SUNDAY OF THE FULFILLMENT
November 26, 2017
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
A little over 25 years ago, I decided to change professions. After much rumination and conversation, I chose to forsake certain forms of imagined security and strike out into a new line of work that promised personal fulfillment, but with little foreknowledge of whether or not I would succeed in this new venture; whether, in addition to pursuing a passion, I would be any good at it, or would end up making a decent living. Shortly after making this decision, I was sitting with my family at Sunday Mass at the University Catholic Center, and the first lector read from the Book of Genesis. God was saying to Abram (he wasn’t even Abraham yet): God said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s home to the land that I will show you.” I want to emphasize that “…I will show you.” Those words shot through me like a bolt of lightning, as they must have for Abram. Now, mind you, I didn’t think I was being chosen to be the founder of a great religious tradition. I was just an ordinary American man at midlife who had decided to give up some of my imagined control over my life’s trajectory and set out into comparatively unknown territory, guided by some vague stirrings in my heart that told me it was the right path. I was choosing, at least to some extent, to let something other than my own will and my own plans guide the unfolding of my life. I was making my own little covenant to work at following God’s will, rather than just my own.
This memory came to me in the course of my struggles with today’s readings–particularly the Gospel–and my struggles with some of the imagery of this last Sunday of the liturgical year: the Sunday of the Fulfillment…what is, in many quarters, called the Sunday of Christ the King. All the images of separation and judgement, inclusion and exclusion; the apparent view that eternal fulfillment is exclusively for some, that is, the “righteous,” while “eternal punishment” is the lot of the “accursed”…and to top it off there’s Jesus–the Son of Man, Christ the King–as the great separator, the great judge…all these images did not sit too well with me and my 21st century ecumenical progressivism…with all my efforts to advocate and practice inclusiveness, openness, hospitality, humility. I couldn’t reconcile all that good stuff with the exclusivist, triumphalist imagery of this feast day. As I worked at finding a way through my resistance, I remembered my experience of those words of God to Abram. Again they stopped me. They confronted me with the unpleasant realization that I was in the throes of attachment to my version of Jesus…my 21st century progressive Jesus who forgives everyone, includes everyone, judges no one. In “David World” he particularly is not a Jesus who is Christ the King and eternal judge, separating the righteous sheep from the accursed goats; keeping the sheep in his kingly, heavenly castle, and casting the goats outside into the flaming mote. I clearly was clinging to my own preconceived path, rather than following the path that the word was opening up before me.
I was forgetting two important things in today’s readings. First, I was forgetting that, at this point in his ministry, Jesus was in Jerusalem, at the climax of his worldly battle for the soul of Judaism. He was following in the 500 year-old line of Hebrew prophets and apocalyptic writers who had spoken out against the rigid encrustations of ritual power and privilege in Israel. Like the prophets, he was calling Israel back to its foundations in Torah. Jesus was preaching against the power and privilege of the temple priesthood and its hegemony over the ritual means of salvation…a priesthood that was a de facto client state of the Roman Empire, and was aggrandizing itself at the expense of the strangers, the naked, the sick, the prisoners in their midst…and at the expense of the heart of the Law and of the Prophets. Jesus was fighting for a different way of salvation; a way that was being ignored by the priestly elite; an elite that, along with the Roman occupiers, was oppressing the common people of Israel. Jesus was challenging the Jewish people to choose between the path of self-interested personal salvation through the ritual forms controlled by a pampered priesthood, and the path that gives up concern for personal advancement; the path that attends to all those who are suffering in our midst; a path of salvation through a life of selfless compassion. Of course he was painting things in black-and-white…the stakes were very high, and he was using all the prophetic tools he had at his disposal.
The second thing I was forgetting was the mystical image of Christ the King that Paul gives us today in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul tells us that Christ is above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named. Paul points us to an image of kingship that transcends our worldly conceptions of kingship. Paul challenges us to give up the social forms of hierarchy, of division, of distinction, of identity, by which we define ourselves and others; the dualisms according to which we make judgements of goodness, rightness, desirability. Paul’s Christ is a boundless and unitary mystical body of which we all are members, without distinction. There are echoes here of another letter from Paul. In Christian monasteries throughout the world, at the first evening prayer of the sabbath (on Saturday after sundown), people gather to sing the great emptying hymn of Philippians: Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. The contemporary theologian and Buddhist scholar, John Kennan, reflects on this emptying hymn through the lense of the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness; a philosophy that was being worked out in Northern India at roughly the same time that Paul was writing his letters. I’m not going to wade through the complexities of this philosophy. Rather, I want to borrow the Buddhist point that Keenan repeats in various ways: that ultimately we are empty of separateness; that all of what Keenan calls our “identity markers” are empty of any separate substance; that all the labels we cling to to define ourselves as separate–Christian, Muslim, male, female, immigrant, native, Benedictine, Dominican…even that deeply rooted sense that I, David McKee, am set apart as a separate, unique self–all these ways we define ourselves are without enduring substance. For Paul, the message of the Cross is that we must endeavor to empty ourselves of the delusion that we are separate; that living the Christ life is living beyond every name that is named. As Paul tells us elsewhere, in his letter to the Colossians, you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Ultimately, my true identity, my true self, is a RELATIONSHIP with God.
Through prayer, through liturgy, through hospitality–through whatever spiritual practices we are faithful to, we are given the opportunity to penetrate beneath the apparent dualisms that we cling to. In being empty and open to grace, we might receive a taste of the boundlessness of our being in God. And the effects of this transformation are not just for ourselves. As the great Tibetan Buddhist teachers have said through the centuries: know emptiness, feel compassion. Knowing ourselves as empty of all the identity markers to which we cling mysteriously opens us to one another and to the world.
So, in the end, the social message and the mystical message come together. The passionate Jesus prophesying against the hypocrisy and abuses of the temple priesthood, and the mystical, emptying, boundless Christ, come together in a simple message: NOW’S THE TIME! GET ON WITH IT! Empty yourself of your preoccupations with who and what you are and compassionately serve one another. What the fulfillment might be is not a matter of what we think it might be, or what our personal wills want it to be. Whether I will be a sheep or a goat is not up to ME to decide. The call of the Christ who is above every name that is named is a call to everyday practice: the practice of prayer, the practice of mercy, the practice of selflessly giving and receiving. The fulfillment is not something to grasped, not something to cling to. It is not some wished-for future when we are no longer weak, no longer injured, no longer going astray. The fulfillment is right here now, in the midst of us in our hunger, our thirst, our imprisonment, our estrangement…doing for the least among us. The fulfillment is in our relinquishing the very wish for fulfillment and opening to the unknown country that God shows us. The fulfillment is forgetting what Thomas Merton called “…the brutalities of our own will…” and welcoming with an empty, open heart the joy and the anguish of the next person we meet. NOW’S THE TIME! LET’S GET ON WITH IT!