One Child

Sunday Evening

I needed worship today. I needed to sing the hymns and hear the prayers and feel the presence of the community.   Maybe that’s why I had such a hard time finding the sermon. (“Finding” the sermon is my description of my process of studying and listening to the text to discern what it has to say to us on this occasion. I could always talk about the text, what’s going on in the story, the social context of the narrative, the structure of the narrative, etc, but worship isn’t Bible study. We aren’t there to learn about the text. We are there to hear the text, to let it speak to us, to let it draw us deeper into Christ, to let it shape our worship, to let it shape our lives. Sometimes we have to learn about the text in order to hear it, but the point is to hear God speaking to us through it.)

But I had trouble finding the sermon this week. When I rose to read the Gospel this morning I still hadn’t found it. When this happens to me I find that I need to come down and stand in the aisle. I need to get close to the gathered community. It helps, sometimes, to see real faces. Especially when I don’t know what I’m going to say. But, as I began to speak, I realized the problem was that this had been a very intense and personal week, but the texts were cosmic in scope. This was the feast of Christ the King. We read Daniel about the coming reign of God. We said a psalm about the kingship of God. The second reading from the opening chapter of Revelation spoke about Christ coming on the clouds. And our Gospel had Jesus before Pilate declaring his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world.

But this wasn’t a week in which we were thinking about the grand sweep of history. This was a week in which a boy in our parish had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and rushed into surgery. He posted the brain scan on his Instagram account with the simple words “I have a brain tumor.” It scared the wits out of every adult in the parish.

Nations have been warring this week, and politicians spouting. But this had not been a week in which the nations and the consummation of human history mattered to me. What mattered was one child, one family, one desperate prayer for grace and healing. It has been a week of great international tragedies and fears, but our fear was for one boy.

It was only as I began to speak to the congregation that I found the message of the text for us. Fear is fear. Whether it is fainting with fear at what is coming on the world, or fainting before a very personal fear, fear is fear. And the message that God is God speaks to every fear. History is in God’s hands. And we are in God’s hands. And this child is in God’s hands. To our fear comes the promise that our world – and our lives – are God’s.

Jesus tells Pilate he comes as witness to the truth. The Greek version of the scriptures that was used by the nascent Christian community routinely translates the Hebrew references to the faithfulness of God with the Greek word ‘truth’. Truth is personal in the scriptures. Truth is not doctrine or propositions but the steadfastness, the faithfulness, the firmness of God. He is truth. Jesus is a witness to God’s faithfulness.

So whether our fear is at the roaring of the seas, the warring of the nations, or the very personal crises we face, God is faithful. He reigns. Not like the nations of the world. He reigns in love. And his reign is everlasting.

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Every beastly empire

File:Louvre saint michel rf1427.jpg

Saint Michael, the Archangel, slaying the dragon

Thursday

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.

The artists of the medieval church gave us graphic and frightening images of the last judgment. Christ and his apostles sit over a scene where demons drag the condemned down into the fiery pits below, while angels escort the righteous up into the heavenly city. It is an image repeated often. On the town clock in Prague a skeleton turned an hourglass at the tolling of the hour to remind us all we were one hour closer to death and judgment. The ministrations of the church were required to save you from the pits of hell and, even then, we were not ready for bliss without the millions of years required to purge us of our sinfulness.

It is a vivid image, now mostly forgotten. We live in a society where there is either no afterlife, or the afterlife is a blissful reunion with loved ones open to all. The notion we are all destined for peace is not shaken by texts such as this from Daniel – for the scripture has lost its authority. We know better. Or, at least, we prefer our own sentiments to those of the ancient world recorded in the holy books.

We think we are so much wiser than the ancients, though we still do not know how to build a pyramid. Humility is called for. And some care and caution – for most of humanity has believed for most of human history that there is accountability in the life to come for the way we have lived this life.

But careful reading of the scripture is also called for – for here, in this vivid imagery from Daniel, it is not the individual life that is called to account; it is the beastly kingdoms of the world.

The author of Daniel had very specific kingdoms in mind, writing as he did while Antiochus Epiphanes IV was seeking to “modernize” Israel’s ancient faith. In typical imperial form, he imposed his will on the people, slaying those who refused to eat pork or secretly circumcised their children. When rebellion broke out, he cleverly attacked on the Sabbath, slaughtering the mass of Judeans who refused to break the law by lifting the sword on the Sabbath.

The human imperial impulse manifests itself again and again in death. There are no end to wars, no end to the slaughter of innocents, no end to the stirring of hate and shutting of hearts and doors to those in need. And empire follows empire. The author of Daniel looks back upon Babylon, Medea, Persia and Alexander and his generals. Since then we have had Rome and Caliphates and the Imperial powers of Europe who have left such a devastating inheritance to Africa and the Middle East. We have had Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and the American corporate empire. And, in the small spaces in between the great empires, many small terrors of every political stripe. The Arminian Genocide. Rwanda. Idi Amin. South Africa. The Congo. Isis.

Daniel’s vision is not a threat that our lives will be judged; it is a promise that kingdoms will be judged. Every tyranny shall be thrown down, every beastly empire. And, in the end, shall come an empire like “a son of man,” like a human being. An empire from God (thus the clouds) not out of the remnants of the primordial chaos (the sea). A reign of justice, faithfulness and peace. A reign of grace and life.

Daniel saw this promise embodied in a vision. We have seen this promise enfleshed in Jesus. For he brought a reign of healing and life. And he has given us his Spirit. And the day shall come when the beasts are judged and the crucified and merciful one alone shall govern. Every land. Every heart. A world made new.

 

Image: By Bourgogne, second quart du XIIe siècle (Neuceu) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“So you are a king?”

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Watching for the Morning of November 22, 2015

Christ the King:
Proper 29 / Lectionary 34

Year B

“So you are a king?!” Pilate must imagine himself to be immensely clever. He, the shrewd and powerful politician, he the noble and cultured Roman amidst these unsophisticated provincials, has gotten this Galilean peasant to admit his pretensions to kingship. But like everything in John’s Gospel, there are two layers of meaning to this admission. Pilate hears a zealot messiah, someone who thinks he has been granted the kingship of Judea by God. Another of the many such rabble who seem to be roaming these hills. One of the many such deluded crusaders that will bring this nation to destruction thirty years later – just as Caiaphas feared. But what Pilate seems unable to hear is that Jesus’ kingship is unlike the kingships of this world.

Pilate is a Roman version of Nicodemus, who puzzled over the literal and wondered how to get back into the womb. Only Pilate isn’t seeking truth. Pilate just hopes to get out of this rebellious and godforsaken corner of the empire with his career intact. Pilate may be a sycophant, but he understands power. He is a child of imperial Rome. Rule comes from Roman legions. The twelfth legion, in his case.

But here before him is a king unlike the kings of this world. He doesn’t take up the sword; he endures it. He doesn’t take life; he gives it. He doesn’t slay his enemies; he forgives them, reconciles them. His show of strength is hidden in frail human flesh, bleeding. He witnesses to the truth at the heart of the universe.

This Sunday is the feast day of Christ the King. Such a title could lend itself to triumphalism if it were not hidden in the mystery of the crucified.

So we read Daniel, whose vision of four beastly kingdoms rising out of the sea moves towards its climactic vision of God’s judgment of those beastly kingdoms and the arrival of a new kingdom, “one like a human being,” coming “on the clouds of heaven” – from the realm of divine not the primal chaos. And this humane kingdom is eternal.

We hear the psalmist sing, “The LORD is king!” but its exultant cry is shaped by Jesus before Pilate and by John’s witness that it is the pierced one who is ruler of the kings of the earth.

Dominion, true dominion, everlasting dominion belongs to God – a reign embodied in the one Pilate cannot see: The one who does not answer hate with hate. The one who does not answer violence with violence. The one who answers cruelty with mercy, and curses with blessing. The one who answers power with service. The one who answers our deceits with truth. The one who embodies the truth of God.

The prayer for November 22, 2015

Almighty and ever-living God,
source and goal of all that is:
in your Son, Jesus, the world is met by its true king.
Grant us ears to listen to his voice
and ever abide in your truth
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The texts for November 22, 2015

First Reading: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
“As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne.”
– The prophet’s vision of four beastly kingdoms concludes with his vision of God upon the throne and dominion given to “one like a human being” (a “son of man”).

Psalmody: Psalm 93
“The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty.” – A hymn celebrating God’s reign over all creation.

Second Reading: Revelation 1:4b-8
“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.” – The Revelation to St. John begins as a letter with its central theme of the coming of Christ Jesus to reign.

Gospel: John 18:33-38a
“My kingdom is not from this world.” – Jesus stands before Pilate accused of being a royal pretender.

 

Image: James Tissot, Jesus Before Pilate, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons