This Sunday is “Christ the King”…the last Sunday of Pentecost. Next week we will enter into Advent, a new year in the church. Lately it seems that our readings have been of the “doom and gloom” variety…disciples still not understanding who Jesus is, prophetic teachings about the end of days, and now we have Jesus on trial before Pilate. We have been challenged by these readings to maintain hope and faith amidst times of trouble and despair.
For a long time I used to scratch my head about the lectionary. How did these texts come together in this way? And yet, when I read the gospel from John (18:33-37), it suddenly started to make sense…on the eve of Advent, a time when we await the coming of Jesus, Immanuel, God with Us, we read of his trial before crucifixion…a reminder that God’s kingdom was, and is, and is to come. Liturgical time, sacred time, is ongoing.
When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, he’s asking Jesus about his leadership. As we all know, a king would have borders to defend, an army and weapons. Pilate, like many Jews who were awaiting a political Messiah, is puzzled by this Jesus who has no borders to defend, no army or weapons. Jesus’ response to Pilate is that his kingdom is not of this world. So what is Jesus’ kingdom like?
The kingdom of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, is a kingdom of service and inclusion. It is a kingdom where no one is turned away from the table. It is a kingdom where the widow and orphaned are cared for and protected. It is a kingdom that has no borders to protect, where no one is “illegal” and all are welcome. The kingdom is one that raises up the least and lowly.
In our Old Testament reading last week from 1 Samuel, we have Hannah praying fervently for a son, and God looks with favor upon her. In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, we have David reflecting on his kingship that was anointed by God. In between these two readings is the story of Hannah’s son, Samuel, who goes on to be a faithful Israelite leader, the begging of the people for a king (so they can be like everyone else) and the selection of Saul, who becomes a terrible king, and the anointing of David by God as the new King of Israel. David was the youngest boy in his family, and had his faults as a king, but he remained faithful to God. Jesus is from the line of David…one of the least and lowly who was raised up.
Jesus tells Pilate that he was born to testify to the truth. What is this truth? Truth is revelation. Truth is a stimulant for faithful living and witness. Truth is about freedom, change and transformation. Truth is that God’s kingdom is one of love and grace, not war, oppression or violence. Truth is that God became incarnate in Jesus, to be with us in our trials and joys.
As we consider this day, the feast of Christ the King, we celebrate the truth of Jesus’ ministry…the welcoming of the stranger, peace which passes understanding, and God’s unlimited grace. According to Revelation, the kingdom of God was, and is and is to come. How are we living into the truth of Jesus’ ministry? How are we witnesses to the reign of the King?
Last month, the chick flix feature was “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. I was reminded of that movie in preparing for today’s sermon. I know, you’re thinking, “wait, what does all this destruction talk in Mark’s gospel have to do with a Judi Dench movie?” Here’s the connection for me. In the movie, the character Sonny often says “everything will be okay in the end. And if it’s not okay, it’s not the end yet”. In my mind, I could imagine Jesus saying something similar to the disciples: “Yes, expect that people will lead you astray. Expect that there will be war and famine, earthquakes and hardships. But don’t worry…everything will be ok in the end”.
At the time that Mark’s gospel was written, somewhere around the years 66-70, Jerusalem was occupied by the Romans. It was a time of great anxiety for people. Many were enslaved and oppressed under a regime that they could not align themselves with for both political and religious reasons. Jerusalem was a dangerous place and it was a dangerous time. So for those faithful to the Jewish tradition, and even for those early Jesus followers, the Temple represented stability in a time of chaos. The Temple was supposed to be a safe haven during occupation. So as Jesus and his disciples sit on the Mount of Olives and look out towards the temple, they are observing this beacon of hope in a time of despair. And it is in this setting that Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” In other words, your place of sanctuary will cease to be.
The disciples are obviously puzzled by this and push Jesus for clarification—when will this be and what are the signs we should look for? And instead of pulling out his calendar, Jesus tells the disciples to be prepared and alert.
This piece of Mark’s gospel is part of the “apocalyptic” tradition. Here, the word “apocalyptic” refers to revelations about the end of times. In our post-modern culture, many folks are obsessed with the apocalypse. The entire “Left Behind” book and movie series is based on apocalyptic literature. Last year in the Bay Area, there were billboards advertising one man’s belief about the coming of the end times in October 2011. Every winter, the History and Discovery channels are inundated with tv programs about Nostradamus and the Anti-Christ. And I’m sure we’re all wondering if we should buy Christmas gifts…just in case the Mayans were right and Dec 21 is the end. However, serious biblical scholarship says this is not what Jesus was talking about at all. When Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple, earthquakes, war and feminine, he’s addressing a specific place and time. If you know your history, the Jewish Temple was destroyed in 70…Mark’s gospel may have been written after the destruction as a way of reflecting back on Jesus’ teaching.
So what do we do with this gospel lesson in 2012? Where is the good news in this text? For me, it’s found in the last line of the text when Jesus says, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Now, I’ve never given birth, but many of my friends have enlightened me about a few things in this area…perhaps some of you can relate. The birthing process can sometimes last hours…maybe even a couple of days. In other words, it isn’t always immediate...it’s a process. And in the process, there is a loss of the life before, but there is also a deep awareness that when the baby comes, the new life will exceed expectations. That’s not to say there won’t be struggles and difficult moments, but it is life altering and affirming.
When we look around us at our world, we see the destruction, war, earthquakes and famine. We see it on the news when the World Trade Center towers collapsed, when communities are ravaged by hurricanes, when lives are lost because bombs are deployed, when people die of starvation. And so we work together, hand in hand to help rebuild and restore. The birth pangs lead to new life.
But sometimes the stories aren’t told.
This week, the church office was filled with requests for assistance. One woman, who is a young widow, came in to ask for help finding shelter. She has an 8 year old son, but her husband died in 2007, and she has no local family. In attempting to balance work and childcare, she was unable to maintain stability and lost her housing. Now she lives in her car. We spent some time together this week trying to find her housing. Shelters won’t take her because she isn’t a victim of domestic violence. She is capable of working, but has no “home address” or phone number to put on her applications. As I worked with other local pastors to find a solution, albeit temporary, she ate some left-over soup from the AA lunch on Monday…the first food she’d had in 24 hours. This woman and her son are living in the midst of the destruction and birth pangs. But she has great hope that her situation will improve, and she has a deep faith that God has not abandoned her and her son.
When we live in the midst of the destruction…when we feel overwhelmed by the earthquakes and tumbling buildings that are supposed to shelter us, we have two choices. We can continue to live in fear and anxiety, or we can live in hope, knowing that these are but the birth pangs. When we live in fear, we crumble, just like the world around us. But when we live with hope, knowing that new birth brings life, that God’s grace and love are really our places of sanctuary, then there is good news and new life to be found all around us.
Everything will be okay in the end…and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end yet.
I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.
I love All Saints’ Day. It’s probably my favorite church holiday. I know, as a priest, I should be saying that Easter or Christmas are my favorite, but the truth is that this holiday holds a very special place in my heart. For me, All Saints’ Day was when I finally decided to talk to the priest about starting discernment for the priesthood…it was a calling I had ignored for a couple of years. But that’s not why it’s my favorite church holiday. It’s my favorite because it’s a time when we remember and rejoice in the Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven. It’s a time when we re-member our community.
Now there are two kinds of saints in the church. There are the capital letter “S” saints…the ones that have been canonized and honored by the church for centuries. Among these Saints are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, James, Paul, Teresa, Francis and Claire. Perhaps some of those names are familiar to you. The lower letter “s” saints are the ones who have made contributions to the community and to our faith tradition. Among these saints are Martin Luther King, Jr., Florence Nightingale, Sojourner Truth, the Martyrs of Uganda, Japan and the Sudan, Julian of Norwich, and Oscar Romero. At the Wednesday Eucharist, we celebrate a different saint each week. In fact, there are 295 saints listed in Holy Women, Holy Men…that’s almost 1 a day for an entire year!
While the stories of these big “S” saints and little “s” saints are inspiring and hope-filled, they aren’t always the stories of our “everyday” saints. So who are the “everyday” saints? We are. Take a look around you…there are saints everywhere! In the news this week, we have heard stories of people who have traveled from all over the country with the Red Cross and other first responder teams to offer assistance to Sandy survivors. Episcopal Relief and Development is taking contributions to assist those not only in the US who were affected, but also those in the Caribbean. Among us are people who feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give shelter to those without a warm, dry place. Among us are people who share a smile and a kind word in our most troubled times. If you look to your right and to your left, I would be willing to bet that these people have done something kind, courageous, loving, and life affirming. There are saints among us.
A few years ago, I bought a bumper sticker that says “What if the Hokey Pokey really is what it’s all about?”. I thought it was funny, a bit irreverent and perfect for a priest’s office. From time to time I’ve gone back to that question and tried to answer it, and I’ve concluded that yes, the Hokey Pokey really is what it’s all about. And here’s why. When we do the Hokey Pokey, one at a time, we put our body parts in and shake them all about…we turn ourselves around…and we do a little dance. At the end of the song, we sing “I put my whole self in, I put my whole self out, I put my whole self in and I shake it all about. I do the Hokey Pokey and I turn myself around. That’s what it’s all about”. Now according to the Great Commandment, we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul and love our neighbors as ourselves. In other words, we put our whole selves in, we experience a metanoia (or turning to God), and we shake things up a bit. Perhaps our shaking things up a bit makes life a little easier for our neighbor. That’s what it means to be a saint…putting your whole self in, turning around, and shaking it all about. We all have the capacity to do the Hokey Pokey, and we all have the potential to be a saint.
I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true…They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still, the world is bring with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, or in the lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me…
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.