Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Kingly foundations . . .
Today marks that most unAmerican of days in the Christian calendar, the day we call Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King Sunday marks the last day in the liturgical year—next week we will be celebrating Advent—and it reminds us of the governance we can expect when our Lord returns. It is quintessentially unAmerican because it describes the King. We tend to think democracy is the best kind of government. How do we call rectors? We vote on Search Committees and Vestries. How do we call bishops? We vote in two orders, lay and clergy by diocese. How do we call Presiding Bishops? We vote by orders, bishops and delegates, both of which are sent by participating dioceses. Our church functions similarly to the way our country does, which is not surprising given that many founders were also members of the Church of England and, later, the Episcopal church. And yet we proclaim that one day, one glorious day in the future, our Lord will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. We won’t gather in heaven and vote on what we will be doing. Our Lord will tell us. And so today becomes a day that can kind of stick in our own craw when we celebrate it; worse, if not explained properly to those outside the church, it can serve to repulse them.
For background of discussions today, I wanted to look at the passage from Ezekiel. The passage before our reading today reminds us of the relationship between Israel and God. When Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt, God goes with them. God goes with them in a real, if not entirely tangible, way. He provides the pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day. Once they have journeyed to the appointed place, God instructs Moses and the elders how to build His Tabernacle. From that point forward, whenever Moses must speak with God, the cloud will descend into the Tabernacle to converse with Moses. It was a special position for Israel. God really was in the midst of them, in His dwelling-place. He was their God, and they were His people.
But what happens? Over time, Israel begins to think of itself as not like the other nations of the world. They look around and notice these other nations with kings. They ask the prophet Samuel to ask God for a king. Samuel, of course, is upset by this request. God reminds Samuel that it is He that is being rejected and to do as they ask. So, Israel votes on a king to replace God. Despite God’s warnings about human kings, Saul is elected by the people and anointed by Samuel. Over time, as God predicted, Saul refuses to obey God or even seek His advice. Worse, and this is really where Saul differs from David, Saul is unwilling to repent of his sins. Saul is unwilling to yield his desires, his wants, to the commands and expectations of the Lord.
If you have ever spent any time studying the books of Samuel or Chronicles or Kings, you know that very few of those kings that followed earned the praise of God. David is a king after God’s own heart. He sins, big; but he always repents of his sins. Solomon does a pretty good job, until he marries the foreign women who lead him from the wisdom and worship of God into idolatry. Josiah is unique in that he is praised and given a long rule. Most of those who follow in the lineage of David, though, do far worse than their fathers. Time and time again, Scripture describes the rule of the kings as abhorrent to God. Time and time again they do far worse than their fathers and grandfathers.
Fast forward to our reading from Ezekiel today. In the passage just before our reading today, the shepherds are devouring the choicest lambs. The shepherds are supposed to be taking care of the flock, but they prey on those whom God has charged them to lead. God declares that He will hold the shepherds accountable for the flock. Then He makes the claim we read today. He will pastor His flock. He will care for His sheep. He will be their God; they will be His people. Can you imagine the significance of what God is saying? How many times do we wonder if He cares? How many times do we listen to the whispers of His Enemy and believe that we are beneath His notice? How many times do we choose to sin, fully aware that it is, hoping He is like an inattentive parent who will not notice or be too busy to think it is really bad? Yet His judgement in the passage right before this reminds us that He pays attention to the littlest of the lambs in His flock. Put in the language of Matthew 25, what the shepherds do to the lambs they do to Him!
Christ the King Sunday reminds us that one day, all this inattention, all this preying on us by the shepherds, all the droughts and diseases, all these consequences of rejecting Him as King will come to an end. One day, one glorious day in the future, we will celebrate the fact that God is truly dwelling among us. He will be our God; we will be His people. We won’t have to vote because He will rule us. We won’t have to worry because He will be providing for us. He will be the Host. He will be the Groom. He will be the Waiter. We will be the bride and the guest at the Wedding Feast. It’s amazing imagery to be sure. But how do we convince modern Americans this is what they want? How do we convince the rest of the world that sometimes risks life and limb to make their way to our shores that democracy falls short of the kingship promised by the Lord?
As you all know, I was in Rome at the beginning of the month. The idea for this sermon popped into my head while I was there. As those of you who follow me on Facebook know, a lot of money was spent on our recent elections. I think nearly $75 million was spent on just our Senate race in Iowa. It seems like at least that much was spent on the Illinois House race. That last week in October saw increased political ads for the less important spots. The most wonderful part of Rome, as you have now figured out, was the blessed absence of political commercials. Yes, a television could be on or a radio could be on, and there was no Joni Ernst/Bruce Braley/Cheri Busto/Bobby Schilling advertisements to be heard. Can you imagine the peace? Can you imagine the happiness? You are laughing but only because you have not had to hear one of their advertisements for the last two weeks. Think how good this would have sounded before the election. Now add in all those other advertisements. You get an idea of the bliss promised us by our Lord.
All kidding aside, how long do you think it will be until we are disappointed by one of those whom we elected? How many days or weeks do you think it will be until you find out the position upon which they ran has shifted like sand? If a priest shows up here in February claiming that a politicians lied, will you be surprised? Or will you just assume he or she opened their mouth? It sounds cynical, but don’t we understand what God is saying in Ezekiel 34? Those who are charged with protecting us prey upon us? Those who are supposed to make it possible for us to pursue life, liberty, and happiness are willing to trample us and our rights to get theirs. What we offer, part of the Gospel, is that the Lord will dwell among us, that He will be our God and we will be His people! There will be no democracy. There will be no campaigning. There will be no weak preyed upon by the strong. The Shepherd will not be devouring His flock. He will be lovingly, tenderly, justly caring for His flock, from the littlest lamb to the oldest ram and all the sheep in between.
Unless you think this is only a long-dreamed-for event in our country, I got a view of some who desire it in Rome. While I was out and about in Rome, I ran into a cardinal in full regalia. He was actually on the other side of the street when I first noticed him, but he made it across the street before I could get passed him. I noticed he was passing out coins, laying hands and praying for others, and simply talking with still others. People were clutching at his cassock which, truth be told, seemed a brave event. It looked like a very well tailored cassock with nice think threads marking his position. When he crossed the road, he asked me about my green clergy shirt in perfect English, wanting to know my obscure order. I told him I was an Episcopal priest in Rome working against human trafficking. He held up a hand and offered me what sounded like an Italian blessing—I say sound like because he eventually got to the “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” as he made the sign of the cross.
When I made it back to the dorm that night for evening meal, I asked a friend I had made among the Roman Catholics what I had seen. He asked me where I was, then he told me I had simply seen Cardinal “So and so” campaigning. Like you, I was a bit taken aback. Campaigning for what? I wondered. Another Vatican official answered, as my friend was drinking his wine. “to be the next Pope.” It was then explained to me that some Cardinals make quite the show of being out and among their people in Rome, trying to win the support of the people. The problem with the Cardinal that I had met, he went on to say, was that he misunderstood what made Francis so popular. Francis did not do ministry, so far as he could tell, for public accolades. In fact, he went on, His Holiness is rumored to give their version of the Secret Service fits by slipping out in “regular clothes.” Both men wondered whether Francis was the first ever to give up the site cassock voluntarily. Of course, both had to be somewhat circumspect in their criticism. Both acknowledged that the Cardinal I had met might one day succeed the Holy Father.
While I can tell you the substance of our conversation, I cannot relate to you the tone in their voice. Both men are part of the Vatican machinery. Everyone who stayed in the dorm where I stayed is at least a midlevel Vatican official. Both men enjoyed the fact that Francis sneaks out to serve people. While they were sympathetic to the plight of the new Security Chief, both thought Francis’ willingness to be among the people was great for the Church. He was really trying to earn the mantle of St. Peter by being a servant of all. To them, Francis was a fresh wind blowing. And the Cardinal I had met represented the stale, putrid air of old. When I asked them why they were so critical of the Cardinal, thinking maybe he was really like Francis, both informed me that the Cardinal in question had no history of such activities in his home country. When he is in Rome, this is how he acts; when he is home, he is more a prince of the Church. Ouch.
Like us, our Italian brothers long for those who serve. Like us, our Italian brothers are energized by the thought that someone who seems to be a true disciple of Jesus could be named Pope. Like us, they have been so disappointed by men who have devoured the flocks, they have become cynical. Like us, they long to work with and for those whose hearts have been transformed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Like us, they long for that day when God will truly be Emmanuel, God with us!
My last conversation about how Christ the King Sunday speaks to us today was from a teenager from outside the parish. A local school brought kids in their religion to church see our worship space and to ask me questions. Let me tell you what, we need to keep our youth pastors in our prayers! Those who deal with teenagers have a special ministry on behalf of the Church. Anyway, this one youth asked me how many Christian denominations there were in the world. When I answered that it was hard to tell, but somewhere in the 30-40,000 range for denominations, everyone looked like they had misheard me. The instructor, trying to clarify things for me, said that the youth wanted to know how many denominations existed in the world. I laughed and told them I understood the question. There were, really somewhere around 35,000 denominations in the world. As everybody murmured and tried to decide whether I was right, the youth popped off “You guys sure don’t act like you believe Jesus was the Son of God.” When I asked why, he responded that if Jesus was the Son of God, you would think we would do a better job of staying one, just as Jesus said He and the Father were One. Ouch.
The instructor sought to intervene, but I thought the question fair and said the same. It was such a great question this week that I spelled it out for his classmates. One of the great prayers of Jesus is that we would be one as He and the Father are One. That is why divisions in the church are to be avoided. In our song, The Church’s One Foundation, that we sing from time to time, the robe of the Bride is distressed by heresies and torn by schisms. I laughed. When he asked the question, the youth had no idea about Christ the King Sunday. He had no idea that we Christians are supposed to long for hearts and minds of God. But do we really? Do we really want His heart, His eyes, His everything to lead us? Or would we rather keep Him at a bit of a distance from our hearts? Every time we are moved to divide, every time we are moved to split from one another, our testimony to the world is that our system of worship, our way of governing ourselves, and even our way “doing theology” is more important than our way of expressing the Gospel in our lives. Our One Foundation has become in many places anything but the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And yes, the world notices. Even youths not yet in our church know that our fights dishonor our Lord and King. And still we fight.
Brothers and sisters, this day reminds each one of us that we are called to serve The Lord and The King. Sometimes our political situation or religious contexts or even our upbringing can cause us to forget this wonderful truth. Next week, we will begin the new year and the season of Advent. We will remind ourselves that, just as the Babe lying in a manger can to us, so will our Savior return to dwell with us. One day, one expectant day in the future, He will come. One Day, one expectant day in the future, He will come to live among us from that day forward and forever more. On that day, the wolves will have been cast out of the sheepfold, the bad shepherds removed from their responsibility, and those who have been victimized will be restored. On that wonderful Day, we will be able to burn the ballot boxes, cast aside our divisions like so many bad memories, and live in Unity with the One who died that we might all be One in Him. That is why we remember this day that Christ is truly King!