What’s Next? - Jim McKibbin, Mission Developer, Toronto Southeast Presbytery, United Church of Canada - November 25, 2012
In the lectionary which defines the church year this is Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday in the church calendar. And it begs the question, “What’s next?” Next week we begin a new church year as we celebrate the first Sunday of advent.
For me Advent brings its own theological challenges. It is a season of anticipation, of waiting expectation and preparation for the coming of Jesus. That time before the coming looms it seems as a time of confusion as we well might wonder what the waiting is for? What does it mean? And it’s during Advent that we address those questions and begin to understand how to live out the message of and celebrate the humanity of Jesus, this individual who came into our midst and spoke and lived the word of God.
But we’re not there yet. That’s next week.
And last week we heard that same Jesus preaching apocalypse. You may remember the phrase “All will be thrown down.”
And that leaves us here, in between the apocalypse and the beginning at Reign of Christ Sunday with these scriptural reflections on Jesus, who is described in the passage from Revelation as “first born of the dead”. We are told “Look! He is coming in the clouds” and “every eye will see him.”
And we also have this second passage where we hear Jesus utter the phrase ‘my kingdom is not from this world’. Now it is in the interpretation of these texts that we encounter a central fundamental theological challenge of literalism versus metaphor.
And on Reign of Christ Sunday that challenge becomes a question as to whether we should look back or ahead. Do we look back and anticipate the second coming of Jesus to save us or look forward to the nativity?
We have some looking backwards last words from David in our text from Second Samuel. He describes his ‘inspired utterance … anointed by the God of Jacob.” And later says, “If my house was not right with God surely he would not have made with me an everlasting covenant… (later) and grant me my every desire.”
There may be other interpretations of this scripture but I can’t help but see some David grandiosity in all those words. A little too much all about me! I am not sure reading this whether it is praise for God or David?
And behind all of that I am troubled by shades of Empire.
Now when we combine the Second Samuel with the Psalm for this week we get a clearer picture of what is for me a significant theological question on how God works.
We didn’t read all of Psalm 132. It is quite long. But I am going to read a couple of phrases from it to demonstrate what I am describing. It begins with a caution to Good “Lord remember, David and all his self-denial.... and later, “Do not reject your anointed one. And then we read that the Lord, who has chosen Zion says, “I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food and I will clothe his enemies with shame.”
So here we have a God who chooses sides: a God who chooses who to provide abundance to and who not too.
And that’s where it gets troubling. We are to understand that those without abundance have therefore not been chosen by God. God has chosen others not them. Their poverty is from God.
Now often accompanying this theology is an equally mystifying concept. First you have the belief that God chooses people to help and not others then you have the mantra that “God helps those who help themselves.”
As good as that sounds, it does serve to create the notion that if you try hard God will help you. And if God chooses to help you then you will receive abundance. But doesn’t it also implicitly mean that if you don’t have abundance that you have a) not been chosen by God and b) haven’t tried hard enough because if you had tried hard enough to help yourself God would have helped you and you would have received abundance.
Now for me that’s a double whammy about God that I don’t like. It seems to say: ‘Your poverty is your fault. Those in abundance are favoured by God – unlike you who are unworthy.’
So for me this is dangerous theology. It ascribes to God human character traits like favouritism and pragmatism.
And it simply doesn’t come down on the side of truth as Jesus so eloquently said to Pilate.
Poverty does not come from God. It is systemic and it comes from the God of Caesar – the God of the Market – the God of Empire.
And so does abundance! Now that may sound sacrilegious or even anti-Christian but I think these questions are worth thinking about.
Many of us through daily prayer thank God for the abundance in our lives and it worth considering as we do this exactly what it is we are praying about.
In a real world sense we know poverty does not come from God. In spite of the declarations and determination of the chief priests of empire, who speak of making things right with poverty, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, as it has over the decades. This is not just some mistake.
Only those who are wilfully blind would disagree that the system is designed to produce the results it is getting. In our society the acquisition of abundance and relegation to poverty has everything to do with empire and nothing to do with God.
In an article in this month’s United Church Observer accommodation requirements for Out of the Cold programs nationally are up. Way up considering we have had a number of mild winters in recent years.
And you, in this congregation, who began a temporary food bank some 30 years ago during a severe recession, and a time of extremely high mortgage interest rates, you, have seen your outreach program become institutionalized along with many others. Food bank use is at high levels.
So we see that change is on our doorstep. We can resist it but it is not stopping.
Like many neighbouring churches the threshold of change presents itself. But there is no looking backward for this United Church of ours.
We are a church which adapts ourselves over time. We change. Our response to the call of God is prayerfully discerned in community with one another.
Last Tuesday, I attended a Presbytery meeting where a discussion took place about the General Council’s decision to boycott goods and services produced in the illegal Israel Settlements. Much of the discussion was about who we are as a church and it was clear that there was deep sentiment for what the United Church stood for.
This is a strength of the church: that we consider questions prayerfully but also act on those decisions. The church responds to the call of God in the circumstances in which it finds itself. It is perhaps a distinguishing feature of our church.
Certainly our critics recognize it as a distinguishing feature. There are those who wish we would just remain silent, both inside and outside the church.
But the church’s prophetic voice is welcomed by the people of God.
And we have seen that time and time again particularly in the last 40 years. Our activism as a people of God has meant that we don’t just talk the talk we walk it as well.
In my work with east end churches there is sentiment for more collaborative work amongst lay people in support of the ongoing presence of the church regionally: its programs and most of all its clarion voice.
So where does that leave us? We’re at the threshold of the threshold it would seem a still point pregnant with the question of what the Rein of Christ means now, here. And the answer to looking backward for Jesus to come and save us or forward to living out the reality of the nativity, is perhaps best addressed by John Dominic Crossan in his book God and Empire where he writes: “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon, violently, or literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence.”
In church we have a choice to lament the past and what was or be midwives of change.
Perhaps in other words, on Reign of Christ Sunday, we are invited to remember that the “Kingdom of God” or “Reign of God” — to which Jesus constantly pointed — is as fully available to us here and now and always as it was 2,000 years ago. The question that remains today is whether we will choose to live as if the one who reigns is not Caesar, but God.
Thanks be to God.