Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas I (2008)

John 1:1-1 Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

St Anselm was a medieval Archbishop of Canterbury who was, and continues to be, renowned as one of the major theologians of western Christianity. One of his treatises was simply titled Why God Became Man.  At this time of year, that’s an appropriate question, one we do well to ask ourselves, over and over again, because, even though we know the answer—in part, thanks to St Anselm—we stand in constant need of being reminded.

Why do we have Christmas?  Why do we celebrate the Incarnation?

Here’s the deal: Even though God loves us, and created us in His image, and wants us to share the very essence of His life and being, we, as human beings, are alienated from God. We are cut off from God. There’s a gulf between us and God that makes the Grand Canyon look like a line in the sand. We are therefore unable to enjoy the life that God created us to have. We are incapable of experiencing our full humanity. Both as individuals, and as a race, we are at cross-purposes with God. God belongs at the center of our being, but we have displaced Him—we have displaced Him with our own ego. We have bowed low before any number of “other gods”—gods like success, power, alcohol, drugs, sexual fulfillment; the list could go on. As we tell God in our corporate worship: “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved out neighbors as ourselves.”  Or, more dramatically, perhaps: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.”

Traditional Christianity labels this alienation between God and humankind as Sin—a condition each of us is born with which inclines us to make ourselves the measure of all things, and draws us away from the love of God. You can use that label, or not. Either way, though, it doesn’t change the reality.

”But wait, there’s more.”

 Not only do we have a problem; the problem is getting worse! We can’t just hold onto the status quo, thinking that, while it may not be all we would like it to be, it’s not all that bad either.  The status quo is slipping away. We’re trapped between steadily rising flood waters in front of us, and a deteriorating riverbank behind us. We have no hope, unless we can find a bridge across the gulf—the canyon, the chasm—that divides us from God. And only God can provide such a bridge, only God Himself can bridge the gap. We have no power within ourselves to meet Him halfway. Something must be done on our behalf.  God must come to our aid, or else we are doomed to ongoing misery in this world and oblivion in the next.

Now for the good news: God has done something on our behalf. God has come to our aid.  First, He gave us the Law—a knowledge of how we ought to live so as to counteract our inborn propensity toward Sin. The Law is written in nature. The Law is written on our hearts—it’s what we call “conscience.” And the Law is written, so to speak, “in stone”; that is, God’s Law made visible in His relationship with the particular nation through whom He chose to reveal Himself—the ancient Hebrews, the Jews.

The Law reveals the true nature and extent of our condition. The Law shows us just how wide the gulf is between God’s holiness—God’s completeness, God’s purity, God’s perfection—the Law shows us the gulf between God’s holiness and our sinfulness—our incompleteness, our contingency, our weakness and fragility, the fragmented and unfocused character of our lives. The Law is like a light shining on a dirty kitchen and revealing the cockroaches. They’re still there when it’s dark—in fact, they’re happier when it’s dark—but the light enables us to see them. We’re still sinners without the Law, but the Law enables us to see our sinfulness.

However, the Law is only a stopgap. It’s a tremendous gift because it shows us our problem.  But it doesn’t solve the problem. We cannot throw the Law into the canyon  and expect it to form a bridge that will take us to God. Something more must be done, and God has done it, and that’s why we have Christmas.  God has thrown, not the Law, but Himself, into the gap that separates us, and has completely bridged that gap. In the mystical language of the prologue to John’s gospel, we encounter our common faith that “…the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”  The One whom we proclaim in our creed as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God” took human flesh, human nature, and dwelt, tabernacled—“pitched his tent,” literally rendered—the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. In so doing, God completely associated Himself with us, implicating Himself with the human condition.

And he did so completely. This is what St Paul is getting at in his letter to the Galatians when he describes Christ as “born under the Law.” The Law is the perfect symbol for the entirety of the human condition, because it is the vehicle by which we see that condition clearly and fully. To say that Christ was born “under the Law” is to say that, in Jesus, God is thoroughly and unreservedly incarnate. There is no room for half-measures here.

He does not bridge just half the gap—or three-quarters, or ninety percent, or whatever—and expect us to make up the difference.  There were those in the early centuries of Christianity who thought just that.  They asserted that God only appeared to be human in the person of Jesus, that the divine spirit of God dwelt within the human body of Jesus, but did not really become one with that body. It was just a vehicle. These folks were motivated by a commendable desire to protect the honor and uniqueness and utter holiness of God.

But they were wrong. Their views are now known to be heresy. If, in His incarnation, God only partially covers the difference between us and Him, then all is in vain. If God does not become fully human in Jesus, taking our nature upon Him without reservation, then the gulf remains. We are still in our sins, and have no hope.

So do you see why we have Christmas? It is utterly necessary for our salvation. We are people of hope precisely because God did bridge the gap. In Christ, God completely participates in and shares human nature and human life. “Pleased as Man with Man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” As a result of this unspeakable generosity and love, we have the opportunity to walk in marvelous light, to share and participate in the luminous life of the Blessed Trinity, the eternal life of God. If there is ever any news that should motivate us to “Go tell it on the mountain,” this is surely it! The gap is closed. Heaven and earth are joined.  God has become as we are that we may become as He is.  Alleluia and Amen.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve 2008

I can be something of a grouser and complainer during the weeks leading up to Christmas.  At no other time of year do I find my own inner being quite so much at odds with what’s going on in the secular culture.  But even I have to admit that there is a certain mystique to it all.  The “Christmas spirit,” however we think of it, does encourage us to look for the best in one another, which is remarkable precisely because most of the time we tend to see the worst in each other.  Shoppers see inattentive and snippy sales clerks. Sales clerks see obnoxious and demanding shoppers. We see drivers expressing “road rage” on the highways.  Con artists find a new sucker every day. Bad cops are paid off to look the other way at crime, and office holders, as we have seen so dramatically in Illinois, sell their power and influence to the highest bidder. 

All this tends to make us pretty cynical about human nature. We end up defining people by their behavior: So-and-so is a drunk, someone else is a philanderer, he has a temper problem, she’s a manipulative bully, and so on.  The spirit of Christmas lifts us—even if temporarily—the spirit of Christmas lifts us out of that kind of cynicism and judgmentalism. 

But it is, of course, not merely the “spirit” of Christmas that accomplishes this for us; it is the decisive act of God which lies at the heart of our Christmas celebration.  God has done something that forever disarms our cynicism toward human nature. 

Among the less well-known of C.S. Lewis’ prolific literary output is a trilogy of science fiction novels.  The first one, Out of the Silent Planet, features a self-effacing language scholar named Ransom, who is kidnapped by an evil scientist and his crony and taken in a spaceship to the planet Malacandra. The climactic scene of the story is a meeting between Ransom and a mysterious being whose name and title are both Oyarsa, and who is the ruler of Malacandra. Oyarsa is curious about Ransom’s home planet—Earth. Earth also once had an Oyarsa, Ransom is told, but he became “bent”—you and I might say “crooked”— and turned to evil. So Maleldil, the supreme creator and ruler of the universe, quarantined Earth from all other worlds, and confined its bent Oyarsa there, so he couldn’t do any damage elsewhere in the universe. Since then there has been no contact between Malacandra and Earth, but the Malacandrans have heard rumors that Maleldil has been up to some strange and daring activities in an attempt to redeem what had gone wrong there. Ransom then tells the Oyarsa of Malacandra the Christian story of the Incarnation, how God actually entered human experience, as a human being. Oyarsa is mightily impressed, for of all the worlds and all the races of creatures in the universe, this is the only instance he has ever heard of in which Maleldil has entered one of the worlds which he made and taken the form of one of the species which he created. Oyarsa finally tells Ransom: “You have shown me more wonders than are known in the whole of heaven.”

Yes, human nature is horribly “bent,” and we experience that “bent-ness” every day of our lives. But yet, God has greatly dignified human nature by taking it up into his own divine nature. And that act of love established the means by which that bent and twisted nature of ours can be placed back in the fire, like a blacksmith would do to a damaged horseshoe, where it can be softened up, and re-fashioned straight and true.

Each celebration of Christmas has the potential to change us. When we experience the “spirit of the season,” we have an opportunity to become more loving, more generous, maybe even more religious. More than once have I heard conversion stories that begin or culminate at the celebration of the Eucharist on Christmas Eve. Maybe this celebration tonight will be that turning point of conversion for somebody here, that watershed moment of insight that will be looked back on gratefully many years from now.

But that, wonderful as it all is, is just frosting on the cake. The real cause for Christmas rejoicing is that it is the festival of the Incarnation. The scandal of the Incarnation is that God himself is forever changed by it. He who is by nature pure spirit now has a human face, and the name of that face is Jesus. The human face of God was first revealed to an obscure Jewish couple in a remote corner of the Roman Empire, then to some humble and unsophisticated sheep   herders and some strange astrologers and magicians from un-heard of lands to the east. Finally, that human face of God was revealed most completely as Jesus looked down from the cross on his mother and his disciples and his persecutors.

In his dying and rising, and in the sacred ritual meal by which we remember that dying and rising—the meal which we celebrate tonight—the human face of God is revealed to you and to me. Eventually, we will all see that face when he returns as a just and righteous, but loving and compassionate, judge.

It is a venerable Christian custom, particularly at this time of year, during the Nicene creed, to bow deeply or even genuflect—go down on one knee—at the words which speak of the Incarnation: “...he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made Man.” I invite you to join me in this gesture of adoration and acknowledgement of the Incarnation, and what a sign it is of the depths of God’s love for our fallen race. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Come, let us adore him. Amen.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Year B: Advent IV (12/21/08)

Luke 1:26-38

Romans 16:25-27

II Samuel 7:8-16

She was an ordinary girl, this Miriam. Her parents, Anne and Joachim, were good people, though not remarkable. Her home town, Nazareth, was a decent enough place to live, though it had never won any “most livable city” awards. She’d had a good Jewish upbringing, pious, synagogue-attending, respectful of the history and traditions of her people. Oh, and now she was engaged. Her parents had arranged it all, of course, but they had not done too badly by her. Joseph had steady work, he was a carpenter, and it looked like he would be able to support her comfortably. Miriam was sure she would grow to love him over the course of time. Their betrothal was now official, a legal contract, and soon she would move in with him as his wife.

Life was not stress-free for anyone in Nazareth at that time, of course, including for Miriam. (Her namesake, by the way, was the great heroine of Israel, Moses’ own sister, and Miriam was proud of this fact; the Greeks and Romans would have called her “Maria.”) The village of Nazareth, and the province of Galilee, had been annexed into the Roman Empire about a hundred years earlier, and it was not an entirely happy arrangement. In fact, there was a good bit of political unrest in the air, and anxiety about the future. But that very fact is itself testimony to the ordinariness of Miriam’s, or Mary’s, life and times. How many eras in human history have been devoid of political unrest and anxiety about the future? Everyone lived one day at a time, hoping for the best, praying that everything would somehow just all work out.

Which doesn’t sound all that different from the way you and I live. We work and play and shop and try to have relationships and raise families. We try to experience joy in life, but sometimes it seems like sorrow is all there is. We try to stay healthy, but we all get sick. We have times of depression and times of elation, times of alienation and times of unity. At times we’re overwhelmed by guilt, and at times we’re overwhelmed by forgiveness. All of which is to say, we lead ordinary lives. We are tempted to despair, and we are tempted to hope.

And if we are indeed tempted to hope, invited to hope, we owe a portion of that invitation to Miriam, to Mary, and to her people. They were good at hoping. They had perfected hoping into a fine art. They had been promised, and were hoping for, a deliverer, one who would free them from the oppressor’s yoke, and lead them into a time of peace and justice and prosperity. This deliverer would be known as “messiah”, the anointed-one of God, cut from the same mold as the heroic messiah—King David. Indeed, the prophecies were that this messiah would descend from David’s own royal lineage. The prophet Nathan had promised David that 

“...the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled, and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. …Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

So Mary, ordinary Mary, had a special hope, an extraordinary hope. She hoped that her generation would be the one to see the messiah, who would be not only the deliverer of her people, but a light to the nations, an ensign to the peoples, a beacon who would draw the whole world into God’s gracious reign of righteousness and justice.  Perhaps Mary, ordinary Mary, allowed herself to fantasize on what it might look like if her extraordinary hope were to be fulfilled. The Hebrew scriptures, the Law and the Prophets, certainly did not lack for vivid pictorial representations, both frightening and comforting, of the Day of the Lord, the coming of the messiah. In her fantasy, Mary could have drawn on this rich supply of images. Would the advent of Messiah be preceded by troops of angels doing battle with and defeating the legions of Rome?  Would there be an awesome celestial light show and a spine-tingling chorus of trumpets in the heavens as the storm clouds parted and Messiah descended to earth in a flaming chariot as he claimed his kingdom in an unmistakable public display?

These are just a few of the visions that may have danced in the head of an ordinary young Hebrew woman on the eve of her marriage to an ordinary Nazarene carpenter at the time when Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman empire and Quirinius was governor of Syria. But the imminent fulfillment of Israel’s hope also has meaning for us who are not genetically of the house of Israel. For us, the content of our hope in the advent of the messiah is summarized by St Paul in the concluding paragraph of a letter he wrote to the Christian community in the city of Rome, when he spoke of the

…mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of God, to bring about the obedience of faith…

From a Gentile perspective, the significance of the Messiah’s coming is not merely national, but  cosmic.  God’s motivation for sending his messiah among us was, in the words of the ancient Latin hymn,

In sorrow that the ancient curse should doom to death a universe…

God himself had pronounced the curse on Adam and Eve when he banished them from the Garden of Eden, but it was not within his heart of love to see that curse come to fruition. The mystery kept secret for long ages is a plan of salvation, a plan of redemption from the ancient curse, a plan to “no more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground…”, but, rather, to “make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” It is a plan to deal definitively with violence and oppression and injustice and cruelty and even natural disasters. Yes, even earthquakes, fires, and floods are signs that the ancient curse, the curse that threatens to doom to death a universe, is indeed found far and wide.

And it all hangs . . . it all hangs on the ordinary obedience of ordinary Mary, from ordinary Nazareth, engaged to ordinary Joseph. The angel Gabriel was sent by God, not with a police escort, not in a horse-drawn carriage, not in a Cadillac limousine with a full media contingent, but, it would seem, rather inconspicuously. There’s no indication that he had any contact with anyone other than the intended recipient of his message, Mary herself. Her ordinary life would never again be quite so ordinary. Oh, she had intended to become pregnant, probably pretty soon after her marriage, but this was just a bit…too soon. It was a lot to ask of ordinary Mary.

 Yet, she was well-trained. She realized that to be chosen to be the mother of the messiah was indeed to be “highly favored.” For a moment, everyone’s fate was in her hands, the fate of captive Israel mourning in lonely exile, the fate of a universe doomed to death by an ancient curse. But in that moment, Mary chose to recognize God’s claim on her, she chose to obey. And in her obedience, Mary chose hope, Mary chose life. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” 

Let it be to me according to your word. From that brief declaration of consent flows everything that we know as Christmas. From that brief statement of ordinary obedience by an ordinary young lady, issues the extraordinary fulfillment of every human hope. The glory of Christmas, the revelation of the mystery kept secret for long ages, came about through the willingness of an ordinary woman to obey God’s claim on her life. And in that light, we may well ask ourselves, what other glories might God be ready to reveal in response to the ordinary obedience of his ordinary disciples? Mary is unique in the particular nature of her vocation, and for that all generations will call her blessed. But she is not unique in the fact that God has a registered claim on her life. Through the death and resurrection of the messiah, God’s son and Mary’s son, God has “redeemed” us for himself. We belong to him.

So Mary is exemplary. Her response to God’s move to exercise his claim as our redeemer is an example to us. If we, in our ordinariness, were to make Mary’s words our own—“I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”—if we were to make these words our own, what results might we expect to see? As individuals, we might well experience great awkwardness, virtually unbearable awkwardness, at first. Mary certainly did. Despite the euphoria of her angelic visitation, it was never easy to explain her pregnancy to her family and friends, let alone to Joseph! And it was not easy, several years later, to watch the one who has been born as a messiah-king die in disgrace as a criminal. But when we say “yes” to God, we experience the kind of peace that protects us, not from the storm, but in the storm. We know ourselves to be securely grounded, and experience profound wholeness and joy.

What might it look like if, as the parish of St Anne, we said in a concerted way, “Behold the servant of the Lord; be it unto us according to your word.”?  In the near term, there would be some moments of panic, as we experience the pain of being close to the pain of others. But before long, I believe, we would find ourselves in the midst of resources—human, financial, and material—more abundant than we can imagine. I suspect that God’s philosophy of inventory control is “just in time,” and he will not release his blessings upon us until we are committed to putting them to use. That same results would accrue, I believe, on a diocesan level. If, as the family of the Diocese of Northern Indiana, we declared in a united way, “Behold the servant of the Lord; let it be to us according to your word”, I would expect to see us blessed with courage and confidence, together with our bishop, to make our witness to the rest of the church and to the world with clarity and peace.

And as a result of such re-commitment to God’s claim on our ordinary lives, I would expect to see blessings overflow into secular society, with an impact on the level of violence and ethnic and cultural animosity and social disintegration in our cities and towns, and an impact on the level of suspicion and fear with which we approach this economic recession. In short, by saying “yes” to God, in emulation of blessed Mary, we lay the foundation for the fulfillment of all our hopes. So let us not hold out for a chorus of trumpets and a celestial light show. Our ordinary angel is greeting us and telling us that we are highly favored. Let us “just say yes,” and allow Christ to be formed in us, that we may give birth to his kingdom of justice and righteousness. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen

Year B: Advent II (12/7/08)

    Mark 1:1-8

II Peter 3:8-15, 18

I and those of my generation are children of the space age. When a manned space mission was launched, all three television networks interrupted their regular programming and showed it live. We grew up familiar with the voice of mission control saying “T-minus 47 minutes and counting” or “T-minus sixteen minutes and holding.” We got worried when the countdown was “holding,” because it meant there was a problem, and sometimes the hold lasted several hours or even a day. It was as if time stood still, and we ached for the gratification of hearing the final countdown—Ten-nine-eight-seven…and down to “We have liftoff.”

But the idea of a “countdown” leading up to an eagerly-anticipated event is not something new with the space age. Many of an older generation may remember the tradition—not yet entirely extinct—of the Advent calendar. Every day during Advent a little door would be opened or a space uncovered, revealing some church symbol or biblical prophecy that pointed to the coming of the Christ child. The Advent calendar unmistakably says, if not in so many words, “Christmas is coming.” It is a countdown to December 25. But it also keeps those who use it focused on the spiritual themes of Advent, which are waiting, hoping, and preparing.

In calendar time, then—whether it’s an Advent calendar or just an ordinary one—there are now about tw-and-half more weeks until Christmas. The countdown is under way, and it’s always “counting,” never “holding”! Here at St Anne’s, the choir is putting the final polish on the Festival of Lessons and Carols that they will lead us in on the 21st. The Altar Guild has planned for poinsettias and greenery with which to decorate the church for Christmas. I know many of you have made travel arrangements for yourselves and loved ones. Some of us have already done a good bit of shopping and meal planning, and that sort of thing. Even in the midst of the world’s generic “holiday” frenzy, Christians are—subliminally, at least—Christians are aware of an ongoing countdown, a climax toward which all these preparations are aimed.

In what we might call “cosmic time,” nobody except God knows exactly where we are in the countdown. All that the Christian faith reveals to us is that life is indeed one long countdown to the end of reality as we know it. The present scheme of things is temporary. It may end tonight; it may go on for thousands of years longer. But it’s temporary. As we have seen over the past several Sundays, from a faith-filled perspective, the end of history is something to look forward to with hope and joy, but it is intimidating nonetheless. As long ago as the lifetime of St Peter, there were those who were getting antsy about what seemed like an interminable delay in the second coming of our Lord. They were eager for it to happen—right now! Peter wrote and reminded them that any delay in the end of this present age and the inauguration of the world to come is purely for our benefit:

The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish…”

And when the forbearance is over? Peter writes,

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. 

OK, with that in mind, I, for one, am very grateful for the forbearance!

So there’s calendar time, cosmic time, and also liturgical time—church time. It’s Advent, and John the Baptist— the forerunner, the way-paver, the advance man, the harbinger, the dominating symbol of “mid-Advent”—What’s he up to, anyway? St Mark’s gospel tells us that

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 

John’s preaching and people’s lives are changing. They’re confessing their sins and getting baptized. They’re repenting. John says, in effect, “I’m just the warm-up act. The main event is coming right behind me and—take my word—it’s something you’re going to want to be ready for.” There was a countdown in John the Baptist’s ministry. There wasn’t a precise clock, but it was definitely “T-minus not-very-much and counting.” There was a sense of urgency. Ignition and liftoff were imminent. The more aware we are of the nearness of Christ—whether we’re speaking chronologically, cosmically, or liturgically—the more aware we are of the approaching arrival of Christ, the more irresistible becomes the urge to repent. The nearness of Christ naturally evokes a response of repentance.

What is repentance? Repentance is a change of mind that leads to change in behavior. If you’re in the habit of voting Republican, but realize one day that you really do believe that government should be a key player in solving economic and social problems, and start to vote Democratic, that’s repentance. If you’re a fan of the Indianapolis Colts, but come to believe that the Chicago Bears are more worthy of your attention and support, and you paint your house—which was previously medium blue with white trim—you paint your house dark blue with orange trim, that’s repentance. Now, repentance often also leads to a change of heart. But it’s the change of mind and change of behavior that are closer to the core of repentance. Actual change of heart often brings up the rear, arriving on the scene after change of mind and change of behavior have already settled in.

The sort of repentance that Advent evokes is not necessarily breast-beating sorrow. We misunderstand repentance if we identify it with a dramatic and emotional display of contrition. Still less is repentance a matter of hating oneself, or wallowing in shame. Rather, repentance springs from the same place that we get a desire to please someone whom we respect and admire and perhaps love. When a child cleans up her room or empties the dishwasher because she knows it will make her mother so happy, and there is joy for her in the prospect of her mother’s happiness, that behavior comes from the same place that gives birth to repentance. When a student puts extra effort into an assignment because he is just in awe of his teacher, and there is joy for him in the prospect of making his teacher proud, that behavior comes from the same place that gives birth to repentance. When a soldier gives extraordinary attention to duty out of an overflowing admiration for the leadership of his commanding officer, and the thought of pleasing that commanding officer is a source of joy and pride for him, such behavior springs from the same place that gives birth to repentance.

Christ is coming. The countdown is proceeding. And when he comes, we want him to be pleased with us. We want him to find us at our posts, doing our duty, fully prepared to greet him, and filled with joyful hope. So we repent. We repent by taking inventory of our lives, by naming and turning aside from all those things that might divert our attention from him, so that when the countdown reaches T-minus zero, we will not be afraid or ashamed, but will rejoice to behold his appearing. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen. 

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Christ the King (23 November 2008)

Matthew 25:31-46

Ezekiel 34:11-17, 20-24

Psalm 95:1-7

Today is that last Sunday of the church year, and we are celebrating the feast of Christ the King: Festival vestments, extra candles on the altar, prayers that reference the kingship of Christ, incense, hymns and other special music that reinforce the theme—all the usual markers of not just an ordinary Sunday, but a special Sunday.

Christ the King is not an ancient feast in the Christian calendar; in fact, it’s quite recent, dating back only to the middle of the last century. And in our own American Prayer Book, it’s only implicit rather than official. You won’t find the expression Christ the King officially attached to this day in the calendar; it is styled simply the Last Sunday after Pentecost. This is perhaps a reflection of our American discomfort with the very idea of royalty. The principle of equality between human beings is embedded very deep in our national DNA. We instinctively pull back from any notion of hierarchy or chain-of-command or any such thing that is not rooted in democratic decision-making processes. So we have a tendency to process our experience of, say, the British royal family, into peculiarly American categories like “rock star” or “cultural icon.” We know what to do with a rock star or other celebrity. We have no idea what to do with an actual king or queen.

So, as we attempt to come to terms with this festival of Christ the King, perhaps we would do well to first take certain images of royalty off the table, to point to them and say, “This is not what we mean when we call Christ our King.” First of all, Christ the King is not Christ the tyrant, Christ the despot. He’s not a self-indulgent egomaniac like, say, some of the Egyptian Pharaohs, or the Roman Caesars, or certain Asian sultans and potentates. He’s not like the petty French and English monarchs in TV docudramas, like Henry VIII or Louis XIV. But neither is Christ the King comparable to some ideal mythical “good king”, like, for example, King Arthur, ruling over Camelot wisely and benevolently as he leads his people into the land of “happily ever after,” even while taking care of an occasional crisis along the way. And Christ the King is certainly not to be thought of as a mere symbol or figurehead, and therefore of questionable relevance, like the current monarchs in Great Britain or Japan or Sweden or any number of other countries.

So, having set aside these unhelpful images of the kingship of Christ, what are we left with? What is it that we can positively affirm about Christ the King? I would suggest that today’s scripture readings supply us with two distinct but complementary and interdependent lenses through which we might view the kingship of Christ.

Let’s look first at the powerful narrative from the twenty-fifth chapter of St Matthew’s gospel. It paints a picture that takes us to the end of time—or, more accurately, to that time outside of time—when “the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him,” when Jesus “sits on his glorious throne.” It’s certainly a picture of royalty and all the signs and symbols that are associated with royalty. But it doesn’t stop there. It gets more specific. Matthew goes on to describe a scene of judgment, a scene where the one seated on the throne, whom we know to be Christ, discriminates between those gathered in the throng in front of him. He discriminates between those whom he considers to be sheep—these are the favored ones—whom he directs to gather on his right, and those whom he considers to be goats—these are the unfavored ones—whom he directs to gather on his left. This is a glorious scene, but it’s certainly not free of stress. It’s not a particularly happy occasion, especially among the “goats.” I guarantee you that nobody there is singing “Kumbaya”! Judgment is just that way.

But by the time we heard the gospel, we had already encountered a very similar, though certainly not identical, scene from the thirty-fourth chapter of Ezekiel. Ezekiel puts these words onto the lips of the LORD:

Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. 

Now, the job of a judge is to measure human behavior against some standard. The standard may be a formal written legal code, an unwritten common law tradition, or a universal social custom, but it is always something objective, something that a wide diversity of people can look at and see the same thing. A standard of judgment also needs to be impersonal—that is, it applies equally to everyone; a judge is not allowed to play favorites. A judge calls us to account for our conduct. Sometimes a judge is looking specifically for bad conduct; this is the job of a judge in a court of law. Other kinds of judges, though, are on the lookout for good conduct, such as the ability to sing or dance or cook, or some such. Of course, human judges are never perfect. Every umpire will have a slightly different judgment about where the strike zone is precisely located. But uniformity and consistency are certainly goals even for umpires. Perfect uniformity and consistency do not define success, however. In this case, the attempt is just as important as the outcome, because it’s the knowledge that consistency is the goal that enables us to navigate life with some degree of confidence. Without those who exercise the ministry of judgment, we would live in a world like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where words don’t have any objective or consistent meaning, but mean only what those who speak them say they mean at any given time.

So, we learn from Matthew and Isaiah that part of the kingly ministry of Christ is to be a judge: Christ our King is Christ our judge. He will call us to account for what we do with the knowledge that we have. We have been given knowledge of right and wrong, and Christ our royal judge will call us to account for how we have used that knowledge. We have been given knowledge of God—in creation, in scripture, in the life and worship of the Church—and Christ our royal judge will call us to account for how we use that knowledge. We have been given knowledge of God’s call and God’s activity in our lives and in the world. Christ our royal judge will call us to account for how we have used that knowledge.

Christ our King is Christ our judge. But it’s a stereoscopic lens that the feast of Christ the King gives us—like one of those 3-D Viewmasters that those of us of a certain age routinely found in our Christmas stockings when we were kids—and our view is obscure if we do not also see his kingship as that of a shepherd. It is, after all, sheep and goats that Jesus is separating on the last day—and separating sheep from goats is the essential job of a shepherd! Looking back at the Isaiah passage, the God who declares himself to be a judge first declares himself to be a shepherd:

As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered … And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel…

And the Psalm for today reminds us that “…we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” 

Now, the job of a shepherd is to consistently provide several things to the animals entrusted to his care. A shepherd provides food and water, which is to say that he leads the sheep to pastures and streams where they can find the nourishment needed to sustain life and allow it to thrive. A shepherd also provides guidance and leadership, pulling when pulling is called for and pushing when pushing is called for—whatever it takes. And shepherds, of course, provide protection from thieves and predators, banishing and driving away those who would lure the sheep away from the fold or attempt to enter the fold and cause them harm.

Christ our Shepherd-King provides us, his sheep, with exactly this kind of ministry. The very words pastor and pastoral come directly from the business of minding sheep. Jesus provides pastoral care directly—through the sacraments, through our prayers, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit—and Jesus provides pastoral care indirectly, through ‘sub-shepherds’ whom we call bishops and priests, and through the various and diverse ministries of the laity within the Body of Christ. Christ our Shepherd-King provides us with spiritual nourishment; he provides us with vocation, guidance, and direction; and he provides us with protection from forces and desires that “draw us from the love of God.”

Christ the King is intimately relevant to our lives, as the one who calls us, equips us to follow him, and holds us accountable for our faithfulness to that holy and divine vocation. On this celebration of his kingship, we righty and appropriately offer him the honor and praise of our grateful hearts. All hail King Jesus! Amen.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Year A: Proper 28 (11/16/08)

Matthew 25:14-15, 19 29

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18

I Thessalonians 5:1-10

Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher and mathematician and research scientist of the eighteenth century. Among many illustrious accomplishments, he is known for a particular argument in favor of belief in God. It has become known as “Pascal’s wager,” and it’s really quite simple. Consider the possibilities: Either there is a God to whom we are accountable in the next life for the way we conduct ourselves in this one, or there is not. If we do not believe in such a God, and there indeed turns out to be no such God, then we may be right, but what will it matter? If we do believe in God, and turn out to be wrong, then the most we might reproach ourselves for, in the moment of death, the moment before eternal annihilation, is that we have unnecessarily denied ourselves some of life’s material pleasures. If, on the other hand, we do believe in such a God, and there indeed turns out to be such a God, then we will have been right, and it will matter a great deal. But it’s the fourth logical possibility that is the zinger in Pascal’s wager: If we disbelieve in God, and it turns out that we were wrong, then there are enormously unpleasant consequences, and we will have eternity to regret the choice we have made. So it boils down to how much do you have to lose by being wrong?: If you bet in favor of God, and are wrong, you lose a few of life passing pleasures for a few years on this earth. If you bet against God, and are wrong, you lose a chance at everlasting joy and peace and fulfillment beyond imagination. Which risk does it make more sense to take?

Pascal’s wager, of course, isn’t entirely convincing, because many people still, by the way they live their lives, bet against the existence of a God who will one day judge them. But to those who are more mentally and emotionally mature, and are inclined to take a long view of things—a very long view, in this case—today’s readings from Holy Scripture offer some reinforcement and encouragement. The prophet Zephaniah, writing in the seventh century before Christ, speaks of the dreadful “day of the Lord,” when distress and anguish and darkness and gloom will descend upon the earth, and there will be no escape for those who are being justly punished for their unrighteous behavior. Zephaniah makes a point of observing that God cannot be bought or bribed—even those with great fortunes will not be able to purchase an exemption from divine wrath.

This notion, of course, is echoed in many other places. On the whole, the Bible has a very cautionary attitude toward wealth. Not only can it not buy God’s favor, it may be an actual hindrance to the reception of Grace. St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians also speaks of the futility of relying on material resources as a buffer against the wrathful judgment of God:

When people say, ‘There will be peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape.

In other words, when the labor pains start, something is going to get born, and it will happen whether one is rich or poor. So, in the season when we expect to come to church and hear a sermon about money, I’m not going to disappoint you! I’m going to hold up the question, What do these passages say about the Christian’s relationship with his or her bank account? What are the biblical principles of asset management?

I would suggest to you that one of the things they tell us is that Christian stewardship is a good bet. It’s like Pascal’s wager written in lower case letters, applied to a specific situation. If there is no God, and we live this life as if our material and financial resources really do belong to us, then we’ll still die, and we still can’t take it with us, especially if there’s nowhere to go. If we do live as though everything indeed comes from and belongs to God, and there turns out to not be a God, then, sure, we may have given up the chance to be Donald Trump or Bill Gates, but they will have to face the Grim Reaper just like we do, and all their millions won’t matter in that moment. On the other hand, if there is a God, and we manage to live as though we realize that we are tenants and not landlords, we will be most blessed and fortunate. And if we bet the other way, and go through life exploiting somebody else’s money—and by that I mean to say God’s money—we will most miserable.

Which bet do you want? Which risk seems the more acceptable? It’s just a matter of taking the long view, and there’s nothing particularly spiritual about it. It’s the same impulse that leads hundreds of thousands of people to invest in new stock offerings even when the companies have never yet made one dime of profit. It’s taking a chance now for the sake of tremendous rewards in the future. When the Day of the Lord has come and gone, the tangible and in the intangible, the material and the spiritual, will have traded places. What is fleeting and ephemeral now will be hard currency then, and what is prudent and rock solid now will have turned to dust and ashes on that day.

Yet, how difficult it is to take Pascal’s wager, whether it applies to the existence of God in general or the advisability of practicing Christian stewardship in particular. Our human intuition does everything it can to convince us that stewardship is a folly, an unacceptable risk. Why give up expensive vacations, or drive a more modest car, or live in a smaller home, or eat more simply, just so we can make that ten percent tithe to the church? Why give without strings attached, when we could put conditions on our contributions and at least maintain some control over how it is spent? Stewardship may be good theology, tithing may be thoroughly biblical, but from a modern practical point of view, they seem quaint—noble and high-minded, perhaps, but foolish. Why prop up an institution like the Church, which, on its best days is inefficient, and on its worst days is corrupt, and which delivers only an intangible benefit, nothing that can be measured and reported?

So, in an attempt to minimize the unacceptable risk of real stewardship, in an attempt to maintain some control over what we still—knuckleheads that we are—think of as “our” money, we employ strategies like giving only what we’re “comfortable” with. There are many church members who, if they totaled up their expenditures at the end of the year, and compared their giving to the Lord with the tips they leave for servers at restaurants, would see very similar figures. What does it say about our attitude toward God, what does it say about our attitude toward the Church, the Body of his Son, when we, albeit unconsciously, think of him as someone deserving of a nice “tip?”

The attitude our Lord encourages us to have is not one of maintaining control, but letting go of control. This is represented for us in the familiar parable from Matthew’s gospel about the “talents.” A talent was originally a unit of currency, but, through this parable, which is a stewardship parable par excellence, it has come to mean anything in our possession which is purely a gift from God, unearned and unmerited. Three servants are entrusted with three different amounts of money while their master leaves town for a while. Two of them had the attitude of stewards, and realized that they would be expected to put those assets to active use, even if it meant taking a few risks. The third one, out of sheer laziness and fear, simply buried the money and figured his master would be happy just to receive it back intact when he returned. He was wrong, as the end of the story demonstrates. The servants who doubled their master’s money while he was away were rewarded, I think, as much for their willingness to take a risk as for the results they achieved. Stewardship is indeed a gamble. It involves engaging in risky behavior, behavior that may not seem prudent or wise by the standards of this world. But when you weigh the odds, and consider the consequences, it’s a risk worth taking.

Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. Amen.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

All Saints (observed) 2 November 2008

Those of you who have traveled around the country some bit, and visited other Episcopal churches, have discovered that there is a tremendous amount of diversity in our services—diversity in liturgical style, diversity in music, diversity in preaching. But you may also have discovered that there is one element of our Episcopalian culture that cuts right across these dividing lines as if they weren’t there. I’m talking about the Coffee Hour—known in some quarters as the “eighth sacrament.” Here at St Anne’s, it’s in Rose Hall, after church, over coffee and lemonade and donut holes, that new relationships are formed, visitors looking for a church community try us out to find out what ours is like, and old relationships are nurtured and sustained, week by week, month by month, year by year.

Parish social events—such as the various dinners that the Episcopal Church Women and the St Anne’s Men’s Society put on—are a vital link in the chain of relationship building and relationship maintenance within the Body of Christ. The same can be said of  “working” groups—ushers, Altar Guild, choir, altar servers, Cheese Ball mixers and rollers, and the like.  And at the watershed moments of our lives—birth, marriage, sickness, and grief—the support of the church community is a life-giving source of strength, the medium of God’s peace, which passes human understanding. Certainly, when we come to the altar rail, we experience “holy communion,” not only with the Risen Christ in his glory, but with the person on either side of us, and, if we are spiritually attentive, we also feel a bond of communion with Christian brothers and sisters whom we have never met. 

But what then? We’ve taken our experience of communion, our sense of kinship and familial bond, and extended it beyond the merely local and made it global. We know that even Christians in South America and Africa and Asia represent people whose “lives are closely linked with ours.”

But what then? It sometimes feels as though we hit a spiritual brick wall at that point. What about “holy communion” with those who have “crossed over,” those to whom we no longer have access through the ordinary means of human communication—those whose faces we can no longer see, those whose hands we can no longer touch, those whose voices of wisdom and words of love we can no longer hear. These members of the Body of Christ are no longer likely to show up at Coffee Hour, or a parish supper, or kneel next to us at the altar rail. They seem therefore in a category unto themselves, cut off from the rest of us. This feeling serves to minimize the bond that connects us; it causes us to no longer think of them as among those whose lives are closely linked with ours.

But listen to the affirmation we make in our opening prayer in the liturgy for the feast of All Saints. We declare to God our belief that “…[He has] knit together [His] elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of [His] Son Christ our Lord…” One communion, we say. Not two communions—one for the living and one for the dead—but one communion and fellowship.  Our fundamental affirmation as Christians—that Jesus is Lord and that he’s risen from the dead—our fundamental affirmation as Christians leads us to the understanding that we are alive to God in Christ. Christ has died and Christ has risen. We who have been buried with Christ in the waters of baptism—the number of which we are about to increase by one!—we who have been buried with Christ in the waters of baptism have died with him and been raised with him. Death no longer has dominion over him, and death no longer has dominion over us. At that moment—a moment we all face—when we will seem to have been swallowed up by death, death itself will, instead, choke on the risen Christ, even as it did on that holy night which was transfigured by the light of God’s glory as Jesus burst forth from his tomb. Since, therefore, we are “knit” together, as our collect says, knit together with that same risen Christ, and with one another, in one communion and fellowship, we are alive to one another. That is the astonishing affirmation of All Saints Day—we who are “in Christ” are alive to one another, as we are alive to him, no matter on what side of the grave we pitch our tent.

Most of us are familiar with the popular piety of Roman Catholicism, which pays a great deal of attention to the saints, and even speaks freely of  “praying” to particular saints in view of their reputation for being able to meet specialized needs. When I lived in Louisiana, there was a curious custom of burying a statue of St Joseph upside down in your front yard when you put your house on the market; doing so was thought by some to make your house sell faster. A lot of this popular piety strikes most Anglicans as just a little too intense, at least, and strikes most Protestants as a veritable threat to the uniqueness of Christ. But I would invite you to consider whether, even though we may not care for the piety, the theology behind the piety is something we ought to pay some more direct attention to, that those who “pray” to saints are in fact “on to” something very important, something that springs directly from the creedal affirmation that we are all about to make to the effect that we believe in “the communion of saints,” the fellowship of saints, that we are as intimately connected to St Mary and St John and St Ignatius and St Agnes and St Perpetua and St Augustine and St Teresa and St Thomas Becket and all the saints…as we are to the person we will sip coffee with in Rose Hall after church today. I would invite you to consider the fact that the veil that separates us from “all saints” is exquisitely thin, the barrier that seems to divide us from those who have “crossed the Jordan” is wonderfully porous, and that there is traffic across that border, because our God has knit us together with them in one communion and fellowship.

Scripture assures us that those who have gone before us indeed do pray for us. The epistle to the Hebrews speaks of a celestial cheering section consisting of those who have finished the race, and are urging us on as we labor to join them. And there is nothing either in scripture or tradition that would keep us from the notion that we may ask them to do so, that we may invoke the prayers of the saints. How much richer our spiritual imaginations would be if they were “populated” with heroes of the faith—those whom the Christian community knows as saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs. And how much richer our spiritual imaginations would be if they were also populated not only with such “public” heroes, but with our own private heroes—those who have been examples—parents, teachers, other “elders” and mentors whom we have known.

And, of course, there is also nothing to keep us from praying for them, as we will do this coming Wednesday in our All Souls’ liturgy—praying for our departed loved ones in a particularly focused way—but which we do at every celebration of the Eucharist, no matter how formal or how casual, because the Prayer Book rubrics require us to do so. In our catechism, the question is posed, “Why do we pray for the dead?” and the answer is given, “We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.”  The motto to keep in mind here is, “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.” We are all works in progress. Most of us will still be works in progress when the moment of death arrives. So we need to support one another in prayer—those of us who have been knit together in one communion and fellowship—we need to support one another in prayer no matter what side of the grave we are on, so that we may grow in God’s love until we see Him as He is.

What an expanded spiritual universe we enjoy when we cultivate an awareness of the communion of saints, when we realize that our lives are “closely linked” not only with the family and friends and neighbors we may have coffee with today and later this week, but with the saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs whose heroic witness for Christ and the gospel we honor on this feast day. All holy men and women of God, pray for us. Amen.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A: Proper 24 (19 October 2008)

Matthew 22:15-22

Isaiah 45:1-7

Now, you can’t count “supercalifragilisticexpealidocious,” because it’s an entirely made-up word. So, aside from that Walt Disney invention, what’s the longest word in the English language? Well, as far as I know—and this I learned in school—it’s “antidisestablishmentarianism.” What nobody bothered to tell me, however—perhaps, I suspect, because my teachers themselves didn’t know—what nobody bothered to tell me was what the word actually means.  Just what is antidisestablishmentarianism? In fact, this is a good thing for Anglican Christians to be curious about, because it directly concerns the Church of England, and is probably going to be an increasingly high profile issue in the coming years. It refers to the fact that the Church of England is the official state church in that country—or, another way of saying this is that it is “established.” There have always been those—and their number is now growing even within the established church—there have always been those who believe this ought not to be the case. They might be referred to as “disestablishmentarians,” because they advocate that the church be disestablished. So, if you oppose this point of view—that is, if you favor continuing the established position of the church with respect to the state in England—you are an “antidisestablishmentarian,” and the view you represent is antidisestablishmentarianism.

As Americans, of course, this is all quite academic, because the fact that the church was established in England, and in other European countries, was precisely what the founders had in mind when they included language in the first amendment of the U.S. constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The population of the British colonies in America was overwhelmingly Christian, but there were several different brand names of Christianity represented, and many of the original colonists had come to the New World specifically to escape their disadvantaged minority status of not being members of the officially established state church in whatever country they had come from. And so, Thomas Jefferson, in his commentary on the First Amendment, coined the phrase “wall of separation” between church and state. Even that phrase, however, is subject to a wide variety of interpretations, and it remains a source of conflict and controversy in the American political process.

But, even though it’s a very contemporary issue, it’s also a very ancient issue. The same tension we may experience between our identity as Christians and our identity as Americans, between what we owe God and what we owe our country, was also experienced, even more intensely, by Jews at the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry. As I said, the question was a good bit more acute for them, because they perceived the government of imperial Rome to be an unwelcome intruder in their land. Some were looking for a leader who would drive the Romans out, and restore the sovereignty of Israel. So, when some of Jesus’ antagonists were looking for a way to entrap him in his own words, they naturally reached for one of the hot issues of the day: “Tell us, then, what you think,” they said to Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  Now, by posing the question this way, they hoped to impale him on the horns of a dilemma. If he were to say, “Yes, it is completely lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” he would alienate himself from the majority of Jews who considered the Romans unwelcome guests in their country. Once the word got out, he would have lost all credibility even with some of his closest followers. But if Jesus were to answer, “No, it would be wrong for an Israelite to pay taxes to Caesar,” he would very quickly be branded a political trouble maker by the Roman authorities, and dealt with accordingly. It was a win-win proposition for the adversaries of Jesus. Whichever way he answered, he was bound to offend somebody, and his effectiveness would be neutralized.

As usual, however, they underestimated Jesus. Rather than allow himself to be impaled on the horns of an impossible dilemma, Jesus turns their own dilemma around and tosses it back at them. “Show me the money for the tax,” he tells them. So they bring him a coin, and he says, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  Well, it was, of course, the emperor’s image on the coin, which was especially odious to pious Jews because of the commandment that forbids the making of graven images. Jesus’ point was that, despite this objection, Jews bought and sold things with Roman coins. They enjoyed the benefits of the Roman economy, the civil order provided by Roman administration, and a pretty good transportation infrastructure that allowed them to carry on commerce with areas as far apart as Britain and Persia.  Then Jesus says to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  What can we surmise, from what Jesus says, about the proper relationship between church and state, between citizenship in the United States and citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, between our civic duties and our religious duties?

One possible approach to these questions is what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the “God and country” solution—and to get the gist of what I’m talking about, you have to pronounce “Godandcountry” as if it were one word—to minimize any distinction between religious duty and civic duty, and to refuse to recognize potential conflicts between the two. This view has its roots in the European Middle Ages, when there was a seamless relationship between church and society: to be a citizen was to be a Christian, and to be a Christian was to be a citizen, and it would never have occurred to anybody to make a distinction between the two. The fact that the Church of England is established today represents a vestige of this arrangement. Now, you might think that, with our “wall of separation” between church and state, we are immune to this in America, but not so. The peculiarly American form of the “Godandcountry” solution is the rather outlandish—when you stop and think about it—the rather outlandish notion that America is somehow God’s new chosen nation, that we are somehow “special” in the eyes of God, that God has a particular soft spot in His heart for the U.S. of A. Not too many years ago, somebody declared a National Day of Prayer, and literature was circulated picturing an American flag right next to a quotation of II Chronicles 7:14:

If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land.

Well, there’s certainly nothing wrong with corporate repentance and humility, and the Lord is certainly forgiving in nature, but an American National Day of Prayer was the wrong context in which to use this verse. The American people are not called by the name of God the way the ancient Israelites were, and God holds no affection for our land over any other.  Even more profoundly, though, the “Godandcountry” solution fails to make sufficiently clear the fact that “Christian” is a deeper identity than “American.” America is finite and temporary, and will someday be swept away into the trash heap of history. The Kingdom of Heaven, of which we are made citizens through baptism, is eternal and abiding. It is our true homeland, and deserves both our primary and our ultimate loyalty and affection.

Another approach to the “church and state” issue is what I will call the “Lutheran” solution. Now, don’t go telling all your Lutheran friends that I’m bad-mouthing Lutherans, and I wouldn’t even suggest that any of them actually hold this view, but Martin Luther and his companions did, so that’s what I’m calling it. In this “Lutheran” scheme of things, the Church does what the Church does, and the state does what the State does, and they otherwise leave one another alone. The church is instituted by God for the purpose of forming individual consciences and providing an ethical context for our private behavior.  The church’s vocation is to reveal the love and grace and mercy of God. The state is also instituted by God—in fact, just as divinely-instituted as the Church is—but for the purpose of regulating public behavior and protecting the public welfare. The vocation of the state is to reveal the wrath and justice of God, so it bears the power of the sword—that is, the right even to take human life if necessary for the accomplishment of its legitimate purposes. Both the church and the state are God’s appointed agents in their respective spheres, and should be appropriately respected. However, in my view, there’s a fatal flaw in this “Lutheran solution,” because it requires that the church and the state be on a separate but equal footing with respect to one another. It can therefore only work in a society where there is only one church as well as one state. It cannot work in the sort of pluralistic environment that we have in America, and so is of little relevance to us.

Yet another approach is what I might call the “Amish solution,” something we know a little bit about in Northern Indiana. It is not limited literally to the Amish, but they are certainly powerful examples of it. In the “Amish solution,” there is such a radical separation of church and state that Christians effectively withdraw from society and refuse as much as possible to participate in its institutions. Secular society—political, economic, social, and technological—secular society represents “the world,” and Christians, we are told repeatedly in scripture, are to avoid being caught up in the concerns of the world. In its favor, I would point out that the “Amish solution” recognizes one of the important implications of Jesus’ pronouncement about paying taxes to Caesar, which is that, while we indeed should give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, we should manifestly not give to Caesar anything  that actually belongs to God. However, while the “Amish solution” may technically comply with Jesus’ teaching, I’m afraid it misses the spirit of what he says.  The use of a Roman coin by those who lived in the Roman Empire—either voluntarily or against their will—the use of Roman coins was a sign of their participation in a socio-political infrastucture from which everyone benefited, even the Jews. Again, looking at the Amish, they are certainly more interdependent than they may care to admit with the outside world that they have tried so hard to shun. When I took a cross-country train trip some years ago, I saw a group of about a dozen Amish folks boarding an Amtrak train in Chicago. Once on board, of course, they kept to themselves, but they were on the same train along with the rest of us, and anything that affect that train affected them.

So…if it’s not the “Godandcountry” solution, if it’s not the “Lutheran” solution, if it’s not the “Amish” solution, then, how does a responsible and conscientious Christian balance the demands of citizenship and faith, of church and society, of the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of Heaven? How can we be both faithful Christians and patriotic Americans? Well, to answer this question, we need to look at an Old Testament passage that would otherwise be pretty obscure, except for the fact that we just read it. It’s a prophecy addressed to a king, but it’s not one of the kings of Israel or Judah, who would have known about the LORD and, presumably, cared about the will of the LORD. No, this prophecy is about Cyrus, the King of Persia, a land where the name of the LORD was neither known nor worshiped, and who probably cared not one whit about what the LORD thought of him. God says to Cyrus:

I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.  For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.  I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I gird you, though you do not know me that men may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.  I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the LORD, who do all these things. 

The phrase that keeps getting repeated here is “though you do not know me.” Here’s a kingdom where the LORD enjoyed none of the privileges of being the established religion, either officially or unofficially. It’s not so much that he was despised, or even ignored. The people had simply never heard of Him. Yet, God is saying that He’s going to use Cyrus and the kingdom of Persia for the accomplishment of His purposes. What we can take from this is very simple, but very penetrating: the Kingdom of God includes the “kingdoms” of this world. And when I use the phrase “kingdoms of this world,” I’m talking about not only nation-states and other political entities, but anything else that might lay claim to our loyalty or affection. The Kingdom of God is neither identified with any of them, nor set alongside any of them on a “separate but equal” basis, nor completely divorced from them. The Kingdom of God includes all these other kingdoms, though it is vastly larger even than the sum total of them. Jesus is not advocating anything as simplistic as American-style “separation of church and state.”  What Jesus is saying is that “Caesar”—whoever Caesar is—Caesar is contingent, temporary, passing away. God alone is ultimate, comprehensive, enduring. In the end, we see that what “belongs to Caesar” ultimately belongs to God anyway. Caesar is, in effect, a tool in God’s hand. So even when we give to Caesar what seems to belong to him, we’re still giving to God. Christians are not to be “of” the world—the Amish have that part right—but we are nonetheless very much “in” the world. We can be patriotic Americans. We can love our country, and defend our country, so long as we realize that we have a higher loyalty, that we are “American” only for a brief while, but “Christian” forever. Blessed be God forever. Amen.