A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent from 2010.
It had to happen sometime: I used a Sesame Street reference as a sermon title.
“One of These Things Is Not Like the Other”
Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 23:33-43
Christ the King Sunday
November 24, 2013
First Christian Church
If you are interested in politics, this was a week to remember. On Wednesday, we learned that Harry Reid, a Senator from Nevada and the Democratic Majority Leader invoked what has been called the “nuclear option” with regard to Senate rules. For over two centuries, the Senate had a rule that nominees to various offices had to have the approval of 60 members of congress, a supermajority. The Nuclear Option changes the rule to allow a simple majority, 51 members, for nominees to be confirmed.
The reason for going nuclear was that the minority in the Senate, in this case, the Republicans, have blocked a number of judicial and executive appointments. Now, these candidates should sail through.
The reaction has been predictable. Democrats are in favor of the rule change. Real work can get done, they believe. Republicans are not so enamoured because this effectively gives the minority party very little leverage. Cries of “naked power grab” were quite common.
Hypocrisies abound in this story. Eight years ago, it was the then-Republican majority in the Senate thinking about going nuclear and the Democrats who were against it. A last minute bipartisan deal staved doomsday. There was an attempt this time to avert the Big One, but that effort failed.
This week was also the 50th anniversary of the assasination of John F. Kennedy. I believe last Friday, the 22nd was the exact day when that awful event happened. I wasn’t around when that took place, but it was fascinating to hear some of the background concerning the event. National Public Radio rebroadcast a piece by the late Walter Cronkite walking people through the events of the day.
Today is the final Sunday of the Church Year. The year starts with Advent and ends with this day, which is commonly called Christ the King Sunday. This Sunday ends up framing what Advent is all about. We are reminded that a King is coming to set the world right.
In the passage from the book of Jeremiah, we find that God is not happy. Speaking through Jeremiah, God is upset at the most recent kings of Israel. It’s important to note that the Israelites tended to see their kings like shepherds. In other parts of the world, the king was seen more as a god. That’s why we see the prophet likening to kings to shepherds- bad shepherds. God brings judgement on these kings, these shepherds who have scattered the sheep, misled them and just basically abused them. God says that God will attend to these incompetent kings and bring comfort to God’s people. Jeremiah starts talking about a new king, a shepherd that will comfort God’s people, ruling with justice.
Now, Jeremiah was writing for a Jewish audience, not a Christian one. So, a Jew might not see this the same way we will. That said, Christians do see this new king as Jesus Christ.
Some people are a bit uncomfortable calling this day Christ the King. It sounds a bit too authoritarian and triumphalistic. It’s hard for us to reconcile the image of a powerful leader with one who lived in the backwater of the Roman empire take care of the sick and outcast. For those who don’t like the concept of Christ as King it is a bit puzzling to see a “king” serving others. After all, we know what a king is, and Jesus ain’t it.
The concept of Jesus as King is troubling really to all of us. We know what a king is and while we Americans don’t have a king or queen, we do understand what it means to be powerful. The President of the United States has power. He or she isn’t a king, but just because they are elected, doesn’t mean we don’t bestow a king-like aura on them. We know that kings, or any leader is a powerful person. Jesus? The guy who talks about loving our enemies? Not a king.
We only read a short passage of Luke today, but this text places us in the last few hours of Jesus’ life. We see him being arrested and facing the Roman leaders. He is humiliated and then forced to carry his cross to the Place of the Skull. As he is nailed to the cross, the soliders mock him, placing a sign that says “King of the Jews” and offering a toast of sour wine.
How in the world could this one be king? He has no power even to save himself from this humiliation.
But let’s go back to how the God and Israelites see a king. The king is not a god, but a shepherd, one that takes care of the sheep and protects them from harm. King Jesus doesn’t rule like other kings. Instead Jesus brings healing to the sick, food to the hungry and sacrificing his life for the benefit of all creation. This is a king that doesn’t act like a king-god, but a king who is the Good Shepherd, the one who cares for all of us.
When I was growing up, I like most kids, watched Sesame Street. There was a segment from the 1970s where one of the cast members would start singing a song called “One of these things is not like the others.” You would see four things: three of them are the same, and one is something totally different. As we saw these objects you would hear the song:
One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?
Jesus is not like other kings. As we enter this time of Advent, please keep this in mind. We will be hearing about this king as told by the Prophet Isaiah. One these Kings is not like the others. Let’s find out how. Thanks be to God, Amen.
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone
They let you down and hurt your pride
Better put it all behind you; life goes on
You keep carrin’ that anger, it’ll eat you inside
-Don Henley, The Heart of the Matter
I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to be the oddest gay man around.
Maybe it’s because of my aspergers, but I don’t tend to carry a whole lot of bitterness that some gays and lesbians that I know have. The uses of the Bible to justify homophobia didn’t leave me afraid of the Bible. I don’t doubt that God loves me and always has. I just don’t live with the anxiety that many gays and lesbians have inside of them.
Maybe that’s why it’s hard to relate to people like John Shore. For the unitiated, Shore is a gay man who leads a ministry helping gay Christians that have been kicked out of their churches. Some of his writings tend to be full of bitterness, the result of how he has been treated and seeing others treated the same way. One his most recent posts includes a letter he received from a lesbian that is trying to live out her faith holistically. She writes that at times she still feels nervous and even finds it hard to read her Bible. Shore responds in his blunt style. A lot of what he says is realistic, LGBT persons do feel a lot of anxiety when it comes to the church because of past experiences.
What bothered me was Shore’s own ambivalence about the church. He can get Jesus, but wishes he could just give up on Christianity.
Again, my Asperger’s makes me process things differently. When I faced difficulty in church for being gay, I could see that being the fault of one person or a church, but I didn’t somehow see this as a sweeping indictment of Christianity. I could see the tree in the midst of the forest.
My way is not how most deal with this. One bad experience can make people think all churches are bad and that experience lives with them for years.
I can’t really say that others are doing it wrong. But if I had magic powers, I would try to help LGBT folk only focus on the good people who care and not see all the church as rotten. I would help them know that God loves them even when the church has issues.
I think that at some point we have to let go of the anger and fear and trust God. But I also know that is easier said than done. My experience was pretty tame compared to others. But I still think we have to learn to let go of the pain, not because we should be abused, but because it does tend to be rather corrosive on our souls.
Maybe I’m speaking out of my element. Anger has its uses. But too much of a good thing can be harmful.
The following is a sermon I preached on Christ the King Sunday in 2004. The gospel text for that Sunday is the one that will be used this coming Sunday.
“Fit for a King”
November 21, 2004 (Christ the King Sunday)
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN
Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the Church Year which begins with the first Sunday in Advent, which is next Sunday. It is on this Sunday that we are reminded of Jesus as our King, our Ruler, our Lord.
I consider it a stroke of coincedence that this past week saw the opening of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. The building is stretches out towards the Arkansas River reminiscing the former president’s phrase of being a “bridge to the 21st century.” The library is like most presidential libraries in that it is a history of the person and the times. There is a replica of the Oval Office, one of the presidential limos and other memorablia from his time as our president. There is also an exhibit of le affair Monica.
Presidential libraries are fascinating because they tell the story of people who ended up as one of the most powerful persons in the world. They basically tell the story of their ascent to power. You will see pictures of them meeting with other heads of state and how the handled various events that happened under their watch. For someone like myself, who loves politics and history, I would find this interesting.
Even though we Americans don’t have kings, our presidents are pretty powerful people. We know how a leader is supposed to act. So, today’s gospel text is sort of interesting because it shows not powerful person, but one who seems at least to be powerless. How can we call Christ a King when he is being crucified like a common criminal between two real thieves?
I started to think about what would happen if there were a Jesus Christ Messianic Library? What would it have in it that would reveal something about this person we call Christ the King?
Well, let’s imagine that we are taking a trip to this library. The building is shaped like cross. As we enter, the first exhibit is one of a common stable with animals milling about. The exhibit’s title is “Birth of a King.” It explains that Jesus was born to a young teenage girl. It also explains that Jesus was born in a stable because all the hotel rooms in Bethlehem were booked. The exhibit also includes replicas of shepherds kneeling in front of the baby. We are told by one of the museum guides that shepherds were considered ritually unclean because they dealt with sheep and yet the angels appeared to them and told them of the glorious news.
We keep walking. The next exhibit has Mary and Joseph as if they were on the run. Mary is carrying a baby that seems about two years old. We read that Mary and Joseph had to leave their home in order to protect the baby Jesus from King Herod. Herod was the king appointed by Rome to rule over the Jewish people and he had heard of this “new king.” Afraid that he would lose power, Herod ordered the killing of all male babies under the age of two. Mary and Joseph were warned about this impending plot by an angel and fled to Egypt. The young child was already considered a threat to those who worshipped power.
We then keep walking and encounter an exhibit called the “Calling of the Tax Collector.” It’s a video exhibit and it has an interview with a tax collector called Zaccheus. He explains that tax collectors were not liked by the people because they were agents of Rome and therefore collaborators. Tax collectors also tended to take a little more from people than the required tax in order to line their own pockets. He says that one day he heard that Jesus was coming to his town. He wanted to see this guy. Problem was that he a short guy. The people of the town knew this and made sure that he couldn’t see Jesus coming down the street. Zaccheus then said that he climbed a tree to get a bird’s eye view. He saw Jesus coming down the street and then was shocked when Jesus told him to come down since he was going have lunch with him today. He did and then explained that he gave away his riches in order to repay those he ripped off. He explained that his life had been changed.
We keep walking and look at other scenes from Jesus’ life. None of them are really glamourous, but stories with common people. The encounter with a Samaritan woman. Or the one where a woman with blood disorder was healed only by touching his garment.
Towards the end of our visit we enter a grand room. In the center is a replica or three crosses. This room explains the crucifixion of Jesus. It talks about his arrest by the religious leaders and how they influenced the Romans to put Jesus to death. There are also talk of his being toutured. We see his crown of thorns. We see the garments that the Roman soliders gambled for. We also see the sign on the cross that says, “King of the Jews.” It was meant to be a cruel joke.
There is more to be seen of this library, but we will get to that later. However, at the end of our visit there is a plaque that reads:
“You are now leaving the Jesus Christ Messianic Library. Jesus is not like all other rulers. He didn’t assume power. He met with the forgotten of society. He offered forgiveness to people who did things that were considered unforgivable. He crossed the boundaries of class and gender. In the eyes of the powerful, he was forgettable. In the eyes of those who have faith in this man, he made all the difference in the world.”
The King that we worship is one that was born to poor parents in a backwater of a great empire. He was born a helpless baby. He then lived a life as a poor itinerant rabbi and was killed by the authorities because he was a bother to them. And yet, this supposedly forgettable person has changed everything. The writer of Colossians says that Christ we have forgiveness us sins and we are redeemed in Christ. He goes on to say that he is the image of the invisible God, the one that is powerful than any earthly ruler.
As Christians we worship a person that was and is the Servant King. He lived to serve others, to love and to forgive. This is our King. This is the one that we follow. This is the one whose life we are to imitate.
That’s what this day is all about: remember the One who had power and gave it up for the betterment of all.
Image: Jesus Carrying the Cross, Speaking to a Woman. Stained-glass composition by J. Le Breton (glass studio of Gaudin, Paris), 1933.This is a conflation of John 19:17 and Luke 23:27-29, the Veronica legend.
Aspergers is an interesting thing. Having an autism spectrum disorder means that you have communication issues. Because it can be hard to communicate with others and because you kind of live in your own little world, it’s hard to know when you might be acting out. In my time as a pastor, I’ve sometimes acted impulsively and wasn’t always diplomatic when tact was needed. I’ve had to learn how to keep my emotions in check and that lashing out wasn’t always a good thing.
I’ve had to learn to control my Tasmanian Devil.
I’ve sometimes described myself as a flesh and bone version of the Looney Toons character in relation to my Aspergers. The spinning vortex full of sound and fury can sometimes describe me. The not knowing how to respond to people is one way I can act like Taz. The other shows itself when I work. I can come of with idea after idea and try to do this and that. Because executive function is also deficient in persons with Aspergers, I sometimes can be somewhat manic in my work and not learn to edit; to not try to do everything I think of.
The thing is, I have to teach myself to be in control in more ways than one.
Sometimes people mistake Aspergers with being extremely introverted. There is some shyness there, but the real issues deal with how we relate with others, how we communicate with them, how we act around others and how we think. I have to learn not simply how to be more outgoing, but how to not to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, how to manage my time and how to limit myself. I know that my behavior has hurt my jobwise over the years. I don’t want my wild devil to cost me in the workplace.
I’m still learning how to channel my passions into positive efforts. Taz isn’t bad, but I have to learn to tame him. The manic way I can think and act has a place in the world. I just have to make sure it’s used for good.
A mainline church either moves out of its current location or closes. Soon there after, an evangelical church or an immigrant church buys up the property.
Here’s the interesting thing: the mainline churches moves out because the community is no longer sustainable or the building is too much for a shrinking congregation. Long story short, the mainline community is low on finances.
But the evangelical community or the group of immigrants that want to start a church are not swimming in money either. Most of these folk are working class. But somehow they are able to purchase the building.
So what gives here? How is it that groups that aren’t rich can buy property while another group can’t find the money to maintain it?
My theory is that one group looks at the spreadsheet and believes God can make this possible. The other looks at the spreadsheet and concludes that nothing can be done except close and sell the building. One believes in faith; the other doesn’t.
I don’t think that somehow money just appears when evangelicals pray. What I do believe happens is that they believe God is with them and will do a mighty work. So, they ask people to give, host bake sales and other events to raise the money and lo and behold the money has been raised.
One of the salient features of progressive Christianity is an emphasis on reason. Now reason is something one needs, even in religion. The problem is that progressive Christians seem to only use reason. The de-emphasizing of the afterlife, the explaination of miracles, the resistance to the idea of atonement tend to have the effect of seeing church as nothing more than an NGO with really nice robes.
I’ve said it before: imagination is an important aspect of faith. You have to believe that there is more to life than what we see. You have to see the wardrobe as more than a wardrobe; you have to see it as a portal to something fantastic.
Mainline churches aren’t declining because of their stance on homosexuality; no, they are declining because somehow we stopped having a holy imagination. We stopped thinking the wardrobe was more than a wardrobe.
For mainline churches to flourish, we have to be willing to have faith. We have to see the little we have as more than what we see. God seemed to do a lot with very little.
But of course to believe God can do a lot with little, you have to believe God can do this.
Church finances are more than numbers on a spreadsheet. Mainline churches need to believe that those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
It’s time for mainline churches to start having a holy imagination again.
I stumbled on this blog post about the renewal of United Theological Seminary in Ohio. The school now has 600 students but only a few years ago it had only 130. Some think their addition of distance learning has made the difference, but Jason Vickers, a professor at the Methodist seminary says the real difference is their willingness to be inclusive and not in the way you would expect:
From a marketing point of view, here is what happened. About seven years ago, the faculty at United Theological Seminary made a conscious decision to be more inclusive. In our case, being more inclusive meant being more hospitable to evangelicals, Pentecostals, and charismatics. We didn’t have many students, but the majority of our students at the time could be categorized as center-left mainline liberal-progressive. We were committed to diversity in theory but not in practice. The reality was that we were neither warm nor welcoming to the majority of Protestant Christians in the world, which is to say, to evangelicals, Pentecostals, and charismatics. From a business point of view, this was, in a word, stupid. We were fighting for a share of a rapidly shrinking pool, namely, center-left mainline liberal Protestants!We knew that if we were going to “reach out” to evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic Christians, we were going to have to re-brand ourselves (note the crass language of business). And so we agreed as a faculty to focus our branding on three things: 1) basic Christian Orthodoxy; 2) holiness; and 3) church renewal. Gradually, prospective evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic began to inquire about our school, and within a year, they began to show up. Of course, we did more than just paste these labels on our website. We also revised our curriculum to reflect these commitments. And we began to reach out to groups like Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (a charismatic oriented United Methodist renewal group).I could go on and on. We were very strategic. We knew what we were doing. We knew there was a bigger market out there, and we were determined to grab a share.