Christ the King Year B II Samuel 23:1-7
23 November 2015 John 18:33-37
The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett
Glimpses of The Kingdom
In the name of the Holy One, who is and was and is to come. Amen.
I want to start with a story. It’s a true story – true in more ways than one. It happened to the poet Naomi Shihab Nye. A friend emailed the story to me after the terrors in Paris. The story has been all over Facebook this past week; perhaps some of you saw it. It’s rather long, so make yourselves comfortable. It’s called “Gate A-4”:
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well— one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, shu-bid-uck, habibti? Stani schway, min fadlick, shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies— little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts— from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo— we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
Then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands— had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate— once the crying of confusion stopped— seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost. (1)
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
I am not used to coming up with sermon titles, but I am finding it a helpful practice to order my thoughts early in the week. I knew this Sunday was what I am accustomed to call “Christ the King” Sunday. I’ve discovered that other Protestant denominations, including yours I believe, prefer “The Reign of Christ,” which I guess softens the anachronistic, militaristic, imperialistic, sexist, classist, authoritarian, patriarchal, to say nothing of hierarchical overtones of “King” and “Kingdom.” And we surely wouldn’t want any of that! (See, I am learning!)
But I sinned boldly and told Tege to use the sermon title “Glimpses of The Kingdom.” But now I realize the title could just as well be “All is Not Lost.” Both are true. And not unrelated. What Naomi Nye experienced at Gate A-4 was a glimpse of God’s Kingdom breaking into the midst of confusion and chaos, into the weeping and wailing, into the inability to understand one another, breaking into social despair, into fear and apprehension of those who are different from us.
Right there at that airport gate, the Kingdom of Heaven broke in. Richard Rohr calls the Kingdom “the force field of Christ energy.” You might prefer “the force field of Love.” Whatever, it was made manifest. Sorrow and despair turned into joy and dancing. (I’m seeing the little girls covered in powdered sugar racing around offering apple juice to everybody.) For a fleeting period of time, before everyone boarded the plane and went on their separate ways, a community was created that went far beyond compassion for the one foreign woman. Everybody got to play in the force field of Love.
All is not lost. God’s Kingdom is always breaking into our world, if we have eyes to see, and ears to hear, and wits to understand, writes holy blessed Fred Buechner. For then, he writes,
We would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it is what we’re starving to death for…. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it. (2)
It’s one reason I am forever talking about the Celtic notion of “thin places” in our lives, when the veil between the worlds is stretched so thin that heaven and earth touch. Sometimes it happens out in creation, when the light falls a certain way through the leaves of a tree, and we are caught up into the Mystery of a Presence utterly beyond ourselves and utterly intimate at the same time. Sometimes it happens, as holy blessed Jim Finley says, when we see children being children, or we see a flock of birds swooping out of the sky and settling into a field. Sometimes we glimpse God’s Kingdom breaking in when we dare to look into the eyes of a stranger and see Christ looking back at us. Or when we witness an act of selfless courage by a first responder to a crisis, a going-into danger rather than fleeing from it, purely for the sake of others. Sometimes we experience our thin places during our sacred rituals – lighting a candle; during communion; the depth of shared silent prayer; when our hearts are inexplicably lifted up when we sing. That’s what rituals are for, it seems to me: to offer the possibility of experiencing the Presence of the Holy in ways we cannot explain, much less manage, using the very ordinary things of our lives in ways that allow the Spirit to enter into them and touch our hearts, kindle our souls.
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. It’s our New Year’s Eve. Next Sunday the great Christian wheel of sacred time turns on its axis once more, and the cycle begins again. Today we celebrate the fullness of time, the appointed time, time beyond time, the Omega point, when – to use the language from the tradition – when “Christ is All in All.” Next week on the first Sunday of Advent, we will be emptied again as we wait for the Beloved, who has already filled everything with divine presence, to come again into our world.
I want to share two theological concepts that have come to center my own faith. The first is about time. There is linear time, chronological time, clock time, going along on the horizontal plane day by day by month by year by decade, until we reach the end of our time on this earth. Historical time. Day-timer time. Precious and limited time. Time we’d best make the most of, because life is short and we won’t be here forever.
And then there is kairos time, sacred time, God’s time; the vertical dimension, if you will. Thin places are those moments in linear time when we are graced to experience Kingdom time. I’ll say that again: Thin places are those moments in linear time when we are graced – because it’s always a gift; it comes from beyond our selves – those God-given times when we experience Kingdom time.
Now here’s the thing: (and I really believe this is thoroughly orthodox, by the way; even biblical) – all time is holographic. Past, present, future are all around us all the time. Which means, for me, that despair is always held in hope, that violence will not have the final say, that the very real suffering that is happening in linear time is already healed in God’s time, that the Cross is always being backlit by the light of the Resurrection, that life is ever coming out of death.
There’s a jargon-y theological word that speaks to this holographic quality of time: proleptic. The dictionary definition is: the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished. A simpler way of understanding proleptic is: Already/Not Yet. Already; slash; but Not Yet. Both things are true and exist at the same moment. (If you have difficult with paradox, this is going to be a problem!)
The Kingdom of Heaven is all around us, all the time. That’s the Already. Yet God’s Kingdom has Not Yet fully come here on earth. That’s what we pray for – thy Kingdom come; that’s what we are called to work for; that is what we are waiting for. We know we live in the obvious Not Yet-ness. Look around! But glimpses of the Kingdom can happen anywhere. All is not lost.
The second theological concept that grounds my faith is this: Everything exists within God. There’s a close connection to the “time is holographic” belief. If all that is and was and ever shall be is contained together, then everything that was or is or ever shall be exists within a container, within the force field of Christ energy, the force field of Love, within God. As holy blessed St. Paul said, “We live and move and have our being in God.” I take that literally. The pain of the Not Yet is also contained within the eternal Already of God’s Kingdom.
Proleptic: Already/Not Yet. Both at the same time until the Kingdom fully comes. Thin places: when the Already breaks into the Not Yet. It can happen anywhere and at any time.
Because the Beloved is King, that means we are all kin. Everybody. All the time. As Jesus told Pilate on that first Good Friday, God’s Kingdom is not of this world. It is in this world, but not of it. Its authority does not come from any human source, including our own best intentions. If God’s Kingdom were from this world, Jesus would have defended himself, he would have urged his disciples to use violence to usher in God’s Kingdom, he would have tried to establish his claims by force. One of his followers, holy blessed Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that truth in every cell of his being:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. (3)
Only light can drive out darkness. Only love can drive out hate.
Not everything is lost. Love can still happen anywhere.
And it does. Oh my friends, you know it does. And for that, we give thanks.
- Story Source: Paul Loeb, “The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear.” (Basic Books, 2007). Naomi Shihab Nye short story from Honeybee (Greenwillow Books, 2008)
- Frederich Buechner, originally published in The Clown in the Belfry.
- Martin Luther King Jr., from “Where Do We Go From Here?”, published in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community (1967), p 2.