“In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. In him, all things hold together.”
On March 15, 1965, then-president Lyndon Johnson said in a speech advocating the passage of the Civil Rights Act that “We are the first nation founded with a purpose.” Though I appreciate his appeal to the Founding Fathers’ vision, I believe that their vision was based on the founding purpose of a much earlier nation, of sorts, a kingdom actually, a kingdom whose purpose was – and remains — to reconcile all of creation to its creator, to restore the dignity of each person and to recognize that we each have different gifts and abilities that all have a place in the body of Christ.
And the head of this kingdom, its sovereign, is Christ. “In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. In him, everything holds together.”
That’s pretty hard to take at face value. It sounds great to say that everything in heaven and on earth, whether things we can see or things we cannot see, everything was created by God. Broadly speaking, that certainly makes sense. But to include thrones, dominions, rulers, presidents, everything? But, that’s what it says! The second, equally head-scratching part, is that “in God through Christ everything holds together.”
This is why I hope this is true, and pray that my skepticism is unfounded. I see a lot of stuff that doesn’t seem to hold together. I see couples that started out to be amazing parents, building homes for their families to feel safe and loved. And then I see them breaking apart and people leaving because they feel neither safe or loved.
And I watch the world beyond here. I wonder whether anyone will be left alive in Syria. We see places like Haiti that can’t seem to catch a break from deadly hurricanes or New Zealand or Italy with their earthquakes and the hundreds of lives lost in a moment.
And I hope that there is something that I’m missing, either in the way I’m assessing the world today or in the plain language of the text that promises that God made everything and holds everything together. Because, what I see, at first glance, looks chaotic.
The subtle challenge that trips me up every time is the arrogant tendency to imagine that what I see right now is the whole picture. Let us pray that it is not! For we know all about “thrones” and the trappings that go with them and those who occupy them. For all the good that is possible for them to accomplish, they often fall short.
We must also remember that holding everything together does not mean that everything is static. Rather, the dynamics that operate in Christ frequently involve change, reordering, and sometimes destroying. I am often guilty of trying to ratchet down Jesus until he fits comfortably within the world at this moment with all its seemingly disparate parts. Too often, I lose sight of who Jesus actually was in the gospels. This person, God incarnate, ignored his mother when she tried to make him come home, broke the rules concerning keeping the Sabbath, picked pretty unpromising men for his cabinet, and caused quite a disturbance in the Temple, throwing over tables and scattering money everywhere. He kept company with some rough characters and insisted that poor and hungry people were somehow to be considered as “blessed.” Again, on first glance, it hardly seems like someone who is holding everything together.
What hooks me is that I also believe that Jesus meant what he said when he told his disciples “Truly, the kingdom of God has come near to you.” And so although I concede that what I see now is not the whole picture, I believe that the vision of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus brought near cannot always be somewhere beyond my seeing, otherwise why tell me it is “near to me” if there is no possibility of me ever seeing any glimpse of it?
And so what gives me hope is when I realize my error: That is, that I’ve been imagining things holding together according to my vision, not God’s.
See, my vision is colored by my anxiety. I worry when things get messy, like in family relationships. I prefer people to be reasonable and patient with each other and I get uncomfortable when they are not or when they have very different worldviews that they hold out to be the only way of seeing something. So, to be honest, my vision of things holding together looks a lot like everyone just sort of not thinking or doing much, because the minute you use your imagination or try something new, someone’s going to get uncomfortable, and if that person’s vision is as colored by fear as my vision is by anxiety, then we are back to not thinking or doing anything.
So, now I’m intrigued for other reasons by what St. Paul says. And I want to look again, albeit with a cautious sense of reverence about things that don’t seem to be holding together. And that cautious reverence opens up the possibility for me to wonder about God’s presence, God’s energy, yes – even the possibility that God can create something new out of dissembled pieces, holding things together even during their apparent breaking apart.
Last week, three families in our parish lost someone who had lived a long and full life, but that didn’t make it any easier to lose them.
Also last week, the outreach committee met and talked at some length about the plight of the chronically homeless in our community, wondering what we could do beyond initiatives like Family Promise to help alleviate what is, to say the least, a complicated situation.
And through it all, the overwhelming smoke from the forest fires, apparently intentionally set, was a stark reminder that even the air we breathe is at risk of someone poisoning it, not to mention destroying life and property.
Where is Christ the King in all this? Where is he when you lose someone you love? Where is he in a social problem that seems systemic? Where is he in an act of outright malice? What am I missing?
There are many repeating themes that that show up throughout the Bible. Among these is the idea of “seeing.” Like many concepts whose intensity range along a spectrum, “seeing” in the biblical texts connotes everything from a sideways glance to a vivid nightmare. Adam and Eve’s eyes were “opened” and the Hebrew word suggests that they were opened in a way that they never closed again. There were now things they could not un-see.
And so we are invited to “look” closely at this poetical hymn of praise to Christ as King in the letter to the Colossians and stare hard at it. Because, as we have said, at first glance we see so much that hardly reflects the glory of God who created all things. Nor do we see evidence that things are holding together as promised. However, given some time, we begin to see things that we might have thought were lost that are now brighter and stronger than ever.
Looking out at the families during the funerals, watching them comfort each other, laugh at stories, even while weeping, I realized that that’s certainly one place where God shows up when we lose someone. God shows up in us, in allowing us to lay aside every disagreement for a moment and move to enfold the bereaved, even while we ourselves are grieving. And sometimes when families do break apart, it is the only way that its members can survive.
In the problem of chronic homelessness, God seems to show up in the disquieting agitation that keeps whispering to us that we could do so much more than we are presently doing, that we could coordinate our well-intentioned actions so that their effectiveness is increased. And we can address the underlying issues of things like PTSD that make the issue so “complicated.”
But in the face of malicious evil, I still have to ask, “Where is God?”
And, believe me, it’s so much easier just to shake my fist at heaven and keep screaming than it is to face stuff I really don’t want to face. Because sometimes I think that God is actually present, just standing there watching and weeping and trying to get me to see how much I have ignored for so long. Behind malicious acts I see someone shamed by my jokes, sidelined by my arrogance, and squeezed out of a place at the table because my privilege takes up a lot of room. Am I seeing that person, alone or in a group, finally pushing back hard? After all, if I am ignorant of whom my actions hurt, why should they be any more concerned about my welfare?
The prophet Elijah, while he was hiding out in a cave, learned soon enough that God can actually be present in the silence. And that sometimes what God “holds together” is my “feet to the fire” until I finally face my culpability.
This is the final Sunday in our liturgical year. Let’s consider together how we want to end this year. In Jesus’ final hours, he decided to extend undeserved pardon to the repentant thief. Perhaps there is someone in your life against whom you have rightly held some grudge. What would it look like to extend absolute pardon to that person? Who or what have we overlooked that is crying out for remedy that is within our power to give? We needn’t worry that anything important will fall apart if we take such chances. In fact, we may be helping to hold together something really valuable.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
Sunday, November 20
Christ the King Year C