Sunday, November 24, 2019. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 23:33-43
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Today is the conclusion of our annual Stewardship Campaign, the day when we dedicate and consecrate our commitments of time, energy, talent, interest, influence and financial resources for next year. It’s the day when we say to God, “This is what I want to give to you next year. This is what I want to share with others next year. These are the ways I want to participate in the ministry of this congregation next year. I do not know exactly what next year will bring, I don’t know exactly what will happen in the next year, but I do know that you, Lord, will be at work – saving, healing, reconciling people – next year, you’re going to be responding to human need all the way through, and I want to be a part of that, and here are some of the ways I want to do that.”
During this year’s Stewardship campaign, we are very aware of the fact that we are also in the midst of a major Capital Campaign to renew and revitalize our ministry facility here. Because the congregation is already giving generously to that campaign, we do not anticipate the budget for next year growing significantly. At the same time, however, we do not anticipate simply standing still or treading water during the Capital Campaign. We will continue to identify and respond to human need in our community and in the world, work that will need your continuing – and growing – support for those ministries. Today is Stewardship Dedication Sunday.
Today is also Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year before we begin the liturgical season of Advent next week. It is the Sunday when we celebrate the Reign of Christ, the Lordship of Christ over all creation, the ways that we claim that Christ is sovereign and in charge of everything, Lord of all. Our faith claims that all things belong to Christ, all things are in his hands, and no matter how things may seem at any particular moment, Christ is healing, redeeming, and guiding all things towards his gracious purposes in his gracious way. Christ is the King. All things belong to the King, and the King is bringing about his gracious kingdom.
I think it is very fitting that Stewardship Dedication is taking place on Christ the King Sunday, because it reminds us precisely what we are doing today.
We are giving to the King. We are offering our commitments to the church, but through the church, we are offering our commitments to the King. And we become aware that, in giving to Christ, we are not just giving to any king. We are giving to an odd and gracious King. Jesus is a King unlike any other.
In Confirmation Class, we sometimes talk about how you can tell a lot about a person when you know whom they see as a hero. A hero is someone you look up to, someone you think is living a great life, someone you would like to emulate and follow. Many typical heroes in our culture are celebrities and powerful people. This is why we used to have a show with Robin Leach called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” We tend to be enthralled by those who live sumptuous lifestyles and who seem to have it made.
The kings of ancient Israel also enjoyed living sumptuous lifestyles, and they characteristically put their own well-being ahead of the needs of the people in their care. This is why Jeremiah 23 raged against them, saying “Woe to you shepherd-kings who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” says the Lord. “You have scattered my flock and you have not attended to them.” In days to come, says the Lord, I will raise up a righteous shepherd, a righteous Branch, one who will do justice and righteousness, who will treat people graciously and fairly and well, who will be a good king.
The Christian church claims that Jesus is that good king, we believe he is the fulfillment of the promises of the good king. But we must not miss what an odd king he is. He is not like other kings. He is not a celebrity hero-king who lives a sumptuous lifestyle. Luke 23 is one of the texts that shows us what kind of a king he is. “They came to the place called The Skull, and they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” As preaching professor Fred Craddock says, all Christian theology and Christian ethics must begin with “the fact that Jesus Christ was executed as a criminal among criminals.” That is an odd place for a king to end up. Jesus is an odd hero for us to follow.
When you set your eyes on Jesus as your Lord and your hero to follow, as you gaze upon the cross, it does something to you. When we gaze upon Christ our King, we will be transformed from the inside out. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). We may not be able to fully articulate exactly why the Crucified King offers such healing mercy, why his wounded sovereignty possesses such transformative power. He invites us into his alternative way, his way that is not the way of self-indulgence, not the way of self-aggrandizement, not the way of self-protection, but the way of attentiveness to the needs of others, attentiveness to the pain of the world. In our world of violence and greed and anxiety, his is the path of trust and generosity and love.
Luke 23 is set in the darkest shadow, with Jesus upon the cross, side by side with common criminals. He has been humiliated, beaten, betrayed, and relegated to the bottom rung of society. But even there, Jesus’ gracious light is still breaking forth. Even on the cross, criminals still turn to Jesus and he welcomes them into his kingdom, Jesus prays for forgiveness to those who foolishly think they are making the world safe by killing him. Forgiveness and mercy are the work of this King from the beginning to the end, in every place, no matter how desperate, no matter how cold and lonely.
During Stewardship, what we are doing is giving to the odd and gracious King. We are offering ourselves as glad and energized participants in his mission to respond to human need. We are offering ourselves to be “field agents” for him in his Kingdom-building work. We are saying to Jesus, “Your way of life will be our way of life. Your way of death will be our way of death. And your way of resurrection will be our way of resurrection. We want to follow you, we want to pursue you, and here is a pledge of our intention to do exactly that. Take this pledge, use it, multiply it, make it a part of your work.” And friends, Christ our King can use every gift we offer him, whether it’s our prayers, whether it’s talking to someone who’s lonely or spending time on a mission trip, whether it’s a somewhat small gift like the five loaves of bread and two small fish that were given in the story of the feeding of the 5000, or whether it’s fully half of our possessions like Zacchaeus in our story from a few weeks ago. Jesus can use every gift we bring to extend his Light into our community and into our world.
The posters here at the front of the sanctuary and in the narthex are some snapshots – of which many more could be given – of ways that Lewinsville gives itself to responding to different facets of human need – building community, reaching across the aisle to those who see things very differently from us, giving attentive care to those who are hurting. We believe these are the kinds of things that Jesus, our odd and gracious King, does throughout the gospel stories.
These and other ministries require our support. You make these efforts possible, and we urge you to give as generously as you can to the stewardship campaign this year. If you are able to increase your pledge by a meaningful amount over what you gave last year, that would be marvelous. There are pledge cards in your bulletins, and you can place them in the offering plate in a few moments. We belong to an odd and gracious King – thanks be to God. Amen.