Sermon from November 20, 2016
Last Sunday, Pastor Damen stood up here and gave voice to so many things that were in my head that I wondered if somehow it was a ‘welcome Jessica’ sermon. (I have been getting such a warm welcome here in Hastings that this doesn’t actually seem impossible!) He spoke about how, in the aftermath of the election, we all seemed to be feeling vulnerable and raw; and how the election showed one thing decisively – that we are a nation deeply divided that doesn’t seem to be listening to one another.
Maybe these things struck me because Damen and I think alike, or maybe it’s because even though I’ve now entered ministry, I just can’t shed the community organizer lens I was trained with.
Community organizing receives a lot of legend and lore - especially since 2008 Presidential campaign. But it’s really just the art of getting people who care about the same thing to work together, understand where they have power and how to use it, and embolden them to take leadership in their community. There was a radical and egotistical guy named Alinsky who tried to put his best guesses at how to do this into book form, and then it kind of grew organically from there. (And – it grew most in Chicago, where Alinsky and his organization were based; where there’s a protest every week; and where it can feel like every other person you meet is an organizer.)
Now, the fundamental building block in community organizing is the one to one meeting, which is used intentionally to build a strong, honest and public relationship between two people. A one to one meeting is not chit-chat; it is a focused effort to get to know someone thoroughly; to understand what they care about and why – and, eventually, to understand what would motivate them to join in their community’s leadership. This obviously doesn’t happen in just one meeting, and everyone from organizer to volunteer is trained to embrace this skill. But we hope to create a bond of trust in a relationship outside of the family or workplace. Through one to one meetings, people begin to care about others from very different walks of life that they’d never have had the chance to care about before; and together, they begin to recognize their common humanity and common dreams.
Critical to a good 1-1 is really good listening. It’s important to look for moments where people are most passionate, and why – for those places where God is calling to them or weighing heavily on their heart. It’s also critical to ask good, insighftrul questions. While the polite thing to do might be to avoid subjects that cause someone to get emotional, a skilled organizer has the courage to dig deeper into those feelings. We might say, “I can see that this topic is affecting you – why is that?” “How did your challenging circumstances impact your life?” “What impact are you hoping to leave with your children?”
As organizers, we get this same treatment in our one to ones. It’s important that we bring our honest and open selves into the conversation, so that we are sharing our own emotions equally. Being open like this is a risk, and allowing people to see your exposed underbelly is never comfortable and often scary. But so often, it is in those exposed spaces where we are most able to experience deep caring and deep transformation. Sometimes, it is in our most vulnerable state that we can feel closest to God.
Today is Christ the King Sunday – a day universally celebrated by all denominations around the world as recognition of the Reign of Christ. It was created by Pope Pius the 11th, fairly recently in Christian standards, around 1925. This day was created so that the nations would see that the church has the right to freedom and immunity from the state, and for the faithful of the world to gain courage and strength in the reminder that Christ reigns in in our minds, hearts, wills and bodies.
But the language of this Sunday – Christ the King - is at odds with itself. If you look up the Gospel reading for Christ the King Sunday in any year, it always features Jesus on the cross. Not exactly most people's image of a king.
In Ancient Israel the rightful king was one who would restore Israel to its former glory. Even here, in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, we enter the story when there are two political leaders and a lot of disagreement. The kingdom is divided over who should be the rightful ruler and who would lead them to ruin. (We don’t know anything about that, do we?)
Good leadership was, then, about returning to political power. But in Jesus, we are shown a different story of power. This story was so unexpected, so hard to believe, that the wise men who went looking for the newly proclaimed King didn’t know where to find him. The people from his hometown didn’t recognize him. He came in weak form – as a fragile infant born to a poverty-stricken couple who had no place to lodge in their hour of need. It was not in power and glory, but love and vulnerability that God appeared to bring about his kingdom.
Throughout his life, this man went to the broken places, the forgotten places, and the vulnerable places in our world. He took risks traveling to distant places and he found us in our woundedness – on the margins of society, squandering in poverty, wracked with illness, and excluded from the relationships of community. He healed the possessed, fed the starving and ate with the diseased. Even when he was exhausted, he didn’t turn his back on people coming to him for help. In his life, Jesus paid critical attention to the needs of the physical bodies that surrounded him.
We often speak and sing of Christ in terms of victory – indeed, he was Victorious over death, but not in typical terms. He began in the most unexpected place and ended in the most unexpected way. In Jesus, we have a king who doesn’t win with might and glory, but who is crucified. We have a king who is beaten, mocked and humiliated, but forgives the very people who have secured his death. We have a king who accepts his fate, yet while hanging on his cross, continues to grant salvation to the condemned on the cross next to him.
God came to us in human form to share in our vulnerability, in order to bring about a new Kingdom.
Because the kingdom of this world is about saving yourself – but the Kingdom of God is about giving yourself.
The kingdom of this world is about competition – but the kingdom of God is about forgiveness.
The kingdom of this world is about vengeance, anger, and outrage – But that is not the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is where you bless those who hurt you and persecute you.
This is not a ‘king’ that was recognizable then, or would be now. Never before in history, or since, has one man’s death meant so much for so many people. And never before had a king been a king for being vulnerable and dying. It changed the world.
Because in actuality, our power is in our love for each other. And shortly after that day, a small group of Jesus followers went out and did likewise. They took this message of love and compassion to the broken places, the forgotten places, and the vulnerable places, and gave of themselves. This was truly revolutionary. These followers, focused on the kingdom of God, began a tidal wave that engulfed the globe. And it started with a small group of committed people.
Through this last week, I have been listening to your stories and your hopes. And I have heard it said a few times, ‘if only we had more people to do the work we want to do.’ But this church has already done immense good work, and will continue to do so in the future. You have fed and cared for hundreds of vulnerable and wounded people. You have fundraised and supported this community with hundreds of dollars in the midst of a broken world. And your reach is greater than you know – because in those places, we too meet God.
In every community organizing job I’ve ever had, there never fails to be a few specific pictures on the wall. One is of small fish banding together to go after the big fish, with the caption “Organize!” The other picture that is guaranteed to be on the wall is a quote from American anthropologist Margaret Mead, which reads, “Never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Small groups of committed people have changed the world. We have pledged to follow a man who was an incarnational response to the vulnerability of our human condition. Christ responded to the brokenness of this world by caring for us, and commanded us to go and do likewise.
Christ the King Sunday recommits us to our mission. Christ is still the King, and we are still called to help bring about the Kingdom of God.