A Very Good Sermon for the Very Last Week (and Day) of the Year.

The Rev. Jim Friedrich, theologian, storyteller, singer, writer, film maker, and preacher, and good friend, sent me this sermon preached by him last Sunday, Christ the King Sunday. It is a wonderful closing of the Year sermon and a real "people get ready" call. Read it. Inwardly digest. Be fed.

Get ready, if you can, for the Advent, which by my reckoning means lots more than we imagine.

Christ the King

November 24, 2013 (Year C) + Grace, Bainbridge Island

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year. The great cycle of feasts and seasons, which began 52 weeks ago on the first Sunday of Advent, ends with a grand finale called the Feast of Christ the King, where we stand for a moment at the end of history and see how all the loose threads of time are gathered up, and the pattern and purpose of the universe are revealed at last in the beauty of Christ, in whom all things are restored and fulfilled.

As Colossians tells us:

God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of God’s beloved Christ… [in whom] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through whom God was delighted to reconcile all things to the mystery of divine love.

If we can get past our linguistic issues - “crown him Lord of all,” “King of Kings and Lord of lords” – and if we can set aside our democratic antipathy to the archaic imagery of kingship itself, which we left behind in 1776, there is still a great truth to be celebrated here.

The observance of Christ the King was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925, and it made its way into the Anglican calendar as well. The pope was responding to the apocalyptic violence of World War I, where evil and madness seemed to have seized control of the world. He wanted to establish a clear reminder that it is Christ to whom the future belongs; that it is Christ, and Christ only, that we must follow and serve.

There is a wonderful film called Son of Man, in which the story of Jesus is depicted by South African actors, in a 21st century African setting. It begins in the desert, with Jesus and Satan sitting side by side on the top of a tall sand dune. And there Satan offers Jesus the familiar temptations: use your power, dazzle the world, bow down to me and I will give you everything you desire.

Jesus listens for a while in silence. Suddenly, he turns to Satan and shoves him off the ridge. As Satan tumbles downward – Milton’s fall of Lucifer comes to mind – Jesus shouts to him: “This is my world!”

Satan comes to a stop at the foot of the dune. He picks himself up and looks back defiantly at Jesus. “No,” he cries. “It’s my world!” And then we cut to a village in the middle of a civil war, where terrible atrocities are taking place, proving Satan’s point. It’s his world after all.

As Christians, we profess hope in divine purpose, but the madness and violence and stupidity of history sometimes tempt us to concede the field to the powers of darkness.

Many of us remember how 50 years ago, in the nation’s capitol, Americans dreamed together how God’s kingdom might come in the form of justice and love. Stirred by the words of Dr. King, we tasted the truth of that vision. Three months later, Satan offered his rebuttal in Dallas.

Whose world is it? we wondered.

Are we in God’s dream, or Satan’s nightmare?

The wondering continues today. From Syria to Guantanamo, from the House of Representatives to the Kremlin, from Nairobi to the Philippines, from vulture capitalism to our suicidal inaction on climate change, it seems obvious who’s winning the argument. The world is “breaking bad.” 

An old southern preacher named Clarence Jordan liked to ask the question: “What’s the biggest lie told in America today?”

He’d let that sink in as everyone thought about it for a moment.

Then he’d say, “The biggest lie told in America today is: ‘Jesus is Lord.’” Old Clarence came to mind when I heard a story on the news recently.

It seems the Ohio legislature, hoping to derail the Affordable Care Act, blocked an expansion of Medicaid that would provide health care to 275,000 people who had no coverage. But the governor, John Kasich (a Republican, by the way), made an end run around the legislature and got it done anyway.

As he said at the time: "For those who live in the shadows of life, for those who are the least among us, I will not accept the fact that the most vulnerable in our state should be ignored.”

The lawmakers howled. How dare he put the needs of the poor above our political agenda! So this is how the governor explained it to one those legislators, whom he knew to be a fellow Christian:

“Now when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did to keep government small; but he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. Better have a good answer.”

Governor Kasich was denounced by many on the right for appealing to a power higher than their ideology. Insisting that Jesus, lover of the poor, was not in fact Lord in America, the highly offended Wall Street Journal made a tart response: “Republicans get a vote before St. Peter [does].”

To which one can only reply in the words of Bob Dylan:

Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

So who’s it going to be? Whom do we serve?

Who or what is the ruler of our life? Who is the ruler of history?

To whom do we belong? To what do we surrender?

You’re gonna have to serve somebody.

In this age of hyper-individualism, the idea of submission to a larger reality, a greater good, goes against the grain.

But we’re all governed by something, maybe even a whole crazy stampeding herd of somethings, pulling us here, driving us there.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, there are voices, both internal and external, which direct and rule our hearts in every moment.

A hundred years ago, the Scottish theologian P. T. Forsyth said it perfectly: “The first duty of every soul is not to find its freedom, but its Master.”

And then he added: “If within us we find nothing over us, we succumb to what is around us.” (Leander E. Keck, Who is Jesus? History in the Perfect Tense, 164, 167)

In other words, we’re all ruled and guided by something, and if we aren’t very clear about what that is,

then there is no shortage of impulses, passions, ambitions, ideologies, agendas and distractions to swallow us up and sweep us away in what Graham Ward describes as “the libidinal dynamics of contemporary urban life, primed with fantasy, hyped with ecstasy, dazzling in the allure of promised, sybaritic pleasures.” (Cities of God, 53)

But then there is that persistent voice that not even death could silence, the voice that speaks our name and says, “Follow me.”

Drop everything, and follow me.

Over the years, many have done so.

St. Antony, for example, who heard Jesus’ voice in the liturgy, when the gospel was being read:

“Go and sell everything you have,” Jesus said, “and give the money to the poor. Then come back and follow me.”

Antony realized that those words were aimed straight at him. So as soon as mass was over, he walked out of church,

sold everything, gave the money to the poor,

and went off to the Egyptian desert to spend the next 80 years

surrendering his heart in prayer and holy work, until he died at the age of 105.

Few of us are ready for such total surrender to the call. We give a bit of ourselves, part of the time.

Jesus gets Sunday mornings, but does he get the working week? He gets our spiritual life, but does he get our worldly affairs?

Does he get our relationships, or our stewardship of time? Does Jesus get our politics, our economics?

There’s a story that some Swedish Christians tell about an aged and pious church lady who was always quoting Jesus. She was also sharply critical of her fellow church members because they drank wine. And she said that if they ever started serving wine instead of grape juice for communion, she’d just have to leave the church. Some folks reminded her that Jesus himself drank wine, but

she replied, “You know, that’s the one thing about Jesus I never liked.” (Martin E. Marty, Sightings, 10/14-13)

That’s our story too, of course.

There’s always something that gives us pause in the gospel.

But it’s probably not the wine we have trouble with when it comes to following Jesus.

But Jesus gets that about us. And still, he never gives up on us. He knows we can do it.

Pick up your cross and follow me.

In our Book of Common Prayer, each morning is begun as an act of surrender to divine governance that will carry us through rest of the day.

I invite you now to close your eyes to pray with me these words from the office of Morning Prayer:

O God… to know you is eternal life, and to serve you is perfect freedom… We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight… in all we do, direct and rule our hearts to the fulfilling of your purpose… that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We do not always remember that we live and move and have our being in the divine reality.

Humans are such forgetful creatures.

So we need attentive practices to encourage awareness of God’s guiding, loving presence in our hearts, our minds, our bodies.

God is never absent, but we often are.

So we pray and reflect and come to the liturgy, and strive for mindfulness “in all the cares and occupations of our life.” 

But it’s not just about feeling spiritual or centered within ourselves. The heart, crucial as it is, is too small a kingdom for Jesus.

Frederick Denison Maurice, a nineteenth century English priest and social reformer, did a lot of thinking about what he called the “kingdom of Christ,” whose reign extends far beyond the private self.

When we say, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ we desire that the King of kings and Lord of lords will reign over our spirits and souls and bodies, which [belong to God]… We pray for the extinction of all tyranny…; [we pray] for the exposure and destruction of corruptions inward and outward; [we pray] for truth in all departments of government, art, science; [we pray] for the true dignity of professions [and labor]; [we pray] for right dealings in the commonest transactions of trade; [we pray] for blessings that shall be felt in every [dwelling]. (Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, 416)

In other words, “crown Christ Lord of all.” The whole shebang.

But today’s gospel is hardly the picture of a mighty ruler before whom the whole world kneels.

A naked man nailed to a tree.

Soldiers mocking the pathetic absurdity of his “kingship.”

The sign above his head – “King of the Jews” – dripping with irony.

His only apparent subject the dying thief hanging next to him.

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Some kingdom! Some king!

We still stand in the place of The Skull, wondering about kingdom come.

Does Christ’s kingdom exist only in the future?

Or is it somehow breaking in upon us here and now? If, as Jesus said, the kingdom is among us, what does it look like? And how can we find the eyes to see and the ears to hear?

There is no single answer, no definitive answer, to such questions. They have been with us since Good Friday, and they will continue to unsettle the life of faith – and rightly so.

But let me pose an easier question:

How and where does your own life make the rule of Christ visible - in the choices you make, your arrangement of priorities, your stewardship of time, talent and treasure?

How does your habitual way of being, your very character, make it clear that you have been shaped and formed by the story and person of Jesus Christ, that you have been marked as Christ’s own forever?

When the world looks at you, when friends and strangers look at you, do they see something that makes them wonder what your secret is, why you are the way you are?

To illustrate what I’m asking here, let me tell you about another movie, a feature my father made in 1938 called The Great Commandment. The title, of course, refers to Jesus’ summary of the law: Love God with all your heart and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

The movie tells the story of Joel, a Jewish revolutionary Zealot dedicated to the overthrow of Roman rule in first-century Palestine. And one day Joel comes across a wounded Roman centurion, his natural enemy, who in fact has killed his own brother. What an opportunity. Killing him would be the perfect combination of revolution and revenge.

But Joel does not kill him. Instead, he hides the Roman and attends to his wounds until it’s safe for him to return to his cohort. At the end of the film, the Roman seeks out the Zealot and says to him: “I am your enemy. I killed your brother! Why didn’t you kill me?” Joel replies, “It’s because of a man I met once. He said that we should love our enemies.”

“What was this man’s name?” asks the centurion. “Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth.”

The centurion stares at Joel for a moment. Then he looks up at the tip of his spear. “Jesus of Nazareth! This very day, I thrust this spear into his side.” And he throws his spear to the ground.

Has anyone ever asked you the question “why?” – to which the answer was “because of Jesus”?

That old mocker Nietzsche liked to say, “It would be a whole lot easier to believe in your Redeemer if you Christians looked more redeemed.” 

He had a point.

Well, of course it’s not about showing the world anything. (Hey world, watch me shine!) That would simply invite the sin of pride.

What it’s about is surrender: surrender to Christ, surrender to the way of Christ, to the empowering spirit of Christ; surrender to the great commandment:

Love God, love people, love the earth, with everything that is in you.

When we do that, the kingdom comes, the kingdom takes place, the kingdom becomes visible, the kingdom is here.

Let every heart prepare him room.

The question we began with – just whose world is it? – is undecidable within the flux of history.

You can’t choose on the basis of the evidence, because for the time being the evidence is mixed, like the wheat and the tares.

But you can choose who’s got the better story – Jesus or Satan. You can choose which story you want to belong to, which story gives life instead of death.

People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’ 

Picking up passengers from coast to coast 
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’ 
You don’t need no ticket, just get on board

- The Rev. Jim Friedrich

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