Saturday, November 21, 2009

It All Comes Down To This

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Sunday, November 29, 2009, The Feast of Christ the King

John 18:33-37

So this is what it has all come to.

A year has passed since last Advent when we began telling the story of Christ’s life, Sunday by Sunday, season by season, living it, walking it, reflecting on it, imitating it. Shortly before Advent last year, I reflected with the congregation on the place of priesthood in a community committed to shared ministry. Out of that discussion came a suggestion that we reflect together on ministry on a regular basis. So I set myself a goal of going through an entire year with you examining ministry. If you have been with us during any of this year, I hope you have concluded that ministry is inseparable from the life each of us leads. I hope you will never again think of it as being limited to those who are ordained as bishops, priests, and deacons. I hope you will always remember that your baptism, if you are baptized, immersed you in a ministry that is all about how your life is woven together with the life of Jesus Christ, and that your purpose, is about bringing the world and God together in a way that is dazzlingly transforming.

We have looked together at such things as being healers, pastors, prophets. We have focused on how we are apostles, evangelists, and theologians. We have peered into ourselves to see what our egos have to do with ministry and how the way we handle conflict shapes that ministry. Through all this we have seen two things again and again. One is that the whole of ministry belongs to the entire People of God—not to some but to all. The other is that ministry embraces everything we are and do. So what would the purpose of this year-long project be, if not to persuade folks to get excited about ministry, and to want to live a God-centered life?

Every year, taking Jesus as the model of choice for the God-centered life, we unpack his story episodically through the Church Year. Today we come to the culmination of all that, and is it ever a rude awakening! For this is the feast of Christ the King. The picture we see is not some triumphant, exalted Lord reigning over all the worlds that are and are to be, but Jesus under arrest. Even in John’s gospel, where Jesus always appears to have everything under serene control, this picture of Jesus is disturbing. Jesus directly confronts the imperial weight of the Roman Empire. Pilate himself says at one point, “Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?”

If you think about this in the context of our ministry—and of our identification with Jesus—this is a heads-up that those who live like Jesus, and even those who live even remotely like Jesus, are headed for trouble. The reason really is quite simple. It is lodged in this conversation between Pilate and Jesus about Truth. “My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus. We continue to miss that point. I am not sure that we grasp at all what he is talking about. He is certainly not talking about pie in the sky by and by. No, he is talking about a basic orientation, an organizing principle, a way of living that is totally counter to what human society tends to prize and to promote, namely power, privilege, and prestige. Civilization has managed to do many things, but it has not yet successfully overcome our basic tendency as primates—indeed more generally as mammals—to define ourselves by where we are in the “pecking order” or the hierarchy.
So the higher up we are, the more power we have, the more control we can exercise over the food supply, the better we feel about ourselves. That is what an enormous amount of human behavior comes down to. The health care debate? It is essentially about money—who has it and who does not—and that in turn is about those in power protecting their control of the supply of food and other essentials—and that in turn is about how to make sure that abandonment and death remain remote threats instead of ever-present threats.
That is the kind of world that places a Pontius Pilate in charge of operations.

Jesus, on the other hand, really is about cutting through all that and getting to the heart of—dare we say?—Truth. For the truth of the matter is that the organization of the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the American Empire completely misses the point—in fact several points. It is not by swords’ loud clashing, nor by roll of stirring drums, but by deeds of love and mercy that the heavenly kingdom comes. Jesus’ way is about giving instead of acquiring. It is about forgiveness instead of revenge. It sets kindness above self-preservation; inclusiveness before tribal, family, or racial identity; and community over personal aggrandizement. In short, the Truth that Jesus speaks of to Pilate is nothing less than life lived by a set of values completely different from those of the ordinary workaday world. He says something to Pilate that echoes something he says elsewhere in John’s gospel: “Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice” makes the same point as “my sheep know me; they hear my voice; they follow me.” Living for Jesus means being tuned in to a voice that says, “Whoever would save life in this world will surely lose it; but whoever would lose life in this world for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.” Pilate does not understand that and quite likely never will. “What is Truth?” may be a flip, dismissive quip, but it can just as easily be a profound, sincere question. In either case, Pilate does not know what it is, but Jesus assuredly does. Essentially he knows that life is a gift to be celebrated extravagantly and shared prodigally, not hoarded and controlled. He knows that the center of the Truth of the universe is the God who lives in him and in whom he lives.

So that is what it all comes down to, this story of ours. It is a story we tell not so much because we believe its every detail but in order to believe the one whom it is about. It is a story we tell because the more we trace and re-trace the steps of Jesus the more we find ourselves doing the things he did—praying, feeding, teaching, forgiving, eating, healing, and above all living more and more free of anxiety and its offshoots, power-grabbing, manipulation, and depression. We tell of the Advent of a reign of peace and justice that is strong and real enough to inspire us to work for the end of war and to believe that there can actually be an end to global poverty. We tell of a Christmas that is not just the birth of our Savior but our finding New Life in unexpected places and unimagined ways. We tell of Epiphanies at Jordan and Cana and Mount Tabor that we see reflected in our own small mysteries when our vocations turn out to be the way lives are saved, or embarrassing circumstances become moments of grace, or our times of prayer streaked with flashes of transcendence. We ponder the desert experience of Jesus precisely to get to know our own demons, which turn out not to be so different from those that assaulted him. We walk slowly and deliberately through Holy Week because we need not only to watch Jesus do it but also because we have our own passions to undergo and sufferings to face and death to embrace. We shout our alleluias on Easter not just cheering him but cheering the human community he has managed to amass that keeps composing poetry when it would be easier to sulk and that insists on singing when it is easier to whine and that dances in the face of death because we flatly deny that death is anything to be scared of. We revel in Pentecost because we believe that the God that appears so visibly in Jesus every once in awhile seems startlingly alive in one of us, so much so that we have to recalculate our own potential to make the world a sweeter, better place just by walking by the Spirit instead of always by the rules of the flesh.

It all comes down to this: that the ministry of each one of us is nothing more and nothing less than the ministry of Jesus. And that in turn is a perennial scattering of light and joy wherever there is darkness and grief. It is enough to make us all feel enormously buoyed to the point of outrageous pride, all this glory that we share. But telling the story has the strange effect of making us know how in the end we are just dust, a truth which is delightfully all right. For that is exactly the cosmic stuff in which we began our great journey with the One to whom we bow, who lives and reigns for ever.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

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