Sermon on Christ the King

Sermon Outline

  1. Feast of Christ the King
    1. End of our liturgical year
    2. Luke’s point is fairly obvious
      1. Christ is King
      2. Different kind of king
        1. Reigns from the cross
      3. But what does this mean?
      4. What does it have to do with us?
    3. What it does NOT mean
      1. Everything that happens is Christ’s will
        1. “God’s plan”, “Everything happens for a reason”
        2. Disease, accident, natural disaster?
  • Christ’s crucifixion itself?
  1. Christ endorses the agenda of the powers-that-be
  1. What it means
    1. Everything that exists/happens is material that Christ can work with (including the crucifixion)
      1. God’s vision – “the kingdom of heaven”
        1. Less to do with what happens
        2. More to do with who we are
      2. Christ is establishing a new order, over and against the powers-that-be
    2. Was the cross God’s plan for Jesus?
        1. To say Yes is to accept the unacceptable (“cosmic child abuse”)
      1. Crucifixion was the powers’ plan for Jesus
        1. Prophets expose the sins of the powerful
          1. Injustice, hypocrisy, idolatry
        2. Jesus does this consistently
          1. Shallowness of religious elite
          2. Futility of a political system based on violence
        3. Threatens the power-base with truth
          1. God didn’t need Jesus to die, the powers did
        4. Jesus accepted crucifixion as the consequence of his ministry
          1. Continued to minister anyway
          2. Borg: “The cross is the world’s No to Jesus”
        5. Ironic injustice
          1. He is made to suffer and die because for doing the right thing
          2. They call him “king” ironically, to mock him
            1. But he really is
          3. Jesus “bears their sins” by absorbing their violent hatred without retaliation
            1. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
          4. They taunt Jesus to come down from the cross
            1. Leaders, soldiers, criminal
            2. They can only conceive of a Messiah that is like them: violent and powerful
              1. Leaders: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
              2. Soldiers: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
  • Criminal: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
  1. The real irony: these opposing powers are really saying the same thing
  1. But one person gets the irony: the other criminal
    1. “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.”
    2. Nearing death, giving up hope for survival, he sees clearly the futility of this world’s violent system
    3. Unironically addresses Jesus as king:
      1. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
    4. The hopeless loser gets it
  2. In the world today, the “hopeless losers” still get it
    1. They see clearly the futility of the violent world system
    2. But the powerful are blinded by their interests in the system
      1. We don’t want to see the truth because we still hold out hope that the system will work in our favor
      2. Poor and oppressed people see the futility more clearly
        1. Black Lives Matter, I Believe Women
        2. Powerful interests try to silence these movements
  • Jesus stands in solidarity with them
    1. If we want to stand with Jesus as our King, we must stand with them
      1. Black lives, women’s lives, queer lives, trans lives, Muslim lives, refugee lives, Mexican lives, immigrant lives, disabled lives, mentally ill lives matter… and these lives are being ended by crucifixion today
      2. Church: “Preferential option for the poor”
    2. Like Jesus, we must be prepared to be crucified with them as a consequence of our solidarity
      1. We must be ready to listen to their experiences and suffer with them, especially where we have been complicit in their suffering
        1. This is repentance
      2. Jesus, the most powerful King, stands in solidarity with those who are the least powerful
        1. And he does it without returning violence for violence
        2. This is what it looks like for Jesus to reign as King from the cross
        3. His Church must do the same
      3. Our basis for hope is that crucifixion is not the end of the story
        1. King Jesus ascends the throne on Mount Calvary, but reigns from the empty tomb
        2. In his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and hell
          1. St. Paul (Ephesians 1:17-23): “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
        3. Filled with the hope born of this faith (this pledge of allegiance), the Church stands at the forefront of countless movements for peace, justice, and mercy
          1. We do not grow tired, even when the entire world is against us and others give up, because our hope is born of something greater than this world
            1. St. John (1 John 4:4): “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”
          2. We have even learned to take pride in the cross, the instrument of Christ’s mocking and torture:
            1. St. Paul (1 Cor 1:18-25): “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
          3. Our response
            1. “Therefore,” (Hebrews 12:1-2), “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
            2. St. Paul again (Romans 12:1-2): “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
  • Finally (Philippians 2:5-11): “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
  1. This is not liberal idealism; it is Christian hope

    1. Grounded in the mystery of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead
    2. We come to church, week after week, to fed by Word and Sacrament, then sent back out into the world to keep doing this work of standing, with Christ our King, in solidarity with the crucified peoples of the earth.
    3. We need to be reminded of these truths because the world will try to choke that faith out of us
      1. St. John (1 John 4:4): “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”
    4. The cross was this world’s No to Jesus, but the empty tomb is God’s Yes.

      1. And God’s Yes trumps the world’s No every time.

Suffering and Redemption

Pablo Picasso. Crucifixion (1930).

I have never believed in “redemptive suffering” as a means of justifying either pain or God. I still do not. There is no theological excuse for the pain inflicted upon human and other creatures by human beings. There is no justification, no spiritual reason, why forces of nature such as hurricanes and viruses hurt us or why some of us get hit by cars or lost when planes crash. The death of my life-loving father was not good, nor was death of my friend Dianna, nor the agony of her spouse and family. From a theological perspective, whether pastoral or ethical, suffering is not good for us.

Although the sacred Spirit in no way “wills” or sets us up for suffering, all living creatures do suffer. In these last years, scarred by AIDS, by the dominant culture of greed and violence, and by personal loss and pain, I have come to see more distinctly the vital link between the healing process (traditionally the prerogative of religious and medical traditions) and the work of liberation (assumed to be the business of revolutionary movements for justice).

The link is in the commitment of those who suffer and of those in solidarity with them to make no peace with whatever injustice or abuse is causing or contributing to their suffering, and in their commitment to celebrate the goodness and power in our relationships with one another — especially, in these moments, with those who suffer. To struggle against the conditions that make for or exacerbate suffering, and to do so with compassion — “suffering with” one another — is how we find redemption in suffering. To realize the sacred power in our relationships with one another, and to contend against the forces that threaten to damage and destroy us, bears luminous witness to the goodness and power of God. In the midst of suffering, we weave our redemption out of solidarity and compassion, struggle and hope. In this way, we participate in the redemption of God.

-Carter Heyward, The Power of God-With-Us

The Participatory Self

By coming to understand ourselves as social beings, liberals may come to see forms of participation such as social justice work not simply as a choice we make (or do not make) as individuals but as a fundamental factor in the formation of our own identities.  In other words, we must think of social justice work not simply as something we do, but as part of who we are.  If I cannot see myself in solidarity with others whose circumstances are different from my own, then something is missing from my own identity.  My sense of self is incomplete.  In this self-help oriented culture, we often feel the need to attend to our own well-being before we can reach out to someone else.  But the idea of participation can remind us that our own well-being is deeply connected to the well-being of others and that we can be healed only when there is healing, and justice, for others as well.

Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century, p. 104

Pitching Tent

I’ve been reading Blue Collar Resistance by Tex Sample and I really click with his notion of “pitching tent” among the people with whom one does ministry.  Theologically, the idea stems from John 1:14, which reads as follows: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (NRSV).  The Greek word translated here as “lived” is skenoo, which literally means “to pitch one’s tent”.  I like Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Whether one is pitching a tent or moving into the neighborhood, the connotation is the same: Jesus shows up where people “do life”.  Christ meets his disciples in the midst of their daily work: mending fishnets and gathering water.  His parables of God’s kingdom were inspired by the most mundane activities: planting seeds and baking bread.  None of these events are thought of as explicitly “spiritual” activities, yet they seem to be Jesus’ preferred settings for encountering people.

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with my sense of call as a pastor on the street.  I sometimes feel like an amateur social worker.  Yesterday morning, I helped one guy make flyers and post them around town.  In the afternoon, I sat at a cafe with someone and helped him fill out applications for new housing.  Neither of these activities seems very “pastoral” at first glance.

We don’t always talk about the Bible or Christianity.  Does that mean our time together is spiritually empty?  I can’t bring myself to believe that it does.  When I look at these growing relationships, I can see God’s hand at work in our ministry.  Making flyers and filling out applications are part of “doing life” with people in the margins of society.  Following in Jesus’ footsteps, I am trying to pitch my tent with people who have no other pastoral connection.  As an act of spiritual solidarity, I have to believe that counts for something.

The Other Side of the Counter

Yesterday, I had an interesting encounter at the County Office Building.  A friend was in danger of losing his public assistance check and needed to speak with someone in the welfare office.  I offered to keep him company.

Even though I’ve been in and out of the building for years, this was my first time accompanying someone as they walked through the process.  After obtaining paperwork from the Social Security Office in the morning, he went to the County Building at noon.  After taking a number, he was asked to sit until he was called up.  So he sat there for the next two hours.  I brought coffee and bagels to pass the time.  We joked and chatted for a while.

The room was packed wall to wall with people needing help.  Conversations were periodically interrupted by an unnervingly calm recording saying, “Ticket number 247, please proceed to window 3.”

When my friend was finally called up to the counter, he spoke with the attendant for about two minutes and was sent back to sit down.  We waited for another hour.  It was now three o’clock.

“Maybe they won’t get to me today,” he said.

“What happens then,” I asked, “will they give you an appointment for tomorrow?”

“No,” he said, “I just come back and do it all over again.”

I wish there was something I could have done to expedite the process, but all I could do was sit and keep company.  Being poor is a full-time job for most folks.

People around the room kept shooting me sideways glances as we waited.  I think it must have been disconcerting for them to see a member of the clergy in the holding pen waiting room.  I suppose people don’t think of the County Building as a place where clergy (or God) are keen to hang out.  If anything, most of them would think of God as working behind the counter.  From their perspective, God is the one who holds all the resources and has the power to dole them out.  If you’re willing to jump through the hoops, God will help you out.  But if you don’t play by the rules, you’re screwed.

I couldn’t stop thinking that God is nothing like the county office.  But people in the waiting room don’t know that.  They think that God is like that stoic employee who finally saw us for five minutes after waiting all day.  They think God is too busy to make conversation or ask how the kids are doing.  They think God just wants to look at the facts, to see if they meet the criteria, and then decide whether or not they deserve to be helped.

I believe that if God worked in the County Building, people would be welcome to hop over the guard rails and kick back in the office for as long as they needed to stay out of the cold.  God would want to hear the lame excuses, the sob-stories, and the never-ending drama.  God would bend the rules and grease the wheels for those who hurt the most.

Peter Maurin said he wanted to make a society in which it was easier for people to be good.  I would settle for a society in which it was easier for people to see God on the other side of the counter.

Paper Armor

One of the most impressive things about our society is the efficiency with which we armor ourselves from one another.  Yesterday, I had a run-in with an SUV at an intersection in Utica.  Thankfully, no one was injured.  What’s even more remarkable is that when we got out to inspect our vehicles, neither of us could find any damage on our cars.  On this occasion, efficient armor was most welcome.

Later in the day, I encountered another kind of armor for which I was not so glad.  A disabled veteran informed me that his social security check had not arrived since December.  His shoes had worn through so that his feet were getting soaked as he limped through the snow, but there was no money in his account for new shoes.  After some bureaucratic wrestling, it was determined that the checks were being sent to his previous address.  His previous caseworker had quit and paperwork had been lost in the shuffle.  The error has been corrected, but he still won’t be able to get money for shoes until Tuesday.  I hope the weather warms up this weekend.

Later still, an elderly woman showed me a letter she received from an insurance company.  She was in the hospital last month and the company just now decided that her visit would not be covered.  The letter was so full of jargon that neither of us could understand it.  We had to call someone in North Carolina to serve as interpreter.

Our healthcare and social service systems seem to be designed to isolate the rest of humanity from the suffering of the weak.  Whether the system is privatized or government-run, red tape will still protect the person holding the checkbook from the person who needs help.  Their paper armor is thin but impenetrable.

I could pontificate about bureaucracy all day, but if I’m truly honest with myself, then I have to admit that I share the desire to run and hide from the suffering of others.  I sat with someone today whose perspective on reality is all but lost in a fog of alcohol and insanity.  I try to listen attentively, but it’s getting harder and harder to understand.  The better part of me wants to believe that I can still be an effective pastor.  The rest of me wants to dump him in rehab and come back when he’s sober.

Sometimes, I think it would be so much easier to recite a biblical passage and then be on my way.  Who knows?  I still might do it.  There’s something to be said for the pastoral rites of the church, but they’re not meant to be used as cop-outs.  What I want to resist in myself is the desire to put on my own paper armor: whether it’s a bureaucratic form, a liturgical service, or a biblical passage.  I want to stay engaged with the real suffering of those who live in the darkest corners of this community.

What I need is for the love of the Suffering Servant, who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases”, to flow through me in fresh ways.   His love gave him the strength to stand in solidarity with outcasts, to touch lepers, and to do all that without hiding behind the paper armor of bureaucratic systems.