To Where are you pointing?” John 18:33-38

This is Christ the King Sunday, a festival that is a little quirky to say the least.

It is sometimes hailed as kind of a collapsing down of the whole church year into a single day, a time to look at where we are pointing as people of faith.

Do we point to the world, or to faith?

Who rules us really, our own desires and passions, or God and the Kingdom?

The focus for this day is alternately a consideration of the last Judgement in Matthew, that whole Sheep and Goats episode.

Or in the year of Luke we get Jesus and thieves on the Cross, one who calls in derision and one who calls for mercy.

And in the year of Mark’s Gospel we get this story from the Gospel of John, of Pilate questioning Jesus.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”  he asks.

Pilate is very much like you and me in many ways, although you may not have thought of that before.

He is a Gentile, an outsider to the Jewish faith and all this talk about Messiahs and kings and prophecies holds little interest for him.

He is in a position of authority and power, and that’s where most of us find ourselves in this society, whether we recognize it or not.  You may not feel particularly powerful, but you make your own decisions most of the time, and most of us enjoy the privilege that comes from citizenship in the United States, and from our position in society.

More often than not, (like Pilate) we are also just a little skeptical about Jesus power and his presence in the world.  We question God from time to time, wondering how Jesus fits in to our lives, and the assumption that we (like Pilate) make is that it was for this world that Jesus came, to fix what is wrong with it.

In the film, “Jesus of Nazareth”, when Pilate asks this question of Jesus, he points behind him into the Praetorium.  There in that splendid architecture stand the statues of the Roman Gods and of Caesar, all of which are the mark of Pilate’s own position of power and authority as Governor.

Those are the gods that back him up, and they look a whole lot more powerful than the Jesus who stands before him.

The gods behind Pilate control most of the known world.  They back the political power that has its thumb on Jesus’ neck!

“You say you are the Son of God, Jesus?  Which God?”

There are so many gods to choose from – then and now — and most of them look a lot more powerful than this One God you claim to represent with your penchant for the poor and the outcast.

Here’s a quick exercise I may have had you do before.  Look through your wallet and sift through all the things that you carry close to you, the things that you can’t go through a day without.

What do you find there?

I have Credit cards and cash, discount cards and government I.D.  I trust in the Bank of the West, Visa and Mastercard.  I am a resident of Missouri and authorized to drive on its highways, and if I have an accident Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota will see to my health care, Delta Dental will replacing my teeth, and if I’m emotionally wounded by the experience, Cigna Behavioral Health will provide me with mental health care.

If my injuries are fatal, American Family and Thrivent will see to caring for my survivors.

I can get discounts at Office Max, bonuses at Price Chopper, Panera, and Hy-Vee, discounts because of my age and AARP, and Guest privileges at Comfort Inn.

When I empty out my pockets, I find all kinds of things that (in other words) talk about the Kingdom of this world to which I belong.

I am very much like Pilate, pointing to the things that back him up and asking where Jesus “fits” in to these.

Is there anything in here that bears witness to Jesus being my King?  Anything that I carry day in and day out, that I cannot get by without, that witnesses to my allegiance to Jesus?

You might think that you could point to the ‘In God We Trust’ found on our currency as a sign of trust in God, but then you have to remember that the value of that note is not guaranteed by God, but rather by “the Federal Reserve of the United States of America.”

This statement on the bill does not bear witness to faith in any God, but rather to faith in the government that backs the piece of paper.

Again, it’s not unlike Pilate pointing to the statues that are the sign of the Roman government behind him.

Pilate points to the things that surround him, and says, “Where do you fit into these?”  These are the things in which Pilate puts his trust, the signs and symbols of how the world works in his day and age.

I could point to my wallet ask Jesus the same question.  Jesus, where do you fit in to all of these gods to which I give allegiance?

That is the Pilate in us speaking, and we are sometimes just as uncomfortable with the question.

It may be that we are uncomfortable with a representative of the Living God standing before us.  Really afraid that if we were to say to Jesus, “why haven’t I heard of, experienced your Kingdom in my life?”  He might just respond to us by saying, “My Kingdom is not of this world…,

We are, you know, so preoccupied with the things of this world!

Today Jesus stands before us all, and takes our questions as he did Pilate’s, and all of our accusations, and all of our indifference toward God and this world.

They are to him, I suppose, still like hammer blows on nails, like thorns pressed down into flesh.

Our questions of “where do you fit in, Jesus?” makes him to suffer, because it betrays our fundamental misunderstanding of God’s Kingdom.

We assume that what God sent Jesus to do was to tinker and to make this world a little better.

But Jesus knows that what he’s really here to do is something quite different.

He’s here to call the whole human endeavor that we put into place into question, because the Kingdom that Jesus comes to proclaim is one ruled by relationship, and not by things.

That’s our fundamental misunderstanding.

We keep wondering where Jesus fits into all the “things.”

The “things” we have meticulously built, our ideologies, philosophies, beliefs and systems.

The “things” that happen, tragic and senseless.

The “things” that we call important.

The “things” that make up our government, our commerce, our security and sense of worth.

All these “things” that we point to as being of most importance to us.

Jesus takes our “Pilate-like” questions about God and where God is and what God is doing in this world.

He takes our questions born of our arrogance and our own self-centeredness.

He came and endured it all, so that he could remind us that what he does is what God always does.

God always stands before us, looking at us in love — offering us another way, and it is not a way of this world.

Where is your Kingdom, Jesus?

Well, it’s not of this world, but it’s about truth, and the truth is, God loves you, even when you are acting like Pilate, pointing to the “things” instead of paying attention to the relationships.

This is the Kingdom Jesus comes to bring, one that is less centered on “things” and more upon relationships.

When “things” happen that are tragic and senseless, Jesus does not come to change the “things”, he comes to console those affected by those “things.”

When we call “things” important, Jesus points us instead to the relationships.

“And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks.   Jesus redirects the conversation from things to people, and to relationships, and to actions taken to care, to comfort, to heal.

“What you have done for the least of these my brothers and sisters..”  Jesus says, changing the conversation from worry about judgment to a matter of relationship.

“Is there no one left to condemn you?  Then neither do I.”   Jesus changes the conversation from what “thing” should be done to this woman caught in adultery to a matter of relationship shared by all.

This is the Kingdom where Jesus reigns.  It is not made up of things, but of people, real people with real names and real concerns.

They are not “things.”

They are not migrants, or immigrants, or “those kind” of people.

They are children, and fathers and mothers and husbands and wives seeking compassion, asylum, freedom from the violence and oppression of their land, much of which is often our doing by meddling in the political structures or imposing beliefs, systems and ideologies.

The Kingdom of God is not made up of titles and factions, it is not comprised of Pharisees and Sadducees or Publicans, nor Americans, Republicans, Democrats or Libertarians.

The Kingdom of God, (the one Jesus reigns over as King) is made up of people who have names, and some who are sometimes nameless to us but never faceless and never unknown to Jesus.

It is made up of the woman at the well, (who is not a thing, or thing that she has done,) but rather is someone in relationship with Jesus because they share a common conversation and need.. water.

She is not a thing. Not a Samaritan.  Not divorced.  Not having five husbands and living with a man who is not her husband.   She is someone.  She is in conversation with Jesus and learning of the Kingdom where you never thirst.

The Kingdom of God is made up of the older brother, and the younger son, and the character who own the pigs, and the Father who welcomes and loves and who insists on treating his sons on the basis of his relationship with them, not on the things they do or the decisions they make.

I name you all as Pilates this day, as I rightly name myself.

We all spend far too much time trying to decide what to do with all these “things” as they present themselves to us.

But maybe, just maybe the way to glimpse the Kingdom that Jesus promises is to be less in concerned or upset about things, and to pay more attention to the people.

It is in the hearts of people that Jesus rules, and when Jesus rules in the human heart, then the “things” that we are usually so preoccupied with don’t seem to matter as much.

Things like borders and walls.

Things like papers and status.

Things like security and comfort.

Things like skin color and ethnic ties.

None of those “things” to which Pilate, or we would point seem to matter much in the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom Jesus comes to proclaim.

Maybe on Christ the King Sunday, it’s not a bad thing to ask where we are pointing, and what is Jesus reminding us about.

“My Kingdom is not of this world…”

“As You Have Been Blessed.” Isaiah 25:6-9

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”

Isaiah with a few strokes of his pen evokes in us a flood of emotion, of yearning, and all the power of memory with the senses fully engaged.

“A feast of rich food…”  he says.

The phrase itself evokes all the senses, does it not?

It brings to mind all those places and times when the aroma of food triggers in us delight, anticipation and memory.  All the gatherings where we may have experienced such blessing.

“Rich food filled with marrow…” brings to mind the smell of barbecue over the American Royal, or while tailgating before a Chief’s game.

Or, perhaps it is the scent of ham in the oven, or roasting pork, or prime rib of beef, or the turkey with all the trimmings, or the goose with its fat dripping, ready to be made into gravy of the favorite family holiday gathering.

“A feast of rich food…”  The scent of bread baking, or rolls in the oven the tantalizing aroma of fresh baked cookies, or mom’s apple pie, or the cake before the birthday.

“Well aged wines strained clear.”   Not just any dinner, any meal, but an event!  Isaiah’s words describe a gathering where the host has chosen the vintage, paired the tastings, planned the appertif, the main course accompaniment, and all the way through to that final wonderful glass of the port at the end.

A feast, Isaiah says, on this mountain.

He evokes the gathering.  The coming together before or because of the event, seeing those whom we have not seen for a long time, and then pushing it beyond just this event to include even more as he describes death itself swallowed up, a promise that Christians will see as foreshadowing Jesus’ promise of resurrection and the opening of the graves.

A feast for all peoples…he says.  This is not exclusive to invitation, but rather the invitation is going out and YOU are included because you are in the hearing of it!

You are invited into the imagining of it.

With a few strokes of his pen Isaiah invites his own people to step out of their measured, difficult existence that they are living under exile to imagine what God is going to do, what God does, and what God promises to do.  It is a promise that is lavish, one befitting a gracious God!

We hear it, and we are invited to do the same, to step out of our own measured existence, whatever that might be, and to imagine what God’s intention is for us.

A feast…

Abundance…

Rich blessings…

All done as an exercise in creative imagination and prophetic promise.  This is what God intends to do, and this is how it will unfold, so now, Isaiah says begin to imagine it, and be ready to live into it!

In the same way John’s Gospel gives us the story of Lazarus, and the lament of Mary, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died….”

It is an exceedingly sad story, rife with detail about the difficult, measured existence under which Mary and Martha are now living, along with their community since Lazarus has died.  The story gives us an abundance of detail about regret, death, hopelessness, mourning and grief.  A measured existence of just getting through the next day.

Right up until the point at which Jesus says, “Take away the stone.”

We hear it, and Jesus’ words first evoke a panic of what could be with his command, the waft of stench, of rotting flesh, the grief interrupted of mourners and relatives.  We, along with those gathered in John’s Gospel at first resist with every impulse we have, not wanting to dare go there,  But Jesus’ words of command are quickly followed by words of God’s intention and promise.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  Jesus says.

What follows is every bit as much of a stretch to the creative imagination as a feast of rich things to a people who are living in exile.

Lazarus coming forth from the tomb, alive, walking, and eventually bound for a feast!

Abundance of joy!

Rich blessings of being reunited and sharing once again.

All this done as an exercise of creative imagination and prophetic promise.   This is what God intends to do, to swallow up death, to unbind those wrapped in the dressings of grief and decay.

“Lazarus, come out!”   Jesus says.

“Unbind him and let him go!”  Jesus says.

With those spartan words Jesus invites Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and all of us really to step out of our own measured existence, focused on mourning, death, decay and decline to imagine what God is going to do, what God does, and what God promises to do.

It is a promise that is lavish, wiping away every tear, one befitting a gracious God!

So, on this All Saints Sunday we are invited by both of these scripture passages into our own creative imagination and prophetic promise work.

How shall we experience this gracious and audacious God, who dares to promise feasts to those in exile, and life to those stricken by grief?

We light candles.

We make our way up to the table, up to the feast that we say is a foretaste of that feast to come, and we light a candle of remembrance.

We dare to say in this flame that that one who appears to be with us no longer is with us still.

They join us in the Communion of Saints, the gathering at Jesus table where everlasting life and the forgiveness of sins is promised.

We light a candle against the darkness of our own measured existence, and we imagine the day when we will feast together again.

It seems such a small thing at first, until we remember that it is the lighting of a candle that marks the beginning of our journey to this table.

The candle lit at the font where God takes hold of us in Baptism and commands, (with audacious hope and power, befitting a Gracious God) “Let YOUR light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In the lighting of that candle over the gurgling, spitting, fussing lump of baby flesh the creative imagination is being stirred, and the prophetic promises of God are being called forth.

This is what God intends to do, to be with this child, to pour God’s Holy Spirit into the child, to empower this child for good works, and for life, and for a future with promise.

It’s just a helpless lump of flesh when the water is splashed, but in the lighting of the candle and the words of promise spoken the creative imagination is sparked.

We can begin to see great things, expect great things befitting a gracious God who led people throughout history, and who now promises to lead this little one as well.

It is a promise that is lavish, “Child of God, you have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ …. Forever!”

It is a promise befitting a gracious God who has always been called steadfast, abounding in love, and who promises to be with us all to the close of the age.

On All Saints Sunday we are called to invoke the creative imagination of our God and to reflect upon the blessings of God, and how abundant they are.

But more than that.

We are this day called upon to live into them, and that gets us to this little experiential packet you received when you walked in today.

It’s annual Stewardship time, but this year I’m challenging you to make this experiential.  Not something you throw on the table and think about in 3 weeks time when we ask for your pledge card.

No, this year I’m encouraging you to engage the creative imagination and prophetic promise of our gracious God in your daily life.

card frontI am challenging you to live into God’s graciousness, by being gracious and generous, and it has to do today with these little cards.

“As you have been blessed…”

In this coming week, I want you to get rid of these in as creative and imaginative a way as you can find.

Be a blessing to someone.

Dare to say, “at this restaurant God prepares a feast of rich food…and pay for a random stranger’s lunch, or coffee for the person behind you at the coffee shop and give them this card telling them they have received a random blessing from God, and ask them to pass it forward however they choose, to be a blessing to someone else this day.

Or maybe you’ll double the normal tip you would leave to your server, and pass on this card with an explanation that your crazy pastor is asking you to be a blessing to someone this week, but not only that, to pass the blessing forward.  Take the card and use it to bless someone else in a random way, let blessings multiply.

Engage your creative imagination.

It doesn’t have to involve money, how could I be a blessing to someone this day?  How could I show them that God is real, and is here, and has lit a light in me that is mean to shine out to others.

Could I give up a coveted parking place in a crowded lot, let someone else have it, and hand them the card?

Could I spend some time volunteering and hand a person the card?

If you each get rid of your cards, that will be 500 blessings that will flow from this place into the lives of people, hopefully mostly strangers, who will look at you dumbfounded, and then look at the card, and will have to make a choice.

If they take that blessing and call to heart, and decide to pass it forward, that would be a thousand blessings flowing from St. James into the community, most of which we will never see or know of, but that is after all befitting a gracious God who sets a feast for all people, and whose intention is to swallow up death and wipe away tears.

Who knows how far the blessings could reach, how many different hands the cards could pass to, how many lives might be given glimpses of rich feasts and unbounded joy?

It might even be said by someone, (somewhere down the line of all these blessing who has been hoping to see some sign of God,) “This is our God, we have waited for him.”

“(This is a sign from) the Lord for whom we have waited, let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

As you have been blessed…. Go forth and spread God’s blessings and experience the creative imagination and prophetic promise of God.