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The Great “Nevertheless”

13 Nov

homecoming(a sermon for November 13, 2016 , the 26th Sunday After Pentecost, based on Colossians 1:9-20)

It’s happened to me any number of times over the years, most recently late this past summer just after I’d returned to Concord after having spent a few weeks “uptacamp” in Maine.  It was in the very wee hours of the morning, long before sunrise when it’s still dark outside and yet you’re in that strange space between sleeping and waking; and of course, that’s always the moment that some random thought hits you – did I remember to lock the door; was the car window left open outside; is that the dog I hear barking, and how could he possibly need to go out at this hour – and now you’re wide awake!  Like I say, this kind of thing happens a lot; but this time was different: for what had awakened me so abruptly on this particular night was the strange and unsettling realization that I really didn’t know where I was!

I’m not kidding!  And I know:  I’ve lived in that parsonage, slept in that same bed for the last four-plus years; and yet right now, here in the darkness nothing seemed at all familiar to me, and it was kind of disturbing! The way the moonlight was streaming through the crack in the curtains didn’t quite look right; and I can’t even begin to identify the sounds I’m hearing off in the distance.  And now I’m asking myself, wait a minute: am I still at camp, or am I back to Concord?  Had I merely dreamed about riding down to New Hampshire the night before, or am I in the middle of a dream right now?  The only thing I could say for sure is that I was really tired and wanted to go back to sleep!

But I also needed to know where I was, and in one small sense, if I was safe and sound… and so instinctively, I reached out my hand and began to fumble along the nightstand beside me until I found a switch… a light switch.  And, yes, as soon as I hit that switch instantly the lights came on; immediately, all that just a moment before had essentially been hidden from my eyes was now clearly revealed: my room, my bed, my nightstand… my home.  And as I finally drifted off back to sleep, I realized that it was by virtue of hitting that light switch that I found out exactly where I was and that I could now truly “rest assured!”

Kind of an “odd” experience, to be sure; but also, in its own way, a spiritual one as well.  Actually, as I thought about it the next day, I was reminded of something that the celebrated preacher and author George Buttrick wrote many years ago about how the beauty of a light switch is how it puts one “in connection with the universe.”  I know that’s kind of a lofty way to describe the function of a nightstand lamp, but as Buttrick was quick to point out it’s not simply that you flip the switch and the light bulb comes on; or that you’ve worked out an agreement with the electric company so there’s always power when you need it.  No, wrote Buttrick, that switch represents no less than the grace of God itself that had saved him, “the same God who had blessed creation by the ordering of the universe to bundle energy, water and gravity together, to create electricity.”  God orders “the economy of the universe,” and so, he said, when I touched the light switch, “in essence, I was in communication with the whole universe.”

And what a blessing that is…to not only be able to see the light and all of that which the light reveals; but also to rest assured in the knowledge of where that light has come from.   After all, there are so many kinds of darkness in this world; and, and as we have seen so profoundly illustrated this week, so many times when we will awaken to find that we really don’t know where we are anymore!

Each year as the church’s season of Pentecost starts to wind down, there is a Sunday referred to on the Christian calendar as the Festival of “the Reign of Christ,” or “Christ the King.”  This is a day which is set aside to pay homage to Jesus Christ as our sovereign ruler, our “king of king and lord of lords,”  (Revelation 19:16) and to affirm, along with the Colossians in our scripture reading today that Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;” that in him, all things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him;” and that Christ himself “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Make no mistake, this is a pretty grand and bold assertion, friends; especially given all the political turmoil and upheaval that continues to unfold in our nation!  You’ve heard the edict to “speak truth to power?”  Well, in our text this morning is the ultimate assertion of truth directed to all those in who would seek to claim power and ultimate rule over our lives and the world.  And we are assured that it will not be any of the multi-hued powers and principalities that surround us, not those who are set before us by virtue of an ever shifting pop culture; nor will it be those emanating from the countless institutions that actively and continually seek to unite us or divide us on these matters.

It is Jesus Christ, and Christ alone who is our ruler, our “king,” our “mighty savior” who gives light to us in darkness and guides our feet along pathways of peace and justice and love.  So it is no coincidence that despite everything else that is happening around us, our hymns today do have a decidedly triumphant tone: from our opening hymn which began this morning’s worship, “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name,” to the one we’ll sing in a few minutes, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” because we are proclaiming and indeed, celebrating this prevailing truth of our faith that whatever else happens before, during or after an election, it is Jesus Christ who rules!

Please don’t misunderstand, however; I am very much aware, as you are, that for so many of us today, this is one very hard truth to grasp.  I’ve heard it from friends and colleagues, from so many people I’ve come to know from across the political spectrum and from inside and outside the church; and I’ve heard it from a few of you as well: people who woke up on Wednesday morning not exactly knowing where you were anymore.  In these past few days there’s been fear, uncertainty, a great and profound sadness, and even a sense of mourning as real as what arises when a loved one has just died.  Today, as a church we’ve prayed not only for the healing and restoration of a nation, but also for the healing of our wounded hearts.  We’ve prayed, as so often we have together in these past few months, that we might be inspired to actively live out of our faith and as Christian people to serve as an example of the change the world needs; and we have prayed that in these days of confused situations we might truly be the church of Jesus Christ.  But I also dare say that in and through all the deep sighs of these and many other prayers, there’s also been this overarching, overwhelming and anguished question: at the end of this day, who’s in charge here… really?

It might interest you to know that our “Christ the King” celebration in neither a “mainstream protestant” tradition of the church, per se; nor is it a particular ancient one, either: it actually became part of the Christian calendar fairly recently; interestingly enough, through Pope Pius 9th in 1925.  That’s significant, because in 1925, Benito Mussolini had already been head of Italy for three years; there was a rabble-rouser named Adolph Hitler had been out of jail for a year and was now creating a Nazi party growing both in population and popularity; and globally speaking, much of the world was already immersed in a great depression; and, might I add, the practice of religion was becoming more and more threatened by extremist views inside and outside the church.  So in this particular time and place there were all these competing factions seeking rule of the hearts and minds of the people; and it’s in the midst of this that Pius the 9th created this festival of celebration, saying that whatever else was unfolding in the world,  “nevertheless, Christ is king of the universe.”

In fact, the feast of “Christ the King” became known in those days as “the church’s great ‘nevertheless’” to the world.  For despite the rising of dictators, the squelching of human rights and the growing godlessness of the modern world, it could and would be proclaimed that nevertheless – no matter what – Jesus Christ is Lord and Christ shall reign forever and ever!

And it still holds today:  our recognition as Christ as the ruler of the world and our lives stands as a critique of every form of earthly power, in which all the other kingdoms, powers and princes of this world pale in comparison.  Christ is our connection to the universe that brings light into our darkness and that is indeed a great comfort.  The kingdoms of this world may totter and sway; nevertheless, one realm endures, the kingdom of God.  Plans for our human betterment and our unity in peace are threatened and sometimes are even set back; nevertheless, in Jesus Christ, we hold fast the sure and certain hope of what is good, and just and loving.  And from time to time in this world and even in each of our lives, we discover that the very foundations are shaking around us, threatening to crumble and destroy all that we hold true and dear; nevertheless, even while the earth is shaking, we have a steady rock on which we can hang on.

The hard truth is that even as believers, we exist in a world that is filled with chaos, confusion and utter uncertainty.  But the good news is that we move forward in and through all of it with hope, with confidence, and joy that is new in the morning… for we can proclaim that it is in Jesus, our Savior King “that all things hold together,” for it was in Jesus that “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”  Though it is tempting these days to align ourselves to the political posturing that exist all around us, we would do well to be aware of our connection to the divine realm; to remember that ultimately, our allegiance is to something radically different than the structures of this world.

Incidentally, it’s no accident that what immediately follows this feast of Christ the King is the season of Advent, which begins in just two weeks (!), and during which we are called to look toward a brand new order that has come here and now in Christ.  Walter Bruggemann says this very well when he writes that “in Christmas we do not celebrate the world of ancient Herod, but we sing, ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come… joy to the earth, the savior reigns.’  The lord who is come, the savior who reigns, the one who is to be received is the one who comes, reigns and is received in this moment of our lives now.”

Beloved, the Lord IS come, and the good news is that in this and every moment of our lives we are called as members of his marvelous kingdom; accepting the cost and joy of following him, being his servants in the service of all humanity, proclaiming his gospel to all the world and resisting the powers of evil in all the places where that evil dwells.  But the best part of it all is that in this lifelong journey of discipleship, we are ever and always in the presence this one who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords… the one who promises us forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, his presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in his kingdom which, nevertheless, has no end.

And so for today, tomorrow and in every day that is to come, may blessing and honor, glory and power be unto him!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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