November 2019

The Cardboard King

Luke 23:33-43
© Stacey Steck

The fascination with the British Royal family never ends. The newest season of The Crown has just been released on Netflix and millions of people, my wife included, will be gawking anew at the life of the royals. There is almost as much news every day about someone from the House of Windsor as there is from the White House. Not many of us in this room have a tradition of monarchy as part of our heritage, and so the challenge of Christ the King Sunday always includes taking a relatively foreign concept and speaking to it in a helpful way. In fact, the British monarchy is not really the most helpful modern-day example to acquaint ourselves with what the idea of Kingship implies. It is Saudi Arabia which may be a better modern monarchy to consider than Great Britain, since the latter is a Constitutional monarchy under which the royalty have no real power in the day-to-day affairs of the state. In Saudi Arabia, where the king is the absolute monarch of his country, the citizenry is required, to quote the constitution of that country, “to pay allegiance to the King in accordance with the holy Koran and the tradition of the Prophet, in submission and obedience, in times of ease and difficulty, fortune and adversity.” That is a far cry from the typical approach the United Kingdom takes to Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, and their lot, and much closer to what Caesar meant to the citizens of the Roman Empire, under which Jesus and those who followed him were subject.

There are a great number of awful attributes that have been fairly attributed to kings over the years. Capricious, egomaniacal, ruthless, and even bumbling would be some of them, ones of course we would not even think of celebrating, much less assigning to Christ the King. There have been some good kings over the years, and I suppose that if I had to use one of the more charitable characteristics of kingship to define the whole idea, I guess I would choose the related attributes of loyalty and obedience, or more specifically, demanding loyalty, and requiring obedience. Though these too can be misused, having the loyalty and obedience of your subjects can go a long way in making your reign one that is positively remembered. And of course, through the centuries, Christians have extolled the virtue of being obedient to Christ, who himself was obedient unto death. Obey the Ten Commandments, obey the Commandment to love God and love neighbor, show your loyalty even if it leads to martyrdom – these are some of the ways that loyalty and obedience to Christ the King have been expressed.

It is clear that Christ valued obedience; the command, or invitation, “Follow me,” for example, can hardly be imagined without Christ’s expectation that they would do so. Nevertheless, there are other values which more fully define his kingship. Indeed, the visual image from this morning’s Gospel reading portrays it better than any words; Jesus Christ, the antithesis of earthly kingship, hanging on a piece of wood alongside two common criminals. Perhaps the Roman Catholics are on to something by portraying Christ crucified, as powerful a reminder as it is of the true nature of the rule and reign Christ has over our lives. It is hard to imagine King Salman of Saudi Arabia or Queen Elizabeth taking one for the team, or leading by example in laying down his life for one of his or her subjects. More likely, their subjects would be called upon to sacrifice for them, although I do understand the House of Windsor’s multimillion dollar annual subsidy is occasionally adjusted downward during hard economic times. It is, indeed, Jesus’ crucifixion that differentiates his kingship from that of other pretenders to the throne. You see, rather than demand loyalty and obedience from others, Jesus exercises it. He is obedient to God, to the end, and the world is changed. If you can’t take that on faith, that Jesus, by his obedience, rocks the world, just ask one of those the criminals who hung beside him.

There are many images in this morning’s passage that can reach out and grab you. The one that grabbed me this week is the sign over Jesus’ head, the one which proclaimed both the ignorance of those who crucified Jesus, and the ironic truth about him at the same time. They crucified him out of fear that he was the king all his compatriots wanted him to be, and yet, he died exactly because he wasn’t. Instead, he was exactly who God wanted him to be, someone who used his power to transform not his own situation, but the lot of those around him, both to his right and his left, beneath his bleeding feet, and throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In the most delicious irony, they so completely misunderstood and overestimated his earthly power that they did the very thing which would demonstrate the fullness of his power not only to one of the thieves hanging there with him, but to the Centurion who later said, “Truly this man was innocent,” and to all who in every age have every gazed upon the broken body of the man with the sign, “This is the King of the Jews,” hanging over his head, and recognized him as King of all creation, but more importantly King of their lives.

You have probably noticed the signs hanging from the cross behind me, and although they didn’t have cardboard in Jesus’ day, I am sure that if they had, that is exactly what they would have used, a throwaway material for a disposable man. Perhaps these signs remind you of those that homeless people use at street corners and in front of stores to tell their story and/or seek your generosity. Even those signs which simply ask for a handout are really a story in themselves, a story of how the person holding them arrived at the condition in which they find themselves. There may not be much detail, but there is enough to reveal the hopelessness and despair and neglect that are a daily fact of life. Our story this morning in Luke doesn’t tell us that signs also hung over the heads of the two criminals crucified with Jesus, but we can make an educated guess. How about “Sentenced to Death” and “Convicted of Unpardonable Crimes”? Does that sound about right? And knowing that this is their status, they both have something to say to Jesus, one adding his taunts to those coming from the ground, from the soldiers and the leaders, who mocked Jesus and the title Messiah, and the other who reaffirmed what we all know, that Jesus was innocent, and who appealed to Jesus that he might be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom. Jesus does not respond to the first, but he delivers a simple statement to the other that reaffirms that he is indeed the King of the Jews, and everyone else, when he says, “Truly, I tell, you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

As I reflected on the sign that hung over Jesus’ head, I was reminded of a testimony I had seen about how lives, like that of the criminal who appealed to Jesus, how lives are transformed by the love and grace of Jesus Christ. As you will see in a moment, the witness of this testimony is that there are always two sides to the cardboard sign each of us holds, the one that tells our story. The front side tells the before, and the other side the after, and the one who does the turning is the same God who took the sign over the head of Jesus Christ on the cross, and turned it around. What do you think it said on the other side of Jesus sign? Well, let’s take a look. (Turn over sign to reveal: “Seated at the right hand of God”). And what do you suppose was on the other side of the mocking thief? (Turn over sign to reveal: “Dead, buried, and forgotten”) And on the back of the other one? (Turn over to reveal: “With Jesus Today in Paradise”).

You may not be holding it this morning, but each one of us has a sign, a cardboard sign with writing on the front, and hopefully, writing on the back, a testimony of how our lives have been transformed by Christ the King. As you think about what the sides of your sign might read, let me invite you to watch how members of another church shared their signs, and gave depth to the Paradise into which they too entered. (Show video of Cardboard Testimonies)

I want to leave you this morning with these final two quick thoughts. The first is this: that if you are drawing a blank at what you would write on either side of your piece of cardboard, I would invite you to spend some time looking at a crucifix this week, reflecting on how the King we call Christ is a king who has indeed transformed your life. If, after that reflection, the two sides of your sign still haven’t come to you, please give me a call and let’s sit down and see if we can’t discover it together.

The other thought is this: that it is not only the people at street corners who hold up their signs to us as we drive by that have something written on only one side. It is certainly not to judge anyone’s story to observe that the other side is blank, but it is hard to imagine they have experienced the invitation to paradise that the criminal in this morning’s story received. Christ the King transforms lives, but he also calls upon us to be part of that transformation in the lives of those who have yet to hear or believe or experience the call to paradise. May it be our efforts of loyalty and obedience to Christ our King that help others to be able to write the rest of their story on the other side of their sign, no matter what the front may say, just as God did for Jesus Christ, and as Christ has done for us. Amen.

The Art of Receating

Isaiah 65:17-25
© Stacey Steck

Well, it’s almost that time of year – Christmas shopping season, that season that is dreaded by some and beloved by others, that season when parents scramble to equalize the number and value of the gifts they give their children, that season of Secret Santas and White Elephant Gift exchanges where you come away with things you never even knew you never wanted. Some people are quite adept at the art of this “gifting,” a recent English-language euphemism to describe the similarly sounding practice of giving, more generically experienced as the offering of something to someone. As much as I may personally be challenged by the art of gifting, the truth is that gift-giving is a valuable and often sacred form of social transaction and I wholeheartedly recommend to you a book which describes very well this phenomenon, a book by Lewis Hyde the title of which, “The Gift” is far less imaginative than its subtitle: “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property,” But don’t let the subtitle scare you away. This is not a book about carnal desire, but about the desire to pass on what one has received from others, whether it be poetry, art, music, or even property. Hyde’s thesis follows on a native North American saying that “One man’s gift must not be another man’s capital,” meaning that that which is given once must be continually given if it is to honor the original giver of the gift. Put another way, what was public enough to be a gift can never become private enough to be kept for oneself. Although the term “regifting” did not enter the popular vocabulary until the 1995 episode of the TV show Seinfeld, Lewis Hyde described way back in 1979 the less cynical variation of the practice of passing on a gift one has received.

I thought about this practice of passing on what we have received, of “regifting,” upon reading our passage tonight from Isaiah 65. Among these nine verses are some of the most beautiful and memorable images in Scripture, of the shalom of God actually lived by God’s people, and indeed all of God’s creation, of people living in health and abundance, of young and old alike experiencing everything God has in mind for human life as God intended it. Just about the only thing different from this vision of the human community from that found in the Garden of Eden is that people actually do die, although at the ripe old ages God had in mind for the bodies we were given. The vision of this human community may be localized in Jerusalem, but it is certainly a metaphor for all of creation, for surely God is capable of bring to fruition this same shalom not just on one mountaintop in the Middle East, but wherever and whenever God may so choose. The particularity of this vision for a chosen people recently returned from exile should not keep us from imagining it for all people anywhere and everywhere.

But as magnificent as that vision is throughout those nine wonderful verses, what caught my attention was the first verse, the one which says, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” “I am about to create.” It is an interesting fact of the Old Testament that the Hebrew word used here for “create” never appears unless its subject is God. Only God creates. Human beings may make things, fashion things, construct things, and destroy things, but only God creates. This word for the creative process is not linked only with substances and materials, such as the world or we human beings, but also more abstract things like the conscience, as when the Psalmist pleads, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” and things like “darkness” and “woe.” This is the same word used at the beginning “When God created the heavens and the earth,” and so what God is proclaiming through the prophet Isaiah now is on the same order as that first creation, that it is not something in which human beings are subjects, but rather objects. We may like to think that we are the masters of our own domain, the captains of our own destiny, but there are some realms in which we really have no power or authority, and creation is one of those realms. Only God creates.

Learning this about God caused me to rethink a little bit about myself. You see, I like to think of myself as a creative person. Even though I dropped out of architecture school, architorture was a creative endeavor. Even though I never made a film after finishing college with a degree in filmmaking, that too was a creative endeavor. I feel creative, even if I am not always successful. I try to cultivate my creative tendencies even if I can’t devote as much time to it as I’d like. If I had to identify perhaps my one spiritual gift from God, I would say it is creativity, even if it does not get expressed in traditional art forms. And yet, only God creates. The rest of us just make things, fashion things, construct things, destroy things, or taking a cue from Lewis Hyde and Jerry Seinfeld, re-create things. Only God creates. My job then, is to practice re-creation, not, unfortunately, simply recreation. Won’t it be nice when all any of us have to do is fly a kite or go for a swim or play a little golf? But we are not there yet.

Now, it may be true that the vision in the 65th chapter of Isaiah has not yet come to pass, at least not anywhere near Jerusalem, but that does not mean that God has not created it. That first verse may say that God is “about to” create new heavens and a new earth, and so we may think it is yet to come, but the idea of that creation, its potential, its power, is just as important as the thing itself, in much the same way that art or music are evocative and valuable and powerful representations of the things which inspired them. What an artist depicts or a musician composes may not really exist except in his or her imagination, except in the depths of their souls and longings, but the product of their labors moves us and shapes us as we interact with it. So it is too with God’s vision; it may be about to happen, but the fact that it is God’s promise makes it for us as good as created. The difference is, of course, that artists and musicians, and you and I in all we do, are taking the raw materials of our souls and imaginations and re-creating, re-gifting so to speak, what we have received from God and others. God doesn’t need our inspiration, but we need God’s and the world needs God’s.

Lewis Hyde, the guy who wrote the book “The Gift,” talks about the need for a gift to continue moving, and not to be placed on one’s mantel like a trophy, or consumed alone in one’s dining room, or turned into a means of production to survive, but to keep moving if it is to remain alive, and if the recipient is to remain alive. He describes tales from culture after culture in which the person who hoards a gift or who stops the chain of gifting, meets with a dire end, while the person who regifts is blessed. Culturally speaking, it is not unlike the email chain letters you may receive from time to time promising blessing and threatening disaster if the thing is not forwarded to X number of people within X number of minutes. I guess I am naïve enough to think there is a fundamental difference between the circulation of authentically given gifts and an internet chain letter and so I do not pass the latter on, though I suppose one day I may come to regret it like the main character in one of the Grimm brother’s folk tales which Hyde uses to illustrate the idea of gift circulation.

The “Tale of the Ungrateful Son” goes something like this: “A man and his wife were once sitting by the door of their house, and they had a roasted chicken set before them, and were about to eat it together. Then the man saw that his aged father was coming, and hastily took the chicken and hid it, for he would not permit him to have any of it. The old man came, took a drink, and went away. Now the son wanted to put the roasted chicken on the table again, but when he took it up, it had become a great toad, which jumped into his face and sat there and never went away again, and if any one wanted to take it off, it looked venomously at him as if it would jump in his face, so that no one would venture to touch it. And the ungrateful son was forced to feed the toad every day, or else it fed itself on his face; and thus he went about the world without knowing rest.”

Into what would God’s vision have been transformed if Isaiah had not regifted it to his people, his community? Into what will God’s vision be transformed if we do not regift it to our community, our world? I daresay it will be worse than a toad threatening to eat our faces! Indeed, look around and see what it has become when we have even slowed down the circulation of God’s precious gift. In the days of slavery in the United States, God’s gift of this vision came to a grinding halt, becoming the property of white Christians who saw in the newly conquered territory of North America the new Jerusalem only for themselves, a place of peace and prosperity right now, but who projected it for their African slaves a long ways into the future, and made sure they knew it. The image of the wolf and the lamb feeding together, of people who build their own houses and live in them, became a spiritual pacifier. “You will receive your reward in the next life,” the logic went, “so don’t complain so much in this life.” Instead of regifting God’s wonderful vision, in their ignorance and greed, those with the power to do so hid it away like the ungrateful son’s roast chicken, and the United States of America still has a big social toad squatting on its face, an ongoing racial tension we see flare up more often than it should. We may thank God that the gift of the vision has not completely stopped circulating, as we’ve come a long way since the days of slavery, but we can see the consequences of even slowing it down.

It is, of course, not fear of the consequences of not circulating the gift that should motivate us, but rather the joy of passing it on. Recall these words from this morning’s lesson from Isaiah: “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” If God’s spirit and vision have any power in our lives, if they bring any joy into our lives, if we consider them gifts and not something we’ve earned or created – and heaven knows they are not – how can we do anything but dedicate ourselves to circulating those gifts, regifting them, re-creating God’s creation? When God speaks of creating Jerusalem’s people “as a delight,” I do not believe they are only for God’s delight, but for the delight of the world. You see God has given us as a gift to the world and we are called to gift ourselves by recreating God’s creation, the vision set before us by Isaiah. I generally prefer not to use Jesus as a punch line to Old Testament texts, but if you need a more New Testament model, look no further than our savior who gave the gift of his own life, a gift which now lives in each one of us, a gift we are called to circulate, to regift, to re-create. When we remember that only God creates, we can begin to re-create. Let us joyfully re-create the vision given to Isaiah by living it fully, as partially and provisionally as that may be, knowing that the fullness of God’s re-creation is still to come. Let us joyfully re-create it by passing on the hope of the vision by showing people glimpses of it, even if we won’t see it fully in our lifetimes. Let us be the musicians and artists of that vision, re-creating in ourselves and the world what God has created in us. Amen.

A Tale of Two Meals

Matthew 14:13-21
© Stacey Steck

Although, there may be no two characters more different in the New Testament than Jesus and Herod, they certainly had a lot in common, or at least a lot of points of contact. Contemporaries separated in age by about sixteen years, each governed a kingdom, Herod ruling over Galilee and Perea, Jesus ruling over the Kingdom of heaven. Each was the subject of prophecy by John the Baptist, Herod challenged about his adultery with his half-brother’s wife, and Jesus challenged to fulfill all righteousness at his baptism in the river Jordan. They even shared a moment face to face in the final days of Jesus’ life, Herod being called in by Pilate for a consultation on what to do with this enemy of the Jewish leaders. And finally, to the point of today’s story, each held their party guests in high regard, Herod so much so that he brought death to his party, and Jesus so much that he brought life to his.

The story preceding the feeding of the five thousand in Matthew is the story of Herod being Herod, tricked into having John the Baptist beheaded while entertaining the dinner guests at his birthday party. You may remember how Salome, the daughter of Herod’s second wife, Herodias, pleased Herod so much with her dancing that he promised her “whatever she might ask,” an oath uttered in front of his friends, and probably his political advisors, which could not be taken back when young Salome asked for John’s head on a platter. And so the deed was done, the final course of a gruesome meal. And all done, as Matthew tells us, “out of regard for his oaths and for the guests.” Herod could not be inconvenienced by a question of life and death, and so chose the easier path of murdering an innocent man when all that doing the right thing would have cost him was the smallest measure of pride. If one can’t admit one’s mistakes among friends, I guess there is no admitting any mistake.

Jesus too faces an inconvenient question of life and death: to send away hungry a crowd of thousands, or to feed them on what seems like enough for not even for his own disciples. Perhaps no one in the crowd would have died of hunger on the way to the nearest village, but the message Jesus had just so carefully delivered might have suffered had he taken the disciples’ wisdom as the best course of action: “send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” If there was an action that would have betrayed Jesus message of hope and compassion, that would have been it. Hadn’t he been teaching compassion and community? Certainly, he had hoped for a day off, a chance to mourn the death of his cousin, but instead of having some quiet time, he found himself surrounded by yet more crowds seeking healing and teaching. And so, like Herod, he is faced by a decision: to do the right thing, or to do the convenient thing. Jesus chose differently than Herod, thanks be to God.

In the aftermath of these decisions, we are left with a tale of two meals, and a chance to look in the mirror at our own decision-making. Which feast will we join, which party guests will we invite? Of course, it is more than a little unfair to compare Jesus to Herod, but hey, in politics, you do leave yourself open to public scrutiny. But Herod is not alone in that regard. His position may have been a little higher in its profile, but even in our lowly positions, we do not live our lives in a Christian closet, but in public, in the polis, the city, the public sphere where any prying eye can hold our actions up to the same scrutiny Herod received. It goes without saying that when comparing ourselves with Jesus, our image will suffer too. But that won’t hurt us, because no one really stacks up against Jesus. What will hurt us is when Herod doesn’t look so bad after all, compared to us! Then we are in trouble.

So what are the lessons to be learned from these two meals? Well, first, let me suggest that it really does matter who you invite or whose party you choose to attend; hanging out with the right people is not nearly as helpful as hanging out with righteous people. Back in Pittsburgh, I worked at a residential drug and alcohol rehab center for pregnant women, a place that was located far away from the environment from which its residents had come. In such a place, they could get free, at least for a little while, from the influences which had led them into addiction, and be able to concentrate on the healing that was necessary to have a healthy new baby. One of the strongest emphases of that program was re-entry, how to survive once they left that place of security, how to say no, how to find support for their sobriety, how to avoid going to parties of death, and to find parties of life. More than we might like to think, our choices about with whom to associate makes a big difference in our ability to be faithful.

We don’t know a lot about Herod Antipas, but it is not too risky to surmise that he was the type of person to surround himself with people who would tell him what he wanted to hear, rather than what he needed to hear, to be a better ruler, or person. Evidently, he was overly sensitive to honest criticism, the likes of which John the Baptist offered. He didn’t seem to surround himself with friends to whom he could admit a mistake, and so felt trapped by his public oath. Herod was hanging out with the wrong crowd; he had invited the wrong guests to his birthday party. This is not to say that we should spend all of our time in the company of people just like ourselves; far from it! Jesus led his disciples into relationship with all kinds of people who were outside their sphere of righteousness, the famous “tax collectors and sinners,” the lame and impure who had followed him out to that deserted place to be healed. But it is to say that we need to be connected to a community that leads us into righteousness. Where was it that Jesus used to go every once in a while? To a deserted place to pray, to reconnect with his community, his Trinity, to a meal with righteous people, not just the right people.

We might also take a look at the kind of parties we throw, so to speak, or the meals we serve. Are we throwing parties to celebrate ourselves, or to celebrate God’s grace? While it is certainly right to celebrate things like birthdays, it is not always easy to celebrate the right thing on such an occasion. My hunch is that Herod was not celebrating God’s gift of his life, but rather his own celebrity. This was a party to show how great he was, not how great his God was. And so it is at the level of our motivations and consistency that we must also dwell.

You have no doubt heard how many churches and social service organizations offer special meals for the homeless on major holidays. On Thanksgiving and Christmas and sometimes Easter, they serve the traditional holiday foods, and seek volunteers to slap some turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes and gravy on a tray. Maybe you’ve even done that yourselves some year. And if you did, you know that these organizations are absolutely overrun with volunteers on those special days. They have so many people wanting to serve that they can barely accommodate them all. But remember, we are dealing now with our motivations, and despite the fact that I truly do not question the intentions of these humble servants of the poor, I do wonder where they are the rest of the year, during the hot, dogdays of August and the biting cold nights of February, when the same people need to be fed day in and day out, and the shelters struggle to have enough staff to meet the need. You may infer what you will of the motivations of those who come to serve on the days for which they are most grateful for their own abundance. I will infer from the story of the feeding of the five thousand that Jesus’ disciples probably preferred showing up just twice a year, and not when they were needed the most. But there was Jesus, telling them, “You give them something to eat,” as if it were August or February. Now, thanks be to God, Thyatira is there in those off months at Rowan Helping Ministries, but could we, should we, do more?

Finally, let me note one last difference between Herod and Jesus at their meals, one which touches me personally when I stand before you during the meal we regularly take together, our communion. As many times as I have read this story, I never really noticed until this week the phrase, “he looked up to heaven,” which precedes what has become the formula of “took, blessed, broke, gave” that is the liturgy in most every Christian church that celebrates the sacrament. Now it is true that the phrase, “he looked up to heaven,” does not appear in the other accounts of this story in any the other three Gospels, nor in the stories of Jesus’ last supper, but it is here in Matthew, and it is important, especially if we imagine Herod’s moment of decision when asked for John’s head on a platter. Maybe it is all the movies I have watched in my life, but I see it in slow motion: Herod’s head turning from right to left, scanning the expectant faces of his guests, looking for some sign telling him he doesn’t have to go through with it. And finding no righteous counsel in their eyes, he gives the order. Herod’s eyes search right to left; Jesus’ eyes search up and down. Now, those of you who have participated in Communion as I have presided have probably noticed that as I break the bread, I too look right and left as I hold the broken bread out for you to see. I do this partly to share the symbolism of the bread with those who are farther away from it than I am, but mostly I do it out of habit. I suppose there is nothing wrong with doing it that way, but maybe it might be more right if I looked up to heaven, rather than at you, at the moment of our common remembrance of such an amazing act of grace. In which direction do our eyes most regularly move?

Friends, as we share this communion meal again this morning, before we each place our piece of bread in our mouths, or raise our little cups to our lips, let me invite you to literally “look up to heaven,” and ask God to make this meal of grace one which transforms all our meals. Amen.