Homily for the Reign of Christ November 24, 2013

In the reading from Jeremiah this morning, the prophet makes the community’s leaders the target of his prophetic critique: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!”

This passage has typically been applied to clergy leaders, but the author is actually talking about Israel’s kings, who had been likened to shepherds, because they were expected to guide and care for the people, as a good shepherd would care for the sheep under his/her care. King David, of course, was the original “good shepherd,” and the author looks forward to a time when someone of the greatness of David will appear. Eventually, this passage would be applied to Jesus.

Theologian Fr Roger Karban said: “As a Jewish king, David was expected to “shepherd” his people, not lord it over them. Unlike gentile potentates, he was to make the people, not himself, the center of his reign, to be an outward sign of Yahweh’s care and concern, the champion of the helpless.”

Unfortunately, though we use the term “public servants,” words like “potentate,” “self-serving” and “tyrant” tend to come to mind when we think of our politicians. Lately, Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford has given us a whole new vocabulary! He’s been called “God’s gift to comedy” by talk-show host Jay Leno. As we’ve seen the antics of Mayor Ford playing out in the international media, and the embarrassment and anguish he has imposed not only on the City of Toronto, but in many ways upon the entire nation, we’ve seen an example of a leadership style that causes division and loss of confidence in the system. If your leaders lack credibility or courage or conviction or character, the whole community feels it, suffers for it, and is diminished by it.

The prophet Jeremiah must have faced a similar situation – of too many years of self-serving, uninspiring and divisive leaders – and he yearned for the day when God might inspire someone really different, someone great, to step up.

When did Canada last have a GREAT leader? Someone who could be described as a great man or woman – a world statesperson? Someone with a vision that inspired people to believe in Canada and in Canadians themselves? Someone you really looked up to and wanted to emulate?

This past week we have been flooded with retrospectives about the presidency of the late John F Kennedy, who was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963 — 50 years ago last week — in Dallas, Texas. Many remember exactly where they were when they got the news. I was a nine year old, out on the playground of an elementary school, in Regina, when the news hit. I still remember that it had quite an impact, even among a bunch of Canadian elementary school kids, in the middle of recess.

Kennedy, or JFK as he was known, was one of those larger than life figures whose personal charisma and enthusiasm were contagious on a vast scale. He and Jackie and their children were America’s version of royalty. Their brief time in the sun became known as Camelot, a reference to the largely mythological reign of the ancient King Arthur. Kennedy seemed to galvanize the idealism and energy of people around the world; his administration was dubbed “Camelot” perhaps because there seemed to be a nobility of purpose to what Kennedy was about.

Kennedy remains, for me, an example of an inspirational leader, someone who operated in the heroic model or archetype. Like any great leader, he seemed to be capable of tapping more than just the imagination – he seemed to have found a way to connect with ancient mystical roots and tapped the depths not only of the American psyche but of the world’s psyche. When he was murdered, the light of the whole world seemed to dim for a time.

Inspirational leaders! If we need them in politics, we definitely need them in the Church! In our Diocese, we’re on the verge of an episcopal election (the process which will elect a new bishop), and I’m hoping there will be a call to greatness, and the selection of a person who will challenge and enable and inspire the Church to become what it is meant to be – what it can be. It is up to leaders to enable us to believe and encourage us to act on what we believe.

In the wake of World War II, and the tendency to button-down conformity, Kennedy’s vibrant image shook things up. Like the ancient King David, he was a deeply flawed man who dared to be great. For all his flaws, John F Kennedy was seen as a great leader – an inspirational leader – and he was responsible for leadership on a scale that King David couldn’t have imagined. It was Kennedy who urged the U.S. Space program to put an astronaut on the moon; it was Kennedy who saw the need to end the war in Viet Nam; it was Kennedy who founded the Peace Corps; it was Kennedy who took significant steps to create racial equality in the United States. President Barack Obama said this week “I don’t know of anyone who has had that same impact on a generation and inspired so many people as JFK has — Kennedy’s ability to move a generation scarred by World War II into the future is the source of the lasting effect of his presidency. He really moved people in a way that still resonates with us today.”

I often remind people at funerals, as they reflect with gratitude on all the good things that the deceased person’s life has made possible, that we are always in the process of leaving a legacy, for our families, for the neighbourhood and community around us, for our faith communities, and for the planet in general.

What is the impact we are going to have? What kind of legacy are we creating?

On this Pledge Sunday, what you put on that piece of paper says something about the future of this parish – it’s your vote, in a way, for how, or even whether, we will move forward.

Despite his star and celebrity status, there was a “power to the people,” populist dimension to Kennedy’s leadership. In one speech he said, “We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world – or to make it the last.” Great leaders empower people to find the best in themselves. In the movie “Nixon,” the actor playing Nixon looks at a portrait of Kennedy and says, “When they look at you, they see what they could be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”

As we have been learning in recent weeks, stewardship has to do with the offering of our whole self, putting ourselves at God’s disposal, a reflection of the way God offers life to all. It has to do with trust, as well as a sense of compassionate responsibility for the community and the environment around us at any given time.

The model we have, always, is Jesus. Yet it is sometimes difficult to deal with the fact that the way of Christ is the way of sacrifice. So what do we mean when we say Christ is our king? Does it mean success? Superiority? Prosperity? Safety? There is a reason that the Gospel on this day is the Gospel of Crucifixion – it is a powerful and uncomfortable reminder that Christ’s kingship is not subject to the limitations of this world – it is about the healing and redemption and transformation of this world.

Echoing the Gospel, Kennedy said, in one of his many memorable speeches: “Those to whom much is given, much is required.” Author Jerome Kroth, in a book about Kennedy (Conspiracy in Camelot), says: “Kennedy’s speeches … possessed not only “vision” but also carried an element of the prophetic. They unleashed a wave of idealism and hope for the future. He asked for change, for a new beginning, for a new generation … to come forth.”

During his inauguration speech, John F Kennedy made the now-famous comment: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country . . .” — a challenge to live not merely for yourself but for the world around you. That challenge is rooted in the Christian Gospel, and the Christianity in which Kennedy was raised. Politicians since, instead of building on that challenge, have instead resorted to the opposite: making huge false promises about what their government can do for us, if only we will elect them and send them to Victoria or Ottawa or wherever.

“Ask not what your country can do for you …” Anthony Catanese, President of Florida Tech University, says “Those single words probably changed the philosophy of a whole generation of us. We began to think differently, different from our parents . . .” The founding of the Peace Corps was one very tangible way in which thousands of Americans could respond to his call to serve, to care for others, to make a difference for good.

Even though we have managed to reverse that over the last 50 years, let us remember that Kennedy managed to ignite a generation with that simple Christian message. I pray in our own day we may believe in the power of that Gospel to fire imaginations and summon greatness.

The Ven. Grant Rodgers+

Jeremiah 23:1-6 Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD. The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Psalm 46 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the LORD; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Colossians 1:11-20 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.
He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for 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. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”