St. Paul’s Congregational Church, Proper 29C
Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43
November 24, 2019
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Eric Anderson, minister of Communications for the Connecticut Conference, UCC, and a long time friend, reflected on the scripture passages appointed for today, Reign of Christ Sunday. He says, “These passages give me pause – one so relentlessly gloomy – Luke’s strangely vivid portrayal of Jesus’ royalty during his crucifixion. It is, perhaps, the ultimate instance of Jesus’ refrain, “Your faith has saved you.” The dying Jesus returns the confidence of the dying criminal with an eternal promise, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
And then, of course, they both die.
To add irony to irony, Eric continues, Reign of Christ Sunday falls near that beloved holiday, non-holiday, Thanksgiving – a celebration devoid of royal figures and one which praises abundance. We give thanks for abundant harvests amidst our abundant families seated around abundant tables laid with abundant food centered on the turkey, North America’s abundantly sized bird. Our tables, and even our bins of frozen turkeys collected along with canned goods and cash bear little resemblance to that small hill outside Jerusalem, where bored guards, a few spectators, and vanishingly few friends stood to watch Jesus and two other men die.
The greatness – the abundance – of Jesus’ royalty on Calvary starts to come clear. Jesus’ majesty, his authority, his Messiah-ship, rests in this: he will lead no armed rebellion against Rome. Instead, he will return faith with faith. He will give compassion for confidence. He will give life for love.
Eric reflects, “Suddenly that small hill, with those small people, looks a good deal more abundant. Abundant enough, in fact, for the entire world.
Compassion for confidence. Faith for faith. Life for love. This is a Christ whose reign is worth celebrating. This is a monarch whose rule is worth thanks.”
Then our scripture moves to the beautiful Colossian hymn – a real celebration of the supremacy of Christ: the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; the head of the body, the church – in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
What do we make of all this today – the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the Sunday before the beginning of Advent, in the midst of the Christmas season – in the midst, not the beginning, right? At least that’s what the retailers want us to believe. The holiday season is upon us earlier and earlier each year, I’m sure.
This is the last Sunday of the church year – New Years’ eve, if you will. We’ve spent a year telling the story – beginning with the birth, in the middle with the story of Easter, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and then the long season of ordinary time – a time when we concentrate on Jesus’ teachings, learning to be disciples, learning to live our lives as though all of this makes a difference. Now the church year draws to a close and we begin the cycle yet again.
Maybe it’s a good thing that we are called up short by this retelling of that grim and violent story of the crucifixion. Maybe it’s a good thing to be jolted into remembering who we are and whose we are. Maybe it’s a good thing to be reminded of Jesus’ abundant, eternal love for us. Maybe it’s a good thing to be reminded that Jesus’ realm is different than the realms of this world. Most of all, maybe it’s a good thing that we are reminded that we are told by Paul in the letter to the Colossians that Christ is not just one among many competing approaches to life, not just the first among equals: Christ is at the very center of the meaning of everything, for all people. The question of Jesus Christ, the decision to follow Christ, is not of a secondary but primary importance in the lives of his followers – then and now: not just something we think about on Sunday morning, or when someone asks us what church we attend, but a question that shapes our whole life.
Now, we all, on some level, know this – we all are here to get the strength to live this out – we’re here because we know we need a supportive and honest community to help us get that strength, and we know we need to share our strength that others get the help they need; we’re here because our faith means something to us, we want to grow in our faith, we want our children to have that faith, we have probably experienced the joy, the peace, that comes from having a close relationship to Christ and we want more of that and we have a desire that others can share that peace and joy, the abundance that comes from putting our trust in the Rock that will never fail us.
I will never forget a conversation I had some years ago with one of the Sunday School teachers. She said after a short time of silence, why don’t people put God first? How is it that so many people go about their daily lives without having God in their lives? Maybe they come to church but that doesn’t seem to carry over into their daily routines – if it really did, wouldn’t they realize that their faith is really the only thing that will give them strength to get through the hard times – and we all have those times – I need to know that there is something bigger, wiser, stronger, more lasting, more loving than I am – and I want my children to know that too! The only way that can happen is for me to teach them, model that for them, give them the opportunity to learn that from me, from members of my family, from the church, from their Sunday School class. And when times are good, I want them to turn to God in gratitude for all the blessings. And I want them to not be afraid, ashamed, to share their faith with others. That’s why we’re here as church, isn’t it? To recognize that God is in charge – that Jesus is the head of the church – that it’s a 24/7 ministry – that’s my word – that we have. And that’s the only way we’ll have real joy, real peace – in spite of everything the world throws at us.
She’s right, isn’t she.
The women of Integrity know this. Every week when I was honored to lead those Bread for the Journey sessions, I would hear this over and over again. They surrendered to the Realm of Christ. They know deep within themselves that the only way they will recover from the tyranny of addiction is to surrender, to repent and accept the forgiveness so freely given, and to move forward relying on the strength of Christ in them and of the Christ in each other. Do they get afraid? Do they get overwhelmed? Of course – but they go back to the well and receive the God-given gift of grace over and over again. They go back to the beginning of the Story, reflect on it, learn from it, and start over again. There’s a joy and a peace in these women that is truly breathtaking. Don’t we want this for ourselves? As individuals and as church?
And today on the Realm of Christ Sunday, we too go back to the beginning of the story, reflect on it, learn from it, and start all over again.
It seems to me that the opposite of faith is fear. Not doubt – for doubting assumes there is something to believe in. Fear, though, can paralyze us, can make us lose our focus, certainly can skew our perceptions. Over the past months, even years, a primary focus of conversation in our church council meetings is the fact that attendance is down at worship, the Sunday School is so small, there aren’t enough people participating in the work of the church, at many of our events, our financial situation is very serious. We’re trying to get a handle on why this is happening – there are lots of reasons – Sunday morning activities for children, weekend travel to visit family members at a distance, wanting Sunday mornings to be a quieter time or it’s one of the few times they can do errands, shopping, be with the family –there are many other reasons that probably aren’t expressed. There is so very much competition for our time and energy, isn’t there. But what I hear in many of these meeting conversations is fear – but fear of what? Anxiety about what? What is it that we’re afraid of? What are we anxious about? Can we name those fears, those anxieties? Then can we surrender those fears, those anxieties and open ourselves to what it is God wants from us? This is the start of a new church year – can we go back to the beginning of the Story, reflect on it and move ahead in confidence and trust and faith that God is with us – has been, is, and will always be with us? Can we go forth in hope?
Now, there’s a learning from our gospel story – a door is opened to a tremendous hope – a thief, presumably punished with some semblance of justice, as cruel as Roman justice could be, asks Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, and Jesus responds by saying that very day the thief would be with him in paradise. In the midst of a shared agony a light was shining, a light of hope for all of us struggling under the weight of the crosses we bear. Maybe it’s just possible that we overthink things sometimes.
I get anxious. I get afraid. But maybe, just maybe, if I remember and focus on the fact that God is always with me, I will be more open to the extravagant gift of mercy and grace that surrounds me every minute of every day. And I will learn to better listen for the voice of God in my heart and in those with whom I share my days. Maybe I’ll remember, maybe we’ll all remember, that we too may be opening the door to paradise to someone who is suffering and struggling. We may be shining the light of hope in a dark place. And God knows this world can be a dark place – how are we shining that light of hope in this place, in this community, in the world? Do we really believe Jesus is among us?
Once upon a time there was a guru who was meditating in his mountain came. When he opened his eyes he discovered an unexpected visitor sitting before him - the abbot of a well known monastery.
"What is it you seek", asked the Guru?
The abbot recounted a tale of woe. At one time his monastery had been famous throughout the western world. Its cells were filled with young aspirants and its church had resounded to the chant of its monks. But hard times had come on the monastery. People no longer flocked there to nourish their spirits, the aspirants had dried up, and the church was almost silent. There were only a handful of monks left and these went about their duties with heavy hearts.
Now this is what the abbot wanted to know - "Is it because of some sin of ours that the monastery has been reduced to this state?"
"Yes", replied the Guru, "a sin of ignorance." "And what might that sin be?" "One of your number is the Messiah in disguise and you are
ignorant of this", replied the Guru - and having said so he closed his eyes and returned to his meditation.
Throughout the long journey back to his monastery the abbot's heart beat fast as he thought that the Messiah - the Messiah himself – had returned to earth and was right there in his monastery. How was it that he had failed to recognize him? And who could it be? Brother Cook? Brother Sacristan? Brother Treasurer? Brother Prior? No, not him; he had too many defects, alas.
But then, the Guru had said he was in disguise. Could those defects be part of his disguise? Come to think of it, everyone in the monastery had defects. And one of them had to be Messiah.
Back in the monastery the abbot assembled all the monks and told them what he had discovered. They looked at one another in disbelief. The Messiah? Here? Incredible. But he was supposed to be here in disguise. So, maybe. What if it were so and so? Or the other one over there? Or...
One thing was certain. If the Messiah was there in disguise, it was not likely that they would recognize him. So they took to treating everyone with special respect and consideration. "You never know", they said to themselves when they dealt with one another, "maybe this is the one."
The result was that the atmosphere of the monastery became vibrant with joy. Soon dozens of aspirants were seeking admission to the order. - and once again the church echoed with the holy and joyful chant of monks who were aglow with the spirit of love.
Jesus, our Messiah, our king, is here today somewhere in this church, somewhere in this community. He has no form of majesty about him that we should look at look at him, nothing about his appearance that we desire him --- but he is here.
Jesus is our king and Jesus is here among us, bringing hope, light to a dark world! Let’s tell the story! Let’s live the story in every minute of every day as we meet him as we go about our normal business! We are so blessed by our abundance – let us be about giving thanks through our very living together. And let us prepare for the coming of the light again and may our light shine for all to see! Happy new year! Amen.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, guide us through the maze of worldly distractions. Help us to recognize you at the center of all things. Though now we sense your realm dimly, may we, living according to your will, perceive more clearly your presence in our midst. Startle us, amaze us, astound us, directly in our hearts that our light may shine brightly in hope to all we meet. In Jesus’ name, Amen.