Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christ the King

This reflection is based on the Gospel reading for this week from the Revised Common Lectionary, found here.

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Jesus cuts right through all the sugar-coating and defensive or back-and-forth rhetoric and gets right down to it.
Jesus is standing face-to-face with Pilate, and he just says it: After watching me, after meeting me, is this a conclusion you’ve come to, or did someone else feed you this line to repeat at me here.
Jesus gets brought to Pilate on the accusation that he’s claiming to be King of the Jews. King. That’s serious stuff. Why? This country already has a king, and it’s Caesar. That guy on all the money. Pilate—the guy whose job is to keep order in the land—reads him the charge. Jesus is claiming the authority of Ceasar.
This is the crown the people put on Jesus. They give him this title—Messiah—and they throw all sorts of assumptions on top of what that category actually looks like. Commander of armies. Restorer of the land. Ruler. King. Rich. Rider of the clouds.
Problem: these images don’t mesh with what Jesus said about himself.
Shepherd. Bread. Light. Gate. God’s Son. Son of Man. Resurrection. Life. Teacher. Way. Truth. Vine.
That's just from the book of John, but you get the idea. Jesus didn’t say great general. Or Caesar. Or anything like that. He doesn’t mention earthly wealth or owning land. In fact, Jesus flat out denies a kingdom of this world.
So what could have led to these assumptions? Well, Jesus does affirm that he is the Messiah, and that is a really loaded term in their world. Legend had it that the Messiah was this coming ruler—set to take back the land God had promised the Israelites on earth. Falling into the category of a messiah—an anointed one—ultimately put these generalizations on a person. It was a category. A classification.
The classification people put on Jesus.
So today, Jesus says look me in the eye, meet me, listen to me, and then tell me I want an earthly kingdom.
Pilate, actually looking at Jesus, admits that he’s repeating the rumors fed to him by others. When faced with the person rather than the categorical generalizations, he sees the differences and realizes what has been brought to him looks differently in person than the image the gossip presented.
It’s not the golden crown of jewels, but something else. We can probably see this at first glance, but we have the advantage of a few centuries of hearing this story. We know what’s coming. In this world, it is not a throne, but a cross that Jesus arrives at. His true kingdom is not in this world, but in a world that we have yet to fully see.
It’s New Year’s Eve. Did you know that? I know, all this talk about Thanksgiving, and it's already New Year's Eve. It's true, though. Christ the King Sunday marks the last Sunday of the church year. Next week, we will be talking about Advent. The chancel up here will have turned blue, the greens will have been set up, and our season of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ will kick off our new year.
That makes this New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve—it’s a time of celebration. It’s a time to think about what will be happening in the coming year, to consider what we hope to accomplish in our lives, to reflect on where we’ve been and what we’ve done so far. It’s a time of excitement and possibility.
At this particular time of the church season, we proclaim Christ as King. As we’ve seen, this king’s kingdom is one that is especially appropriate for a New Year’s Eve. It’s a kingdom that is to come. We can consider today the hope within Jesus’ words here—the kingdom he rules is not of this world. It’s a hope and a promise.
So, what’s in store for this coming year?
Where do we want to go?
What do we want to be?
As part of the church’s presence in this world—part of Jesus’ legacy—who do we hope to be? Who do we hope the rest of the world will see us as?
This is still a world that operates on assumptions. That sees people as categories—gender, ethnicity, age, status, and yes, even religion. Christians are stereotyped in this world—and not all of the opinions are positive.
How do we cut through that red tape of assumption to the heart of the matter? How do we get to what’s inside? How do we follow Jesus and call the world to see past categories and gossip and assumptions to see the real story? How do we show our care for this world that God has made—for all the people in it?
This is the New Year’s Eve of the church year. We get a chance today to remember who we are, who we belong to, where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we’d like to go. We get a chance to see Jesus as Christ the King, but we also get a chance to hear his words and realize what they mean for us. Amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving

We live in a world that constantly tells us to worry.
While the things we worry about might be changing every day, the concept has been around for thousands of years. Our gospel lesson for this evening makes that very clear:
  • Matthew 6:25-34 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.
Worry. While this definitely applies to us today, it was around in Jesus’ time, too. How do we know? Jesus talked about it. They're like warning labels—they wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a reason.
In today's world, we are told that we have to not only worry about having food, but having the right kind of food. Not only having clothing, but the right kind of clothing. Not only having shelter, but the stuff to make it comfortable and attractive. Beyond even these things, we also have to worry about having the right phone, transportation, bike or car, job, internet presence, lifestyle. Worry. Worry. Worry. Worry.
In two days, we have one of the most massive shopping days in the country. A new worry: will there be enough of the latest fashion/toy/deal left? Scarcity. The ads tell us what we need, and then that they won’t have enough for everyone. Worry.
This is probably closer to what those in Jesus’ time would have worried about—not necessarily brands and internet sites and such, but having enough. Scarcity. It’s what almost every advertisement is built on—do you have enough? What if you run out?
Worry brings about fear. In this case, we have the fear that someone will get to what I want or need before me and that because of that, there will not be enough left for me. Fear. What’s the solution to this fear?
Society would say—beat that other person to what you want before they beat you. Win. If the store only stocks 100 of that item, then be sure that you beat out person number 99 and buy the last three.
What about Jesus? Now, I’m not asking what Jesus would do or say, but what he did say. Look, right there in the Scripture: Do not worry about your life…can any of you by worrying add a single hour to it? Are you not of more value than birds of the air?
Jesus says “stop worrying.” A life is more than food or clothing—more than stuff—and worrying about getting enough stuff does not benefit anyone.
I said that in two days, one of the biggest shopping days in the country will take place. Companies have invented things we’ve lived without for thousands of years, and advertisements have convinced us that we need it, that we can’t survive this year without it, and we better get there before someone else beats us to it.
Am I saying don’t go shopping on Friday? No—go ahead, go shopping, who knows? It might be fun. What I am saying is that we need to watch how much meaning we attach to stuff—to wants and luxuries.
If our eyes are only on that, only on Friday sales and stuff and shopping, we miss something. Something else takes place before that. Thursday. Thanksgiving Day. A day that we celebrate abundance. This is the opposite of scarcity. Thanksgiving is a day that we remember all that we have already.
In celebration and evidence of this abundance, mountains of food are prepared. In evidence and celebration of the parts of life that are more than material, families or friends gather together, caring for their relationships. These blessings are more than just stuff. Tomorrow is the day we remember all we have, not all we want, and we realize all we have is a lot.
When we get to that point—the realization of our own abundance—we move a bit more toward the second part of the gospel lesson. We strive for the kingdom of God. Yep, kingdom of God. It’s right there in verse 33: strive for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness. Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.
The Kingdom of God. That place that is like a mustard seed, where people love their neighbor as they love themselves, where everyone loves God first and foremost, where the sick and suffering are cured. The Kingdom of God that belongs to the poor, the children, the last and least in this earthly realm.
This is the reality that will come fully at the end of time, but that we get little glimpses of through Jesus’ descriptions and the work of the Holy Spirit in the world we live in now. This is the reality we get glimpses of when we see the good happening in the world, when we see that all of God’s creation—people and creatures—have what they need.
God knows what we need--really need--and God knows that it’s more than stuff.
We have what we need in abundance. Abundance. Abundance of time—a holiday. Abundance of care in relationship—family, friendships, community. Abundance of food—grandma’s cooking or St. Joe’s meal. Abundance of love—God’s love for us and our love for one another.
We are blessed beyond belief. We have a God who cares for us so much that this God actually came to us in his Son, to live with us, laugh with us, cry with us, rejoice with us, suffer with us, and die with us. This God, who took on humanity so we might understand, so we might have life now. This God who rose that we might rise as well. This God, who made the world, full of blessing, overflowing in abundance.
So, on Thanksgiving, don’t worry about tomorrow. Be there in the day of thanksgiving, and celebrate abundance. That is what we do, after all. We celebrate abundance—we give it away, and we make sure that everyone has more than enough. We make sure—as a community—that this life, this day, is about more than just me, myself, and I.
We gather together with family, friends, with community. Whether you’re at grandma’s house, your own home, at the local community center, or wherever, take a moment to look around at everything and everyone around you, and remember that you are blessed with abundance. Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2012


This sermon is based on the lesson of the widow's mite, found here.

Look at the scribes who wear the long robes in the marketplace—they pray magnificent long prayers and record the many tenets of our faith. Their prayers are meaningful. These are the words that must cross the chasm of the cosmos to the very ear of God. And Look! Look at the wealthy of our community, giving so much money to the treasury of our faith. They truly bless us with their gifts. Amen. Amen!
This is how the scene in our gospel might look if we were actually there--immersed in the culture of the time. This is the socially-approved perspective. Those who have power and status have the attention, and people pay homage to them. The people who have the focus of the people keep the focus on themselves, and so the people keep focusing on them. The camera doesn’t move.
Did you catch what was missing in the retelling? Jesus caught that, too. Jesus moves the camera to an area that doesn’t get a lot of attention, and says to pay attention there.
In today’s gospel, people are greeting, walking, devouring, praying, and giving. Scribes are praying long prayers and rich people are giving large amounts to the treasury. People greet these scribes in the streets—these scribes who pray long prayers and wear the long robes. People probably also admire these rich ones for giving so much to keep their church going.
What is faithful? In our socially-approved retelling of the gospel, faithfulness is a showy long-winded and fairly empty public display and shallow greetings with popular figureheads. Faithfulness is making sure you keep enough to live in luxury and then ornately depositing the excessive surplus in good causes for all to see.
Jesus shifts the focus, though. Jesus zooms in, underneath all the superficial wealth and words and focuses in on a different sort of attitude. He looks at a couple of practically worthless coins in this pile, and finds for us someone who is never seen, who gives from the take home, not the leftovers, and says this is where it’s at. This is faithfulness.
Jesus shows us the widow.
Read the gospel again as it’s actually recorded: 
"As [Jesus] taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." 41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
It would seem to me that it’s about attitude. It’s not that the scribes walk in long robes and are greeted with respect and get seats of honor, it’s that they like doing these things—often at the expense of people like the widow—a person who can barely support herself.
It’s not that the rich people give large sums, it’s that they give out of their abundance, their leftovers, after their luxurious feasts and fancy clothes and whatever else they buy has been bought. How does that balance out?
Now, I have to admit, I felt really guilty as I was going through these texts. I am guilty of missing the point, of investing my time and money in myself from time to time. I am guilty.
I am also guilty, then, of turning this whole thing around and making it about me. Jesus is standing here, highlighting the widow, turning the camera on her, pointing out the good that is going on, and what do I do? I move the camera back on me.
How many times do I—or we—do that? Look at a situation where something amazing is happening and evaluate how it affects us. There’s a ton of good going on and we totally miss it because we’re focused on the big center stage show rather than the sidelines. We throw the weight where it shouldn’t be.
When our focus is self-centered, that is sin. Jesus came to tell us this—to remind us where we need to adjust our perspective, move the camera, widen our gaze. And then, Jesus came to forgive and let us try again. We make mistakes. We are forgiven again, and freed to try again.
Jesus moves the focus to where no one would think to look and points out an amazing person. The widow. If we turn her into an archetype, an example, or a source of our guilt, we start seeing only what the widow represents to us and we stop seeing her.
We can do what Jesus did—move the focus to those places people don’t often notice and highlight the great things happening there. Getting the focus off of ourselves, and lifting up, complimenting, supporting those who are doing well. We are freed to be—in the words of Martin Luther—a servant to all. We can serve all by highlighting all, not just those already in the spotlight.
In today’s gospel, hands are open—in greeting, in prayer, and in offering. One set of those hands is highlighted. The widow’s. Jesus points her out as an amazing person. We can celebrate her open faithfulness and act of charity. If we forget, we remember that we are freed to try again. Jesus renews us every minute to start fresh, change our perspective, our attitude. We can go out with open hands, too—hands open in service.
One of the things I loved about November 6—every voting day, in fact—was that the scales, which are so often unbalanced, are evened out, because no matter what I have—status, time, class, stuff, money, talent—I have one vote. One. No more, no less. Everyone gets that—and only that. You can’t buy more votes, there are no deeds so you can accumulate more like cars or shoes, you can’t take someone else’s from them. Everyone gets the same amount of the spotlight.
Maybe we start in our own lives—celebrating the things that often go unnoticed. Maybe we recognize that all we have—all of us, are God’s, and then treating everything and everyone that way. Amen.