Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King: Back to Basics

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 25, 2007
Year C, Proper 29 RCL: The Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ the King

Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Christ the King: Back to Basics

Wow, this is an exciting time of year isn’t it? I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving. I know here at church we had a wonderful service and a delicious brunch. I was so full I was glad that Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house was delayed.

And now with Thanksgiving behind us whether the Church likes it or not society is moving into what it calls “the Christmas season.” Stores and some homes are already decorated. You probably know that some stores opened as early as 4:00AM on Friday to attract bargain-hungry shoppers. Here in Madison, Main Street is beautifully decorated and Santa arrived on Friday evening. In Friday’s mail Sue and I even received our first Christmas card!

Yep, it sure is an exciting time. And here in church we mark the last Sunday of the church year with a feast that sounds pretty grand and exciting – the feast of Christ the King. When I hear that grand title, Christ the King, I think of many of the paintings and statues that show Jesus wearing beautiful clothes and a golden crown on his head. So, all in all it feels like a time to celebrate – Christmas is coming in just a few weeks and today it’s the feast of Christ the King!

And, sure enough, today’s first lesson seems to fit this grand spirit very well. Listen again to the language used to describe Jesus in the letter to the Colossians:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible. Whether thrones or dominions or rulers and powers – all things have been created through him and for him.”

Wow! I don’t know about you, but after hearing that grand description of Jesus I’m ready to burst into “Crown him with many crowns.” But, Dr. Anne, I guess we have to wait until the recessional, huh?

And then we come to the Gospel lesson. When I first looked ahead to today’s lesson I sort of expected to find something grand and exciting like maybe… the transfiguration – Jesus glowing on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. Or I expected to hear about Jesus gloriously ascending into heaven. I expected to hear another story that would make me burst into “Crown him with many crowns.”

But, instead, what Gospel does the church offer us on Christ the King Sunday? What Gospel does the Church offer us on the last Sunday of the church year? What Gospel does the Church offer us as we all look ahead to Christmas?

The Church offers us the stark, horrifying image of Jesus hanging on the cross, the last hours of his life. The Church offers us this image of fragile Jesus, broken and bloody, being mocked, wearing a crown of thorns. What kind of king is this? What kind of celebration is this?
“Crown him with many crowns” takes on a very different sense now.

The Church says, here, this is Christ the King – here’s our king – our king Jesus dying on the cross.

Somehow things suddenly seem a lot less festive.

So what’s going on here? Why isn’t the Church with the program? Why isn’t the Church offering us a grand and exciting message this morning to match the excitement out there in the world?

In thinking about today’s sermon, I’ve been reflecting on a clergy discussion we had here on Tuesday. The issue of the day was how the church can get its message out into the modern world. Mother Lauren and I and a few others focused on some simple questions. Of course, it’s the simple questions that are always the toughest to answer!

These supposedly simple questions boiled down to: Who is Jesus? Who is this Christ the King? What does it mean?

How can the Church have a message for the world unless we know who Jesus is?

It was a great discussion – being clergy types we threw around some heavy-duty theological terms like redemption and atonement. We talked about the grammatical structure of Aramaic versus the structure of Greek. We talked about all sorts of things, and, of course, we never did quite come up with answers to these seemingly simple questions.

Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King? What does it mean?

Basic stuff. Many of us are in church a lot, but it’s easy for us to forget the basics. It’s easy to forget what it all means. Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King?

Now I suppose we could always fall back on the Nicene Creed. After all, every Sunday we stand and say the creed, which was crafted in part as an attempt to answer these questions, but if we pay attention to what we’re saying, the creed may in fact raise more questions than it answers. When I have taught about Christianity and Islam in my history courses I’ve always contrasted the creed of Islam – one simple, easy to remember sentence, with the Nicene Creed – which, let’s face it, is not so easy to remember. For fun I would ask if any of the regular church-goers in class could say the Nicene Creed from memory. Not one student was able to do it. Until my last year as a teacher when amazingly a kid recited it flawlessly from memory! (I took that as a sign that it was time to go…)

Anyway, it’s one thing not to remember it, but what does it mean? What does it mean? Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King? What does the creed say about Jesus? You know it… “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.” (scratch, scratch.)

What does it mean? Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King?

Maybe because of the season, I’m reminded of the movie The Nightmare before Christmas. Have you seen it? A bunch of us watched it during movie night here at church a few weeks ago.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, this synopsis may sound a little bizarre, but bear with me. The movie imagines that Halloweentown – a place filled with vampires and ghouls that is responsible for producing Halloween each year – is ruled by a king, a skeleton king, named Jack. Jack’s been in the Halloween business for a while and he has gotten bored. After Halloween, feeling depressed, he goes for a walk wondering what to do with the rest of his life. During this sad walk, Jack the king of Halloweentown happens to stumble on Christmastown – the place, ruled by Santa Claus, that is responsible for producing Christmas every year.

OK, are you still with me? Well, Jack the king of Halloweentown is amazed by Christmastown. Santa’s elves are busily preparing toys for the big day, there’s good cheer everywhere, the snow, the ornaments, the twinkling lights are all so beautiful.

So when Jack sees Christmastown, he thinks he’s found the answer to his problem – this year he and the vampires and ghouls over at Halloweentown will be in charge of Christmas. Bad idea.

To get ready for Christmas, Jack tries to figure out what makes Christmas tick. “What does it mean?” he asks. “What does it mean?” So he scientifically conducts a series of experiments, analyzing the chemical properties of Christmas tree ornaments, examining the contents of stuffed animals, trying to cut out paper snowflakes, and even getting his own Santa suit. “What does it mean?” Jack asks.

If you haven’t see the movie I won’t spoil what happens next, except to say that Jack learns the hard way what Christmas means – he learns it’s not about the ornaments, the stuffed animals, or even the Santa suit.

Jack, the skeleton king, learns that Christmas is about love.

And today, on the feast of Christ the King, today as the church year comes to an end, today as we look ahead to Advent, today as the world enters what it calls the Christmas season, today the Church takes us back to the Cross to remind us what it all means.

With so much going on in and out of the church we can easily lose sight of the basics. We can lose sight of what it all means. We can lose sight of who Jesus is. We can lose sight of Christ the King.

By recalling the Cross on this festive day the Church offers us the grandest, most exciting message of them all. In Jesus God says this is who I am. In Jesus’ life of self-giving love God says this is who I am. In Jesus God shows us the way.

As it says on our youth group t-shirts, “Love is a verb.” The whole sweep of Christ’s life is an act of love. From the manger in Bethlehem to the cross at Calvary to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday – the whole sweep of his life reveals to us that it’s all about love. But, like Jack Skellington, we Christians can get focused on the things that aren’t so important and miss what it’s all about. Like Jack we ask “What does it mean?” Like Jack, we can miss that it’s all about love.

Christ is king because he gives of himself – freely and fully. Christ is king because he lives a life of perfect love, even dying on the cross.

As we begin a new church year, as all the excitement around Christmas begins, let’s not forget the basics. Let’s not forget that in Jesus we see who God really is. Let’s not forget that in Jesus we see that it’s all about love. And let’s not forget that Christ is king.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Joy of Accountability

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 18, 2007
The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Year C: Proper 28 RCL

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
(2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)
Luke 21:5-19

The Joy of Accountability

Until the past few months I had lived pretty much my entire life on the academic calendar. Both as a student and as a teacher my life was marked marking period by marking period, semester by semester, school year by school year. Just the other day, I caught myself thinking that pretty soon I could catch up on a few odds and ends during Christmas vacation. And then I remembered that, at least for a long time, there would be no more Christmas vacations for me.

I liked the academic calendar because it has a definite beginning. I liked the start of each new school year – the new books to read, the notebooks yet to be written, the seemingly endless possibilities. Each year, I’d think “this year is going to be different.” And then the reality of school would set in – some classes were good, some were hard and some were boring. Some of the bindings of those new books remained unbroken and those nice clean notebooks became filled with doodles along with line after line of notes. Despite my best intentions, I’d slip into my usual patterns

I also liked the academic calendar because it has a definite ending. We won’t be in this class forever. This class will end. This semester will end. This school year will end. Someday we will graduate. Sometimes it may seem like forever, but there is an ending. But, of course, there’s not only an ending – for students, at least, there is also accountability. In class like every other teacher I was asked about five million times, “Will we be graded on this?” And usually the answer was yes. Year after year, students are judged and graded. Year after year students are held accountable.

The academic year: beginnings, endings, and accountability.

It turns out that the church year is not so different from the academic year. There is a definite beginning and an ending. And, although we may choose to ignore it, there is also accountability. Now we are coming to another ending. Next Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year and then we start a new church year on the First Sunday of Advent. And so, as we come to the end of the church year, sure enough, this morning’s lessons focus on endings and accountability.

These are not easy things to think about or to preach about. I’d much rather look with anticipation to the start of another church year – all the hope and the possibilities – the hope, the excitement, that this year will be different. But, sorry, we can’t skip a step. If we hope to spiritually “graduate” we need to reflect on endings and accountability.

So let’s start with our Old Testament lesson. The prophet Malachi lived in the time after many of the Hebrews had returned from the Babylonian exile. They had rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem – and just like at the start of a new school year there had been tremendous hope and optimism – this time things were going to be different, this time things were going to be better. But, surprise, surprise, just like any human institution, the Temple had become corrupt. In the righteous anger of Malachi (“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble”) seems to fueled by the disappointment that the religious establishment has become corrupt.

And so Malachi warns the ending is coming and that there will be accountability.

Five hundred years later, Jesus is unimpressed by the splendor of the Temple. Jesus was, of course, very critical of the religious establishment that had become corrupt and hypocritical. And so Jesus prophesies the end of the Temple.
Two thousand years later, it’s easy for us to shrug. For us, the Temple is just another historic structure that has vanished into the rubble of history. But for the Jews of Jesus’ time the thought that the Temple – the holiest place in the universe, the place where God lived – could be destroyed must have been very disturbing, to say the least. And, of course, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 – the Temple, the holiest place in the universe, the place where God lived – the Jewish people were scattered throughout the ancient world and had to rethink their faith in a world without the Holy of Holies.

Jesus warns that the ending is coming and that there will be accountability.
Now, I’d just as soon pass on accountability. As a student I used to get very nervous before tests. Just last January I had to take what’s called the General Ordination Exam – a week-long set of tests on Scripture, Theology, Liturgy and so on. If Bishop Beckwith had called and offered to exempt me from the exam you better believe I would have said yes.

But, he never called and so I was held accountable for what I had, or hadn’t, learned in seminary. Accountability. We’d all like to avoid it – but we also need it. Accountability – we’d all like to avoid it – but it’s a sign that we are loved
I remember at one of the high schools where I taught there was another history teacher – a veteran and very popular teacher – who never made his students accountable. His students never had homework, never had to bring books to class, the tests were jokes and I don’t think he ever bothered to grade them. He spent his class periods sharing his political views. At least once he wrote the words “Us” and “Them” on the board and then listed the names of the faculty according to their supposed political beliefs. I never did find out whether I was an “us” or a “them.”

Anyway, I often taught freshmen. Later as juniors and seniors they would sometimes stop by and see me. At the start of the year the kids who had gotten (let’s call him) Mr. E would be excited and try to get a rise out of me, a teacher who was famous for pop quizzes. “Yo, Mr. Murph, Mr. E’s so cool. He really respects us and cares about us and wants to know what we think. He talks to us about other teachers and he never gives quizzes or tests. You don’t even have to read the book”

I’d take all this in, smile, and say something like “Well, it sounds like you have a pretty good deal with Mr. E. Congratulations!”

And then the months would pass and sometimes those same students would stop by for another visit. I’d ask how things were going in Mr. E’s class. Not always, but often enough, kids would admit that his class wasn’t as cool as they had thought. And even once in a while one of them would admit that they even missed my famous pop quizzes.

They didn’t say it, but they were smart enough to realize that the way Mr. E ran his class and treated them was actually deeply uncaring and disrespectful. By not demanding accountability Mr. E was shortchanging these students and showing that he just didn’t care them, their learning, their growth as students and as people.

There are many who want, or even expect, that the Christian life will be easy. I’m not sure how people can read the Bible and think that this is supposed to be easy. I mean, just look at today’s passage from Luke, “…they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

Whew. Yet somehow Christians get the idea that God loves me, nothing else is required, and everything is going to be just swell. And God does indeed love us beyond our understanding. But part of that love is a demand of accountability. You and I will be accountable for our actions. You and I will be accountable for how we respond to God’s love. And it’s through that accountability that we can graduate and become the people God knows we really are.
If God didn’t hold us accountable, then God’s love wouldn’t be love at all. In fact, God would be pretty much like Mr. E.

To push the school metaphor just a little further, the life and teachings of Jesus show us that good news that God is the greatest teacher and the most merciful grader of all. This little passage from Luke that we heard today sure is scary on its own. But when we put in context it becomes much less scary.

Throughout his gospel, Luke has depicted Jesus spreading love and hope through his teaching and healing. Just before Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, he observes the poor widow making her seemingly insignificant and yet incredibly generous donation to the Temple. It’s just a few sentences and yet it’s one of the most powerful lessons in the whole Bible.
And this is how we are held accountable. How much have we been like the widow who gives all that she has?

I can only speak for myself. I haven’t been like her very much at all.
So, because God loves me I am held accountable. Because God loves all of us we are all held accountable. And because God is merciful, we get another chance. In two weeks we begin again. In two weeks we begin a new church year – a new year filled with hope and possibilities.

But before we turn the page let’s take some time and allow God to hold us accountable. Let’s give thanks for accountability. And then let’s move on and really mean it when we say “This year is going to be different.”

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Funeral Sermon for Elizabeth Mallery Korsgaard

Funeral Sermon for Elizabeth Mallery Korsgaard
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 10, 2007

Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Lamentations 3:22-26, 31-33
John 14:1-6

Grief is the Price We Pay for Love

Today’s second lesson, from the Book of Lamentations, powerfully reminds us that grief and love are joined together. This gathering today powerfully reminds us that grief and love are joined together.

This has been a time of tremendous grief. Beth, of course, had been sick on and off for quite some time, but her death came much faster than pretty much anyone expected. Her family grieves, and a whole community grieves too. How powerful and moving that hundreds of people took the time to come to the funeral home to honor Beth and to support her family during this time of grief. And now all of us are gathered here in this sacred space to honor Beth and to support her family.

We grieve because a wonderful, loving person has died. I actually only got to know Beth in the last days of her life. Meeting her, getting to know her, was an amazing experience. I’ve told some people, I feel like a much longer friendship was compressed into a very short period of time. In just a few days and under difficult circumstances, she and I connected and became friends.

When I shared with Mark this sense of connection I felt with Beth, he nodded with a slight smile and told me that this was a common experience when it came to Beth. She connected with people. She genuinely cared about how you were doing. More than one person has recalled that when you talked to Beth you got the sense that she gave you her full attention. Almost everyone has noted Beth’s many walks around town – and how she made friends up and down the streets of Madison, spreading love and joy. Beth always remembered to ask after a sick friend or relative, even as she carried the burden of her own illness.

So we grieve because this wonderful, loving person has died. We grieve because Beth has died – this person with a keen intelligence; this person who was filled with love of her family; this person who was filled with a love of life. This person who was filled with love for children, for the community, for literature. This woman who lived with love and joy.

So our church this afternoon is filled with grief – but hopefully not only grief – because grief and love are joined connected. Another Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth II of all people, captured this connection very well when she once said “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

Grief is the price we pay for love.

The first day I met Beth at Morristown Memorial Hospital I asked her what kept her going through so much pain and suffering. She didn’t miss a beat, looked at me right in the eye and said it was her faith that kept her going. Now, the truth is that sometimes people will say that to people like me because they think it’s the right answer, or the answer that a member of the clergy wants to hear.

So the next day when I saw Beth again I asked her to say more about how her faith supported her. She shared with me how she felt God’s presence with her as she faced all the tests and treatments, the pain and the fear.
And the presence of God that she felt was love. She felt love. This divine love that she felt didn’t come in the form of visions or a booming voice from heaven. This divine love that she felt in came in the form of her family and friends who loved her and supported her. The people who held her hand, cried with her, laughed with her, grieved with her. Just as Beth had been a sign of God’s love for so many now she was comforted by the love of so many.

Grief is the price we pay for love.

She and I talked about how even God seems unable to separate grief from love. Right at the start of our tradition, there’s that poignant image of God wandering through the Garden of Eden looking for his beloved Adam and Eve, who were hiding in shame. Grief is the price God pays for love. God becomes one of us in Jesus – whose life was filled with betrayals and disappointments by those he loved. Grief is the price God pays for love. And finally human beings reject God and nail God to the cross. Grief is the price God pays for love.

But the Christian story, and the story of Beth Korsgaard, is that love wins. Grief is the price that God and we pay for love. But as the author of Lamentations writes, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.” Yes, we experience the grief of Good Friday but in the end we celebrate
the love of Easter Sunday.

Beth understood that grief is the price we pay for love, but her whole life points to the power, the indestructibility of love. All the love that she poured out into the world has not died, but will live forever.

Beth’s journey has come to an end. Beth’s journey that began in God’s imagination, her journey that was lived out right here in Madison, has come to an end in the place that Jesus has prepared for her. Beth is home with God forever.

But you and I, we’re not home yet. We’re still on our journey. How will our journey end? Will we face the end of our lives with the same kind of confidence and peace that Beth knew? Or will we be filled with doubts and regrets? What will it take for us to live the best lives that we can?

Only we can answer those questions. We can look to Beth as an example, as a role model. We can look to Beth as someone who knew the way. If we open our hearts to God we can be like Beth and deeply love our families and friends. We can be dedicated to our community. We can live a life of love and service.

It’s not too late for us, there’s still a ways to go on our journey. So let’s all honor Beth by remembering her, but more importantly, by following her example. Grief is the price we pay for love, but let’s love anyway. Let’s go for long walks and share love and joy with the world. Let’s be like Beth.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thanksgiving and Service

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 2007

Thanksgiving and Service

Some of my most vivid childhood memories revolve around Thanksgiving. Each year my parents, my sister and I would drive across Jersey City to my grandparents’ house. Like any family we had our own little rituals. We would always notice that somehow the White Castle fast-food restaurant the passed on the way was doing a brisk business – on Thanksgiving! And then when we arrived at the house my sister and I would race into the kitchen to see if we could help ourselves to a sneak preview of my grandmother’s turkey stuffing. The crispiest parts were always in high demand. The whole time my grandmother would pretend not to notice, unless of course, our scavenging got out of hand; then we would be shooed away.

Over the years my aunts and uncles built their own families, which made for a pretty tight squeeze in the kitchen and the living room that was transformed into a dining room for the occasion. Plus, there were always assorted others who were invited by my grandmother – relatives whose relation to us was a bit convoluted, friends and neighbors, and even occasionally her boss from the shade store where she worked. Like many families we would ooh and gasp as the food arrived on the tables. And then we ate and ate. We ate sweet fruit cup, we ate mashed potatoes, we ate gelatinous can-shaped cranberry sauce, we ate vegetables, and of course we ate turkey and we ate that delicious stuffing.

I would give a lot to taste my grandmother’s stuffing just one more time. Yet, as I think back to those happy, crowded Thanksgivings I know that there was something very important missing. It seems strange to me, but the truth is we never really gave thanks. Oh, we thanked and complimented my grandmother, and the aunt who brought the broccoli and cheese casserole, and the cousin who baked the fantastic desserts. But, although most of my relatives were faithful churchgoers, we still somehow never gave thanks to God that we were sitting at this table instead of a table at White Castle.

For whatever reason, I think many of us are a little shaky when it comes to giving thanks. In many churches I have noticed that during the Prayers of the People we are much more vocal praying for our needs and the needs of others than we are when we offer thanks to God for the gifts we have been given. We all have our struggles and challenges, for sure. And yet we have been given so much!

In my own life I have much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. Moving to Madison and being part of the Grace Church community these past few months has been wonderful gift. I give thanks to God (and to Mother Lauren!) for the opportunity to pray and work with all of you. Having talked with many of you, I know that you also are very grateful to be part of this church. To invoke Ignatius of Loyola one more time, he believed that once we became aware of God’s great generosity and mercy to us we must respond with loving service to others. And that’s precisely what I see so many doing week after week at Grace Church. Maybe since I’m still new I can see that loving service a little more clearly than those of you who have been around for a while.

Let me give you just one example. Many of you know that one Sunday a month a group from Grace Church heads over to the King James nursing home for a service of Noonday Prayer. Nursing homes can be difficult places, churning up all sorts of fears and anxieties within us. Yet, the two services that I have attended have been joyful, not frightening. I have been so moved by people from our church giving up a good bit of their Sunday afternoon to wheel people into the dining room, to lead prayers, to preach and most especially to sing. For the October service Petra Schemmann had volunteered to play the piano and at the last minute her daughter Julie bravely volunteered to come along and play the flute. I wish all of you could have been there to hear and see loving service in action. It was as good as my grandmother’s stuffing!

As we prepare for Thanksgiving let’s all give thanks to God for the many gifts we have been given. And let’s all open our hearts to offer loving service to God and one another.