Monday, November 26, 2012

Sermon: "I'm King of the World!"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
November 25, 2012
John 18:33-37

“I’m King of the World!”

My Kingdom is not from this world.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day where we ponder what it means for us to say to Jesus, “You are our King”, and what it meant for Jesus to say to us, “My Kingdom is not from this world.”

Christ the King Sunday is essentially New Years Eve on the Christian church calendar. This is the LAST Sunday in the liturgical year, as we move out of the season of Pentecost, the season that celebrates the ministry of Jesus, and begin the year anew with the season of Advent next Sunday.

For those of you who pay attention to such things, (other than the deacons whose job it is to change the paraments on the pulpit and lectern to match the color of the liturgical season) you may have noticed that typically we move from Pentecost green right to Advent blue, but today the color is white. This year is one of those rare years where we have an extra Sunday in between Thanksgiving and the first Sunday of Advent…because Thanksgiving fell so early this year. So, on this Sunday, we celebrate Christ the King.

The truth is, Christ the King Sunday is celebrated on the Christian calendar every year but typically it shares the date with Thanksgiving Sunday. But other than appearing at the top of the bulletin as “Thanksgiving/Christ the King Sunday”, it usually gets no further mention, as we instead spend our worship time focusing on gratitude and the spirit of Thanksgiving.
But this year is different.
This year we have a whole Sunday devoted to Christ the King.
Aren’t you glad you came?!

If we think about, it’s easy to understand why the Christ the King theme often plays second fiddle to the Thanksgiving theme.
The concept of Thanksgiving is something we all know and understand.
Gratitude and the need to name the blessings in our lives are virtues we want to lift up and celebrate.
And in the world outside these church walls, Thanksgiving is part of our collective culture. It’s the day where our nation as a whole hits the pause button and gathers together as family, friends, and neighbors to express thanks for all that we have.

Christ the King Sunday is none of these things.
It’s not celebrated in the secular world, it’s not a concept we can easily understand or explain, even to our fellow Christians, and for some, describing Jesus using “kingly” language – with all the baggage that such language has in regards to hierarchal power, paternal power, and abuse of power – doesn’t quite fit with our image of Jesus as a humble and suffering servant.

Taking about Jesus in terms of kingship and kingdoms can seem archaic and irrelevant to our modern sensibilities.
When we think of kings and kingdoms we may think of the Crusades, Disney fairytales, Renaissance fairs, or the celebrity of the modern-day British monarchy.
Historically, we inherited this language of Kingdom not just from the Hebrew Bible’s tradition of telling the stories of earthly kings, like David and Solomon, but also from the history of Kingdom that grew out of medieval England and influenced the King James version of our Bible.

I admit that when I think of kings and kingdoms I can’t help but think of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable bumble their way through medieval England in search of the cup of Christ.    But there is a scene in that movie that I believe perfectly captures our modern distaste for Kings and Kingdoms.

In this scene, King Arthur approaches a group of lowly peasants working in a field and gets embroiled in a heated discussion over whether the peasants live in an “autonomous collective” run by the people, or a “dictatorship that represses the masses.”
When King Arthur orders the peasants to stop arguing and be quiet, one woman laughs and says, “He’s ordering us? Who does he think he is?”  Arthur replies, “I am your King”, to which she responds, “Well, I didn’t vote for you!

The iconic image of Jesus wearing a crown and sitting on a throne ruling over his kingdom is derived from the limitations of our cultural experience and our language.
We may attempt to move beyond these limitations by interpreting Christ the King to mean that we accept Jesus as our savior and redeemer, and thus allow his teachings to rule and guide our lives – but truth be told, when we’re forced to make the choice between celebrating Thanksgiving Sunday and celebrating Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving usually wins out.

Perhaps this goes much deeper than our desire to move beyond archaic images.
I wonder if our discomfort with the image of Christ as ruler of our lives arises from the feeling of uncertainty we experience when we move from the world in here to the world out there.

As Christians we often stand hesitantly in two very different worlds.
One world where we’re told to love our neighbor, forgive our enemy, and care for the least among us.
And one world where we’re told to mistrust our neighbor, fear our enemy, and to care for only ourselves, our family, or our country, and leave everyone else to fend for themselves.

In one world we’re encouraged to live as a collective, to reach consensus, and to make sure every voice is heard and every need is met.
And in the other world we’re encouraged to live as individuals, to seek out what is best for us, and to silence or reprimand those who try to take power from us or who take more than their fair share.

It’s no wonder why many of us stagger in here on Sunday mornings, seeking respite and peace.
We have these conflicting messages playing in our heads all week long and we come here hoping to make some sense of it all.
But talking about Jesus as King, and ruler of our lives may NOT be something that we imagine will bring us peace, instead we may fear that it will cause even more conflict to arise within us.

Living as a Christian in the context of a Christian community is difficult, but at least we’re all trying to do it together, and we do our best to forgive each other when we fail.
But living as a Christian in the world outside of the church some would say is darn near impossible.
To say that Jesus and his teachings rule our lives is to invite constant conflict as we navigate in that world, because almost every word and action of consequence presents us with a point of decision, and conflicting choices.

Do we store up treasures on earth, by putting away money for retirement, or do we store up treasures in heaven by giving all that we have to the poor?
Do we stand up against evil and injustice, using violent force if necessary, or do we turn the other cheek and rely on non-violent protest to enact change in our world?
Do we punish those who do wrong and seek retribution, or do we leave the judging to God and offer forgiveness to those who trespass against us?

These are not easy choices to make, and as Christians very few of us agree on which are the correct choices. Some would say these choices as presented are overly simplistic and open to interpretation, and the real choice - the truth of God’s will - lies somewhere in between.

But we can’t deny that the constant wrestling that takes place within us when we’re confronted with these choices can be downright tiring.
Trying to rectify the pull of these two different worlds is like trying to straddle two trains that are moving in different directions. We can do it, but it takes a lot of hopping between the two to stay upright.

In our gospel reading today, we get a glimpse of the dueling worlds inhabited by Pontius Pilate.  
Pilate served and derived his power from the world of the Roman Empire, but as a ruler in the Roman province of Judea he also inhabited the world of the descendents of Abraham, who prayed to a God he didn’t recognize and followed a law that he couldn’t comprehend. 
The province of Judea sat at the edge of the Roman Empire, where uprisings could quickly gain momentum and spiral out of control, and Pilate had orders to keep the peace at all costs.  Which he did. Pilate had the blood of many on his hands, but he also understood that playing the part of politician in two worlds sometimes required him to bend to the will of others.
Thus, with one foot in each world, it worked in Pilate’s favor to appease the Jewish leaders and keep uprisings from occurring.  

So we can imagine what Pilate must have felt when he encountered Jesus, who was dragged before him in the middle of the night and threatened to upset the balancing act that Pilate had taken such great care to achieve.

Jesus was accused of claiming to be a king.
This was a claim that neither Rome nor Pilate would tolerate.
But it was also this claim that got Jesus on the Most Wanted list of the Jewish Sanhedrin.
They wanted him killed, but if Pilate did so it would surely upset Jesus’ followers and would threaten the peace during the busy Passover season in Jerusalem.  All eyes were upon Pilate, and the two worlds he inhabited were suddenly careening in two different directions.

All he had to do was to get Jesus to admit that he was not a king.
This would satisfy Pilate and his superiors, it would hopefully appease the Jewish leaders, and it would allow Pilate to release Jesus to his followers, thus keeping the peace for everyone involved.

It must have been obvious to Pilate that Jesus was NOT a king.
He had no wealth, he had no army, he had no land, and he had no power by anyone’s standards, except those of his low ranking followers.
Even the claim that Jesus was “King of the Jews” was suspect because the Jewish leaders themselves insisted that he was not.

With his life on the line, surely Jesus would admit that he was not a king, and this impromptu middle of the night trial would be over before it started.

But Pilot was falling victim to his limited vision in the same way that we do when we try to rectify our image of God’s world with the world we know out there.    
Pilate heard the word “King” and he pictured an earthly king, one who would steal power from him and threaten the world in which he existed.
But as Jesus told Pilate, and as Jesus tells us, his Kingdom is not from this world.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus promises us in the gospels is a world where all God’s children will share equally in the abundance of God’s creation.
A world where war, disease, injustice, poverty, and death will be no more.
A world where we will all gather at God’s table and eat freely of the bread of life.

In many ways Jesus’ Kingdom bears little resemblance to the world that we know.
Our world is broken and imperfect.
Our world is full of inequities and injustice.
Our world is full of pain and suffering and heartache.

But in some ways, this world offers us glimpses of the Kingdom to come.
Our world is full of beauty, new life, growth, and healing.
Our world is full of compassionate people working for equality and justice.
Our world is full of joy and hope and individual points of light shining together into the darkness.

This is the world that we know.
This is a world that contains both good and evil.
And as much as we try to tell ourselves that the world in here is different from the world out there, it’s not.
Crosses and steeples and Bibles in the pews don’t prevent that world from coming in here.
But they help us to imagine the ways in which our world could be different, and they inspire us to work together to be the change we want to see in our world.  

The Kingdom that Jesus promises us is an ideal.
It’s like one of those fairy tale kingdoms we read about as children and dream about being whisked away to as adults.

Some of us can’t help but look at Jesus’ world and look at our world and become discouraged because we feel like we’re never going to get there.
We can see by the dwindling attendance in many of our churches that some people have found the disparity between the world we talk about in here and the world that exists out there to be too much to handle.

Like Pontius Pilate, we often lack the vision to see beyond the limitations of our human experience.
We feel like we’re straddling two worlds because we’re trying to overlay the image of God’s Kingdom with the image of our human Kingdom, and as Jesus tells us, his Kingdom is not from this world.

The choices we wrestle with in this world will not exist in God’s world.
Should we keep a portion of our money for ourselves or give it to the poor?
In God’s world all will share equally in God’s abundance.
Imbalances of resources will not exist.
Should we use force or peaceful measures to counteract injustice?
In God’s world all will share equally in God’s abundance.
Imbalances of power will not exist.
Should we punish those who do wrong or leave it up to God?
In God’s world all will share equally in God’s abundance.
Imbalances of love and mercy will not exist.

The truth is that we cannot create the Kingdom of God here on earth,
only God has the power to do that.
But what we can do is latch onto those glimpses we have God’s Kingdom and do what we can move our world closer to God’s world.

And as we get ready to enter the season of Advent and anticipate the light of Christ entering into our lives all over again, let us celebrate this Sabbath day, this Christ the King Sunday, by celebrating Jesus’ ministry as an example we’re all meant to follow.
Jesus’ Kingdom is not from this world. But we are.
Let’s make the best of it while we’re here.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Sermon: "Faith, Hope, and Clarity"

Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
October 28, 2012
Mark 10:46-52

“Faith, Hope, and Clarity”

Bartimaeus and I go way back.
This story of the blind man who regains his sight by simply having faith has followed me for most of my life.
His passion-filled cry of, “Teacher, let me see again” and Jesus’ immediate response, “Go, your faith has made you well” are forever woven into my faith journey because call it coincidence or call it divine intervention, God keeps dropping Bartimaeus in my lap.

As a child, I often had questions about the beliefs we adhere to as Christians, and I wondered how we could truly have faith in God when our knowledge and experience of God, and our ability to feel the presence of God, are so limited.
When I was 14-years-old I brought these questions to one of the nuns at the Catholic school I attended and she told me the story of Bartimaeus.
“Bartimaeus didn’t question Jesus’ ability to heal him,” she said.
He simply asked to be healed, and he was.
He believed it would be true, and his faith made him well.

As a skeptical teenager, I was not about to place all of my trust in miraculous healings or blind faith, especially when the faith I was told I should have didn’t leave room for doubt, didn’t leave room for diversity, and ultimately didn’t leave room for me.

I concluded that Bartimaeus was a relic from another time…and I dismissed him, his unquestioning faith, and organized religion as a whole, and threw it in a box labeled, “Things that are no longer relevant or meaningful in my life.”

But as I grew older, I discovered that God would not stay in that box.

Twelve years ago on a late October day very much like this one, I stepped into a UCC church for the very first time….because God would not stay in that box, and I was searching for a way to define, describe, and share in community the many ways in which God was emerging in my life.

On that October Sunday, the lectionary text was the same gospel reading that we heard this morning, the story of Bartimaeus.
“My Teacher, let me see again!” Bartimaeus cried, and Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

I remember cringing as I heard these words yet again.
As a lapsed Catholic, I came to the United Church of Christ with the hope that it would be a different kind of church -
one that encouraged hands-on service and critical thinking, rather than belief in miraculous healings and blind unquestioning faith.
But there was Bartimaeus once again, running up to Jesus and regaining his sight without so much as a wave of the hand, simply because he believed.

But my fear that that I was treading on familiar ground was eased somewhat by the pastor’s sermon that morning.
He spoke of how the image of the blind being healed was often used in the bible as a metaphor for those who lack not sight, but insight.
The man may not have been literally blind, but rather he lacked the ability to understand the message of Jesus…the message that we are all loved by God, we are all saved by grace, and that through Jesus, God was calling us to do something truly amazing and radically new in this world.
When Bartimaeus encountered Jesus in the flesh, something deep inside of him recognized that Jesus was the one whom God had sent to heal not just him, but the entire world….and his eyes were opened.

As I pondered this, my eyes began to open as well, but only slightly.
I was drawn to the idea that God loves us all fully and equally and that we are called to do something new in this world, but I still did not understand what it meant to have faith …and I still could not fathom that one needed to believe IN Jesus, as the only true savior and son of God, in order to be accepted into God’s embrace.
The language of Christianity continued to act as a barrier for me, as did all that I had previously learned about what one needed to believe and do in order to be considered a true person of faith.

My eyes were opening but I was seeing only shadows, so I resumed my spiritual wandering and four more years passed before I found my way back into a Christian church again.
That second time I tried a different UCC church, thinking that perhaps not all UCC churches were the same, but inexplicably the text the preacher had chosen for that day was the story of Bartimaeus.  
I could not get away from this guy.

But this time, as Bartimaeus was calling up the road after Jesus saying,
“My teacher, let me see again!” I was right there with him.
I had done my wandering, and I was ready to come home.
In my wandering, I was drawn to a path that was God centered, justice seeking, and inclusive of all, and it led me right back to Jesus.
Right back to that first century Jewish itinerate preacher and teacher who challenged the people of his time to open their minds and their hearts to the life changing love that God offers to each and every one of us.

He challenged them, and us, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to forgive our enemies, to care for those who are the least among us.
He challenges us not just to have faith, but to live out our faith in the world.
Because if our faith in God is true, it can’t help but flow through us and back into the world in the form of compassionate love and action.

Bartimaeus had been chasing me for most of my life, and he’d finally caught up with me. Through him, and the UCC church that I found him in, I came to recognize what it means to have faith, and what it meant to be a follower of Christ.
So imagine my surprise when I sat down earlier this week and looked at the lectionary texts for today, knowing that this is the Sunday that I will be officially installed as the Associate Pastor of this wonderful church.  
On this Sunday that marks a milestone moment on my own journey, my old friend Bartimaeus is making himself known yet again.
Faith is a journey.
It grows over time and shifts and changes as we shift and change.
When Bartimaeus heard Jesus coming down the road, at that moment in time it all clicked into to place for him. His eyes were opened.
But we don’t know how long it took him to get there and we don’t know where he ended up after that.
He became a follower of Jesus but did he follow him to the end?
Was he one of the few who stayed with him as he hung on the cross?
Or was he long gone by then? …and can we fault him if he was?

Jesus own disciples had varying degrees of faith, despite having the living, breathing man right in front of them.
They were not certain that he was the one who would release them from the captivity of fear, scarcity, and oppression.
And they had trouble grasping the message that he carried of an all-loving and forgiving God who was calling them to change themselves and the world.
So much of what Jesus said and did contradicted what they had been taught, or come to believe by observing the way the world worked around them.
The meek shall inherit the earth?
The poor are blessed?
How much faith did it take to believe this to be true?

We can’t say the disciples were lacking in faith; they believed in God and they believed that Jesus was doing something different in their lives.
They believed enough to leave their families and livelihoods behind and follow him. They had faith, they just had trouble understanding what it meant to live as a people of faith.

And so do we.
Which is why we can’t agree on what it means to be a Christian in today’s world, and we argue over which form of Christianity, which ideology, and which political party, best reflects the teachings of Christ.

We seem driven to hold up a yardstick to measure our own faith and that of others, and judge who is deserving of God’s healing and who is not.
I do wonder how much of our uncertainty about faith and its true power traces back to this text about Bartimaeus.
Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”

Regardless of whether we believe Bartimaeus had his sight restored in a literal or figurative sense, the text tells us that Jesus pronounced him healed because he had faith.
Does this mean that we will also find healing, simply because we have faith?

A few years ago I attended a worship service where members of the congregation performed what is known as a Cardboard Testimonial.  One by one, each participant walked out on stage, holding a hand-written cardboard sign naming a struggle or affliction that once overwhelmed them  – “Diagnosed with Cancer at Age 40,” “Unemployed for 17 months,” “Addicted to Cocaine.”

As they reached the edge of the stage they flipped over their cardboard sign to reveal the healing they had received from God - “Cancer Free at age 45,” “New Job for Higher Pay,” “Total Life Transformation.”
The congregation applauded after each reveal and it was a very powerful ritual because it carried the message that healing is found in God’s presence regardless of how dire one’s circumstances seem. 

But what about those who haven’t been healed?
This is where Faith and Hope often become intertwined.
We may have faith that God will be there for us when we’ve hit rock bottom.
But we may not have faith that God’s presence in our life will result in what we would call a positive outcome – a physical healing, a transformation, a new beginning – We can hope for such an outcome but we can’t be sure that it will happen.

As powerful as those cardboard testimonials were, and as much as I stood and clapped as each person triumphantly revealed the healing that had entered their lives ….. I couldn’t help but think of those who have hope, who have faith, and yet DO NOT feel touched by God’s healing hand.

What about the man who has been out of work for more than 17 months and has not yet found a job – is his faith not strong enough for God to reward him with work?

What about the woman struggling with addictions who hasn’t yet garnered the strength to seek help – is her faith too small for God to notice that she is in need of a transformation?

What about the 40-year-old who is diagnosed with cancer and does not live to see her 45th birthday – was her faith too meager, too inadequate, for God’s healing Spirit to descend upon her?

Testimonials are wonderful. They help us to feel hopeful that if someone else has overcome a hardship that is similar to our own then maybe we can too.
But what if we can’t overcome it?

When our struggles seem to out number our joys, we may say that God has a plan that we can’t yet see, or that God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle…but let’s be honest, sometimes life does give us more than we can handle.
In this case faith is not found in hoping for miracles or in making sure that we live and act as faithful Christians so God will reward us with healing and prosperity.
Faith is found in the knowing that we have in the core of our being that God is with us no matter what.
God is with us in our pain, and in our suffering.
We may HOPE for a desired outcome but we must have FAITH that regardless of the outcome God is still with us.

Faith is not a journey towards God, because God is right there with us even when we’ve hit rock bottom and we feel as if God has abandoned us.
What faith does is open our eyes to the presence of God that is already there.

Bartimaeus was healed in the moment he sensed Jesus entering his space.
He called out from the spot on the side of that busy road where he had sat begging for who knows how many years.
He called out over the noise of the crowd and despite the efforts that others made to silence him he would not give up.
And Jesus, who always hears the cries of those on the margins, did not overlook him.
He saw the divine recognition on the man’s face and heard it in his voice and he pronounced him well.
By acknowledging God’s loving and merciful presence in his life the man had healed himself.
“Your eyes have been opened, your faith has made you well.”

This is not blind faith.
This is eyes-wide-open faith.
The kind of faith that recognizes that we live in a world full of brokenness. Where people lose their jobs, battle addictions, and die of diseases that have no cure.
But we also live in a world full of miraculous healing.
Where people reach out to another in their suffering and their pain and walk together, acting as conduits for God’s love, mercy, and grace.

I have a feeling that this is not the last time Bartimaeus will make an appearance in my life.
My hope is that he will continue to make an appearance in your life as well.
That you will see him in every person that you pass on the street, and that you will be the presence of God that they need to see.

And I hope that you will see him every time you’re seeking the presence of God in your own life, as you cry out “Teacher, let me see again.”
…and you too will hear Jesus say, “Go, your faith has made you well.”