Saturday, November 23, 2013

Reign of Christ

In the epic funny movie, History of the World, Part 1 – in which we
get the inside gossip on the Roman Emperor Caligula, we find out what
REALLY happened at the Last Supper, how the French Revolution worked
out, how to test eunuchs, and what kind of shoes Spanish Inquisitors
wore - Mel Brooks coins the undying phrase 'it's good to be the King'.
He looks so self-satisfied, and who wouldn't – seated on his throne
eating sumptuous tidbits and surrounded by beautiful women and
toadying courtiers. He loses his head shortly thereafter, of course.

We are still, in the 21st century, fascinated with kings. Just
recently we were treated to the sight of an English royal baby who
through the accident of his birth has become third in line to the
British throne and monarch of our own country. Little George may have
greeted the news with a colic-induced and slightly cross-eyed smile,
but millions across the world were reassured that the future of the
monarchy was safe in case anything should happen to Charles and
William. What is a king all about, in any case?

The legend of King Arthur plays with the possible meanings. Feudal
kings as tyrant warlords, making and breaking alliances for personal
advantage, doling out patronage to their cronies and making the lives
of everyone else miserable. Think Saddam Hussein, in the modern
world. Or the Fisher King, the keeper of the Grail, the mysteriously
incapacitated king whose inexplicit wound is mysteriously connected
with the infertility of the land. Until the king is healed the land
is blighted. And Arthur himself, part victim, part movie star –
flawed and well-meaning, the projection of everyone's hopes, focus of
chivalry and justice and romance but unable, ultimately, to live up to
the impossible promise. Think Kennedy and Camelot – the celebrity
King who achieves immortality by becoming trapped within his own
legend.

In ancient Israel the ideal of kingship was summed up in the image of
a shepherd. Partly because of the memory of David as a shepherd-king
but more especially because of the experience of God as the one who
cares for the people like a shepherd. This is a stunning image coming
out of the ancient world when rulers of the people were expected to be
self-serving and capricious tyrants. The actual shepherd was the
lowest of the low, a nomadic herder of – usually – other people's
animals, who lived with the herd and knew their habits and their
needs, who led them to fresh pasture and water and who provided
protection from predators and natural hazards. The metaphor of the
shepherd – should any ruler actually live up to it – was an image of
loving attentiveness, of humble service.

In Jeremiah, this morning, the rulers of Israel – both the secular
ones and the religious ones - come in for a royal bullocking.
Speaking in the name of God the prophet – with considerable courage,
it must be said – tells them, 'you haven't been true shepherds. You
have attended to my people'. The word, attended, is important – it
has something of the meaning of being in tune with, of listening to
and understanding the rhythms of, as well as caring for. It carries
the connotation of sensitive communication with the aim of desiring
the best for the one to whom you are attending. 'You haven't been
attending to the needs of my people. You've been attending only to
yourselves – and so now I'm going to take care of you'. If you're a
ruler – or a priest – listening to this and you know that it's true of
you, then you are beginning to feel a bit defensive. A leader, a
priest who does not attend to the people with understanding and with
love, who fails to lead them to good pasture and who fails to protect
them – such a leader is indicted in this passage and God says, 'you
are replaceable'. In fact, 'I will replace you'.

Every priest hearing these words in today's reading should take them
to heart. How many times have I failed to attend – to be with, to pay
attention to or to put myself on the line for, those whom God has
given me to care for? Many times, of course. The reading puts
leaders on notice that the standard of care is to be a shepherd, and
of course this is no easy task.

This coming week the focus of the Royal Commission is on child sexual
abuse in Australian institutions turns to the Anglican Church, and in
particular the Diocese of Grafton. Amongst many other Diocesan
bishops, Archbishop Roger has been summoned to attend, and expects to
be there all week. In a personal conversation with him last week, the
Archbishop commented to me that this brings the Church to its knees,
and the leadership of the Church can only acknowledge its failures and
welcome the intervention of secular authority. It is a humbling
position to be in – a difficult position for leaders who, as
Archbishop Roger has done, have tried their utmost to bring to light
and to deal with the sins committed in Anglican parishes and
institutions. I assured him both of my prayers and of all our
prayers, as a parish – in a sense the failure of leadership however is
corporate – as a Church we have failed to shepherd the most vulnerable
among us.

The indictment is however also a promise – 'I will raise up true
shepherds', God says through the prophet, 'and they shall not fear any
longer, or be dismayed, and none shall be missing'. This is a word of
comfort to a world in which people do go missing – not just in
churches but with the knock on the door at midnight, or through
roadside bombs or super-typhoons – or just through loneliness or
hopelessness or despair. Shepherd-leadership can never actually be
exercised by just one person, it is necessarily the ministry of a
community paying attention to God in our primary practices of worship,
prayer, reflection on scripture, and to one another not just
incidental others or even worse as numbers, but as unique companions
and sons and daughters of God.

Jesus models shepherd leadership – attentive to those around him he
notices as he is touched in a crowd, he seeks out the isolated one up
a sycamore tree, he turns aside to the blind beggar by the side of the
road or the foreigner seeking help for a dying child. He sends out
his disciples in twos without any mechanisms of support – deliberately
making them vulnerable and dependent on the hospitality of others as
they proclaim the hospitality of God. 'See', he says to them, 'I am
sending you out like lambs surrounded by wolves' – the reign of God
that he proclaims is an environment that is fit for human flourishing.
Jesus proclaims a new authority that turns the authority of the
powerful on its head – a world where the last shall be first and the
needs of the lost and the least will be met. As the French Jesuit,
Teilhard de Chardin, put it – 'we are not human beings struggle to
apprehend the spiritual – but spiritual beings for whom the struggle
is to become fully human.' Human personhood can only survive in a
human environment. To proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near –
is to take the first steps to committing ourselves to the practise of
our own humanity. It is as simple as that.

Christ the shepherd-king knows that there is a price-tag attached to
living like this. Proclaiming the value of human life over the values
of Empire and Church, Jesus is not crucified for nothing. The
powerful in his world, like the powerful in our own world, do not give
up without a fight – prophets suffer the usual consequences in a world
where governments fund sports arenas and casinos but withdraw funding
from homeless shelters and foreign aid. In our reading from the
Gospel we see Jesus dying as he has lived – forgiving those who have
crucified him and attentive to the criminals dying alongside him.
There is, however, no need for the dying brigand to remind Jesus to
remember him when he comes into his kingdom – for he already has, and
God's reign is already among us — as fully available now and always as
it was 2,000 years ago. We choose to recognise it when we choose to
live as if the one who reigns is not Caesar, but God. As John Dominic
Crossan puts it in his book, God and Empire': the reign of Christ is
what will happen when Christians finally stop yearning for Christ's
Second Coming and realise that his coming amongst us the first time
was all we needed. The reign of Christ is what happens when we
Christians start living as though we actually believe it is already
here.

How do we practise the reign of Christ as an environment in which
women and men may be fully human – in a world that all too often
denies that reality? We do it by creating a space and offering the
hospitality of worship – a space and a hospitality that redefines who
we and who others are. Worship helps us to see the God has related us
to one another in a way that is deeper than biology – with the
possibility of relationships ordered not by competition and
selfishness but by forgiveness and seeking for the good of one
another. The life of a worshipping community becomes an embodied
accountability that turns us from self-obsession to service and
attentive love.