Costs of the Kingdom


images-2In 1925 Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as an assertion of the Catholic Church’s protest against the rise of fascism and the growing power of communism.

Pius XI asserted the old Constantinian power of the Church as the only center of allegiance for Roman Catholics. At a considerable cost to liberty and freedom of thought within the Church, he marshalled the Catholic legions against those he perceived as the enemy.  This is an old story of one authoritarian system asserting itself against competing, equally authoritarian rivals. 

To me, it seems an odd decision to make when the Anglican Communion including the Episcopal Church adopted the Roman designation for the last Sunday before Advent as Christ the King Sunday. Preachers in Episcopal Churches on this Sunday have to weave alternative narratives around the central uncomfortable image of Christ dressed in various trappings of an earthly ruler.

Anglican Tradition, coming out of a political settlement between church and state that placed the monarch in a place of privilege, might be thought to have little difficulty with the concept of Christ and King. Yet, for us it is particularly problematic because we have no precedent for Kingship rooted in religious authority. Unlike Roman Catholicism for which the Pope affords a model for spiritual autocracy, we have no tradition of centralized spiritual power capable of carrying monarchical images. Our bishops, as was the case in the Early Church and remains in those parts of catholic Christianity outside of the Roman jurisdiction, are figures of authority and unity, but possess little direct power.

imgresFor Americans, the image of Christ as King is not one that naturally carries the medieval trappings of absolute monarchy. After all, the last time we enjoyed the benefit of a King was 1783. Yet, the human psyche is what it is and there is a space within it for cultural symbols that carry the human need to believe that if we are not in control then God most certainly is. If our need for divine omnipotence is no longer filled for most Americans by Constantinian images of Christ as Roman Emperor, the need remains and so what might fill that need?

Having rejected European style monarchical government, the newly formed American Republic fell back on the cosmetics of the early Roman Republic. It’s religion also returned to earlier models that predate the Medieval picture of the universe as a divinely run human kingdom. The Jewish concept of messiahship has strongly conditioned American images of Christ as King.

Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox confronts us with a contemporary interpretation of Jesus as messiah. He writes:

. . . almost nobody resists the temptation to jazz up the humanity of Christ. The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It’s Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way.”  If that isn’t popular Christology, I’ll eat my hat. Jesus gentle, meek, and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than‑human insides bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven. It’s got it all — including, just so you shouldn’t miss the lesson, kiddies: he never once touches Lois Lane. 

Capon notes that the human race has always been deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. He notes that we don’t want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, because:

… he claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying.” [pp. 90-91 of The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology] 


In John’s Gospel when standing before Pilate, Jesus seems to accede to being described as a King. He asserts that though a king his kingdom is not of this world. Unlike an earthly king, Jesus admits that he has no army to enforce his rule. Jesus is saying that to the extent that he carries authority he could be described as a king, but an unusual one in that he has no power apart from being the herald for the inbreaking of God’s rule. It’s not his kingship which matters. It is the kingdom of God that counts.

This is not only a rebuke to Pilate, more importantly we see in Jesus’ action before Pilate a warning to his disciples and followers that he has no intention of embodying their traditional expectations of him as the Jewish Messiah, i.e a warrior king, first-century Superman, who will deliver them from their experience of vulnerability.

So words like messiah are tricky. What makes matters worse is that Jesus gives such a poor, inarticulate performance before the seat of ultimate earthly power and bears the consequences. We certainly have no intention of emulating Jesus in this particular example.

Jesus’ strength lies in his very vulnerability. This is a nice phrase but what does it mean? It means that God can do nothing with our pretence of strength. Our pretense of strength squeezes God from our frame of reference. Our vulnerability, on the other hand, offers God an invitation to enter into our picture of the world and to partner with us. Jesus’ vulnerability becomes an opportunity for God to act.

Vulnerability is the forbidden word in our present mindset. Attitudes that 10 years ago would have been regarded by the majority as extremist views now hold centre stage among the leaders at the current stage of the Republican presidential nomination race. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to figure out that this is because as long as we deny our vulnerability, fear makes us easy to exploit.


This week I was listening to someone speaking on the World Service of the BBC. I can’t recall his name now, yet I remember what he said when he noted that the American public believes that America can be sealed off from terrorist attack. He contrasted this attitude with the one in France and Britain where everyone realizes that the next attack is inevitable, it’s only a matter of time and the fallibility of even the most vigilant of security services.

This doesn’t stop the respective governments of Britain and France, and now other Western European nations from mimicking the certainty of American political utterance. Yet, the truth is that in an international world predicated on the freedom of movement of goods, services and people, no nation can seal its borders. It comes down to a matter of when and how we recognise this as a fact.

Our politicians do us poor service when they present themselves as having simple answers to complex problems. Neither isolationism nor interventionism offer a solution. Increasingly draconian measures that erode the very cultural values that make us who we are and pose an even greater threat to us than any enemy we face. The recent vote in the House to effectively halt the trickle of refugees from the Middle East into this country is an example in point.

There are something like 1700 Syrian refugees that have arrived in the US after an arduous two-year vetting process. It has been pointed out that why would ISIS agents pose as refugees and take the torturous two-year vetted route of entry when they can enter immediately on a student visa or with a European Union passport through the visa waiver system. Therefore, singling out refugees is simply a smoke screen for the impossibility of action and a classic scapegoating of those most in need of our help.

That the fear of being vulnerable unleashes a virulent strain of paranoia in any culture, is not a new discovery. We see this coming to the fore as the voices of racial, religious and cultural purity gain ascendancy across the world as otherwise helpless politicians and leaders seek to advantage themselves through the exploitation of fear. Everywhere we see the mounting consequences for populations whose fate is to pose the spectre of the utter helplessness we so desperately try to defend ourselves from recognizing. 800px-hrdlicka_portrait_bonhoeffer_wienDietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us:

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men [and women]. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?

As Pius XI might have foreseen the increasing resort to authoritarian responses to confront authoritarian assaults leads to a distortion that ultimately makes it hard to distinguish between friend and foe.


The deepest insight of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition is that humanity is made in the image of God. Like all profound insights the implications of this are rather far reaching to contemplate. So instead the Church has always had a tendency to reverse this central insight and to see God as refracted through our image of ourselves.

When God becomes remade in our image the result is that violence, oppression, hatred and fear become divinely sanctioned – Christ dons the trappings of our earthly rulers’ pretence of strength. To realize that we are made in the image of God requires us to embrace vulnerability and be changed by this experience. This impels us to focus on solving problems at source. This is what it means to be agents, not of a worldly rule given the fig leaf of divine sanction, but of the continued inbreaking of the  Kingdom of God. As with Jesus, we may discover there is a cost attached.

An anonymous Franciscan blessing goes:

God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that we may live deep within our heart. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.  May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen


We will Remember them!

A nation that forgets its past is vulnerable to becoming a victim of its future.

The events of Friday night in Paris are a reminder to all of us, if ever we needed it, of a changed and rapidly changing world. Our hearts reach out to the people of Paris as they awaken to loss and the recognition that lives have now been changed, not only for those who have been hurt or killed in the carnage of Friday night’s attacks but for the general population at large. Our lives have been changed along with theirs.

We have become inured on a daily basis to increasingly frequent reports of terrorist attacks in far-flung places with whom we feel only but a distant connection. Paris changes that. For we are rather frighteningly aware that Paris is also London, New York, or any of our major metropolitan cities. We are linked to the citizens of Paris as we are to those of London through ties of historical and cultural affinity. These form the basis for a human affection that links us to Parisians in ways that we can feel, for when human beings identify with one another, then fear and pain become shared.

Reports of terrorist attacks in the Middle East, or Africa, or South Asia affect us less because for most of us these affect people with whom our connections feel less intimate. We look on with horror. Yet, our response finds more of an echo with the words of the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain who in 1938, shortly before flying to Munich to sign away the national sovereignty of Czechoslovakia in appeasement of Nazi aggression said:

How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. 

We speak of terrorist violence as senseless. This is an expression of our inability to comprehend the motivation for such cruelty. Yet, we deceive ourselves when we hide from the reality that terrorist attacks upon unsuspecting civilian populations make perfect sense. Peter Neumann, Professor of Security Studies – what a title- at King’s College London, commenting on the events of Friday night:

This is the attack everybody has been dreading for at least a couple of years. This is really important because it is the essence of terrorism, it is not only about people being killed it is about creating a political effect. What worries me most is that we will see in France and other European counties a polarization, with different extremists egging each other on …. trying to take advantage. It’s about dividing societies. This was a big attack but even relatively small attacks are dangerous because of the political situation, because of the chain reactions they cause.

The shot that reverberated around the world

On June 28th 1914, in the Bosnian city of Sarayevo, a city situated along the fault-line dividing the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. For the nations of Western Europe and America, Sarajevo was a place about which little was known. It was here along the ancient fault-line between the Christian and Islamic spheres of influence that a young Serb nationalist shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand Habsburg, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. This single, isolated event triggered a chain of events that ricocheted across Europe, catapulting it into the bloodiest war in its very bloody history. The First World War and the Armistice signed four years later, established the conditions that led into the Second World War and the Cold War, as well as just about every isolated hot war since then.

Most of us know from our history books that the event in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914 led to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires. We may dimly remember that it also caused the collapse of the Ottoman Empire creating the genesis for events that today are playing themselves out, tearing apart the ancient societies of the Middle East.

As if we needed further reminding after weeks of viewing the plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees, in Paris on Friday night the consequences of the disintegration of Iraq and now Syria, broke through our mental levees and flooded into our consciousness.

History forgotten

With the vacuum left by the Ottoman collapse, as the victors of the Treaty of Versailles, the British and French were able to divide the Middle East into respective spheres of influence. Together, they drew meaningless lines on the map. Palestine, which included modern Israel as well as Jordan, and Iraq were created to be a British sphere of influence, together with the existing nations of Egypt and Iran. Syria and Lebanon were created to become an area for French influence. Both countries supported Ibin Saud to unify the desert tribes of the Arabian Peninsula into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

However, it was the creation of Iraq and Syria, little more than arbitrary lines on the map that made so little sense. In the case of Iraq, Bedouin Sunni Arabs were lumped together with Kurds and Shi’ite Arabs. The Bedouin and Kurds shared the Sunni form of Islam but were divided by ethnic identity. The Arabs shared ethnicity but were divided by religious tradition. The Kurds sprawled across the artificial borders of the new Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. The Shi’ite Arabs shared a common religious tradition with their Persian neighbor. In the case of Syria the rest of the Bedouin Sunni Arabs not included into Iraq were lumped together with the urbanized and cosmopolitan Levantine cultures of Damascus and the Mediterranean coast. In Lebanon, Sunni, Druse, Christian and Shi’ite populations were forced into a unitary state.

With the retreat of the colonial powers after 1945 and an increasing American influence in the region, the stability of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Iran was maintained through Western support for ruthless dictatorships that maintained stability through oppression. Iran was the first domino to fall.

We all know the rest of this history and how we come to the tragic events in Paris on Friday night. What we don’t know well enough is how responsible the several generations of Western political leadership is for what we see coming to pass. Violence only begets more violence. No one has clean hands.

Coming closer to home

Wednesday of last week was Veterans Day, which is always the 11th November because at the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month in the year 1918, the guns on the Western Front fell silent, bringing to an end the First World War. The Allies celebrated November 11th as Armistice Day, keeping the minute of silence at the 11th hour. In the US Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 following the Korean War.

In the UK, the renamed Remembrance Day continues to be marked by the wearing of the red poppy, as it does also in France and Belgium. In these countries remembrance of the war dead grows in strength as a national commemoration with each passing year. The wearing of the poppy has fallen into disuse in the US and the link to remembrance seems to have weakened as the years have past. At St Martin’s we have marked Sunday 15th November as a day of remembrance, a time for the solemn commemoration of the war dead. To these we now must add the victims of terror, both cultural kin and foe.

Why keep this morning of solemn remembrance? Well, one answer is the rector is importing his British cultural observances. Yet, the deeper reason lies in a recognition that as our American culture loses the desire to remember, we need to be reminded that what we no longer remember, we are destined to repeat. If violence begets violence, then violence forgotten, repeats itself creating spirals of escalating horror.

On Veterans Day, we are quick to express our support for the men and women currently serving in our armed forces. The President pays an official visit to Arlington’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Yet, the rest of us seem to have loosened our remembrance of the war dead. We no longer wear the poppy, the symbol of the carnage of war. In the loss of that memory and the customs that keep it alive, we also lose the capacity to move beyond sentimental expressions of support our troops into a more somber contemplation of why we continue to put our young service men and women in harms way. Many of us are left scratching our heads, not daring to voice the question: and for what end? 

The separate commemoration of Memorial Day, instituted by President Lincoln as a solemn commemoration for all the dead of the Civil War, has now degenerated into just another of the proverbial three-day weekends. The national memory of the sacrifice of our sons and daughters falls lost somewhere between these two commemorations, both of which are now in need of a restoration if they are to fulfill our need for a satisfactory experience of national remembrance.


The Old Testament lesson recounts the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. This is a story that comes down to us out of the predawn of the Jewish religion. Recorded in its present form at a much later date and presented as a story about God rewarding complete trust, there are echoes of a more disquieting time when child sacrifice may well have been part of a more primitive Israelite deification of the violence of fear. As is the custom of all such wrathful deities, they require a scapegoat appeasement.

Among the flower of Britain’s youth being sacrificed to this same angry God in the trenches of the First World War, a number of poets, among them Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen sought to find a voice for protest. In The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Wilfred Owen, a young poet of extraordinary giftedness, who died seven days before the eventful 11th of November in 1918, penned the grief of his generation and all generations whose misfortune is to be caught in the folly of war. He wrote:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went, 
And took the fire with him, and a knife. 
And as they sojourned both of them together, 
Isaac the first-born spake and said,
My Father, Behold the preparations, fire and iron, 
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?  
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps, 
and builded parapets and trenches there, 
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son. 


When lo! an angel called him out of heaven, 
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, 
Neither do anything to him. 
Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; 
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. 
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

For the Fallen, is an ode from the pen of Lawrence Binyon, another young poet serving in the trenches. For the Fallen has become immortalized as the Ode of Remembrance, recited across the British Commonwealth at all Remembrance Day Services. 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

I commend these words to all of us, not only in memory of our own fallen, but in memory of all the victims of terror. images

The Two Faces of Tradition

An interpretation of the fable of the widow’s mite il_214x170.684870014_kvo6

For some time, we have been following the events of Jesus’ road trip from Galilee to Jerusalem. In Mark’s narration of the events along the way Jesus has now reached his destination.

Mark 12:38-44 is one of the most remembered passages in the New Testament. It is a story that inspires and disturbs by turn. The actions of the widow who puts into the Temple treasury all the money she has appeals to a part of us where we would like to be more deeply motivated to trust, and through trusting to become more generous than we usually feel it is prudent to be.

I know that within myself the courage to trust to a sense of abundance is fought with on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. Within this pericope – from the Greek meaning an isolated selection of text – we have the appearance of generosity that costs everything pitted against the appearance of costless generosity. Jesus observes the wealthy giving large sums of money to the Temple treasury. In doing so, he notes tow things: their self-satisfaction and public pride and that their generosity costs them nothing.

Mark 12:38-44 has a fable-like – a short tale that packs a heavy moral punch – quality. He sets up a comparison between those who give only what they can afford to miss – and the widow who sacrifices all she has. This inspires and shames us to want to be more generous and self-sacrificial.

We should be more honest with ourselves and face-up to our struggles to live from trust in a spirit of God’s abundance. Yet, for the most part, we continue to choose to live under the weight of insecurities, fuelled by a fear that what we have, we have to hold onto. Few of us feel able to risk the widow’s generosity.

A new interpretation of the fable

But is generosity the point of the fable? If verses 38-44 are reconnected with the overarching thrust of Jesus’ teaching a very different interpretation confronts us.

On his first day in Jerusalem, Jesus sits observing the people dropping offerings into the Temple treasury. He watches the goings on and identifies a woman, whom he believes to be a widow. What escapes us is that Jesus also knows that she has no son or male heir, otherwise, it would be her son who would be making the offering.

In Jesus’ day, a woman without sons could not inherit or manage her deceased husband’s estate. Such estates were vested in trust to the Temple authorities to manage rather like a court-appointed trustee of our own day, appointed to manage the estates of minors or others who have less than a full legal status.

The Scribes and Levites in the absence of laws on financial regulation fraudulently devoured the property they administered in trust.

To add insult to injury, this woman, the likely victim of institutional embezzlement comes to the treasury and gives all of what little money she has left.

The traditional interpretation implies that Jesus praises the Widow’s action. Yet, nowhere in the text does Jesus praise her or imply any approval of her actions. Neither does he explicitly judge the rich in this passage. We are the ones who read in judgment and approval respectively, drawn from our awareness of Jesus’ wider message about the difficulties of wealth when it comes to the spiritual life.

Jesus, to say the least is an anti-establishment figure. His preaching of God’s Kingdom stands in opposition to a religious system based on the fraudulent exploitation of the poor. When seen within the larger context of his message, Jesus’ observations at the doors of the Temple treasury are less about generosity than they are a challenge to the way religious tradition has the potential to condition us to act against our own individual and group best interests.

Jesus observes a Widow acting against her own better interest because she is conditioned to do so by the religious system she lives within.

Addison G Wright in his paper on this text, Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament? — A Matter of Context, says:

and finally there is no praise of the widow in the passage and no invitation to imitate her, precisely because she ought not to be imitated.

Setting the fable in a larger context

Organized religion always plays an ambivalent role in any society. On the one hand religion motivates and inspires people to transcend narrow self-interest in the service of a wider common good.  Yet, at the same time, organized religion easily becomes a pillar of the status quo, and as such, it blinds us to the need to question a system that privileges some and oppresses others. Whatever the merits of the widow’s actions she is a victim who cannot see beyound what her religion has conditioned her to see. She is thus blinded to her own best interests by her encounter with her religious traditions.

This last week I had to do some long-delayed work on the St Martin’s website. This was mostly a matter of updating content as we move towards a major experiment in the way we organize our Sunday mornings; making sure the changes are well signposted for visitors to our website. 

In the E-news this week, I wrote about our need to increase the number of portals through which the spiritually curious can enter into our community encounter with God. Our website has now replaced our red doors as the most important portal of entry into St Martin’s. 

The home or landing page is always a challenge. What do you put here that will grab the fleeting attention of a visitor to the site? The home page is where we communicate the essence of our message.

The difficult question for me is not so much what is our message, but how much of it to put in this crucial home page location?  The hard part is to say enough but not too much. Say too much and you overload the fleeting attention span of the casual site visitor. It seems today that every parish priest is required to be an expert in the subtleties of marketing and brand management.

If you visit you will encounter in the first sentence the core of our message.

We are a Christian community exploring and interpreting the tensions when 2000 years of Christian Tradition is engaged by the opportunities and challenges of 21st-century life.

There are 10,000 words of meaning packed into this one sentence and I have spent an inordinate amount of time worrying over whether tradition engages the opportunities and challenges of modern life or is engaged by the opportunities and challenges of modern life? You might this is hair splitting, but it matters.

The rapidity of change in modern life is increasingly stressful and the core of our message as Episcopalian Christians is that we believe in the continuity of the Christian Tradition (scripture, tradition, and reason) with a capital T. For us it is a conduit through which God speaks. Yet, we recognize that the simplistic application of the Tradition to modern life, i.e Tradition engaging modern life, solves little beyond further straitjacketing people into lives that are too tight for them. Instead, we believe that when Tradition is engaged by the opportunities and challenges of contemporary life something powerful emerges from having to navigate through the resulting tensions.

The Temple in Jesus’ day was the place for powerful and life-changing encounter with the living God. At the same time, it also represented a systematic accommodation with the powers and principalities of this world. It was the thin place where God was encountered. It was also a system that ideologically blinded people to its operation as an instrument of their oppression.

Christian Tradition bears a legacy that has become largely discredited. For many in our society its failure to speak truth to power, preferring to align with the interests of this world has robbed it of authority and credibility. It is viewed as something that continues to thicken rather thin the blindfold across our eyes. Yet, Christian Tradition is first and foremost the transgenerational transmission of the Gospel – the good news- to each succeeding generation through which the collective human experience of being in relationship with God flows. Despite its capacity to become corrupted into an agent of oppression, Christian Tradition, as the good news of God is the chief means by which we free ourselves from the manipulation and oppression of the business as usual mentality of the world.

Crammed into the one sentence on our website is an attempt to articulate that our St Martin’s community is a place where Christian Tradition is engaged with from the perspective of the lives we actually live rather than something imposed that does violence to the integrity of our experience in our own time and place. When this engagement takes place, renewed by our encounter with it, Tradition becomes something with the potential to speak wisdom to the issues and conflicts that lie at the heart of our lives, awakening us to where our best interests really lie.

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