First Congregational Church
November 24, 2013
27th Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving Sunday,
Last Sunday of Pentecost
Jeremiah 23:5-6 and Luke 23:33-43
"Subjects of Gratitude"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Perhaps it's been a while, but there is a wonderful story about a king from the pen of Dr. Seuss. On the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond, Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond. A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat. The water was warm. There was plenty to eat. The turtles had everything turtles might need. And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed. They were until Yertle, the king of them all, Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small.
So Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand. And Yertle, the Turtle King, gave a command. He ordered nine turtles to swim to his stone. And, using these turtles, he built a new throne. He made each turtle stand on another one's back And he piled them all up in a nine-turtle stack. And then Yertle climbed up. He sat down on the pile. What a wonderful view! He could see 'most a mile! "All mine!" Yertle cried. "Oh, the things I now rule! I'm king of a cow! And I'm king of a mule! I'm king of a house! And, what's more, beyond that, I'm king of a blueberry bush and a cat! I'm Yertle the Turtle! Oh, marvelous me! For I am the ruler of all that I see!"
For the few of you who have never read the masterpiece, Yertle decides that his perch is not high enough. So, he orders more turtles, at least 200 more. And, now his throne allows him to see for 40 miles. Still not enough. More turtles. He needs 5,607, he says, stacked all the way up to heaven. Because even kids know that's what a king does. A king orders people around and sits on a throne and rules. A king is high and exalted. The king is the most important person. And everybody serves the king, does what the king wants, tries to make the king happy. If the king's not happy, nobody's happy. Because the king is powerful and mighty. A king, the dictionary says, is one that is supreme or preeminent. If you're not the king, you're subservient to the king. The king serves no one. The king is served. Even kids know that.
Which is what makes this morning's second scripture passage all the more "right." Both passages were listed in the Lectionary for today. The first of the two - although it is a bit shortened - is the prophecy of the king that would come and rule over the lost and the "found." The second passage, not so much. In fact, the passage may seem to have little, if anything, to do with Christ the King, Thanksgiving or any other calendar demarcation.
Jeremiah 23:5-6 (NIV)
5 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.
Luke 23:33-43 (NIV)
33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said,“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews. 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Thank you, Mary. In preparing for this morning's message, I came across a wonderful question that sort of smoothed out the wrinkles of discomfort I felt at the initial look at the passage from Luke. The question was: Isn't calling Christ "King" antiquated and oppressive? A person named David Bennett answered, "I would say "no" ..... 'Christ the King Sunday' has a much better ring to it than 'Christ our Democratically Elected Leader Sunday.'
Over a thousand years before Jesus was born, the Hebrew people had whined and begged long and hard for a king to lead their people. Their first king was Saul, followed by David and then Solomon and then the nation split into two kingdoms: Israel on the north and Judah to the south. Both kingdoms went through 20 kings - from good to bad and everything between. After all that and then wars of invading "outsiders" who destroyed the Chosen People, God said enough, laying down the path for a better king and kingdom.
On the physical, literal face of it all, that didn't seem to happen. Except for those of us who have a different view. We believe that the better king came. It's just that he came in diapers and his coronation was an execution. The thing is that we just doesn't expect a king to look like the picture in our mind when we have this passage laying in front of us. And we sure don't expect the palace of the Skull, the crowd of connivers and compassionates or the pathetique of the prisoners to be the precursor to the Advent season. Good Friday seems like it should be a long way away from Advent.
Jesus said his kingdom wasn't going to look like the kingdoms of the world, and just like much of his ministry, his "coronation" didn't look like those of earthly kings and queens. This king ushered in his kingdom with a prayer of forgiveness for those who treated him unfairly. "Father, forgive them." And then Jesus promised to take a criminal with him into his kingdom. Earthly kings are shielded from criminals. Jesus invites them to spend eternity with him.
Jesus did everything backwards. He didn't fast when he was supposed to fast. He worked when he wasn't supposed to work. He hung around with the wrong crowd. He blessed those who were poor and hungry and weeping, and he had only words of woe for those who were full of themselves. He believed in forgiving those who have wronged you, even when you are justified in refusing to forgive. He tried to teach his disciples that the way of service is the way of life, that the way up is down.
And, so, when he hung there that day and forgave those whom he would have been justified in never forgiving, when he hung there that day and extended love to a common criminal, he was confounding the world's notions of what it means to be a king, of what it means to have power, of what it means to be a human being, of what religion is really supposed to be about. This king rules by vulnerable love, not by domination. This king teaches us to the very end that God's power is made perfect in weakness. Jesus could have been "forgiven" for telling the first prisoner to "leave him alone."
We would expect a person with nails in hands and feet, bent in a position that induced pain just to breathe to rail against anyone talking to him, period. We might expect a vehement, "Forget it, buddy! Can't you see that I'm finished, washed up, through?" But, of course, he says nothing of the kind. Instead he makes a promise: "Today you will be with me in paradise." Even on his best days Jesus did not talk much about paradise--in fact, this is the only place in the entire Bible where the word "paradise" passes Jesus' lips. All along he'd tried to make clear that the kingdom is not what you expect: it's a mustard seed, a treasure hidden, yeast that disappears in the dough. Mighty strange moment to mention paradise for the first time!
Truth is, I think you and I experience the crucifixion of Jesus with some trepidation because we sense that at The Skull we see our reflection. And if we're honest, there's a part of us, maybe even a large part, that wants Jesus to be a different kind of king.
There are 196 countries in the world; twenty-six of them have monarchs. Twenty four of those are male: kings, sultans, emperors, sheikhs, princes or grand dukes. Two are queens. Only three are absolute monarchs. Unless we live in one of those three absolute dictatorship countries, kings don't mean much to us. Calling Jesus our president or prime minister does not say what the Scriptures are talking about when they call Jesus a king. They are saying that he is the absolutely most important person in our lives.
When God promised a righteous branch, I doubt that anyone within earshot could have guessed the King of Kings didn't ascend to a throne, stepping up on the backs of others, but came down from his kingdom and throne (if we think in directions), to be one of us, then to return to the place of the right hand.
Anne Lamott is a 59 year old, white American novelist and non-fiction writer, progressive political activist, public speaker and writing teacher who wears dread locks. She recently posted on Facebook that she at a fundraiser at a church where the choir made an astonishing spread for her reception, 'much of which she ate so that no one's feelings would be hurt.'
She said, "I ate all those warm chocolate chip cookies out of Christian love. God told me to. Thy will be done and all that. I ate the brownies because they seemed sad. And the lemon bars were having tiny anxiety issues." I think Jesus once said, "Greater life has no one than the one who lays down his life for another." Anne Lamott may make a weak case of laying down her life for the sake of that fundraiser. Jesus really did lay down his life - because of his love: for the criminals next to him, for Judas, for the priests and Pharisees, who weren't fair, you see and the Sadducees, who were sad, you see. And Jesus laid down his life for Mother Teresa and Billy Graham and little Jimmy Kolehmeinen and his little brother, whom we have yet to meet. He may not be the king we expected, but we are his subjects, and that is something for which we can all be grateful. So let us pray.
God, the sign over your son's head said, "This is the king of the Jews." In that scene that we'd rather not look on, you made him not a sign, but the king of humility, the absolute monarch of love. You gave us a sovereign ruler of forgiveness, whose reign is over life and death, whose might is compassion, whose power is in his willingness to suffer with the lowly and dignify the outcast, whose glory is mercy, who makes no demands upon his subjects but only showers them with blessings, who passes no law and wields no sword, who threatens no violence but only suffers it, and redeems those who suffer, whose army is those who humbly love, who utters no commands but one.
As his loyal and royal subjects, help us obey his law of love. Help us serve in his army of gentleness. May we join in his service and his love and dedicate ourselves to his mercy. For our families and our lives, for the fruit of the earth and our shelters from the storms of life, we are grateful. For reminding us that we are more than creatures of this earth, and you are more than just a crown and throne, all your subjects, in great gratitude say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.