Monday, November 27, 2017

Behold Our King

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
--Matthew 25: 31-46

The first time I walked into the church where I serve in North Carolina my eye immediately went to the Christus Rex behind our altar.  Looking at the Christus Rex, which means Christ the King, we see a grand and mighty image of the royalty and magnificence of Jesus.  He isn’t nailed to the cross, instead he reigns from it.  His crown is one of jewels, not thorns, and his clothes are fancy priest garments.  Instead of appearing in agony he has his arms stretched out to welcome all who come to him. It is a lovely image of the kingship of Jesus. 

The Christus Rex at Good Shepherd, Asheboro.

Fittingly, we focused on the Christus Rex this past Sunday as we celebrated Christ the King Sunday (or Reign of Christ Sunday, depending on where you were).  It's not a feast day, but it is a celebratory day; after all, we wear white for the occasion.  The day also marked the end of our Ordinary Time, as well as the final Sunday of our liturgical calendar.  Why have a day to celebrate Jesus' kingship on the last Sunday of the church year?  Because it is a reminder for us that Jesus reigns throughout all time and space--past, present, and future--for ever and ever, world without end.  Amen.  

Our Christus Rex sure makes him look like a king, doesn’t it?  Still, when we pay attention to the parable Jesus gives in Matthew 25,which is the the Gospel text for Christ the King Sunday, we notice a different image of kingship being painted.  Like nearly all of the parables we have been studying in Matthew's Gospel over this past year, this parable is meant to evoke images of the eschaton, the final judgment.  It doesn't take a biblical scholar to see that the king in the parable is Jesus and that the judgment he is passing is an allusion to the eschaton.  The king gathers the nations before him and says to the people that he was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison, and that those who took care of him are blessed, while those who did no such thing are not so blessed. 

Does this sound like any king you know?  Does this sound like the sovereign that rules over the universe?  Hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, in prison?  This sure doesn't sound like any king I know or can think of, which is the same reaction the king’s assembled subjects have in the parable.  "When did we see you in those states?" they ask.  "When could we have possibly offered you help?  You!  Our king!"  For them the idea of seeing a king in any of those states, all vulnerable, wounded and weak, is antithetical to the very idea of sovereignty, of what a ruler should look like.  The king’s response:  you saw me in those states when you saw anyone else in those states.  When you helped them, you helped me. When you ignored them, you ignored me.

This is what makes our Lord Jesus unlike any sovereign that has ever ruled, and will ever rule.  This is what makes the Gospel so radical.  Every idea about what royalty is meant to look like, how royalty is meant to act, is turned upside-down in the person of this Jesus.  Kings are seated on thrones in palaces, they eat at banquets and are clothed in splendor.  While Jesus does reign in glory, the very glory we see depicted in our Christus Rex, his earthly glory is something quite different. Here his throne is the bed in a hospice room, or homeless shelter, or prison cell. Here his clothing is tattered, with holes in his shoes.  Here he reaches his hand out to us and asks us to help him before pulling the newspaper over himself so as to keep warm.  This, brothers and sisters, is our lord Jesus, our king.  And we encounter him every single day.

Do you want to see the face of Jesus, the face of our king?  Look around you. Do you see anyone who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison? Seek out that person.  Look that person in the eyes.  That’s Jesus! He is known to us in the sorts and conditions of every human being, especially those that are so very easy for us to forget and ignore, those whom he called "the least of these."  To serve them is to serve him.  To respect their dignity is to honor his glory. 

In a very real way, each person bears the image of our king.  This is the cosmic Christ, the Jesus that exists in all living things.  Thus, when we give to someone else, we are giving to Jesus.  It's not about charity but relationship.  When we seek out folks who in such great need and we establish a relationship with them, then we are nurturing our relationship with him.   

In several cities and at several churches—including St. Alban’s in Davidson, NC and the Church of the Savior in DC—you will find statues of a homeless Jesus.  As you might expect, these statues troubled many folks when they were first set up. These folks, who were of a more considerable economic means, had serious trouble with a Jesus in such a sad state. These folks need the Christus Rex, the Jesus that reigns in glory and power, the Jesus who is in full control; after all, we aren't exactly in full control of our own lives.  It's easy to forget, but Jesus is just as human as any of us.  This is what makes our king so different.  He can be found in the coldest, harshest corners of our lives.  It’s here that he invites us into a relationship with him.  When someone is there, in those cold, harsh corners, and we take their hand, we are taking the very hand of the one who holds the whole world.

Homeless Jesus at St. Lucy's in Syracuse.

This is our king.  He reigns from heaven above, from the wood of the cross, from the coldness of the prison cell, from the eyes and hearts of his own children, and all points in-between. As we celebrate his kingship may our eyes be open to seeing him reigning all around us, and may our hearts be set ablaze to serve and praise him by serving and praising others.  For his is the king of glory, the king of peace, and we will serve, praise, and love him!  

Monday, November 20, 2017

We've Always Done It That Way

Jesus said, “It [the kingdom of heaven] is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
--Matthew 25: 14-30

Do you know the last 6 words of a dying church?  "Weve always done it that way!"  Youd be surprised how many times church folks say that.  Once when I was in seminary I was having a conversation with a classmate who worked at a huge, prominent parish in New York City.  When I asked about the fact that they did not allow women to serve at the altar in any capacity, refused to use any of the new liturgical resources from the wider Episcopal Church, and had no ministries focusing on incorporating kids and young adults into the life of the church my friend said, Well, theyve always done it that way.  That church, even though it was huge and had tons of money, was a dying church.  Thats because dying churches arent necessarily the ones with older populations, or the ones that dont have money, but theyre the ones that do nothing with the gifts God has given them, the ones who see an opportunity to do something fresh and new and turn it down, giving in to the fear of any kind of change.  They repeat their mantra:  we've always done it that way.  

 An artist's rendering of the Parable of the Talents

It was true in Jesus day, just as it is now.  We call the above story the Parable of the Talents, and it only appears in Matthews Gospel, perhaps because Matthew was a tax collector and wouldve used such a term himself.  When we say talent in this context we dont mean what we would mean todaythings that folks show off on America's Got Talent.  Instead, a talent represented a large amount of something.  The Greek word used is talanton, which was said to be equal to about 113 pounds.  In the parable the word refers to a large sum of money, in which case it would have been equal to 15 years wages for a day laborer.  Obviously Jesus is talking about a huge sum of money when he describes the master in the parable entrusting one servant with five talents, another two, and another one. The first two servants both invest their talents, doubling their amount, and they are rewarded.  The third does nothing with what his master gives him.  He doesnt invest it, he takes no risk at all, and while the master does still get his original talent back, he chastises the servant for not being more proactive with what had been given to him.

The third servant was a victim of the same mentality as those who live by the code of weve always done it that way.' It's about fear, particularly the fear of doing something new, of taking any kind of risk  Scholars like William Barclay have said that the third servant represents the scribes and Pharisees, those in Jesus time who had been given the gift of Gods law but had sought to hoard it, to hold onto it.  Even when Jesus, the living embodiment of the law, was standing right in front of them and inviting them into new ways of being, they still refused.  "We're good," they said, "because we've always done it that way!"  They, like that servant, refused to take a risk for fear of losing what they already had, and when the opportunity for change came, they dug their heels in and refused. The chastisement of the servant's attitude in the parable is thus Jesus own chastisement of those fearful attitudes, attitudes that he experienced from those who squandered the gifts given to them by God.

 The talents in this parable may not have been a reference to talents in our modern sense, but they are certainly gifts.  So this parable speaks a very real truth, that God gives each of us gifts and entrusts us to be active with those gifts.  The amount is not reflective of any personal valuenotice that the master does not speak more highly of the servant who made 10 talents than he does the one who made four.  Thus, what matters is what one does with the gift(s).  The first two servants did something with what was given to them.  They didnt know what was going to happen.  Certainly it was a frightening risk, but they stepped out in faith, and look what happened.  The third servant, however, took no such risk, just kept doing what hed been doing, didnt try doing something new, and look what happened.

The only way to keep a gift is to put it to good use, to work with it.  Thats what Jesus means when he says For all those who have more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  If we do nothing with what God is giving us, its as if we never had it to begin with.  Sometimes its risky, but stepping out in faith and doing something with the talent God has given us is always worth it.  Thats true for individuals and for larger church communities.  This weekend at our annual convention in the Diocese of North Carolina our bishops spoke about the gift God is giving us to create and become beloved community, which is scary because it often means coming to grips with hard truths of our past and deciding to be something weve never been before.  Furthermore, on a national level, a resolution will be put forth at this summer's General Convention, setting out a new relationship of full communion between Episcopalians and United Methodists, which will mean the two denominations can share clergy and work together on common mission.  While it could mean some change for our two denominations, it is also a gift that God is giving us to explore new ways of being the Church in our time.  

One might ask, Why change at all?  Were fine just the way we are!  Sadly, thats the attitude of the third servant, and of the scribes and Pharisees.  Its always easier to just keep doing what were doing, to give in to our fears of the unknown. Jesus understood this.  He understood that fear is the corrosive thread that runs through every fiber of our being.  It can cripple us.  But Jesus also knew what it looks like when people take the gifts that God has given them and step out in faith, risking something big for something good.  Every one of us who goes to church on Sunday is sitting in a space that exists because someone, somewhere way back when, decided not to live by the code of 'We've always done it that way!' and stepped out in faith to do something with the new thing that God was putting in their hands.

So I wonder, what is the new thing that God is giving to you right now?  What “talent” has been placed in your hands and on your heart?  What will you do with it?  Will you bury it, sit on it, discard it because it’s new and scary and you have never done anything like it before?  Or will you cultivate it, invest it, nurture it, and let it grow into something wonderful?  And what of our respective church communities?  What new way of being is God inviting them into?  Whatever it is God is giving us, may we have the grace to do something with it, and the courage to step out into something new, even if we’ve always done it that way! 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

On the Rapture (Yeah, That's Right!)

So let’s talk about the end times.  Seems like a strange thing read on an Episcopal priest's blog, but it's a  fascinating subject.  I suspect on some level that we all want to know the details about that time:  what will those days be like?   The early followers of Jesus believed the end times were coming much sooner, rather than later; in fact, nearly every Christian writer in the first century, including Matthew and Paul, thought this, and their writings  reflected that reality. 

Yeah....we're not.  Sorry.

'Jesus said, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”'
--Matthew 25: 1-13

'We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.'
--I Thessalonians 4: 13-18

Throughout his ministry Jesus was met with question after question about what the end would be like, for most Jews believed that a day would come when God would break through human history and send the Messiah to reconcile both the living and the dead to God.  It's not just a Judeo-Christian idea, our Muslim brothers and sister also believe in such a day, meaning it's part of all the Abrahamic faiths.  That day has many names:  the eschaton, the perousia,  and the Day of Ressurection are a few examples. The people in Jesus' time wanted to know every juicy detail of that day:  When will it happen?  What will the signs be?  How can people prepare?  However, according to the Gospels, Jesus rarely gave specific details about the end.  It's true that he offered  some clues and helpful advice—keep awake, for example—but he did not dig into the kinds of details for which people were--and still are--longing.  He never said when, where, and how that day wiould occur; in fact, it not only says in this week's passage “you do not know the day or the hour” but just one chapter earlier, in Matthew 24: 36 Jesus proclaims that nobody, not even he himself, knows the details of the eschaton, only God the Father knows that.  It seems that Jesus did not think that details were all that important. 

The trouble with such details is that sometimes they can be wrong, or at the very least miscalculated.  Take Paul, for example.  His writings predate the Gospels, so in some ways we get an even better look at the thoughts and practices of early Christians from his letters than we do the Gospel writers.  Among those early Christian communities Paul wrote to was the church in Thessalonika, a city in the northern region of Greece.  Like Paul and most other Christians at that time the Thessalonians believed the eschaton was right around the corner, and their main concern was whether or not folks who had already died would experience the joys of Jesus’ return.  Paul, therefore, wrote to reassure them that, yes, the dead will rise first and that they themselves would be lifted up to meet Jesus in the air upon his return.  Paul then spends the rest of that letter, and the second letter to the Thessalonians, encouraging them with this hope, reminding them that Jesus is coming soon and that they will be with him; and he includes himself among them, saying "we who are alive," which indicates he thought they all, himself included, would be around to see that day.  It’s a lovely image, and certainly there’s nothing wrong with having that kind of hope that Paul gave them, but as far as the details were concerned, it turned out Paul was wrong; in fact, they all were.  Mark, Matthew, Paul, Peter, and John, all thought the eschaton would happen in their lifetimes. They got the details wrong.

When we go to the Bible looking for specific details, especially details about the future, we run into some problems, namely the fact that things which were predicted by the Scripture writers didn't always come to pass. Take Jesus’ statement from Matthew 16: 28, when he said that there were folks standing there in his presence who would not taste death until they saw the Son of Man coming in his glory; that is, until the eschaton.  Matthew felt pretty confident giving Jesus those words, but obviously, Matthew’s details were a little off because none of those folks are still around, and the eschaton still hasn't come.  When Christians today go digging for specific details like these we end up with theologies that are not necessarily in-keeping with what the Scriptures had in mind or with what the church has historically believed. 

NOT in the Bible!!

One of the best examples of this is the Rapture.  Yes, an Episcopalian is writing about the Rapture, how many times does that happen?!  The Rapture is NOT in the Bible, and it was not taught as church doctrine until the late 17th century, and even then only by a very small number of Protestant evangelicals who took sayings from the biblical authors to mean the same thing now as they did back then. They folks, who were generally those Protestants who had been kicked out of larger, established churches--or, in the case of the Puritans, our of an entire country--found Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, along with some of Matthew’s predictions and the Revelation to John, and they figured that the key to understanding God's plan for them was to figure out the details of how it all was going to come to an end.  By having a futurist mentality about faith and the Scriptures they could validate their own experiences, claiming that God was coming soon, and that they would be saved.  

You have this guy to thank for the Rapture.

One person in-particular named John Nelson Darby, who was an ex-Anglican priest that helped found the Brethren Church in Ireland in 1827, wrote extensively on these kinds of details, saying that the Bible was one single, continuous narrative—rather than a collection of Scriptures—and that by searching the details of end times passages in places like Matthew, I Thessalonians, and Revelation, and putting them all together, Christians could clearly know what was going to happen. Darby went on to say that God had dispensed human history into six periods, and that we are currently in the next to last one.  At the end of this period, we will all be raptured into heaven, he said, after which time a great tribulation will occur on earth for seven years, and then Jesus will return to usher in the final period called the Millenial Kingdom, his 1000 year rule on earth, and then human history will end.  This theory is called premillenial dispensationalism, and it comes from the school of thought that our true meaning, and the true purpose of the Scriptures, is in the fine details.  If we go searching, we will find  clues to how this whole thing will play out.  It might sound quirky to some of us, but it has become an essential part of many evangelical Christians' thoughts and practice. What's more, it's become a booming enterprise. The Left Behind series is premellenial dispensationalism at its finest!  It’s not grounded in any actual biblical scholarship or church doctrine, but it’s obviously had a huge impact on western Christianity because many believe it fleshed out the scriptural details of how the end times will occur.  I guess no one told series creator Tim LaHaye, or the folks who have predicted that the Rapture will occur nearly every year for the past century, that when Paul, Matthew, and the other Scripture authors paid too much attention to the details, they ended up with miscalculations and botched predictions of every kind. 

False theology at its best, folks.

But if the details of Scripture aren’t that important, and if we’re not supposed to pay all of our attention to them, what are we supposed to pay attention to?  Why read Scripture at all.  This is a question at the core of all biblical scholarship, and while the answer isn’t simple, it is worthwhile, because it's deep and requires us to wrestle with some hard truths of Scripture.  One of those truths is that  the Bible is not a single narrative meant to give us details on the end times.  It's not a book.   It is a library—that’s what the word Bible means—made up of poems, prose, letters, and stories about God and the everlasting promise of God’s love for God's people, written at various points in history and spanning more than 1000 years.  Our task as biblical scholars is to search for the deeper meaning behind the Scriptures, to contextualize them,  rather than take them literally or at face value, as folks like Darby and LaHaye have done.  When we do that we find the deeper meaning behind all of the Scriptures, even the hard ones, is that very promise of God's love for God's people.  Thus, our study of the Bible serves not to predict the future, especially given that so many of the prophecies the biblical writers were certain would come true either didn't or haven't yet.  Instead, it is to remind us of that promise.  The deeper meaning of Paul's letter isn’t in the details of how we will be with Jesus or when, it is the promise of God’s love made clear in the simple fact that we will be with Jesus.  The deeper meaning behind Matthew’s predictions isn’t how Jesus will return, it’s how we can live into lives reflective of God’s love here and now,  and since we've been reading Matthew's gospel this year I'd say remembering and living out the Beatitudes would be a good start, so that when he does return Jesus will find us doing the very work he himself did.  It’s not about the details, it’s about the deeper meaning of God’s love. When I was in the Holy Land years ago our tour guide told us that if we came looking for facts we would leave disappointed, but if we came for truth, we would find it. Facts are about details. Truth is about someone deeper.

So for us, as we pick up our Bibles at home and search for hope and encouragement, may we remember that the details are not what matter most.  What matters most is that we find that promise of God’s love, poured out in creation, reiterated by the prophets, given flesh in Jesus, and taught and preached by Paul, and lived by us all these years later.  Even when we talk about hard stuff like the end times, that deeper meaning of the promise of God’s love is there.  That’s all that matters.  The rest is just details.