Sermon

On Kings, Sheep, and the Reign of Christ

Scripture texts, RCL Year A, for Reign of Christ Sunday:

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Psalm 95:1-7a

Ephesians 1:15-23 Matthew 25:31-46

It was not uncommon in the ancient world for kings to be described metaphorically as shepherds. This metaphor carried the ideal of a king as protector of the week and the innocent. This was the fable of kingship. The king was to be in solidarity with those in need of justice and protection. The reality was quite different. Much of the proclamation of the prophets including Ezekiel was aimed at this discrepancy of how the kings and princes were expected to treat the vulnerable and the poor in Israel and what Israel’s kings and princes did.  Both in Israel and in the nations kings and princes were as likely as not to use their positions of power not to protect the vulnerable but to shore up their own power prestige. God expected the kings and princes of Israel to act according to the law and be just and not accumulate wealth and power to themselves. Thus, the judgment of Ezekiel upon the leaders of Israel. As Christians we read Ezekiel’s “servant David”, the shepherd to come, as Christ. Thus, Christ the King. Jesus Christ is the king who is the true shepherd who is in solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Jesus describes himself as a king concerned for how the poor and the vulnerable and the oppressed are treated. In Ephesians Jesus Christ is the cosmic ruler, Emperor, ruler of all, for the Church. Ephesians takes Ezekiel’s promise of God being the shepherd of God’s people and the Shepherd God’s people, God’s servant David, moves it beyond Israel into the whole cosmos. Christ isn’t just the shepherd of God’s people Israel, but is ruler over all nations, and peoples and over all cosmic powers of the Universe. God in Christ shepherds the entire universe.

But what does this mean for us? How we might live as members of Christ’s body the Church, with this knowledge?

In the parable of the last judgement, Jesus Christ the king, brings us to a point of self-examination. the heart and solidarity of the shepherd is revealed in this parable. It’s not enough to read this as a check list for righteousness: “Have I fed  the hungry?” Check. “Have I clothed the naked?” Check. “Have I cared for the sick.” Check. “Visited people in prison?”. Check. At the same time, we can’t ignore the call to right action. But we should be moved into action by knowing God’s heart, and living as Christ in the world. We miss the meaning of the parable if we see ourselves as isolated from Christ and a those with whom Christ identifies as king and judge of the nations.

Liberation theology encourages us to read this as a judgement not of individuals but of nations, Christ the King in the parable gather’s the nations and divides people from sheep and goats. This highlights for us that the parable is about groups, collectives and thus solidarity. On this interpretation, the parable has collective action not necessarily individual action as its focus. This parable isn’t just about individual charity, but justice: it’s about how we together, not just isolated individuals, treat the poor the oppressed the sick and the imprisoned.

The question isn’t simply what are you individually doing, or did you individually do all this but were you part of communities where the vulnerable the hungry the sick, those without shelter or clothing, the imprisoned were attended to, or were you part of communities that ignore the least of these. It also asks with whom are you identifying? Do we identify with the prisoners in our prison industrial complex the victims of what Michelle Alexander call “the New Jim Crow”? We the U.S. imprison more people per capita than just about any other nation in the world, we accepted tough on crime legislation and demanded more prisons be built, and reports from the conditions of those prisons is horrific and, our prisons are the place of perpetuating the racist white supremacist heritage of our country.

On to our self-examination:

In Jesus’ story of judgement, the heart and goodness of God is revealed: God in Jesus Christ, identifies themselves with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.  Christ the King identifies himself with those in U.S. Prisons, with those who are the streets experiencing homelessness, with those without food or the ability to care for themselves or provide for themselves. God knows are weaknesses, and while Jesus’ story is stark sheep and goats, Ezekiel and Ephesians are less stark, put more weight on God’s action then human action, and encourages us that we can grow into knowledge and action.  This is the heart and goodness of God: God in Christ identifies with the poor, vulnerable, oppressed, and forgotten.  God seeks us to even when we don’t have God’s heart and we are able to grow into identify as Christ Identifies. We don’t act alone but we enter God’s work of justice and care for the vulnerable.

So, examine and pray for wisdom, and growing in love.  Jesus Christ the good shepherd is seeking you out along with all the other lost and hurting humanity including the hungry the sick, the naked, the thirst, the imprisoned.

In our examination we ask do we separate ourselves from those we see as weak or in need or do we share the solidarity that Christ has with them? Before we ever step out to act on this parable of the judgment seat of Christ, we must ask do we share Christ’s solidarity with the vulnerable oppressed and marginalized, or do we seek to separate ourselves from vulnerable, oppressed, and poor humanity. Is your response to this story of judgment to help those unlike you, or are you driven to recognize your solidarity with those mentioned by Christ?

Our action can’t be from s place of doing for those who are less than us or other than us, but helping those who are our equals, because Christ says the least of these, those who are suffering, are Christ, are those with whom the King of the universe says these are mine, how you treat these human being is how you treat me. Do you want to know how to live out your faith and what faith means for the world, then Begin here, in solidarity. From this beginning, you will know what you are to do, and you will grow in knowledge and wisdom and love. Let Christ take you over, let the Spirit of Christ fill you, such that you can have solidarity with those the powerful will pass by and harm without a thought, or those our society and world use up for the sake of preserving wealth and status and power.

Reconciliation and “the disgrace of Egypt”

I recently preached a sermon where I wove together God’s assurance to the Israelites, as they entered Canaan, that the disgrace of Egypt* had been rolled away, with Paul’s reflection on not seeing anyone or anything from a human point of view, with the attitude and space of the father in Jesus’ parable of The Prodigal Son. In this weaving I sought to take into account Willie Jennings’s assertion in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, that the reading of the story Israel and appropriating of the story of Israel for White Christians is troubled and that we can too readily apply Israel’s story in a way that discounts and erases the story of biological and historical Israel. Yet, the sermon rushed too quickly to a conclusion and was in danger of mimicking the move of White Christianity’s  too easy taking into itself the story of Israel as its native story . This reflection is to reopen a space of contemplation and on going reflection on the themes of the sermon. I wrestled and wrestled with this reading, which is to read Joshua, Corinthians and a parable of Jesus in away that faces that White Christianity claimed for itself the identity of Israel but acted like Egypt and enforced upon Africans the condition of the Israelites in Egypt, as a race, just as Egypt enslaved the Hebrews as a people.  The weaving of these texts seeks to reflect the  trouble  of reading of all these scriptures in our context.

I begin with God’s word to Joshua “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” This word echos and haunts. I want to  hear these texts in ways that bear in mind white supremacy and the legacy of the enslavement of Africans. In so doing another echo was heard that of  Martin Luther King Jr.’s conclusion to his sermon preached the day before he was assassinated.” I’ve been to the mountaintop….and I’ve looked over and seen the Promised land…” White supremacy the enslavement of Africans, Jim Crow, segregation and the struggle for the civil rights of Black folks resonates with the Israelites entering the promised land, finally to be freed from the disgrace and burden of having been enslaved. Yet to hear this resonance and these echoes truly we must also see that we continue to face  today that Black people are still struggling to come out from the burden of having been an enslaved people. This fact is due to structures within this country. I wondered if King also had Joshua 5:9 in his thoughts when he spoke of going to the mountain and seeing into the promised land. I suspect it was. Black people are freed from slavery but not fully freed from the disgrace, the consequences of having been enslaved, due to the White system that itself refuses to confront the necessary continuing effects of having been a society and economy that enslaved Africans. The “disgrace of Egypt” is twofold for American Christianity: the fact of having been enslaved, for black people, and for White Christians it is the fact of having been those who enslaved black people. Christianity in the United States is both Israel and Egypt.

There is a fundamental division within American Christianity, it is analogous to  the division of Egypt from Israel.  There then is another echo and resonance, though fainter and less distinct.  Paul’s theology of reconciliation and his seeing that enmity between Israel and Gentiles and human enmity with God is resolved in Jesus Christ.  Yet, this Pauline assertion is distorted within White Christianity, as through White supremacy Christianity is now also a source of the enmity.  In appropriating to itself the story of Israel that justified its enslavement of Africans White Christianity became Egypt and is now in relation to Black people mimics the relation between Egypt and Israel. What possible hope is there to be found in this reading? To find the hopei this, we need to hear another promise to Israel : the Nations will one day come to Israel. These nations who will seek Israel out,  include Egypt. Israel will welcome into itself those who formerly had enslaved them.  The Hope then is that In Jesus Christ, this prophetic promise has happened and will happen for historical and biological Israel.**

Here we could rush too quickly to a solution, there is a dangerous moment for us in this hopeful interpretation. Wihtou nuance it will offer hope through reducing the promised land and the rolling away “disgrace of Egypt” to only be about us and our need to get past the continuing effects of slavery. This “hope” then becomes a means to escape our disgrace of the continuing effects of a White system that enslaved black people, rather than being set free through God and God’s work that began among Israel the people of God. This is a tight rope of these insights and application we must  walk. We must both see the meaning of the story for us today and retain its having happened for Israel brought to fulfilment in Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew. The story and the disgrace that was being rolled away is part of Israel’s story and history. The disgrace was rolled away. And neither black people nor white people are Israel, yet both black and white members of the church are joined to Israel through Christ (Willie Jennings).  The problem is that incredibly not only did white Christians appropriate to themselves the identity of Israel they did so in away that obliterated Israel, and then when enslaving Africans not only enslaved other human beings but enslaved and severely oppressed Black members of the body of Christ. In a very twisted turn. In the name of being Israel, Whites created enmity between themselves and all other peoples, while claiming to be proclaiming the Gospel of Reconciliation.

So we have a problem, we (especially White Christians, but White supremacy affects us all in our current system), we want to say , “See it’s all solved let’s just embrace in Christ and continue on.” However, This is to seek reconciliation through a forgetting. Yet in  Paul  speaking of the ministry of Reconciliation, there is a memory of the disgrace of Egypt that Israel suffered. Paul then insists that  Isaiah’s prophesying that the nations will come into Israel isn’t the outworking of human historical processes but is in the in-breaking of God in the Jew Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, our hope isn’t conceived of or seen from the point of view of the flesh (or human point of view NRSV, or Worldly point of view , NIV), but is found in Christ and Israel. Paul seems to indicate that Christians, members of Christ’s body can have this other than human viewpoint.  And we desperately need in our time to no longer see our world and our system with the eyes of the flesh. The opposite of the flesh in this passage in Corinthians  is being in Christ.

What then is it to be in Christ?

There are two things Paul in the Corinthians passage read on the 4th Sunday of Lent highlights ( I don’t believe these things exhaust the meaning or reality of being in Christ):

  1. New creation
  2. The ministry of Reconciliation, being Reconciled to God.

To see from this other than human point of view is to firmly stand in the place of Christ, which is from the point of view of the cosmos transformed and remade.  This space is one that is reconciling old and new, all which is at enmity (even for real and good reasons.) These two things lead nicely into the Parable Jesus tells that we commonly call the parable of the prodigal Son. I suggest that we see this as a parable about the father, and not about the sons. However, this isn’t God the father, rather what is pictured for us in the person of the father in the story is the space of new creation and reconciliation (which is then by extension a picture of God, but this would be of the Trinity and not just God the Father). The father is the world when we are within Christ, and the two sons are pictures of seeing the world and ourselves and others from the point of view of the flesh.

Here is where my sermon collapsed under the pressure of drawing things to a conclusion. This weaving of the texts and their possible meaning for our time and place, as I attempted to draw conclusions from these observations and connections, I continued to lose sight of biological and historical Israel.  In desiring to offer hope I falsely offered a confident step forward.  I’m not confident of the next step. I need to sit in contemplation of the father as image of the promised land and being in Christ, before I can say what that might mean for us now as we continue to wrestle with continuing reality of white supremacy and the outworking of enslavement of Africans by Europeans. I tried to draw this all to a conclusion and how these insights could lead us to a reconciliation that was truly liberative. I attempted to draw some parallels between the two brothers and our human approaches to reconciliation or rectifying enmity between people or between ourselves and others. There perhaps isn’t a one to one correspondence.  I attempted to give an answer I wasn’t ready to give and can’t give.

What I did say and will say now, but without attempting to draw a conclusion of its meaning for us, is that the two brothers do illuminate two ways seeing according the flesh can manifest, shame and self-condemnation, and condemnation of others. Both brothers fail to fully enter into the place of new creation and reconciliation. One stands outside the promised land the other within the promised land still remains self-condemning all the while living in the space of reconciliation but having yet to take it into themselves.

This weaving of these texts above and in the sermon are potentially fruitful but I leave them here to ponder and contemplate. But also, I perhaps alone preaching to a small group of people can’t draw a conclusion, what we do with this reading of these texts needs a broader audience and larger discussion.

Maybe it can begin here.

These are the Scripture texts that are being interpreted in the above essay: 

 

 

 

 

*not to be understood as the modern nation state of Egypt nor its Arab or Copt populations

** For a full account of the necessity of maintaining constantly this double vision of both application of the stories and scriptures of the Hebrew people as both applying to us but only through Jesus of Nazareth (a Jew) and keeping in view both the continuity with the Jewish people and with the Church made up of both Jews and the gentiles as grafted in to the people of God, Israel, C.f Willie Jennings The Christian Imagination: Theology and the origin of race.  This reflection is deeply indebted to the sustained argument in The Christian Imagination.

-Special thanks to Jeremy John for editorial work done on this post

Words of Comfort and Call to Repentance #StayWokeAdvent

There was no manuscript for my sermon at the Oratory on Sunday December 7th, what follows is my own continuing reflection on a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent. Edited 12/15/2014 for clarity and grammar

Scriptures for the Second Sunday of Advent were Isaiah, 2 Peter and the Gospel of Mark.  These Scriptures include words of comfort (from Isaiah) a call to wait patiently for the end(2 Peter), and a call to repentance (Mark).

What I asked us to sit with and I am still sitting with is hearing words of comfort together with call repentance in light of the anguish that so many feel and have long felt.

We though can rush too quickly to take on or apply these Scriptures to our context.  There are resonances surely but not necessarily an easy fit.

The call to comfort “my people” may easily resonate with the continued suffering of the African-American community as it continues to suffer under a racist system.  Yet the words of comfort spoken in Isaiah are to an oppressed people in exile but whom according to the prophets went into exile for their failure to act justly and to remember they were once an oppressed people freed by the act of God.  The people addressed aren’t just human beings in general or the oppressed in general but a particular people, who have been oppressed and then who oppressed their own, and who are now again a subjugated and exiled and oppressed people.

It was to those who returned from exile yet still waiting complete deliverance, once again under subjection and oppression, this time of Rome, These are those addressed by John the Forerunner’s ministry and baptism to repentance.  John the Baptist called the  people of God to repentance.

If we are to hear these Scriptures, in concert with what is revealed in our streets and is coming more and more to light in our institutions particularly the police, we must first hear the Scriptures as addressed to others, the people of God, Israel, the Hebrews, Jews.  I would say this is especially true for White Christians in the United States.

We as White Christians need to regain a sense of being grafted into the people of God.  We are those who weren’t a people and now are a people.  Then we can perhaps begin to repent of our sense of privilege and responsibility.

I’ve recently been reading from a variety of sources how often well meaning Whites seeking to be in solidarity with Blacks, will join a protest and then take the initiative or stick with only other Whites at the protest.  Or how the chant #Blacklivesmatter is changed to #alllivesmatter.  Also,  how attempts at acknowledging privilege (such as the problematic  #crimingwhilewhite) turns attention from the lives of Blacks and people of color to whites and our guilt and shame over our privilege.  These aren’t examples of repentance, but as often as not re-inscribe White dominance and privilege.

When there are studies that show that even whites who don’t express or show any overt racism or even racist attitudes still in simulation will give the benefit of the doubt to armed White men and will shoot people of color who are suspected of holding a weapon, we have some fairly deep and unconscious shit to turn from.  We need a change of mind and being.

Such a transformation for Whites may require  stepping back: letting others take the lead, being less concerned about ones identity as White or even to give up one’s need to speak.  What I hear from Black voices and people of color is that we as Whites need to listen and amplify their voices, not to speak ourselves.  Repentance for White Christians in America may be to turn away from all ways of self-preservation, including attempting to assuage guilt by seeking fix the problems.

Then if there is deep repentance and transformation by White Christians in that we begin to be able to see Blacks and people of color as truly human (thus #blacklivesmater) and as truly members of the Body of Christ.

We want to to do something so this will be difficult.  Yet, here, if we can here Peter’s words, there is an openness to God’s refining fire in us and the world.  At this moment there is opportunity in the turmoil and the protests to let the fire burn and refine.  We can allow this apocalypse ( unveiling) to push us to live according to truth and justice, that will hasten the day when God’s righteousness and justice will be all that we know.

Then in this is also our comfort both for we who wracked by guilt and shame for our being caught up and blinded by our privilege and dominance, but especially for those who suffer and are oppressed by the racist structures and actions of the police.

Words of comfort and call to repentance go hand in hand for the people of God. Sometimes as in our case some of the people of God need to repent for participating in the cause of oppression, so that those who are oppressed may find comfort.

This all begins by hearing “my people” as a people to whom we are foreigners, and to whom have been welcomed into by God in Jesus Christ.

White European Christians the Scriptures and the faith aren’t yours.  In fact we may have betrayed the very faith we think we can defend and spread.  Repent, and be comforted.

“Comfort O Comfort my people, God has come and is coming.  If justice seems slow in coming, it is because of God’s patience with all of humanity.  The place where God’s justice and righteousness shows forth fully is what God desires for all.  Let that knowledge change you. Seek that vision of the world and each other.

Comfort and change of mind and being go hand in hand.  Let your story dissolve into the story of a people of God journeying towards and awaiting the coming of God’s justice and righteousness that we don’t and can’t have or control. Give into the consuming and refining fire. Be comforted and repent.

Enter the Mystery: A Maundy Thursday Sermon

Sermon Preached at Joint Service with Immanuel Lutheran Church and St Elias Christians Church

Over the next three days we are in the midst of the great Mysteries of our faith. Mystery not in the sense of something to find out like a detective using deductive logic, Nor even mystery as something that can’t be understood intellectually, but mystery in the sense of something mystical, something that needs our contemplation, something that in our contemplation of it transforms us and the world. Or in other words we here in this three day liturgy come face to face with our salvation. We should be prepared to not be the same, we should prepare to die and rise again, to new life.
What are these mysteries?

Tonight we recall the mystery of the Eucharist. On the night before he was betrayed, Jesus takes the Passover meal and transforms it. We celebrate the Passover, and like the Hebrews, being freed from Egypt we eat the lamb and in bread and wine. We also recall the mystery of transformation, as we pass through darkness; we come to touch something of how the disciples were thrown into confusion on that night. God offer’s himself in Jesus Christ to us and the world by becoming human and ultimately undergoing suffering and death on the Cross; we who are Christ’s have the heavenly food that is Christ himself, we are never far from that night, the joy, the confusion and the life of Christ. Freedom is scary. Freedom can mean dying to a way of life that is familiar and safe.
Thus, we will sit and contemplate the mystery of the cross and the suffering of Christ, the passion. In this we are not only there with the woman and apostle at the Cross distraught and Christ death, but we celebrate that through the Cross and Christ’s suffering God enters into and transforms suffering. Because of this mystery we freed from Sin and Death. Here there is a bit of a puzzle, we face something odd, for it is not only that there was a dark time, but God overcame it, Rather God in Jesus Christ enters death, actually dies. And not only dies, but dies as a criminal, a criminal, a terrorist, King of the Jews, that is someone who threatened the imperial rule over Palestine. God in Jesus Christ becomes the outcast. On the Cross God in Jesus Christ takes upon himself all the oppression, the suffering, injustice and sin of the World. But even as we contemplate this mystery we are not left with death, for The Cross has meaning only if Jesus was raised from the dead. One man 2000 years ago in a backwater of the Roman Empire being crucified, makes no difference; many other Jews of Jesus’ age were so crucified. The cross becomes meaning full in that God acted; God chose the weak and despised things of this world as the means of our transformation and salvation. The Resurrection oddly enough tells us that God in Jesus Christ actually suffered, and retains the marks of his suffering. God doesn’t come ultimately with Shock and Awe (as he did in Egypt) bringing death, but undergoes death to free from death. And so an implement of execution and torture becomes an object of beauty and contemplation, and we honor the Cross, we bow to what God has done in that one moment, for in the Cross there is life already even in death.
And then we come to our Passover in the Easter vigil, as we and Christ Passover from death to life, to True life, Resurrected life. Yet in Resurrection we never leave the Cross or the works of God throughout history that Jesus fulfilled on the Cross. The Resurrection only has meaning in the cross and death of Jesus. The resurrection shows us that the way of the cross is the path to transformation, the dying does lead to life, that God can transform our suffering. God has indeed begun the transformation of the world. In the Easter Vigil we know that though it may often look like evil and death and injustice still reign, God is transforming the whole cosmos, and we who have come to believe in the Cross and Christ Jesus Raised from the dead participate in that transformation. In our contemplation of Christ passing from death into life, we find our own path as we die to ourselves and take up our cross that we may continually find Resurrection. There is then a responsibility in all this contemplation, for we become the locus of God’s saving transforming work in this world. We are the ones who know the mystery and have experienced it and we are to be open to God’s ongoing transforming work in the world. The world should be different because we who contemplate and celebrate these mysteries also live out these mysteries in the world in our daily lives by the power of the Spirit. We who have gone through the waters of baptism and died and been raised to life in the waters of Baptism, are to live into this new life, growing ever more into the age that is to come.
Yet this too is a mystery for we don’t always live this way, we still struggle with these mysteries, we still need to come back to this moment when God beat down death and injustice by suffering injustice and death.
Ultimately this mystery is one of Love, a costly love, a love we are called to participate in a love we are to share with each other and the world. This Love is shown in service, in washing of the feet. Washing the feet is a symbol of this way of the cross and of practicing resurrection. In this act of having our feet washed and washing each other’s feet we come to know in our bodies the love of God, for ourselves and for all. We symbolically show God’s love to each other in an act that isn’t comfortable, and which is awkward. Peter found it uncomfortable and awkward. We do this that we may learn what it means to be like Christ in the world. In foot washing we enter into the mystery of the Three Days, so that we may carry this mystery with us into the world in service to Christ and the world. We let our feet be washed and wash other’s feet, so that we may remember in our bodies the Love of God and the way of the Cross. The servant is not greater than the master; we take up towel with Christ, and walk to Calvary and are raised again to new life. So, come and symbolically enter into the way of God’s transformation, and learn to be a servant like Christ in your body. Come and feel the love of God in your body.