Sunday, November 24, 2013

a King unlike any other

St. George’s, Harbeson
November 24, 2013

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen.

Today is known in the Church as Christ the King Sunday. When we think of Christ, perhaps most of us have an image of him as a brown-haired, sandaled preacher or as the Good Shepherd. Other images of Jesus come from his titles: the Lamb of God, the Alpha & the Omega, the Messiah, and the Son of God, to name a few. All of these are appropriate ways to view Christ, but today we’re going to meditate on Christ’s identity as King. 

When you hear the word “king,” what comes to your mind? Power? Palaces and crowns? King Henry VIII? For me, what comes to mind is the royal family of Great Britain. Many Anglophiles (myself included) have an obsession with the British Royal Family. Not everyone might have gotten up early like me to watch the royal wedding with their friends, complete with a breakfast of tea and crumpets, but most people at least saw pictures of the ceremony and maybe even a video of the wedding highlights. And nowadays there’s hardly a magazine cover that doesn’t have a picture of William and Kate with baby Prince George plastered on the front.

In our romanticization of the lives of the royal family, we may feel an affinity for them, perhaps even admiration or affection, but their positions probably don’t evoke feelings of loyalty or obedience in us, the way they do for their subjects. We Americans don’t really understand what it means to be subject to a king or queen. Here in the U.S. we pledge allegiance to the flag, not the crown. There is no prayer for the Queen in our Book of Common Prayer. We are proud of our heritage as an independent, go-getter, pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps country. We delight in the fact that we are self-reliant, and that our Protestant work ethic has led us to where we are today, from a nation of rag-tag settlers to this melting pot of a country that is currently the world’s largest superpower. 

So when we hear of Christ as King, it may be difficult for us to truly comprehend what sort of relationship with God this is describing. And Christ is not a typical king. Born in a stable to a carpenter and his teenage fiancée, Jesus’ humble birth could not appear further from royal. There is hardly any record of his childhood and young adult years, and then all of a sudden we find him hanging out with outcasts and sinners and making enemies of the religious leaders. After three years of healing the sick, teaching, and preaching, he is put to death like a common criminal on a cross, the Roman equivalent of the electric chair. All of these things can make us wonder how we would consider Jesus a king. 

But if we dig deeper, we will find several examples of typical kingship. As the Song of Zechariah affirms for us, Jesus was “born of the house of [God’s] servant David”; he was from a noble lineage (Luke 1:69). In one story of his birth, shepherds and the angelic host come to worship him, and in a different Gospel, three wise men come to pay him homage with expensive gifts that would be reserved for kings (Luke 2:8-20; Matthew 2:1-12). At Jesus’ baptism, in a scene reminiscent of Arthurian legends, the heavens part to reveal the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven booms, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased, ” confirming Jesus’ divine right as king (Matthew 3:13-17). Crowds follow him wherever he goes, hanging on his every word. When Jesus has his triumphant procession into Jerusalem, he rides in on a donkey, an animal typically used by kings in the Old Testament, and crowds line the road with cloaks and wave palm trees (In Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-19). Finally, in a twist of irony, Jesus is robed in scarlet and given a crown made of thorns before being taken to “the place that is called The Skull,” where they place a plaque above the cross that says, “This is the King of the Jews” above it (Matthew 27:28-29, 37Luke 23:38). 

We have before us a King unlike any other. His power was not used to control; he used it to heal the sick, to perform miracles, and to forgive sins. During his lifetime Jesus lived simply and relied on the generosity of others to feed and house him and his followers. He practiced servant leadership, helping people whom society ignored and personally washing the feet of his own disciples. He put on himself the sins of the world and was put to death. But death did not stop him! Christ rose again, and his resurrection destroyed Death’s firm grip on us. 

Christ was the example of how we should live our lives on earth, the embodiment of the kingdom of God. As God incarnate, Christ showed us how to be in relationship with God, and “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” (Col 1:20). At our baptism, we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. We are, therefore, subjects of the heavenly kingdom, and our loyalty and obedience is to Christ, the "King of kings and Lord of lords" (Revelation 19:16 and today's Collect). In celebration of “the tender compassion of our God” demonstrated throughout the course of history but especially in the person of Jesus Christ, we pledge our lives to the work of the kingdom (Luke 1:78).

Our King taught us that we are to feed the hungry, tend the sick and lame, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:34-40). We are to build the kingdom of God here on earth. This is no small task, but we are not alone! We are promised that God will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). For now, we “endure everything with patience” (Col 1:11). But as we work, we await the advent of our King, confident that “‘The days are surely coming’” (Jeremiah 23:5). 

Christ the King statue in ŚwiebodzinPoland
world's tallest statue of Jesus

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

and i know he watches me

St. George’s Chapel
November 20, 2013

Today we are celebrating the life of B. As you heard from his family and friends just now, B was a kind, hard-working man and a blessing to all who knew him. In recognition of the gift he was to us, we have come before this altar today to offer his life as a gift to God. And what an amazing life it was! Not many people have the honor of having their name on the moon, but I’m betting if you asked B what his greatest accomplishment was, he wouldn’t talk about the moon or even golf. I’m betting he would probably say it was his family. 

J told me that B never doubted he was going to heaven when he died. He told her that he didn’t really fear death; he just wasn’t ready yet to leave his family and friends behind. B left us suddenly, but our relationship with him is not over; it has merely changed. His spirit lives on in the memories we have of him, in the stories of him that bring both laughter and tears. We weep now, but “the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). 

As we surround the family with our humble offerings of love and support, we remember that B is also “surrounded by [a] of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). We are also reminded that we will all eventually be reunited with him when we take our part among those witnesses. In the meantime, when we take part in the Eucharist, we join with angels and archangels and B and all the company of heaven in singing God’s praises. 

It may be difficult right now to sing God’s praises or even absorb words of comfort. In our loss we may identify more with the psalmist, who in times of grief thought, “Surely the darkness will cover me” (Psalm 139:10). In our pain we may feel disconnected or distant from God. But Isaiah tells us that this veil, this feeling of separation from God, will one day be destroyed. Indeed, it already has in the person of Jesus, God become human. Jesus came to restore our broken relationship with God, and for our sins he was put to death. But we know that his death is not the end of the story. The path to the cross was followed by the miracle of resurrection, which forever destroyed death. Death no longer has the last word! 

Before he died, Jesus told his followers that he was going before them to “prepare a place for [them]” (John 14:2). He spoke of a house with “many dwelling-places” (v. 2). B is there now in the place that Christ has prepared for him. He is in the presence of his Creator, who “knit [him] together in [his] mother’s womb” and has welcomed him into his loving arms once again (Psalm 139:12).

In our sorrow we lean on the Lord who knew intimately the pain of suffering. In the last verse of the song that A so beautifully sang, 
“Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. 
(His Eye is on the Sparrow*).

The psalmist assures us that rather than waiting for us to stumble our way to God, God meets us where we are: “you have searched me out and known me” (v. 1). Like a shepherd looking for lost sheep, God comes to us and guides us home, leading us “in the way that is everlasting” (v. 23). We are never lost to God; there is no place where God can’t find us: “If I climb up to heaven [God is] there; if I make the grave my bed, [God is] there also” (v. 7). God’s love for us does not end, even when we die. 

We know that at our physical death life continues. As John Newton so eloquently put it in the original version of Amazing Grace:
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.


(image found here)

* Watch this video if you wanna hear an amazing performance of His Eye Is on the Sparrow by the Mississippi Children's Chorus! [warning: you may need a tissue]

Monday, November 18, 2013

striving toward the kingdom

November 17, 2013
All Saints’ Church, Rehoboth Beach

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God's alone. Amen.

“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” (today's Collect). 

As today’s collect assures us, all Scriptures are “written for our learning.” It appears in today’s readings that we have a good range of Scripture, from words of comfort to words of woe, words of hope to words of admonition and instruction. 

In today’s Gospel, we find Jesus speaking to his disciples about troubling times. Wars, earthquakes, plagues, famine...all of these things are uncomfortably familiar. We live in a time of war; Hurricane Katrina is branded into our memory, as is the earthquake in Haiti, and more recently the typhoon in the Philippines; we know that thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people go without food. Are these signs of the end times?

This Gospel passage and passages like it have been fodder for many misguided people, false prophets, to attempt to convince us that the end of the world is near. But Jesus is not speaking about the end of the world; he is speaking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the persecutions his disciples will have to face once he’s gone. He is speaking about things that will happen in the time of his disciples, not in our time. While the message is for his disciples, it speaks to us in the present, as well. When facing persecution, Jesus says that we are given the opportunity to “testify” (Luke 21:13). 

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that it is easy to testify, to bear witness to the glory of God, when things are going well. It is easy to see God’s hand at work when the sun is shining and we are healthy and surrounded by people who love us. It is much harder to praise God when we are struggling with a serious illness, or the end of a relationship, or the loss of a loved one. But this is precisely what Jesus is calling us to do. Jesus is calling us to see God’s hand not in the typhoon’s destruction but in the helping hands of volunteer aid workers. To see God’s hand not in the diagnosis but in the tender care of physicians and nurses. To see God’s hand not in death but in the promise of everlasting life. 

The text from Isaiah describes a vision of restored life: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). Isaiah portrays a place where there is no pain, no lives cut off short, no cause for weeping; where life is full and full of joy and everyone takes part in the restoration of creation. People will spend their time building and planting and rejoicing, and they will see the fruits of their labors. It will be a place of peace, where enemies share their meals together and all destruction is eradicated (v. 25). In this vision, God will not be distant, but will answer us even before the questions have left our lips (v. 24). Clearly this image has not been realized yet, but is something we are striving toward.

And strive we must! In the second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul warns the folks in the community against the dangers of idleness. If you’re going to be part of a Christian community, Paul says, you’re going to have to do your part in building the kingdom. All of us have particular gifts that are vital to kingdom building. For some it may be serving at the altar or preparing breakfast, for some it’s volunteering at the thrift shop or bringing a casserole to a recovering surgery patient, and for others it may be teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, or providing a listening ear and a great big hug to someone in need. Whatever your gift, there is much to be done and the kingdom is not going to build itself; we need everyone to pitch in and do what they can to make it happen, to make Isaiah’s vision a reality.

The Good News in all of this can be found in the canticle from Isaiah. In this work of building the kingdom, of transforming the world and our lives through service, we are not alone: “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:6). Thanks be to God!

image found here

Sunday, November 10, 2013

resurrection and the heavenly banquet

St. George’s Chapel
November 9, 2013

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question…”

There are two main groups of Jewish leaders during Jesus’ time. If you’re like me, you get them confused. Just to clarify, the Sadducees are the rich and political group. They are conservative and only believe in the Torah. If the first five books don’t mention it, it doesn’t exist. So, since the word “resurrection” doesn’t appear in the Torah, the Sadducees don’t believe in the concept.

The Pharisees are even more religious. They honor the Torah, prophets, and the oral tradition handed down by Moses. They support the concept of resurrection.

Now, the Sadducees and the Pharisees are competing for attention from the people. Compare their arguments to current Congressional debates: each one wants their side to look the best. They take every chance they can get to make a stab at the other side. However, things are changing; the debate between them is not front page news material anymore. A certain carpenter’s son from Nazareth is a thorn in their side. They are trying to figure out a way to get Jesus out of the picture. So they start asking questions to trap Jesus into saying something that will be considered heresy. Getting a one-up on their opponents is an added bonus.  

“…those who say there is no resurrection…”

As I was reading this I wondered why they are talking about resurrection before Jesus has died. I mean, isn’t that a Christian concept? I think that here the term ‘resurrection’ applies to some sense of life after death, a different state of being. Jews of that day were not concerned so much with life after death, but focused on life in the present, emphasizing a relationship with God in the here and now. Reaping the benefits of faith today, not tomorrow. 

Back to the Gospel: the Sadducees describe a scenario where a woman marries her husband’s brothers. This law about marrying the brothers-in-law comes from Deuteronomy. The practice ensures not only that the widow is taken care of, but also that her husband’s lineage is maintained--including the land that goes with it. 

“So, Jesus, tell us, we’re curious. In the resurrection, whose wife is she gonna be? Because all of them married her.”

Cue Jesus: 
He has just come to Jerusalem on a donkey surrounded by a cheering crowd. He has cleansed the temple of sales people, which I imagine didn’t go over so well with the Sadducees. Despite this, he is still very popular, and the people are excited to see and hear him. But things are getting steamy with the leaders. Jesus has only got a week or two left. He knows they are trying to trap him. I can imagine there is a sense of urgency to his teaching. I bet he would have liked to shake a few people and knock some sense into them. But he doesn’t. 

I imagine Jesus shaking his head and responding with a sigh, “Look guys, you’re missing the point. Things that are important now are not going be in the resurrection. You won’t need to have a husband or wife to continue your lineage, because death won’t be a factor. Relationships are going to change. You won’t need to be married in order to experience intimacy, because the connection you’ll have with God will be more than enough. We can’t compare life on earth to life after death; we can’t make God conform to human standards. God’s love surpasses all understanding.”

“Oh, and p.s. in the Torah Moses proved that resurrection exists in the story of the burning bush. God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ not I was the God. Just because they don’t have a physical presence on earth doesn’t mean that they are no longer part of God’s plan.”

Well that stumps the Sadducees and the questioning is over. Jesus has just flipped their understanding of how the world works on its head. 

But where does this leave us today? How can we relate to this passage? 

The concept of resurrection, of life after death, is a huge mystery, and we tend to fear what we do not understand. That’s why stories about people who have had life-after-death experiences are so intriguing. We want to know what it’s going to be like so we don’t have to venture into the dark in fear. But while these stories of heaven may be at least partially true, I don’t think they can capture the whole picture. Jesus himself didn’t describe heaven in exact detail; he only compared heaven to things on earth, saying “heaven is like a woman who found her lost coin” or “heaven is like a shepherd who, having lost a sheep, leaves the rest of his flock to find it” or “in my Father’s house are many rooms...I am going there to prepare a place for you” (Luke 15: 8-10; Luke 15:3-7; John 14:2-4). 

These images, while conveying a sense of homecoming, leave out the details. I think in trying to understand heaven we can get caught up in trying to figure out these details and lose sight of the big picture that is the promise of eternal life in God (I know this all too well, being a detail-oriented person, myself). 

As much as I’d like to, I can’t give you the exact dimensions of heaven or describe specific activities of celestial beings. But I can tell you that out of God’s abundant love, God took on human form in the person of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our sins, not his, and that after he died, he was resurrected. 

The amazing thing about resurrection is not just that life continues—we’ve already covered that things will be different in the next life. When Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected, death no longer had ahold of us. To God, “all of [us] are alive,” whether or not we are living and breathing in this life (Luke 20:38). But even more importantly, this miracle repaired the connection between God and humankind that had been severed by human sin. Throughout time humans have repeatedly pushed God away, but despite this, God has never completely given up on us.

We’re always going to make mistakes—it’s human nature. But the grace of God is so radical that God looks past all of this, saying, “I love you just as you are right now, at this very moment. I forgive you for all that you have or haven’t done. I want to have a relationship with you, to be close to you, because I made you. You are my own, and my love for you will never fade.” 

And so each week we are invited to come to the table—Christ’s table. Communion is not only a time of remembrance of God’s incredible love for us, it gives us the chance to re-member, to join together with our brothers and sisters in becoming the body of Christ. To become reconnected with God and with each other so that we can go out into the world, praising God for the gift of this life and the life to come. 

In the Eucharist, we start getting a taste (literally) of the heavenly banquet, of what it’s going to be like when the resurrection comes. What is coming is far more glorious than we can even attempt to explain. But we live with the promise made at our baptism, that we are Christ’s own forever, and nothing can break that promise. As St. Paul assures us, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). 

image found here