November 22, Proper 29:
Also reading: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
David and Jesus.
David at the end of his long and turbulent life, but secure in his earthly kingdom, and confident that God will prosper him and his family (because God is faithful and has promised to do so);
And Jesus standing before the provincial power of a different kingdom—an agent of the earthly principalities and powers—a distorted mirror of the divine principalities and powers—those ranks of angels who swirl around God’s throne and sing “Holy, Holy, Holy”—
Jesus standing before Pilate testifying to the Truth, something Pilate is too blinded by earthly things to even recognize.
“What is truth?” he says in the very next line, and then turns to the crowd so that they can condemn Jesus.
Two related, but different kings. One who knows that his kingdom only exists in this world by the grace and power of God, and one who knows deeply that divine grace and power and says that his kingdom is not.
And Pilate, the confused and distorted reflection of them.
The Roman empire, and all empires before and since are but distorted reflections of God’s realm. Misguided attempts to claim power for ourselves and wield it to secure and conquer, rather than share and provide.
St. Patrick is said to have described God’s reign as:
“greater than all report, better than all praise of it, more manifold than every conceivable glory. The [Reign] of God is so full of light, peace, charity, wisdom, glory, honesty, sweetness, loving-kindness and every unspeakable and unutterable good, that it can neither be described nor envisioned by the mind.” [source]
Filled with “unspeakable good.” That’s an interesting phrase for us to hear, we who are confronted on a daily basis with unspeakable evil.
And although it is unspeakable, the media always seems to find ways to speak about it, over and over and over.
We’re inundated with it—this distorted mirror.
And we’ve been staring into it for a very long time.
So long in fact that far too many believe the distortion is what is real; and all of that unspeakable good is just a fantasy. The distortion reduces light to simply any kind of illumination often from a LCD screen, peace becomes achieved only through increasingly violent means, charity is rarely a first response, rather it’s brought out if there’s anything left over, glory is equated only with victory, wisdom is reduced to soundbites, honesty becomes “truthiness”…
When we started looking at things in this distorted way is lost to the recesses of history, and would take several graduate level seminars to begin to unpack, but safe to say it’s been a very long time.
Since the beginning, our myths and scriptures tell us, we’ve regularly tried to claim divine power as our own.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his most recent book, Not it God’s Name argues that the roots of this distortion are actually encoded in our scriptures.
The first act of violence recorded in scripture is when Cain kills Able. Cain’s name in Hebrew means “to acquire, to possess, to own.” “The entire ethical-legal principle on which the Hebrew Bible is based,” says Sacks, “is that we own nothing. Everything—the land, its produce, power, sovereignty, children, and life itself—belongs to God. We are merely trustees, guardians, on [God’s] behalf…Cain represents the opposite: power as ownership, ownership as power.” [kindle location 4063
David, for all his faults—and even though he is an earthly king—understands this, “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God,” is what we are to do. Ruling in the conviction that power is not something he can wield as he chooses (he learned that lesson with Uriah and Bathsheba); it is a gift from God to be stewarded—to be shepherded.
The history of the ancient kings of Israel and Judah is a litany of those who either tried to or failed to understand and practice this. Prophets thundered about those who failed—the bad shepherds—the horrible kings—Ezekiel complains, “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” (Ezekiel 342-4).
Attempting to rule, while ignoring that all life is precious, and forgetting everything is a gift from God, creates desperation and despots.
Scrambling for power pits siblings against siblings. And the holy texts of all three Abrahamic religions have often been read as a tales of sibling rivalry among the descendants of Abraham.
Ishmael and Issac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers. What Rabbi Sacks points out in this book is that while sibling rivalry is the initiator of the story, it’s not the ultimate point. Almost everyone knows the beginning of the stories, Issac supplanting Ishmael, Jacob tricking Esau, Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery, but relatively few remember the end of the stories—which always includes a scene of reconciliation. Ishmael and Issac come together to bury their father; Jacob falls on Esau’s neck and they travel back together. The whole arc of Genesis, says Sacks, that begins with Cain’s murder of Able ends with Joseph’s dramatic reconciliation with his brothers which in effect redeems the sin of Cain.
In other words, all of our Holy Texts tell us, the violence that appears endemic to the world is not an indelible part of our script. It may be natural, but it is not inevitable. We can change, we must change.
Repentance (turning from the path we’re on) and committing to the hard but vital work of reconciliation is the counter narrative that runs throughout the whole of the bible.
When Jesus tells Pilate that his reign is not of this world—I’m convinced he means that it is not based on the will to power like all the earthly empires we have ever known, rather it is based on the will to life—the will of love.
Because, he says, “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world,” The “This” he’s referring to is reconciliation—the reconciliation of all of creation to God—the drawing of all things to God through Christ.
At the end of the Book of Revelation, as all of its unspeakable destruction is winding down, the author speaks of a new heaven and a new earth—a new and profound reconciliation.
The old heaven and earth, and the old separations that divided all of us have passed away, and the new heavenly city—the city of God’s peace, the city of God’s shalom, the city whose trees heal the nations—this heavenly city joins the earth.
Heaven and earth are no longer separated. Like all the Genesis families we are reconciled to all our sisters and brothers, and to God. We no longer need to see through a glass darkly, because that realm of light and peace and charity will be fully present among us.
This ancient drama of rivalry and the distortions of power continues to be enacted today, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Paris, and numerous other places. It’s telling that Pilate seems to understand things only in terms of “nations” and hierarchical rulers, and in an effort to control the situation he is willing to sacrifice Jesus, and commit state-sanctioned murder. All terrorists and fundamentalists are obsessed with power and a compulsion to control—to control resources, control land, control populations, control ideas. Rabbi Sacks points out that these are all political objectives. “They have nothing to do with the God of Abraham,” he says, “God does not accept human sacrifice. God does not sanctify the will to power. That is the way of Cain [and Pilate], not that of God.” [kindle location 2588]
Or as Jesus puts it, “my kingdom is not from this world.”
The good news is that reconciliation is not something we have to wait until the end of time to experience. Today is the end of our liturgical year, the day when we proclaim (like we do every Sunday) that the Reign of Christ is already here. Today is the day. Every day is the day.
Reconciliation is available here and now, through the freely given, undeserved and unspeakable grace of God given through Christ.
And through our work of repentance—turning away from the distortions
and temptations of power—and working to see and help bring to life: true light, and peace, charity, wisdom, glory, honesty, sweetness, and loving-kindness—all that makes God’s realm present and active and tangible here and now.
We can experience it in all of the places where Christ meets us, in the poor, the meek, the refugee, the hungry, the thirsty, and in our neighbors of all religious faiths and none.
As we approach Advent in this time of turmoil and uncertainty, which kingdom are you most aware of? Which realm are you praying for and speaking for, and acting for? What do you need to do to help you see, and claim, and participate in God’s unspeakable realm of peace?