Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ the ... President? What?

Welcome to Christ the King Sunday.  Or, as many churches are now calling it, the Reign of Christ Sunday.  They call it "Reign of Christ" because they want us to focus not so much on the Kingship of Christ but on the fact that Christ reigns; Christ is the alpha and the omega, the be all and end all, the ultimate ruler in our lives.  Just don't call him King.

The problem, of course, is ... what else do you call an ultimate ruler?  What's a better word than King?  Certainly he's not a dictator; he's not our president or CEO...  While I'm the first to admit that "kingship" is an archaic concept  - especially in a country that takes pride in having thrown off kings and all other non-elected rulers in our lives (except oil companies) - it's pretty difficult to excise the concept of Kingship from Christ - because he does rule; he is the ultimate authority for us; he is at the top of the totem pole.

Well, except it's not really a pole; it's more like a cross, actually.  

Which is really the point, after all.  However he comes to be King, whatever that means to us, his authority is achieved in humiliation; he is exalted through degradation; his crown is not a big solid gold thing decorated with jewels; it's a crude, filthy, bloody crown of thorns.   

And so we come to the great paradox that lays at the heart of Christ the King - which is actually our way of saying that the meaning of life itself is paradoxical.

Someone once said the mark of true intelligence is the capacity to hold two conflicting ideas in your head simultaneously.  I'm not sure if that's true or not - but it's true in the case of Christianity, anyway: that our religion is born in contradiction and paradox.  Our weakness is our strength, as Paul said; the last shall be first; the way of the cross is the way of foolishness.  That's paradox: the greatest wisdom is foolishness.

There are some Christians, I admit, who don't accept this.  When they talk about Christ the King, there is nothing paradoxical whatsoever.  Christ is KING!  We're talking about Glory here!  We're talking about Christ coming on clouds of thunder; he's riding a white stallion and he's wearing a suit of armor; we're talking about power and might; shock and awe.  There is no weakness in their Christ; there is no humiliation or shame or failure whatsoever.

These are people, I dare say, who are terrified of weakness; and they are confused by paradox; they jump at the sight of their own shadow.  For them, power is to be amassed, not given away.  

But Jesus did not have a gun collection.  Jesus did not attack the Roman Empire with swords and clubs and a mob of angry protesters.  His assault on the most powerful and ruthless empire on earth was far more devastating than any armed rebellion.   He defeated the powerful by submitting to power; he attacked the hateful by loving them; he pronounced judgment in words of forgiveness.  He conquered death by embracing death.  He won for himself the prize of eternal life by giving away his claim on life.

This is why we call him King.  Because through his life and death, he shows us the way to eternal life.  Another way of saying this is that by following in his way of paradox, we discover a life of ultimate blessing.

Yesterday I met for a couple hours with our new team of Eucharistic Visitors - and without telling them that this was my plan, I attempted to demonstrate for them exactly how this paradox of Christ's kingship actually works.

We sat around a circle, with a candle in the middle; and while everyone in the circle prayed, we took turns talking about our experience of being a Eucharistic Visitor.  

Just as an example - and while I'm talking about this, you should know that I'm changing some of the details so to protect the confidentiality of the group - but just as an example, someone talked about how he visits this one lady who has more things going wrong with her body than most of us can imagine.  This woman he visits suffers from several chronic diseases; she lives in constant pain; she is very poor and has almost no family; and yet, when she opens her mouth, she has almost nothing to say except Thank you.  This woman can barely open her mouth without words of gratitude and blessing coming out.  Our Eucharistic Visitor talked about how inadequate this made him feel; that here he was, relatively healthy, relatively young, relatively competent, and yet he was the one who complained more often than he cared to admit.  Here he is, bringing communion to a woman whose arthritis is so bad that she needs about an hour just to get dressed in the morning; and yet he's the one filled with rage because the line at Starbucks is too long.

What was he doing, pretending to be the minister in that situation?  Who did he think he was, to be leading this woman in prayer?  What did he possibly have to offer this woman? 

And of course, as soon as those words left his mouth, in the context of prayer, he began to see the blessing in it; he began to see that he was exactly the right person to be ministering to that lady.  He had nothing to offer except a stale cracker, and a sip of some rather mediocre port; and yet by those ordinary means he was witness to something extraordinary.  That all he needs to bring is himself, broken and flawed; and God takes care of the rest; that it's not about his worthiness, or his competence, or his expertise, or his intelligence; it's about showing up in his poverty; it's about letting go of trying to be impressive; it's about being open to the fact that Christ is found where we least expect it: in the broken body of a solitary, desperately poor woman living in a trailer park on the edge of town.   

When it came my turn to talk about my experience of bringing the Eucharist to someone, I confessed to the sense of inadequacy I felt about the whole thing.  About how I never feel like I can do enough for the people I visit; that I never have enough time; that I can never take away their pain, or restore them to health, or fix their problems.  And as I confessed that sense of inadequacy, while the others prayed for me, I didn't feel like I was swirling down a pit of self-loathing; instead, I felt a blessing; I felt God's mercy and forgiveness; I heard a voice say, "Of course you feel inadequate.  Thank GOD you feel inadequate.  Because you aren't God.  But God is here.  All this is in God's hands.  And because you have been authentic, you are blessed.  Because you have been honest, you are forgiven.  

This is the paradox that we proclaim on this day.  Christ becomes our King in his woundedness.  Christ is exalted... upon a cross.

This is what we proclaim.  The very nature of reality itself - the very structure of the universe - has at its heart this pattern of paradox.  That glory goes to those who serve.  That our healing begins when we accept our woundedness.  That love - not domination, not violence, not control, but love - conquers all.

I pray that Christ may be your King, this day, and every day; leading you into weakness, which shall be your strength; leading you into all goodness, bv means of the simple confession of your sin.   In so doing, Christ comes alive in you, and in me; and we all become members of that blessed community, which is otherwise known as the Kingdom of God.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Next Big Argument

Sermon preached August 18, 2013
The Very Rev. Dr. Matthew Lawrence, Rector
Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, CA

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three…

The other day I was sitting with some parishioners and we were talking generally about how things are going around the church these days, and I was deeply glad to hear each person reflect on how nice it is not to have any big fights going on in the church these days.  Everyone seems to be pretty happy, knock on wood.  Not that we all agree with one another on much of anything – sitting around that table were a healthy assortment of Republicans and Democrats, gay, straight, male, female, 8 o’clockers and 9:15ers, and 11:15ers – but everyone agreed we didn’t see any big issue dividing us right now – and we all kind of breathed that in and gave ourselves permission to enjoy it.  

I had the same experience with the bishop a few months ago.  We were talking about the state of the diocese and making plans for Diocesan Convention, and I told him how great it was to go to Convention and not spend the whole time arguing about sex.  Great… but also kind of disorienting.  I mean, I’ve been a priest since 1990 and until very recently every single Diocesan Convention was consumed with arguments about homosexuality.  

I asked the bishop, “What are we going to do, now that we don’t need to argue about sex?”

And he smiled the smile of a wise and experienced bishop and he said, “Enjoy it while it lasts.”

And that’s just what I’ve been doing.  It’s been nice, hasn’t it?

But it does make you wonder:  What’s next?  What’s the next big fight going to be about?  

It’s almost like Jesus gave us this list, 2,000 years ago, of Arguments We Need to Have; and we’ve been going down this list, checking things off as we go along.  Let’s see: first we had to fight with our Jewish brothers and sisters because they didn’t want us preaching in the synagogue; okay, well we gave that our best shot…  and then, let’s see, we had to fight over whether or not to let Greeks into our company; then we had to settle the Arian heresy; and then there were the Pelagians; and the Manichees, and all those other heresies; and then we had our fight over indulgences; and we finally got the Bible and the prayer book translated into English, that was a big one and it looks like it’s pretty settled; and then there was slavery; and Prohibition; and the Vietnam War; and Civil Rights – which is still an issue but at least Black people aren’t being stopped from registering at universities by men with guns, so that’s progress; and then there were women wanting to become priests, and now, gay people!  So: that’s it, right?   Are we done? 

I’d really like to think that we’re done.  That we’ve settled every big controversy.  I mean, what’s next?  I really have a hard time imagining what the next big church-splitting argument is going to be over.  Dogs marrying cats?  What?   I have no idea.

When Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” – boy, was he right.  I wonder if he had any idea how long we’d be fighting our very own brothers and sisters in his name.  

And truthfully – which one of those issues do we wish we hadn’t had a fight over?  I, for one, am glad the Bible’s in English; I’m grateful we no longer have legalized slavery in the United States; and I’m proud we are a church that tackled the gay issue so courageously, and, I might add, so prayerfully.

So it turns out Jesus was right when he said his message would bring division.  And when he said, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but [you don’t know] how to interpret the present time," he was right about that, too.  Because we have no idea what the next big storm is going to be about.

Whatever the issue will be, we know it’s going to start with some self-aggrandizing, self-appointed spokesperson for justice, probably some young person going on about sour grapes, like Isaiah in today’s lesson.  I know this because I have been that self-aggrandizing, self-appointed spokesperson for justice.  Many of us have.  We have seen the same cycle take place every generation since the beginning of time: some kid in his 20’s or 30’s will stand up, just like I used to do 30 years ago, and he will make some kind of uncomfortable speech that no one wants to hear, and we will try to shush him up; maybe even drive him from the church.  And our first objection to him is not going to be that we disagree with him on the merits of his argument; no, we might even agree with him, secretly, but our biggest objection will be that he’s divisive; that he’s too blunt; that he’s hurting the feelings of good people who think differently from him.  And so we will call the police and we will have him arrested for Disturbing the Peace.  Because we love this peace so much; we know how hard-won this peace is; and we who have been through a war or two already will want to just rest, and enjoy the peace, because we will feel that we’ve earned it. 

About ten years ago – I think it was the first Clergy Conference that I had been to here in this Diocese – we were engaging the issue of gay priests, and it was turning into one of those rancorous, difficult debates; I had just made my speech about my brother, who was gay, and about how he had attempted suicide as a young man because he had been taught to hate himself, and I did my usual thing which was to challenge the other clergy in the room to tell me which side of my brother’s life God was on – was he on the side of self-hatred and all the forces in our society that were telling him he was better off dead, or was God on the side of my brother coming out of the closet, and healing from all the self-hate that he had learned, and finally embracing himself as God had created him to be.  I had given the same speech a few times before, but this was the first time in this Diocese.  And then this older priest, who was about five years from retirement, got up.  He started by reviewing all the battles that he had fought while he was a priest; about how he had gone into the South to march with Dr. King; and how he had opposed the Vietnam War and gotten beat up for it; and how he had been a good soldier over the revisions to the Prayer Book, even though he lost a third of his congregation over it; and then how he had come to accept and support and fight for the rights of women to be ordained.  And now he was being asked to take up another banner and fight another war and lose more parishioners and he started weeping and said, “I’m just tired!  I’m tired of all of it!  And I’m just not going to fight any more!”

At the time, I remember I wasn’t very sympathetic to him.  I mean, I could see the pain he was in, and I felt sorry for him, but I remember thinking, Jesus doesn’t give us a pass on these things.  In fact, we make a promise in our Baptismal Vows, that we will strive for justice and peace among all people; and we will persevere in resisting evil.   We don’t say that we’ll strive for justice and peace as long as we feel like it; or as long as we don’t offend somebody; or as long as we don’t lose members.

This is the bad news that comes with the good news of new life in Christ – that we are expected to put justice ahead of peace, and all of it ahead of our own feelings of comfort, even our own well-deserved desire for rest.

But I have to admit that, now that my issue has been settled, more or less; now that my righteous anger has been mollified, I understand that older priest completely.  I can honestly say I dread the next conflict; I want to extend this period of peace and tranquility as long as I can; I’m so old and self-satisfied right now I can’t even imagine what the next big conflict is going to be about.  And I’m far more likely, when the next big conflict comes around, to be on the side of the conservatives, opposing change simply because I prefer things the way they are.  

I say this out loud, so that you can hold me accountable, should you find me digging in my heels against change.  If you see me preferring peace over justice; if you ever hear me say, “But we just can’t take on any more divisive issues right now,” please: do me a favor.  Remind me of my baptismal vows; which today we say out loud for everyone to hear.

In our Baptism, we don’t say we will persevere in resisting evil, as long as we feel like it; we don’t say we will strive for justice and peace among just certain people, as long as they don’t ask too much of us.  That’s the bad news of life in Christ.  We are called to speak the truth, and work for justice, and step out on faith into new unchartered territory, every day, whether we like it or not, whether it serves our interests or not, whether it makes us feel uncomfortable or not.  

But until that next big conflict comes along, threatening to split our church, I propose that we follow our bishop's advice, and just enjoy the peace that we have now.  After all, it’s almost the end of summer.  Some of us haven’t even been to a baseball game this year yet.  Let’s be good to ourselves; let’s enjoy this season of peace.  Life doesn’t have to be all conflict, all of the time.  Even God rested from his labors once in a while.  And so shall we, I pray, and give thanks to God along the way.     

Somebody say…. AMEN.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Thirsty Camels" - Pentecost, 2013

Pentecost, 2013

The other day I was at a restaurant and there were two young people at the table next to me; they were holding hands and leaning across the table toward one another, so that their foreheads almost met; their eyes were locked on one another as if no one else on the planet existed; they would nod in agreement at every observation the other made; and their faces were beaming.  They were drinking in one another’s words like thirsty camels at the end of a march across the desert -- they had what I can only describe as an eagerness of understanding; this kind of Pentecost joy on their faces, as they were connecting with each other.  

You could sense that their love was fresh and there seemed to me to be a measure of relief about them, as if they had waited a long time for one another; finally that loneliness - that long aching loneliness - was over.  

You could almost read it in their faces: here is someone who understands me; finally, someone who is actually interested in me – just as much as I am interested in her.  

It’s a beautiful thing to see, this eagerness of understanding.

It’s no wonder that when we try to talk about how God appearred on the earth, we describe him as “the Word.”   Before there ever was any Bible, we say; before there was even words, or writing, or humans, we say there was the Word; as John’s Gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word,”
and by word he didn’t mean a book; he meant this sacred potential for understanding; this promise of comprehension.  It’s this thing that happens between souls, when they are leaning across a table touching foreheads; or leaning, maybe, across a universe; this Word with a capital “W”; this promise of perfect understanding and of being perfectly understood.  We long for understanding so deeply that when it comes time to talk about God living among us, we call him the Word.  He does what words do, except perfectly: He connects us to one another; and when that happens, we talk about God.

Lately I’ve been aware at how deeply we long for this Word; for this connection.  I’ve been noticing how often I find myself in a room with someone and we’re both leaning forward, foreheads almost touching, drinking in understanding.   Right now we have two beloved parishioners who have come to terms with the fact that they are dying.  You walk into the room of someone who has reached this understanding; you sit beside them and they eagerly take your hand, and your eyes lock, and it’s like entering a cave filled with treasure, overflowing with gold coins and pearls and jewels: they want you to have it.  Here is my life, they say; my precious life.  Here are all of my memories; all of my stories; my loves, my children; my hopes, my regrets, my achievements – mostly just my stories.  Take it, they say; take this treasure.  Understand it, put it in your pocket and share it with others.  

In their eyes there is in their eyes a universe of meaning that they are trying to convey.  

Whenever I visit someone in the hospital, or the nursing home, or a homeless person, or someone in prison, there is this longing for connection.  This level openness that you don’t see so much in everyday life; and people are saying things they maybe never would say if they weren’t so opened up by their circumstances; so aware of the desire to be understood, and to understand.  

Which is why I think Jesus said, in Matthew 25, if you are looking for him, go visit someone in prison; go to the poor and listen to what they have to say; go to the hospital and hold someone’s hand.  That’s where you’ll find him: the living Word.  

In the language of the church, this is what we call pastoral care.  And it’s not just something priests do.  This is something we are all called to do.  We have trained pastoral care visitors, and we would like to train more people for this ministry of presence.  And whether we are trained for it or not, whether we represent the church in this ministry or just ourselves, we are all called into that level of relationship.  As our loved ones fall into trouble, and we run to the hospital bed to be by their side, and see them reach out their hand from the hospital bed, asking for connection – we take it..  

And when we are there, foreheads tilting forward, prayers and words of love being spoken, we know that we didn’t decide to be there; we were led there – by the Spirit of that Word, we were led to that bedside.  We’re like two magnets, who once they are within a certain range of one another, an invisible force draws them together.  We call this the work of the Holy Spirit.

We do that enough times and then we begin to see every relationship in those terms: we begin to trust that Spirit more and more; we let the Spirit draw us into deeper connection with everyone in our lives – our spouse or partner, our neighbor, our children.  Suddenly life seems too short to push those relationships aside; suddenly the Spirit is drawing us into more truth telling, more intimacy, more revelation of God’s Word.

And that’s when we begin to live a Spirit-filled life.  We begin to have the conversations that some people only have on their death beds.  We decide not to wait for disease to open us up to one another – we choose to live our lives on a more authentic level.  

And that’s when the miracles start to happen – because then the Spirit takes over; the Spirit draws people of the Spirit together; the Spirit brings us into new relationships and new connections that are life-giving to us.

And that is how we find ourselves here.  

We didn’t decide to come to church; we might have thought at the time that we were making the decision but in reality we were drawn together by the Spirit.  And as we continue to open ourselves to this Spirit and this Word, we find the Spirit drawing us together in new ways
and a new kind of community begins to emerge;
a community of care;
a community of connection;
a community of mutual vulnerability and trust
and deep love;
a love that has its Source not in ourselves, but in the Spirit that flows among us; that deep well; that living water.

We all drink from that well like thirsty camels.

This is the water that Jesus was talking about in John’s gospel, as he encountered that Samaritan woman – that person so different from him – such a gulf between them, of culture, language, religion, gender, politics – and yet there they were, leaning toward one another, led by the Spirit:

"...Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

And that’s how this crazy religion was born, on this day of Pentecost so many centuries ago, when all of a sudden, just as Jesus predicted,  a disparate group of people, representing all the different nations and cultures and languages of the known world, leaned in together, made themselves vulnerable to the presence of the Holy Spirit; breathed in the Word of God, and became what we call Christians.

And in that moment, everything that separated us was overcome.  The curse from the Tower of Babel was lifted; finally our universal language was found again; finally our great long loneliness was lifted; and we became like those young lovers I saw at the restaurant; fools in love with God and one another; drinking in that universal language of love.

Pray that we will continue to let the Spirit lead us into ever deeper relationships; pray that we will continue to listen to God’s Word, spoken at the depth of our hearts; pray that we continue to seek to understand, as we are understood, with open hearts and minds.