November 24, 2019 – Sermon

Christ the King Sunday November 24, 2019 Psalm 65, Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43 Christ our king

The sign the empire hangs above the cross of Jesus says: “This is the king of the Jews.” Meaning (lest there be any misunderstanding–) this is what happens to those who preach justice – mercy – faith in the God who made heaven and earth – instead of bending knees to the worship of power, privilege, prestige and wealth – the gods of empire. This is what happens to those who bring eye-sight to the blind, forgiveness for sin, and new life to the dead. The power of the empire of this world depends on the blind staying blind – sin unforgiven – the dead staying dead. The good order of the empire depends on everything remaining in it’s proper place in the established order.

The crucifixion, above all, is meant to cast fear – fear among Jesus’ followers and anyone who might be thinking to become one. Fear also for the nation of Israel. Watch out! This can happen to all of you. If you push back on the powers-that-be.

And the message of fear is working. The crowds who were greeting Jesus with glad shouts of hosanna when he entered Jerusalem a week ago – crowds who hung on his every word as he taught in the temple courtyard…Have now turned against Jesus… They’ve begun to defect during the night…that starts with Christ’s last supper with disciples… and continues through the long, darkening night – as one apostle betrays him – another denies him – the rest desert him…As Jesus is arrested and put on trial before the religious leaders – and Pilate – then Herod – then Pilate again with faith community leaders and crowds under their sway together… Now the crowds watch in stunned silence as Jesus is crucified…
Religious leaders who have given Jesus to Rome for execution taunt him. Soldiers cast lots for his clothing, mocking, scorning, challenging him to save himself from death by crucifixion – the cruelest, most painful and humiliating death-penalty option – reserved for murderers and rebels.
Jesus, crucified with criminals, Jesus in the middle – main threat to good order…
Hanging, dying…Taunted…
He cries –
“Father, forgive! They don’t know what they do!”

One of the two bandits crucified with Jesus mocks and taunts him…
But the one on the other side of Jesus has somehow seen in Jesus – something of the heart of God… that causes him to rebuke the other criminal, saying “we deserve what we’re getting for our deeds – but this man’s done nothing wrong. Crying – “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
And Jesus says – “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We’re celebrating Christ the King Sunday. And what kind of king is Jesus?

A king so very different from all the kings of this world – that hardly anyone other than this dying criminal on the cross recognizes Jesus as king – while he’s among us in the flesh. And…

It’s still hard for me to recognize Jesus as King – even with our reading from Colossians confirming Jesus truly is God’s-own-first-born-from-the-dead, who is now to have first place in everything – in whom all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell – through whom God is pleased to reconcile to himself all things on earth and heaven. Even while I’ve been saying these verses from our second reading (and Thought for the Week) every day – it’s still hard for me to picture Jesus as King in this world…

Probably because I’ve been reading the newspaper too much and noticing too often – most rulers in this world, regardless of religious affiliation, don’t look much like Jesus – coming into his kingdom dying on a cross, criminals on either side of him. I agree with the title in principle, but… So far it’s much easier for me to think of Jesus as Savior and Friend… than as King.

I may perhaps have too-worldly a view of what kings are supposed to look like. But as I recall the images of kings and rulers in the bible, it’s hard to find positive images… Except for God, the King.

Through the four Sundays of Advent and in the Christmas season that follows we’ll revisit the birth stories of Jesus and the story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing King Herod, who is out to kill baby Jesus, having heard the Magi declare another King of Israel, not of the family of Herod, has been born. Then after Christmas we’ll be reminded of how Jesus reveals his kingdom’s presence most often among those disregarded and disrespected in the world.

We’ll hear Jesus say more than once – in his kingdom the last will often be first and the first will often be last. And we notice today, near the end of Luke’s gospel, the honored religious leaders of the nation who have claimed to be first – colluding now with the Roman Empire to have Jesus executed – while those who have been last – represented by a criminal condemned for crimes he admits to – receives the promise of Paradise with Jesus… Asking simply –
Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
And Jesus answers – Today you will be with me in Paradise.
Sacred scripture is written for us – but it was written first of all for people living in different times and places, who spoke different languages, who often thought in different thought patterns than we’re accustomed to. We can draw lessons for life from all of scripture – but we need to do so with humility and due caution… (and sometimes holy chutzpah) all at once. (For example – )

By way of context for biblical kings, we do well to re-read 1st Samuel ch 8 – where God tells Samuel to tell Israel – having kings like all the other nations have is your own very bad idea. Not my idea, God says. And God goes on to tell Israel (and the rest of us, indirectly) many a time – “I told you so” – as another and yet-another wickedly dysfunctional king takes power. Which comes to mind because some have a habit of claiming God has chosen a particular candidate for office.

I (for the record) do not know who God prefers for president. But re-reading the book of Kings and the scroll of Jeremiah, where false positive claims for God’s endorsement abound, I’m concerned for anyone claiming to know who God is endorsing… There’s a high risk here of wishful thinking becoming delusional.

I hasten to confess – I too, can be delusional. I recognize the tendency in myself to project my personal likes and dislikes onto God.

Spiritual safety lies in knowing what we don’t know. So I’m practicing biting my tongue to refrain from saying more than I should…at least in public. I’m a slow learner, but I’m learning from experience… And I have a little experience in the political realm…
As a lobbyist and short-term political staffer in my younger days I knew many of the players in the legislature and executive branch in Vermont. A small, rural, somewhat unusual state – in that it’s still small enough for people to know each other… And because of it’s human scale, I was able to learn some lessons about the world of politics that also apply to the world of faith – including –
The importance of having friends you disagree with. It’s always helpful to hear how others think, and how they hear what you say. And listening and talking with people I haven’t agreed with on issues that we care about (sometimes passionately)… I’ve learned it’s alright to disagree – and keep talking… And find things we can agree on… Often finding more basis for enduring friendship… than I had imagined.

Being able to discuss things we disagree on – while maintaining both our convictions and our friendships is an art that takes practice. And we need to keep practicing, because civility is under attack all over the world today…

And part of our spiritual practice should be thanking God anytime we notice grace happening… So I’m thanking God for a very brief encounter after our memorial service this past Friday. As people were leaving our church, I got to say thank you to Randy Hunt, a state representative and friend of Millie and Bud’s family, who has announced he’s retiring at the end of his term. I thanked him for speaking out often this year on the lack of civility in so much of today’s political life. Thanked him for being an example of civility.

That kind of bipartisan and non-partisan civility was once considered normal, at least in Vermont. I remember many close friendships across party lines and ideological divides. Remember having lunch in the State house cafeteria, with legislators who were political polar opposites. Saying to each other and me (cause I was there and it wasn’t a secret) – “Yes, we vote against each other every day. And yes, we’re still good friends.”

What I began to learn in those days – and need to keep learning, always – is
whenever we talk – in the worlds of faith, politics, governance and wherever values contest with each other and sometimes collide – how important it is – to stay in the conversation, confessing that we don’t know all the answers. Remembering only God is all-knowing. Only God knows how to rule justly, mercifully, wisely, inclusively with deep love for all, all the time.

And since only God knows all the answers – let’s keep asking God to be in all our conversations, as we keep learning from God to read the word of God prayerfully, asking God for light and wisdom as we seek to apply scripture’s teachings. Praying for those we agree with – and those we disagree with – that we may all come together looking to Jesus… Learning from him… how to live together…
And as we do this together we surely find… we’re so close now to the kingdom of God… that we recognize Jesus, together… as our one and only true King…for us all…

Thanks be to God. Amen.