Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

Sunday Worship:
8:30am & 10:45am

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

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Who is Your King?

John 18:33-38 (NRSV)

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”


As far as Christian festivals are concerned, Christ the King Sunday is clearly one of the lesser-renowned and lesser-appreciated festivals. This could be attributed to the fact that it has been observed for less than 100 years, as contrasted to the festivals of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost that stretch nearly 2,000 years into history. The Feast of Christ the King wasn’t instituted by Pope Pius XI until 1925.

This festival was instituted following World War I. In the midst of the tentative peace from the end of the war, a vile nationalism and fascism was spreading like a virus through Europe. “The Pope felt that the followers of Christ were being lured away by the increasing secularism of the world. They were choosing to live in the “kingdom” of the world rather than in the reign of God.” **

Ironically, the gospel texts selected to accompany the Feast of Christ the King are various scenes from the final trial of Jesus – the trial that resulted in Christ the King being crucified as a criminal. The gospel from today comes from John, where Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” or, in other words, “Are you Christ the King?”

This is not a religious question on Pilate’s part. He doesn’t care one bit about the latest gossip from the temple. He’s not interested in having a theological debate over a glass of wine with a rabbi. Pilate is a politician. His primary concern is himself alone. And his success was dependent on whether people were paying their taxes and whether the peace was being maintained (peace at the end of a sword, as need be).

“Are you Christ the King?”

Translation: Are you a threat to the status quo? Will you lead a rebellion against Rome? Are you the one people will follow instead of me? Should I be scared of you?

Jesus responds with a phrase that would have reassured the anxious politician, saying, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”

Translation: Dude, look around. I’m all alone and powerless. I have no army, no weapons; I have no friends, no donors, no endorsements. I don’t have the votes and I don’t want your job. I’m no political rival to you.

Pilate is feeling very confident now. He realizes this man is no threat to him, to Rome, to the status quo. Jesus then interjects with one last disclaimer, “I am here for one reason only – to testify to the truth.”

Pilate responds, “Truth? What is truth?”

Translation: I’m a political puppet of Rome, I can’t think of anything as useless as truth.

Pilate fails to see that Jesus is, in fact, dangerous to the existing power and principalities and attempts to release him. Nevertheless, the religious leaders demand Jesus’ death. After having Jesus beaten as a punishment, Pilate turns to the religious leaders one more time to see if they changed their minds.

In John chapter 19 we read, “[Pilate] said to them, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.”

“We have no king but the emperor.” That sentence puts a smile on Pilate’s face, but it sends shivers down my spine.

Here is a rabbi who healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, loved and lifted up the outcasts of society. Here is a rabbi who preached and lived a message of truth, peace, love, and forgiveness.

Every breath he took, every word he spoke was full of beauty and truth.

Every breath he took, every word he spoke stood in direct contrast to the worldly kingdoms of Rome and the temple society.

Every breath he took, every word he spoke had the power to bring transformative healing to the world.

This is the true King – the one to whom every knee should bow. But the chief priests respond, “We have no king but the emperor.”

Translation: We are afraid to die at your hands and we choose you over the truth. We will continue to bend the knee to Rome and let injustice run rampant in our communities and watch our people get slaughtered as long as you let us keep our positions of privilege and power.

The obvious question today’s worship raises is, “Who is your king?” Who or what determines the course of your life?

Is your king your inner demons? Those voices telling you that you are unlovable and not good enough? Does the voice of the evil one who says you’re unworthy keep you from claiming your citizenship in God’s kingdom?

Is your king a grudge you hold over someone else– an ill-advised attempt to hold power of someone at the expense of living in the midst of forgiveness and peace?

Is your king the family down the street who has the bigger home, the nicer cars, the more successful kids, the seemingly-happier marriage?

Is your king your career or accomplishments? Have you earned every gift in your life through sheer hard work and fortitude? Are you able to see gifts of unmerited grace in your life? Would you be willing to give up the good and easy life you’ve earned for yourself if it meant standing up for truth?

Is your king your political party? If it comes to it, would you pledge allegiance to your political party even if it meant disregarding your beliefs and convictions about who and what God is? Or is it your party that dictates what you believe about God in the first place?

Or is your king the Christ? Do you pledge allegiance to the one who reached out to the least and the lost regardless of their race, nationality, or culture? Do you pledge allegiance to the one who testified to the truth of God even though it meant giving up his life? It is the truth that Jesus came to the world to bring love and forgiveness. Are you citizens of that kingdom?

We have been created to belong to God, and we will not find peace, hope, joy, love, or truth until we rest in that knowledge and that citizenship.

Our citizenship is not dictated by a mark on a map; rather, our citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is present and available now and forever through Jesus Christ.

So, my friends, be bold in the knowledge that Christ is King. Take delight in the truth that Christ’s kingdom is characterized by righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

May you and all people come to know the abundant life secure in the reign of God. Amen.

** Lucy Lind Hogan. “Commentary on John 18:33-37.” Working Preacher.

The Poor Widow and the Immoral Church


Mark 12:38-44 (NRSV)

As [Jesus] taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."


Partners in Mission here at Cross of Grace have recently received packets of information and a pledge card regarding our upcoming Commitment Sunday for the Building Fund. You might imagine we scheduled the Commitment Sunday to conveniently coincide with today’s gospel reading. After all, this story is often understood as scripture’s exemplary story of generous giving. The story of the “widow’s mite” as it is often referred, lends itself nicely to the message that the church needs your money and you would be blessed to give it away. However…

…we didn’t pick the Commitment Sunday to coincide with this text. Truth be told, the gospel texts for this Sunday and next are perhaps the worse we could have picked to coincide with a building fund campaign. The gospel lesson next week is about Jesus’ promise that the temple (aka, the church building) would come crashing down…and why that’s a good and holy thing. That story is directly related to today’s gospel and its real, though often obscured, message of how the temple system of Jesus’ day and age was set up to exploit the vulnerable.

Here’s some context about today’s gospel story that could completely change what you thought you knew about the story of the widow’s offering. This section of Mark’s gospel is an explicit warning against the scribes – the powerful religious figures who controlled every aspect of Hebrew life through the Temple system. You can see that in the first verses, “Beware of the scribes…”

In verse 40 Jesus illustrates scribes as people who “devour widows’ houses” – a reference to the practice of scribes automatically taking over as trustees of widows’ estates following the death of their husbands. The scribes were seen as the people most suited for this responsibility because they were pious and trustworthy, as evidenced by the fact that they wore long robes said long prayers (wink wink). “As compensation [the scribes] would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 320).

Knowing full well the depths of injustice at the hands of the scribes, Jesus watches the events at the treasury. The treasury was a public space where people could either make a show of how much they were worth and how generous they were; or a place where people had to confess just how little they had.

At the treasury, there are many there who are extremely wealthy and they give abundantly, both because they can and because it serves their own interests. Their giving supports the very religious, political, and cultural structure that enabled them to get and stay wealthy. It’s a self-perpetuating system that ensures the wealth stays distributed only among the upper class.

Then there’s the widow. The widow gives two coins, which the gospel writer points out were practically worthless. Jesus understands this woman, out of a sense of obligation and powerlessness just gave away all she had to live on. Like others before her, this widow has been taken advantage of by an institution that claimed it would take care of her. Her estate has been stolen from under her in her grief; and still she has to obey the oppressive religious obligation to give. It’s not admirable, it’s deplorable.

This isn’t a story to inspire generous giving. Instead, it is a story that condemns a religiously-supported system that props up the wealthy on the broken backs of the poor who have been abused, neglected, and stolen from. And as you’ll see next week, Jesus tells his disciples that when they confront this system, they will suffer the consequences.

This might seem like a downer of a gospel text, but there is good news. The good news is that Jesus recognizes oppressive systems in our world and does not approve. God the Father, who is very Christ-like, also does not approve. Systems of oppression that keep people impoverished while the rich feast, are neither divinely inspired nor divinely maintained. They are not products of the Kingdom of Heaven, and therefore they will not ultimately endure.

God’s favor does not rest on those people who keep their boot heel pushed on the neck of the poor. That is the good news.

The good news is that we still have time to choose a better way: the way that will endure, the way that is part of the Kingdom of Heaven, the way of God, the way that recognizes how one’s actions ripple down the river and affect the poor, vulnerable, outcast, and afraid.

It’s your responsibility to allow this scriptural truth to work in your own life, raise your awareness, and let it lead to you repentance – a change your actions.

As for me, as a pastor, as part of a religious institution that makes financial demands on its practitioners, here is the message I have to proclaim today: If you find Cross of Grace to be an oppressive and unjust system that props up select few at the expense of the most vulnerable, then you have two options: 1) find somewhere else to be spiritually nourished, or 2) stand and fight. Point out the ways that we fail to live in the light of the good news as announced by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Point out the error of our ways before it’s too late and our church crumbles just like the Temple two thousand years ago.

But, if you find that Cross of Grace is a place that proclaims the good news in word and deed, regardless of what it might cost us in the eyes of others in this community; if you sense that Cross of Grace stands for something good and beautiful in this world as it does the work of liberating the oppressed and advocating for the outcasts of society, then join us. Reaffirm your commitment to the unique mission and ministry God has gifted this congregation. Yes, that means giving abundantly if you have financial means. But it also means following Jesus beyond these walls. It means experiencing a daily dying to yourself and daily allowing God to change your mind so that you can follow Christ instead of your own fears, instincts, or desires.


Amen.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.