The King in the Cattle-sheds

Christ the King,  November 23, 2014

Today we celebrate the feast of the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King. We acclaim Christ as King of creation, and look to his kingdom as the ultimate meaning and purpose of this world.

And yet, looking around the world today, I must admit that at first glance anyway, there seems to be little sign of Christ’s rule. The forces that seem to be in control of human history are forces of greed and exploitation, forces of violence and wrath, forces of selfishness and shortsightedness.

I find myself growing more pessimistic about the prospects of human history, the older I get. But I don’t think I’m alone in that. After all, I grew up in the 60s, the era of the space race, the civil rights movement, and colour TV.  Everything seemed possible then.  The ideology of unlimited human progress was celebrating its last great hurrah.

How different things look today.  Not just for this aging baby boomer, but for the young people of today. The sense of environmental degradation and climate change hang like an inevitable doom over our civilization. The Cold War ended in 1989 in a triumph of hope; but now we find ourselves mired in another great cycle of violence and warfare, one that is proving us to be both ineffective to resolve, and increasingly morally compromised. The gap between rich and poor is increasing, and our vision of a just and prosperous and humane society is increasingly constrained. Certainly in the US, that great bastion of democracy, democracy itself seems hopelessly broken, a prey to the interests of the wealthy.  Some days it seems we can’t be that far behind. It is as though the powers that run this world have become embolded to show their hand; they don’t even bother to hide behind a facade of fairness and decency anymore.  Well, I warned you – I have become pessimistic.

None of this should be surprising from a Biblical point of view. Because the Bible also appears to have a pretty pessimistic view of things, as far as the powers that rule this world are concerned. In New Testament times it was clear who ruled: Rome, a system of military might and organized violence, of colonial exploitation, of obscene wealth for the few and grinding poverty for the many.

The Bible has a whole complex vocabulary to describe this complex of power. It has its roots in the apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament, it runs through Jesus’s teaching and the epistles, it finds its fullest expression in the book of Revelation. It speaks of the political and economic realities of this world not in scientific or sociological terms, but in spiritual terms: as “the Powers”, spiritual forces, principalities, angels, demons, the spiritual Babylon, and so on.  It used to be, we overlooked this language as a quaint, superstitious world view we moderns can’t take seriously. Increasingly, theologians and Bible scholars are recognizing that it is a powerful and subtle way of talking that effectively names what is going on in the world.  Our battle is not with flesh and blood, with a particular group of bad people – it is with spiritual forces, forces that are bigger than any one of us. They may not be demons with horns and the smell of sulphur about them. I’m not suggesting that we take the book of Revelation literally! The spiritual forces are not even “real”; and yet they are still at work in our world. They are our own invention, but they seem to have grown beyond our control.

My point is that the New Testament does not lag one bit behind our age in its pessimism about the powers that be in this world.  And yet, in the midst of all this pessimism – or maybe we should call it clear-eyed realism – it proclaims to us the kingdom of God. That was the central message of Jesus’s own proclamation; and later the early church would continue to proclaim this kingdom, with Christ himself as king, as the hope of the world. How do these two things fit together, the realism about the powers of this world and the hope of the kingdom of Christ?

Ten days ago, when I was in Toronto for meetings, I heard a sermon by Patricia Bayes, one of the tireless warriors of our church. Patricia is a laywoman (though her husband is a bishop); she has been promoting Christian education in the Anglican church since I was an infant. She is, I suppose, a classic old liberal of the Anglican Church, part of a generation that brought our church huge steps forward in the 60s and 70s – the age of primate Ted Scott.

Patricia preached a sermon on the kingdom of God, and she spoke of her unwavering hope at all the signs of the kingdom she saw in this world. And as I listened, I don’t mind saying, my first reaction was: “My, you are of a different generation, aren’t you, to talk so optimistically of the progress you see around you.” But as I continued to listen, I felt myself being convicted; convicted in my pessimism and cowardice, in my hopelessness and in the smallness of my faith. Because she is right. Everywhere around us are signs of the kingdom. Everywhere men and women are working for the well-being of others, making the world a better place. You just need eyes to see it.

Remember the Magi. When they showed up, looking for the newborn king, they headed straight for the palace.  But that is not the place to look for the kingdom of God. The palaces are the home for Herod, for the powers of this world – they always have been, and they always will be, until the end of the world, when Christ returns to claim all authority.  In the meantime, that is not the place to look for God’s kingdom. It was of course in a cattle-shed that the real king was found. And still today, that remains the best place to look for the kingdom of God: among ordinary people, among the poor, the dispossessed, among those who struggle, but still hold up human decency and dignity and love.

Take our latest Nobel prize winner.  The world has fallen in love with Malala Yousefzai. And rightly so: the courage and commitment of this one child is inspiring. But rather than make a celebrity out of her, let us remember that she stands for thousands of girls and women throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, who continue to stand up for dignity in the face of oppression. The oppression may grow more violent, the powers that be may crush them in the short term, but the kingdom of God will continue to sprout like mustard seeds in the midst of oppression.

Closer to home, I might mention the L’Arche community in Wolfville, one of hundreds of L’Arche homes for the mentally handicapped throughout the world. Jean Vanier discovered among the handicapped, in their struggles and suffering but especially in their capacity to love and to trust, that which makes us most fundamentally human.  Ιn meeting the handicapped, he discovered his own humanity. These communities are Signs of the kingdom: wherever men and women, mentally challenged and “normal” come together to celebrate their common humanity and dignity.

I see signs of the kingdom every Saturday morning at the farmers market, when I meet with friends and neighbours running small organic farms. These are my heroes.  In the eyes of the world they are impractical dreamers, they work back-breaking hours all summer and earn next to nothing.  But they remain faithful to their vision of a more sustainable, more human way of living with creation. And they understand that hope is a seed that must be planted and nourished again and again. They for me are a sign of the kingdom.

One more example. I can’t resist this one, that shows that the kingdom can come with imagination and a mischievous spirit. Wunsiedel is a town in Bavaria, which has the misfortune of being the burial place of Rudolf Hess.  That makes it a popular spot for neo-Nazis to hold annual marches, to the outrage and embarrassment of the townspeople.  Every year there are anti-Fascist counter-demonstrations, and often conflict between the two groups.  This year they tried a new strategy.  Instead of trying to block the neo-Nazis, their opponents turned the march into a walkathon, sponsoring the Nazis so much per metre.  The money raised went to support immigrant and anti-racism groups.  What a brilliant move.  The Nazis are free to march, but every step they take now goes to support the causes they hate!

Sure, I remain pessimistic about the state of the world – or, as I like to put it, morosely realistic. It is hard not to be when we read the news.  And of course that is just the way the powers that be want us to be. If they can’t always keep us naively happy with what they are doing with the world, then they can at least make us hopeless and passive. But when I learn to see differently, to look not to the palaces, but to the cattle-sheds of this world for signs of hope, then the I see the kingdom of God all around. Then I realise that Christ the king is born again and again in the cattle-sheds, that his kingdom is a million mustard seeds that just keep sprouting like weeds. Many of them, most of them will be stamped out by the powers of this world.  But some will continue to grow, and bear fruit, and make the world a better, more humane place, as we await the return of the king to claim his own.