Year C, Last Sunday after Pentecost November 20, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Today we observe what we call the “Reign of Christ,” which in more familiar and traditionally patriarchal language is known as “Christ the King.” This is not a traditional Anglican feast. First off, it is relatively new, it arose in 1925 by the act of Pope Pius XI (well past our time of having to listen to Popes, though sometimes we should lend our ears). Its purpose was to hold up that the Church has the right to freedom from the state, that the leaders of the nations should at least give respect to Jesus Christ, and that we, the faithful, be reassured and reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, our minds, our wills and our bodies. That all sounds good. It is not on our calendar officially, though, because it was enacted to combat the creeping rise of not only secularism, but also of Protestantism. Hmmm… Not really a holiday for us, is it?
Does anyone know what the official name of this Sunday is according to the Book of Common Prayer? It is the understated “Last Sunday after Pentecost.” Today marks the end of the church year. The great seasonal cycle of Feasts and Fasts begins anew next Sunday with the First Sunday of Advent. After Advent we enter the Christmas Season, then Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and then once we hit Pentecost, we enter the Season after Pentecost also known as??? Ordinary Time. (Ordinary meaning a time not of Feast or of Fast, but of just time).
One of the great gifts of Catholic Christianity is the observance of this cycle. Ritually, with changing prayers and colors, with different things on the Cross up there, with themes and moods, and practices, fasts and such, we ritually observe and frame the progress of time. Ours is an historical faith, we see a beginning and an end; an Alpha and an Omega, but it is not a straight line. Ours is also a very organic faith, it moves at the pace of the sun and the moon. There are cycles and cycles within cycles like the rings of a great fir tree. Each year’s cycle of growth and dormancy adds to the next year’s go around and it grows outward and upward until that one wind comes through, or a fire, or some bark boring pestilence or some timber executive signs a contract and it ends. There is always Resurrection, but it is cyclic. The seasons of the church reflect back to us the true nature of time. There are times of plenty, of feasting and revelry. There are lean times, times of fast and penance and mourning. But most of the time, more than half at least, is Ordinary.
Even if you hadn’t been paying attention to the church calendar, you’ve all been watching the news and reading the paper, you’ve got to realize or at least suspect that right now, we are at the end of ordinary time. If you in any way doubt that we have left ordinary time, all you need to do is listen to an interview on Fox news earlier this week with Carl Higbie, Trump surrogate and co-chair of the Trump-related super PAC Great America, who cited the World War 2 era Japanese internment camps as precedence, PRECEDENCE, for how to deal with the problem of Muslims in our nation. Whether the President-elect agrees or not is unknown, but the fact that there has been no forceful condemnation of even an implication of again building camps to inter undesirable populations in specific locations… that is beyond the pale, unimaginable in public discourse a year ago. Whether this is a dangerous sin of commission or omission, time will tell, but in either case, silence in this matter by the incoming administration is scaring people mightily, it is a sin. It is anything but ordinary.
Over the past week I’ve talked to a lot of people here at Resurrection and out in the community, and there are a lot of reactions happening. Some people are beside themselves. I spoke with a priest who serves a Latino community and they are between furious and terrified. Some homeless folks (and some who serve them closely), are wondering how long ‘til they lose their health insurance and Obama phones. Elizabeth Warren warned women to get to Planned Parenthood now before it closes. LGBTQ couples worry if DOMA-like legislation will rear its ugly head again. Others worry that all hope for the climate will fade if we abandon the Paris accord as promised by a President who ran on a climate-change denying platform. Others are like, “Well, wait and see.” “It was a fair election. What can we do?” I must admit, in the closed circles I walk in, I have not encountered anyone personally who is heartened by the election, or at least who would admit that to me. That is a sign of a very big problem in our nation.
What we do know, what this election cycle has unavoidably revealed is that our nation is incredibly divided, and that while life is really, really good for some of us, it is really, really bad for others of us. For too many it feels bleak and hopeless, unfair and unjust. And this is the experience of a large swath of our entire nation, a nation that those of us who have much have the counterproductive privilege of not having to see if we choose not to. A small number of us have everything, or nearly everything we want, while a majority of others don’t even have everything they need. I have been preaching this since I got here and now there is no possible way for us to pretend that that is not true, and it is actually worse than many of us imagined. And what needs doing has a lot to do with us who have most of what we need.
It is like we are sailing across a wide and open sea. The boat we are in is great; we have everything we need, good food, clean water, nice cabins, our kids are safe and they have awesome things to do and see. Maybe cocktails are served at 5, in first class at least, but for all of us in the boat, it is pretty ok. Who wouldn’t want things to keep on just as they are? Who wouldn’t wish this life for everyone?
But look out on the horizon, and you can see a lot of people down in the water. Most other people are in the water when you look closely, but it is hard to see from this angle. But now, it is like the boat is listing to one side, and now we can see that there are a lot of people in the water and they are coming from port and starboard, from every direction, and do you know what they want? To get on the boat. They are barely keeping their heads above water and are really scared of drowning. They see how much there is and they just want some of it, enough to get by. Finally there is voice being given to the fact that it is not right for some to have so much good stuff, while others are drowning in unwholesome food and foul water, in overcrowded schools, opioids, violence, inaccessible healthcare and nowhere jobs or perpetual unemployment.
So for us, sitting in this boat, is it for us to say, “Be patient, don’t rock the boat!”? “Let’s take our time to analyze this situation and figure out how to make enough so that everyone gets more so long as nothing changes in my life, in our lives?” Gandhi teaches that religion without sacrifice is worse than useless, it is delusional, it is dangerous. Jesus, Jesus gave up everything, everything that He had to give for the salvation of others. We are leaving ordinary time, we are entering the pensive, slightly penitential season of Advent as we prepare for the coming of a whole new world with the arrival of Jesus Christ. Is this going to be a hollow religious observance or are we going to do that spiritual paint-the-fence in order to lead our bodies, our lives into some new pattern, a pattern that reflects what we can no longer deny?
None of us know how bad it is going to be. If you are in any way vulnerable, like being a woman, it is going to be bad, that is assured, but how bad? Apocalyptic kind of bad or just James Watt-Larry Summers-John Ashcroft kind of bad? We just don’t know. What this makes me think about is Pascal’s wager. Do you know about that? Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher mathematician, was concerned about whether to believe in God or not, and he likened it to a wager. The stakes are choosing to live by Godly standards, sacrificing the finite pleasures that Christian life demands, or not, living as decadently, as unmindful of others as you care to. If you wager that God exists and live a Godly life, and God turns out to exist, Jackpot! Infinite rewards await. If you live like that and God does not exist, well, you didn’t stake that much in the scheme of things, a bit of finite pleasure.
If you wager that God does not exist, and God doesn’t, well, you are up a few decades of finite decadence. However, if you wager that God does not exist and you live sinfully in this life and it turns out that God in fact does exist, you lose in infinite proportions. So in the end, with all that is at stake, is it worth not making the sacrifice of Godly living with even an off chance of infinite, damnable consequences? Pascal said “no”, and lived a Christian life.
The same logic stands for us right now. If there is even a chance that it could go very wrong, internment camp/closing Planned Parenthood/building a wall/climate catastrophe kind of wrong, shouldn’t we make the sacrifices now to do all we can to prevent that? What is the down side, that we give up some of our privilege before we are forced to? That we do without some things so others might survive? That we are more uncomfortable than we are accustomed? What are the moral and corporeal risks of doing nothing? And we can’t just measure risks by what we risk, what most of us in this room have at stake. We need to measure by a Jesus ruler, what do the least of these have at stake? We have a lifestyle or a 403(b) at stake; others have their freedom, their residency in this nation at stake. Others have their access to clean water, education or heath care at stake. Taking this very seriously is a Christian response because the risks to the most vulnerable are huge. We need to take it seriously from the perspective of the least of these, because they are, possibly, in existential peril. Many already feel that way. It is not worth the risk not to.
So what do we do in this moment? “Faith without works is dead.” What do we do right now if we throw Pascal’s dice? Some of us need to shut it down a bit, stop drinking from the 24-7 hysterical news cycle that has had it mostly wrong so far anyway, and remember that the sun also rises, and that the world may be changing, and rapidly, but not ending. That is true. Some of us need to pick it up a bit, and realize that ignoring it, pretending it is not happening, just accepting it as it is is not a Christian option. That is true, too. But for all of us, we need to be alert. We need to pay attention.
Like I said last week, we need to listen for voice of God in Christ. Jesus will give us “…the words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Open your eyes and ears and spirits as widely as you can, try to see the world for what it truly is and let Jesus speak to you; He will tell you what to do. He will not let you down if you open wide enough. All God’s creatures got place in this choir. What is yours? Orient your life on discerning what God has for you to do. I’ve got suggestions! Come try Lectio Divina next week. Pay attention.
One concrete thing to consider is that we as parish have been asked by Temple Beth Israel to stand by if something happens there. Rabbi Ruhi, in her weekly letter to TBI noted that last Wednesday, the morning after the election, was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a landmark step in the Nazi seizure of power in Germany. We can’t accuse Jewish communities of being alarmist in moments like this. They know more about them then we do. We will stand with them if called.
Another is related to the response to 9-11. What did President Bush suggest we do after 9-11? Go shopping. Get back to business as usual as soon as possible. Return to the ordinary. Where’d that get us but complacent about 15 years of war? No. Absolutely not. That is the choice of privilege. Ordinary time is over for our Latino neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, immigrants of all kinds, black folks, native folks, LGBTQ folks… A Christian response is that ordinary time be over for all of us. That is what solidarity means.
So as we enter the penitential season of Advent, maybe don’t go shopping. Maybe consider a simple Christmas, buy less and protest, reject the consumer culture that made a billionaire TV celebrity our next president. Don’t go shopping on Black Friday or cyber Monday. Swear off Amazon this year. Put the resources expended on the nice to have/want to have towards helping others get what they need to have. Give here, or to Planned Parenthood, or St. Vinnie’s, or your cousin or daughter you know is struggling to get by… be generous! Or at the very least, support the local economy, buy modestly from local artists, crafts-people and farmers, particularly from those obviously at risk right now.
Be generous with your time. Maybe it is time for us to sacrifice a bit more for the whole. Volunteer for Egan. For Second Sunday Breakfast. Get involved in Hospitality Village. Meet people and build relationships across the boundaries that separate our nation. That is a way forward as we begin to learn how bad it is going to be.
If you want the situation in the world before us to change, we must be willing to change. As Cornell West, my former academic advisor and great Christian public intellectual says, “It takes courage to ask – how did I become so well adjusted to injustice?” It takes courage to see that ordinary time is over. Be courageous. Have faith that Jesus Christ came into the world for us in precisely in a moment like this, and He is with us right now and His light shines “on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” And always, pray.
Remember St. Paul’s words to his brothers and sisters in Colossae. They fit well in this moment. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience…” AMEN