Reflection for November 20, 2016


Jeremiah 23:1–6, Colossians 1:11–20, Luke 23:33–43

The readings given to us this day are for Christ the King Sunday, a festival that concludes each church year at the end of November. This means that next week we begin Advent and a new year. This year we have been reading from the gospel of Luke. Beginning next week, most of the gospel readings will be from Matthew.

The Festival of Christ the King is not an ancient tradition. It was founded in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in an effort to counter growing secularism and hyper nationalism which were setting the stage for another European conflict which would become World War II. Pius was in his own way attempting to move people away from the distrust, hate, and extremism of the 1920’s and 30’s in Europe. Christ the King Sunday reminds us that we are humans together, beyond the grip of ideologies and various allegiances; and that our differences pale in the light of the love we share in God.

These assigned readings say some things about the kind of king Jesus is, and what is important for leadership.

     Jesus is a shepherd who cares for the flock with compassion and justice.

     Jesus is the first born of creation, whose identity is wrapped into God’s love for creation.

     And in the mystery of shared suffering on the cross, Jesus moves us into something called paradise.

These readings point us to God in Christ. At the same time they illumine the shape of leadership in our life together and human endeavors. They say something about how leadership works.

In the first reading the image of a king or any leader really, is a good shepherd. The good king of Jeremiah or the good leader is a shepherd cares for the sheep and watches over them, tending to their needs. The shepherd is not one of the sheep. The shepherd is someone who provides protection, direction, and guidance. The theme of this shepherd leader role is that of guidance and protection being offered, given, and accepted.

Sometimes in our relationships, in families, at work, in school, in church, community and nation we are called to give and receive guidance and protection for or from someone who is different from us. Much more could be said here about the sources of guidance, and how it is shaped, best given, and received in good faith. And more could be said about the responsibilities of the guide or shepherd to hold the welfare of the sheep as sacred. But the reading reminds us that without the honest desire to protect, guide, and defend; the flock suffers.

In the second reading the Christ is extolled in a first century hymn in lofty phrases piled one upon another. On a day like Christ the King, this is a good reading. The hymn describes Jesus as the first born of creation, embedded in creation, as that one creature that moves all creation back to its creator. For all its lofty language, Jesus in this ancient hymn is a creature, the first born of the created. In this hymn, the Christ is not distinct from creation, but part of it, embedded in its movement back to God. The theme of leadership here is solidarity: solidarity with creation and with all its creatures.

Sometimes in our relationships, in families, at work, in church, and communities leadership is achieved not by guiding or protecting, but by standing in solidarity, being with others, being a part of the group. This capacity to stand in solidarity is not only for those we call leaders, but for all of us as we go about our daily lives. Sometimes it is good to simply stand with someone. When we accompany in community we are building the common good of the community. Much more could be said here about the sources of solidarity and accompaniment, and how it is shaped and received. And more could be said about our responsibilities as we stand with each other. And more could be said about how Jesus is in solidarity with all creation and creatures. But without solidarity, groups dissolve as affection wanes.

In the third reading, the dying Christ moves far beyond guidance and solidarity, into a mystery; into another way in which leadership is shaped in life together. Jesus interacts with the thief on the cross. The two are connected to each other in the mystery of shared suffering. Here we encounter the deeply shared experience of pain and sorrow as leadership.

Sometimes in relationships, families, work, church, and communities, the good is achieved not by guiding or leading others, nor by standing in solidarity, but through the deep mystery of shared suffering that brings to light the good even in adverse circumstances. This capacity to share pain and sorrow, even on the cross leads us into the deep mystery of God’s goodness. The mystery of God’s goodness is called paradise. Much more could be said here about the nature of shared suffering, how it is shaped, and how it is felt. And more could be said about our responsibilities as share our common burdens. But without the deep sharing of our pain, hope withers.

So today, these readings call us to think about leadership in life together and those times when we give and receive guidance or protection, when we stand in solidarity with one another, and when we share in common sorrow. We will discover that all of those things happen in life together, as God moves us along the path to the good even on those days when we are feel like all is lost.

Let me share how this works for me. As a pastor, at work, I am sometimes called by situation or circumstance to guide and to protect this group; holding its welfare as sacred. That is an important part of pastoral leadership. But then there are other times when not I but someone else should guide. And instead I stand in solidarity with the vision of others as we try to be the church together and as we consider a course of action in our families or congregation. I don’t know how many times I’ve been with people and families as they have faced decisions, not wanting me to make the decision, but simply standing in solidarity with them as choices are made. But then there are other times when as a pastor I am called to suffer together with someone, sharing the deep sorrow of loss or death. In that shared suffering the mysterious God joins us, and helps us to hope again.

And this is how life is. A mother, dealing with the bullying a child faces at school, a family facing financial crisis, a person facing the end of an important relationship, all must blend guidance with solidarity with shared sorrow, sometimes following, and at other times in the lead.

Today, we read about Jesus, this strange king, who in our life together guides us, who stands with us and all creatures, and who shares in the sorrow of life. This is the festival of Christ the King.

Reflection for November 13, 2016

Malachi 4:1-2a, II Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

Well, it was an amazing week, and many of us will be facing challenging times as we adjust to the impact of the election on our lives. It doesn’t really help that the readings assigned for this week are apocalyptic: speaking of the end of the world and life as we know it. Kind of unsettling at a time when we may need to simply calm ourselves and move with conviction into whatever the future holds.

These apocalyptic readings in this the year of Luke were assigned not because of our election, but because we are approaching the end of the ecclesial calendar. Each November, at the end of the church year, before we turn our attention to Advent, we have a few end-times readings from the Bible. This year we have Malachi, II Thessalonians, and the apocalyptic words of Jesus in Luke.

We Lutherans usually distance ourselves from contemporary apocalyptic preachers. We tend to look down on apocalyptic thought. We usually laugh at gloom and doom prophets in our own time, and we usually try to figure out a way to limit or reduce the fierce apocalyptic visions of the Bible.

But in the end, doom and gloom, fear for the future, and a sense that it is all falling apart is born out of intense cultural, economic, or national trauma and anxiety. It feels like the end is upon us. And when we recognize that feeling in us in times of high anxiety, then we can sense how apocalyptic end-time thinking comes to expression.

Of the three apocalyptic readings, Malachi is the most difficult, so we will focus on that. Luke is written when the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans. No stone was left unturned. Out of the destruction of such temples and the sudden decline of the sacrificial system in the first century, a new way to be religious was being born. In the second reading, in Thessaloniki, the first Christians there were beginning to think that things were going so badly in their city that they should all stop working and just hang out until God came back, destroyed everything and whisked them to heaven. Paul suggests that there will be an end, sometime, but that it might not be a good idea just yet to quit your day job or to throw in the towel. There is work still to be done. There is still work to be done.

But Malachi is a hard piece of the Hebrew Bible. It is the last book of the Hebrew section. Although it is short, it contains some of the most difficult passages found in the entire collection. That is why it is usually just ignored. It comes from a time of rebuilding after the great destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. And things are not going well at all in this re-building of the country. The book is a collection of five oracles which are shaped like ancient legal arguments, (was Malachi an attorney?) focused on the issues of the day, and why things seem to be falling apart even as people try to rebuild their nation.

In these oracles we read of gloating national neighbors who have taken advantage of Israel. In Malachi, they will get their due. The clergy have really become sloppy and corrupt and crooked. They are not doing their job, and it’s time for all priests and leaders to clean up their act. And nobody is practicing the faith at home anymore. Hebrew men have married foreign women and the practices of a good Jewish family are being lost, especially on the coming generation. (Actually, intermarriage was seen as a real problem. Ezra, written at the same time, suggests that it’s so bad that intermarriages should be dissolved by divorce, and foreigners should be shipped back to where they came from, breaking up families. Malachi does not think that and divorce and deportation is a good idea, but offers instead the solution of raising children well as the husband and wife deepen their commitment to each other. Malachi, as strident as he sounds, is the voice of moderation here.) And then in these oracles God will send some kind of leader or messenger to get things straightened out (this is the passage Handel uses in the Messiah) and then God will purge everything in a final fiery blast in the passage we have this morning. Gloating neighbors, corrupt leaders, compromised family life, the need for a messiah, and the necessity of a dramatic cleansing: that’s Malachi.

So what do we do with this bit of apocalypticism? Some of course will see these themes echoed in the public rhetoric of our election as we have been working our way through times of deep national discontent and the feeling of many that they have been left behind, or are now threatened in ways they were not before. To me, it is fine if you do that.

But on days like this, I want to dig a bit deeper. For some time I have been thinking about the great trajectories of the Bible: its deep themes that move through its pages and then beyond into these last two thousand years. Some of these trajectories we know well and are easy for us to work with. One is human freedom as in Exodus and Paul. The Bible calls for liberty. Another trajectory is hospitality to the stranger, openness to others, strangers, refugees, those on the margins, and helping those in need as in the great prophets and in the life of Jesus and the writings of the first Christians. Another trajectory is compassion, grace, and mercy found in the wisdom of both testaments. Another great trajectory is justice and fairness as lifted up by the great commandments and reiterated in the work of the Major Prophets, including our own Jesus. Another trajectory is peace as the stories of war are more and more recast into the movement of all things into a just future. Liberty, hospitality, compassion, justice, and peace. These we might say are the great themes of scripture that shape our spiritual heritage and identity.

And there is one more profound trajectory or theme in our spiritual heritage into which Malachi dips. It is the theme of holiness or purity. We are called by God to be pure. In the great writings of the law, the cultic concerns of the prophets, the preoccupation with foreign influences, the desire for righteousness and to live as a people without blemish or blame, and even in the Lutheran hope to be justified at a time of final judgment: in all of this is a desire for a holy purity. Blessed are the pure in heart, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Malachi sees the collapse of the rebuilding effort as a problem of pollution. He seeks purity, in our relationships with our neighbors, in our leadership, in our homes, in our hope.

To our own peril, liberal Christians have ignored purity as a theme, until it trips us up in surprising ways. Liberal Christianity deeply longs for people and things to be good and right and true: pure. The liberal mind has at its core an idealism not only society but also for the individual and for intimate human relationships. But often preoccupied with the other trajectories of justice, peace, compassion and liberty, we sometimes forget the deep human longing for the pure, the holy, and that which is sacred.

Conservative Christians on the other hand have often lifted up purity as the essence of the faith. But have often shaped purity so that it used to exclude people who may not be seen as pure. In using the theme in this way they have become manipulated by political forces far from pure, while purity itself is reduced to a wooden ideology easily scorned by the coming generations.

But beyond all that is this Malachian yearning: as we rebuild, we clean-up our relationships with our neighbors; we hold our leaders to higher standards; we seek the best for our homes, our partners and our children; and we seek for ourselves and all creation that pure presence of God in compassion, hospitality, justice, truth and liberty until God comes to take us home.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian, wrote a short book in 1847 called Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. One hundred years later, as Europe faced a time of recovery and reconstruction after the war, the work was translated and widely shared. For Kierkegaard, purity of heart is the capacity of the solitary individual to focus on the one important thing. He says, as we face our future personally and then together, each one of us begins by seeking and then attending to the most important thing: the greater good. How is that goodness found? Kierkegaard speaks of the need to listen deeply to others in what he calls devotional address. He says in devotional address we encounter someone we treat as a “thou,” (this is the best English translation of the formal you, signifying the deepest regard and respect for another person) so that in devotional address we listen with utmost care to the deepest hopes and fears of the other who may be very different from us. In the mutual listening of devotional address we encounter the good which then allows us to discover, refine, and will one thing together. This is the purity he seeks for the rebuilding, renewal, and reconstruction process: deep listening, the devotional address of another, discovering together the will of God, and striving in purity of heart to will that great thing.

It would be a good thing if all those involved in American politics were to practice devotional address in the shaping of a fresh national dialog. But there is something more. The election has left many people anxious and afraid. Many immigrants, refugees, those of different creeds, minorities, women, the disabled, as well gay and lesbian people have been deeply wounded by the outcome of this election. These people, especially, need to be devotionally addressed at this time in our history. We are called to listen deeply, respond lovingly, and strive together for the biblical themes for which we stand. That is the work of which Paul speaks in seasons tinged by the apocalyptic.

As in the times of Malachi and Kierkegaard these are challenging days for our own nation. And it is time to prayerfully and devotionally seek our future together: as we sustain that sacred dialog to reveal that which is good and true; as we seek for ourselves and all creation that pure presence of God in, with, and under human compassion, justice, truth and liberty until God comes to take us home.