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Sermon – November 21, 2010: Remember Me

Sermon for Sunday, November 21, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Remember Me

Jeremiah 23: 1-6; Colossians 1: 11-20; Luke 23: 33 – 43

Years ago I met a Chinese immigrant who happily was telling me about his

Christianity. He was saying how he’d been part of an underground church in China, and he

and his fellow Christians had a sign by which they’d identify themselves. It was the “OK”

sign, and he explained, with a big grin, that “OK” stood for “Our King.”

I didn’t think about it at the time, but later I wondered, “OK” is reasonably universal, if

you’re speaking English–even non-English speakers will answer “OK” when you get them

to understand what you want. But would non-English speakers made “OK” into an

abbreviation for two other English words? That struck me as strange, even if the religion

originated with English-speaking missionaries.

Of course, people do use foreign languages in their religion. Roman Catholics used

a foreign and a so-called “dead” language in their worship until fifty years ago. We still read

archaic language from our scriptures, as even some of the newer translations continue to use

words like “thee” and “thou” for poetic reasons. Jews go to an additional school in childhood

so they know enough Hebrew to participate in the Hebrew liturgies of their own worship.

It is an unusual experience to sit through a Jewish service with one’s neighbors

whom one has known for years through all kinds of everyday business and friendly

interaction, and hear them all speaking in Hebrew. It’s to be reminded that the realm of

religion is a world apart.

This Baptist church is traditional in some ways–we all think for ourselves, for one

thing, and we immerse, and we don’t have creeds, and we regard baptism and communion

as things we do because Jesus said to, but we don’t exactly know how they work except

we’re sure that the rituals themselves don’t impart any unseen power–it’s the faithful

participation which gives them their transforming impact.

One thing which Baptists are is free, and that includes being free to borrow elements

of religious life from other traditions. We have what’s called a “split chancel”, which is more

common to other traditions, even though this church formerly had a central pulpit, more in

keeping with Baptist iconography about the centrality of the Bible. We’re rather highchurch–

we do the church colors through the year, marking the seasons–like beginning next

week with purple up here for Advent and getting to white at Christmas– and we bother with

religious holidays more than some Baptists. For instance, we’re noticing that today, in the

Christian calendar, is “Christ the King” Sunday.

This is the final Sunday of the Christian year. Next Sunday, the first Sunday in

Advent, is the first Sunday in our next Christian year. The church calendar–which most

Baptists don’t think about but which carries the annual rhythms of the life of the church in

many other traditions–is a little over a month different than the secular calendar. It’s built not

on the astronomy of solar and lunar cycles, but on the patterns made by holidays and the

story of the coming of, and meaning of, Jesus Christ.

Which gets us back to “Christ the King” Sunday. As the last Sunday of the year it is

the culminating one, the Sunday which looks forward to Christ’s complete sovereignty over

everything. It emphasizes the sense in which Jesus is ruler of every disciple already, but

even more the fulfillment of the Bible’s expectation that Christ will, at the end, be All in All. It

is, in other words, the end of the story. Once we’ve been here, then we can begin the

story all over again, looking forward to a Savior being sent to the world. That’s the business

of Advent.

My Chinese acquaintance with whom I began the sermon made “OK” stand for “Our

King.” Christianity was discouraged in the culture in which he lived for precisely the reason

that the governing authorities didn’t want any of their subjects being loyal to any other ruler.

If a ruler, king or otherwise, can’t predictably control the population by regulation and other

kinds of appeals, how can he rule? How can he trust, when he wants to make war, that he

can muster his armies and levy labor on his subjects to support the cause? A couple of

years ago China, which has tolerated Christianity for quite a while now, cracked down on a

more indigenous spiritual movement called Falun Gong. The leaders were afraid that

individuals’ commitment to the principles and vision of Falun Gong might undermine their

subservience to their political leaders.

This is the same way that the rulers of Great Britain felt about Protestant Separatists

in the seventeenth century. The people who eventually landed at Plymouth Rock and met

Squanto and got a toehold on Cape Cod and celebrated a feast recognizing God’s bounty

began as Separatists, resisters to the monopoly of the Church of England. How could the

King count on their loyalty to all his ways, since they wouldn’t be loyal to the King’s own

established Christian church? If, for reasons of conscience, they were allowed to flout the

official rules about religion, how might that encourage others to ignore other kinds of rules?

Great Britain was glad to get rid of them, first to the Netherlands and then to the New World.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony did what it could, with permission from the British

king, to put itself under Christ as King. It had its own vision of Christian faithfulness, and it did

its best to enforce it. It aimed to be a theocracy, a government by God.

When the Puritans became the dominant Protestant group in Massachusetts, Roger

Williams got fed up with their self-righteousness and went off to found Providence, Rhode

Island. Like Penn in Pennsylvania, he made an experiment in toleration and divergent

views, for the sake of the free conscience of believers like himself. He reasoned that his

own freedom to worship as God led him required everyone to have such freedom.

That leaves authority in a realm beyond this one. The problem with theocracies– it

was the problem the Separatists and later the Puritans had with the Church of England’s

connection to the Crown- is that the demands of power and the demands of piety may

diverge, and that a religion which ought to be founded on conviction, gratitude, and love

ends up being imposed by threats and penalties.

Which leaves a purer religion to rely on a powerless placing of trust in Christ. What

that achieved for the man crucified alongside Jesus is hard to say–but the confession, and

the integrity of recognizing and saying what he believed true, was for this world. He knew

himself to deserve no better than condemnation, and he knew Christ to deserve the title

which the other crucified man derided and doubted. What history has shown us–is showing

us today– is that God’s kingdom comes to earth only by God’s giving individuals the ability

to respond to Christ. God’s kingdom never comes by the political power of the pious, but

instead arrives when the weak have their free chance to declare faith or doubt.

Which is why there is always an element of subversion, in worldly terms, in gathering

around this table, and taking part in a meal offered by Jesus Christ, who claims for himself

the title of the one who gives us life and deserves our disciplined following. Somewhere in

our collective conscience as Americans we recognize the hope inherent in that New World

ordered by the priorities of God. We proclaim a day of collective observation, and invoke

God and tradition, but we wisely leave each person and each household to keep the

holiday as fits who they are. It is our freedom to obey the leading of our hearts which

ensures that this table in the center of the church is here because of who we are.

 

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