Friday, November 18, 2016

The Reign of Christ, Year C

Faith's Illusions

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 19; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Following a turbulent marriage, Joni Mitchell meditates on life in a song.

“I've looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down and still somehow,
It's cloud's illusions I recall,
I really don't know clouds at all”

She goes on to say that it is not only clouds, but life that she doesn’t really understand. In her topsy-turvy world up is down, good is bad, more is less.

I resonate with her on many levels. There have been turbulent times in my life when nothing seemed to be the way it should be. I would look up at the sky and see only dark clouds, even when the sun was shining. And yet I knew, even at my lowest times, that God loved me. I knew that God was there even when I was unable to sense God’s presence.

Our faith is based on a topsy-turvy world. That table turning, topsy-turvy way of looking at things is God’s way. Consider what we believe! God took on human form. God is a king born in a manger to lowly parents. God is a friend of outcasts and strangers. God came to serve rather than to be served. God died on the cross as a common criminal to bring life to humankind.

That is, after all, what we are called to reflect on this last Sunday of the Church Year, as we celebrate the reign of Christ. The readings call us to examine what it means that Christ reigns as king. What is the Christian image of kingship? For ours is a king who reigns, not from a throne, but from a cross. And that is such a topsy-turvy way of expressing kingship.

In our humanity, in our hunger for power, we so often get it wrong. How often has the cross become a symbol of might rather than a symbol of peace? Christianity began as a small group of powerless people in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. But by the time of Constantine in the fourth century, the church had become integrated into the social system of the same empire that had persecuted it. The Christians who had been persecuted became the persecutors. Constantine became the righteous king through whom God's reign could be established on earth.

In medieval times, Emperors throughout Europe considered themselves to be kings by divine right, representing the fatherhood of God on earth. How many wars have been fought because of that way of thinking? Fought in the name of God with shouts from both sides that "God is on our side"?

What a different view of kingship we Christians are called to proclaim! In the Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Jeremiah proclaims, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch.” He is concerned with the quality of those who are in leadership in Israel. In fact, he does not hold a very high opinion of those who are. He makes a pledge to the people of Israel on behalf of God, the ultimate shepherd. God will gather the people back from exile. God will guide them back to Israel where they will enjoy good leadership.

As Christians we discern in the reading a promise of the coming of Jesus who embodies righteousness and offers a vision of justice that stands out in contrast to the reality of the society in which we live. We know that it will come at great price. King Jesus will indeed come, and will sacrifice life itself to give life to the people of God, because in God’s topsy-turvy world death is life.

The Gospel once again proclaims the story of the crucifixion. The sign placed on the cross reminds us that Jesus is a king. And even as he hangs on the cross there are those who hope that King Jesus will come in power. “Save yourself and us!” one of the criminals shouts out. Isn’t Jesus the longed for Messiah, the one who will address Israel’s hope of liberation? That Jesus is, after all, the Jesus of the Gospel. Did he not march into the synagogue and overturn the tables of the moneychangers? Did he not roll up the scroll in the temple as he announced good news to the poor, to the hungry, to those who mourned? Did he not proclaim change?

But then in God’s mysterious way, he died on a cross as a common criminal. In God’s topsy-turvy world is it the end of power, or the beginning? Jesus was enormously powerful, even from the cross. He spread a revolution of love and grace. Christ the King is a counter image of a life poured out in compassion. That is why two thousand years later we still follow him.

A family, father, mother and two small children lived in a small house in a rural village. One night there was a terrible fire. The house went up in flames. There was no fire engine in this remote spot, and so the villagers stood around helplessly, watching the blaze.

Just then a young man arrived on the scene. Taking no thought for himself he darted into the house. He emerged carrying a small child under each arm. The children were unharmed, but he himself was badly burned.

The parents of the two children died in the fire. There was much sympathy for the two children. Several people wanted to adopt them. When the judge arrived to decide who would adopt the children, there were two petitions that came before the court. The first was a wealthy landowner. He had money, position, and a fine house to offer the children. The second was the man who had rescued the children from the flames. When the judge asked him what right he had to ask the court for the children no words were necessary. He merely held up his hands to reveal the scars.

What a different King we follow! King Jesus holds out his hands to us. We see the scars and know that Jesus’ suffering and pain was his royal road to us. It was in giving up his life for us that he showed us God’s glory and passionate love. As Christians we are part of God’s topsy-turvy world. It is a world where contradictions bear fruit. Like existence, life does not end in death. Rather, death ends in life.

What are the signs that it is happening in our world? What are the signs of resurrection? Because so often all we can see are dark clouds. All we can understand are the illusions. All we experience is the doubts.

It is our ministry as servants of Christ, our bearing Christ to the world that helps us to see and understand life as it is. It begins with each one of us recognizing that we lead by serving. All of us come every day in contact with people in need. And don't think for a moment that it doesn't matter. And don't think for a moment that you don't know what to do. And don't think that you need special training. Often it is a ministry of compassionate listening which is most needed in a world where no one ever stops or cares. And every one of us can do that. It is in reaching out to others that we accept the servant ministry that reflects our acceptance of Christ as king in our lives.

As our church year comes to a close, we concentrate on the coming of the king. Does that numb us to the suffering about us and to our responsibility in the midst of it all? Or does it inspire us to loving service?

May Christ the King be king of our lives now as he shall be forever. May the truth of Christ's kingship spur us on to living our lives for him and for others!

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