Sunday, November 20, 2022

Broken Words, Broken Lives (It's a Good Thing)

 Sermon preached at St. John's Church, Catherine, and St. James' Church, Watkins Glen on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, often called "Christ the King Sunday," November 20, 2022.  Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

          Christ the King.  This is the only Sunday of the church year celebrating a metaphor.  Christ the King.

           It’s a good Sunday to remember the limits of human language and how we use it when we talk about God.

           We use human language to describe God. We have to, it’s the only tool we have.  But it is good for us to remember the difference between description and definition.  When it comes to God, description we can do; definition we cannot.

           Remember the third of the ten commandments:  You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

           We take this to mean that we should not use “God” or “Jesus” as a curse word.  But the commandment is deeper than that.  It is about control—how we attempt to control God by definition.  The commandment is about protecting the freedom and mystery of God.

           The truth is that human attempts to define God always go awry.  We attempt to describe God in many ways:  Almighty, Eternal, Shepherd, Lord, King, even Father, just to name a few.  Each of these does help us understand God, but God also has a tendency to break them open.

           Take the title King.  It helps us speak about the God who is the ultimate ruler of all things.  But when we use the title for Jesus—Christ the King—we have to come to terms with how Jesus broke open the title.

           First of all, he did not use it for himself.  He speaks frequently of the kingdom of God, but never calls himself its king.  In John’s Gospel at one point he slips out of town because he feared the people were going to try to declare him king (John 6:15).  When Pilate accuses him of wanting to be king, he says his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:33-37). In other words, Jesus is saying that you may call me a king, but you have no idea what you are talking about.

           The soldiers then mock Jesus as a king, with a bloody cloak and a crown of thorns, and Pilate has affixed to the cross the accusation against Jesus, “This is the King of the Jews.”

           And yet we call him King.  But he breaks open our human language, our human description—King—from the cross.  He is not a King who sits on a royal throne in a royal palace and has the power of life and death over others. His throne is the cross and he uses his power to accept his own death on behalf of others. And while accepting death, he asks God to forgive those who made his death happen and offers mercy to his fellow sufferers.

           He takes the title “King,” breaks it, and offers it back to us infused with new meaning.  You can take any title we give him and find that he does the same thing:  breaks it, and gives it new meaning.

           This is how God works. And it is not only our human language that God breaks. It is also us, if we let him.

           Think about that time in the Eucharist where we break something.  The breaking of bread.  “The fraction,” we call it.  It is only one of two places in The Book of Common Prayer that insists on silence.  The rubric says, “Silence is kept.”

           It is one of the least followed Prayer Book rubric because we are uncomfortable with silence.  If there’s too much silence, we think something is wrong. Somebody’s forgetting something!

           But the silence is there because what we have just done—break the bread—is the whole point.  God wishes to break us open and make us new people to send out into the world.  We are asked to keep silence before the mystery of that great truth.

           St. Augustine said it well. He said that if it is true what St. Paul says, that we are the Body of Christ, then behold its mystery on the Altar.  He said,

 If, therefore, you are the Body and the members of Christ, your mystery is placed on the Lord’s table; you receive your own mystery.

           It is your body, your life, which is broken.  So, he says, when you come to receive the broken body,

 Respond, “Amen,” to what you are, and by responding give your assent. You hear, “The Body of Christ,” and you respond, “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s Body so that your Amen may be true.

           God wants each one of us to describe ourselves in the same way we describe God, knowing that what we say about ourselves is always in need of being broke, so that even more truth about ourselves can be revealed. It is how, as St. Paul says, we are enabled “to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light,” and be “transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

           “Broken” has become a bad word.  We don’t want to be “broken people.”  But we do not need to fear being broken by God, because it is the way God makes us a new creation, and leads us into ever new life.

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