November 25, 2018, Last Sunday after Pentecost: Reign of Christ, YR B
Year B, Reign of Christ November 25, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” The Alpha and the Omega… the beginning and the end.
Today, the Reign of Christ (or Christ the King) is the end of the liturgical year. The new year begins with Advent next week. It is good having things marked, isn’t it? Time. Seasonal cycles. It is good to recognize them intentionally, reverently even, isn’t? In our post-agrarian, post-industrial society, it is, I think, necessary to mark the movement of the year with things besides what jacket you are wearing. Our liturgical life together does that for us. Our liturgy is an amazing resource. It guides us through an annual cycle of remembrance of the cosmic drama of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it carries us through an annual cycle of actually remembering the history of the universe. Layer on top of layer, our liturgical life together teaches us about the world and how to be in it. It is a remarkable teacher.
A family friend of ours is a painter. She mostly paints small, Mona Lisa sized portraits. What is interesting about that (and relevant to this sermon) is how she paints them. She mostly uses egg tempera. It’s been around since ancient Egypt and it is basically just pigment in a water-soluble binder medium, most commonly egg. Some use just the whites, others use the whole egg, but egg, that is what carries the color.
The super cool thing about egg tempera is that it is subtle. It is not a one coat kind of animal. The eggy pigment is thin, it takes many coats to bring out the color, coat after coat after coat. (So even a tiny Mona Lisa sized portrait is no small accomplishment). Layer upon layer, there is a depth to the color, it is luminous. The light seeps in deeply and it glows, it is alive. It is not just the image, not just the picture, it is how that picture enters us, it is the form and the content that are so powerful. That is the liturgical life, layer upon layer, each one built upon another, giving the Light and Life we worship many more pathways in. And where one of Kelly’s paintings makes the life of her subject more apparent, our liturgical life makes our lives, our lives in relation to God more apparent.
That’s our topic as we end one liturgical year and enter another: the liturgy. This is how we spend most of our time together as a community. Week in, week out, month after month, season after season, our common life is shaped by this common prayer, we are shaped by this common prayer because the way we pray shapes the way (and what) we believe. If anyone asks you what it means to be Episcopalian, this is fine place to start: praying shapes believing; how we pray, matters.
So how do we pray? Well, we have a whole complex of factors that move us through our ritual cycle together. All sourced in scripture, layer upon layer of ritual cross references, enhances, deepens our common prayer. The Calendar. The Colors. The Lectionary. The hymns and anthems, preludes and postludes, the service music. The language, the vocabulary of the prayers we use, the tone they carry, the history they bear. This is how we pray, together.
First off, the calendar sets the liturgical stage. (Well the sacraments make it real [and necessary], and scripture gives us its vocabulary and narrative trajectory, but the calendar is what carries the whole thing week after week). I love the calendar. Besides the Eucharist, the cycle of seasons more than anything brought me to the Episcopal church. It is religion shaping life in a way informed by life itself. It just doesn’t get much better than that. But this is just one layer that carries us to a deeper immersion in the life of God. (Or at least a deeper practice of immersing in the life of God).
The colors are another. The church and I are in white today because it is the color of Resurrection. Christ the King is a feast of the Resurrection. White for Easter and Christmas, and special days like ordinations and funerals. Marian blue for Advent. Epiphany? Green. The Epiphany Season is a short bit of ordinary time and ordinary time is always green. Royal purple for Lent. Blood red for Holy Week. Black for Good Friday (and All Souls). And bright Red for Pentecost (to match our red on Church that Sunday). The color is a fun layer.
Another is the lectionary. Since the time of Moses, our ancestors have had a system for organizing how we ritually use scripture. It continues with an ecumenical version called the Revised Common Lectionary. This system pairs a collect, a prayer, specifically designated for each Sunday with four readings: Hebrew Bible, Psalm response, Epistle and Gospel. It is a three year cycle, each based on the primary Gospel used. Year A is St. Matthew, B St. Mark (we are just leaving B), and C, St. Luke. St. John the Evangelist gets the holier days, like Christmas, Easter and today, Christ the King. So today, every Episcopal church (in theory), and most Lutherans, and a lot of Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists and like three Unitarians, are all reading the same scripture. (We are the only ones who use all four every week). Roman Catholics used to use the same lectionary, but they are back to their own internal version, but it is very similar to the RCL because the readings are selected to support the season, to teach the lesson that Jesus taught in the trajectory of His own precious life, not just the holy words He uttered. Another layer.
Music is an important one. Lucy, Mike and Peg choose the music they offer each week based on many factors, the season is baseline. Would we ever sing “For all the Saints” at Christmas? Or “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” any other time than Advent? No. The girls have been practicing Christmas songs for two months. They are starting to seem appropriate just now. Music helps define and delineate seasons with great clarity. And it is not just hymns. We use the Gloria in Christmas, Easter and Ordinary Time, the Kyrie in Advent, the Trisagion in Lent (Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal one, Have Mercy upon us. You wouldn’t dare that in Easter). The joyful noises we make together are another strut holding it all up, another layer.
And finally, of course, there is the liturgy, the proper liturgy itself that carries us towards the promised land. We have the four prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, each with a history, a lineage. There are three others in a resource called Enriching Our Worship (EOW). Approved in the ‘90s, it has broader, more inclusive language. And just this summer at General Convention, a new version of the BCP prayers were approved (well new versions of A, B and D were released… Prayer C was too complicated to get through the Holy legislative process). This new version is called the Expansive Language Version. (Inclusive is so 1990s). Inclusive means a less or un-gendered God. Expansive means sometimes gendered (meaning sometimes “She”) and sometimes non-gendered (God, They), and sometimes totally non-anthropomorphic: think “Tree of Calvary.” You know me, I’m pretty (and appropriately I might add) reluctant to branch out from our approved language because we are not supposed to, because it is our shared, our common prayer in common language that makes us, us. We don’t have to, nor do we, agree on what we believe, therefore we need something to keep the hinges on the door. Common Prayer it that something. So my policy has been that ‘til the approved common language changes, I (the royal “I” meaning we) will use the approved language. Well it has, so we will. Starting next week.
Because the language matters. It does. In a lot of ways. The words we use shape how we believe, how we understand not so much the seen, but the unseen nature of the world. God is not He. (Or as we’d say expansively, He’s not only He). Nor is She She, not exclusively. Nor It nor They nor Savior nor Lord nor Tree of Calvary, not exclusively. And this is not individual taste, a spiritual “life-style” choice, this is a reflection of an ever-evolving understanding of the nature of God in God’s self and how we address and interact with that God together. Language matters.
Today, why Reign of Christ as opposed to the traditional Christ the King? (The same question put differently, why do I use Commonwealth of God as opposed to Kingdom of God?) Why? Because our worldly understanding of lordship, of kingship has distorted our religious understanding. And this is not just us. The Israelites misunderstood what was meant by the word King. They sought something that they should not have, and those who responded to the call responded to the wrong kind of invitation. Saul misunderstood. David misunderstood. All the kings of Israel misunderstood and offered not servant-leadership, but royal rule. The disciples didn’t get it, they wanted a Lord, too! They all wanted a lord lording over them, like Pilate is asking about in today’s gospel. We spoke about this last week: we need leaders (Lords, even) but not that kind of Lord. Jesus is not that kind of King. God is not that kind of King, either, no matter how almighty God is.
To be our Lord and Savior, to be Christ the King is not to rule over with power and might, but is to raise us up in His own power and might, the power and might of love and light, of life and grace. To be the King as Jesus is King is to be servant of all. How many times does He say that? About as many times as the disciples misunderstood it. Because what they, what most of us think when we think Lord, or King, or even Father is not what Jesus was talking about. Really, having a worldly king, a hereditary, divine right, rules a nation kind of king, that’s ridiculous. You get to rule because of whom you were born to? We couldn’t invent a more horrendously unjust way to organize a society. A family getting a monopoly on power and holding on to it generation after generation… Our Declaration of Independence was a well-played stake into the corrupt and unjust heart of King George and his royal sycophants. As the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is again demonstrating to the world right now, unaccountable rule corrupts… and that kind of kingly rule has nothing to do with the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
But do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Just because “King” and “Lord” has been misunderstood and misused do we dispense with that historical understanding of and vocabulary for God? Well, that is a good question (as well as another layer of complexity for us to encounter God). And for some of us, not having those words, the Lords and Kings, the Fathers… That is a loss. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” “The Lord be with you… And also with you…” This is the language of our faith and sometimes Hannah Maeve and Brigid say “He” for God and ask me about that. And so many women just roll their eyes over another Father with no Mother, another King with no accountability, another Lord lorded over us all. The words matter.
So we are going to experiment. Starting next week, we are going to push some limits. Now don’t worry, it’s me, we won’t do anything outrageous or actually experimental (no dance or anything), but we are going to try out some of this new language. You might not even have really noticed if I didn’t point it out, most of the changes are subtle to say the least. But we are going to try on some of these innovations. Some of us will love it, some of us will not, some of us won’t care… but it does matter. It is an experiment, meaning the changes are not (necessarily) forever changes, but I think we’ll keep it on through Year C. A full year should give us time to feel out what works for us here in this time and place and what does not. I encourage your input.
The royal ministry that Jesus Christ offers to us is the revelation of the true nature of the world. That is His service to us, that, in a very real way, is salvation. In the world in which we live, we need every drop of encouragement, every bit of assurance that there is a lot more going on than we can see. Because just looking around, it can seem bleak, well, some of it is bleak. But that is not the whole story. Our common prayer together, reinforced by this sequined white chasuble, the Propers for the 29th Sunday after Pentecost, the Morningstar setting of the Mass and the language of Holy Eucharist Rite II, Prayer B, can really help make this lesson real to scatty creatures just like us. Thanks be to God. AMEN.