A homily given at Winnetka Presbyterian Church on November 22, 2015
Isaiah 11:1-5 (NRSV) The Peaceful Kingdom
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might,the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
In the Christian calendar, today is known as the last Sunday of the liturgical year and often called Christ The King Sunday. At the close of this Christian year, much like the end of our secular calendar year, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the past year. To remember and honor the grief. To celebrate the surprises and success. To acknowledge and amend any regrets. To do the necessary work of pruning the vineyards of our hearts and minds to get ready for all that the fresh, new year will bring.
Last Friday night, my colleague Mel and I walked over from Lurie Children’s Hospital to Prentice Women’s hospital to visit another colleague who had just delivered a baby. As Mel and I stood in line to pick up dinner for her, we learned of the Paris attacks. We stood still and silent as we watched CNN report the terror and fear that was still unfolding. We were so glued to the TV that the woman handing us the food had to try multiple times to get our attention. As we came back into awareness, we wondered aloud to each other what this meant for the world, for France, for everyone. We wondered how long the attack would last. We wondered what was going on. We were preoccupied with the brokenness and pain of the world as we walked down the Labor and Delivery hallway.
We both took deep breaths as we walked into our colleague’s room, and as soon as we saw that healthy, brand new, only 20 hours old baby boy, we could breathe easier again. As I held that fresh new life in my arms, all I could think about was how babies are one of the best and most tangible signs of hope humanity will ever experience. I was as lost in staring at his perfect features as I had been just minutes earlier while watching the news. I probably held him longer than the typical and acceptable friend and colleague time limit because I needed to keep grasping and touching pure newness, life, and hope.
As we have continued to experience the brokenness and pain of the world as events and politics have unfolded this week, I wonder if this isn’t significantly appropriate for this liturgical season. As our Christian year ends and we celebrate that Christ is King and his kingdom is one of peace and justice, we see the news and can hardly breathe sometimes and wonder when exactly that kingdom will be more near.
We see neighbors fleeing from violence and torture only to be met not with hospitality and welcome, but with, “There’s no room for you here and we will not help you.” We need some tangible hope. We need the peace and calm breathing that comes from holding a fresh new baby. We need Advent because we need God to become Emmanuel, God with us, and be in the flesh among us yet again. We need the Prince of Peace to be just down the Labor and Delivery hallway from today’s news reports.
When I served the congregation of Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, my friend George and his family were some of the first congregation members I met. They’re the type of folks who ooze hospitality and you can’t help but feel welcome in their midst.
Since meeting them in 2008, I can’t count how many meals we’ve shared at each others’ tables. We’ve gathered for the beautifully ordinary meals as well as the more sacred ones, like at my parents’ house after my mom’s memorial service. The meal and hospitality that will forever be one of my favorite memories is from last Thanksgiving with George’s family. I had recently moved back to Chicago, and due to my hospital work schedule, wasn’t able to travel to the Carolinas to see my dad and other family. As I told George that I didn’t really have Thanksgiving plans, he said, “Then you’re coming here.”
It was then that I was introduced to their family tradition of a Lebanese Thanksgiving feast. George’s family immigrated to Indianapolis in 1986 and their rich Lebanese roots and pride are as much a part of them as their Indiana Hoosier hospitality and pride. They embody such a beautiful blend of their own culture and patriotism that they make sure folks aren’t alone for the very American Thanksgiving holiday by adding a chair and table setting to the Lebanese feast. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more welcome and comfortable at someone else’s holiday table.
A few days ago, George’s family wrote an article in response to the state of Indiana sending a refugee immigrant family away. They began with:
As an immigrant family living in Indiana since 1986, we are perplexed by the recent decision of our own Governor and others across the United States denying the resettlement of Syrian refugees in communities such as ours.
For nearly five years, close to 11 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homeland in droves. First at the hands of their own government and later at the behest of ISIS militants, homes have been flattened, lands rendered untenable, and children flushed out of classrooms. Our native Lebanon–a nation of nearly four million, has become home to 1.5 million refugees simply searching for an escape from death and destruction.
They ended the piece in this way:
Terror’s ammo is fear and our world needs no more of it. Every time a state says ‘you’re not welcome here,’ every time a refugee’s resettlement is diverted, another win is notched by the very same radicalism we wish to defeat.
Apparently Indiana is ‘a state that works,’ but not for all. This is not the Indiana and the America we have come to know and call our own home along with millions of other immigrants. The Indiana and America with which we identify has long opened its arms to populations from the world over, and most importantly, is all the better for it.
In this time of fear, chaos, violence and uncertainty in our world, we are ready for peace and for things to be calm and bright in the reign of Christ the King. His reign, which has no end and where justice rolls down like waters, will ensure that no family is ever told, “There’s no room for you here.” His reign, which is rooted in humility and vines that only flourish with hope, will bring about peace among all peoples and in all nations. And with Christ as our King, we have important roles to play in his kingdom.
My favorite sermon from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr is his sermon entitled The Drum Major Instinct. In it, King remarks that all of us can be and are commanded to be drum majors for justice and peace as followers of Christ the King. Here are Rev. King’s remarks in his own words:
But that isn’t what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”
And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, “Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.” This is what Jesus said to James and John. “You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared.”
And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
King’s words are beautifully simple and profoundly powerful. We can all be great because we can all serve. If only we have hearts full of grace and souls generated by love, we can continue to go about the work of Christ and be participants in the reign of righteousness and peace. With this new definition of greatness as our guide, perhaps the chaos of the world will seem less overwhelming and daunting. With hearts full of grace, perhaps we will be able to put politics aside, and add chairs and place settings to our tables for any one of our neighbors who needs a seat or a warm meal.
As we await the birth of God in the flesh, and we beg for God to call order out of chaos once more, we remember that in this coming Advent season, God will continue to prune the vineyards of our lives to make us ready to bear the fruits of righteousness, justice and love to the world God loves so very much.
And as we wait, on the days it is indeed hard to breathe as we watch the news and hear stories of our friends and loved ones whose hearts are broken, may we remember the wisdom of the Jewish teachings in the Talmud that reminds us, “Do not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Friends, Christ the King is indeed the Prince of Peace and Advent is coming. Let us prepare our hearts and minds to welcome in the baby who changed the world, teaches us a better way of life, and who is our greatest hope. Chaos, injustice, fear, brokenness, and even death itself have never and will never have the final word. For the God who created order out of chaos and light out of darkness will break into our finite world yet again in the promise of a newborn baby who we know will grow up to be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
As we share and celebrate the vast abundance of gifts and food at tables this week, may we also get the nurseries of our hearts ready to hold the baby who enables our souls to be generated by love. For in Christ’s Kingdom of Peace, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” May it be so. Amen.