Sermon: Sunday, November 24, 2013: Reign of Christ

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6  +  Psalm 46  +  Colossians 1:11-20  +  Luke 23:33-43

Tara arriving in the United States.

Tara arriving in the United States.

My sister was six years old when my family adopted her from Thailand. For six years she’d eaten Thai food, watched Thai television, played with Thai children, and — most importantly — spoken Thai. Imagine yourself at age six: how much you’d already grown, and learned, about who you were and what could be expected from the world around you. Now imagine all of that changing essentially overnight.

My folks and I flew to Bangkok, Thailand and spent about a week getting to know Tara before bringing her home with us. First, a visit to the adoption agency where we spent a few hours together. Then, a sight-seeing day-trip, supervised by her social worker. Finally, an overnight at the guest house where we were staying. Then she was on a plane with us, heading to the United States, where everything was different. The food, the weather, the big house with a private bedroom she didn’t have to share with anyone else, and Jesus.

Tara learned her English in bits and pieces. Names of foods and people and places came first. Simple verbs in the present tense. Our early conversations were very basic, no abstract concepts. “I want pancakes,” or “We go church.” So, when Tara burst forth with her first theological question, it was memorable.

We were sitting around the dinner table preparing to eat with the same prayer I’d been saying every night since I could remember: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest. Amen.” Suddenly, Tara asked, “Where Jesus? We eat, we say Jesus. We sleep, we say Jesus. I no see Jesus. Where he? He hiding?”

When the apostle Paul writes, “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son…” (Col. 1:13) it reminds me of my sister’s experience of coming to the United States — not  in the sense that Thailand was somehow a place of darkness, or the United States an outpost of the reign of Christ. Just that, I have a memory of how hard that transfer was for Tara, every day being surrounded by sights and signs and symbols for things she’d always known and done, but being forced to see them and speak about them in a new way. Even her name was new in this new place.

The same is true for we who bear the name of Christ. We live and move and have our being in a world filled with foods, and rituals and relationships, but we are asked, over and over, to see them and speak about them in a new way. The man who shuffles slowly down the sidewalk, talking to himself, we call brother. The woman whose work is paid under the table, and not well enough to support her family, we call sister. The child whose swagger and swearing is intended to push us away we invite in, and call friend. The water that welcomes us into this house changes our names. The food we eat at this table goes by the name Jesus.

“Where Jesus? We eat, we say Jesus. We sleep, we say Jesus. I no see Jesus. Where he? He hiding?”

Paul goes on to say, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col. 1:15-17)

There’s something ironic to me about the fact that it is Paul, and not Peter or one of the other apostles who had accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry, who says, “he is the image of the invisible God.” Paul, who had never laid eyes on Jesus, who was blinded as he traveled the road to Damascus, who heard the voice of Jesus asking him, “why do you persecute me?” This Paul is the one who says, “he is the image of the invisible God.”

Paul knew in his own flesh what it meant to be rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the reign of God. He, who had been a violent opponent of the Jesus movement, who was present at the stoning of the apostle Stephen and approved of his murder, who entered home after home of the church in Jerusalem, and threw its men and women into prison, he was the one God chose to carry the message of reconciliation out from Jerusalem to the far corners of the known world. Someone who had never laid eyes on Jesus.

The reign of God is not like anything we have been taught to expect in this world. The gospel of Luke, which we have been reading throughout this past year, and which we will soon set down as we prepare to begin a new year in the life of the church next week as Advent leads us into the gospel of Matthew, has presented us with parable after parable about the foreignness of God’s reign of forgiveness.  The reign of God is like a father who forgives his son for wasting the family fortune, and welcomes him home with open arms. The reign of God is like a shepherd who foolishly leaves ninety-nine sheep alone to go after the one who is lost. The reign of God is like a wealthy man who throws a party, and invites the poor, the blind and the weak to enter his house. Images of the reign of God.

Jesus’ own life has read like one of his parables. After being baptized at the Jordan, and being named God’s Son, the Beloved, Jesus wanders in the wilderness where he is tempted, three times, to use that mantle, that power to distance himself from God’s people. Those three temptations are mirrored again at the end, in the final passage we will hear from Luke’s gospel this year.  Now Jesus is on the cross, and three times he is mocked by those who are killing him, “save yourself!”

They have fundamentally misunderstood him, Jesus, the one whose name means “God saves.” Because he did not come to save himself. He came to save a world full of common criminals. As common as you and me. Even on the cross, in the hour of his death, Jesus looks with mercy on a man who confesses that he is getting exactly what he deserves for his crimes, and says, “today you will be with me in paradise.”

But this is the kind of God we have come to know in Jesus. The kind of God who looks at a criminal with compassion, sealing his record so that his sins might be forgiven and he might enter with joy into the paradise of communion with God.

Maybe Paul, who never saw Jesus, but laid eyes on so many who followed him, heard that story, the one about Jesus forgiving the criminal on the cross. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but somehow he went from being the kind of man who persecuted Christians to the kind of man who voluntarily stayed in his prison cell to spare the life of his jailor and to witness to the power of God to heal and transform every place on earth, even the ones we imagine to be God-forsaken — like our prisons, and their execution chambers.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is one to people he also had never seen, only heard of through the testimony of the rest of the church as it spread across the Mediterranean. He writes to them to encourage them in their faith, to exhort them to exercise judgment in separating the ways of the world from the ways of Christ Jesus, and to call them to love.  The verses we’ve heard this morning sound an awful lot like a creed, in that they are a series of propositions about who Christ is — the head of the body, the church; the beginning, the firstborn from the dead in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God is reconciling all things, making peace through the cross (Col. 1:18-19).

Language is learned through repetition. We didn’t have a way to answer Tara’s questions, “where Jesus? He hiding?” given the vocabulary she had at the time. All we could do was to keep bringing her to church. Here she began to pick up fragments of songs, phrases that she could remember: “worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God” and “Lord God, lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us.”

Soon she began to understand who Jesus was, where he was, even though she hadn’t seen him. Like Paul hadn’t seen him. Because she saw the cross, and later she spent some time on it, like you and I have. And, oh, what mercy God has shown to each of us in those moments when we have found ourselves in the worst of our suffering — even suffering we can admit, like the criminal who hung next to Jesus, is sometimes the just punishment for our misdeeds. Because God did not send Jesus to save himself, but to save us. To rescue us from solitude and restore us to community. To reconcile us to God and to one another. To bring vision to our downcast eyes by lifting them to the glories of a paradise where all are welcome, regardless of their past or their present. To follow us and to find us and to finally bring us home.

This is Jesus, who is not hiding, but is with us. Now and forever. Thanks be to God!



Sermon: Sunday, August 4, 2013: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Hosea 11:1-11  +  Psalm 107:1-9,43  +  Colossians 3:1-11  +  Luke 12:13-21

Isn’t it a joy to see so many children back in this church?

I remember asking the call committee that interviewed me back in 2006, “Imagine that it’s the future, that we’ve been working together to rebuild the church for a few years, and that it’s been working.  As you look around the church, what is the evidence that we’ve been successful?”  And a member of the committee said, “Children.  There would be children again.”

When we began our redevelopment together back in 2006, there were two children in this congregation, James and Lynda Deacon.  They were both in high school.  Now they are both adults, but in their place there are so many more children!  The first wave of children brought to this congregation are now in elementary school. Another batch have recently been born and baptized. I have enjoyed watching over the last few years the number of children coming forward for the Children’s Sermon slowly growing.  The children are returning to St. Luke’s.

My own god-children are growing up so quickly. My youngest, Kai, was born just last year.  I was there in the hospital on the day she entered the world.  I remember how tiny and fragile she looked, minutes after she was born.  Now she fearlessly climbs stairs and chairs and orders her mothers around, insistently telling them where to sit and bringing them books to read to her.  My eldest, who hasn’t been a child in a very long time, who graduated from seminary earlier this year, has already taken her first call to serve a church just outside Washington, DC and will be officially ordained this fall.  She’s a grown woman, but in my mind I can still remember how easily she fit in my arms on the day of her baptism.

Yesterday I visited with Ryan and Gina Gray in their home as their daughter, Chiara, napped on Gina’s chest. Next Sunday we’ll baptize her. I will hold her in my arms and pour water over her head and name her as a child of God. I will walk her down the center aisle and introduce you all to your new sister in Christ. Our hopes for Chiara will never be higher, and her dependence on her parents and other loving adults will never be more obvious.

But, as she grows, as that dependence is replaced with a growing independence, we fully expect that Chiara will test the limits of her relationship to her parents and those who care for her.  We can already see that the first wave of children to arrive at St. Luke’s, now in grade school, are beginning to pull away from their parents so that they can discover more and more who they will be in the world apart from them.  We can look at the young men of Boy Scout Troop 115 who’ve joined us this morning to celebrate the achievements of their friend, Noah, and recognize that in what will seem like the blink of an eye, the infants we held in our arms have grown into young adults who are required to make a thousand decisions everyday about what kind of people they will be in this world.  Who they will model themselves after, who they will listen to, who they will trust.

In the gospel reading from Luke this morning, a person asks Jesus to get involved in a family matter, to take on the role of judge in a dispute between siblings over a family inheritance.  It’s a role that parents with more than one child, or teachers in a classroom, are familiar with.  The child comes to the adult crying, “she took it from me, it’s not fair!”  From the earliest of ages, adults begin to try and teach children to resolve their own conflicts, we encourage them to share and we watch with an ever-changing mixture of patience and frustration as they struggle to treat other children, other people, like subjects instead of objects.

Jesus, like a parent trying to help her children grow into responsible adults, doesn’t step in and resolve the petitioner’s problem.  Instead, he turns to the crowd and tells them a parable about a man so rich he has to tear down his barns and build larger ones to store all that he has accumulated.  In his wealth, the rich man imagines he will have all the best things in life, never considering that he could lose it all in a minute. That he might die, and his belongings immediately pass to another.

As always, Jesus’ parables feel like an odd way to have a conversation.  A person came to Jesus for a ruling on a family matter.  Instead of giving that person a ruling, Jesus gave that person a story and implied that the person could figure it out from there.

If I were the person who’d asked the question, the person who wanted an authority to step in and solve my problems for me, this parable might have reminded me that life is fragile and short, and that the materials goods I long for now aren’t longing for me in return.  When I die, my possessions don’t miss me.  They are simply redistributed.  They will belong to someone else, and they’ll be no more loyal to that person than they were to me.

Jesus suggests that storing up treasures for one’s self is different than living a life that is rich toward God.  Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, equates greed with idolatry and calls on those who follow Jesus to give up their lusting after wealth and other idols and to be renewed.  In language that evokes our own baptisms, Paul says,

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (Col. 3:9-11)

Paul suggests that renewal and reconciliation are intimately tied up with each other.  Turning away from the idolatry of greed, we remember that we belong to Christ, in whom we have been baptized.  In that identity, all the old distinctions are obliterated, and we see that we belong to one another, like family, in spite of every line devised to divide us.

This life lesson is hardly new. In fact, this sermon is hardly new. Every day we pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” and within minutes we are day-dreaming about saving up more than what we need so that we can have more while other make do with less. Lives are wasted in accumulation and consumption. Parents miss out on the best years of their relationship to their children, putting in long hours at the office. Siblings quarrel over their inheritances, losing not only the goods they long for, but their irreplaceable relationships as well. Nations, and the corporate interests they serve, create massive global suffering as they redistribute the goods of the earth in ways that privilege a very few at the expense of the overwhelming majority.

“My people are bent on turning away from me,” God says through the prophet Hosea.  “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”

calendarWhat fruitless sacrifices have you made in your lives?  What worthless investments have you committed yourselves to?  If you look at your calendar, or your checkbook, who or what would emerge as the object of your worship?  What really has your attention?

And, who else is paying the price for the sacrifices you might imagine you are making alone?  Is it your spouse, or your children?  Is it your parents or your family and friends?  Is it your neighbor?  Is it people you may never see, or have to look in the eye?  Who else pays the price for the distance you put between yourself and other people?

Finally, what is the price that you yourself pay for chasing after illusions of achievement, idols of wealth, myths of independence.  What have you lost along the way?

Economists and psychologists and students of human behavior will tell us that one of the sad features of our psyches is that we will continue to invest in a bad decision long past any hope of a good return in an effort to redeem what has already been lost.  We will continue to chase down the illusions of success, the dreams of independence, well past the point at which is becomes clear that our efforts are being wasted.  We will continue to exact the costs of our poor judgement on ourselves and those we love long after we’ve ceased to see any return in our investment in an effort to redeem ourselves.

I suppose the same could be said of God, who roars, “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hos. 11:9)  Yet, God continues to throw good money after bad on us.  God continues to hold out hope that we will make our way back to the love that created and claimed us.

All this time, while we’ve been out chasing after idols, God has been chasing after us.  Wrapped up in our delusions of independence, invested in our self-constructions, we can no longer see what God has never forgotten: each of us, and all of us together, like infants you lift to your cheek so you can brush your lips against that newborn skin, so you can catch a whiff of that smell.  God remembers what we have forgotten, that we were all that tiny, and fragile, and dependent once.  That we still are.  That we depend on love that comes to us in the form of bottomless grace and new beginnings each day.

After all our wanderings and infidelities, after all the heartbreak we have caused God and one another, God still says, “I will return them to their homes.”  This is God’s word for us.  This is God’s word for you.