Sermons

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!

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 25, 2012: Reign of Christ Sunday

Texts:   Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and Psalm 93  •   Revelation 1:4b-8  •   John 18:33-37

Grace and the peace that passes all understanding be with you, my brothers and sisters, in the name of Christ our King.  Amen.

As we gather at the end of this Thanksgiving weekend — days filled, for many of us, with travel to see family and friends; tables filled with extravagant food and drink as a reminder of the abundance with which we are blessed, even in these trying financial times — I am feeling truly thankful for events taking place far from Chicago.  When we gathered a week ago for worship, we were praying for peace in Gaza.  The following day a handful of us took part in a peace rally downtown that drew thousands of people here in Chicago as similar events took place around the world.  On Wednesday, as families in the United States prepared to take stock of their lives and give thanks for their many blessings, a ceasefire was negotiated between the nation of Israel and the leaders of Hamas, the party in power in Gaza. After seven days of fighting, two hundred Israelis and Palestinians were dead and over a thousand had been wounded. While the ceasefire is holding for now, a more lasting peace is still far off on the horizon.

The conflicts in Israel and the Palestinian territories are being fought on lands that have seen the rise and fall of the most ancient of nations, the first being the Mesopotamians who inhabited what is now called Iraq.  The Mesopotamian empires gave us cuneiform, the first form of writing.  They were amazingly complex politically, religiously, socially.  Now they are gone.

The Mesopotamian empires passed officially into history when they were conquered by Alexander the Great as part of his crusade to conquer the world.  This began what historians call the Hellenistic Age, which lasted until 31 BCE when the Egyptians were defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Actium, prompting their queen, Cleopatra, to commit suicide – famously re-enacted 2000 years later by Elizabeth Taylor.

The Roman Empire should be more familiar to us, since it serves as the backdrop to the gospels and the life of the early church.  When we hear the stories of Caesar Augustus and King Herod, we are hearing tales from the Roman Empire.  It was hostile to the early church, and was the cause of many Christian martyrs… until the Emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century made Christianity the religion of the Empire.  That was reputedly good for the Christians, but didn’t do much for the Roman Empire, which fell about 100 years later to Germanic invaders.

I could go on and tell you all about the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which held together for the most part for three hundred years of so.  Somewhere in there you’d hear the story of a scuffle in which a monk named Luther played a bit of a part, leading to a deterioration of the Empire and the formation of smaller nations: Austria, Prussia and the like.  That left room for the rise of the British Empire, which prided itself on being the most extensive empire in the history of the world, boasting that the sun never set on its lands.  By the early years of the twentieth century the British empire counted over 450 million people in its territories and holdings.

The wars of the twentieth century brought that empire to a close however, and began what TIME/LIFE publisher Henry Luce called “The American Century.”  Historians mark the American Century as beginning with the Spanish-American war and reaching its peak during the fever pitch of the Cold War during the 1980s. From 2003 until just about this time last year the United States had troops on the ground back in Mesopotamia – or Iraq.  The costs of that war, along with the one in Afghanistan, has left our country with tremendous debt and has eroded our ability to maintain and expand the social infrastructure that creates growth and prosperity – which has prompted many around the world to remark that the American Century is now over.

So many beginnings and so many endings, and each time the same story: empires built on the spoils of war, empires crushed by failure at war, empires called into being and replaced, over and over again.  Where do we suppose it will end?

When you tell the story of our human history, when you hear the bloody tale of nations and wars, it is enough to make you run for cover.  In the face of the stormclouds of war, we wonder if there are boats sturdy enough to carry us through the storm and safely to the far shore.  In a world of violence we naturally look for sanctuary.

Well friends, we need not look far.  This sanctuary in which we sit is both safe refuge and sturdy transport.  In fact, and I’m sure you know this already, but the area in which you are sitting – what we call the nave – get its name from marine terminology.  Can you hear the similarity between the words: nave, navy, naval?  The intent, when our mothers and fathers in the faith named their worship spaces, was that we would remember that God has acted to provide safe refuge from the destructions of life.  Like Noah’s ark that carried a remnant safely across “the thunders of mighty waters” [Ps. 93:4], this sanctuary is God’s gift to us as we make our way in a violent world.

Later this morning we’ll hear from Lyn Westman who works with Mercy Ships, an international Christian ministry that brings medical aid and assistance to some of the poorest people and nations in the world — a ministry that takes the shape of this sanctuary quite literally.

But it doesn’t end there, because this sanctuary is not only the boat that carries us across the waters, it is also the far shore to which we are headed.  You see, it appears that God has something far more grand in store for us than sheltering us from the wars of one world, only to drop us in the conflicts of whichever empire is coming next.  No, instead God has lifted us out of not just one nation, but every nation, and made of us an entirely new people.  You heard it in the reading from Revelation, “to [God] who loves us and freed us… and made us to be a kingdom.”

This is very difficult to imagine, that God is lifting us out of our many and varied backgrounds and creating something new, a new body, a new family, a new kingdom, a new nation.  It’s something so new, that we struggle even to find good words or symbols that can teach us the meaning of what God is doing.  But we try.

Let’s imagine then that this sanctuary in which we gather is not only a nave, not only a ship, but that it has, and does and will carry us into a new way of being in the world.  Let’s imagine together what it might be like to disembark from this ship and enter into this new land on these imagined shores.  It’s as though we’ve arrived at Ellis Island, having left the old country behind us – except the nation that we are about to step foot in is not the United States.  It is, as Jesus speaks it to Pilate in today’s gospel a kingdom “not from this world.”  Something brand new, difficult to imagine, but for which we have been given signs.

So if this were an Ellis Island experience, the first thing we would have to worry about is immigration.  Having weathered the storms of life, of war and of death, we might wonder whether or not we would even be granted access to this new and promised land.  What might we look to in the sanctuary to teach us about the immigration policy in God’s new nation?

We HAVE been given a sign and a sacrament to teach us something about who is welcome in this kingdom, and it is baptism.  These waters marked entrance into the kingdom for each of us.  These waters, the tears of God, are an open door for everyone.  We wash babies and we wash the aged and dying in these waters, and in both cases the water is a gift, not a right or an entitlement.  This is the immigration policy in God’s new nation: come one and come all, there is plenty of room.

Now that we have entered into this new land we are refugees and immigrants.  So, like all refugees and immigrants we have some very basic necessities that we must attend to: what will we eat and how will we support ourselves?  We might be concerned, seeing how immigrants in those nations we have left behind us were often made to fend for themselves, but soon we discover that there is a new kind of economic policy in the kingdom of God.  Here there is a table filled with rich foods and life-giving wine, and even better, there is room at the table for everyone.  However much we may eat at this table, there is some left over.  Even better, we are given legitimate employment right away, as we discover that our job now is to share the food and the blessings of this table with those who are still hungry for the gifts of God!

Now that is no easy task.  If fact, it is a job that could consume all our time, yet we make time in this new nation to return for basic citizenship classes.  As I understand it, when people arrive in the United States we require about 16 hours of instruction before you sit for the test that determines whether or not you get your green card or your naturalization papers.  We teach you basic history, the Constitution, the pledge of allegiance.  But what about the new nation?  Here we do NOT sit for a test.  I suppose we have a Constitution of sorts, but it is a much grander one – it is the Word of Life, read aloud among the people and then proclaimed from the pulpit.  It is not fixed in time, but instead it is a living Word that constantly rises to reveal the truth of our lives to us.  It is Scripture, surely, but more than that it is our living Lord, Jesus, who “came into the world to testify to the truth.”  We have basic history lessons that we learn, they are our creeds, they are our way of remembering the story of those who came before us in faith, who made their witness to the world about the freedom of life in the new nation.  We have our pledge of allegiance, but we call it the Lord’s Prayer, and instead of talking about ourselves and our promises, we use our prayer to recall to one another who God is: the one who creates, the one who saves us from the time of trial, the one has made us into one body, one family, one kingdom, one nation, one new thing for which we are still looking for words.

Look around the sanctuary friends, it is filled with familiar signs each of which is actually a clue to the kind of king Christ seeks to be in the world and in our lives.  We even have a flag!  Where do you suppose we place it?

Why front and center, of course.  It hangs above our altar.  Do you see our flag?  It is the cross of Christ – the evidence of God with us throughout all the wars, all the violence, all the deaths in our lives, great and small, and transformed into life by the God who does not leave us ever, and who gives us to one another, across lines of race and nationality, across lines of hatred and hostility, and says: you are now family to one another, you are my family.

Our lessons this morning describe for us an awareness of God’s kingdom that is always with us.  Daniel remembers that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve [God].” [Dan. 7:14]  John of Patmos, speaking in that strange apocalyptic language says, “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of earth will wail.” [Rev. 1:7]  Wail because we someday, surely, will finally come to know what has always been true: that it is God who is the Alpha and Omega [Rev. 1:8], the beginning and the end.  The nation that has always existed and will never fail.

We would like to think that we are citizens of a nation that can never fall, but that is not so.  We are not, in the end, too very different from the Mesopotamians, or the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Germans, or the English.  For that matter, we’re not that very different from the Mongols who created the largest land empire, spanning all of Asia; or the Aztecs, whose society collapsed from the inside as a result of their decadent and conspicuous consumption of the land’s resources.  We are always trying to have it both ways, dual-citizenship if you will.  “For God and Country,” or “pro deo et patria” – ironically, that is the slogan of the Army chaplains.  They who have been called to stand in the midst of war and to be a sign that God is present, even there.

Of course God is present everywhere, in every people, and always has been.  When we gather here, in this place, this sanctuary, let us remember that this is not only refuge from the storm – but also conveyance to the new country.  Let us be very intentional about the words and signs and symbols that we use in this place so that we are not simply pointing to the broken and fading realities of the present age, but instead to the in-breaking and glorious realities of the world that is to come, and that is now drawing close in Christ, our King.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, November 20, 2011: Reign of God/Christ the King: God’s Politics–“Election Day”

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 95:1-7a  •   Ephesians 1:15-23  •   Matthew 25:31-46

PrintIt’s been six weeks now that we’ve been talking about God and politics, and I know from the varied questions and comments I’ve received that, for some of you, this has been a strong affirmation of your conviction that Christian faith calls each of us to be engaged in the world as we find it, politics and all. For some of you though, it has been uncomfortable for there to be so much attention given to secular affairs. Talk of politics in church can be dangerous, especially when one party or politician seems to be getting an unsolicited endorsement. Our hope, both Pastor Tim’s and mine, in planning and preaching throughout these six weeks is that what you would hear from us would not be a blanket endorsement of any candidate currently running for office – but that you would hear a strong endorsement of your own candidacy, as the ones God has called to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world.

As citizens of the United States, we are fortunate to enjoy civil rights for which many in the world are still struggling. We benefit from a separation of church and state that protects citizens from the imposition of religious values or religious laws on the country. This separation is an important safeguard for religious minorities, including those who subscribe to no religion at all. The separation of church and state, however, is not a gag order that restricts people of faith from applying their religious values to the public square, as we have seen time and time again throughout the history of our nation, as people of faith led the way in one justice movement after another. If fact, many have argued that no significant movement for justice and equality in this country has taken hold without the support of religious communities.

So, as we conclude this series today, and prepare to turn our attention to the new year in the life of the church that begins next week with the season of Advent, I want to share a few final voices that are speaking into the gap between faith and public life.

The first is our own Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, an elected leader within the church who has served as the Presiding Bishop for the last eleven years, and who recently addressed the ELCA’s Church Council, also an elected body, for the first time since this past summer’s Churchwide Assembly in Orlando – a highly political gathering. In a speech highlighting the Church’s mission in society, Bishop Hanson stated that ELCA members are “called to be part of God’s reconciling and restoring community” in the world.

“That’s why no matter what political party is in power in the White House, Congress, state houses, legislatures or in local communities, we will first of all affirm the vocation of political service as being a calling from God,” he said, and therefore need to hold public servants accountable. In recent months ELCA members have held public servants responsible, “so that the balancing of budgets and the reducing of debts is not done on the backs of those who live in poverty. That’s why we advocate that there must be a circle of protection around those programs that historically have been untouched when deficits arise and budgets must be reduced. And why we believe it’s a moral issue. It’s a matter of faith.”

I believe this is what God’s politics looks like today. It’s not a matter of selecting from among the (narrow) range of candidates running for office, which one will most closely align themselves with our political leanings or self-interest. That kind of politics vests too much power in too few people in service of too small a percentage of the world’s population. That is, in the language we hear calling to us from the streets, the politics of the one percent.

No. God’s Politics, I believe, is each of us alone and all of us together acting boldly as what we say we are each time we come to the communion rail: the body of Christ, broken and sent for the sake of the world. When Bishop Hanson affirmed political office as a vocation, he was affirming not only the vocation of those who serve as elected officials, but also the calling each of us share to be engaged in the world on political terms as an act of stewardship. To be politically involved is to exercise the measure of power each of us has been given to care for the earth and for one another. Like the servant in last week’s parable, that power was not given to us to be hidden in the ground, but to be shared and multiplied.

Parker Palmer, whom I have quoted more than once over these last six weeks, and whose book Healing the Heart of Democracy I cannot recommend highly enough, speaks to this common calling to build, maintain and protect the common good like this:

Today, in my early seventies, I look at citizenship differently than I did when I was young. Time has stripped me of some of my more specialized roles, and soon enough I will be playing no role at all. Now I see a deeper truth about the meaning of citizenship: in cannot be reduced to the roles we play. Today my definition of citizenship is deep-seated and wide-reaching: Citizenship is a way of being in the world rooted in the knowledge that I am a member of a vast community of human and nonhuman beings that I depend on for essentials I could never provide for myself.

I see now that I have no choice – at least, no honorable choice – except to affirm, celebrate, and express my gratitude for that community in every aspect of my life, trying to be responsive to its needs whether or not my immediate self-interests are met. Whatever is in the common good is, in the long run, good for me and mine.

Both Bishop Hanson and Parker Palmer remind us that citizenship is not about the pursuit of one’s own self-interest, but the recognition that we are all in this together. This is the principle that the prophet Ezekiel proclaimed as he indicted the wealthy for their neglect of the poor, speaking for God and declaring,

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (Ezekiel 34:15-22)

God’s Politics is not survival of the fittest. It is not rugged individualism. It is not bootstrap self-reliance. It is care for the weakest among us, regard for the despised, compassion for the sick and the suffering, and justice for the oppressed. None of these are private affairs. These are public actions flowing from publicly confessed beliefs. This is politics.

Today, the final Sunday of the church year, is known as “Christ the King,” or increasingly as “Reign of Christ” as a reminder that God’s dominion liberates us from sexist and hierarchical forms of social order. This reign is marked by a different set of values than the ones that rule the world around us. They are the values we heard in Jesus’ stump speech, the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, and as the ones running on God’s platform of justice and mercy, we are called to evaluate the campaign we are running with our lives, separately and together by the following set of values:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Mt. 25:31-40)

People of God, candidates, election day is today! It is now, like it has always been. You are voting with your lives. Christ, the servant, is Lord of all. We are the elect, those chosen to proclaim God’s politics until the day when the reign of God is fully realized and all of creation is reconciled to its creator. The Lord is near – Come, Lord Jesus!

Amen.

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