The Kingdom of God is Y’all

Christ the King Sunday
25 November 2012
First Baptist Church, Lawrence, Kansas

I’m going to tell you something about myself that I’m not too proud of. I really like to get the last word in. Really like to get the last word in. In my family “Yeah But” is a common chorus heard as arguments, conversations, debates stretch on. The cacophony that builds as each of us clamors to get the last word in.  I’m willing to see the other person’s perspective, but lest they think they’ve won, I retort with a “yeah but!” to re-emphasize and re-articulate my own thoughts, feelings, perspectives, justifying myself once again. Just so we’re clear, I’m still right. I really like to get the last word in.

Today’s scripture passages are full of last words.  Much like the long-winded speech from Samuel we read a few weeks ago, in 2 Samuel, we hear the last words of David to the gathered people of Israel. David, too, reminds the people of their own identity as called children of God, and reminds them of God’s own faithfulness to them.  Though Israel is now an established monarchy, he reminds them of their utmost loyalty and obedience to God and God’s kingdom: a Kingdom marked by justice and mercy.

These words from David, set us up for some other last words. Today, according to the church calendar, is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the church year. Though, it often gets a bit lost in the hustle of Thanksgiving, Stewardship conversations and Advent Preparations.  This year, by luck of the Gregorian Calendar, we (thankfully) have an extra Sunday between Thanksgiving and Advent, so today we recognize Christ the King Sunday. We hear the last words of the liturgical year. Next week we start all over again with Advent – with hope, anticipation and held breath.

The 2 Samuel passage is significant in many ways for this Sunday, perhaps most notably because it prepares us for another kind of king, from David’s own lineage.  In the Gospels we remember that Jesus’ own genealogy was traced through royal roots – from the house of David a king will rise up. Jesus is a King first because it is in his blood.

And yet, as we will remember in the coming weeks, Jesus’ royal identity is unexpected, humble and meek.  From his very birth, through his life and death, he is a king unrecognizable by any worldly standards or markers.

It is customary, on Christ the King Sunday, to sing triumphant, victorious, coronation style songs about Jesus being King. Today we sang “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” Others of us are familiar with hymns like, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “O Worship the King,” and “Lead On O King Eternal.”  See, the thing is, Jesus wasn’t exactly a King like most of the lyrics might suggest.

We hear him called King; he told us of God’s Kingdom, but we know that he never wore jewels or a fur-lined robe. He certainly didn’t have a mansion, a castle, or even a home to call his own. He didn’t keep servants or concubines or chefs. And the only crown he ever wore was a crown of thorns. A crown fashioned to mock any claims to kingship he ever had.  A crown that turned a symbol of rule and power into a symbol of humiliation, vulnerability, and contempt.

We hear it said, and we say quite often, that Jesus’ Kingdom, that the Kingdom of God, is countercultural; it is subversive.  Christ the King Sunday calls us to reflect on the challenging and yet comforting reality of the weight of these ascriptions. In Jesus’ conversation with Pilate, in some of his last words on earth, we hear the challenging, and even confusing dichotomy between kingdoms of this world, and the Kingdom of Christ:

Pilate, as an arm of Caesar, used his power and authority to manipulate others in order to maintain his position and power. He has little to no care for the community he serves – he distances himself from the people over whom he rules when he says to Jesus: “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over.” (John 18. 35) On the other hand, Jesus’ power is the radical power of love and truth. His power is the power of service and sacrifice, to which he attested when he commands us to lose our lives for the sake of others. His authority is divine. His authority to the Kingdom is in his very commitment and living out of the grace and truth, which characterizes it.

The result of Pilate and Caesar’s rule is a culture of fear and terror.  Even in the midst of relative calm, as in the context of the Gospels, the people still operated in a culture of fear and suspicion.  On the other hand, Jesus brings peace, even into the real presence of terror.  Remember his words: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14.27) This is the culture of Christ’s Kingdom.

We can also look to how their followers acted as a measure of leadership: “Pilate’s followers imitate him by using violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nationality.” On the other hand, we know how Jesus expects his followers to behave, and how he expects his disciples to treat others.  He commanded Peter to put away his sword. He commands us to look out and care for our neighbors. His Kingdom, then, is a Kingdom of hospitality and unity, not of violence and division.

The source of authority for Pilate is human. He derives his power from Caesar. Caesar derives his power from control and self-declaration.  Even in a democracy, we understand the imperfection and tenuousness of authority that originates from human will.  On the other hand, Jesus’ authority is derived from the will of God and is eternal. His Kingdom is not susceptible to coup or to conquering. Christ’s Kingdom is the Kingdom of eternal light and life, which originates from the will of God.[1]

What has this to do with us?

What does this mean for those of us who profess faith in Christ?

I believe that the true countercultural call of God’s Kingdom, of Christ’s Kingdom is for those of us who call ourselves believers.  It is easy to talk about the subversive nature of an eternal kingdom, but what does that mean for us?

When we talk about the Reign of Christ, when we honor and sing about Christ as our King, we are talking and singing about a Kingdom and a Reign already at work in the person of Jesus Christ.  In our Incarnational declarations of Easter and Pentecost, we confess that God’s own self in human form dwells among us, cares for us so much that he lives and works among the human community. Jesus, as God’s Incarnation, established a kingdom of reconciliation, right relationship and true humility.

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nevermind all that: on treading two worlds

“So, what is the appeal for someone like you to come to this thing?”, she asked me with a look both appalled and shocked.

“Someone like me,” of course, being a minister. A person who spends her days not devising lectures, syllabi and essay rubrics, or (perhaps more to the point) researching, writing, submitting, revising and resubmitting papers to academic journals, and praying for a book deal (or two or three) and dreaming of days of tenure.

“This thing,” of course, being the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in Chicago. A meeting of somewhere around 12,000 (maybe more?) academics who study all things religion or biblical or even tangentially related to either. The gathering consists primarily of professors and graduate students in fields of religion, theology, Bible, religious history, culture, and so on.

The assumption built into my inquisitor’s question is that if you don’t have a Ph.D., if you aren’t affiliated with an institution of higher education, you really have no place at an academic conference or meeting. It was a dichotomy I felt before I arrived in Chicago for the meeting, and it’s a division I have felt from both sides of my “affiliations”.  I have two sets of letters in front of my name: “Rev.” and “Dr.” and I find people generally are only willing to accept one (at a time).

Back to the question posed Sunday night. I didn’t know quite how to respond. I was pretty sure I had also explained that I had finished my Ph.D. a year ago when I stated that I am now a minister in Kansas. What I wanted to say, mirroring the same appall and shock is, “Why wouldn’t I want to come?”

What I don’t understand is why I have to defend my presence.  What is the appeal for someone like me to come to this thing? Nevermind that six months ago I was grading papers and recording grades for the college courses I taught. Nevermind that more than a year ago I defended my dissertation and graduated with my Ph.D. Nevermind that I do and will always carry the title Dr. in front of my name (becoming a pastor does not rob me of that). Nevermind that the whole pursuit of getting a Ph.D. is prompting, cultivating, and fueling the desire to be a lifelong scholar.  Nevermind that the whole dichotomy pisses me off to begin with. The thing is, I shouldn’t have to defend my presence at all.

There is this clear assumption that pastors have no interest in or (even more egregious) no place in academic conversations.  The other side is just as bad. The vast majority of academics don’t see any correlation to the ground-level church world in what they’re doing, and often church folks – clergy, leadership, laity – dismiss academics as ‘mere’ intellectual exercise. I have had to explain and defend my education to church search committees and fellow ministers (my current placement is not one of them). And I have had to explain my ordination and calling to serve the church to fellow academics.

On a personal level this is, obviously, alienating.  On a bigger level, my only response to the woman’s question remains this: I come to academic conferences, yes, because I’m an academic, but even more because people are still asking the question.  I value intellectual ideas, questions, and conversations, and I believe with my whole being that those things matter to the church.  They have to, or they don’t matter at all. This article goes into all this in more depth than I really need to; here’s what I found most helpful:

The church needs substantive theology – yes, theology. Real historical, theological, philosophical reflection must be taken seriously in church sanctuaries, basements, fellowship halls – and especially beyond the walls. There is no such thing as being too well read regarding the Scriptures and the history of our best and worst behaviors.

I want to – and would be remiss not to – acknowledge that I am, in general, surrounded by friends and colleagues both in the church and the academy that appreciate, support, and share the intersection in which I, and others, live. I feel fortunate to serve a church that eagerly supported my attendance and presentation at AAR. I feel equally fortunate to have friends and former professors in the academy who share my deep love and care for the church.

I hope that the conversation continues and the grey area gets deeper, richer, so that the divide is no longer the norm in these circles.

Morning Prayer, November 11, 2012

God who calls us by name –

Call us this day to your service.  Some are called to speak, and others to listen. Some are called to sing, some to play, some to create, some to write, some to participate. Some are called to trust, some are called to question. Some are called to laugh, and some are called to weep. Some of us are called to build, and some are called to imagine. Some are called to hold and some are called to be held.  You know us and call us each by name.  Thank you that you created each of us as your children to give and work and be your Kingdom.

Thank you for calling us out to be your church in this place. Thank you for the stories we have to share of a rich tradition and a rich history of being a community, of being your community together.  Help us hold these stories tightly as we also open our hands and our selves to the stories you have yet to write among us. May we remain ready to create together the future you call us to day by day.

God we know that part of what you call us to is to give – of what we have, and most important to give who we are. It is challenging work to wake up and live our moments saying no to the things that distract from you and leave us with less that our entire being for you.  May we hear your call echo deep within us to commit once again all of who we are to all of who you are.

You are the God of unity, of wholeness and of reconciliation. We have been praying and seeking unity in these weeks where discord and division have been most keenly felt. May our prayer be in earnest. May we be willing to heed the call to be your peace, to be your reconciliation.

You call us to humility, to service, and to grace.  Meet us in that call, and may we hear it with new ears, receive it with new hands this day.

It is through your Son, the Christ we pray, Amen.

Quiet Music Should Be Played Loud

If you know me well, I have likely, rather evangelistically, worked to convert you to (or make sure you already are) a fan of Over the Rhine (Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist). If you know me really well, you’ve probably had to bear my dissertation-related talk about them. They are easily in the top top top of any music-related “favorites” list. (Live show: Christmas Show at the Taft in Cincinnati, 2009; Album: “Drunkard’s Prayer”; Christmas album: “Snow Angels”; Song: okay, I can’t pick just one. You get the idea.)

At any rate, I’ve basically lost count of how many times I’ve seen them perform live, though I’m guessing by now it’s easily 20. I’m headed in just a bit towards St. Louis where I get to share the live Over the Rhine experience with a dear seminary friend. My second favorite thing after seeing Over the Rhine live, is taking someone to see them play for the first time.

One of the things, if I could name it, that I love most about their music is their ability to capture melancholy, to capture doubt so keenly, without never losing complete grip of hope.

This is what Linford has to say about why they do what they do:

There is a beautiful passage of scripture that made an impact on me as a child that I have never forgotten.  Jesus said that if you help someone in need, someone hungry or naked or thirsty or imprisoned, if you are able to be present with them and soothe them in some way, it’s the same as if God was hungry or naked or thirsty or imprisoned and you found a way to help God.  There is so much need in this beautiful broken world it can be overwhelming. . . . [W]e have watched people invite our music to be part of the big moments of their lives . . . . Unfortunately, big moments also occur during seasons when it feels like everything is going horribly wrong.  We all need music during those dark times too – I know I do too.  It’s always humbling and amazing to learn that our music can be present in those too-difficult-too-imagine times.  In some small way, through our music, it feels like we get to be present too, even when that is physically impossible. We get to be there in spirit. (Letter, 4/23/10)

Here are two favorites:

I said the road is my redeemer
I never know just what on earth I’ll find
In the faces of a stranger
In the dark and weary corners of a mind.

All my friends are part saint and part sinner
We lean on each other
Try to rise above
We’re not afraid to admit we’re all still beginners
We’re all late bloomers
When it comes to love

This quote, from a 2007 letter is as appropriate for our current time as it ever was:

In America, in recent years, it sometimes seems like many folks are becoming increasingly entrenched in their political camps. Certain religious affiliations are becoming increasingly rigid. When groups of people insist on surrounding themselves almost exclusively with others most like themselves, real conversation can be hard to come by. (Conversation that celebrates the reality that since people have the ability to see things very differently, maybe we can actually learn from each other, be surprised.) (Letter, March 2007)

And it goes along with this song:

Why I Vote. (Reposted)

[I originally posted this in 2010. I still believe every word, and I can’t wait to vote. Good citizenship, FTW.]

I vote for a lot of reasons. Primarily because it seems like the right thing to do and I feel guilty if I don’t. But mostly that reason says a lot more about me than about the act itself (ENFJ, #1 Enneagram, Oldest Child, etc.).  Just like I feel guilt if I miss church, fail to complete an assignment fully, or don’t finish my leftovers: it’s the right thing to do.  But just like I have much better and deeper reasons for doing the former things, I have some other reasons why Election Day is one of my favorite days of the year:

  1. I vote because I can. I remember being allowed to accompany either my mom or dad to their polling place growing up, being so excited for when I would get my own piece of paper, and have my own selections counted up, while watching the numbers tick up at the bottom of the screen later that night.  So sacred did they consider the right—nay, privilege—to secret ballot, that often I was not allowed in the booth with them.  That perspective has certainly carried over to me.  This election day, as I scrolled through dozens of facebook statuses proclaiming each had voted, and reminding others to do the same, I came across one that caused me pause.  My dad’s wife grew up in Liberia. She intimately knows the inability, inaccessibility, and uncertainty of a free electoral process.  Her status read: “I love voting. It always moves me to tears. I am blessed to live in a country where I can freely vote my conscience with no repercussions.”  Yes. I vote because I can. Without fear of violence, threat, or coercion.
  2. I vote because I am a citizen, and it is my responsibility.  We are fortunate to live in a society in which the democratic process is a given.  At the core of our country’s political values (at least at their most idealistic) are certain freedoms—freedom to choose, to believe, to speak.  Because we are not a direct democracy, the most important way we ‘speak’ is in electing officials who will govern, initiate change (or block it), create laws or deconstruct unjust laws, and appoint officials who will seek justice for all members of our society. I vote because I have a responsibility to speak my voice.
  3. I vote because it is the first step.  My rights and responsibilities as a citizen do not begin and end with voting. Many of us are wont to begrudge the selection come election day.  We say that we’re “given” only a choice between ‘worse’ and ‘worser.’  The truth is that we are the ones who have given us the choice.  The political process is ongoing, and involves advocacy, activism, and involvement.
  4. I vote because everything I’ve already said is idealistic bullcrap. And I hate that.  That our political process is often mere formalism, that our politicians are often all full of the same dirty tricks and victim to the same big money, that our own idealism renders us lazy and hopeless, angers me, frustrates me, stirs me into inertia.  But I still believe in our Constitution, which speaks for freedom, equality, justice, the pursuit of happiness.  I believe that I am responsible to and for other people, and my voice as my vote is an important (though often tiny) part of that.  I vote because I want to believe in idealism and I want to believe in progress. I want to believe I’ve done a small something.
  5. I vote because others cannot. There are disenfranchised members of our society, and we have many labels for them. I am privileged. I know the system. I know the system so well, sometimes I forget to recognize that I am a participant in all of its rules, regulations, norms, and values. I vote for myself and for them.
  6. And I vote because I may one day have a daughter I can take along to the polling place, and I want to tell her about voting. I want to let her wear my “I Voted” sticker, and be proud of democracy. I want to tell her about voting early because I would be out of town. I want to tell her about voting for winning candidates and losing candidates. I want to be an example to her and instill in her the same idealistic, sacred values of speaking for ourselves and for others.