Thursday, November 17, 2016

For When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong

                This Sunday, November 20th, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King. How appropriate it is, given the events that have recently transpired in the United States, that at this time we should be reminded of God's sovereignty. For those that bear the name Christ, indeed, Christ is our king. So it was with little surprise that on the night of November 8th, I saw several posts on social media declaring that, regardless of the election results, Jesus is king. But just what sort of king do we claim to put our faith in? This Sunday's Gospel reading tells us plainly.

                Luke 23:35-43 paints a portrait of a reviled, mocked, crucified man, of one suffering the death penalty, and of one who is silent in the face of persecution. Three times his scoffers needle him to save himself if he is the Messiah, and the last, another damned to the cross, even demands that he save them as well. All the while the reader knows that, despite being intended as a jeer toward Jesus, the sign above the accursed savior's head is, in fact, true – This is the king of the Jews. I wonder if this is the kind of king people imagined when they made their allegiance known on Facebook.

                For all of the ways in which religious values and beliefs influenced voters, I am baffled by how much the notion of making America "great" swayed so much of the population. Oh, don't get me wrong. There were many, many ironies and social phenomena in this election that caused me to make this face:

but I'll restrain myself to one.

                It may come as a shock to some, but the sacred Scriptures are not a code of moral law. There are laws and commandments contained within them, for sure, but the Scriptures are so much more than that. If we truly want to allow God's word to nourish our hearts and consciences, then we must realize that they reveal to us, more than anything else, God's self and the relationship God has with humanity and vice versa. This relationship was ultimately made manifest in the Incarnation – in Jesus, the Word made flesh. Therefore, the Christian tradition is not a set of dogmas, doctrines, and moral obligations. The Christian tradition is an encounter with a person, with Jesus Christ.

                I find it amusing that, when we step back and look at the Scriptures as a whole, we see a God in relationship with really not-so-great people. Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children. Jacob was a deceptive momma's boy. Moses was poor of speech. The prophet Jeremiah even says of himself, "Ah, Lord God! I know not how to speak; I am too young." Samson and Samuel were born to barren women. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was from an enemy nation. David was the youngest (and presumably scrawniest) of his brothers, yet he was the one who slew Goliath. David then goes on to supplant King Saul, the man who "stood head and shoulders above the people." And let's not forget that enemy commanders were brutally dispatched by women, that demographic of society thought to be far too weak and powerless.

                Time and again in Scripture the Lord favors the poor and the humble over the powerful and strong. Addressing the Israelites before they cross into the Promised Land, Moses says,

"It was not because you are the largest of all nations that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of all nations. It was because the Lord loved you and because of his fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your fathers, that he brought you out with his strong hand from the place of slavery." (Deuteronomy 7:7-8a).
And that is just the Old Testament.

                Whom does Jesus choose for his inner circle of disciples? A motley crew of fisherman; men who never seem to understand what Jesus is saying; men who make mistakes but usually learn from them. Who were the ones to whom Jesus first appeared after his resurrection? Women, again that oft dismissed sector of society. Who were the most receptive to Jesus? The sick, the blind, the deaf, the poor, the public sinners and outcasts. Who was chosen to be the mother of Jesus? A poor, young girl from a backwater town; a girl with a heart receptive enough to be filled with the grace to say, "May it be done to me according to your word," and to cry out in the spirit of her ancestors,

"He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty."

                At the heart of the Scriptures – I would even venture to say the key that unlocks the whole of the Scriptures – is the Paschal Mystery, the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. Oh, how that mystery of dying and rising permeates the Scriptures in both Testaments. Life emanates from the barren. The flood waters destroy, and a new earth is made. A people are enslaved, and God leads them through the waters to freedom. They are led into exile, and a highway is made in the desert for their return. The Word of God humbles himself and takes on our humanity, even so far as  becoming a mewling, puking infant. Though innocent, he willingly lays down his life and accepts death – a most humiliating death at that! He hardly says a word at his execution, and when he does it is one of mercy. And it is by dying that he becomes the first born of the dead; through him we have new life, and, indeed, all things are made new: "By his stripes we were healed" (Isaiah 53:5)!

                What is the sign that Christ gives to his disciples of his presence among us? Bread, broken and shared! His flesh as fractured bread, gnawed and eaten together. His blood as wine, poured out and shared among a communion of people. What images does Jesus give of the way of life to which he calls us? A grain of wheat that produces much fruit, if only it falls to the ground and dies; the challenge to take up one's cross; selling all that you have and giving it to the poor; the master washing the feet of his disciples; the first being last and the greatest becoming the least. Who conquers the beast in the book of Revelation? What symbol for Christ does the visionary see? Not just any lamb, but a slain lamb! Even in his glorified body, Christ, risen from the dead, still bears the wounds of the nails and lance, continuously revealing his total self-emptying for the human race he loves so much and with whom he desires to be in relationship. He has given his whole self to us, made himself vulnerable and broken, that we might become whole! That, my friends, is power! That is a true king! That is what it means to be great!

                All this talk about greatness in our times. All this desire for security, to hold onto power. All of these assertions of certainty and self-justification; beliefs that God is on our side because we open up the Bible and follow the rules. Do we, who bear the name of Christ, who have died and risen with Christ in our baptism, allow the Paschal Mystery to continue to work in us today?  Have we traded the wider narrative of the Scriptures for a gospel of wealth? Have we sacrificed an encounter with the crucified and risen Christ for a collection of dos and don'ts? Can we learn from the apostle Paul, who time and again admitted his faults, who recognized that he was a sinner, who repeatedly confessed that he once persecuted the Church?  Paul, the man who exclaims, "I will rather boast most gladly of my weakness, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:9b-10). That, my sisters and brothers, is the power of Christ at work in a man humble enough to be receptive to how much our generous God wants to fill us with his grace! As it was revealed to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9a)!

                I invite you to watch this TEDx Talk by Brené Brown and consider, as the title suggests, the power of vulnerability. Meanwhile, let us ask ourselves, do we have the humility to admit when we have made a mistake, to be like the so-called "good thief" and recognize that we have done wrong and are in need of mercy? Do we have the meekness to let go so that others may have enough, or as Mahatma Gandhi said, to live simply so that others may simply live? Do we have the vulnerability to say, "I don't know your native language, but I want to understand you better because you are my brother, my sister"? Do we have the heart to hope in the midst of fear? Do we have the honesty to say, "I can't do it all"? Can we empty ourselves so that we might be open to encountering Christ in 'the other'? Will we allow ourselves to be free rather than comfortable, to be generous rather than secure, to be totally self-giving and broken rather than unloving and superficially intact?

                For this week I recommend simply reading this Sunday's Gospel passage from the Solemnity of Christ the King: Luke 23:35-43. Read it, and reflect on what it really means to be great. Read it, and consider what true power is. Read it again and again. Read it until you weep. Weep for all the misconceptions our society has of power! Weep for all those who hold onto power by stepping on the necks of minorities, the poor, and immigrants! Weep for our own hands that hold on, white-knuckled, to the things that give us security! Weep for the self-righteous! Weep for those who think the only way to win is to speak loudly, to have a biting comeback for every rebuke! Weep for those who will never know that true victory is in dying – dying to self and emptying yourself totally for others!

Peace and all good!

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