The Community that Calls Christ King

The Community that Calls Christ King

Sermon on Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and John 18:33-37 for Christ the King Sunday, Year B, Nov. 22, 2015

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
John 18:33-37

John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 12.42.58 PMWe have been watching the PBS series called Wolf Hall.  It is about Thomas Cromwell, chief adviser to King Henry VIII of England in the 16th century.   It is full of court intrigue and betrayal.  There are spies, informants, and factions.  In the center is king Henry, a despot if there ever was one.  People get imprisoned, banished, and even killed by royal decree.  Cromwell himself, in the end, is a victim of Henry’s rage.  It makes me so happy not to live in the time of kings.

Re-imagining Kingdom

It is all the more fascinating to think that there were people who lived through the brutality of despotic monarchies, who nevertheless, could re-imagine the whole concept of king and kingdom.  There were a few spiritually insightful people who could imagine that a realm under a king could be a near heaven on earth, under the right circumstances.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 10.44.42 AMThe prophet Daniel had that kind of imagination.  After his apocalyptic visions of a succession of empires, which he pictured as beasts, really, monsters, anti-human figures of brutality, he comes to a final, climactic vision.

This time, instead of a monstrous beast, a figure like a human, a “son of man” comes into view.  In this vision, the human one rises on the clouds and goes up to the glorious fiery throne of the Ancient of Days – the King of Kings.

The Ancient of Days gives a kingdom to the human one.  It is a world-encompassing kingdom; a kingdom without borders.  It is a limitless kingdom that never passes away.

Soon after this scene, Daniel receives the interpretation of the vision.  The human one was a representative figure.  He stands to represent as he says,

“the holy ones of the Most High [who] shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

So it is God’s people who receive the kingdom that lasts forever.  From the beginning God’s dream for the world has been a united humanity; a kingdom without borders, where no one is a refugee, and in which there is no beastly violence nor oppression to flee from.

Jesus and Kingdom

Jesus came proclaiming the gospel, which is simply the good news that the kingdom of God has arrived.   So Jesus, like Daniel, was able to imagine an alternative kind of kingdom, to the brutal one he lived in.  And, amazingly, his announcement used the present tense.  The Kingdom of God is here.

There is nothing to wait for.  The kingdom of God is present wherever “God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Is Jesus, then, the king of this kingdom of God?   John’s gospel tells a story to help us understand.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 10.55.57 AMIn the story, Jesus stands before the representative of the powers of empire.   Procurator Pilate wears the insignia of the Roman Eagle.  He can call upon legions of sword-wielding soldiers to use overwhelming violence at his discretion.  This is the earthly version of a kingdom.

In front of him stands Jesus with no weapon, no army, and no thought of violence.  Pilate asks him if he is a king.  John tells the story this way:

“Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting”

Not fighting is the proof that the kingdom Jesus represents is not of this world.

Spiritual Kingdom: Earthly Effects

This is where it gets tricky.  Many have stumbled here and gotten Jesus wrong.  Does this mean that the Kingdom of God is an other-worldly matter for mystics and spiritualists without practical implications?

Resoundingly no! The spiritual kingdom of God has enormous this-world  effects.  This spiritual kingdom transforms lives.  It makes people live and act differently than they would have, since their allegiance is to God’s will on earth.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 10.54.07 AMInstead of imagining that life consists in the abundance of possessions, they share their bread with the hungry.  Instead of returning violence with violence, they turn the other cheek, they stop the cycle of violence, they practice forgiveness of enemies.

This is the kingdom we gather together to celebrate and to affirm.  We rehearse the stories of the one we are able to proclaim our king, the one whose life maps out the path that we believe is God’s will on earth: the Jesus path.

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 11.01.05 AMBecause of all the discussions on the news this past week, I was reminded of the story Jesus told of the good Samaritan.  I remember the first time someone drew my attention to the danger that the Samaritan put himself in, as he stopped to help the victim on the side of the road.  There had been one robbery, one severe beating there that day; what was to stop a second?  Who could have known if the criminals were nearby awaiting a second victim or not?

But in spite of the danger, the Samaritan did the right thing.  He stopped and helped.  He risked his own safety to show mercy, to be compassionate.

That is the story our king tells.  That is the kind of kingdom we have given our allegiance to.  That is what informs our conversations about welcoming strangers from Syria, and not just the Christians from Syria!  This spiritual kingdom has enormous this-world effects; it calls for us to be a community that means it, when we call Christ the King.

Being the Alternative Community

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 11.03.23 AMBut this is not the consensus view.  This is an alternative perspective.  And this is why we need the encouragement of this community so much.  It is here, as we gather, that we are renewed in our hope, renewed in our passion to live as those on the Jesus path.  It is here that we are spiritually re-calibrated towards goodness, truth and beauty.  It here that we encounter God’s presence, a light in the darkness.

Someone told me that a person said something this past week that made me so proud to be a part of this community.  She had been hearing so much about people wanting to block refugees from Syria settling among us, but said that she came here, to this community, because she knew we embraced an alternative vision.  We do, it is called risk-taking compassion; the kind our King showed us by his life, and taught us by his words.

We need each other.  We benefit from this place in which we gather.  We benefit  from  these people and these services and classes and programs.

Affirmation of Faith

Let us affirm our faith in the words of the Iona Community of Scotland:
(source: Iona Abbey Worship Book, p. 179)

We believe that God is present,
in the darkness before the dawn;
in the waiting and uncertainty
where fear and courage join hands,
conflict and caring link arms,
and the sun rises over barbed wire.
We believe in a with-us God
who sits down in our midst
to share our humanity.
We affirm a faith
that takes us beyond the safe place:
into action, into vulnerability
and in the streets.
We commit ourselves to work for change
and put ourselves on the line;
to bear responsibility, take risks,
live powerfully and face humiliation
to stand with those on the edge
to choose life
and be used by the Spirit
for God’s new community of hope.


God’s Will is Peace

God’s Will is Peace

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 12.08.24 PMSermon on Mark 13:1-8 for Pentecost +25, November 15, 2015

Mark 13:1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

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We had thought that ISIS could not do anything worse to horrify us and shock us, after all that they have already done.  But who was not taken to a whole new level Friday by what they did in Paris?  And that was just two days after the bomb they blew up in Beruit that killed over 40 people.

We stand with the people of France today.  We stand with the people of Lebanon.  We stand with all of the victims of violence.  We stand with the millions who have uprooted their whole lives and families to flee from violence in the quest of a place of refuge.

Today also, we stand with the countless number of Muslims who have publicly denounced ISIS and their violence.  It is not true, as some media outlets have falsely reported, that Muslims are not speaking out.  They are.  Here are some examples given by an article in Belief Net:

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has said that ISIS has “Nothing to do with Islam,” but has committed crimes “that cannot be tolerated.

Arab League: “Strongly denounced” the “crimes against humanity” carried out by the  so-called Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the country’s top religious authority, said that terrorism is anti-Islamic and said that groups like the Islamic State which practice violence are the “number one enemy of Islam.

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Yes, it is true that Islam does have an eschatology, that is, a version of the end times, that includes an apocalyptic battle.  It is also true that the vast majority of Muslims do not believe they need to do anything at all to start that battle.

It is also true that many Christians today believe the eschatology of the “Left Behind” series of books, which understands Revelation literally, and think that our world will end with an apocalyptic Armageddon.

And yet, thankfully, even the benighted people who read and believe those books, and buy their literal version of Revelation do not think that they need to go out and start the battle.   Some versions of Islam and some versions of Christianity are eerily similar in this respect.

Revelation does use battle imagery.  The wrath of God get poured out and people die.  There are four horsemen of the apocalypse, there are plagues, earthquakes, and a huge final battle.

I am, like so many people before me, including Calvin and Luther, uncomfortable with the book of Revelation and its violent imagery.  Even though it is completely understandable that the struggle between good and evil, that Revelation describes, seems like an eternal war, and even though evil feels like an enemy that must be put to death, nevertheless, attacking violence with violence is deeply problematic.

All of us share the same conflicted sentiment that we find in the book of Psalms.  We cry out against violence done to us, to our people, and we condemn the violent people like ISIS for being violent.  “How long, O Lord?” we pray.  But there is, within us all, a vengeance-bone that wants to fight back, to return blow for blow.  An eye for an eye.  Violence for violence.  “Execute vengeance” we pray.

The Origins of ViolenceScreen Shot 2015-11-14 at 4.55.45 PM

Brain scientists and evolutionary biologists can tell us where these violent urges come from.  We evolved to survive.  Survival meant fighting off predators that we could not flee from.  The urge to be violent is now in our instincts.  It comes from our “lizard brain.”  It is primitive.  It comes from a place in our brains that has nothing to do with reasoning or judgment.  It is simply reactive and impulsive.

It is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that people accept a violent response to violence as a given.  The ones calling us to reason, that is, to use a place in our brains that has the capacity to make moral judgment, seem to be the odd ones.  But they include the likes of Jesus.  And it is Jesus whom we seek to follow.

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You could be forgiven for imagining that Jesus lived in bucolic settings and in peaceful times.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  In Roman-occupied Palestine, many people were actively preparing for revolution.

They had plenty of reasons.  The Romans were brutal.  They crucified people by the thousands if they resisted.  They could be like ISIS on steroids.

But Jesus was completely opposed to the Jewish rebel struggle.  Jesus rejected violence as a solution to violence.

By the time Mark wrote down the story of Jesus’ life, some scholars believe, the revolution had already begun.  It has been suggested that Mark wrote his gospel in a year of pause in the fighting.

The Roman general, Vespasian, who had been sent to crush the Jewish revolt in the year 66, had to rush back to Rome because of the civil war going on there.  When the dust settled in Rome, Vespasian was the new emperor.  His son Titus finished the job of subduing the Jewish revolt in the year 70.  Hundreds of thousands died.  The temple was destroyed.

So, in Mark’s story of Jesus, we hear him say, as he looks at Jerusalem and the temple, from across the little valley, from the Mount of Olives,

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Jerusalem had its “great buildings” – the palace, the temple; king Herod had spent years on renovations.  They were lavish.  And all of them were going to be rubble after the revolt.

Perhaps Jesus had a kind of prescience, but really, it did not take a prophet to see what the Romans would do in response to revolution; they would do what they always did.

But Jesus had an entirely different vision that guided him.  He did not believe that Moses’ ethic of “an eye for an eye” was the last word.

Jesus never used the term “cycle of violence” but he intuited its meaning.  He believed violence would continue unless and until someone stopped responding violently.  He said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword,”  – violence in return only returns more violence.  Unless and until someone stops the cycle.  Jesus said,

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt 5:9)

Jesus said,

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”  (Matt 5:38)

Jesus said,

 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”  (Matt 7:12)

Martin Luther King Jr. learned non-violence from Jesus, saying,

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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I believe we are called to practice non-violence.  This is not an exclusively Christian calling.  Hindus and Buddhists call it Ahimsa, and place it at the very core of all yoga philosophy and practice.  For them, it derives as a necessary corollary from the essential unity of all being.

Though our narratives differ, Christians trace all that exists back to one common source, God the creator.  Our creation story in Genesis begins with human beings made in God’s image.  The New Testament’s Gospel of John begins with the logos, the divine Word which is the source of everything.

Remarkably, and nearly unbelievably, this one Logos, John says, took on human flesh and dwelt among us.  The idea that God could so embrace humanity as to share human skin and bones says that to God, humans matter.  Life matters.  It is no small thing to do violence to a human.

The vision of the Gospel is a vision of shalom; a world reconciled.  It is the vision of the prophet Isaiah, of “swords beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks.”

Even Though it Works

Nonviolence has always been a hard-sell.  Even though Grandi was successful in convincing enough people to use it, that the British eventually left India, the brutal war that followed, as Pakistan broke away, showed how strong the urge to violence is, even in people who had seen non-violence work.

Even though the civil rights movement here in America produced so many positive results as Dr. King led non-violent sit-ins, boycotts and freedom riders, people still resort to violence.

Even though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ended the cycle of violence the Apartheid system had created in South Africa, avoiding a massive race war, people still today treat advocates of non-violence as soft-headed, impractical dreamers.

I confess, I have no ready solutions to the violence of ISIS.  But I do know that each time we try to bomb our way to solutions in the middle East, things only get worse.

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I do know, however, that violence begins on a personal level.  Each of us has that lizard brain that loves to fight, that enjoys vengeance, that responds instinctively to threats with counter-threats.

So, though I do not have a global strategy, I do have a personal one.  I believe we are all called to seek a non-violent path of life.  Because this is not our instinct, we have to learn non-violence.  We have to be spiritually formed in the practices that promote non-violence.

Personally we believe in being practitioners of the Jesus way.  That means we believe in the necessity of practicing forgiveness, just as we have been forgiven.  That means that we  turn the other cheek when we are wronged.  That means that we practice personal disciplines that enable us to grow in peacefulness, like meditation, contemplative prayer, yoga, and mindfulness.

We pray for our enemies, as Jesus taught us.  Our goal is not vengeance, it is rather reconciliation.  Justice, for us, is not retribution, but restoration.  We long for the world of shalom, the peaceable kingdom in which the lion and lamb lie down together.  We long for a world that is not us or them, but us for them, as Gungor’s song proclaims.

This is the vision that this community gathers to proclaim; that the God who made us calls us to love each other the way God loves us.  Our prayer is simply, may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth.  God’s will, is peace.

Watching Widows with Jesus

Watching Widows with Jesus

Sermon on Mark 12:38-44 for the 24th  Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, November 8, 2015

Mark 12:38-44
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

We are teaching our kids, on Wednesday evenings, about the Jesus path.  We were discussing the footsteps we make on the Jesus path, like kindness and compassion.  We talk about our essential identity as children of God, and about the practice of prayer.

So, last Wednesday I asked the kids to take our list of the virtues and practices of the Jesus path, and rank them in importance to them.  There are a couple of virtues and practices on the list that almost none of our middle-schoolers understood.  They all know what compassion and kindness means, but none of them understands what advocacy means, and no one understood the word stewardship.

I explained that stewardship means how we use our money.  One of the kids said, “Money is not important.”  They do not call it the age of innocence for nothing.

Our high school-aged youth assistant and I, simultaneously in reply, said, “Yes it is!”  By high school, you have completely lost your innocence about money.

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The amount of money you have makes a huge impact on your life.  It affects what you eat, where you eat, what you wear, where you live, and how healthy you are.  It most likely has an impact on what you think of other people, and how you think about yourself.  Not that it should, but that, without a lot of spiritual work, it does.

Money is spooky.   People are cagey about it.  Money and secrets seem to be a happy couple. Jesus said you had to choose between serving God or money, but that we cannot serve both.  Money is then, a spiritual fork in the road.

Money is spiritual.  Everything we do with money has meaning.  That is why it was important to Jesus.  As he taught his followers how to walk the Jesus path, he knew that they had to get the money issue right.

Money is important, not just for how it affects us, but even more so, because of the way our use of money affects other people.  That is what our text from Mark’s gospel is about.

The Widow’s Last Two CentsScreen Shot 2015-11-07 at 12.15.21 PM

I can just see the scene: in contrast to the priests, who are here, called scribes, wearing their elegant robes, seeking honor, which was such a big deal in that culture, here comes this poor widow.

How did Jesus know she was a widow? That is one of the details that make some people believe that this story started as a parable, like the one about the rich man and Lazarus, that became historicized.  Either way, it says a lot about Jesus,’ shall we say, “theology of money.”

Anyway, there she is, obviously poor, with her “two cents.”  That would just about be right in today’s currency.  Not only are these the smallest coins with the lowest value, they are also her last two cents.  Jesus says, as he watches her put them in the collection box, they are “all she had to live on.”

Parables often have shock value.  Sometimes it gets lost in translation.  The shock here is that these honor-obsessed priests took the last two cents from a poor widow.  The law of Moses is so clear: the donation should have gone the other way.  Widows were singled out, along with orphans, as the very people that the temple tithes were supposed to support.

In fact, every third year the tithe was supposed to go to the poor, the Levites, who had no land of their own, the aliens, that is, resident non-citizens, the orphans and widows (Deut. 26).

But, instead of supporting her, they took her last two cents.  “All she had to live on.”  They did precisely what Jesus accused them of when he warned:

“Beware of the scribes… They devour widows’ houses”

Houses” here means estates; whatever remained of their deceased husband’s property.

Money’s Meaning

Money is powerful, both for good and for ill.  Money can save a widow from the wolf at the door, or it can seduce a priest into being the wolf.  In that way, it is like a window into the soul.

What we do with our money has meaning.  We all know that, and that is why we are nervous about it.  The way we use our money shows what we truly value.

I know you all value highly what we are doing here.  This is the place where we come to re-calibrate our hearts.  This is the time we get to focus on goodness, on truth, and on beauty.  This is where we are renewed in our hope.  This is where we find new strength to trust that God is alluring us, grounding our existence in love.

I know you value what our children and youth are learning here.  It is important to you that a new generation learns how to walk the Jesus-path; that they know that they are loved by God; that they practice compassion; that they learn words like stewardship and advocacy.  IMG_5695

I know that it is important to you that we are teaching our kids that they can matter to others.  Like the banner they made for the firefighters out west this summer; it actually  made a difference. They felt our love and appreciation.

It is important to all of us that we got involved in the refugee crisis, doing something good, learning to, at least, light a candle, rather than cursing the darkness.  Our kids were part of that; they are learning to be generous people who care about suffering, and respond as much as they can.

Because this matters to you, you give.  Many of you have given generously over the years.  You know that none of this is possible without money.

I know that it is important to you that we do not spend all of the money we receive on ourselves.  It is part of our identity as generous Christians that we support ministries like the Christian Service Center and the Presbyterian Children’s Home.    We reach out to our widows and orphans.

We, who have a roof over our heads, food in the refrigerator and a decent place to call home, are grateful for all of that, knowing all of it is a gift.  And so, out of gratitude, we give back to help people in need.

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We do not give back from the bottom.  We do not give to the church the way we throw spare change in the jar.  We give, according to the pattern of giving Moses established for Israel, from the top, our first fruits.

We do not decide how much to give based on how much is left over.  We decide what level of giving is meaningful; what level of giving reflects our values; what amount expresses what is important to us.   Israel established the pattern of the tithe: 10%.  I use that as my  benchmark.

The New Testament has no strict rule for giving.  Paul told his people to do what they determine is right in their hearts, knowing, as he reminded them, that “God loves a cheerful giver.”  It is about joy and gratitude, not duty or coercion.

We adults here are not in the age of innocence about money.  We know how powerful it is, for good and for ill.  We know how it works.  We know how much it costs to air-condition and heat our homes, we know what it takes to live for a year.

Therefore, our giving to the church reflects our adult understanding of what it takes to have a church, a place like this, with these services of worship, these programs, these people, and these ministries.  Our giving naturally reflects adult realities.

We know, from texts like this, that money matters to God.  What we do with it is spiritual.  Therefore, with full and grateful hearts, we determine, from the start, how we will use the resources entrusted to us, as faithful stewards.