Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, November 21, 2016

Today, We Are Not Afraid

Sermon 11-20-16 – Christ the King, Commitment Sunday

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

First of all, the snow… I was expecting to see it when I went to WI for Thanksgiving, not to see it this morning on a couple of cars on m y way in this morning.

And second of all… this worship arrangement. It feels strange to be worshiping in here, doesn’t it? For some of you, it might feel a little like a blast from the past, though we are positioned at a little different angle than when worship was here regularly. It’s certainly not the arrangement you were expecting to be sitting in this Sunday as you walked in, and like any sudden change, it throws you off-balance and effects your personal feng shui, and has probably been more than a little distracting.

All these things before us are familiar: we have seen this room, we know all the furniture - but everything seem to be in the wrong place! So we wonder - Where am I going to sit? Where’s “my pew?” How will it be to go up for communion? How many Sundays are we going to have to be in here? All these thoughts have been swirling around in our brains as we try to concentrate on singing the hymns, saying the prayers, offering our pledges, and hearing the word as we have done week to week, and year to year.  

Even change that we know is for the better can feel jarring and disorienting, at least for a while, even we know it’s for a positive result, like having the roof fixed. But when we experience changes in our lives that don’t seem like they are for the better, feeling this unsettled adds to our already existing fear and anxiety.

In our small-scale experiment and experience of change in our worship today, we hear again the words of Psalm 46, a pretty familiar psalm in the Lutheran tradition. It’s the basis of Martin Luther’s most famous hymn “A mighty fortress is our God” – an alternate translation of the Psalms first verse, “God is our refuge and strength.” We heard both Psalm 46 and “A Mighty Fortress” just a few weeks ago on Reformation Sunday.

Psalm 46 describes scenes of upheavals, change, and confusion – of cosmic chaos in mountains shaking and oceans raging, of political chaos in nations raging and kingdoms shaking - a great unraveling of everything around us that we thought was solid. Which for many of us sounds pretty close to home right about now. We may be experiencing our own personal examples of chaos: under- employment or struggling to make ends meet, going through a divorce, facing a terminal illness, mourning the death of a loved one, imprisoned by addiction. OR we are reading the newspaper or scanning our Facebook feeds seeing the disarray that’s happening in our country and around the world.  There is plenty out there to be afraid of.

And a lot of people ARE scared- if not for themselves, for the people that they love and care about. Change is happening, and we feel unmoored like a ship adrift on the raging sea described in Psalm 46. The rug has been pulled out from under us. So, where do we turn? When we are at the mercy of so many things beyond our control, where can we go to find a place of safety in the storm?

The first verse of Psalm 46 reminds us – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” When the world around us rages and shakes to the foundations and changes at a pace we can’t keep up at, God is the unchanging stronghold in the storm when the world feels like it’s falling apart.

When nothing else around is still, we are anchored in God who gives us peace. God does not change when the furniture changes, and God is not going to be moving to Canada. Our God remains with us, and we will not be shaken.

At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, a poor young girl on the losing side of Roman occupation finds herself in very precarious place. Pregnant, unmarried, a woman with no power, Mary could have thrown in the towel or asked God to pick someone else. But instead, she said, “Here I am, a servant of the Lord.” Instead, she sang a song of praise as she greets her relative Elizabeth, as these two pregnant women marvel at how God is their refuge and their strength, a very present help in trouble.

One hymn translates a line from Mary’s song in this way: “Though nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast.” To hold something fast is not about speed, holding fast is about strength. When God holds US fast, it means that God’s grip on us is so tight, that no power on earth to snatch us out of God’s hand.

You see, God wields a different kind of power than the world is used to. God’s kingdom is not brought into being by violence and conflict. God’s power brings desolations in the form of breaking the weapons of war. God’s power raises the lowly and takes the powerful down from their thrones.

God’s power is not found in the places we are expect – in the halls of government or in impressive skyscrapers. Instead, God’s power rearranges the cosmic furniture. Instead, we find God’s power in a manger- and animal feeding trough - and on a cross – an instrument of capital punishment.  

Speaking of things that feel out of place, this Gospel text seems like it doesn’t really belong here today. We are more used to hearing about Jesus’s death on the cross during Holy Week, like on Good Friday, or at least during the season of Lent. Not right before Thanksgiving, and not right before Advent, and certainly not on Commitment Sunday!
Instead, we find ourselves at the END of the church year, at the end of hearing from the Gospel of Luke, and at the end of Jesus’s life.

The different kinds of power at work here are thrown into stark opposition. The expectation of the religious leaders, the soldiers, and even one of the criminals crucified with Jesus is clear. THEIR expectation of true power revealed means at the very least saving your own skin when the going gets tough. “If you’re the king, save yourself!” “Save yourself!” “Save yourself!” Three times, much like the three temptations Jesus faced during his 40 days in the wilderness, three times he is commanded to prove himself and save himself. After all, in our human experience, no king actually gives himself into the power of others, much less into the power of his enemies. It’s not what we expect a king to DO.

Except that this Jesus DID. He gave his POWER away just as he gave him-SELF away and gave his LIFE away. This king came as a helpless infant and died as a criminal and a big loser in the eyes of the world. This king forgave his enemies. This king was abandoned by his followers in the end and only accompanied in death by some overlooked women. At the end, the sole defender of this king was a criminal condemned to die alongside of him.
This king has a kingdom that comes through a cross.

This kingdom and this king are not the kind the world tells us to be expecting, but this is the kingdom to which we belong when nothing seems familiar anymore. This is the king who holds us fast in a world that seems to be falling apart, even when we seem have every reason in the world to be afraid.

The criminal who defended Jesus knew that his world was falling apart in the worst way possible. For him, there wasn’t much hope for him that day, but he asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus came into his kingdom. But Jesus did him one better. Jesus told him that TODAY, on his very worst day, on the day of his death, he would be with Jesus. Today, right now, Jesus would be with him. Holding him fast.

All through Luke, Jesus gave salvation to his people TODAY, THIS day. The angels proclaimed to the shepherds, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”(Luke 2:1-20)

When Jesus preached his very first sermon, he read from Isaiah - how the blind could see and the captives were released and good news told to the poor – and he ended with “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”(Luke 4:16-21)

When Jesus invited himself over to the home of Zacchaeus, who pledged to give back half of his possessions and four times his dishonestly earned income, Jesus said “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:1-10)

The criminal on the cross was given hope TODAY. Because today is when this kingdom comes. This is a promise we can trust in TODAY, even when TODAY is our very worst day.
So, if God is with us, how then are we going to live in God’s kingdom, today?

How will we spend our money, today?

How will we care for the earth, today?

How will we treat our family, today?

How will we interact with strangers, today?

How will we think about people who are different from us, today?

How will we live with Jesus in his kingdom, today?

Today, we are about to dive headfirst into yet another Advent season, having already been drowning in retail consumeristic Christmas for weeks, if not months. Today, we are about to dive headfirst into a week of too much turkey and complex and often dividing family dynamics. Today, and every day, nations rage and mountains shake. But today, no matter what, we are be held fast by God, following our king on the way of the cross

And today - WE ARE NOT AFRAID. Amen.