January 22, 2017: Rector Robyn – “The Difficult Path”

“…the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 4:16-17

If you were to step back and look objectively at the typical American Christian you would not be mistaken in thinking that it’s a pretty easy life. Here in the heart of the Bible-beating South it seems even more comfortable than it might in a more secular society. The common language of the people is laced with Christian comments like, “God bless you” and “God willing”. How many times has someone I have never met before told me to have a “blessed day”? I must admit to often wondering if he or she actually wishes this for me, or if it is just an empty platitude like, “take care” or “thank you for shopping with us.” Mega-churches are packing their seats with self-proclaimed Christians and there are countless versions of the Bible from which to choose, even down to coordinating it with the color of one’s apparel. Bibles have become accessories like crosses on chains and T-shirts with religious slogans. Christianity is big business and let’s be clear there are people out there making a fortune selling belief and the paraphernalia of faith. How does a sincere follower of Christ recognize the truth within the context of all of the half-truths and mistruths that pass for religious discourse in this egocentric, greed driven age?
If one really seeks to know Christ and desires the truth about God and one’s self it becomes necessary to step back from the religious salespeople marketing salvation and look to the source….the Gospels. While Holy Scripture is not a simple read and anyone who tells you it is doesn’t understand what they have read, there are insights to be had within the stories about Jesus, his life and his teaching. It is here that we find the foundations of true Christianity. Spending time with the Jesus of the Gospels is an eye-opening, epiphany-inducing practice and it is there that one comes face to face with the truth that most folks would rather not hear.
True Christianity is hard. It requires one to examine one’s own heart and mind…to see clearly one’s own sin and culpability in the suffering of others and to repent and seek to do better. To follow Christ one must surrender one’s self to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, which may lead to shocking behaviors like praying for one’s enemies, giving away one’s wealth and trying very hard to love those who cannot or will not accept that love. Christ calls us out of our comfortable lives into the messiness and chaos of the hurting world. Sometimes we are asked to leave our homes and our families for the sake of Christ. Sometimes our loved ones may not be able to accept the decisions the Gospel compels us to make and we find ourselves abandoned by those we love most. Sometimes we are called to stay where we are, to toil in the field at hand, when everything in us wants to run away from the struggle and the exhaustion of plowing a furrow in the rocky soil of our current situation.
In our Gospel today Jesus called his first disciples, Andrew and Peter, James and John. Each and every one of these men left his life and his family to follow an itinerate preacher he had just met. Jesus’ very presence and the truth of his message were so powerful they were compelled to step out into the unknown in the hope that Jesus was indeed the one for whom they had waited. We have no way of knowing what, if any vision they had for their future lives or ministry but we can be sure that it was nothing like the reality…the long dusty roads, the exhaustion, the hunger…crowds who could cheer or threaten, religious leaders who condemned, …but there were also miracles of healing, and feeding…voices from heaven and the loving voice and presence of Jesus himself. They could not know how brief the time would be or how tragically it would end…only to miraculously begin again.
For us, following Jesus can be just as unpredictable…just as difficult….just as inspiring…just as miraculous. When we open ourselves to the possibility we realize that God is always calling each of us to use our minds and our hearts to change the world for the better. True religion is not something that happens in the mind alone, or the heart alone…but both our intellect and our emotion are called upon to build up the Kingdom of God. Our love calls us into action and our talents and skills give us instruments to make good things happen for the sake of the Gospel.
But don’t think the world will always approve of what we are called to do…Jesus was crucified because the powers that be feared his message of love and equality. When we speak of love in a culture of hate, we will be ridiculed. When we cry for peace while our neighbors shout for war we will be despised. When we shelter the refugee, welcome the stranger, comfort the outcast, stand with the oppressed, ….when we work for change those who profit from the way things are will retaliate.
For those of you who don’t know I grew up and spent most of my early life in rural Kentucky. It was there that I learned to love the earth and green things. My first job out of college was at an environmental education center working for a Jesuit priest with a head full of anarchist dreams and wild white hair. He taught me how to harvest rainwater, build a cordwood house and how to grow an organic garden. He also taught me how to monkey wrench heavy equipment and test the runoff from an un-reclaimed strip mine site. In those days I was young and idealistic and chomping at the bit for an opportunity to chain myself to the axle of a logging truck in the hopes of saving 200-year-old hardwood trees from the pulp mills. I was actually on the FBI’s list of subversives for a short while. Not any more, in case you’re wondering. I’ve mellowed in my old age. In those days the neighbors called us “those hippies down on the River”. But folks were nice to me because I was born there.

When I left Kentucky and went to Mississippi State to study toxicology and fish physiology thinking I might be of more use to the movement if I had more education, I entered an academic environment controlled by big agriculture. I was called that “bunny-kissing tree-hugger” for 2 and a half years….and while I did once kiss a bunny and have been known to hug a tree or two, I knew that wasn’t meant as a compliment.

When I came to UAB to study human physiology, having decided that my future was not in catfish, I found the Episcopal Church, or rather it found me. Every day in the laboratory I worked with a fundamentalist, conservative lab tech who called me a “pinko-commie, gay-lover”, except he used a word that was less polite than “gay”. A colleague from the lab next door altered it a little to “that pinko-commie, Jesus-girl”. I must admit I kind of liked that one.

Later, after becoming a priest I served in California. Walking the streets as a woman in a collar, I was called an “abomination” to my face by the Orthodox Catholic ladies and once a man spit on me while I waited for the train.

My point in sharing these incidents is not to say “oh poor me, things have been so hard.” In fact I have been incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to serve the world and God while doing work that I loved. No, my point is that in each of these very different social and professional situations there were people who felt it was acceptable to vent their anger and frustration at whatever it was I represented to them. I was not a person, but rather the personification of an idea they found unacceptable. Would they have been more respectful if they had gotten to know me better?…maybe not but it is much easier to abuse someone if you only see the label you’ve put on them and remain blind to the hurt in their eyes.

Our baptismal covenant calls us to “respect the dignity of every human being”, even those we don’t understand, those with whom we disagree on important issues, and those who do not respect us. This is part of that difficult path that Christ calls us to walk. Of course we are not to let ourselves be abused or exploited because we are to love ourselves as we love others. Still, we are to do the hard work of reaching out to those who may not reach back. This does not mean that we do not speak up when something needs to be said. There are truths that must be spoken and acts of love that must be done. We cannot cower in our comfortable houses and let the forces of darkness overcome this world.

The light that God is shining into the darkness in this age is us and we must be as bright as we can be. We need to be lit up with Christ, glowing with a love so powerful that it eliminates the shadow of death. We are the ones who make Christ manifest to the whole world. We do this in our loving actions for the sake of others. We do this in our worship that calls down heaven and holds it in this space. We do this in the silence of our hearts while we listen for voice of the Holy Spirit guiding us to love. We do this in the depths of our bodies while God breathes new life into this fragile flesh. We do this in the gathering of our community of believers united in mind and heart with the Lord who is always present.

In the First Epistle to the Corinthians today the Apostle Paul calls us to be united in mind and purpose. In this time of great divisiveness where facts are treated as negotiable and every opinion no matter how twisted or ridiculous is given equal weight it can seem like unity of any sort is impossible. But once again I call us back to the Gospels. If we are to declare ourselves to be followers of Christ then we must be of one mind about the foundational teaching of the one we serve. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength and the second is like unto the first, Love your neighbor as yourself. On these hang all the Laws and the prophets.” “ A new commandment I give you, to love one another as I have love you.” This is it brothers and sisters…the summary of the Law, the beating heart of the Gospel…the fire in the blood of Christ’s followers.

You can make it more complicated if you want to but what good is a laundry list of do’s and don’ts? Without love morality is merely a social construct that changes with each generation. What good is bewailing our manifold sins if we don’t practice loving each other?…that’s just empty righteousness and false humility.

All righteousness is rooted in love. If I love I will repent of the sin of hurting you, because you must not hurt the one you love. If I love I will strive for compassion toward you because kindness and empathy are the fruits of love. If I love I will not commit violence against you or make war on your children. I will not deprive you of the means to make a living or to feed yourself. If I love I will not make laws that oppress you. I will not label you or shun you….make you feel unwelcome or build a wall to keep you out. If I love I will bind up your wounds and pray for your healing. If I love I will invite you to my table and welcome you as my family. If I love I will be open to receiving that love from you and we will then indeed be of one mind and one purpose.

Brothers and sisters the Kingdom of God is yet very near to us. It is within us …and among us ….and it is our love that makes it present in this age and the age to come.

November 20, 2016: Nathaniel Darville – “For Christ and His Kingdom”

Bring your refuge to those in danger, bring your peace for those in war, bring your presence to those forgotten by this world, O God, +F, +S, and +HS. Amen.

‘The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”’ [Luke 23.35-38]

For Christ and His Kingdom or The Website for Kingdom of God Citizenship Didn’t Crash on Election Night or That Stained Glass Depiction of Jesus the King Right Behind Me is Yuuuuuuge!

I’m going to tell you a story. Once there was a man who really loved his country, but believed it was falling into political and religious decay. He was certain his country could be great again, but he was the only one who could fix it. And the best way to fix it was to gather up every person who thought differently than he did and kick them out. He also believed if other countries disagreed with his beliefs, they should be invaded and their governments should be overthrown as well. Any guesses? It’s Ulrich Zwingli, the 16th Century Protestant Reformer.
Zwingli grew up a devout Catholic–there was no other Church in the West at the time–on a modest farm in a valley between the Swiss Alps. His parents recognized early on he was bright and sent him away to university where he studied to be a priest. But during his studies, he began to question the Church’s authority due to its corruption. He soon found he was not alone. About 15 years after his ordination, Martin Luther began what is now known as the Protestant Reformation, and Zwingli was instantly hooked. He moved to Zurich and quickly gained followers as he preached the values of the Reformation–Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone–but not everyone was convinced Protestantism was right, and hostilities in Zurich between Roman Catholics and Protestants [Lutherans and Anabaptists] quickly became violent. In the 16th Century, conversion was not a private, individual experience, but was public and corporate, it was a choice between patriotism and treason, and Zwingli demanded one converted to his form of Christianity or he/she was either banished or killed. Zwingli removed all of Zurich’s leadership and placed himself in charge, because he believed he was called to build up the Kingdom of God with Jesus Christ as Zurich’s king. He then began to spread his faith to other cities in Switzerland through military conquest so that his country could finally be under God’s rule. But things didn’t end well for Zwingli. He was soon killed in battle, never having realized his theo-political vision. Catholics and Protestants alike called him a heretic, murderer, traitor, and anarchist. Church historians, theologians, and political theorists, to this day, still debate whether Zwingli was sincere in his attempt to create a unified kingdom under God, or he was a man lost under the spell of his own power.
While we could easily draw a few parallels between Zwingli’s time and ours, the situation in 16th Century Switzerland appears quite different from Luke’s Gospel. In today’s crucifixion narrative, we find Jesus has been betrayed by one of his disciples, abandoned by the rest, and heckled by everyone else as he is executed by the Roman Empire and with the blessings of the Jewish religious leadership. Jesus is crucified–a particularly humiliating, painful, and unclean way to die–as a political insurrectionist along with two criminals. The Roman powers-that-be craft a sign for Jesus declaring him a ‘king,’ but Jesus could hardly be seen as any real political threat to the strongest empire in the world. In response to Jesus suffering, instead of feeling compassion, the soldiers offered him sour wine to ridicule his pain. Both Jews and Romans dare Jesus to use his messianic superpowers to free himself and usher in God’s Kingdom. And, surprisingly, Jesus responds, not with anger, not with bitterness, not with self-pity, but with empathy to the people mocking him, as well as empathy for the criminals who share his punishment.
We all know the the details of the passion narrative very well. It is a central part of how we understand the Christian faith. Yet because it is so familiar it makes it easier for us to overlook the rich dimensions of the text. As we reflect on Luke’s Gospel during the Feast of Christ the King, it is important for us to ask: as members of the Jesus Movement, what does Luke’s passion story tell us about the Kingship of Jesus? What does it tell us about the Kingdom of God? And perhaps most importantly, what does Luke tell us about our participation in Jesus’ Kingdom?
Jesus the Christ is our King, but as a radically different leader than human history has ever known. As Americans, we live in an odd political environment which simultaneously claims to give no preference to any one particular religion as it idealizes Christian language, symbols, and values. Numerous politicians, especially those vying for the country’s highest office, often say they model their public life after Jesus Christ. That is, they make leadership decisions based on ‘what Jesus would do.’ This is not limited to one particular political party or candidate. What every person who attests to this never seems to understand is how much their politics influences their religious arguments instead of his/her respective religious values influencing his/her politics. In other words, our government officials won’t admit the 21st Century, Capitalist American Empire and its ‘gospel’ of winner-takes-all influences how they answer the question ‘What would Jesus do?’ In mixing faith and politics in this way, then, it becomes easy to justify greed, hatred, and violence in a system many people in this country view as broken. ‘Well, Jesus didn’t really plan to revolt against governments. The Kingdom of God is only a spiritual kingdom. God put our political leaders in power to protect us people of faith, so they are justified to use force against our enemies. This goes for the evil-doers both in our country and outside our country.’ Or so the argument goes.
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. Since it is the last Sunday of the long Pentecost season, it often falls into obscurity. Yet it highlights a profound aspect of our faith. The liturgical year is not linear, it is cyclical, and Christ the King bridges the two worlds of Pentecost and Advent. Pentecost is the season in which we reflect on the realities of the Kingdom of God we practice every day as the Church in the world. Advent is the time in which we celebrate Jesus, our King, beginning his sovereignty in the incarnation and who will one day return to complete the promises of his Kingdom.
There is another reason why our 21st Century minds are ambivalent about today’s feast: we’re really uncomfortable with the kingship model. I mean, we are Americans, right? Our government’s founding was based on an allergic reaction to kings. Royalty doesn’t really do anything for us these days either, except maybe when we watch the stunningly chiseled Matt Smith in the Netflix series, the Crown, or delight in the terminal cuteness of Colin Firth in the film, the King’s Speech. But if we know anything about Scripture, we know part of the power of the Gospels is the way in which they are able to take images from everyday life, flip them upside-down, and reinterpret them. We should affirm the Kingship of Christ because it is completely different from any other possible political leadership humanity could ever create.
We are given an excellent description of Jesus Christ as King right here in Luke’s crucifixion narrative. Jesus Christ is not a political leader who is separated from his people. He suffers along with everyone, especially those, such as criminals, who have been cast aside, mistreated, and abused by society, economy, and government. Nor does Jesus separate himself from people who mock him, chastise him, or take him for granted. He does not get angry. He does not ignore them. He forgives them. And he remains present [If only our leaders would manifest any one of these qualities.]. In Jesus’ desire to truly be with all people, it may seem as if Jesus is powerless, but we know what happens after the crucifixion. We know Jesus Christ is in control through his suffering and death, and we know this means the power and finality of all suffering and death has been destroyed forever. This is the promise of Jesus our King.
And Jesus Christ rules a Kingdom but a radically different kingdom than this world has ever known. Here’s another story. Many of the first people who came to this country did so for religious freedom. These ‘Puritans’ believed if they came here and established a Christian country they would institute the Kingdom of God in this world. They thought if they created a society in which Jesus Christ is King, it would stand as an example, or as the Puritan governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, said, it would be seen as ‘a beacon on a hill’ which would incite all of Europe to adopt their political structure and religious values. But like good Calvinists, the Puritans believed sinful people needed law and order so they set up a homogeneous system, no different than the government they escaped, which protected their vision of a Christian community. For sure, our nation has evolved for the better in numerous issues regarding religion, race, gender, and orientation. That said, while many Americans truly believe we are one nation under the Christian God, they hold many views regarding state-sponsored violence, xenophobia, LGBTQ-phobia, and chauvinism, which would be difficult to argue are consistent with the Kingdom of God as a community of love, inclusivity, gentleness, and peace.
Again, Luke’s Gospel provides a better understand of how the politics of God’s Kingdom operates. In Jesus’ submission to his death, he both affirms the cross and simultaneously denies the cross. He affirms the crucifixion as the apt punishment for him since Jesus was providing an alternative political structure directly challenging the government of the Roman Empire. But in his submission to the crucifixion, Jesus also affirmed that violence has no use or power in God’s Kingdom. The messiah does not answer violence with violence. For Jesus, the faithful life is always non-violence because God is non-violent. Jesus willfully accepted his execution so every person who experiences suffering will know Jesus is with them in their pain and is welcome in God’s Kingdom.
So, what does all of this mean for us Jesus People living in America post Election 2016? What are we to do? We are called by the Holy Spirit to be Jesus Christ’s subjects in the Kingdom of God, but in a way radically different from any other national or ethnic identity. Our culture is saturated with a ‘civic religion’ in which we confuse political symbols and values with religious symbols and values. It has become profane to have any expression which tarnishes the American flag either symbolically or literally. It is heresy to doubt any military action the United States takes in the world no matter how questionable out of respect for the sacrifices of our Armed Forces. In order to decide our rule of law, we need to go back to the ‘original intent’ of the Framers of the Constitution because it is America’s sacred document. Since so many people take these beliefs as truth, it is no doubt many people confuse their faith in God with their pride in country. However real and sincere these beliefs are, they have the potential for dangerous words and deeds. If we convolute any of our government actions with God’s providence, it becomes way too easy to marginalize others outside the white, male majority, whether they are Native American, LGBTQ, African-American, female, or Muslim. It’s become acceptable to say and do destructive things in our political culture because it is driven, almost exclusively, by fear. This is true regardless of political affiliation, left or right. But, as followers of Jesus, we operate under a different covenant: a love for God and a love for all people.
There are many people in our country who believe God’s will was done in last week’s election. But if the pollsters are right, there are just as many who believe the opposite is true. What, then, do we do? How can we move forward among such division? While there are no easy answers of what to do as politically aware Americans, we have a clear mission as active followers of Jesus. At the point of death, Jesus Christ–faced with political vitriol, hate speech, total abandonment, gratuitous torture–Jesus responded with unconditional love and unsolicited forgiveness. That is our task. We do this frequently in our common prayer, in our fellowship together, and in our community outreach. Grace Church isn’t perfect, but we do a great job making Christ’s love concrete to one another and to the world. No matter what happens over the next few years, we can be certain no political fad, no matter how hateful, no matter how fearful, no matter how intolerant can ever take away what we do or who we are in this loving community of Woodlawn. God will continue to call us to God’s people to do God’s work. We know this because Jesus Christ is our King, his eternal Kingdom begins now, through us, and it will leave no one behind.
Nathaniel Darville Christ the King, 2016