Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Sermon Christ the King 11.20.16

Christ the King Year C/20 November 2016
St Stephen Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:33-43)

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Matthias Grunewald’s magnificent painting ‘Crucifixion’
was originally painted for the altarpiece of the Monastery of St Anthony in Isenheim,
which is in what is now Eastern France.
The Monastery specialized in hospital work,
and the monks were noted for their care of those afflicted by the plague
as well as their treatment of those who had skin diseases.

Did I say that Grunewald’s painting is a masterpiece?
Maybe so, but up close it is horrible to view.

Jesus’ arms are unnaturally long, stretched to the breaking point.
His fingers, nailed through, are splayed out.
His ribs stick out from his body, as if he had been starved.
One can almost see the lungs collapsing
as his muscles, starved of oxygen, become unable to hold his body up,
and his body begins to fill with poisonous toxins.
He bleeds profusely from his head, the crown of thorns piercing his brow.
His head is bowed to one side, it is racked with pain and suffering;

But an imaginative detail added by Grunewald especially for this altarpiece is this:
Christ’s body is covered with open sores and lesions.
In adding this unhistorical detail,
Grunewald reveals a theological truth:
Christ shares everything with the sick who came to the altar
in a place separate from the world:
as they endured their own slow crucifixion,
cut off not only from the health of their bodies
but also from the love and care of family and friends,
from the daily joys and work of the world.
Isolated from everything,
with nothing but the walls to stare at,
in pain of body, mind, and spirit.

The powers of the world had left them alone.
They could give no glory to the powers of the world.
They were unsafe to the public, a source of horror,
but Jesus lived with them,
Jesus in the people that cared for them;
Jesus in the Word that was preached to them,
Jesus in the Communion which they received
with the Crucified Christ before their eyes,
in his pain and sorrow giving them a blessing.

What does it take to see Jesus as the king of the universe?
This beaten, bruised, bleeding man,
bereft of comfort, bereft of help,
with his disciples fled away,
a curiosity to the crowds,
an object of derision to the powerful ones,
an object of brutality to the violent?
Perhaps what it takes is to be on that level,
Or at least to understand that in some way one is on that level,
that we all are subject to sin and death,
and are afflicted by life.
We are subject to the powers of the world
and to shepherds that betray us.
We are blown by the winds of time and change
and deceived by those who abuse the truth.
When we are ill, people may flee from us,
and death separates us from our very selves.
But this man lives with us through it all;
in the Church that cares for us,
in the Word preached to us,
in the Communion that feeds us,
we too are comforted.

The Isenheim altarpiece does not depict
the two criminals who were put to death with Jesus.
But it only takes a little more imagination
to see them up there;
also bloodied and bowed,
the one who in his rage and despair joins the mockers;
and the one who somehow through eyes caked with blood
sees something else in the man before him.
Somehow there is a hidden majesty in him.
He does not deserve God’s punishment,
but God’s reward,
and surely somehow he will receive it.
For does not this condemned criminal with Jesus
also know the Scriptures?
Though he is unrighteous, hasn’t he also heard,
doesn’t he also believe:
‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous,
surely there is a God who rules in the earth.’ (Ps. 58)

Do we see in the naked, bleeding man
the king of the universe?
If we do, we will look not to the powers of the world for our salvation,
we will pray not to be overcome with jealous anger, rage, and despair,
we will be more interested in what we can do for others
than in what they can do for us;
we will forgive and pray for those who do not know what they do,
for we believe that we have been forgiven for what we have done,
whether knowing or unknowing;
we will see Christ in the weak, the bruised, the broken
and insofar as we are weak, bruised and broken
we will see his love for us.

Those who believe
see that the one who in his last moments on the cross
experienced every pang of hell
is the one who holds the key to Paradise.
He it is who is the faithful shepherd
and is the just and righteous branch of David
who will make all war to cease upon the earth.
He it is through whom creation came,
for whom it was made,
the image of the invisible God,
the Spirit-filled icon of the Father,
the true Messiah of the children of Abraham
who is exalted by people of all nations.
He makes them one in his body, the Church.
When he comes in glory to judge the living and the dead,
we will see him as he is,
rejoicing that the one of the hidden majesty
has revealed himself at last to us, for us.
Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Monday, November 14, 2016

Sermon November 13, 2016

Proper 28/26th Sunday after Pentecost/13 November 2016
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III, STS

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.
 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. Luke 21:5-19 (NRSV)

Jesus looks at the Temple,
this massive symbol of the power and majesty of Israel’s God,
the pride of a proud people.
And he does not trust what he sees.

He sees with the eyes of his heart
what lurks beneath the surface
of the seemingly peaceful, mighty city.
He sees the abuse in the temple system,
corruption in high places,
the jealousies of the religious parties,
the powder-keg of violent revolution
just waiting for the spark.
The seething anger and the chaos which is to be unleashed.

He sees, and he warns the people,
Do not trust what can be seen.
What is built by human beings can be torn down.
The chaos that lurks beneath the surface of human life together
sometimes bubbles up and overflows,
taking many people with it.

When chaos happens, people often go running in search of security.
Some of them give up on planning and working for the future,
living only for the moment.
Some of them seek leaders who promise to bring the chaos under control.
Some of them, in their despair, embrace the chaos,
trusting that anger is the weapon of righteousness.
Do not go after them, Jesus says; do not panic.
I am with you, he says, to bring you through the storm.

The years after Jesus’ death were hard for the new Christians.
Like their Lord, they became the scapegoats
for all the chaos which was enveloping the world.
The Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah
were accused by their countrymen
of giving Jesus the honor which belonged to God alone.
The Gentiles who came to believe in Jesus as Messiah
were persecuted as ‘atheists,’
that is, those who refused to give honor to the gods of Rome.
Some of them were arrested, some were killed.
There were all sorts of conflicting rumors
about the end of all things and the day of judgment.
What were the new Christians to do?
Who were they to trust? And follow?

This was the message.
Trust God.
Do your daily work.
Pray without ceasing.
Give thanks in all circumstances.
Be ready to bear witness.
Endure suffering.
Be ready to help those who are crushed by life.
Proclaim Christ.
It’s not that we don’t know what to do.
It’s not that God never gives us instructions.

We just think there must be more.
That we must somehow bring the chaos under control,
to control the freedom of another person
by a withering argument or righteous outrage,
to in some way alter the course of history, so that we may not suffer persecution.
Many of us seek out the opportunity to be outraged.
We lose sight of the fact that this is the devil’s greatest trap.
The evil one WANTS us to be outraged
for anger is always the seed of violent words or violent deeds.
When we worship at the altar of the false god of anger,
we always mirror the anger of the other;
becoming outraged at their outrage,
refusing to become vulnerable to their freedom.
When we do this, we prepare for ourselves suffering that is not ordained by God.

I recently read a book by Henri Nouwen about preparing for death.
(Not that I am preparing to die soon,
although in a certain sense we should all be prepared to die any moment.)
But there was a quote in there which I wrote down in case I needed it.

'We are fearful people.
We are afraid of conflict, war, an uncertain future, illness, and most of all, death.
This fear takes away our freedom
and gives our society the power to manipulate us with threats and promises.
When we can reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us
with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die,
then oppression, persecution, and even death will be unable to take away our freedom.'

Trust God.
Do your daily work.
Pray without ceasing.
Give thanks in all circumstances.
Be ready to bear witness.
Endure suffering.
Be ready to help those who are crushed by life.
Proclaim Christ.

What gives us the freedom to do that?
It is not whether my favored candidate wins,
or my preferred policies are in place.
It is not whether my body is healthy,
or whether my life will be ending soon.
It is not whether people approve of me
or disapprove of me.
When we can reach beyond our fears
to God-in-Christ,
it is then that we become truly free and free to serve others.
Many people live under political freedom
and are never free in spirit.
Many people live under tyranny 
and live with a spirit of freedom which is unquenchable,
which cannot be extinguished.
It is a spirit which allows them to act,
to be salt for the earth and light for the world,
the Holy Spirit which comes from God,

and which is given to us in abundance.