A Different Kind of King

Tomorrow is the last Sunday of the church year, which we observe as Christ the King Sunday.  This is the day when we will definitely sing something like “Crown Him With Many Crowns.”  Earlier this year we kind of ran “Soon and Very Soon” into the ground so we’ll skip that.

What do we mean when we say “Christ the King”?

The word “king” carries with it many preconceived notions – we think of crowns, thrones, ermine-trimmed capes, and Shakespearean heroes (or tragic figures).  We think of the movie “The King’s Speech.”  We might also think of kings and rulers whose reputation precedes them, and not in a good way.

One way to consider what we mean when we say “Christ the King” is to look at the gospel lesson for tomorrow:  Luke 22:14-23:56.  It’s basically the Passion narrative from Luke’s gospel, and it ends with Jesus’ burial.  Not his resurrection or ascension, but his burial.

(Yes, I’ve got the right lesson.  I double-checked.)

This doesn’t comport with what we think of when we think of a king.  Kings are strong and powerful.  They call the shots; they’re in charge, right?

But there is a term I’ve been hearing the last few years that really captures what kind of a king Jesus is:  servant leadership.

I heard it first in the church, but I was surprised to hear it on my local NPR station, in an interview with the outgoing superintendent of schools for the City of San Diego.  He talked about how he saw his job as servant leadership, and how he felt that this kind of approach was essential for the overall success of a school district.

The other person I think about when I hear this idea is Pope Francis.  He has turned the world on its ear by his approach to the office of the papacy.  “Servant leadership” is exactly what he embodies, and it has made the Vatican bureaucracy uncomfortable on more than one occasion.

We don’t need to look far to find examples of servant leadership – the British royal family has served in the armed forces.  Queen Elizabeth II served in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II, and her son Andrew and grandsons William and Harry have all served on active duty – Harry was on the front lines in Afghanistan until someone leaked that fact, and he was re-assigned so as to not bring harm to his unit.

“Servant leadership” is the approach I try to take when I am teaching people how to lead worship.  While leadership is needed in worship, it’s important that said leadership be carried out in a spirit of service to the assembly.  This means that those of us who are leading need to understand that it’s not about us – it’s about the assembly’s worship of the triune God.  It can be a very fine line between leading worship and performing!

Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi (2:4-14) states the concept of servant leadership beautifully:

4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Not the sort of king who is distant, on a bejeweled throne – but a king who stands and walks with us.  A king who meets us daily on our journey, and who calls us to his table to receive bread for that journey.

I’ll take that over the ermine-trimmed cape any day.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

I am in the preaching rotation this week at my parish, Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Encinitas, CA.  Somehow I manage to “rotate” into days with difficult texts – this week it’s Jesus’ description of destruction in Luke 21:5-19.  But I found some excellent inspiration.  I’m posting my sermon below.

(Texts:  Luke 21:5-19; also Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)

This is one of those texts that has given rise to a strangely fascinating assortment of end-times movements over the centuries.

A quick Google search:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events led me to this list of “dates predicted for apocalyptic events” starting in the year 634 BCE and continuing to the present – including several predictions for the future.

I unroll this scroll – so to speak – to set the tone for the day.  We would not be the first generation, and certainly not the last, to make the mistake of seeing this gospel as merely an apocalyptic warning, as nothing more than a kind of insider trading tip.  “Big picture” vision is needed today.

Jesus and his disciples are in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, in the temple.  Pastor Daren showed us pictures last week of what is thought to have been the floor plan of the temple.  The outer court was said to be able to hold 400,000 people.  By comparison, Qualcomm Stadium seats 71,294 people.  When Herod upgraded the Temple, he went all out.  So it’s understandable that in such an impressive place, people would comment on its lavishness.

Even though Herod really upgraded the Temple to reflect on himself instead of God, it was still the place where the worship of God – Yahweh – took place.  When Jesus and his disciples stood there on this particular day, it was still under construction, and wouldn’t be completed until 7 years before its total destruction by Rome in 70 CE.

The socio-political reality of Rome’s occupation of Judea was a constant source of tension and unrest.  Jesus could see that this wasn’t going to last; he was quite aware of the temporal nature of things on this earth.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  Don’t put your trust in the building.

Luke’s gospel is believed to have been written about thirty years after the destruction of the Temple, approximately 100 CE.  Luke is speaking to an audience that had already experienced the death and destruction Jesus lists in this passage.  They’d also likely been taught from childhood about the destruction of the first Temple by the invading Babylonians in 586 BCE, and the exile of most of Israel to Babylon.  There was no shortage in these peoples’ conscious memory and historic understanding of bad things happening.  REALLY bad things.  They’d seen what came of putting one’s trust in a building.

OK – so what is Jesus saying here?  “Whoopee, we’re all gonna die”?  “You must become the calm individual, the Zen Master”?  Worst of all, is he saying that it’s simply a matter of finding your happy place?

By no means.

For Luke’s audience, the disaster that is forecast in the text has already been seen.  The Temple was long gone, reduced to a smoldering ruin thirty years before.  It was true in Luke’s time, and it’s true today – any congregation, any group that gathers to worship and study will always include people whose worlds have been shattered, whose hope has been trampled.  Some of them may even have been around long enough to have learned to lift up their heads and look for the promised resurrection, even in the midst of the seeming triumph of death.  Others will need to be supported while they just figure out how to draw another breath.

This scene in Chapter 21 is one that pictures God’s people always gathering to wait together for resurrection.  We do this most vividly every year at the Easter Vigil (accompanied, of course, by marshmallow roasting).  Week after week, we gather to wait together, because sometimes endurance isn’t enough – not by a long shot.  Only resurrection will do, and we continue to claim that hope.

Our first lesson, from the book of the prophet Malachi, gives us another facet of a picture of a day of judgment: one that contains salvation.  Instead of the term “sun of righteousness” being co-opted as a cutesy play on words referring to Jesus, the book of Malachi uses the image of the actual rising sun to mark the dawning of a day when the cause of God’s justice, fairness, and community solidarity pervades the earth.  The community of Malachi – like the community of Luke – and like us – seeks the confidence that faith still makes sense.  I know from where I stand that many times, I’ve only been able to grasp that confidence in the midst of this community.  Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are holding me up.  We work and wait together for the dawning of that day.

Think back in Luke’s gospel to Jesus’ first time at the temple in Jerusalem.  It’s not when he enters on the colt, to the shouts of “hosanna”, but when he is just a baby.  Mary and Joseph bring him to the temple for his dedication, in accordance with Mosaic law.  And there at the temple, they meet Simeon and Anna.  We are not sure of Simeon’s age, but Anna, identified as a prophet, was said to be eighty-four years old.  Both had watched and waited, hoping for an answer to their long-offered prayers for a Messiah.  When they encounter the child Jesus, they are both moved deeply, believing their prayers are answered.  From this encounter comes the song of Simeon, which we know as the Nunc Dimittus:

“Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace: your word has been fulfilled.  My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people:  a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”

Simeon and Anna, heads lifted up, looking for resurrection, see a glimpse of that for which they watch and wait.

John Donne, the seventeenth-century English poet, has this to say about that for which we, along with Simeon and Anna, watch and wait:

“He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light, and he can bring thee summer out of winter, though thou hast no spring.  Though in the ways of fortune, understanding, or conscience thou hast been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied, now God comes to thee, not as the dawning of day, not as the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon.”  (Emphasis mine.)

I have paused this week to think about the thousands upon thousands of people whose lives have been shattered by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.  I can only imagine how they need that sun at noon – they need clean water, they need food, and they need shelter, and they need it yesterday.  I am grateful that in times like this, our government, our ELCA churchwide organization, and our international Lutheran relief agencies don’t sit on their hands and try to pinpoint which of the disasters in Jesus’ narrative THIS one might be – or worse yet, try to assign blame for the disaster to some marginalized group.  They waste no time in deploying help and working on solving the inevitable problems of resource delivery and access to remote areas.  In the inimitable words of Larry the Cable Guy – they “git ‘er done.”

In our second lesson, Paul chides the community at Thessalonica for NOT “gittin ‘er done.”  A look at the Greek in verse 11 reminds us that this is NOT about social welfare and entitlements.  The Greek word that is translated to ‘work’ is ergazomenous, and the one translated to ‘busybodies’ is periergazomenous.  The prefix peri means around – the busybodies are getting around real work by working detriment to the community.  We’re all more than passingly familiar with this modus operandi – regardless of where it’s found, it always derails the mission of the organization.  It’s not a matter of who did how much work and therefore how much bread they should receive – it’s a matter of simply working for the mission and good of the community.  The free gift of the gospel is intended to produce a life of good works that builds the community.  We need look no further than Bethlehem Serves to realize how true that is – it builds both the community we serve, and our “beloved community.”

Finally in our reading, Jesus tells those gathered “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Honestly, these are noble words – but there are many days when they just make me feel very tired, like my years are catching up with me.  Perhaps you’ve felt the same.  We look at the world – at the pictures of utter and complete destruction – and it seems there’s just too much to do, even though we hunger to make a difference in this world.

Is there a time in history in which there HAVEN’T been earthquakes – famines – great storms – wars – and so on?  If we close the door and hide, do our problems go away?  Unfortunately not.  That hunger to make a difference remains.

But maybe that’s a good thing, that this hunger is not easily filled.  Maybe it’s God pushing us to not be complacent, to not be afraid of what may come.  Maybe it’s God reminding us that the life of good works, flowing from the freely given gift of grace, and manifested in the community, is the whole point.  Maybe THAT’S the endurance.  We are to be compassion, poured out for the world.  Because heaven knows – the world needs it.

And so gathered in the beloved community, around the table, at the foot of the cross – we find our strength for the journey.  We find our endurance.  You who are tired and hungry, you who are afraid, you whose lives are shattered – and you who don’t fit any of those descriptions – come to the banquet of the Lord.  Feast on God’s mercy and grace, and find solace and comfort in a weary and broken world.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

Hold on to one another.

Hold on.

Holy Things

The idea for this blog was born in a moment before a funeral liturgy began.  Interesting, how from dying there comes life.

One of our other cantors, Carolin, leaned over and asked me what the white cloth atop the coffin was.  “It’s a pall,” I told her.  “It symbolizes the baptismal garment, and is a reminder that whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  The same reason we light the paschal candle at funerals.”  “I’ve never heard that before,” she said, “but it’s awesome!”

So much of what can be labeled “holy things” might elicit a similar reaction.  Once we know the back story, the reason why, the veil is lifted from our eyes and we see things differently.

I grew up in a era in which what were considered the “trappings” of a more formal time were being abandoned left and right.  To be sure, many had seen and experienced those trappings as a means of oppression, and as such they deserved to be abandoned.  But I think we are coming into a time now when we long deeply for meaning in what we do.  Drawing one another into the dance that is our life together, telling that back story, has become very important.

Certainly, different circumstances call for different approaches.  Worship with Eucharist at camp is going to have a very different feel than a joint Eucharist with the local Episcopal diocese, at which the respective bishops preside and preach.  But understanding what “holy things” are and what they mean informs the whole process in a fascinating way.

I mentioned the pall.  It’s not just a pretty cover so we don’t have to look at the coffin.  No indeed.  As a reminder of the baptismal garment, the pall states clearly whose we are.  No need to fear.  God’s got this.  There are lots and lots of other “holy things” – let’s talk about a few of them.

In the “Gather” portion of the liturgy, there might be a procession.  Some parishes do this every Sunday; others save it for festival days.  The processional cross goes first – Christ goes before us – then the torches/candles – Christ brings the light into the world – then the lectionary or Bible, reflecting John’s gospel “in the beginning was the Word…” and that the Word of God is life – and finally the presider and assisting minister.  The presider is ordained – the ordination vows speak of the pastor as a “steward of the mysteries of God” and presiding at Eucharist is the most immediate of those stewardship moments.

In the transition from Word to Meal, the presider may prepare the elements (bread and wine) for communion, and in the process remove the corporal from the bread.  Some parishes use a corporal – a square of white cloth – to cover the vessel that contains the bread.  The root word for ‘corporal’ is, of course, the same as for ‘body’ – corpus.  Using a corporal may hold meaning for some congregations, and may simply be confusing for others – but its symbolism is that of the shroud as well as the baptismal garment, death and life.  That juxtaposition of death and life is classically Lutheran; we live in constant tension between opposite ends of a spectrum.

Our baptismal font is another holy thing.  It is anchored at the intersection between the sanctuary (seating area) and the chancel (table area) and you always pass by it as you come to communion.  That is intentional.  We aren’t trying to clutter up the place!  Martin Luther offered great advice: “Remember your baptism.”  It is said when he was troubled or afraid, he would splash water on himself and proclaim: “But I am baptized!”  True that, Martin.  To remember our baptism as we receive communion – to dip our fingers in the font, and then make the sign of the cross – says with utter conviction that we are children of God, claimed and gathered, fed and sent.

In his book Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology Gordon Lathrop, professor emeritus of liturgy at the Lutheran School of Theology at Philadelphia, makes a strong case for the liturgy and its attendant theology.  But he does not permit the mindset of “we’ve always done it that way” to remotely permeate the discussion.  Careful consideration and thought are encouraged.  We are reminded of the exhortation from Amos:  “…I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.”  (5:21b). Going through the motions, doing something because that’s how we’ve always done it, is not life-giving.  It’s essential that we be able to answer the question “why?” at every turn.

And if we can, in our answers to those “why” questions, always point to Jesus, it will be a good start.

For All The Saints

My post is a little late this week, but there’s a reason – it’s All Saints’ Day, one of my favorite festivals of the church year.  It’s a day when we remember ALL the saints that have gone before us, not just the “historical” ones who have their own feast days.  I’ll be honest – part of why I like it is because it’s the one day we are absolutely going to sing the great Ralph Vaughan Williams hymn, “For All The Saints” (lyrics by William How, a mid-19th century Anglican bishop).

There has been controversy over the centuries when it comes to the saints and how we regard them.  When I taught music and liturgy at a Catholic school, the supervising priest always made a point of explaining to the kids that we don’t pray TO the saints, but ask them to pray for us – much as we’d ask a friend to do.  He emphasized that the “praying to” was for God – Father/Son/Holy Spirit.

But the operative word in the festival name of “All Saints’ Day” is all.  This is a day when we remember all those who have gone before us.  We usually hear the reading from Hebrews that reminds us “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”

Many churches have experimented with various ways of remembrance on this day.  The simplest, and probably most widely used, is the practice of reading the names of congregation members who have died in the previous year.  Some years ago, my congregation set up tables for people to set up pictures of those whom they considered to be in their own “cloud of witnesses.”  These tables eventually moved to the front of the sanctuary, and we saw pictures of people who had recently died, those who had died long ago, historical figures – it was a fascinating assembly.  In the last few years we have had places where people can light a candle in remembrance.

The candle thing, while well received, is messy and dangerous on Sunday morning.  We were having people light candles within the communion distribution time, which made for a crowded area around lit candles.  This year we are working with the idea of placing a small stone as representative of someone in our cloud of witnesses – someone who was a rock for us as we grew in faith.

I read a story about saints this week that reminded me (yet again) why it is so important to understand our traditions and the stories and history they bear for us.  It is a story about theological architecture.  (In addition to being a church music geek and a constitutional law geek, I am an architecture geek.)  Specifically, it is a story about communion rails – the railings where one kneels to receive Holy Communion.

I’ve never been a fan of communion rails.  To me they always represented a barrier to God, a point of division between us parishioners (peasants, perhaps?) and the clergy (always standing on a platform above us).  They’re also one more piece of furniture to maintain.

The story is about the old Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC, of Norwegian origin) congregations in the Midwest.  Most of them embraced a form of architecture that elevated the chancel area (where the altar, or table, is) and placed a half-round communion rail in front of it.  The elevating of the area was likely for sightlines.  The half-circle communion rail, however, was understood to be only the visible-to-us part of a full circle.  The “departed saints” were believed to be kneeling at the unseen part of the railing, on the other side of the table.

Stop for a moment and think about the term of our faith “the communion of saints” – the saints here on earth, connected with the departed saints by way of the table and the love of Christ.

Now think about the term “foretaste of the feast to come.”  This is the Eucharist, Holy Communion.  The departed saints have already been seated at the feast to come, on the far side of the table.  We are on the near side, with just a foretaste.  But what a breathtaking idea, to consider that as we come to the table those who have gone before us are seated at the unseen side.

With the saints who now adore you/seated at the heav’nly board,

May the church still waiting for you/keep love’s tie unbroken, Lord.

For the Bread Which You Have Broken, ELW #494, v. 3

I remembered what my colleague had said when my husband died, about him being welcomed to the far side of the table as they were gathering for Communion on the near side of the table.  I thought about what it might look like if the tables for photographs on All Saints’ Day were arranged so that they gave the impression of the unseen half of the rail.  And then I thought about what a massive crowd it must be on the far side of the table!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast/through gates of pearl streams in the countless host

Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:  Alleluia!

For All the Saints, ELW #422, v. 7

I invite you to ponder this the next time you are at the Lord’s Table.  I leave you with a beautiful picture by John August Swanson, called “Procession”, that is a powerful vision of the saints coming to the other side of the table.