Thursday, November 29, 2018

What Kind, What King?

 Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37
November 25, 2018
Years ago we had a house guest from Swaziland, a kingdom in southern Africa. We Americans don’t do kings, so we had some interesting conversations with our guest.
She respected American democracy, and was a big fan of then-President Obama, but, all-in-all, she told us, she preferred having a king. “The monarchy is good for my people,” she told us.
I am, and always have been, a small-d democrat, so she didn’t persuade me.
But she did give me a different perspective, and getting a different perspective is necessary for understanding what it can possibly mean to proclaim that Christ is king.
Most of our liturgical holidays – Easter, Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Pentecost, and so on – have ancient roots going back to early Christian communities. This Sunday – Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the liturgical year – has only been designated as such for around a century. But the designation of Christ as “king” goes back to the very beginning with its roots in the passage from John that we read together as a call to worship.
To speak of kings and of kingdoms is inherently to speak of politics – that is to say, it is to speak of how power is employed to shape the lives of a particular people. Politics – from the Greek polis – concerns the ordering of the city. To speak of kings and of kingdoms is to speak of life, here and now, in the city, and it is to ask, of ourselves, who – or what – is our king? That is to say, what rules your life?
As our call to worship this morning reminds us, the “kingship” of Jesus is not like that of other kings.
We 21st-century followers of Jesus – especially we North American ones – tend not to think about him as “king.” Similarly, we are increasingly uncomfortable with calling him “lord” because both of these titles seem inescapably bound up in patriarchal systems and structures from which we’d like to escape.
After all, before we even get into critiquing the gendered language of monarchy, most of us give at least lip service to being small “d” democrats who do not cotton to inherited power. We don’t believe in the divine right of kings, and we don’t believe in notions such as “royal blood” and “royal families.” We may find the “royals” fascinating, and some of them actually admirable, but it’s primarily as quaint museum pieces trotted out by our British cousins to help them remember times long since gone by.
That leaves us grasping for different images for our Christologies, and that grasping leads to strange ideas like Jesus as CEO or Jesus as life coach or Jesus as best friend, Jesus who is like me but only better.
The confusion of Christologies reminds me of one of the great cosmic coincidences of my lifetime: the deaths in the same week back in 1997 of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. Both women were, in their respective ways, admired, and both were, while complicated, in many ways admirable. But what struck me in the response to their deaths was the distinction in desires revealed in the way they were mourned.
Princess Diana was held up as the dream of every little girl who wanted to grow up to be a princess. Mother Teresa was held up as this distant saint living a life so holy as to be beyond anyone’s aspiration. But the truth was exactly the opposite: Diana was born to a family of British nobility – to the manor born, to royalty destined in part by that birth. Theresa, on the other hand, grew up in a small town in Albania in a household comprised of a her younger sister and their widowed mom. Their family was not destined to any kind of power, prestige, or privilege.
Anyone who wanted to follow the path of Theresa could do so – could still do so. Diana’s path was then, and remains now, open to but a chosen few.
Perhaps when Pilate asked Jesus if he were a king, Jesus’ response was intended to confuse the categories. For only those to the manor born, and in the right order of birth within the right family, might aspire to be king. Jesus, however, was always inviting people to join his family.
Of course, as the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel underscores, Jesus’ family was a mixed bag of royalty and complete outsiders. The mythic family tree goes all the way back to Abraham, and includes Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright; Tamar, who was accused of being a sex worker; Rahab, who pretty clearly was a sex worker; David, who was a king, to be sure, but also, just as surely, the murderer of Uriah the Hittite. There are other nuggets in the list in the first chapter of Matthew, but that’s enough to underscore the truth that Jesus’ lineage is not what provided the title “king.”
Indeed, pretty much any one of us could look back through our own families and find a mixed bag of scoundrels, on the one hand, and, on the other, folks who faithfully responded to the call to serve their families and communities faithfully and well in whatever role suited their gifts and opportunities. Sometimes, in fact, all of that can be found bound up in a single person.
We’re not likely to find royalty, but we may well find fidelity – faithfulness – and, what’s more, we’ll likely find love. Those are the forces that bind a people together.
The flip side of any royal relationship is the people. That is to say, to be a sovereign one has to have a people. The royalty of King David, for example, rests not merely on his chosenness, but also on there being a people over whom he rules. To be king of Israel required that there be a people known as the Israelites – a king needs a kingdom. The kingdom of Israel was defined, in part, by geography, but, more significantly, it was tribal and familial. It was defined, to a significant degree, by blood.
But Jesus clearly insists that his kingdom is not of this world, and, if it is defined by blood, it will be his blood, shed for the world, that defines it. In this world, Jesus had – and still has – a people. But membership in that people – the followers of Jesus – is different than membership in other kingdoms.
This is where the invented term “kin-dom” is helpful. Not only does it help us get out from under the patriarchy, it reminds us that all one need do to be part of the kinship of Jesus – to be among those he called siblings and friends – is to follow his teachings. All one need do to follow in Jesus’ footsteps is to take up the cross and follow.
Ah, and there’s the rub, of course. Kings tend to promise their people security and prosperity. Jesus holds out neither of those.
His invitation to follow him – to take up one’s cross and follow – comes with no promise of personal prosperity or security. Indeed, it comes with the possibility – indeed, the likelihood, of great risk to both of those notions. His invitation comes with his observation that greater love has no one than to be willing to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Sacrificial love, service to others, are the marks of membership in the kin-dom of Jesus’ followers. That love – and our faithfulness to one another -- are what make us a people. Love and faithfulness make a family, and mark us as members of the household of God.
The benefits package of this membership? Well, I suppose it depends on what truly matters. If personal security and prosperity are what matters, then Jesus offers slim pickings. But, if what matters is to matter, to make a difference, to live a life of meaning, to find oneself bound in web of relationships of love and compassion that transcends one’s own time, indeed, that transcends time, itself, well then, the kin-dom of Jesus’ followers is quite remarkable and distinctive.
It would have been easier had Jesus simply pretended to the throne of David in some more or less traditionally political fashion. Pilate would have understood it better. Heck, the disciples would have understood it better. But the kin-dom of Jesus’ followers would have been unremarkable and indistinct from all the others that strove against the powers and principalities of their time, and we would know nothing of them in our time.
“If my kingdom were of this world,” Jesus said to Pilate, “my followers would be in the streets fighting. If my kingdom were limited to my lifetime, they would have swords drawn to draw out the time.”
Instead, his community stretched beyond the lives of everyone in his hearing, and the lives of their children and their children’s children, and certainly far beyond the lifetime of his one frail and all too human body. Indeed, it stretches down to us, and we, now, are his body in the world.
If, as he said to Pilate, he came to testify to the truth, then, as his body in the world, that responsibility is ours now: to testify to the truth.
And what is the truth that binds together the body of Christ in the world, that marks us as a people inescapably tied to one another through love and faithfulness? The ageless and simple truth that Jesus came to testify to, that we now echo in our very bones: we are, each of us, created in the image of Love; we are, each and every one of us, worthy of love; we are, each and all of us, capable of loving.
To us falls the responsibility to speak that truth to power, and to live it out day by day such that power itself is bent to the rule of love. That is the truth we proclaim.
Go out and live as if you believe it. Such a life will mark you as a member of the household of God and a follower of Christ the King. That’s a monarchy that’s good for all the people. Amen.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Welcome, Strangers

Deuteronomy 6:1-8
November 4, 2018
This time last year Martin and I had just finished up work on the initial part of a film project whose subsequent phases did not, alas, get funded. For no particular reason – and for all the obvious reasons – I was thinking about that project this week.
You see, we had come around, after three or four months of preliminary research and interviews, to the conclusion that the story we wanted to tell was about the Community of Living Traditions at Stony Point Center in the Hudson River Valley about 40 miles up the river from Manhattan. We started out looking at small worshipping communities that have food, in some sense, at the heart of what they do. Sound familiar?
We didn’t lose that focus, as the Community of Living Traditions places great emphasis on hospitality and food justice, but we came to see, at Stony Point, a decisive emphasis on multifaith community which led to the conviction that, if faith has a powerful future in our North American context, it must find expression in authentically multifaith communities.
What does that look like? How might it matter at Clarendon? How do we live into it?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, and, honestly, I know that there are probably a dozen other essential questions and I don’t even know what the questions are, much less the answers.
But I do know that the texts we’ve read this morning offer some crucial guidance.
The shema, “hear, O Israel, the Lord is one,” is a reminder to the people of God to remember who they are. God tells them, “y’all are about to cross over a boundary to a new location: remember me and what I have commanded you. Remind your children. Live by this word: I am your God and you are my people.”
In other words, hold on to your core identity every step of the way. One of the challenges of multifaith community is holding on to one’s own identify while honoring what is core in every other.
That, of course, is true in every community and of every human life.
We all have to differentiate ourselves, to recognize what in our own lives marks us as distinct – first from other members of our immediate family, and then, over the rest of our lives, from other members of every circle in which we stand.
Even as we do that work, we’re also identifying and navigating the circle itself: who are the members of my family? Who are the members of my neighborhood? Who are the members of my community? What marks them as such?
And what happens along those boundaries when I come into contact with those of other families, neighborhoods, communities?
These are not merely questions of individual development, but they are, essential, also always already political questions for they are about who gets to define the circle, who gets to cross the line.
One great gift of multifaith community comes in the growing recognition that the question of core identity cuts two ways. That is to say, first, we all differentiate ourselves from one another in order to begin answering that most basic of human questions: who am I? But, at the same time, in multifaith community we see something else: people in other communities and traditions are confronting the same questions, and their traditions offer an essentially similar response: we are creatures who carry within ourselves a trace of the Divine.
We put that core conviction in different words drawn from our different traditions, but the fundamental claim – we are created in the image of God, in the words of Abrahamic traditions – is translatable.
We carry that with us and hold fast to it. It marks our very dwelling places, as the text from Deuteronomy reminds. Marked by this conviction, then, our dwelling places must also be welcoming places. Again, on this Sunday before an election of profound importance marked by the questions of race and nationality, this is fundamentally political.
Lest we forget, I was reminded of that truth last week at a service of mourning and remembrance held to honor the victims of recent racist and anti-Semitic violence. Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, senior rabbi at Temple Rodef Shalom, reminded the gathered communities of a rich midrash on the Abraham and Sarah story. She reminded us that the tent of Abraham and Sarah was different from all other tents. The rest of them had but a single entrance in the front, but the tent of Abraham and Sarah had entrances on each of its four sides so that travelers from any direction might find a welcome there in the home of fellow travelers.
The story of Ruth, likewise, reminds us that refugees are nothing new under the sun, and that people of all times and places have longed for the welcome that the tent of Abraham and Sarah provided. Ruth, a widow from Moab who has already crossed one cultural border by marrying an outsider from Judah, clings to Naomi, her mother-in-law, herself a widow, when Naomi heads out to cross the actual border back to the land of Judah in hopes of escaping the same kind of famine that had driven her to Moab in the first place.
Borders mean nothing in the face of hunger and desperation. The Central American refugees heading North today can feel in the marrow of their bones the plight of Ruth and Naomi, and the drive to move creates new bonds that erase old boundaries. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”
Ruth’s experience reminds us of an additional essential truth of life in community: it will change you. We are transformed by life in community, and we come to new understandings of our own core convictions. That truth, and the fear it engenders in those who cannot imagine that the change be anything other than loss, lies at the root of so much of the fear and anger driving our current politics.
Real life in authentic community teaches us that sometimes we reside inside the tent and other times we are the strangers looking for the welcoming doorway. Whether we come or we go, whether we are welcomed or are offering welcome, we are bound by the command to love: to love the Lord with heart and soul and strength, and to love the neighbor as we love ourselves. Perfect love casts out all fear, including that fear that we might somehow find ourselves outside the circle altogether.
But that center moves with us wherever we go, and our lives circle out from it but always around it. Forever and always, inescapably so. Amen.