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Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Divine Reflection--A Sermon

Today's sermon for Reign of Christ.

The Divine Reflection
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church

Elizabethton, Tennessee

November 23rd, 2008
Thanksgiving/Reign of Christ

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
--Ephesians 1:15-23

Today marks the intersection of two holidays of importance to us. One is Thanksgiving, a cultural holiday. Many things are connected with Thanksgiving Day. Some of these are healthier for us in mind, body, and spirit than others. Yet, the practice and truth of thanksgiving is critical for our lives. Show me a person who is happy, productive and peaceful and you will find a person who is grateful.

The other holiday or Holy Day is specifically Christian. Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, traditionally called Christ the King. It is the final Sunday of the church’s liturgical year.

On Reign of Christ Sunday, we consider the fullness of the Universe in order, in place, in perfect peace. As we read this beautiful poetry of Ephesians:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Christ is at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places. This is heavy duty Christian mythology. Mythology is the language we use to speak about value and meaning. All religions have myths, symbols, and metaphors. One of the unfortunate things about Christian mythology is not the mythology itself, it is that we have insisted on it. When you take a metaphor and turn it into a descriptor, you are going to have problems. I will mention three. We have to mention them and then move on so we can appreciate the truth to which the text points.

First, we have made an idol of the “maleness” of our main character, the Son at the right hand of the Father. One piece of evidence is enough to make my point: The first woman to be ordained to the ministry in our denomination, Margaret Towner, is still living. Christianity has been around for 2000 years and Presbyterians ordained the first woman in 1956. And we are the liberals. We weren’t the first. The Society of Friends or the Quakers were the first in the early 1800s.

The vast majority of Christian organizations around the world do not ordain women. In the Roman Catholic tradition priests are male specifically because of the maleness of Jesus. That is the theological rational for denying ordination to women.

Of course the historical person of Jesus was a male. The church saw something more in him and used mythological language to describe that something more. As the myths were created, rather than transcending maleness, they divinized maleness. They could have said Jesus Christ is fully male and fully female. Why not? We said Christ was fully God and fully human, which is much more of a stretch in logic.

The church did not, so far. Males were too interested in maintaining unbalanced power relations. This is not simply a matter of politically correct language. This is about power and access. It is also about the location of the sacred. As feminist theologian, Mary Daly pointed out nearly forty years ago, “When God becomes male, the male becomes God.”

There is nothing wrong with Father and Son language as one metaphor for the Sacred. The problem is our history. We have used this language at the expense of other metaphors, particularly feminine images. This is why I think it is important, at the very least, to engage in holy mischief and change the pronouns.

Second, Christian exclusivism has tainted this metaphor. Rather than seeing this metaphor as an expression of universal truth, Christians all too often have made Christ “our god” who is better than “their god.” Language such as “put all things under his feet” is not liberating language for those who have been put under the feet of those who think they are the vicars of Christ. This language has fostered Christian dominionism.

Rather than see Jesus Christ as one of many names for the Holy (which we could have done and still can do), we divinized exclusivism. Rather than emphasize the connection of Christ with the figures of other mythologies, Christianity put its figure at the top of the pole and denied the validity of other figures.

In the Gospels Jesus preached an important message. Move beyond your tribalism. So what did we do? We turned him into the god of our tribe. This is again about power and access. When Christians claim exclusivism for Jesus Christ, we do not honor Christ. We honor ourselves. When God exclusively becomes Christ, Christians become God.

Third, where is heaven and where is the throne upon which Christ sits? When our cosmology knew that Earth was in the center of creation surrounded by the heavenly bodies, the planets and the stars, with the topmost outermost sphere being heaven, this image worked. We all had our place in the cosmos.

Our modern conception of the universe has no place for heaven if we insist that heaven is beyond us. By insisting that the sacred, the holy, God, or Christ, transcends the universe, we have stripped the universe of its sacred dimension. Rather than Christ on the throne in heaven as metaphor for the sacred order of the universe, it has resulted in the absence of God. This coupled with human greed has turned the universe into something profane. It is material to be used rather than holy ground to be honored. The living things of earth are objects for exploitation rather than subjects inherently and innately divine.

The problem is not with the author of Ephesians. The problem is our 2000 year history of interpretation.

We can deal with that. We can let those idols go.
• We can substitute a feminine image. Christ is fully female and fully male.
• We can celebrate Christ as our name for the universal presence of the holy that has many names.
• We can imagine that heaven is within, among, and through all that is.

If we can navigate around the stumbling blocks, then we can wrestle with the real scandal that this text presents to us.

On this Holy Day, we are invited to affirm that all is well with the world. At the core of Reality, at the heart of the Universe both visible and invisible, there is order and peace. Because Christ is in her proper place, granting peace and strength, we can breathe more easily. That is the claim.

Martin Luther King Jr. said the arc of the Universe bends toward justice.

I cannot find the source for this but Albert Einstein is reported to have said that the most important puzzle is whether or not the Universe is friendly. Is it just up to us to find meaning in this indifferent world or is there something friendly about the whole thing?

The writer of Ephesians would say the universe is friendly because our divine friend, Jesus Christ, is on his throne ruling with love and justice. Other religious traditions say similar things in many different ways.

Last night at the United Religions Initiative we sang a song that contained the phrase, “that love may reign.”

Maybe we should just call this Holy Day, Reign of Love Sunday.

That is the point the author of Ephesians wants to make. That is the claim of faith. Divine Love holds us and all will be well.

Our thoughts and our feelings tell us that all is not well with the world. We look around and we do not see order, peace, or fullness. We see a lot of chaos, violence, and emptiness in our own lives and in the lives of the beings of Earth.

We are in an anxious time. I know that many of you are concerned about your jobs, your pensions, and your homes. You are concerned about the planet. You are concerned about our future. Are we going to be OK? Can we turn this?

I don’t think it was any easier when Ephesians was written than now. They struggled as we do. Near the end of the letter, the author offers this advice:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Eph. 6:10-12
These are the powers that in the first chapter of Ephesians, Christ has under his feet. They are ultimately under his feet while at the same time we have to put on the armor of Christ and deal with them.

Last Sunday I quoted Reinhold Niebuhr from his book Moral Man, Immoral Society. Niebuhr concluded that work by saying:
“…justice cannot be approximated if the hope of its perfect realization does not generate a sublime madness in the soul. Nothing but such madness will do battle with malignant power and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” p. 277
I think Niebuhr is right. And I think what the author of Ephesians is promoting is a sublime madness in the soul.

That madness tells us that all is well with the world and all will be well.

Now get out there and make it so.


Theologian Sallie McFague, in her latest book, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World and Global Warming, concludes her work appropriately, with words of hope. She writes:
Hope is trust, trust in God—not in things, events, or people. To trust in God means God can be counted on to hold one’s life and all life in trust, safekeeping. It means that one can rest one’s life—and the life of the whole planet—in God, knowing that this trust will somehow be honored.
She goes on to say:
This, then, is an odd kind of hope. It does not mean that things will necessarily turn out “as we hope,” nor does it mean that we will be successful in our attempts to “save” the planet, but it does mean that God will “make all things well….”

This is not sentimental or romantic hope that things will turn out okay, but rather the faith that however they turn out, the world and all its creatures are held, kept, within God. Pp. 170-1.
We cannot see how it will work out. We cannot calculate it. Trying to calculate it can lead us to despair. That is no good for anyone. The great wisdom, the deep wisdom of our spiritual traditions reminds us that through our trust, a way is shown. We don’t know what that way is now. We cannot see it. We will find the way in time. It may not be us. It may be our descendants who find the way.

At the center of Reality, to use Christian language, Christ is where she needs to be. She is at the center within, among, and through all living things. She is in us. We are the divine reflection as is all creation. She has been with us for this universe’s 14 billion year history. She has made all things and all things are holy.

It could be that this shaking of the foundations, to use a phrase from theologian Paul Tillich, may open us to a deeper sense of who we are. It could be a time to discover what we value. This could be a time in which Christ is inviting us to turn toward one another.

Even as I am a snarky skeptic, I know from my own experience that I am able to get things done, and get good things done, when I operate from a sublime madness in the soul. When I put my trust in the hope that all will be well, that the friendly universe bends toward justice, that love reigns, and that I am in the loving care of Christ, I tend to be more creative and less despairing.

I am going to close with a poem by Christine Fry. I found this on Joanna Macy’s webpage. She included it under poems that she loves.

We read this last night at the United Religions Initiative dinner.

THE GREAT TURNING

You've asked me to tell you of The Great Turning, of how we saved the world from disaster.
The answer is both simple and complex.
We turned.

For hundreds of years we had turned away as life on earth grew more precarious.
We turned away from the homeless men on the streets, the stench from the river, the children orphaned in Iraq, the mothers dying of AIDS in Africa.

We turned away because that is what we had been taught.
To turn away, from our pain, from the hurt in another's eyes, from the drunken father or the friend betrayed.

Always we were told, in actions louder than words, to turn away, turn away. And so we became a lonely people caught up in a world moving too quickly, too mindlessly towards its own demise.

Until it seemed as if there was no safe place to turn. No place, inside or out, that did not remind us of fear or terror, despair and loss, anger and grief.

Yet on one of those days someone did turn.

Turned to face the pain. Turned to face the stranger. Turned to look at the smoldering world and the hatred seething in too many eyes. Turned to face himself, herself.

And then another turned. And another. And another. And as they wept, they took each other's hands.

Until whole groups of people were turning. Young and old, gay and straight. People of all colors, all nations, all religions. Turning not only to the pain and hurt but to beauty, gratitude and love, Turning to one another with forgiveness and a longing for peace in their hearts...
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