November 25, 2018
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Well, we can check another liturgical year off the calendar. Today is is the last Sunday in the year, the liturgical year – the timeframe that marks the seasons of the church as the calendar year marks the seasons of creation. And like the calendar year, the liturgical year features distinct seasons that mark the emphasis of our lives. Planting, sowing, growing, reaping, resting. The liturgical year starts in Advent when we wait. In ordinary time after Epiphany, we watch. In Lent, Jesus is fully human. In Eastertide, fully divine. And in Pentecost, after Jesus has ascended back to God’s arms, we are sent out to plant the Gospel in the long stretch of ordinary time after Pentecost….which ends today.
This Sunday sits on the precipice between all that we have experienced and become over this past year, and all that we might live into when we begin anew next Sunday. It’s a good time to take stock of who we are. It’s a good time to think deeply about our identity, as Christians in an increasingly secular world. It is a time to assess who we are and to dream about where God might be calling us from here. It is a time of both thanksgiving and hopefulness.
Next Sunday, the start of Advent, we begin the journey again. So today is sort of our Christian New Year’s Eve.
The liturgical term for this last Sunday in the church year is Christ the King Sunday, or the Reign of Christ Sunday. In his 1925 encyclical, Pope Pius instituted this Feast Day, registering his opposition to the secularism that was challenging the authority of Christ even among Christians, even among Roman Catholics. And so this day is meant to be a reminder, in an increasingly secular world, using exceptionally secular language, that Christ reigns….still….as always. That Christ is, as we say in the vernacular of our political realm, the King.
In our liturgy guide, the Eucharist begins with a statement about God’s Kingdom. Blessed be God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. And blessed be God’s Kingdom now and forever, amen. But last year at about this time, we in this community amended that language and changed the word Kingdom to Kin-dom. Because, we thought, the connotations of king and kingdom may not authentically express our understanding of God’s realm or God’s intentions for God’s realm. Because the language of king and kingdom seems to almost contradict the language of the divine. The language that honors the sacred in all of God’s creations. King and Kingdom denote genres of absolute authority that seem most appropriate to humanly constructed realms, not heavenly realms. A kingdom is a realm of this earth that requires allegiance to….well, a king. And as the Hebrew Scriptures tell us over and over and over again, kings are not even close to God.
In fact, God spends several chapters in the first book of Samuel trying to dissuade the Israelites from pursuing a king altogether. For kings, says God, even good kings tend to be greedy and selfish and power hungry -and in the end, a king will take, take, take whatever a king can get. Only God is universally gracious. Only God is unselfishly generous. Only God is everlastingly just and righteous. Even a good king, says God, even a king who is chosen especially by God, a king like David, even he is flawed and fractured and still only human.
But the last three or four chapters from 2 Samuel, from which we heard this morning, mark a subtle turn in the theology of this biblical book; a turn from the notion that the king is all-powerful, a shift from a sort of “royal absolutism” to the realization that there is an authority beyond even the king’s. An authority that surpasses the King’s. Which is why king and God are fundamentally incompatible terms. Incompatible identities.
Which explains Jesus’ answer to Pilate in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. Pilate summons Jesus and asks: Are you the King of the Jews? And Jesus replies: It’s you who say I am. Jesus himself rejects the title of king, the royal title offered by the Romans. King isyourtitle, not mine says Jesus to Pilate. Although, Jesus does not say no, I am not a king. What he says is, in my hearing of his answer, if I am the king,I am not the kind of king you say I am. If I am the king, we are going to need to redefine the word king.
And yet here we are, along with every other Anglican and Protestant and Roman Catholic and Orthodox church in the world celebrating Christ with a title that, as it is defined by our culture, Jesus himself denied. And even though Jesus dodges the question by insisting that those are Pilate’s words and that his kingdom is not of this world, the image of Jesus as King is ubiquitous in our prayers, in our hymns, in our Christian cultural norm. We refer to Christ in the language of kingship, of his reign, of his victory of his royalty in every aspect of our Christian worship. And so for almost a century, Christians have reaffirmed and celebrated the universal “kingship” of Christ on this last Sunday in the liturgical year. Kingis the image, the identity, that we have chosen to sum up our God.
But I think this description of Jesus, as triumphalist King, may well be among the most discouraging images of Christianity in our contemporary world. The identity of Christ as a King seems a poor response to the spiritual hunger that runs deep in our post-Christian culture. The depleted spirits of our time and place are not seeking a ruler of the universe, they are yearning for a personal connection with the Source of love, the Source of compassion, the Source of mercy, the Source of peace.
And, it has always felt odd to me that we Christians rebel against secularism by assigning a totally secular, almost anti-spiritual, title to our Savior. Why are we using old images of earthly power and might to talk about the new grace that God is doing in and through Christ?….a thing grounded in humility and gratitude and kindness and caring. A thing not at all akin to a king.
The Incarnation calls us to this different paradigm of power. Not ruling power. Healing power. Reconciling power. A whole new way of being strong and resilient and transformative in the world. A way of life that denies both the hierarchies of this world that oppress and diminish us all, and the death that dooms us to the limits of this earthly life. A way of life that turns the structures of authority and legitimacy in this world on their heads! That turns power into love and love into power. A way of life that reorders the patriarchal-sounding “Kingdom of God” into the relational “Kin-dom of God.” A realm that honors and lifts the kinship of all of God’s creation, here and now. That makes every creature of God kin to every other.
Christ is not a new king to rule over the old world. Christ is a wholly new creation that comes to reorder and revision the old world into God’s new Kin-dom. To transformthe Kingdom. And we are not just talking about objectives, we are talking about identity. And identity matters. It is the starting point from which everything else flows. From which every relationship is built. From which every heart and hope is understood. Identity is at the core.
Last Tuesday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance and Celebration, an annual observance that was begun 20 years ago when the life of a beautiful, vibrant, transgender woman, Rita Hester, was taken on November 28, 1998 in the name of horrific ignorance and unbridled hate. The now annual remembrance celebrates those among us who are gender variant on a spectrum that seats most of us somewhere between the binary absolutes. It particularly remembers the many who have suffered for their non-conforming gender identities. It particularly celebrates and honors those folks whose inward existential and ontological core may not match the expected outward appearance. It celebrates those who may not seem to be who they truly are.
That should sound more than familiar to Christians. Because it could just as well be a remembrance and celebration of the Incarnation; a child of God who himself transgressed all of the boundaries of identity; Jesus was fully human andfully divine. A new creation. A child of God whose core identity crossed the boundaries of all understanding. Whose inward identity was never fully revealed in his outward appearance. And when he suggested that he was born with this special identity, this full divinity, he was either mistrusted by his community or rejected and reviled by the authorities and the establishment. Jesus was feared for his status-quo-busting identity as I suspect many trans folks are feared for theirs. I am guessing that our non-binary earthmates can sooooo relate to the way Jesus must have felt carrying his fully divine identity within his fully human body.
Because Jesus was a fully new creation. And the complexity and diversity and beauty of that and every creation of God is missed when ever we attempt to define the image of the divine within the limits of our humanly constructed language OR our humancapacity for love. Whenever we allow earth to define heaven, we are in big trouble.
That mystery is better left in God’s hands. Ourwork is to cross the borders and boundaries that we have culturally constructed, and which serve only to keep us from loving each other as we have been loved by God….those borders and boundaries that hold our allegiance to the kingdom and the king…..rather than the creation and its Creator.
Which is why we need a New Creation every year about this time. Another opportunity to start fresh; to reimagine our identity as Christians. Again, we get to cleanse our palates of our arrogance and our judgment of each other and our hatred and our impatience and our fear and give thanks for the breath of this life, and the companionship of our communities, and the love of a good and abiding God who will come to us in the flesh, again. Who will come to share our joy and our sorrow with a full-throated call for us to follow nothing more than faithfully!
Every Advent offers us a fresh opportunity to flesh out our identity as Christians.
Who are we? What do we value? What is at stake? And what are we willing to give up in God’s name? I think it is not too dramatic to say that in this post-Christian day and age the very life of the church hangs in the balance. This church and every mainline church.
It is no secret that, in general, mainline Protestant churches are in decline. The paradigm that has served the church well for the last 100 years, is no longer sustaining itself as it once had. Our world is becoming increasingly secular and the social benefits that once came along with church membership in the 1950’s and 60’s and 70’s and 80’s even, no longer pay off. There is no longer a social or cultural incentive to belong to a church community. In fact, in New England, the most secular region of our nation, church is not just out of fashion, it is down-right unfashionable. And with the absence of blue laws that protected Sunday morning for worship, and the increase in the average hours of work and general busyness of life, especially for families, church is also down-right inconvenient. And so in this time and place, most mainline congregations have dwindled to the folks who belong to the community because they truly want to be there. It is a classic bad news good news sort of deal; both a worry and a delight. The membership is shrinking. But the level of commitment and faithfulness of the flock that is left, is authentic.
The fact that church is no longer fashionable does not mean that the Christian life is no longer relevant or needed. In my humble estimation, the world is as hungry as it has ever been for what church has to offer. And possibly that hunger reaches deeper into the human spirit than it ever has before. Deeper than what the traditional church paradigm had to offer. But discerning the character of the hunger and the complexion of the bread that will feed it, is going to take some serious time and effort.
Because maybe the future of our tradition no longer lies in the programming of the church, but in the intentionality of the community. Maybe the thing is no longer how many youth activities or Bible studies or outreach projects or choir retreats or any other program we offer, but the ways in which we are intentional about coming together as a community. About the ways we are together rather than the deliverables that we provide. Maybe what the church needs is itself a New Creation. A newly intentional way of being community.
And I think that this has been brewing in this place for quite some time. In every survey that we have done since my arrival 10 years ago, the number one reason why people love St. Paul’s, why they have stayed at St. Paul’s, is the quality and character of the community. Not the programming or the priest or the average Sunday attendance. It helps when all of those things are goodly. But the bottom line that is valued from stem to stern is the caring, loving, respectful, authentic community that is the Parish of St. Paul in Newton Highlands.
We are not just talking about objectives here, we are not just talking about whether or not we will have a program for our kids. Of course we will. We are not just talking about whether or not we will support outreach projects for our neighbors. Of course we will. But those are things we do, not who we are. Those are no more markers of identity than is our personal identity defined by providing our kids with a high school education or helping our neighbors when they are in need.
But identity matters. It is the starting point from which everything else flows. From which every relationship is built. From which every heart and hope is understood.
Underneath our outward appearance as one of seven historical, inviting Episcopal churches in Newton, we have a particular identity. Who are we? What holds us together? How do we measure our success? And why do we exist? These are the questions we must address and try to answer as we enter the new liturgical year that begins next Sunday. And we must address these questions honestly and faithfully and patiently. Because this is the hard, hard work. The hard, hard work of coming to grips with our identity as God’s creation.
I want to leave us with the words of one of the founders of our Protestant Way. Words penned 500 years ago by Martin Luther from his Defense and Explanation of All the Articles (those articles among the 95 that were condemned by the Roman Catholic See). He wrote:
This life is…. not righteousness but growthin righteousness,
not health but healing,
not being but becoming,
not rest but exercise.
We are not yet what we shall be,
but we are growing toward it.
The process is not yet finished
but it is going on.
This is not the end,
but it isthe road.
My friends I am delighted to be on this long and winding road with God’s New Creation and each and every one of you.
© November, 2018 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw