Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sermon: "An Unlikely King"

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Luke 23:33-43

“An Unlikely King”


This time of year we get to play around with the term “King.” This is Christ the King Sunday, or “Reign of Christ” Sunday if you want to throw out the problematic word altogether. Whether or not we can relate to the term “king,” or can relate to the notion of Christ being “King,” many of us are still vulnerable to the same notions of leadership that plagued the Israelites and the early church so long ago. Even after we have discarded monarchy, separated Church from State, and as Protestants rejected the notion of a Pope, we are still tempted to dream up the kind of savior-figure and authority that the new Messiah was supposed to be. We are still tempted to abdicate some of our responsibility and vision to human leaders, and we still fall prey to the desire for this leadership to vanquish our enemies. And so, at least once a year, we get to unpack this idea of kingship a bit.

I grew up with folk tales – and their subset fairy tales. Many of these stories, which we had bookshelves full of, wove their themes around the mainstays of goblins, witches, princes and princesses and of course, kingdoms. There were good kings, evil kings, weak kings and strong kings. But kings and their kingdoms were as much a part of the natural order in these stories as the sun coming up.

Perhaps you, like me, also grew up reading the Narnia Chronicles and bonded with the central character of Aslan. As a Christ figure, the lion Aslan is particularly appealing and accessible to the young mind. He is wise, benevolent and compassionate. He is mysterious, has special powers and demands faith from his followers. These are of course the elements of Jesus of Nazareth that many of us are drawn to. Yet Aslan, unlike the Christ we meet in the gospels, also has a daunting physical presence, and could, in fact vanquish his enemies with a swipe of one of his great paws.

It is cultural images such as these that can inform how we view not only leadership and ourselves, but the notion of savior. I wonder how many of us, like those contemporaries of Jesus who were expecting an Aslan-type figure to rescue them from their oppressors, still wish for the human or divine version of the benevolent dictator who will, if necessary, kick butt. I wonder how many of us, despite knowing better, give into the old notions of us and them, righteous and unrighteous, those worthy of salvation and protection and those who are not.


The Hebrew Scripture notion of the new Davidic king, which we hear in today’s reading, is of one who will restore justice and protection to Israel. “Israel will live in safety” we hear in the Jeremiah text. The Israelites “…will not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing.” The longing is clear: Israel wants to return to a previous sense of security, a home pasture if you will, a return to justice, and to a leader who will hold them together against all enemies.

With this legacy of expectation, the early gospel writers faced a steep task in holding up Jesus of Nazareth as this very king. It was clear to them that the one who had been so long anticipated had finally come…but in the process had shattered the mold, or what they thought had been the mold. In all of Luke’s gospel, the only human to identify Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one, is Peter. So aware is Luke of the need to upset the old notions of the Messiah that he does not leave Jesus’ true identity up to human witnesses, but only supernatural entities and the resurrected Jesus himself on the road to Emmaus. Humans, with the one exception of Peter, cannot make room for a legitimate leader who submits himself so freely into the hands of the powerful. The jeers of the people, the soldiers, and the first criminal we meet in the Luke passage today call attention to the fact that indeed, as the kind of King prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus seems to be doing a really bad job.

In fact he is, but of course that is the point. Throughout the gospels Jesus has been upsetting traditional notions of Davidic kingship: at one point in Luke he even denies that the Messiah could even be a descendant from the House of David at all. Now, in his final chapter of life, Jesus makes sure we do not confuse previous notions of kingship and the new ones on at least two points. For one, he refuses to play favorites with those who have followed him, and extends the kingdom of God illogically to his executioners and a criminal hung at his side. After he has been stripped, beaten and hung on the cross, Jesus does not seek out those who have followed him and loved him for comfort, nor to deliver last minute words of assurance to them. He does not circle the wagon around the faithful and familiar, but seeks entrance to the kin-dom for those who are its true lost sheep.

Secondly, and more shockingly, Jesus overturns the previous notion of power and victory, and indeed safety. Instead of protecting Israel from its military enemies, Jesus has been dragged helplessly in front of the authorities, his crucifixion a ghastly reminder of how vulnerable all of his followers are. Jeremiah’s promise that “Israel will live in safety” could not appear further from the truth, and could not appear more bitterly ironic in these moments. Disturbingly, what Jesus presents as victory is not a vanquished enemy swept aside by the paw of some giant lion. It is a more profound and far more costly laying bare of the system’s moral bankruptcy as it forces the suppression of one group by another. Rather than protecting Israel under a canopy of military or worldly “safety,” Jesus offers the only real safety of the kingdom of God: God’s all-inclusive love that exposes exploitation and stands for justice. Based on moral authority and relationship, this is a new kind of kingship altogether, in fact, a kin-ship.


What Jesus turned upside down in his final moments of life we still struggle with today. Think about it: are we not still looking for our Davidic King? It is hard not to pin our deepest hopes and longings onto the leaders we send to represent us. Sure, we have a democratic system not a monarchy, but the ways in which we abdicate our own responsibility and attribute these leaders with power seem to suggest we are still a little hung up on old notions of savior-kings. How many of us elevated Obama to the status of savior? How many of us attributed this one person with the ability to overturn the wrongs of illegal war, poor health care, and political corruption? How many tears that were shed at his election and inauguration were tears for the reawakened dreams of MLK, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy? Whether or not the President has fallen down on his promises, whether he has squandered an opportunity that was truly held out to him, we have to face that what he represents for us is greater than any one person could fulfill.

Jesus’ message was essentially, we are all each other’s means of creating the Kin-dom of God here on earth right now. When its numbers have been humiliated, scattered and afraid, elements of the church have in fact done this for 2,000 years. We cannot wait for the power structures, which are too invested in the system the way it is, to do this for us. We cannot wait for an inspiring leader to hold out our vision for us. We are called, as unlikely kings, to turn to one another, pool our resources, and go out to serve our fellow humans preaching the Good News. We are called to toss out our pet vision of what a king and savior is supposed to be, and with the vision that Jesus has passed down to us, partner with God and with one another to do the work.

In this process, we must not narrow the Kin-dom of God only to those who are familiar, to those who have loved and supported us. When we are persecuted, we are not circle the wagon around ourselves and our loved ones only, but to extend radical love to those we sometimes do not even know, or those who are responsible for our pain. Truthfully, do we seek the kin-dom only in the company of and for the future of those who are like us: progressive, educated, comfortable? Would we include Tim Eyman or Sarah Palin amongst those we would ask forgiveness for, for they know not what they do? Or CEO Jeff Bezos of who poured money into the campaign to kill Initiative 1098? To those who are dividing up our clothes as we are being slowly drained of life? Jesus is asking this very question from the cross, as the Messiah-king: Will you give up your old notions of power and leadership and follow me? Will you do as I do?


So this Sunday we work to cleanse ourselves of “kingship” baggage. If we do call Christ a King, we need to remember that this king will not do the work for us but with us, did not come to make us safe, and did not come to “kick butt.” Christ’s “kingship” is, indeed, about kin-ship. A radical, inclusive love that leaves no one safe, but also no one unprotected by God, and no one excluded. It is a love that does not vanquish oppressors, but holds open the door for all, for redemption and salvation.

The bad news for us may be that Obama and the Democratic Party have not vanquished the enemy or overrun the opposition. The good news is that they have not vanquished the enemy and they have not overrun the opposition. We are one people, and rather than winning short term battles, our work is of wholesale conversion, and of a new orientation toward God. Let us lay down our swords of division and hero worship as each of us work toward this radical kin-dom of love and of God. Let us all be “unlikely kings.”


- S. F. Morse

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Holden Evening Prayer

Please join us at Keystone Congregational Church for Holden Evening Prayer during the four Thursdays in Advent starting December 2nd. The services will start at 7pm in the sanctuary and last approximately a half hour. You do not need to be familiar with the music or liturgy to come, just bring yourselves and enjoy the opportunity to celebrate Advent in a spirit of contemplation, prayer, and sacred music.
Hope to see you there!

Festival of Hope at Keystone!!

Join us for Seattle's oldest Alternative Christmas Fair that raises money exclusively for organizations that serve low income and homeless people. Now in its 32nd year, we expect a dazzling array of quality crafts, edibles, and recycled goods from vendors that carry out the vision of compassion and justice in our home state of Washington. Come visit, shop, and enjoy a compassion-filled pre-Christmas Bazaar in the company of others who wish to celebrate a vision of Hope for our world!

Where: Keystone United Church of Christ
5019 Keystone Place North, Seattle, WA
When: Saturday, 20 November 10am-4pm & Sunday, 21 November from 12-3pm.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

sermon: Resurrection

Pentecost 25 Year C 11/11/07
Luke 20:27-38
By Rich Gamble

The Sadducees were the elite of Jewish society. They were generally wealthy, well educated, socially prominent, and in charge of the Temple which was the heart of religious, economic and political life in Judea of the First Century.

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. That makes sense. People who have everything going for them are not as inclined to need an alternative reality. They think things are perfect right here and now.

It is the people who are getting stepped on, who have seen their parents get stepped on and who know that their children and grandchildren will be stepped on- these are the people that need to look beyond the way things are and have always been, to a future where everything changes.

Resurrection speaks of a time when death will not be a factor. No death, no fear, no hunger, no intimidation. How are you going to keep people slaving away for you if they can’t be intimidated? For every abused worker who can’t afford to quit, resurrection speaks of the day when the boss has no power over you.

Now a pie in the sky bye and bye belief can be used to keep people slaving, life is hard and then you die and go someplace else. What do you care if nothing on earth ever changes, you are heaven bound.

But resurrection speaks of a new earth. A new reality on the earth. No death. No fear. Whose going to clean the Sadducees toilets? No, the Sadducees don’t like the idea of resurrection. And they don’t want their servants thinking about what things would be like if they were no longer cowed. Those same servants might start trying to hasten that new reality. A woman trapped in an abusive marriage may stay in the marriage and accept her lot if she feels that she deserves her treatment or if she can see no alternative. But if she meets someone who says that no one deserves to be abused or if she meets someone who shows her how she can live a good life apart from the abuser then she is much less likely to accept the abuse.

Speaking about an better reality undermines the present injustices.

Little wonder why the Sadducees would want to make uppity prophets like Jesus look foolish. Jesus is exactly one of those folks who tries to hasten that new day.

So believing that Jesus’ message centers on the promise of an afterlife they focus their intellectual powers to try to make Jesus look foolish and so lose favor among his followers. They use the form of argument called Reductio ad Absurdum.

They take an instance of a man who marries a woman and dies before she produces an offspring. Jewish law allows that the woman may then be married by the dead man’s brother. If that brother produces a child by the woman the child would be considered the child of the dead man and hence be his connection in name to future generations.

Ah says the Sadducees but the brother dies before producing an heir and so the woman goes to the next brother but he dies before and so she goes to the next and then the next and the next on and on through seven brothers. The last one dies and then the woman dies.

So the Sadducees ask, with a cheesy smile on their faces, in the resurrection to whom does the woman belong?

The Sadducees think that by painting this ridiculous picture of a bunch of resurrected brothers trying to figure out who has property rights over the life of the resurrected wife that they have shown what a ridiculous idea the resurrection is.

But there is a problem with the logic. They make the mistake of assuming that life beyond death is the same as life in the shadow of death. They make the assumption that in the resurrection wives will still be the property of their husbands.

Jesus points this flaw in logic out to the Sadducees. In the resurrection things will be different. Jesus, in talking about the dynamics of the resurrection, is talking about the direction of human existence. He is talking about human beings living in the light of God’s power for life.

In the ideal human community, women are not the property of men. The dynamics of the resurrection stands as a critique of life in the here and now. The Sadducees are shown to be so locked into the way things are (good for them bad for poor and working people) that they cannot imagine a world other than the current. Why should they? Everything is right for them in this world. But for the people who are hungry, homeless, without work and with very little hope of bettering themselves, the current world holds nothing but hardship and pain. The poor long for another reality and it is that longing which feeds their discontent with the way things are, and it is that discontent which can be the driving force for change.

If people believe that nothing can be done to change the conditions of the world around them they will simply accept things as they are and not try to make a change. Their belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In Tuesday’s election, the majority of the people voted their frustration. They voted their anger. They voted their fear. They didn’t vote with a vision. They didn’t vote for the world they want to see, only the one they don’t like, the present one.

So they voted and because they did not vote with a vision of justice for their homeless and hungry neighbors, because they allowed themselves to be seduced by the arguments of the well off, their votes contributed to a state that is substantially worse today than it was on Monday. Not worse for the well off, just worse for those who are hurting already.

On Monday a handful of religious leaders met with the Governor. She predicted the outcome of the elections and told us that there would be a storm of cuts to programs for the poor. She believes that she has no choice but to cut essential programs for needy people. She asked the religious community to step up and take on even more of a role in aiding those who will be in need of essential resources. Because the voters chose not to take money from those who have way more than enough, our state and local governments will be taking aid from those who have little or nothing. No doubt church groups will strive to do more to help but we will not begin to make up for the cuts that are coming. We need a bigger vision of what people of faith need to be about than slightly stemming the tide of suffering caused by the cuts. We are called to boldly take up the struggle for justice in creative new ways.

Knowing that our God has moved us beyond the power of death, can give us the power to resist the forces which seek our passivity. This is the power of the promise of resurrection. It helps us imagine another reality and helps us see that alternative as a reality for our lives and living out of the power of that promise we can speak up without fear. For us, the ritual of Baptism is the symbolic step into a resurrected life, no longer governed by fear. Resurrected life for us is not some distant promise but a living reality. That new world, free of those who use fear and greed to pacify us, is a present reality. We need only embrace it and live in it.

The fact that the cause of justice was largely defeated on Tuesday does not mean that we were defeated. It just means that our work is that much more important.

The last election merely highlights how much more work needs to be done. We need to find ways to inoculate our neighbors against misleading media. We need to find ways to spread the vision that a world free of poverty and fear is as close as our ability to wake up and live it. Just as Moses led a confused and fearful people, so we who have a vision of a better world and path to get there, must lead where we can, speak where can, and take the lumps where we must.

On Monday I worked, on Tuesday I hoped, on Wednesday I mourned. Today we pray and tomorrow we pick up the work again. If Crucifixion couldn’t keep Jesus down then Tim Eyman sure isn’t going to slow me.

When I used the example of an abused spouse before, it was with full knowledge that programs for abused spouses are right now horribly under funded and will soon lose even more funding. Others may shrug and say ‘the will of the people’ and abandon them to their abuse, but we know that this is not the way things have to be. There is another way we can be a community, a nation and a planet.

Those people who will lose their medications when the program is cut, those homeless people waiting for a place to live out of the rain, the abused women and children and mentally ill people waiting for safety, they cannot afford the luxury of our weariness. They cannot afford to be written off as government belt tightening or budgetary discipline.

There is a new day coming. There is a light at the end of this tunnel and it’s our job to lead our neighbors towards it. Every once and while, while I am waiting for someone to take the lead, it hits me that I am the one I’m waiting for. We in tiny Keystone, not the conference, not the denomination, not some large and well off congregation, we are the ones who are called to be leaders in the struggle for a better world. Not because we are so talented or blessed with resources but because we are willing to take what gifts we have and use them for the work ahead.

The income tax initiative was always but a small step in the long walk to a just world. Our vision was always bigger. Our work was always greater. Now we take the lessons of that struggle and move on to the next. That’s who we are. That’s what we do. And everyone who was moved by our work to vote for that initiative is a potential ally in the work ahead and so a victory.

Our God doesn’t want us to spend our lives in passive anticipation of heaven or passive acceptance of a fallen world. We are called to see that God’s power for life is stronger that all the powers wielding fear and greed; and with the courage of that conviction, we can be the people God would have us be. We can be the voice of hope, the source of strength and ones who see the coming light even in the darkest night. We are called to be resurrected people, raised to walk a new life in Christ. We are called to be living embodiments of a hope that transcends time and death, a hope that comes from the God of love, whose promise is as powerful today as it was 2000 years ago. And that is good news.