A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Like many folks, and perhaps some of you, even though I was brought up in the church, I spent many years away from church.  Part youthful wandering and seeking, part anger at what I felt then and still feel was conduct unbecoming a Christian community, part religious immaturity, I worshipped at the “church of me” for a rather long time.

And when I came back to the church of God and Jesus and the Holy Ghost and all the saints, partly due to a crisis but also in response to some gentle but serious nudging by the Holy Spirit, I found that I needed to spend many Sundays crying silently in my pew.

There were many reasons for my tears.  Grief and sorrow.  Repentance and remorse.  And also, oddly but very powerfully,  relief.  Profound relief that I could lay my burdens down, relief at the sense of having arrived home, relief that I had found a place where I could be vulnerable to God.

The crying went on for some time - months and months, I guess.  And I have continued to return to that activity periodically, whenever the vulnerability thing happened or happens again - during hymns, as scripture is read, during a sermon, during a prayer, at the sight of little children and pregnant women after my own miscarriage, watching my teenage son carry a huge cross down the aisle on Passion Sunday.

I was glad to be in a large parish where I could sit in my corner of the pew and do my thing undisturbed at first.  I found church to be a place where I could feel what I needed to feel and not worry that the world was watching me and sizing me up, seeing my weaknesses and my doubts, and above all my vulnerability.  I was profoundly grateful for the space and time to just sit there and cry.

Today we see Jesus on the cross at the place called the skull, hanging between two criminals as if he were a criminal himself, having been done in by that which the world admires - raw power that serves only itself, power that works ceaselessly to oppress and disempower the very ones who admire and support it.  

We see a man who is nothing if not vulnerable before the unheeding and uncaring powerbrokers of the Empire, deserted by his friends; a man sized up and mocked by everyone around him, even, ridiculously, by the criminal at his side who shared his fate.

And just off stage are the women, watching at a distance, no doubt experiencing shock and horror and body-shaking grief; among them is Mary, his mother, her soul pierced, just as Simeon had prophesied it would be.

We call this man our king, this vulnerable, broken, bleeding man who despite his dignified demeanor in our passage today  suffered almost unbearable pain. One who knows what it is like to have been shoved aside, lifted up only for mockery.  One who has been rejected by friends and family, one who has suffered humiliation, one who has wished for the best but seen all around him, over and over again, rejection and failure.

We call this man our king, he who is defined by generous acceptance and forgiveness, forgiveness even in the face of humiliation and violence.  Forgiveness given even when it is not asked for.  We call this man our king, who invites us all simply to dwell with him in paradise, in spite of our own brokenness, or perhaps because of it.  Who looks at us from the cross and says, I know your pain and your despair.

Most of the time I direct our attention outside these walls, toward neighbor, toward being Christ's hands and feet in the world.  But today I want to bring our attention inside, into this community gathered, into this room, to ponder brokenness and trauma and grace.

Keeping this image of Christ the vulnerable, broken, brutalized king in mind as well as my own story and simiar stories heard from others, I am well aware that most of us are fearful - perhaps painfully so - of showing our own vulnerability and brokenness.  Many of us gloss over that aspect of our lives; it makes us uncomfortable to feel those feelings.  It makes us uncomfortable to see others' vulnerability, too.  It is very hard to stay in the moment of brokenness; our instinct is to look away, to seek distraction, to jump ahead to the happy ending, to run away both from ourselves and from those around us who remind us how fragile are our efforts at composure.

How often do we hear someone say that they stayed away from church because they were feeling sad or down or grief-stricken? They stayed at home, shut away from everyone, both to shield themselves from us and to shield us from what their vulnerability might bring up in us.  To keep their grief from upsetting us.  And perhaps to keep us from urging them - out of our own discomfort - to "perk up."  To put on a happy face and praise God with happy voices.

And yet grief and pain and suffering and trauma are all part of our Christian story. We highlight this aspect of Jesus' life that we read about today, calling it holy, even in its brutality.  We look upon Jesus in his suffering, but maybe some of us in our discomfort gloss over that part, prefering an empty cross to one that shows us a dying, agonized man on display for all the world to see, and leaving us with uncomfortable questions about what kind of God allows his son to die like that and whether or not we are somehow complicit in this horror.

A week or so ago, I heard a presentation by the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, who is the president of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, on trauma and grace.  She talked a bit about working with people who have been traumatized, and how trauma works to short-circuit victims' psychological experiential-intake-and-storage systems so that the traumatized have little or no control over their horrible memories, which are not like regular memories but more like intrusive flashbacks coupled with feelings of terror.  The traumatized are visited by these flashes when something triggers them.  The triggers can be anything.  She told a story of how a young woman she was mentoring had such an episode during the Eucharist at their church.  "This bread, my body broken for you; this wine, my blood poured out for you" - these words sent the young woman running out of the church in a state of  terror that left her gasping for breath and unable to remember how to turn on the water in the ladies room sink.

Dr. Jones also writes in her book called Trauma and Grace about her own suffering - loss of a pregnancy, betrayal and loss of her marriage, a frightening illness - and how these things in their vortex of emotion and helplessness can sweep us to the brink of losing our faith.

She wondered aloud, what can we say theologically about these things?  How can we stay in community in our woundedness and allow God's healing to break through and save us without resorting to glossing over the trauma?  How can we in church and as a church acknowledge our pain and our grief and our sense of hopelessness rather than shut those things away, guarded, like a family secret that will only, eventually corrode our faith and our relationships?  And how can we meet pain with love and hope and make a place for grace amid the fear and dread and hopelessness that pervade our world?

One of the things I have been thinking about ever since I heard Dr. Jones speak was how the church ought to be - and can be - a place for healing for those who are suffering, even those who have suffered the most horrific traumas.  After all, our church gathers around our bloodied and broken king, hanging on the cross, and affirms that brokenness is not the last word.  Brokenness is not the last word.

And yet how difficult it is for many of us, both the traumatized and those who are simply among the faithful in the pews, to be able to sit with that and let it be for however long it takes.  How can we say to the world, it is safe to cry in here?  It is safe to bring your grief and your pain in here.  This is not only a place of praise but a place for lament.  You won't be stared at, you won't be urged to cheer up, just given the space to acknowledge and feel your pain and finally lay your burdens down at this altar, this place where we bring to mind again and again our broken king who knows our sorrow.

How do we make space for grief, for vulnerability, for brokenness among us?  There are so many people who live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said, and there are also those who have suffered unspeakable horror, as Dr. Jones related in her talk.  Can we be - are we willing to be - a community of healing and reconciliation for the sad, the lost, the lonely, the grieving, and even the brutalized among us?  Can we simply sit with those in their tears and their terrors with no agenda save that of simple abiding?

Dr. Jones spoke of trauma and grace and it is, miracle of miracles, grace that comes forth out of Jesus' brokenness to heal us and to heal the world.  Grace, that free, unmerited gift of God, that lifts our burdens off our backs, out of our hearts, and even provides the altar where we might lay them down.  It is grace that proclaims forgiveness to the ignorant and assurance of paradise to the sinner.  It is God's grace that - like resurrection - breaks through the pain and grief and trauma to heal us.  It is grace - not sorrow, not pain, not sin, not even death - that is the last word in the story of brokenness.

Thanks be to God.