Monday, November 26, 2007

Christ the King

Peter's sermon from Sunday, 11/25/2007

Today is the last Sunday of the current church year. It is also known as the Feast of Christ the King. The concept of king is difficult for us. But the idea of power is not strange to us. We know about power. All of us have power, some more, some less, and all of us have to deal with power. We know that power can be used for good or ill.

Some years ago I went to see Monsters, Inc. Monsters Incorporated depends for its energy on capturing the screams of children to power their electricity. The corporate motto is, "We scare because we care." And Sully is the best monster of them all until he meets "Boo" a little girl who is not scared and who Sully comes to care for deeply. But then a transformation happens, Sully discovers that there is even more energy in Boo’s laughter than in her screams. His whole world is turned upside down. He had lived in a world whose premise was that power is preserved by fear. But he learned that there was another world waiting for him, a world that was based on love and joy and not fear.

To me this is a wonderful image of what is happening this last Sunday of the church year. We are being invited to glimpse into the world of a profoundly different kind of king, a king who invites us into a kingdom, not based on fear, but one that is based on love and joy.

The first reading (Jeremiah) looks to the time when God will restore the Davidic kingship, a time when kings will truly shepherd the people and not exploit them. This king will rule with justice, defend the afflicted and save the children of the poor.

Today we leave Luke’s witness to Jesus. (Next week we will begin to travel through Matthew’s) All through this past year we have been living into the rich texture of Luke’s portrait of Jesus:

  • It began with the story of shepherds coming to visit the baby Jesus. You may recall that shepherds were not viewed as very savory people—they were not welcome into villages, they had a reputation for being thieves and not very clean. But Luke’s Gospel has this underlying theme that those on the edges are being brought by God into a new community.
  • In Luke Jesus begins his ministry by taking up the theme of Isaiah, bringing good news to poor, release to the captives. Now here in this powerful scene Jesus utters one final word of welcome and acceptance to the thief on the cross—today you will be with me in paradise.
  • In Luke’s Gospel Jesus is the promised Davidic King spoken about by Jeremiah. (a mighty savior, born of the house of David. 1:69) But Jesus has turned the idea of kingship on its head. Jesus rules from a cross: unlike the kings around him he prays for forgiveness for his enemies, he resists every effort to provoke him into anger and rage. This king bears an unjust punishment so that we might be forgiven.
Paul captures the power of this rule from the cross in the concluding words to the epistle, through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross. (Col 1:20) If we are to live under the kingship of Christ we are to live as those empowered to reconcile. Like Sully we have a find a new kind of power, one that is not based on fear, but one that is based on hope.

Christ the King has set a new environment for us to become full human beings. By dying he has created an environment of reconciliation. This is what we practice here. We give to each other the peace of God. We join Christ to become God’s reconciling people. How do we be sustain ourselves as a reconciling community in a world driven by fear?

Desmond Tutu tells the story of a light bulb that shone brightly and proudly. "[It] began to strut about arrogantly, quite unmindful of how…it could shine so brilliantly, thinking that it was all due to its own merit and skill." One day the light bulb is taken out of he socket and placed on the table. "Try as hard as it could, the light bulb could bring forth no light and brilliance….It had never known that its light came from the power station and that it had been connected to the dynamo by little wires and flexes that lay hidden and unseen and totally unsung."

We practice the reign of Christ by staying connected to Christ and to each other. We do this by creating room for prayer and worship in our lives, by being open to the presence of Christ in every dimension of our lives, by working for justice and reconciliation in our lives and in the world around us. We live the reconciling love of God by being open to the Christ in all persons no matter what their race, their gender, their political persuasion.

Today we have a particular way of expressing our oneness with Christ by caring for those who are marginalized by poverty, lack of education, AIDS, or famine. We can become a part of the ONE campaign. You can do this by filling in the cards in your bulletin and placing them in the Offertory Plate. The office will send in your commitment card so that you may stay informed and become part of the ONE community as advocates of the poor. Begin where you are. I know of one person here who is sending mosquito nets to Africa to protect people from malaria. There are also white wrist-bands for you to wear as a reminder that you are a part of the One community.

Also, you have received a bulletin insert that focuses on a particular group of people at the margins: those who suffer from HIV/AIDS. Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day. There are now over 40 million people infected with this disease. While AIDS is not longer a headline story in our media, we who are advocates for those who are at the edges, can still tell the story and seek justice for those at risk. Keep reminding our politicians of our commitment to the MDG’s –if we honor our commitment it will prevent 10 million children from becoming AIDS orphans. As a citizen in this most wealthy of nations you can become a citizen advocate for righteousness.

What this Sunday proclaims is that God is about the business of reconciling. We get to choose whether we are on the side of Christ the King who reconciles from the cross or whether we will be on the side of the forces of fear.

Sure we are currently divided and we differ on substantive issues, but I believe that the God who comes to us in Jesus is the God who is seeking our healing and our wholeness.

So then on this feast of Christ the King let each of us become the instruments of the Peace of God by extending ourselves as those who offer to the world Christ’s reconciling love. Amen.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

God is God of the living, not the dead

Peter's sermon from last Sunday...

Intro. Today's readings look at two sides of the human condition—the readings from Haggai and Thessalonians basically deal with disappointment, fear, and the loss of trust. They ask can God be trusted in the face of disappointment? They explore the condition of despair. The Gospel reading looks at a very different side of our nature—that aspect of our nature that can assume that we are right in our point of view, that we know the mind of God. It explores the condition of pride and vanity.

Now I don't know about you but I have been on both tracks—there are times when I am struggling with some disappointment in my life and wonder if God is even present to me, and there are other times I am so sure that I am right and know the mind of God and I am proud of it! We are a strange species at times fragile and afraid and at times sure and confident. In either case we find ourselves in some kind of ‘bad faith', either God cannot be trusted, or I know, as others don't, the mind of God--either despair or pride.

Let's look more closely at each of the readings and see what clues they offer:

1. Haggai & Paul The people Haggai is preaching to are really struggling—the temple they have built after returning from Exile seems but a shadow of the one they remembered. Hadn't God promised a New Jerusalem and a New Temple? (Is.55) Haggai reminds them of the ancient story of the Exodus—that from the poverty of slavery God built a nation. God is with them now in their struggle and they are not to be afraid, but trust in God.

Similarly, Paul writing to some Thessalonians who were in a panic because they thought that they had missed Jesus' second coming and had been left behind. Paul says to them, “stand firm in the tradition."

Each of these answers speaks so forcibly to us as we gather here to remember the tradition. You may have come here today wondering if God could be trusted in the face of your doubts and fears? How do we deal with those fears that at times seem overwhelming and where God seems so very far away? Both Haggai and Paul give us a simple and direct answer: remember the story! Remember what it is that brought you to faith in God in the first place and don't give up!

Thursday I met a man from Mexico who is an organizer for migrant workers not far from here. He was feeling very sad because one of his workers had been taken to prison and was very despondent. We talked about ways he could bring hope to this man. I suggested to him that he might arrange to bring him communion so that this man, though separated by bars, could know that he is still a part of the community. He thought that was a great idea. This is why we take communion to our shut-ins and sick members—to give some tangible sign that they and we belong together in God's beloved community.

All of us face doubt and fear—and all too often we feel that we are alone in our fears, but as we pass the Peace we remind each other that no one is alone and that God is present, even in our disappointments. This is what we do for each other.

2. The Gospel takes us to the other side of the human condition—the pride and confidence of being right. The Sadducees thought they were right and looked down on the superstition of others. They confined their religious beliefs to the literal text of the five books of Moses. On this basis they denied any belief in an afterlife. For them resurrection was limited to the passing on of one's name through progeny.

They drew Jesus' attention to a prescription contained in the marriage law. (Deut. 25:1-10) In a male dominated society, it is a law designed to secure a male progeny, and to protect the property of male heads of households, who die before fathering a male heir. It was also designed to protect the widows from a life of poverty in a patriarchal culture where property was held by male heads of households, and widowed women were often forced into abject poverty.

The Sadducees then tell a rather outrageous tale of seven brothers, each marrying in turn the widow of the first brother. Then they pose the question, if there is resurrection, whose wife will she be? Now note the premise of their question: a woman's role is subservient to men. We can get the irony of their question if we imagine that the woman had been the questioner! The conversation might have begun like this: “Lord, you know I have been married to seven brothers, but I really only ever loved one of them. Will I be able to be with him in the after life?" Or, suppose she simply said, “Lord, I'm tired of being pushed around to satisfy these seven brothers, can't I get some relief in the after life?"

Do you begin to see the theological significance of the tale now? If there is a resurrection it throws into question the fabric of the social system that defines people by their relationship to the existing power structures. If there is a resurrection, then it is possible that places of privilege and places of subjugation will no longer apply. If there is a resurrection, a patriarchal system that subjugates women to men could be overthrown.

In fact, that is just what Jesus replies to this trick question. He first says that resurrection life is not about the possession of one person by another, but in the resurrection life all are children of God.

But then Jesus adds a clincher to his argument. He points out that their view of God is inadequate. He cites the very scriptures they hold as foundational to argue that God is the God, not of dead, but of the living. From their own scripture there is the witness to a power that transforms the life of this age by that of an age yet to come, and is on its way even now. Jesus' real complaint against these Sadducees was that they viewed the tradition as somehow frozen in the sacred texts of Moses, rather tradition is a living and ongoing reality that is always being re-appropriated to a new understanding of God's love and purpose.

Now we know there are Sadducees in the church today who believe that they have the final word on whom God welcomes into the church and on what condition. They are saying that gays can only be a part of us if they are celibate, that women can only be a part of us if they stay away from the altar.

I recall a man who felt strongly that women should not be at the altar and when, long before women were being ordained, I introduced women chalice bearers he refused to take communion. So we always scheduled a man alongside of a women and he then chose which side to go to the communion rails. Then when on vacation in San Francisco he went to the cathedral where on that occasion there were only women! He could not choose and so took communion. His family teased him and brought him out of his stiffness.

We have looked at two sides of the human condition—the fear of being left behind and the pride in being right. And each of us will find ourselves on each side of this spectrum. But here, in this coming together around bread and wine we are invited to find a middle way—the way of trusting God in the face of our fears and the way of humility in our search for the truth.

The psalm for today describes this balanced approach to our human journey as one that is focused on God's ongoing victory in the progress toward justice and righteousness. We do not live in a static world, but one in which God is actively seeking to transform us by the qualities of mercy and faithfulness qualities that are in contrast to those of the world around us.

The psalm reminds us, as Augustine said of old, our souls are restless until they find their rest in God. The balanced way is to know that God is near to us in our fears, and the praising God is the best antidote to pride.

Jesus said, God is God of the living, not the dead, and this means that God is present to us in all dimensions of our lives, our fears and disappointments and our times of pride and arrogance. God is constantly nudging us to respond to love as a way to comfort us in our fears and challenge us in our pride. Amen.