Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Good King

Proper 29 B; Nov. 25, 2012
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

The movie “Lincoln,” now in theaters, opens with a group of Union soldiers talking to the President. He sits in a simple chair, on some sort of a porch, in the dark night in an army campground, and the soldiers are in awe of meeting the great man. One of them says he enlisted just after the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery; his brother died in that battle, and then he speaks from memory Lincoln’s words on that day. Other soldiers come by, simple farm boys and even freed slaves, and slowly, from soldier after soldier, we hear the brief speech in its entirety.

In such a scene is how we Americans like to remember our kings: humble and fallible, yet brilliant and regal, powerful and complex, and standing on the side of right. That scene of Lincoln quietly and informally conversing with soldiers on the eve of battle is what comes to mind with later in the film Mary Todd Lincoln declares to a White House full of politicians, including those who would oppose him, “The people love my husband!”

We have ancient models of kings in our memories – of David, for example, the ideal king of Israel. We read his “last words,” today in our first lesson, words which remind us that such kings who rule with the justice of God bring order and prosperity and peace and beauty to the world.

That sounds good, of course, but is the figure of the king not an outmoded concept for us today? A king who cannot be elected or thrown out of office, a king who does not reflect the will of the people, who rules without the consent of the governed?

All true. All good reasons, of course, for democracy, and after all, even the Queen of England does not so much as rule as preside rather delicately at the will of Parliament.

So why Christ the King? It’s not a feast from the Bible, like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost or Ascension. It’s not an early church custom, like Lent or Holy Week, or something borrowed from folk religion, like All Saints. A King, and a Kingdom, are political terms. A king rules territory: a kingdom. Everyone within those boundaries is subject to the king. The boundaries of a just king, a righteous king, enclose a pleasant land, a land like that spoken of by David, where the people live in peace and prosperity. If you live in the kingdom of a just king, you get it all. You don’t have to join anything – you don’t have to register for one political party or another, vote a particular way. You are there; part of the Common-wealth.

Of course, for Christ the King, there are no geographical boundaries, as well as no political litmus tests. Say yes, step up to the font and get washed in the waters of baptism and you’re in. That’s all it takes to be one of the people of God’s pasture, one of the sheep of God’s hand. Everyone is welcomed into this kingdom, even those who can’t curtsey, or those who can’t pay, those who aren’t always good and those who are not nearly so bad as some people think.

No, Jesus tells Pilate, my kingdom is not from this world. I don’t have to fight for it with violence for I win it with love. Not even the death with which you threaten me, Jesus says to Pilate, can overthrow my kingdom.
On this last Sunday of the church year, we are reminded of the cross, and the death which Jesus will die. Next Sunday begins Advent, when we prepare for the birth of this same Christ in the humility of a poor family with only a barn for shelter. With such a beginning and an ending, no wonder Pilate, draped as he is in the trappings of the empire, cannot comprehend this Jesus as a king. Pilate has no idea why anyone would choose to follow this king.

But we, his followers all these long years after, still know the sound of his voice. We know it’s true when he says all are welcome here, at this table. We know it’s true when he says, eat this bread and drink this wine, and be part of my body. We know it’s true when he says follow me to the death, for with the love we share, even that death is turned into life.

End time?

Proper 28-B
November 18, 2012
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Ps. 16
Mark 13:1-8

Now that the election is over, the politicians find it safe to talk about global warming. Even with Hurricane Sandy rearranging the coastline and wiping out whole towns and neighborhoods in two of the most populous states in the union, Governor Cuomo didn’t quite want to take sides, but he did admit we’d better be better prepared for more “extreme weather” than we have seen in the past.

Talk of what to do when the End Time comes is nothing new. It was, for example, one of Jesus’ big themes. When he left the Temple, after denouncing the “fat cats” who took advantage of the “widow’s mite,” the first thing he said was, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down. … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes … there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

Humans like talking about The End Times, big, dramatic and scary. And not to diminish either what Jesus said, or the very real effects of global climate change, we have been talking about The End Times for a very long time. And all that talking can wake us up – which is what I think Jesus intended when he told his disciples about the signs to come – or it can paralyze us into despair, powerlessness and inaction.

Obviously, talking about The End Times hasn’t gotten us anywhere. We can focus our considerable energy on the “pangs” about to come, or, like Hannah – Hannah, who is barren, Hannah who is heartbroken – we can focus on the “birth.” On the future. On the child Hannah will bear. On what we can do to participate in the signs of hope that are breaking all around us. We can pay attention, take action, band together, connect the dots.

Yesterday at Diocesan Convention, we heard some amazing stories that are signs of hope in desperate times and places. There was a re-cap of the twenty-some years of our companion relationship with El Salvador, how we walk with the people of that very poor nation as they recover from earthquakes, wars, hurricanes, with resilience and grace. We watched a tribute to Bishop Martin Barahona, who will soon retire – looking at his leadership not only as a kind pastor, but as someone who took risks for social justice and structural change and for the hard work of peace-making. We heard the report of the Episcopal Church Women, who at last summer’s General Convention announced that they had given away millions of dollars in grants to address human need and build permanent good in 37 dioceses and eight countries.

And here at St. David’s: this has been an autumn of abundance – raising nearly $4,000 to help Bol Garang bring his mother to the U.S., partying at St. David’s Court, serving at the Samaritan Center, helping residents get to services at Van Duyn, raising money through the CROP Walk for Meals on Wheels, getting CoDFISH off the ground. And it’s not over yet: we’re still collecting canned goods and funds for holiday food for the Springfield Gardens Food Pantry and will have our own in-gathering of the United Thank Offering Blue Boxes on December 2.

Next Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year, and as we read these words of Jesus about the End Times, we wonder, what is this all about? The way the Gospel of Mark writes the story, Jesus is concerned with the present: with the kairos moment, the fulfillment of time. Mark’s story is about the one who brings about the beginning of the reign of God. Mark's community is the community of the New Age, a community who understands that their domination by corrupt, terror-filled and self-centered political powers will soon be over, and that God will vindicate the righteous. Their sufferings mark the culmination of history, and the birth-pangs of the rule of God.

What Mark leads us to look to is hope -- hope not only that the future will be better than the present, but that even the present troubles we experience now are part of the providence of God. Mark encourages us to stand firm throughout; God will triumph! In fact, we are not merely spectators to God's drama, but participants, partners with God in God’s mission of health and wholeness. We who follow Jesus see these signs of the times, these signposts of the triumph of hope over the paralysis of despair.

Women crossing borders

Proper 27 B     Nov. 11, 2012
Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
Psalm 126
Mark 12:38-44

We visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia this week, and on the tour with us were lots of schoolchildren. At the beginning of the tour, the Park Ranger quoted Abraham Lincoln, noting that this was the place where the words were first penned that inspired Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: that this was a nation: “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We know, all too well, that by 1863, that original declaration of “equals” was in the bloody process of being expanded – to all men, to all men and women, to all adults born here, to all foreigners who come here and go through the process of claiming and believing that promise of liberty and proposition of equality. It was very moving to hear those words spoken, looking around the 18th century space we were in, at all the wild and representative diversity of who are, today, Americans.

Perhaps because it is Veterans Day weekend, the ranger ended the tour by talking about the “rebellious” Pennsylvanians, who were imprisoned in the upstairs room of Independence Hall, after it had been captured and occupied by the British. Many of those men, veterans of what we now know as the Revolutionary War, died in that room, and were buried outside in a mass grave. The story reminded us that war, even among people who are as ethnically and socially alike as colonial farmers and British soldiers, is a breathtakingly horrible thing. “Let us never forget,” the ranger said, “what cost must be paid to defend our liberty against all who would take it away from us.”

Among the schoolchildren were girls wearing hijab, or the headscarves worn by Muslim girls and women. As I listened to them chatter while we toured the building, I heard their very American accents. If the school group had been only boys, we would never have noticed them as “different,” but the girls, with their distinctive dress, stood out. Americans all, visiting the cradle of liberty: at what point do “foreigners” stop being “foreign” and become “us”?

We have two bible stories today about women who are different: women who are foreign, and women who are poor. Women who cannot blend into the rest of society, women who must fend for themselves, with only the slimmest of social protections to rely on.

We encounter Ruth and Naomi today in the middle of their story. Naomi’s husband and two sons have died, and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, has chosen to stay instead of returning to her family. The two of them have nothing: no home, no food, no way of making a living. Naomi even gives herself the name “Mara,” meaning “bitter,” a sign that she believes she no longer even has a future. The one slim chance they have is to return to Naomi’s Hebrew family, where Boaz may feel some responsibility to care for the widow. Ruth, who comes from Moab, is a complete foreigner here, but because of her loyalty to Naomi, she stands out; she is allowed to pick up the leftovers of the harvest, like other poor women. This gives Naomi a glimmer of hope: maybe Ruth will catch Boaz’ eye for other reasons as well – and indeed he does. Ruth and Boaz marry, they have a child, and this child becomes none other than the grandfather of David, the greatest of Israel’s kings. Through this foreign woman, Ruth, a poor widow is returned to her home, and not only is Naomi given a future – a grandson – but the whole people of Israel are given a future with the birth of this child. (And if you read the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, you will read Ruth’s name among the patriarchs and kings.)
Over the centuries rabbis have debated about the presence of Ruth, this foreigner, in such an important place in the Bible. Jews were not supposed to marry foreigners. Jews would fight against foreigners for the Promised Land – but here is Ruth, the one who is loyal, the one who carries God’s love and God’s promise for a future.

In that same Hebrew Bible, we find an acknowledgement that poor widows, like Naomi and Ruth, were treated so badly that they had to be singled out for protection in Jewish law. Common courtesy did not prevail among men with property; the Torah had to define how faithful Jews were to treat widows and orphans: Leave your field for the stranger to glean. Do not steal or deal falsely. Do not oppress the neighbor, or exploit your employees, or discriminate against the disabled. Do not take the widow’s cloak in pledge.
That is the Torah, the law. And there is the story of Ruth, the testimony to how God wants those who follow him to treat poor widows and foreigners – and not only because you “have to,” but because of all the blessings that will fall upon you when you do.

And now to Jesus: God’s pious followers were not so faithful to the Torah commandments about poor widows. This story is not so much about “the widow’s mite” – not so much about her faithfulness and duty – but about the faithlessness of the religious and political system of the day that would tax a poor widow down to where she has nothing left. Jesus’ condemnation of this “legalized” exploitation comes as he leaves the Temple for the last time, during the last week of his life.

Yes, there is a stewardship sermon in this Gospel story, but it’s not about wrenching the last penny from your fingers. It’s about how we participate in God’s justice: about how we welcome strangers, how we feed hungry people, how we treat poor people with dignity and respect and not cast-off charity. It’s not about how we circle the wagons but about how we open our borders, and our hearts, and yes, even our pocketbooks. It’s about how much more we do together than any of us can do alone. It’s about how our generosity is a piece of God’s generosity, and God’s blessings, and God’s liberties, and God’s future.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

All Saints: Loving God and Loving Neighbor

Tired of the election

All Saints Sunday          Nov. 4, 2012
Isaiah 25:6-9
Ps. 146
Mark 12:28-34

Who did not sympathize with that little girl, strapped in her seat in the back of the car, while her mother listened to an endless loop of campaign speculation and punditry on National Public Radio? The little girl who burst into tears at the mere mention of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? It is not always helpful to quote the Bible at distressed children, but perhaps she would take comfort from today’s psalm:

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them.

When they breathe their last, they return to earth, *
and in that day their thoughts perish.

What would people in Staten Island, or along the Jersey Shore, make of these verses:

Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help!*
whose hope is in the LORD their God;

Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; *
who keeps his promise for ever;

Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, *
and food to those who hunger.

On the endless news loop this week we were more likely to see compelling and forceful cries for help from residents of New York City who felt utterly cut off from the rest of the nation. They had experienced the mighty force of heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them crashing down on their heads. If God sent justice to the oppressed, or food to the hungry, it came through the tireless efforts of rescue workers, and Red Cross volunteers, and Salvation Army food trucks. Multiply the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child” about a thousand times in this situation: it takes a nation, a state, a society, all of us, to restore any food, clothing or shelter to people so devastated. Even a FEMA trailer looks good to people who would otherwise choose between a cot in a school gym or their flooded, burned out or blown away home.

The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; *
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

The LORD loves the righteous; the LORD cares for the stranger; *
he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.

Not everyone who is giving their all to help thousands of people in need are doing it out of the conviction that when we do good, we do it in the name of God, or that when we do good we are carrying out the mission God has laid out for this world. If the orphaned and widowed are sustained, it is human hands that do it.

Not everyone understands “doing the right thing” in this God context. We can be suspicious of outsiders. The scribe, who questions Jesus in today’s Gospel, was part of a group that was very skeptical that what Jesus was doing was in the name of God. That scribe had to reach out to someone shunned by all the leaders around him, and when he saw was he was doing, and listened closely to what he was teaching about why he was doing things like healing and feeding, he reaches across the divide, and Jesus reaches back: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

When we are in the middle of a disaster on such a massive scale, religiosity – the modern-day equivalent of “burn offerings and sacrifices” -- all those phrases about God’s providence, or about the will of God, or God watching out for so-and-so while the person next to him drowned – I find it pretty hard to recognize that hand of God in events like those. But where I do see the hand of God is in the hands of those people – no matter their motives – who are there right now, doing the right thing, people who, wherever they are coming from, are not far from the kingdom of God.

This feast of All Saints is about all those people who have the two great commandments – to love God and to love neighbor – written on their hearts. This feast of All Saints is about people who did not have to think twice: people who put their bodies between an innocent victim and an oncoming bullet; people who cared for sick and dying people even as they risked their own lives; people who lived lives of love and compassion.

This feast of All Saints is about people who, even when times are bleak, know that God’s promises are meant for them: God’s promises of great feasts of rich food and fine wines – God’s promises that in the face of death itself God is there, wiping away tears and removing all their shame and disgrace, along with all the rubble of broken homes and shattered lives. 

This feast of All Saints is about people who believe that these promises are not just for “our kind of people,” our next-door neighbors only, not just for the people who vote the way we do or listen to the same radio stations, but for all people – that our God, for whom we wait, will bring this justice and abundance to all.