Room for One More

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Christ the King/Reign of Christ

Luke 23:33-43

33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. Which marks the end of the church year, and is the pivot point between ordinary time and Advent.

Christ the King is a relatively new feast day in the Christian church.The day marking Christ’s reign or kingship was established in the period between World War I and World War II,less than a hundred years ago.

Christianity’s influence, especially in Europe, was being replaced by secularism, nationalism and communism as the primary power brokers.

By invoking the kingship of Jesus, the church hoped to reinforce the claim of Jesus being ruler of all human institutions, political entities, and every economic and culture construct.

I have no way to prove it, but I am convinced church leaders in 1925 weren’t really much worried about Jesus losing authority. The church was anxious about losing its authority.

Church leaders were worried that they were losing their place of dominance and power in society. And we know how they feel, don’t we? I think we do.

In fact, I suspect Christ the King Sunday was born out of the same anxiety that still exists today when people get upset about “holiday trees” versus “Christmas trees,” or red cups at Starbucks, or a sales clerk saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.

Many Christians today feel anxious because the number of people of other faiths or no faith at all is growing. Even among people who claim to be Christian, church attendance is down.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s, everyone went to church.  If you wanted to be considered a “good” person, you showed up to worship pretty much every Sunday. Remember that?

Now, going to church is no longer a measure of goodness.People figure they can be good people without church. And frankly, many people look at the church and don’t see much good in it.Fewer and fewer people outside our walls listen to us.

That can make us defensive. Angry. Or sad. And, I dare say, a little frightened about our future. So today’s text from the lectionary for Christ the King Sunday is really very ironic when you think about it.

What we see in the text from Luke today isn’t anything like a coronation for a human king or even a presidential inauguration. What we see in Luke is exactly the opposite.

We are at Calvary. And Jesus doesn’t look like a powerful king or a president, or even like the pastor of a successful church.

Jesus looks like a beaten up and bleeding man.

 

I once had a spiritual director who encouraged me to look closely at the crucified Jesus as I prayed. She told me to spend time in prayer and imagine myself sitting at the foot of the cross and focus my gaze on Jesus. To remember that Jesus knows and shares in the suffering of the whole world.

When I see this scene in Luke, I want to clean Jesus up, put some clothes on him, and tend to his wounds. I want to knock that sour wine right out of the Roman executioners’ hands.

This text from Luke is not a beautifully rendered portrait of a king taking his rightful throne, but a nauseating scene of a convicted criminal being bullied, tortured and executed by the power of the state.

This is not a coronation of a king, not by a long shot.

What do we see?

Three men hang on three rough wooden crosses.  Two garden variety thieves and one troublesome revolutionary with a sign above his head: “King of the Jews,” which is of course both a mocking joke and the God’s honest truth.

There are the people hanging around the feet of the three crosses. There are a few chief priests and Roman functionaries. Might be family members of the thieves. And probably a couple people who didn’t know any of the men being executed, but show up anyway to see the spectacle.

And of course, there are the soldiers who are just doing their jobs and had long lost any remorse about executing people.  Those are the guys passing the time it takes a condemned man to die on a cross. They gamble to see who gets the dead man’s sandals and look up every once in a while to make sure all is going to plan.

This scene at Calvary has been interpreted in literally thousands of ways over the centuries – in creeds, novels, poems, plays, hymns, spirituals, great choral works, movies, and of course in explicitly religious art and no-so religious art.

But here is an interesting fact to consider.

In the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, there were no works of art created to represent the crucifixion at all. At least none that any scholar or archaeologists have been able to dig up.

Despite its centrality to the Christian faith, the crucifixion wasn’t mentioned or celebrated for hundreds of years after Christ.  Like so many of us, the earliest Christians looked away from the brutal scene of Jesus hanging on the cross. For the longest time, they pretended the crucifixion never happened.In fact, one of the earliest images of Jesus’ crucifixion was a piece of graffiti scrawled on an ancient Roman ruin that showed a man looking up at a donkey hanging on a cross.  The inscription underneath it read, “Alexamenos worships his god.” The artist apparently wanted to mock Alexamenos for worshipping a crucified God.picture1

Jesus’ death on a cross was, to put in bluntly, embarrassing for early Christians. How could anyone of faith possibly make sense of God dying in such a horrible way? It was a confusing event – shocking for those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, and for non-believer, it was proof of how ridiculous this whole Jesus business is.

And truth be told, crucifixion is still embarrassing for us. Because if we spend time pondering Christ on the cross, we realize we do not have a king who will save us from every terrible thing.

What we see on the cross is that Jesus is not going to rescue us from pain.

What we see on the cross is that Jesus will not save us from suffering.

What we see on the cross is Jesus dying a slow agonizing death between two common criminals, and it seems like he either can’t or won’t do anything about it.

The first criminal turns to Jesus and says, “Are you the Messiah or aren’t you?  Save yourself and us!”

This isn’t the first time Jesus has been dared to put up or shut up. Jesus heard it at the beginning of his ministry, right after his baptism. Remember? The Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days.

Jesus had been out there long enough to be really hungry, really thirsty and really, really miserable.Then who shows up?

The face of evil itself, a sneaky and persuasive temptation telling Jesus that if he’s truly God’s Son there’s no reason Jesus can’t get himself out of this jam.

Put up or shut up, says the devil. If you are the Messiah, this is a no-brainer.

All Jesus has to do is turn rocks into bread and he’ll get rid of the grumbling in his stomach.

All Jesus has to do is forsake this God who left him to die in some godforsaken hellhole and Jesus will never be this thirsty ever again.

All Jesus has to do is spit in his Father’s face and jump off the roof of the temple and Jesus will never ever have to suffer this kind of misery again.

The criminal hanging next to Jesus is the same voice of temptation.  After all, if Jesus is the king of all creation, rescuing himself and the other two criminals should be a piece of cake. Put up or shut up. Jesus. Save us.

The second criminal hanging on the other side of Jesus is the only person in this entire scene who sees things differently.

Jesus’ disciples are nowhere to be found.

The women still watching are overwhelmed with grief.

The leaders of the political and religious establishment are preoccupied with yelling smart aleck remarks at Jesus.

The soldiers are distracted by their game of “Texas Hold Em” like any other day.

The second criminal hears Jesus say something. Maybe nobody else heard it. Maybe nobody else believes it.

Jesus looks out at the people who are killing him and says, “Forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And in those words, the second criminal hears something like hope.

When the second criminal hears those ridiculous words of forgiveness he sees Jesus for who he is – a king of the best sort.

That criminal is the only one who understands those words as an opening to God for even a dirty rotten scoundrel like him.  Not tomorrow. Not next week, or at some point in the future, but right now.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” I think that’s about the most beautiful prayer ever uttered and it happens in the most horrible circumstance we can imagine. And Jesus says to him, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”  Today. Right now.  Not in three days. But now.

Jesus on the cross is not a super hero who will save us from terrible things. Instead on the cross we see a suffering servant Jesus who suffers all terrible things with us, right now.

We see a king of a different kingdom that has nothing to do with power or might or numbers or institutions.We see a king who stands with the marginalized, the meek, the vulnerable, right until the end.

I sometimes feel very defensive about the church to which I have been called to serve. Jesus’ church. I feel sometimes as if I personally have to answer every single criticism of what we get wrong. And to tell you the truth, these are questions I ask myself all the time.

If we are the church of Jesus Christ, why are we dying?

 If we are the church of Jesus Christ, why isn’t God saving us?

Why aren’t our pews filled? Why aren’t we successful?

If God is love, why is following Jesus sometimes so painful?

Look at Jesus on the cross, patiently loving and forgiving the people who are killing him and being killed with him.cross-of-christ-0105

Well.  I don’t know.I don’t know.

Maybe in order to be saved, we need to take Jesus seriously, seriously enough to follow him all the way to the cross.

Maybe in order to be saved, we have to get up there with Jesus.

If you look up at the cross right there, right in front of you in this beautiful sanctuary, you’ll see there’s room there for one more.

Jesus was there, he died and he’s been raised, and now it’s time for us to do the same.To follow him. To die and be raised. Each day as we seek to follow his way.

We need to die, trusting as Jesus did, that God will raise us to new life. Not in the way we would want to be raised, necessarily.  But we will be made new because that is who God is.

We need to die trusting we will be loved and forgiven and saved, not because of who we are, but because that is who Jesus is.

Paul says it in Romans 6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

 The church was not created to be successful…we are called to be faithful, even at the risk of losing our lives.

The church was not created to be successful…we are called to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, in and out of season, trusting in the Spirit to guide us and challenge us.

The church was not created to be successful…we are called to be obedient to the One who showed us in his weakness what it means to be a fully human child of God.

Jesus was not clamoring for earthly power, but he does call his church to join God’s insistent, consistent, and persistent solidarity with the weak, the oppressed, and the forgotten of this world.

Jesus leaves behind all the strength and power of his status – as Paul writes, “emptying himself and taking the form of a servant” – in order to redeem those who are weak, vulnerable, and lost.

We are called not to rise up but to get low enough to wash stinky feet.

We are called not to hoard our possessions, but to feed hungry people.

We are called not to stand at a safe distance, but to get involved in messy stuff of life.

We are called not to condemn, but to forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable.

We are called not to defend ourselves, but to be vulnerable enough to have our hearts broken by those things that break God’s heart.

We are called to be the church.

The King you and I will be seeking in these coming weeks of Advent will reveal himself to us not in glittering palaces, but in the dimmest light peeking through the cracks of broken places and broken people.

Maybe even in people like us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

In Our Hands

heres-a-tiny-bird-taking-a-bath-in-her-persons-hands-to-soothe-your-jangled-nerves-4qb

Valley Presbyterian Church

Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question,“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

  34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.

  36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

 Okay, let’s start with a quick poll.

Hands up if you think this political season has been the worst ever in the history of politics!

Oh really?

You think this is bad?

I can think of worse.

Let’s do a quick review of the political situation in Jerusalem in the 1st century and see if I can convince you that it was worse.

So, Rome was in charge of Palestine. And many other places as well.

The Romans were a ruthless and corrupt occupying force as there ever was.

How ruthless? Remember that when Jesus was born, the local Roman puppet, King Herod, ordered the execution of all Jewish baby boys born at the same time.  That’s just one example of how the Romans governed Palestine in the 1st century.  Any enemies of Rome, even potential enemies, even little babies – were swiftly eliminated.

The Roman government operated through brute force, and intimidation, all of it in the shadow of the Roman cross – a vicious form of torture and execution.  To be fair to the Romans, they are not the ones who invented the cross, but they sure perfected it.

The text we read from Luke today is set in Jerusalem and Jesus is standing in the shadow of that cross. It’s Tuesday of Holy Week. In three days, Jesus will be put to death by the Romans.

And Jesus has placed himself at the intersection of Roman authority and religious authority.  And religious authority of the Temple are represented by two groups.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees.

The Sadducees only appear once in the gospel of Luke, but we tend to lump the Sadducees and the Pharisees together as bad guys who always gave Jesus a hard time. However, it’s kind of important to know what kind of characters we are dealing with when we talk about Pharisees and Sadducees.

They didn’t like each other much. For a lot of reasons.

The Pharisees and Sadducees held very different political views, particularly about the Romans.

The Pharisees were hostile toward non-Jews and especially the Roman government in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were more the “people’s party” who strictly conformed to Jewish laws and had no patience with Roman rule. In fact, if the Pharisee’s dearest wish was to throw the Romans out.

The Sadducees, however, worked hand in glove with the Roman government. They would say they were doing so to keep the peace.  But many of the Sadducees also managed to get rich working alongside Rome.

If the Pharisees were more blue collar, working class types, the Sadducees were the white-collar guys, the priestly class CEO’s of the temple. Nobody liked the Sadducees very much, but they held most of the power in the temple hierarchy. The historian Josephus described the Sadducees as the elite upper crust, “able to persuade none but the very rich.”[1]

Another important difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees has to do with their interpretation of Scripture.

The Pharisees read all of Hebrew Scriptures including the historical books, the Psalms and the Prophets. They came up with an oral Torah – developing new interpretations for old laws to make the Torah more relevant to ordinary people.

The Sadducees, however, only accepted the first five books of what is our Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – as sacred text.  They rejected oral interpretation and relied upon literal reading of scripture.  The Sadducees were sort of the “Moses wrote it, I believe it, that settles it” kind of folks.

The Sadducees were most concerned about how they were doing in the here and now.  The idea of resurrection or an afterlife seemed ridiculous to them.  There’s nothing explicit about resurrection in the first five books of the Old Testament, so if you read your text as literally as the Sadducees did, resurrection isn’t even an issue.

So the Sadducees stored up all their blessings here on earth. What mattered to them was protecting what could be seen and felt and spent in this life.  The Sadducees were truly, “live your best life now” kind of guys.  They didn’t think about heaven or anything else beyond this lifetime.

So Jesus walks into Jerusalem, right smack dab into an ongoing and sometimes viscous debate concerning government rule, political power and religious belief.

Jesus didn’t take sides in the debate.

Jesus did not side with the Pharisees who wanted a Messiah to overthrow the government of Rome.

Jesus did not side with the Sadducees who wanted him to stop riling up the poor people like the ones who shouted Hosanna! on Palm Sunday.

Jesus did not side with Rome because Jesus saw how the government was exploiting the poor.

Jesus was on God’s side and no other.

And because of this, Jesus had become an enormous problem for the Pharisees, the Sadducees and Rome. In the texts from the last week of Jesus’ life, you see all three groups colluding to destroy him.

Today, the Sadducees show up in all their priestly splendor to take their best shot at Jesus. It’s clear that they are not interested in a serious debate or conversation like the Pharisees who sometimes engaged with Jesus.

The Sadducees really are just messing with Jesus.  They are trying to trip him up, make him look foolish, diminish him to the point that they can turn him over to the Roman government to be squashed.

So they come up with the craziest question they can think of. The idea of resurrection is so laughable to them that they ask Jesus a ridiculous hypothetical question. They invoke Mosaic marriage laws from Deuteronomy in which the brother of a man who dies childless is required to marry the dead brother’s widow.

And the Sadducees produce this elaborate scenario in which 7 brothers marry the same woman and all 7 brothers die without producing children.

So, the Sadducees ask, which brother will be the poor woman’s husband in heaven? Will Jesus dare to contradict the law of Moses?

I can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes at the Sadducees. Jesus knows what they are up to. He sees the trap the Sadducees are laying for him.

Jesus cites the Sadducees’ Torah to point out that when Moses encounters the burning bush in Exodus, the voice of God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

In Exodus, God speaks of the patriarchs not as some fondly remembered friends, not as a bunch of guys who have been dead and buried for years, but as living people. So while Abraham, Isaac and Jacob might be a distant memory to the Sadducees, captured only in the literal ink of the Torah, the patriarchs are alive for God.  The resurrection of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has already happened. Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead, but God of the living. God doesn’t let dead things stay dead.

So what is Jesus up to in this answer?

Remember that we are talking about resurrection. Resurrection is not the same as immortality in which we never die.  We will, all of us, die.

We are talking about resurrection.  And the fact is that Jesus didn’t have a lot to say in scripture about resurrection.  So in many ways, resurrection remains a mystery. It is not rational. It’s not something you can prove.

Even Paul says, “51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die,* but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

Problem of course is that Paul doesn’t exactly make clear how we will be changed or what the change will be or looks like, and theologians have been duking it out ever since. And still it is a mystery.

Jesus didn’t spend much time talking about resurrection.

Was he did was show us what resurrection looks like.

Jesus wasn’t simply raised from the dead, although he was no longer dead.

Jesus didn’t only walk out of the tomb like Lazarus, although his body was missing from the tomb when the women got there on Easter morning.

Jesus didn’t just come back to life like Jairus’ daughter, although Jesus lives and reigns among us and through us and promised to always be with us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We get a clue about what resurrection is about when we look at the disciples’ experiences of the resurrected Christ.

Think about the disciples before they encountered the resurrected Christ.  They are lost in their grief.  They are terrified when they find an empty tomb. When the women come back from the tomb and say, “He is risen,” the disciples are dismissive and scornful of the women. The disciples call the women’s testimony an “idle tale.” Only Peter runs to see for himself and yet still cannot believe his own eyes. The whole theme of Easter morning in the Gospel of Luke is grief, dismissal and doubt.

At some point, a couple of disciples decide to take a walk to Emmaus, and spend a long time talking to a stranger they do not recognize although their hearts tell them something is up.  It’s not until much later, when the disciples sit down for supper that they recognize the stranger. It’s Jesus.

The disciples’ experience of resurrection is confusing, heartbreaking, filled with moments of great joy, and is difficult to explain in a way that sounds anything but ridiculous.  It’s a mystery. One minute the disciples are grieving and the next minute they are eating a meal with the resurrected Christ. Who they somehow know but cannot recognize and even after the experience, they doubt.

But what is clear from all of the post-resurrection stories in the New Testament is that Paul was right.

Resurrection changes people. Resurrection isn’t about what happens when we die, but changes how we live. Right now. While we are still breathing.

Resurrection transformed the disciples.  After resurrection, the disciples are different people.  The doubters in Luke become bold apostles in the Book of Acts.

The Gospel stories seem to say that resurrection isn’t about what we believe or do not believe about live after death.

What the Gospel does tell us is about a God who does not abandon us, even in death. That promise should change how we live.

Resurrection says everything that looks dead to us – people, relationships, the world’s brokenness – all of those situations are, in fact, being transformed into something new.  Right now.  Right in front of our eyes.  And we need to be part of that transformation.

Because while we see resurrection as good news, it is also bad news for folks like the Sadducees or anyone else who can only imagine that what we see is all there is to see, or that justice will only, maybe happen at some distant point on the horizon, which is the Pharisees’ understanding of life.

Resurrection is terrible news for those of us who bury our heads in the sand and imagine that things were better once upon a time, are bad today, and nothing good can happen in the foreseeable future.

The Gospel tells us resurrection is neither comfortable nor comforting, and it probably won’t be immediately recognizable.  But if we keep our eyes open for it, the scales will fall.

Here’s a story…

Once there was a wise old woman who lived in a small village. The children of the village were puzzled by her—her wisdom, her gentleness, her strength. One day several of the older children decided to fool her. No one could be as wise as everyone said she was, and they set out to prove it. So they found a baby bird. One of the boys cupped it in his hands and said to his friend, “We’ll ask her whether the bird I have in my hands is dead or alive. If she says it is dead, I will open my hands and let it fly away. If she says it’s alive, I’ll crush it and she’ll see that it’s dead.” So they went to the woman and presented her with this puzzle. “Old woman,” the little boy asked, “this bird in my hands—is it dead or alive?” The old woman became very still, studied the boy’s hands, then looked carefully into his eyes. “It’s in your hands,” she said.

Brothers and sisters, we have a choice.  We can live as if we are dying, just like the Sadducees, clinging to the past, dragging it around like dead weight. Or we can live as if death truly has been defeated and we have absolutely nothing left to fear.

We can live as if the best is yet to be, because it always is with God.

We can believe that God will take every broken thing, hold it in his hands, blow the dust of sin off it and transform us into something new and redeemed and beautiful.

That is what God does.  That is who God is.  That is the resurrection story we are invited to live.  And live again. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 4,  Patrick Willson, 289.