Beginning Where We End

Now, on to more appropriate conversations in this holiday season, like…the crucifixion! Bet you didn’t see that one coming! That is right, we are reading the story of the crucifixion this Sunday.

 

As strange as it sounds, it is incredibly important for us to be reading the crucifixion story this Sunday, even if that does seem a bit out of place. As we are preparing for Thanksgiving, and as we bring the torture of the election season to a close, perhaps the last thing you want to be thinking about is the brutal death of our King, Jesus Christ. However, there is a very good reason that the lectionary chooses Luke’s version of the crucifixion story for us to contemplate this week. It is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of the church calendar year. We begin anew in two weeks with the beginning of advent. So this Sunday, the last Sunday, is the Sunday that we remember where all this is leading us. The end of one story, but the beginning of a new and much more important story.

 

What is important to keep in mind is what we mean when we talk about Christ as “King.” One easy temptation is to dust off the trumpets, polish the crown, and build up the throne. Frankly, that is what the church has a history of doing on this particular Sunday. We play those big booming organ tunes filled with pomp and grandeur and we celebrate the Lordship of Christ. There is one little problem with that though—Christ’s reign was not ushered in with trumpets, but the moans of dying men who had been tortured to death and the jeers of heartless crowds. Christ’s reign was not ushered in with jewels and finery, but with nails and a crown of thorns. Christ’s reign was not ushered in with a kingly throne, but a cross.

 

I know, serious downer, but this is so important for us to keep our perspective on what we are actually talking about. On numerous occasions this past year, I have announced from the pulpit that Luke’s understanding of the Kingdom was not some post-earthly plain with harps and halos, but an understanding of a different way for us to live our life in the here and now. When Christ proclaimed the kingdom in Luke’s gospel, he was proclaiming an ever present reality and way of seeing the world, and a way of being in the world that is foreign to most of us. Christ’s kingdom is present in the ways that we give up the pursuits of the misguided desires of this world, and instead embrace loving community. Christ’s kingdom is all around us, but it means giving up our definitions of power, of strength, of meaning, of wealth, of what is important, of how we keep ourselves safe, and even of salvation. Christ’s kingdom is accessible to all, all the time, but it means we have to transform our understanding of what it is to be a part of the Kingdom of God. It is incredibly hard for us to do that—perhaps harder now than ever before, given the relative luxury that we live in. However, the benefits of doing so are unbelievable.

 

The scene in Luke this week features Christ hanging between two criminals—likely those guilty of treason and sedition against the Roman Empire. As one criminal turns to Jesus and professes a powerful kind of faith, Jesus reassures him that today he is with Jesus in paradise. Really?!? Seriously?!? Paradise on a cross. That is a powerful shift in perspective to be able to see the kingdom from that vantage point. Isn’t that a remarkable promise? That even in the depths of despair; our worst moments; the times where we feel alone and tormented; at our very worst, we can still find ourselves with Christ in paradise. Now that is the kind of King and Reign that I can get behind. That is true power. That is true meaning. That is true love.

 

This ought to come as quite the contrast to the world that we see around us and the promises therein. As we usher in a new political regime, it might be helpful for us to remember what real power looks like—the vulnerability of the cross. As we usher in a new President, it might be helpful for us to remember who is really in charge, and who indeed, has the promise of what a real kingdom looks like.

 

That is why it is so utterly important for us to be talking about the crucifixion right now. We, once again, have lost sight of what it is to be a true leader (we certainly lose track of that every four years, but probably more often than that!). Before we begin the advent season of preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ the King, in the form of a child, we must be reminded of where all this is going to lead. Let us also remember something else though—the crucifixion may be the story in which we end the church calendar year, but we know full well that the crucifixion is not the end of the story. The crucifixion leads us to the beginning of a new story. The story of resurrection. The story of new life. The story of a different kind of life to which we are all now called to live. A life with Christ as our King. A life where King Jesus turns the values of the world on their head, and offers us new life through the valley of the shadow of death.

Thank You

We are finally at the end! After all this time, we have finally arrived—the end of Stewardship season! What, did you think I was talking about something else?

 

This week marks our final Sunday of stewardship and gratitude. If you have been paying even marginal attention, and haven’t been distracted by something else (what else has there been to pay attention to?), you know that our theme this year was “Growing Our Gratitude.” We have spent a lot of time talking about what we are grateful for, and how that translates into generosity and how we give back. We have heard wonderful reflections from some of our Covenant Kin, I found myself emotionally moved on more than one occasion! We have ended each sermon with a prompt to reflect on our own gratitude, and have offered that gratitude up to the world on our Gratitude board. By the way, you won’t believe how many non-church folks have come in the building in the past couple of weeks and commented on being greeted by gratitude.

 

The fact is, we have spent all of this time on gratitude because it is important for our very souls. Gratefulness has a huge impact on our health, on our emotions, on our ability to cope, and hopefully that in turn has a huge impact on the broken world around us. If we are doing it right, gratefulness transforms us, and we are then prepared to transform the world as Christ’s disciples. This Sunday, we will talk about what that looks like in terms of how we behave as citizens.

 

Gratitude is also the source of generosity. When we realize how much we have to be grateful for, we can’t help but respond by offering up something for which someone else can be grateful. This is contagious, and once we start that cycle it only grows within us as well. We give because we are thankful, and the experience makes us more grateful, and in turn, happier to give. That is part of the reason why my family’s pledge to the church has continued to grow over the years. I think about where I was 5 years ago, unsure of where we would land, unsure of where we would live, unsure about our future. Today, we are home. We have been home with you since then, and you continue to give us so much for which to be thankful. My little girl calls so many of you Aunt or Uncle, and sees so many of you as surrogate grandparents. I watch my son run around your feet clutching donuts on Sunday while you look on and smile. I feel a constant warmth radiating from this, our Covenant family. We share meals together. We share joy and sorrow together. We share debate and learning together. We share REAL community together. We share in worshipping God together. I give because I am grateful to you.

 

Last Sunday, you may have noticed that I ran out the back of the sanctuary immediately after presiding at communion. My daughter had fallen and cut her head open. I was terrified. The response was overwhelming from you. We had a gaggle of nurses surround Grace to make sure she was okay. I have had so many texts, and calls, and drop ins in the office. I am blown away by how much you care for me and my family. I hope you know the feeling is mutual, and that not every church has that kind of beloved community going for it! By the way, for the few of you that don’t already know, Gracie is fine.

 

What a thing to be part of a church family like that! Thank you!

 

Finally, know this—that kind of community is not normal. Not even in churches is that normal. It takes hard work. It takes going out of your way to care for others. It takes a generosity of spirit that is hard to find elsewhere in this world. Be grateful for that! And more importantly, share it. Especially in the wake of one of the most divisive elections in history, this world could use the hope that is born out of gratitude, now more than ever! People need what you have. Your time. Your talent. Your treasure. But maybe even most of all, your thankfulness and your beloved community. That is how we do stewardship. We let our gratitude to God lead to overwhelming, overflowing, loving, community. Thank You!

83 ft

83 feet. That is how much water was above my head yesterday morning—83 feet. As I sat there at the very bottom of the Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, the panic began to set in just a bit when I realized just how much water was above my head. Looking up, I felt incredibly small and in many ways, completely out of control. If that scuba rig I was wearing malfunctioned, there would have been very few options for how to escape alive. I could feel the pressure of all that water coming down on my shoulders, and I felt small and powerless.

 

I imagine that was something like the feeling that Zaccheus must have had as he climbed that tree overlooking Jesus. The crowds pushing in around him, reminding him of how small he was. Not to mention, the powerful figure of Jesus that he was straining to see. Not only that, but we know that Zaccheus was not well thought of by all those around him, and they looked upon him with disdain. Looked down on him, literally and figuratively.

 

I imagine all of us have had that feeling of being small. I imagine we have all had moments where the world was overwhelming, and we could quite see ahead of ourselves—moments where we seem to fade into the cacophony around us. It is not necessarily a good feeling. Perhaps it is that moment where you have made a foolish mistake, and you know it, and someone is laying in to you for your blunder. Perhaps it is that moment where you see the mountain of things to do in front of you, the small time to do them, and the overwhelming sense of dread that sets in. Perhaps it is in facing the massive problems we see in the world around us, and not having the first clue about where to start. Feeling small is something to which we can all relate.

 

This is where Christ came into the picture for Zaccheus. As he clung to those branches of the sycamore tree, surrounded by the crowds that reminded him of his insignificance, Christ steps forward to remind him that even he has something important to offer. Dinner. Fellowship. A table to share with Jesus himself.

 

As I sat at the bottom of that clear blue spring looking up in panic. I realized that the only real choice I had in that moment was to take a few deep breaths, say a prayer to Jesus, and start my slow journey back to the top.

 

The thing is, when we have felt our smallest, and yet have overcome the trials and tribulations that lay before us, we come out the other side knowing that with God, all things are possible. Notice the gratitude that Zaccheus expresses at after Jesus helps him grow a few inches. Life has changed. When I finally broke the surface of the blue hole, I felt invigorated—and grateful to be alive! It is that feeling that is so very important, and such a great source of power in our lives.

If you look at the story of scripture, God seems to do this again and again. God chooses the little guys, so that on the other side of the massive challenges, there is a feeling of elation. Those little guys are changed, become heroes of the faith, contribute to the great story. This is also something that transforms people into givers. Once we have overcome something tremendous, we usually are filled with a desire to help others do the same.

 

83 feet of water is a lot. However, it is not near as much as I used to think it was, and it is not near as much as some people face. Overcoming the panic that I felt under those 83 feet though, makes me feel alive and grateful in a way that I want to share with others. Where have you felt small? Where has God helped you grow? How have you passed on that gratefulness to God to others?