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.