Sunday, November 25, 2018

"Alpha and Omega" Sermon for Christ the King, 25 November 2018


Sermon for Christ the King Sunday
25 November 2018
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith




Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Kate Bowler is a scholar and professor of religion who teaches in the Divinity School at Duke University. At age 35, when she had a 2-year old son, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. If you’re looking for something excellent to curl up and read during these upcoming cold months, I can’t recommend highly enough her book called “Everything Happens for a Reason: And other lies I’ve loved.” She writes frankly and beautifully about what it’s like when suddenly you realize you are not in control, that humans are not limitless, and that life is a privilege, not a reward for somehow getting it all right.

It’s been a few years since that diagnosis, and Dr. Bowler is still living with cancer and still sharing about it. The other day I listened to season 2 of her podcast, also called “Everything Happens”, in which she interviews others who have faced an event that changes everything. This week she talked with a woman named Emily McDowell, who started a greeting card company after she herself was diagnosed with cancer at a young age.

(Emily’s greeting card company is unlike any other, by the way. Her cards don’t put a tidy, happy bow on top of terrible things. Instead of “Get well soon”, her cards say things like “When life gives you lemons – I promise I won’t send you that article I read about how lemons cure cancer.”)

Emily started this company because so many terrible things were said to her in the wake of her diagnosis—and even years after! She has been in remission for quite a while now, but people today will ask her, “So….is cancer going to be the thing that kills you?” to which she often responds “Well I don’t know yet. Stay tuned for Season 2!”

The people who say such awkward things—and I’m certain most of us here have either been that person, or have been the one on the receiving end—are asking because they want to know: What’s the end of your story? (and, lying just behind that question, is another one: What’s the end of my story?)

Of course, this is the ultimate question, the one humanity has been asking since the beginning of time. But I feel it’s gotten tougher to deal with in recent years. In an age when we can binge-watch an entire series on Netflix over a weekend, or when we can watch a movie and, if it gets boring, at the same time Google the ending on your phone (maybe I’m the only one who does this?) not knowing the end is extra hard for us to handle. How are humans today supposed to deal with a cliffhanger like a cancer diagnosis? Or the rumors of war? Or pregnancy? Or an election season? Or…well, life in general?

As a child, I would often read faster than I could get my hands onto new books. So, imagine my joy (and my parents’ joy) when I discovered “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Are any of you familiar with these? The writing was pretty terrible, but you would start a chapter, and then every so often would be given a choice to make: “If you open the door, go to page 15. If you want to leave it closed, go to page 18.” Oh, I loved these books, because the choices led to different endings each time. It was like having many books in one! I would read them over and over, enough that I could manipulate things to get the ending I preferred.

You see, I wanted to be in control of the ending.

But of course, we aren’t in control.

As Kate Bowler puts it, in relation to life after a cancer diagnosis: “Control is a drug, and we are all hooked.”

If you’re wondering where this sermon is going this morning, well here it is:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

In this morning’s text from Revelation, John of Patmos shares the beginning of his spectacular vision, in which it is revealed that the Lord God, whom we have come to know through the person of Jesus Christ, is the Alpha and the Omega, both the beginning and the end.

And that means that this life is not exactly like “choose your own adventure”. Oh, we will have adventures! We will have adventures, for we have immense freedom through Christ Jesus—freedom from the wages of sin and death, but also freedom to live, to love, to serve God and neighbor. Our God is not a magic puppet master in the sky, Alleluia.

But just as in the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
and the Word was God, (John 1:1)

So also at the end of the day,
At the end of the world,
From the pilot episode to the series finale,
On every last page,
There is God.
The God of love is always the end of the story.
Every. Single. Time.

I know, it’s hard to trust this sometimes.
Perhaps most of the time.

It’s hard to trust that Christ the King of love reigns over all when we see what’s happening in Yemen, when we see what’s happening to people and the forests in California, when we see what’s happening in Gaza,
When we see a loved one struggling with cancer, when we ourselves are struggling, when we’ve messed it all up,
When we wonder how all this---how the world, how my world—will end.

But again: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” says the Lord God.
I am the beginning and the end.
Do not be afraid.
The Kingdom is near!
I will be with you to the end of the age.

In the church today—especially in our particular strain of mainline Protestantism—we chiefly think of Christian discipleship as being about what we do and how we live in the here and now. We teach and preach and practice all the hard things Jesus taught, and try to encourage one another that being a Christian is about more than believing the right things. It’s about living the faith. And this is right and good! We should indeed forgive, and show mercy, and feed the poor, and stand with the oppressed, and love our enemies, and seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus our brother—today.

And…(not but, and…) there is another component of discipleship, and that is how we deal with the question of tomorrow.

Perhaps you don’t really believe that life is like a “Choose your own adventure” book. But I think many of us have absorbed the message that if we just do more, eat better, pray harder, wake up earlier, and color within the lines, we can control tomorrow. That we can, by the power of our positivity, will tomorrow to be the way we hope it to be.
We may even believe we, by our own power, can save the world.

But dear people: Today, on Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year, we gather to affirm Christ alone, not Caesar, as king of our lives. The empire is not king. The patriarchy is not king. White supremacism is not king. The military industrial complex is not king. The Occupation is not king. Amen!

On Christ the King Sunday we join our voices with the faithful of all times and places in demanding that every other false dictator step off the throne, take off the crown, and leave us be. Amen!

But you know what? You also are not king.

Neither your hard work for the sake of the kingdom, nor your brokenness and falling short of the kingdom, have any bearing on the ultimate outcome of this beautiful dance called Creation.

God’s got that.

The Lord God, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, Creator of the universe, is the one who puts the period at the end of every sentence.

And so, by our baptisms, disciples are called not only to join in the holy work of co-creating the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven,

We are also called to cultivate a holy trust that the God who was, and who is, and who is to come,
Will never let us go,
Will never let the story of the world end in fascism,
Or in bombs,
Or in bullets,
Or at the hands of any of the other false monarchs who periodically rise up and take an earthly throne.  

Believe me, I know it’s very hard some days to let go of control, or the illusion of control, and to trust that Christ is truly coming soon—of his own accord.

It can be hard to trust that, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends toward justice.”

It can even seem foolish to believe the bold statement that often appears on the separation wall: “Love wins.”

And yet, the abundant hope that the Lord God Almighty is at the end of the story, no matter what happens in the messy middle, is what makes it possible for followers of Jesus to follow in his footsteps today:

To live boldly, to speak bravely, to love extravagantly, without fear.

I resonated so much with a passage in Kate Bowler’s book, where she relates that after her cancer diagnosis, a good friend encouraged her: “Don’t skip to the end.”

Don’t skip to the end: Don’t worry about the last page of the book!

That’s not easy.

So where do we find the hope and the courage to do that? To live in the here and now, to make the best decisions we can, to follow Jesus as best we can…and let God handle the rest?

Revelation 1 verse 7, at the end of today’s reading, says:
“LOOK! He is coming with the clouds. Every eye will see him.”

Friends, where do you see Christ coming near in your life?
Where do you find the blessed assurance that your story, too, will end in love?
Maybe it’s in the socks and chocolate a friend brings when you’re recovering from surgery.
Maybe it’s in the eyes of your new grandchild.
Maybe it’s in the joy and thrill of new love.
Maybe it’s in the persistence and resistance of our Palestinian neighbors, who refuse to let a wall be the end of their story.

Or maybe it’s in the old, old story,
the story of the God who was:  the one who sustained your ancestors and has never failed us yet,
in the story of the God who is: Christ, risen indeed,
And in the story of the God who is to come:
The One at the end of your story,
The One whose perfect peace keeps your heart and mind in Christ Jesus today and every day. Amen.  

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