The Kingdom of God is Still Near

For those of us who run in Episcopal circles, the past few months have been really topsy-turvy.  While it is true that Episcopalians span the political spectrum, it is equally true that the majority of Episcopal priests tend to sit left of center.  The old joke that Episcopal congregations have altar rails to separate the Republicans from the Democrat might not be as true as it once was, but there is still a statistically significant difference between the political balance of the church’s laity and her clergy.  As you might guess, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has brought with it much consternation.  In recent weeks there have been two major controversies around the decision by some congregations to cease the habit of praying for the President by name and around two decisions by the Washington National Cathedral to 1) hold the usual interfaith prayer service on the eve of the Inauguration and 2) to allow a choir to perform at the Inauguration itself.  I will not weigh in on any of those questions because, by and large, it has been yet another opportunity for the Episcopal Church to shoot itself in the foot by behaving badly in disagreement.  We should have learned our lesson in 2003 following the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, but sadly, the rise of social media since ’03 has allowed us to be only more publicly cantankerous than we were before.

I will say this, however, that no matter what you think about what will happen when Donald J. Trump is sworn in at noon on Friday, the central message of Jesus is still true. The Kingdom of God is still near.  For my Republican friends, know that the Kingdom of God was near when the Affordable Care Act became law.  For my Democrat friends, know that the Kingdom of God is near even as it is being repealed.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent upon who is in office, but rather, its unveiling is the ongoing work of the Body of Christ, of which we are constituent members.

Our task, in light of the ongoing dis-ease in our country and the wider world, is to see Christ in each other, to be about building the Kingdom on earth, and to be discerning God’s will for the world in which we live.  It is that final piece that causes the most problems, since both sides of our current debates are good at claiming God is on their side, but if we work hard at the first bit, at seeing Christ in each other, and especially looking for Christ in those with whom we disagree, then the Kingdom of God comes even closer than it had been before.

As we approach an historic moment, with some who rejoice, some who mourn, and some who fear, I’m looking toward the Kingdom, looking for Christ in my neighbor, and committing now, more than ever, to work toward God’s dream for creation that God so loved that he sent his only Son not to condemn for its failures, but to save for its potential.  The Kingdom of God is still near, dear reader, pray that your eyes might be open to see your place in bringing it into reality.

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Many will say “the time is near”

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Late last week, the Babylon Bee, a satirical Christian news site made in the image of the Onion, posted an article entitled “Second Coming of Christ Scheduled for Game 7 of Cubs-Indians World Series.”  Quite honestly, that Jesus didn’t come back during that rain delay is surprising to me, but who knows, perhaps God’s omnipotent plan for all of Creation doesn’t revolve around the decaying pass time of the current largest empirical economy in the world.  I’ve seen others who think that maybe tomorrow will be the day.  This is again an American-centric plan that suggests that the 2016 Presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might be the catalyst for Jesus’ Second Coming.

Of course, Jesus warned us about such foolishness. In Sunday’s timely and unavoidable Gospel lesson, we find ourselves jumping ahead to Holy Week.  Since most Episcopal congregations skipped over Proper 27, Presumably in order to transfer All Saints’, but likely because nobody wanted to preach levirite marriage, after almost four months of walking with Jesus from Mount Tabor to Jerusalem, we all of a sudden find ourselves in Jerusalem in the thick of Jesus’ struggle ahead of the cross.  Last week’s lesson was h the first of several encounters with the religious powers-that-be.  This week, we hear a portion of Jesus’ ongoing lament over Jerusalem, and how the central image of God’s steadfast love for his people has been sabotaged, and now has to be torn down.

Even then, Jesus says, even when God allows his very home to be destroyed in your midst, don’t let people fool you into thinking it is something bigger than it is.  There will be wars and rumors of wars.  We’ve got that.  Earthquakes.  See Kansas and Oklahoma.  Famines. Check. Plagues.  Isn’t Whopping cough making a comeback?  Portents in the heavens?  A Wrigley Field sign that reads “World Series Champs” would seem to qualify.

If you are looking for signs, they will no doubt seem to be there, and yet, we do not know the day or the hour.  Instead, rather than getting caught up in the signs and the scare tactics, Jesus invites us to trust that he will be by our side.  As we go to the polls tomorrow, fueled by a healthy dose of fear mongering from both sides over the past year or more, remember that even if the world were to end tomorrow, not that I think it will, God is still in control.

Do thou likewise

This Sunday morning, congregations around the globe and across denominations will hear Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus tells this powerful story in response to a lawyer who rose up to challenge him.  In first century Palestine, this would not necessarily been seen as an aggressive act by the lawyer.  In fact, intense debates between Rabbis, Scribes, lawyers, and lay people are an ongoing part of the Jewish faith.  This scene between Jesus and the Lawyer would be commonplace, and Jesus seems willing to engage the debate.

After proving that he knows his law, the lawyer turns the question back on Jesus by inquiring “who is my neighbor?”  Surprisingly, this question is a whole lot more difficult to answer than “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  There is no passage in Leviticus to memorize to understand “who is my neighbor,” but instead it is lived out in the life of faith.  Jesus shows this by creating an absurd scenario.  Not that getting robbed and beaten wasn’t something that could happen on the Wilderness Road from Jerusalem to Jericho, but the odds of the first three passersby being a priest, a Levite, and a dreaded Samaritan are quite slim.  These three are of course necessary for proving Jesus’ point.

The priest, a professional follower of the Law, chose ritual cleanliness over the commandment of Leviticus 19.18b.  The Levite, a man ethnically predisposed to religious practice made the same choice, but the Samaritan, a man who was an outcast, a half-blood, and by his very nature considered to be unclean took the risk and sacrificed his own time and money to nurse the injured man back to health.  When confronted with this story and the question of who acted as a neighbor, all the lawyer could muster was “the one who showed mercy.”  His pride, his privilege, his assumptions, and his fear would’t allow him to even utter the word Samaritan, and Jesus has the audacity to say, “do thou likewise.”

The Good Samaritain - Luke 10:25-37

The word of the Lord to this lawyer is that neighbor means showing mercy to everyone, even those who you fear, those who make you uncomfortable, those who seem outside the social norms.  This word seems particularly prudent in the United States as we once again see videos of two young black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, who were shot dead by police under questionable circumstances.  As tensions run high, and the reality that racism didn’t end with desegregation or the election of a black man as President comes to the fore, it is important for the Church to be present, reminding the world around us that the will of God is that we show mercy to our neighbors no matter their skin color, no matter their ethnicity, no matter their place on the social ladder.

Showing mercy means respecting the dignity of every human being.  It means standing up for justice for all people. It means reaching out with care to those who the world has deemed undesirable because God’s love is stronger than prejudice, fear, and anger.  It is easy to say “love your neighbor as yourself,” but it is really difficult to “do thou likewise.”  Come Lord Jesus, come and show us what we ought to do and give us the strength to faithfully do it.  Amen.

The Abyss

There are very few idiomatic tropes that carry meaning across generations, let alone thousands of years.  Mental Floss generates thousands of clicks by giving readers insights into how words and phrases have changed over the years.  There are, however, a few images that carry weight over centuries, one of which we hear from the lips of Legion in the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  Keenly aware of the power of Jesus, the demons, Luke tells us “begged him not to order them to go back to the abyss.”

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A real picture of a real sink hole in Guatemala (2010)

While this fear is from the demons in this story, there seems to be something universal about their fear.  Hollywood knows this, as images of the deep abyss show up with great regularity in films from “This is the End” to “Indiana Jones.”  Despite long giving up on the idea of a three tiered universe, humanity seems to have written in its DNA a fear of that which is deep below, be it hell, the earth’s core, or, as is likely the source of the fear, that which resides deep within our souls.

We would prefer that Jesus not dig too deeply within us.  We’d like to keep those deepest parts of us nicely locked away, never to be dealt with.  There is some comfort in not having to deal with our own, inherent prejudices, fears, and sinfulness; even if it means holding onto those undesirable parts for eternity.  But Jesus will not allow us to stay out of the abyss.  In his life and death, he showed us that only in the depths: his temptation in the wilderness and his decent into hell; is the fullness of God’s grace-filled love for us discovered.

Legion can’t understand this.   They beg not to be sent to the abyss, and Jesus grants their wish.  They are forced into a herd of unclean animals that promptly head down the steep ravine and drown in the waters below.  He banishes them not into the abyss, but into death by shallowness.

The Power of “I Am”

What God was asking of Moses at the burning bush was nothing short of a suicide mission.  Go to the Pharaoh of Egypt and tell him to “Let my people go.”  This task would have been difficult enough if Pharaoh was a plantation owner and the Hebrews were a dozen or so slaves, but to ask Pharaoh, the King of all Egypt, to give up more than a million slaves, on whose backs the entire economy of Egypt rested?  You’d have an easier time convincing a sitting American President to deport all the undocumented laborers who ensure our cheap houses and $0.99 heads of lettuce.  As one might guess, Moses is unsure of the possibility of success.  His fear isn’t just of Pharaoh, but of the more than one million Hebrews who only knew the life of slavery.  When they asked, “Under whose authority do you do this?” What was Moses to answer?

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Tell them “I Am” sent you.

The name God gave Moses to drop is a peculiar one.  In time, the name of God would become so sacred, that the four letter word I’ve posted above is not to be said aloud in the Jewish tradition.  When a reader comes to this word, which is transliterated at YHWH, they say, “Elohim” instead.  More peculiar than that, the name God gives is a verb.  Not even Kanye and Kim named their children a verb.  And it isn’t just any type of verb, but an imperfect verb, indicating an incomplete or ongoing action.  God wasn’t, God is.

In the course of human history, the imperfect verbiness of God will prove quite helpful.  When Moses and Pharaoh are going back and forth through the course of ten plagues, it is nice for Moses to know that “I am” is with him.  When the people of Israel have their backs on the Red Sea while the Egyptian army barrels down on them, there is some comfort in “I am” standing there too.  Forty years in the wilderness, the walls of Jericho, the Judges, Kings, exiles, and even Roman occupation are made a little more bearable because “I am” continues to be.  Even as Jesus hangs on the cross, seemingly abandoned by everyone he has ever loved, feeling forsaken by the Father himself, “I am” is still there.

This is good news for those of us who continue to walk in the Way of discipleship.  Nobody ever said life was going to be easy.  There will be financial pressures, health issues, family quarrels, natural disasters, and any number of other stresses in life when things might feel lost, when God might seem far away, when hope might be dwindling.  In those moments, whether you believe it or not, “I am” is there, holding you as a hen protects her brood under her wings, for God is an imperfect verb, constantly active, and never ending.  That’s the power of “I am.”

We are sorely hindered

On June 20, 2012, I wrote one of my most popular blogposts ever.  It didn’t go viral, like my “Why I’m grieving election day” post, but over the years, “Fear, not Doubt is the opposite for faith” has had a strong, steady readership.  This has become increasingly true over the past few months as average views per day are rising, and I think it may have something to do with Donald Trump and his rhetoric of fear that is resonating with not a few Americans.  I suspect that no matter what I write here, my three year-old post on fear will probably be in the top two for today’s statistics.

What causes tens (maybe even hundreds) of thousands of Americans who claim to be disciples of Jesus and guardians of the Constitution to applaud and cheer when Donald Trump suggests that we put a religious test on anyone who would like to enter this country, in order to keep any new Muslims from entering?  The answer is as simple as it is condemning, we are, as the Collect for Advent 3 puts it, “sorely hindred by our sins.”  This is especially true of our fears.  Fear has caused a great many otherwise faithful disciples to give up the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God loves his whole creation so much that he sent his only Son not to condemn it, but to save every part of it, and instead embrace the false idols of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and hate.

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I don’t use that word, idol, lightly.  It is a bold claim to suggest that others have chosen to walk in sin.  The log in my own eye is huge.  My sins are as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I daily seek forgiveness for them.  I understand that what I am writing is difficult, and yet, as a Priest of the Church, I say it with conviction because I am confident that fear and hate are the antithesis of the Gospel.

This coming Sunday, Advent 3, is known as Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for “rejoice.”  As the initial darkness of the Advent wreath becomes more than half-light, we pause in the midst of all the busyness, all the stress, all the craziness going on all around us and choose to rejoice in the saving love of God.  We hear the words of Paul, calling the disciples in Philippi to give up worry, and with thanksgiving, to make their requests known to God.  Advent 3 is one of the rare times when we don’t pray together from the Psalms, but rather we join in the ancient practice of the Canticles, singing other songs from Scripture, songs that have been sung since the first centuries of the Church.

On this particular Sunday, our song will be a bold claim against fear, first made by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel as the Assyrian army made its slow but steady march toward the south and west:

“Surely, it is God who saves me; * I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, * and he will be my Savior.”

The promise of Isaiah to the people of Israel doesn’t come with closed boarders and anxiety, but in sure faith in the one who created everything that is.  Unfortunately for the people of Israel, they too were sorely hindered by fear, and back-room deals by panicked leaders lead to their destruction.  As people of faith, we have a choice to make in this increasingly important moment.  We can choose to be sorely hindered by our sins, to live in fear, and to make decisions based on maintaining our own self-interests.  Or, we can choose to trust in God, to move beyond our fears, and to reach out in love to all who are lost and hurting.  Simply put, we can choose to love our neighbors, no matter their color or creed.

Choosing love is risky, even scary at times.  It is frightening to give away your extra coat.  It is risky to offer to others the food in your pantry.  We might get taken advantage of.  Under the circumstances, we might even get hurt, but to choose love over fear is to choose the peace that surpasses all understanding, a peace that comes from God alone, a peace that is given as grace, if we could only find it buried beneath the fear in our hearts.

We are sorely hindered by our sins, O Lord, especially our fears.  Let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us that we might delight in your loving will and walk in your loving way all the days of our lives.

The Curious Case of Christ the King – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


The Feast of Christ the King is a strange one.  By Church standards, it is relatively new: first established in the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius XI (11th) in 1925.[1]  The 1979 Book of Common Prayer stole,[2] almost verbatim, the Collect for Christ the King, but Episcopalians didn’t fully adopt it until 2009.  In fact, if you look in the Prayer Books in the pews, you won’t find any reference to this day as Christ the King anywhere in its pages.  To make matters worse, this country came into being in rebellion against a King.  For 239 years, we’ve been pro-democratic republic and anti-monarchy, so it is really hard for us to think about what it means to claim Jesus as the King of kings.  We sing hymns about royal diadems, thrones, crowns, and angels prostrating themselves, and I can’t help but wonder, do we have any idea what we’re talking about?

Not being an expert on kingship myself, I turned to my usual preaching resources in hopes of finding someone who was giving real thought to what it means for us to claim Jesus as King.  Twenty-eight pages later, I hadn’t found word one dealing with what life looks like with Jesus as our King.  So then I got to thinking about the things I associate with royalty, thinking that maybe if I could match those things with Jesus we could make sense of this strange Feast of Christ the King.

The first thing that came to mind was opulence.  My primary vision of kingship comes from touring the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria during my three weeks as a foreign exchange student in 1997.  You might know of Ludwig II’s most famous castle, Neuschwanstein because it served as Walt Disney’s model for the central castle at his theme parks.  Completed in 1882, Neuschwanstein cost 6.2 million gold marks to build, roughly $100 billon today, and was only one of the sixteen castles, lodges, and residences that Ludwig built or gutted and remodeled during his 23 year reign.  The carvings in his bedroom took four carpenters four and half years to complete.  Ludwig II did opulence in a big way, but by that standard, Jesus wasn’t a very good king.  He and his disciples lived modest lives, depending mostly on the hospitality of others for food and lodging.  He had some rich friends and benefactors, but there is no castle in Galilee that bears the name of Jesus that we can go visit. So, I thought some more.

The second characteristic of kingship that came to mind was sovereignty – supreme power or authority, or better said, there can only be one king.  When Henry VIII was the King of England, there was no doubt that he was in control.  It didn’t matter if you were a prince or a pauper, a bishop or a blacksmith, if you were one of the estimated 40 or 50 thousand people who got on the wrong side of Henry VIII politically or theologically, you quickly found yourself on the wrong side of a sharp axe or a large wood fire.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear the competing claims of two sovereignties.  It is Good Friday, and Jesus has been turned over by the Chief Priests to Pilate on the dual charges of sedition and treason. Pilate is certainly not a king, but he worked for one. As the Roman Governor of Judea, Pilate served as the representative of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar and his sole responsibility was to keep the people of Israel in line and paying their taxes.  That’s why Pilate was in Jerusalem during this week.  He usually spent his time on the coast, but because it was the Passover, the annual remembrance of when God had saved the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, Pilate brought his army to town to remind the people that Tiberius was the sovereign leader of every square inch of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem included.  But this Friday morning was different.  There was something strange about the man that the Jews had brought for execution.  As Pilate entered the Praetorium, he saw Jesus and uttered words that the NRSV translates as a question, but could, in the Greek, be just as easily read as a statement of fact, “You are the King of Jews.”[3]

Pilate is right, Jesus is a King, but Jesus is clear that he isn’t interested in waging a war between two sovereign states.  Jesus’ kingship isn’t about a time and a place, but rather Jesus is sovereign over everything that is and was and ever will be.  Simply put, if Jesus is our King, nothing else can be.  That is easier said than done, of course, as there are any number of things in this world that are, at any given moment, violently competing with Jesus for kingship over our lives.  Envy is a popular competitor this time of year as we struggle to have a better light display, a taller tree with more presents under it, and a busier holiday party schedule than anybody else.  Even more timely and probably the strongest pull on our allegiance to Jesus as King is fear.   As my friend and mentor Diana Butler Bass wrote earlier this week, “I have become convinced that a large percentage of Americans — Christians included — are addicted to anxiety.”

Since about the year 2000, American Christians, especially Mainline Protestant ones have lived in fear that our churches our dying.  Since 9/11, Americans have lived in fear of the next terrorist attack.  Since the Great Recession of 2008, we have lived in fear that there just won’t be enough to go around.  Anxiety makes its claim for kingship on our lives by attempting to make fear our number one motivator, and everyone from politicians in Washington, to advertisers on Madison Avenue, and even preachers in pulpits have taken notice and pledged their allegiance to anxiety and fear.

We saw the power of fear again this week as it was invoked again and again in the debate over Syrian refugee resettlement here in the United States.  Everywhere we turn; our anxiety is being used as motivation to buy, to vote, and in some cases, even to hate.  As Christians, we cannot allow anxiety and fear to rule our lives.  Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, published a letter warning us about making fear our king, “In times like this fear is real.  And I share that fear with you.  Our instinct tells us to be afraid. The fight-or-flight mentality takes hold.  At the present moment, many across our Church and our world are grasped by fear in response to the terrorist attacks that unfolded in Paris last Friday.  These fears are not unfounded…   And yet, especially when we feel legitimate fear, our faith reminds us “Be not afraid.”  The larger truth is that our ultimate security comes from God in Christ.”[4]

Neither the Presiding Bishop nor I are saying that there are easy answers to these difficult questions.  What I think we are saying is that anxiety is a cruel monarch, and if we make it king of our lives, it will surely kill us.  Instead of cruelty, Jesus offers us a gracious kingdom.  Jesus offers us a kingdom in which there is peace in the midst of anxiety; a kingdom where there is always enough if we are willing to share; a kingdom that is defined by hope, faith, and above all, love.

We each have a choice to make.  If Jesus is our King, then anxiety cannot be.  If Jesus is our King, then we must live under the rules of his kingdom and that means we have to love our neighbors and our enemies.  If Jesus is our King, then we must learn to obey him when he enters the depths of our anxiety and says, “Have no fear.” We’ve got to be like the followers Jesus describes to Pilate – followers that don’t stand up and fight out of fear, but followers who reach out in care and compassion for the least, the lost, and yes, even those who would do us harm – because that’s what the Kingdom of God looks like.  The Feast of Christ the King is hard to wrap our minds around because the Kingdom of God is beyond our comprehension.  Yet every day we join together and pray for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.  May Jesus Christ come to be our King, and may fear, envy, and everything else that clamors for our allegiance be put to silence under his sovereign and most gracious rule.  Amen.

[1] http://aplm2013.blogspot.com/2015/11/preachers-study-reign-of-christ-year-b.html

[2] Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, 185.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=420

[4] http://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/michaelcurry/episcopal-presiding-bishop-michael-curry-addresses-syrian-refugee-crisis-%E2%80%9Cbe-not