnosis is more of an art than a science, and often involves a good deal of plain old trial and error. I know this is completely irrational, but sometimes I feel like we should declare a day when all the auto mechanics report to the clinics and hospitals, and all the physicians report to the garages and repair shops, and we could see whether the diagnostic outcomes are actually any different!

But I’m sure the frustrations of these professionals to whom we entrust our bodies and our cars—I’m sure the frustration of these professionals is compounded when the patient or the customer has already done the diagnosing and prescribing and is only showing up to get the treatment. I’ve done it myself. I’ve walked into an emergency room and announced that I had a kidney stone and needed an intravenous dosage of a particular narcotic analgesic. Now, it happens that I was absolutely right, both in the diagnosis and the prescription. But I’m happy to say that they didn’t just take my word for it—they ran the proper tests first. To do otherwise would have been irresponsible on their part, and for me to insist that they do otherwise would have been foolhardy on my part.

Today is the feast of Christ the King … and if we are not careful, we might very easily find ourselves in the position of that foolishly know-it-all consumer of medical services or automotive care. Even those who are blessed with sufficient wisdom to avoid diagnosing their own physical or automotive symptoms are still susceptible to the temptation to prescribe just what kind of king we need and expect Jesus to be. If our eyes are open only to the sort of king who might more accurately be described as a dictator—one who prescribes everything we must think and feel and do, leaving us with no personal discretion, then we will simply not see a king who entrusts us with vast freedom, and therefore vast responsibility. If our minds are open only to the sort of king who will rule and direct the lives of others—keeping them in line, because it’s clear they need some help in that department—a king who rules others, but leaves us pretty much alone, then we will simply not recognize as a king anyone who takes a direct interest in our lives and wants to have an intimate daily relationship with us. If our hearts are open only to the sort of king who throws his power around to “fix” things—and fix them our way—then we will not respond to a king who groans with his kingdom and weeps over it and suffers repeatedly at the hands of its citizens. If we have already diagnosed the ailments of this world and prescribed the kind of king it needs, then we will probably be disappointed in Christ the King.

We will be like the multitudes of first century Palestinian Jews who thought the time was more than ripe for a king who would be a political savior, one who would lead them in throwing off the oppressive yoke of the Roman Empire and restore the nation of Israel to the glory days it enjoyed under the kings David and Solomon. They thought Jesus might be that king, and when he entered Jerusalem, it had all the symbolic earmarks of a triumphant royal procession, a conquering hero who was entering the city to take possession of it. They acclaimed him with shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Five days later, Jesus was being mocked and crowned with thorns and given a fake scepter and a fake royal robe by the soldiers who beat him within an inch of his life, and then the same crowd that had welcomed him into the city on Palm Sunday shouted “Crucify him!” as he was led away to his death. He was not the kind of king they wanted. He did not fit either their diagnosis or their prescription, and they were not in a mood to be forgiving for leading them on falsely.

People who are newly married learn quickly about this clash between expectation and reality. Even before we meet the person we eventually marry, we carry around in our imaginations an idealized conception of what this person will be like. While we’re dating and while we’re engaged, we tend to feed this ideal, and see only those characteristics in the one we’re with that conform to that ideal, filtering out those that clash with it. After being married for a while, however, we can no longer afford that luxury. Sooner or later, we have to face the concrete reality of the actual person we are married to. This is not easy. It’s dangerous territory, and it’s a place where many marriages crumble. But couples that make it past this crisis find that there is a dimension of depth and connection in their relationship that is far more satisfying, far more rewarding, than the ideal for which they struggled so hard. What they end up with is actually better than what they had to reluctantly let go of.

The same can happen with the kingship of Christ. If we are prepared to receive Christ as the king he actually is, then we will discover that he is the very king we need. We will discover a king who is indeed a ruler. His rule, however, is not harsh like that of a tyrant. Rather, it is loving and gracious and tender, like that of a shepherd. We will discover a king who provides order and discipline for our lives, and gives us a map—a paradigm, an interpretive framework, if those terms mean anything to you—a map by which we can negotiate the spiritual geography of this crazy world we live in. We will discover a king who stands ready to help us grow into the fullness of what it means to be a human being. We will discover a king who is also a physician, and who knows where it hurts before we even open our mouths to tell him. We will discover a king who connects with the depth of our woundedness, who entrusts us with responsibility that we never knew we could handle, and who kindles in us a passion for his justice and his righteousness. We will discover the king Jesus actually is, not our idealized conception.

Like those who welcomed Jesus in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, we will welcome and cheer his arrival. We will welcome and cheer the arrival of the infant Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, at this very altar on Christmas Eve. We will welcome and cheer the arrival of the risen and ascended Christ on that same altar, and in our midst, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, both at this celebration, and every celebration we attend in the future. And on that great day when Christ the Redeemer returns as Christ the Judge, we will welcome him as he comes with power and great glory. All hail King Jesus! Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

C: Proper 28 (18 November 2007)

Luke 21:5-19
Malachi 3:13—4:2a,5-6
II Thessalonians 3:6-13

One of the blessings of our Anglican and Catholic tradition is the church year. It systematically takes us through the mysteries of our faith, and if we pay attention to it, and allow it to spill over into the rest of our lives, it draws us closer to Christ in the fellowship of his Church. If you have been an unusually attentive observer of the subtleties of the liturgical calendar in the past, you may know that we are in that time during the year when our attention is drawn to that article of the Creed in which we profess our belief that the same Christ who came as a vulnerable infant two thousand years ago will come again in glory, this time to judge the living and the dead, and that his kingdom will have no end. When he comes, all wrongs will be put right, all injustices will be corrected, and all tears will be wiped away. Justice, peace, and love will prevail throughout the created order.

In the meantime, though, things are in a bit of a mess, aren’t they? Ice is melting at both poles, which means that little organisms called krill are losing their breeding grounds, and since krill are pretty much at the bottom of the food chain, their decreasing numbers have ramifications all the way up to the top, which is the position you and I are privileged to occupy. Civil war and ethnic oppression are causing anarchy in southern Sudan, with a huge cost in suffering and lives. AIDS continues to rage virtually unchecked across the African continent, creating a huge generation of orphans. Iran seems resolved to develop nuclear weapons, daring the rest of the world to try and stop them. And, of course, there’s Israel and the Palestinians—creating an environment that is the incubator of 98% of worldwide terrorism.

And on top of these global catastrophes, ordinary bad stuff still happens every day to ordinary people. We get sick, we get old, we die. Along the way, we make stupid financial decisions and mouth off to the wrong people and try to hang on to jobs that we find boring at best because somehow we’ve got to pay the bills. In my case, a bad day is defined by how well the technology I depend on works. If I have computer or internet connection problems, it sucks up huge quantities of valuable time and energy.

With all that’s going on, globally and locally, it can be exceedingly difficult to find faith and keep faith. We say we believe that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords, to rescue the downtrodden, reward the righteous, and crush the oppressor. We say we believe in the communion of saints and the life of the world to come. But it is awfully challenging to maintain those beliefs in the face of everything that confronts us.

We may be forgiven for assuming that, since we have the benefit of twenty centuries of experience since the first coming of Christ, we have a unique perspective that the earliest generations of Christians didn’t have. That may be, but we are by no means alone in our inability to cope with the need to wait, to hope, to persevere, to keep on keeping on. We are not alone in our desire to just have it be done with. The very earliest generation of Christians was led to believe that the second coming of Christ was going to happen …pretty much…next week, or the week after, at the latest. Some of them decided to quit working, to no longer invest time or energy in the long-term fabric of their earthly lives, because, after all, what’s the point? If Christ is coming very soon, why break a sweat over a roof that isn’t going to actually start leaking until next winter? St Paul, in his letters to the new Christians in Thessalonica, had to gently reprimand these folks and tell them, If you don’t work, don’t expect to eat!

The Jewish community 500 years before Christ also had to deal with their own version of the same problem. Their world was just as chaotic and just as unsettling to them as ours is to us. They were waiting for the Lord to send his long-expected Messiah—in Greek, the Christ—who would restore the national glory that they enjoyed under King David another five centuries or so earlier. Listen to how cynical they were getting as they waited:

It is vain to serve God. What is the good of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? Henceforth we deem the arrogant blessed; evildoers not only prosper but when they put God to the test they escape.

This sounds like the voice of a people who have nearly reached the end of their rope, and we empathize with them.

Even the very contemporaries of Jesus felt the pressure. They were going around with him day by day. Many of them had sacrificed their livelihoods and put their personal lives on hold in order to follow him. They had high hopes that he was indeed the Christ, the one who would deliver them from the yoke of Roman oppression. In the days just prior to his crucifixion, Jesus and his followers are looking at the magnificent Jerusalem temple, and he says something quite remarkable: “…the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” As you might imagine, that got a conversation going, and Jesus took the opportunity to explain that things would definitely get worse before they got better:

…when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once….Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony.

Quite a bit to look forward to, isn’t it? Very often, we’d just rather not. Can’t we just “fast forward” through that stuff? Isn’t there a pill we can take and have someone wake us when it’s all over? The fact that we have company in our misery may or may not be comforting, but we do: Christians have been waiting for 2,000 years. The Jews waited for the first coming of the Messiah another thousand years before that. And the whole human race has been waiting since before the dawn of recorded time. We read about the first promise in the Book of Genesis: As the Lord is banishing Adam and Eve and the serpent from the Garden of Eden, he tells them that a descendent of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. The Church has always considered this the first promise of a divine Savior, the first premonition of the gospel. And now we wait. We continue to wait.

And Jesus encourages us in our waiting. He tells us that, as we bear witness to him until he comes again, he will supply our needs—in this case, particularly our need to know what to say when the world challenges our faith in all the ways it does. On the surface, this means that the Spirit will give us words in moments of direct confrontation. Underneath the surface, it suggests that the Spirit will give us words to repeat to ourselves in moments of doubt and fear and frustration:

I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.

By your endurance you will gain your lives. This is God’s good news to us today as we mark this season of special attention to the second coming of Christ to put all things right, the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem as a bride adorned for her husband. “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Hang in there. I will meet your needs as they arise. Not before they arise, but as they arise. Trust me. Be faithful. Your perseverance will be rewarded. And, believe me, what’s coming is well worth waiting for! In the words of Malachi’s prophecy:

Behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.

May we not grow weary, by brothers and sisters. May we not lose heart. Christ is coming. Our salvation is at hand. Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sunday in the Octave of All Saints (4 November 2007)

Many years ago—more than three decades, actually—when my parents lived in a New Jersey suburb of New York City, and Brenda and I were visiting, we spent a large portion of one Saturday afternoon touring the vast Cathedral of St John the Divine on the upper west side. At one point we noticed a commemorative plaque in the floor that made reference to one or more of the saints. My mother, who knew that Brenda and I had then only recently become Episcopalians, curiously inquired as to what role the saints play in Anglican faith and worship and piety. I can’t remember precisely how I answered her, but it was a good question, and it’s still a good question. So, on this All Saints Day, let’s try and answer it.

In the creeds, we say we believe in “the communion of saints.” The Greek word that lies behind the word “communion” is koinonia. It has a very strong meaning. It denotes a very deep connection, a profound intimacy. This is the kind of bond there is between the saints.

But who are “saints”? Again, it’s time for a language lesson. The Greek and Latin words which lie behind the English word “saint” simply mean “holy.” The saints are “the holy ones.” But that word “holy” can throw us off, because you and I are apt to understand it as describing only those who are of outstanding moral character, the ultra-good. At its root, however, “holy” simply means “set apart” or “dedicated” to a particular purpose. In the New Testament, the word “saints” — or “holy ones” — became a euphemism for any and all Christians. In baptism, we, as Christians, have been set apart, dedicated to the particular purposes of glorifying God, following Christ, and bearing witness to him in the world. So there is a very real and important sense in which all of us who have been baptized are saints, whatever the current status of our moral and spiritual development is. This is the way the word is used in the New Testament.

As Christianity became two and three and four generations old, however, the word “saint,” without losing its general meaning, also took on a more focused meaning. These early Christians, because of state persecution, had to spend a good deal of their time in hiding. In the city of Rome, these hiding places were literally underground, in passageways known as the catacombs. They would celebrate the Eucharist in the catacombs and bury their dead in the catacombs. We know from the way these graves were decorated and inscribed that there was a deep devotion and rich prayer life centered around the faithful departed—first, loved ones who were actually known and remembered personally, and later, those who were not personally known, but who were remembered by the whole community because of their particular heroism or strength of witness or holiness of life. Special liturgies were held on the anniversary of their death, and the word “Saint” was put in front of their names in an official way. Later on, formal procedures evolved for deciding who would be put into this category.

During the Middles Ages, the number of Saints—and therefore Saints’ days—grew to the point where it was impossible for all of them to be observed in all places. So, in an effort not to leave anybody out, the Church decided to designate one day on which all the saints would be commemorated—hence, All Saints Day. This custom began in England and Northern Europe, where an already existing pagan holiday dedicated to the spirits of the dead was “baptized” and co-opted into the new Christian observance. (The same thing had already been done with Christmas, taking over the pagan winter solstice festival and making it the celebration of the Nativity of Christ.)

But . . . we digress. Let’s get away from history and back to theology. I’m going to offer you an image, a mental picture, that I hope will make it easier to understand the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. But remember that it’s the doctrine itself that’s important, not the image. If the image doesn’t work for you, it won’t hurt my feelings if you trash it. OK?

Imagine, if you will, a large mansion. This mansion represents the Church, and it includes all Christians who have ever lived. It has three stories. You and I, and every other Christian who is presently drawing breath and maintaining a temperature of around 98.6°—we all live on the first floor of this mansion. We make up what is called the Church Militant, the saints on earth. The word “militant” connotes the fact that we are in a battle—a battle against the world, the flesh, the devil, against disease and dysfunction and death, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places. As we sang in the opening hymn today, “We feebly struggle...” As we are engaged in this battle together, we have the privilege of supporting and encouraging and helping and praying for one another—those we live with and know intimately, and those who live halfway around the world and whom we have never met. We have the opportunity to experience and practice koinonia—close fellowship and communion—with other Christians in this world. This is an important instance of the communion of saints. It is in the context of this mutual struggle that we actually become what we are—that is, holy. In the daily grind of life’s joys and sorrows, through faithfully taking up our cross, we assume the character and likeness of Jesus, who is our model and example.

What we don’t know, however, is when death will come, and how far along in that process of becoming holy, of becoming like Jesus, we will be when that moment arrives. This is where the second floor of the mansion comes into play. The souls on the second floor make up what is known as the Church Expectant. If the first floor is a battlefield, the second floor is a hospital ward. It is populated by those who are still very much in the process of having their holiness perfected. It is a place of intensive treatment and therapeutic healing, administered by a very loving physician. Just as we prayed for these people when they were on the first floor, we can still pray for the members of the Church Expectant. They would appreciate our prayers on their behalf, I’m sure, because, while their reservations for a third floor apartment are being held for them, they need to get well before they can move upstairs. They have no complaints about the care they’re getting in the hospital, but they’re eager to move on, and anything we can do, through prayer, to hasten that process along, is to their benefit. And they can certainly also still pray for us. Why should their departure from the first floor deprive them of that privilege which they enjoyed while they were here?

The third floor, as you can probably surmise, is the ultimate destination for everybody within the mansion. The residents of the third floor make up the Church Triumphant. These are the ones we sang about right after “We feebly struggle ... they in glory shine.” The image of Christ has been perfectly restored in them. The distortion and damage of sin has been completely repaired. They are holy, not only because they have been set apart and dedicated, but because they, through grace, have been delivered from every taint of sin. The Church Triumphant truly has no further need of our prayers on their behalf, but we certainly have continuing need of their prayers on our behalf, and it has been the custom of the Church Militant, since earliest times, when gathered for worship, to invoke the prayers of the Church Triumphant. Strictly speaking, we do not pray to the Saints, but we ask them to pray for us. Are their prayers more effective than the prayers of “saints on earth”? We can certainly speculate that they might be, given the advanced state of their holiness. But more important than effectiveness, I think, is the realization of our essential unity with them. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine. Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.” It is in this awareness that we sense the true koinonia of the saints, the “one communion and fellowship” of which today’s Collect speaks.

The Church Militant on earth—where we pray for one another, the Church Expectant in Paradise—where we pray for them and they pray for us, and the Church Triumphant in Heaven—where they pray for us; this makes up the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the communion of saints into which we have been baptized, and which we celebrate on this feast of All Saints. “The Lord is glorious in his saints: Come, let us adore him.” Amen.