11.26.23 Sermon Transcript "Christ the King"
Two weeks ago I was here and preached our consecration or commitment Sunday and one of our texts was Matthew's parable of the Mustard Seed. The illustration of the kingdom of God as this very small thing, the smallest of all seeds, that nonetheless grows and sprouts and provides shelter for the birds of the air. We talked about how small changes can make a big difference.
I was reminded of that over the last couple of weeks when soon after that Sunday, ,. at long last became one of the folks that had contracted covid. A very small virus that worked a major change in my life. Left me basically unable to function for 48 to 72 hours. I am delighted to say with the help of modern medicine and a lot of prayer and rest and the miracle of the human immune system, that I am again testing negative and I'm approaching full health again, although I'm still dealing with some pretty significant fatigue issues and many of you have walked this journey and know what it's like. It seems to affect each of us a little bit differently and yet we are learning to manage, to overcome, to recognize how small changes can keep ourselves and one another healthy. We gather on this last day of the Christian calendar and the Christian calendar has changed and evolved over the centuries but basically it's a way of telling the story of Christ and the Church. Of telling individual small stories and connecting them into one great story and we… many of us that follow a liturgical calendar for our season some of the more liturgical Church, of which United Methodists are perhaps the least liturgical of the liturgical churches, but we do pay attention to this cycle and how we organize our life. This last Sunday is the last of the season of Pentecost and in 1925 Pope Pius the 11th declared it Christ the King Sunday. It's one of two Sundays on the liturgical calendar that are not about acts of Jesus or events in the life of the church, but are about theology, about Doctrine and dogma and Pope Pius the 11th proclaimed this day as a way of combating what he saw as the increasing secularism and in particular the increasing political authoritarianism of the post-World War I era. The rise of Fascist governments, of authoritarian dictators were on the rise. Increasing numbers of people who thought that is how we should organize society and the Pope used the liturgical calendar to make a statement that: No! There is no human authority that can ultimately rule, that can ultimately solve our problem. No authority that can organize us, that we need each other in the body of Christ and that we need to recognize Christ's sovereignty now Pope Pius was not a flawless man, in my opinion he subsequently made some decisions that I frankly think empowered the very governments he was decrying, but I think his point stands and I think that's why Christ the King Sunday or the Solemity of Christ or the Reign of Christ Sunday - different Traditions have emphasize that in different ways - I think that's why it remains part of our calendar. It's the last Sunday of the year before we embark on Advent and Advent of course is a time of preparation for the birth of Christ. It is also a time of preparation for the return of Christ, for the second coming. Christian theology calls it a time of judgment, a time of the end of this age a time, when the powers that be will recognize the power of Christ. We hold these stories necessarily in tension - we are called to be ready, as many of our theological brothers and sisters will talk about: “are you ready this day?” That's not terribly Wesleyan language although we share some of this theology, we tend to emphasize God's grace, God's mercy, God's presence with us! And I agree with that emphasis and think it's necessary, and yet it is also necessary to think about God's anger at sin, God's judgment, God's call that we live life in Christ. so the liturgical calendar that we United Methodists somewhat Loosely follow, many other Traditions are much more rigid about it and there are pros and cons to both of those approaches, but it begins with Advent. Next week we'll have our purple paraments out. After the worship service today we'll decorate for Advent with the signs of Christmas and preparation. Advent that lasts for the four Sundays before Christmas Eve when we celebrate the Incarnation, the birth of Christ and then we move through that season of Christmas. The 12 Days of Christmas start December 25th. Our culture tells us that starts as soon as Halloween is over… the Christian calendar says Christmas starts December 25th and extends through January 6th and again there are pros and cons to trying to enforce that and be rigid. When do we begin singing Christmas carols? A strict approach would say not until Christmas – by which time society will have moved on… my approach will be sometime in December we'll start mixing some of those in. Your approach may be different. When do you put up the tree? Is the tree even a legit legitimate Christian symbol? One of the things I always like to point out to people we talk about this nation being founded as a “Christian Nation” we seem to assume that the Puritans thought all the same things we do when we make that sort of claim. They did not.
The United Methodist Church.. or the Methodist Episcopal Church in America as we were known then, our antecedent in this country, was formally organized on Christmas Eve 1784 nearly every Wesleyian clergy person and lay preacher in the country made their way to Baltimore for what was called the Christmas Conference. Can you imagine all of the clergy in the United Methodist Church taking that Sunday off and going to a conference? How could we possibly manage that? Well in puritan America, Christmas was basically illegal. We were not allowed to gather and sing hymns and sing songs and have a worship service on that day in any place in the colonies that the Puritans had political sway. So it was the perfect time for the other clergy to get together. Many denominations had gatherings of clergy over Christmas. Can you imagine how rapidly our social understanding changes? How rapidly what we assume is normal changes? How quickly what people we think we agree with or were on our side turn out to be against the very cherished rituals that we hold?
The Christian calendar is about telling the story, telling all of the story. Holding stories in tension. Recognizing that we don't have all the answers but pointing us to the one who does: Christ, who this day we declare as Sovereign. We go through the season of Christmas to Epiphany we tell the story of the wise men seeking Christ. Wise men and women today still seek Christ and we move into a time that we call ordinary, but that time between Epiphany and Easter or the beginning of Lent is anything but ordinary… we are telling the story - stories of Jesus’ Life. Of the miracles, of his presence in this ordinary time and then we move into the other season most people know about Lent. A series of six weeks of preparation for Easter Originally in the Christian calendar, this is when those who would be baptized were going through their catechism or their confirmation process, learning details and depth of faith that they might proclaim the creed that we just professed with full heart and mind, that their questions might be answered or addressed, that they might be drawn deeper into the mystery of faith. And then on Easter we celebrate Christ risen, that death and suffering do not have the final word and we move into a season of Easter. A proclamation of Resurrection stories and the early church culminating with Pentecost: the birth of the church. The Festival of the Spirit when the Holy Spirit breaks forth from the confines of locked rooms. The disciples find their voice and the church begins proclaiming the Risen Christ and transforming lives, a movement that we are still called to be a part of today! And many churches increasingly are staying in that red season you may have noticed we didn't change our paraments for months. Tou know why that is? It's because clergy have a lot of red stoles and they like to show them off and so we stay red long and longer each year because we don't really like our green stoles that much… or perhaps more deeply theologically, I think it's because I feel the Spirit moving in the church, in this church, in this community, in other gatherings that are being held this morning. I feel the Spirit moving and that red paraments, the red symbolism of the Spirit moving seems increasingly appropriate so we stay in that season. But at some point we move after Pentecost, back into “ordinary time” The green paraments and we tell the stories of the church which again are not ordinary but extraordinary. God is with us in the ordinary… then the cycle begins to repeat. We come to this Sunday, the end of the year. We turn our calendars to Advent.
I have a friend that one of the things she is very rigid about is that Advent calendars as are popular in our culture aren't really advent caledars - because they have 25 days that's not Advent that's a countdown to Christmas from December 1st and it's wonderful if you're into it but Advent begins 4 Sundays before Christmas and it is a different number of days! Calendars and there's a point sometimes to being strict about when you open the Advent calendar or how many days your Advent calendar has or how you prepare your calendar… I point out to that friend as rigid as she is about Advent calendar, she started singing Christmas carols three weeks ago because it brings her joy and she's just aware enough of the difference we have in our opinions on that to recognize that the point is not being rigid about the rules, it's about focusing on what the various practices point us to! That we can have different understandings, we can seek to convey our different understandings, but we have to hold them loosely or we become arrogant - it becomes about our understanding being King, not Christ being King.
I actually got somewhat marked down on this in my ordination paperwork. One of the questions we always answer is: What does it mean to you that Jesus is Lord? and my answer then and even after the feedback my answer has remained, “it means that Caesar is not.” That no political party, no Nation, no denomination, no practice… none of those things can have sovereignty in my life. They are important. Through them I can do good things, but my focus has to be on Jesus Christ as Lord, not my understanding of Jesus Christ as Lord, not my denominations teaching but that Christ is Lord. That Christ is the boundary function. That Christ can go beyond my understanding and yet I am to orient my life towards that sovereignty that I have a glimpse of. There are other ways of approaching that question and important insights that my answer doesn't address and I recognize that, but I really think it is that simple. If we gather and worship and we proclaim that Christ is King, then all other authorities and allegences ultimately have to yield in our lives. Not that we have the power to enforce our authority on other people, which too often that's what the Christian church has done. We have tried to take Christ's authority as our own and impose our understandings. One of the things I love about Wesleyan theology is while Wesley would argue passionately what he believed, he recognized that he owed a debt to other thinkers, even those he often disagreed with. That Christ is with us at every season of our life, that if we yield to Christ's Authority, we can argue passionately for our belief without becoming authoritarian, without making it about what we think, but remaining open to where Christ is leading. We Proclaim Christ King and we recognize that Christ is an unexpected Messiah that Christ doesn't act the way that we might want him to. We want a stern judge for other people. We want grace and mercy for ourselves. Christ calls us to act with grace and mercy towards all, even our enemies. Christ calls us to follow his example of humility, of healing, of reconciliation, even for those who crucified him.
The Christian calendar tells the stories and it draws from the Old Testament stories as well. We heard our lectionary reading for this day… you may know the lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings, If you read all of the readings for each of the days of the lectionary, all four readings you'd get about 70% of the scriptures covered over three years. In reality we tend to focus on the lectionary only on Sundays and most of us only read maybe two of the four readings… so in a three-year cycle we don't cover nearly 70% of the Bible - but nonetheless it is a useful guide to us and while I tend to be a series preacher and kind of pick my own, it is a resource that I constantly refer to. One of the things I'm playing with as I prepare for this new years that maybe it might be a good discipline for me to go back to lectionary for at least a period of months and so I haven't made a final decision but I'm looking at that to see if maybe my own picking has overruled what scripture might have to say to me and to us… to use this tool and on this day one of our readings is from Ezekiel and it's paired fairly obviously with the Matthew reading from the Gospel because of the image of sheep and goats. Ezekiel is a prophet of the 6th Century BC about the same time as Jeremiah. Unlike Jeremiah, when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, Ezekiel is taken with some of the early leaders, so he apparently was one of the priests of the temple or a similar role - but he has this Epiphany or this theophany., He sees this magnificent image of God in the first chapter of the book – a vision of God riding a chariot through the heavens. It is an amazing vision and it transforms Ezekiel’s life and he spends a good portion of time issuing prophetic declarations of Woe - of explanation of why Jerusalem fell, of how Israel and Judah had failed to be in covenant with God - but like all of the Scriptures eventually that turns to a message of hope and we heard this day from chapter 34 part of that message of hope. An assurance that God will be with us that “I myself,” God says, “will be their their Shepherd.” I myself will be their Shepherd their kings, their priest, their structures have failed them, but I myself will call their names. I will guide them to good pastures. It’s beautiful - but I found as I was looking at the lectionary, we skip over a little section of Ezekiel.
I mentioned that he was a prophet during the fall of Jerusalem. We talk about God being Shepherd, but it skips over these verses in the lectionary “: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
and many of the commentaries talk about that as decrying the failed leadership… but this is in the later part of Ezekiel. This is in the midst of the message of hope and I suspect we skip over those verses because they don't sound very hopeful. They sound rather judgmental - and then we try to make it about them our Jewish ancestors or the failed religious leadership - but this is a call to the people who are being reconstituted! How often do we see a group that is has legitimate complaint, that has been wrongly dealt with by society but as soon as they gain a little bit of power and influence they start doing the same kinds of behaviors that they were decrying when they were directed at them? Christian history is full of us doing exactly that. Those Puritans I mentioned that fled from England to the new colonies for religious liberty… the first thing they did was set up strict religious laws that anybody that didn't agree with them was persecuted. They did the same thing - especially if you had such audacity as to celebrate Christmas because that festival was wrong. Certainly they believed in Incarnation but they thought the celebration, the gift giving, the festivity the frivolity was wrong. My family stories tell that one of my ancestors came over on the Mayflower as a crew member and one of his first acts was to flee Massachusetts for religious freedom in the paradise of Rhode Island. I always remember that story.
How often do we move from being either perceiving that we are persecuted or really being persecuted to becoming exactly that which we were fighting? Somehow rationalizing that it’s alright when WE do it…. But when we become that which we objected to, that which we were fighting, then that which we were fighting has won. Christ has ceased to be Sovereign in our lives. We trample down others grasses. We muddy the waters that we ourselves drink from. It's a message of humility. It's a message to recognize that the blessings that we receive are intended not just for ourselves but for others. That we are called to share not just with our group but with all of God's peoples. We are called to hold loosely that judgment that we all too readily read that Matthew 25 text with. I'm one of the sheep and you all are one of the goats and God's going to judge you! That’s not the message! The vision of Ezekiel reminds us that God calls the sheep to accountability. The Sheep will be separated even from the sheep. We are called to hold loosely what we believe, to live our faith actively, provocatively, but humbly.
That vision in Matthew 25 - Jesus has a series of parables in Matthew 25 that all really should make us a bit uncomfortable. The Bridesmaids, some of whom are prepared and some are not and they are shut out of the wedding festivities. This reading of the sheep and the goats - and did you notice that both sides in this are amazed? They are both confused. They are bewildered by what the reigning Lord, this judge Christ seated at the right hand has done. “When did we feed you? When did we clothe you” We don't remember encountering you in this way? But those who were caring for the least and the lost, those who were including others, those who were sharing their blessings actively are rewarded – they are invited into the Kingdom. So often we focus on those who are being excluded here but I don't think that Christ is doing the excluding. I think those of us who get full of ourselves and our answers and only want to help those who are worthy… we're the ones that exclude ourselves. We miss the invitation and likewise we miss the invitation if we turn works into a law. If you have to do these things to earn grace it's no longer grace. A Wesleyian understanding, I think… and it's a dangerous thing to say but I think we get this passage as close to right as anyone ever has… we do good works not to earn anything, but out of the overflowing abundance of God's grace in our lives. We don't do it as a transaction. “If I am this good I'll get into heaven” No we do it because Christ is with us, empowering us, making it possible for us to do good at all. We don't worry so much about outcomes or getting what's ours. We share what is Christ’s - which is ultimately all that we have is. It's not a call to make ourselves destitute. It's a call to sustainability, to following our unique path, to recognizing that others have their own path - even within this congregation we will respond to messages differently. Different opportunities to give will speak more deeply to one of us than another. I sometimes feel guilty as a pastor for how many times we ask this congregation to give - and yet each opportunity is unique. Some are called to support certain Ministries. If that's not your call that's okay becasuse there will be another ministry that is your call and together as the body of Christ, we become sheep,. We become what Christ calls us to be. We equip one another. We recognize the holiness. We avoid the gnashing of teeth and the exclusion of others. I don't know about you, but the times in my life where I have suffered most deeply have not been when someone else imposed a judgment on me - it's when my own conscience has spoken to me. I tell a story of a time and I think I've told this here once before but my best friend and I decided we were going to ride our bikes to Town East Mall - that was way, way farther than we were allowed to ride our bikes at 14 15 years old and, predictably things went wrong. One of us, I don't remember which one, got a flat tire and this is well before cell phones. Our parents did not know where we were. We were out past our curfew. We're walking our bikes through busy streets. We decided, rather reasonably, I think to go to our nearest friend's house and then call our parents, who were of course sick with worry/ And of as it often turned out in my life I was fine but it turns out there were some incidents that had happened that night and in places where I frequent and so my parents had every right to be nervous. Even my dad who lived out of town was in on the search, calling people and the like but we called, we confessed what we'd done. We were in TROUBLE - and I was fully prepared for my mother to yell at me and I was ready to fight back about how grownup I was and how we had done WELL - we had made right choices. We'd stuck together. We hadn't abandoned whoever had the flat tire. We'd gone to a friend's house. We'd done everything right! Well… um… except for you know breaking the rules…. but other than that! We'd been very mature!
I was ready for this! So my friend Ken's dad comes to pick us up he's got a station wagon. He can put both bikes and it drive us home and Ken was ready too he was ready to make all of our arguments and Ken Senior, his dad gets there and he greets our friend's parents. Thanks for taking us in, giving a chance to call home. He then loads the bikes in the car, gets in the car drives home. It takes about 15 20 minutes to drive home and during that time Ken Senior says…
My friend Ken actually tries to start the arguments - he says a couple of things.. .basiclaly let's get into this! and Ken Senior says… Nothing. Absolute silence. He to his house drops, Ken Jr off gets some flowers, hands them to me and says: “Give these to your mother.” Drives me home unloads my bike – greets my mother but says nothing else to me.
Mom stands there. Silence. I, uh… I gave the flowers to my mother and I apologized because what that time had given me I was gnashing teeth. Folks I was ready to be angry and fight back! I was not ready to stew in my own reflection.
In my understanding of God's grace it's not about sending those who don't check the right number of boxes to hell… it’s about creating space for that self-recognition – that, for me, is the real torment and the way out of it is yielding to grace - and one of my best arguments for that on Christ the King Sunday is that in another year of the liturgical calendar and of the lectionary we would be reading from Luke. The lectionary assigns the scene in Luke where one of the thieves hanging on the cross says “remember me when you come into your kingdom” and Christ says “today you will be with me in paradise” and this guy hasn't done anything right but apparently he's had that moment of reflection where he realized that all he could do was apologize and in his case he won't have a chance to do better next time. I blessedly have has such chances - we hold these stories in tension. If We Hold that Christ is Sovereign then Christ can exercise unreasonable Grace. Christ’s abundance can forgive the unforgivable. We can be shaped to be Christlike ourselves, not out of fear of punishment, but have our overflowing joy in the grace and presence of Christ who will be our Shepherd. Who will dwell among us. Who will show us the way. The best way I have come up with to try and check where I am on that without getting legalistic - I preached here many times - it's looking at the Fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5. Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, :Self-Control. Those have become a mantra in my life. I recite them to myself when I'm getting angry or depressed. I try to focus in every situation on what is being revealed. What it is I need to gnash my teeth about and do better. Where I can be Christlike in this moment. Where Christ is ministering to me through the grace and goodwill of others. What I can learn even from those I disagree with in the moment. What it is that they're holding up as most important, as necessary. It doesn't smooth everything over but it does keep me focused.
I bring this up in part because a few months ago I had preached on this and uh I think it was Wilma suggested I make keychains and I did and we had about 50 of them I think and we went through and it turns out the vendor I'd gotten them from, they broke fairly easily and I think most of them are long gone and I had somebody ask do we have any more of those? I ought to get some more and I take the feedback we had about how they might be better and I found a different vendor that I think has a little bit better attachment and we just got them in last week and I thought “you know, I to work that into the sermon” and announce that. So all around the building you will once again find First United Methodist keychains with the Fruit of the Spirit on the front and our logo on the back and a saying that Kristin brought to us that I'm going to do something with - she has a a fondness for saying “See you on Sunday” at the end of her emails or in conversation and I I kind of like it. See you on Sunday!” We're not just about Sunday but this is the center of our community and our faith and our witness, so I invite you to pick up a keychain and be reminded of the importance of Sundays and the importance of the Fruit of the Spirit, the importance of recognizing that God will judge but that God will judge with Grace and with mercy and that we are called to gnash teeth when appropriate and to trust that God who descends to this life, who descends even to the dead, understands us, is with us, is Sovereign in all things, in all seasons of our life. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen!