November 20, 2016

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

“When you come into your kingdom…”

In the midst of a world in which the refugee crisis is staggering, with millions of people on the move and looking for a place to call home…

In the midst of a world in which human rights abuses are committed every day in Iraq, Burma, Gambia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and so many other regions…

In the midst of a world in which there is talk in the U.S. of building walls to keep people out, deporting millions, and registering and monitoring people of a certain religion…

In the midst of a world in which, even in Canada, there are attacks on houses of worship, based on religion, culture, and race…

We need the words of the psalmist more than ever: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult… the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

The morning after the U.S. election a couple of weeks ago, many of us were feeling rather sick about what we had just seen happen in our neighbouring country. No matter what our political stripe, most Canadians are horrified by the racist, sexist, and hateful things that we have been hearing from the U.S. President-elect, and the prospect of what his presidency will mean for America and for the rest of the world is worrying, to say the least.

I was here at the church that morning, doing some work in my office, when I overheard part of a conversation. A postal worker had rung the doorbell to deliver a package, and our Office Administrator, Karen, went to the door to sign for it. I guess they got to talking about the election, and the Canada Post employee was clearly reeling from the shocking result.

What I heard Karen say to him was something like this: “I agree, and I’m as disappointed as you are with what’s happened. But don’t despair. Don’t give up hope. We have to remember that God is still in charge. Christ is Lord, and God has not abandoned us.”

Of course, the theological danger in a situation like this is to start speculating too much about HOW God may or may not have been involved in what is happening. We don’t want to assume that if a certain person is put in office that God WANTED it to happen that way, or CAUSED it to happen that way. But the fact is that it DID happen, and it is the new reality. But no matter what happens in the future, we must remember that God will be our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

That is part of what this Reign of Christ Sunday is about. It is acknowledging that even in the midst of the most terrible circumstances, our God reigns, and our God will triumph, and the Reign of God that Jesus preached, and proclaimed, and predicted will come in its fullness one day.

The lectionary texts that are given for today are all about that hope. Beginning with the passage from Jeremiah, we hear a warning to the shepherds – a warning to the leaders who do not care for the people – who scatter them, divide them, drive them away, and do them harm.

God promises that he will raise up good shepherds for the people, and they will no longer live in fear or be dismayed. God promises that he will raise up a good and wise ruler who will execute justice and righteousness in the land. And ALL the people will live in safety.

As Christians, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise. He is the Good Shepherd, the righteous descendant from David’s line, who came to rule as a wise king. But as Jesus tells Pilate in the Gospel of John, his kingdom is not “of this world.” Christ is not just the “King of the Jews,” as the inscription over him on the cross declared, but he is the ruler of all.

This is how the author of Colossians described the Reign of Christ to the early Christians in Colossae: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Although we don’t know much about the date or place of the writing of this letter, or even for sure if it was written by Paul, it is safe to assume that the Christians who received it were struggling with difficulties and persecutions. The author probably wrote it in the name of the great Apostle Paul (who had likely already died) as a way of providing assurance of the wisdom and authority of the letter’s teaching.

And then the words of the letter itself provide even more assurance, in the midst of the inevitable struggles of an early Christian Community, that Christ is Lord – both of the church and of everything else. And Christ is able to reconcile all things and make peace.

Earlier this week, I attended a meeting of the Canadian Council of Churches’ Governing Board, as one of two Presbyterian representatives. It was held at the beautiful Presbyterian retreat centre, Crieff Hills Community, near Guelph Ontario.

Throughout the couple of days of meeting we heard reports from the Theological Commission, called “Life and Work,” as well as from the Action-oriented Commission, called “Justice and Peace.” We reflected on how our different churches are structured, how we make decisions, and how our common faith is the foundation for our common witness, common mission, and common work for justice and peace.

We had almost finished what had been a pretty positive and hopeful meeting when, on Friday morning, the General Secretary, Karen Hamilton, announced the distressing news of more incidents in Ottawa.

As a Council of Churches, we did what such councils are able to do when we are gathered together. We made a public statement:

The Canadian Council of Churches—25 member denominations representing more than 85% of the Christians in Canada—decries the recent attacks of racist vandalism on synagogues, a church, and a Muslim Association in Ottawa, our nation’s capital.

“We believe that all persons are made in the image of God. We will oppose such attacks in presence and in spirit. We will stand with those subjected to them in love and strength. We will pray and we will commit ourselves again to working for a country of peace and justice for all people, in God’s name.”

After agreeing on the statement, we reflected on the situation some more, and Karen said something that I will remember: “It behooves us to start thinking about what our denominational responses will be to these and other attacks. I expect there will be many more incidents like this in the future.”

I suppose that she was reflecting on the significant change in our world that the recent U.S. Presidential election seems to represent. Things seem different now, and the expectation of hatred and violence running rampant is much higher.

Speaking at the University of Alberta this week, to a group of recipients of honorary doctorates in law, Stephen Lewis described what has happened in that way also. He said: “I beg you to understand that the world has turned. It hasn’t just changed; it’s turned. And your collective response—moral, principled, determined, tenacious, indefatigable—it can save this world.”

It takes faith to believe that our actions and our words and our ways of being as followers of Jesus can make a difference in the world… that sponsoring one refugee family is significant, that standing with one person who has been discriminated against matters, that treating our neighbours with common decency and respect will have an impact.

It takes faith to keep trusting God, and doing what we can, and hanging on to hope… because it does not always look like God is in charge.

Just think about this morning’s Gospel text, with Jesus hanging on the cross between those two criminals. It wasn’t exactly a moment in which it looked like God was in charge, was it?

The people stood by watching, the leaders scoffed at him, the soldiers mocked him, and one of the criminals derided him as he hung there dying.

But then there was the repentant thief. This man admitted that he had been condemned justly for the wrong things that he had done, whereas Jesus had done nothing wrong. And after defending Jesus against the taunts of the other criminal, he asked Jesus to consider a request. He said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Now that is an example of faith. Even as Jesus hung there dying on the cross, this man believed that Christ was Lord – that he would soon “come into his kingdom.”

It looked like he was defeated, like his enemies had won and his story would soon be over. But the repentant thief somehow believed that Jesus would be triumphant, that his kingdom would come, that he would reign forever with God.

And Jesus assured him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

We also are invited to have faith and to live like Christ’s kingdom IS coming and WILL come. We are invited to live like Jesus is Lord of our lives, of our decisions, of our occupations, of our pursuits… And we are invited to trust that when we allow Jesus to be Lord of our lives that our actions, and our words, and our seemingly small acts of goodness and righteousness will transform the world.

Today we are encouraged not to despair when we see Christ hanging on the cross – when we see the violence, injustice, and cruelty of the world. But we must let that vision inspire us to re-double our efforts towards seeking Christ’s will, following his way, and letting him be the Lord of our lives. All the while praying, “Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.”

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear… the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” Amen.