Christ the what?

Colossians 1:15-20
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him 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. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:36–37
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”

Did we read the right gospel? Isn’t today Christ the KING?

Isn’t today a baptism? We’ve got two little sweet peas over here and we’re reading about the crucifixion?

Today is the day of the liturgical year when we particularly recognize the reign of Jesus Christ, the power of God among us in and through all things.

But the image of Jesus that we are given in the gospel to understand that he is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation,
in him all things were created,
he is before all things,
in him all things hold together,
he is the head of the church,
he is the beginning,
the firstborn in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…

And the gospel tells us that we see and know and understand Jesus Christ in the moment of his suffering, his dying, his humiliation.

We might feel angst at the distance between Colossians and Luke, the beautifully poetic proclamation of Christ’s greatness on one hand and the ugliness of cruelty, pain, mocking, and death on the other. But that tension is the deepest and hardest truth of our baptism. We join Jesus through the story of his suffering and we join him in resurrection life.

So today’s proclamation of the power and glory of Christ Jesus is not power and glory as we might expect it. It’s not celebrity or wealth or unquestioned control. Power and glory, success, flourishing, all take on a different meaning in the gospel, in this baptismal life. And we see that most of all, the reign of Christ is over the hearts and minds and lives of those who commit to follow in his radical way of love. 

In baptism, we make vows to move away from evil and harm, from power over others, and commit to trust in and proclaim God’s grace and love as we have known it through Jesus. We promise to seek out that divine presence in other people and celebrate it in one another, to make God among us the defining feature of our common life.  In a culture that preaches louder and more, that cajoles us to buy and upgrade into happiness, to only look out for ourselves or those nearest to us, these promises of baptism make about as much sense as a criminal king, an executed god.

These families choose to baptize their children and commit them to this strange, counterintuitive life. They are promising to do everything you can to raise their children to give themselves away, to live lives of loving and peacemaking.  They are handing them over to die and rise with Christ. They give them to this community and acknowledge that they are not theirs alone, and that can be a frightening thing.

It is certainly a solemn thing, as it is for all of us who will make these promises again this morning, to hear these frightening words from the gospel and give ourselves to this story, this discipleship.

But take one hand, if you are able, and put it on your heart.
Take another hand, if you are able, and put it on your belly.
Breathe a little bit deeper.
Hear the Holy Spirit breathing and speaking her peace and power to you.
Hear the Spirit affirming that this hard road of love,
this upside down way of Christ our King,
this path is the only one that leads to resurrection.
This is the way of love.

When we put this baptism into practice, and allow the Spirit, as the old hymn says, to tune our hearts to sing God’s grace, we might begin to have the courage to live fully in Christ, and see that his reign is in the most surprising and ordinary places.

The reign of Christ, the Kingdom of God, doesn’t look like the biggest crowd. It’s not the most money, the most likes and follows and retweets, it’s not the loudest voice or the most self-justifying logic. The kingdom of God, so the saying goes, belongs to the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, those who face trouble for doing the right thing.

The reign of Christ is here in the sock and button teddy bear our family received for our baby, a gift from an acquaintance and former classmate of mine serving a sentence in the maximum security prison outside Nashville, supplies bought at commissary mark up, then stitched and stuffed with so much love and attention for a baby he’ll never meet.

The reign of Christ is here in the dozens of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made each afternoon at the downtown library, when the librarians realized that their after school tutoring programs couldn’t help teenagers who are too hungry to learn.

The reign of Christ is here when you show up for a funeral.

It’s here when you’re wiping kids’ bottoms and mouths.

It’s here when you’re being a listening ear for someone going through difficulty.

The reign of Christ is here in the kernel of courage it takes to stand up to bullies. It’s here when you decide that the racist or transphobic joke stops here and now, and speak truth and love even when it’s hard.

The reign of Christ is here in 30 Thanksgiving dinners given by this parish to families through the Orchard Knob schools.

There are so many images and stories in the gospel accounts about this reign of Christ, and most of them are surprising. In one, you might remember Jesus’ disciples were wanting to sit at his left and right hands. They are jockeying for power positions with their teacher and friend. “Ahem, did you mention a Kingdom?” They want to make sure they have the most prestigious positions in it. In the gospel of Matthew, it’s the mother of James and John who asks Jesus to promote her sons. Now that’s embarrassing.

But what does Jesus tell them? Well, in Matthew and Mark he warns them of how hard this thing is, that they might not understand the strangeness of this kingdom. But in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus perceives that the guys are bickering over who’s the greatest, who gets to be the most powerful alongside King Jesus, you know what he does? Jesus puts his arm around a little child, and drawing the disciples’ attention to her, says, welcome this child in my name and you welcome me. The least is the greatest. This is the reign of Christ.

So as we receive these little ones today into the household of God, let us also receive them as icons of Christ to us. They are witnesses to the paradox of power and weakness, they are all the wonder of God in flesh among us, glory and power in the smallest and most unexpected places.

And as we celebrate the rule of Jesus Christ, and honor his everlasting power in and through all things, let’s follow the example of our littlest brother and sister at the font, and worship God in the rededication our lives to this baptism, to this way of love.

Children of the Resurrection

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Sermon — All Saints’ Sunday (and baby S’s baptism!)
Haggai 1:15 – 2:9; P
salm 145; Luke 20:27 – 38
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville
6 November 2016

Dearest saints,

Today we enact the work of the creed that we say together each week, that“we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead…”

Today, on this Sunday after All Saint’s Day, we gather for Eucharist, worship, prayer, baptism of young saints, and the remembrance of those saints who have died—as the gospel reading calls them so beautifully, the children of God and children of resurrection.

Today we bear witness to the baptism of these young ones, stand with them as they receive the grace of the Holy Spirit, as we receive the grace of their new life and vitality in the community—also children of God and children of resurrection.

Do you hear? This is amazing—a day of God shaking things up, as the prophet said. We have death and new life and everything in between, caught up into our morning worship. This is a day of our hearts being split right open, broken in the best possible way, so that the Holy Spirit might illuminate what really matters.

Today we are in what the Celtic mystics called a thin place, where the distance between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is somehow a little bit smaller.

I recently learned about a community of people who know and practice the mysterious thin places of life and death in a particularly beautiful and horrible way, the residents of Otsuchi, a small coastal village in northern Japan. When the 2011 tsunami hit Japan, this coastal community was devastated. Over 400 people are still missing, presumed dead. Can you even imagine? Not one single household was untouched. Knowing that life and death are just a hairs width apart, the people of Otsuchi attend to the thin place through the Wind Telephone. What is the wind telephone? you ask. Well, the wind telephone is a strange outdoor art installation—an antique phone booth in a garden. After the death of his cousin, not long before the tsunami hit, Itaru Sasaki placed this old phone booth in his garden. on a windy hill overlooking the ocean. As he grieved the loss of his cousin, Itaru wanted a quiet, special place to speak with his dead loved one. He would go into this phone booth as a prayerful space, and speak to his cousin about life, about missing him. After the tsunami, though, Itaru was not the sole mourner in the village—his entire community was overwhelmed by grief, by sudden, unexplainable death.

Recall again the reading from Haggai, a prophet who spoke of hope and future to the people of Judah straggling home after being exiled under a brutal conqueror. The Lord said through the prophet to the people: “take courage!” But how could they even begin to take courage in the face of such a tragedy?

The people of Otsuchi began to take courage in a small and beautiful way. People from the village began to show up in Itaru’s garden, stepping into the phone booth to speak to their lost loves. In a beautiful recording of these phone calls, some of the speakers express ordinary care for their loved ones, asking “are you warm enough? do you have food?” Others dial the old rotary, turning numbers of phones that were washed away with their houses and homeowners. Some pick up the phone and listen in silence and tears. And in the private simple space of a phone booth in a garden, people are connected in a grace that defies our logic and control. This is the communion of saints.

Today we gather here as children of God, children of the resurrection, children of grace. We humans are notoriously poor at receiving this grace, which is why we have to make habits of prayer and asking for one another’s forgiveness, why we need to come to the Eucharist week after week, and will be encouraged to remember our baptisms later this morning. Whether in the sacraments or in our relationships, there is a vulnerability about giving and receiving grace, and my goodness we don’t like vulnerability.

In our gospel reading today, as Jesus was talking with the Saducees, we see the human struggle against vulnerability confronted with the challenging, mind-bending grace of God.

The Saducees were members of a Jewish sect in the time of Jesus. They didn’t believe in a spiritual realm or the resurrection of the dead. When they bring this question to Jesus, about marriage in heaven, they’re nit-picking. They are just looking to trick and trap the rabbi with a false question. They’re asking about a resurrection they don’t even believe in. How annoying is that? They foreclose on the possibility of any meaningful encounter with resurrection by focusing on the quotidian. They come to the conversation as an opportunity to show how right and clever they are.

Jesus starts by responding to the question in the terms it was offered—“no, in the age to come marriage isn’t like that…” And then—I can imagine him shaking his head, frustrated and sad, “You know what, you’re worrying about the wrong thing… In God, all are alive. They are children of the resurrection—how did you get hung up on these unimportant details!” He changes the question.

How many times have we shown up like the Sadducees? We spend so much time deflecting from grace we don’t understand, because it’s more comfortable to be certain. Who among us hasn’t found ourselves bickering with a partner just to be right? Who hasn’t defended a political party or an organization, even when we might not fully agree with its positions, to be justified to our neighbors? We don’t want our hearts split open! But when we come to life on the defensive, guarding our soft underbellies from attack, we might miss out on grace.

The resurrection relationships Jesus describes to them are a kind of belonging, a community, that is an expansive, inclusive grace. The fellowship of God’s people stretches the limits of our imaginations and challenges our assumptions about who is in, who is out. It challenges our assumptions about who gets to receive the grace of Jesus Christ that only comes to us, beautiful and faulty, through one sharing life with another.

On All Saints, though, we push our imaginations to remember that the communion of saints goes beyond what we can understand about the limits of life and death. Those of us who said goodbye to our everyday saints this year, or in years past, know that the experience of loss, suffering, and death pushes on the limits of our understanding, because in the mysterious ways of God, we stay connected to those who have gone. In the resurrection, we receive the grace of connection to one another that goes beyond death. With our prayers made of pictures, stories, and memory, we call our loved departed saints children of the resurrection, and we have communion with them today.

Today we also baptize young saints. Baptism is all about being a child of the resurrection, being profoundly alive in Christ. It is a sacrament of community belonging, a belonging that cannot be earned through the work and wisdom of age, but is given without merit. And as we bless these little ones and are blessed by them, they offer a reminder of our call to be resurrection people—for our own sake and theirs.

But listen, I don’t want to romanticize this shaking up of heaven and earth or pitch a vision of community and sainthood that’s all happy harps and halos. it’s all well and good to love the poetry of the prophet, but the lived reality looks a lot more like the frustrating conversation we read in the gospel. Even with resurrection hope, the death of beloved saints is deeply painful and confusing. Even with new life in Christ, these little saints are baptized into a community of struggle and a life full of questions.

That is precisely why this is the grace that means something.  God invites us into a grace that is gritty enough for planning funeral visitations and flower arrangements and closing accounts. This is a grace for the moment when we think the next contraction or the next home study will be the one to break us. It is a vulnerable grace that will not be tidied up, a grace that refuses to toe a party line, create parameters for membership, or be defined, sold, controlled, doled out only to the deserving.

No. In this expansive resurrection grace, this astounding community and holy belonging, we remember, celebrate, and claim our place, all of us, as children of God, children of the resurrection.

Amen.

grapefruit and peppermint