A sermon preached by Rev. Robin Bartlett on
November 26, 2017, Christ the King Sunday at
The First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are meant to be heard.
You survived Thanksgiving! Congratulations! It’s time to switch our life speeds from “busy mode” into “CRAZY busy mode.” We will now commence shopping and partying and cooking and squeezing in every family tradition we have between now and December 25th. We will now commence dysfunctional family gatherings, forced merriment, conspicuous consumption, thwarted expectations and going into debt.
But we do it for the children, right? We are so selfless.
My son is at that age when he is far more theologically profound than anyone in our family. The magic of this season is uniquely alive in Isaac, and like many children his age he asks the questions that theologians have been asking for thousands of years.
So, these days I get nervous when the four-year-old philosopher climbs into bed before I’ve had my coffee to ask me what I want to think about. These days the thing that he wants to think about every morning, is “Christmas.”
And so the questions begin. They are often along the lines of “what is Santa doing right now? Why do the elves have to help him make the toys? How do the reindeer fly? Why does he need them to pull the sleigh? How does he get down the chimney? Where on the roof does the sleigh go? Can Santa make Spider man toys?”
One day I asked him rather righteously, “Do you know whose birthday Christmas is?”
“No,” he said. (Whoops).
“It’s not yours. It’s Jesus’s!” I said.
“Will Jesus be coming to our house for his birthday party?” he asks.
“Jesus is always with us. He’s in our hearts,” I answer.
“Where?” Isaac asks, and looks down his shirt.
“You can find him in the part of you that feels sad when other people feel sad, and the part of you that feels happy when other people feel happy. And you can find him in other people,” I say.
Four year olds are far more concrete than that. “Where? I don’t see him. What does Jesus look like? Does he look like Daddy?”
“Yes,” I say. “Except more brown.”
“What does his stomach look like?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “In pictures he has six pack abs.”
“Can I see a picture? Is Jesus God? Is Jesus still alive or did he die? Was God born on Christmas, too? Where is God now? Is God invisible? What does Santa Claus make for Jesus in the toy workshop? Does Jesus play with toys? Is Santa Claus God?”
You can see why I look forward to these conversations with a mix of anticipation and dread.
It’s hard to relay to my son that worshipping Jesus might mean giving the gift of ourselves away, rather than waiting impatiently for Santa Claus to bring us a Spider Man toy made in his workshop of jolly elves who are in all actuality probably child slave laborers in a third world country making a few cents an hour in a factory with deplorable conditions.
The fact that it’s hard is because of the lie we tell ourselves and our children every year that there is any sort of piety in celebrating a month of American greed and gluttony and calling it a celebration of Christ’s reign on earth.
So my sermon inspiration this week comes from my son’s good questions, known to stymie theologians who haven’t had their coffee; from Jesus, known for saving the world; and--I never thought I’d say this, but—from Russell Brand, who is a Hollywood actor and comedian known for being married, briefly, to Katy Perry.
Russell Brand was being interviewed on some British TV show recently. He talks about how he got sober--stopped doing drugs, drinking and watching pornography. He detailed how he spends his days now—praying religiously every morning, doing good things for others and listening to other people’s stories. He does this, he says, not because he is particularly pious, but because drugs no longer work. This new way of life fills the void drugs no longer fill for him—helping others makes him feel good. The interviewer asks him if this new way is more time consuming. And he answers truthfully, “yes. It is time consuming. But the alternative is unthinkable. if I don’t spend my time this way, I will slip into a sort of prison…. Look, you get to a point where individual and collective needs align and marry perfectly because we are not separate from each other in any way that is meaningful. So when you treat other people with grace and with kindness, you are enforcing something that is very powerfully true.”
And Jesus—the Way, the Truth and the Life says this: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’
We are not separate from each other in any way that is meaningful. That is what Jesus and Russell Brand tell us. So yes, Isaac, Jesus is invited into our homes on his birthday, and every time we invite other people into our hearts. Especially those who we don’t understand, or we don’t want to invite. That’s because in order to inherit the kin-dom of God, we live for others. We feed, we give, we welcome the stranger, we clothe, we heal, we visit. Even though it is time consuming. Because the alternative is unthinkable. The alternative is the eternal punishment of separation from one another, God and ourselves—in other words, the alternative is death.
This is Christ the King Sunday, or reign of Christ Sunday. Some folks in the church don’t give this day much credence as it is a rather new feast day in the liturgical year: the last Sunday of ordinary time before advent begins. It was established in 1925 by Pope Pius the XI in response to growing secularism after World War I. It is only 90 years old, in other words…not exactly ancient. And it was created because the Pope began to fear that people were worshipping worldly heroes more than Christ: the Kaisers, Kings and Czars on golden thrones and in ivory towers, politicians and presidents, celebrities, and the false prophets of snake oil sales religion. Conquest and power began to be the recognizable markers of the coming Kingdom rather than the blessing of the least of these.
We need Christ the King Sunday now more than ever. We need Christ the King Sunday because our definition of a “powerful person” is too often someone who has made a lot of money, who won’t back down, who’s done well in business, who owns property and rules with a back bone and an iron fist. We worship those who threaten to use the biggest weapons in the arsenal, who use other people for their own gain, who harm and exploit others’ bodies all the while preaching moral righteousness. Our definition of a powerful person is “someone willing to smite our enemies, to defend ‘our’ land, to kill in ‘our’ name.”
But that’s not our God’s definition of Kingly rule.
So we need Christ the King Sunday now. We need to be reminded that the king we worship was born homeless in a manger to an unwed teenaged mother. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who was poor and lowly; who was humble, meek and mild. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who did not wear a crown of jewels, but a crown of thorns. We need to be reminded that we worship a king whose throne was not a golden spectacle, but a wooden cross. We need to be reminded that we worship a king who died for all, rather than judge people worthy or unworthy of saving.
We need Christ the King Sunday because frankly, it is hard for us with our poor vision and vengeful hearts to see Christ as a figure worthy of worship. If we are being honest, Jesus is our worldly idea of a wimpy, weak-willed loser. Instead of disavowing the poor as lazy and unworthy, he got to know them. Instead of condemning those sentenced to death row as disposable, he visited them. Instead of letting those without health insurance die, he healed them. Instead of building walls, he built bridges. Instead of letting the poor and hungry starve, he fed them. Instead of fighting back when threatened, he turned the other cheek. Instead of smiting his enemies, he gave up his life for them.
And the kicker is that the king we worship expects the same of the rest of us.
Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life,” our true king says.
In the upside down kin-dom of heaven where Christ reigns, to become rich, you give your money away. In the upside down kin-dom where Christ reigns, to get back at your enemies, you love them. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, to become a leader, you become a servant. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, to truly find life, you die to self. In the upside down kingdom where Christ reigns, all people are called beloved children of God, and treated as though that is true.
Stanley Hauerwas writes, "The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid 'the least of these.'"
We need Christ the King Sunday because worshipping this humble king might actually mean changing the way we live our lives.
About 10 years ago, a group called “Advent Conspiracy” formed in order to take back Advent from the Doorbuster black Friday sales at Target of this Thanksgiving weekend, and the ensuing consumer spending spree. They function on four principles I have shared with you before, and will share with you again now.
Number 1. Worship Fully
Worshipping fully is noticing the in-breaking of Love into a brutal and awaiting world. We need to slow down to notice; to take time out of our busy weeks of shopping and cooking and parties to be still and wait. This advent, commit to come to church every Sunday to practice noticing this Love and to bow down before it. This is how we worship our king.
Number 2. Spend Less
Americans spend 600 billion dollars during the Christmas season, mostly charged on their credit cards. So we go deep into debt to buy gifts that will be forgotten by New Year’s Eve. Imagine what we could do with 600 billion dollars to feed people, or to house refugees, or to ensure that the whole world had clean water to drink. What if we were to spend less at Christmas, by making our gifts like we did as kids, by writing letters to loved ones about what they mean to us, by spending time with our families instead of money…which is all our kids really want from us anyway. This advent, commit to spending less money, and spend more time. This is how we worship our king.
Number 3. Give More
I know that I just said that you and I need to stop spending so much money and going into debt to buy presents, and now I’m telling you to give more, and that seems like a contradiction. Give more of yourself away. Give more to your loved ones, to your church, to the community. When we spend less on our loved ones, our excess is available to lift up the poor and the needy. This advent, give more of yourself to God. This is how we worship our king.
Number 4. Love All
Fear is the enemy of faith. Other people aren’t the enemy. Fear is. And the opposition to fear is love. So this Advent, find the ones that you fear the most, and get to know them. Maybe invite someone that you disagree with religiously or politically out for coffee. Maybe really make eye contact and smile at someone you would normally over-look or avoid. Maybe visit someone in prison, or give your money away to someone you think doesn’t deserve it. Maybe encountering the darkest part of your own heart is the thing you fear the most. This Advent, Love what you fear, especially yourselves. That’s true bravery. This is how we worship our king.
Worship fully, spend less, give more, love all. Committing to these four practices is how we to inherit the kin-dom of God. Live for each other, because we are not separate from one another in anyway that is meaningful. Give yourself away in service to Love.
And he shall reign forever and ever.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org