Monday, November 23, 2009

Discerning Obedience

Sermon for 11.22.09, Christ the King/Reign of Christ

2 Samuel 23.1-5; Psalm 132.1-18; Rev 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37

Please pray with me: May our soul wait for you, O Lord. May Your word be our hope. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

If I didn’t love being your pastor, I would probably spend much of my time painting. I don’t draw with ease, but I can be totally absorbed by color and especially the transparency of color possible with watercolors. One starts with the lightest tints, the least amount of pigment, and then gradually lays on shades of stronger colors. This layering can create an effect far richer and far more exciting than the most carefully mixed color that is applied only once. A mixed color can become heavy or muddy, whereas in a series of applications, the first washes allow light from the paper to shine through, and this translucency can be retained even with several subsequent layers.

Perhaps I thought of painting when I read David’s last words from 2nd Samuel. David says that a just ruler “is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” One has the sense of gentleness, beauty, clarity, and the integrity of the whole under such kingship.

The emphasis in the passage from Revelation is different because of the historical situation. Given the persecutions during which it was written, the author, someone named John, makes strong assertions about a God who moves effortlessly through time and who has not yet finished his work, a god “who is and who was and who is to come.” When he does come, every eye will see him, and the result will not be subtle: Everyone still totally committed to this world—“all the tribes of the earth,” the persecutors—will wail. Which picture is more appropriate for this Sunday that is entitled Christ the King or The Reign of Christ—David’s or that of the author of Revelation? Which picture fits us?

The Gospel of John gives us a drama that seems to have escaped from Holy Week. This passage asks us to think about transparency or its lack in the context of Kingship. There Christ, on trial for his life before Pilate, is asserting his Kingdom and his Truth. Pilate certainly has power of life and death over Jesus, but is there clarity in Pilate’s arraignment? As we listen, Pilate’s predicament deepens. Pilate understands kingship in earthly terms, and, for a Roman, “king” has political and insurrectional meanings. Pilate may not even yet fully realize the subversive nature of Jesus’ total loyalty to God. But he does try to trick him, to catch him in a capital offense: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And then Jesus is his usual brilliant self. He realizes what a murky situation he is in, but he asks Pilate a direct question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” He knows that the Jewish leaders may be cornering Pilate and that Pilate may be wondering whether he has enough troops to quiet them should they not get the execution they want. Pilate’s main goal may be to stay in control at whatever cost and avoid being dragged back to explain things in Rome.

Even so Jesus, ever the teacher—ever the savior—explains that he is operating out of a very different notion of kingship and that his kingdom is not from here. He is inviting Pilate to listen, to be authentic, to be transparent—to let light shine through. “Everyone,” Jesus says, “who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus is not speaking of intellectual truth, that which is reliable, quantifiable, or merely believed in. This is truth as reality, as revelation. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Really listens, and follows through on that listening. Doing so is the opposite of unrighteousness and for this reason, Jesus’ truth must be an active thing; it is doing, it is faithful living and witness.

And so, aren’t we also on trial here, right along with Pilate? If Christ is our King and we wish to live under his reign, honor and extend it—if we love David’s luminous vision of “the light of morning”—we’ve got a lot of listening to do. Listening that is predicated on being transparent to God. Wise and humble listening that discerns the truth and then acts upon that discernment. Listening that constantly tries to distinguish the murky promises of this world from the light and reign of Christ. We’re not just talking about a contemplative high here. As one of the brothers in the monastery recently reminded me, “spiritual formation and Christian discipleship are the same.” This is Brother Charles, who runs their bookstore, but who knows that it’s not the reading of the books that matters, but moving beyond into Christian loving and living, into mission, into holy practice. Into discerning obedience.

This phrase comes from the book Beyond Mere Obedience by a wonderful theologian named Dorothee Soelle. She urges weaning ourselves from authoritarian models of obedience that can blind us even to the ethics of this world and then blind us to Christ, our king. Discerning obedience is “an obedience which has its eyes wide open, which first discovers God’s will in the situation” (p. 25). This doesn’t mean that we shrug off the world, but that we seek to transform it through the Grace of Christ. This is a tall order and I think it’s one of the reasons that we have church, so that we don’t have to do it alone.

On this Sunday, the Church Universal, including our own Methodist Church, declares that Christ is King. This has only been a day of observance only since 1925 when it was created by Pope Pius XI—you’ll love this—because of the spread of democracies. It’s a kind of paradox because Americans, who don’t usually bow to their elected officials, belong to churches that announce that we do bow, but only to Jesus the Christ. And Americans, who profoundly believe in the cult of the individual and the individual’s own right to decision-making, support churches that urge us to attend to the sovereignty of Christ.

And this is why we need discerning obedience as a daily spiritual discipline, a transparency before God that faces the truth about who we are, whom and what we worship. Our sovereign, resurrected Christ is also our shepherd, “the king of love whose goodness faileth never” and who, having ransomed our souls, continues to lead us throughout our length of days. There is a freedom and a joy in this commitment to discovering Christ’s truth, Christ’s revelation, both individually and in community over and over again. I am convinced that living into Christ’s reign, doing Christ, as best we can and through the grace of God, can be progressively transforming for us and for our communities, even here and now.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, we bless you for a Kingship that is both powerful and liberating, for your truth that gives us strength, courage and hope. Help us to be transparent before you and before one another. Thank you for loving us and for filling each stage of our lives with your luminosity. Amen.

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