Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Unlikely Throne

Luke 23:33-43
November 24, 2013
Christ the King Sunday

            Along with everything happening in the world this past week, the news item that I have seen over and over is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Friday was the 50th anniversary of that terrible day, but every day leading up to the anniversary saw at least one news report about it; how it changed the country, politics, our future as a nation.  There have been specials on JFK’s early life, his heroic actions in World War II, his rise to the presidency and how his presidency actually played out from election to assassination.  It has been chilling to be reminded again of how close we came to actual nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I have wondered how the Civil Rights Movement would have played out had he not been killed.  And even though I wasn’t around yet, it’s almost impossible not to feel the pain and terrible loss that followed his death. 
            One of my kids, watching one of the many news reports about Kennedy with me, commented, “There were like royalty, weren’t they?” 
            Our nation was built on the premise that royalty was not for us.  We declared our independence from the oppression and tyranny of King George’s unjust rule.  We built our democracy on the idea that power should never rest in one person’s hands alone.  Checks and balance.  Three different branches of the government.  The ability to have our say in how we’re governed.  But in spite of that, royalty holds a fascination for us.  I may not have been around yet for Kennedy’s presidency, but I’ve grown up hearing his time in the White House described as Camelot.  Camelot, that mythical place of Arthurian legend, where peace and beauty and grace resided – at least for a short time. 
            They were like royalty weren’t they? 
            If Kennedy’s presidency was compared to Camelot, it’s not because there was unparalleled peace and justice during his time.  That’s not a slight against Kennedy, it’s just reality.  The reference to Camelot is a reference to the hope and the optimism that came with his presidency.  But don’t we do that with every elected official?  Isn’t that why we vote for the people we vote for, no matter who these people are, because we want to believe that the leader, president, governor, senator, etc. will make things right.  Whatever may be wrong at the time, we want our leaders to make things right.  For many of us, we’ve become cynical as to anyone’s ability to do that.  But deep down, I think that’s what we hope for.  We invest our hopes and our desires for our state or our country in the persons in office.  We want them to make it right.
            I don’t think that’s much different from what the people of Israel did with Jesus.  They wanted him to make things right.  They wanted him to break the yoke of Roman tyranny.  If he was, in fact, the Son of God, the Messiah, then surely he would rule as a great king; greater even than King David.  As the Messiah, he would be a ruler.  He would be a warrior.  He would save them.  He did, just not in the way he expected.  The inscription, “This is the King of the Jews,” may have been meant as a mockery, but I am certain that many saw him as that.  King. 
            I didn’t realize it, but there is debate among theologians as to whether this day should be referred to as “Christ the King” or the “Reign of Christ.”  For many the problem with calling it Christ the King is that the word “king” carries the same kinds of connotations for us as it did for the people of Israel.  Maybe, unintentionally, it perpetuates the image of Jesus ruling as King in the way we understand kingship.  A king should have power and authority and the ability to destroy enemies before the enemies do the destroying.    
            However calling this day the reign of Christ designates what Jesus did, what Jesus does, instead of giving him a label.  With his life and his death and his resurrection, Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God.  The kingdom he reigns over.
In light of this dissention, it may be helpful to know a little bit more about the history of this Sunday.  Christ the King wasn’t actually a day on the church calendar until 1925.  In that year Pope Pius IX declared the last Sunday before Advent a feast day, the day when we recognize Christ as King.  What were the circumstances surrounding Pope Pius’s decision?  Well, World War I was over.  I don’t need to tell the history buffs out there that World War I was also known as “The Great War,” because it was supposed to be the war to end all wars.  But as early as 1925 the stage had been irrevocably set for another war.  A global depression loomed.  Across Europe, leaders were rising who were rallying people around themes of fear, hatred and suspicion.  Anyone who didn’t look, act or think like them were to be distrusted.  We know the monstrous outcome of that distrust.  It wouldn’t be long before names like Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were known throughout Europe and throughout the world. 
Pope Pius realized that people were being drawn away from the gospel of Christ.  They were following a different kind of leader, a different kind of king.  So what better way to end the church year, than by proclaiming to all the world that no matter what earthly leaders may rise and fall, it is Christ who is our one true King.  So now, the Sunday before Advent is known as Christ the King.
It seems to me that the disagreement over whether this day should be known as Christ the King or as the Reign of Christ is misleading.  It is both.  Pope Pius made this day a feast day as a way to remind Christians that Jesus was the King, but not in the manner of the kings and rulers and leaders of this world, even the best of them. 
Jesus as King has authority, true, but it is the authority of God who created life out of chaos; who forgives sins and offers new life.  Jesus as King has power, but it is the power of the suffering servant.  He has the power of the One who shepherds, who protects, who loves, who willingly embraces death so that we may embrace life. 
Jesus the Christ, the King reigns.  Yet his judgments are pronounced from the most unlikely of thrones, the cross.  Christ is King and the kingdom that his reign ushers in is one where death does not have the last say.  Death does not have the last stay.  Christ the King reigns over a kingdom whose foundation is grace and mercy and love.  Christ our King reigns over a kingdom that offers us a second chance, and a third and a fourth and so on. 
On this day when we lift up Christ our King and the Reign of Christ, maybe what we also need to lift up are those parts and pieces of our lives that are broken so that they may be made whole.  We lift up our mistakes not only for forgiveness but that we can try again and try anew.  We lift up our hurts and our fears, our anxieties and our needs, trusting that the grace of Christ’s reign abounds.  Most of all on this day of kingship and kingdom, we open ourselves, our hearts, our minds, our hands, ourselves to God’s love.  Jesus was the incarnation of that love.  The Holy Spirit makes manifest that love as it continues to breathe new life into what was once thought dead. 
Earlier this week, I read and subsequently posted a most powerful quote from Ray Bradbury.  He said, “Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything.”  Christ is King of that answer and it is the ongoing power of his reign.  Christ the King reigns over the kingdom built on love.  Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!  Amen.”                                                                                                                             

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Before I Die

Luke 21:5-19
November 17, 2013

            “Before I die, I want to…”  Last week, thanks to preacher, teacher and blogger David Lose, I discovered a TED talk by Candy Chang.  Chang is an artist, an urban planner and a unique and creative thinker living in New Orleans.  In her TED talk, she describes turning public spaces, especially dilapidated or neglected or forgotten ones, into works of art. 
            A life-changing event in her life prompted her to create art in a public space near her home.  The public art or performance art or however you want to term it was the subject of her talk.  A few years ago Chang lost a dear friend suddenly and without warning.  Chang described this woman as being a mother to her, and her death affected her deeply.  In the wake of this unexpected death, Chang began to think more intently about both death and life.   And out of that reflection and her grief she created art, and laid the groundwork for anyone and everyone to contribute to it.  She, along with the help of friends, turned the side of an abandoned, dilapidated house into an enormous chalkboard.  At the top she stenciled in large letters, like a title, “Before I die…”  Then in rows across the entire length of wall the words “Before I die I want to” followed by a blank line were also stenciled.  Anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk and fill in a blank.  Before I die I want to…   Some of the responses given were funny, some were poignant, and some were inspiring.  Chang said that within 24 hours the wall was full and growing.  People were writing their messages in every possible space provided by this huge public chalkboard. 
            Chang’s idea has gone viral.  People began to contact her about creating their own Before I Die walls.  So she and some of her colleagues created at toolkit for making this wall, and walls have gone up in countries around the world.  This past week Front Porch, the campus ministry group, watched this video at our weekly gathering.  Never underestimate the power of motivated students.  We may see this kind of wall, maybe more than one, not only on the campus of Oklahoma Baptist but also around Shawnee in the next months.  I hope we do. 
            At our gathering, along with getting excited about the possibility of creating our own Before I Die wall, we also talked about how we would fill in the blank.  Before I die I want to …  I’d like for all of you to be thinking about that as well.
At the end of her talk, Chang said that “thinking about death clarifies life.”  That is a powerful statement to consider, not only on a general basis, but more specifically as we delve into this passage from Luke’s gospel.  These verses in Chapter 21 are apocalyptic.  They are about the end times.  In two weeks, on the first Sunday of Advent, we’ll again consider the end times in Matthew’s gospel.  But for now we remain with Luke, and in this passage we find Jesus in the temple. 
            Jesus has been teaching in the temple since the beginning of chapter 20.  The temple was the heart and soul of Judaism; not just in worship but in life.  The temple has been predominant throughout Luke’s gospel.  Anna and Simeon both make prophetic declarations about the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple.  When Jesus was twelve and disappeared from his family, they found him in the temple, astonishing all the learned men around him with a wisdom no twelve-year-old should have possessed.  So it’s not surprising as we move toward the Jesus’ tumultuous last days to find him once more in the temple; teaching and preaching. 
            At the beginning of these verses, people around Jesus are commenting on the beauty of the temple.  They remarked at the beauty of the stones, the foundation of the temple’s architecture, and the gifts to God that had been dedicated there. 
            In response to this, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 
            That must have been disconcerting to say the least.  It would be like us gazing at a beautiful, historical landmark – you can choose which one – and discussing the beauty of it, only to hear, “Yeah, but it’s going to be demolished someday, every single piece.”
            As so often happens when Jesus makes a pronouncement like this, the people with him – disciples and otherwise – want to know specifics.  When?  When is this going to happen?  What are the signs we should be looking for?  Give us the clues, Jesus, so we know what to expect and can make the necessary preparations. 
            Jesus never gives them the answer they’re looking for.  He may mention what seem to be signs:  wars, natural disasters, false prophets.  But he refuses to give them a countdown.  There is no timetable or calendar they can turn to.  Although he doesn’t say this here, in other gospel accounts he tells them that even he doesn’t know the date or the hour.  Only God knows. 
            What I find most interesting about Luke’s account is that he tells those who follow him that they will be persecuted for it.  They will be brought before royalty and heads of state.  When that happens that will be their chance to testify, to witness to God’s creative and redemptive work through the Son.  “So,” he tells them, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you the words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” 
            Yeah, I would have a hard time with that one.  If I’m warned that I will be brought before some of the biggest bigwigs in the land and persecuted and prosecuted for my faith, I would want to have some well-worded turns of phrase at the ready.  Even now, although I don’t live in fear of being persecuted for my faith, I think about how I can defend my faith.  I have enough friends who are not believers that I keep some arguments and apologetics on hand for when we get into discussions about belief. 
            So it seems that not only is Jesus not giving them clues or specifics about when the end times will come, he’s also saying, “Don’t think about it.” 
            Not exactly the answer we’re looking for, is it?  Or is it?  It is impossible to stand in the pulpit today and not be fully aware of the tragedy that has struck the Philippines.  The enormous scale of devastation and loss is beyond my comprehension.  In the last decade we’ve seen nature’s terrible devastation time and time again – the 2004 tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan, Hurricane Sandy, and much closer to home the havoc wreaked by last spring’s tornados – and with each tragedy, I’ve thought, “There’s no way a camera can fully capture the full scope of this devastation.  There’s no way we can fully appreciate how horrible this is unless we are there.”  It’s hard in the face of such tragedy not to wonder.  Is this a sign?
I suspect that may be the question many folks are asking?  Typhoon Haiyan is the largest, most destructive typhoon ever to hit land, so it would not surprise me at all if preachers and others alike are making direct connections to what’s happened in the Philippines to a sign of the end times.  I imagine that there are many who read this passage from Luke and at other apocalyptic passages in Scripture and see the tragedies all around us as confirmation. 
But I don’t think that the challenge for us is to figure out if these are signs or not.  I think the challenge for us is to remember that right now, right here, in the present we are called to live life.  We are called to see life as a gift.  We are reminded by Jesus’ words that we’re not supposed to be about figuring out how the world is going to end, but instead we need to figure out how to live as God calls us to live right now.  The people in the Philippines are our neighbors.  How will we help them right now?  Death can come at any time.  Are we living as though we understand that truth or are we living as though we believe we have forever?  Do we believe that life is a gift that shouldn’t be squandered?  Or do we spend so much time looking for clues and signs and portents that we ignore God’s presence with us now?  God is calling us to live and serve and love and give right now?  Are we doing that?  Are we doing that in our own lives?  Are we living that out as sisters and brothers in Christ?  Are we embodying that as children of God in God’s world?  Before I die I want to …
In your bulletin this morning, you were given an index card.  I’d like for all of us to write down these words, “Before I die I want to …” and then fill in the blank.  You don’t have to show this to anyone.  You don’t have to put them in the offering plate.  They’re not going to be dedicated or consecrated, at least not publicly.  But I want each of us to take what we write seriously.  It doesn’t matter how grand or how simple your hope or dream is.  Take it seriously.  And find a way to do.  God has given us the gift of life.  God has given us the gift of this moment.  We are called to love and serve and be the people we were created to be right now.  How will we receive this gift?  How will we live right now?   Before I die I want to…
Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!  Amen.”

Watch Candy Chang's TED Talk here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Holding On

The following is my upcoming column in the Saturday, November 16th Shawnee News Star.  All my thanks to Anne Lamott for her most recent Facebook post, and for just being her. 

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight.
                                         II Corinthians 5:6-7, New Revised Standard Version

            I want to be Anne Lamott when I grow up.  Anne Lamott is a writer.  She is a mother, a teacher.  She is a storyteller.  She is a woman of both a deep and abiding faith and a wickedly irreverent sense of humor.  I love and admire the style of her works of fiction, but it is her non-fiction that has most moved me.  The poignant vulnerability of her essays makes me realize that I’m not alone in how I think and feel. Like I said, I want to be Anne Lamott when I grow up.

            One of her favorite stories to tell is one she heard on NPR many years ago about researchers working with severely autistic adults.  The following is my paraphrase of Lamott’s telling of this story. 

The autistic adults being studied in this research had never been able or willing to walk by themselves.  But the researchers found that if they tied a rope from one end of a room to another, and helped the people they were working with hold onto the rope, these adults could walk the length of the room by themselves. 

            Gradually the researchers used thinner rope, but it didn’t change what happened.  The adults continued walking across the room.  The researchers used laundry cord, twine, then finally fishing line.  As Lamott writes, fishing line is “basically invisible.  But people would still take hold and walk across the room.”  As Lamott remarked, what makes this study so profound is that eventually the researchers would cut the line into 12 inch lengths.  Those lengths were handed to the adults and they were able to walk the room just holding onto those 12 inches of invisible line.  Lamott said that she would give her writing students 12 inches of fishing line.  As I see it, this served as a reminder that everyone needs some sort of line to hold onto, whether walking or writing. 

            I love this story.  Not only because as a writer I need some fishing line to hold onto, but as a person of faith I need some fishing line to hold onto.  Paul wrote that “we walk by faith, not by sight.”  It is beautiful and inspiring rhetoric, but what does it mean?  Certainly, stepping out in faith is about trust.  Yet I think that more often than not I’ve believed that walking in faith is about me walking by myself; a toddler on unsteady legs.  The trust is not so much about the walking, but about believing, hoping, trusting that God will be somewhere out there waiting for me. 

            I wonder if I’ve gotten it all wrong.  Maybe it’s not so much that God is on the other end of this walking by faith and not by sight, but more that God is walking right there with me.  Perhaps it’s not even that God’s hand is on my shoulder, invisible and unfelt, but still there.  Maybe it’s even more than God handing me the fishing line to hold onto as I slowly creep along in faith.  Maybe God IS the fishing line.  Walking in faith is about trusting that the fishing line, that God, is there.  I don’t have to see the line.  I don’t have to see God.  I just have to trust that I am holding onto God and being guided in the direction I need to go.  I just have to trust that I am holding on. 

            In my church office I have an olivewood cross that I brought back from a trip I made to the Middle East when I was a seminary student.  It stands on the bookshelf behind my desk, serving not only as a visible reminder of God’s love through Jesus, but a reminder I can touch.  I think I’m going to cut 12 inches of fishing line and lay it next to the cross; another visible, tactile reminder that I don’t walk this walk alone.  I walk in faith, not by sight, trusting that God is there, a fishing line, and I am holding on.