From East and West, from North and South
Jeremiah 23:1-6Luke 23:33-43
There are three images seared into my memory that come alive this morning. Each of them carries and emotional weight that surely played a role in marking them, like the burnt imprint of a cattle brand. These three moments are separated by more than two decades and thousands of miles. At first, there seems to be little to connect them. But the more life they take, the more they seem to be stops on a journey of discovery, an awakening to the beautiful surprise of God at work in a blessed and broken world.
The first was more than twenty years ago. Outside of the Dominican Republican capital of Santo Domingo, a man has pulled over to the shoulder of a potholed road. He checks his moped for damage. Burst pieces of mango, aimed from a passing van window, radiate from his front tire, splash across his windscreen, and up onto his once-tidy white shirt and thin black tie. His fist shakes in comic book-like rage. There’s a pit in my stomach. I, too, am angry. My heart beat races past my ears, pushing up to the tip of my head. Words form, and my mouth opens…
The second image is from 2001. We’re watching CNN International, brought to us courtesy of our rooftop Palestinian satellite dish. On the screen, planes collide with buildings. Towers smolder, then rumble, then crumble into dust. My heart races. I am angry, but mostly afraid; afraid for my friends and family back home, in New York, in and near those toppled towers. I am afraid that this may only be the beginning, that more attacks loom around every corner. I am afraid for what the world is about to face, to unleash. I’m startled back to the present by a knock at the door…
The third moment was a month ago in the stark, sterile environs of the Amsterdam airport. Below the sign for Gate 3 is this one word which now strikes me as rather ominous: Tehran. It seemed like a better idea a while ago. Now, I’m nervous. Anxious. I’m headed to the land of Ahmadenijad and Ayatollah, of burning flags and blind-folded hostages? My palms sweat, my head swims. I pull out my passport, take a deep breath, and am suddenly inspired to look around…
The celebration of Christ the King Sunday began in 1925. First suggested by Pope Pius XI, it was a liturgical response to the rising tide of nationalism that seemed such an alarming yet prevalent part of the early twentieth century. From there it spread quickly across denominations and into our own. It continues as a theological statement rooted in texts like those we have just heard, proclaiming a Christ whose lordship transcends and trumps national boundaries. In a society like ours where monarchies feel like a relic of the past, it is an odd thing to speak of Christ the King; then again, “Christ the President” just doesn’t quite have the same ring. The point, though, remains crucial, especially as nationalisms continue their magnetic draw into the 21st century: our faith in Christ is meant to nudge us beyond our tribal allegiances.
It is my own story of “tribe” that weaves those three memories together, of continuing to come to know a God who steadily surprises and tweaks and redefines my reality. And through it all, it has been the Church which has invited me into these moments of revelation.
I was fifteen years old. And I was sitting in the passing van. I was next to the kid who threw the mango that humiliated the man. And I was surrounded by kids who found the whole thing hilarious. In some ways, the moment seems destined to be: eight American teenagers on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic bored by a long drive and left with a bag full of snacks and mangoes and a bottomless draw of mischief. First it was just wasteful: peanuts tossed out the window; it quickly grew dangerous: peanuts aimed at passing cars. But this? A mango aimed at a moped? These were my friends, acting every bit the Ugly American: spoiled, rich, arrogant, seeing others as nothing more than candidates for target practice. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I have no idea what I said; it probably wasn’t very pleasant, but it had its effect. They stopped.
I couldn’t have known it at the time, but this was a key moment for me as I grew to understand my place within the tribe. It could have ended very differently, with me trading in my old tribe for a new one. And there were elements of that the rest of the mission trip: I suddenly noticed how whiny my friends were, how every time the Dominican kids with whom we worked turned on the radio we complained until they changed to the station playing American music. I found myself spending more time with the Dominican kids, eagerly learning Spanish, spastically dancing the Merengue. But instead of switching tribes, I began to see my tribe as larger. It included my old American friends, faults and all, as well as these new Dominican friends, opening my eyes to different and strange ways of being and speaking and living and inviting.
Since then, it has been the Church which has continuously brought me into untold encounters with “the other”, shifting and moving my tribe in ways that I never would have imagined. In some ways, I am sure that my ministry has been influenced by a deeply-held desire for others to have the profound gift that these experiences have brought me.
I cannot begin to consider how fortunate I have been to have had so many of these moments, many of them through short-term mission trips. As a high schooler, I met and ate with the homeless and poor and HIV-positive of Atlanta. In college, I worked and worshipped with Hispanic Immigrants in Denver and Lakota Sioux in South Dakota. As a seminarian, I worked alongside Palestinians and Appalachians, alongside Mexicans crowded near the U.S. border. Each of these moments has been a blessing it will take me a lifetime to absorb and repay. And each time, as I have found myself among those I once thought outside my tribe, even those my friends might consider worthy of nothing more than disdain and derision, I have found myself among new friends who stretch and encourage me and who teach me a little bit more about this incredible God whose surprise seems to be at the heart of these blessed experiences, even in the midst of dark days.
I was far from my tribe on September 11, 2001. Elizabeth and I were just beginning our second year as school teachers in Palestine. Our experience was probably much like yours in many ways – glued to the TV, desperately calling family, a toxic cocktail of anger, fear, grief, sorrow, rage choking in our throats – except for one detail: over that course of that one day, we had apparently not only trespassed outside the tribe. We had crossed a front line and were now amid the enemy, surrounded by Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians.
And that’s who was ringing that doorbell. But these were not enemies; they were friends, neighbors, colleagues who to a person sought us out and shared our grief, our prayers, our fears. The boundaries of the tribe were now almost like the horizon, seemingly limitless.
There’s a thought that keeps interrupting at this moment. It seems an intrusion, but this journey has begun to help me trust those as potential whispers of the Spirit. I do think the thought is a conversation for another day, about the relationship between this idea of tribes and faiths and religions. In short, on this same shifting journey, I have come to believe and trust that this intimate understanding of God whom we know in Jesus Christ is a unique and precious reality. Salvation, however, is in God’s hands; friendship is in ours. Enough for the interruption for now.
That sense of divine surprise permeates our two texts this morning. Jeremiah’s description of the coming Messiah, this divine king, this new shepherd, is a familiar refrain in throughout the Old Testament. Often at the time of exile and trouble, the prophets speak words of comfort that God is still faithful, even when the people have turned their back on their Lord. The king will gather the people, will deal with justice and righteousness, and all of Judah and Israel will be saved. He will be reminder of the great days of the flourishing kingship under David. It is this Messiah for which the people yearn and wait.
For the early followers of Jesus, it is he who is that fulfillment. We can clearly see those expectations heaped upon him throughout the gospels. When Jesus is arrested, disciples draw swords to defend their king; when Jesus has built up a following, they ask him when he is going to conquer Jerusalem; in other places, they argue about who will get to sit next to his throne. And as the story builds, as Jesus moves into Jerusalem and is arrested, as he is nailed to a cross set between two common criminals, that banner nailed above his head, “The King of the Jews,” served as a mockery to all of the hopes those disciples had placed in Jesus’ kingdom. And yet, as crucifixion turned to resurrection, as death was replaced by life, as despair gave way to hope, those disciples slowly began to understand that those Messianic prophecies of Jeremiah and others had, indeed, been fulfilled; just not in the way that they had assumed. Jesus was indeed a king; but his throne was a cross; his robes were his bloody and bruised skin; his golden crown had been replaced with one of thorns. This was, indeed, a king; but one who pointed the way to a very different kind of kingdom. It was not what the followers of Jesus had expected; but it was what they soon came to believe.
I feel great sympathy for those early followers of Jesus. The one thing that has been consistent in my own journey has been those surprising visits of God’s interruptions. But if you’re anything like me, it’s not enough to learn a lesson once. I can imagine God’s reaction to my thick-headedness, kind of a bemused smirk and a shaking head. Even after all these years of surprise, of knowing the wonder of that divine shove beyond the tribe and into the unknown, I’m still caught off guard by the revelation.
It was this past October, and there I stood at Schipol airport, suddenly terrified to go to Iran. I had spent so much time calming the anxieties of my family, my friends, my congregation, that I hadn’t honestly dealt with my own. I knew, from friends like Sasan and from reading and research, that my visceral fears were unfounded and that openness on my part would be met with welcome and embrace. And yet, I was petrified. Then I looked around. Other than a few of the older women, none had any head covering. But as soon as the plane landed in Tehran, the physical transformation began as overcoats and headscarves began appearing out of carry-on luggage. It was as though we were all in on this open conspiracy to live as independently as long as possible. The anxiety melted away. And from there, I met that God of surprise in embraces and smiles, in tours and worship, over meals and in internet cafes. Lesson learned again; tribe redefined once more.
My friends, I invite you to taste the nourishment of this journey with me, to wonder about your own tribe and what invitations God might be sending to your doorstep. Let us together come to know this Christ the King whose surprise moves us from Jeremiah’s promise of a triumphant ruler to Luke’s fulfillment in a crucified Lord. Let us together come to know this Christ the King whose own tribe seems to have room for a condemned thief and for blessed and broken people like us. And let us know this Christ the King through his royal banquet, a feast to which the whole tribe will come from east and from west, from north and from south.