Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"So, you're a king, huh?"

Text: John 18.33-37.

Movies and television shows about lawyers are nothing new. They've been around since at least Perry Mason. The climax of the bestselling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is a murder trial. And think of the popularity of John Grisham’s books, all of them having to do with lawyers and trials. On television we have Law and Order and Boston Legal among other shows that deal with lawyers.

There's something intrinsically dramatic about confrontation in the courtroom, especially if it's a criminal trial. There's a mystery. Did the accused do it, or didn't she? And there's the excitement of the head-to-head contest between two skillful lawyers.

Today's gospel reading takes us back to perhaps the most famous trial in history -- the trial of Jesus before Pilate.

"Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?'"

You can't beat this scene for drama. The representative of human justice confronts the representative of God's justice. The Divine Lawgiver himself is put on trial. God's dynamic and creative Word is tried by God's creatures.

The charges were serious. In asking Jesus if he were a king, Pilate was implying that the charge against Jesus was treason, a capital offense. Someone who claimed to be a king was a threat to Rome. And Rome was known to punish its enemies swiftly and decisively.

But we know how this trial came out. Injustice prevailed, and an innocent man went to the gallows.

Although Jesus' trial before Pilate took place two thousand years ago, I want to suggest that in a sense it continues.

The title of a collection of C.S. Lewis' essays is God in the Dock. In a way, Jesus is always in the dock, on the stand, and never more so than on the last Sunday in Pentecost which we keep as the Feast of Christ the King.

Christ the King Sunday brings Jesus before Pilate again. Once again we hear Pilate ask, "So, you are a king?" But Pilate is not the only one asking. I have to confess that sometimes I find myself on the side of Pilate, wanting to ask Jesus, "So, are you a king? If you are a king, where's the evidence, because the world shows very little evidence of being under your rule and authority."

Tell me, Jesus, I want to say, do you reign in hospitals and nursing homes where the elderly die of lingering diseases?

Do you reign in sub-Saharan Africa where some countries may lose as much as 50% of their population to AIDS?

Do you reign in the Middle East when states assassinate the leaders of neighboring states and facilitate the sacrilege of "holy war"?

Do you reign in Darfur when so-called civilized nations stand by and allow genocide to take place?

What kind of king is Jesus to let things like this happen?

But the trial continues, and Pilate again asks, "So, you are a king?"

What is there to be said in defense of Jesus?

I recently read the story of a terrible incident that happened at the height of the war in the former Yugoslavia: a three-year-old girl in Sarajevo was hit by a sniper's bullet while playing outside her home. They rushed her to the hospital, of course, and the television cameras captured the scene, including her father bursting into tears, overcome by crushing grief. A reporter asked the father what he would like to do to her killer. And his response was that he would like to have a cup of coffee with the sniper and ask him what could cause a human being to do such a thing to a child, and he concluded by saying, "One day her tears will catch up with him". (Miroslav Volf, "A Cup of Coffee", Christian Century, Oct. 15, 1997,p. 917)

When that grieving father overcame hatred and expressed his willingness to sit down with his daughter's murderer over a cup of coffee, the kingdom of God briefly but brilliantly appeared in the very heart of the kingdom of violence and evil. Jesus reigns wherever love overcomes hatred and mercy conquers revenge. He reigns in the heart of a father who can forgive his three-year-old daughter's killer.

The late British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge was the correspondent of England's Guardian newspaper in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. He went there idealistic about the so-called "workers' paradise" being built in the USSR and left completely disillusioned. In his autobiography, Muggeridge relates the story of coming across a little church in the wood outside Moscow.

In the woods there was a little church, of course disused now. The fronts of such churches, like the Greek ones, are painted with bright colours; blues bluer than the bluest sky, whites whiter than the whitest snow. Someone... had painted up the one in the Kliasma woods. Standing in front of this unknown painter's handiwork, I blessed his name, feeling that I belonged to the little disused church he had embellished, and that the Kremlin with its scarlet flag and dark towers and golden spires was an alien kingdom. A kingdom of power such as the Devil had in his gift, and offered to Christ, to be declined by him in favour of the kingdom of love. I, too, must decline it, and live in the kingdom of love.

Jesus reigns when we decline the "kingdom of power" and "live in the kingdom of love". He reigns when authoritarian regimes come crashing down and when we stand with those who in our time are still persecuted for the Kingdom's sake.

I have to admit that the evidence is not entirely convincing, but nevertheless I must choose to stand with Jesus, not Pilate. I choose to believe that Jesus is king in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

And perhaps what Jesus meant when he said to Pilate that his "kingship is not of this world" is that his kingship is utterly different from human kingship. He rules not by coercion but by love. He comes to us as he came to Pilate, unarmed and defenseless, to ask if we will enlist in his kingdom.

Perhaps Jesus is on trial not because of anything he has done but because of what we have failed to do. The evidence for Christ's rule may be faint and fragmentary because we do not let him reign in our hearts and lives. It is up to us to plant the flag of God's Kingdom by what we do with what God has given us.

When we forgive someone who has wronged us, we have brought the kingdom a little closer. When we put aside our schedule and take time to visit the sick and the elderly, earth begins to resemble the Kingdom a little bit more.

In an autobiographical book Frederick Buechner vividly related the story of hearing George Buttrick preach a sermon about the reign of Jesus in the hearts of believers.

It was around the time that Elizabeth II was crowned at Westminster Abbey, and the preacher played variations on the theme of coronation.... He said that Jesus Christ refused a crown when Satan offered it in the wilderness... He said that the kingdom of Jesus was not of this world. And yet... Jesus was crowned in the hearts of those who believed in him... this coronation of Jesus in the believer's heart took place among confession... and tears... [and] great laughter... Jesus is crowned among confession and tears and great laughter, and at the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face. (Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace, pp. 43-44.)

May Jesus be crowned in our hearts with confession and tears and great laughter, and may we plant the flag of the kingdom of God's love in all of earth's dark corners by each of our words and deeds.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Joy of Being Mortal

Text: Mark 13

A stock figure in cartoons and jokes is the fanatic who carries around a sign that says “Repent! the end of the world is at hand.” Like many of you, I grew up Baptist, and when I hear or read this kind of warning about the end of the world, I smile but also feel a tiny twinge of fear. What if the fundamentalists and Pentecostals are right? I wonder. What if this really is the world’s last day or night? What will be God’s judgment on my life? Too little love and too much anger... too little service and too much self-aggrandizement.

The first century like the twenty first is a time of intense apocalyptic expectations. And the NT reflects the intense apocalyptic expectations of its time. In other words, first century Jews and Christians believed that the end of the world really was about to come to a crashing halt and that God would judge between the righteous and the sinful.

Today’s gospel reading reflects the intense apocalypticism of the first century. Jesus borrowed the language of the book of the prophet Daniel and spoke of the “desolating sacrilege” being set up in the Temple. The “desolating sacrilege” was code for the desecration of the Temple by the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV who had a pig slaughtered on the temple’s high altar and offered to the pagan deity Zeus.

What are we to make of the speculation that these might be the so-called “last days.” That we in our own day as Paul in his day, should be alert to the possibility that at any moment God might bring down the curtain on this weary old world.

First, let’s separate the core message of apocalypticism from the symbolism that surrounds it. Apocalypticism is the belief that the world is about to come to an end and that there will be a final battle between good and evil. One feature of apocalyptic literature is that it is highly symbolic. It has to be symbolic because it speaks of realities that none of us have ever experienced. So, Jesus was employing symbolic or metaphorical language when he spoke of the stars falling from the heavens or of the householder who will not even have enough time to rush back in side and collect his or her most valuable possessions,

Will the stars fall from the heavens? Of course not, but that does not affect the central message of apocalypticism, and that message is that this world and everything in it is finite. The world had a beginning and will have an end. Just as surely as you and I were born and will one day die, the same thing is true of the world around us.

A grim thought, you say? Something that will keep us up late or make us toss and turn? Well, it should certainly make us thoughtful, but it need not make us depressed, because the world doesn’t just flicker out like a candle. Rather, the message of apocalypticism is that the God who created the world will also be there at the end bringing creation to its conclusion. In creating the world, God declared it to be very good. What we have done with the world God gave us is anything but good, but surely the God who created the world and declared it to be good will deal graciously with the world.

Fundamentalists seem to believe that the core message of apocalypticism is “Jesus is coming again soon… and boy, is he mad!” But I do not believe that that is the message of the NT. The God who will bring creation to its conclusion not only loved creation and declared it to be good but also revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a God who loved creation and his creatures so much that he entered into creation and became a creature. The God we have come to know in Jesus is a God who loves us even when we fall, who gives us second and third and fourth chances. The God who took human form in Jesus is not a “gotcha” God, who jumps out and yells “Gotcha!” whenever we commit the slightest transgression. The God I have come to know in Christ is a God who is always there to support us, who weeps with us when we acknowledge our failings and gives us strength to try again.

Remember that God does not simply judge the world; God also redeems the world. I believe that the message of apocalypticism is that when the world finally comes to an end, God will lovingly gather the pieces and built a new heaven and a new earth, in which all the sadness and pain of the old creation will have no place.

A second message of Christian apocalypticism is that we need to remain somewhat lightly connected to or invested in the institutions and structures of this world. To be sure, God wants us to be good citizens, to work for the well-being of this world and all that is in it. However, the core message of apocalypticism is not just that the world is finite but that everything in the world is finite. Or as the Book of Revelation puts it, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of God and his Christ.” In other words, no human kingdom will last forever, and that is as true of the United States as it was of the Roman Empire. I do not doubt for a minute that the U.S. a great force for good in the world. The U.S. promotes freedom and human rights among the family of nations, and often does so even when it is not in its best interests to do so. And yet apocalyptic literature warns us not to set up any earthly institution as an object of worship. The New Testament reminds us that God should be the object of our worship.

Finally, apocalypticism urges us to be awake, alert, and ready. Our eyes should always be open to see the hand of God at work in the world. The world will only come to an end once, but there will be other mini-apocalypses. Something we have spent a lifetime building may be destroyed in a second. That’s a kind of apocalypse. The death of a marriage, a career, a loved one… all of these are occasions when God wants to build something new and better out of the ruins of the past, and apocalypticism says that if our eyes and spirits are open, we will be able to see God at work redeeming the past and building a better future.

“Be alert,” Jesus says, “I have already told you everything.” This is not only the message of the Christian faith; it is a central message of all the great faiths. Most of us go through life more than half asleep. God is doing wonderful and amazing things around us all the time, and we never see it. We should go through life wide-eyes with wonder, but instead we stumble along, myopically focused on the driver who cut us off on the interstate or the co-worker who took credit for something we did. We nurse petty angers and resentments when God wants to give us (as the Prayer Book’s baptismal service says) the “gift of joy and wonder.”

A beautiful Buddhist story is a perfect illustration. A man came to the Buddha and asked, “Are you a god?” “No,” the Buddha answered. “I am not a god.” “Are you a spirit, then?” the main asked. “No,” said the Buddha. “I am not a spirit.” “Are you an angel?” “No, I’m not an angel.” “Well, are you a saint, then?” “No, I’m not a saint.” Finally, in exasperation, the main asked the Buddha, “What are you then?” The Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

May God give us all the grace to be awake and aware and give us faith to believe that beyond every ending and every death, God is present, gathering up the pieces and redeeming all that we had thought was lost. Amen.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

All Saints: Weaving community with the threads of need

Text: Matthew 5.1-12

All Saints’ Day, invites us to consider those heroes and heroines of the faith we refer to as saints. When I say the word “saint,” who springs to mind? I imagine that one of the first people that most of us think about its Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The late Pope John Paul II “beatified” her, that is, declared that she may be referred to as “Blessed” Teresa of Calcutta. A person who is declared “blessed” generally goes on to be declared a saint. Now, it’s important to remember that the church does not MAKE saints; only God makes saints. The church simply recognizes saints. Mother Teresa was a saint long before her beatification by the pope, long before the 1970 film, “Something beautiful for God”, brought her international fame.

A common misperception about saints is that they are persons who draw on enormous spiritual resources or that they have strengths that you and I do not possess. The case of Mother Teresa shows how wrong such ideas are. The most striking (and for some, the most shocking) news to come out of Mother Teresa’s beatification is the fact that she suffered from profound doubt, from feelings of abandonment by God, even wondering at times if God existed.

She wrote, “The damned of hell suffer eternal punishment because they experiment with the loss of God. In my own soul, I feel the terrible pain of this loss. I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and that he does not really exist.” And also, “My smile is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains.” Because of her perpetual good cheer, she felt others believed “my faith, my hope and my love are overflowing and that my intimacy with God and union with his will fill my heart. If only they knew.”

We do the saints a disservice (indeed, we may be doing God a disservice) to assume that saints are perfect people who never experience doubts and struggles with their faith. A saint, then, is not one who never doubts, who never struggles, but one who continues to practice faith, to love others, to seek God, even when it is excruciatingly hard to do those things.

I would even venture to say that it may be weaknesses that make a saint, not strengths. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, made an interesting and provocative remark in one of his sermons. “It's often been said, boldly, that the saints in heaven rejoice over their sins, because through them they have been brought to greater and greater understanding of the endless endurance of God's love, to the knowledge that beyond every failure God's creative mercy still waits.”

I think the saints teach us one supremely important truth: Our weaknesses may be more important than our strengths. Now listen carefully. Our strengths are important. God has given each of us great gifts of strength, intelligence, compassion, and so on. But think: If we were composed only of strengths, what need would we have of each other? What need would we have of God? It is our weaknesses that bind us to each other and to God. That may be the secret of the saints: that, they know their need of God. But that is nothing new; I think it is the message of the Beatitudes.

For a long time I was puzzled by the fact that the gospel for All Saints’ Day is the Beatitudes, but I think I’ve figured it out. Most of the Beatitudes speak of an emptiness, a lack of something, a space in our hearts into which we can invite God. “Blessed are the poor… those who mourn… those who hunger and thirst… those who are persecuted…” The saints are those who recognize their emptiness, their profound need, and invite God to fill that space, that need, that emptiness.

Make no mistake: all of us know this emptiness, this space that cries out to be filled, but we do our best to fill it up with anything but God: alcohol, drugs, sex, and television are the “usual suspects” but we can even try to fill that emptiness with going to church. Instead, I invite you to sit with the emptiness, to find out what we can learn from it, and I think what we will find is that our emptiness is an invitation from God, a doorway through which God comes into our lives.

On public radio a few years ago I heard a remarkable program about cloning. During the program the narrator quoted a poem that the poet addressed to those he called “genetically engineered super humans”. In a strange way, I think that what the poet said about his so-called “genetically engineered super humans” enlightens what I’ve been saying about saints and sainthood.

You are the children of our fantasies of form,
our dream to perfect the ladder of genes and climb
its rungs to the height of human possibility,
to a [perfection] beyond all injury
and disease, with minds as bright as newborn suns
and bodies which leave our breathless mirrors stunned.
Forgive us if we failed to imagine your loneliness
in the midst of all that … excellence,
if we failed to understand how much harder
it would be to build the bridge of love
between such splendid selves, to find the path
of humility among the labyrinth of your abilities,
to be refreshed without forgetfulness,
and weave community without the threads of need.
Forgive us if you must re-invent our flaws
because we failed to guess the simple fact
that the best lives must be less than perfect.
(“Letter to genetically engineered super humans” by Fred Dings)

I think the key to understanding the saints is that they know that it is precisely the “threads of need” that are needed to “weave community”, and that even “the best lives must be less than perfect” because it is our needs and imperfections that open us to the grace of God and to one another. Amen.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Ubuntu - A Wedding Homily

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” Before the Bible tells us anything else it tells us that the heavens and the earth, everything we see and everything we do not see, comes to us from the hands of God. Furthermore, it assures us that everything God created is good, because every time God creates a star or a whale or an amoeba God declares it good. Finally, at the end of what must surely be the most productive week of work in the history of the universe, God declared everything that had been created to be “very good” indeed.

Thus, the Christian faith proceeds from the assumption that the world is good. There are religions that are not at all sure that the world is good. There are even Christians who act as though the world is a bad place, rather than a good place; there are Christians who are afraid that the good gifts of God’s creation, the things that delight the senses – wine, food, music, even the joy of husband and wife—are perhaps at least a little sinful. Oscar Wilde once said that a Puritan is a person who is afraid that somebody somewhere is having a good time!

But the Bible tells us otherwise. It tells us to enjoy God’s good creation. To be sure, there is nothing so good that it cannot be abused but that should not take away from the pleasure God intended us to have in the beautiful creation about which Genesis speaks.

God created light and called it good; created the seas and dry land and called them good; created humankind and called us good; but finally God declared one thing not to be good. What is the first thing in the Bible that God declares not to be good? It is not one of the “usual suspects” – stealing, lying, murder and so on. Rather, the first thing God declares not to be good is to be alone: “It is not good for humans to be alone.”

It’s a remarkable statement. We have a whole creation to enjoy, a creation full of good things, but God tells us that we are to enjoy it in the company of others, rather than by ourselves.

Psychologists and physicians tell us that the most important indicator of health (not just emotional health, but physical health, as well) is a person’s social network. The more connected we are to others, the more likely we are to be healthy. But we didn’t need a researcher at Harvard to tell us that; the Bible tells us that at the very beginning. “It is not good for humans to be alone.” Our Jewish sisters and brothers recognize this in one of their most ancient prayers; “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, for you set the solitary in families.”

God has put a drive toward community in every human heart. We need the company of others to be fully ourselves. Africa’s Zulu language has a word for it – ubuntu. Ubuntu means “I need you to be me” and “You need me to be you.”

None of us is whole or complete by ourselves. I need you and you need me… ubuntu. Marriage is a special form of togetherness or community. It is a recognition of the truth of Genesis and the truth of ubuntu. A good marriage is not based on the belief that we must marry someone to be whole or complete; rather it is based on the deep and abiding conviction of the couple getting married that they complement each other in just the right ways and that they can be so much more together than they can be apart.

The force that pulls us toward others is a kind of gravity. Each of us is a satellite flying through social space. Now we are drawn toward this one; then we spin off into space again; and then we are drawn toward another. The Bible gives a name to this gravity that draws us together; it is love. There are many kinds of love. One kind of love draws us together, but I believe another kind of love keeps us together. The love that draws us together is more or less automatic, but the love that keeps us together requires work. Scott and Blair, you will feel yourselves drawn in many directions, but I charge you on this day to be attentive to the gravity, the love, that drew you together in the first place. Keep it strong and never take it for granted. Anchor yourselves to one another with kindness, patience, and understanding.

Christian marriage is a special kind of community, for as Christians we believe that we are on a journey and that our spouses are our special companions on this journey. There is a love even stronger than the love you feel today for each other, and that is the love of God that took human form in Jesus of Nazareth and lived among us. Let that love draw you into the very heart of God, for the closer we come to the love that created the universe, the love that endured the cross and the grave, the love that makes us more together than we could ever be alone, the closer you will be to each other. Amen.