Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday Sermon: Christ the King

Gifts of a King
Text: Luke 23:33-43

Friday morning my husband got up early, and went down to one of his favorite stores, because he had seen an ad in the paper for a special after-Thanksgiving sale. It seemed too good to be true, a big one-time-only discount for one special item. So he went down to check it out. Now, I have to tell you, we aren’t the biggest “black Friday” – day after Thanksgiving – shoppers. We’re not usually found standing in line at 6:00 a.m. at Kohl’s or Target or where-ever they are practically giving things away. But this seemed like an opportunity, so he went down. A little later I got an update call. The too-good-to-be-true sale? Really was too good to be true. It seems when he got there, the store was open, but there was still a line of people waiting outside the door. The store was full, really full, and they were letting people in, just one or two at a time, whenever someone left the store. That’s how crowded it was – and he just decided that no sale was THAT so good to justify waiting out in the cold that long.

Not far away from that store, not far away from the Christmas-crowded malls, full of people standing in lines for bargains and dreams come true, there is a quieter place. It looks for all the world just like someone’s house. On the inside it’s quiet, and if you go there near a mealtime, there are wonderful smells always from the kitchen, and invitations to stay and eat. Not far away from the crowded shopping centers and malls, there is a small hospice care center, where people are dying, and where those who care for them treat them as if they were kings and queens, each one important, each one precious. In this place there are not long lines, but gifts are being given out: the gifts that matter most. In this place, families watch over their loved ones, and people pray, and read promises from the Scriptures:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want… even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I know you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
“I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
In this place, we see and we receive different kinds of gifts of the season: promises of life, and gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation.

No two scenes could be more different: the crowded and noisy malls, with their long lines of people with packages, and the quiet house with steaming soup and praying people. And on this Sunday we call “Christ the King” we also find ourselves facing some contrasts, even some contradictions. For perhaps you came here today expecting it to be Advent already. After all, in the malls and in the shopping centers, we’re already celebrating Christmas, or at least preparing for it. And here we are on this Sunday called “Christ the King,” a day when we worship Christ as our King and bow down before him as his subjects. Here we are instead on the last Sunday in the church year, calling Jesus our Lord and our King. And what does that even mean, to call Jesus our king and to say that we live under his reign? Those are strange words to say.

And they are even stranger to say when we consider our gospel story today. Why, on the last Sunday in November, do we have a gospel reading that seems more appropriate to Holy Week? Why do we have a reading about Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion between two thieves? Sure, he is called a King: but only by people who are making fun of him, insulting him, spitting on him. Kings are powerful: on the cross, Jesus does not seem powerful. Kings have wealth: on the cross, Jesus gives up everything, even his life. It’s a study in contrasts: Christ the King Sunday, and Jesus on the cross. What does it mean? What does it mean for us who would be his followers?

In ancient times, one of the responsibilities of kings was to protect and defend the people in their care. That’s why the kings of Israel were sometimes called “shepherds.” They were powerful, but they were supposed to use their power to help the people, and to defend them. Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they led them astray instead. Sometimes they used their power only for themselves. But throughout his life and in his ministry, Jesus acted like a king because he offered healing and guidance, because he fed and forgave the people who followed him. So what is he doing on a cross? What is the king doing on a cross?

Even on the cross, Jesus is acting like a king: even though people are reviling him, insulting him, dividing his clothing, he offers them gifts. He offers first to his enemies – the soldiers, the religious leaders, the bystanders, the gift of forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” he says. They weren’t standing in line to hear it; they probably weren’t even paying attention. But even so, Jesus is offering a gift from a king. And to a thief on a cross who simply asks Jesus to remember him, Jesus promises, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus promises life to the dying, and forgiveness to enemies. They are gifts from a king: different from the gifts we stand in long lines to buy, but no less essential for our dying and our living. They are gifts from the true King, who reigns from a cross. And we follow him.
We live in his kingdom, and under his reign. But what does it mean for us to follow a king who reigns from a cross? – in ordinary and in extraordinary times.

It was the time of World War II. Lately we have been hearing many stories about the time of World II, and of the heroism of ordinary people during that extraordinary time. But this story is a little different, because it is about a Japanese man. His name was Kiyoshi Watanabe,* and he was a Lutheran pastor. He had served in Hiroshima, but he was serving as a pastor at a Christian high school in southern Japan when he got a letter from his government. This letter requested him to go to Hong Kong and serve as an interpreter for prisoners of war there. You see, he had studied in the United States several years before, so he had a valuable skill. He could speak and write English. So, both as a loyal Japanese and a Christian – he went.

What he found in the camps shocked him, and filled him with fear. Prisoners were treated terribly – not like human beings. He found himself praying – not only for the prisoners, but also for the souls of his fellow-Japanese, who were mistreating people. And he discovered that there was no medicine to treat all the sickness that was in the camp. So he decided to do something very risky. He decided to help smuggle medicine and food into the camp, to help the prisoners who were also supposed to be his enemies. He did this with much fear, for he knew if he had been discovered, the penalty for his actions would be death. But he did it anywhere, because he lived – first and foremost – as a subject in God’s kingdom, and under his reign. He followed the one who forgave his enemies, and promised paradise to a thief on a cross. At great cost to himself, he gave to others God’s best gifts, even as he had received them: forgiveness, and life.

It was an extraordinary time, and Pastor Watanabe did an extraordinary thing. After the war, he was interviewed on British television.The day after the interview, several people came up to
him and thanked him, and shook his hand, including a waitress who told him that until that day, she had hated all Japanese, because the Japanese had tortured her brother. His story had softened her heart. His story – and his actions – had turned her from hate to love. And the story of his actions had turned an enemy into a friend.

The truth is – each of us lives in two world – each of us lives in two kingdoms. One is the kingdom where we stand in lines to wait for things that seem too good to be true, where we look out for number one, where there is not enough to go around, where we arm ourselves against our neighbors and our enemies. And the other is the kingdom where the invitation is open to come and eat, where the sick and the dying, the poor and the old are treated with as much respect as the rich and the powerful. That is the kingdom where the Jesus reigns from a cross, turning enemies into friends, turning hate into love, turning death into life. That is the kingdom where loaves are multiplied, and the bread of life is put into our hands.

On this Christ the King Sunday, as we stand in line to purchase gifts, we also begin to wait for the arrival of the child who promises peace. And we confess today that first and foremost we follow a king who reigns from a cross, who from that cross gives us what we need for our living and for our dying. And then we turn around to share those gifts – those most important gifts – with the sick and the dying, with the poor and the vulnerable – with the young and the old – and even with our enemies. In ordinary times, and in extraordinary times. We share God’s abundant and suffering love with others. AMEN

* I learned Pastor Watanabe's story when I lived in Japan, but it was reported in a book called Small Man of Nanataki, written by Liam Nolan. Unfortunately, it has long been out of print. Another part of the story, which I did not tell in my sermon this morning, is that his wife and one of his daughters were killed when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.


Wyldth1ng said...


FranIAm said...

Oh my Lord- what a sermon. You have outdone yourself dear Diane.

This was so beautiful- so well put. Now that I have met you, I can imagine you in some way, your voice and your words.

Although I did not write about it on my church blog, Fr. Pat did a great sermon at our church today too, making of course, many of the same points that you did.

When I got to the end my heart just broke- what a story. If that is not Christ in action, what is?

Grandmère Mimi said...

Diane, lovely. You give us Jesus' upside-down kingdom, where the least of these are given preference, where the last are first, and where he triumphs through the cross.

I got chills when I read about the good pastor's wife and daughter getting killed at Hiroshima.

RevDrKate said...

Very powerful, the story is so incredible, especially knowing of his loss. You hoave such a way with pulling story into sermons.

LawAndGospel said...

Wonderful- wish I had heard it in person. Praying for you and your flock with everything that is going on.

Gannet Girl said...

Such a powerful and utterly beautiful sermon. A king who reigns from a cross, and a Japanese man who serves from the cross of terrible loss.

mompriest said...

Diane, really well said. I appreciate the way you built up the contrasts and played them out.

"PS" (a.k.a. purple) said...

What all the others said...I say to.

Grace thing said...

me, too. Very powerful.