Reconciling in Christ

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Christ the King Sunday, 11/25/07

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Pastor Heidi Neumark
Trinity Lutheran Church, W. 100th St. Manhattan


The day after Thanksgiving has been known as Black Friday for some time now, a day when retailers hope to do enough business to put them in the black by year’s end - but this is the first year I remember stores opening at 4am to welcome crowds of shoppers, yes, crowds of shoppers before sunrise! I don’t know about you, but getting up at 4am, or camping out all night, in order to snag a bargain is unlikely to become part of my holiday tradition.  Evidently, those who did get to the stores before sunrise did find bargains. Good for them. Good for the retailers.

But I’m not sure that it did much good for anyone else.  Speaking of bargains, listen to this one: Today says Jesus on the cross to the thief on the cross beside him, today, you will be with me in paradise. “Give me your failure. Give me your wrongdoing. Give me your shame.  Give me that paper with your sentence of condemnation written in red and in exchange…here are the keys to paradise.”  Now there’s a bargain, the bargain of Good Friday.

But why are we hearing a Good Friday reading on the Sunday after Black Friday? Why are we hearing a Good Friday reading on the Sunday before Advent, 4 weeks before Christmas? Why are we hearing a Good Friday reading on Christ the King Sunday?  And why do we even pay attention to a Sunday called Christ the King Sunday as we try to be a worshipping community that seeks alternative expressions to balance the highly patriarchal images for God that dominate so much of our religious language?

It’s hard enough to move away from such language that infuses so much of our hymnody, liturgy and scripture, so then why embrace a whole Sunday dedicated to the concept of Christ as King? As we seek to grow in sensitivity to transgender issues, Christ as Queen might be more relevant for us. The image of God as King, God as a wealthy man on a throne, is  an image that many no longer find spiritually helpful or relevant. It turns out that Christ the King Sunday did not even exist before 1925 when it was begun by Pope Pius the 11th. Pope Pius wanted to challenge the misuse and abuse of authority he felt was rampant in the 1920’s. He thought that a Sunday devoted to the Kingship of Christ would help address this problem. First off, it didn’t seem to have worked very well if the present misuse and abuse of authority is any indication. And secondly, we’re not even Catholic and don’t need to adopt decrees of any pope! But for some reason Lutherans, along with many other denominations, got on the bandwagon of Christ the King Sunday.

Why don’t we just get off?  Would any of you have even noticed if we skipped it?  But, I didn’t decide to skip it.  And that’s because, well, maybe Pope Pius the 11th was on to something. The church does have a role in challenging the misuse and abuse of power.  And while the imagery of kingship is not helpful in itself, there is hardly a more stark contrast with traditional royal power and privilege than we see in the actions and speech of Jesus on the cross.  Jesus’ kingship deconstructs all other kingship.

Over and over Jesus is encouraged and tempted to use all the power and resources at his command for himself.  It happens near the beginning of Luke’s gospel when Jesus is tempted to make a bargain with the devil for his own benefit. Jesus is hungry and the devil offers quite some bargains. It happens near the end of Luke’s gospel, as Jesus hangs on the cross. Both times, the temptations come in threes. Three times in the wilderness and three times at the cross –

1. The leaders scoffed at him…He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Messiah.

2. The soldiers mocked him…If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.
and

3.  One of the criminals hanging there with him derided him…are you not the messiah? Save yourself and us. Jesus’ refusal to do this makes his kingship appear to be a joke and leads to the crown of thorns.

Today’s first reading wants to remind us that Jesus did have power, vast and awesome power, authority and dominion above and beyond all else. Why not use it as the people suggested? To save himself. To set himself apart from the other criminals. To remove himself from that garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where justice was trampled in the dust. Where religion and politics became twisted tools of terror? Why didn’t Jesus get out and move to a nice, safe, gated community?

Our lessons tell us that it was in order that Jesus might become the way out for everyone else: Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom begged the thief. Today, answered Jesus, you will be with me in paradise.  Jesus chooses to use his power To hold all things together… and to make peace.  So different from the power we see excercised on behalf of the American dream, power used to protect a certain lifestyle that sets the few over and against the many, power that is polarizing nations, pulling the world apart, rather than holding peoples together, promoting war, rather than waging peace.

The gospel writer, Luke, lived in a world millions of people are all too familiar with, a world of careless wealth and crushing poverty. A world where rulers have bargained with the devil and used their power to dominate and control. Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus is found on the side of those without such power, those on the economic, social and political margins. In today’s reading, Luke shows us Jesus using his last breath to offer forgiveness and mercy and to share his inheritance with one who gives every appearance of deserving nothing. In the midst of profound personal suffering, as his last resources seem to be draining away, Jesus is investing those final resources in reaching out and opening doors for one,  who longs for a paradise he can never afford. Can we do any less? Can we, who have had those same doors opened to us, do less?

When I got up on black Friday, since I wasn’t rushing out the door to hit the stores, I took some extra time drinking coffee, eating leftover pumpkin pie and reading the paper. I read an article that began on the front page of the NY Times entitled: Mega Churches Add Local Economy to Mission. Knowing that churches have been and are engaged in important economic development projects, I was interested to read this article. Mega churches are churches with an average weekly attendance of 2000 or more, so it seems to me that they have the capacity to invest in some major economic development projects here and around the globe. I have to say that I was profoundly disappointed. It kind of sums things up to say that ten of the churches were building and operating shopping malls. Shopping malls for Jesus. The article pointed out that in the past, churches considered involvement in economic development to be part of their social outreach, working justice by creating opportunities for those left out, but mega churches today see it as part of their evangelism strategy. The idea is that folks who won’t get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to pray will get up at 4 in the morning to shop, so if you want to reach them, build a mall. Shopping malls for Jesus. There certainly is something to the idea of reaching out to people where they are rather than where we want them to be, but I have my reservations about shopping malls for Jesus, especially when I noticed that one of them will be in Detroit.

Detroit has been labeled as the most dangerous city in the nation.
Detroit is the nation's poorest big city, with about one in three residents living below the federal poverty level and half of all Detroit’s children living in poverty. Do those children need more malls? I know that building a huge mall will provide new jobs, but is a mall the best answer to Detroit’s rising unemployment rate and dismal education opportunities?  Now, if a church wanted to add the local economy to their mission, I imagine that the mega bucks and mega resources of a mega church could do mega good things in the city of Detroit.  And, if they seriously considered the “what would Jesus do?” bracelets sold in their church gift shop, I think they’d find that building a shopping mall would not be high on Jesus’ list.

Wouldn’t it be great to read a different headline? Congregations Leverage $1 Billion to Build Affordable Housing and Help the Homeless?  It would be great and it is great!  It was a headline, in the Washington Post. After I read about economic development mega church style, I talked with a visiting friend about 40 small and mid-sized congregations coming together in Washington DC as part of WIN: Washington Interfaith Network. Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities set aside differences and worked together to get the mayor of Washington to sign-off on a $1 billion, 5 year plan that will build affordable homes for low-income families and apartments with supportive service for formerly homeless individuals.  When Washington’s Mayor Fenty announced the approval of this plan at an assembly with WIN and others, he began with his prepared speech but at the end he put it down and said, “There’s something I’d like to add. I’d like to add that what impresses me most is that you are not doing this for your clergy, you are not doing this for yourselves, you are not building your own empire, you are doing it for the good of this city and for those most in need in our midst.”

That’s a different kind of witness. A different use of power. A different kind of evangelism. Investing to open doors to a modest bit of urban paradise for those condemned to the margins by unjust principalities and powers.  That’s the kind of investment and witness that reflects the example of Jesus.

It reminds me of what happened here on Thursday. An alternative to shopping mall evangelism. Trinity’s thanksgiving meal is not only an opportunity for those who come to enjoy the feast, hungry for food and in many cases companionship and respect, but Trinity’s thanksgiving meal is also an opportunity for those hungry to make some kind of positive difference in a world that seems dominated by negative powers, an opportunity for the many donors and volunteers who make it all possible, Some of those donors and volunteers are active in church, but others are not. Giving and volunteering offers people a chance to participate with the body of Christ in a Christ-like activity. The same is true of the opportunities with our shelter or after school program. It doesn’t mean that every donor or volunteer is going to join the church, but it is a chance for all involved to share in the inheritance of One who lived and died and rose in order to hold all things together and to make peace. To open the doors to a modest bit of urban paradise in anticipation of the paradise to come.

Being here, doing this work, takes a lot. A lot of time, prayer, energy and money. Mostly it takes a lot of faith, hope, love and generosity. Over the next couple of weeks, we will all be asked to consider our pledges for coming year. Our pledge is what we think we will be able and willing to invest in the work of God in and through this faith community. Our pledge is what we decide to offer in thanksgiving to all that has been offered to us. Our pledge is not written in stone. It may change as our situation changes for better or for worse, but making a pledge means that our offering is something we take seriously, something we think about, pray about and are committed to, not a spur of the moment offering of whatever stray change or bills we happen to have at the moment, not a reflection of our mood or presence on a given week.

For some, a tithe of 10 percent of our income is a good goal. For some that will be too much. For some that will be too little. For all of us, those who are members of Trinity and those visiting, those who will pledge and those who will not, the readings for Christ the King Sunday are most appropriate as we consider our stewardship in the weeks and months ahead. They remind us of the inheritance we have been given, beyond all deserving. They remind us of Jesus reaching in unsurpassed generosity despite the loss and hurt that often drive us to withdraw and withhold, Jesus opening doors for another who longs for the paradise he can never afford. A beggar, A thief. A sinner like us.

As individuals and as a congregation, we all have choices to make as to how we use and invest what we have received. Let us always and ever make those decisions at the foot of the cross, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

With our eyes on Jesus our brother, our Lamb, our Light, our Life, our Love, our Bread, our Truth, our Way, our Mother Hen, our Morning Star, our Wisdom, our Womb, our Lily, our Rock, our Rose, our River of Life and yes, I’ll say it today…our King of Kings. Amen.

Pastor Heidi Neumark

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