worship notes for christ the king sunday...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, November 20, 2016. In the Christian
calendar this is Christ the King Sunday - the close of the year - in recognition that a new journey towards birth begins next week in Advent. In the United Church of Christ Open and Affirming world we also return thanks to God and solidarity with our friends and loved ones in the transgendered community.  We will be singing "This Is Your Land" in their honor and as our vow to live lives of radical hospitality.

Introduction
This has been a HELL of a week: from unimaginable grief and tumult in the lives of dear members in our faith community to the chaos of our political realm and the death of PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill – so many of our loved ones are hurting – myself included. And at the very same time, there has been blessing and tenderness and signs of God’s grace within and among us that fills my soul with joy and renewal. It is almost as if we have been living into the rhythm of this morning’s gospel for Christ the King Sunday:

On one side of the Cross is a crucified criminal shouting insults and threats at Jesus; on the other is a wounded sinner whispering, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” I hear both of these broken people all around – and even within – me these days. Abuse, dread, sacrilege and anger are out in the open whether you support or disdain the new regime. Just this week, one of our most active public citizens, the owner and promoter of the Whitney Center for the Arts on Wendell Avenue, was getting out of his car in North Adams when a construction worker asked our brown skinned friend menacingly: have you started to pack up and get out of my country yet? Racial threats also appeared painted on Mt. Tom and in a class-room at Williams College.

At the very same time – and this bears emphasizing – at the VERY same time, cherished friends in this place have baked over 900 pies for this week’s community Thanksgiving feeding ministry. In 24 hours, 21,000 American Jews joined a movement of solidarity to stand with American Muslims should Islamic registration become the law of the land. And our social media invitation on Face Book has been read by over 4,000 people – 200+ of whom took the time to note they LOVED our commitment to radical hospitality – and over 60 people have shared this message with friends and neighbors: As a tender and strong Open and Affirming church, we are committed to standing with the LGBTQ community - and women, refugees, Jews, Muslims and people of color - in this time of fear and uncertainty. If you need a safe haven in this post-election era, or at ANY time, please call or visit us. On Sunday some of you helped me start caring for Bonnie Brace who was taken to Albany Medical Center for emergency surgery. On Monday others gave up time, love and prayers to keep working on an operating budget for our congregation that is simultaneously challenging and sacred. And on Tuesday, my musical friends and family gathered with me for a few hours to pull together and practice songs for the Lord’s community today upon hearing of Carlton, our music director’s, recent injury and broken foot.

And all of this is probably the best experiential explanation of Christ the King Sunday imaginable: the rage of a frightened and confused crowd, the scorn of wounded people demanding quick fixes for their sin alongside the whispered repentance of a condemned and crucified criminal with no illusions about his own abilities but hungry for God’s grace: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

Insights
Now I want you to notice something important here – something greater than our confusion over calling Christ a King – because while most of us have no experience with royalty, we do know what these two competing voices sound like inside ourselves and our society. Our friends in the ecumenical monastery of Taize, France put it like this: Within us all there are often different feelings, experiences and voices that struggle for expression “among them the cries of these two criminals.” Following the first voice leads to an attitude of accusation, to withdrawal into ourselves and to distancing ourselves from God and others. Listening to the second voice and giving it precedence can help us to open our eyes and better accept what we are, recognizing God’s presence where we did not expect to find it and asking God to support us. One is the way of blame, the other the road to liberation. So let me ask you two questions:

+  First: what helps you discern the traps that can be hidden in the voices, feelings and experiences swirling around inside of you? How do you interrupt them and where do you find the courage not to remain fixed on them?


+  Second: have you ever experienced a feeling of being set free by the cross? Have you ever used the criminal’s prayer to help you find inner peace?

So many of us don’t use our best spiritual resources to help us get grounded and saturated in God’s love – and I have to wonder why? Why are we so often ignorant of or reluctant to look upon the Cross, pray the prayers printed for us in the Bible, or simply cast our hearts upon the Lord? It is such a mystery. True confession: I regularly hear about your angst and fears, often I attentively listen to your worries, wounds and heartbreak – and I treat this as a sacred privilege - but I have to wonder aloud right now: why are we so stubborn about using the most simple and basic prayer resources available to Christian people? Do you have any thoughts, insights or wisdom? It makes me think of the aphorism from AA: if you always do what you’ve always done…

Here’s what I think? After 35+ years of being a pastor, my working hypothesis as to why middle class people don’t look to the Cross and surrender themselves to the Lord in our times of anxiety and trouble is a combination of ignorance and arrogance. 

+  Some of us have never been taught how to pray or go inward.
Over the past 50 years, our tradition has done a dreadful job of teaching children and adults the basics of prayer, meditation and contemplation – and I mean a truly wretched job. That’s changing, of course, but the well-honed spiritual practices of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant worlds have too often been ignored or forgotten leaving many of us without the tools needed for the journey. Small wonder we’ve been assigned these words from the prophet Jeremiah: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven my people driven away, you have not attended to them… So I myself will gather a remnant of my flock out of all the lands… and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd so that they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any go missing. We have failed to equip you with the tools of prayer so there is ignorance.

+  Second there is also arrogance because some are just too full of themselves – or self-satisfied with their wealth and status in life – to even consider that they can’t figure things out for themselves. It is the intellectual and spiritual curse of the middle class and we’re ALL victim to one degree or another. And before you get your shorts in a knot understand that I include myself in this curse, too. I grew up in Sudbury, MA and Darien, CT for God’s sake – I know from whence I speak – we are take charge, go to it, and pragmatic people who get paid to get results. No wonder we’re terrified at letting go so that God and be God in our lives. It is so counter-cultural. We suffer from ignorance and arrogance.

And living faithfully is the exact opposite: it is trusting and humble. In his most recent collection of essays, my old mentor, Professor Walter Brueggemann, writes: both Jews and Christians have, over time, devised signals and symbols of oddity to help them stand against being assimilated by Empire, culture and the curse of the middle class. For Jews the Sabbath, keeping kosher and circumcision mark them as peculiar people at odds with the status quo of fitting in and going along to get along. “In parallel fashion, for like reasons, the baptismal imagination of the New Testament is to be equally peculiar and particular” by:

Living as odd men and odd women who come together in odd communities and

congregations, always at odds, always at risk, always in the presence of large cultural empires that want to dissolve our oddity for reasons of state, always telling our girls and boys that we are different because we have been with Jesus. We are forever, like our Jewish cousins, reimagining and retelling and reliving our lives through the scandal of Friday and the rumor of Sunday… In our era, the dominant symbol of reality is the swoosh of NIKE – life is for winners – of a private, individualized kind who can make it in the market or in the sports arena… but the subversive and counter-cultural symbol of Christian faith is the Cross, the bread of brokenness, the cup of abundance and the water of cleansing and baptism.

At the foot of the Cross – and upon it – as well as in every Sunday gathering, we find the word: remember – mimnēiskomai in Greek – meaning to both recall with our minds and hearts bit also respond with our bodies in the appropriate manner. When the criminal asked Jesus to remember him, he wasn’t speaking sentimentality, he was pleading for Christ’s loving embrace. To remember as a Christian is to live so that we make God’s grace a flesh and blood part of every day. Six times the gospel of Luke uses the word remember and each time it involves responding to real people in need in the manner of the Lord.

+  In the canticles of Mary and then Zechariah, one of which you heard earlier, we are told that the Lord remembered the holy covenant made with Abraham and Sarah and proclaimed by the prophets and so rescued the vulnerable from the hands of their enemies and brought them to safety (Luke 1: 54 and 1:72)

+  In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, Father Abraham tells the rich man who has gone to hell to remember how he lived and treated the poor when he was alive; this stands “in contrast to the life of the beggar Lazarus” who suffered but was remembered by God and brought into paradise.

+  After the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, two men in dazzling clothes tell the women who have come to anoint the dead body to remember what Jesus had promised – and when they do they run back to reassure the men and bring them the joy of Christ’s blessings (Luke 24: 6)

+  In Luke 17, Jesus tells his disciples who are starting to waver in faith, to remember Lot’s wife, who both doubted God and was turned into a pillar of salt as a consequence of her actions, and not to do likewise.

And at the Last Supper, unlike Matthew or Mark, Luke has Jesus telling his disciples to re-member him as they break the bread and as they live in a broken world. (Luke 22) To remember is to put the way of the Messiah into our living – and now more than ever before this is a counter-cultural oddity for North Americans.

Conclusion
The late Elie Wiesel, Jewish sage and teacher, once told a story from Eastern Europe about the counter cultural nature of the Messiah. There was a young follower of the great Rabbi Maggid of Mezertich, who married the daughter of a fierce spiritual opponent: 

And as a condition of marriage, the young Hasid was forced to choose between his new family and his Rebbe. Of course, the son-in-law swore allegiance to his new kin. But after a few months – or maybe a few years – the young spiritual pilgrim could not resist the impulse to join his com-panions who danced and prayed in ecstasy to the Lord. So, when he returned home, his angry father-in-law marched him to the local rabbi and demanded a judgment. The rabbi consulted the wisdom of his tradition and issued this verdict: since the young man had broken his promise, he was to give his wife a divorce at once. Overnight the young man found himself on the street. He had no means of his own, no relations. Inconsolable and refusing all nourishment, the young Hasid fell sick – and with no one to care for him died shortly after. The odd and counter-cultural tradition of the rabbis conclude the story like this: When the Messiah comes, the young Hasid will file a complaint of premature death against both his father-in-law and the local rabbi. The first will say: I obeyed the rabbi. And the rabbi will say: I obeyed the interpretation of our faith according to tradition. To which the Messiah will say: The father-in-law is right, the rabbi is right, and Torah is right, too. Then he will embrace the young plaintiff with a kiss and say: But I, what do I have to do with them? The Messiah has come for those who are not right.

Christ the King Sunday points us to the Cross to learn what living like the Messiah looks like: it is hard to see, but suffering in solidarity with those we love and God loves, risking becoming a loser so that love wins is at the core of our faith. St. Paul writes that the Cross looks foolish to those who are trapped by Empire or addicted to middle class niceties. The Cross looks like the way of failure to those who are too full of themselves. But the Cross is how God sets us free to love and keep loving when everything else urges us to quit. Today marks the close – even the death – of the Christian calendar. Next week we start again with Advent on the road to Christ’s birth.. But today, if we are faithful, we don’t look for the cradle of the Lord; we look at his Cross and make it our own. This is what it means to remember, so let those with ears to hear – hear.

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