“What Actually Matters” Colchester Federated Church, November 24, 2019, (Luke 23:33-43) Reign of Christ Sunday

Today is Reign of Christ (or Christ the King) Sunday and the conclusion of the Christian liturgical year.  Because next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent.  Remember that in the Christian liturgical calendar, Advent begins a whole new year in the liturgical cycle.  So the Church has marked this Sunday as the day when we give thanks and praise for the Reign of Jesus the Christ.  It moves us from Ordinary Time to the threshold of Advent—that special season of hope for the coming of the Christ child who will be born into our midst yet again.

This can all be a little confusing (understanding the Christian liturgical year and all of the different days that we observe as a church.)  I once had a conversation with a mother who said that as her children were getting older they questioned how Jesus could be born in December and then die and rise as a grown man by April usually (depending on when Easter fell) only to be born again the next December.  Today is a great example of how this can be confusing.  Because it’s a little jarring to hear Jesus speaking from the cross in Luke Chapter 23 this morning knowing that we usually hear these words on Good Friday.  And we’re soon going to turn to those texts we hear year after year predicting the birth of Emmanuel—God-with-us.

It’s helpful to think of the Christian liturgical year as cyclical and seasonal.  Just as we have winter, spring, summer, and fall—just as we have full moons and new moons; high tides and low tides; leaves that fall from trees and buds that appear on those same tree branches in the spring—so the stories of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are heard by the faithful year in and year out.  The stories seem to reach a conclusion and then begin again.  So we do hear some of the same stories over and again.  Though depending on what’s happening in our lives, those stories will speak to us in different ways.  As Sister Joan Chittister writes, “The liturgical year is the year that sets out to attune the life of the Christian to the life of Jesus, the Christ.  It proposes, year after year, to immerse us over and over again into the sense and substance of the Christian life until, eventually, we become what we say we are—followers of Jesus all the way to the heart of God.”[1]

When we consider Reign of Christ Sunday—this special day in the liturgical year—we may have in our minds that this is a day of pomp and circumstance where we should be welcoming the King of kings and Lord of lords who reigns above and expects everyone to exalt him.  But that’s not the text that we are given to explore in the Lectionary.  Instead, we see Jesus of Nazareth mocked by the Roman soldiers as the King of the Jews.  We see Jesus crucified between two criminals, one on his right and one on his left.  We see Jesus asking for those who were torturing him to be forgiven by God.  We see Jesus reassuring the man who asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom (because he does believe.)  And Jesus reassures that child of God by saying, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”[2]

We see someone who is dying a painful and humiliating death reaching out from the cross to minister to others in his moment of despair.  Though remember that Jesus also utters “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Mark and Matthew’s depiction of the crucifixion.[3]  This moment may well have been the dark night of Jesus’ soul as the human side of him wondered what it all was for as he died alone and feeling forsaken on that cross.  We often don’t want to consider those implications because it’s too painful.  Yet, the soldiers and the criminals crucified beside him hear words of compassion from the cross of Jesus the Christ.  And this compassion expressed in the moment of his dark night of the soul may feel so overwhelming that we want to flee or hide our faces like the disciples who abandoned him.  Because what do we do with the depth of this love?

That’s the question we as Christians can wrestle with on Reign of Christ Sunday.  Because Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection show us the love and compassion of God.  The last moments of Jesus’ life show us that his reign is centered on a love that is beyond our human ability to comprehend.  And a love that is inherently vulnerable.  The invitation is extended for us to remember this love and allow this love to transform us and change us, extending that love to others.  Some Christians stop with that love.  They will say that Jesus died for my sins and therefore once I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, I’m good.  Or if they look beyond themselves, it’s only to get other people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  But that’s the whole point.  Conversion.  Accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Jesus ministering to people from the cross challenges that mindset.  Jesus is concerned for others—even at the end of his life.  From the cross he could have been looking up to heaven just waiting for the end to come, and instead he looks down and around.  He looks at the soldiers mocking him at the base of that cross and asks God to forgive them.  He looks over at the criminals on his left and on his right and reassures the man who understands his identity as Emmanuel that he will be with Jesus again.  The point is that Jesus is thinking of others and even caring for them in some ways, caring for them spiritually—from the cross.  What do we do with the depth of this love?

Now we can’t achieve the radical love of Jesus perfectly.  We are not God after all.  The divine spark is inside of us, though we are also flawed as human beings.  But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to try to love one another as his followers who are seeking to follow Jesus all the way to the heart of God.  Because Jesus taught us to love God with our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths and to love our neighbors and to love ourselves.  It’s that love of neighbors aspect of our faith that we may forget if we’re so focused on loving God and loving ourselves alone.  The love of neighbor is sometimes the hardest anyway because everyone isn’t easy to love.

Reign of Christ Sunday makes Christians contemplate what actually matters.  We ask ourselves what can we do with the depth of love that Jesus showed for other people from the cross?  Over the last few Sundays, we have heard what our church means to people throughout this Pledge Campaign.  Katie spoke about our Christian Education program, Nicole’s ministry among us as Christian Education Director, and what it means to raise her children in our church.  We thought about our own personal stories of what brought us here and keeps us here and bound those stories together in gratitude in our cornucopia imagined by Jeanie.  Last Sunday you watched a video that Tom put together with pictures from the past and interviews that Chris and Taylor helped make happen with Dolores, Jeannette, Frank, and John.  And this Sunday you heard from Maryanne about Discipleship and her experiences growing up here at CFC.

One of the themes that has emerged in this year’s campaign—“the story of us, help us continue our story”—is the people who make up our church family.  Dolores said at one point in her interview, “The church family is my family.  I do enjoy hearing Pastor Lauren’s sermons and I do love the choir and the music, but I love the people.  I love their friendship.”  And that seems right.

The reality (based on the list of Ministers we have in the office) is that I am the 29th Senior Pastor of both the First Congregational Church and the Colchester Federated Church.  If we added the Pastors who served at the Baptist Church before we federated and added Interim Pastors and Associate Pastors who’ve served over the years it would be a much larger number.  Ministers come and go.  That’s the nature of our profession (this isn’t me planning my exit strategy, but it’s true.)  For those of you who’ve been worshipping here for decades, you have experienced this.  We haven’t always had smooth sailing in our church and not everyone has loved every Pastor who’s served here.

John spoke about serving on the Search Committee that called Davida Crabtree to be the Pastor in the 1980s (the first Pastor who happened to be a woman) and he said that he received a lot of static about that decision at first.  Yet, here we are all these years later (Davida began her ministry at Colchester Federated Church before I was even born) and every Settled Senior Pastor since Davida has been a woman.  Time marches on.  Pastors come and go.  But the church family remains—even as that church family comes and goes—whether we bury a saint of the church like Bea tomorrow or people move away.

It seems right that what speaks to us at church may be that particular church staff, music, educational programs, mission and outreach opportunities, and so on.  But what often anchors us through the years is the people who worship beside us.  When all of us come together and give what we are able to give, we can do far more together than we ever can alone.  Nobody on their own can single-handedly keep our church open (unless there’s an anonymous millionaire among us—in which case, we really need a new roof!)  No, it’s all of us coming together for each other and as an expression of our faith in God that keeps our church going 316 years after we were founded.  We can do this because we do this together.  My story intersects with your story and we weave them together to become our story—the story of us.

Reign of Christ Sunday and some of Jesus’ final loving words from the cross do make us remember what actually matters in this life and in the life to come.  Did we love God and love one another and love ourselves?  Did we not just focus on ourselves and our own individual salvation, but help God create heaven on earth here and now?  Did we get out of our own way enough to see and help when someone else was hurting, helping them to bear the burden and not go through loss alone?  Because it ends up that what actually matters is that all of us are in this life loving God and one another together.  The church family is our family.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, 6.
[2] Luke 23:43, NRSV.
[3] Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46.