Reign of Christ, Sermons

Royal Watch

I’ve been a royal watcher for a long time, a family interest handed down over generations long before the TV show “The Crown” came to be. Princess Diana was my age. I was in college when I watched her wedding in a room full of excited friends. The Queen is just about my mother’s age. As a little American girl in the 1930s, she collected books about Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose. Mom followed their lives in newsreels at the movie theatre, and worried about their safety during World War II. She admired their parents for staying at Buckingham Palace during the Blitz, when most people with privilege fled to the safety of country houses or other countries.

I don’t have my mother’s copy anymore, sadly.

That’s the idea my mother gave me about what a King or a Queen should be, someone who cared enough about the people to stay with them and accept the risks they faced. 

But that is not what the people had in mind when they put a sign up over Jesus on that long ago day, a sign that read “King of the Jews.” 

A King had all the power in the the country where he ruled. A King would tell the soldiers what to do instead of being bullied by them. A King would take control, and have his way. A King would win.

A King could save himself.

When Diana’s older son, William, got married, I had another watch party with friends. We ordered scones from a local bakery and woke up before dawn so we wouldn’t miss a moment of the Today Show’s coverage. We appreciated the fluffy cardigan worn by his bride and hoped her fashion influence would bring back sleeves on wedding dresses. Together we remembered his mother’s wedding, her amazing dress, and the carriages and the crowds gathered along the route to St. Paul’s Cathedral. People slept outside to save their spots, just as they would for her funeral later. 

It’s almost a sport to watch a royal family.

It was a kind of sport, too, to watch criminals carrying their crosses through the streets of Jerusalem. Dragging the heavy crosspiece, they heard the jeering of the crowds. Crucifixion was intended to be as humiliating as it was painful, emotional torture and physical torture both. The means chosen to punish Jesus was deliberate and particular. He upset the norms of power, and the authorities needed for him to lose more than his life. They needed him to lose his influence. 

So they sent Jesus to the cross to die. 

And on the way the crowd taunted him. 

“If you are the King, save yourself!”

Of course, not everyone jeered. In the crowd, hoping to see but not be seen, were royal watchers of a different kind. They followed Jesus from the place where he ate the Last Supper and on to the Garden of Gethsemane, and after his arrest they moved to the courtyard of the High Priest’s house and to Pontius Pilate and to Herod and then back to Pilate again. They saw him and knew he had been beaten. They saw him and watched as faithful, heartbroken witnesses. By the time they reached the place known as the Skull, they must have stopped wondering if there would be a sudden escape and an earthly victory.

We know this story because the Royal Watch went on, even to the last moment of the crucifixion. The faithful women followed Jesus to the cross. We can only imagine how much it hurt to see and hear it all. They heard the crowd in Jerusalem yell “Crucify him” as gleefully as the crowd at Buckingham Palace urged Prince Charles to kiss Princess Diana. 

It was a spectacle. 

If you are the King, save yourself!

It’s a challenge, a dare. 

Show us what you can do, man, because they are going to kill you otherwise. 

It’s a dare from some, and a demand from others. 

There were people in the crowd who believed their Messiah would be the kind of King they knew of in their world, a ruler who used authority to command the people. They believed he would defeat their enemies and uphold what was good. 

In the 1920s, Pope Pius XI saw dangerous forces arising in the world and saw their power being assembled in part through the churches. He looked at dictators like Hitler, and fallible human leaders with royal titles, and knew the people needed a different lens on leadership. 

The letter to the Colossians reminds us of the qualities that matter when we think of Christ as King:

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. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.

Luke 23:40-41

The Pope established Christ the King Sunday as a way of declaring that no human being could be in charge of the church. Christ is the King, he said. Christ rules over the churches. No human king, no Emperor, and most especially no dictator can take his place.

No wonder we might wonder about the kind of king Jesus was. 

If you are the King, save yourself.

And save us. 

What else does it mean to us to think of Christ as King? Our reading from Jeremiah points to both a shepherd’s care for the flock, and to justice:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

Jeremiah 23:5

Here’s what my royal-watching mother taught me. She would be 94 this year, if she were still living, and she grew up thinking a lot about kings and just as much about Jesus. And somehow she drew the association in the other direction. It wasn’t that she thought of Jesus as a King like the kings in storybooks or the Old Testament, or the legends of the Round Table. 

Instead she thought a really good king ought to be like Jesus. He ought to care about the people, more than most of us would ever bother.

Maybe that’s why I wanted to think, in those more innocent times in my own life, that the royal people we got up early to watch get married on international television were special and good. 

Le Breton, Jacques ; Gaudin, Jean. Jesus Carrying the Cross, Speaking to a Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  [retrieved November 24, 2019]. Original source: Collection of Anne Richardson Womack.

That didn’t turn out to be true. Just this week, the Today Show and other news outlets covered the scandal about Prince Andrew’s association with the sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. The royals I’ve watched have turned out, again and again, to be just people. They may be people who ride in carriages and set fashion trends, but they also turned out to be people who have emotional issues and make terrible decisions. 

They turned out to be people who don’t get a happy ending. 

Our little snippet of the gospel for today doesn’t end happily, but it does end mercifully. 

The two men hanging on the crosses to either side of Jesus are actual criminals. They say so themselves. 

One of them speaks roughly to Jesus, and the other tells him to stop. 

“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”

Luke 23:40-41

And then he shows us that he knows, somehow, just what kind of king Jesus is. 

“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.” 

And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

That’s the kind of King I want,  the King who gathers the least of us into his castle: 

  • the ones who have made mistakes, 
  • the ones who are suffering, 
  • the ones who are afraid to die, 
  • the ones who have no more reason to live, 
  • the ones who hunger and thirst for more than food and water. 

I want a King who forgives us when we do not know what we are doing. 

And that’s the King we have. 

  • He is so much a part of God that he was before all things and is in all things. 
  • He is so much one of us that he died a human death for our sake. 
  • He reigns over us with love and mercy. 

They’re not talking about him on the Today Show, but I’m going to keep watching for him. I hope you will, too. 

In the name of the King who rules over us with love, Jesus Christ. Amen. 


I shared this sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday at Grace United Church of Christ in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, where I will be preaching for the rest of 2019. This is an update of a sermon I published in Lectionary Homiletics in 2013.

Sermons

Falling Upward

I picture it as a beautiful day when the disciples, those small town guys, stood outside the Temple in Jerusalem and admired its workmanship.

It wasn’t Jesus’s first visit to the big city, according to Luke, who tells a story of 12-year-old Jesus going with his parents to Jerusalem for one of the high holidays. On the way home, his parents assumed he was hanging out with the other kids, somewhere in the throng of people on the dusty road. When they realize he was nowhere to be found, they went back to Jerusalem and searched for him for three days. Three days! Imagine how distressed they must have been. Finally they discovered he had been at the Temple all along, talking to the priests, discussing the Holy Book with brilliance well beyond his years.

This visit is different. This time the priests do not admire him. He’s turned over the tables in the Temple, one of the stories that finds its way into all the gospels. He arrives at the Temple and he absolutely goes off when he sees how his Father’s house is being used and misused.

This time they not only don’t like him. They decide he needs to die.

The Temple was in the process of being rebuilt, a huge public works project under Herod’s rule. You might remember that this second Temple, built after the exile, never felt quite like the original in spirit, and certainly was less elaborate. Herod set out to create a legacy for himself by making it more elaborate. So it’s fancy new construction that the disciples admire, only to have Jesus tell them that it won’t last. And it’s not a huge leap to take him literally, because it was only about forty years later that the Temple his companions admired would be laid waste, never to be rebuilt.

Everything’s going to fall down sometime.

Whether they want to hear it or not, Jesus is warning his friends of the troubles about to come. They will be challenged after his death and have to testify to their faith. Their families no doubt disassociated from them, perhaps because of genuine disagreement, but maybe also just to keep themselves safe from political danger. The only hope he offers is that if we endure, we will gain our souls.

It’s important to note that Jesus spoke to the very particular situations of the people around him that day, but that he also speaks to us, so many years later. It’s happened to me, and probably to you, too. Life is going along on the accustomed path, and then without much warning, or perhaps with hints you missed and can only see in hindsight, everything goes smash. It can happen at work, or school, or in our relationships.

We’re all going to fall sometime.

If our faith really matters to us, if we are truly committed to the values that go hand in hand with our beliefs, then we will almost certainly face times when we will be on the unpopular side of arguments, when we will have to speak up for what we believe and identify ourselves with Jesus at great cost.

The cost was certainly great for Jesus, in human terms.

Next week’s gospel reading will find him on the cross.

We all going to fall down sometime. Even Jesus.

It’s the human experience, one he shared with us.

In his book, “Falling Upward,” the Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr writes,

“Failure and suffering are the great equalizers and levelers among humans. Success is just the opposite. Communities and commitment can form around suffering much more than around how wonderful or superior we are.” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 158)

Out of what looked like failure to the world’s eyes would come a movement following Jesus, a movement passed down to us over millennia, continually formed and reformed in the face of loss and death and endings, continually born into new expressions of faithful testimony and action.

I’ll be honest. When I planned ahead for this sermon I expected a different outcome for this week’s election. I worried about the aftermath, but I worried about a different set of people being upset and disappointed. Maybe the signs were there, as they should have been for the disciples, but I didn’t see them, or I didn’t want to see them.

Now I’m concerned about my family’s future, and for others who wonder if we will lose rights we gained so recently. At a medical appointment the other day I found myself stammering, hesitant to name my relationship to my wife. We’ve had to reassure our son that no change in a law can unmake our family. And maybe we’re catastrophizing; maybe there is nothing to worry about for us. But the same racism and misogyny I named in recent weeks has been on display for the past five days, making the world seem less safe for some of Will’s classmates. He’s worried about whether kids will bully his friend,

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the "wall of solidarity" sponsored by the United Minority Council. (philly.com)
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the “wall of solidarity” sponsored by the United Minority Council. (philly.com)

Meyhar, and we’ve talked with him about sticking up for the students who fall into the category of “other,” labeled for their race or religion or national origin. It breaks my heart for children, for anyone, to be at risk simply for being who they are. You may have read the story about the racist messages sent to all the black freshman at Penn this week, and that is just one instance. For me this feels like the Temple falling down, the structure I built around my beliefs that everyone could have a place in America.

 

Father Rohr says,

The genius of the gospel was that it included the problem inside the solution. The falling became the standing. The stumbling became the finding. The dying became the rising.  (Rohr, p. 159)

We all fall down sometime. Sometimes, even when we try not to, we mess it all up ourselves. It’s human to want some reassurance that everything will come out all right in the end, and this speech from Jesus that stirs up our anxieties gives us only an eternal hope. He doesn’t promise us our lives. He won’t get to keep his own.

Next week, you’re going to take a vote on the future of this church, and some of you already have ballots ready to return to be counted as absentee. One of the ideals of our congregational polity is the give and take that happens in the meeting itself, the noble principle that we give equal consideration to each speaker, letting each opinion be heard, and counting each vote equally. We reach our conclusions in our own ways. Maybe we’ve prayed long and hard about our decision – whether in church business or national politics – or maybe we go with our gut.

Up in Maine, the last community I served still has an annual Town Meeting where decisions are made. It can be scary to share our thoughts that way, right out in front of everybody, but in this case, it’s so important for discerning how you will vote in the end. That’s why there have been so many opportunities offered for conversation with the Consistory, in hopes that all voices will be heard, and there will be one more chance in the meeting itself. If you haven’t spoken, or feel worried about making your voice heard, remember that Jesus promised his disciples words and wisdom for the moment they would be most needed.

And if you get it wrong, well, we’re all going to fall sometime.

But don’t let people tell you falling down means everything comes to an end.

As Father Rohr puts it,

I fell many times relationally, professionally, emotionally, and physically in my life, but there was always a trampoline effect that allowed me to finally fall upward. No falling down was final, but actually contributed to the bounce! (Rohr, p. 158)

Believe me when I say this truth is hard-won for me right now. I haven’t come around to it through platitudes or sentiment. I’ve been down in the abyss having words with God this week, and I know it’s true God was right there with me because Christ has been in the abyss of hell himself.

I am disillusioned and disappointed and even distraught, yet I still believe this is the truth. We are people of the Good News. We are people of God’s Hope. We are people of Christ’s Resurrection.

So we do not despair.

We do the work of letting go, and the work of building up again, and the work of arguing with God, and the work of listening to God, which for most of us is a lot harder. We try, knowing another fall will come, another disappointment, another loss, but remembering that whatever happens, we are not alone. It’s the truth, even in the moments when we’ve fallen, and especially when we’re falling upward. In the name of the Creator and the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermons

Things Hoped For

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This time last year, I first started hearing about the newly opened Broadway show, “Hamilton,” when some friends of ours went to see it and declared it amazing. The composer went to the same college as my oldest, so I knew a little bit about him. Excitedly, as I do, I started reading all about it, and then reading news about it out loud. Kathryn thought it sounded weird. Why would you want to pay good money to see a musical about the Founding Fathers? Wasn’t that just for history major nerds … like me? It might as well be in French.

Whenever the subject came up, she would give me that look that says, “I don’t want to hear about it.” So I would listen to the music online, and read articles about the composer and performers, but I would close the browser window or turn off the sound whenever she came into the room.

I had no hope of going to see the show, which was getting more and more popular. The seats were being bought up and resold by ticket brokers, and the cost kept getting higher and higher. The only way to get the already expensive tickets at the list price was to watch the Hamilton website to see when new blocks of tickets were released, and to act fast. This all felt beyond my powers, especially since Kathryn didn’t care about going.

It wasn’t the first time I had wished for something that seemed unlikely, even impossible.

It didn’t stop me from enjoying the music, though. And my loftiest Hamilton-related hope was that somebody would think of giving me the original cast recording for Christmas.

When we don’t think something is possible – well, when I don’t think something is possible, I do two things. On the surface, on the outside, for public consumption, I resize my expectations. I might dream a little about what I would love to do, how I wish things would turn out. It’s easier to protect yourself. Don’t hope for too much, and you won’t get hurt.

That sounds pragmatic, and safe, doesn’t it?

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1 is a famous verse, the kind of thing preachers proclaim and other people embroider on pillows or decoupage on wall hangings. It sounds poetic, lyrical, but what does it mean? Faith is the assurance of things hoped for? If we’re going to get the things we hoped for, if they are assured, then why do we need faith?

I feel dissatisfied with this sometimes, with these smooth words that slide off my tongue.

And I wonder how God’s words sounded to Abraham, big, crazy promises about descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand at the seashore, a ridiculous promise to an old man with not one single child, and a wife too old to have a baby. Leave what you know, go out into the unknown lands, old man, and I will give you a legacy that will never die.

What made that old man think the Lord would come through?

It’s a slightly bigger trust fall than imagining going to see a Broadway show.

A lot bigger than hoping for a CD under the Christmas tree.

We take turns opening presents, and we weren’t too far into the rotation when I opened the Broadway cast recording of Hamilton. I was super excited! When you keep your hopes low, it’s not so hard to exceed them.

When it looked like everything had been opened, I still didn’t have a gift from Kathryn. She pointed to something I hadn’t seen, and Will brought it to me. Edward, our oldest, was sitting on the couch beside me, and as I unwrapped the flat present, I found a nice file folder. I mean, it was a high-quality folder, with elastic things to hold it shut, but…

Inside it were some paper file folders, also nice ones, and inside each one a sheet of paper, with something printed out. The print was small, and I had trouble focusing to see what it could be – tickets? To what?

He didn’t say anything, but Edward shifted beside me, and then my eyes found the word: Hamilton.

Kathryn had been saving up for two months to buy the tickets. There may have been a little subterfuge, a little feigning of disinterest in Hamilton, a little secret listening to the music when *I* wasn’t around.

It’s easy to see these things in hindsight.

By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:7-10)

Hear that: “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Faith is not about ephemeral possibilities and fantastical dreams-come-true. Faith is not an act we perform for God. Faith is knowing God cares for us, even when we can’t see the things we hope for yet.

Abraham struck out into the wilderness with his wife and his servants and his flocks because that’s how faith works. He knew God had his back.

The ticket and the cast
The ticket and the cast

Those Hamilton tickets had to be purchased way in advance. The date on them was July 27th. In the meantime, we celebrated the Grammy the show won, and in June, so many Tony Awards. Then the announcements began of cast departures. I won’t pretend; there were a few moments here and there when we lamented. But by the time we climbed the stairs to our seats in the rear mezzanine of the Richard Rodgers Theater, we were beyond excited to be in the room where it happens.

The whole experience exceeded our hopes.

That’s not just a measure of how the actors performed. We worked through our doubts and came to the encounter with faith it would be a good thing.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

Faith Church is in a time of uncertainty, hoping for a future you can’t quite see yet. Each of you has things hoped for in a new pastor. No one is more aware of that than the members of the Search Committee, who will soon start reading candidate profiles and watching for the one who will be right for all of you.

Hebrews was written to encourage new Christians who also lived in a time of uncertainty. Their community of faith formed with enthusiasm, then suffered negative social consequences – never a happy thing, their friends and neighbors thought they were strange. The early glow wore off, and that group of people they had to live with were clearly not all gathered in the perfected kingdom of God. They were flagging, and they needed a word of encouragement, to remind them of the firm foundation laid for them.

I imagine they wondered why they lived in the time they did, why it was they were the ones up against it, having to defend what they believed.

This letter reminded them of the truth about faith. Assurance and conviction don’t come on our own power or by our own effort. They come from God. They come in knowing God.

Jesus’ own disciples worried about how they would survive in the face of hostile authorities and unpredictable crowds, people they previously knew as neighbors. At the beginning of Luke 12, the gathered crowd was so large and unruly that people were trampling each other. After teaching the people and taking questions from the crowd, Jesus turns to his inner circle.

It is the disciples Jesus reassures in the passage we read this morning, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid, he says. Then he goes on. Do not be afraid, but do be ready. Be aware. Be sure what you treasure, what you are keeping close to your heart.

Know who your God is.

Jesus tells the disciples, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”

What more could we hope for?

Faith is not an act we perform for God. Faith is knowing God cares for us, even when we can’t see the things we hope for yet.