Archive for Christ the King Sunday

On Trial with Pilate

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2018 by timtrue

John 18:33-37

1.

Today is the final Sunday of the church year: Christ the King Sunday, we call it. We focus on Christ in a particular way today: as king—as the one in charge—of his realm.

And in today’s Gospel we are confronted with two views of reality.

On the one hand, Christ tells us that his kingdom is the way of truth. On the other hand, Pilate’s kingdom is the way of violence.

We look at Christ the King today, then, through this lens: comparing two versions of reality. And what do we learn?

So, Jesus is on trial; and Pilate is the judge.

But doesn’t it almost seem—by the time we get to the end of the passage anyway—doesn’t it seem that the tables are turned? Doesn’t it feel like Jesus is in the role of judge and Pilate is really the one on trial?

Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

But, before answering him, Jesus asks Pilate a question—and already the tables are turning over: “Do you ask this because you want to know, or because someone told you this?”

And so Pilate answers, “I am not a Jew.”

It’s enough to say, “Of course someone told me about you! I don’t have the time or energy to concern myself with what goes on in Jerusalem—in your people’s insignificant corner of the world.”

In other words, Pilate, a Roman, thinks himself somehow above the Palestinian peoples, who go about their day-t0-day business over there, in some forgotten corner of the empire.

But, Pilate knows, even the people over there are capable of rising up in rebellion—which is why he asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus now answers, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, I’d fight back with an army.”

Jesus knows Pilate’s kingdom—this world—follows the way of violence.

But, in Jesus’ kingdom, violence has no place; his kingdom is not from here.

Well, Pilate misses the point; and declares, “So then you are a king!”

And here I can almost hear Jesus sigh.

“You say I’m a king,” he says. “But that’s not what I’m about; I’m not raising up some kind of political insurrection against you. Rather, I am here to testify to the truth—a greater reality than you are able to see, apparently. But if you will only seek the truth, find it, and belong to it, you will know a kingdom far better than anything you can now imagine.”

To which Pilate famously scorns (just after today’s passage ends), “What is truth?”

And with this small question Pilate rejects Jesus and his kingdom, the way of truth, choosing instead to remain with the life he knows, a life of power, wealth, privilege, lies, and violence.

The tables are turned. Pilate’s the one on trial today, not Jesus.

2.

Maybe we’re on trial today too. Maybe we are like Pilate, more attached than we’re willing to admit to the way of violence.

Pilate is offered true freedom, a world of peace, security, equality, and authenticity; and instead chooses to remain living in his narrow conception of reality, ruled not by the Christ but by his own fears.

“Are you a king?” he asks Jesus again and again, belaboring the point, fixated—because he fears!

Pilate has no time for the truth, no time for the way of Christ, because he’s too busy fearing that he will lose his power, position, and privilege. He’s too concerned with the things that really matter to him, like protecting his name, status, and position; and like watching his back so some political hothead doesn’t assassinate him.

Pilate is trapped in his way of violence; trapped by his system; trapped in fear.

And thus he rejects the truth.

On this final Sunday of the church year, we stand on trial with Pilate. Do we also reject the truth? Like Pilate, do we love our status: our places of power, wealth, privilege, and maybe even lies and violence?

Jesus calls us to lay these things aside and stand in solidarity with our neighbor—our sisters and brothers who are in different places than we are.

3.

By the way, I’m being careful here not to say “who have less than we do.” Jesus does not call us to stand in solidarity with those who have less than we do. That’s not what mission and outreach are about.

So, in case you’re wondering if you heard me right, I’ll say it again: Jesus does not call us to stand in solidarity with those who have less than we have.

But, also, neither does he call us to stand in solidarity with those who have more!

For, in Jesus, we are called not to have a less-vs.-more mindset at all!

But isn’t this often the church’s approach to mission and outreach?

We, the church, decide to engage in a project to help our neighbors in need. Fine and well!

But then we say something like, “This outreach project will help those who are less fortunate than we are”; and then pat ourselves on the back and tell our superior selves we’re loving our inferior neighbors just like Jesus commanded.

We become the patron; they become the client; and they forever stand in our debt.

But superiority and inferiority? Patron and client? That’s not Jesus’ way. That’s Pilate’s!

Whenever we approach anything with an attitude of superiority—including mission and outreach—that’s not the way of love!

Jesus calls us to come alongside others as equals, to establish and maintain truly mutual relationships; not to compare ourselves with one another in order to figure out who’s better or worse, who’s right or wrong, who’s richer or poorer, who’s smarter or dumber, who’s superior or inferior; but to sharpen one another, mutually, as iron sharpens iron, for the common good.

Are we willing to listen to those who are different than us?

They may speak a different language; they may eat different foods; their skin may be a different color; they may identify as a different gender; their sexuality may be different than ours; or they may be different from us in . . . fill in the blank!

Are we willing to come alongside them? To stand in solidarity with them? To hear their stories? To listen to the truth?

Or are we like Pilate, too focused on our own treadmills to listen?

4.

I offer a concluding illustration:

We’ve all heard the familiar phrase: “Violence begets violence.” I don’t know who first coined it. But I do know that Martin Luther King, Jr. used it. Listen to these words:

Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love . . . Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy; instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.[i]

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man committed to live out the principle of non-violent resistance, a same principle by which Jesus lived. Both men resisted the authorities, the powers that be, without fighting back, without violence.

Their deaths, both vivid demonstrations of non-violent resistance, shout a message that will be forever etched in humanity’s history books; a message for all people, everywhere, to give up living for themselves—for power, position, status, wealth, prestige, and privilege—and to live instead for the other.

Love the Lord your God; love your neighbor. This is the way of truth, to which Jesus calls us.

 

[i] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violence_begets_violence.

Needy Goats, Needy Sheep

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2017 by timtrue

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Matthew 25:31-46

1.

I went to Mexico this past summer with my oldest daughter for a Spanish-language immersion experience. For four weeks we lived in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial town some 180 miles northwest of Mexico City.

Everyday we’d leave our villa at about 8am and walk the mile and a half or so to the language school, where we’d study for six hours then acquaint ourselves with the sights, sounds, smells, foods, history, and culture of interior Mexico. We’d return to our villa in the early evening to study and prepare for the next day, and maybe to blog about the experience.

Occasionally—if it was raining hard—we’d catch a bus or cab. But mostly we walked. We averaged a little more than five miles a day.

It is common, walking in Mexico, to encounter persons in need. Sometimes it’s a mother with small children just sitting there, on the sidewalk, in the shade, open coffee can in front of her with a few pesos in the bottom. Other times it’s a person offering small, hand-made curios for sale. On occasion we’d encounter a musician, singing passionately to an imagined audience in hopes of real money materializing on the cobblestones at his feet.

These were genuinely needy people.

And, of course, we wanted to help each and every person we saw. We were wealthy Americans, after all, and knew a daily quality of life they would likely never experience, even for a short time.

And, of course, we felt inward pangs of guilt every time we passed by a needy person without emptying our pockets of spare change—or because we had just emptied our pockets for the last needy person.

I’m sure you have experienced this struggle.

2.

Today is the final Sunday of the church calendar, the feast of Christ the King.

Today’s collect puts it this way: “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords.”

This is that day: the day when we anticipate what it will be like to have all things restored in Christ, God’s well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords, whose message above all else was, “God is love.”

What will this restoration of all things look like?

Our collective imaginations have played with this question. Will it be this world renewed? Will it look somewhat the same as it does now, but a richer, fuller, more vibrant world; a world without poverty, hunger, or need? Will we recognize mountain peaks? Each other? That blind musician I once helped? Buildings?

Or, will this world be destroyed and burned up? Will Christians be raptured away and all non-Christians left to face a new-world dictator? Will there be an evil man called Antichrist who is really under the control of a great and terrible beast? Will there be a terrible Apocalypse? Will zombies factor in?

Today we encounter the only detailed description in the New Testament of what this restoration of all things will look like.

And, in case we’re tempted to try and solve this riddle, today’s passage is meant to be evocative, not literal.

I mean, really, if it were meant to be interpreted literally, then we’d all have to be transformed into sheep and goats before facing Christ! And when in the eschatological sequence does that happen?

So, just what are we to do with today’s Gospel?

3.

I’m afraid that most of us, when we read or listen to this passage, identify with the sheep.

There are two teams, the sheep versus the goats. The sheep are Jesus’ team. They on his right and are welcomed to join him in that place where he will be their eternal captain. The goats, however, are on his left; they will be ushered to that place of eternal perdition—and we all know who their captain will be. . . .

So, show of hands, who wants to be a goat?

But—to reflect a moment—what about the goats?

Did you notice? They’re just as surprised as the sheep when Jesus addresses them.

To the sheep Jesus says, “Whenever you did these things to the needy, you did them to me”; but to the goats Jesus says, “Whenever you did not do these things to the needy, you did not do them to me.”

And both sheep and goats are surprised. Both ask, “Lord, when did this happen?”

It seems, then, that both sheep and goats did in fact welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and incarcerated; and both sheep and goats let opportunities pass them by.

Hasn’t each one of us done this? Hasn’t each of us acted on opportunities to help someone in need; yet also let opportunities to help the needy pass by?

I mean, if I’d given money in Mexico to every needy person I passed in the street, I would have busted my budget on the first day!

So then is this last-day scenario really fair? The sheep are remembered for the few opportunities they acted on; but the goats are remembered for the opportunities they passed by.

What about all the opportunities the sheep let pass by?

And there’s this: both the sheep and the goats are in the position of being able to help. Both sheep and goats are approached in life by the needy; both find themselves in the position of being able to do something about it when approached. Both are able to offer food or clothing; or to visit the sick.

But what about the needy themselves? What about those who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, the stranger, the sick, and the incarcerated?

They are not in a position of helping others simply because they are themselves in need. With respect to today’s passage, they are neither sheep nor goats. So what are they? Where do the needy fit in?

We identify with the sheep, not the goats. But I’m not so sure this is what Jesus wants us to do. For when we identify with one team over another, we end up drawing distinctions. We end up saying things like, “We go to church and they don’t”; we end up thinking ourselves better than they in some way—which is exclusive.

But Jesus calls us to love, to inclusivity; not exclusivity.

4.

Maybe the question we ought to be asking today is not whether I am a sheep or a goat; but, “With whom does Christ identify?”

Is it not with the needy?

Yes, Christ is the Son of Man, the King of kings and Lord of lords, sitting on his throne in glory. But, at the same time, Christ is the person in need.

“Whenever you welcomed, fed, clothed, or visited those in need,” he says, “you did it to me.”

“I am the one in need,” he says.

And are we not, likewise, those in need?

Why do we follow Christ in the first place? Why do we commune at his table week after week? Is it not because we are in need?

Call it the fall, call it marred human nature, call it sin. Whatever you call it, however it is described, we stand in need of salvation, redemption, and reconciliation to God. And that is the greatest need of all.

Thus today’s passage confronts us with a great mystery. It does not have a simple, either/or answer. Rather, it is both/and:

Christ is both the divine King of all creation and the needy. He is both God and humanity. He is both transcendent and immanent. He is both distant foreigner and next-door neighbor. He is both sheep and goat. He is both in need and helper. He is both Savior and the one being saved.

We meet Christ on this final Sunday of the church calendar as King.

We also meet Christ every day of the year: whenever we pass a person in need on the street; whenever we greet our neighbor; whenever we see our own needy reflection in the mirror.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Right Ahead

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2016 by timtrue

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This sermon was delivered on November 20, 2016.

Luke 23:33-43

One thing our church gets right is eschatology.

A definition I read this week defines eschatology as, “The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”  Eschatology is the study of the eschaton, or of last things.

Our church gets this right.

Consider our church calendar.

Today is the last day of the year in the church calendar, Proper 29, otherwise known as Christ the King Sunday.  It’s called Christ the King, for on this day we focus on the culmination of all of history, that day when Christ’s absolute supremacy will be realized.  Did you notice today’s color is not green but white?

Next week we’ll start over, with Advent.  For four weeks we’ll reflect on Christ’s coming.

Then, from Christmas through Easter we focus on the realization of Christ’s incarnation; and from Ascension Day through Pentecost and the following season we focus on the realization of Christ’s supremacy.

All year, then, in some sense anyway, we’re looking forward to today, the one day of the year when as a church we consider “death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”

Our church gets this right.

Also, consider today’s Gospel.

At first reading—and maybe at the second and third—it sounds and feels more like a Good Friday text than anything else: “When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (v. 23).

In fact, nearly the whole passage focuses on the details of the moment at hand: the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothes; the people stand by and watch; leaders scoff and mock; even the criminals on either side join in.

But where does this passage end?  Or, in other words, what is this passage’s culmination?

One of the thieves next to Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today, though we begin at Good Friday, we focus ultimately on Paradise: the Realm of Christ; the culmination of all history.

Our church gets this right.

But it seems kind of brief, doesn’t it? I mean, only one day of the year?  What if we miss it?  What about all the people who couldn’t make it to church today?  Especially the ones with legitimate excuses?  Do they have to wait until Proper 29 rolls around again next year?  Really, why don’t we spend more time focusing on eschatology?

Other churches do.

Ever hear of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth?  A best-selling book published in 1970, Lindsey compares then-current events to biblical prophecies about the end times.

He speaks of an event called the Rapture, at which time, he says, all believers in Christ will be called by a trumpet blast suddenly home to heaven.

The Rapture will be followed by a Great Tribulation, a seven-year period of a literal hell on earth, he says, where the king of the world will be Satan himself.

Finally, an earthly age called the Millennium will follow the Tribulation, he says, during which time Satan will be locked up and the world’s king will be Christ; and all the world’s leaders will be faithful risen Christians.

By the way, this book was made into a movie in 1976, narrated by none other than Orson Welles, the same voice that generated mass fear in 1938 in a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Well, since the publication of this book, all sorts of modern American evangelical Christian leaders have joined in the fray.  Whole denominations today abide by Statements of Faith that include fundamental beliefs about the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, and the Millennium.

Individual scholars, seeking to clarify where they stand on the matter, have authored theological tomes on this subject, attempting to argue from literal interpretations of the scriptures just how and when our world will come to an end.

And who of us has not heard about the relatively recent phenomenon called The Left Behind Series—arguably the quintessential eschatological distraction of our day?

So—surprise, surprise!—disagreements have arisen.

Is there such a thing as the Rapture, or not?  The word rapture nowhere appears in the Bible, after all.

What about the so-called Great Tribulation?  The books of Daniel and Revelation mention a seven-year period of great struggle; but will Christians actually escape it, or will they have to endure it—or will they be raptured away mid-way through, before things get really tough?

And the Millennium!  C’mon!  A literal thousand years!  Really?

Those who care about this subject demand to know where others stand.  Are you Pre-trib or Post-, they ask?  Are you Pre-millennial, Post-millennial, or A-millennial?  Do you believe in the Rapture?

To which I say, “I’m pan-millennial: I believe it’ll all ‘pan’ out in the end.”

But it’s all quite pessimistic.

For, no matter how you look at it, the whole cosmos is just gonna burn up.  So, after all, what does it really matter what we do for the common good in our lifetimes?

My seminary professor Rob MacSwain tells of a time he attended a conference at an evangelical University in the Midwest.  After he could not find a recycle bin to throw away a piece of paper, he inquired only to be answered, “There aren’t any: the world’s just going to burn up anyway; we don’t believe recycle bins are necessary.”

For Christians who hold this pessimistic view, faith becomes no more than an individual kind of Gnosticism: we work on our own, internal relationships with Jesus; we are saved by faith alone (and not by works).  In the end, one is either in or out; saved or damned.

And where is God’s love in that?

Anyway, it’s not just modern American evangelical Christianity that’s drunk these waters.  The dominant culture has a preoccupation with eschatology too.  Yeah!  Except it doesn’t call it eschatology; it calls it apocalypse.

There are variations on apocalypse, sure.  Some stories feature zombies; some aliens; some dastardly supervillains, like Lex Luther who bought a bunch of property out here in the desert and planned to send California into the ocean so that he’d suddenly own beachfront property.  And some stories feature just us humans, in over our heads with nuclear weapons.

Either way, whether in the subculture of evangelical Christianity or in the dominant culture, how it’s all gonna end is an American preoccupation.

But not with the Episcopal Church.

And, I maintain, our church gets it right.

Our church acknowledges the culmination of all things.  We understand that Christ has left us with a mission: not to sit around wondering how it’s all gonna end but to transform the world into his kingdom.

The realization of Christ’s incarnation—his birth—was when his kingdom first came; the realization of Christ’s absolute supremacy—his second coming—is when that kingdom will be fully realized.  In the meantime the kingdom of heaven is only partial.  Our mission is no less than the transformation of the cosmos: to increase Christ in the world and decrease the anti-Christ until the second coming.

Our eschatology is not pessimistic; it’s optimistic.

Our church gets it right.

So, we’re caught up in this in-between time: in between the realization of Christ’s incarnation and supremacy.

We work at Christ’s mission: trying to bring his realm into the world.

But there’s a tension.

For we know the importance of doing Christ’s mission.  And we feel the need to do it—keenly!

But it’s overwhelming.

It’s overwhelming because we can’t accomplish much on our own, as individuals.  And it’s overwhelming because bringing Christ’s kingdom to our world will take much longer than the time we have in our lifetimes.

And these things go against our American grain.  We love our individualism; and we want to solve the world’s problems yesterday.

So, we end up failing Christ and his mission—or at least we feel we do.

And when this final Sunday of the year comes along—Proper 29, Christ the King Sunday—we’re so distracted by bad eschatology; or we’re so preoccupied with doing the mission of Christ; or we’re so overwhelmed and caught up in our own failures that we end up missing the optimistic culmination we’ve so been looking forward to all year.

Just like we end up missing the point when we read today’s Gospel.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise,” Jesus tells the thief on the cross next to him.

And today our church gets it right.

Today it doesn’t matter whether you’re distracted.  Today it doesn’t matter if you’re preoccupied.  Today it doesn’t matter if you feel overwhelmed; or if you’ve failed Jesus; or if you’ve given up on your faith; or even if you’ve committed crimes worthy of crucifixion.

Today, none of this matters!

For today, we know that we will be with him in Paradise.

Belonging to the Truth

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 18:33-37

What is truth?

Is truth relative?  Or is it absolute?

If it’s relative, then what’s true for me doesn’t have to be true for you.

Now, there’s wisdom in this sort of thinking—that truth is relative.  It doesn’t take us long to see.  Right now, for instance, on the world stage there are people who believe that western thinking is wrong, and that all westerners deserve to die.

For me, anyone who possesses a personal truth, a doctrine, that prejudges another person or group of people because of race, color, creed, or ideology—well, that’s no “truth” for me.

So, what’s true for you doesn’t have to be true for me.

But we can go too far with this kind of thinking.

Like that time in college when a friend of mine declared, “There’s no such thing as absolute truth!”

And I said, “Are you absolutely sure?”

Absolute truth is a concern of all the great religions of the world.  Is there any sort of truth—or, if you like, are there some ideologies or doctrines—applicable to all humanity?  Is there some kind of moral code by which all people, regardless of era, civilization, or culture, ought to live?

The Golden Rule, maybe?  Or love?

If so—if there is such a thing as absolute truth, something applicable to all humanity regardless of time and place—then we’ve found a key to one of life’s great mysteries, a principle by which all people should live.

Nevertheless, whatever the case, persons, people, and whole nations can’t agree.  And the debate continues.

Is truth absolute, or is it relative?

But what if we’re asking the wrong question?

Today’s Gospel teaches us a lot about truth.

Near the end of the passage, Pilate asks Jesus a leading question about his identity: “So you are a king?”

Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

If Jesus is a king at all—and we all know he is—then his is a kingdom of truth.  To testify to the truth is why Jesus was born; it’s why he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  Everyone who listens to his voice belongs to his kingdom.  Everyone who listens to his voice belongs to the truth.  Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom of truth.

But Pilate doesn’t get it.

For what does the very next verse say?

We ended with verse 37.  We ended with Jesus declaring, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Then—verse 38 says—“Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’”

What is truth?

Well, Pilate, you think that Jesus and his kingdom are no threat to you.

You, Pilate, think that you’re the most powerful, in-control person in all of Jerusalem.  After all, the truth is, you are the local representative of Rome, of Caesar himself.  No human being is more politically powerful than you.

And you think, Pilate, that an ideological kingdom, a kingdom of truth, a kingdom not of this world, is no threat at all to you or Caesar.

And so you ask, “What is truth?” and you go out to Jesus’ opponents and tell them, “I find no case against him.”

BUT, Pilate, reality—in other words, the truth—is not what you think.

Despite that you think yourself so powerful, Pilate, you are obviously trapped in fear.  That’s the reality here.  Jesus’ opponents, the “underground” leaders of the community, want him crucified.  If you don’t give them what they want, who knows what kind of uprising will follow?  And then, what will Rome think of you?  You fear the answers to these questions, Pilate, don’t you?

Despite that his is an ideological kingdom, Pilate, this kingdom of truth is in fact a very real threat to you, your power, and the political kingdom of Rome.  For, despite what you think, Jesus’ teachings are very subversive when it comes to allegiance.  For Jesus’ followers, when it comes to either the kingdom of Rome or the kingdom of God, Rome takes second place every time.

So, you, Pilate, are in denial.

Maybe the question we should ask, then, is not whether truth is relative or absolute. Maybe it’s more about reality.  What is the reality into which Jesus calls us to live?  What is the truth that is Christ’s kingdom?  And what traps us in fear of living into that truth?

Journalist Jonathan Darman tells the story of a U. S. senator who wanted to make a public statement, after the fact, that he had acted against his better judgment when he voted to authorize the war in Iraq.  This senator wanted to declare that he’d made a mistake and offer a public apology.  So he wrote three drafts of an op-ed article.  But in every draft, his aides either deleted his confession altogether or tempered it to say, “I was misled.”

For this senator’s aides, maintaining power was more important than being honest.  And thus the senator was trapped.

Is that what our fears are about?  Maintaining position?  Do we fear what we would lose by being honest, authentic, real?

I wonder how many of us live in this fear.  Many of us enjoy our creature comforts.  Many of us have nice homes and comfortable cars; and we take expensive vacations.  Fine and well.

But to what extent do we go in order to enjoy these things?  Are we real with respect to our public personas?  Do our colleagues at work really know us—what we think, what we believe in, what makes us tick?  Or do we put up a front, out of fear of losing our jobs?

We’ve got to pay the mortgage, after all.  And the car payment.  And the credit card debt.

These things can trap us into denying reality—or avoiding it, or fearing it.

And what about the Church?

This question has been on my mind and heart a lot lately, especially after the recent pastoral letter from Bishop Mathes.

Today is known as Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year; next week Advent begins, the Christian New Year.  So, is Christ our King?  Do we in fact give all allegiance to Jesus Christ, trusting completely in his divine sovereignty, as we declare on this day?

The Church has grown accustomed to certain creature comforts.

But studies have demonstrated that the mainline Christian churches, including the Episcopal Church, have experienced steady decline in membership over the last four decades.  America is becoming increasingly post-Christian.  St. Paul’s is losing its place of influence in and around Yuma.

So, I’ve got to ask, are we trapped in fear of this reality?

Some of the Episcopal Church’s parishes are living in denial, following models of congregational development that once seemed effective but no longer address the realities of today’s world.  Leaders of such parishes say things like, “We’re just trying to be faithful to what Jesus calls us to do.”

Other parishes acknowledge the reality; but they try to avoid it.  They are trapped by fear of the unknown, or they suffer from that age-old disease called analysis-paralysis.

Still others temper their message and mission, like that senator’s aides, in a desperate effort to maintain position.

But the Church professes Christ as King.  Shouldn’t the Church live out its profession?

After Pilate asks Jesus the first time, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus turns the tables and asks him a very revealing question:

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

Jesus asks Pilate this revealing question and thus invites him to be honest, to be real, to be authentic.  It’s as if Jesus says, “Listen to me, Pilate.  Be true.  Be real.”  “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Do you see?  Even to Pilate, Jesus offers to be the good shepherd; Jesus offers Pilate the opportunity to belong to the truth.

But Pilate refuses.  Pilate dismisses Jesus’ offer, asking with disdain, “What is truth?”

It’s the same with us.  Jesus invites us to be authentic.  Jesus is offering to us—as individuals and as the Church—to be our good shepherd, the opportunity to belong to the truth.

So now it’s our turn.

Will we be like Pilate, refusing the truth, dismissing Jesus’ offer?

Or are we ready to receive it?

A Crucified King’s Kingdom

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on November 24, 2013 by timtrue

Luke 23:33-43

Let’s gain our bearings.  Today in the church calendar we encounter what some of us call Proper 29, or the last Sunday after Pentecost.  It is also known as Christ the King Sunday.  It is the last Sunday of the church’s calendar year.  Next Sunday we enter into Advent.  Today, then, we are standing on a threshold, about to pass through a sort of doorway from one year to the next.

The church’s calendar tells the story of Christ, year after year.  Advent is a time of great hope and expectation, like when a family is waiting for a new member to arrive.  Mom is pregnant; we all know that there is an anticipated date of the new baby’s arrival, the due date, but that’s often just a best guess.  That hope, that expectation, that anticipation of the new baby’s arrival—that is like Advent.  During this season, we eagerly anticipate Jesus’s birth.

Then Christmas comes.  O joy!  We rightly celebrate the season with carols, festivals, presents, lights and decorations—for the savior of the world is born on this day.

Next, during and following Epiphany, we remember the visit of the wise men from the east and God’s hand upon the child Jesus.

In Lent we recall Christ’s baptism and his time of fasting in the wilderness.  But more than this, we remember his earthly ministry to the sick, the downcast, the brokenhearted—to the meek, who shall inherit the earth.

Next comes Holy Week.  Yes!  The busiest week of the year for the church, in which we recall Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the donkey’s colt over a road covered with palm branches; in which we participate in a footwashing service, tangibly putting others first in an act of loving service; in which we conduct prayer walks, vigils, and baptisms for Christ’s glory; and in which light takes a prominent place—both the candlelight of vigils and the tomb-opening light of the rising sun.  Alleluia, He is risen!

Then there’s the Easter season: fifty days in which we remember the resurrected Christ who walks the earth among his friends, family, and disciples; until the Day of Pentecost, when he ascends into the clouds in the presence of many witnesses.

Finally there’s that season after Pentecost.  It starts with Trinity Sunday, a day when we rightly dwell on the Trinity reigning from heaven above.  After that, the length of the season varies from year to year.  Some years there are twenty-nine Sundays until today, Christ the King Sunday.  Most of the time it’s shorter: next year, for instance, there will be twenty-three.

Anyway (a question), what happens during this season after Pentecost, this season of Propers?  If the church year is all about remembering Christ, then he has died, risen, and ascended by May or June.  What are we remembering about him for the other six months of the year?

Well, the gist is this: during this season we remember the work Christ is doing on earth now, from where he is seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father.

When Christ ascended, something amazing happened.  Remember?  Something like tongues of fire descended from the sky and came to rest on Christ’s disciples.  This was a sign of the Holy Spirit, sometimes called the Paraclete—a fancy word for advocate, or helper.  Christ rules from heaven; but he has left us a helper to guide us all along the way as we do Christ’s work in his church.  That’s what we remember during this season after Pentecost: Christ’s kingdom already but not yet.

Ultimately then—at the end of this season after Pentecost—what is supposed to happen?  The answer is in the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

And I don’t care, by the way, what your ideal kingdom is, whether monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, democracy, a republic, socialism, or monogamy (okay, just kidding about that last one)—I don’t care what your ideal kingdom is: Christ’s is unlike them all, and better than them all!

Which brings us back full circle.  Here we stand today at the end of the church year, peering through a doorway where we see Advent on the other side.  And today of all days we remember that Jesus, who now reigns in heaven at God’s right hand, will come again, when his kingdom will be already and yet!

So, that said, why do we have this passage from Luke today?

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

It’s about the crucifixion.  But if we look at this passage in the context of what we know about the church’s calendar—in the context of knowing already that Christ is King—we can make some helpful inferences about his kingdom.  I offer three:

  1. Proper Knowledge will be Returned.  “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prays; “for they do not know what they are doing.”  The they here is the soldiers, and what they are doing is crucifying three men.  In other words, the soldiers here are in fact doing what they know: they are obeying their orders to crucify three men.  But they really don’t know what they are doing, says Jesus.  They really don’t know that they are crucifying the King of kings and Lord of lords.  More than this, though, they are also crucifying two other men—humans who have been created in God’s image.  This taking of another person’s life—whether the lord of all creation or a criminal—is wrong.  We might not know this here, now, in our world.  But in the kingdom, we will know better.
  2. Righteous Justice will be Reinstated.  A look at the verbs here is revealing.  The soldiers cast lots for Jesus’s clothing.  The leaders scoffed at Jesus.  The soldiers mocked Jesus.  One of the criminals kept deriding Jesus.  And the people stood by, certainly helpless to do anything about it.  Do you feel the injustice here?  Yet, what are the verbs used of Jesus?  Forgive them, he says.  And to the criminal, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  That phrase, truly I tell you, is an oath, as if to say “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”  Jesus promises the thief next to him that he will enter Paradise.  This, by the way, is righteous justice.
  3. Protected Paradise will be Restored.  Jesus answers the thief on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Paradise!  You know what the Greek word is for paradise?  Paradeisos.  And you know what it means?  Paradise.  Christ’s kingdom is, simply, paradise.  But let me give you a little more insight.  This word paradeisos appears in only one passage of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—which was published roughly a century before Jesus was born.  But it appears in the passage several times.  Here’s the first occurrence, Gen. 2:8: “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  You know which word it is?  Garden.  The Greek word paradeisos was used repeatedly in the Septuagint to refer to the Garden of Eden—the Paradise of Eden.  You want to know what Christ’s kingdom is like?  There, in the Paradise of Eden, God created humanity in his image.  There God walked with Adam and Eve.  There they were protected from the unknown and unfamiliar world outside.

So too here.  Today, Jesus says to the thief, you will be with me in Paradise.  There is a place protected from injustice and disorder; protected from the harshness of this world where we are so often treated poorly, derisively, and without love; protected from incomplete knowledge put to cruel use.  There proper knowledge will be returned; righteous justice will be reinstated; and protected paradise will be restored.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus!