Sermon by Pastor Wilbert Miller
At The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
“A Most Peculiar King”
(Luke 23: 33-43)
The Feast of Christ the King (November 20, 2016)
In the Name of Christ the King, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The Crucified God”…I remember the first time I heard of this book written by the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. I was horrified—“The Crucified God?!?” I had always thought God was above such barbarity. God, after all, looks down from heaven, refusing to dive into our muddled affairs here on earth. And yet, in a few moments, we will confess in the words of the Nicene Creed that God did exactly that, ending up crucified, dead and buried.
We cry, foul! That’s no way to treat God and, far worse, it is no way for God to behave. God must stand clear of the riff-raff. Respectable gods are untouchable.
We conclude another church year today, Christ the King. The entire year has been a tutorial in helping us spot this most peculiar king amidst the chaos. We are like school children trying to locate God in a religious version of “Where’s Waldo.”
Christ the King is so hard to find, especially if we seek him among the company we expect: the landed gentry, the power-brokers, the goody two-shoes. When God came to earth, his Son was born in a stinky stable, in the alleyway of oblivion—and here we thought we would find him in an ornate palace. When he preached his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, family and friends tried to toss him off a cliff; they were outraged that he sided with the trampled upon, the broken, the prisoners—this is no king! When the Son of God met up with religious leaders, they scolded him for hanging with fraudulent tax collectors and scandalous prostitutes—no king here. When he died, his enthronement occurred, not inside a majestic pyramid, but on an ugly instrument of torture and execution. Where’s Christ the King?
Jesus is a most peculiar king, especially for those who prefer their kings a bit less sullied and far more formidable.
Where might we spot such a king? Jesus helps us in our search: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Whoever dreams of finding God in people like this?
When Holy Trinity’s Call Committee interviewed me about nine months ago, they asked about the themes you might expect to hear in my preaching. I told them of my favorite character in all of literature, Mr. Fruit. Mr. Fruit appears in the novel, “The Prince of Tides.” He lives in a little village in South Carolina’s low country. Every town has a Mr. Fruit as does every church. He is the misfit who directs the 5 p.m. traffic at the busiest intersection and yet is not the constable; he leads the 4th of July parade, waving a tiny American flag, always marching proudly ahead of the high school band, the VFW float, and the mayor in the vintage Cadillac. Remarkably, the people of Colleton are not embarrassed at all by Mr. Fruit; in fact, they usher him to the center of their life. The author Pat Conroy notes: the character of any community is measured by how it treats its Mr. Fruits.
Most of us avoid the Mr. and Ms. Fruits. They drive us crazy. And yet, we dare not forget Christ the King who said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
As we arrive at the end of another church year, we are invited to behold this most peculiar king. So often, we look for him in all the wrong places and, even when we stare at him face-to-face, we end up befuddled.
We have a number of staff members living in this building—your fine cantor Donald Meineke and your pastor and his wife, Dagmar. You treat us quite nicely. Others live here though you have not formally met them. This evening, immediately after I am installed as your pastor and the front doors are locked tight, a few hapless souls will spread out their raggedy beds on our front steps. Jesus will be among them as he promised he would but we may be tempted to reckon the whole lot as revolting vermin scampering around our building. Some will object, they always do, though they will couch their indignation in a more refined manner. Our natural inclination is to keep our church tidy, free of riff-raff, certainly free of controversy. Even if taking such risks lifts up God’s blessed poor ones, we prefer a bit less drama.
Soon after we arrived, I met a woman at a party who lives two blocks from here. As soon as she found out I was Holy Trinity’s new pastor, she launched into her speech. I was panicky. She proceeded to thank me that this church allows homeless people to sleep at our doors. She knows the well-honed opposition—she lives here after all. She then added, “I am Jewish, but I so admire your ministry.” Interesting, isn’t it, how so-called “outsiders” sometimes glimpse this peculiar king more quickly than those who think they know him so well?
On this final Sunday of the church year, it would be easy to get caught up in the royal razzle-dazzle. But, surprisingly, today’s gospel reading reveals a different kind of king, one nailed to Calvary’s tree between two other despicable criminals; that is God’s royal enthronement.
Maybe we are best when people wag their tongues and ridicule us for the company we keep. Maybe we are far closer to our king when we end up being Mr. and Ms. Fruit ourselves, standing up for the hungry and the thirsty, the sick and naked, the outcast and refugees, and getting punched in the nose every step of the way by the powerful. All we can do is trust that our peculiar king will defeat wickedness and death through breathtaking love and bring all his subjects to life everlasting.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.