The Words on Jesus’ Lips

Sermon for Sunday, November 20, 2016 || Christ the King C || Luke 23:33-46

I was at the Annual Convention for the Episcopal Church in CT this Sunday, so a pair of dedicated parishioners delivered these words for me. Thanks, John and Craig.

Today, on this final Sunday of the church’s year, we celebrate the “kingship” of Christ or (put another way) the “reign of Christ.” The eternal “reign of Christ” stretches out from Christ the King and supplants the lesser things that attempt to reign in this world and in our lives. When we turn our attention away from these lesser (yet louder) things – power, money, fame, and the like – we can see and participate in the greater (yet quieter) reality of Christ’s reign.

The territory over which Christ reigns encompasses the whole of Creation, and yet we tend to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule because it seems like the normal and acceptable thing to do. But there’s the rub: Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing, so, of course, his reign subverts the expectations of the world. Continue reading “The Words on Jesus’ Lips”

Listen for Truth

Sermon for Sunday, November 22, 2015 || Christ the King Year B || John 18:33-37

listenfortruthI find it ironic that the framers of our lectionary chose the Gospel lesson I just read as the one for today. Today is the feast we call “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ.” And yet, for the entire length of his conversation with Pontius Pilate, Jesus specifically dodges Pilate’s questions about his kingship. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? “So you are a king?” You say I am a king. But if Jesus is king of anything, if Jesus claims to reign over anything in this passage, his kingdom would not include land or crops or livestock or resources. His reign would be over “the truth.” For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

A truth kingdom. I like the sound of that. Would that we lived in one of those. But for anyone who’s ever heard a joke about politicians, you know the punch line always involves untruthfulness of some sort. We might give them the benefit of the doubt and say they don’t out and out lie most of the time, but they are masters of prevarication, obfuscation, and equivocation, that’s for sure. We’re used to this behavior from our political leaders; so used to it, in fact, that when a politician stumbles into a genuine moment, we’re amazed and we start asking if it were staged.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus seems to be engaging in just such an impressive display of political obfuscation. Perhaps he’s trying to meet Pilate where Pilate is. Perhaps Jesus is using Pilate’s own tactics to get through to him. Or perhaps Jesus is simply telling the truth, but we’re so used to prevarication that even the truth sounds false. If that’s the case, I’d like to try something this morning. I’d like to try to rehabilitate the truth simply by speaking Jesus’ truth to you. Truth has a special ring to it, and I hope you hear its crystal clarity this morning. There will be no prevarication or obfuscation. But there will be mystery; after all, the truth is too big for us to understand completely. Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So close your eyes now and listen for Jesus’ invitation to you to enter his kingdom. Listen for Jesus’ truth.

Are you hungry for more? Not for more stuff, more possessions, more things to clutter your house. Not for prosperity at the sake of others’ poverty. Not for more empty calories, the white starch of idolatry and self-deceit. There are so many idols out there scheming to fill you up, but you’ll only be left craving. There’s so much fear to gorge on, but fear will just leave you hollow. Are you hungry for more? For more meaning? For deeper connection? For sustenance that truly sustains? Then listen to Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

But I still have dry times, Lord. I believe, but I still feel empty more often than I’d like. How can I trust your words when I feel like this?

I know how you feel, says Jesus. I felt desolate in the garden of Gethsemane. I felt abandoned on the cross. I know it can be so hard to hear my invitation when you feel lost in the desert. But I’ve been lost there, too. I’m lost there with you right now, so that you may be found. Listen again to my invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

The desert I can handle, Lord. At least it’s bright there. But sometimes I look out at the world and all I see is darkness. There’s so much darkness, and I’m afraid there’s a shadow growing over my soul, too.

One time, says Jesus, I was looking out over the city of Jerusalem, and the tears just started flowing. Another time, my beloved friend died, and all I could do was weep. I know what it means to be a light shining in the darkness: a flickering flame that might snuff out at any moment. But have you ever seen a ray of darkness? There’s no such thing. Have you ever seen the darkness of a hallway flood into a bright room when the door opens? No. The light wins every time. The light will always win. As for the shadow growing over your soul, make sure it listens to my words: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

The light of life, Lord? How could I ever be worthy of such a prize? I spend too much time in darkness to deserve the light of life.

Nonsense, says Jesus. Do you think anyone has ever been worthy of the gifts God gives them? Do you remember that story I told about the son who takes his inheritance and squanders it? He came home penniless and ashamed, and what did his father do? His father ran out to him! His father could not wait another second to rekindle their relationship even though the son didn’t deserve it. Don’t be paralyzed by unworthiness. My love makes you worthy of my love. So listen to my truth, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

But it can’t be all about me, Lord, can it? You helped so many people in your life, but up to now I’ve just been concerned with myself? There’s got to be more.

Oh, there is more, says Jesus. So much more. When you realize I am with you, you’ll also realize I’m with everyone else. And with that realization will come the desire to serve others as you serve me, especially those who are poor and lost, those who are my special project. You’ll find joy in feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. You’ll find joy in welcoming the stranger. You’ll find joy in clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned. Do you want to know the truth? Listen to this: “Just as you [served] one of the least of these who are members of my family, you [served] me” (Matthew 25:40).

Okay, Lord, so I live my life serving others, being a light in the darkness, and finding refreshment in your arms. But I’m still going to die someday. And I’m afraid.

I understand, says Jesus. I was, too. I even prayed to be spared, to let the cup pass from me. I can’t promise you a life free of pain. I can’t promise you a death free of pain, either. But I can promise to be with you in the pain of life and death. If you love others as I love you, then pain is inevitable. But so is joy. In the end, there is nothing but love and joy. Or should I say the new beginning? Listen to my truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

Yes, Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.

A truer prayer has never been uttered, says Jesus. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So listen for my word in your life. Listen for my truth. Live my truth: For “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

Three Words

 (Sermon for Sunday, November 24, 2013 || Christ the King Year C || Luke 23:33-46)

Today, on this final Sunday of the church’s year, we celebrate the “kingship” of Christ or (put another way) the “reign of Christ.” I prefer this second word because “kingship” conjures up for me images of thrones and jousting and ladies bestowing tokens on knights who catch their eye. Possibly, I’ve read too many novels in the “historical fantasy” genre. But more than that, the word “reign” just feels broader and more energetic. The eternal “reign of Christ” stretches out from Christ the King and supplants the lesser things that attempt to reign in this world and in our lives. When we turn our attention away from these lesser (yet louder) things – power, money, fame, and the like – we can see and participate in the greater (yet quieter) reality of Christ’s reign.

The territory over which Christ reigns encompasses the whole of Creation, and yet we tend to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule because it seems like the normal and acceptable thing to do. But there’s the rub: Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing, so, of course, his reign subverts the expectations of the world.

Speaking of expectations – show of hands – how many of you expected to hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion when you came to church this morning? Yeah, I didn’t think so. A little jarring, wasn’t it? We’re about as far from Good Friday as we can get on the calendar, and yet we read this story today. So my question is: why?

RubensCrucifixion Well, the easy answer is that the reading speaks of Jesus being a king and today is Christ the King Sunday. But this sermon has about seven minutes left in it, so I should probably say more than that, right?

While reading this story may seem strange, no other passage of the Gospel sheds more light on Christ’s reign than this one which recounts his torturous crucifixion. On the cross, Jesus was expected to succumb to the agony of the nails driven through his wrists and feet. He was expected to be ashamed of his nakedness. He was expected to cry out for pity’s sake and beg for mercy even as his breath came short and ragged because of the slow asphyxiation the cross delivers.

The normal and acceptable thing to do on the cross was to whimper your way to your last pitiful breath, all for the pleasure of Rome. But remember, Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing.

He was expected to show agony and shame and to cry out for mercy to an empire that never showed any. But instead, in the midst of his torture, he spoke three kind, generous words, words that echo through history and come to us and show us what Christ’s reign is really about. The cross magnifies the power of these three words because they stand in stark contrast to what the cross represents. The cross represents domination, separation, and fear. And yet, while nailed to its wood, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness, relationship, and trust. When we live into the reality dreamt by these three words, we cede our personal territory back to the reign of Christ and the lesser things slink off in defeat.

First, forgiveness. The sound of the hammer’s echo is still reverberating when Jesus speaks his first word. He looks down from the cross, sees his captors gambling for his clothing, grubbing over bloody scraps of cloth, and he says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgive them: my betrayers, my torturers, my murderers. Forgive them. I have trouble forgiving the guy who cuts me off in traffic, and here’s Jesus choosing to use his last breaths to forgive those who numbered those breaths. What does he know that we forget all the time? What about forgiveness places it squarely in the center of Christ’s reign?

Jesus knows that forgiveness is a much larger concept than mere pardoning of misdeeds. Forgiveness is both an action and a state of being. When we forgive, we choose not to let anger, isolation, and vengeance reign in our lives. Forgiveness allows us to let go of these lesser things that, in the long run, can damage us irreparably. Writer Anne Lamott puts it this way: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Forgiveness releases us from the damaging power of brooding malice, of getting even. In their place, we find Christ’s reign, and with it the healing of brokenness and the bestowing of generosity of spirit.

Second, relationship. The sound of the thief’s request hangs hopeful in the air. And Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” You will be with me. I can’t think of a more wonderful promise for Jesus to make. With these words, he reminds us that the cross, which dominates the scene, is just a passing thing. The separation it stands for is one of those lesser things that tries to rule, but which will ultimately fail.

Death seems so final, the pinnacle of separation, but in Christ’s reign, death is just another passing thing. In his resurrection, Jesus demonstrates the utter lengths he goes to be with us forever. He proclaims this promise to the thief on the cross and he fulfills this promise in our lives when he claims our personal territory as part of his reign. The thief himself speaks of his just condemnation as a criminal, and yet Jesus doesn’t see this as a barrier to relationship. Rather, Jesus sees the thief’s sin as a reason for relationship. In the reign of Christ, our sin separates us from God; but, in a mysterious cosmic paradox, our sin does not separate God from us. We may cede our personal territory to such a lesser thing as sin, but the territory, in the end, belongs to Christ. He’s not going to let passing things like sin and death defeat his presence and relationship in our lives.

Third, trust. With his last breath, Jesus cries out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Another translation says, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life.” With these words, Jesus once and for all destroyed the power of the cross, which is a symbol for the power of fear. The Romans used this torture device precisely because it struck fear into the hearts of those living under Roman rule. But Jesus knows that trust is the antidote for fear.

The reign of Christ is a place where fear finds no foothold. Fear reduces us to selfish hoarders, whose lives are scarred always by the thought of “never enough.” But trust expands us, makes us generous givers, and vaults us into the reign of Christ, where the “never” of “never enough” falls away. When we trust God, we let go of the fear that grips us. Indeed, the act of simply attempting to trust God is in itself an act of trust. So even when we are bad at trusting, each attempt is a little skirmish that God wins over fear. Trust allows us to see past the deserted island of fear and view the ocean of God’s presence surrounding it. When we step off the island and into the water, we find ourselves floating in God and trusting God to keep us from sinking.

Forgiveness. Relationship. Trust. These are the words on the lips of Jesus as he hangs on the cross. Forgiveness. Relationship. Trust. These are the ways Jesus invites us to participate in his reign. We might be tempted to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule us. But in the end that secession is a mere illusion because our personal territory has never been ours to cede. We belong to Christ. We live in his reign. By the standards of the world, Christ’s reign is neither normal nor acceptable. But Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing. And nor should we.

Shaking Off the Dust

(Sermon for Sunday, November 21, 2010 || Christ the King, Year C, RCL || Colossians 1:11-20)

Ever since I bought my piano a little over two years ago, a stack of music has sat atop the instrument gathering dust. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy – the keyboard works of these great composers continues to fulfill the lackluster role of impromptu lamp stand. To make matters more pathetic for this stack of music, the lamp, which I purchased at the same time as the piano, was bulbless until a few weeks ago when I finally remembered to pick up a bulb at the grocery store.

You might wonder why I bought a piano at all, if I never get around to tickling the ivories. Good question. At the time, I had grand designs, which have since descended through the realm of simple designs and the land of hope and settled comfortably in the valley of pipe dreams. Perhaps, my future children will learn the instrument one day and redeem their father’s purchase. Recently, my fiancé has sat down and played for a few minutes here and there. But mostly, the piano simply takes up space. And the stack of music atop the instrument gathers dust.

But this stack of music gathering dust isn’t really music at all. The books of Beethoven’s sonatas and Chopin’s waltzes and Debussy’s preludes are simply bound pages adorned with groups of five lines and thousands upon thousands of cryptic markings. We might call these pages by the name of “sheet music,” but the “music” exists wholly apart from these “sheets.” Only when a person, who is trained to decipher and articulate the cryptic markings, sits down with the intention of translating the notes into sounds does the music ever have a chance of happening.

Our lives follow this same pattern. We have the capacity to make beautiful music with our lives, but mostly we keep our lids closed, content to exist as furniture taking up space. Mostly we keep our covers closed, content to sit in a stack of unread books. Mostly we sit around gathering dust.

Of course, this manner of existence is not the life that God yearns for us. Today, on the final Sunday of the church year, we celebrate the reign of Christ. We give thanks for the reality that Christ is our sovereign, our ultimate authority. And in our celebration and thanksgiving, we acknowledge that Christ does not reign over a world full of inanimate furniture and closed books. Rather, Christ reigns precisely to pull and push and prod us out of the state of dust gathering.

To start shaking off the dust, we must first examine just what we mean when we claim that Christ reigns. As the One who reigns over us, Christ is our ultimate authority, but we encounter trouble when we link Christ’s authority to the paltry earthly authority we encounter on a daily basis. Certain people have authority over us based on their roles. Teachers and principals have authority over students. State troopers have authority over motorists. Judges have authority over those indicted of crimes. This earthly authority has its roots in a punitive system, where citizens cede a portion of their personal sovereignty to certain offices in order to make the society function more smoothly. People recognize that if they break the rules of the society, the Authorities have the right and the ability to punish.

Detail from "Descent into Rivendell" (2003) by John Howe, who is the best Tolkien illustrator of all time.

We may use the same word, but Christ’s authority is of a wholly different sort than the kind we encounter in our principals, state troopers, and judges. Far from being simply punitive in nature and bound by office or title, Christ’s authority arises from Christ being the author, the writer of the great script of creation. Think of it like this: before J.R.R. Tolkien put pen to paper, Middle-Earth had no ability to capture the imagination of readers. But over forty years, Tolkien authored story after story, character after character, slowly building a world of dark forests and misty mountains inhabited by elves and hobbits and wizards. Tolkien is the authority behind Middle-Earth because he authored the fantasy world into existence in the minds of his readers.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul speaks of Christ’s authorship in similar terms: “In [Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

As the author of all things, Christ has reigned since before the first things were created. And the script of creation continues because Christ has never stopped writing. And now Christ has authored our lives into being. We are small stories that help make up the great script. At the end of the Gospel according to John, the narrator concludes: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). What the narrator doesn’t say is that all the other things Jesus did have been written down. Christ, the author of each of us, wrote those things down in us. We are the books that the world itself cannot contain.

The problem is that too often we are the books sitting atop the piano gathering dust. Too often, we fail to remember that we are not our own authors. Too often, we fail to acknowledge that we are not in charge of our own lives. Today, we proclaim that Christ reigns in each of us. Christ is in charge of our lives because Christ continues to author us into being. The author has written the words of life within us, the special words unique to each of us. When we begin to seek for those special words, when we look inside ourselves and begin to read the story of how Christ reigns in our lives, we start to shake off the dust.

Like the sheet music, we are just closed books until we begin to participate in the telling of our own stories. As the author of each of those stories, Christ has penned a work about himself, a work which we proclaim in the living out of our stories. We could choose to stay atop the piano gathering dust, but what kind of forlorn existence does this entail? How could we read the words of Christ in the lives of those around us if we remained dusty, closed books? There is far too much love and grace in the pages of our lives for us to waste them by staying closed. There is far too much that Christ is doing for us not to participate in Christ’s reign. There is far too much beauty to bring to the world for us not to let the author spill the words of life from our stories into creation.

And so, as one book trying to shake off the dust, I ask you: how does Christ reign in you? What words has the Author of each of us written in your hearts? Or, to use the words that close Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day”:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”