Sunday, November 21, 2004

Proper 29 C (Last Pentecost)

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:35-43

Well, I bet most of us didn't see this one coming. Here we are, a little less than five weeks away from Christmas, and Jesus is hanging on a cross, being scoffed at by leaders, mocked by soldiers, and even rebuked by the criminal hanging beside him. If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself....Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us....

It is dark. The fires of Pentecost have become glowing embers, and the star has not yet risen in the east. This is the last Sunday of Pentecost, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the last Sunday before we begin again with Advent, and it has been called the Sunday of Christ the King.

Christ the King - we should see Jesus lifted upon his throne, seated at God's right hand, clothed in dazzling white, surrounded by a blaze of glory.

Instead, we see Jesus lifted upon the cross, hanging at a criminal's right hand, barely clothed in rags, surrounded by enemies. Christ the King indeed. Who is this king?

Jesus was fine a couple of weeks ago, still miles and miles from Jerusalem, walking with the disciples, telling stories and parables, healing lepers, sitting at dinner tables. And he'll be fine a few weeks from now, a baby warmly wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, his mommy and daddy smiling down at him, shepherds and wise men on their way to see the tiny king....

So what brings us this day to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where Jesus is not fine - where Jesus is dying an agonzing death on the cross? If our liturgical year didn't cycle around to this day each November, I don't think I would have seen it coming. And I don't think I would have called it Christ the King Sunday when it got here.

When I think of kings and queens, my mind is more apt to wander into fairy tales and history books than into the real-life state of monarchies today. Even the wedding of Charles and Diana seemed more like a fairy tale than a live broadcast to this little girl in her pajamas, up way past her bedtime, wishing she might become a princess one day and wear a beautiful dress and a tiara....

In fairy tales and history books, kings and queens are powerful. They sit on their thrones surrounded by people just waiting to do their bidding. From King George to the Queen of Hearts, they yell, "Off with their heads!" and it happens. Kings and queens wear velvet and satin, they attend balls and banquets, the live in huge castles and the ride the best horses. Kings and queens, perhaps a little more often in fairy tales than in history books, are wise and brave, able to defeat fearsome enemies on the battlefied and to make everyone in their kingdoms live happily ever after.

A peculiar feature of fairy tale kings and queens, though, is that very often, crowns are conferred on the littlest, the youngest, the least likely to rise to royalty. If it didn't happen so often in fairy tales, we might be surprised that the servant-girl makes a wish and wins the heart of a prince, that the farmer solve a riddle and wins the hand of the princess. The real kings and queens, in fairy tales, are not always who we might expect them to be.

Of course, long before fairy tales taught us to expect the unexpected, the Hebrew scriptures recounted tale after tale of those least likely to succeed in leading the people of God. In fact, the most powerful, most notable king in the entire history of Israel started out as a scrawny shepherd boy, too young and too small to join his father and brothers on the battlefield to fight the Philistines. He wasn't exactly king material. But when it counted most, he used his faith in God to help him save his people, and that got him noticed.

You know I'm talking about King David, and you know that once he became king he did some really rotten things. But he always turned back to God not simply with an acknowledgement of his guilt but also with a confession of his faith that God alone was powerful enough to save.

There is something in us that cheers for the little guy, the underdog, the person least likely to succeed. For all we like to get ahead, to earn more money, to make a name for ourselves, to get the bigger house, the bigger car, the bigger office, we all like to see the underdog have his or her day. We're all Red Sox fans, really, cheering like crazy for the players who have almost realized their dream....

We look at rags to riches stories and we think how clever, how talented, how fortunate that someone beat the odds and made it. It's like a fairy tale. But here, finally, is where we return to Jesus, the king born in a stable, the king touching lepers and dining with sinners, the king dying a criminal's death on a cross. This king calls us from riches to rags, calls us to give up all that we have - even our own lives - and walk with him into the darkest corners of the earth. This is Emmanuel, God-with-us. God-with-us. In the story of Jesus Christ, which in our baptism becomes our story, the only way up is down.

Christ the King indeed. Jesus is a king, but not one whose power is in yelling "Off with their heads!" or in raising great armies or securing great wealth. Jesus is not the kind of king we expect, because the kingdom of God is not the kind of kingdom we expect. In the kingdom of God, all power resides in Love. Love that created us. Love that came to save us. Love that died to show us that all the power in the world cannot, in the end, hold a candle to Love. Even from a cross, Love tells us, Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

In the kingdom of God, nothing is what we, with our eyes fixed on the kingdom of get-ahead, might expect. Our wealth means nothing unless it is given away. Our successes mean nothing unless they are in the business of proclaiming the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, who invited those on the margins and in the cracks to join him at the table, to join him in the kingdom, to be with him in Paradise.

The Reverend Mark Sargeant writes, "By this time in Luke's Gospel, we shouldn't be surprised at reversals of this kind....We've seen this coming all along. Luke has been getting us ready ever since Jesus' mother sang a song when she learned she was going to have a baby. You remember what she sang about her boy who would become king? He will scatter the proud. He will bring down the powerful from their thrones. The lowly he will lift up. He will fill those who are hungry, and empty those who are full."

In just a few short weeks, the story of salvation will renew itself as we once again celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, Emmanual, God-with-us. We will once again see that tiny king wrapped in swaddling clothes grow up to show us how to live in the kingdom of God now by loving those whom God loves, which is to say, everyone, even - perhaps especially - those we find most unlovable. On Good Friday we will return to this very spot, to the cross on the hill, where Jesus will die showing us how to live in his kingdom.

In Luke's gospel, Jesus' promise to the criminal is the last thing he says to another human being, and really, it isn't a surprise - it's the entire gospel in miniature form. Jesus Christ, king of kings, hated by the kingdom of get-ahead and surrounded by outcasts, telling a sinner - it could be any one of us, right? - telling a sinner who confesses faith that Jesus alone is powerful enough to save, that he is welcome in the kingdom of God.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God has come near, and we are all its ambassadors - from the littlest to the biggest, from the newest who we will baptize today to the oldest, from the least likely to the most likely to succeed. Not one of us is really fit for th job, but then we do not do it as solitary persons - for together we are the Body of Christ in the world, the Body of Christ the King, whose power is in Love.

Today, you will be with me in Paradise. Happily ever after isn't just for fairytales. Amen.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Sunday after All Saints' Day

Ecclesiasticus 2:1-11; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-36

When my brother and I were little, my dad read to us every evening after dinner. We climbed up on the sofa and listened as he read to us about brave adventurers, great journeys, talking animals and distant lands. The books we read together are still among my favorites, and I look forward to reading them to my own son, to little Charlie, one day.

Already story time is an important part of our routine. When his pajamas are on and his teeth are brushed, Charlie rushes to his room to pick out his favorite books. We climb up on his bed and take turns reading or telling the stories. Charlie knows the books as well as we do, which isn't hard when you've read The Cat in the Hat eighteen nights in a row....

I hope that Charlie will always love story time. We've actually been reading to him since a few weeks before he was born, when we discovered the first Harry Potter book and decidd to read it out loud. It was a fun way to mark off the evenings - each chapter one night closer to Charlie's due date. Harry Potter will always remind me of Charlie, just like the books my dad read will always remind me of him.

I will never forget the day I arrived to pick up Charlie from daycare just minutes after he had fallen and bumped his head pretty hard. His teachers had cleaned up most of the dirt and tears, and when the sniffles finally stopped I asked him what had happened. And then Charlie told me a story. I didn't catch all the words (he was just 2), but the story definitely ended with a dramatic, "and...and...and then, crash!"

The goose egg on Charlie's forehead was impressive. But even more impressive was the long, thin, red scratch right down the middle. He looked like Harry Potter.

In the book, Harry learns that the scar on his forehead was the result of an evil spell gone awry, cast at him by an evil wizard, but intercepted by his parents. The scar marks him, but underneath it is a deeper mark still. Harry's wise old teacher explains, "Your parents died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort (the evil wizard) cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your parents' for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign....but to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loves you is gone, will give you some protection forever. It is in your very skin."

We, too, are marked by such a love. Do you feel it, just there on your forehead? At our baptism, our foreheads were marked with a cross. Not a scar, no visible sign....but to have been loved so deeply....With the sign of the cross we are sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever. It is in our very skin, and as we rise dripping from the waters of baptism, it seeps into our souls.

Harry's mark sets him apart from other people, and so, in one sense, does ours - we are set apart by God in baptism. Set apart to do the work of God in the world, to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. Set apart to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Set apart to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

Doing the work of God sets us apart, because it is so often not the way the world works. The world asks us to proclaim ourselves; to seek and serve what is best for us; to be in competition with our neighbors; to strive for getting even or, worse, getting ahead; to rank rather than to respect the dignity of every human being. It is not easy to be set apart by God.

Which makes this morning's gospel take my breath away. I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

It seems the baptismal covenant lets us off easy. In these words from Luke's gospel, we are given our most basic - and most difficult - instruction in what it means to bear the mark of Christ. The instruction? Love. Love. At all times, and in all places, Love. For in everything we do - at home, at school, at works, in the streets - in everything we do, we carry with us our vocation as baptized people. The mark of the depth of God's love for us is indelible - it goes where we go, and it meets who we meet.

We are set apart. But, unlike poor Harry Potter, we are not set apart alone. Today we are celebrating the great feast of All Saints, celebrating the lives and witness of all those who have gone before us in the faith. The dictionary defines a saint as "a holy person, a faithful Christian, one who shares life in Christ." A holy person. A faithful Christian. One who shares life in Christ. Almost as an afterthought, the dictionary adds, "the term may also indicate one who has been canonized or formally recognized as a saint by church authority."

And so All Saints' Day is about Mary and Jospeh, Peter and our own Paul, Augustine and Julian, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. But it is also about us - it is about Bryan and Greer and Suzanne and Bill. It is about Christopher and Laney, who we will be baptizing today. It is about Edna and Faye and Christopher and Louise and all the others we will name in our prayers, those whose faces we no longer see but whose mark has been left on our lives and in our hearts. Holy people. Faithful Christians. People who have shared with us life in Christ.

Every Sunday we affirm our belief in the communion of saints, which the catechism of our prayerbook defines as "the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer and praise." We are not set apart alone. We are set apart into a family, into a community - the household of God, the Body of Christ.

In just a few moments, when we are asked, "Do you believe in God the Father?", let us imagine as we respond how many voices across time and space have said, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth." When we gather around the font, let us imagine how long must be the procession of those who have entered the waters of baptism. When we kneel at the table, let us imagine how many hands have reached out to take Christ into themselves. We are not alone.

In this place, at this font, at this table, our stories come together with the stories of all who have gone before us and all who will come after. Our stories come together and are rooted in the story of God's love for us, in the story of the cross, in the mark on our foreheads. Not a scar, no visible sign....but do deep a saturation of love in our souls that, as we go out from this place to do the work of God in the world, we may say together with conviction, "I will, with God's help." For we are all of us saints of God, and I mean, God helping to be one, too. Amen.