Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 † Psalm 93 † Revelation 1:4b-8 † John 18:33-37
Last week, we met Jesus in Mark, looking with his disciples at the great temple of Solomon. “Do you see these stones?” he asked. Not one will be left on another. He was warning them not to trust in what seems to be powerful, but instead to see and to heed the signs that speak to what is true, what is really going on, to a clear-eyed assessment that refuses to turn away from what we would rather not notice, whether hidden behind great walls or institutional privilege or fake news.
As a way of trying to illustrate this, with some fear and trembling, I showed you some pictures from the news that might serve as signs of this very thing, of a reality that should and has snapped us to attention as a society, that should impress on us the significance of the challenges we are facing so that we can more clearly look for the hope that is ours when, like a thing with feathers, it alights in our midst.
There was a strong and mixed response to these images last Sunday and early in the week. To all of you who engaged in one way or another, I am grateful. To those of you who were troubled, let me first of all offer my apology to you. This thing we do from Sunday to Sunday is a strange and wild beast, and the power and authority that you give to those of us who speak to what is essentially a captive audience—especially one of all ages and experiences—is a fearsome thing.
It is clear that for some of you, the subject matter and images were deeply upsetting and traumatic. It was not, nor is it ever my intent to hurt or to be abusive, but to find ways to more clearly communicate the truth of this gospel as best I understand it. For some of you last week, I missed the mark. For that I am truly sorry because I understand this calling to be with you to be a sacred trust.
I am confident we will continue to think about the value of the visual and other communication tools as we go forward seeking to understand this gospel of ours for today, and I certainly encourage your feedback along the way. But today, I hope you will accept my apology to you.
And what I want to do today is to see if I can name what I came to understand as a connection between the apocalyptic heart of this gospel that is so hard for us to get a hold of and this equally difficult and troubling notion of Christ as King. So remember first that apocalypse means to uncover—that this gospel uncovers what prefers to be hidden—to enable us to live in truth, even when it is unsettling, so that we can be what we are created to be, so that we can hope in what actually saves us. And then this idea of the reign of Christ—It is an ancient and familiar image, but a fairly recent feast day in our church calendar and one that seems to have quickly gone stale.
David Brooks, an opinion columnist for the New York Times is a conservative whose voice has turned more and more of late to spiritual things. This week he wrote a piece about trauma. “Wherever I go,” he writes,
I seem to meet people who are either dealing with trauma or helping others dealing with trauma. In some places I meet veterans trying to recover from the psychic wounds they suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sometimes it is women struggling with the aftershocks of sexual assault. Sometimes it is teachers trying to help students overcome the traumas they’ve suffered from some adult’s abuse or abandonment.
Brook’s mention of veterans made me think of my friend Kelly Wadsworth whom some of you know. She is a pastor in our Seattle Presbytery and a Gulf war veteran who wrote a PhD dissertation about the trauma that our vets experience. She is concerned that the federal government—the very same entity that, on our behalf, sends people into war and so, understandably creates justifications for doing so—is also responsible to help our soldiers on the other side of these conflicts. There is, she suggests, a fundamental conflict here. An institution seeking justification to send out its soldiers will be tempted, if not inclined, to minimize the effect of whatever war they are justifying. To play both ends threatens to minimize the impact and misshape the treatment. Aside from that, as Brooks suggests, the trauma that results is a moral and spiritual issue as much as it is anything else, but it isn’t treated that way.
Here’s Brooks again:
Our society has tried to medicalize trauma. We call it PTSD and regard it as an individual illness that can be treated with medications. But it’s increasingly clear that trauma is a moral and spiritual issue as much as a psychological or chemical one. Wherever there is trauma, there has been betrayal, an abuse of authority, a moral injury.
Trauma is a moral and spiritual issue, and yet the church, one institution that is arguably in the business of morality and spirituality is mostly standing on the sidelines while the state develops its own incomplete and conflicted response—at least according to my friend Kelly and her dissertation.
Universities are giving trigger warnings, employers are providing sensitivity training. The state is treating PTSD with medications. But none of this, no matter the best of intentions, can heal the inner self. Brooks explains why: “People who have suffered a trauma…find that their identity formation has been interrupted and fragmented. Time doesn’t flow from one day to the next but circles backward to the bad event.”
Edward Tick, a therapist who has worked for decades with survivors of war writes that PTSD is best understood as a “soul wound, affecting the personality at the deepest levels.” Tick points out that most ancient cultures put returning soldiers through purification rituals. People came back from battle and the terrible things they had done and experienced, and they were given a chance to cleanse, to purify, and to rejoin the community. The community would in effect take possession of the guilt the soldiers felt for the things they had to do on its behalf.
And this work, of course, is in the realm of religion.
That’s at least one way to understand what Jesus is naming in his interaction with Pilate about Jesus and his reign and about truth. Jesus is clear that he is not interested in being an earthly political leader. This is not where his authority lies even as he is Lord over all that claims the name of politics. So it is, of course, even more of a threat to Roman rule and power, and to those religious leaders who have reduced their sights to political influence. Jesus’ reign challenges and calls into question any authority that demands allegiance over loyalty to God. Jesus’ authority is not a political one, but a theological or moral one. It uncovers where we try to have it both ways, claiming what is not ours to claim, and giving away what is ours to do.
I wonder if my friend Kelly and David Brooks are both right that this work of mending those who are broken is ours, is the church’s, and we haven’t done it. I wonder if part of our challenge is that we know trauma all too well ourselves as so many institutions around us continue to fail to do what is theirs to do. I wonder if the challenge is that none of us know what to do fully with the trauma we face from day to day, so piling it on becomes yet one more trauma, one more wound that is not being healed. I wonder if our work is to find again the voice of healing that we need on the other side of it all. And this is precisely where Christ reigns.
This is the truth of the one whose coronation was on, of all places, a cross. Who could possibly know better than the followers of this king, that the world is hell-bent on destruction, and yet, that this is not the last word? Who could possibly know better than we who gather on this Sunday to celebrate a reign that can never be destroyed?
I wonder what it would look like for us to pay some attention to this?—to pursue what it means for us to be a healing community, a life-giving community precisely for those whose life does not flow on in endless song, but circles endlessly backward to the bad. And perhaps there is something here that speaks to our own unresolved and ongoing trauma in a world that so often makes little sense. Perhaps there is some discovering here to do about the one who is the first and last, the ending and the beginning, and who testifies to the truth as the way to peace and wholeness.
Thanks be to God.
St. Andrew Sermons