Saturday, November 19, 2016

Of Cabbages and Kings

What Kind of King Have We?
It is Christ the King Sunday. The final Feast of Jesus in the Liturgical Year. Next week we will begin all over again with Advent. So in a sense this is the final word on who our Jesus is. And where do we find our King? On a Roman Cross of all places [Luke 23:33-43] – to hang until death as a warning and reminder as to who has the Power; who is the Real King; who is the real God: Caesar.

Yet, we understand true Kingship quite differently. As one enters the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul in Bath, England, a brochure that asks, Who is Jesus?, states the following:

“Jesus was born in an obscure Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem, over 2000 years ago. During his first 30 years he shared the daily life and work of an ordinary home. For the next three years he went about teaching people about God and healing sick people by the shores of Lake Galilee. He called 12 ordinary men to be his helpers.

“He had no money. He wrote no books. He commanded no army. He wielded no political power. During his life he never travelled more than 200 miles in any direction. He was executed by being nailed to a cross at the age of 33.

“Today, nearly 2 billion people throughout the world worship Jesus as divine - the Son of God. Their experience has convinced them that in the wonders of nature we see God as our loving Father; in the person of Jesus we discover God as Son; and in our daily lives we encounter this same God as Spirit. Jesus is our way to finding God: we learn about Jesus by reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament and we meet him directly in our spiritual experience.

“Jesus taught us to trust in a loving and merciful Father and to pray to him in faith for all our needs. He taught that we are all infinitely precious, children of one heavenly Father, and that we should therefore treat one another with love, respect and forgiveness. He lived out what he taught by caring for those he met; by healing the sick - a sign of God's love at work; and by forgiving those who put him to death.

“Jesus' actions alone would not have led him to a criminal's death on the cross: but his teaching challenged the religious and moral beliefs of his day. Jesus claimed to be the way to reach God. Above all, he pointed to his death as God's appointed means of bringing self-centered people back to God. Jesus also foretold that he would be raised to life again three days after his death. When, three days after he had died on the cross, his followers did indeed meet him alive again; frightened and defeated women and men became fearless and joyful messengers.

“Their message of the Good News about Jesus is the reason this Abbey Church exists, here in Bath. More importantly, it is the reason why all over the world there are Christians who know what it means to meet the living Jesus, and believe that He alone has the key to human life.

“May your time in the Bath Abbey Church be a blessing to you, as it is already to us in the church.”

This king of ours still challenges all our assumptions and understandings of power and meaning and truth. To a criminal hanging nearby on another cross he says, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise!’ Not tomorrow, not a month, a year or an eon from now, but today.

For those looking for a description of this paradise of which he speaks, look no further than the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel which describes a great day of reckoning – as all humanity is divided as sheep and goats; those who follow his example and those who do not.

When I was hungry you fed me; when I was thirsty you brought me a drink; when I was naked you clothed me; when I was in prison you visited me; when I was a stranger you welcomed me. Those listening say, “But when did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison or as a stranger?” As you do this for the least of my sisters and brothers you do this for me.

This is what ‘today in paradise’ looks like. This is what true kings, real kings, do. Not like the bad shepherds in Jeremiah 23:1-6 who scatter God’s sheep and do not attend to their needs – that is, do not love them the way God loves them. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” We are to be this Branch! We are called to be those people who execute justice and righteousness in the land. We are to welcome the stranger and meet the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and those in prison. This is what it means to follow Jesus, plain and simple.

Good shepherds, good kings, good people tend those in their midst, care for those who are strangers, those who are utterly unlike us; bring people together rather than divide them. This vision of paradise is promised to us all here and now. Today. Let those who have ears, hear. Let those who have eyes, see. Come, follow me, says our king, and I will give you rest.

Christ the King. Our king is a funny kind of king, but a king of kings! A Lord of Lords! And he shall reign forever and ever! May our time together with him be a blessing to us and to all persons, here, there and everywhere. Amen. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Apocalyptic Boogie

Apocalyptic Boogie
Jesus enters Jerusalem, the City of Peace, of Shalom. Shalom means more than just a quiet peacefulness, but in biblical terms includes justice for all people. No Justice, No Peace – Know Justice, Know Peace reads a once popular bumper sticker. In the midst of the old city, high upon a hilltop is the Temple, the center of cultic religious sacrifice, the center of the universe. It is believed that God touches the earth on that holy mount to keep the world still and safe.

Yet, already upon entering the city Jesus has been confronted with resistance, and signs of corruption in the Holy City of God’s Shalom. His first order of business had been to root out the corrupt practices in the Temple Business District. His authority is questioned, he is told to silence his disciples, the trick question on taxes, questions about resurrection – against all of which he issues warnings and tells parables designed to challenge the resident powers of the city who were collaborating with the Roman occupation. It has been a chaotic, difficult and threatening few days as he brings his campaign for God’s Kingdom into the city of shalom.

His followers, many of them farmers and fishermen from the north country surrounding the Galilee Sea are suddenly in awe at the very sight of the Temple. Many of them we can assume had never seen it let alone anything at all like it. “Look at how powerful, majestic and beautiful it is, adorned with precious stones, gold and silver!” they seem to say. To which Jesus replies, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." [Luke 21:5-19] His words must have seemed unimaginable despite the historic fact that it had been destroyed once before.

By the time Luke is giving his account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ of Nazareth Jesus’ words have become reality. Those reading or hearing Luke’s Gospel for the first time lived among the ruins, in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of all of Israel. Nothing was left of the Temple after 70ce. All that remains to this day are a portion of the retaining walls that held up the Temple Mount itself, what we now call The Western Wall, a center of prayer for all the peoples of the earth.

Luke’s audience lived in the post-apocalyptic world being described in this 21st chapter. The kinds of persecution being described was already under way against Jews and Christians alike. Attacks on the people of God, on the people of the land right down to the poorest of the poor, Jew and Gentile alike, were already a fact of life.

Professor John Gettier in my religion classes at Trinity College always reminded us that the Bible is history, literature and theology all in one. The scene described in Luke is history; it really happened; the archeological evidence remains. The kind of literature in the Bible that describes such scenes is called apocalyptic – describing violent and catastrophic events. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it deals primarily with the Exile to Babylon. In the Christian Scriptures, it addresses the foundational event that gave rise to modern Rabbinic Judaism as we know it and the Christian Church, for the record is clear that until those days in and around the year 70ce both early Christians and their Jewish sisters and brothers continued to go to the Jerusalem Temple day in and day out. Its destruction was a catastrophe of enormous psychic as well as physical proportions. Where do we go from here?

That is precisely the question Apocalyptic literature seeks to answer. It is not about prediction; it is about survival now that the catastrophic present surrounds us. It is meant to both comfort and be instructive at the same time: God is with you in the midst of this catastrophe and means to restore the community. It is what we hear in the prophet Isaiah chapter 65 coming near the end of the Babylonian Exile: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

And we know this did come to pass. The New Jerusalem and New Temple are the very city Jesus and his companions are looking at several hundred years later. We can be certain that they would look to the words of Isaiah to sustain their hope of one day returning to a new and revitalized homeland. The text in Luke seeks to give much the same assurance in the midst of the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem. The difference for the early Christians is that although it is also a time of intense persecution, it is also post-Resurrection. That is, they have the assurance that Christian faith and hope and love is stronger than the grave!

So, when Jesus is heard to say, “By your endurance you will gain your souls,” they, and we, have the example that this is so. This is no mere pep talk, but rather is a known reality. A reality that was known to Paul as well – Paul who met the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus -  as he writes to the struggling community in Thessalonica, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

Be not weary. Endure. Do what is right.

We often find ourselves in the midst of one catastrophe or another. Such events paralyze us, wear us down and tire us out. The temptation is to give in and give up. But we are those people who have a history that tells us that ultimately the troubles of this world are bounded by a greater truth. We are those people who have a literature and a narrative that has sustained God’s people through all kinds of catastrophe throughout the ages. This literature sustains our virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity – or what our modern translations say Faith, Hope and Love.

It will be through our Love and Charity to one another, and especially to those who are most at risk among us, that the virtues of Faith and Hope shall be sustained. For we have the examples of those Exiles who returned from Babylon and generations of captivity to build a new life and a new Jerusalem. We have the examples of those early Christians like Paul who despite persecution, imprisonment and the sword emerged from the fire of catastrophe with a stronger and more enduring sense of Faith, Hope and Charity.

Be not weary. Endure. Do what is right. Faith, Hope and Charity, abide these three; the greatest of these is Charity. Amen. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Sustaining the Virtue of Hope!

(With Thanks and Apologies to Sam Portaro+ who first shaped most of these reflections)
I remember sitting in my office one Sunday after church with a man who had a question. “Why do we pray for the dead?” he asked. “The Bible doesn’t tell us to pray for the dead, so why do we do it? It makes no sense.”

It was one of those timeless moments. The air is still, time stands still, you almost stop breathing. If you are a priest and pastor you are expected to have the answer. You want to have the answer. You feel as if you should have the answers to all such questions. And then you freeze. A kind of fear sets in. A fear of not saying just the right thing that will move the person in front of you to a deeper more hopeful faith.

I have no recollection what I said to my inquisitor. No doubt I mumbled a few things about God in Christ being the God of the living and the dead, or some things about eternity and what we call the community of saints in heaven. I just don’t remember. Because those who are dead and have gone before us are praying for us is what I should have said.

All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls – October 31, November 1 and November 2 every year - three days in our calendar of Christian days which call us to look death in the face. On All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, we laugh at death. We mock death. We make merry in a world that looks less and less funny every day. But we put on our costumes, paint up our faces, put on our masks and look at death and all the troubles of this world and we laugh.

It is a crazy kind of laughter that comes of both surprise and fear. We would rather not talk about this fear, but it is just this fear that we commemorate the last day of October and the first two days of November. The chilly winds of winter begin to chill our weary bones, the trees and all of nature echo themes of death and dying. Little ghosts, skeletons, hobgoblins and vampires move us to laugh, for such laughter is our way of averting fear.

So on Halloween we snicker at death, race through graveyards, dress up in hopes of fooling the grim reaper so as to be protected for yet another year. We need not run from our fear, but so often we do. And on this night we run after our fears as if to chase them away!

We want to believe that human flesh and human being is blessed, but we are not so sure of incarnation, so Christmas becomes a thing of material gifts and nostalgic ephemera. We want to believe that the power of life and love will triumph over the power of death, but we are not so sure of resurrection, so Easter becomes a thing of fuzzy bunnies, candy and spring fashion. We want to believe life is eternal, but we are not so sure of eternity, so this autumn season of spooks and saints and souls has become a thing of leering pumpkins and sugar candies.

But it is not incarnation, nor resurrection, nor eternity that we fear – it is disappointment. We do not want to hope in vain. This is why these three days are so precious. Christians have no unique perspective on love – there are many gospels of love, and most world religions teach love at least as well as we do, if not better. We have no unique take on faith, since all world religions, governments and economies depend on faith – for no God can inspire, no government can rule, no commerce can work without genuine faith. But where else is hope?

We Christians dare to hope beyond the constraints of mortality. We are those people who have the example of Martha and Mary. Their brother Lazarus lies dead in a tomb for several days. “Lord, there is a stench,” says Martha. Yet, rather than be paralyzed by their sadness and fear, with their brother dead and buried, they still come to Jesus, go to Jesus, run to the edge of town to greet Jesus with a curious mixture of anger at his delay in coming, but also a deep hope that he can and will bring their brother back from the dead. And, he does.

For others such hope is hedged. Hope is where many others draw short. Some constrain life to this earthly existence depending on the flesh bound, time-bound existence of reincarnations. Others hope in a painless consignment of the soul to everlasting nothingness.

But we Christians hope beyond mortality, our hope embodied in saints and souls who have gone before, a vast company and communion dwelling beyond time and forever. Our hope is that life is changed, not ended, and that when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.

Our hope is grounded in a faith that claims our God is creator of all that is, seen and unseen. It is a hope that proclaims that we come from love, we return to love and love is all around. It is a hope grounded in our Baptism incorporating us into the Body of Christ, a bond which is indissoluble. It is a hope that says we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, watching us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfector of our hope, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.

Faith and Hope are the qualites of mind that see things before they are realities, and which feels the distant city of God, of Love, to be more dear, more substantial and more attractive than the edible and profitable present. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” [Hebrews 11:1] And we now know that over 95% of the known universe is unseen!

It’s an embarrassment, to be sure, this faith and hope we hold dear. We have no evidence to produce beyond our stories, like the ones we gather to hear week in and week out, year in and year out. In a realm that bows to tangible security as once it bowed to wood and stone idols, we are the gamblers who stake all that we have on unproven suppositions. In a culture that seeks its own gratification at any cost, that spends its produce and its people as if there is no tomorrow, we alone dare to live as if there is a tomorrow, and more.

This is why we need these precious days of Halloween, All Saints and All Souls. For we know how hard it is to look death in the face and say to death, “I know I shall see you again.” But it is harder still to scan the flickering light of life’s vitality in the face of a dying friend and say, “I know I shall see you again.”

The world needs us, Jesus needs us, God needs us. They need our hope and our love. In a world that rarely shows evidence that such hope is justified, we are called to be those people who bear witness to a hope that proclaims that the falseness of this world is ultimately bounded by a greater truth. That soon we will be done with the troubles of this world and go home to be with God – with God and all those saints and souls who even now watch over us and pray for us from that place where there is no more weeping or wailing, but only Light, and Life, and Love. Amen.