A Different Kind of King

What do you do when it’s Christ the King, Consecration Sunday, and a baptism, all in one go? Try to make them all work together of course! I both struggle with, and really love, Christ the King. I don’t always like the language of ~king~. I think it needs to be unpacked, because Jesus isn’t the typical king. In fact, he completely inverts our understanding of what it means to be king. Then, I love Christ the King. What does it mean to claim Christ as our King, when he refuses to act like a king? Let me know what you think!

Here is a link to site with all the readings from Sunday: Reign of Christ Readings.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Well, once again it’s Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday of our liturgical year, which begins anew next week with the first Sunday of Advent. Did you know that Christ the King is a relatively new festival? At least when you compare it to things like Easter, and Pentecost, and All Saints.  It was only started in 1925, by Pope Pius XI, and took much, much longer to catch on in Lutheran churches.

The festival was inaugurated to combat the rising nationalism and fascism around Europe, especially in Italy where the Vatican sits. It’s a festival that asks us to consider what it means that we proclaim Christ king. What type of king do we have in Jesus? What does it actually mean for our lives, 2,000 years later, to say that Jesus is king?

It’s not a bad idea to begin by asking what we think of when we use words like ‘king’, ‘ruler’, ‘kingdom.’ What is a king? Or a queen? The third season of The Crown recently came out on Netflix, all about the British monarchy in the last century, and Elizabeth II in particular.

The royal family has a very specific understanding of what it means to be a king—or in this case, queen. The crown must be protected at all costs. At one point, Princess Margaret, the queen’s sister, says to her: You can’t blink. If you blink, it will al be over. You cannot show weakness, at any cost. The crown must always appear strong.

If you’re like me, this is probably the type of thing you think of when you think of kings and kingdoms. The king being the most important—the one who is protected, the one who is served by others. Strong, unshakable, invincible. That tends to be the type of characteristics we want in a ruler—king or otherwise.

And so Christ the King can come as a shock to our systems. We don’t get strong, unshakable, or invincible. We don’t read of Jesus being enthroned in glory and power. Instead we read the story of the crucifixion. Jesus on the cross at his lowest moment. Executed as an enemy of the state. Mocked, derided.

And we look at that and we say—this is our king. This is the one we will serve. It is only in this moment, on the cross, that Jesus is ever actually proclaimed king. And so, the question remains, what kind of king do we have?

We do not have a king who seeks to be served by others, we do not have a king who seeks to be above others. Jesus doesn’t do that. He refuses to come in power but instead appears in abject vulnerability. He does not vow retribution on even those who crucify him but instead offers forgiveness.

He does not come down off his cross to prove his kingly status but instead remains on that instrument of torture and humiliation, the representative of all who suffer unjustly. And he does not promise a better tomorrow but instead offers to redeem us today.

He offers to redeem us today. Not in some far off distant future, but this very day. It is the promise made to the thief on the cross, and it is the promise that we too receive. When we proclaim that Christ is King, it means that we proclaim he is king right here and now—not waiting for some future time.

And so we come again to my second question: what does it mean for us, 2,000 years later, to say that Christ is King? It is a statement that requires us to recognize that the kingdom of God is all around us. If Christ is King right now, then we must realize that we live in the kingdom of God. It’s not something that we either attain after our death or will get to in some final cataclysmic event.

The Kingdom of God is here and now, and the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims represents a whole new reality where nothing is the same — not our relationships or rules, not our view of self or others, not our priorities or principles — nothing.

Saying that Jesus is our king, is our lord, is also saying what is not our lord. Charles Greenly is being baptized this morning, and in the baptism service, we all declare that we renounce the Satan, the powers of evil, and everything that draws us from God. We are saying that we do not give these things permission to control us. They do not get to be our lord. Since Jesus is Lord, our overfull calendars are not. Our debt is not. Our anxiety is not. Our addiction is not. Our pain and our grief is not. Our prejudices are not. That’s not to say that these things don’t impact us—of course they do—but they are not our Lord. They do not get to define us. Jesus does—and in baptism he calls us all beloved children and makes us citizens of God’s kingdom.

As citizens of God’s kingdom, we’re called to be stewards of all that has been entrusted to our care. That stewardship involves the wise and prayerful use of all of our resources, and a part of that is what we give away for the benefit of others.

It is consecration Sunday, when we take time to consider our stewardship, and consider how we might support the church in the coming year. When you come forward for communion, you are invited to place your commitment card in the bowl in the aisle. We take time to do this every year because it allows us the opportunity as a church, as individuals, and as families, to thoughtfully consider what it means to be stewards for God. What it means to be part of God’s kingdom.

How are our resources best used? How are the church’s resources best used? Because we are stewards of God’s kingdom, whether we think about it or not. We’re able, as a church, to do so much to show and share the kingdom and love of God in this world—our outreach programs, our educational programs, our worship—it is all possible, and it is only possible, because of stewards like you and me.

What does it mean to proclaim that Christ is king? It means living in the kingdom. It means living as a reflection of our king. A king who welcomes a criminal into his realm and promises relief and release amid obvious agony. A king who refuses to conform to the expectations of this world, a king who will not be governed by its limited vision of worthiness or justice.

A king who is not content to rule from afar, but rather comes to meet us in our weakness and need. A king willing to embrace all, forgive all, redeem all, because that is his deepest and truest nature. It is, finally, our king, come to usher us into his kingdom even as he implores us to recognize and make manifest that kingdom already around us. This is our king. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Do not grow weary

You know we are approaching the end of the church year when the readings take a little…apocalyptic bent. The church year always ends with Reign of Christ (often called Christ the King), which is next week. The week before Reign of Christ, we always read Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple. These can be odd readings for us, because unlike the first disciples we generally aren’t anticipating the end of the world any time soon. (For the most part, anyway.) But, if we pay attention, we notice that Jesus doesn’t talk much about the actual end of the world, instead he focuses on the trying times before the end. What does Jesus have to tell us about living in difficult and scary times? (If you want, read Luke and Thessalonians, which I focus on in the sermon.)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you’ve ever watched Parks and Recreation, you might remember a group called “The Reasonablists.” These people were a cult, who were convinced that the world was going to end soon, when their leader Zorp came back to earth. They named themselves Reasonablists, because they decided no one would want to oppose them. To do so would be unreasonable.

In one episode, they rented a city park to celebrate and be together, because that was the night that the world was going to end. Zorp was coming back finally. Now, these guys were pretty harmless. Their rituals included playing music on wooden recorders and dancing around a fire. One of the main characters loved the Reasonablists, because he carved recorders to sell to them. And they would pay any price. They even laughed while asking if he took checks. Because they were convinced those checks were never going to get cashed. The world was ending! It didn’t matter what they did.

Only, as you can imagine, the world didn’t end, and those checks definitely got cashed. In the Parks and Rec story, this was just a funny way to point out some of the many ways humans can be ridiculous and unreasonable. But this actually happens, and it’s not always funny. Back in 2011, a man named Harold Camping thought the world was going to end. He amassed a huge following of supporters, many of whom sold their homes and gave him their life savings.

Well, the world didn’t end, and these people had no recourse. He hadn’t done anything illegal. It happens often—at least once a generation, but it seems like more often now—people become convinced that the end times are near and quit their jobs, sell their homes, take drastic measures. It’s funny when it’s a TV show, but it wasn’t funny at all when almost a thousand people died at Jonestown, all because they thought it could bring about the second coming.

Why this obsession with apocalypse and the end of time? And what is a faithful Christian response? This is some of what the Apostle Paul is trying to address in his letter to the Thessalonians. This very early community of Christians was convinced that the end was upon them, that Jesus would be returning any day.

They lived in the Roman town of Thessalonica. They were an extreme minority and were probably experiencing persecution. All around them, they thought they saw signs of Jesus’ second coming—as he had promised his followers. Wars, persecutions, troubling times. And it led some of them to stop working. They thought there was no reason to tend to the fields or the shop, because soon all would be gathered in the Lord. They had given up their day-to-day lives.

And Paul tells them: guys, you can’t do that. You have to keep working, you have to keep living life. You can’t be mere busybodies. Because if you don’t participate, the whole community suffers. You can’t just sit around waiting for the end times to come, because we don’t know when that’s going to happen. Instead, do not grow weary of doing what is right.

Jesus himself seems to say pretty clearly that it’s not our job to try to figure out when the end will be. In our reading this morning, he is standing outside the Temple, during the last week of his life, and he says to his disciples that one day the entire Temple will fall. This huge, marvelous, impressive building will crumble to nothing.

Immediately, they want to know when this will happen. There are lots of people who are going to try to tell you that the end is near, warns Jesus. Don’t be led astray. Things are going to be terrifying, but do not be alarmed, do not be afraid.

You’re going to live through wars and persecutions, famines and earthquakes, but these thing are not the end, but rather an opportunity to testify. Terrible things will happen—some of the terrible things that were surely happening to the church in Thessalonica, but Jesus promises protection and confidence even in the midst of terrible, terrifying events, and urges the disciples to see them as an opportunity to make their faith known.

Maybe we don’t have the same inclination as the early church to look for the end of times. When we see wars and famines and natural disasters, we are more likely to see the ways human hatred and greed have caused such brokenness than to think it is God bringing about the end of the world.

But Jesus’ words speak to us still. They speak to us about what our calling is in the midst of difficult things. In the midst of natural disasters and climate change. In the midst of political unrest and upheaval. In the midst of an uncertain future that we wish we could somehow predict.

First comes the promise: You are not alone in this. Do not be alarmed. God is always with you, and God will never leave you. And second comes the calling: Use this as an opportunity to testify. Use the time which you have been given, the circumstances that you find yourself living in, to testify to God.

Jesus promises that he will provide words and wisdom when we need them. And he has. The church has been equipped with all kinds of gifts: some of us are gifted in the ways of speaking publicly for God’s kingdom. Of advocating for justice. Some are gifted to organize efforts to care for those in need. Some are gifted in prayer to support the work of the church and lift up all in need. Some are gifted in resources to provide for the work of ministry. Some are gifted in teaching to raise up new generations.

All have been given gifts by the Holy Spirit, and so all are needed. We can’t have mere busybodies in the church, like they did in Thessalonica. Because all of us have a part to play in testifying to God’s love and justice in the times we have been given. We all have gifts to offer, and the church is not complete, our testimony is not complete, without all of them.

These are scary texts today. But Jesus knew his disciples were going to have to deal with scary things. Following Jesus doesn’t mean you get a free pass through life’s difficulties. We have to deal with scary things in our lives and in our world. But siblings in Christ, do not grow weary in doing what is right. Because we not are alone. And we have the amazing—and sometimes overwhelming—call to be God’s voice, God’s heart, God’s hands, in the times that we live. This is an opportunity to testify. And the message we bring of love and hope and justice is something our world needs to hear. Amen.

 

I Know that My Redeemer Lives

Every Sunday is a little Easter–that is, every week we celebrate Christ’s victory over death and experience the joy of the resurrection in word and meal together. Some Sundays are a little more little Easters than others, though. Yesterday, all of our readings had to do with resurrection in one way or another. We heard Job declare that in the last day he would see God in his flesh, Paul warned the Thessalonians to hold fast to what they knew to be true about the end times, and Jesus discussed what resurrection looks like with some Pharisees. What questions do you have about the resurrection?

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!). You all did really well with that, I thought it might take a second or two for you to catch on. It feels out of place for me to use the traditional Easter Sunday greeting on a random Sunday in November. But the word of the day today is “Resurrection.” It is absolutely everywhere in our readings.

The first lesson, from the book of Job, sees Job himself declare: I know that my Redeemer lives…and in the last day…in my flesh, I shall see God.” Job, who at this point has seen his entire life destroyed, and had his friends badger him about what he did to deserve it (he hadn’t done anything to deserve it, by the way), Job says to those friends: I know that God is alive, and that means this is not the end of my story.

In Second Thessalonians, Paul is writing to those who are shaken and alarmed by the things they see happening around them. He tells them not to lose sight of the hope of their calling. These tumultuous times and rulers that they are living through do not get the final word on their lives, but rather God, who has called them in love, and chooses them to be the first fruits of salvation. So, hold fast to that hope in the face of worry and anxiety, says Paul.

And finally, in our gospel reading, Jesus is approached with a question from some Sadducees. If a married man dies childless, his widow is married to his next oldest brother. In the Sadducees’ story, there are seven brothers, and seven childless deaths. How is this going to work in the resurrection, they wonder? To whom will the woman belong? This practice is known as Leverite marriage—it was part of the laws of Moses—and its purpose was to care for the widow. A woman without a son or a husband was incredibly vulnerable in ancient times. This law was a way of protecting her and of providing descendants for the dead brother.

The Sadducees’ story provides an exaggerated case of something that really did happen. And they want to see how Jesus thinks the resurrection works. I had a theology professor in seminary who, whenever you asked a question, invariably asked you, “Why do you ask that question?” Eventually, we started to preempt him by sharing our reasons for asking before ever asking the question. He knew, though, that questions about God, about the Bible, about the resurrection, about church—they often stem from real situations, from our worries and doubts about ourselves and our family and what will happen to us.

Now, Jesus knew why the Sadducees were asking this question. As Luke helpfully explains in his narration, Sadducees, unlike some other Jewish groups at the time, did not believe in the resurrection. They’re not asking this question because they have been widowed and remarried or know someone who has. They’re not actually concerned about the plight of the woman in their story or anyone like her. They want to trap Jesus by mocking his own beliefs. They want to point out how silly believing in the resurrection is.

And when Jesus answers them, he almost says, “Yes, you’re right. The resurrection doesn’t make any sense. At least, not the way you’re thinking about it.” The Sadducees are asking the wrong question. Who will the woman belong to in the resurrection? She will belong to God. The very premise of their question is wrong. Their conception of God is too small. To try to grasp what the resurrection will be like in earthly terms is impossible; it’s a reality of an entirely different order, an order that can only be approached by faith. The ways we define relationships and society won’t apply, because they won’t be needed.

The Sadducees hoped to trip Jesus up with this story of the widow handed from brother to brother. Jesus knows why they’re asking this question, and he knows it isn’t sincere. But we often have very sincere questions about the resurrection: will I see my loved ones again? What will my body be like—will it be like my old age, or like when I was young? Will my grandmother—who didn’t know who I was for the last five years of her life—will she recognize me? Will there be dogs there? Or maybe even a genuine version of the Sadducees’ question: I have been widowed and remarried—what does that mean for me and my spouses? Is the resurrection even something I really believe in anyway?

We don’t ask these questions to one-up Jesus or to score theological points. We ask because we miss our loved ones. Because we wonder about what happens when we die. Because we’re scared that maybe there isn’t life after death after all. What is the resurrection like?

Well, I don’t know for sure, because no one’s ever experienced it and come back—except for Jesus. This is one area where we truly have to go on faith. But I think of Job, sitting in the literal ash heap of his life, resolutely, even stubbornly, defiantly declaring: I know that God lives. And because of that I know that I too will live. Despite all the evidence to the contrary around me, God is good and God intends life for us.

I think of the woman in the Sadducees’ story. What did resurrection look like for her? The idea of not being married or given in marriage in the resurrection was probably pretty appealing. Imagine her finally arriving in a place where her worth and her belovedness don’t depend on her husband, or her fertility. She no longer belongs to anyone but the God who created her and who now surrounds her with eternal, unconditional love.

Jesus doesn’t answer all of our questions about the resurrection in this passage. In fact, he might have created more questions in us than when he started talking. That’s okay. Questions aren’t bad. Questions come from our desire to know God and to understand our place in the world. Questions are good, as long as we’re okay with sitting with them sometimes. Because Jesus doesn’t answer them all, no matter how much we might wish he would.

What he does do, though, is point us to a God whose faithfulness to us is immeasurable and inexhaustible. A God who chose us, and called us, who gives us eternal comfort and hope through grace. And in God’s faithfulness to us, we find the strength to endure all that life and death will ask of us.

What will the resurrection be like? I’m not exactly sure. But I know that my Redeemer lives. Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed.) Amen.

Blessed are you…

All Saints’ Sunday is one of my favorites of the church year. A time to commemorate all the saints who have gone before us and are at rest, all the saints who still form the church on earth today, and all the saints who are yet to be. Together forming one mystical communion that crosses the bounds of time and space.

And then we had our gospel reading, the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, one of my favorite passages. Luke doesn’t go Matthew’s route and spiritualize the conditions Jesus calls blessed: there’s no “blessed are the poor in heart, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake.” Instead for Luke it is just “blessed are you poor, blessed are you hungry.”

So, favorite day, favorite passage, this should be easy, right? The challenge was making these two things speak to and inform each other. What do the Beatitudes have to do with All Saints’? What does All Saints’ have to say about what blessing means?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

They’ve come from all around. The nearby villages and towns, but some from Jerusalem and all over Judea, even as far away as Tyre and Sidon. They’re dusty and tired, but they’ve come to see this Jesus that they’ve heard about. They’ve heard he can heal people who have been sick for years. They’ve heard he can cast out demons. They’ve heard about the kingdom he talks about—a kingdom where the blind will see, and the prisoners will be released. And they want to know it for themselves.

Some are poor and hungry, but hope that through seeing Jesus they might be fed. Others are dressed in fine clothes and are curious about what this Jesus means for them. Some are limping with illness and pain after their journeys. Others have rested at inns along the way. And as they watch, he and his newly chosen disciples come down off the mountain. And Jesus stands on a level place with the rest of the crowd. They’re reaching out to him, hoping to touch just a piece of his cloak. Hoping for healing. Hoping for a miracle.

And then he speaks. Only it’s not to heal or to cast out demons. It’s not to teach. It’s to bless them. He speaks right to them, as if they were important people, and says: Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry, blessed are you who weep. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame on account of the Son of Man. Leap for joy and be happy!

They can’t believe it! Surely, they’ve heard him wrong. Blessed are…us poor ones? Who worry every day about how to take care of our families? Who have seen our children go hungry and suffer pain? Who cry in the night, unsure of how to face the next day? No one has ever called us blessed before. No one has seen us anything other than a burden, an inconvenience, a failure. Blessed are…us?

The Beatitudes, what we call these blessings that Jesus offers, are striking in their imagery, but also so very familiar to us. So familiar, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine what it was like hearing them for the first time. How shocking and surprising these blessings are. And, in a sense, how shocking to hear them today. On All Saints’ Sunday, why does the church have us read this list of blessings and woes, and not, maybe, something about saints?

What is All Saints’ Sunday about, anyway? Originally, it started as a feast day to honor all the early Christian martyrs whose names we do not know. Saints with names get their own feast days. But not wanting to forget those countless saints whose names are known only to God, the church began the feast of All Saints. And through the years, we’ve come to recognize not just the unnamed martyrs, but all those who have died in Christ, even especially those that we do know. Those saints who were very much known and loved and cherished by us.

But even as we remember and honor those who have died, All Saints is also about letting that remembrance shape our lives right now. Saint is not just a term that is reserved for those who have died. All of the baptized are saints of God. And that means that God has a purpose for us—right now. Our lives as saints do not begin with our deaths, but with our baptisms. And so, Jesus’ words about blessings and woe speak a powerful message to us saints on earth today.

How ought God’s saints be living and viewing one another? Jesus gives us a different ethic here, a kingdom ethic. To see and treat one another, not as the world does, but the way they are in the kingdom of God. The poor are honored. The grieving are comforted. The hungry are filled with good things. We are to pray for our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to do good for those who would harm us. This is what it means to be part of God’s new kingdom come, says Jesus.

And then there are those pesky woe statements. You notice I haven’t really touched on them yet. Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full now. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you. And this is where many of us might start to squirm in our seats. That sounds like me. I might not consider myself rich, but I certainly have enough. I have a full stomach and a pantry full of food. I’m not perfect, but I think people generally like and respect me. Why are these bad things? Aren’t these really the blessings, instead of poverty and hunger and grief?

But Jesus isn’t describing blessings the way we’re used to. He’s describing what blessing looks like in God’s kingdom. These woes shouldn’t be seen as some eternal damnation—instead think of them as a warning. Watch out! Says Jesus to the rich and full and happy. The things you think are advantages are actually misleading. You’re thinking about the wrong things when you think of blessing. The things you think are good might just be things that are drawing you further from God.

Instead Jesus invites us into a new way of being. A new community, a new social reality. We are invited into the communion of saints—the community of saints. To be a saint literally means to be a holy one, a person set apart. And that is who we are, a holy, set apart people, as we are marked as Christ’s own in baptism. With all the saints—past, present, and future—we get to be God’s body, God’s set apart people, in the world.

As our reading from Ephesians said, we are set apart for God’s purposes in this world. That’s what it means to be a saint. To be marked with God’s love and blessing, and to have that blessing shape us, shape the community we create to fulfill God’s purpose.

In this sermon on the plain, Jesus blesses us. He blesses some more directly than others, but he blesses the entire community gathered by forming as people of God’s kingdom, by shaping us into his body to be blessed and broken for the sake of the world. Rejoice in this day and leap for joy, for you are God’s blessed and holy saints, set apart for God’s purposes in this world. Amen.