Escaping the 2010s; soaring into the 2020s

In 1982 with the Cold War still in full swing, Walt Disney released the film Night Crossing, starring John Hurt and Beau Bridges.  The film tells the true story of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families, who in 1979 fled repressive, Communist East Germany.  What is most remarkable is the manner of their flight.  The families created a massive, homemade hot air balloon, sewn under the cover of night on a sewing machine hidden in an attic.  They transported the balloon to a field on the outskirts of town and soared above the earth, dodging secret police on the ground and helicopters in the air.  And they did it twice.  The first time the balloon crashed a few hundred yards on the eastern side of the border.  The families snuck back to town, evaded the Stasi for weeks, made a second balloon, and finally made their flight a second, successful time.

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Night Crossing came to mind for me this past week, both as I studied the Gospel text for today of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and as I considered the auspicious change of the calendar.  I remember the fear and tension evoked throughout the film.  The characters were fidgety with anxiety as they moved toward the date of their escape.  The families wanted desperately to get out.

Today is the first Sunday of the new decade.  We’ve said goodbye not only to 2019 but to the 2010s, and for many the farewell has the feel of a flight response.  Like the Strelzyk and Wetzel families, we may want to hop into a balloon and soar far and away from the decade just ended.  Consider a few reasons why:

In the past ten years, the cost of private health insurance rose by more than 50%[i] while during the same decade median household income in the United States increased in real dollars by less than 3%.[ii]  We will soon reach a day when the cost of health insurance is no longer viable, for either individuals or employers.

In the past ten years, mass shootings in the United States, defined as shootings in which four or more people are killed in a public place, and not related to robberies or domestic violence, have proliferated.  Twenty years ago, mass shootings occurred, on average, once every six months.  Ten years ago, mass shootings occurred once every two-and-a-half months.  Today, a mass shooting occurs every forty-seven days.   Two thousand Americans have been killed in mass shootings since Charles Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas fifty years ago, but half of those victims have been killed in the past decade, and a third, in fact, in the past five years.[iii][iv]

In the past ten years, the number of displaced people and refugees on the planet has reached a record high.  There are now 25.9 million refugees across the globe.[v]  That’s almost equal to the entire population of Texas.  Think about that.  And more than half of those refugees are children under age eighteen.  These are people like the Holy Family in today’s Gospel, willing to travel in the dark of night, to take risks as daunting and dangerous as making a homemade hot air balloon or crossing the Rio Grande with an infant on one’s back, in the effort to preserve those they love.

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In the past ten years, the number of displaced people and refugees on the planet has reached a record high.  And more than half of those refugees are children under age eighteen.

In the past ten years, we could add to these tribulations environmental degradation, the dearth of economic opportunity in our nation’s heartland, the loss of faith in religious institutions, the breakdown in the common goodwill, and the disdainful rhetoric of our political leaders, all as contributors to our desire to soar up and away, our flight response from the decade just ended.

I saw the movie Night Crossing in the theatre, and I’ve never forgotten the final scene.  When the hot air balloon lands in a field, the fathers of the two families creep toward the road, until a policeman shines his flashlight on them.  One of the men asks, “Are we in the West?”  The officer responds, “You are,” and the fathers’ joy erupts as they call forth their families from the shadows.

Note that the question asked is not, “Have we escaped the East?” but “Have we found the West?”  You see, though the film certainly includes much anxiety and fear to escape from, it is even more deeply characterized by the hope of flight to.  More than the families fleeing the past, they are pursing a hopeful future, even when doing so requires much risk and danger.  And that casts a different light.

In the Gospel text today, the same dual perspective pertains.  On the face of it, the Holy Family is fleeing clear and present danger.  They must get out, and that quickly, in front of Herod’s death squads.  But our horizon on this event is as broad as the whole Gospel.  We know the rest of the story, and the story is that from the flight of a dark and desperate yesterday Jesus moves into a tomorrow that brings light, hope, and love first to dusty Palestine and then to the whole world.  The Holy Family escapes from Herod so that they can move into God’s grace.

Throughout today’s Gospel, Matthew narrates again and again that the angel counsels and Joseph carries the Christ child from danger and into hope.  Five times the text says this, the child being the bearer of the priceless promise.  Not only is he the one taken into a hopeful future; he is also the very one who makes that future possible.

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Not only is the Christ child the one taken into a hopeful future; he is also the very one who makes that future possible.

And so, as we move from one decade to another, must we really cast the turn of the calendar as a flight response?  Must we think primarily of the past decade as something from which we need to escape?  First we should ask, did we take Christ with us as the angel counsels, as we moved through those years?  Was he present in our world?

Surely, he was.  You see, this also characterized the 2010s:  In the decade just ended, the number of people across the globe living in extreme poverty was cut in half, from 1.2 billion to 600 million.  For the first time in human history, less than 10% of the world lives in extreme poverty.[vi]  With regard to violence, the misleading bombardment of the twenty-four-hour news cycle notwithstanding, we are now living in the least violent era of human history.  In the decade just ended, a smaller percentage of the world’s people died by violence than ever before.[vii]   The Christ child has been active locally as well.  In Houston during the decade just ended, the number of people who are chronically homeless and living on the street was cut in half.  At The Beacon, in the decade just ended, 70,000 different individuals walked through the doors and were fed 663,000 meals.  Adding spiritual nourishment to the physical, in the decade just ended, we at Christ Church baptized 448 people and confirmed or received 309 more.  Add to these few examples the countless other ways and places that Christ has been active, and the world begins to shine.

In other words, as we pull high and away from the decade past, we can see it as a time from which to anxiously escape, or we can recognize the light of Christ that we have carried through these years, that we continue to hold this day, and that we take with us into the future.  Any era—any day, or week, or year—can be either nightmare or dawn.  It all depends upon whether we understand ourselves to be escaping from darkness or flying toward hope.  The world will always include Herods, those who would turn on their neighbors, little men with lots of power who choose to be casually cruel, the apathetic.  But the movement of Christ into that world adds light that scatters darkness, crowds out anxiety with hope, and can redeem all things, including, if we’re brave and doggedly faithful, those tribulations I talked about at the outset.

So long as we carry Christ with us.  Only when we carry Christ with us.  We have to be as audacious as the kind of people who, in the shadow of danger, would patch together a hot air balloon in their attic and fly over barbed wire into hope.  We have not escaped the 2010s; we are soaring into the 2020s, and through us the love and grace of God will render this a better world.  Happy new year.

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[i] https://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/columnists/tomlinson/article/Health-care-lobby-won-in-2019-voters-have-a-14941850.php#

[ii] https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/09/us-median-household-income-not-significantly-different-from-2017.html

[iii][iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/08/05/more-deadlier-mass-shooting-trends-america/?arc404=true

[iv] https://everytownresearch.org/massshootingsreports/mass-shootings-in-america-2009-2019/

[v] https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html

[vi] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2018/12/13/rethinking-global-poverty-reduction-in-2019/

[vii] https://towardsdatascience.com/has-global-violence-declined-a-look-at-the-data-5af708f47fba

God with us

On July 20, 1969, fifty years ago this past summer, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module  “The Eagle” on the moon.  Today we recall with nostalgia and awe the courage and heroism of Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s accomplishment.  They were space cowboys; they were the cosmic Lewis and Clark.  But for a moment, imagine how isolated and lonely their experience must have been.  They were, more than virtually any two people had been or have been in the history of humanity, alone.  The two men were sixty miles below Michael Collins and the lunar orbiter, which was their only way home.  And they were 238,900 miles from the blue-green marble of earth.  They had no way of knowing whether the Eagle’s rocket boosters would successfully escape the lunar surface and return them to the orbiter.  Everything around them was desolate.  Nothing lived.  All was dark.  Can you imagine the claustrophobia?  Can you imagine the creeping, persistent impulse to panic?  Can you imagine feeling so alone?  How would you react?  How would you respond?

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Before stepping out of the Eagle and onto the moon’s surface for the first time, Buzz Aldrin did something remarkable.[i]  He radioed back to NASA these words, “I would like to request a few moments of silence…and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

No one on earth except for Deke Slayton at Mission Control knew what Aldrin did next.  High above us and three days away, on the cold and barren moon, Buzz Aldrin unpacked a small chalice, a wafer of bread, and a vial of wine that had been blessed in advance by his home church in Houston, and he administered Communion to himself.  In his book Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin says, “In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup.  It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”

Why would he do such a thing? In the most isolated place humanity has ever dared to go, on the dark and desolate surface of the moon, Aldrin needed the assurance that he and Neil Armstrong were not, after all, alone.  Aldrin needed to know that even there, on that crater-ravaged and brutal place, God was with them.

That is, after all is said and done, what tonight is all about: The Incarnation.  It comes from the same root as carnivorous and carnal.  It has to do with the body and embodiedness.  Tonight, as the babe is born in the dark, dusty, and dangerous stable, it means that God is born into our embodied world, that God is with us.

Since the dawn of humanity until our present day, people have wanted God to be for them.  In war, in politics, to prop up our beliefs both petty and grand, we all want God to be for us.  We want God to be on our side.  But the whole sweep and trajectory of Holy Scripture is about God’s insistence, and the people of God’s slow learning, that God is not for us, but with us.  And that is infinitely more important.

When the Israelites escape Pharaoh only to find themselves lost and alone in a bleak wilderness, God appears with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.[ii]

When the king of Babylon stokes the furnace, binds Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and throws them into the fire, the king’s advisor looks into the furnace and says, in wonder, “I see four men there, unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt.  The fourth has the appearance of God!”[iii]

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When the shepherds are out in the fields at night, gripping their staffs and straining their eyes in the darkness to fend off wolves from the flock, the heavens open and the angel of the Lord appears and sings, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”[iv]

Again and again in Scripture—again and again in life, from the earth to the moon—at the moments when we are the most isolated, the most lonely, and the most afraid, God appears and says, “Do not fear, for I am with you.”

Indeed, the greatest human dilemma is not mortality but isolation, and salvation itself is not ultimately about where we go when we die, but with whom we travel while we live.  It is not about escaping the darkness, or the wilderness, or the fire; it is the saving grace of knowing that when we encounter any of these God encounters them with us.  It is about, as that most unexpected of messengers Buzz Aldrin understood, communion with God.

Tomorrow we will read from the prologue to John’s Gospel, where we are told that, from the very beginning, “the Word was with God and was God…[and that] all things came into being through him.”[v]  In other words, even if there had been no Fall—even if Adam and Eve had never eaten of the proverbial fruit and redemption wasn’t necessary—there would still have been an Incarnation.  Christ would still have been born.  The Incarnation, Sam Wells says, is the very reason for creation, and in all of scripture the word “with” is the most important word.  “God with us” is the very heart of the Gospel.[vi]

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On this holy night, the Incarnation reaches its fullest expression, as the God through whom all things were made enters flesh and is born among us.  In his life he will himself experience darkness, and wilderness, and fire, and on the cross he will encounter the only isolation and loneliness in human history that exceeds the barren surface of the moon.  All so that we never need fear, that we are never alone, that we know God travels with us.

I don’t know what darkness you bring with you this evening.  I don’t know the wilderness through which you travel or the fire that you face.  But I do know that this night—this very hour—Christ is born; that in a few moments we will, like Buzz Aldrin two hundred thousand miles away, take Christ into ourselves; that the Incarnate God is with you, from the beginning, on this holy night, and always.  For that, thanks be to God.  Merry Christmas.

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[i] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/sep/13/buzz-aldrin-communion-moon

[ii] Exodus 13:21

[iii] Daniel 3:25

[iv] Luke 2:10-11

[v] John 1:1-3

[vi] Author’s lecture notes from a presentation by the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells at Trinity Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas September 17, 2016.

What are you waiting on? (And how will you wait?)

Though I feel sure it will shock and surprise many of you, despite my innate refinement, I was not born or raised in an urbane place like Houston.  I am from the northern tip of the Arkansas delta, a rural place marked mostly by agriculture, and even more so in the 1970s and 80s than today.  In high school, I served as the courier for my father’s small town law practice, and among my daily rounds I always spent time transacting business for the firm at Security Bank in Paragould.  Security Bank provided loans to farmers, of course, and one late spring afternoon I found myself waiting in the lobby across from a farmer with whose family my family went to church.  The farmer knew me, and I was the other person in the lobby for him to talk to, so he began to tell me about his crop.  I don’t recall whether there’d been too much rain or not enough, or whether we’d had one of our periodic droughts or a late spring frost.  All I remember is that disaster loomed.  The farmer’s crop, he said, was about to fail even before it had started to grow.  Even so, the farmer was not on the edge of despair or panic.  I got the sense that he had been in this very situation before, and perhaps often.  He had about him a centeredness and a calm.  And yet, paradoxically, he also quivered like a coiled spring.  The farmer said to me that, if the bank would partner with him, he could replant soybeans and still make a crop.  And clearly he was ready to do so at whatever moment grace was extended.  He waited, but his waiting was an expectant, energetic one, ready to cooperate with his fellow man, the elements, and (knowing he was a churchman) his God to midwife the fruit of the earth for another season.

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I got the sense that he had been in this very situation before, and perhaps often.

And so, here we are in the middle of Advent, that season of waiting.  It behooves us to ask three questions, I think: 1.) In what kind of world do we wait, 2.) upon what are we waiting, and 3.) what should the character of our waiting be?

To the first question, the evidence with which the world outside these walls bombards us these days includes 24/7 Christmas tunes on the radio; television commercials of surprise gifts (preferably expensive cars with gigantic red bows); Hallmark movies; and Precious Moments, doe-eyed nativity scenes, all designed to put artificial Cheshire cat grins on our faces.  But we know deep down, if we are willing to admit it, that these are Potemkin villages of Christmas cheer.  They are a thin façade that masks that world as we know it.  It is a world writ large, like the world of that Paragould farmer thirty years ago, in which disaster looms, and the season of Advent bravely acknowledges that.  Tish Harrison Warren offers, “To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness… The believer and atheist alike can agree that there is an undeniable brokenness to the world, a sickness that needs remedy. Whether we assign blame to human sinfulness, a political party, corporate greed, ignorance, tribalism or nationalism (or some of each), we can admit that things are not as they should be — or at least, not as we wish they were.”[i]

If that is the world in which we wait during Advent, then what are we waiting for?  Yes, the babe in the manger, but is the purpose of the nativity really a gauzy, eggnog-laden warmth?  No, not ultimately.  Both the remembrance of the first Advent and the anticipation of the second, when Jesus will return (we believe in hope) to make all things new[ii] mean that light will ultimately shine in every darkness: In the world’s darkness, and in the darkness that sometimes encroaches in your own heart and in mine.  And that light will not be a candle’s flicker in the night.  It will be a quasar, a light that both blinds us and grants us new sight.  It will be a light that redeems all that is wounded and broken in this world, both the things done to us and the things we have done.  That’s not sweet nostalgia; that’s world-transforming, shadow-fleeing, light up the heavens powerThat’s what we’re waiting for.  (Isn’t that what you are waiting for, even if you’ve rarely acknowledge it?)

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And so then, how should we wait?  Do we retreat into our bunkers in the midst of threat and pain?  Do we resign ourselves to the meantime, and sit numbly by while hoping for the coming of the Lord?  Do we give in to the darkness and allow it to roam our hearts, causing us to further contribute to the world’s pain with our own words and actions?

St. James today gives us the image of the farmer, who knows from long years the vicissitudes of the field.  The farmer is patient, because he knows first hand the contingencies he faces.  At any moment, there may be disaster.  But his patience is not fatalistic or resigned.  He is never complacent.  Rather, the farmer quivers to act, always ready to plow, always ready to sow at the first glimmer of sunlight or first drop of life-giving rain.  The farmer’s waiting is expectant, ready at every moment to spring into action, cooperate with God’s grace, and contribute to a fruitful crop.

Jesus himself today tells us what this kind of Advent waiting looks like for the rest of us.  John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and ask, in essence, “How should we wait?”  And Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

In the meantime between the first and second Advent, as we who are the Body of Christ get ready to celebrate once again the birth of the Christ child in the manger and in our own hearts, and as we await the coming again of Christ in glory, we are to wait upon Jesus in exactly this way.  Our waiting is an expectant one, an active one, a cooperative one, a waiting that quivers like a coiled spring, ready to respond to grace whenever we see it: to ourselves do no less in a darkened world than be the nascent light—the candle in the darkness—that gives sight to the blind, voice to the voiceless, and good news to all those for whom the news of late has been disaster.  That is who we are to be; that is how we are to wait.

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Copper the beagle puppy

Some of you know that in the Thompson household we have a new beagle puppy.  If you’ve ever wished to see incarnate joy in the world, get a beagle puppy.  There is nothing better.  When I come home and she sees me, either from her crate or at the top of the stairs, her waiting upon my approach is profound.  She, too, quivers like a coiled spring.  She waits upon my step or my word, ready to give actuality to the potential energy coursing through her little hound dog body.  And when I take that step or say that word, the release of joy in her almost knocks me down.

That, too, is not a bad parable for Advent.  In place of our culture’s superficial Christmas cheer that seeks to anesthetize us to the world’s pain, our waiting—our quivering Advent waiting—is to be that of a deep joy that doesn’t deny pain and sorrow but knows that they do not have the final word.  It is a waiting that plows the ground, that plants the seed, that trusts in God’s good grace, and that prepares the world for the day when Christ will come in light and power and joy will be complete.

What are you waiting on, and how will you wait?

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[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/opinion/sunday/christmas-season-advent-celebration.html

[ii] Revelation 21:5

Billy Sunday and Walter Rauschenbusch

I want to tell you the stories of two men, almost exact contemporaries and both committed ministers of the Gospel.

The first is William Ashley Sunday, born in 1862 in Iowa.  William’s father was a Union soldier killed in the Civil War, and William himself bounced around during his childhood, spending some time in an orphanage.  He was blessed with athletic skill, and as a twenty-one year old phenom he signed to play professional baseball for the team that was then called the Chicago Whitestockings.  By then they called him Billy, and in Chicago Billy Sunday was exposed for the first time to the sin that is endemic in the world, including the effects of alcohol abuse on working people.  These revelations and a chance encounter with a preacher on a Chicago street corner led Billy to a conversion experience.  All the other things in his life subsided, and Jesus became his lord and king.  Billy gave up baseball and began holding his own revival meetings.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, Billy was receiving invitations to preach in large American cities.  Eschewing churches or auditoriums, Billy’s advance team built huge wooden arenas called “tabernacles” in cities where Billy appeared, adding to the anticipation of his revivals.  Decades before Billy Graham appeared on the scene, Billy Sunday was a prototypical mass preacher.  He stomped and yelled, employing exaggerated gestures and colloquial language.  He moved millions.  And he believed that the key to saving the world was for people to invite Jesus into their hearts to be their king.  For Billy, this was an entirely internal affair. Jesus’ kingdom was interior, the realm of the heart.

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In 1861, the year before Billy Sunday was born, a baby boy named Walter Rauschenbusch was born in Rochester, New York.  Walter was the son of a Baptist seminary professor, and it soon became obvious that Walter would follow in his father’s footsteps.  He grew up and was ordained, and in 1886—the same year Billy Sunday met the street corner evangelist in Chicago—Walter Rauschenbusch took a call to serve as pastor of Second Baptist Church in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen.  Walter’s experience in New York was as transformative as Billy’s in Chicago.  In the Hell’s Kitchen of the late 1800s, he witnessed immigrant communities in sordid living conditions, labor exploitation by industrial giants, and government indifference to the plight of its most vulnerable citizens.

Walter Rauschenbusch read his bible again, and he realized that in the Gospels Jesus spends most of his time talking about the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ actions, Walter also recognized, actually transformed the real, physical lives of the people he met: Jesus set captives free; he offered healthcare to the sick; he overturned the moneychangers’ tables and convinced swindlers like Zacchaeus to deal fairly with people.  Jesus is a king who came to change the world, not only our hearts, and the Gospel, Walter decided, is a social Gospel.  With an evangelical zeal as strong as that of Billy Sunday he wrote and preached on the Social Gospel, giving the new Progressive Movement of the early 1900s a powerful Christian voice.

I daresay these two names were unknown to most of us: Billy Sunday and Walter Rauschenbusch.  But in the first two decades of the twentieth century, they were national celebrities.  There were no bigger names.  One filled cavernous rooms.  The other sold best-selling social commentaries.  Both were absolutely committed to the idea that Christ is king, but their visions for what that looks like were as different as night and day.

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Walter Rauschenbusch

Why do I tell you their stories?  Because this is Christ the King Sunday.  Next Sunday we begin a new church year.  Today is the end, the culmination, the ultimate Sunday before little Jesus Baby New Year shows up with his sash next week and we enter Advent to do it all again.  It is not incidental that we end the church year with Christ the King Sunday.  The last word is almost always the most important word, and for Christians the last word is that Christ is king.  If we pause and listen to those words, they will ring strangely in our American ears.  Like bazillions of Americans, Jill is watching the Netflix series The Crown, and her fascination with the life of Queen Elizabeth stems from the fact that the notion of royalty is so entirely foreign to our American sensibilities.  We don’t have kings.  (That’s sort of the entire American point, isn’t it?)  Except here we are, those of us who claim to be Christian in addition to—or before—we are American.  And today we say that Christ is King. So what do we mean by that?

The options are those of the contemporary Christian titans, Billy Sunday and Walter Rauschenbusch.  Though they lived a century ago, their distinctive approaches still drive our thinking today.  Both bent the knee to Jesus as king, but their understandings of what that entailed were very different.

In one sermon (available on YouTube), Billy Sunday says he won’t rest until “this old world is bound to the cross of Jesus Christ by the golden chains of love.”  But it is clear that for Billy Jesus’ reign is interior to the human heart.   Throughout his career, he was criticized (as Billy Graham would sometimes later be criticized) for having as his close friends men like John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and while encouraging such industrial barons to place their souls under the reign of Christ, that encouragement did not translate into changing the way they did business or laboring to better the lives of suffering people.  Billy Sunday’s message is an entirely personal, not public, one.  He spoke to the individual heart in hopes that it would become the subject of Jesus the king.  If Billy Sunday hoped for societal change at all, he assumed that the subjugation of the heart would somehow mysteriously, eventually, organically lead to social change.  Overt Christian social action was absent from his religious understanding.

Walter Rauschenbusch, by contrast, was the original social justice warrior.  For Walter, Christ’s kingship was not primarily of the heart, but of the outward world.  In his last great work, A Theology for the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch states the hope that, with Christ as king and through the concrete social actions of his subjects, the very kingdom of God would emerge in our world.  Injustice, suffering, and want would be overcome, and that requires that the subjects of Jesus first and foremost speak and act in the world boldly for social change.  But Walter Rauschenbusch was criticized, too, and in his case there were some who thought he co-opted the Gospel to undergird a Progressive political agenda.

Christ’s kingship as a matter of ruling the heart or as a charge to social change…but might this be a false choice?  The epistle lesson for today, which is the great Christ hymn from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, tells us that Christ “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”  It then goes on to tell us what that means: “In [Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him…so that he might come to have first place in everything.”

The great biblical scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright warns against what I’m calling the Billy Sunday-Walter Rauschenbusch dichotomy.  One the Billy Sunday side, Wright says, “[Christians cry], we want a religious leader, not a king!  We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world!”  But of the Rauschenbusch perspective, Wright equally warns, “If we want a king, someone to take charge of our world, what we [really mean is that] what we want is someone to implement the policies we already embrace.”[i]

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In Colossians, Saint Paul is clear and unequivocal that both perspectives are partial and incomplete, if not downright wrong.  Jesus’ kingship is not only about social action.  It is about “things visible and invisible,” and that most certainly includes the disposition of the heart.  Being subjects of Christ the king means nothing less than crucifying our own desires, loves, and pursuits in favor of Christ’s own.  It absolutely includes those moments in which we are driven to our knees as before a lord and king, to say “Not my will, but yours live in me.”

Jesus’ kingship is certainly a matter of the converted heart, but it is not only so.  Paul says that “thrones, dominions, rulers and powers” are within the bounds of Christ’s kingdom.  In other words, if any lead in ways that are contrary to the love and grace of God, and of God’s care for all people, then as subjects of Jesus we are required to serve Christ as king over any earthly leader, and we are compelled to speak out and act in the world for Christ’s love, challenging power, challenging the structures of society, declaring that God’s kingdom supersedes all earthly ones.

In other words, Billy Sunday and Walter Rauschenbusch are two equally essential sides of the same coin.  They are dopplegangers in addition to being exact contemporaries.  We need them both, as faithful witnesses to Christ the king.  When we turn our hearts to Jesus and allow his heart to become our own, and when we then live and act in the world in favor of signs that his reign is in-breaking, then Christ really does become king.  And for his subjects, in him all things hold together.

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[i] Wright, N.T. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, pg. 5.

What is resurrection?

At Episcopal funerals, the solemn anthem provides the very first words, the initiating sentiments addressed to all those who have come to mourn and remember someone they’ve loved.  It says this: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.  After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God.  I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold him, who is my friend and not a stranger.”[i]

Many likely believe these are the elegant and poetic words of Archbishop Cranmer or some later Prayer Book wordsmith, but they are actually the words of the most anguished human in recorded history.  They are the words of the biblical Job.  They are also our first reading today.  It is strange that they are so hopeful.

Job utters these words right in the middle of the Book of Job, after his family has been killed and his body has erupted in boils and sores, but long before God shows up in person and Job’s outlook changes.  At chapter nineteen, Job has been listening to the world’s worst best friends tell him incessantly that his misfortune is the result of his own sin.  Job responds with a lament that God and the world have humiliated him, injured him, and forgotten him.  (Have you ever felt that way?)  But then, in a brief non sequitur that seems to surprise Job as much as it does the reader, Job utters today’s words of hope.  For a moment, Job catches a glimpse of another reality, and it captivates him.  He sees it as the really real: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.  After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God.  I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold him, who is my friend and not a stranger.”

Job has a vision of resurrection, and for just a moment it changes everything.

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William Blake’s illustration of Job and his friends.

Resurrection is confusing, but don’t you worry—it confuses theologians, pastors, and priests just as much as it confuses everyone else.  What is it?

Most commonly, when we hear “resurrection,” especially at funerals, we unconsciously translate the term to mean “heaven.”  Those we love are gone, but we affirm, again from the Prayer Book, that “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place…in the heavens.”[ii]  The challenge is that heaven is very rarely spoken of in scripture this way, and when it is, it is only mentioned fleetingly.  It is amazing that we have developed an entire, pervasive theology of heaven on such scanty evidence.

It’s not that heaven isn’t real; it very much is real.  Rather, it’s that Holy Scripture is clear that heaven is not our final resting place.  Our finality is found in resurrection, and heaven ain’t it.  As I suggested to the Wednesday Men’s Bible Study a couple of weeks ago, heaven is more like the United Club at Bush Intercontinental.  It’s great:  Comfortable, great service, free food and drinks, and stellar wifi.  But it isn’t where you plan to stay forever.  The United Club is a way station, a place of ease and a respite on the journey while we await the joy of our final destination.  In a comprehensive theology of resurrection, that’s what heaven is.

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Heaven is like the United Club at Bush Intercontinental.

More recently, we may think of resurrection as some form of miraculous resuscitation, a bringing back to life again that which was dead.  In literature and film, that always goes terribly, horribly wrong.  Think of the various zombie films and television shows of the past generation (which I won’t go into because Canon Callaham has previously preached on them ably and well.)  This genre famously began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818, where through the most advanced science Victor Frankenstein brings back to life someone cobbled together from various other people’s parts.  The creature is supposed to be like Genesis’ Adam: innocent and pure.  But it turns out to be more murderous than the humanity that created it, and it serves even today as a cautionary tale for science that can increasingly clone and gene edit in God-like fashion.

If resurrection is neither of these things—neither heaven nor resuscitation—then what, exactly, is it?  That’s what the Sadducees in Luke’s Gospel want to know today.  Actually, they don’t really care.  The Sadducees are a group in first century Judaism who don’t believe in resurrection, so their question to Jesus doesn’t hope for an actual answer; it hopes to make Jesus look foolish.  The Sadducees intend to mock and belittle.  They ask Jesus, if a woman has been married to seven brothers in turn, then to whom is she married in the resurrection?

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Resurrection is not resuscitation.

Jesus meets their mockery with keen insight, and his answer—like Job’s surprising soliloquy—offers a glimpse of what resurrection is all about.  In his response to the Sadducees, Jesus becomes a cosmic grammarian.  Hearkening to the story of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus, Jesus alludes to God’s self-given name as “I am.”  God is, not was.  And in the eternally present God, nothing is lost; nothing will be or can be lost.  That is the key to resurrection, and it is what makes resurrection hope different from either heaven or resuscitation.  In our idea of heaven, we set aside the burdens of our lives and escape our hurts.  In resuscitation, we simply get to keep going for another round with those burdens and hurts in tow.  Can you imagine either of those options being palatable to Job?  Would Job be content in a heaven in which his sores are gone, but in which the futility and injustice of his family’s death was still extant?  Or, at death would Job be content to be resuscitated right back into the life of pain he’s been living?

Neither of these things is the vision that breaks into Job’s consciousness in the midst of his suffering.  Job’s vision is that he will be redeemed, bodily.  He will be made whole, in every sense of that term.  That means he and the world will be repaired, not merely resuscitated.  That means his loss will be restored, not merely that he will be anesthetized to it in some gauzy heaven.

That is the promise of resurrection.  It is not escape from this creation, like heaven.  And it is not a continuation of the same in this creation, like resuscitation.  It is, as N.T. Wright says, “the process of new creation, [in which] what may seem impossible in human terms is possible with God.”[iii]  Scripture gives us two images for what this looks like, one individual and the other corporate.

In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul says, in effect, that what we will be in the resurrection is both the same and different from what we are now as an acorn is to an oak tree.[iv]  If aliens landed on earth, and we showed them an acorn and an oak and said that these two are the same thing, the aliens would be as confused as we are by the notion of resurrection.  But God’s promise is that whatever we are today, with whatever brokenness, whatever stunting limitation, whatever disappointment and hurt; in the resurrection we will be the oak tree to the acorn, grown and blossomed into God’s fullness for us, with strength, and beauty, and completion that is beyond comprehension to us now.  Our limitations won’t be escaped but redeemed, so that the very things that have most pained us will become the source of our strength.  Each of us, individually.

Image result for acorn and oak

And corporately, God grants the great vision to St. John the Divine at the very end of John’s Revelation.  Again, that vision is not of heaven “up there” nor of a world that is simply more of the same.  Rather, the vision is of the new Jerusalem come down from heaven to earth.  In that great city, which in John’s vision stands for the whole redeemed world, God dwells with us.  Death is no more.  Mourning and crying and pain are no more.  In the middle of that city—in the middle of that world—flows the river of the water of life.  And in that city the gates are never closed.  They are open to all, always, because the love of God reigns.[v]

What difference does all of this make?  Resurrection may be a hope, but it isn’t here yet.  We still live in the world as it is now.  We still feel like Job sometimes.  So why does resurrection matter?  It matters for two reasons.  First, as a future hope.  A week ago I participated with thousands of others in Houston’s annual Alzheimer’s Walk.  As I thought of friends and loved ones who have faded into the ravages of dementia, the notion of a resurrection that ultimately restores us to wholeness mattered a whole lot.  And when I think of the pains many people on this earth—many people in these pews—face daily, the hope that those very pains somehow God will eventually knit into their—into our—strength, strengthens me.

Second, resurrection matters as a present charge.  I turn on the news or social media, and I see a lot of Sadducees, who mock, and belittle, and traffic in smallnesses that ultimately deny the goodness of God’s world and God’s children.  And I see, daily, more and more people listen to the Sadducees and begin to think that perhaps the Sadducees message is the best we can do.  But then I read the words of Jesus, who reminds us that God is, and that God is good, and that God’s promises are sure.  The ancient Sadducees died out.  They were; now they are not.  Today’s Sadducees will die out, too.  But Jesus’ Gospel lives, and at its heart is the promise of resurrection.  And so, we can be—daily—resurrection people.  We can be those who live by the vision of the oak tree to the acorn, who live by the vision of the Holy City whose gates are never shut.  We can be people who grant the world a glimpse of resurrection in the here and now.  And that glimpse will carry us into God’s good future, in which resurrection is the really real.

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[i] BCP 491

[ii] BCP 383

[iii] Wright, N.T.  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 218.

[iv] 1 Corinthians 15:37-38.  “When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.”

[v] Revelation 21.

“I sing a song of the saints of God”

I have a confession to make: I am preoccupied with what others think of us.  I know it’s a bad thing to be so preoccupied.  It may even be a vice.  I’m not preoccupied with what others think of the Cathedral per se, but rather with how others view The Episcopal Church.  Let me be clearer still.  It is not people’s opinions of our “hot topics” and controversies that preoccupy me.  No, what steals my attention is how people view our eccentricities and quirks.  And as Episcopalians, we have more than a few of them!

Take, for example, the hymn we just sang at the sequence, “I sing a song of the saints of God.”  As the hymn chronicles the lives of the saints, among its verses is:

 

And one was a soldier

          And one was a priest,

          And one was slain by a fierce wild beast:

          And there’s not any reason—no, none in the least,

          Why I shouldn’t be one too.

 

In case you missed it, this stanza seeks to convince us that being gored and eviscerated by a wild animal is good stuff, worth considering for the Gospel.  Do you think this was any more convincing when it was written in 1920 than it is today?

Because, try as I might to reform, I still care about what others think of us, I checked out some blogs on the internet to see what others say about our hymn “I sing a song of the saints of God.”  Let me tell you, they’re not very charitable!  No one but us seems to like this tune; all others poke fun at it.  One blogger went so far as to suggest a new slogan for us: “The Episcopal Church—Great preaching.  Very silly British hymns.”  At least he liked the preaching…

The hymn was written by Lesbia Scott, an English mother who wrote songs for her children, never intending for any of them to be published.  Her children would beg, “Write us a song about a foggy day,” or “Make us a hymn about a picnic,” and Mrs. Scott would oblige.[1]  And one year, as the Feast of All Saints approached, she determined to write a song that would inspire her children and teach them something about the commitments of Christian faith.

The lyrics risk being lost on us, as they surely are on the internet bloggers.  Another verse says:

 

One was doctor,

And one was a queen,

And one was a shepherdess on the green.

 

The bloggers have a field day with this line, calling it trite and out-of-touch.  I mean, “shepherdesses on the green?”  Who talks that way?

But in point of fact, the doctor Mrs. Scott refers to in that verse is St. Luke the Physician, the world’s first investigative reporter who sifted through all the available information floating around about Jesus in order to write the books Luke and Acts, our greatest historical chronicles of Jesus and the early Church.

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St. Luke the Physician

And the queen is tenth-century Margaret of Scotland, who not only ruled Scotland during dark times with justice and peace, but also modeled that age-old reality that it is the wife who so often draws her husband and family to God.  You see, because of Margaret, King Malcolm of Scotland went from being little more than a barbarian to being a good and even holy king.  Margaret’s biographer says, “[Malcolm] saw that Christ truly dwelt in her heart;…what she rejected he rejected;…what she loved, he for love of her loved, too.”[2]

The shepherdess on the green is none other than Joan of Arc, who went from peasant herder of sheep to savior of the French nation.  And later in the song, that saint who is killed by “a fierce wild beast?”  That’s Ignatius of Antioch from the first century.  Both Joan and Ignatius died as martyrs for their faith, but both also faced serious occasions of fear and doubt.  As he was being transported to his death in Rome, Ignatius wrote feverishly to his flock, praying that his courage would hold out and he would not beg for mercy when faced with the lions.[3]

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Joan of Arc, the “shepherdess on the green”

In order to teach her children, in other words, Mrs. Scott’s motivation was not silly, sing-song rhymes.  She chose her saints carefully.  She selected remarkable Christians, but also those who were very human, with all the outer challenges and inner frailties faced by each of us.

And it is not even with these great saints that “I sing a song of the saints of God” ends.  I have a feeling that Mrs. Scott was familiar with the traditional reading for All Saints Sunday that we read from Ecclesiasticus this very morning.  In that reading, the sage says, “Let us now honor the praises of famous men…to whom the Lord apportioned great glory.”  But he goes on to teach that, “Of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed…But these also were godly people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”

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St. Ignatius and the Lions

Yes, I have a feeling that Mrs. Scott knew this reading.  She also believed it—that the Communion of Saints is populated not primarily with kings and prophets but with the masses of people struggling to love God and to live their lives as God would have them lived.  She wanted her children to understand this, too.  And so the final stanza of her hymn is:

 

They lived not only in ages past,

          There are hundreds of thousands still,

          The world is bright with the joyous saints

          Who love to do Jesus’ will.

 

I’m with Mrs. Scott.  I believe it.  I’ve seen these saints.  I knew one in my grandmother, who loved and tended to the needy with a quiet passion.  It is her more than anyone else who comes to my mind when I hear the Beatitude (which we sometimes read on All Saints Sunday) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

I’ve seen these saints as nurses and physicians who sit at the bedsides of the ill and dying, treating them not as clinical cases but as souls seeking comfort.

I’ve seen these saints volunteering at the Beacon…and caring for God’s creation…and studying Scripture…and telling someone they will pray for him and then actually doing it.  I’ve seen them laugh with those in joy and cry with those in sorrow.  In my almost seven years at Christ Church, I’ve seen them, again and again, right here.  The hymn ends:

 

You can meet them in school,

          Or in lanes, or at sea,

In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,

          For the saints of God are just folks like me

          And I mean to be one too.

 

Indeed.  I think I’ll keep our silly British hymn, thank you very much.  Would that more of us were like Mrs. Scott and took the time to know and share these stories of people of faith: some of great renown but others sitting in these very pews among us, inspiring us by their quiet faith to share grace in a broken and sometimes dark world.

On this All Saints Sunday we honor and remember them all, both known and unknown, and we honor them best when we love the God they love…when, by the grace of that God, we seek to be saints, too.

_____________________

[1] Internet quote from Professor William J. Reynolds of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[2] Ellsberg, Robert.  All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, 253.

[3] Ibid., 452-453.