If Christ is King

After a challenging week for liberal preachers toeing the line between being pastorally available to the full range of their membership and offering a prophetic word in light of an escalation in anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-black, anti-latino, anti-unfortunately, the list goes on verbal, graffiti, and even physical attacks, this week, the liturgical calendar offers us the relatively new feast of Christ the King.  Also known as the Reign of Christ, this Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost, invites us to spend some intentional time thinking about what it means to be members of the cosmic and infinite Kingdom of God even as we live in a particular time and place.  For American Christians in 2016, this question seems to be more timely than ever.

The election of Donald J. Trump as the next President of the United States by a majority of Christian voters has raised the question of what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus.  Christian ethicists will have a field day studying the way in which Christians, conservative and liberal, weighed the goods in conflict between Trump’s clearly anti-Kingdom of God rhetoric regarding minority populations and his purported stances on abortion, LGBT rights, and the economy’s ability to lift up impoverished people.  While it seems clear to me that Jesus’ commandment to love one another shows nearly all of his platform to be antithetical to the Gospel, I can see how for some single-issue voters, my opinion is equally lacking.

Still, whether you voted for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, someone else or nobody at all, the reality is that while we live under the laws of 21st century America, our citizenship is, above all, in the Kingdom of God, with Christ as our King, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  We are, as the Collect for Proper 29 says, divided and enslaved by sin, and the events of the last week have been the work of the Devil to further divide us: first from one another and ultimately from God.  The work of the Church, on the other hand, as described in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer is exactly the opposite.  As members of God’s Kingdom, our mission is the restoration of relationships.  Perhaps, as we continue to face the problems of our time; as we hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, a stark reminder of what happens when religion and politics mix; as we prepare for Advent and the coming of Jesus both as vulnerable child and as King of kings, we, disciples of Christ and heirs of the Kingdom, would do well to commit to working against the sin of division and working toward the unity that can only come when we follow Jesus Christ as King and Lord.

A Failure to Encourage

In yesterday’s post, I imagined what it might look like if we followed the advice of the author of Hebrews and made a habit of getting together, i.e. showing up at church on Sunday.  In seminary, we learned that 90% of ministry is simply showing up, but what about the other 10%?  Our author goes on to describe the antithesis of “neglecting to get together” as “encouraging one another.”  Like his admonition to show up, this is sound advice that the author is giving his community, and by extension, us: sound advice that we fail to follow.

You see, Christianity has a huge, self-inflicted, PR problem.  Christians tend to be awful to one another.  Take, for example, this week’s 24 hour news cycle, social media, over-reaction du jour:

The Starbucks Red Cup Catastrophe of 2015!

If you want to see what a failure to encourage looks like, then follow the conversation thread around Starbucks decision to use plain red cups this (ridiculously extended) holiday season.  Here’s how every one of these self-inflicted wounds happens, be it Gene Robinson in 2003 or red cups in 2015.

  1. Something happens.  In this case, it was the launch of Starbucks’ annual holiday cup, this time with no symbols, no patterns, nothing but the green Starbucks logo on a plain red cup.
  2. Someone gets offended.  Here it was (allegedly) conservative Christians who saw it as another salvo in the War on Christmas™ and (again allegedly) called for boycotts and protests.
  3. Some responds. Liberal Christians began to talk smugly about the foolishness of their brothers and sisters in Christ: suggesting that they had their head in the sand about the bigger problems we face.
     Adoption seemed to be a favorite meme this time around.
  4. Someone else responds.  Moderate Christians took to the airwaves to self-righteously decry the smug response of the liberal Christians and point out how it would have been better to stay out of the fray at all.
  5. Steve writes a blog post.  Here I am, typing with righteous indignation about the self-righteous moderates venting about the smug liberals who are frustrated at the offended conservatives.
  6. Jesus loses.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world looks on as Christians fail miserably at encouragement by gutting each other as foolish, smug, self-righteous jack asses and say, “Can you believe the hypocrisy of those who claim to follow Jesus?”  The task of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes exponentially more difficult every time we fall in to this unfortunate and predictable pattern.

So what should we do instead?  Just as we need to relearn the habit of regular worship attendance, we need to also reclaim the habit of encouraging one another.  As James puts it in his letter, we need to learn to act with gentleness born of wisdom.  That is to say, we need to learn to stop and think before we react and speak.  We need to resist the temptation, that comes straight from the pit of hell, to look down our noses at our sister and brother in Christ.  We need to remember that the other we are fixing to disparage is a beloved child of God, deserving of our encouragement, care, and compassion – a neighbor whom we are commanded to love.  Encouraging one another might only be 10% of the job, but it has a huge impact on how the world sees us.  Let’s always err on the side of love.

Neglecting to Get Together

It seems that church attendance has always been a dicey issue.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, in his admonitions on kingdom living as a community of faith, reminds his audience that they should “not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.”  This should come as good news to 21st century church leaders who feels disheartened by changing habits of church attendance.  Well, maybe not good news, but certainly it is comforting to know that the struggle is real and has been ongoing since the very beginning.

There has been an increasing trend over the past decade or so in which the definition of “regular church attendance” has changed from roughly 3 times a month to maybe once every 3 weeks.  While there are increasing numbers of people who have left church all together, the reality is that some of the decrease in Average Sunday Attendance simply comes members attending church less frequently.  It seems neglecting to get together has become the habit of more than some.

Church canons have little impact these days.  Unfortunately, they are routinely ignored by clergy and laity alike, but I wonder what would happen if we started to take Canon I.17.3 seriously?  In that Canon, the term Communicant in Good Standing is defined as “All communicants of this Church who for the previous year have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and have been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God, are to be considered communicants in good standing.”

What if “good cause” was the only thing that prevented us from attending church?  What if those who are committed to the life and ministry of their local congregation (as many of the once every three week crowd really are) returned to the habit of regular attendance at worship?  There is power in getting together to worship God.  That’s why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews recommends it.  That’s why our Canons define “good standing” that way.  When we gather together to worship God, to sing praises, to hear the word proclaimed, to offer prayers, and to break bread, we are changed – each of us individually as well as all of us corporately.  And every time we are changed more into the likeness of Christ, the world is changed more into the likeness of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Church attendance habits matter because the Kingdom of God matters.  Let’s not neglect to get together.

Why I’m Praying for Kim Davis

Kim Davis is, at least as of now, the most famous County Clerk in America.  You’ve heard about her on the news, read about her in the paper, and been subject to various “We support Kim!” and “Kim needs to go!” social media posts from your friends across the political spectrum.  Truth be told, Kim Davis isn’t the only government official who is in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality.  Alabama has a few of its own.  She just happens to be the one being sued for it.  Whether you are for or against marriage equality, however, the one thing we should all be doing is praying for Kim Davis.

Her decision to not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples isn’t the result of her own ignorant bigoted opinions, as the left would have us believe.  Instead, as Tony Jones rightly pointed out yesterday, she has made the choice to stand her ground based on her being taught some very dangerous theology in her church.  I’ll let her tell you, “To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word.”

It wasn’t that long ago that I was really struggling with the decision of General Convention to allow the ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as Bishop of New Hampshire.  In my struggle, I was labeled and dismissed just like Kim Davis has been.  Over the course of the last 12 years, I have found my opinions on things pertaining to human sexuality to be changing.  I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in the lives and ministries of many gay clergy and lay leaders.  I’ve come to know the powerful witness of same sex couples eager to make a life long covenant before God.  I’ve realized that in a world filled with terrible understandings of the role sex in relationships, the Church should be lifting up monogamy and the two parent family as the ideal, no matter the genders of the two individuals involved.  I voted against the canonical changes for marriage equality at this last General Convention, but not because I don’t support marriage equality as a justice issue, but because the changes proposed were sloppy at best.  I’ve come a long way on the question of sexual orientation, but I know how long it took, I know how hard that change is.  Some continue to look at me as narrow minded for having ever held those opinions or for holding Church canon to a high standard.  They would label and dismiss me, but thanks be to God, I’ve come to know that it is OK for us to be at different places on this issue, just like we are on many others.

My favorite Greek word, that I’m pretty sure doesn’t appear in the Bible, is adiaphora, which means “things indifferent.”  In the context of theology, it means those things which are not necessary to salvation.  To use Kim Davis’ words, things that aren’t “Heaven or Hell decisions.”  Despite what you might hear from the extreme right or the extreme left, one’s opinions regarding same sex marriage are not, and never have been, a matter of salvation.  We should pray for Kim Davis that she might come to know the freedom that comes from the word adiaphora.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we are faced with the tricky reality that even Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, God in man made manifest, needed time to come to grips with the fullness of God’s love for all of his creation.  In a story that is shocking to our 21st century ears, especially in the heightened racial tensions of the past several months, we hear Jesus using a racial slur in telling the Syrophoencian Woman that he came to show God’s love for the Jews.  In the course of Jesus’ encounter with the woman, he is changed.  His divine will overcame his human will as he realized what he had known all along: God loves everyone, no exception.

God loves you in your struggles.  God loves me in mine.  God loves David Moore and David Ermold, one of the couples to whom Davis has refused issue a license, in theirs.  And yes, God loves Kim Davis.  I pray she knows that even in her struggles, even if she did issue a same sex marriage license, God loves her.

The Pain of Living

As a general rule, I don’t watch the news.  I know this seems to go against my Barthian theology of preaching that has “a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” but honestly, who subscribes to newspapers anymore?  Of course, the reality is that this isn’t to say that I don’t know what is going on in the world.  I talk to people, I listen to the radio, I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and I know how to access the CNN.com homepage; I’m aware of current events enough to suggest that I preach with “a Bible in one hand and my smartphone/laptop/iPad in the other.”  I’m also aware of current events enough to know that life is full of pain.  A brief glance at this week’s top stories brings nearly two weeks of waiting to know what became of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370; the domestic violence/murder trial of a man who was for two week’s the world’s sweetheart, Oscar Pistorius; the ongoing violent struggle between Russia, the Ukraine, and Crimea; and the Rolling Stones’ Tour cancellation as their lead singer mourns the suicide death of his girlfriend; just to name a few.

The reality of life is that it comes with pain, which, to me, is why faith is so important.  If there is no point to all of this other than to be born, experience life, and die, then the pain doesn’t seem worth it, but if there is a God, whose Kingdom is perfect freedom, then the pain is, at the very least, a motivator toward making this world a better place: a world that more closely resembles the Kingdom.

Which is why, as I say all too often, I love this week’s Collect.  We can’t fix the problems of the world.  Laws won’t keep bad people from doing bad things.  Medical advances can’t keep new ailments from springing forth.  Even good intentions can’t keep us for accidentally hurting the feelings of those we love.  Pain is inevitable, but God is there to remind us that even in the midst of our pain and sadness, we are his beloved children.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Apocalypse Part Deux

The differences between the Gospel lections for Proper 28 and Advent 1 are almost too small to be worth discussing.  As we move from Year B to Year C, so too we move from Mark/John to Luke for our Gospel texts the next 52 Sundays.  Each Gospel has its own theological bend to it: Mark’s Messianic Secret, John’s cosmic christology, and Luke’s orderly account, but really, as we look at the differences between Mark’s Little Apocalypse and Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching in Luke, one has to wonder how these lessons ought to preach, just two weeks apart from one another.

Of course, ask TKT mentioned in his sermon yesterday, every time we enter these texts we find ourselves at a different point on the journey.  What comes immediately to mind to me as I prepare another apocalyptic sermon are just a few facts: 1) we’re two weeks closer to the end of the Mayan calendar, 2) we’re two weeks closer to our elected leadership acting like “spoiled children” as America tumbles over the fiscal cliff, 3) Israel and Hamas have entered into yet another peace agreement, 4) the Sudanese government, fresh off a supposedly foiled coup attempt, continues to pummel their own people with bombs, 5) Black Friday started at 8pm on Thanksgiving Thursday, and 6) Gang Nam Style has surpassed the great Justin Bieber as the most watched YouTube video of all time.

Maybe the world really is coming to an end.

Then again, in Luke’s account, Jesus says that “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”  That generation has most assuredly passed away by now.  Maybe the world is always coming to an end.  Maybe God is constantly invoking the apocalypse, literally unveiling, his kingdom.  Maybe the faithful response to all of these signs isn’t to stock up for the great final battle or to close our eyes and wait to be raptured.  Maybe we are to take our place in the building up of the kingdom.  Right here.  Right now.