Living in Two Worlds (Christ the King Sunday 2021)
When I was a young child, I lived in two worlds. I lived in an English-speaking world. Where the few peers I knew made fun of my accent when I would wish them “Happy Birsday” or my family would laugh around the Thanksgiving table when they would ask me what I would like to eat, and I would say with gusto “I vant everysing.” – mistaking a w for v, unable to yet say that distinctively English dental fricative “th.” It was a world where I didn’t always know what the right word was to say, so I listened and watched. It was a world where my father hid an unloaded Glock he had collected off of a dead man, like so many American soldiers in the European theater of World War II, in the very back of the highest cabinet above the refrigerator in the kitchen (until my mother – who was a victim of war and a refugee compelled my father to get rid of it). It was a world where Goldie the Fourth, the goldfish I would excitedly win at our annual school fair at the beginning of May would be dead and ceremoniously buried in the flowerbed underneath my bedroom window by the end of the month, joining Goldie the First, Second and Third. It was a suburban world, but a suburban world without sidewalks where children were housebound unless driven by parents to school or the pool, the grocery store or hardware store—depending on the gender of the parent driving--and occasionally drive to the home of a friend, or a grand outing into Washington, DC. It was a world of Walter Cronkite and the Vietnam War and helping my Colonel father correct the multiple choice tests of the Army Reserve soldiers in his charge, checking the letters as my father would call out: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog. It was a world before personal computers. Where the father of the family around the corner came back from Vietnam with medals on his chest, a post where his lower leg would be, and trauma in his brain. Where church seemed more about dressing up, wearing the right white, elastic-lace-trimmed anklet socks that didn’t fall down into your Mary Janes, and pulling out your miniature offering envelope with a quarter in it at the right time in the service, not about Jesus. It was a world that seemed small, breached by shadows of war and death, laced with signs of American abundance, enlivened by imagination and trips to the beach.
But I also lived in a second world, a German-speaking world, where my accent was perfect and my vocabulary extensive. Where when we were visiting relatives in Germany and didn’t have a car, I could travel by bus and train and see what seemed like a vast world. I marveled jealously at how even the youngest German schoolchildren could take the bus unaccompanied by grownups to get to school. A world where most private guns except for hunting were prohibited, the Saturday farmers’ market had miles of flower bouquet’s you could buy for your grandmother for 50 cents, where commercial actively stopped on Sundays and bells rang out in counterpoint across the town at 10am. A world of ancient Roman ruins and castles like the one atop the town where my grandmother lived, where a long, long time ago, some important pastor named Martin had a disagreement with another not so important pastor named Ulrich over bread and wine. I didn’t care so much about that, I just liked walking around the castle on a Saturday afternoon, stopping on the way down at the Italian ice cream merchant for a small scoop of hazelnut gelato. It was a world not of churches, but cathedrals. I walked into my first cathedral at the age of 5 and I will never forget it. It was the Sankt Elizabeth Kirche, a very fine Gothic cathedral with relatively slim columns reaching to high arches over the nave which draw your eyes up to the glass windows on to the seemingly weightless, heavenly ceiling. The cathedral was dedicated to Elizabeth of Hungary, whose day of commemoration was Wednesday. Elizabeth was married at 14 to Ludwig IV of Thuringia, she was best known for her dedication to the poor and those suffering during pandemics, establishing a hospital for the poor. But she was also unpopular among the nobility who saw her as stealing from the royal treasury to which, they believed, only the nobility was entitled: Elizabeth, they felt, was squandering their wealth on the poor. There is a legend that one day, when Elizabeth left the castle carrying a big basket of bread for the poor, she was stopped on the way by her husband, who supported her work, and a large hunting party of fellow noblemen who were suspicious of her acts of service. Her brother-in-law demanded Elizabeth uncover her basket and show what she was stealing from the nobility. When she did so, the basket was shown to be full of white and red roses. She was allowed to go on her way, and the roses turned back into bread, and she continued her work of healing and feeding the poor. As a child I loved that story, but I couldn’t understand why anyone would object to Elizabeth using royal abundance to feed the poor. Perhaps I identified with Elizabeth of Hungary because she seemed to live in two worlds too. A world of jealousy, and a world of love.
On this last Sunday of the church year, traditionally known as Christ the King Sunday, we find ourselves likewise living in two worlds, in two reigns. We live in a world where under-age teenagers can open-carry AR-15-style automatic rifles and even a few left-wing demonstrators can bring a handgun to a civil rights protest, a combustible combination that explodes in legally-protected death. We live in a world where we write laws to protect our sidewalks, rather than laws to house our impoverished people. We live in a world where threatening images and hostile words directed at opponents is protected, and treating others with dignity and civility is derided. We live in a world where acting out of selfish disregard for the wellbeing of others is falsely equated with liberty. We live in this first world.
But we also live in another world, in a world defined by the vision of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We live in a world where we are called to “look not to [our] own interests, but to the interests of others” as Paul writes in Philippians 2. We live in a world where we are blessed when we deescalate violence and make peace; where people in all their frailty and woundedness are loved; where wealth is not solely for private consumption but a blessing to be shared; where those who mourn are comforted; where we are called to love our enemies, do good, expect nothing in return, and show mercy because God is merciful (Sermon on the Plain, Luke 6). We live in a world which holds good news for the poor, release to the captives, recovery for the blind, and where the oppressed are set free” (Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4).
The first world is the imperfect world of human contrivance. The second world is the visionary and just world of our God. It is our task as Christians, it is the task of history to live into this second world, to draw the first, damaged world into this second world of love, peace, justice and life. For as John of Patmos wrote in the opening phrases of Revelation: “Jesus made us to be a kingdom,” to be that world.
And we must never give up hope. Because that second world, that world of Jesus Christ will grow and we will grow into it in all fulness. That is the promise of our scripture readings this morning. That God’s divine world of love, peace, justice and life is an everlasting dominion, and that God’s vision cannot be destroyed by human stupidity or oppression. (Daniel 7).
As we look into the next church year, as we look into the future, beloved people of St. Matt’s, blessed kindom people, let us keep living into that second world, let us keep dragging that first world into that second world of Jesus’ healing and justice-creating love.