Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sunday's Sermon - Christ the King

Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24
Matthew 25:31-46

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day we honor that Christ is our king, not the earthly kings that we are used to.  We know from the book of Samuel that the Israelites had asked for a human king repeatedly, against God’s wishes and against God’s will.  They had begged God for a king when God kept telling them the only king they needed was God.  And finally God gave into their demands but God did so with a warning, (from 1 Samuel 8:4-20):  “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.  Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.  He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.  Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, …”
     They didn’t want God for a King.  And yet today we celebrate that God, that Christ is and will be our king.  Still, I wonder what we actually mean by that when we say it?  What do we envision when we think of Christ returning as king?  Do we continue to envision the kind of king we think of when we think of earthly kings?  I believe many Christians do, at some level at least.
     When the Israelites were asking for a king, they were asking for something very specific.  From the same Samuel passage I quoted above, this is what they asked for, ““We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” In other words, when they asked for a king, they were mostly looking for someone to defend them against others.  When you think of kings, or government of any kind, what do you think of?
When you think of Jesus, what do you think of?
       No matter how much we may think that when it comes to Jesus we have let go of the images of “king” that we have based on our human leaders, there is evidence all around us that most people, even when they think of God as king, have in fact not let go of those images.  Starting in Jesus’ time, he was killed because the Jewish people were disappointed at the kind of kingship he brought – he disappointed them by not overthrowing the Roman Empire.  And at the same time he was a threat to the Roman leaders who were afraid that he still might have the agenda of overthrowing them.  Everyone recognized his kingship, but they could not grasp, could not begin to grasp, that it was completely different from what they thought a king was like or what they thought a king would do. Our hymns on this day hail Jesus.  But I wonder if that is what Jesus would be wanting us to do this day?  Is Jesus asking us to sing his praises?  Or is he asking us to feed his hungry people?  Is Jesus asking us to argue theology with each other?  Or is Jesus asking us to welcome the stranger, all strangers, any stranger?  Is Jesus asking us to sue those who would take from us, an “eye for an eye” or does he challenge that with the words, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.  When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.  When they force you to go one mile, go with them two.  Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.”
     Instead of the earthly king who sits on a thrown and protects against enemies, we are given very different images of what and who Christ the King is through scripture.  “I will seek out my flock.  I will rescue them when they have scattered.  I will feed them.  I will bind up the wounded and strengthen the week.”  But then also, “the fat and strong I will destroy.”  Notice it isn’t “the enemies” whom he will destroy.  It isn’t “those other people”.  Instead, it is those who are doing well while others are hungry and lost and week and wounded.  Which are we?  Are we really sure we are prepared for this kind of king?
     This king expects different things from us than our earthly king expects.   Earthly government may take a percentage of our resources.  And earthly government does require, at some level, our allegiance.  But God the king expects us to share ALL of our money and resources.  ALL of it.  And God wants our allegiance in a complete way.  God the king expects different things from us than we are may be comfortable giving.  In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus is not saying, “Worship me on Sunday mornings and then you will get into heaven.”  That’s not what he is asking us to do.  As a matter of fact, scriptures are pretty pointed about this not being the solution.  As Amos tells us, in Amos 5:21-24: I hate, I reject your festivals; I despise your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  No, instead Jesus tells us what we are expected to do…  Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those in prison.  Those are what we are called to do.       That's not to say that we are called to become the poor or needy - to become homeless ourselves or destitute.  But we are called to help, in any way we can, to make sure that others aren’t suffering either.
      Jesus is not the kind of king, as he states in today’s passage, who has guards who will fight for him and prevent him from being killed.  Instead Jesus is the kind of king who allows his subjects to kill him and who dies begging for his killers’ forgiveness.  He is the kind of king who then comes back from death to reassure and save the very people who killed him.  He is not the kind of king, as we hear repeatedly, who caters to the wealthy and powerful, but instead is the kind of king who reaches out to the marginalized and powerless, who condemns the wealthy and powerful.  He is not the kind of king who luxuriates in riches and in being served by others, but instead is the kind of king who serves others continually.  He is the kind of king who IS king simply because he IS.  And he is the kind of king who asks us to follow and do as he did, feeding, caring, loving, one another.  Amen.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Thoughts on Art and Artists

I saw a quote on facebook today: "When you buy something from an artist you're buying more than an object. You're buying hundreds of hours of error and experimentation.  You're buying years of frustration and moments of pure joy. You're not buying just one thing, you are buying a piece of a heart, a piece of a soul...a small piece of someone else's life."

This is a beautiful sentiment and I believe there is truth in it.  All of us who engage in any kind of art work hard to put ourselves into that art. When it is not honored, it feels like it is we, ourselves, who are not being honored. When it is not treated with reverence or value, it feels like we, ourselves, are being discarded, not valued. We fail to be seen in those moments and the hurt of that can be deep and lasting.

So, yes, I agree with the quote above.

And yet, I also believe that this thinking can be abused.  For example, Taylor Swift made a comment this last week that she is taking her music off of Spotify because artists should be paid for their work. Her millions aren't enough for her? And if so, why is that? Because a person's "art" makes them somehow a better human being and therefore more deserving of an indecent amount of luxury and wealth while others are starving in the world and unable to access art at all? I agree that true art lets us into a person's soul - whether that be visual arts, music, poetry, stories, sermons or other. It must be respected and honored. I also think it should be shared, and accessible to ALL people, but not because of the greed or personal self-interest of the artist. True art reflects not only the one who created it, but the Creator behind it all. It is a gift to all of humanity to witness, experience and have access to real and deep art. Should artists be able to earn enough to live on with their art? Of course. We all should be able to earn enough to live on with whatever talents (or even lack of talents) we use in our work.  But art is a gift given to us. Our talents and the opportunities we are given to share them, to use them, to make a living from them are not things we have somehow earned because we are better humans and therefore more deserving of wealth than the rest of the world. God loves us all the same.  God values us all the same. And those gifts of talent, art, ability - those are given to us by God for the service of God and God's people. They are not given to us so that we can declare ourselves innately better or more deserving than others.  They are not given to us so we can hoard the world's resources and leave others to suffer. They are not given to us to use selfishly for our own gain.

Most of our best artists never received the accolades or support of their art during their life times and that is a tragedy. Too many genius artists die poor and unrecognized. That is tragic because the gifts they gave have long lasting benefits for those who eventually have gotten to witness their arts. But I also wonder if that suffering didn't deepen their art at times. I'm not saying that is a justification or even a good thing. Tragedy is not a good thing. But it does deepen all of us. And while I would not wish awful things to happen to anyone, I find myself grateful for the events in my life that have deepened my soul, though they were hard to live through at the time. As a result, when I read about Taylor Swift's comment, I found myself feeling a sadness and compassion for any of those "artists" who never have the opportunities to deepen because their biggest challenge is whether they will earn only a million, as opposed to 20 or 100 or more, in profits this year. Will they ever have the chance to see themselves as children who are loved no more and no less than the homeless man they pass on the street? Will they ever have the opportunity to see that the money they make could change the world if used in the right way? Will they ever be given the experience of feeling genuine compassion for someone radically different from themselves? To look in the eyes of someone they normally wouldn't see at all and to see in that other person a brother, a sister, a person on the journey as they are?  Will they ever find that the art of those who remain undiscovered is sometimes just as amazing and incredible as their own?

Our artistic talents are gifts given to us out of grace for no other reason than because we are loved. What we do with them, how we share them, whom we allow access to that art and how we honor all of those others with their arts as well - that is a gift that we can give back.