by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – OKC
20 November 2005
To be a truly great story, you’ve got to have a good ending. Some authors can write pretty good stories, but when you get to the end, you can tell that they had difficulty concluding the story, like they weren’t sure how it ended. Gone with the Wind, for example, has a perfect ending. It would be inauthentic to their characters for Rhett and Scarlett to ride off into the sunset together in wedded bliss. But, you want to leave open that possibility and allow the reader to consider how the story might play out beyond the pages of the novel.
Tolkein is one of those writers who likes to sum everything up. The ending of the Lord of the Rings trilogy extends out over one hundred pages. There are numerous moments that seem to function as something of an ending, as they wrap up various aspects of this complicated epic.
One of my favourite passages is the one I read earlier in the service from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It sounds so biblical in its language and imagery. Furthermore, it conveys majesty, glory, and hope.
There is hope because one world has come to an end and a new world has begun. The world that has passed away was a troubled and fractured world where evil forces were on the rise, threatening to subdue creation.
The new world brings hope because the evil forces have been subdued and because creation is re-ordered. Those who were left out of the old world are included in the new. Power is shared with the least and not only the mighty. Prosperity and security are the possessions of all the people. And there is unity among diverse peoples.
One reason it is a satisfying ending is because it is also a new beginning. And isn’t that one way that many of the greatest stories end? They leave open a new beginning.
The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes about Christians as the “eternal beginners.” He says that we “shall expect that in every end a new beginning lies hidden.” So it should be no surprise if our great story has an ending that really is a fresh start.
Today we come to the end of our story. This is the final Sunday of the church year. Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the day we look forward to the completion of God’s reign.
The truth is that God’s reign has already begun. Our great truth is that God’s kingdom has come, is coming, and will one day come in completion. The whole of the church’s liturgical calendar reminds us of this truth. With Advent we anticipate the arrival of God’s reign. With Christmas and Epiphany we acknowledge that God has broken into the world. Easter celebrates that Christ has triumphed over the powers. Ascension celebrates Christ’s reign which will come about through the power of the Holy Spirit working through the church, as signified on Pentecost. So, on this day we are reminded that God’s reign has already begun, that it is already a reality. But we also recognize that God’s reign has not been fully realized, that there is still work to be done. Therefore it is important that we re-enter a period of anticipation and expectation. So, next week we will start the cycle over by expressing our Advent hope that Christ will be born anew in us.
English theologian N. T. Wright says that in the New Testament the phrase “kingdom of God” is always referring to a fact and not a place. The fact that God rules over creation. Jesus’ life was itself the announcement that God rules over all:
He embodied, enacted and announced the fact that, with his own life and through his own forthcoming death, Israel’s God was becoming King in a new way, witnessed initially in the healings and celebrations and then in the worldwide announcement that, in and through Jesus, this God was now claiming the whole creation as his own.
Yet, all one has to do is to look at the world and realize that we aren’t there yet. In fact, all you have to do is look at those who call Jesus Lord and see that we still are a long way from God’s reign being fulfilled. We are shaken by the catastrophes of life. Despair can overwhelm us. Injustice and oppression continue to create outcasts. And the church struggles to live up to its identity and be a relevant force for genuinely bringing about God’s will on earth.
Catastrophes might bring our world to an end, but there is always the new beginning. This is a powerfully liberating truth. So often we get stuck on what we have lost – someone has died, a relationship has ended, we’ve lost a job, or life just simply isn’t what it used to be for us. There are two things that we need to remember. First, we actually haven’t lost the past. The past is always with us in our memories. What we have lost is the ability to create new memories with that person or that situation. But the life that we did create is not lost to us. All those great, joyful, happy days in your past are forever a part of you.
The other thing to remember is that no matter how dark or difficult the current moment is to you, there are an indefinite number of future possibilities. At every moment in time, there are an indefinite number of futures laid out before you. Every moment in life presents new possibilities. Every moment in life is a chance to create something new.
I think that these two truths provide so much joy and hope in life. The past you value is never lost to you. The future is always open to exciting new possibilities.
Christianity is wholly and entirely confident hope, a stretching out to what is ahead, and a readiness for a fresh start. Future is not just something or other to do with Christianity. It is the essential element of the faith which is specifically Christian: the keynote of all its hymns, the dawn colouring of the new day in which everything is bathed. For faith is Christian faith when it is Easter faith. Faith means living in the presence of the risen Christ, and stretching out to the coming kingdom of God. It is in the creative expectation of Christ’s coming that our everyday experiences of life take place. We wait and hasten, we hope and endure, we pray and watch, we are both patient and curious. That makes the Christian life exciting and alive. The faith that ‘another world is possible’ makes Christians enduringly capable of future.
But what does all this mean?
Let me confess that this was one of those weeks when I was really questioning things – my calling, what church is all about, even my faith. Why do I believe all this stuff? Why do I keep at it? Is what I’m doing even relevant? I’ve entertained all these questions numerous times in the past, and will do so again. This week some of my answers didn’t work quite as well as they usually do in my own internal dialogue. And, of course, it was funny that it should come this week in the church year, the week in which we talk about the future, as yet unrealized, hope of the Christian faith and encourage one another to keep aiming ahead.
I think that all of us, based upon our experiences, chose some narrative to structure our life. Some people buy into the myth of American individualism. That story of the frontier, where the lone, rugged individual can achieve success if they work hard enough. One offshoot of that narrative is the story of the self-made man. Like the Horatio Alger novels of the 19th century, it says that if you take all the right steps, you can get ahead in business and have a successful life. But, those narratives have limitations, largely in leaving out community. They unrealistically imagine that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps. They present a story that doesn’t work for most people, and for those it does work, usually leads to self-centeredness with negative effects for other people.
But there are many other great narratives which don’t have these limitations. If one lived one’s life by the Hindu narrative, then one would have six thousand years of religious history to draw from, a rich tradition that could provide great meaning to life.
My experiences have kept me within the Christian tradition. I continue to find meaning and purpose within communities that structure themselves by the great Christian narrative. It too has its limitations. Our narrative is scarred by crusades and inquisitions, anti-semitism, sexism, slavery, colonialism, etc. We may have done as much damage as we’ve done good.
I guess I keep at it because I think that there is still so much potential and promise in this story. It calls me to something greater, to live my life better. I’m convicted by the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Francis of Assisi or Hildegard of Bingen. And I’m drawn to richer depths when I read scripture. I find meaning in the stories of Genesis. I find liberation in the Exodus. I seek the justice of the prophets. I want to have the compassion of Jesus. And much about the early church is compelling. In short, the Christian story gives me a sense of adventure for life.
An example is today’s Gospel. In this text Jesus separates the sheep and the goats. What distinguished them? One group helped those in need and the other group didn’t. This passage is Jesus’ clearest statement about what is required to inherit God’s reign. We’ve got to care for those in need.
Let me tell you another story from the great Christian narrative that helps to explain this one in the Gospel. It is a story of Mother Theresa. Theresa was a nun living in Calcutta, India, but she had not yet begun the work that made her internationally famous. One day she is walking through the city streets and she comes across a man who is dying. He is lying there on the side of the street dying. But more than that, the man was infested with maggots. In that moment little, slight Theresa picked up that man. Just imagine. She picked up that man and carried him to a hospital and demanded that he be cared for. The hospital refused, he was dying and there was nothing that could be done for him. Theresa demanded that this person, even if they were dying, deserved to be treated humanely and cared for in their final hours. Eventually she got the hospital to care for the man and he died. After that, Theresa dedicated herself to caring for the dying, and it is this work that made her famous.
When Mother Theresa was asked why she had done what she did for this man, she had a simple answer, because when she looked at him she saw Jesus.
What Theresa developed was the ability to see Jesus in the people around her. That is what gave her the power to care for those in need. So, these stories convict me and call me to something. They insist that I must develop the ability to see Jesus in others. And I’m not there yet. I’m still working on it.
Essential to that is doing it as a community. I need examples to learn from. I need help in getting there. I need encouragement when I fail. Learning to live in a community with others is essential to becoming a better person, I think. Learning forgiveness, humility, nonviolence, generosity, and love as they relate to other concrete people is a lifelong task that I cannot engage in alone.
Other people find all these things in other communities and other narratives. But I find it in the church and in the Christian story. I think that story is compelling and still has many new chapters to write.
So, that’s why I keep at it, to be a part of that on-going story. I find it still worth it. This week I brought all this up to the other ministers at our coffee group on Wednesday morning. It was very interesting hearing their insights. One of them said something to this effect. That the life of faith was about not resting at any of the terminals along the way. I liked that idea. Sure, at times I’ve been tempted to get off the path and finish my Christian journey. But I think that it would probably be less adventurous, less fun. To me the journey is the point.
And that’s where the leap of blind faith comes in. I don’t have any certainty or any guarantees. Maybe it is all for naught. Maybe I can’t make the world a better place. Maybe I can’t help in creating God’s kingdom. Maybe all of it is fictitious anyway. But that is what faith is. Faith is not having certainty, but moving ahead anyway.
For those that aren’t on the same journey, I’ve long felt that that was okay. They have a different set of experiences. Maybe they felt compelled to quit the Christian journey and go another way. That’s okay. As long as they are finding some way to live that calls them to be a better person and work toward some sort of genuine community. As long as they are taking some journey.
Maybe this is not the ending you were looking for? Maybe it’s not satisfying to you? Maybe you’d rather have a clear picture of where we are heading and the ten step process for getting there and the money back guarantee that it will all work out. Well, it’s not that kind of story. Because to find an end and be satisfied with that place is too miss part of the point. In the Christian story every ending is a new beginning.
So, what chapters will you contribute to? How will you help to create God’s kingdom? What does it mean for Christ to be born anew in you?
Because we are starting all over again. It is time to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. It is time to wake up. And that’s where we will begin next week.