It’s the last Sunday of the Christian year, sort of a New Year’s Eve for the church. We call it “the Feast of Christ the King” and we celebrate it by remembering his enthronement. Each year on Christ the King Sunday we read some part of the crucifixion story. As Pope Francis reminded the faithful in his Palm Sunday homily a few years ago, “It is precisely here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross!”
My friend Malcolm Guite, a priest of the Church of England and a remarkable poet, has written a lovely sonnet for this feast:
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
In 1978 the German Caribbean disco group Boney M covered a Jamaican Rastafarian anthem called “Rivers of Babylon.” Their cover claimed the Number 1 spot on the European pop charts that year and Number 30 on US pop charts. You may remember it. I’m going to ask our sound man to play the first minute or so of the song now.
That danceable little tune is based on Psalm 137, the same psalm the choir chanted this evening. That bouncy rhythm seems just a little bit at odds with the psalm’s words of lament, don’t you think? — and that violent imprecation at the end?
The last sentence of our reading from Genesis says, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” so this text is often treated as a story of faith. But, in all honesty, this is a story of doubt. It is the story of Abram questioning God’s promise of a posterity; it is a story of tribalism and concern for bloodline, ethnicity, and inheritance.
We humans have a predisposition to tribalism, to congregating in social groupings of similar people. Think about the neighborhood and community where you live; I’m willing to bet that your neighborhoods are made up of people for the most part pretty similar to yourselves. Aside from clearly racist practices like red lining and sundown laws, we modern Americans may not consciously organize ourselves into tribal groupings, but if we look at ourselves honestly we will find that we do. Like attracts like. As individuals, we are initially situated within nuclear families, then as we grow we broaden our social interactions to extended families, then clan, tribe, ethnic group, political party, nation.
It’s genetic: our nearest relatives, the great apes and chimpanzees, demonstrate this same family and clan predilection. And it’s religious: we find it in sacred literatures across cultures. Today’s lesson from Genesis is a case in point.
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” advises the author of the letter to the Colossians (whom I shall call “Paul” even though there is some scholarly dispute about that). Is Paul echoing the Teacher who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes? Is he also asserting that “all the deeds that are done under the sun [are] vanity and a chasing after wind”?
And what about Luke’s Jesus? When he says that God calls the rich man a fool is he condemning his wealth or his saving for the future as a waste of time?
No, not at all! None of our biblical authors this morning – not the Teacher, not Paul, not Luke (and certainly not Jesus whom Luke is quoting) – none of them is saying that life is futile or that our earthly existence is unimportant.
“Name this child.” That’s what I say to parents of infant baptismal candidates as I take their children from them. The words are not actually written in the baptismal service of The Book of Common Prayer as they are in some other traditions’ liturgies, but there is a rubric that says, “Each candidate is presented by name to the Celebrant . . . .” so asking for the child’s name is a practical way of seeing that done. It’s practical, but it’s also a theological statement.
There is a common religious belief found in nearly all cultures that knowing the name of a thing or a person gives one power over that thing or person. One finds this belief among African and North American indigenous tribes, as well as in ancient Egyptian, Vedic, and Hindu traditions; it is also present in all three of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The naming we do at baptism echoes the naming that takes place in Judaism when a male infant is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. In that service, called the brit milah or bris, the officiating mohel prays, “Our God and God of our fathers, preserve this child for his father and mother, and his name in Israel shall be called ________” and the prayer continues that, by his naming, the infant will be enrolled in the covenant of God with Israel. A similar thing is done when a girl is named in the ceremony called zeved habat or simchat bat, the “gift (or celebration) of the daughter” on the first sabbath following her birth. With the name given at baptism, the church says to its newest member, “This is who you are: washed in the waters of baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” a brother or sister in the church, a fellow member of the Body of Christ, an adopted child of God the Father.
When I was in the 8th Grade, I attended Robert Fulton Junior High School in Van Nuys, California, which is in the San Fernando Valley area of the Los Angeles metroplex. At some point during the year, Mrs. R. Smith, who taught English, gave my class an assignment to memorize and interpret a poem; we had to get up in front of the class, recite the poem, and then give our interpretation. When it came to be my turn, I recited my chosen poem, said what I believed it meant, and explained my interpretation. Mrs. Smith responded, “Your interpretation is wrong,” to which I replied, “I can interpret a poem any damned way I please!”
Well, as you might expect, she immediately ordered me to the Vice-Principal’s office, where I sat for about an hour and a half waiting for my mother whom the Vice-Principal called, to come from her office in another part of Los Angeles. I missed two other classes because of my rejection of Mrs. Smith’s one-right-interpretation approach to poetry and, while I remember the punishment, I no longer remember the poem nor the lesson she was trying to teach.
I tell you this story because that one-right-interpretation approach is the way the church has looked at the Parable of the Good Samaritan for most of its existence; for the first 1500 years that one right way was a lot different than the way most of us hear the story today.
When my nephew, who’s now in his mid-40s, was about six years old, he was given a homework assignment that he found frustrating and he just didn’t want to finish it, but his mother made him sit down and do it rather than something else more to his liking. In his frustration, he blurted out, “I hate you!” My late sister-in-law responded calmly, “That’s too bad because I love you.” After a moment of reflection, my nephew amended his angry outburst: “I love you, too,” he said, “but I don’t like you right now.”
In the field of linguistic anthropology there is a theory called “cultural emphasis,” which postulates that if a particular topic is of importance to a society, that will be reflected in that culture’s vocabulary. If there are many words to describe that topic, then there is a good chance that that topic is considered important; the greater the number of terms, the greater the subject’s importance. Often this is particularly true of terms pertaining to livelihood, such as methods of food production, or to the weather.
I really don’t like television commercials, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that regard. It’s a common complaint; we all talk about how much we dislike TV advertising. We all subscribe to Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services so we can avoid them. And yet, sometimes a particularly memorable advertisement tag-line will worm it’s way into one’s regular conversation. My step-father had one of those: whenever my mother made anything even slightly piquant he would say, “Mama mia, that’s a spicy meatball,” which some of you may recognize from an old Alka-Seltzer commercial.
Another one that ended up in America’s political lexicon was Clara Peller’s famous question in a Wendy’s ad: “Where’s the beef?”
My wife and I picked one up a few years ago from a commercial for the on-line auto insurer Esurance. Sometimes when we see someone doing something particularly bone-headed, one of us will turn to the other and say, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”
Once upon a time, there was a tavern owner in Mumbai. He had a hard-working bartender, who was always trying to be helpful by inventing new ways of doing things. One hot day, the tavern owner wanted to go to the beach. So he left the bartender in charge while he was gone. The bartender had noticed that many customers ate a little salt after drinking their liquor. He didn’t know why, but not wishing to show his ignorance, he never asked. He thought it might be that the liquor needed salt to taste good, and he wondered why taverns didn’t just add salt to their liquor. He decided that if he did so, the business would make much higher profits, and the tavern owner would be very pleased. So he added salt to all the liquor, not knowing that the actual reason the customers ate the salt was to chase away the aftertaste of the liquor. To his surprise, when the customers came to the tavern and drank the salty booze, they immediately spit it out; they left and went to a different bar. When the owner returned from his day at the beach, he found his tavern empty, and all his liquor ruined.
While making a presentation at a conference about teaching English as a second language, an expert in the field remarked that one of the difficulties is that there are many instances in English when a double-negative renders positive meaning and this is confusing for non-English speakers. “It’s fortunate,” she said, “there’s no way in English that a double positive can convey negative meaning.”
From the back of the room a voice spoke up, “Yeah, right.”
Now when that story is written, the sarcasm of that double positive giving negative meaning is hard to indicate; in fact, it is impossible. And yet it will probably be understood by a native speaker. For the non-English speaker, however, discerning the sarcasm and humor is difficult. Inflection and tone of voice can and do drastically alter meaning and understanding.