Sermon for 11/24/19 Luke 22:33-43; Christ the King

This text feels a bit jarring on a day like today. After all, a reading like this, at least for me, sends my mind and heart right back into Holy Week. I know that we have had the trial of Jesus, he has carried his own execution tool to the place of The Skull, and now here we are. We know this story because we’ve heard versions of it time and time again during Holy Week as we prepare our hearts on Palm Sunday or Good Friday. And hearing even the smallest portions of the same readings we hear during Holy Week take me back there time and time again and the feelings and emotions are all the same. There is lament, grief, sadness, anger, and just blah… so to have all of this on a day we call Christ the King feels weird. The only comparison I came up with for my feelings was this: it feels like having a birthday cake (complete with candles) and balloons at a funeral. A king isn’t regarded this way. 

At the same time, perhaps this reading is the perfect thing to prepare our hearts and minds for what is about to happen: Advent. In case you didn’t know, Advent starts next Sunday. As we anticipate the birth of the newborn king, it might be good to know what kind of King we actually are anticipating. Are we anticipating the kind of king that rules with an iron fist? Are we anticipating the kind of king that employs nepotism and lies? Are we anticipating the kind of king that stays in power until forced out or until he dies? Are we anticipating the kind of king that dares not be challenged? We all know the answers to those questions. And the answers to those questions is what got Jesus a state sanctioned execution. 

Instead the kind of king that hung on the cross was one that notices the marginalized. We start the beginning of Luke with Mary declaring that the hungry will be fed and the rich will be sent away empty. So, of course we end Luke with Jesus, the one Mary sang about paying attention to the marginalized: his fellow so-called criminals hanging with him. One was deriding him and the other was rebuking him. It would have been easy to ignore both criminals. But even in his final moments of life, Jesus notices, assures, and loves those that society would rather punish and forget. In that, Christ invites us to be more like him, to be more like a king should be and notice those forgotten or at least aim to see the image of Christ in the most vulnerable. 

What makes Christ the King Sunday so challenging is that is is counter-intuitive to how we live and function in this world. To claim kingship means that we are claiming power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, even the power of intimidation. I mean, there’s something to be said about all of that. In all honesty, that sounds like part of what might even be called the American dream. Throw in money, property, and health, and you’ve got it made! We would really be living like kings (and queens). Yet we know that the same king we confess was Christ the Lord wasn’t like that at all. What a strange dichotomy. 

This text takes everything we know about what it means to say “Christ is king!” and turns it on its head. Because we know the end of the story: Christ will die, descend into hell, ascend into heaven, and take his place at God’s right hand, but first he must suffer terribly. Not very king-like. Kings don’t suffer. Kings don’t even let themselves been seen with the sniffles. Yet, at the same time, kings don’t associate with the poor. Kings don’t associate with the hungry, the hurting, the forgotten. Kings don’t associate with widows, prostitutes, or even children. But we have a king that not only associates with those people but gives them preferential treatment! 

It is one thing for us to say that Christ is King. But for us to confess it and believe it is completely different than saying it. Because if we’re honest, we say a lot of things we don’t believe. We practice half-truths a lot, sometimes without even thinking about it. “How do I look?” Answer “great.” Always. Not to say that isn’t the truth. But we know if we were honest, and I mean brutally honest, we might end up on the couch. Weekly, whether we know it or not, we confess and profess our faith in the creeds and in the confession that Christ is king. We confess that our faith is in the one that saw the marginalized and is in the marginalized. We confess that the powers of this world are nothing compared to the powers and principalities of God’s kingdom. We confess and believe that the greatest weapon anywhere isn’t water, it isn’t nuclear, it isn’t even money, it’s God’s love and we are told that nothing comes between us and that love. We confess that in a world that wants to constantly divide groups into us and them the kingdom is a place of “we.” When we’re really honest, we’re not playing it safe because Jesus didn’t play it safe. 

Jesus didn’t play it safe and it got him executed, hung. And we confess that this same “criminal” is our king, our Lord and savior. It’s not what this world expects. But it’s exactly what this world needs. Because the world needs someone that will rescue and save us from ourselves. We confess that Christ is king “not because we are weak, but because God is strong, and God is love. We have a confessional faith because the grace of God is sufficient for all. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. We have a confessional faith because God is our refuge and our strength” (Feasting on the Word, Westfield 336). We confess that Christ is king because we are not. 

As we start to prepare for the anticipated arrival of the Christ child, let us remember that when we sing “what child is this” the answer is the same king that would flip tables and heal lepers. When we sing about “the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head” that same sweet head bore a crown of thorns for being a threat to the government. And yes, Mary knew from the beginning the difference this king would make to the forgotten, the lowly, the outcast, and the troubled. She knew that he was then and would always be Emmanuel, God with us.  

Sermon for 11/10/19 Luke 20:27-38

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by a friend, former classmate, and fellow pastor about the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He asked me if my gender ever posed an issue in my ministry. And my beloved, I so badly wanted to tell him “no it doesn’t” but it does. At least once a week I deal with an issue in ministry that I wonder might be a little easier if I were male. I have been at events where I tell people I’m a pastor and they ask “oh, do you help your husband?” Sometimes I answer the phone here at church using my standard greeting (“Elvira Zion Lutheran Church, this is Pastor…”) and the caller on the other end of the phone after niceties asks to speak to the senior pastor. Because obviously, it can’t be a female. God is the God of the living, thanks be to God. 

The Sadducees in today’s story come to Jesus and propose to him this asinine story because that’s exactly what it is. Just think about what they’re saying. A man dies, leaving his childless wife, so she marries brother two, and the same thing happens. Then brother three takes her on, and on and on. The poor woman ends up married to all seven brothers all childless. She eventually dies. The Sadducees want to know whose wife the woman will be. Who will own this piece of property, Jesus? Who will lay claim to this nameless, barren piece of property in the resurrection? That seems to be the important make or break question here for the Sadducees. Why would a woman be seen as anything but a piece of property?

For the record, the Jewish law that provided for the widow is a good one. It made sure that those that society would have normally abandoned would be taken care of. But remember, these marriages were not always ones built on love but on mutual agreement and convenience. We also should not be so naive to think that the idea of women as property is one that has disappeared. I am guessing that many of you at your own weddings had your fathers asked “who gives this woman?” This is actually a piece of the liturgy that has disappeared over time. Now, I still offer to include it if it is important to the bride and her father or whomever is walking her down the aisle. But the idea of property, at least in heterosexual marriage, is still very prevalent. 

Now, when the Sadducees asked their questions, they weren’t interested in actual answers. They didn’t want dialogue or debate. They wanted to show up Jesus, maybe confuse him or embarrass him. After all, it would have been “difficult for him to find a passage in written Torah that indicates to which brother the woman had ‘really’ been married” (Feasting on the Word, Robbins 287). If this conversation had been taking place on the internet, the Sadducees might be referred to as “internet trolls;” not looking for real dialogue, only to rial up and cause trouble. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he uses the opportunity to teach about the reach of God’s love and mercy. 

“Things do not work in heaven the way they work on earth–thank God! Jesus answers the question by saying that in heaven even the lowliest of the society would be considered ‘like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.’ This radical statement of the gospel, that in heaven there are no sociopolitical strata, is good news even today. The mystery of the resurrection revealed by Jesus is that heaven is a place where those who have been dehumanized [like women] will be restored; those who have been oppressed [like indigenious peoples] will be set free; and those who have been treated as inferior [like people of color] will be raised up and called beloved. Women will no longer be the property of men, treated as chattel–passed from man to man at will and whim. Women will be children of God, able to give love and receive love as they see fit. In heaven, those who are children of the resurrection will know the joy and peace that was kept from them on earth” (Feasting on the Word, Westfield 286). 

But this text is deeper than the way we treat women, although it should give us pause to think about that as well. This text should invite us to think about how we treat every marginalized group. This isn’t about being politically correct. This is about seeing the full humanity of God in every single person. Because if God is God of the living then we encounter the fully embodied Christ in every living person. This means that there isn’t a place on this earth for sexism, racism, classism, or xenophobia. It means knowing that this church sits on land that originally belonged to the people of the Peoria, Sauk and Meskwaki, and Oceti Sakowin tribes. It means finding out if this church was built by people who were free or who were owned and then wrestling with the answers. God is the God of the living and the embodiment of God is seen in every living person. This means that every living person we encounter is an opportunity to see God. How we treat others is how we treat God. That’s why there isn’t room for anything but God’s love, grace, and mercy. 

We all know though that we mess it up. That jerk is gonna cut you off in traffic. You might still laugh at a joke that has racist undertones. You might not say anything when that table next to you keeps commenting on the waitresses looks and calling her “sweet cheeks” (by the way, this isn’t okay). Depending on the situation, depending on the company around you, it’s hard to be brave. I know. I had to do it not too long ago. I overheard someone going on and on about how talented their pastor was. He finished up by saying “and on top of that, she’s smokin’ hot!” Nope. I couldn’t stay quiet. So, I introduced myself and then politely asked him not to do that again. It diminishes the body of Christ when we do that to one another. People are not property. 

Our faith commands us to love one another. Is it easy? No. This is why we need God’s grace. This is why we need the meal at the table. This is why we need to be in community with one another. We need to be forgiven, fed, reminded we’re not in this alone, and then sent back into the community to encounter the embodied Christ in all whom we meet. There was no asterisk on the cross. Jesus death wasn’t for all, but…. No. Jesus died for all. No exception. All of humanity is saved through him. We may not like the idea, but the reverse may be there may be some that don’t like the idea that you or I have been saved either. But we have been. We serve a God of the living. We are all the embodied God. We are the embodied Christ. How we love one another should be, we can hope it is, how Christ loves us. 

 

Sermon for 11/3/19 Luke 6:20-31; All Saints Sunday

Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!) I wanted to start my sermon out that way for a few reasons today. First of all, the resurrection of Jesus is core to what we believe, so it’s never a bad thing to remember that. But on this day, when we remember the saints,when we bring to mind, heart, and voice those who are no longer with us, we voice this promise of Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!) as a reminder that death doesn’t have the final word. For so many of us that have lost a loved one death feels very final. I know this well myself. But as Christians, death isn’t the end of our story. 

I don’t know about you, my beloved, but I need this promise. I need this promise that is completely contradictory to everything that the world would have me believe. If you have had a loved one die, you know that there is paperwork. There is so much paperwork. Like really, it’s huge pain for your friends and family for you to die. And nothing about the paperwork makes sense. If you want to close your loved one’s bank account, you may think you need a death certificate, proof of purchase, a blood sample, the last three paychecks, and one live chicken. But many times, it’s just a visit to your local friendly banker and it’s taken care of. But, if you want to cancel that Sam’s Club membership, you’re going to need an act of congress. Nothing about death makes sense. So, honestly, the fact that it’s not the final word doesn’t make sense either somehow, weirdly, makes sense. 

This past year, this congregation lost three of its saints: Joan Burkert (sister of Shirley Howe and Arlene Thompson), Rosella Robinson (just a few short weeks ago), and Neil Nord. And death is weird at times. As I pick out hymns that are challenging, I’ll forget for a brief moment that Neil isn’t here. I’ll think to myself “we’ll be okay singing this, between myself, Neil, and Chris leading this, we’ll be okay” and then I remember. Or I’ll look up and out while I’m preaching and I’ll see the space next to you, Bev, and think “Neil must be protecting the casino today” and then remember. But the truth is, it isn’t just Neil we miss. We all have saints in our lives that remind us that death is very real but not the final word. 

As Lutherans, we think of saints in a very different way than our friends with other beliefs. We don’t venerate people into sainthood, like Saint Francis for instance. Sainthood instead, is a call to a particular kind of living. Take a brief moment and bring to mind the saints I’ve either already mentioned or the saints in your own life. Think about their best qualities. Think about their best gifts. This is what makes them a saint. Our loved ones who have died weren’t perfect. I don’t say this to be disrespectful. I say this because it’s the truth. None of us are perfect. This is why we need Jesus. Being perfect doesn’t make us a saint. Our best qualities, our best gifts, and the ways we use them to serve God and neighbor is what makes us and our loved ones saints. 

I think about Elaine Hofer’s organ playing skills (even though I never heard them, I knew they were a gift). I think about Al Galbraith and his giving heart. I think about John Howe and his love for the land. I think about Marlene Lilly and her care for family. I think about Irene Fink and her care and love for Lyle and her deep faith. I think about Alec Horst who always knew the true definition of home. I think about Allen Petersen and his willingness to do anything that needs to be done. I think about Augie Petersen and his very special Augie way of doing things the way only Augie could. I could go on and on. 

At the same time, sainthood is about how we live our lives. It is about why we are remembering, yes. It is about who we are remembering, yes. At the same time, it is also about how we live out God’s call of justice in human flesh. So on this day, we celebrate that death never has the final word. However, we can also celebrate the living saints around us. That is part of what this scripture talks about in versus 27 to the end. How do we live a saintly life? We have living saints around us. Every Sunday I look out and I see living saints. We aren’t perfect. We don’t claim to be perfect. This is why many of us show up here week after week after week. We, well at least, I need to hear the words of forgiveness. I need to receive the body of Christ. I need to be in community and be refreshed so I can continue to do what Christ has called me to do. 

What I know for sure on this day, my beloved, is that we have all had our share of blessings, that’s for sure. I am also acutely aware that we have all had our share of woes. Death has touched all of us in various ways. For some, death has been a cruel visitor. For others, death has come after a long illness and it is a relief. But death is usually wrapped in complex emotions. Society wants us to hurry past all of those emotions and then close the door. As if an occurrence like that is just a box to be checked. “Well, that happened, we’re done with that, and now we move on.” But for all the saints in our lives, living and dead, we owe it to each other, to celebrate what it means to live fully into who God created us to be, who God called us to be, and who God redeemed us to be. We also celebrate that death never has the final word. We have the saints around us that are living that remind us of God’s call to justice in all our lives. We also have the saints that now reside in God’s heavenly kingdom that remind us of God’s eternal love. Death never has the final word. Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)