Not of This World

What is truth? … Truth and power are on trial these days. Each seem to get more corrupted by the minute. Kings and presidents, religious and secular leaders,  have their truth and power scrutinized and tested, judged and betrayed, condemned even. Fake news and cover-ups are swirling around us like uncontrollable tempests and hurricanes, messing with our head. Nothing seems certain anymore, nothing seems truly true, even on the religious front. Nothing seems spared this dizzying unravelling of securities, of stability, and of clarity.

In the midst of this confusing ethical, cultural and moral tsunami comes today’s account of Jesus before Pilate. Two kings, two rulers, in a showdown of power and truth. Jesus’ truth and power was completely other. And deep down Pilate sensed it. Pilate so sensed how completely different Jesus’ power and truth were, that his nerves … trembled … Even Pilate’s arrogance couldn’t hide his inner shaking. “Are you the King of the Jews?” “My kingdom is not of this world …”

In the wake of fake news, in the wake of never-ending revelations of failures and sins by leaders in all spheres of life – politicians, teachers, principals, religious leaders, business giants – we celebrate today’s Feast of Christ the King. We, foolish followers of a King, dare to claim that in this King lies salvation, in this King lies the way to fullness of life even in death. What a ludicrous claim in the face of today’s world!

How do we respond as followers of Christ, this new King? Our response truly sounds ludicrous. Our response is a king hung on a cross. A king on a cross … not a popular answer right now. Yet that’s our answer, the only answer … A king – himself a victim of the atrocities we inflict on one another, no matter whether committed in secret behind closed doors in family homes and workplaces or on a world stage in government offices and churches.

Pilate agonized, pacing back and forth as he questioned Jesus. He agonized, because here before him was a man who puzzled, scared and intrigued Pilate. Pilate is aware on a subconscious level that his power and authority is really just an illusion. That illusion gets challenged by this weird prisoner. And that makes Pilate very nervous. And so he should be. Because the power and authority of Christ the King, what makes Christ King is indeed a power “not of this world” meaning, completely counter-intuitive for us humans.

What makes it so? Because unlike the increased show of force called for by world powers today, and the cacaphony of voices claiming truth, for the very first time in human history, and so far the only time in human history, someone DARED to refuse to project and pass on the violence and pain inflicted on him. Someone, with a power not of this world said: the buck stops here. In this determined non-violent response, Jesus released a power far greater than the kind we humans normally employ. That’s …. what gives Jesus the crown of glory.

Richard Rohr describes it as follows:
God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic, and sinful things—exactly where we do not want to look for God. The crucifixion is at the same moment the worst and best thing in human history. The cross reveals a cruciform pattern to reality. Reality is not meaningless and absurd, but neither is it perfect and consistent. Reality, life, is filled with contradictions. Jesus was killed in the collision of opposites, conflicting interests, and half-truths. This King of Glory hung between a good thief and a bad thief, between heaven and earth, inside of both humanity and divinity, a male body with a feminine soul, utterly whole and yet utterly disfigured.

The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that Jesus broke down the barriers of hostility by creating one humanity where formerly there had been two – and he did it this “by reconciling both [sides] in one body through his cross, which put that enmity to death.” (Ephesians 2, 16)

How? How does the cross of Christ kill death itself? Ron Rolheiser, theologian and author, replies as follows:
Jesus on the cross took in hatred, held it inside himself, transformed it, and gave back love. He took in bitterness, held it, transformed it, and gave back … graciousness. He took in curses, held them, transformed them, and gave back … blessing. He took in paranoia, held it, transformed it, and gave back … big-heartedness. He took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back … forgiveness.

Jesus revealed the deep secret, the key to salvation. And that is to absorb and hold within ourselves all that divides, all that brings strife, all that sows hatred, to hold it long enough so that it gets transformed. Like a water purifier which holds within itself the toxins and the poisons and gives back only pure water, we must hold within ourselves the toxins that poison relationships, that destroy communion, both in the human family and in the natural world, and give back only graciousness and openness, give back only compassion and care, to everyone and everything. It’s the only key to overcoming division.

We live in bitterly divisive times, paralyzing every sphere of life with half-truths and fake power, polarized on virtually every sensitive issue of politics, economics, morality, and religion. That stalemate will remain until one by one, we each transform rather than fuel and re-transmit the hatred that divides us.

We see in the person of Jesus a strange power at work, a power clearly not of this world … the power of God’s unmerited and merciful love. We claim Jesus as King of Glory, and that he is. But besides claiming this and adoring him, we are also called to imitate him. While fear can choke our compassion and generous loving, our world is famished, starved, for peace and reconciliation, for inclusion and equality, for love and grace and mercy.

So how serious are we about embracing this kingdom of Jesus not of this world? Living by Kingdom ways still comes at great risk, just as Jesus learnt from his experience on the cross. Can we, will we, like Jesus, become signs of dangerous hope for God’s world, possessed by a power not of this world? I think it would surprise and scare and intrigue the world, just as it did Pilate, when he faced that unusual character. We can only profess Christ as our King if we allow God to change us, from the inside out, so that we become the water filter sifting out human impurities, toxins and poisons. As God’s water filter we are transformed into beacons of hope and grace, of love and mercy – all those things for which our world is starving.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace; in his flesh he made us into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us … He created in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, reconciling us to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death hostility, division, strife, jealousy, and enmity. (Ephesians 2:13—16)

Homily preached on the Feast of Christ the King, November 25, 2018
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Ephesians 2:11—22; John 18:33-38
* I am not real happy with this sermon. Not that anyone criticized it, but as I preached I felt it — it was too wordy, too repetitive and lacked story. Just goes to show I can’t always be at my best.

Prairie Encounters

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Paralysis Analysis I

I am not happy with my writing self. I wonder if I am suffering from a bout of social, cultural and ecclesial paralysis. It’s a heart thing, like most things that matter are I suppose. I share sermon texts because I am told others appreciate my musings and insights into the Biblical texts. Thank you for reminding me of this.

But I want to post on other, more current, stuff too – I used to in previous years. You know what I mean: a world leader’s latest tirade, or the latest mass shooting, or the latest war zone in an urban neighbourhood, or the latest church scandal, or the latest news about migrants approaching the border,  or the latest climate change calamity, or the latest celebrity caught in a sex scandal, or the latest drug bust, or the latest stats about the mass exodus from our churches, or the latest natural disaster claiming innocent lives, or the latest vulgar outburst by prominent politicians. And then that bus crash, now six months ago, that swept 16 young lives off the face of the earth and left 13 others forever scarred in body and spirit, not to mention all those connected in love with these 29 victims. Why did it happen? It didn’t need to happen, it was just a country highway, in the middle of nowhere, literally … Why does any of this crap happen? Why?

Each of these stories makes my blood boil and my head spin. So I lunge into a verbal assault over a world going awry. But after the first sprint of words a strange paralysis sets in. What’s the point? Do I have anything to add to the big voices out there? And why do I feel so out of place? Why do I feel like it’s time for me to take leave, for I no longer recognize the world of love and grace, of beauty and mercy I was so committed to building?

A car bomb explodes on another continent and I look over my shoulder with suspicion at an approaching car in my little prairie town; what is happening? An ordinary-looking man bursts into a synagogue with an automatic rifle, killing ordinary people at prayer – at prayer! – and I weep when looking out over my own prairie congregation on a Sunday morning; what is happening? My seven-year old granddaughter sternly chides the US president for his rudeness, adding she’d never trust him with her jewels, and I become terrified for the future of our children’s children; what is happening?!

Call it helplessness and powerlessness, grief and sorrow over a world lost, a world failing millions of good people deserving of dignity and belonging, deserving of hope and a safe future. Is it really getting harder to keep faith and hope alive? Or has it always been thus, just that this is the age I live and cry in, the age I laugh and work in. Nothing is spared the melancholic plague; even my faith in Jesus is shaking loose from its spiritual anchor some days. The urge to crawl under a rock and wait for this chaos to sort itself out, is too big to resist at times.

Yes,  global communication, Facebook and other social media have made it possible to grant the world with all its sorrows and pains a permanent place in our living rooms and kitchens, the office and even our bedrooms. That same digital world also brings love, joy and beauty of course, but somehow that trio sits shyly in a corner while the tsunami of misery rolls through the house.

So I fall silent, even when I could speak. I fall silent even in morning prayer time, filled with an eerie emptiness before God. And I wonder if God is even awake, if God even cares. Or should I apologize to the great Almighty for the mess, for the atrocious ways we are plundering and desecrating the world (nature, animals, habitat, people, oceans), that tiny planet earth, our common home, created out of nothing but divine love, that incredible, intricate world created for … goodness? Nothing seems sacred and beautiful anymore… Defend me, O God, and plead my cause … from the deceitful and the unjust, rescue me (Psalm 43).

Eventually I snap out of the melancholy, mostly through small stuff. I see a herd of deer in the stubble on my way to work, and my heart leaps ever so slightly, daring a smile. The smell of fresh bread from my oven never fails to fill my nostrils with the aroma of God’s provision and tender care. The tasty garden carrots, fresh corn and parsley generously feed both body and soul, bending my stomach into a thank you. Crisp sunny fall days, combines humming in the fields, remind me that the earth feeds us; clearly we eat by the grace of nature, not industry. Dried up fields and forests, frosted plants and shriveled up shrubs play hide ‘n seek; they are not dead, merely falling asleep for winter’s rest. Weekly supper at the Soup Kitchen startles me into holy communion almost every time – forming an unlikely bunch of people into one family. An intense conversation with someone in need was clearly not accidental – God’s still on the job and the divine time-table still operates despite everything. The loving commitment of adult children to their ailing 90-some year old mother, one of my parishioners, speaks to God’s own steadfast and faithful promise, trustworthy and sturdy enough to lean on when my time comes.

I fear counting too many blessings, lest I become smug and callous, forgetting the multitudes  who barely have any to count. And yet counting them I must, braiding tiny fragile threads into a divine rescue rope to hold onto while absorbing the mess and the sorrow, the pain and the agony. And it dawns on me … that somebody else … long ago … did exactly that: hanging on to God’s rescue rope of love sweating and shaking, emptying himself while absorbing all pain and darkness, all sin and evil, thus opening the path of salvation for all … Despite everything: Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare your praise …

We have to be candles,
burning between hope and despair,
faith and doubt, life and death,
all the opposites.
That is the disquieting place
where people must always find us.

And if our life means anything, if what we are
goes beyond the monastery walls and does some good,
it is that somehow, by being here, at peace,
we help the world cope
with what it cannot understand. ~ William Brodrick

Prairie Encounters

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