Sunday, November 26, 2017

balancing the inward and outward journey on christ the king sunday...

NOTE:  This morning I set up for a contemplative Eucharist. It was a quiet and reflective time to rest in God's grace. I have long yearned for such a "retreat" like celebration and give thanks to God that today we did so for Christ the King Sunday. What follows are essentially the notes for today's homily

Some of you knew that I was on retreat in Ottawa right before Thanksgiving: it was a time for personal reflection as well as discernment for me. It was a beautiful way to prepare for Thanksgiving, too as it gave me the chance to ponder the things that really matter to me at this moment in life: things that make Christ’s love flesh within me, things that I cherish about serving God as your pastor in these closing months of my ministry, things that bring me life and light in the larger world and a bit about how they all fit together. I was so very, very grateful for this time. And then returning – in anticipation of Thanksgiving Day – was joy upon joy: embracing Dianne, being devoured by Lucie, cooking our simple feast together, hiking in the woods in the crisp autumn air, resting and napping in the late afternoon. Joy upon joy, yes? My prayer is that you, too had a restorative Thanksgiving – one filled with grace and love, good food and good company – and most of all peace.

While I was away, I learned a few new songs Рprayer chants, actually, in French and English Рwhich I played over and over during the retreat. One, from the Communauté Chemin Neuf Рthe New Life Community of Lyon, France - is a setting for Psalm 138 and goes like this:

Je te benis mon createur, pour la merveille que je suis,
Tous ces tresors au fond de moi que tu as mis sans faire de bruit

I bless you my Creator for the wonder that I am;
All the treasures in the core of me you have placed without making a sound.

I share it with you this morning at the start of our conversation on Christ the King Sunday for two reasons: first, I love the sound of this chant. Like the very ministry of Jesus, it honors the paradox of faith where we praise God tenderly for the blessings and wonder the Lord has already placed deep within us. We start with the mystery of grace – not sin and never shame – but always grace. And second, because grace is at the core of our being, we gently remember that we can do nothing to earn or purchase this blessing. Grace is there from the beginning and will be there beyond this life, too. It is a celebration of original blessing rather than original sin.

Christ the King Sunday has long struck me as the perfect way to close the church year: it takes place at the start of our winter, it speaks to us of what being nourished by the spiritual gift of grace looks like our ordinary lives, it celebrates the mystery of God’s presence within and among us in love, and does all of this paradoxically. Softly and tenderly – beyond the bluster and busyness of our “Black Friday” culture – like the Psalm says: You have placed ALL these treasure in the core of me without a sound. As you may have gathered, I adore this holy day almost as much as Christmas Eve. Because like winter itself, Christ the King Sunday is all about seeing the counter cultural way of Jesus with clarity.

The author and teacher, Parker Palmer, put it like this: “winter clears our landscape, however brutally, giving us the chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to the very ground of our being” if we are paying attention. Spring is about the mud, summer about abundance, autumn asks to be ready to let go of what is not truly essential so that we might be free, while winter cuts to the core. Like the Scripture for this Sunday, Palmer writes that the season of winter tells us that “until we enter boldly those fears we want to avoid, those fears will dominate us. Control us. But when we walk directly into them – protected, of course, from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship and spiritual guidance – then we can learn what our fears have to teach us. We can discover once again that the cycle of life is trustworthy and life-giving even in the most dismaying season of all.” (Parker Palmer, Listen to Your Life, p. 103)

I think I hear Jesus telling us something like this in his parable of the sheep and the goats at the close of Matthew 25. I don’t want to sentimentalize or trivialize these words – they are among my favorite in all of the New Testament – so let me first give you a little Biblical background and then invite you to share out loud with me what speaks to you about this parable. And because my time is growing short with you, I want to ask you to do me a favor today: please don’t sit silently and stare back at me when I ask you these questions, ok? If you need to go out right now and get a cup of coffee to wake you up – or go to the restroom so you are more comfortable – please, do it, ok? It is so discouraging to ask a simple question and receive only… silence.

So here are three things you need to know about this parable in its context: This story comes as the conclusion of a long series of apocalyptic insights Jesus gives to his disciples and friends just before he goes to Jerusalem to face betrayal, abandonment and the Cross. Each of the preceding stories speak of being awake and ready for God’s surprise that will come when we least expect it: like a thief in the night, like an invitation from the king to a wedding banquet, like a summons to light the marriage hall in the middle of the night and all the rest. Do you recall those stories? Remember how I encouraged you to be ready to put on your party dress like Tom Petty? St. Matthew places the sorting of the sheep and the goats at the close of this series.

The first clue for us to consider, therefore, is that God comes to us NOT as we expect the Lord, but in ways that take us by surprise and even up-end our expectations. Are we clear about that? What do we start to celebrate NEXT Sunday? Advent, right? And what is the core of Advent spirituality? Waiting quietly in the darkness to discover the surprising and even unexpected places God becomes flesh in our world, right? Like Bethlehem? As a baby? Or on a Cross dying in disgrace? Ok?

The second clue for Christ the King Sunday is the mixture of both judgment and grace taking place here: this is a parable about the consequences to the choices we make every day. And those choices take us towards grace or face-to-face with judgment. I have come to believe that liberal American Christians often act like there is no such thing as judgment any more. Since we gave up our obsession with petty sins, we seem to believe that God’s grace is always ours for the taking whenever we want a blessing. This renders the Creator more like a 24-hour convenience store dispensing forgiveness without cost than the Source of life itself. Small wonder the German theologian Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace: It is insulting to the Lord and dishonest to us. So I am NOT saying that the Lord sits and capriciously zaps us with hellfire and brimstone over minor peccadilloes, stupid words or even periodic acts of selfishness or gluttony. That would be superstitious and needs to be thrown into the dustbin of history.

But I am saying that when we consistently live without regard to the order of nature, the rhythm of God’s invitation to the kingdom, or the ways of compassion and justice, there are consequences – and this is how we experience judgment. We pollute the air long enough and somebody starts dying of cancer. We sexually abuse women – and young men and children – long enough and when the time is right, some of us are out-ed and degraded publicly as predators and pedophiles. We live like we are the crown of creation and the center of the universe without regard to the cries of the poor and vulnerable and in time our own arrogance and greed become our downfall as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe just discovered. And that’s just what Jesus describes among the nations in the separation of the sheep and the goats: those who have built into their habits the ways of compassion, tenderness and solidarity are welcomed by God in this life and the next; while those who consciously choose to ignore the Lord never feel God’s grace in the moment – and reap what they sow forever. In other words, there are consequences to our commitments in life, in death and in life beyond death.

And the third insight I want to call to your attention is a clarification of what judgment means in the Bible: too often we equate judgment with either TV’s “Law or Order” or with some type of moral punishment. But Biblical judgment is bigger than our culture’s pettiness: judgment in the Scriptures is about making things right. It is about restoring balance to human society, refreshing the land, listening to the neglected, caring for the vulnerable, respecting all life as sacred. Biblical judgment is the social expression of God’s inward grace born of living into Christ’s love.

Are you with me here? It is not coincidental that the Greek New Testament word for judgment is… krisis from which we derive the English word crisis: a dangerous opportunity that creates the chance to make things right. So from each of the morning lessons, Christ the King Sunday asks us to consider the social and personal crises of our generation in light of what is out of balance or unjust: it is a call to consider how our lives contribute to either the joy of the Lord or the anguish of God’s people – and what needs to be changed.

So dear friends… now it is your turn: Jesus told his friends just before he headed to the Cross that their lives had been enfolded into both God’s grace and judgment in surprising ways. Even the worst reality – like his death on the Cross – can be transformed by God into a path that brings new life to birth.

+  So, first, can you think of a time when your world was surprised by either God’s unexpected grace or judgment? Have you ever experienced a sorrow that became joy? Or discovered something holy in the most unexpected place?

+  Second, do you see the consequences of human activity becoming judgment in our society?
Are there events you can name where living outside of God’s rhythm have created problems and pain? What about those places where human consequences are becoming blessings – can you name them, too?

+  And third, what do these crises tell you about setting things right?

In the earliest days of the Christian Church, when Christianity was powerless and on the periphery of Western society, Christ the King became a holy day set to reassure the vulnerable that God’s grace would triumph. The image of the Great Shepherd sitting upon the heavenly throne had political overtones and made sense to those who had been martyred, imprisoned, tortured or abused for their faith. When Christianity became powerful in the West, however, another reality began to shape the soul of Christ the King Sunday. No longer did we look for that time when Jesus would institute a world-wide theocracy, but rather we were asked to discern signs in our everyday lives for places where God’s unexpected mercy, joy, hope, grace and even judgment were breaking into the world beyond our control. We were asked to live in solidarity with the wounded and see God’s face in the most vulnerable.

In the 21st century, Christ the King Sunday asks: where in my little life is the wonder of the Lord being revealed? Where is the baby Jesus being born in my heart? In our congrega-tion? In our community – and world? Where, too, is the Lord being crucified – and what shall I do? The upside-down king who comes to us as a servant shapes our feast – not the military conqueror – but the humble Prince of Peace. As we prepare to receive him in Eucharist, I invite those who have ears to hear: to hear.

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