Year B, Reign of Christ November 22, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
We, our world hungers for grace and peace. We long for a faithful one, one who speaks with authority.
“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
Commercialism, self-indulgence, isolation, all the forces that tear community apart despite the forces that bind us together. We thirst to be free in the obedience of one worth obeying.
“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.”
Violence, vengeance, the endless war fought from New York to Kabul to Falujah to Aleppo, now back to Paris and everywhere in between. None of us have been left unsullied, confessing as we do the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.
“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” Amen.
I don’t know about you, but the harder I try to follow Jesus Christ the more the Revelation to St. John the Divine seems to make sense.
I am not a very fearful person, not in general, but right now, I am getting there. This past week, following the horror in Beirut, Baghdad, Paris, and now Mali, I’ve had the same sinking foreboding I had back on 9-11; nothing, nothing, nothing good is going to come out of this. States of emergency, black clad police on the streets, calls for invasion as already more bombs are falling. The House, our House voted for more barriers to the very Iraqi and Syrian refugees we confected in our feckless and bungled invasion… fear, fear, fear, all over the airwaves and on every screen. I’m getting scared. I’ve fielded a few scared calls this week. Things aren’t making sense to me like they used too. So much violence. So much needless suffering, suffering inflicted intentionally by one people upon another, and for what? There is a sense of foreboding afoot.
The Apocalypse of John, Revelation, was written in such times as these. The early church was under duress, under persecution and they were scared. The Whore of Babylon, a pale horse whose rider is death, “666”, those images spoke to the repression of the young Christian community by the forces of Empire, the very same Empire that had killed their and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Scary times. There in our Gospel today is Jesus before the Imperial proconsul in a pre-modern Green Zone of occupied Jerusalem. Scary. And that interrogation led directly to the Cross. Terrifying. And in spite of this horror, the Jesus movement grew, and as it grew, it got scarier and scarier, more and more dangerous to follow that way, The Way so subversive as it was to the way of Caesar.
And what do we seek when times are troubled? Safety, right? Security, right? Something sure. A sheltering harbor from a roiling sea. Naturally. We seek something to keep us safe and make things right, but for whatever reason, our basic sinful, broken nature, probably, we look for that protecting love in all the wrong places. We so often seek security in outside authority, in external forces; be it our mommy who makes all things right, kisses the boo-boo and chases the monsters from under the bed, or some other (hopefully) benevolent force with which we trade responsibility and authority for security. Sadly, those forces rarely end up being benevolent, rarely have our or the whole world’s or Justice’s or Wisdom’s best interests in mind.
Throughout history, particularly in scary moments, people have chosen to give up responsibility and have give others authority over us and our safety. We have given it up because it is really, really hard to take responsibility for ourselves, it is really, really scary to face fearful times, unsettled times on our own volition. Israel took David as their King because they were scared, right, and he was a mighty warrior. We ushered in the surveillance age in the wake of 9-11, we instituted torture as governmental policy, and invaded two countries killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions. In our names. In the name of our safety and security. No good.
Verna Dozier was one of the great Anglican theologians of the 20th Century. Her book, The Dream of God, was the subject of the first adult ed I led when I came to Eugene. It is a brilliant book about God and the idea of power and responsibility and our search for a benevolent authority, a king to take responsibility and rule over us. Her book is all about why that is not a search that we should be on.
What she does is describe the history of humanity and the church in terms of being Fallen. She catalogs three falls, actually. The first was the Fall: Adam, Eve, the Tempter and a bad apple. We disobeyed God’s command, and put a veil between us and the Almighty, the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We fell from God by exerting our own authority where we ought not have.
The second fall that Mrs. Dozier identifies we hear of in a rather positive light in our reading today from 2nd Samuel, the Song of David. These are King David’s last words, and he reflects on his Kingship, saying that one who rules “… in the fear of god is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” That sounds pretty good, the kind of king I’d vote for. The second fall was Israel’s abandonment of the absolute sovereignty of YHWH for a human sovereign, David the King. Israel had asked for a king, over and over again (it is easier for someone else to make decisions then for us to take responsibility, remember), but God kept saying, “no, I am all you need, Me and My Law.” But no, Israel wanted their king, God relented, David rose, and Israel had their king. They put a human being between God and themselves (how un-Protestant); the second fall.
So then what might the third fall be? Think kings… or emperors. Constantine! Yes. What did Constantine do? He captured the church, made it beholden to the state, placing himself as the head of the church. To this day, the head of the Church of England is? The Queen. The sovereign. This third (and hopefully final fall) again came by us abdicating our responsibility and relying on the authority of others. This is the easy path, the wide gate, the path of least resistance in the worst sort of way. God’s dream for us was not earthly kings and kingdoms, but heavenly ones, first and foremost His Son. So today we commemorate that dream in a cautionary feast about exactly our sinful propensity to put kings between us and the way God intends for the world to be.
Today is our celebration of the Reign of Christ, alternately known as Christ the King Sunday, or in full Roman regalia, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. This is a new feast, instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, and was instituted in the wake of the First World War largely in response to the rise of nationalism across Europe. People were getting all worked up about the principalities and powers of the world and, thought the pope, were in danger of forgetting who and what was most important, who and what was really, in control. Kind of prescient and brave, bringing this up in 1925 Italy…
“My kingdom is not from this world.” That is what Jesus tells Pilate. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over…”
“If any of this mattered, if you, mattered, if your opinion matter, Mr. Imperial Proconsul, then I’d do something about it; but you don’t, your empire, your war machine, your ownership of the known world doesn’t matter one iota to God. I am the King of the Universe.” That is what Jesus is saying, that is what Pope Pius wanted to remind us of in creating this solemnity. And our King, the King of the Universe then in the tremendous vulnerability of the cross, in the spectacular personal failure of the scattering of the disciples and the crucifixion on Golgotha, Jesus Christ took responsibility for Himself and for all of us and restored us to right relationship with God. That is what matters.
We are right to be nervous in the world right now. Our earthly house is in disarray and tensions, with the seas, are rising. There are wars and rumors of wars like we heard from Jesus in last week’s gospel. Nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom. This is another hard time in human history, and again we have a very distinct choice to make. Will we seek refuge in the human? In governments and armies and police all too willing to take responsibility for us, to exert authority over us in the name of safety and security? (except when it comes to taking guns with which to do terrorism with off the shelves). Are we going to have faith in, are we going to throw our lot in with a kingdom of this world? Are we going to follow a snake to an apple? Israel to David? The church to Constantine and his Empire? Or are we going to follow another path that God dreamt for us? Are we going to go a different way, The Way, The Way of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe?
Following Jesus Christ, recognizing He who is and who was and who is to come as our primary authority will not make everything OK. Jesus followed God’s will perfectly and look where it led him and his friends, and the prophets, apostles and martyrs who followed. Putting heavenly authority over earthly authority will not protect us. And following Jesus Christ, the fear does not go away. He wept. He trembled in the garden, “Take this cup from me,” he felt forsaken on that cross. Putting heavenly authority over earthly authority won’t take the fear away. But what real choice do we have? Are we going to follow men with blood on their hands to security? Are we going to follow those who sign death warrants to peace? Justice is not delivered by anything that takes off from an aircraft carrier.
No. In tumultuous times, in scary times such as this, we need to put our faith in that which does not disappoint, that does not take vengeance, that does not take our authority, our moral authority away and sin on our behalf. Would Jesus drop a bomb for any reason? Close a border, exclude a stranger? Refrain from apologizing if some wrong were done? Fail to take responsibility for His actions? Remain content to languish in fear? No. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. With Him we cast our lot. In Him we find our peace. In Him we do what is right, we try to do what is right now and always.
In Jesus Christ we can resist the calls for more bombs, more killing, more violence. In Jesus Christ we can resist the temptation to batten down the hatches, close the borders, call out the national guard as suggested by one Tennessee congressman to keep them out. In Jesus Christ we can repent of the evil we have done and that has been, that is being done on our behalf all over this great blue and green planet. The Reign of Jesus Christ is not of this world. We need to align ourselves to Him, to the King of the Universe, and not to the pretenders and kings and ones all too ready to take up that or any mantel of authority. We need to follow Jesus Christ and all our earthly cares, who has what, owns what, controls what… all of that drops away and what we have from the beginning to the end, from the Alpha to the Omega, is grace and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come. Do not put your trust in earthly things or earthly kings like we have time and time again. Put your trust in God, in Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, and all shall be well, all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well. AMEN.