Serving the humble King
Reign of Christ Sunday, November 26, 2017
Text: II Samuel 5:1-5; John 12:9-19
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week a new year begins with the season of Advent. To conclude this year, today is called the Festival of Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ. We’ve just heard lessons for this feast day, with David being anointed king of all Israel; and then the Gospel of John’s version of the Triumphal Entry in which Jesus is extolled as king. That lesson concludes with a remarkable statement: The Pharisees say, “Look, the whole world has gone after him.”
And so it did. Within a few decades of his death, stories were told about his miraculous birth. By the end of the first century, he was awarded the most exalted titles imaginable: Son of God, One with the Father, the Word become flesh, Bread of Life, Light of the world, the One who would come again as cosmic King and Judge. Within a few centuries, he was recognized as Lord of the Empire that crucified him.
No other figure in the history of the Western world has ever been accorded such extraordinary acclaim. But less so now in America.
In the lifetimes of most of us there has been a huge cultural shift from “modernity” to “post-modernity.” Postmodernity challenges the notion that there is anything such as universal truth, whereas once the Christian narrative held sway in this land. For instance, when I was kid, a weekly radio program was called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It was all about Jesus. But now, no single “meta-narrative” can speak for all of humanity. In post-modernity, no one has a “God’s eye” view of the world. Even generic belief in God has taken a huge hit. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey, in just the last twenty-eight years, there has been a 26 percent drop in the certainty that God exists.
And so, mainline Protestant churches – churches like Trinity – have been shrinking for more than four decades. The numbers are devastating. Statistically, every Sunday, somewhere in the United States seventy-one churches will celebrate their last Sunday service. Annually, some 3,700 churches end up closing their doors. Researcher George Barna says that churches lose an estimated 2,765.000 attendees every year. In our current congregational project, we need to recognize that what we are trying to do is to climb up on a down escalator. Which, of course, makes the small, but noticeable surge of increased children and their families here at Trinity Church even more impressive. We are trying to rise at a time of sharp decline in mainline Protestantism. We know that, don’t we? But I suppose, it can serve to make our shared adventure that much more interesting, don’t you think?
Before I move on from this excursis into religious sociology, one more thing I want to say, which is, that this bad news is not the whole story in 21st century America. Sure, says David Hollinger, an historian at U.C. Berkeley – sure, the old-line, ecumenical Protestant denominations are in decline. And up until recently, the more evangelical and fundamentalist churches have been thriving, apparently at our expense. But also consider this: We of the ecumenical mainline have been “more accepting of religious diversity, more sympathetic to anti-racist legislation and judicial rulings, more skeptical of American foreign policy, more supportive of abortion rights, more concerned with civil liberties issues, more tolerant of non-marital cohabitation, and more accepting of same-sex relationships.” The fact that these values are now embraced by many, if not most, Americans is due in no small part to the leadership of the old-line Protestant churches. All of which has led sociologist N. J. Demarath III to contend that the ecumenical churches – we – may have lost American Protestantism, but we have won the United States. Isn’t that fascinating? And deeply heartening?
David Hollinger goes on to say that the steep decline of Protestant establishment churches has occurred because, by and large, the children raised in this tradition, where they learned the values of acceptance of diversity and tolerance for difference, did not see the indispensable need for communities of faith or for theology to sustain the values they learned in places like this. And so religion, and especially spirituality, have become a personal choice rather than a vital necessity.
So we have an enormous challenge. It’s why we are spending so much time trying to get clear on what it is we stand for. And how we are going to express this in our life and work.
I think that we, along with all our brothers and sisters in ecumenical American Protestantism need to keep doing what is our unique hallmark. We are the followers of Jesus who take both theology and social action seriously. We not only appreciate the social sciences and the critical study of Scripture but also, at our best, practice the presence of God made know in Jesus Christ. We are people who appreciate tradition – not to be confused with convention – and also new ways of expressing the faith. We value the gifts of culture and, at our best, remain counter-cultural and distinctively Christian. Particularly, in this historical moment.
* * * *
So… okay. Mainline American Protestant Christianity is less fashionable than it used to be. But where did we ever get the idea that the way of Christ was supposed to be popular, successful, and culturally dominant? Yes, it used to be in this country. But the idea that it should be probably has much more to do with the anomaly of the so-called “revival of religion” in the 1950s – and the Emperor Constantine – than it has to do with Jesus of Nazareth.
When Jesus was born, it was in a shed.
Herod promptly sought to assassinate him.
His earthly parents opposed his vocation.
His disciples listened to his words, but did not understand.
The rich young ruler turned away from him.
Some whom he healed thought he was a sorcerer.
Religious leaders plotted against him.
Judas sold him out for thirty coins.
Peter repudiated him.
His other followers deserted him.
A crowd which had hailed him soon thirsted for his blood. He was accused of sedition.
Pilate at first tried to avoid him, then condemned him to death.
The soldiers mocked him.
A criminal taunted him from the cross.
Some gambled for his garments.
Skepticism greeted his resurrection.
A strange kind of king, this Jesus. It may not be the worst thing that our kind of Christianity has fewer cultural supports and is less “the thing to do” and “the place to be” than used to be the case. It could be especially at the margins that we can understand whose we are and where he would lead us.
He rode into Jerusalem, accompanied by those who had become part of his movement, his alternative community, based on active, risk-taking compassion. They entered to challenge the conventional wisdom of their day, and the culture of separation and exclusion that emerged from it.
But the outcome that week in Jerusalem was devastating. He and his counter-community were destroyed. Pilate and Herod were victorious. So quickly, it was all over. But we know better. Actually, it had barely begun.
* * * *
Still he rides – into cities and villages where outcasts are shunned and women abused, where hurts are not healed and the poor are despised, and violent means are employed everywhere. Still, he challenges the conventional wisdom which destroys the innocent, and blames victims, and exonerates those who are too important or too busy or too pure to get involved.
Still he seeks to enlist disciples for his new community. In its own life, his community is to live the alternative values he taught and lived, and to seek the transformation of the world. We can hope to do this only by being grounded in the Spirit of the compassionate, cruciform Christ.
He will not bowl us over. Not this humble king. He will allow us to put him off, to crowd him out of our busy lives. He will even allow us, again, to push him out of the world, onto a cross.
“He comes to us as One unknown,” Albert Schweitzer wrote in the conclusion of his classic work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. “He comes to us… without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn [– we shall learn –] in [our] own experience Who He is.”
-- With thanks to Norman Bendroth, Marcus Borg,
Jaroslav Pelikan and William Stringfellow
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For me, the intersection of faith and life is full of insight and surprise. Browse here for sermons and other meditations and musings.