Sunday, November 20, 2016

And He shall reign for ever and ever: Hallelujah!

Sermon delivered Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016 (Last Sunday After Pentecost: Christ the King Sunday) at St. Cuthbert’s Episcopal Church, Oakland, CA.

Sermon Text(s): Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Luke 23:33-43

The day after the election, I woke up with the “Hallelujah Chorus” running through my head.

That familiar tune, with its joyful proclamation, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” is widely associated with celebration and joy. We often hear it performed around Christmas or Easter, and commercials and films have used it to accompany everything from scenes of sports teams winning games to toddlers successfully learning to use the toilet.

But despite the ways in which this tune has been trivialized or parodied in popular culture, the message of this piece of sacred music is deeply serious – and the sentiment behind it one of hope to a beleaguered community, not one of triumphalism.

The text of the Hallelujah chorus comes straight from the Book of Revelation, one of those apocalyptic texts we were talking about last week that often scare us modern readers, but were meant to give hope to the church in the midst of difficult times. Listen to the words of this piece:

Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!
The kingdom of this world is become
the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ
and he shall reign forever and ever!
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords!
And he shall reign forever and ever!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

The joy we hear in the Hallelujah chorus is not a joy of “Yay, my sports team won,” or any of the other silly and self-centered victories it is often used to celebrate. It is a joy of knowing that “the kingdom of this world” will ultimately become the kingdom of God. And that message was particularly comforting to me in the aftermath of the election: God is in control. God will ultimately reign for ever and ever.

On this last Sunday in the season after Pentecost, this last Sunday of the church year, we observe “Christ the King Sunday.” As we affirm one of the earliest statements of belief expressed by the Christian community, that Jesus is “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords,” it’s worth exploring just how “political” of a statement that was in the early church.

“Jesus is Lord” was a subversive message! It was considered treasonous by some in the Roman Empire, because for the early church, saying “Jesus is Lord” carried with it the unspoken but equally loud message that “Ceasar is not.” If Jesus is Lord, Ceasar is not.

“Jesus is the authority we turn to,” said the earliest Christians, “not the king who currently rules over the Roman Empire.”

Translated into modern language, today we might say, “Jesus is President,” rather than “Jesus is Lord.” And if “Jesus is President,” then “Trump is not” – and neither is Obama, or Bush, or Clinton, or any of the 40 other men who have served as “rulers” of this country.

“Jesus is the authority we turn to,” our country’s Christians should be saying today, “not the President who currently rules over the United States.”

And what kind of authority, what kind of king, what kind of President, what kind of ruler do we have, as Christians? Why is this ruler’s coming reign a cause for joy and celebration? Why do we shout, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” at the thought of him “reigning for ever and ever?”

Because when authority is given to Jesus, we will be governed by love, not fear or unbridled power. Instead of governments that wound and blind, authority will be given to Jesus, who heals and restores sight. Instead of governments that exploit the poor, authority will be given to Jesus, who cares for the poor. Instead of governments that kill, authority will be given to Jesus, who is raised from the dead and has triumphed over death!

But this is not just a matter of a cosmic, end-of-the-world scenario, not just about Christ's Second Coming. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is among us, here and now (Luke 17:21). When we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," we are not simply awaiting some future event; we are calling ourselves and each other to act in the world to work toward making that vision a reality.

Despite all the majestic imagery the church has attributed to Jesus over the centuries, all the language about him being “crowned with many crowns,” it’s important to remember who Jesus actually was: a poor peasant, a fierce prophet with a revolutionary social message of solidarity with the poor and outcast. When God came to be with us, he did not wear a crown of gold, but a fragile crown of thorns. He did not sit in palaces or places of privilege and honor, but among the despised and rejected of his society. Though his detractors mocked him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”, he did not resist his executioners, he did not fight back. Instead, he bestows forgiveness on those who kill him even as he is dying on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In the weeks prior to the election, I heard a piece on NPR’s “All Things Considered” about evangelical Christian leaders’ opinions of Donald Trump. Host Michel Martin was interviewing Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, about why he supported Trump.

“When I'm looking for a leader who's going to fight ISIS and keep this nation secure, I don't want some meek and mild leader or somebody who's going to turn the other cheek,” he said. “[I've said] I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation.”

With all due respect to a fellow brother in Christ, from my perspective this comment sounded like a complete disconnect with the Christian faith. “Somebody who’s going to turn the other cheek” is exactly the kind of leader we follow as Christians. Someone who knows that violence will never end violence, but only increase and inflame a never-ending cycle: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus’s death was an attempt to stop the cycle of violence, but we human beings still haven’t gotten the message, two thousand years later. Many of us still think that fear and violence are the ways to power. Many of us still think force is stronger than love.

That’s why, on this Christ the King Sunday, we must recommit ourselves to working for the kingdom of God, not the kingdoms of this world. We must commit to bringing about that kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” a kingdom where the last shall be first and the first shall be last, a kingdom where “the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, [will] be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule,” a rule that is grounded in peace, justice and compassion.

And he shall reign for ever and ever. Hallelujah! And it starts with us.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hope in the midst of the apocalypse

Sermon delivered Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016 (23rd Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28, Year C, Track 2)) at St. Cuthbert's Episcopal Church in Oakland, CA.

Sermon Text(s): Malachi 4:1-2a, Luke 21:5-19, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

What a lovely bunch of passages our lectionary has served up for us today.

“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up… so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” (Malachi 4)

"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Luke 21)

Welcome to the apocalypse! It might feel like the lectionary is playing a cruel joke on us, after the week we’ve had: with the extremely emotional Presidential election on Tuesday and subsequent outbreak of protests and violence after the results came in. Maybe we came to church today to find comfort, to find solace, to find some message of hope – but instead, we got words of judgment, death, and destruction. Gee thanks, God.

But the apocalyptic literature in the Bible – that is, the passages dealing with the “end times” – actually was intended to give hope to people in the midst of despair. We modern readers often experience these passages as threatening, scary, or at the very least, confusing (tell me someone who hasn’t scratched their heads in bewilderment trying to understand the Book of Revelation), but if we take the time to understand them in the context in which they were written, they were actually about giving hope to those who heard them, not scaring them to death.

The people of Malachi’s time were living in the midst of disillusionment and despair. Some of the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from the exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple, only to find that all the promises of the prophets didn’t seem to be coming true. There wasn’t peace. There wasn’t justice. Israel was not restored to its former glory. Yes, they had the temple, yes, they had a new king, but he was essentially a puppet of the Persian Empire; in many ways, they were still under the control of their oppressors.

“So where is God in all this?” people wanted to know. “You told us God was going to do all these great and wonderful things for us, but look what’s happened! Why should we worship God and worry so much about pleasing him when he hasn’t exactly delivered on his promises?” They became lax in worship, disillusioned in their faith. And although the prophet Malachi offers a stern word for those who fall away from their faith, he offers a message of hope for the faithful: “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” He speaks out against the corruption of the religious leadership and promises those who hold on to the faith, who keep the flame alive even in the midst of despair, that their efforts will not be in vain: “For you the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, the very temple that the people of Israel had returned from exile to build during the time of Malachi in the 6th century BC. The second temple was indeed destroyed, in the first century AD, about 40 years after Jesus’s death. When the Gospel of Luke was written, the temple had already been destroyed, and the people were in the midst of another period of dark despair, a period when the worst thing they could have imagined had happened. And they were remembering Jesus’s words from years before: “Yes, it will be difficult. Yes, you will undergo all kinds of struggles and turmoil. Yes, the institutions you put so much trust in will crumble and fall. Yes, you will be betrayed by family members and friends. Yes, it will feel like the end of the world is coming. But it won’t be the end of the world, not yet. Hang in there. Remember that I am with you. I will give you words, I will give you strength, I will sustain you through these most difficult of times. Not a hair on your head will perish.” A message of hope in the midst of despair.

And finally, although the reading from 2 Thessalonians doesn’t say anything directly about the end times, the letter was written when the Christian community was experiencing persecution that they interpreted to be a sign that the end was near. In that context, some people were losing hope. “Why bother doing anything, if we’re just going to die tomorrow anyway?” was the prevailing sentiment among some. “If the end is coming soon, why should we care about anybody but ourselves? Let’s just ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’” These folks were giving up – on life, on the fight for their faith, on the community they were part of.

Paul’s warning against “idleness” in this context, when he tells the community to “keep away from believers who are living in idleness,” is a warning against checking out of the community, of losing one’s sense of responsibility to others. The meaning of the Greek word translated as “idleness” is actually closer to the meaning of the word “subordination.” It doesn’t mean simply laziness or apathy, but actively going against the community, undermining the very things the community is grounded in, refusing to participate in contributing to the greater good.

It’s unfortunate that this warning against “idleness” and the line – “anyone unwilling to work should not eat” – has been used by some to denigrate the poor, because that’s a gross misunderstanding of this passage and its context. It’s not saying we shouldn’t feed the homeless or jobless. It’s not even really talking about poverty. It’s talking about people who have given up, who by their “checking out” from the system are undermining and destroying the greater good of the community.

The first-century church was a deeply communal body. The Book of Acts tells us that:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35, NIV)

Proceeds from work were shared. If you didn’t work and earn money, you weren’t just hurting yourself or your own family, but everyone in the community. It is in this context that Paul reminds the community at Thessaloniki:

“We were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right (emphasis added), but in order to give you an example to imitate.” (2 Thessalonians 3:8-9)

Although they could have relied on the support of the community, because that’s what the community does – support each other, they contributed their share of work to show how well it works when each person contributes to the greater good according to their ability. The weak, the sick, the vulnerable, those unable to work – those folks are not “freeloaders” because they benefit from the support of the community. But otherwise able-bodied people who could do work and had just checked out from their responsibility because of a sense of hopelessness – these are the folks Paul wants the community to chastise, to remind them of their commitment to the greater good, not just to themselves.

So the question this passage raises for us, then, is what is our responsibility to the community of faith, even in the midst of despair? Even if we are being persecuted, even if we have lost all hope, even if we think the end is near – what does a commitment to the common good look like?

The individualism of our society influences how most Americans tend to approach their participation in church or communities of faith. They might wake up Sunday morning and think to themselves, “Hmm, do I need church today?” But if we take our example from the way the early church understood itself, that would be entirely the wrong question to ask. The question is not “do I need church today,” but “who needs me in church today?”

True confession: I wouldn’t be in church every week if I wasn’t a priest, if it wasn’t my job to be here. Before I was ordained, I joined the choir at my church to help get me to church each week. I knew I felt better about myself and the world when I was active in a church community, but I’m not a morning person… and I was going to church alone… and I had a hard time motivating myself to get up in the mornings. So I figured if I HAD to go because other people were counting on me, I’d be much more likely to go than if I relied on my own willpower to get me out of bed in the morning. And it worked.

If I hadn’t taken the initiative to find myself an external motivator to get to church, a sense of commitment to the good of the greater community, perhaps I’d still be the occasional attendee slipping in and out the door and would have never discovered that my life’s calling is in this work. Without that sense of commitment to the greater good, I likely wouldn’t be sharing my gifts with the church, because I too would often rather sleep in or be outside or go to brunch rather than going to church.

This message from 2 Thessalonians reminds us that we don’t participate in the community just for ourselves. We do it for others. When we don’t participate, we’re depriving others of our gifts and talents. When we don’t show up and engage in the community, it’s not just our loss, it’s everyone’s loss. It’s only not about whether you need church today, but about the people who need you to be in church today. And this is particularly true in the difficult times.

So no matter how much despair you may feel in this emotionally-volatile, deeply divided time in our country, recommit yourselves today to showing up. To showing up not just at St. Cuthbert’s, but in the larger community of which we are a part. Because your neighbors need you. They need your gifts, they need your strengths, they need your voices. They need you to help them carry the light in the midst of the darkness. They need you to remind them that the “sun of righteousness will rise, with healing in its wings.” And you need them. You need their gifts, you need their strengths, you need their voices. You need them to help you carry the light in the midst of the darkness and to remind you “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38). When we come together, when we share ourselves with one another, when we choose to see the light of God in each other, we will find hope, even in the midst of the apocalypse.