Saturday, November 23, 2013

Christ the King? A new image for Christian leadership

Jeremiah 23:1-6, Canticle 4 or 16, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

Today is the feast of Christ the King.  You can also call it the Feast of the Reign of Christ. It is also the end of the Christian calendar and next week we begin Advent. But I wonder if we know what kingship really means and whether it models the kind of relationship we have with Christ or God.

This feast is quite recent as far as Christian feasts go.  It was instituted only in 1925 by Pope Pius the XI after the end of WWI.  This was when the papacy was losing its temporal power.  It was when Vatican City was set up as an independent nation in the center of a
unified Italy. In the long run, the feast was developed to celebrate the Pope’s last gasp at what monarchy was supposed to be.  And for the first time in a thousand years that the papacy had been reduced to a mere plebiscite. 

In the Church we continue today to celebrate Christ as King without knowing what the feast was about. Ultimately we are trying to find a way to describe what kind of leadership that Christ has for our lives. Most of us have no experience of what kingship means.  

 If we use the constitutional monarchy as our model for Christian leadership, it is rather insipid.  If we use the absolute monarchy as our example of faith leadership, it doesn’t really describe the relationship that Christ has with us.  It may have been a model that Pius XI wanted western Christianity to adopt.  But the whole issue of democracy began to permeate the majority of western society by the early 20th century.

Today’s feast is really about what is Christian leadership for the 21st century.  Do we look to Christ to provide the need for panoply, the need for hierarchy in the human soul?  Have we not built our idea of Christian leadership around an inappropriate image because of the need for order rather than developed a
form of leadership that is in keeping with the model we have been given in Jesus himself?

I recall that when the Israelites wanted a king, Samuel was loath to give the people a king because they were failing to acknowledge God.  But the people wanted Saul and then Saul led them astray.  The people of God were supposed to allow God to be the judge among them.  They were supposed to be able to govern themselves.  But they called for a king.

And Jesus’ image of Christian leadership is found in Mt 20: 26 “But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave;  even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." 

The reading of Jeremiah is a description of life under the kings of Israel who had lost the sense of the commonweal that Mosaic Law demanded of the people of God.  It is a
description of what happened in this diocese.  But today’s Gospel is the image of the kind of ministry that Christian leadership is supposed to be—laying down one’s life for the sheep.

Years ago when I was in the Diocese of Washington, we had a clergy association that wanted to step up to the plate and take charge of its profession in the same way that the legal profession had done by setting up a way to regulate its own profession.  For too long, we, as clergy had expected the bishop to be the sole arbiter of the lives of clergy.  What we found was that that ancient feudal system of bishop/clergy tended to infantilize the clergy and consequently infantilized the laity in the parishes they served.  It was the wrong paradigm to embrace the responsibilities that clergy had to their bishops and their parishioners.  What we needed was a healthy way to approach the relationships that develop among us as Church.  And bishops, clergy and laity endeavored to make that happen.

You, here at St. Francis are about to enter a new phase of your life as a Christian community.  You are going to have to figure out how you are going to be faithful to Christ as a congregation without the leadership of your own priest.  Yes, you will have some of us ‘ringers’ come to celebrate the Holy Mysteries.  But Christian leadership will have to be exercised by all.  Now, I know some of you and I know that you have been doing this for a while. But what I am describing is the kind of sacrificial leadership that Christ gave us in the cross.  It is the laying down one’s life for friends.

And if we are building a new Church in this part of the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church as I believe us to be doing, St. Francis is posed to be the most exciting place in the Episcopal Church.  But that is only if you are willing to re-evaluate the meaning of Christian community and Christian leadership.  We cannot continue the top-down model if we are going to be about servant leadership.  “Father (or Mother) knows best” cannot be the way that we go about proclaiming the Gospel for this new Church that we are about making.  Christian leadership is not the sole possession of the clergy or even bishop.  Christian leadership has to do with us recognizing the gifts of our separate vocations to work together to serve Christ.
You will need to raise up among yourselves those lay folk who can proclaim the Gospel.  This does not mean that they need to be ordained.  But you already know who among you knows God.  You will need to figure out what excites you about your parish and proclaim it among the people in Parker County.  You will have to quit thinking of yourselves as ‘pore little us’ and start proclaiming the Gospel that you had the temerity to proclaim when you quit following the false shepherds of the last
regime.  You will have to find a way to serve this community without your own digs so that people will know of your commitment and your courage.  You will have to devise new ways to describe who you are to attract more membership because people who want to know of faith will want to know how you celebrate it.  You will need to be creative as you have never been to find ways to explain who you are to a Texas world that is craving intimacy with God but have been sold a bill of goods by popular religion.  You will have to study your faith to know what the Episcopal Church is and what is not.   It sounds fatiguing, and it is.  But as one who has spent my life doing this, I can tell you that it is the most rewarding thing that you can do for yourselves, others and God.  I have yet to know of a parish that has pulled itself up by its bootstraps that hasn’t found it the most profound experience of their lives.

And you are not alone.  The churches of the Northeast are right where you are—remaking themselves to serve Christ and the people of God in their communities.  Small towns all over are recognizing that it is only by reconfiguring themselves and reclaiming a quasi-colonial model of the church that served when there was no hierarchy to speak of in the American Church. Yes, you are remaking the Church and how you choose to remake it will definitely be affected by the kind of clergy you call to serve you in the future.  Not just priests, but bishops also. 
The kind of image you have of Christ and his mission in the world will be reflected in the way you develop this new image of Church.  It will be reflected in the kind of infrastructure that you set up in your congregations and the diocese.  It will be
reflected in the way that you call people from your parish to serve as clergy.  It will be reflected in the ways that you relate to your clergy as well as how you call your clergy to relate to you.  

Christ made it clear that it was the people around him that was his family—his community of faith.  That is image we have of the earliest church in the book of Acts—a family that cared for one another.  You know how to do that—don’t allow yourselves to be constrained by the canons to love one another.  Do not allow hierarchical or monarchical conventions keep you from laying down your lives for one another.  Because there is no more attractive image that people are drawn to than “see how they love one another.”  

On this final Sunday of the Christian year, I would invite you to contemplate upon what image of Christian leadership do you want for you future?  And then next Sunday, I want you to discuss that image with one another at coffee hour.  I know that Episcopalians are not good about sharing faith.  But the folk I know from this parish are not shy about sharing their thoughts.  Talk about the image of Christian leadership that might get you to follow the King of your life?  What about that man Jesus wants you to share his life with others?  In other words, what has God done for you lately?  And how are you going to go about laying your life down for those here that you have chosen to worship Christ with?  That is the task we have signed up for in our Baptism.  It is the herculean work that God calls from each of us and can only be done with God at the center.  AMEN

1 comment:

Sharon said...

What a very encouraging and challenging sermon for a congregation in transition. The sermon communicates that you know them and love them and expect great things.

Thank you so much!