A Reflection-Sermon for Christ the King

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As mentioned in my previous post, this year my internship congregation did a special liturgy for Christ the King Sunday, in which we traced the liturgical year, season by season, in a pattern of reading-reflection-hymn. What follows is my short reflection on the gospel pericope for Christ the King, Luke 23.33-43. I am also including my reflections on Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Ordinary Time. Full liturgy is available upon request (vicarjosh (at) gmail (dot) com).


Augustana Lutheran Church
20 November 2016 + Christ the King
Luke 23.33-43

transgenders

image courtesy of River Needham’s blog

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

It’s puzzling, at first glance, that we read a gospel lesson on Christ the King Sunday that has our so-called “king” hanging on a cross, dying. It’s certainly not the image of a king I would choose to use if I were trying to make some grand claim about Jesus.

But I think that’s exactly the point: Luke’s gospel is full of subversions and reversals. This is another one: Christ the King is so unlike any earthly monarch we can imagine. Recall way back at the beginning of our journey through the church year this morning to my reflection on Epiphany. The psalm on that day speaks of a king who will judge with righteousness and justice, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Our gospel text today adds another element to Christ’s kingly qualities: solidarity with those who suffer. As Karoline Lewis writes, salvation for the second criminal here means:

…that there was someone who saw his suffering, who was willing to stand in that suffering with him, who spoke up against his suffering in the form of empire, evil, and totalitarianism. That someone was Jesus. The criminal died knowing that someone was with him in his suffering. [1]

Every Sunday we proclaim Christ crucified, but especially so on Christ the King. That proclamation calls us into a brave new way of being church. To quote from Lewis again, it means, among other things, that we are compelled “to look to the left and the right and notice who is getting hanged on a tree and say stop.” [2]

I’m sorry to say that there are too many people being hanged on trees in our world today. In the first century, crucifixion was a tool used to silence those voices that the Roman Empire didn’t want to hear or deemed as threats. Today, on November 20th, many people around the world will gather for the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance to name and remember those beloved children of God who have been murdered as a result of transphobia.

It is the church’s responsibility to call out these and other acts of evil: Transphobia. Racism. Homophobia. Sexism. Islamophobia. Xenophobia. We have a starting point in Luke’s story of the crucifixion — a story that underscores the wideness of God’s abundant love and mercy for all whom God has created, a love that is so deep that it manifests itself in a God who suffers right alongside the most vulnerable and whispers to them, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4754
[2] Ibid.


ADVENT

The season of Advent is a powerful counter-cultural pushback against the hurried rush to Christmas. While all around us we have seen Santas and candy canes and holiday greenery for weeks, the church defiantly declares “not yet!”.

Advent isn’t about any of these things, or even the birth of Jesus, “but about the church’s continual prayer that God will come to us, bringing life to a dying world.” [3] In fact, it’s not until the Fourth (and final) Sunday of Advent each year that we hear a gospel text about the birth of Jesus. Prior to that, we’re introduced to John the Baptist, whose cry on Jordan’s bank “calls us into hope and urges us into justice.” [4]

Everything about Advent urges us to wait, to slow down, to return to ourselves and to God. On our wreath, we light one candle at a time. In our prayers of the day, we pray for Christ to “stir up” divine power and come, even as we pray for God to “stir up” our hearts in renewal towards the divine will for justice. Even the blue of the pastor’s vestments and the paraments in our sanctuary is not unlike the deep blue of night just before the coming of the dawn.

So in Advent: We wait. We watch. We pray. We look expectantly for the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

[3] Gail Ramshaw and Mons Teig, Keeping Time: The Church’s Years (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 73.
[4] Ibid., 74.


EPIPHANY

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… gold, frankincense, and myrrh?! If Advent is the pushback against Christmas coming too soon, then the peculiar feast day of Epiphany protests how quickly we rush to move on after December 25th. Indeed, Epiphany marks the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas, and the gospel read on this day still proclaims the coming of Christ into the world, as we retell the familiar story of the magi visiting a newborn king.

The psalm appointed for Epiphany also tells us exactly the kind of king we can expect in Jesus. This king, in stark contrast to earthly monarchs, will judge with righteousness and justice, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Following the example of such a king, we too are called to recommit ourselves to the work of justice.


LENT

“What are you giving up for Lent this year?” It’s a question many of us who grew up in the church have probably asked and answered ad nauseam over the years. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Lent has nothing to do with giving up our favorite things, like ice cream or coffee. If that were the case, I’d be a very cranky vicar.

In fact, the giving up of material pleasures appears to be more an aberration in the history of Christian liturgical practices, a “blip” in the grand scheme of things. As early as the fourth century, Lent was observed as a forty-day period of preparation for new converts to Christianity who wished to be baptized at Easter. Only in the medieval era, when adult baptisms declined, did the focus move to fasting as an act of penance to make up for one’s personal sinfulness.

Fortunately, in recent years, the earlier, ancient practice of the church has resurfaced. Easter is again a popular time for baptisms, with Lent as its counterpart both in preparation for baptism but also an annual renewal of baptism for all Christians. Still, classic expressions of Lenten discipline—giving alms to the poor, praying, and fasting—are common and even encouraged. But the goal here is to stress that these things “are not necessary for gaining God’s approval… [but] are behaviors that we choose to adopt to remind ourselves of the renewal of life that baptism calls forth.” [5]

Keeping a holy Lent therefore suggests that our fasting be a hunger for justice, our alms a making of peace, and our prayer the song of grateful hearts.

[5] Ibid., 85.


ORDINARY TIME

Ordinary Time is anything but ordinary. Liturgical scholars are quick to remind us that the naming of these “green Sundays” after Epiphany and after Pentecost as “ordinary” refers not to their quality but simply to the fact that they are ordered, or numbered. No matter what we call these Sundays, though, it’s important to remember that every Sunday, regardless of season, proclaims Christ. In other words, every Sunday is a little Easter.

The green of these “ordinary” days, many of which fall during the spring and summer months, also calls us to delight in the beauty of God’s creation. Hear now these words from John O’Donohue:

Nearer to the earth’s heart,
Deeper within its silence:
Animals know this world
In a way we never will.

We who are ever
Distanced and distracted
By the parade of bright
Windows thought opens:
Their seamless presence
Is not fractured thus.

Stranded between time
Gone and time emerging,
We manage seldom
To be where we are:
Whereas they are always
Looking out from
The here and now.

May we learn to return
And rest in the beauty
Of animal being,
Learn to lean low,
Leave our locked minds,
And with freed senses
Feel the earth
Breathing with us.

May we enter
Into lightness of spirit,
And slip frequently into
The feel of the wild.

Let the clear silence
Of our animal being
Cleanse our hearts
Of corrosive words.

May we learn to walk
Upon the earth
With all their confidence
And clear-eyed stillness
So that our minds
Might be baptized
In the name of the wind
And light and the rain. [6]

[6] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 73-74.

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A Sermon about Faith, Community, and Subverting Boundaries

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Photo Credit: Ben Adams

This weekend, I was invited to preach at my home congregation, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago. I also had the unique opportunity to preach alongside my good friend and seminary colleague Analyse Triolo.

The video below, courtesy of Analyse, is from Sunday morning’s version, though we also preached at the Saturday night liturgy in the South Loop. In the manuscript that follows, our individual headshots denote those portions of the sermon we wrote. Analyse’s spoken parts are in green, and mine are in blue.


Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
28-29 May 2016 + Lectionary 9C
Luke 7.1-10



analyse headshotEveryone feels like an outsider at one point or another. Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the eccentric theatre geek in your high school, or anything in between, I bet that not one of us here feels like we fit perfectly into the communities in which we find ourselves. The centurion in today’s gospel reading is also an outsider. It’s clear that he cares deeply for the community he’s a part of and is deeply involved in seeing to the welfare of the people in Capernaum, but at the same time he knows that because of his vocation and ethnicity he will always be an outsider.

I remember feeling like an outsider not too long ago, back in August when I first moved to Chicago. Not only did I move away from my home state of North Carolina for the very first time, but also from First Lutheran Church, a welcoming community that had been my church home since I was 4 years old. I had left everything that was home, that was comforting, to finish my degree at LSTC. The problem was that I was only going to be here for a year. What was the point of plugging into the community? Who was going to invest time in a stranger who was just passing through? I was an outsider looking in, not only at LSTC, but also as I looked for my church home-away-from-home.

Thankfully, the LSTC community saw my desire to connect, to build relationships not only at school, but also with a church, and so I was invited to Holy Trinity in the Loop my second week here. I didn’t know what to expect that first Saturday night…but when Pr. Craig said, “No matter who you are, no matter who you love, no matter if you’re here for the first time or if you call this your church home…you are welcome here.” In that moment I heard no matter if you’re part of the “in crowd” or if you feel like an outsider, no matter if you feel lost or if you feel right at home, YOU. ARE. WELCOME. HERE. I cried. My home church’s welcome statement starts much the same way.

I turned to a friend sitting next to me and I said, “I found it. I found where I belong.”

When Jesus saw a community welcome an outsider, he was amazed. 

josh headshot.pngCommunity stands at the heart of today’s gospel, and it is deeply intertwined with faith.

The centurion, of course, is an official of the Roman empire. He knows what it means to have the authority to tell someone to do something and they do it. He also seems to recognize that Jesus has a similar but far greater authority when he says, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” It’s a confession of faith that makes a claim about who Jesus is and from whom his authority comes.

It’s a tremendous confession of faith—but the centurion never says a word of it. Instead, it is mediated secondhand and carried by others.

Earlier in Luke’s gospel, a man who is paralyzed is carried by his friends to Jesus to be healed. In another passage, a widow’s son who has died is being carried away when Jesus has compassion and raises him to life. And in yet another story, parents are carrying their little children to Jesus to be blessed. The centurion’s friends, too, carry his faith on his behalf. Over and over, people are being carried to Jesus by their community. To paraphrase the Beatles, they get by with a little help from their friends.

The life of the church, too, is filled with carrying. When we are very young, we are carried to the font to be baptized and welcomed into the community of faith. Every Sunday, too, we are swept up in that same community to eat and drink at this table. Even when we recite the Nicene Creed in the liturgy, it is not “I believe” but “we believe.”

In a short story by Megan Mayhew Bergman, the narrator spots a gospel choir that passes by her cottage every Sunday morning, singing. The sight is enough to make her cry and yearn for their return every week, as she says, “All I needed of religion, I realized, was the beautiful sound of someone else’s faith.”[1]

When Jesus heard this faith that is vulnerable enough to be carried by the community, he was amazed.

analyse headshotThe centurion’s faith is a subversive act. James Marsters, a subversive actor and musician best known for playing the role of Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, describes an act of subversion as something that pushes back against the status quo. Subversion, he says, strips away the lies that are taught to us by society.[2] Subversive acts break down those falsehoods and say, “No! That is not how it has to be.”

The centurion’s faith, carried by the community, strips away the idea that only God’s chosen people, Israel, are capable of great faith. This Gentile’s faith reflects belief in a God who also subverts boundaries and cares for all people. And so through his friends he exclaims that Jesus has the authority to heal his servant. Furthermore, Jesus’s authority, which greatly outshines his own, is capable of doing so while simultaneously honoring Jewish purity laws. The centurion’s faith in a subversive God is so great that faith and hospitality become interconnected, a bridge is formed between ethnic groups, and for the first time this outsider truly belongs.

Jesus also responds subversively. Jesus finds the centurion worthy because the centurion declares first that he is not. The centurion’s faith alone, carried by the community, makes him worthy in Jesus’s eyes. In the historical context of this text, healing miracles were expected to require direct, proximate contact between the healer and the one being healed. And so inspired by the centurion’s faith, Jesus subverts this custom, bestowing God’s gracious, healing power upon the centurion’s servant, giving legitimacy to the centurion’s faith, and opening the community of believers up to not only Israel, but to the Gentiles as well, subverting boundaries all the way. As biblical scholar Gregory Anderson Love writes of this text, “Luke portrays faith as situated within a community of hospitality in which God and others are embraced.”[3]

When Jesus understood that God subverts all boundaries, even the one between Jews and Gentiles, he was amazed. 

josh headshot.pngFor the past three years since I’ve been at Holy Trinity, I have experienced what it means to be carried by the faith of a community that reimagines Christianity in expansive ways. Especially on days when I’m personally not feeling it, I have been able to come to this place and be communally carried by that faith.

The story about the healing of the centurion’s slave is a story about faith in community—that happens to include a healing. It’s a story about the kind of faith we strive to embody here at Holy Trinity. It’s a communal faith that transcends boundaries because the one in whom we trust transcends boundaries.

It’s a faith that finds expression in our hospitality every week and in our guiding principles.

When we bear our faith in anti-racism work and two Advents ago on the corner of Clark and Addison to declare that “Black Lives Matter,” we act with courage.

When we say every week Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whomever you love or marry, you are welcome here, we are radically inclusive.

When the mission of Holy Trinity spans peoples across Chicago, from Lakeview to the South Loop, we cultivate empowering relationships.

When a sliver of green space in our garden (at our Lakeview building) reminds us of the splendor of creation and our task to be good stewards of the natural world, we delight in God’s beauty.

When we experience meaningful, multi-sensory liturgy and are renewed for our daily life and work among God’s people, we engage with intention.

These guiding principles are rooted in the exemplar of faith Jesus holds up in today’s gospel. He commends a faith held together by the community that trusts in God’s all-encompassing grace for the sake of the world.

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed.


[1] Megan Mayhew Bergman, “The Right Company,” in Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories (New York, Scribner, 2012), 147.

[2] https://youtu.be/Qp6x-agIfhQ

[3] Gregory Anderson Love, “Luke 7:1-10 Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, vol. 3, pt. 3, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 92-96.