Saturday, November 26, 2011

The King comes down off the throne

Proper 29 A; November 20, 2011
Ezekiel 34:11-17; Ps. 100 
Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Spoiler alert: close your ears if you have NOT read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I’m going to tell you the ending. The king returns. The righteous ruler is placed up on the throne. Justice is restored. Power joins with mercy. The meek – or at least the beavers, nymphs, satyrs and other creatures, led by four sturdy, British children – inherit Narnia, the kingdom prepared for them by Aslan.

Spoiler alert again. C. S. Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, also writing in the terrible, war-torn years of the 20th century, ends The Lord of the Rings in the same way. The king returns. The righteous ruler is placed upon the throne. Justice is restored. Power joins with mercy. The meek – this time a Rainbow coalition of elves, dwarfs and swarthy men led by four sturdy, British hobbits – inherit Middle Earth, the kingdom prepared for them by Gandalf.

The British have built this longing for the return of the righteous king into their civic life. When the Tudors came to the throne in the late middle ages, they created a back story to give their ascent to the throne some legitimacy. The Tudors recreated the legend of Arthur, the true king of all the Britons, whose Round Table of equality and chivalry brought order to violent warlords. Even to this day the British monarchs vow to step aside if Arthur awakens from his slumber in Avalon and returns to rule England’s green and pleasant land.

We can chuckle at the quaint notion of “the return of the king.” After all, we Americans overthrew the king in 1776, dethroned in place of democracy. And yes, of course, Britain is a democracy, too – and in fact, democracies do a much better job than monarchies at maintaining order and distributing justice.

But when times are bad, social conditions unsettled and the way to a prosperous future unclear, do not these stories of a righteous king coming to settle account appeal to our deep longings? Maybe we can learn something from them, not to recreate a past that perhaps was not ideal, but how we can look to the future – how we can use our lessons from scripture – of Ezekiel’s description of the Good Shepherd-the Good Ruler, and of Matthew’s description of judgment day as righteous king coming to settle accounts.

How about another story? Ireland, at the turn of the 5th century, was a flourishing pagan culture. Patrick, who had lived there for some time as a slave, heard a call from God to evangelize the Irish. It was a culture governed by kings who were the representatives of the gods, who had to be appeased through blood sacrifice to bring about fertility and prosperity. Patrick did many things in his mission to the Irish, but this one point has relevance here: he replaced their warrior kings with “the high king of heaven,” their angry and fickle gods with a “God they could depend on.” Patrick used the image of the king bringing order to society not in a backward-looking, nostalgic way, but with a bright vision of a new society: a society of peacefulness, of new relationships, of a God who brought life from death.

Move ahead to the end of the 19th century, to Episcopal churches in cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia. It is the height of the industrial revolution, and suffering among the working classes is widespread, without any of the safeguards such as child labor laws, a 40-hour-work-week, health and safety standards. Many Christians are moved to alleviate this suffering, inspired by the reading of passages like today’s Gospel. Among the boldest leaders in this “social gospel” movement are Episcopal clergy and parishes. People at the time noted the paradox of the elite, aristocratic Episcopal Church at the forefront of movement of solidarity with the poor. Oddly enough, it is Episcopalians’ understanding of “kingship,” of a society guided and led by the church, that inspired their activism. The social gospel took what the righteous king would do and democratized it, advocated the spreading-out of power and privilege across society. They took this powerful image from the past – a righteous king restoring order during a time of social upheaval -- and adapted it for movement into the future.

Both lessons from Ezekiel and Matthew overthrow our traditional understanding of the regal monarch, the warrior, “the king.” Kings were to be the shepherds of Israel, feeding the hungry, binding the broken, gathering the lost. Ezekiel denounces those made themselves fat at the expense of the people they were there to serve. The king in Matthew comes down entirely from his throne, not just to help but to identify completely with the poorest and most desperate of society. By loving the stranger and the outcast, we indeed love the king; we love God.

The way these lessons take old images and turn them around for new, challenging times can be helpful to us Christians in this time of social dislocation. We may have to describe Christ the King in words from the past, using the old monarchical words and images that really don’t work anymore. But the reality they point us to is one very different indeed: it is the reality of God’s justice, where all the poor and neglected are welcomed, where their suffering is even part of God’s own self. This high king of heaven is indeed a God we can depend on -- not a benevolent despot who “knows what is good for us;” but a God who became one of us, and who took all of human nature into the divine.

We enter Advent next week with these “marching orders” of engagement, sacrificial giving, solidarity and hope. “The king shall come when morning dawns, and light triumphant breaks,” we will sing in the hymn at the end of the service. “and let the endless bliss begin, by weary saints foretold, when right shall triumph over wrong, and truth shall be extolled.”

How wonderful it is, even in these darks days, with no human king on the horizon, no Aslan getting ready to roar, no Gandalf on the ridge with armies of thousands behind him to slay the wicked orcs, no Arthur coming back from Avalon – how wonderful it is that we have been given the words to hope for something real.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Encourage each other, build each other up, wake up, and live in the light of God

Proper 28 A; November 13, 2011
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Times are bad.

Times are bad in ancient Israel, the Book of Judges tells us. The people are living in the Promised Land, delivered there by Moses and Joshua, brought there by God, but not living up to their side of the promise. They can’t get it together. Enemies are attacking. Leaders falter and fail. The people live in hardship and difficulty.
Times are bad these days, too, even for us living in our own nation blessed with abundant resources – our own “Promised Land.” In this global economy we fear that bad decisions in Greece and Italy will damage us, too. People are losing jobs, or are under-employed, or find themselves working more hours for less pay. Student loan debt is astronomical, accompanied by doubts that recent graduates will ever have those full-time, fulfilling careers that their parents imagined for them back in kindergarten days. Whose fault is all this mess? Alas, we can’t seem to get any consensus on that. Today’s psalm sounds like a chant – or is it a scream? -- from the Occupy Wall Street movement:

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy, *
for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, *
and of the derision of the proud.

Paul does not have to remind the people in Thessalonica that times are bad. “You do not need to have anything written to you,” he writes. The people in Thessalonica know the precariousness of existence, how they delude themselves that they live in peace and security, when the all-too-real fear is of sudden destruction, of a thief in the night, of no escape. The people of Thessalonica know that the world they live in is dark indeed.
So what do we make of this parable from the 25th chapter of Matthew? This strange and difficult parable where God seems to be playing the part of a cruel and capricious tyrant, seemingly as unforgiving of poor financial management as any banker coming down hard on someone who cannot pay her mortgage?
As we try to make sense of this complicated and weird story, let us remember that the gospels, although accounts of the life of Jesus, were written down by people some time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They were written down by people living in the joy and knowledge and reality of Easter – they are people of the resurrection, for sure. But they were living in bad times. The community who put together the Gospel of Matthew were city dwellers, probably from Antioch, a densely populated city, full of poor people; a cosmopolitan and diverse city, full of people from across the known world of the Roman Empire – people of different cultures and languages, people crowded into a city where there is not enough good housing, nor enough good work to keep food on the table. The way the world works does NOT work for them. The economic and social rules ensure that they will be – always – losers. Why, then, do they still believe in Jesus? In the resurrection? In the Good News? Why do the people Paul writes to in Thessalonica, whom he rightly describes as knowing they have darkness all around them, believe him when he calls them children of the light, children of the day, people who are encouraged and hopeful and alert?

The Bible – which our opening prayer instructs us to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest -- is written by and for people for whom times are as bad as can be imagined; why, then, are they people of hope?
The Bible is written by and for people who know that if they play the game by the rules the world sets down, they will lose, big time. That’s what this strange parable is about. The slaves do the bidding of the master; they are to invest his money and make a profit. Some of the slaves are better investors than others; one is extraordinarily prudent, and buries the money, keeping it just safe enough to return it to the master in tact. This cautious slave even has the courage to confront the master, to call out this cruel system for the harsh and fear-mongering system it is. Yet the prudent slave, the one we think did safe thing with the master’s money, the one who took no risks and lost nothing, is called worthless and thrown into the outer darkness. What did the prudent slave forget? What did the prudent slave do wrong?

The prudent slave believed the world. The prudent slave believed he had to hide the money, to hoard it in darkness. The prudent slave believed there was no risk worth taking with something as valuable as the master’s money, that the best he could do was come out even. The prudent slave followed the world’s assumptions of scarcity and fear. The prudent slave didn’t get the memo that God was the God of abundance, wild, profligate and overflowing abundance.
Sometimes I wonder if we do not understand the urgency of the 25th chapter of Matthew -- if we think we’ve gotten ahead because we’ve played by all the rules -- if we think we live comfortable lives because we’re lucky -- if we cannot hear the crisis in other people’s voices, or see the worry in other people’s eyes – sometimes I wonder if living lives of moderate comfort means that we will not “get” the resurrection. That we will think that all Advent is about is getting ready for Christmas, for the birth of a beloved baby.

Advent is about getting ourselves ready for a new way of living, a way of living that is not characterized by prudence, or fear, or worry, or one-upsmanship. Even St. Paul, living on the edge of the end of time, reminds us: It’s never too late -- to encourage each other, to build each other up, to wake up, and live in the light of God.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Two sermons: Seats and Saints

All Saints Sunday; Nov. 6, 2011
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34
1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

All Saints is not about just ONE saint. It’s about all of them, all around us, the communion of saints.

All Saints is not just about the fancy ones, the ones with the BIG LETTER names. It’s about the ordinary ones, the ones who wiped brows, who cooked meals, who built houses, who fished and farmed, who followed Jesus, who prayed out loud, who prayed in silence.

All Saints is not just about those who died glorious deaths. It’s about people who died in terrible pain, and people who died in their sleep. It’s about people who died not knowing what hit them, about people we miss terribly, terribly, because they were such a part of our lives. It’s about people who died without thinking about themselves, because they were so focused on who they had to save, people who walked in front of bullets, people who ran into burning buildings to rescue others.

All Saints is not just about people who lived comfortable lives. It’s is about the people who were generous to a fault. It’s about people who gave money to feed the poor, to build homes for people who would otherwise have nowhere to live, to care for people with shattered lives and broken hearts. It’s about the people who gave money to every bum who asked for a handout, and it’s about the people who lived their whole lives disguised as bums, but underneath their messy exteriors, no one but God knew they were saints.

All Saints is not just about people who never took risks, who walked the straight and narrow. It’s about people who dared to climb mountains and sail seas, people who would never take no for an answer when it came to something they knew God was calling them to do. It’s about people who dared to tell the world that God loved them, and who went to far away places to do that.

All Saints is not just about those who were brave. It’s about those who endured terrible pain and loss, who had everything taken away from them by war or famine or flood or fire. It’s about those whose parents abandoned them, and whose children left them, but who came to know that God was with them through it all, until in the end, God welcomed them home.

All Saints is not just about them, the famous ones, the people we have heard about who did extraordinary things. All Saints is about people we know, who have been saints to us in our lives, who have shown us what it means when we say, “God loves us,” who have shown us what it means to love one’s neighbor, because we have been the neighbors who have been loved.
For these, and all the saints, we give thanks.

Proper 26-A     October 30, 2011
Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7,33-37
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Every church (I learned in confirmation class) contains a cathedra, the special chair for the bishop when he (in those days always a “he”) would visit the parish. Cathedral churches, especially the big ones, which are the bishops’ churches, have very grand and big chairs. If any of you have been to Canterbury Cathedral, you may remember, high up, beyond the choir, the Chair of St. Augustine, the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Like Moses’ seat, from these chairs our religious authorities pronounce on the law and dispense orders. An “authority” is an author, the one in whom a text – in this case, the law – originates. Whoever sat in Moses’ seat would acknowledge that it was the law handed down to Moses that he would pronounce. He sat there on Moses’ authority, just as the various archbishops who sit in Canterbury today do so following the authority of that first one, Augustine, who came to England in the year 597.

St. David’s, you will notice, has no permanent cathedra. A chair like this, or any other, is brought out when the bishop comes. This is a house of worship, then, without a Moses’ seat, a church in which the Word of God emanates from … where?

I imagine that within this congregation there are many different understandings of the authority that would be granted to someone who would sit in this seat, ranging from at least grudging obedience to outright skepticism. Like other Americans, we would demand that our authorities, religious and civic, are as good as their words – that they practice what they preach. Aren’t we furious when we find out someone has been saying one thing, but doing another? Do we not find something hollow in the phrase, “Do what I say; not what I do?”

There are times, however, when even the words of these authorities are out of joint, when our outrage is directed not at their two-faced hypocrisy, but at the very words they utter – when the injustice is in the words as well as the deeds.

This is the case with Jesus, and the charges he levels against the Pharisees in today’s gospel. Moses’s seat indeed contains all the authority God gave Moses, but the ones Jesus saw sitting in it had twisted that law so that it was impossible for the ordinary, faithful Jew to fulfill. Biblical scholars tell us that

… the Pharisees imposed on the people, "a myriad of rules, standards, and directives, and the whole process easily degenerated into moral bean counting. The procedures were so cumbersome that no human being could possibly accomplish them; no one could ever hope to keep the full weight of all these laws and carry the heavy freight of this ethical load, not even the scribes and the Pharisees themselves."[i]

Jesus is furious at the religious “fashion statements” these people wear, so obviously more concerned with their outward appearance than their inward righteousness. The garments and fringes and little torah scrolls attached to their heads were to remind them of the duty and joy of obedience to the law, to be aids to prayer and devotion. Jesus was outraged that these emblems of status and privilege were paid for by taxes which crippled the poor people who lived in the cities and in the countryside.

Where you sit, of course, determines where you stand. Other scholars remind us that the Pharisees viewed their special garments and special seat as “the focal point for the community. … Pharisees were visible for the faithful and the Roman rulers who needed a contact with their subjects.”[ii] That was an argument, I think, which would have carried no weight with Jesus. For Jesus, the measure was their following of the law, not their twisted pronouncing of it. Did they put God above all other rulers – above other gods, fashionable gods, even Roman rulers? Did they love their neighbors – especially the poor, the vulnerable, the hungry, the displaced – as much as they loved themselves?

Measuring the legitimacy of authorities is an age-old challenge, and, once again, where you sit determines where you stand. There are rulers we can hold accountable, who will remember, when prodded, the just law that put them in that seat in the first place. Think of the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the voting rights act, the laws guaranteeing fair housing and employment, equal protection under the law. Today we would all agree that is the law, but it took many years of prodding those who, from where they sat, “separate but equal” was doing them just fine.

The “Occupy Wall Street”ers seem to be finding our whole economic system lacking in justice and equity. Many explain what they are doing with Biblical language: religious leaders are to be “repairers of the breach,” one seminary president said, citing the prophet Isaiah. “… the question is how can we come together, Wall Street and Main Street, to come up with solutions that are going to work for all of us?”[iii] Another protester, more of a “man on the street” than a lofty theologian, said he and other protesters “would like to see a little more economic justice or social justice–Jesus stuff–as far as feeding the poor, health care for the sick.”[iv]

Where we sit determines where we stand. We are a parish church without a cathedra. Do we see the breaches which need repairing, and can we imagine some solutions to these larger social problems that are driving everyone mad? Do we do the “Jesus stuff,” the feeding, the caring, the housing, the welcoming? Surely we don’t need someone in a fancy chair just to tell us that.

[i] Thomas Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, quoted in Kathryn Matthews Huey,
[iii] Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary, quoted in
[iv] Bold Faith Type, the blog for the advocacy group “Faith in Public Life,”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

God, Mammon and the Archbishop of Canterbury

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement generates heat, light and more than a little anxiety in the financial capitals of the world. In some cities, the church is forced to be involved – by virtue of location, or by virtue of how much capital those churches themselves may own. Here in the U.S., Trinity Episcopal Church, at the head of Wall Street, has opened its community center, Charlotte’s Place, for rest, revitalization and hospitality for those involved in the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Here is a link to the statement of the Rec. Dr. James Cooper, Trinity’s Rector, on how that church deals with the movement on their doorsteps, and to sermons and statements from other clergy and staff of Trinity Church.
In London, one of Anglicanism’s other major houses of worship, St. Paul’s Cathedral, found it more difficult to decide to embrace or to reject the Occupy London movement. For some, the protestors came too close; for others, the church was not close enough. Two of St. Paul’s clergy, a canon and the dean, resigned over whether the cathedral should join with the City of London to take legal action to remove the occupiers.

This week, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote about this crisis at the confluence of the spiritual and financial center of London. Archbishop Williams’ theological writings have frequently addressed social and economic issues. In this case, he looked at both sides of the economic and political divide marked by the Occupy movement, and noted, as others have, that the movement strikes a chord with many. He mentioned “a widespread and deep exasperation with the financial establishment” and “a powerful sense around – fair or not – of a whole society paying for the errors and irresponsibility of bankers.”

If you read Rowan Williams essay in The Financial Times, you will see that he is well versed in economics, making the various options and challenges facing the U.K. and the world economy understandable. As he says, these “do not amount to a simplistic call for the end of capitalism, but they are far more than a general expression of discontent.” He mentions the Roman Catholic Church’s recent statement on the imperatives for Christians to engage in economic and social justice. He concludes that the Church Universal is indeed the proper place for these discussions to take place, that we “have a proper interest in the ethics of the financial world and in the question of whether our financial practices serve those who need to be served – or have simply become idols that themselves demand uncritical service.”

Trinity Church, Wall Street – St. Paul’s Cathedral, London – St. David’s, DeWitt: all of us, in churches everywhere, are closer than we think, or that maybe we want to be, from the challenges posed by the Occupy movement. And it is within each of these churches, equipped as we are with scripture as our basis, tradition as our guide, and reason as our tool, that we can come to grips with what God wants us to do with the abundance we have received.