Today St. Stephen South Plainfield and Cross of Life Plainfield did a pulpit swap. From what I hear from my folks things went well at St. Stephen. Below is the sermon I preached at Cross of Life:
Greetings to you on behalf of St. Stephen, South Plainfield, the congregation I serve.
Greetings on behalf of the three Lutheran Churches in Edison, who along with St. Stephen currently make up the South Plainfield/Edison United Parish.
Greetings as well from Bishop Bartholomew and her whole staff, whom I was on retreat with the last two days—she gives her warm regards to all of you.
Greetings, most importantly, in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Today is the last day of the Church year, which means two things:
First, it means it is Christ the King Sunday.
Second, it means it is the last Sunday in a good long while that we’ll be regularly reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
Now, these two facts are pretty important for the Church. They cause us to ask time and time again, at new situations and new places in our life together, the following two questions:
“What is Matthew’s message to the Church?”
“What does it mean that Jesus is King?”
It was these questions that sent Luther back to read the early Church Fathers, especially St. Augustine. St. Augustine who in turn had meditated on Matthew. Matthew who of course was writing about the words, and acts, of Jesus.
…Reflecting on the influences these four men had on one another, it’s worth mentioning that what is going on right here in front of you in a multi-cultural moment…
No, really! Let me explain, you’ve got a North American preacher, influenced by a German Scholar-monk, enthralled by a North African bishop, reflecting on the testimony of a gospel writer living in Syria, remembering his Galilean Lord.
If we could get a South American, an Australian, and a Penguin involved, we’d have all seven continents represented right here from this pulpit in Plainfield.
—Mining these ongoing questions about Church and about Jesus’ kingship, lead us almost inevitably to two foundational ideas of the faith:
The Church is filled with both Saints and Sinners and that’s okay.
We’ll always find Jesus in the last place we look.
1. Church is filled with sinners and saints, and 2. We’ll always find Jesus in the last place we look.
Let us pray
The Church is filled with sinners and saints, and that’s okay.
They sometimes call the Gospel of Matthew the Church’s Gospel, because it is the only Gospel that explicitly mentions “The Church.”
Matthew, more than anyone other than Paul, wrestles with what Christian community looks like…
Matthew looks the church head on, and takes us as we are.
He consistently points out that there will always be those inside the church who are angels, and also those inside the church who are devils. We’re a mixed body.
He writes about ONE wedding party with 10 brides maids—all 10 have lamps and all 10 are gathered in the same place, but 5 are wise and 5 are foolish.
He writes about ONE field, filled with both wheat and weeds.
And, today, he writes about ONE flock, filled with both sheep, and goats.
Now last month I went on pilgrimage in Israel & Palestine, and was in Jericho.
There I saw this flock in the distance, and I said, “Hey, look at those sheep,” and a guy next to me responded, “That’s a flock, it has both sheep and goats in it.”
I couldn’t tell the difference between the two—they were all fuzzy smelly four legged things that blended into the mud of Jericho
—and to be clear I grew up in Wyoming, so I kinda like to think I can tell a sheep from a goat,
but there in Jericho, those things were all either very sheepy looking goats or very goaty looking sheep.
And that’s a good reminder for church-folk,
If we ever start to feel above someone else,
or more pious,
or closer to God
—if we ever start looking across the pew and saying, “pee-ew, they shouldn’t be in church.”
It’s a good reminder that we all are sheepy goats and goaty sheeps here in Christ’s flock—it is for Christ alone to make a judgment between us.
After all, the Church isn’t some museum for pristine and precious objects, it’s a flock with messy living critters in it, with all the mud and muck and dust and drama that comes with that.
As we so often hear, the Church isn’t a museum for saints—it’s a hospital for sinners.
And for that matter, when Luther read Augustine’s description of the Church, read that we’re a mixed body—he thought the image of the Church being filled with saints and sinners at the same time,
He thought it expressed a more personal truth
—that each of us, too, is at the same time saint and sinner…
The horns of the goat and the sheep inside us, are inextricably locked.
There is a civil war within our soul.
It is what Dr. King called “The Schizophrenia of Man.”
Robert Lewis Stevenson personified this conflict in his book The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The Apostle Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
If we’re true to ourselves, we could do no less than Adam, and throw up our hands and say, “My God, I am spirit and I am dust.”
True, there are times when we can say yes, I fed the hungry—but also times when our own stomachs grumble, and we think it more important to feed ourselves first.
Times when we give the thirsty a drink—and times when we don’t believe their claim that they lack potable water.
Sometimes we are open armed to a stranger—other times we hide from them out of fear.
Sometimes we see a naked sick convict and hold out hope for them, but just as often we draw back and say Nope—not today, not ever.
Because we’re both sheep and goat… we can’t rely on the consistency of our heart or the continuous rightness of our own actions.
—so we, like Ezekiel, can only trust in a good shepherd
—the one who seeks us scattered sheep out,
who binds up our injuries, who feeds us with good pasture,
who makes us to lay down in good grazing land.
Caught as we are, between sheep and goat, all we can do is trust that God is gracious.
And the wild thing about all this is where we find a gracious God…
that shepherd, that King Jesus,
because Jesus turns everything upside down—his Kingship is the opposite of what we expect—We’ll always find Jesus in the last place we look.
Think on it—what kind of King we have!
The king’s palace? A stable.
The King’s bed? A manger.
The King’s first foreign visit? Fleeing to Egypt as a refugee.
The King’s war-horse? A donkey.
The King’s crown? Thorns.
The King’s throne? A cross.
Even in the book of Revelation Jesus shows up in an unexpected way—the Revelator hears “Behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” and he turns around expecting to see a conquering lion—but instead—there, a slain lamb.
So too, on this Christ the King Sunday
—he reigns in the last place you’d look— “Where’d I see you Lord?” I am the hungry one, the thirsty one, the naked stranger sick and imprisoned.
Just as I couldn’t distinguish from a sheep and a goat at Jericho, so too it’s hard to see Jesus—he’s in the last place we’d think to look.
So all we can do is testify to these, wonderful, terrifying, astonishing moments when Christ comes in unexpected ways.
Consider X, one of my members who is in Hospice, who will probably be dead by the end of this week—when I took communion to him for the last time, his wife dipped a little popsicle sponge into the wine and he drank from it—
Christ was there in that, seeming to say, “Don’t worry—from the cross I too drank from a sponge, that sour wine.”
Christ right there in the Hospice—the last place we’d look!
Sometimes Christ’s presence is made known in a little louder way.
I think of my friend X’s call to Seminary—she was the tech person for a lobbying firm in DC, lobbying for the interests of companies that sold sub-prime mortgages—you know, the people who crashed our economy at the end of 2007.
She’d recently started getting more serious about her faith, but she managed to compartmentalize—there was Church Sam and there was subprime mortgage Sam. She knew her actions were indirectly leading to less regulation of an industry that preyed upon poor-folk, but she knew she was really a good person.
Then one day, she was knelt down at a computer tower and then she heard, chuu—chuu, “Loan Shark!” chuu—Chuu “Loan Shark.”
And she looked up and there was a cadre of protestors pushing a papier-mâché shark through the halls of her office building.
and the very moment they chucked that shark through her office door, she knew it was Jesus’ calling card and time to leave and enter candidacy for Seminary
—a bunch of hippies with a fake shark—but it was Jesus showing up in the last place she’d ever think to look.
Or I think back to the homeless feeding ministry in Philadelphia I tagged along with a couple of times.
They would go into Center City, passed the iconic Love Park, and passed the less iconic clothespin in Center Square Plaza. Down to City Hall—that large beautiful building with Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, standing atop, in statue form.
The mayor’s office is there, the city council meets there, the movers and shakers, the power peddlers and dealmakes—the political elites and kingmakers, they all meet there.
But there is another side to City Hall, beneath that brilliant building runs a series of underground walkways that eventually lead to the SEPTA public transit system.
And there, on the hard concrete floor, propped against unyielding concrete pillars.
There, using collapsed cardboard boxes as both their pillows and bed, the far corner as their bathroom.
There you find people living.
There, underneath that throne of power, are people just surviving:
racked by mental illness, possessed by addiction, thrown out by their families,
thrown out by their countries of origin/
or maybe just there because they’ve been down on their luck one too many times.
There surely, in that last place we’d think to look, it could be said—Look at me hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned.
Surely Christ was there.
And finally, that first moment when I really got what my childhood Pastor meant, when she told me about a Theology of the Cross—
when she told me about how Jesus shows up in the last place we’d think to look.
Eleven years ago I was volunteering at the Comea Shelter, a homeless men’s Shelter back home in Cheyenne Wyoming.
Each day I filled the shelter’s old blue mini-van up with bedding and drove it down to the commercial launder mat, picked up any donations around town, picked up the clean bedding, and brought it all back.
Sometimes shelter residents would ride with me and help me load and unload things.
Now, there was one resident in particular who would often ride with me. He happened to have a Nazi swastika prominently tattooed on his forehead.
We worked together for several weeks—and during that time I did my best not to stare at that thing on his head
—I did my best not to ask questions about it.
Then one day, we were driving along and he said to me, “Chris. I know you look at it.”
“Look at what?” I asked.
“The swastika,” he replied.
I was –this close—to responding, “What Swastika,” but by that time I was staring at his forehead instead of the road, so I replied guiltily, “Yeah, I do.”
“I got it while I was in prison down in Denver,” he explained.
That was of course just the kind of comforting thing you want to hear while alone with a guy twice your size.
“Oh,” was all I could reply.
He then told me how much he had hated blacks and Latinos… though he used much stronger language for both.
“Oh,” I again replied, limply.
He continued, “Then I got out. No landlord wanted someone like me as a renter… the only place that would take me was a housing co-operative for ex-convicts run by a black man. It took me a while, but I just couldn’t hate them any more.”
Who’d ever have thought Jesus would show up like that? Who’d have thought he would point to the power of redemption and reconciliation through an image of racism and hate?
We sheep and goats are all here before the king—our hope is that that carnivorous lion we are brought to expect, is in fact the promised slain lamb of Revelation—a gracious and kind God slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Our true selves are revealed only when he reigns,
when Christ is king
—and that reign is a strange and mysterious one.
Christ reigns/ among the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned.
Christ reigns/ enthroned on the cross and served sour wine from a sponge—and reigns at a final communion meal in a hospice.
Christ reigns/ in the absurd prophetic act of activists wielding a papier-mâché shark.
Christ reigns/ when those beneath the seats of power are fed.
Christ reigns/ when a wicked and wounded symbol of hate becomes a sanctified scar of repentance,
When it becomes a reminder of a man’s new life and new community.
Christ reigns. A+A