Paris, Syria, and Christ the King

Two weeks ago I visited the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.  Interspersed among the timelines and photographs, the center includes vintage television sets that loop old broadcast interviews with George Wallace, Bull Connor, and others, all of whom say that (in the vernacular of the era) the Negro is an inherent threat to the white man and must be segregated from white society.  The voices imply violence and fan fear.  As one moves through the exhibit, the sounds of these voices are never quite silenced.  They haunt; they distract; they needle their way into consciousness.

National Center for Civil Rights exhibit

The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta

Today’s Old Testament reading reveals to us the final, benedictory words of King David, the ideal king of Israel.  They reveal one side of the great king, the spiritual side that cleaves to God and serves as God’s oracle.  At the beginning of the Bible’s next book, however, we receive the very last image of David, and it reminds us of David’s other, worldly side.  1 Kings tells us that “King David was old and advanced in years, and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm.”  That’s a starkly realistic and even pitiful image.  The man who once slew Goliath, who defeated armies, who built Jerusalem, is now so diminished that he can’t even beat back the cold.

And for those who know the story of David in full, we are reminded at this point that this ideal king is also an entirely and sometimes viciously human one.  He is the potentate who forced himself upon Bathsheba, who intentionally sent her husband Uriah to his death, who went to any length to accomplish whatever he desired.  We remember the David who, in order to get what he wanted, knew when to stoke his nation’s patriotism and when to fan his people’s fears, who sometimes entered into alliances with other kings, availing himself of their protection, while at other times vilified his neighbors as something less than his own people.

But now this king, who has for so long molded the world into his image, embodies the image of one who is diminished, and in pain, and cold, and about to die.  Because that is what happens to the kings of this world, all of them, whether they wear crowns, or suits, or desert tunics; whether they sit in Jerusalem or Washington, D.C., Austin or Fallujah; whether they call themselves Highness or President or Governor or Caliph.  They, like all of us, are but dust, and to dust they will return.  And the worlds they build?  The petty empires?  Scripture has something to say about those, too.  The author of Ecclesiastes begins his wise treatise by saying, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

Old King David in bed

“But now this king, who has for so long molded the world into his image, embodies the image of one who is diminished, and in pain, and cold, and about to die.”

Why does this matter on this particular day?  Because today is the last Sunday of our liturgical year.  Next Sunday we enter Advent, in which we assume the posture of expectation and anticipation.  But today we pause to assume a different posture, one of kneeling subjects, and the king to whom we kneel is not David or any earthly king, whatever title he may bear.  Today is the day we declare Christ the King.

In John’s Gospel today, another of those worldly kings, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, questions Jesus.  On the face of it, in this encounter Pilate has absolute power, and Jesus has absolutely none.  Pilate explains that others are calling Jesus king.  Pilate knows what kings do.  He knows how kings act.  And so he asks Jesus, “What have you done?  What are the tell-tale signs of your kingship?  How will you fight back, or where will you circle the wagons?”

Jesus’ response, refracted through the Gospel he has preached and lived, is to say, “My kingdom is not one among others.  My kingdom operates by completely different rules—rules not of this world—rules that don’t derive from your binary calculus of winners and losers, of us against them, of might makes right, of power preying on the powerless.”

Pilate shrugs and scoffs, and he sends Jesus off to the cross.  That’s what kings with worldly power do to the powerless.  And Jesus dies, but his death is not like the irrevocable diminishment and decay of David, or of Pilate for that matter, or of all worldly kings.  Jesus’ death is a testament to love, which will not raise a hand in violence and will not exclude any from its embrace.  Jesus’ death is revealed to be the first step in resurrection.  While all other kings ultimately lie irrelevant in the grave, Jesus the King lives eternally on, and his reign still increases whenever and wherever souls kneel to Christ the King by resisting those haunting voices that needle in our ears, fomenting violence and fanning fear, instead choosing to act not according to ways of the world, but according to law of love.

As we all know, a little over a week ago, the voice of a worldly self-declared king named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi fanned his ISIS followers to launch coordinated terrorist attacks throughout Paris, killing one hundred thirty people and wounding hundreds more.  It was not, by the way, the only day of terror that week.  The day before, ISIS killed forty-three people in Beirut.


“Syria is emptying.”

What rules of worldly kingdoms would lead to such attacks?  To understand this, we must back up and acknowledge what has happened in the twelve months prior to last week.  As the result of civil war compounded by the horrific brutality of ISIS toward anyone who won’t subscribe to its specific version of Islam, Syria is emptying.  Think about that.  It is unprecedented in modern history, and it represents the largest mass migration of people since World War II.[i]  Hundreds of thousands of refugees, fleeing for their lives and the lives of their families, have reached Europe, where nations including France and Germany have opened their doors and granted sanctuary.  Women, children, and families have been extended grace, care, and safety.  Make no mistake: where this has happened, we have seen a striking and hopeful geo-political glimpse of God’s kingdom on earth.

And that, as Paul Goldsmith has astutely observed, is exactly why last week’s attacks in Paris occurred.[ii]  Al-Baghdadi has stated publicly that ISIS wishes to eliminate any sense that it is possible for Muslims and non-Muslims to co-exist, because where they do co-exist, the dualistic ISIS worldview of black and white, believer and infidel, breaks down.  The very intention behind the ISIS attacks was to sow seeds of fear, to pit the West against those seeking safety for their families.  As Paul Goldsmith says, “ISIS realized they had to do something to stop us taking in refugees.  They had to do something to remind us that Muslims are supposed to be our enemies.  They had to do something to make us fear these strangers in our midst.”

And now, we are faced with how to respond, both to ISIS and to those refugees seeking lives of safety.  How to confront the menace of ISIS itself I leave to others much more versed on the subject and capable of response.  It must be a strong and unequivocal response; that much I know.  But what, today, of those hundreds of thousands of refugees still fleeing, still desperately seeking sanctuary in some new home, including the United States?

The voices of fear in our own country, responding exactly as al-Baghdadi hoped, grow louder.  They haunt; they distract; they needle their way into our consciousness.  They are powerful voices, the voices of the kings of our society.Syrian refugee quoteBut we, here in this place, first and foremost, are Christian people.  We are not Republicans or Democrats.  We’re not conservatives or liberals.  We are not even Americans, not first.  We are Christians.  We are those who submit our very lives to the Gospel law of love. We are those who kneel before Christ the King.  And our first question to ourselves must always be, “How would our King have us respond?”

“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked Jesus.  And Jesus told him a story of two people–a Jew and a Samaritan–from opposing religious traditions and cultures wary and suspicious of one another.  Jesus chose as the emblematic picture of the Gospel of love one such person setting aside his own fears and needs to save the life of the other.[iii]

Of the Syrian refugees being referred by the United Nations for settlement, more than half are children under the age of eighteen.  It is worth mentioning, as we will be reminded during Advent, Jesus was himself once a child refugee seeking asylum from deadly violence across national boundaries.  And the screening process for admitting refugees to the United States is rigorous, with the safety of United States citizens as top priority.  It takes an average of eighteen to twenty-four months. Kathleen Newland, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute says, “The refugee resettlement program is the least likely way for a terrorist to infiltrate the United States.”[iv]

The kings of this world—Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Francois Hollande, Barak Obama, Greg Abbott, take your pick—like David they are but dust.  They will pass; this crisis will pass; this era will pass.  And someday there will be an exhibit somewhere in which our response to these events is chronicled.  There will be photos and timelines.  There may be vintage television sets looping interviews with the very voices crowding the news today.  And as with all later generations reflecting upon their priors, those who come after us will be, one way or the other, mystified by how we responded.  It is my hope that they will be mystified—and inspired—by our willingness to love, to take absolutely seriously our role as subjects of Jesus our King.

Christ’s kingdom does not decay.  It is eternal, and we choose in every decision—personal and corporate—to whom we are subject.  We are not called to be foolhardy.  We are not called to be rash.  But we are called, always and every time, to side with Christ the King and his love.




[iii] Luke 10:25-37

[iv] This paragraph comes from the pastors’ op-ed for The Houston Chronicle, drafted by my colleague the Rev. Tommy Williams, Sr. Pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston.




There is more to the story

Joshua Wheeler grew up in eastern Oklahoma, just over the border from my home state of Arkansas.[i]  That can be a hardscrabble part of the world, and it surely was for Joshua.  His father was abusive, then left, and then died.  His mother suffered her own plentiful demons and lived mostly on assistance.  Joshua had three siblings, and at an early age it fell to him to keep the family together.  Merely a boy himself, he got his siblings out of bed when they could not rouse themselves and changed the little ones’ diapers.  He fixed their breakfast.  He made sure they got to school.  Joshua worked as soon as he could work, roofing houses and laboring on a blueberry farm.  He hunted, not for sport but to put protein on his family’s meager table.

Many of us know and understand the rural South.  Indeed, it is the source of many of us.  We know the myriad ways that a boy raised in a broken and troubled home can himself fall off the rails, renewing the cycle of poverty, addiction, and abuse for another generation.  But Joshua did not.  He grew up, began to raise his own family, and set a course for himself in the world.  Joshua’s sister Rachel says of her brother, “He was exactly what was right about this world.  He came from nothing, and he really made something out of himself.”

This is All Saints Day, and I thought of Joshua as I read the lessons for this occasion.  Our first reading is from Ecclesiasticus.  It’s one of my favorites.  It begins as an ode, as the reading says, to “famous men,” those saints whose names resonate through history, who continue to inspire and mesmerize us:  “There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent…they were wise in their words of instruction; those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes—all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times.”

We immediately recall a hundred names of women and men whose memory looms large in all facets of our world: leaders, scholars, athletes, artists.  They are great, and we remember them.  But then the reading from Ecclesiasticus changes tone.  From grandiosity it descends into wistfulness and says, “But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they never existed; they have become as though they had never been born.”

And that’s Joshua Wheeler.  We don’t generally write odes to young men who “merely” beat the odds of their social circumstance and become productive citizens.  We may smile and say, “Good for him,” but then we carry on and soon forget the story as though we’d never heard it.  We shouldn’t forget, though.  Because there is often more to the story.

Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler

Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler

After high school, Joshua Wheeler had two realistic choices: He could go to work in the oil fields, or he could join the army.  He chose the latter option.  Joshua enlisted in 1995 and immediately discovered that the military suited him.  He joined the Army Rangers two years later, and sometime after that Delta Force, the unit so elite that they Army doesn’t publicly even acknowledge its existence.  Over the next decade, Joshua serve fourteen tours in Afghanistan and Iraq—fourteen—where he was awarded eleven Bronze Stars, including four for valor in combat.

Two weeks ago, Joshua Wheeler found himself advising Kurdish persh merga fighters in an ISIS-controlled area of Iraq.  There was a hospital, and in it ISIS, presently this world’s clearest and most overt manifestation of evil, held seventy hostages.  ISIS had already dug a mass grave.  Those seventy people were slated to die.  The pesh merga attempted to blow a hole in the outer wall of the hospital to rescue the seventy, but they failed.  As had happened innumerable times before in his life, stretching all the way back to dusty Oklahoma, Joshua Wheeler was willing to accomplish what others could not.  And so, he—thirty-nine years old, father of four—rushed to the wall and with his own two hands set an explosive charge.  And then he rushed through the breach to save those slated for death, where he was himself shot, and he died.  He died, becoming the first U.S. combat fatality in Iraq in over four years, but the seventy hostages ultimately were freed.

There is often more to the story.  Last week, as I was sitting in the choir stalls in prayer just before the 11 a.m. service, usher Richard Dickson approached me to say that a parishioner desperately wanted me to add a name to our prayers for the deceased.  In the moment, the name Joshua Wheeler meant nothing to me.  But we added his name, and last week at 11 a.m. two hundred of us commended Joshua to God as a saint of the Church.  After church, I sat with that parishioner and learned that Joshua was a friend of her family.  It was important to her that we remember him.  And then I went home and read Joshua’s entire story, and learned of his early broken life and the examples of his ordinary family heroism and the way in which those small occasions of grace did as much as his military training to prepare him for his sacrifice.  And it became desperately important to me, too, that we remember him.

“For these who are about to be baptized into this Body, what better witness can we offer?”

There is often more to the story with each person you pass on the street, with each man or woman with whom you share the pew.  There is more to the story.  In early Christianity, all the faithful were known as “the saints.”  We would be the saints of Christ Church, of Houston.  These little ones who are about to be baptized will become the newest saints in Christendom.  And among us, there are small occasions of grace, acts of ordinary—and sometimes extraordinary—heroism to one another.  In other words, on this All Saints Day, we not only remember the saints, we are surrounded by them:  Joshua Wheeler, you, me.

On All Saints Day we also read the Beatitudes from Matthew.  They begin, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Bill Tully offers another translation: “Blessed are those who know the valleys they’ve lived in…[and] know their need of God.”  These are the ones who will get us out of bed when we cannot rouse ourselves, who will tend us, who will feed us spiritually maybe even physically when we are hungry, and who will run into the breach to save us when we are held captive.

Like Joshua Wheeler, we are called to be saints to one another in mundane times so that we know how to be saints to one another in times of great intensity and crisis.  We set the table so that we know how, when the time comes, to run into the breach.  For these who are about to be baptized into this Body, what better witness can we offer?

There is a coda to this morning’s passage from Ecclesiasticus.  After the author laments those who will die and be forgotten, he reverses himself, as if awakening from a stupor.  He says, “Wait! But these also were godly men…and their glory [also] will never be blotted out.  Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name lives on generation after generation.”

They are not forgotten, because we still live.  They are not forgotten, because they are the saints, and so are we.