You have whiplash yet?! Our order of worship has certainly yanked you around enough—from one image to another, hasn’t it? And not just from any image to any other image, but from one image to an opposite image—a diametrically opposed image.
We went from Brian Wren’s imagery of Jesus in the meditation of preparation as “a man discarded, a scarecrow hoisted high” (Brian Wren, “Here Hangs a Man Discarded,” in Daniel B. Merrick, ed., The Chalice Hymnal (St Louis: Chalice Press, 1995) 203) to the glory of the hymn “Crown Him with Many Crowns” noting “how the heavenly anthem drowns out all music but its own” (Matthew Bridges and Godfrey Thring, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” in Wesley L. Forbis, ed., The Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 2001) 161). We went from the mighty savior God raised up for us (Luke 1:68-79) in our responsive call to worship to the awful events that took place at the place called The Skull detailed in our scripture (Luke 23:33-43). We went from the praise of our doxology to the poignancy of the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” with its bitter anguish and affliction. There’s that same juxtaposition in the anthem with the choir singing about grieving but also the dawn of a new day, right? “My Lord, what a mournin’.” It’s confusing. Make up your mind already!
Our text has the same effect as our order of worship. We start with Jesus being crucified—an image of someone without power—someone being acted upon, and yet, even as they crucified him, he forgave them, we read, and the power shifts, doesn’t it—so very unexpectedly. They gamble for his clothes, even as we see him clothed in the grace and the very authority of God. They hung a sign over him ridiculing him as the King of the Jews, but, in truth, didn’t their mockery fall so far short of the truth they’re the ones who end up looking ridiculous? As an innocent, he hung with the guilty. They told him to save himself. He, already saved, still wanted to save them. And at the end of our text, Jesus ends the mockery with an authoritative welcome of the one thief into Paradise. Though it’s not resolution, is it? I guess you could try and focus on the text ending with the supreme authority of Jesus, but he’s still hanging there—dying on a cross.
So, the order of worship does it. The Scripture does it. The church year does it too. Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year. Next Sunday, we begin a new Church year with the first Sunday of Advent. So today, we celebrate the culmination—the fulfillment of the church year in the reign of Christ—perhaps more familiarly known as Christ the King Sunday, and yet—and yet, next week, we’ll realize that we celebrate that culmination and that fulfillment only to begin anticipating it all over again. We go from honoring Jesus as triumphant, victorious, supreme authority this week to waiting for the birth of baby Jesus again next week. What’s up with that? We do not like or appreciate such cognitive dissonance. We want harmony. We look for things to make sense. And our culture teaches us to make sense of opposites by dividing and separating them—disconnecting them from each other—keeping them apart.
So, it’s the order of worship. It’s the Scripture. It’s the church year. It’s also the time of the year. Here we are (it’s still a little hard for me to believe) coming up on Thanksgiving … and then, of course, subsequently coming up on Christmas, and, well, you’ve seen the same commercials I have. You know the cultural expectations as well as I do. We’re coming up to those days on which we’re supposed to have beautifully decorated homes, and perfectly cooked meals, and happily gathered families, and not just carefully selected, exquisitely wrapped, but also gratefully and gracefully received gifts that truly indicate quality of relationship.
And sometimes all I want to do is yell at the magazine or the TV and tell Martha Stewart that if I had millions of dollars and nothing else to do, I could probably have a nicely decorated, color and texture co-ordinated house, a carefully conceived visual theme for the holidays, and a meal as carefully presented as cooked, instead of as quickly presented as consumed. Sometimes I want to rage at some personification of our culture protesting the very idea that what I feel for someone should or even could be made manifest in some material gift. But I’m not supposed to yell or rage—because we’re all supposed to be so very happy and at peace, right?
Though we all know that some families will gather and no one will mention and everyone will wonder if Mom’s going to drink too much, and even adult children will cringe at the very thought of what she might say or do. And other families will sit around a table with the one person who’s missing all anyone can see—a time of fullness strangely empty. There are families who will gather in different places—in separate places—not because of the geographic distance between them—not because of conflict in schedules. And there will be those who on Thursday make their solitary way to some cafeteria or restaurant because they would rather be surrounded by people they don’t know than to be as alone as they feel. And it’s precisely the expectations of the season that make the reality of the season so much harder to bear. Because even if we don’t experience it, we still somehow expect things to be magazine-like—T.V. worthy—maybe especially if we don’t experience it. And we resent the confusion and the discontinuity that is our experience confronting our expectations.
Are you familiar with the ARSELF (the Annotated Revised Standard Encyclopedia of Life Forms)? I’d actually be surprised if you were since I made it up! But an appendix of the aforementioned ARSELF (an appendix I also made up) designates a particular category of being as the –ests. It’s a category with which the categorized actually have themselves very little to do. A roll of the chromosomes and there you have it. Shuffle the DNA and there you are: the fastest, the strongest. Nevertheless, you may have yourselves noticed the inordinate and inappropriate pride many –ests, these random winners in the genetic lottery, take in doing extremely well for themselves—at least in the arena of recognizable qualities that can be seen and measured (the tallest, the skinniest). In the realm of the apparent, you see, the –ests are, by definition without peer, and thus appear to always be on top of the world
So it is that the dreams of little boys and little girls (and the dreams of not so little boys and not so little girls) are often filled with memorable scenes of –ests—all created in the image of the dreamer—all thoroughly and conclusively validating their –estness before throngs of admiring witnesses usually including one or more individuals the dreamer seeks to impress or best. You see, it’s virtually impossible to live in a society that values –ests without measuring yourself in terms of –estness.
There’s an imaginary footnote to the imaginary appendix of the imaginary encyclopedia that states that “-estness is by definition limited to a specific trait, and one who exemplifies –estness of this, rarely exemplifies –estness of that.” The tallest is probably not the fastest, for example. There is, in fact, a theory (this is still part of the imaginary footnote)—there is a theory that all individuals are gifted in equal measure, and that it is the distribution of talent into specific areas that varies from one creature to another. So to achieve –estness in any one area is always at the expense of other areas. It’s a theory.
It is an especially important consideration though when placed alongside the observation that individuals not only measure themselves in terms of –estness , but compare each one of their individual traits to the manifestation of the –est of that trait. In terms of size, I compare myself to the biggest—in terms of speed to the fastest—in terms of strength to the strongest, etcetera. The underlying assumption, asinine when seriously considered, is that one person could incarnate all –ests and be the –est of the –est—estest, as it were. It’s how many imagine God.
It is also noted, in another interesting imaginary footnote, that this category (of –ests) establishes not an absolute either/or (either fastest or slowest, for example), but a range of possibilities from the fastest to the slowest. An –est then, perceived as one without peer, actually exists only in comparison to peers—in comparison to all others on the range (the rest, as it were).
Now dominant power determines not only which polarity of a trait is most desirable (fastest usually more desirable than slowest—the tortoise and the hare notwithstanding), but also which specific traits are more desirable. So while in terms of speed, fastest is deemed more desirable than slowest (to settle the matter of which polarity is more significant), fastest comes in a poor second to richest in terms of which trait is more significant.
Once made, these decisions are then validated by the means of a test—always simply a measuring device the criteria for which reflect dominant power’s decisions about what’s most desirable. So a test is actually always more important to the person giving it than to the person taking it, though it may seem the very opposite. Having made these really quite arbitrary decisions and validated them, dominant power then enforces them with whatever methods are at hand (peer pressure’s a big one), and it’s this use of power—this attitude of choosing, testing, enforcing—that ends up emphasizing and celebrating not the full range of a particular trait but one expression of that trait (not all the students in the class, but the valedictorian). It’s such a use of power that downplays the concepts of diversity and respect and interdependence: the responsibility all expressions of one trait have for each other.
And this is not an attitude bred in the politicians’ hot bed of compromise and corruption, nor conferred in the conference rooms of the power brokers’ where so many arbitrary decisions are made. It is not the province of big business’ morally-bankrupt, profit-driven focus, nor can one blame the blinding perversions and distortions preached from all too many pulpits. No, we observe this attitude, this process, this particular use of dominant power in all its brutal effectiveness on the playgrounds of nurseries and day care centers, in the cafeterias and locker rooms of elementary schools, amidst groups of the youngest children playing together on the street. There is an inherent naturalness to this, an innate quality of being, from which we would love to distance ourselves. It is an interesting fact that we often count hardship as character-developing unless the hardship is part of the character. The editors of the ARSELF, on the other hand, write of “ontological obstacles” (obstacles that are part of who you are) that are “integral to the maturation process”—that you discipline yourself to grow out of in order to grow up.
This was the context into which appeared the Storyteller. The Storyteller did not appear in any way to be an –est. When analyzed, her traits were shaded toward the “negative” end of the range of a given trait, nor did she score well in the area of traits considered desirable: there was nothing about her looks that anyone would give her a second look—no form, no majesty—nothing in her appearance that anyone would desire her (a big minus in most species for the male, but among humans primarily for females—especially those without compensating –est traits: being the richest, for example, will, among humans, usually compensate for anything). The Storyteller had no home. She had no steady income and no financial plans for the future. She had no husband, no children, no health insurance. Naturally she was despised and rejected by others. A creature of suffering, acquainted with infirmity, people actually hid their faces from her so they wouldn’t have to look at her. She was held to be of no account.
None of this seemed to make too much of an impression on her though. She seemed oblivious to what was obvious to all. She had been tested and rejected, but it didn’t faze her. She kept telling her stories: stories about an acceptance that had nothing to do with conformity to the criteria of a test; stories about a security beyond any ensured by insurance policies and retirement plans; stories about an interdependence in which the range of all possibilities was more important than the two extremes so that in her stories, somehow, the richest were the poorest, the poorest were the richest; stories about a love that hid its face from no one, in whose grace no one was held to be of no account.
Such an attitude, such stories drove –ests nuts. And the smartest asked her questions seeking to entrap her but her stories ensnared them—confounded them. Her rejection of their rejection bound them to her. Though they knew it not, the richest needed her to justify their wealth; the religiousest needed her confirmation; the establishment, her validation; the status quo, her approval, and the givers of tests found themselves caught by their own criteria.
In not exercising power, she was powerful. And her power was in that in her living, she modeled a constructive way of dealing with –estness not in eliminating it, but in overcoming it—telling those stories that confront and challenge and inspire—that breathe into the listener a new way of living and being—a way of living and being that could never be categorized in a footnote of the ARSELF.
God, you see, gives us the truth that there is some integral, definitive connection between opposite extremes—that we can’t just escape into rejection and denial—that there’s something about the triumphant theme of this day in the church year and the awful Scripture of the day that belong together, that fulfill each other—that even make each other possible. It’s counter-intuitive, and it’s yet another reminder that we live by another story—a story other than the stories of our world—we live by another story into another reality—a reality other than the one accepted by—promoted by our world.
My brother sent me a copy of the Zac Brown Band’s CD, You Get What You Give. I’ve particularly been enjoying the song “Knee Deep” which starts with the singer claiming, “Gonna put the world away for a minute, pretend I don’t live in it. Sunshine gonna wash my blues away” (The Zac Brown Band, “Knee Deep,” You Get What You Give, 2010). It’s the wishful rejection of what’s hard. It’s escapism at its best. “Wishing I was knee deep in the water somewhere. Got the blue sky breeze blowing wind through my hair, only worry in the world is the tide gonna reach my chair. Sunrise, there’s a fire in the sky. Never been so happy; never felt so high, and I think I might have found me my own kind of paradise.” Thing is, it’s a paradise you only get by putting the world away for a minute—by pretending you don’t live in it—by pretending the sunshine can wash the blues away.
The gift of our God and of our religion (at its best), as we enter this holiday season, is not denying the realities in which we live—any of them, and certainly not denying the difficulties, the griefs, and pains of life as we know it in some kind of fantasy getaway—some “opiate of the masses!” It’s not “how the heavenly anthem drowns out all music but its own”, but precisely how the heavenly anthem embraces all the discordance of our individual stories. Ours is a God and a religion so well acquainted with grief, at the same time a God and a religion also claiming another reality—another story. Also affirming paradise, but affirming that the only paradise worth talking about is not the one you sing about imagining yourself knee deep in the water somewhere. No, the only paradise worth talking about is the one you can talk about hanging on a cross, sitting at a thanksgiving dinner table in all the broken pain of life as we know it—worried about Mom, grieving, divided, conflicted, lonely, mad.
And so this week, we come up on days in which God, and our faith, our community of faith, can be particularly important—days in which to try and live into what it means to be part of a community of faith in which we celebrate each other’s joys and share with each other our burdens. And we remember those less fortunate in our ministries and offerings. But this is also a time when, one day this coming week—one day in the coming weeks, you may need to risk telling someone, “This is a time I really need you to to believe for me. I need you to believe in thanksgiving and in joy. I need you to hope for me because I just can’t.” Or you might be someone who can take the initiative and ask, “Is this a time at which I can believe for you? Make affirmations for you? Remind you of the story we believe in that transforms and redeems?” For ours is the story that celebrates, even in the midst of it all, the truth that we were created to live lives full of, I’m sure you’ll forgive me, zest!”
So we’ve arrived. and it’s time to begin again. The powerful king becomes the helpless baby. The end of the story is light. Welcome back to the darkness. We invite you this day to claim and to celebrate the redemptive, and the oh so very honest quality of our faith’s whiplash!