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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christ the King, and "What can I do about it?"

Well, to wrap up the liturgical year, I'd just like to take a quick look back at Sunday, and back over the Luke year, and see what difference it makes, if any.

First of all, I can't imagine how we could get through the day without someone pointing out the irony in the scriptures between the anointing of David as king of Israel after the death of Saul. The passage we heard Sunday was sanitized of all the blood spilt by David and his army on the way to the throne, and further sanitized of that spilt in the rout of the Philistines as his forces retake Jerusalem, so all we actually hear about is the decision of the generals to anoint David king, this after the incident years before at Jesse's house when the prophet Samuel anointed him. This is not to make less of David's kingship; only to say that David is one of the "kings of this world" to which the reign of Jesus is not to be compared. David won his kingship with the sword; the Messiah-King renounces the sword. The only blood spilt by the Messiah is his own.

Second, Paul tells the church at Colossae that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, that is, when we see Jesus we see who God is. As I am fond of saying, we generally go in the other direction. We look at powerful humans, generally rich rulers like emperors and kings, and we form our image of God as the apotheosis of that idea: the most powerful, or all-power (omnipotent) and richest in the universe, and then imagine Jesus in the image of that God. But that is exactly backward. Jesus, humble, servant, obedient, dead and risen, is the image of the invisible God. We don't get our idea about power from kings and their riches and lay it upon Jesus. Rather, we get our model for power from Jesus. Poder es servir, as Bob Hurd's lovely song "Pan de Vida" puts it. Or in Jesus's own words, "Whoever want to be the greatest among you must be the servant of the rest."

Finally the gospel shows Jesus, "the king of the Jews," reigning from a Roman cross. He is crucified between two other criminals, identified in Mark as insurrectionists, men who strove against the Pax Romana. Pilate had offered to release a prisoner in honor of Passover; the (small?) partisan crowd instead chose a different, violent insurrectionist for release. But there was no mistaking the crime Jesus committed. He had made the case for a different empire, a different god, not only different from Tiberius and the Roman civil gods who would succeed him, but different from the God worshipped by the guardians of the temple and its economy of divine favor. Jesus was, in fact, a revolutionary. A peaceful one, to be sure, one without a taste for power in any sense of government. But in the eyes of Rome and the Temple, he was a dangerous man, a blasphemer against two gods, and a threat to the revenue stream that greased the wheels of religion and empire. That's how the story of God reaches its climax on the last day of the liturgical year.

In our stories, though, we prefer to see the the Ring of Power thrown into Mount Doom, and orc and goblin armies disintegrating. We like to see the Death Star vaporized, and its denizens with it, and peace restored to the universe. We like to watch Seal Team Six, balletically maneuvering in hostile country with billion-dollar stealth weaponry, put some leaden justice through the eye of a murderous enemy. What this story gives us instead are a few words from a psalm, death by capital punishment, and the memory of an empty tomb.

375 murders and counting in Chicago in 2013. Thousands killed, injured, or homeless in Tacloban and the surrounding area in the Philippines. A church in chaos and a political and economic system that creates more and more poverty even as it is managed by people who profess varying avatars of Christianity. The good news is a whisper. The bad news is a typhoon.

What can I do about it?

I can choose to "turn around and believe in the gospel." That is, turn away from the empty promises of violence and competition and believe in God's empire of peace and solidarity. Turn away from "save yourself and us" and accept being a human being, true to my call to believe (i.e., live and love, act) in them reign of God. Even in the silence of God, even in the apparent victory of Caesar, keep loving, don't be violent, listen for signs of hope. Be God where God is needed; be Christ.

I can choose solidarity with other human beings, especially those with little or no recourse to the channels of power owned or seized by forces hostile to the God of Jesus. This year we've heard that God wants a family back together (Luke 15), people who eat together and rejoice in the act of reconciliation. We've heard that Abba's love empowers a fearless love that can overcome prejudice and past mistakes (the meal at Simon's house and Zacchaeus). We've heard that wealth and self-satisfaction can blind us to the severity of human need and pain that is right before our eyes, to the great peril of our future (Lazarus and the rich man.) We heard way back in his first homily at the synagogue in Nazareth that the good news of the jubilee, freedom from debt and slavery and landlessness is for everybody, not just the good guys (or bad guys). We met Jesus on Christmas in a manger, a feeding trough, and in Luke's gospel eating is often where we find him in conversation with others, and meals have often been at the center of his stories. Mary's song of reversal, the Magnificat, is echoed in the words of Jesus several times in the Sunday gospels: the last shall be first, and the first last. Looking at the messiah on the cross, and hearing the word of the letter to the Colossians, this seems to be as true of God as of people. The cross is the visible signature of God on the "preferential option for the poor."

How this gets spelled out in everyday life in America and elsewhere is up to us, but the message is already imprinted on us from baptism, when we were branded with the sign of the cross. To choose Christ, we have to un-choose a lot of other things. I'd like to be part of that. I'm looking for people who want to sing about that, act on that, make a difference, or at least fail at the right thing. It was never going to be easy, Sunday seemed to say. Maybe my takeaway from Sunday is, even if it's at the last minute, with my Constantinian breath leaving my body, that I see that everything I have done is dust and ashes, it won't be too late to look at the one who is dying with me and say, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your reign." I may have served the wrong empire too long, but I wanted to be with you all the time.

Meanwhile, Advent starts in a few days, and guess what? It doesn't go back to the beginning. It seems to pick me up right here. Light in the darkness. Decisions to be made now. The good and the bad—all of it—is coming to an end. Maybe the end is the beginning, or the possibility of one. That's a good thought, Lord. Advent. Bring it on. Bring it into us all, into me.