Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Crucified God: A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Today on the last Sunday of the Christian calendar, I am with the good people at Christ Church in Fitchburg. As I said to them, it's fun from time to time to be invited to be a "supply priest" - meaning I'm there because the rector needed a substitute this weekend, and not there to talk about clergy transitions. This allows me to focus in more specifically on the readings of the day, which can be found here.  They videotape their sermons at Christ Church, so you can watch my sermon above; or you can read the manuscript below if you prefer. (If you follow along while watching you will notice I have a tendency to deviate a bit from my script, from time to time!)

I’m grateful to be with you today at Christ Church and also grateful to be here with no official diocesan business. This parish is not one of those in the midst of a clergy transition! Ben and Carolyn are just taking some much-deserved time away and I got the call to pinch hit today. What that means is that I get to just focus in on the texts for today, as we celebrate the Feast of “Christ the King” – or we might say, “The Reign of Christ.” It has been 27 weeks since Pentecost. For over six months we’ve been moving through “ordinary time,” methodically hearing bits of Luke’s Gospel week after week. Next week the cycle begins anew and our attention will turn to Matthew’s Gospel as we journey through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost – and then week after week of ordinary time until we again come to Christ the King Sunday.

What exactly does it mean for us, as Christians, to say that we worship a king? And not just any king, but one who was executed as an enemy of the state between two criminals? In a nutshell, that is the great paradox of our faith in full view today. We come here to worship the king, and perhaps looking for Jesus to set things right in our world, or at least to calm our nerves. And then we get a gospel reading that seems to be misplaced – a Good Friday text of crucifixion. It’s powerlessness, not power. It’s about weakness and vulnerability, not yet triumph. 

And yet most of the images and language we use today, including our hymns, point us toward the future, to the culmination of human history. That focus that will continue next weekend as we enter once more the Season of Advent. We look toward Christ’s victorious return, in glory, to set things right: to the time when every knee shall bend and proclaim Jesus as Lord, and the captives are free, and the powers of this world are subdued once and for all. That is all about the power of God and peace on earth and good will to all…

And yet this Good Friday gospel calls our attention not to the Second Coming in triumph but to the end of the first coming on a cross. We are at the place of a skull, Calvary, where this “king of the Jews” is executed between two criminals, one to his right and another on his left. Here the cry, “hail, king of the Jews” is not a cry of the faithful but an abusive taunt from an angry mob. The crown of thorns on his head has been put there to mock him, not worship him. And yet this plea from one of the criminals: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Remember me.

So what can we say about this “kingdom?” There are two very different responses when we think about how that kingdom connects to the kingdoms of this world. Some—and versions can be found both on the left and on the right—think it is their job to bring their version of Christian power to bear on the world. The thing is that this has been tried in Christian history, as in the Holy Roman Empire. Unfortunately when Christians had all the power, they misused it as much as any other kings. The crusades and the inquisition bear witness to the fact that power can corrupt Christians as much as it corrupts anyone.

On the other end of the spectrum is an entirely different approach that keeps “heaven” and “earth” far apart. Faith becomes privatized and spiritualized, a matter only for an hour or so each week. A “wall of separation” develops within us that leads to a kind of spiritual schizophrenia. We can be pious in church, and “realists” in the workplace. Some people would call that hypocrisy

I want to point to a third way by way of quoting a German theologian by the name of Jürgen Moltmann, from a book called The Crucified God. I’ve been ordained long enough to know that this is usually not the way to lure people into a sermon. Jokes, funny stories, personal antidotes usually work much better than German theologians. But I pray that you’ll stay with me anyway. Here goes: 

The God of freedom, the true God, is... not recognized by his power and glory in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus.

Now hold that thought for a minute or two…

National elections come and go which means that presidents come and go. Even nations come and go. But in the meantime, in the ordinary times of our lives (and in extraordinary times, too) we are called to be the Church. We come here today to worship the living God and we leave here to go back to our homes and our places of work and play to follow Jesus the Christ, whose will it is (as we prayed today in our opening collect) “to restore all things in your well-beloved Son.”
We surely need this restoration! We know what it means to be peoples of the earth divided and enslaved by sin. What’s hard to imagine is what freedom in Christ looks like – what it means to be brought together under Christ’s most gracious rule.  Not forced, but invited to come and see. I think we come to a place like Christ Church to get a glimpse of it. We come here to practice: Republicans and Democrats and Independents and even the 43% of Americans who didn’t vote in the recent presidential election. All are welcome at one table where there is one bread and one cup and one Lord.

We come here to practice praying for our president week after week. For some among us it may have been really challenging to pray for our president, Barack, over the past eight years, while others were filled with joy. For some among us it will be really challenging to pray for Donald, our president-elect, even as others are filled with joy. But we are able to come together to do this because we know that our true allegiance is not to party or president or even nation, which all need our prayers. Our true allegiance is to the king of kings, and the lord of lords. His gracious rule binds us together through Holy Baptism.

This brings me back to Moltmann and The Crucified God and to those words I shared earlier. If you hear nothing else I have said or will say today, I want to commend his insights to you alongside this gospel reading from Golgatha, the touchstone of our faith, at the place of the skull where our king and our lord is executed on a tree between two criminals.  

The God of freedom, the true God, is... not recognized by his power and glory in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus.

God is not a coercer. The Church sometimes is. Pastors sometimes are and yes, even canons and bishops and lay people sometimes are. We lord it over one another with our ideologies, our certitudes. “It’s my way or the highway” we say or maybe we don’t say it with words but our actions belie our intentions. “I’ve been a member here for my whole life; if you do that, I’ll take my pledge and go somewhere else!”

But the God of freedom, the true God, the God revealed to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, is not about that kind of kingdom or that way of lording it over one another. The true God, is recognized through his weakness and helplessness and his death on the cross. This is the scandal that binds us together regardless of who we voted for: that we dare to see the face of the crucified God in the face of this man from Galilee who was executed between two criminals.

Now here’s the thing: while we know that is not the end of the story, while we know about the empty tomb and all the rest – that doesn’t change Good Friday. It doesn’t change the way Jesus died or how God is revealed in the world.

What I think this means is that our work is first and foremost to pay attention to those places in this world where there is weakness and helplessness and death. It’s not political to say that we have an addiction problem in this nation, in this Commonwealth, in this county - and that opiods are killing our young people and we need to pay attention to that. It's not political to say that might be among migrant workers who may or may not have all of their paperwork in order. It’s not political to say that it might be among refugees fleeing persecution and violence in Syria. It’s not political to say that it’s in visiting those who are in prison or those who are in a VA hospital. It’s gospel work to care for those on the margins, because it is on the margins that we find God and discover our shared vocation. That’s where we see the face of Christ in our own world.

God has given us this work to do in order to be the Church. Sometimes that will make us good citizens and sometimes that work will cause us to protest. And here’s the thing – we may not all agree on which is which on any given Sunday. That is why we need each other and need to continue to be formed, daily, by the God who is revealed in Jesus, who challenges all of our ideologies.

I was saddened to hear from at least two people recently that they were cancelling Thanksgiving because they couldn’t do it this year because of political divisions in their families. This breaks my heart. But here is what I know – even when blood ties are strained, the ties that bind us together in Holy Baptism are stronger still. We come here to say our prayers and to offer the Great Thanksgiving and to glimpse the truth that we are called to respect the dignity of every human being. That we are called to just do two things: love God and love our neighbor. And that in so doing, we become a witness to the world. In so doing we become salt, and light, and yeast that changes the world.  

We come here to remember that Jesus really is Lord and king of kings – and that our allegiance to him helps us to do this work with gratitude and hope, until he comes again. 

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