The End – and Beginning

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, November 22, 2015.alpha-omega-jesus

This is the end. Today is the last day of the church year. Next Sunday, Advent Sunday, I’m sure you know, is Christian New Year’s Day. So this is the end but the beginning is right around the corner. This is the hinge between old and new.

In the second reading today God speaks to St. John in a vision and says I am the Alpha and the Omega the first and the last, the beginning and the end. So there’s our theme. Beginning and endings. Endings and beginnings. and I guess you should never start out without some sense of where you’ve been and where you want to end up. So one question to ask today is, “Where have we been and where are we going and how can we hope to get there?”

There’s also a lot in today’s readings about God as King. King of what? Well, if it’s not this world what difference does it make? And if it is this world what difference does it make? Where’s the evidence? Is there a reality to this vision of Christ as King? Does God rule?

Are you old enough to remember the Kingston Trio singing:
They’re rioting in Africa.
They’re starving in Spain.
There’s hurricanes in Florida and Texas needs rain.
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans.
The Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs.
South Africans hate the Dutch
and I don’t like anybody very much!

That was written by Tim Lehrer in 1958 and sung by the Kingston trio in the 60s and what has changed? What’s changed? From Wall Street to Washington, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, to Paris to San Francisco, does God rule? What difference does it make?

I think there are two kinds of answer to that kind of question. One is power, the other is love. Power says, “I know God’s will and I can make it happen. I will get a bigger army, I will get more money, I will get more power, I will put boots on the ground or bombs in the airplane and I will make sure God’s will is done.”

My idea of God’s will of course, is not necessarily yours, and not necessarily God’s. But it’s my idea and that’s all that matters. Maybe my idea of God’s will is that there should be no abortions, and maybe my idea of God’s will is that there should be no birth control, or no same sex marriage, or, go back a bit in history, and we find people saying that prohibition is God’s will or slavery or the Crusades or, in modern times again, killing all the Jews or Christians or Moslems. Lots of opinions, many of them lethal, and most of them abandoned eventually leaving a trail of blood behind. That’s the way of power. That’s one way of seeing God as King, and it is a constant temptation to seize it and use it and say it is God’s will.

And we do want to serve God and do God’s will whatever the consequences. So it’s tempting, if we have power, to use it. But Love has a different approach. Love says, “I seek God’s will and I remain open to God’s guidance, I look for ways to give, to work together, to listen to others, to seek their welfare as well as my own.

That’s not instinctive. It’s instinctive to want power. Every child begins by seeking power for himself or herself. The child sees itself as the center of the universe: I cry and things happen, I get attention, food comes. I’m happy. Power works. As we grow we learn new strategies. Crying doesn’t always work but I can find other ways to get my way. Maybe sex, maybe money, maybe guns, maybe bombs. Some of us never outgrow that attitude. None of us, I think, ever completely outgrows it. We go to Wall Street or Washington or Silicon Valley to get more power or more money and if we are clever we persuade other people that we’re doing it for them.

Or maybe we have no big ambitions, we are content with a good house and job and family and a comfortable retirement but secure, comfortable, basically in control of things, enough power for my modest goals. But still no purpose except our own, still at the center, still wanting the world to keep us satisfied. And our end is like our beginning: it still basically about me.

There is another way and every one of us here today knows it: it’s why we’re here. We’ve caught a glimpse of a different way and it scares us a bit because it isn’t about power and it isn’t about me. It’s about Jesus, about God, about my neighbor, about other people not just here in San Francisco or just America – – it includes other people, other needs, other visions of reality, even other religions, other loyalties. And as I said, it’s scary, because those people may not share my vision, or know about Jesus, and we also know what happened to Jesus and St. Paul for that matter and most of the apostles and a great many other Christians down through the ages. It’s often been hard, costly, painful.

Jesus talked about taking up our own cross, he talked about finding ourselves by losing ourselves. But there is that basic impulse in us still that wants to cry and be fed, that thinks first of all about me. But we do know, don’t we, that we can’t let the children grow up getting their way all the time.

Well, actually, not everybody does know that. We’ve probably all seen children growing up with parents too self centered themselves, to take time with their children and teach them about love. They think love means giving children what they want and we’ve all seen the results. But I think most of us know that love requires giving of ourselves with patience and self-sacrifice and that it is worth the time and trouble and cost. We fall short, but we know what’s needed.

Look again at the readings for today: on the one hand there is a vision of the end and the final kingdom in which God is truly King, truly worshiped, and on the other hand there is the story of Jesus confronting Pilate and trying to get Pilate to understand a new and different kind of kingship, not of this world in other words, not based on human power, but based on love. Pilate doesn’t get it. it’s not surprising; even we Christians haven’t gotten it very often. We try. We do try. And it does make a difference and we see it making a difference in this community in people we know and respect and we want it to make more of a difference.

I think of St. Augustine’s line: “Lord, convert me; but not yet.” And God did – – eventually. And God can. That’s what we need to remember: God is able. God is able to work in every one of us and God does and God will often when we are least aware of it. Sometimes we just instinctively act the way Jesus would because we’ve been here and heard about it week after week and gone to the altar and opened our hands to receive the life and strength that can work within us and change us. God is able to do that.

In fact, you and I are able to do that. You and I can love our neighbor or whoever it is that’s near us and they will change in response to love, because love is God and God is love and God is able to work in us God is the Alpha and the Omega at work in us from the beginning to enable us to begin anew again and again until we come at last into the kingdom of love for which we were made.


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