Religious Radical or Christ the King?

John 18:33-37

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (Read the rest here)

Sermon

Father Angelo’s tour of the Cathedrals of Northern Europe was cut short by the events of last week’s bombing. Over the past few days, he had been helping the group of St. David’s find return flights home. However, his plan had been to stay after the tour and spend some holiday time in the UK. So, Father Angelo made his way from Germany to France and crossed the chunnel, in order to stay with a priest friend, Rev. Kate, in the British countryside.

The heightened security made his trip slow, and even across the pond off the European continent, tensions were still high. He was grateful to finally arrive at his friend’s doorstep in the hopes of finding some calm and peace.

(Pause)

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year. Christ the King serves as doorway from one stage in the story to the next. We wrap up the story of Jesus having spent the year telling it from birth, to ministry, to passion and death, to Easter and resurrection, to parables and teachings, to predictions about his return again. Christ the King sums it all up by pointing us to the coming Kingdom of God. And then next week, we start all over again with Advent and waiting for the birth of Messiah.

And oddly enough, the story we use to tell of Christ the King this year, is the story of Jesus on trial before pilate, the roman governor over Judea. Seeing a supposedly king-like Jesus on trial is meant to turn our view of kings and kingdoms upside down.

But it is the Revelation reading that should really make us uncomfortable. Often Christians read the book of Revelation like some mystical book of prophecy. It isn’t that.  Revelation was written to be a book of hope and encouragement to the early Christian community facing persecution under the Roman Empire.

In the decades following Jesus ascension, the early church developed into a small band of believers whose beliefs put them in opposition to Roman military religion. And because of this, Christians were often persecuted. They were excluded from proper society, unable to access the normal benefits of citizenship, marginalized economically and socially for being different. Sometimes they were even arrested and thrown into the gladiator arenas to meet their death fighting fierce warriors or wild animals like lions.

The early church lived under the thumb of Empire. Becoming a Christian meant a difficult life on the edges of society and potentially the danger of being executed for your radical and non-approved beliefs. The Romans saw Christianity as a threat to their Empire, to normal and acceptable ways of life. Rome saw the Christian view of God and the afterlife as opposed the Empire’s official religion, and they saw Christians as religious radicals sowing dissent and sedition, unwilling to integrate into society, instead radicalizing people into their movement.

Sound familiar? It should.

The early church of the 2nd century that lived under Roman persecution would by the 4th century be handed the keys to the Empire by Emperor Constantine and Christianity would become Christendom for the next 1600 years. Emperors became Holy Roman Emperors, Christianity became the official religion and western societies became Christian societies even today.

Here is the part where we should be getting uncomfortable. When we hear this scene between Jesus and the Roman Governor Pilate we should not identify with Jesus. What we should see is an official of the Empire overseeing far away middle-eastern lands holding a trial for a religious radical who has been preaching revolution and overthrow of the empire to his small group or “cell” of young male followers. We should see an Empire worrying about the threat of foreign religious zealots riling up backwards people against the approved and acceptable values and religion of the day.  We should see proper and upstanding people fearing violent acts from a small and oppressed religious group suffering under the thumb of Empire… and we should not identify with the one on trial, but the one sitting in judgement.

And yet, the one on trial is not only our King, but our God come to us in flesh…

(Pause)

Father Angelo’s friend Rev. Kate was the vicar of a small church of about 35-40 members. Yet, when the two arrived at the church for morning prayer, the church was hopping with activity. Dozens and dozens of people were streaming into the church. A few were the typical church sort, older grey-haired folks wearing formal church appropriate clothes. But most were younger people, often with kids. Dark skinned people, men with black hair, women with head scarves.

Father Angelo turned to Rev. Kate as they walked into the church.

“What is all this about?” he asked. “Have you been invaded? Have you switched teams or something? Why are these people here? Why are all these… muslims here?”

“Come and see” Rev. Kate said.

(Pause)

As the Early Church suffered under Roman persecution, the words of Revelation would NOT have been heard as mysterious prophecy about the end of the world. They would have been words of promise to a suffering community. They would have spoken about a new reality, one that trumped suffering and marginalization. Revelation was a promise that Empires didn’t hold all the power, because God was going to overturn that power. God was about to usher in a new reality, and the One who would rule this new world was one who knew suffering himself. One who had lived under the thumb of oppressors himself. One who had been tried, beaten, and killed by Empire, yet who had overcome the most powerful tool of Empire – death. The hope they heard was in the firstborn of dead, the resurrected Christ for whom death was nothing to be feared.

Yet for us, standing on the other side of that equation, as the ones who have been the empire for over 16 centuries, this radical religious political prisoner King is our hope too.

Because empire will not save us, just as persecution and marginalization did not save the early church.

Instead, Jesus shows us a new way. Jesus shows us, that even now as Christianity is in the power position, we have still not saved ourselves. In fact our relationship to power and empire is just as much something we need to be saved from as persecution was.

Jesus shows us that the old ways of empire, where the privileged rule, are over. Jesus comes to call us to a Kingdom where all nations are welcome, where all people are equal, where death is no more, because the first born of the dead has shown new life, even to us empire people. Jesus pushes our old ways, our dead ways, our empire ways to the margins and declares that God is the new beginning and end, the new first and last, that God transcends power and empire, that God rules from a place of weakness, that God is be found in the One whom our empires would see as a threat and would fear.

In Christ the King, God shows us a new Kingdom. Not a Kingdom of power, but a kingdom of service. Priestly service. A kingdom based in proclaiming the good news, washing sinners, feeding the hungry, welcoming all.

Jesus shows us that God’s Kingdom begins from the bottom up,

Begins with weakness yet welcome.

Begins with vulnerability yet mercy.

Begins with uncertainty yet compassion.

Begins with risk yet openness to the other.

Christ the King reminds us that God is saving those who are persecuted and marginalized, those who suffer at the hands of empire. Christ the King also reminds us those of us in Empire need that same salvation. That we too are marginalized and persecuted by our own fears and efforts to retain control.

Christ the King reminds us that God’s salvation for us comes in completely unexpected ways, from the margins and from the underside

Today, Christ the empire threatening, religiously radical, political prisoner King declares a new order where no one is left to the margins and no one holds the power. Jesus declares a new Kingdom that is our salvation from persecution and from empire.

(Pause)

Inside Rev. Kate’s church, all the pews and alter furnishings had been pushed to one corner. The rest of the space was filled with tables and chairs. People chatting in various languages over coffee, doing art-work or crafts, in small groups practicing reading or filling in resumes. There were kids running around and playing.

Rev. Kate looked at her friend, “No, we haven’t switched teams. Jesus just reminded us what the Kingdom of God really looks like.”

Father Angelo smiled at Rev. Kate,

“I can only think of one thing to to say to that…

Amen.


 

The character of Rev. Kate in my illustration was inspired by a story I heard about Rev. Sally Smith, which you can see here:

 

 

 

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The Temple has Been Thrown Down – Paris, Beirut, Baghdad

Mark 13:1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”… For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Read the Whole Passage here)

12227205_983847591654638_5852447112899142260_nSermon

Some weeks as a preacher, you plan one thing, and the breaking news comes. The hourly news on the radio, twitter and Facebook alerts, news articles

19 in Bagdad

43 in Beirut

127 in Paris

Explosions and bullets.

Chaos. Fear. Death.

The world prays for Paris and beyond.

The veneer of business as usual is once again shattered.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families today as the long slow process of rebuilding life begins.

But as we sit here, tucked away from the danger, yet still with heavy hearts, we know that there are explosions and shootings everyday. Paris feels closer to home, than Beirut or Baghdad, but the violence happens everyday.

(Pause)

Father Angelo has led a number of tours of holy sites in his ministry at St. David’s. Every few years, he offers a chance for a group from the congregation to travel for a couple weeks and to see historical parts of the world. He has taken groups to the Holy Land a number of times, to Rome, and to England. This year, the group was touring the Cathedrals of central Europe. They were headed to the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, the Cologne Cathedral.

As the tour bus approached, the group could see the cathedral towering above the city. With the twin towering spires looking like they were reaching for heaven above, Father Angelo led the group into the church. The Cathedral was bustling with life. There were hundreds of people mingling about. There were a dozen tour guides were lecturing groups in different languages.

And then all of a sudden a loud crash could be heard outside, followed by the whole cathedral shaking, dust scattering everywhere.

And then another explosion… all the people inside the church froze for a moment. And then as if on cue, people began running, screaming and shouting. Father Angelo called for his group to stay calm and stay put.

(Pause)

Next Sunday will be Christ the King, the New Year’s Eve of the church year. And then we will reset the story of Jesus, and begin again with pregnancy as we wait for the birth of Messiah.

But we are not quite there yet… Instead first we must hear the last portion of Mark’s gospel for this year. And in true Markan fashion, it is yet another conversation between Jesus and the disciples, where they miss the point and Jesus gets annoyed.

Paris is exactly what Jesus is talking about with the disciples. As they marvel at grandness of the temple, Jesus points out how they cling to the illusion of security, safety, comfort, and enduringness. They see the temple as a sign of God’s power. Jesus’ words about the temple are not judgement or condemnation. He isn’t hoping for the temple to fall. He is simply warning of the inevitable. He is telling the disciples that if the stones of the temple are where they place their faith… They will not just be disappointed, but one day they will be fleeing the falling stones as they threaten to come down.

On Friday, we bore witness as Paris was another destruction of the temple. A temple built to our own power, our own security, to faith in our own god-likeness. Because unlike Beirut or Bagdad, Paris is the same stadiums and restaurants and concert halls that we believe are safe for us. We are shaken because Paris could be here. We could be the ones out for dinner, watching the game, at a concert when the bullets start flying, or the suicide bombers decide to press the button.

If our faith is in the large stones and tall buildings and in the idea that violence couldn’t happen here, we will be disappointed.

And at the same time, if our fear is that every refugee is a terrorist and that we can close our doors and boarders to be safe while not also closing off some part of our hearts, we have again put our faith in the wrong thing.

Jesus warns us not to be surprised when the stones begin to fall and when the wars begin. But as we try to understand even more senseless violence and death, it is hard to understand what God is up to.

Jesus does give us a clue. The birth pangs.

As we are about to begin Advent, the church’s season of pregnancy, we know that the birth pangs mean that something new is about to happen. We know that the pain and suffering, the aches and stiffness, the loss of control and uncertainty about what is coming might be signs of impending death and destruction. But with God, we know that these are also the signs of something new, something being born into our world.

(Pause)

In just few minutes, the cathedral was nearly emptied out. Father Angelo and his group found an alcove to take shelter in with a few other tourists. There were sirens and the sound of gun fire coming outside. The world seemed to have flipped from wonderful European holiday to surreal chaos in the blink of an eye.

As the group huddled together, the doors to the cathedral burst open. 3 young, dark skinned men with beards and backpacks came pouring in. The St. David’s tour group looked at each other in abject fear. A few started sobbing, one person cried, “This is the end.”

Father Angelo stood up and left the alcove. He waved the three men over to alcove. They came running, and as he ushered them into the alcove, breathing heavily, they sat down next to the others against the wall.

One looked up to Father Anglo and said, “Thank you, Father.”

Father Angelo nodded.

As the St. David’s group slowly began to relax, the three men checked their phones and caught their breath.

As the noises of chaos and sirens continued outside the church, the group settled in. One of the men, looking as scared and worried as anyone in the St. David’s group, looked again towards Father Angelo and said, “Father, will you lead us in prayer.”

“Yes… we should pray, shouldn’t we.” said Father Angelo.

And together, the 3 young dark skinned men, cathedral stragglers and the group of St. David’s began to pray, “Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy.”

(Pause)

In the midst to crashing stones, Jesus could have said that these things mean the end. Instead he says they are the birth pangs. That these things mean something beginning, not something ending. We so often see the struggle and pain, the chaos and uncertainty as symptoms of dying. Yet, these are also symptoms of pregnancy.

And with God, the birth pangs points us to a pregnant teen and her carpenter husband travelling the harsh country side in the midst of foreign occupation and population control. The birth pangs herald a baby born in the most inconspicuous of stables in the back corner of the world far away from large temple and large stones.

God’s work happens in the quiet corners. God’s work happens with normal people, like us.

It is like Mr Rogers who reminds us to “look for the helpers”.

It is the Porte Ouverte, Open Door message that Parisians used to let those who were stuck outside know that there was safety to be found.

It is a musician who drags his grand piano on his bike, to play John Lennon’s imagine outside of the bombed out concert hall.

It is hearts that refuse to be closed off even though every instinct tells us it is not safe to be open to the “other”.

But most of all the birth pangs are signs of God’s promise that death does not have the final say. That tall buildings and large stones, nor explosions and the bullets, are the powers that define us.

Instead in the places where we least expect,

God stands where tall buildings and stones have fallen.

God is thwarting the bullets and explosions.

God is birthing new life.

God has already begun the work of reconciliation and resurrection.

Because reconciliation and resurrection always begin in the broken and tragic places.

Because new life must first begin in death.

Because God works with mangers and crosses, with open doors and prayers prayed by helpless and far away neighbours and friends.

God’s life giving work happens in the small places, because that is all God needs. Because that is where death and darkness are defeated. In mangers, on crosses, in empty tombs, on open doors/ Portes Ouvertes, with prayer vigils reminding us to forgive and to hope. The birth pangs are are not the destruction… The birth pangs are the realization that neither our large stones nor our bullets have real power.

The birth pangs are the sign that God is about transform the world with virgins and shepherds, with fishermen, tax collectors and sinners, with words of faith, water, bread and wine. With a praying Body, a praying community spread all over the world, God is making us the Portes Ouvertes / Open Doors of the Kingdom. God is transforming the world in the Body of the One who was laid in the manger but walked out of the tomb. In the One who is there wherever two or three gather to pray, even when the bombs and bullets are falling.

And so today, as the stones fall, as the news breaks, as the fear of the other threatens… we prepare for the birth pangs. God is about to birth something… someone new into the world. Messiah, the One who will truly save us, the One who is greater than any temple, any bomb, any fear. Messiah is on the way.

Amen.

Colliding with All Saints – Making All Things New

John 11:32-44

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Last night children everywhere wandered the streets in costumes, going from door to door for Halloween. There were ghouls and goblins, superheroes and villains, princes and princesses. Almost everyone takes part, whether it is handing out candy, providing scary decorations or accompanying children on their pilgrimage for the biggest hauls of chocolate bars and sweets. In many ways this mirrors the practice of medieval Christians making pilgrimage for All Saints. Dressing up, lighting candles, journeying on the road was all part of the belief that spirits would often wander the earth until All Saints Day, and the costumes would be to scare away vengeful haunting spirits, and the candles, often lit in each room in a house or door way that would guide good spirits home.

As the end of the middle ages saw the Reformation, our forebears sought to reshape the feast of All Saints. Rather than praying to the Saints on November 1st and then praying for all souls still in purgatory on All Souls Day November 2nd, Lutherans and other protestants have mashed the two together, recognizing that saints are not special or holy people. But that all those who have died in faith are made Saints by God’s Holiness poured out for us.

On All Saints Day, we gather to pray in thanksgiving for those who have gone before us in faith, and we pray to God that we too may join the saints and heavenly hosts in the always ongoing great high feast. We recognize today, that our worship is not something that we create, but rather something we are invited to join with the heavenly hosts. We are like thirsty pilgrims who approach the always flowing river of heavenly worship and we wade into the water again and again, week after week, briefly pulling back the veil between heaven and earth until one day we too will be swept up into the great worship of all the saints and we too will join the heavenly hosts.

And yet today is not all sweet visions of heavenly worship and dreams of joining those beloved saints who have gone before us.

Today, we also face the reality death. Like Jesus on the road to Bethany, we are confronted with the real, messy, emotional and overpowering experience of grief. Our spirits are disturbed like Jesus’ is. We churn and twist deep in our beings with Mary.

As Jesus makes his way to Bethany to mourn the death of his friend Lazarus, we are not meant to see a doctor calling a time of death, nor a pastor leading prayers at a funeral, nor a funeral director guiding a grieving family through grief. Jesus is going to Bethany as a friend, a brother to Lazarus, family to Mary and Martha.

On this grieving journey to Bethany, Jesus meets a desperate Mary. “Lord, if you have been here my brother would not have died” she pleads. And Jesus is disturbed, Jesus is moved. The greek is points to a deep churning passion, even anger within Jesus. He doesn’t just recognize and acknowledge the grief in the Mary like a therapist would. But Jesus feels it too, but Jesus loves Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Even knowing what he is about to do, Jesus feels the depths of grief too.

The kind of grief that we all know. The kind of grief that always comes with death. Whether it is the grief of a community witnessing an overturned boat near Tofino, the grief of world citizens who are watching people choose the risky waters of the Mediterranean because they are safer than home in Syria, the grief of families who keep vigil at hospital bed knowing that death long awaited is soon to arrive, the grief of empty spots at dining rooms tables, vacant passages seats in cars, or beds meant for two with only one to sleep.

The grief that Jesus feels today is the same personal, raw, churning grief that we know in our lives. And while grief makes death feels so personal and lonely, death is also transcendent, cosmic, universal. It is found on the road between two friends grieving a dead brother and it also the great darkness hanging over all creation:

See, the house of God is far from mortals

Death hovers over them as their master;

they will all suffer the same fate

and death will spare not one;

Life will be no more;

there is nothing but mourning and crying and pain,

for the first things reign over all.

This is the old heaven and the old earth, this is what All Saints pilgrims carried with them on their journey, this is the personal grief that we bring today for loved ones.

This is death.

This is death, and Jesus stands in front of the tomb, tears running down his face and defiantly says, “Take away the stone.”

And grief, personal and cosmic says, “But Lord there will be a stench” because death is too strong, too powerful, too overwhelming.

Except for God.

Except for the God who created something from nothing.

Except for the God who is creating a new heaven and a new earth.

And out walks a dead man, out walks Lazarus alive again.

The very last thing that Mary or Martha expects is to see their brother alive. Grief cannot imagine that there is an answer to death. That is why Jesus meets Mary and Martha in their grief. That is why God’s spirit churns with anger, that is why God grieves with us on the road to the tomb, that is why God, even knowing that the stone is about to be rolled away, weeps along with us.

And there walking out of the tomb, the personal and cosmic realities of death collide into the personal and cosmic promises of God. The reality of stinking rotting dead flesh that we know too well suddenly smashes into the loving, heart-pounding, passionate love of God for all creation.

As Jesus stands at the tomb, calling for the stone to be rolled away, beckoning forth believed brother and friend, Mary, Martha and Lazarus finally see the the reality of Jesus promise, of dreams and visions of Revelation made tangible:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them as their God;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Our All Saints pilgrimage this morning is the same mixture of personal and transcendent grief. We acknowledge that death comes for our loved ones and us, death comes for all.

But with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, we discover that in our grief, God in Christ meets us on the road. God in Christ churns with anger and grief, with sorrow and sadness weeping with us just as if death had the last word.

Yet Jesus has also come to meet us with that great Revelation promise,

“See, I am making all things new.”

As Jesus stands there, tears running down his face, disturbed in spirit… He commands the stones be rolled away from all of our tombs. Jesus enacts the cosmic and transcendent promise of resurrection, Jesus declares that God has come to live with mortals. Jesus declares that death is not the end for those whose names we will read today, not the end for those whom light candles for… Jesus declares that death is not the end because,

“See, I am making all things new.”

As we gather on All Saints, with hearts full of both grief and thanks, of joy and sorrow, we discover a God who is deeply and powerfully and intimately involved in the affairs of mortals, who sheds real tears for Mary, Martha and Lazarus out of love.

We discover a God who cannot help but love us. A God who cannot help but love us in our grief and a God who cannot help but make all things new in our world.

Today on All Saints we confront grief and death, we confront the personal and cosmic and we make pilgrimage to tombs and graves, sealed shut forever.  But then we see a passionate and loving God, weeping with us AND calling us out of our graves into new life.  And all of a sudden, those great promises of resurrection, those promises of a new heaven and a new earth collide into us.

They collide and smash into us as the creator of all things stands before us and says,

“See, I am making all things – including you – new”

Amen.