This is the text of a sermon preached at saint benedict’s table by Jamie Howison on Sunday November 22, 2009. We are now marking the end of five years since we celebrated our official “birth” as a worshipping community, back on the first Sunday of Advent 2004, and it seemed to make sense to revisit some of what we set out as being at the heart of our vision and identity.
his is the final Sunday of the church year – a feast day called “The Reign of Christ” or “Christ the King” – which accounts for why the lectionary suddenly offers us two very different readings about kingship. The first one (2 Samuel 23:1-7) we read was the final public statement from King David, set very close to the end of his life, in which he celebrates the unity of his kingship with that of God; in which he points to “the everlasting covenant” between the Lord and the house of David as the thing that seals his own reign as having been good.
But if you know the story of King David, you’ll know that he had his troubles. He starts out fine, as a kind of dazzling young hero, filled with a spirit-given inner authority and a kind of raw charisma that just drew people. In time, though, David came to act not only out of that spirit-given authority, but also from a place of royal power. He becomes arbitrary, self-important, and able to justify all manner of things out of a sense of entitlement. He comes to act like that sort of king, and in spite of the boldness of his end-of-life statement, he and his household have been sadly undone.
At key points in his reign, David fell for the lure and promise of the same sort of power that has so captivated Pilate in the gospel reading (John 18:33-37). The scene is the trial of Jesus, and the politically powerful Pilate is questioning the broken and battered Galilean peasant rabbi. “My kingdom is not from this world,” says Jesus, and as N.T. Wright observes, that “doesn’t imply that Jesus’ sphere of rule is purely heavenly, leaving earth to stew in its own juice.”
The saying isn’t about the kingdom’s location, but about its character: this kingdom isn’t the sort that advances by violence. It will come on earth as in heaven, because it is about truth. Pilate, who doesn’t know what truth is, doesn’t know that there can be a kingdom without violence.
The reign of Christ is one born of that spirit-driven authority; it is what enables this battered man to stand in the face of power, and to challenge Pilate – a politically powerful and ruthlessly violent man of the empire – in a way he’d never before known. It is under such a reign as this that the church – the people of God – is called to live now, even as empires still wield extraordinary power.
Now, in the life of saint benedict’s table tonight represents something of a milestone. Not only do we stand on the hinge between the passing church year and the beginning of the new one next Sunday as we launch into the season of Advent, but we’re actually marking a five year point in our life together.
Not that saint ben’s sprung out of nothing five years ago tonight. It was back in the fall of 2000 that my wife Catherine and I had our first conversation about a new church community, when she asked me, “have you ever thought that we could start something new in the church?” It was six and a half years ago that the first little group of us began to gather as an informal circle, to worship and dream and pray together. But it was on the first Sunday of Advent in 2004 that we marked liturgically a new beginning with a celebration of our life and ministry together, and at that time I spoke about some of the things that our community had begun to discern together. I want to return us tonight to those themes, those marks, and remind us of what are for us some of the “first things”.
Lifting quite happily from the English writer and theologian Kenneth Leech, I listed the following.
- saint benedict’s table is first and foremost a eucharistic worshipping community. Not only do we share each Sunday night in the bread and wine of communion, we are eucharistic in the sense that we are defined by our common life in the Body of Christ.
- saint benedict’s table strives to be a baptismal community, meaning that not only do we practice baptism but also that we understand ourselves to be called to live out the life of a transformed and alternative people.
- saint benedict’s table understands itself to be a biblical community, in which scripture is prayed and digested.
- saint benedict’s table is a community of rational inquiry; a zone in which truth is sought and heard, and in which dissent and dialogue are embraced as part of the process of discernment.
- saint benedict’s table is going to need to find ways to rise to the challenge to be an inclusive community, always asking ourselves, “who is left out?”
Now on this last one, I think some interesting realities have surfaced. We include people whose background is Mennonite and Baptist, Roman Catholic and United Church, Salvationist and charismatic. There are even a few Anglicans here. We include people for whom this has become their primary church home, as well as many for whom it is either a second home or a temporary, seasonal place. There are many students here, drawn from the various colleges and universities, who will eventually move back home to another city or find themselves rooting in another church community, yet for now this is their place. I really celebrate that range and diversity, for it speaks of our being one part of the Body of Christ. Not just saint ben’s being a part of the Body, but all of us, individually, being members of the one Body, who in different ways express that and live that here. Wonderful.
Yet still, “who is left out?” Who is not here, and why? Certainly not everyone will find this place, this time of day, this way of centering ourselves in the reign of Christ, as ideal, as their language of faith. That’s fine; there’s so much room under the reign of Christ for different ways, different languages. But are we keeping anyone away? Is that door closed and locked to some, at least metaphorically?
We’re increasingly aware, for instance, that for parents with babies and young children, 7:00pm in the evening can be a tough time for worship. We’ve begun some conversations with families in that situation, to see if there is some way to “extend the table” – to develop some kind of options here – so that they don’t get excluded due simply to things like bedtime routines and feeding schedules.
And pressing us in another way, are there folks on the other side of these stained glass windows whose lives and realities we could include?
I think, for instance, of the people who make their way into Agape Table. Our baskets of fruit are all fine and good, but some people here have actually ventured into the community that is Agape, and are bringing back stories of the real people there. Can we widen the inclusiveness of saint ben’s by having more of us take that step into the oftentimes chaotic world in which Agape Table moves?
I think, too, of the University of Winnipeg. Just blocks away from our doors, yet five years in and we’ve just begun to engage that student community. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove spoke to a group of students and faculty there this past week, and in about 10 days some of us are going to offer an Advent liturgy in their chapel. But how to widen that connection beyond a couple of events?
And surely there are other points of connection, of deeper inclusion, for those who feel or fear that there is no place under Christ’s reign for them.
In that sermon from five years back, I drew things to a close by saying that saint benedict’s table was discerning a call to become a community of expectation, restlessness, and vision – of “messy spirituality,” as Mike Yaconelli phrased it. We had begun to experience ourselves as a community of Advent spirituality: always on the hinge between the old and the new, the known and the unknown to which God is drawing us. And I believe that is still true, though sometimes the nuts and bolts and needs of being a growing community can leave some of us distracted, such that we can forget to embrace the mystery and the messiness of being so open, so intentionally ready to be undone and remade by God.
And frankly, as a people living within the Reign of Christ, that is something from which we must never get distracted. Amen.