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.



Leslie Benjamin said...

As I heal, I become more and more aware of the paradox of painful gratitude and grateful pain. I can't say it as well as you have, but I dig it, man, I dig it.
Bless you, Fr Matt!

Anonymous said...

Profoundly moving. Grateful that I discovered, by chance, and read this blog post. Or maybe it was not by chance. Thank you.

Leslie Benjamin said...

Did you know, Father Matthew, that the Lord has your spirit hard at work even when you're not looking? Last night I sent you an email, knowing it may be a few days before you see it. I was so anxious to hear your response, and then I reread this blog post by you. It was precisely what I needed to hear (again) and at the perfect time. I heard your advice just when it was needed. Thank you.