What is Decorum?

In Roman and Anglo-Catholic circles today is referred to as Christ the King Sunday. But don’t be fooled by the title, this isn’t some ancient feast of the church; rather it was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in response to what he saw as a loss of the regal dignity of the church among the kingdoms of the secular world. Personally I find such preoccupation with the regal dignity of the church at odds with the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus, especially today.

Nonetheless, with Pius’s desire for regality in mind, it seems ironic that our lessons for today evoke a collage of images that don’t really project conventional regal likeness. Instead, our lessons seem to be 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 regal vision of steadfast decorum and dignity.

What’s more, this confusing collection of Scripture is presented to us on a new year’s eve of sorts. This last Sunday after Pentecost marks the beginning of the final week of this season of what we call 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 resolution and preparation for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Maybe this new year’s eve of sorts marks a period of resolution and transition for each of us as well. And no, I don’t mean camping out for Black Friday or counting down the shopping days ‘til Christmas! [As an aside, although the irony of naming the kick-off of this period of shopping mayhem is not lost on me – we have given a doomsday-sounding name to what is supposed to be the beginning of a sales bonanza for retailers. Maybe, just maybe retailers get this Advent thing after all. Or not.] Now back to the point. Rather than a period of consumerism gone wild, Advent is a period of interior preparation and practice for the coming of Jesus.

Yet the reality for many of us may be that we are preoccupied with a season of shopping mayhem, or more intrigued with those resolutions and transitions that seem more pressing because of proximity of place or time. This is understandable, but it often leads us – at our own peril – to overlook the bigger picture – the overarching story – 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, these readings seem to leave us hanging on the cross – a place of unresolved anxiety. There is no pretty bow to tie up the loose ends of unresolved pain. Perhaps this serves as a reminder that the holidays are painful for many of us.

For weeks now, our readings have been leading us down a path of increasingly end-of-time-ish stories as the daylight hours 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.

Despite its heartbreak, within this narrative there are agents of hope being named. In this story, blinded by worldly ambitions or fears, the crowds and even followers, who heard the good news, turn their backs on Jesus because the reign he speaks of doesn’t coincide with their vision. Even a criminal, as he is staring his own death in the face, ridicules Jesus; this criminal thinks Jesus’ death is pointless. The crowds and this criminal are so preoccupied with their own expectations or anxiety that they are incapable of seeing the bigger picture, the overarching story, that is emerging in the midst of them. This bigger picture is in effect the unlikely beginning of the coronation of the king of kings; a coronation so unlike any that has come before or that will follow. In this story there is only one person who is able to behold what is happening. Another criminal, one who in the midst of his own suffering is able to recognize what is happening because he has compassion. His love of his neighbor on a cross enables him to see the injustice and to recognize the regal decorum and dignity of 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 – if we are willing to accept the compassion and grace of another – are made whole, redeemed, and made worthy to inhabit the kingdom of God.

Therefore, as we find ourselves staring our anticipation and anxiety in the face, may we – like the criminal who loves Jesus for who he is – learn to bear with dignity and decorum the anxieties and injustices that we encounter, not by hiding them behind Happy Holiday facades, but by opening them, and letting the contents spill forth in compassion, prayer, communion and grace so that Jesus and our fellow disciples can guide us toward wholeness so that we – like the compassionate criminal – can recognize the real kingdom and receive Jesus’ benediction of Paradise.

May your Advent be so Blessed!

[1] Luke 23:42-43.

Who am I?

[W]ho am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill-offering? For all things come from you [O Lord], and of your own have we given you.[1]

Hopefully some of you recognize this piece of Scripture because I use it as an offertory before Holy Communion from time-to-time. But beyond recognizing it, you may be wondering, what on earth does this farewell prayer of King David’s have to do with the readings of Scripture appointed for today? Well that’s a good question, and the answer would be nothing and everything. Nothing directly but everything in that it’s David’s response to a divine corrective received a few years before. Beyond this, it’s also a summary of our lessons for today.

The abridged version of our reading from Luke is this: a good argument against the resurrection gets refuted by Jesus. Perhaps I should elaborate a bit more.

The context for this story from Luke is the Sadducees, who are among the politically powerful wealthy elite, and they operate the Temple, which gives them a powerful religious base of operations. As such they dominate religious and political life within the bounds allowed by the Roman empire. In this tenuous setting a lot of people – including the Sadducees – are likely concerned Jesus is threatening their livelihood; thus they are suspicious of much of what Jesus represents.

To be fair, the Sadducees have the misfortune of being made out to be bad guys over the millennia through interpretations of Scripture that tend to reveal more about our cultural and social biases than they do facts about the Sadducees. Thus I think we read more into their differences as presented in this Gospel than Jesus likely intends as he uses them simply as a foil to make a point – a point about how preoccupation with worldly – including religious – concerns can cause us to miss out on participation in the fullness of life that Jesus has to offer.

The Sadducees’ strict adherence to – or preoccupation with – the teachings of the first five books of the Bible, and their assertion that resurrection was not taught within these books is what makes them a perfect foil for Jesus. Literally speaking, the Sadducees are correct, resurrection is not compatible with “the law” [Torah] as they read it. But Jesus points out a flaw within their narrow view by citing God’s revelation of God’s self to Moses in the burning bush as an exception to their understanding. God says to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Not I was, not I will be, but I am. Present tense. Here God is asserting God’s presence among the Patriarchs still, centuries after their earthly death.

Jesus isn’t trying to make the Sadducees look bad here, that’s not the point; if it were we would all look really bad because we all have our issues that keep us more often preoccupied than participating.

The Sadducees are just doing what Rabbis do. They like to play stump the Rabbi, they pose a conundrum to see how the Rabbi will get out of it – to see if his answer stands up to scriptural scrutiny. And Jesus does not disappoint as he points beyond their narrow or preoccupied view to reveal what they are failing to participate in – another vision of life in the present and to come.

So what is the point? I think the point is to answer the two-part question posed by David, “[W]ho am I, and what is my people, …?” In the Old Testament reading, in the Epistle, and in the Gospel we find people who are so preoccupied with their worldly concerns, such as preserving the status quo, or ensuring their security – that they are missing out on the fullness of life that embraces the abundance presence of God in their midst. I am one of these people too because I am a human being and this is what my people are. When confronted with the anxious realities of life our survival instinct to preserve what we have kicks in.

Yet the question continues, “… that we should be able to make this freewill-offering?” There are two parts here: “we should be able” – but how? By invitation to participation – an invitation presented in all three readings today: an invitation by the prophet Haggai to participate in prosperity; an invitation by God to participate in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ; and an invitation by Jesus to participate in resurrected life.

This is all well and good, but how do we reconcile our anxious tendencies and such gracious invitations to participate in God’s abundance? The surprising answer is found in the final part of the question, “… make this freewill-offering.” As opposed to required offerings, which were periodic obligations mandated by “the law”, the freewill-offering is entirely voluntary and is the fruit of gratitude expressed in response to the recognition of the source of abundant blessings we enjoy as the people of God.

“For all things come from you [O Lord], and of your own have we given you.” This notion that God is the source of all that we have comes from the biblical understanding that everything we have is ultimately derived in some fashion from creation. In today’s lessons this is most strongly emphasized in Haggai where God asserts God’s sovereignty over all creation and wealth, and God’s intention to give prosperity.

The Epistle and the Gospel do not make specific claims about the source of all that we have or prosperity per se, but they and the Old Testament lesson are clear about the source of the promise of eternal life, and they call us to claim and practice participation in the promise precisely because this practice is challenging in the face of our preoccupying practicalities. Our acceptance of this challenge – this spiritual exercise – with “our possessions” will result in a stretching and growth of our spirit, and in this practice we will be lead to an increased awareness of God’s presence and abundance in our lives, where we will learn the answer to the question, “Who am I?”

[1] 1 Chronicles 29:14 – from David’s farewell prayer

Political Rally?

These days some of us may be more familiar with Halloween than All Saints’ Day. Given the pop status Halloween enjoys, we can be forgiven for thinking that Halloween is the thing. As a result I offer a little background to put Halloween into proper perspective.

The name Halloween is derived from the holiday’s origin name, which in archaic English is All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Hollows’ Day. In old English a “hallow” is a saint or holy person. However, with time “saint” came to replace “hallow” in most contexts, but not Halloween, which in popular imagination has taken on its own unique identity separate from All Saints’ Day. You can probably guess why Halloween has its own following. Let’s face it, All Saints’ Eve, which it really is, just doesn’t conjure up the “paganesque” imagery we often associate with Halloween. Nonetheless, Halloween – as the Eve before – exists to point the way to All Saints’ Day, as if to conjure up the hallowedness we might aspire to even as we are immersed in ribald revelry.

But how is it we end up celebrating All Saints’ Day two days after its appointed day of November 1st? Well, it’s one of the ways the Church accommodates those of us whose lives can’t make space for communal worship during the workweek.

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

At its core, All Saints’ Day is a day of thanksgiving 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 joined with the saints in the communal body of Jesus Christ our Lord. In this celebration we are filled with awe as we reflect upon the saints’ examples, and perhaps nevermore so than as we contemplate the contentious political environment that threatens our communal landscape these days.

I think this accommodating feast of All Saints’ and its lectionary can give us some perspective in how to face these days as a community, especially in light of the values espoused by Jesus in Luke’s riff on the beatitudes.

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 diverse multitude of extended community is full of curious onlookers and those seeking to be cured.

So while Jesus may be looking at his disciples as he preaches, he is very aware of this diverse and unhallowed multitude; he wants this community to hear his sermon as well. What’s more, he’s 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.

He says, happy are those who are poor, who are hungry, who weep, who are hated. Apparently suffering as the prophets and saints suffered for their faithfulness is how to claim the reward of heaven. Hmm … suffering; I’m thinking this is not the way to win over an unhallowed 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.

Perhaps we should accept it as an honest appraisal of the choice before us; a choice between communal happiness and constrained grief. If we are listening, and if we choose communal happiness, Jesus gives us a prescription for pursuing that 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 may become 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 communal wellbeing and it is what we need to remember these days and for the days to come because we won’t all be happy with how the political landscape turns out, but we can still do unto others as we would have them do to us.

It is because of this that Jesus is telling his disciples, and 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 disciples. We are the ones who are called to show the multitudes what the communal body of Christ and the kingdom of God look like. Heaven knows this will require the best efforts and prayers of All the Saints.

[1] Luke 6:17