Christ the King, Year B
Last week, I had a lot to say about why we shouldn't dodge preaching on and wrestling with the apocalyptic texts like those in the lectionary this week, and that we are called to engage in Advent. This week, I want to concentrate on the payoff for doing so.
In a sense, these texts are talking about "the end of the world." Only the most jaded reader can encounter the kind of vivid imagery of power in passages like our reading for this Sunday from Daniel without a sharp intake of breath and a slight skip of the heartbeat. That's not merely normal; it's necessary, I think, to appreciate what these texts are talking about. The biblical books of Daniel and Revelation are both talking about the judgment of the nations, history's end. I want to underscore that word 'end,' and at least two resonances it has, because I think it points to the heart of Christ the King Sunday, the gateway to our Advent anticipation.
'End' means the passing away of what is. It means a transition so pronounced that we can say, "things will never be the same." Facing 'the end' means that we must finally acknowledge our attachments to what is and our limitations in perspective and power as mortal human beings. 'The end' means that we will no longer be able to deny or dodge them, and we will -- we must -- let go. This is frightening for us -- and the more we cling to illusions that what we know is all there is and can control all we know, the more frightening 'the end' will be.
That's why I want to suggest this week that when Pilate hears Jesus say, "my kingdom is not of this world" and then sends Jesus to be crucified as guilty of treason against the Roman Empire, it is not because he fails to understand Jesus: it is because he understands Jesus.
The reign of God that Jesus proclaims, that in Jesus' ministry is breaking through among us even now, is not just a reshuffling of this world's cabinet while worldly power structures continue mostly as they are. Jesus is not seizing Caesar's throne. A plan to do so, leaving Caesar or his heir and his generals in exile to plot a return to power, would have been more than enough for Pilate to send Jesus to the cross. But Jesus' plan is far more radical than that.
Jesus is not seeking a throne in the world as it is; Jesus is inaugurating the end of this world.
I'm not talking about the destruction of the planet; that just doesn't make any sense from a biblical perspective. God made this world and said it was good. God made humankind and said it was VERY good. God so loved the world that God sent the Son that we might have abundant, eternal life. Read Left Behind for amusement or to dialogue with others who have read it, but its theology has no substantial claim to be "biblical." God does not intend destruction for Creation or for humankind.
So what do I mean, then, when I talk about "the end of the world" in the prophetic thrust of Daniel, Revelation, and the canonical gospels?
I do mean that a sharp transition is on the way. Someone who, like Pilate, likes the world best to the extent that it is ordered by empires will probably receive the news of the world's end as very bad news indeed, at least initially. After all, the world order of empire works out very well, at least superficially, for many of us. I'm hardly the richest person in America, for example, and yet I consistently make the top tenth of better in the ranking of the world's richest people. By virtue of my skin color, the country of my birth, and my education (to which my skin color and the country of my birth helped provide access), I have a great deal of power in the world as it is.
And yet I long for change. My heart aches for children whom the world as it is leaves without a chance -- those without clean water, good food, medical care, basic shelter, primary education. But my longing for change isn't just a generous impulse. Maintaining this world order is costly beyond my ability to add. It is polluting our atmosphere with such abandon that one way or another, it will come to an end within a generation or two -- whether because we change how we live to slow the global climate change, or because the devastation that change causes -- devastation we've already observed in weather patterns causing drought in some places and flooding in others unparalleled in our time -- so profound that our planet will never recover. And there are less immediately measurable costs to maintaining this world order as well. Our children inherit our all of our anxieties that unless we work harder and longer and are very lucky besides, the hyper-competitive and never-ending quest for achievement that's a part of the world in which many of us live will leave us without resources and without community in a world of hostility. I've preached about the cost our children pay here and now for maintaining our world of privilege before in communities profoundly privileged by worldly standards, and I encourage you to take a look at this sermon if you're wondering what I mean when I say that the world order of empires -- even for those of us now living in the world's richest empire -- imposes a very steep cost in body, psyche, and spirit to ALL of us. And yet who or what can disentangle us from all of the tangled webs we and our parents' parents have woven that have made this world so many of us think is all there is? We might well cry with St. Paul, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24).
And, if we have claimed the story of the prophets and apostles, the story proclaimed by Jesus as the story of the world God made and loves, as our own, we can also answer with St. Paul: Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus, our and our only Lord! The world of empires, the world that places the Pilates in palaces and so many children in the grave, the world of endless scrabbling and scrapping for resources and power, the world of anxiety and domination, is passing away.
Think I'm dreaming? Well, I'm happy enough to be guilty of that; it would place me in the company of the prophets who proclaimed God's dream for the world even in the midst of the greatest darkness, the ugliest violence of intense persecution. But the dream is close enough to reality. Many of the world's brightest economists tell us that the world in which thousands upon thousands of children die in extreme poverty -- the world into which I was born, and through much of my life the world in which I thought I'd die -- could see its end by the year 2015. Extreme poverty GONE in under ten years. Imagine the dancing at the party where we celebrate that!
And, by the way, please check out my earlier sermon, "Dancing at the World's End," if you haven't already. I was born in 1970, and by some people's reckoning (especially among U.S. Episcopalians!) am still young. And yet I've seen in my own lifetime empires fall, rules change, "certain" destruction averted, new worlds open. I've seen enough poverty and suffering in my travels to be glad enough at the news that a kingdom not of this world is coming to change everything. The judgment of the nations sounds like bad news -- but not to those who know Jesus, and who identify him as the Christ, the anointed king, the one of whom Daniel spoke with awe as "one like a son of man" who would judge.
Jesus is coming. Each time two or three of us gathers, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim the Good News of the prophets and apostles that the world of empires is passing away, and God's dream for Creation is breaking through it even now, Jesus is come. Each time we proclaim Jesus the Christ and not any worldly power or principality as our Lord, Jesus' kingdom breaks through that much more.
The kingdom of God. The peaceable realm in which all are free from anxiety, as all have what they need -- the bread and wine, the water and power, the love and joy.
It's not just the end of the church year, we're anticipating this Sunday.
It's the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel FINE.
Thanks be to God!
November 21, 2006 in Advent, Apocalyptic, Christ the King, Christology, Current Events, Daniel, Eschatology, John, Justice, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Prophets, Year B | Permalink | Comments (1)
Proper 28, Year B
It's nice to have a little light reading, isn't it?
"There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence" (Daniel 12:1).
"Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!" (Mark 13:17).
I can almost hear preachers around the country sighing and pondering whether it would be better to just preach on the collect. Of course, this is the collect for this Sunday:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Guess we can't really pray that one and then just hope that nobody will really care if we ignore the scripture readings in the sermon.
It probably won't surprise you to know that I think that's for the best. It's one thing to decide to preach on the collect or on a text other than what's in the lectionary for an urgent pastoral reason; it's another thing entirely to do so because the biblical text is particularly challenging. We need to deal with those challenging texts for all kinds of reasons, here's a good pastoral one: they're challenging because they deal with challenging subjects, and when a challenging situation arises in our lives, we're a lot more likely to be able to see God at work in it if we haven't fled from passages in scripture where communities of God's people were dealing with major challenges in their own life together.
That's what apocalyptic literature -- writings like the book of Daniel and this passage from Mark -- is about. It's not written in good times about some anticipated catastrophe in the future, but about challenges -- serious, "where is God amidst this suffering?" challenges -- in the life of a community. "Apocalyptic" is a term that means literally "taking the cover from"; it takes present events and lifts the veil so we can see what's really going on and where it fits in the story of God's redeeming the world.
I'll say it one more time, since all that Left Behind stuff has penetrated so much of popular culture: Neither Daniel nor Mark were talking about something they thought was going to happen hundreds or thousands of years later. They were talking about what was happening as they were writing.
Daniel (or much of it, anyway) was most likely writing about the persecution of Jews under the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who forbade the practice of key elements of Jewish religion, slaughtered Jewish people, and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a sow on the altar.
Mark was most likely written either as war clouds were on the horizon or during the Jewish revolt against Roman rule that began in 66 C.E. It was in the year 70 that the Roman legions under Titus not only captured and sacked Jerusalem, but marched into the Temple itself and the Holy of Holies at its center, carrying off its treasures.
In other words, YES, these are scary texts -- darn near perfect for scary times. Any of us who are lucky or blessed to live long enough are bound to live into such times. I'm talking about times in which it seems that the more wrong one does to other people the more one prospers.
When I was a child there was a children's magazine called Highlights in dentist's offices that had a regular "what's wrong with this picture?" feature in which you were supposed to circle what was "wrong." The challenge, in some ways, was how you could circle EVERYTHING that was wrong in the world that was presented in an illustration in which it often seemed that the few thing were right were just there to underscore how much made no sense at all in the world that we were used to seeing: the tricycle had one square wheel, the tree had at least five kinds of fruit on it, the trout were in the sky and the bluebirds were under the surface of the pond.
This Sunday's texts are an indispensable resource for any one of us who ever finds her or himself in such a position.
I can't help as I think about these texts to late summer of 2003. I was the first openly gay person hired (though FAR from the first gay person on staff) of a moderate-to-conservative parish. I went away with the co-rectors for a continuing education function immediately after General Convention, and I drew the first Sunday after that to preach to the congregation.
Anxiety was high. There were a significant number of people in the congregation who were still struggling with the idea that someone like me -- well, GAY me; they were happy enough with bible-loving me, and most of the rest of me that they could define, as far as I could tell -- could be on staff at a church. They hadn't heard that there were lots and lots of openly gay and partnered priests in the church. They didn't know about ++George Carey's commending openly the ministry of the openly gay priests he'd met in the U.S. and elsewhere. What they knew is that the world in spring of 2003 made sense, and something had happened at General Convention over the summer that made the world they live in seem like the Highlights drawings of a world gone completely awry.
That's a very, very difficult place to be in. I know it firsthand. It never seemed so much like Highlights shows a trout riding a bicycle in the clouds" to see openly gay people being happy in stable relationships and having a fruitful ministry in the church, but I have known many times over what it's like to wake up in a world that doesn't seem to make any sense at all -- in which the innocent die and the wicked prosper, in which no word goes better with "tragedy" than "senseless" and I have nothing better to say to someone who says as much than, "Yes -- and that really makes me angry."
The world was not made for those moments, I know. I've read Genesis 1 and 2. God made the world, and it was very, very good. I've experienced that goodness, and I count that a blessings.
And the world is also a place that's made me ask, whisper, wonder, and occasionally scream "WHY?!"
Sometimes that loss is personal: why did my brother or my friend die?
For the compassionate, that loss is often corporate: why is it that being born in one zip code in the U.S. practically guarantees living at least to see kindergarten, and in somewhere else in the world practically guarantees infant mortality, or dying in childhood from some disease totally preventable via access to clean water, or barring that, access to antibiotics?
For anyone with an ounce of compassion, it can feel devastating. For anyone but the very luckiest of the wealthiest, it is practically inevitable. At some point, each one of us blessed with long life and a full emotional life is going to end up asking:
Where on earth, where amidst this suffering, are you, God?
And that's why I hope and pray that we'll deal with these texts, however clumsily we do it, this Sunday.
Preachers, leaders, teachers, friends: we can't always see it or feel it, but if these texts are our sacred texts, our story of God's redeeming the world, we have something to say:
There shall be a time of anguish. That is real. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead may to right relationship, like the stars for ever and ever.
This is our story if we read it, if we claim it, if we enter into it.
There will be suffering; there is suffering. There will be people who are false, who promise ease and plenty or at least safety if we'll just do what they say. There are others with a more seductive sales pitch who will admit that it can be or will be hard, and who will say that the reward for throwing gain after loss and all to follow what they say is right won't necessarily be ease, but will be a certain and absolutely blessed outcome. That's close enough to the truth to be tempting for a lot of good people.
There are days of suffering, when nothing seems to make sense, when it seems that the things we took for granted as most blessed -- the birth of a child, the hope of birth -- seem like a curse.
In those days, if we have been willing to engage the whole story of God's people -- not just the rich people, the people privileged enough to be able to talk themselves on most days into thinking that their wealth, their cleverness, their privilege will be able to keep them and those they lost from all suffering -- we will remember that suffering, those events that make us feel like we're in the Highlights picture of "What's wrong here?" and everything is wrong here have been foreseen.
We will remember that the story of the world that we celebrate in the Eucharist, and in every time we gather in the name of Jesus the Christ -- is not a story of invulnerability, but of redemption.
And if we gloss over those moments of real, uncomfortable pain in the life of God's people as reflected in biblical texts, we offer nothing to sustain our sisters and brothers when that moment arrives in which pain is unavoidable.
I have said it before, and if God gives me grace, I'll say it a great many more times:
God's creation was good, but God's goodness doesn't offer us static perfection. It offers us redemption.
That's pretty much what I had to say when I preached to a confused and divided congregation just after General Convention in 2003. Many of the decisions that seemed to members of the congregation to come directly out of a Highlights "what's wrong with this picture?" illustration were words of freedom and peace to me, but I'd listened firsthand to what people had said about feeling confused, grieved, disappointed to the point of wondering which way was up and whether any rules still held, and I knew I'd been there before, with other precipitating events.
When I preached, I spoke of some of the losses I'd felt that made me feel like I was in that Highlights picture. I talked about wondering where God was, and about taking that beyond wondering to yelling -- to praying with all of my anger to the God I was angry with, to asking God just what God was thinking, and asking it with all the frustration of not knowing or not thinking I'd ever know, wondering whether I'd ever want to know.
I will never forget conversations I had with one parishioner after that sermon. He was about as far from me as one can get on most of the spectrums that people draw in church politics. He'd planned on leaving the church, but decided after than Sunday he could stay, for now. It clearly wasn't a comfortable place for him. I felt blessed that he wanted to stay there with me in that uncomfortable place as we both sought God's presence and will.
I haven't worshipped with or worked in that congregation in a little over a year, I guess. In that short period of time, my brother in Christ from there with whom I had those conversations went from the picture of health to a diagnosis of cancer to the end of his journey on earth. I've been seeing his face a lot in my mind this month, and I've prayed for him a great deal. My heart ached for how much and for whom he'd leave behind, for the sense of purpose I know he felt, for all of the gifts he had to give to this world that the world won't receive.
It's painful. I don't want to move too quickly from that pain, since it's a pain I share with sisters and brothers I can't see or hug from another city. And since my brother in Christ in that congregation who died did eventually leave that congregation and The Episcopal Church, I'm sorry that I don't know the faces or names of those who walked with him and his family on that last leg of his journey, and I am grieved.
I hope that he did have companions to walk with him who were willing to say "there is pain," "I don't understand," and yet to say, "I hope ..."
But there's one particular moment -- the moment in June of 2003 after I preached a sermon on walking with God in grief, in pain, in loss, in anger, and I connected with a brother there who was feeling that kind of pain. I hope he wasn't alone on that last leg of his journey; knowing his family at least, I hope I know he wasn't alone. I might be feeling alone in grieving his passing, but I feel less alone in knowing that we connected at least sometimes, at least around the kind of moment that he was facing and would face again, and I'm glad he knew that I wanted to face those moments with him.
Preachers, I know that you can find some very good texts to help you enter into what there "apocalyptic" texts in the New Testament meant to the earliest Christians. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Bruce Malina have written wonderful and helpful commentaries on Revelation, for example, and there are a lot of exegetical resources that will help you walk through texts like Daniel 12 or Mark 13 verse by verse.
I'm writing this week mostly to encourage you to take that journey, to walk that walk through these difficult texts, because they are going through territory that all of us blessed with true hope -- with a sense of the goodness of the world as God made it and of the end for which God created, with compassion to meet those parts of life in which the world has been remade for pain and loss and less than, and with irrational longing and vision for and drive to participate in God's healing of this world -- must walk.
I know these are difficult texts. They are given to us as God's people because we still live in a difficult world -- gorgeous and gashed, good and made to be more than good, broken and with the potential of being a whole and wholly beautiful mosaic of brokenness brought into relationship with other brokenness to make far more than the sum of its pieces. Our wrestling together with these difficult times and difficult texts, our seeking God even to rail at God on the journey, is stretching our sensibility in a truly apocalyptic sense, that we might catch glimpses of God's redemption of those difficult moment, of us difficult people, of our complicated world.
Dodge the difficulties and we miss chances to see God doing that which God most fully is in Jesus, what we're all about as Christians. Stay with us and our pain as God's people in these moments and we can walk together as God's people through them.
It adds up to a chance in each moment -- each irreplaceable moment -- to remove the cover or lift the veil from what's happening now to catch glimpse of God's wondrous and redeeming eternity. Please go there with me, with Daniel, with Mark, with Jesus.
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But recall those earlier days when, after you had been enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion for those who were in prison, and you cheerfully accepted the plundering of your possessions, knowing that you yourselves possessed something better and more lasting. Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.
For yet "in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back."
But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved. (Hebrews 10:31-39)
Slow down our beating hearts, oh Lord, that we might journey with your Son and your people in this moment. May we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it as our own story, as the story of your redemption of all you have created.
Thanks be to God!