Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King

And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.  – Ephesians 1:23

It is difficult for us, as Americans, to understand what it means to live in a monarchy.  We live in a democratic republic, where we elect representatives to make laws for us.  If we are unhappy with the job they are doing, we can vote them out and replace them with new representatives.  Even our principal interaction with a monarchy is a constitutional monarchy, where Queen Elizabeth is merely a symbol of national power, with the actual governance left up to a democratically elected parliament, with its prime minister and cabinet.  Her role as queen is largely reduced to waving to crowds and cutting ribbons and being saddened by the scandals of her offspring.

It’s interesting that, although the concept of Christ’s kingship is a biblical one, the feast itself was only instituted in 1925 by Pius XI to be observed on the last Sunday of October, as a way of trying to reassert the Roman denomination’s secular political power against a rising tide of secularism and nationalism.  Given the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Christ by those denominations which have been established as “state churches”, I find myself rooting for the secularists this feast was instituted to oppose.  The political power amassed by the churches is in stark contrast to the life of Jesus, born in a stable, who ate and drank with outcasts, and who was executed as a common criminal.

Nonetheless, as the church, we must acknowledge Jesus Christ as our King.  And he is not a constitutional monarch who is content to cut ribbons and wave to crowds (although he undoubtedly shakes his head over the actions of many Christians as Queen Elizabeth does over the actions of her children and grandchildren).  He is an absolute monarch whose authority over the church is so complete that the church is described as his “body”.  We, as the church, are to carry out his commands as seamlessly as our hands do what our brains tell it to.
But what does that actually mean in practice?

Jesus Christ, in everything he did while on earth, acted in full union with God’s purposes on earth.  God created the universe, and us, as an expression of God’s love.  We sinned, and fell short of that expression.  God acted in revelation to the people of Israel, giving the Torah at Sinai and speaking through the prophets.  We, as Christians, believe that the fullness of revelation occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, revealing to us God’s love.  God acted to redeem us.  God redeemed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and as Christians, we believe that Christ’s death and resurrection redeems all of humanity from the slavery of sin.  Forty days after his resurrection, Christ ascended into heaven, leaving us to carry out his mission on earth.  On the day of Pentecost, the church was born, being given the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s presence on earth, to empower us to carry out that mission.

And the mission is the same – to honor God’s creation, to act in such a way that our lives also serve as revelation of God – that God becomes known through us, and that we bring others to the redeeming love and power found in Christ, reconciling them with God, humanity, and all of creation.  Anything we do that participates in this mission is in accordance with the Kingship of Christ.  Anything that does not carry out that mission is extraneous and is an act of rebellion against the Kingship of Christ.

St. Augustine wrote, in his Rule, that “pride lurks even in good works in order to destroy them”.  The regular activities of the church – that which we are called to do – can be carried out in such a way as to glorify Christ and further his kingdom on earth, or they can be distorted and come to harm the cause of Christ.

We gather for worship to offer our prayers, to hear the Word of God in scripture, and to share in the Body and Blood of Christ.  Both the Word and the Sacrament are meant to transform us so that we are empowered to do Christ’s work in the world.  But if we come to worship, not looking for transformation, but merely for comfort and to feel good about ourselves, we risk turning worship into idolatry, with ourselves as the object of worship rather than God.

We are also called to be a community – but, again, the purpose of community is transformation and service.  If we engage with our church community merely to meet our social needs and not to be transformed into citizens of the kingdom of heaven, then we become a social club rather than the body of Christ.

As this church year draws to a close, and we prepare to begin a new year next Sunday on the First Sunday of Advent, let us take time to reflect on our lives, as Christians and as the church, and offer ourselves anew to Christ our King.  We give thanks for those ways we have been faithful, and we ask for grace to repent of the areas in which we have fallen short.

Lord God, deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.  Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in Christ’s name.  We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our great High Priest.  Amen.  (Adapted from Eucharistic Prayer C, Holy Eucharist Rite II, 1979 Book of Common Prayer)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014


Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.  Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the congregations and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.  But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:  That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.  And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.  But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.  Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.  But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;  That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.  Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:  But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching. – Basketball coach John Wooden
I have worked in fundraising for nonprofits for many years.  One of the things that is vitally important to a successful fundraising program is donor recognition.  Some donors do not care about public recognition – but for many others, it is a very important component to their giving.  One organization for which I worked had a different piece of jewelry for each level of giving, and the size of your gift determined the size of the type on the incision in stone at one of the hospitals or schools the organization ran.  Many colleges, universities, and hospitals name buildings or wings after significant donors.  The college I attended my freshman year even had plaques on some of the trees commemorating donors!

But Jesus, in tonight’s Gospel, tells us to do things differently.  When we give alms, we are to give them secretly – even our left hand is not to know what our right hand is doing!  Bad advice for a charity, to keep donors’ identities secret – but great advice for the givers themselves.  If we are seen by others as being magnanimous, we can feel some pride in what we are doing.  We can feel superior to those we help, to those we think could be giving more but aren’t, to the uncharitable.  But in truth, nothing we have is our own – it’s all God’s gift to us – and so if we are able to give, it is only through God’s grace, and those who receive do so through God’s grace through our actions. 
It’s the same thing with prayer.  We are exhorted to gather together for worship – so certainly we should be praying in public.  We are called to be prayerful people.  But how many of us like the notion of being seen as prayerful people?  Do we pray because we need God, and cannot live good lives without it – or are we praying because we like the idea of ourselves as holy, pious people? 

And then there’s fasting.  We are told to be cheerful, and not to disfigure our faces, so that others know we are fasting.  Which is an odd saying of Jesus to hear moments before we come up to have ashes put on our foreheads!  Would we give up Diet Coke, or chocolate, or Facebook, if we didn’t get the joy of telling everyone that we’re giving those things up?  Would giving up meat on Fridays be as much fun if we couldn’t complain about the fact that we were giving up meat on Fridays? 
Perhaps the worst thing, though, about doing these things for the praise of others – or for our own praise – is that they obscure our ability to know ourselves.  We begin to believe the carefully constructed images of ourselves that we have spent time cultivating.  We find our self-worth in it.  And we lose the ability to see who we really are.  Creatures made in the image of God, with the potential to act with the full creativity and love with which God acts.  Creatures who have rebelled against God as Satan did, with the ability to act with the full malevolence and evil with which Satan acts.  Broken creatures unable to put these disparate pieces of ourselves back together in a redeemed whole, no matter how much we give to charity, how much we pray, how much we fast and engage in acts of self-denial.  Dust which will return to dust.

During this Lent, by all means, let us increase our almsgiving, our praying, our fasting – the three traditional penitential practices that can lead us to repentance and conversion.  But let’s also spend time really looking at ourselves, going into our inner rooms and taking a look at ourselves in the mirror and learning who we are.  Not who we think we are.  Not who we want others to think we are.  Who are we when no one is watching?
Once we know and accept that, we will make room for the grace of Christ to come in, redeem us, and make us into the person God created us to be.