Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Faith Restores Us

Scripture for the Last Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

We’ve just heard the Good Friday Gospel. At the early service this morning, wind shook this place as on the day of Pentecost. But it is November!

And November is a month that slips through our fingers like fine sand. Couldn’t you swear that it was October last week? And all that separates us from Christmas Day is one short month… one long list of hopes and expectations that outpace our resources… and no shortage of stress.

To mark this pivotal point in the calendar—when the approaching holidays bring their mixed promises of jubilation and exhaustion, when the weather swings cold, the days grow short, and the landscape spare—the Church gives us in its calendar this day, Christ the King Sunday, to give perspective on all those claims these next thirty days will place upon us.

The Collect of the day suggests that perspective. That is the role of the Collect of the day, Sunday by Sunday: to invite a way of hearing and seeing the Word that has been chosen for that day, the several portions of holy writings placed before us like steaming cloths at a spa, to open our pores and lose the grime and relax our grip, and emerge… improved!

You could say that the collect of the day asks for what we already have, or, better put, asks for the help we need to more fully become what we receive. That’s right in keeping with the purposes of holy scripture: to bear witness to what God has done for us and given to us, and to whet the appetite to welcome that action and gift of God, and, welcoming it, to internalize that gift so as to learn how to take our part in the great chain of giving that bears the likeness of God.

So today, with almost the brevity of a tweet, the collect acknowledges that the peoples of the earth are divided and enslaved by sin. Then is announced how God responds, freeing and bringing together people, all peoples, under the most gracious rule of Jesus Christ, God’s beloved agent charged with the task of restoring all things in himself.

If you’re a fan of Antiques Roadshow, as I am (though it’s the British version that I enjoy—there’s something too serious and chilly about the American version, little charm to it)—still, either program acquaints us with restoration: it’s the gentle application of tender lovingkindness, best achieved by humble means, like cleaning a painting with human spit, just the right enzymes to clean paint and not dissolve it. It’s expensive because it’s labor-intensive (and how much saliva can a restorer produce at one sitting?), but the value of the creation rises dramatically when restored… there’s the thing. Perspective on what you think you can afford to pay for renewal of that rather lovely but grimey old painting of great-great Uncle Thomas’s landscape along the Hudson needs to take into account how restoration changes a picture’s value, not just its appearance.

What is the mission of the Church? The Prayer Book’s catechism answers, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Unlike the restoration of a painting, where appearance is the concern, the restoration of people has unity as its purpose. And, if the analogy holds, our greater unity—with God and with one another-- will enhance our value in the great scheme of things, the role we take in God’s great chain of giving.

I don’t believe that theological language improves with the number of syllables required to make a word, but somehow I find it fits us well to call this human restoration by a slightly longer name: reconciliation.

At the micro level, the Church pursues its mission as any one person is helped to welcome and feel the thoroughgoing forgiveness of God. The Church’s mission begins, says our Book of Common Prayer, with the complete pardon that sets a person free from whatever has separated or bound him or her from God and from other people. Experiencing the sureness of that pardon is the purpose of confession, and the Prayer Book contains a brief service called “The Reconciliation of a Penitent.”

At the macro level, the Church imbedded in the world pursues its mission as it models finer ways of dealing with human divisions, finer than the zero-sum game, finer than sinking in the quicksand of partisan reaction, finer than vengeance and retribution. Think of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s championing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s approach to healing a nation once divided and enslaved by sin. Think of how it took international persuasion, much of it rising from people of faith, to dismantle apartheid.

That the peoples of the earth are to be freed and reconciled in Jesus Christ is meant to be good news. But if there’s an imperial edge to that message, what’s to keep it from becoming bad news? Two thousand years out, and Christianity comes in two thousand denominational flavors now—all capable of competition as well as reconciliation. And more of a quandary when we honestly humbly acknowledge that Christianity is one religion among many on the stage of this fragile earth, and not necessarily one that’s known for praying well with others.

Here is where the apostle’s letter to the Colossians comes to us as special gift on Christ the King Sunday. St. Paul sings a hymn of sheer gratitude for all the reconcilings that he had experienced himself, converted not from one religion to another, but from the ways of violence and zero-sum partisan reaction to the treasuring of an open heart expressing allegiance to the Prince of Peace.

Hear again his effervescent language: “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is the image of the invisible God… and in him all things hold together…he is the beginning… for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things… by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

There is all that to be thankful for! And Paul’s witness says to us, “All this is yours! God has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light of Christ. It is for you to become more fully what you receive.”

As Christians committed to work on that lifelong goal, we’ll do well if our witness to the lovingkindess of God in Jesus Christ is expressed in terms of all we are grateful for. Thanksgiving, gratitude, appreciation should smooth the rough edges and still the sharp judgment that may characterize an imperial Christianity that never did fit, and most surely no longer fits a post-imperial world.

It is for the higher values of cooperation and reconciliation that our faith restores us.

As we take our bearings on Christ the King Sunday, we take to heart the call to reconciliation.

As holidays come that came from Christian origins, we’re grateful for how familiar the roots of these holy days are, and welcome this year’s opportunity to pray well with others who may not have inherited that appreciation. May we find ways to let this Advent season prepare us all for celebrating in spirit and truth, and not get steam-rollered by seasonal stress. Let’s celebrate in ways that help reconcile a wealthy nation to its responsibility to feed all its hungry people, and hold accountable to the common good all whom we’ve called to public office.

As we have faced painful memories again in recognizing the passing of fifty years since the assassination of a President who summoned us to ask what we can do for others, hear the call to pray and work towards the reconciling of divisions in this nation now, fifty years later, starting with the most ingrained of them, the fierce resistance to gun control, with its idolizing of antique language in our Constitution, and its refusal to see that new occasions teach new duties.

Christ the King Sunday presents perspective gained from a king who made peace through his perfect practice of non-violence. He laid a foundation for reconciliation in his prayer, pardoning his persecutors because they did not know what they were doing.

In these days of our holiday celebrations, let us know what we are doing, and so celebrate as to reconcile. In this season of deep divisions in our nation, let us pray for grace and courage to know what we are doing as citizens and as people whose faith restores us
for the higher values of cooperation and reconciliation.