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.
Today, as I write this, is Trinity Sunday 2020, but my imagination this morning is not caught up by the Lectionary gospel lesson of the day, the last mountain-top experience of the Eleven when, just before his Ascension, Jesus gives them the Great Commission. Rather, my mind is taken to another mountain-top story, the one New Testament story Episcopalians can count on hearing twice each year at celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, that of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is heard on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, when Luke’s version is read at the mass:
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
It is also always heard on the Last Sunday after Epiphany when, depending on the Lectionary year, it may be Luke’s story or the essentially similar versions from Matthew or Mark.
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.
In January of 1991, I was a student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, where there is a tradition of Thursday night community eucharists followed by dinner together in the seminary refectory. On the evening of Thursday, January 17, the Rev. Dr. John Kater, professor of ministry theory and practice, was our preacher and he began his sermon with the invocation I have just offered. You see, that was the day “Operation Desert Shield” became “Operation Desert Storm,” and we had all been glued to the TV sets in the common room, the dormitory lounges, or our apartments watching as the US Air Force began a bombardment of Baghdad that was to last for weeks and, eventually, lead into nearly three decades of war in the Persian Gulf region.
There was another American bombing of Baghdad just a few days ago in which the military leader of Iran, Qassem Soleimani, was killed. If the news reports are correct, his death may trigger more armed conflict in the region. So this weekend, as we read in our newspapers about the Iranian general’s death and tonight consider the visit of a group of Iranian scientists to Israel, it seemed good to repeat that invocation tonight.
Back in May of 2016, after hearing about the #WearOrange movement, which supports reasonable gun sales and gun ownership regulation, I got the idea to wear an orange stole at worship as a witness against gun violence. The idea caught on and spread. Recently, my friend Rosalind Hughes, who made my orange stole and a hundred others, asked me to sum up what I thought might achieved by the importing the #WearOrange movement into the liturgy of the church. This is what I wrote for her:
Several years ago, while serving in a parish in Kansas with a limited budget and little money for more than a few stoles, I made several full sets of vestments and, at that time, did some research on liturgical colors. One of the things I learned was that although orange is not now considered one of the standard colors of the liturgical spectrum, it was once considered an alternative to green for the Sundays of “ordinary time.” I also learned that it is an accepted color for vestments in the Russian Orthodox Church where, for some reason, it is considered appropriate to the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul.
There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Father George has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theology is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise. Back when I was a curate getting the Trinity Sunday assignment, my rector encouraged me with the sunny observation that, listening to a sermon in almost any church on Trinity Sunday, one could be practically guaranteed to hear heresy.
As I started preparing to preach on this Trinity Sunday, however, I thought, “I have an out, a handy escape hatch” because today is not only the church’s feast of the one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, it is also the secular, some say “Hallmark,” holiday of Father’s Day. So, I thought, “I’ll talk about Father’s Day and if the Trinity decides to show up, well … that’ll be fine.”
I have a friend whose face I have seen only in photographs. We have never been in the same room; we have never shaken hands; we have never spoken. Nonetheless, I have considered this person a friend for many years. We met (if that’s the right word) through a listserve of Episcopalians and Anglicans many years ago and continued our friendship when most of that group migrated to Facebook. A couple of months ago, I noticed that my friend had stopped posting to Facebook. I tried to contact them, but notes sent by Facebook Messenger were never answered and they never responded when “tagged” in Facebook posts; I could not post directly to my friend’s wall, or so Facebook informed me. Eventually, it appeared my friend’s Facebook account was either deactivated or deleted. I did not have a phone number or an email address for them, so I was left in the dark as to what had happened to my friend.
God, I’m depressed. “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”
Going through Lent without the regular support of a faith community while also recovering from major orthopedic surgery and observing the state of American politics and the state of American Christianity really has me in a blue funk and I can feel the “black dog” prowling around in the fog. It’s too much. Maybe this retirement thing, or the surgery, or both were bad decisions. “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
I’m pretty certain that checking the New York Times and the Washington Post, Facebook and Twitter is occasionally a bad idea, maybe frequently a bad idea.