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November 21, 2004 (Last Pentecost: The Reign of Christ)—“This Jesus Who Is Our King”
Pastor David Barber
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ, but for many of us this Sunday has been known throughout the years as Christ the King. This festival, which is the last Sunday in the long season of Pentecost and the last Sunday in the church year, is relatively new in the church calendar.
It's a creation of Pope Pius the IX in 1925. The church had always celebrated images of Christ as king, but it really needed it now in this time.
On the first celebration of Christ the King Sunday, Mussolini had been dictator of Italy for three years. A rabble-rouser by the name of Adolph Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi Party was growing in popularity. And the world was at the brink of a great economic depression.
In such a time, Pope Pus the IX asserted that "nevertheless" Christ is King of the universe. "In the midst of all the godlessness we see in the modern world," he declared, 'nevertheless,' Christ is King."
Despite the rise of dictators, despite the collapse of a world economy, the festival of Christ the King proclaimed that "nevertheless" Christ is Lord and he shall reign forever and ever. The kingdoms of this world will totter and sway. Our own private worlds will totter and sway, but "nevertheless," we are not without hope.
Though death and illness may confront us--"though mountains shake in the heart of the sea," says the Psalmist--though life comes apart at the seams, Jesus the King is our refuge and our strength. Jesus the King is God's great "nevertheless" in times of trouble.
Now, all of this kind of language paints a picture for us of a triumphant and victorious monarch, but that's certainly not the scene that unfolds in our gospel for today is it?
This Jesus whom we proclaim to be our king is anything but victorious and triumphant. He's crucified between two criminals. His clothes are divided and given as "perks" to the soldiers who performed this execution by crucifixion.
He is derided and scoffed at by the religious leaders, the soldiers, and even one of the criminals. They taunt him and bait him by saying, "Save yourself, if you are the Messiah, God's Chosen One." And the people stood by, passively watching. This is the kind of king we see in our gospel for today.
That's not the kind of king that most of us in this country at least want to worship and follow. We want a regal and powerful sovereign that will "kick some butt" especially the butt of our enemies. We want a Superman or a Spiderman that will leap tall buildings and be victorious over evil.
But this kind of a king--a king who forgives even those who are responsible for his death--and a king who says to the undeserving low-life beside him, "Today, you will be with me in Paradise"--this is the man we honor as king? This sounds more like a spoof from "Saturday Night Live."
Susan Andrews, Moderator for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., tells us that our attention isn't drawn by the rough and ruthless royalty of power on this Sunday but by the vulnerable grace of a wounded Lord.
It's a setting where we find ourselves not complete and not in charge. But rather we find ourselves, shattered and hanging on the crosses of our own failures--looking to Jesus to save us and to make us whole. It's a setting where we find God with us and with our world in our pain and in our need.
A Jewish folktale, adapted by William White, speaks of the reign that God offers us. It's not the reign of power and success and individual achievement. Rather, it's a kingdom marked by love and connection and compassion for which Jesus lived and died.
There once was a poor man who grew weary of the corruption and the hatred that he saw every day. He was tired of the constant injustice that his people experienced, and the loneliness of his isolated living.
His family and friends listened as he spoke passionately of his desire for a city where justice was honored and where personal wholeness could be found. Night after night he dreamed of a city where heaven touched earth.
One day he announced that he could wait no longer. He packed a meager meal, kissed his wife and children, and set out in search of the magical city of his dreams. He walked all day and just before the sunset, he found a place to sleep just off the road, in a forest.
He ate his sandwich, said his prayers and smoothed the earth where he would lie. Just before he went to sleep, he placed his shoes in the center of the path, pointing in the direction he would continue the next day.
That night a sly fellow was walking the same path and discovered the traveler's shoes. Unable to resist a practical joke, he turned the shoes around, pointing them in the direction from which the man had come. (Considering God's sense of humor and God's way of doing things, was this an angel or a messenger from God?)
Early the next morning the traveler arose, said his prayers, ate what remained of the food he had brought, and started his journey by walking in the direction his shoes pointed. He walked all day long, and just before sunset he saw the heavenly city off in the distance.
It wasn't as large as he had expected, and it looked strangely familiar. He entered a street that looked much like his own, knocked on a familiar door, greeted the family--who turned out to be his family--and lived happily ever after in the heavenly city of his dreams.
The reign of God where Jesus is proclaimed as king is not somewhere else--off in some distant world. It's here where we live and work and play.
It's not found away from the conflict and turmoil, the failure and the need of our lives and the lives of others. It's found where our lives are shattered and wherever our hunger is the deepest. It's found where we, too, yearn to be forgiven, and where we, too, need Jesus to remember us.
Through our baptism Jesus invites, encourages, and persuades us into a way of life that includes us as partners in his kingdom that brings wholeness not only for ourselves but also for our weary and worn world. That's why we confess our faith using the creed from South Africa this morning.
On this festival day it's much more traditional to confess our faith using the words of the Nicene Creed. And yet, in keeping with the vulnerability of our wounded and crucified king, the South African Creed does a better job of defining what it means that Jesus is king in our lives.
For if Jesus is king, then that has so many implications for the way we operate in the world and the way we live our lives. It has so many implications for how we use our money and our resources, how we relate to the people and the countries we call our enemies, and even the methods we use to counter acts of terror throughout our world.
In our Adult Education Class that Katy is leading, the theme is "How Lutherans Interpret the Bible." It's a very timely and interesting class because some of the issues about which we find ourselves polarized in this country has to do with the way we interpret the Bible.
The speaker mentioned that Lutherans are "Jesus people." Unfortunately, this term carries with it a lot of baggage that isn't very helpful, but I do think that it's a good description of who we are. Not everything in the Bible pertains to Jesus, and to say that it does is a misreading of Scripture.
But we can look at Scripture through the lens and the glasses of Jesus. We do know how Jesus lived and died, what he taught, how he treated others, and how he invites us and calls us to live our lives. And it seems to be that his are the "true moral values" that we need to lift up and the "true moral values" that guide our lives.
No, Jesus didn't address every sticky issue that we face today, and we can only guess what he might tell us about such issues. But we do have some clues, and we use these clues to make the best decisions that we can knowing full well that we might be wrong.
Recently, I read an article about Parker Palmer--a writer, teacher, and activist. He was leading a retreat for government officials in Washington D.C., all of whom were motivated by an ethic of public service.
One staffer from the Department of Agriculture reported that he had on his desk a controversial proposal aimed at preserving Midwest topsoil, which is disappearing rapidly due to short-sighted farming methods employed by agribusiness.
This official himself had been a farmer in Iowa for a quarter of a century, and was sympathetic to the bill, though his superior opposed it. By the end of the retreat this man had decided that he had to follow his farmer's heart and promote the proposal, come what may.
When asked how he would handle his boss, this farmer-turned bureaucrat said the retreat had helped him remember something important: "I don't report to my boss. I report to the land." And who knows, maybe he'll be reporting to the land sooner than he thinks.
It's the same for us on this day as we celebrate The Reign of Christ. We report to Jesus--the one who spoke from the cross these words of forgiveness, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
We report to Jesus who has shown us that strength is not associated with violence or the willingness to strike with deadly force to protect our way of life and our security. It's not the same as being "tough on terrorism."
We report to Jesus who showed us through his life and through his death that God is not the enemy of our enemies and that God is going to get them.
But rather he equips us with the power to forgive, the power to be gracious, and the power to give ourselves away in suffering love even when it seems to be an impossible thing to do.
If this Jesus is our king, then this is whom we follow--not a triumphant and victorious king who floats above the troubles and the sufferings of our lives and our world.
But rather we follow the one who didn't save himself but gave himself away in suffering love for others. This king invites us to be partners with him in the healing of our broken world.
Copyright © 2004 David Barber
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