Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Reign of Christ the King

It was such great theatre. Jesus in shackles, a crown of thorns on head. Pilate in fancy robes sitting on his governor’s throne with Caesar’s face watching over his shoulder. The crowd listening to every word. They could smell blood. After all, it was running down Jesus’ face.

It was quite the spectacle.

Jesus is brought before Pilate for both political and religious reasons. As the story says, some religious leaders are charging him with blasphemy. Pilate couldn’t care less about his blasphemy; it’s only the sedition charges that interest him.

Pilate was no fool. He knew how to put on a good show. He interrogated Jesus, asking if he thinks he’s some sort of king. He needed to know if Jesus is making a grab for Caesar’s authority.

“Are you a king?” Pilate asks.

“Did someone tell you to ask me, or did you figure this out on your own?” Jesus responded.

“Why this uppity little nobody…who’s he to question ME?” Pilate probably thought to himself. “I’m not a Jew, I don’t care what the others say about you, but some folks seem to think that you’ve done something wrong that they want to kill you for, now what might that be?”

“You say I’m a king. And if I am a king then my kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus says, “If it were, then those guys out there would be all over you, and you’d have a riot on your hands.”

The matter should have been shut. Clearly, he’s no threat. Just another religious nut. Lord knows Jerusalem was full of them. So Pilate tried to release him.

This morning’s passage stops short of the really juicy part, the part where the religious leaders try to paint Pilate into a political corner.

“If you release this man then you are no friend of the emperor,” they caution him. “Everyone who claims to be king sets himself against Caesar.”

Okay. Whatever. Kill him if you want to, it’s no skin off my nose.

Maybe they were right. Maybe Jesus was a threat. Maybe Jesus was challenging Caesar’s power, but not in the way that Pilate thought. Pilate could only think about earthly kingdoms; military might, earthly wealth, human status. So Pilate didn’t see Jesus as a danger.

But Jesus was talking about something entirely different. Jesus was saying that his act of dying was more powerful than any army Pilate could muster. His dying was more powerful than anything money could buy. His death would be more victorious than Caesar’s empire.

It made absolutely no sense. Dying as power. Strength as weakness. Servanthood as empire. It’s no wonder that Pilate couldn’t wrap his head around what Jesus was saying. Actually, he didn’t even try to. It wasn’t even on his radar screen. Caesar’s empire was strength, power, glamour, and wealth. God’s kingdom is servanthood, suffering, humility, and death.

I wonder whose kingdom we connect with. I wonder where Christian allegiances lie.

A catalogue recently came across my desk offering Good Shepherd a deal for our multi-media ministry. “What Multi-Media ministry? Have they seen our sanctuary?” I thought to myself. These folks obviously didn’t do their homework. They were shooting at anything that moved.

The catalogue said that we could spend as little as $50 000 or as much as $500 000 on PowerPoint, a projector and screens, computer console, theatre lighting, the whole she-bang. All of this so our worship can become “relevant.”

After tossing the catalogue in the recycle bin I felt like I had to go wash my hands.

When the Passion of the Christ movie came out a few years ago, I was amazed by how many Christians gushed over it. “Finally, Hollywood is telling OUR story,” many Christian pundits celebrated. One prominent pastor said that Mel’s movie was “the best evangelistic tool in 2000 years.” A movie is the best evangelism tool? What about changed lives? Have these folks never thought about whether the medium is the message?

I received an invitation, recently, from a local clergy group to a breakfast meeting with local politicians and other community leaders. After detailing who was going to be at the breakfast, the invitation concluded by saying: Come out and influence your community for Christ. Last year, after this same meeting, the same pastor sent out a notice saying that the city was on the cusp of a great move of God because of this gathering of community leaders.

H’uh? Exchanging niceties with local leaders over scrambled eggs and coffee signals the beginning of a great revival?

It seems that we have trouble telling the difference between Pilate’s kingdom and the kingdom Jesus was talking about.

When the world speaks of technology being the medicine of all that ails us, the tool to help the church grow, do we buy into it and spend ungodly amounts of money trying to be like the rest of the world? Is embracing what the world calls “relevant” going to make us so?

When Hollywood comes out with a blockbuster movie telling our story, is it a coup for Christians, a triumph for Jesus, or are people simply making money at Jesus’ expense?

When Christians meet with community leaders, does our proximity to power make us more influential, does it further Christ’s agenda, or do we simply need to get over ourselves?

Cozying up to Pilate is one of the greatest temptations that Christians face.

So what do we do then? Maintain an adversarial stance toward those in power? Shun technological advances? Refuse to participate in popular culture?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I think that Jesus asks us to love the world, not to shun it. He wants us to serve the world, not to be used by it. He knew what the world was like; where the landmines were buried. And while he served the world through healings, through preaching good news, through loving and forgiving sinners, he refused to be submissive to the world. That’s what got him standing before Pilate. That’s what got him killed.

His life was a condemnation of those who valued power over love; or money over people; or religious rules and regulations over flesh and blood human beings.

His life was a rebuke to all those who built walls instead of bridges; who felt righteously superior to the unrighteous; who demanded rights for themselves while denying rights to others.

“If you want to see what real power looks like,” Jesus seems to be saying, “Then look at the little old lady who still tithes, even though she’s on a pension. Look at the young man who hands out blankets to homeless people in -35C degree nights. Look at the woman who sits by the hospital bed of her dying neighbour; she sits there because no one else will. That’s what a real kingdom looks like. That where true power hides.”

It’s no wonder Pilate could ignore him. It’s no wonder why we find it easier to follow Caesar’s view of the world rather than God’s.

It’s easier to buy expensive technological equipment to be “relevant” rather than engaging real, insufferably human, flesh-and-blood people.

It’s easier to demand that Hollywood tell our story rather than go face-to-face with someone who might reject us.

It’s easier to cozy up to power, demanding that the government adopt our agenda, rather than to do the real work of the church: loving unlovable people, and bringing Jesus’ message of new life and salvation to a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world.

But who ever said that following Jesus would be easy?

Jesus said that his kingdom is not from this world. But he failed to mention that his kingdom is IN this world. But you might need a flashlight to find it. It’s hidden in the dark corners, places where you might have forgotten to look.

Christ reigns as king when his followers reach out to those who suffer, when broken lives are pieced back together; when a gentle touch of the hand makes the difference between loneliness and friendship, when tears are shed with those in pain, when death arrives while we are whispering words of resurrection.

That’s where Christ reigns as king. May this be so among us

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Pentecost 24 - Year B

So, what do you think this gospel reading means? This past week at our pastors’ bible study we couldn’t decipher what Jesus was talking about. It’s like he was talking in code. That he wanted to warn his disciples of something but couldn’t quite get the words straight. So he defaulted to poetry hoping that these 12 guys might have the imagination to unlock the mystery of what can only been seen with divine eyes.

The passage says that they were on a mount opposite the Temple (capital “T”). Back in Jesus’ time the Temple was one of the most impressive sights you could lay our eyes on. Torn down twice since King Solomon first built it, the second re-building began shortly before the Shepherds saw the angel in the sky and the wise men found their way to Bethlehem. But it wasn’t finished until the Mary found the empty tomb.

You had to see the Temple to believe it. The stories didn’t do it justice. It had a perimeter circumference of almost a kilometre. Its 5 ton marble walls stood 150 feet high. 40-foot-high white marble columns greeted visitors as they arrived brandishing their sacrifices. Two of the doors stood 45 feet high; one was cast in Corinthian bronze. It’s no wonder they called it the “Beautiful Gate.”

I could go on but you get the idea. The temple was huge. It wasn’t coming down any time soon. That’s why Jesus sounded like he dipped into the ritual wines a little too often when he said that the temple was going to be destroyed and re-built in three days.

But still, religious wing-nuts were a shekel a dozen back then. But when you’re talking about the temple, people take you seriously no matter how crazy they think you are. Just as you don’t joke about having a bomb going through security at the airport, you didn’t joke about knocking down the centerpiece of Jewish life. At least not without suffering some consequences.

But Jesus wasn’t joking.

Predicting the future. It’s as old as time itself. Some folks made a good living predicting the future, drawing up schematics detailing the events of the End of Time.

And some folks still make a healthy buck predicting the doom of humanity, getting people all riled up, terrified even, worried that the world is going to end before the next commercial break.

But Jesus was different. He was no religious huckster. But of course, not everyone knew that. Some religious leaders certainly thought Jesus was nuts, if he wasn’t so dangerous.

But when Mark re-told this story it must have blown peoples’ minds because he wasn’t just TALKING about the End of Time. For them this was no mere celestial oracle or divine prophecy. They watched it happen. They had front row seats. They were almost close enough to stub their toes on the rubble of the demolished Temple.

Well, at least it felt like the world was coming to an end. The Temple, corrupt as it was, was still the centre of Jewish life. Now it lay in a million little pieces. Looters stole their prized scrolls. And God’s people scattered with the four winds.

“Did this story really happen? Did Jesus really predict this?” Mark’s listeners wondered. It was too convenient. Jesus was too on the money. The Roman army sent in reinforcements to squash the uprisings. Thousands were brutally and systematically murdered. The Romans took no delight nor did the have any hesitation in killing so many people. After all, they were killing for god and empire.

Who needs rumours of wars when you’ve just buried your whole family and you know that you’re probably next?

But still, maybe Jesus knew what he was talking about. “When you hear of wars and rumours of wars,” Jesus says, “Do not be alarmed.”


Jesus is describing total chaos. It’s anarchy. It’s as if he’s TRYING to put the fear of God into them. He paints a pretty grim picture of the future. But then again, has there ever been a period in history when there weren’t wars, nations rising against nations? Has there ever been a period in history that hasn’t had a megalomaniacal leader, a false messiah, proclaiming himself as saviour of the world? Has there ever been a period in history free from natural disasters? Has there ever been a period of history where famine hasn’t gripped part of the world?

So, how can we know what Jesus is talking about? Is Jesus purposely trying to muddy the waters? We need dates, times, schematics, an outline so we can start collecting canned goods and bottled water.

But all we get are cryptic puzzles and vague generalities. You’d think if it was that important to Jesus, if he wanted to warn us of some imminent catastrophe, he’d be clearer in his message.

Today we welcome Nathan Phillip Anthony Hawkins into our family of faith through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. And who knows what world he will inherit? Who knows the wars, the conflicts, the disaster – those things that Jesus warned against - who knows how those things will affect his life?

Maybe what we are doing here is the answer to what Jesus is saying. Maybe he’s saying is that institutions may fall, nations may crumble, the earth may shake and wars destroy, but God’s people remain.

Jesus had a name for the wars and rumours of wars, the false messiahs, the natural disasters: he called them “birth pangs.” Which I take to mean that something new is being born from the world’s pain. It’s as if he’s saying that these things NEED to happen.

I don’t know about you but I think I’d prefer a divine C-section, complete with anesthetic instead of going the natural way.

But maybe God takes that off our list of options because God knows the weight of human sin. But like any good physician, God is making sure that life continues; that the birth pangs will indeed give way to something new and beautiful.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear of wars in the Middle East, rumours of wars in South America, famines in Africa, ego-obsessed leaders, I’m still going to be alarmed. The stakes are high. Higher than in Jesus’ time.

But that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop trusting that God is making all things new; a work that God began in Jesus when the temple of his body was destroyed on the cross only to be rebuilt three days later.

And God is here, in water and the word, bringing Nathan Phillip Anthony Hawkins into God’s family, making him part of God’s new creation.

If we’re looking for God in the great gestures of history, among the great world leaders, with those whose signatures can bring half the globe to its feet or to its knees, then we’re looking in the wrong places.

If you want to see where God is look at Nathan. God’s promises to the whole world are shining on his face.

And then look around you. Look at the faces and stories that surround you. God is abundantly here, re-building a temple, not made with stone and bronze, or steel and glass, or brick and mortar, but with flesh and blood.

So when you hear of wars and rumours of war, it’s hard not to get alarmed, because we humans have a great capacity for destroying things.

But also see where God is giving birth, where new life is growing, where love and joy and peace blossom. Then you’ll find where God is hiding.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

All Saints' - Year B

Aristotle complained that the act of writing diminished memory. He was concerned that once we write something down we don’t have to remember it anymore.

For folks like me, this sounds more like a godsend than a curse. Shopping lists. Phone numbers. Short reminder messages. All these things on little scraps of paper are, for me, as important to my getting along in the world as a telephone or toilet paper.

So maybe, I’m the living example that proves that Aristotle was right. We don’t need to tax our grey matter because we have pens and paper, or styluses and Blackberrys, to remember things for us.

But Aristotle worried that, even in writing down the most trivial lists, something is lost, a way of thinking, remembering, and relating – even a way of life - was given away.

Communications theorists say that this marked the transition from the Oral culture to the Literate culture. But in that transition, a link to the past was broken, a human connection marked by the simple act of one person telling another person a story.

Our Anglican and Roman Catholic friends say that the line through history that connects us with Jesus is bishops, because every bishop has had hands laid on them by other bishops, back through the centuries to the times of the apostles, even back to Peter himself. They call this “apostolic succession.”

But I wonder if God also works in less churchy ways. I wonder if the line that connects us from today back to Jesus’ time is not just in folks in big hats praying for one another by putting their hands on each other’s heads, but by a mother telling her children a story, who in turn tell the story to their children. And down through the ages the story travels, until someone tells the story to us. That story links us to our common past in ways that church rituals cannot.

To settle a dispute in 1127 as to whether the customs dues at the port of Sandwich went to St. Augustine’s Abbey or Christ Church, a jury was chosen consisting of twelve men from Dover and twelve from Sandwich, ‘mature, wise seniors of many years, having good testimony’ as they were described. Each juror then swore that as, ‘I have received from my ancestors, and I have seen and heard from my youth,’ the tolls belong to Christ Church. They publicly remembered what others before them had remembered. (Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy p. 96)

Memory. It’s what connects us.

Writer and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel stands before the Holocaust Museum, reliving the horrors of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and says, “Remember, Remember, Remember.” Elsewhere, Wiesel writes, “Salvation can only be found in memory.”

I think I know what he means. When we forget, we are apt to repeat the mistakes of the past. Memory helps us to learn from our experiences, especially the hard ones. Memory help us to grow.

So why does the church celebrate All Saints’ Day if not to remember? On this Sunday we remember the saints, those children of God who’ve retold the saving story from generation to generation, and we realize how our indebted we are to them. We remember. And in remembering we say thanks to those whose gifts have made us who we are.

Some memories are happy, joyfilled, and life-giving. Others are less so. So what do we do with the burden of horrible memory? How do we confront the trauma of a painful past?

Many families have their stories, their secrets, their histories that they don’t want to remember. Uncle Jack who served 20 years to life. Cousin Jane who joined a cult. Grandfather Smith, who couldn’t be trusted to be alone with the children, long before we had a name for folks like him.

These are stories that we don’t want to remember, but are part of us nonetheless, even if these stories are not told, silent pages of books not opened.

Sometimes, memories keep our scars open and wounds raw.

In many parts of the world, like in the former Yugoslavia, in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East, and in many other places, memory is the engine that keeps the cycle of retribution and violence moving.

Terrible memory. But memory nonetheless.

No doubt you’ve heard the phrase, “Time heals all wounds.” It sounds right – on a surface level. Something we say when we don’t know what to say. But I wonder what the mother who buried her child thinks of that little cliché. Or the old man who still lies awake at night, re-living that day at Dieppe.

In the days following her husband’s tragic death, we thought she was going to die, so deep was her grief. But then, one day, her eyes weren’t so sad. “What changed?” I wondered.

“I just woke up one day and forgot to remember,” she explained.

But she wasn’t sure if she liked not remembering. Her not remembering didn’t feel like it was the same thing as healing. Time was not doing what the cliché promised. Not remembering felt like abandonment. She worried that her grief was all that she had left of her husband. If she didn’t have her memory of him, what did she have?

In preparing for this sermon, I read a homily by a well-known preacher who suggested that the best way to redeem our painful memories is to learn how to forget them. He said that when we nurture the memory of evil or pain, we give them legitimacy and the evil and pain lives and rules again in our lives. That in remembering past wrongs, we lock ourselves and our transgressors in the past.

I found myself bristling at his suggestion. Other than the utter impossibility (short of a lobotomy) of pressing the delete button in our brains so to live free from the tyranny of a painful and evil past, I questioned the wisdom of even wanting to be liberated from our memories in the first place.

Memories, even painful ones make us who we are. Memories are pages of the story that make up our lives. If we rip out one chapter or rub out one sentence from the book the story won’t make sense.

Its Jacob wrestling with the angel, beating a blessing out of God’s messenger. But with the blessing came a wound, a limp. Without that limp, Jacob wouldn’t have been Jacob.

Remembering the past, past wrongs, past hurts, past failures, is important. But it’s also important to remember the future. After all, isn’t that also why we’re here today? To remember our future, the promise of a new creation, the hope of the resurrection to eternal life?

Don’t we gather to remember that we are part of a larger story, one that has been told for centuries?

God doesn’t forget the past. God redeems it. Like Elie Wiesel standing in front of the Holocaust museum asking us to remember past atrocities, he also points to a different, more human and compassionate future.

Like the woman who lost her husband and one day “forgot” to remember him, God is asking us to receive joy in human relationships, to remember that death is the last enemy to be defeated. And that a new creation has been promised, so our job is to look for signs of it all around us.

So, this day, let us pray for wisdom to remember the saints, to give thanks that they told us God’s story, and for the grace to pass it down to the next generation, until that day, when God comes among mortals, and death will be no more. When God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. For God will have made all things new.

May we remember that story. Amen.