Sunday, November 23, 2014
It seems that today’s worship service is, of necessity, a hybrid. To begin with it is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. As one liturgical year draws to a close and we anticipate a new one in the season of Advent, it seems appropriate to recognize and celebrate the fulfillment of the Christhood in life of the child whose birth we will soon recognize and celebrate. The story comes full circle and begins again. The little boy soon to be born once more ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of God in glory.
And of course it is the season of the great US holiday, Thanksgiving, with its dual emphasis on family togetherness and conspicuous consumption. Surely we must sing either “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” or “We Gather Together,” along with other songs of thankfulness for God’s blessings. Before facing “Black Friday and its aftermath, we will gather around tables groaning with the abundance of the feast. We will share the things for which we are grateful before eating ourselves into a stupor and falling asleep before televised football games or seasonal spectaculars.
Many congregations plan their annual stewardship drives to culminate on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, taking advantage of the generous spirit the season evokes. We are no exception. Today we have asked you to bring your pledges of support so that we might budget responsibly for the ministries of First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, in the coming year. Laura and I and others have asked and will continue to urge you to give generously in the spirit of gratitude for all that with which you have been blessed. As I have said once already this season, I am not embarrassed to ask you to give to support the budget because I believe in the ministries of this church and I believe in your witness as part of God’s beloved community. This congregation – that is, us – matters in this community and in the larger world as we worship, learn, care and serve together.
Then we have been on this journey with Brian McLaren, trying to understand how “we make the road by walking.” Because we need to move on to Advent next week, there were two chapters of the book and six wonderful scripture texts to consider for this week. If you’re not feeling a little overwhelmed by all this, you can rest assured that I am. However, undaunted by the overabundance of possibilities, we plunge ahead. Perhaps we will find a convergence of all the themes laid out before us for today. It is not unlike the rich array of dishes laid out for us at Friday’s Gratitude potluck, which, in the end, made a meal!
So let’s pick up where we left off last week. If you remember, our “Song for Sending Out” was the great hymn by Georgia Harkness, “Hope of the World.” This is one of my favorites and its words remained with me through the week, especially its opening phrase, “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion.”
I suppose on Christ the King Sunday the tendency is to think of Christ enthroned in glory. I know that when I googled images there was a rich collection of paintings, carvings and mosaics of the triumphant Christ, crowned in splendor. Still, there is something compelling in the Harkness image of Christ who, because of his compassion, is the hope of the world. We can glory in Christ ascendant. We can sing wholeheartedly the hymns to the Christ who reigns with God in heaven: “Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne…” But how well do we understand this God who takes on human form and dwells among us out of concern for the well-being of creation?
It’s a challenging paradox, this God of glory who is also the Christ of great compassion. Hear Harkness’s prayerful words once more:
Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion:
speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent.
Save us, your people, from consuming passion,
who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.
In the midst of abundance and celebration, do these words speak to you? Fearful hearts, conflict rent, consuming passion, false hopes and aims? Does any of that sound familiar? I think both Isaiah and Paul heard something of Harkness’s longing in today’s texts.
Paul is writing to a people by “conflict rent.” There was a battle going on among the Christ followers in Rome between Jews and Gentiles. If it was not an all out dispute between who was in and who was out, there was certainly tension between who was more and less favored. We may not be caught up in that particular conflict, but how many such battles can we identify in our world today and how many of them affect our own lives, at least indirectly? Can you name a few?
Paul says that this is the “hope” we find in the scriptures, that “…the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant[s us] to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He goes on to explain how the Jewish Messiah is also the Christ who welcomes all, Gentiles included, from before the beginning of time. In Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike find their hope. Hope of the world – not just part of the world, not just some of the people, not just aspects of creation – it’s the whole wide world.
Perhaps Paul’s vision was well summarized in this morning’s special music:
Many members, one body; many hearts, one hope, one faith in You.
And when we disagree teach our eyes to see that we are one
in the family of faith, the family of faith, joined by the miracle of grace.
We are brothers, we are sisters…children of the one Creator of all.
So as we live and grow, help us always know, that we are one
in the family of faith…
Compassion does that to you. It makes you aware of all that’s around you. It helps you hear the hopes and fears, the dreams and challenges of others. It give you access to the hearts and minds of everyone you encounter, if you will let it function in yourself. This is one of the crucial identifying characteristics of the Christ, the capacity for compassion, to feel as the others feel, to see as the others see, to share, ironically, in a common humanity. Christ sees and understands our fearful hearts, our conflicts, consuming passions, false hopes and aims. Christ also shares our dreams and joys, our laughter and play, our communion with one another and all creation. Compassion offers a uniting vision of what the world might yet be.
Isaiah’s vision is somewhat different but perhaps still related. You may also remember from last week that I began my sermon with several “texts of terror” – Joshua’s instruction to obliterate the seven tribes that occupied Canaan and a couple of the more violent passages from the Psalms. These verses from the second chapter of Isaiah come as a kind of oasis in the grim landscape of destruction promised for a disobedient, unfaithful people. Most of the first chapter of Isaiah and much of what follows today’s text is a prophecy of doom, related to all those empires that have and will conquer Israel and Judah. “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:10-15).
Not exactly an encouraging word, is it? But here is the hope in these first verses of chapter 2. Walter Brueggemann points out a rhythm to Isaiah. He says, “For all its harshness, the tradition of Isaiah characteristically moves to hope” (Walter Brueggemann, Westminster Bible Companion, Isaiah 1-39, p. 24). He affirms that “There is hope, but it is deeply postsuffering hope. Yahweh’s wrath is deep and serious and will be outlasted only by Yahweh’s resolve to bring Jerusalem to its true and proper function as a place of justice. The poet looks historical threat full in the face but holds out for the holy purpose of Jerusalem…” (op. cit., p. 22). The day will come when the nations will stream to God’s holy mountain, seeking instruction in peace and justice: “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven,
bringing to hungry souls the bread of life:
still let your Spirit unto us be given
to heal earth’s wounds and end our bitter strife.
I don’t mean to be a wet blanket on the glitter of the holiday season. There is much to celebrate and much for which we can be grateful. Still, even in a time of celebration, it is important to remember that there is much to concern us in the world around us and in our own lives. There is still trouble all over this world and parties and shopping and even celebratory worship services will not make it less so. Maybe in this season we can celebrate and be grateful for the Hope of the World. Maybe we can be touched by the Christ of great compassion. Maybe we can share the hopes and fears, the joys and concerns of all those we encounter. Maybe we can learn to live in harmony with one another as one family of faith. Maybe we can beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Maybe can pledge ourselves not to learn war anymore. Maybe we can heal the earth’s wounds and end all bitter strife.
Hope of the world, who by your cross did save us
from death and dark despair, from sin and guilt:
we render back the love your mercy gave us;
take now our lives and use them as you will. Amen.