Sunday, November 24, 2013

Reign of Christ the King

This morning we meet a paradox, or a tension, or even a contradiction. On this Reign of Christ the King Sunday we sing the great triumphal hymns of the faith, proclaiming that “Jesus Shall Reign!” and we “Crown Him With Many Crowns!” Music so strong and confident that we are swept up in the glorious majesty of the divine.

But then, a few minutes later, we find Jesus dying between two criminals. Naked. Humiliated. Tortured. And terrified.

We have two kings competing for our attention and adoration, this morning. Two contrasting visions of who we say God is. Two wildly divergent understandings of how we believe Jesus brings us salvation.

On the one hand, we have a King who is high above the heavens ruling over the universe with a strong arm. 

And on the other hand, we have a king whose throne is a cross, and whose crown was made of thorns.

This contrast is nothing new. This is as old as the gospels themselves. Just listen to the story.

The Romans mounted a sign over Jesus’ head, “King of the Jews.” That was, of course, supposed to be a joke. This Jesus certainly wasn’t a king. He was anything but a king. Look at him. He was just a poor wandering backwoods preacher who said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. The world was full of people like that.

It turns out that history - and Christians - agreed with the Romans. That sign over his head WAS a joke.  The poor, suffering, nobody from the middle of nowhere didn’t rule over anything - not even his own death. We realized that Jesus on the cross couldn’t be a king - at least not one worthy of devotion.

So Christians elevated him. We clothed his naked body with royal robes -purple - befitting a king more deserving of our allegiance. 

We took him off the cross and placed him high above the earth in the heavenly realms where he could rule over everything with power and might. 

We shuffled him away from the poor and suffering, transforming the cross into a sword, and we sent him into battle to destroy our enemies.

From the emperor Constantine who saw the flaming cross in the sky and believed it was God leading him to glorious victory in war. To the crusaders who battled the muslim hordes, believing that God desired both the death of sinners and a political victory. 

To those Christians who believe that our politicians must genuflect to them and their agenda, because they assume that the Kingdom of God can only come through political power. 

To those churches who lash out at a changing, and diverse culture, who mistake losing privilege with persecution. 

We mask our fetish for strength and our lust for power with religious piety.

By proclaiming that “Christ is King” many Christians are really saying “The Church is King.” Some Christians want to dominate rather than to serve.

When we as Christians look too lustily at the strength and power of the world, we hear Jesus unwelcome and agonizing whisper penetrate the noise of our own ambitions, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” and we abandon the suffering Jesus dying on the cross, dying the death of the whole world.

“Father, forgive them...” 

We shake our heads in disbelief.

What kind of king would forgive his executioners? And not only forgiveness for himself, but also forgiveness from God? What kind of king would absolve his enemies at the very moment of his death?

That’s a puzzle that makes our ambitious brains ache. The pieces don’t fit. The cognitive dissonance is astounding in its implications.

The servant-king. The sacrificing king. The forgiving king. The peaceful king.

That’s not a king we want. But that’s the king we have. That’s the king that the world needs.

And so we then find ourselves kneeling at Jesus’ bloody feet, confronted - changed - by his self-giving, suffering, love. And we realize what true power looks like. 

We see that true power comes from giving of our selves so that others might have life. True power comes when we forgive those who’ve hurt us rather than seek out revenge, or boil with resentment. True power means meeting the world’s hostility with kindness, rather than with anger and fear.

True power leaves us vulnerable. We may get taken advantage of. We may get hurt.

But the power of the cross, the power of Christ our King, only grows the more we give it away. The way of Christ our King isn’t about what we get, but the way of Christ our king is about what we give.

The way of Christ our king is about repairing that relationship that broke some many years ago.

The way of Christ our king is about offering compassion to those who may not deserve it.

The way of Christ our king is about feeling the world’s pain, and deciding to do something about it, and dedicating your treasure and your labour to bring healing.

To many people, this power sounds like weakness, like we’re capitulating to those who don’t have our best interests in mind. That it’s not practical. It’s a fool’s journey.

After all what would our foreign policy look like if reconciliation was the operating principle? Would our strategy in Afghanistan be any different? 

How would our laws work if they functioned by forgiveness and renewal rather than punishment?

What would our politics look like if they were governed by collaboration, seeking the common good, rather than confrontation on its way to power?

Forgiveness and reconciliation is not a mere strategy. It’s not a way of getting what we want. Forgiveness and reconciliation, peace and renewal, is a way of being, a way of living. 

Like Jesus on the cross offering forgiveness to those who were killing him, it’s saying that evil powers of the world will not control our lives. My enemies will not dictate how I move through the world.

Retribution and retaliation may be bred in human bones, but God calls us to a different way of living.

Jesus is saying, my enemies want to hurt me, but I will love nonetheless. The principalities and powers of the world want to destroy me, but I will build people up, creating a world where all people can live and thrive. 

The world may rage with war and violence, but I will live peacefully.

People may live selfish lives, hurting others to meet their personal ambitions, but they won’t drag me down with them. I will not let them turn me into who they are because of what they have done to me.

If you look closely, that’s who Jesus is. That’s the message of his life and his death. That’s what all the stories about him add up to. That is Jesus’ life. It’s not an easy life. But it is God’s life. 

And you were called into this life, recruited to serve this Christ who is our King. Through the waters of baptism, you died to the death-dealing powers of the world and were raised to new life, living in the joy and freedom, the forgiveness and peace, that comes from being a child of God. 

Your life bears witness to God’s alternate vision of the world. A vision that places forgiveness over revenge, a vision that gives before receiving, a vision that plants love at the centre of your life.

 As servants of Christ our King, the God on the cross, we will be known by how much we love and how much we give, radiating the forgiveness that God has brought to OUR lives, so that we can bear witness to the Christ who loved us so much that he died rather than lift a finger against those who were killing him, so that he would rise to transform the whole world into his likeness.

And may that King reign among us. Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Pentecost 25C

It wasn’t a serious question. They were being sarcastic. And they weren’t trying to “snare” Jesus into blaspheming so they could punish him. They were setting a trap for Jesus so they could mock him.

They were the Sadducees. And sitting on their lofty religious perch, they weren’t worried about this hillbilly preacher from the sticks. This wandering backwater hayseed was no threat to them. They just wanted to have a little fun with Jesus by publicly humiliating him. 

The Sadducees play only a minor role in Jesus’ story. In fact, this is the only time Luke records Jesus talking with them. But this small encounter opens up a new world of possibility for how we see God’s future coming alive in Jesus - and in us.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the Sadducees were elitists who wanted to maintain the priestly caste, but they were also liberal in their willingness to incorporate Hellenism into their lives, something the Pharisees opposed. The Sadducees rejected the idea of the Oral Law and insisted on a literal interpretation of the Written Law; consequently, they did not believe in an after life, since it is not mentioned in the Torah. The main focus of Sadducee life was rituals associated with the Temple.

The Sadducees disappeared around 70 A.D., after the destruction of the Second Temple. None of the writings of the Sadducees has survived, so the little we know about them comes from their Pharisaic opponents.

These two "parties" (Sadducees and Pharisees) served in the Great Sanhedrin, a kind of Jewish Supreme Court made up of 71 members whose responsibility was to interpret civil and religious laws (from Jewish Virtual Library).

These Sadducees wanted to show Jesus just how dumb the idea of resurrection and an afterlife is, so they set up an outrageous scenario based on family obligations outlined in the Law of Moses. Here’s a woman who went through seven husbands, and they inquire as to which husband gets her in the afterlife. 

Since men could have multiple wives, but women couldn’t have multiple husbands, this might provoke a fist-fight in the heavenly realms once this woman walks through the door with these seven guys anxiously awaiting her arrival.

Jesus doesn’t accept the premise of their question. It’s obvious to him what’s going on. He knows that the Sadducees are making fun of him by making up this insane hypothetical situation, and mocking the type of Jewish tradition he represents.

But, I don’t think he dismisses them outright either. I think he’s connecting their understanding of life, and his understanding of the afterlife.

"Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

It’s tempting to make this passage all about what happens to us when we die. The hot button words like “angels” and “being children of the resurrection” make it hard to look in another direction. 

But I think there’s more here than we realize. He’s opening their understanding of resurrection to more than the caricature of what they thought it was. He’s broadening their understanding of life - and death - and life again.

Jesus is saying that the resurrection isn’t some far off promise that’s way in the future.

And he’s not saying that resurrection is reserved for those who’ve finished their course on earth.

Jesus is saying that resurrection is HERE. NOW. IN HIM.

And not just with him. But with everyone.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Jesus, weren’t just heavenly creatures living in eternal bliss in the presence of God. They weren’t just angelic beings seated around God’s throne singing eternal praises to God.

But Jesus was saying that they were ALIVE to the Sadducees - and to all the family of God - they were ALIVE by how they impacted their lives in that day. 

They were alive in their stories, the stories that shaped a people. 

They were alive in the Law that created their national identity. 

They were alive in the memory that hovered over their daily lives as people of God.

Jesus opened their eyes to see that resurrection happens in A LOT of ways. Because we worship a God of the living and not of the dead, and there are A LOT of ways to live. There are A LOT of ways to “do” resurrection.

I’m thinking of Linda Stengel, who has closed her eyes in death and is waiting for her name to be called on the Day of Resurrection. And we mourn her passing. 

But Jesus is saying that she is ALIVE. Here. Among us. Now. Not in an obvious physical sense. But in the memory that hovers over our community. In the legacy of our relationships with her. In the many gifts of love that she left us.

When I shared the news of her death, many folks immediately talked about her stitching. Then they shared stories of their time here. And people often talked about her in the PRESENT tense, as if she is still with us. 

And, of course, she is.

Resurrection can happen in a lot of ways.

Too often, we think of resurrection as something that will happen later, at the end of time, the next step after death. As if THIS life is just a prologue to the NEXT one. And God’s REAL life is reserved for us for after we die.

That’s NOT what Jesus is saying. As with the Sadducees, Jesus is calling us to see the world with resurrection eyes. To see new life blossoming all around us. To see life emerging out of death.

Jesus opened their eyes to a world were God was everywhere; where justice, compassion, peace, healing, and forgiveness was in the air they breathed. Where mercy was their daily food, and love was their daily drink. He opened their eyes to a broader vision of resurrection.

Jesus opened their eyes, and now they didn’t see this world as Heaven’s waiting room. They saw Heaven come to earth in Jesus.

I think that’s the same for us. That who we are as Christians, through the gift of faith, given to us in the waters of baptism, where we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are given new eyes through which to see the world.

Instead of cruelty we seek and see justice.
Instead of hostility we seek and see reconciliation.
Instead of judgment we seek and see mercy
Instead of indifference we seek and see compassion
Instead of selfishness we seek and see servanthood.
Instead of sin we seek and see forgiveness.
Instead of death we seek and see life.

Seeing the world through resurrection eyes means seeing hope where others only see despair, it means seeing possibility where others see only dead ends, it means seeing miracles where others see only mere events,.

Seeing the world through resurrection eyes opens our mouths to declare what God has done in our lives, it’s about bearing witness to the God who has raised US from the dead, who has planted in our hearts the gift of faith, so that we can fill the world with God’s love.

And there will be a day when all those promises are fulfilled, and we will stand before God, singing songs of praise and hymns thanksgiving to the God who rescues us from the power of death, and makes us alive together with Christ.

For we serve the God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all are alive!

May this be so among us! Amen!

Sunday, November 03, 2013

All Saints

In 2003, St. Teresa of Lisieux’s bones were dragged to Halifax. The first stop in her cross country tour. Hundreds of people stood in line for hours to venerate the skeleton of a dead French peasant woman, known in Catholic circles as ‘The Little Flower.” She was very popular among maritime Catholics. A church was named in her honour.

I have to admit, I was tempted to stand in line with my Catholic friends to share a moment with St. Teresa. As one of the pastors of the only Lutheran church in the city, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. A temptation and curiosity I shared with my council president, who spit out his coffee when I told him.

“Y’know, there was a Reformation for a reason!” he snarked as he refilled his mug.

But I was more sociologically intrigued by those who would wait in line to see her, than spiritually compelled by her presence. I knew Teresa’s bones had no divine power. I knew standing in front of Teresa’s remains would be more like visiting an open grave than opening a gateway to heaven. But I wanted to see why so many other Christians would stand in line for so long simply to gape at a pile of bones.

They are called “relics.” A relic could be a chunk of cloth from the Saint’s shirt, a book the Saint kept on the bedside with his or her scribblings in the margins, even a body part that the Saint left behind. Anything connected with the life of someone the church has identified as a “Saint” – capital S. These objects were venerated as if they had some special power, from which the Christian could claim for his or her own.

When some Saints died, their followers often hid the body so that mobs wouldn’t snatch the remains, hack it into pieces, and run off either to sell for a sturdy sum, or keep for their own personal devotion. Relics were popular. And big business.

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, he didn’t do it on a whim. 

Luther chose October 31st 1517 as the day to nail his ideas to the city bulletin board because he knew the church was going to be filled the next day – the Festival of All Saints. He knew that the Elector of Saxony, Fredrick the Wise, was going to pull out all his relics to put on display for worshippers to venerate. And he charged a heavy entrance fee to get through the church door.

This was nothing new. Fredrick did this every year. In fact, it was VERY popular. When you think about it, it was a win-win for everyone. The money collected at the door didn’t go to Fredrick. The money went to Rome to keep the ecclesiastical machine running smoothly, and to pay off church debts.

And the church authorities, in turn, promised that paying the fee and venerating the relics shaved127, 800 years off of purgatory. 

Since the average Christian was terrified of where they were going to end up after they died, they gladly paid a hefty charge to gawk at St. Cyprian’s nose hair if it meant a better shot at leap frogging over purgatory and entering eternal bliss the moment their eyes closed in death.

From a 500 year distance you can see why Luther was so angry. The church was turning salvation into a financial transaction. Bodies were desecrated to keep the religious economy humming along. Objects were worshiped rather than God. The cross was nowhere to be seen. Certainly, this wasn’t what God wanted for Christians.

I used to find the whole idea of relics creepy. Something left to those Christians whose faith is stuck in the mud of the medieval ages. Relics are dangerous to the faith, and we 21st century Christians, of course, wouldn’t touch them with our bare hands. 

But then I realized that we’re not so far off from our friends from 500 years ago. It just looks a little different.

I was 10 years old or so when my parents took my brother and me to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Looking at all that hockey memorabilia, jerseys, masks, pucks, and skates, I ground to a halt when I saw, on display behind glass, Bobby Clarke’s well worn hockey stick. The stick he used to record his 119th point, establishing a team record for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Bobby Clarke was one of my favourite players and I remembered that game, even though I was five years old at the time. Standing there ogling at the glass, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I was staring at Bobby Clarke’s ACTUAL stick from THAT particular game!

I stared at that stick like a Wittenberg peasant venerating St. Jerome’s big toe. I ran my hand across the glass wishing it wasn’t there. I wanted to caress the wood, grab it with my two tiny hands, as if tactile experience would give me some divine hockey power, connecting me to Bobby Clarke’s greatness.

Of course, that’s silly. Bobby Clarke’s hockey stick has no more power than any other dead tree branch. But it had power to me - and over me. And I wonder over 30 years later, that if Luther were living today, if he would nail his 95 theses to the door of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

If not the Hockey Hall of Fame, then maybe the movie theatre, or the Internet. Or the ball yard. Look at the way people scramble to grab a fly ball that’s been hit into the stands. Or the frenzy at the red carpet at the Academy Awards. The way Justin Bieber gets mobbed when he makes an appearance at the mall.

Look at anywhere celebrities are venerated. After all, Saints were really the celebrities of their time. If there were a National Enquirer 500 years ago, St. Dominic’s face would have been on the cover. E-Talk daily with Ben Mulroney would have interviewed St. Clare, probing her as to what was going on between her and St. Francis.

I think the council president at my church in Halifax bristled at my thinking of going to visit St. Teresa’s bones because he understood in HIS bones, that as Lutherans, we know that there is no such thing as a “capital S” Saint (despite the name of our church).

 As Lutherans, we confess that all Christians are made equal. As Lutherans, we know that we aren’t made holy by anything we’ve done, but we are made holy by what God has done for us in Jesus.

He knew that there are no first class Christians, and other Christians pining way in the back. He knew that any miracles Teresa might have performed were from God and not by the power of any human being. He knew that God worked through all people, not just a few select Christian superheroes.

This means that God can work through YOU. God not only can, God DOES work through you. Not because you have achieved some moral purity. Not because you have prayed great prayers or read the bible from cover to cover. And not because you have gone to church.

God works through you because God has chosen to work through you, whether you like it or not. God works through you because you are baptized, joined to Jesus’ cross and resurrection, set free from the tyranny of sin and death, and called to be God’s hands of healing to those who are hurting, and voice of freedom to those held captive to their past.

We know that its not our WORK that joins us to the great cloud of witnesses, but our FAITH, our faith unites us to those who’ve gone before us, stewards of God’s mysteries who passed down God’s message of life and salvation through the centuries until we find it in our hands, passing it to the generations that are to come, in hope that, one day, all the world may, with all the saints of every time and every place, the saints below and the saints above, the baptized of every generation proclaim “Salvation belongs to our God!”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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