Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Odd Ending to the Church Year

(A Sermon preached on "The Reign of Christ" and Luke 23:33-43 at All Saints' Littleton on 11/21/2010)

If you’ve been coming to church for any length of time, you may now be used to hearing things that seem odd, or a bit out of the ordinary.

Sometimes its Jesus words that seem to go against the norm: blessed are the poor, love your enemies, do good to those that hate you. Even though we may have heard them many times before, Jesus words can still strike us as odd.

The church itself also has its share of odd things, ranging from the beliefs it holds to the way it does things. Often, it seems to be out of step with the usual, or at least, different.

Take, for example, its sense of the year: most of you have heard before that the church year starts with four weeks of Advent. New Year’s for the church is not January 1st, or the kickoff of Fall programs every year, but the first of four Sundays before Christmas.

Next Sunday, it’s appropriate to make a big deal of the start of Advent: the beginning of the church year. That’s a little odd when January 1st New Year’s is so firmly part of our culture (and in reality, is something that is still celebrated in most churches).

At least the explanation makes sense: we can see the value in having Christmas, the birth of Jesus, near the beginning of our Church year. Advent, in large part a time of waiting and preparation for Christmas, then easily fits into the start of the Church year. Story-wise, this all makes sense.

Today, we have the final Sunday of our Church year: the Last Sunday after Pentecost. Sometimes this is referred to as “Christ the King” Sunday, or “The Reign of Christ.”

The day begins as might be expected, with the Collect of the Day:

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, now and for ever. Amen.

Along with the next two readings that follow, we seem to have perfectly set up a final great image of Jesus in glory. One might expect that an image of the resurrected Jesus will close the story and end the Church year.

Instead, we get a crucifixion story: Jesus hanging on the cross, dying.

This seems to be more than just a bit out of the ordinary…

Our Church year ends with what is easily perceived to be a great failure: Jesus, called God’s Messiah, the chosen one, the King of the Jews, is executed like a common criminal. He is disgraced. People now used the names that once expressed exultation as mocking public ridicule. Go ahead Jesus, Chosen One, save yourself!

Eberhard Busch writes:

“These last moments of Jesus’ life all seem to be in contrast to what is valued as great in our world. The world presented to us in newspapers or on television is not poor, but is a world of glamour. In this world, the ideal is to be rich and beautiful and influential. The pressure of this ideal is like an infection that overtakes us as we strive for it. In this world, one has to be successful. In this world, the slogan is “Help yourself!” and with this slogan you may survive.”
(Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylors, eds., 2010, p. 332)

In terms of ruling in the way it was always understood, Jesus fails miserably. He did not meet the world’s expectation of being “chosen”.

His followers, however, came to realize that Jesus in truth accomplished all he was called to do, and more. Jesus offers a drastically different image of what it means to be exulted, what real power is, and what God’s world is really about. Jesus transforms the understanding of chosen. No longer is it climbing the power ladder. It is not about succeeding on the world’s terms: acquiring money, resources, and the power to dominate others. It is not about creating a new system that defines where some are in, and others are out.

The vision of the Reign of Christ, the end of our Church year, is a vision of a world that lives in the hope expressed by the final words of the Gospel passage: “today you will be with me in Paradise.” This is not about being whisked away to heaven, but an understanding that, even now, in the midst of brokenness and uncertainty, God’s love for us is here to stay. It is not necessary to “help ourselves” to a portion of what the world has valued as “great.” We already have what we need: we have already been chosen.

At the close of the Church Year, the hope is that we can now begin to see the whole story. We are hopefully starting to understand that what Jesus values in us and the world is not the stuff that the world has associated with success, but the love and presence of God in everyone. The hope and challenge for us is to believe that our lives can be part of this vision: that our lives can ultimately reflect the transforming love of God.

Thanks be to God!

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