Nesting Dolls

In Roman Catholic circles, today is referred to as Christ the King Sunday. This feast was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to what he saw as a loss of the monarchical dignity of the church among the kingdoms of the secular world.

With this in mind, it seems ironic that our lessons for today evoke a collage of images that don’t really project the conventional regal likeness we might expect on a day proclaimed as Christ the King Sunday.

Instead, our lessons are simultaneously a mix of promise and loss, of praise and mocking, of anticipation and execution. They seem at the same time to evoke feelings of excitement and anxiety; a confusing cocktail of emotions if one is hoping for a vision of steadfast decorum and dignity.

What’s more, this confusing collection of Scripture is presented to us in the midst of transition – a new year’s eve of sorts. This last Sunday after Pentecost marks the beginning of the final week of this season of ordinary time. Next Sunday will mark the beginning of a new liturgical year; but more significantly, it will mark the beginning of an extraordinary time – Advent – a season of preparation for the coming of the messiah – our Savior Jesus Christ.

Thus, this new year’s eve of sorts marks a period of transition for us; as if there’s not enough transition swirling about us. There seems to be transition within transition, like nesting dolls – one within the other – nesting dolls of mixed emotions.

Begin with whatever may be your own personal nesting doll of anticipation or anxiety at present: a recent death, a recent birth, an empty nest, a marriage, a move – you get the idea.

Now, place that transition inside the confines of our convocation’s nesting doll of visioning for the future. Next, let’s place these nesting dolls within our diocesan nesting doll – Bishop Wolfe’s resignation and looming departure.

Wait, there’s more. These three nesting dolls will fit nicely within a really big one – the transition between presidential administrations. As if that weren’t enough, today we are being reminded of the largest nesting doll of all – cosmically speaking. It is within this largest of dolls that all other transitions are perennially taking place – in the midst of all of creation’s transition between this life and the paradise of God.

If you weren’t already feeling a little overwhelmed and anxious, at least now you may have justification for that feeling.

Yet the reality for most of us is that we are preoccupied with or more intrigued with the smaller nesting dolls – those transitions that seem the most pressing because of proximity of place or time. This is completely understandable, but it often leads us to overlook the bigger picture – the overarching story – at our own peril because it is this story that defines our eternity.

So let’s turn our attention to this confusing collection of readings to see what we can discern among them.

This last Sunday after Pentecost reads a bit like a mini Palm Sunday of sorts. It begins with a promise of restoration under a new king, it continues with the description of the reign of Jesus Christ as head of the Church, and yet it concludes with the heartbreak of Jesus’ crucifixion. Figuratively, the lectionary leaves us hanging on the cross – a place of unresolved anxiety. There is no pretty bow to tie up the loose ends of unresolved pain.

For weeks now, our lectionary has been leading us down a path of increasingly end-of-time-ish readings as the day light hours gradually dwindle into increasing darkness, as if beckoning us to gird our spiritual loins for the challenges that lie before us. It is as if these readings have – with intention – been directing our attention to this final lesson of the church year – Luke’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

In this story, blinded by worldly ambitions or fears, the crowds and even followers, who heard the good news, have turned their backs on Jesus because the reign he speaks of does not match with their vision. Even a criminal ridicules Jesus. As he is staring in the face of his own death, this criminal thinks Jesus’ death is pointless.

The crowds and this criminal are so engrossed with their own expectations or anxiety that they are incapable of seeing the bigger picture that is emerging in the midst of them. This bigger picture is in effect the beginning of the coronation of the king of kings, whose coronation is so unlike any that has come before it or that will follow it.

There is only one person in this story who is able to behold what is happening. The other criminal, who amid his own suffering is able to witness what is happening because of his compassion. Through his compassion, he is able to see the injustice and to recognize the regal decorum and dignity in Jesus, and to say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Among the multitude present, he is the only one to receive Jesus’ benediction, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”[1]

It is because of and through this seemingly insane gesture of dying like a criminal that we, despite our brokenness, corruptness, and unworthiness, are made whole, redeemed, and made worthy to inhabit the kingdom of God.

Therefore, as we find ourselves feeling bound up inside our layers or nesting dolls of anticipation and anxiety, we – like the criminal who sees Jesus for who he is – must learn to bear with dignity and decorum the anxieties and injustices that we encounter, not by hiding them in our compartmented nesting dolls, but by opening them up, and letting the contents spill forth in prayer and communion so that Jesus and our fellow disciples can help guide us toward wholeness so that we – like the compassionate criminal – can recognize the real kingdom and receive Jesus’ benediction of Paradise.

[1] Luke 23:42-43.

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the great one in the midst of you …

Every week, we are presented with a collection of Scripture, sometimes a semi-continuous progression of readings from the Old Testament, the Psalter, the letters and the Gospel; and each week we try to discern what they have to say to us in our present context.

Generally these readings follow the pattern of the current season, such as this season after Pentecost, with an eye toward what is coming next, as in the season of Advent.

With time, this progression of the Lectionary over the seasons becomes quite familiar – perhaps even comfortable; but sometimes it finds itself superimposed upon current events – events that are historical – events that beg the question, “What are we to make of our faith in these circumstances?”

Today, we stand in the five-day shadow of our most recent presidential election. I suspect, regardless of how we feel about the outcome of this election, we all have questions – and perhaps expectations – about what will happen next.

Of course we are familiar with the progression of next steps leading up to the Inauguration in January; however, what is less clear is how our expectations will play out after the 115th Congress is seated and the 45th President is sworn in.

While we are blessed in Sedan not to be experiencing the quite public vocal discord and demonstrations that some cities are experiencing in the face of this transition, we may be experiencing our own quiet – and perhaps personally disturbing – questions.

And all this late in the season after Pentecost as our Lectionary turns end-of-time-ish, perhaps even apocalyptic.

Today, to those for whom the outcome of the election is cause to celebrate, Isaiah[1] will resonate differently than for others. As for those for whom there is no cause to celebrate, the Gospel[2] may sound ominous.

Between these two readings, one of a new creation and another of destruction and persecution, there is a gulf – maybe even a chasm – of emotion. It is this chasm dividing the two sentiments where the Gospel invites us to direct our attention.

Jesus has just finished a grueling day of campaigning – if you will – a day of preaching, of confrontation, of teaching, of debating, and of story telling among his opponents and his disciples in the Temple.

As he and the disciples are preparing to leave for the day, someone – likely a disciple on whom the events of the day are lost – points out how beautiful the Temple is.

The Temple is beautiful, but Jesus uses the disciple’s non sequitur to remind us of the impermanence and vulnerability of our human institutions, “… the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

This simple statement startles the disciples into asking when this will be, which is a natural enough response; but Jesus evades the question by describing the unreliability of signs.

He cautions that fixating upon signs will only terrify us and preoccupy us. Instead Jesus tells us to see the hardships and persecutions as opportunities to testify – not with our own words but with the words and wisdom that he will provide through the Holy Spirit.

What a frightening prospect! This is not something many of us feel equipped to do; yet there it is. Jesus tells us not to be afraid for “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

But again, my mind turns to the question of when, and then it dawns upon me that the reason Jesus is vague as to when is because the answer is now. The time is now and the current place is in the midst of the present chasm of emotion that separates those who feel victorious and those who feel vanquished.

We could dwell at length on our fear of the prospect, but in the interest of time and brevity I direct your attention to our Canticle for today, “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.” [3]

This beautiful song of rejoicing, of thanksgiving, of praise, and of joy is where – I believe – Jesus would have us place our trust so that we as witnesses of his love can reclaim the chasm that separates.

We, of our own ability, lack the skill to reclaim the chasm; yet trusting Jesus we know he will equip us with the words and wisdom so that none can oppose us. Therefore, we can reclaim the present chasm as that holy place of Zion. “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for [even in the midst of your fear] the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

[1] Isaiah 65:17-25.

[2] Luke 21:5-9.

[3] Canticle 9, The First Song of Isaiah, Ecce, Deus, v. 1.

Jesus’ Stump Speech

What’s up with celebrating All Saints’ Day five days after its appointed day of November 1st? Well, it’s one of the ways the Church is accommodating to those of us whose lives can’t make space for communal worship during the workweek.

All Saints’ Day is so important a feast within the Church that it merits our communal attention and celebration. Thus it is a movable feast – it is accommodating – so we are able to observe its celebration on this Sunday following November 1st.

At its core, All Saints’ Day is a day for giving thanks for all the saints, those still living and those who have gone before us. We give thanks today for their grace-filled examples and we celebrate that we are all one body with them in Jesus Christ our Lord.

In this celebration we are filled with awe as we reflect upon the saints’ examples, and perhaps never more so than as we living saints contemplate the challenges we are confronted with now and in the days to come.

In case you need a reminder, we have been enduring bewildering and wearying political campaigns for what seems to be too long. Yet, in two days the campaigning will be behind us – thank goodness!

So, other than proximity, what do political campaigns have to do with All Saints’ Day? Well, I think this accommodating feast of All Saints’ and its lectionary can give us some perspective in how to face the days to come.

As messy and cringe provoking as the campaigns have been, they are a part of our political process; and we as citizens are stewards of this process. Thus, even as we may hold our noses, we need to immerse ourselves in this process and make informed decisions about which candidates best represent our values. Then we must exercise our right and obligation to express our opinion at the polls on Tuesday.

However, today I am more aware of political rallies, or stump meetings as we called them in the day. I don’t know if any of us have attended any of the political rallies; there haven’t been any that were conveniently near by, which may be a blessing. Nonetheless, there have certainly been many that have been aired in part or in whole on television. So I suspect we’ve all seen something of them.

As you have watched these rallies, have you wondered about who attends them? Aside from the obvious answer of supporters, there are others as well. These others may include the spectator who is undecided and the curious onlooker. Perhaps they are looking for answers to help them see a way forward.

Alternatively, some of them may just want to be entertained by the spectacle; or maybe they are hecklers, just looking for an opportunity to disrupt the rally and make the candidate look bad. Of course there is the possibility that they may be surprised by what they hear.

This year in particular, I am grateful that we are observing the feast of All Saints’ just two days before the election. I am grateful for this coincidence of timing because the Gospel lesson today seems particularly well suited to the campaign season as it has elements of a political rally, or an old fashioned stump speech.

Today Jesus is sermonizing, not only to his disciples, but also to “… a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.”[1] This really diverse multitude is full of curious onlookers and those seeking to be cured.

Thus, while Jesus may be looking at his disciples as he preaches, he is very aware of this diverse multitude and wants them to hear his sermon as well. What is more, he is saying things that are confounding to many of them. You see, Jesus is not pandering to the crowd; in fact, his words are confounding and challenging to most of them precisely because he is not trying to tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. By modern standards, Jesus stinks as a politician.

On the one hand Jesus speaks of blessedness or happiness, and on the other he speaks of woe or grief; but in neither case is he speaking of happiness or grief in conventional ways.

Happy are those who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, who are hated. Apparently suffering as the prophets suffered for their faithfulness is how to claim the reward of heaven. Hmm … suffering; I’m thinking this is not a way to win over the multitude.

Clearly, there is another choice. We can choose to pursue riches, to be full, to laugh, and to have others speak well of us, but Jesus tells us these will only lead to grief in the end. Excuse me, but I would like to have my cake and eat it too!

This is not the kind of stump speech one expects from a successful politician. Instead Jesus is telling all of us the good news and the bad news; this kind of candor or authenticity is not something we expect from public officials all that often. Are we even listening?

Perhaps we need to accept it as an honest appraisal of the choice before us; a choice between happiness and grief. If we are listening, and if we choose happiness, Jesus gives us a prescription for pursuing happiness: love; do good; bless; pray; be generous; and treat others as you would have them treat you.

However, Jesus tells us to be selective. He tells us to pursue happiness by accommodating: our enemies; those who hate us; those who curse us; those who abuse us; those who hit us; and those who steal from us.

Does such an accommodating party platform even make sense if one wants to win a campaign? Well if you want to make an impression on someone, do what they least expect, it will get their attention. They may even pause to ask why. Accommodation becomes an opportunity to remind them of the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Accommodation is an invitation to remember that what Jesus wants most for us and from us is to be in relationship with one another – not opposed to one another. This is essential to our party platform and it is what we need to remember, especially after Tuesday because we won’t all be happy with the way things turn out.

Nonetheless, today Jesus is telling his disciples, as well as the multitude of diverse opinions and wants, that we need to set aside our differences and hurts and choose to build relationships of mutual respect and accommodation.

But Jesus places the burden of this accommodation on us as saints and disciples. We are the ones who are called to show the multitudes the way to the kingdom of God. Heaven knows this will require the best efforts and prayers of All the Saints.

[1] Luke 6:17