Archive for November, 2010

Christ the King Sunday

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

Psalm 46                     THE SERMON

Jeremiah 23:1-6        Proper 29 – C (RCL)

Colossians 1:11-20   21 November 10

Luke 23:35-43         All Saint’s Church



For a people who have neither a king nor a queen, Americans seem fascinated by royalty.

The British foreign press has remarked more than once that Americans are more interested in Queen Elizabeth and her family than are residents of Great Britain.  Americans mourned the death of Princess Diana as if she were one of us.  Americans have strong opinions on the suitability of Prince Charles to become king.  Americans are already excited about the wedding of Prince William and Kate, announced last week.

          Americans, without their own king or queen, compensate for this lack by inventing local royalty.  When Sweetness and I visited Graceland in Memphis a few years ago, it was to tour the home of Elvis Presley, who was known as “the king.”  There used to be a program on television called Queen for a Day. When Budweiser calls itself “the king of beers”, that is a good thing.  I don’t know what Queen Latifa is queen of but she is a good thing, too. 

          As much as Americans are enamored of kingship and queenship and royalty in general, we really don’t want the actual real thing. There was some support, in the late 18th Century, to have a king in America rather than a president but democratic ideals swept that idea quickly away.  And one of the mottos of that debate in the colonies was “No king but Christ.”

          Today is the 26th Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost, the last Sunday of the Church Year, the Sunday next before the first Sunday in Advent … and we call this Sunday “Christ the King.”

          On this Sunday, in many parts of the Christian Church, we celebrate the kingship of Jesus Christ. In sharp contrast to those depictions of our Lord, naked and bleeding on the Cross, today’s image of Jesus is of a ruling monarch, with a crown on his head, emphasizing his victory over death, rather than the horror of his Crucifixion. The Christus rex which hangs over the altar at Saint Thomas’ Church, Medina, is an artistic depiction of Christ the King. 

          The Feast of Christ the King is a relatively recent addition to the Christian Kalendar. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius the 11th on the last Sunday in October and later moved to the last Sunday after Pentecost.       What began as a Roman Catholic observance has spread throughout the Western Church and is now observed by Lutherans and Episcopalians, as well. The Collect of the Day, with which we began this morning’s celebration, is a translation of the original Roman Catholic collect composed in Latin for the Christ the King Sunday.   It celebrates the power of Christ to free those who are enslaved and to unite those who are divided … which are kingly acts indeed.

          There are a number of Episcopalians who are not all that thrilled about projecting onto Jesus the image of a king, which may account for the less-than-universal acceptance of the Last Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost as Christ the King Sunday. Kings (and queens, for that matter) don’t come off all that well in the Bible.  They tend to be selfish, arrogant and forever getting themselves into trouble by pursuing their own ends rather than the God’s.  Remember Ahab and Jezebel. 

          Monarchs don’t do all that well in secular history, either, especially when viewed through the lens of modern democratic individualism, which is the only lens most of us 21st Century Americans have through which to view history. 

          From a feminist perspective, monarchy is intrinsic to hierarchy and all hierarchy is seen as a means by which men subjugate women.  To suggest that the Son of God is somehow implicated in all of this by plopping a crown on his head runs counter to the feminist agenda. 

          Other folks are just confused by the image of Jesus the King … because their sense of the Jesus of the Gospels is that he is more the anti-king … the one whose powerlessness becomes power, whose lack of the means to attain a military or political victory leads to God’s victory over sin and death. 

          Yet the scriptures appointed to this morning are all about Christ understood as a kind of king.  The prophecy from the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah says that the Messiah, who is Jesus, “shall reign as king.”   Saint Paul says to the Colossians that God the Father “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son …”  Saint Paul understood Jesus to be the Messiah about whom Jeremiah spoke.  Saint Paul understood Jesus to be a king and to have a kingdom with us as his subjects. 

          The story from the Passion according to Saint Luke seems out of place because it is out of season.  This story is supposed to be read on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, not on the Sunday next before the Christmas shopping season begins in earnest.  Yet in it, Jesus is described as “the king of the Jews” and, in actual fact, He was. 

          The Church has been singing about Jesus as some sort of king ever since.  We sing “Crown him with many crowns.”  We sing “The king of love my shepherd is.”  We sing “Beautiful Saviour, King of Creation.”

          But what do we mean when we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and make statues and paintings of Christ the King and believe what it says in the Holy Scriptures and sing all of those old royal hymns?

          Not everything we know about kingship is good. As any child who has seen the Walt Disney version of Robin Hood can tell you, Good King Richard is balanced by Prince John, the Cowardly King of England.  It is, after all, the oppressed peasants in the cartoon strip The Wizard of Id who are forever saying or writing “The King is a fink” and not without good reason.  The Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was no sweetie pie, either.  King George the Third of England was a compete nutter, certifiably mad, and, had he been sane, we might all be British subjects at this very moment. 

          So, surely, when we say that Jesus is a king, we must mean the good kind. 

          As much as American like royalty, they tend to prefer it in somebody else’s country, lest the authority of a king or queen be exercised over us in ways which we dislike. 

          Folks in those other countries which still have kings and queens have had the same concerns over the years, which is why monarchy just isn’t what it used to be.   The king in The Wizard of Id hands down draconian sentences for minor offenses: he is constantly ordering someone to be executed, and nobody wants monarchs who are able to do that.  So modern kings and queens have had their powers scaled down to the point where they function mostly as symbols of national unity.  The monarchy in Great Britain and in the Scandinavian countries is very much like that.  Monarchs are less like rulers and more like figureheads in the 21st Century. 


          Which is, just possibly, what we tend to do with Christ the King.  This results in a scaled-down Jesus, a sort of symbolic Christ who is not really capable of doing much more than inspiring our imaginations and giving us a central figure around whom to rally.  And that Jesus is just too small to be the Christ of the Gospels. 

The Christ of the Gospels is the King of kings and the Lord of Lords.  He is the one through whom all creation came into being, the one to whom all creation must answer, and the one who loved us all so much that he conquered sin and death to set us free from it.   And that Jesus ain’t no figurehead. 

We have this awful tendency to forget who is in charge of the Church.  Maybe Christ the King Sunday was invented as a sort of antidote to that kind of lapse in our thinking.

          There is a push in the Anglican Communion right now to make the Archbishop of Canterbury into some sort of pope and the primates of the several churches which make up the Anglican Communion into a kind of College of Cardinals. 

          Because we are an Episcopal Church – a church of bishops – there is another awful tendency to try to make the local bishop a sort of Christ figure, from whom we expect the perfection of Jesus Himself, who will give us all the right answers and solve all of our problems. 

          Congregations have an awful tendency to try to turn their rector or vicar into a sort of Christ figure for them, but all that does is burn out rectors and vicars and disappoint congregations.

          The American solution to all of this clericalism is to turn the congregation into the ultimate authority, drawing on our democratic experience in the civil sector, but congregations are no more an adequate substitute for Jesus than are ordained people. 

          None of these tendencies would appear if the people of God more firmly believed in the kingship of Jesus Christ.  People subject to King Jesus wouldn’t turn Him into a figurehead.  People subject to King Jesus wouldn’t need to seek alternatives to his rule in the rule of church organizations and officers. The trick is to remember who is in charge – neither archbishops nor bishops, neither rectors nor vicars, and not even congregational meetings – but Jesus. 

          You have to wonder what the church would look like if we believed that seriously. 


Pelagius was Framed!

Thursday, November 11th, 2010
  • Daniel 7:1-3,15-18                                 THE SERMON
  • Psalm 149                                                 All Saints’ Sunday
  • Ephesians 1:11-23                                  7 November 2010
  • Luke 6:20-31                                            All Saints’ Church


 Once upon a time, a very long time ago, back in the 4th and 5th Centuries, there lived a Celtic monk by the name of Pelagius … or, at least, that’s what they called him, because nobody in Rome could pronounce his Celtic name and Latin-speakers had this way of changing the name of anybody who didn’t have a Latin name into one which they could pronounce and make sense of. 

Pelagius was born in the British Isles and became a monk of the Culdee Order.  He traveled to Rome in around 380 where he became well known as a writer, preacher and teacher of a rather strict ascetic practice.  Pelagius was shocked by the moral laxity of Roman society and attributed it, in part, to the theory of divine grace taught by Saint Augustine: that man was utterly incapable of behaving in a way which would please God but for the intervention of divine grace in his life. Pelagius apparently thought that some people, especially those who lived a loosey-goosey life, blamed God for it rather than themselves. To contradict those who claimed that their moral failings were the result of God not having brought them to a higher level quite yet, Pelagius taught that man needed to exercise his free will in such a way that God could accomplish in him the fruits of good living.  And Saint Augustine didn’t like what he had to say one bit. 

          Augustine began to write and preach and teach against Pelagius and what he (Augustine) deemed the heresy of Pelagianism: that is, the notion that Man can and should avoid sin or his own volition, that Man can freely choose to obey God or to reject God. Augustine said “Gotcha” (or whatever words in the Latin language are modernly translated “gotcha”).  Augustine said “This guy denies the doctrine of original sin and denies what, in another thousand years, will become the Calvinist Doctrine of the Total Depravity of Man.”  Pelagius was tried before the Synod of Diospolis in 415 and acquitted of heresy.  Whereupon Pelagius said to Augustine, “So there” (or whatever words in the Latin language are modernly translated “so there”). But Augustine wasn’t done.  He accused Pelagius of heresy to Pope Zosimus who heard the case and also declared Pelagius innocent.  Saint Augustine was still not done.  He called the Council of Carthage in 418 which tied and convicted and condemned Pelagius to banishment from Rome. 

This condemnation resulted in an interesting twist of history.  At the council’s insistence, all of Pelagius’ authentic writings were burned.  Thus, with a very few exceptions, all we know of what Pelagius actually thought and taught are contained in the summaries of his beliefs recited by his opponents, like Saint Augustine, who was not above overstating his case to win an argument. 

Modern scholars have located a few of Pelagius’ original writings which survived the purge.  They reveal a deeply Christian, deeply orthodox man who believed that God’s grace assists all right action. It was quite precisely the opposite of this belief that got poor Pelagius banished. 

Anglicans are forever being accused, mostly by modern Calvinists but occasionally by modern Roman Catholics, as well, of being Pelagian in our theology.  I had a scathingly brilliant idea for an item to sell at the last General Convention. I thought it would be cool to print up a mess of tee shirts with a head shot of Pelagius peering out a barred jailhouse window, emblazoned with the words “Pelagius was framed.”  I still think they would sell. 


          Today is the Feast of All Saints. 

          Many saints have their own days – Saint Stephen’s Day is the 26th of December, the Feast of Saint Mary Virgin is August 15th, and the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi is October 4th.  All Saints’ Day is an opportunity for the church to recall and venerate those many saints who don’t have their own special days on the church’s calendar.  There are lots of those.  Some of them, we know their names.  Many of them, we don’t. 

          There is an academic discipline called hagiology which studies who gets to be a saint on the calendar and who doesn’t and why.  Everybody wants their son or daughter to become a doctor or a lawyer.  Nobody wants their son or daughter to grow up to become a hagiologist … which partially explains why there are so few. 

          It is not too difficult to figure out why there is no feast day for Saint Pelagius.  The trashing and thrashing which Saint Augustine worked upon the old Celtic monk pretty much took care of that.  But should we recall and venerate Pelagius on All Saints’ Day?  You know, along with all the others who didn’t manage to get their own day. 

          Don’t answer too quickly.  It is too easy to say that we should observe (recall and venerate) only those Christians past who earned the orthodox seal of approval and never those who earned the opposite.  But to do so whacks off from our list of venerables a lot of good Christian people who probably got orthodoxy mostly right but may have messed up in just one of the details.  That seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? 


Let me suggest – and this is just your old vicar talking – that All Saints’ Sunday is big enough to include all of our predecessors in the faith – those who got it just right and even those who may have gotten one or two parts wrong.  I’m not suggesting that we emulate them in their wrongness; only that they, too, are champions of the Faith from ages past who were trying to work out complex stuff as best they could.  Did Saint Peter or Saint John the Evangelist have a perfectly worked out theory of the Holy Trinity?  One that would pass the sort of orthodox muster to which the Church subjected theories of the Trinity three or four hundred years later?  Probably not.  Did Saint Augustine of Hippo get everything right, just because he has been declared by the Vatican to be a “Doctor of the Church?”  While he got many things right, and maybe even most things right, isn’t there some room left for where even Saint Augustine made a boo-boo? And what about poor Pelagius?  What if he didn’t get it wrong at all but rather expressed his orthodox faith in terms just different enough from those used by Saint Augustine that it got him into big trouble?  In other words, what if Pelagius was framed!?

          Perhaps a better way to celebrate the Feast of All Saints’ is at its most inclusive.  Perhaps we should celebrate this day as the feast of everybody who tried to get it right for Christ’s sake … whether they scored 100% on the orthodoxy test or not.  This would accomplish two good ends, in my thinking.  First, it would make for a larger company of saints to celebrate, lots more, since probably very few of the giants of our sacred tradition got everything right all of the time.  Second, it would make the saints what they really are – people just like us: not superhuman, not like the ones depicted in the movies, not otherworldly people who didn’t have to deal with all of the doubts and confusions that plague us moderns – but people like thee and me, hence people who are truly emulatable. 

Yet another good end to this kind of thinking is that it applies well, even better, to people like us.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think orthodoxy is a good idea.  I think it is better to believe the orthodox faith than to espouse a heresy.  Heresy is, by and large, not good for you, and orthodoxy, by and large, is.  But too much emphasis on getting every little detail of the faith just right exceeds the parameters of realistic expectations of ordinary Christians.  Too much emphasis on orthodoxy leads to a kind of religion in which only those who get the answers to all of the key questions correct get into Heaven. 

A story will illustrate my point: A professor of religion dies and goes to Heaven.  Saint Peter greets him at the Pearly Gates and offers to show him around. They walk down a long corridor with doors on either side.  Peter opens one of the doors and steps back as a cloud of frankincense rolls out the door.  “This where we keep the Eastern Orthodox,” Peter explains, “so their incense doesn’t choke and gag the others.” Peter opens another door and inside appears to be a water park complete with slides and pools and fountains.  “This is where we keep the Baptists,” Peter explains, “which seems to make them happy.”  They come to another door built like that on a sound stage and, with some difficult. Peter cracks the latch and opens the door and the sound of electronic music comes pounding out the opening.  “This is where we keep the Pentecostals, so as not to disturb anybody else.”  Finally they get to a rather ornate door which, instead of a handle, has a small peephole through which Peter invites the professor of religion to look.  Inside there is a beautiful garden and large stone buildings of exquisite architecture and he can faintly hear the most marvelous classical church music playing.   “Who’s in here?” asks the professor in a normal voice.  “Ssssssh,” responds Saint Peter.  “This is where we keep the Roman Catholics.  And they don’t know that anybody else is here.” 

Episcopalians aren’t like that, or, at least, Episcopalians at their best aren’t like that.  We strive to be among “the holy ones of the Most High” envisioned by the Prophet Daniel,  to be part of “the mystical body of … Christ our Lord” identified in the Collect of the Day, to be members of “the congregation of the faithful” mentioned in today’s Psalm, and to be “God’s own people” as Saint Paul described the Ephesians. 

All Saints’ Sunday needs to be big enough to include all of our predecessors in the Faith – those who got it all right and even those who may have gotten one or two parts wrong – in order to be big enough to include us.