Christ the King (sermon 11/24/13)

Listen to this sermon “as delivered” here:
http://worthingtonpresbyterian.com/sites/default/files/sermon_-_christ_the_king_-_dwain_lee.mp3

Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

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Most of you here probably remember Cliff Clavin, one of the characters on the old television show “Cheers.” Cliff was the bumbling, nerdy mail carrier who sat at the end of the bar with his buddy Norm, and who tried to impress everybody with bits of trivia that few people knew, and probably even fewer people actually cared about. Well today, I’m going to be kind of like Cliff, because I’m going to tell you that today is what we call Christ the King Sunday – and that technically, this is the last Sunday in the year, according to the Christian liturgical calendar. Next Sunday, the First Sunday in Advent, is the first day of the Christian new year, and the annual cycle starts all over again. So I guess if you need a reason to party next Saturday night, you can break out the funny hats and noisemakers and tell everyone you’re celebrating Christian New Year’s Eve.

 Or maybe not. Maybe for most of us, the church calendar, and the cycles of the church seasons, are just the kind of sidebar trivia that Cliff might offer up. It doesn’t usually seem to have a lot of interface with our day-to-day experience. And that’s likely the same with the idea of today, Christ the King Sunday. We just don’t think about kings, or royalty, much any more. These days, when we think about a king, and we aren’t thinking of the tales of King Arthur or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, what probably comes to mind for most of us is some ceremonial figurehead who really doesn’t have much actual power over the people he supposedly rules over. Maybe someone like the king of Sweden, or Belgium. Did you even know there was a king of Belgium?

Of course, we got rid of our royalty a long time ago, and haven’t much looked back since. Oh sure, maybe some of us watched television coverage of Princess Diana’s wedding. Or maybe some of us followed Princess Kate Middleton’s pregnancy, to see how that was going to turn out. Or maybe we wonder what the next wild and crazy and politically incorrect thing Prince Harry is going to get caught doing. He’s actually the most human, and likeable, one of the whole lot of British royalty, if you ask me.

But other than the curiosity factor, we just aren’t that into the whole king thing, and royalty. And the idea of a real king – one with real power and authority, the kind of old-school king that the writers of the New Testament knew and lived under, when they called Christ the King – that’s something that we modern, postmodern, Americans have trouble getting our heads around.

And what’s just as hard is to understand is why, if you want to have a special Sunday to build up to, to recognize Christ’s Lordship, his powerful Kingship over humanity and all the rest of creation, why would you pick this particular passage from Luke to express it? Why read about what seems to be the worst moment of his life and ministry, his weakest, most powerless moment, the moment of what seems to be his biggest failure? I mean, really, if I were in charge of putting the Lectionary together, I’d have picked something about Christ being victorious and powerful. Maybe some passage from Revelation that shows him ushering in the new age, sitting on his throne, punishing the wicked, wiping away every tear from the righteous; that kind of thing.

 But we don’t get that. We get this. Jesus naked and bloody and nailed to a cross, being scorned and insulted, executed by the powers-that-be, because he was considered a political threat and a religious fraud.

But that seems to be the whole point. This is Jesus, showing them, and us, that this is the face of what power and authority and kingship looks like in God’s eyes. This is the kind of kingship that Jesus came into the world to proclaim – and that we, his followers, profess as truth. The power that Christ shows from the cross is the polar opposite of how most of humanity understands power. It’s the teaching, literally in the flesh, of God’s good news for us, and of what we’re designed to be all about. That good news is that real power is loving one another without condition. Loving and serving one another not just out of our excess or surplus, but giving and loving beyond that threshold. Loving and accepting one another in humbleness, and even when it comes at real cost and inconvenience to us. Sometimes, maybe even loving to death. Real power, in God’s eyes, is forgiving others for the wrongs they’ve done to us, because just like the people who executed Christ, none of us really know what we’re doing – all any of us have at best is a deeply nearsighted understanding of God and our place in creation. Power, in God’s eyes, is forgiving others without reservation, as Jesus did from the cross, even while they were hurling insults at him, and even though they didn’t even see that they were doing anything wrong, let alone that they needed forgiven at all. This is the power of God. When we look around the world today and we see pain and suffering and evil, and we wonder where God is, this is our answer, staring us in the bloody face straight from the cross – God is everywhere we see that kind of self-giving love, and acceptance, and forgiveness. Wherever we see that, and whoever is expressing it, that’s God’s power, that’s Christ’s kingship, being expressed in the world. That’s the message of Christ, that’s the love of God, that we’re called to make real in the lives of others.

It’s always been a paradox that this scene – Jesus’ crucifixion – is the thing that the faith’s enemies point to as its biggest failure and fraud; while at the same time, it’s where we followers find its deepest power and truth. In the crucifixion, we see God, and God’s power, as clearly as any human being ever can or will. We learn that the almighty, all-powerful God of the universe thinks that we human beings – all of us – you – me – each and every one of us – is so valuable, and loved, and precious in God’s sight, that God is willing to become one of us, in the flesh. To walk our walk, live our life. To know, firsthand, our joys and laughter, and to know firsthand, our deepest pain and suffering. Being treated with no justice, not from church or state. Receiving no mercy. Being marginalized, oppressed, rejected. Being persecuted. Going through all of the worst that human beings can experience from another human being, in order to show that God wants to stand with us through all that. Going through that just to show that God wants us to be reconciled, to be atoned – to be “at one” with each other. And the way that we’re made at one with God, is that God has chosen become at one with us, precisely to show us how valuable we all are, how loved we all are, how precious we all are in God’s eyes.

That’s my kind of king. And this week, as we think about the reasons that we’re thankful, maybe this should be at the top of the list, that we worship a God who is this kind of king.

That’s the kingship that Jesus on the cross shows us. That’s the kind of king that Christ is to us. Not the kind of king who rides down the street in a grand procession, with ridiculous-looking old carriages and horses wearing headdresses and guards wearing hats that look like oversized wooly-worms. Not the kind of king who retires to the palace to enjoy great state dinners with all the other rich and powerful of the world, while the rest of us common folk stand outside the gate trying to get a glimpse of all the grandeur inside. Christ is the king who loves us all, who literally loves us to death. Christ is the king who leaves the trappings of power behind to become one of us. Christ is the king who leaves the palace and opens the gates and invites us all in to that great feast, that great banquet in the kingdom of God. The scriptures say it will be a feast of the finest food. It will have the finest wine, the finest drink. It will be a place of eternal happiness and joy. And I suspect, it will be the kind of place where everybody knows your name.

Thanks be to God.

Examined by Presbytery

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I’m not even sure how it originated, but sometime shortly after getting back from Chicago, I came to realize that if the church I’m working at would essentially just change my title, without changing anything else about the terms or responsibilities of my part-time employment, I would be eligible to be ordained, where I wasn’t eligible with my current title. Yes, I know that sounds odd, and I suppose it is, but the rules are what they are. So I figured that while I continued to search for the permanent, full-time installed position, I could at very least get this piece of the puzzle put in place. So we went through the bureaucratic process, got Session approval, and sent the whole thing off to the appropriate Presbytery committee to be approved and forwarded to the general Presbytery for a vote. At the same time, the Presbytery would conduct my oral ordination examination. This is the final step, after completing the M.Div., passing all the written ordination exams, and doing the parish field education, as well as a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. The format of the floor exam is this: the candidate has provided a brief autobiographical statement and a statement of faith, which is included in the information packets of all the voting commissioners of the Presbytery. After the candidate offers a brief introductory oral statement/presentation, the floor is then open for any of the 200-some commissioners to stand up and ask the candidate any question at all regarding the candidate’s understanding of theology and polity within the church. After questioning, the amassed Presbytery then votes the candidate up or down.

Of course, this final examination comes after the candidate has been in the process for a number of years, so s/he is a pretty well-known quantity to the commissioners by this time. While this is an important step, it is, to some extent, the candidate doing a bit of a victory lap after completing the long, grueling ordination process. Maybe most significantly, it’s a final validation to the candidate from these gathered individuals and a sign of emotional support.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t nerve-wracking, though. The truth is, you never know what some commissioner is going to come up with. Some floor examinations proceed without a hiccup; others can get contentious. At the end of it all, though, I’ve never seen a single candidate fail this final examination, which is a testament to the rigorous nature of the candidacy/ordination process, and should serve to calm the nerves of anyone about to be examined. Still, I was very nervous while I waited for my turn to be examined – I was the last of four people being examined in the midst of the rest of the Presbytery business last evening.

Everything went fine. I was nervous at first, but even from the beginning of the process, I recognized the large number of people in the room with whom I’d interacted during the whole journey, and how much so many of them meant to me. As I spoke, I could see their support in their faces and body language and felt the warmth that they seemed to be offering me. That energized me, so I just spoke from the heart, answered the questions as best as I could, and just enjoyed the moment. The actual vote was very quick, as they usually are – I barely had time to leave the room for the vote before I was called back in. I can’t tell you what a relief this ordination vote is.

Now, the next step is scheduling and planning the actual ordination service. This close to the Advent/Christmas season, I’m trying to schedule it for January 11, 2014. There are a lot of moving pieces to get aligned, but that date is looking good at the moment. So, how am I feeling tonight?

Back-dated Chicago-Blogging: “Marriage Matters,” part 2

Since the weather on Friday morning looked a lot like it did the day before, and since I really didn’t want to repeat getting soaked again, I brought my umbrella with me when I left the hostel, guaranteeing that it would be dry when I got off the metro. Once I arrived at the Gratz Center, I quickly found my morning cup of coffee and sat down in the lobby waiting for the caffeine to kick in. While sitting there, I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me, and while it didn’t dawn on me at first, I gradually realized that I was chatting with a denominational trailblazer of sorts – Scott Anderson. Anderson is the first openly gay person to be ordained as a minister after the constitutional changes that removed the language specifically prohibiting non-celibate gay and lesbian people to ordained positions – whether as Deacons, Elders, or Ministers of Word and Sacrament. That restrictive language itself only dated to 1996; its removal in 2011 had the effect of returning to the more historical tradition of each local presbytery having the authority to decide for itself on such ordination matters. In any case, Anderson gained some national notoriety because of his unique place in the church’s history. I enjoyed meeting him and our short conversation.

The first thing on the schedule this morning was a brief prayer session, featuring a responsive reading of a Psalm that alternated between “Anyone” in the gathering reading a portion of the text – sometimes resulting in one spoken voice, other times several different voices joining together – and “All” responding. The short service was led by Daniel Vigilante, a recently ordained pastor who made news as being the first openly gay person to be ordained and installed to service in Minnesota. It turns out that he’s also a pretty talented pianist, providing the musical accompaniment for this and at least one other service that I attended while at the conference. I’m very happy for Vigilante and I applaud his groundbreaking status. At the same time, I hope that the day isn’t far away that the ordination of an openly gay pastor will focus solely on pastoral gifts, and that one’s particular sexual orientation would draw less than a yawn from people. I don’t imagine that Vigilante, or Anderson, or any other LGBTQ person, wants to be known for being a “gay pastor,” but rather, simply a good pastor who just happens to be gay.

After this was the morning plenary session, given by Amy Plantinga Pauw. Pauw’s presentation was informative, enjoyable and inspiring, as she went through an analysis of the institution of marriage from a Reformed Protestant perspective, and why the concept of marriage equality is theologically consistent with this perspective. You can read her whole presentation here. And you can find a good story about her presentation here. I don’t mean to distill a very thoughtful and engaging presentation to a catch-phrase, but she did leave those of us in attendance with the repeated call to arms, of sorts: Why should Christians support marriage equality? IT’S TIME. Indeed, it is.

After the morning plenary, I attended Matthew Vines’ workshop, during which time he laid out a very brief outline of his personal story and of his new organization The Reformation Project. As he explained in the workshop and on the organization’s website,

we will equip [trainees] with the tools and training they need to go back to their communities and make lasting changes to beliefs and interpretations that marginalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Once they go back, we will continue to offer them personal, financial, and infrastructural support for months and years to come. We will ensure that even those with the biggest and most daunting of goals will have the means to accomplish them.

Crucially, the aspiring reformers that we train will not be seeking to change their churches by asking them to ignore or look past the Bible. The Bible is not anti-gay. It never addresses the issues of same-sex orientation or loving same-sex relationships, and the few verses that some cite to oppose those relationships have nothing to do with LGBT people. Careful, persistent arguments about those passages have the power to change every Christian church worldwide, no matter how conservative its theology. The mission of The Reformation Project is to train a new generation of Christians to streamline that process and accelerate the acceptance of LGBT people in the church.

After the morning workshop, we were left to have lunch on our own. I ended up having a bite, and an interesting conversation, at a place just down the street from the Gratz Center with Mark Achtemeier – another traditionalist-turned-progressive who’s been pummeled by church conservatives for his theological shift; and Randy Bush, a Covenant Network board member and the pastor of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.

In the afternoon, we were treated to the plenary session given by William Stacy Johnson, a theology professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics. I have to say that Johnson’s presentation may have been the high-water mark of the already high tide of the overall conference. You can catch two competing news reports of his message here and here. This was a really strong speech.

After this, we adjourned for a delicious chicken dinner. This evening, my table-mates were an older couple from California, Matthew Vines, and several really great students from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The table conversation was lively and enjoyable. Still, I was actually in a bit of a hurry to finish up, because this evening I’d planned to ditch out of the evening worship service (honestly, even pastors can get worship overload sometime) and meet up with some long-time friends who live in the Chicago area. We had an absolute blast that evening, having a light snack and a few adult beverages, mostly just enjoying the company and the conversation.

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Here’s a picture of the three of us. It was great getting together with these guys; I really wish we’d had more time together. We ended up at Cru Kitchen & Bar, a nice restaurant not far from Fourth Pres. In fact, while we were there, there was a gathering of young adults from the conference scheduled at the same location. They all filed in when the three of us were on our second drinks, and took up the bulk of the dining area immediately behind us. The staff apparently saw all the grey hair at our table and realized that we needed to be isolated from all those young Presbyterians, so they drew the curtain immediately behind us for separation.

After this, one of my friends drove me back to the hostel. Knowing that I’d be checking out early the next morning, and not wanting to be too disruptive for the other roommates, I got most of my poop in a group, ready to go for a quiet morning departure, and then crawled back up into the upper bunk. And there was morning, and there was evening, the second day. And somehow, I managed to not lose my umbrella.

Back-dated Chicago-Blogging: “Marriage Matters,” part 1

I’m back home now from the Covenant Network of Presbyterians‘ Marriage Matters conference. My bags are unpacked, the stacked mail will be sorted through tonight (junk mail, junk mail, junk mail, rejection letter, junk mail, bill, junk mail…), and most, not all, of the phone messages and email replies have been taken care of. Now I have time to tell a bit about the conference.

This trip was done on the extreme cheap. I was very blessed and grateful to receive scholarship money to pay for the event, and the church agreed to pick up the travel and lodging expenses. Still, in order to be as frugal with the church’s money as possible, I didn’t stay at the official conference hotels, or even an “unofficial” hotel, for that matter. Instead, I decided to be a bit more adventurous – I booked space at the Wrigley Hostel, a literal stone’s throw from Wrigley Field, offering a great price and almost door-to-door transportation via the Red Line between it and the conference downtown at the Gratz Center of the Fourth Presbyterian Church.

I got into town Wednesday evening, before the conference and pre-conference workshop kicked off the next morning – which, while I’m thinking about it, why was it called a “pre-conference” workshop? Why wasn’t it just considered part of the conference? I didn’t get that, but just like the question of why men have nipples and other similar imponderables, I guess there are apparently some things you just go with.

The hostel was pretty much as advertised online – basic, no-frills dormitory-style lodging with some common areas for socializing, with a very diverse group of mostly (much) younger, mostly international travelers passing through. That combination of youth and international flavor would have made the stay interesting enough; add to that the fact that I was staying there over Halloween and it was all the more interesting. Overall, I have no problem with spartan accommodations when traveling on the cheap, and I didn’t here. I will say, though, that being assigned to an upper bunk in the room gave me regular reminders that I’m not 25 any more. Oy.

I crawled down out of my upper berth early Thursday morning, trying to get ready without waking up the others in the room. I grabbed some toast and a piece of fruit in the kitchen – literally just outside my bedroom door; I had to walk through it to get to the room – and headed to the Addison stop on the Red Line, where a very nice  transit employee walked me through buying a three-day metro pass.

When I left the hostel, the skies were grey but dry. I have a history of leaving a trail of forgotten umbrellas behind me when traveling, so I decided to leave my current one back in the room – probably the worst decision I made all day. It was pouring when I exited the Chicago & State stop, and even though it was just a short walk to the Gratz Center, I was pretty well soaked through by the time I got to there. My saturated wool sweater made me smell like a wet sheep, so I peeled it off and hung it over a chair to dry. At the same time, this first day of the conference there were problems keeping the temperature in the building to levels anywhere this side of hell, which quickly made a mockery of the claims made on the label of my deodorant. Before long, I was wishing I only smelled as bad as a wet sheep. I feel for anyone who had to sit next to me this first day.

Weather and climate control issues aside, I quickly registered for the conference and crawled into a cup of hot coffee. As I did, I got the opportunity to meet Brian Ellison, the Executive Director of Covenant Network, with whom I’d previously communicated via email but had never met in person. It was great to finally meet him.

The workshop scheduled for this morning was led by Kimberly Bracken Long, an associate professor of worship at Columbia Theological Seminary. The primary focus of the workshop was to consider the issue of developing a marriage liturgy that would be universally appropriate regardless of the sexes of the two partners. In doing so, we looked at the current PC(USA) liturgy. We also reviewed same-sex or universal marriage or blessing liturgies coming out of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church of America, and the United Church of Canada (the largest Protestant denomination in Canada; a melding of most of the formerly separate Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, and others). The table I was part of looked specifically at the UCC liturgy, and I was actually very impressed with most of it.

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The group of us in the Marriage Liturgies workshop

In the afternoon, we heard the first of plenary session speakers, Macky Alston. Alston comes from a long line of Presbyterian ministers – in fact, his father, in addition to being a pioneer for civil rights in the 1960’s, was the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (our official title for the Grand Exalted Poobah of the denomination). Among other things, Alston is a documentary filmmaker; his recent documentary “Love Free or Die,” about Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize. Alston offered a very moving, sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes inspiring glimpse into his own life as a gay man growing up in a church which largely shunned him. Challenging those gathered there, he summarized the findings of focus-group studies that he’d conducted regarding people’s opinions on matters of LGBTQ equality in church and society. He pointed out that while there were certainly compelling scriptural arguments for inclusivity, too often, progressive Christians didn’t make them – opting instead for more secular, non-faith-based appeals, thinking that these arguments would appeal to a broader swath of the public. At the same time, opponents of inclusivity within the church consistently used scriptural arguments. That means that when the public, largely consisting of the great Christian “middle ground” – those non-extremists who are trying to honestly reach some thoughtful opinion about LGBTQ inclusivity that was consistent with their faith – heard the arguments, the only scriptural arguments they’ve heard were for from the opponents to inclusivity – so they thought that the opponents’ arguments were the only “Christian” position possible. In short, in their attempts to make the progressive Christian position more accessible and acceptable by making it more secular, they actually made it less so. Alston argued for progressives to change course, to make their arguments from scripture – but not in a dry, academic sense. At the Thanksgiving dinner table, don’t make Cousin Sue’s eyes glaze over by discussing the finer points of koine Greek. Simply make the argument for love and justice, from a scriptural basis. This, along with people’s direct personal interaction with LGBTQ folk, are what have consistently proven to change people’s long-held thoughts.

Of course, Alston said much more than that, and much more eloquently. It was a great kickoff session.

As I was exiting the Buchanan Chapel, I bumped into Matthew Vines and introduced myself. Vines is a gay man who grew up in a conservative, Evangelical, Presbyterian church in Wichita, Kansas, who made media waves about a year ago when he posted an hour-long youTube video detailing his personal research into what the Bible says – and doesn’t say – about homosexuality. He was scheduled to lead one of the workshops available at the conference. I ended up attending his workshop on Friday and speaking with him informally a few times during the conference. His presentation in the original video is quite remarkable (he certainly isn’t the first to make the arguments he makes in the video, but he presents the information very effectively and passionately; I’ve recommended it to a number of people over the past year), and he’s even more impressive in person. Since creating the original video, he’s started an organization called The Reformation Project – but more about that in a follow-up blog entry.

After a delicious jambalaya dinner, evening worship included a message from Frank Yamada, President of McCormick Theological Seminary. His message was based on Genesis 2 – the second creation account, detailing the creation of man and woman; one of the texts often held up as an argument against same-sex relationships and marriage. Yamada offered the view – effectively, I thought – that the primary point of this text is not really about gender-specifics, but rather, that human isolation and loneliness is not good; that it is a good thing for us to form relationships with another whom we find to be an appropriate companion, regardless of whether that companion is of the same or the opposite sex (Yamada didn’t specifically mention it, but I always note when reading this text that God didn’t create a woman for the man and order the man to accept her as his companion – rather, God created the woman and left it for the particular man to choose whether this was a suitable companion for him. To repeat: God left it to the human being himself to determine who would be his appropriate companion/helper). Yamada stressed that being isolated and alone was, to quote God, “not good” – and that accepting only such relationships that are between two people of the opposite sex, and refusing to accept such relationships between those of the same sex, is actually working contrary to God’s will. He added to this point by referring to Galatians 3, that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female – that these are meaningless distinctions in the eyes of God. It was a very good sermon.

After this, I headed back north on the Red Line and to the controlled mayhem of the hostel. And there was morning, and there was evening, the first day. More to come.