Monday, November 21, 2016

The Reign of Christ Sunday: King Quixote (Luke 23:33-43)

In last week's Gospel reading, we heard the stark words of Jesus as he predicted the destruction of the Temple.  This week, we hear Jesus speaking in the midst of great pain and misery as he hangs crucified.   For persons expecting the gospel reading to be “Thanksgiving” or “nearly Christmas”, instead we hear a text oft-heard around Easter.  What does “Good Friday” have to do with our lives, as we cannot wait for those door-busting “Black Friday” sales?

I found myself a bit puzzled why this text was suggested for this day.  Not only does it sound “off key” when our department stores and radio stations are switching over to Christmas muzak, Christ crucified appears with little apology, the tragic breaking into the midst of a time more given over to cheer.  Why now?

During the course of the year, Christianity has crafted a cycle of seasons to help mark different sacred times in the Church’s life and worship.  The Sunday just before Advent is considered “the last” of a given year, with Advent as the rather appropriate “beginning”, anticipating and celebrating Christ’s coming.  So this Sunday, the one just before the Advent candles grace the altar once more, we celebrate the kingship or ruling power of Christ.  This is the Sunday when we think of Christ the triumphant, the Word who is indeed the “final” word of this life and Creation alike.  We sing grand hymns and hear the celebratory praise of Colossians, extolling the fullness of Christ’s claim to Creation, old and New.

Yet, when the gospel writer enters, Luke clears his throat and offers another sort of moment of high drama.  The crowds jeer, the disciples scatter, and Jesus upon the cross, with death very close at hand.  Why today does this story appear?

In college, our theatre department produced the musical Man of La Mancha.  Somehow, we were able to put together the entire musical in about four weeks.  The set was still being finished right up until the first performance.  I was a bit uncertain of what cues I needed for the songs, as we had only worked with the full orchestra just during the week of production.  Yet, as they say, the show must go on!

            I joke that working in a small university theatre with limited funding was part of the great training experiences I had for small church ministry.  Somehow, we’re still working on projects right up till the curtain is to rise, and small churches know quite a bit about being unfunded.  And just like my college theatre experience years ago, no matter what happens during a week, there’s always a Sunday morning awaiting.  The robe must go on!

            Musical rehearsals are a challenge, as you have to work out a number of things, rather than just your lines and blocking.  As we worked our way through both acts of the musical, the actor playing Don Quixote had the toughest role.  Was Quixote a mad man who saw things in a delusional sense, or was he the only sane one?  His great line was that he wanted to see “the world not as it is, but as it ought to be”.

Every night at rehearsal, I never lost the moment of wonder when Quixote would rise up and say this.  Even at last performance, the line did not fail to seem electric to me, an old man rising up against the same old, same old of this world, ready to tilt at windmills.  The actor playing Quixote played the scene as if each word of his great line drew energy and life back into his aged and battered body. 

Such a line made splendid sense, a line from a modern musical that resonates with the ancient faith we are called to keep.

In England, the city of Coventry sustained significant air raid damage when German planes bombed this town heavily.  At city center, the magnificent cathedral was destroyed, a sad loss for the parish as well as the citizenry.  In the midst of this dreadful war, in the midst of the destruction and death, the fear and the anxiety, in the midst of great international conflict, the very next day after the cathedral sustained massive damage, the priests found people of all denominations gathering in the ruins.  Rather than shaking fist and vowing revenge, the people gathered to pray.

The cathedral website offers a word on what happened next:

The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction.  Rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world.  It was the vision of the Provost at the time, Dick Howard, which led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred.  This has led to the cathedral's Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, which has provided spiritual and practical support, in areas of conflict throughout the world.

The congregation of Coventry Cathedral would later engraved a saying along one of the sanctuary walls that survived the bombing.  The saying reads:  “Father, forgive.”

It could be argued that they chose to see the world not as it is.  You could even claim they were a bit foolish, placing their hope in reconciliation and peace.  The story of Coventry Cathedral was marked by the great loss, yet they found a different take on the story than one might expect.  Indeed, another prominent feature of the cathedral ruins is the former altar area where some charred roof timbers were placed.  They were found after the fires subsided, two pieces of roof supports that fell to the floor below.  Why were these retained?  They are in the shape of the cross.

            Curious, isn’t it?  This story of great loss turns with the remarkable “plot twist” of Easter.  While the New Testament has its grand moments of praise to Christ, the gospel reading today reminds us that this great narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that defines the faith is not a story left up in the lofty clouds.  Indeed, there is a visceral dimension to Christianity, inescapably rooted in life “as we know it”.  Christ’s death was not just the stuff of stories perhaps some of you learned on the old Flannel graph years ago.  This story is all too three-dimensional, played out on a hill not too far away from the despair and angst of human existence.

            Christian faith is a religion with its feet on the ground, even as we claim to be a people looking expectantly for Christ to return from the heavens above.  The story of the crucifixion goes right along with the grand epistolary words of praise. The shadow of Good Friday and the euphoria of Easter are meant to be part of our Advent/Christmas observances.  We find ourselves called to be a people who know how the story is going to end.  The plot of life inevitably weaves its way through the valley of the shadow of death, yet we look forward to a much different ending.

            On this day, we celebrate the King who comes foremost as servant.  Even as he is dying, Christ is said to offer words of grace and welcome to the fellow crucified alongside him who confesses his belief.  Christ, the Servant King, appears as a curious figure to us, as we are well educated by 24-hour news cycles to live by the competing sound bites and the images we are persuaded to believe in crafted by the myth makers behind the thrones of this world.  Christ the Servant King, or Christ the peaceable Ruler, offers a quixotic take on what really matters about existence.  His teachings presume more grace and no “getting even”.  His healings presume all persons have dignity and worth, rather than bearing the brunt of majority opinion or the invisibility rendered by reigning economic forces.  Even as his last day is fading down into remaining hours, then dwindling minutes, Jesus demonstrates a life hard to live, yet imperative to follow if we wish to live our lives in faithfulness to God.

    On this last Sunday of the “Christian year”, we hear words of praise and stories difficult to hear side by side.  What better way to bring things to a close than an epistle writer giddy with joy about the Christ triumphant?  What better story to tell than a gospel writer telling the good news that cannot ignore the reality that Jesus’ crown and authority comes in the strange yet merciful story of staring into the very face of death and seeing a greater force at work than anything good or ill the cosmos could throw at us?

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