From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Proper 29 Year B November 23, 2015
We prayed today in our opening prayer: “Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.” Today is the last Sunday in our liturgical calendar and is often referred to as “Christ the King.” As we prepare to begin another year together, we renew our hope in Jesus’ leadership. We face our fears that the world is falling apart and dare to hope that in Christ there can be an end to captivity and division. We dare to hope to be freed and brought together. We dare to hope for the new creation about which prophets and visionaries have testified. We dare to hope for the truth to finally prevail. As we face the terrors and troubles of our times, we dare to hope for a revelation that in Christ, all things will be well.
“All shall be well. All shall be well, and every kind of thing shall be well.” That is one of my favorite quotations from the 14th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. Julian lived in one of the worst times in human history. War, plague, famine, economic and political chaos: you name it…the late 1300s in England were pretty nasty. Lady Julian herself, at age 30, nearly died, but during her illness she received several visions, revelations, of Jesus Christ. Her revelations and her hope in them have made her one of the most beloved saints in the history of the faith. We’ll come back to Julian later.
I want to talk a little bit about revelations. Today we read from the beginning of the last book of the Bible, called the Revelation to John. The writer known as John of Patmos was also living in a pretty nasty period of history. The Roman Empire was at its height, and Christians suffered persecution, even execution, for proclaiming Christ as king and refusing to honor the Roman gods. John received a vision, a revelation, of terrible suffering, war in heaven, and evil beasts ultimately defeated by a cosmic Christ. It was perhaps a metaphor for the struggles faced by Christians under the Romans and the hope that Christ would come soon to claim his place as ruler of the kings of the earth. John of Patmos probably knew the revelations of other Biblical writers such as Daniel, Ezekiel, and Isaiah who had witnessed the suffering of God’s people in their own times. The revelations of scripture are filled with awful depictions of terror but also incredible hope in the coming of One who will make all things well.
Terror and hope. We hear a lot about terror these days. But I think that for every news story about something awful that has happened, you can find a story about someone who overcame something awful or found grace in the midst of it. In some ways, we have to be acquainted with some fear in order to know the power of hope which overcomes it. The good news about the revelations in scripture is that they describe our fears, they talk about some of the worst things in the world. Our faith is not one that avoids bad news or lives in some Pollyanna idealistic world. Our faith is one that knows the reality of pain as well as the reality of perfect love that casts out all fear.
I will admit that I, myself, have never had what I would call a revelatory experience. I have not had a vision the way the prophets of the Bible or Julian of Norwich describe it. I have talked with several people, though, who have had revelations. The majority of these people had their vision while in the midst of a major crisis, like a near-death experience. As their bodies were in great weakness, they experienced an overwhelming sense of God’s peace and love, an assurance that all would be well. Many of these people report that they experience less fear after their vision, even at life’s toughest moments. They know, down to the bottom of their souls, that God is holding them, that Christ is indeed ruler of all. A lot of these people are hesitant to tell their story because they figure people will think they are crazy.
I think that we, as a Church and as an entire world, are ready for a crazy revelation. We are ready for a new vision of hope that is a radical response to the truly insane visions of fear that are so prevalent these days. Fear that has no hope. Fear of terrorists. Fear of refugees. Fear of people who are different from us. Fear of police. Fear of disaster and mayhem. Fear that someone else is going to get what we think is ours. Fear. Fear. Fear. The rulers of this world are preaching a message of fear and mistrust, division and discord. I have compassion for them. The rulers of this world, the real ones and the ones who pretend to have some authority, have a tough job. They are trying to represent and serve the interests of their people. And their people do not want to hear that “all shall be well.” They…WE…want to hear the plan. How are you going to make all manner of things well? How are you rulers going to ensure that no one threatens us? The rulers of this world have an impossible job, and they are human too, so no wonder they focus on fear.
Christ the King has a different job from the rulers of this world. Christ does not come to represent the people. Christ the King comes so that we can represent him. Christ does not come to see after our interests. Christ the King comes so that we can see after his interests: justice and compassion, mercy and love. Christ does not come to outline a plan for making the world a safer place. Christ who is unlike any king on earth comes to reveal the truth that the world is not a safe place but that we can find our real safety when we are vulnerable enough to love.
The word that is sometimes translated “revelation” can also be translated more literally as “apocalypse.” Watch out, because we’re going to talk about apocalypse in an Episcopal Church! That word, apocalypse, just means a revealing, a pulling aside of the curtain. I think we are ready for the curtain to be pulled aside. I am not talking about an apocalypse of the end of times but a revealing of the now, a revealing of the truth of the present moment. Yes we live in awful times. We also live in wonder-filled times. It may be a time when just one misguided person can do a lot of damage to a lot of people. It is also a time when we see the fences that have divided humanity coming down in new ways. No wonder the rulers of this world want to build new fences. No wonder the terrorists want to stop anyone who dares to stray from tradition. We will not get the truth from those who want to rule this world. We will get it from Jesus, our Messiah, the one who stood before Pontius Pilate, one of the rulers of the world at that time, and said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
Julian of Norwich, in the midst of her revelation, asked Jesus why there had to be sin in the world. Wouldn’t the world be better off without it? She heard Jesus respond to her with kindness saying that sin is part of who we are, but all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well. Julian heard that God does not blame us for sin, and eventually we will know more. God does not blame us, because we have a tendency to seek our own will instead of God’s. That’s how we are made. We are made with the capacity to do horrible things. We are made with the capacity to stand by and do nothing while other people do horrible things. I believe God will blame us, though, if we do not realize our other capacities: We are made with the capacity for great love. We are made with the capacity to hope in the face of terror. We are made with the capacity to love even in the face of chaos and trials. We are made with the capacity to be visionaries who can share a revelation of a world in which all are welcome, all are loved, all are fed, all are children of God. I think we are ready for that apocalypse! I think we ready for that vision! God make us capable to testify with Christ who is unlike any other king, that though we are flawed, we can be made whole. What is the plan? The plan is to follow Christ. The plan is to keep coming together week by week for worship and fellowship, service and sacrifice. The plan is to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God. The plan is to meet terror with hope, to meet suffering with compassion, and be crazy enough to say with the king of kings and lord of lords: “all shall be well. And all shall be well. And every kind of thing shall be well.”