Subjects of Christ Alone

Sermon by Rev. Désirée M. Youngblood

Prince of Peace Presbyterian Church of Pickerington, OH

November 20, 2016 (Christ the King Sunday—Year C)

 

Colossians 1:11-20  11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully  12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,  14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.  15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;  16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.  17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.  19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

 

Today is Christ the King Sunday, which is the last Sunday of the church year.  So, it is kind of like the New Year’s Eve of the church calendar—a perfect time to look back over our last year and give thanks for all of the blessings that God has bestowed upon us.  It is also a good time to look to the future, to make resolutions for how we intend to live during the next year.

I have to say that I am deeply disturbed by what I have seen in the last year.  Now don’t take this the wrong way; I assure you that I am not referring to our church.  I believe that the members of this congregation are truly good, God-fearing, loving people.  Even though we all have our ups and downs, our times of strength and times of weakness, God’s grace and peace shines through.  Serving this church is a wonderful blessing.

What is deeply disturbing is something that is happening in our country.  In the last year many people have decided that it is all right to treat others as though they are inferior.  Many Americans are openly spewing hatred instead of love.  And now many people seem to think that these words and actions have been officially endorsed and made acceptable by our recent election.  Yet, we know that nothing in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is “the power of God for salvation,”[1] suggests that such behaviors are characteristic of life in Christ.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Today’s sermon is not about politics.  The issues that are involved in these openly hateful words and actions have significant moral and ethical implications that affect how we live as Christians.  Since the elections these behaviors have been getting worse.  Many of you may have seen an article[2] in The Columbus Dispatch that was published on the Saturday following the election.  It reported hatred in our country’s high schools with incidents such as having “whites only” painted on a bathroom door, students chanting “build a wall” in a high school cafeteria, other students harassing and taunting Hispanic students, and others telling parents of black children to “go back to Africa.”  In one college, suggestions of having a “daily lynching” were reported; in another, students have been carrying signs and shouting “white power” down the hallways.  Somebody posted fliers around one campus “urging the formation of ‘tar and feather vigilante squads’ to ‘arrest and torture’ campus diversity advocates.”  People in a neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama, woke up to leaflets from the Ku Klux Klan on their doors the morning after Election Day.  “In Durham, North Carolina, two walls were spray-painted with the statement ‘Black lives don’t matter and neither does your vote.’”[3]  These incidents are all disturbing, but most disturbing of all was the publisher of the Daily Stormer calling for its supporters to inflict “punishment” on those who did not vote for Trump by encouraging them to commit suicide.

So far all of this hatred is being expressed mostly as words and not as actions.  What people seem to forget is that words matter!  “Words ‘create’ us, they shape our belief.”[4]  In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler speaks of the power of words with a few paragraphs that explain how people will come to believe what they are told.  These paragraphs are often translated into the shortened sentence saying, “Make the lie BIG, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”[5]  People believe words, whether they are true or not.

The problem that we Christians face is that simply not participating in such hateful words is not enough.  Remaining silent is not enough.  We have a duty to speak out against hatred.  We have a duty to use our words to challenge hatred, to seek justice, and to be a prophetic voice that refuses to accept lies as truth.  But how do we stay on the right path?  How do we separate the lies from truth?

While preparing to write today’s sermon, I came across the story of a young monk who went to his abbot and said, “Father, what am I to do?  I cannot believe.”

The abbot responded, “Say the creed, my son.”

“But how can I say what I do not believe?”

“Say the Creed, my son.  Even when you do not believe, say the creed.”[6]

In 1934, representatives of German Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches came together in Barmen, Germany, and wrote The Theological Declaration of Barmen, a creed that is in our Book of Confessions.  The Declaration implored German Christians to listen to the words they were hearing from their government and determine whether they were from God or not.  The Declaration also encouraged German Christians to test its own words and challenged them to show that the Declaration failed to uphold scripture.  We Presbyterians later adopted The Theological Declaration of Barmen as one of our creeds because we believe that it does indeed uphold scripture.  We look to creeds that point to scripture and creeds within scripture to help us separate lies from truth.  We repeat the creeds over and over again to help us to stay on the right path, to help us to know what to believe.

Today’s scripture passage is a creedal hymn.  It reminds us whose we are.  It reminds us that if we continue repeating words that bring hope and life and unity and healing, we can indeed show the world what the kingdom of God is like.  We can choose to use our words for good or to use them for bad.  Yet, as Christians, we are duty-bound to use them for good.  Although God’s grace is a gift, something that we could never earn or deserve, accepting God’s grace costs us everything.  We do not get to hold anything or any part of our lives back.

We must strive to be more Christ-like each and every day, which is why it becomes our duty to respond to hateful words as Christ would, even if they come from a neighbor, family member, or friend.  And how would Christ respond?  He would not respond with silence.  He would respond with love, not hatred.  Not once did Jesus return evil for evil.  Yet Jesus’ love did not lead to some conflict-averse, politically correct response that tried to keep everybody happy.  No, responding in love meant speaking the truth, standing with those who are oppressed, and rejecting that which is evil.

On Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that we are not citizens of this world.  Our true and highest devotion belongs only to God, and Christ is our king.  We cannot serve two masters.  We are not under the rule of a government or a president, regardless of whether that president is good or bad.  No, we are under the rule of Christ.  We are subjects of Christ alone.

So, how does today’s creedal passage remind us of whose we are?  First of all, today’s passage reminds us that Jesus Christ is ruler over all creation.  Paul uses the word “all” eight times in our text, emphasizing that Christ is not just our king, but king of all.  Christ is king of all people, regardless of the color of their skin or their country of origin.  Christ is king of Christians and non-Christians, of nations and governments, and of all the rest of creation:  animals, plants, and even rocks.  No earthly king has ever or could ever hold a candle to that, though many believed themselves to be gods.  Only the one true God has dominion over all!  Thus, our wisdom comes from Christ, not the words of others.

Second, Paul reminds us that Christ is the firstborn of all creation and that all things were created through him and for him.  Christ existed before our earth was formed, before the first human was born, and before the first king ruled on earth.  He did not ascend to his throne.  No, he is the eternal, almighty king.  He is the beginning and the end, and in him all things hold together.  He was, and is, and forever shall be.

Third, Paul claims that “Christ’s reign is established in a paradoxical way:  through crucifixion.”[7]  Through the blood of Jesus on the cross, God has made peace with us.  “He does not rule by threat or military domination or acquisition.  He does not rule by lies or diminishing others.  His authority is not sustained by asking homage from others.  He does not subject people to himself.  His ‘kingdom,’ therefore, stands in stark contrast to other imperial rules.”[8]  His is a kingdom of peace and light.

Because Christ has already rescued us from the power of darkness, we do not have to fall into the same darkness that is taking over our country.  Instead, we can bring light.  In the words of Jesus as he preached to the crowds:  “You are the light of the world.”[9]  He did not say, “You will be the light of the world.”  He did not ask us if we wanted to be the light of the world.  He simply stated that we are the light of the world, and now we have a duty to spread God’s love and unity and to show others the joy and hope of truly knowing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  We have a commission to spread the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and ruler of all!

So, as we gear up to celebrate Thanksgiving, let us find light in the darkness that seems to be enveloping our country.  Let us find things to be thankful for.  Let us always be careful about the words that we speak or write so that we never return evil for evil.  Let us share in a meal that brings unity to the diversity within our own congregation.  Let us love one another, and then let us bring that love out into the world.  We are a beacon of light in this dark time.  Amen.

[1] Romans 1:16.

[2] Errin Haines Whack and Jay Reeves, “Ugliness of campaign spawns post-election hate,” The Columbus Dispatch, Saturday, November 12, 2016, A8.

[3] Whack & Reeves, A8.

[4] Neta Pringle, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 328.

[5] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X.

[6] Pringle, 328.

[7] Barbara J. Blodgett, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 328.

[8] Blodgett, 328 & 330.

[9] Matthew 5:14.

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What Jesus Means to Me

I am currently teaching a Bible study by Ray Jones and David Lelong titled Engage: Gospel. This study comes out of the Office of Evangelism and Church Growth of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I have enjoyed this study thoroughly, and I recommend it to any church looking to reconnect with why they are a church and to learn about evangelism. This week, our assignment is to write about what Jesus means to each of us. I thought this would make a good blog entry.

I have been seeking to know Jesus since I was three years old, which seems amazing to me now, because my son is that age. Like my son, I had been going to church all my life, but it just did not sink in to me what all this God and Jesus talk was all about until a friend of mine died. My mother explained to me that my friend Kelly had gone to live with Jesus. Then, she explained more about who Jesus is. I thought Kelly was lucky to live with Jesus, and I began wanting to learn more about Jesus.

As a young child, I could not get enough stories about Jesus. I always wanted to learn more. I knew Jesus was special and that by believing in him, I became a part of Jesus’ family. Family meant a lot to me as a small child because my father moved away to another country when I was four. I felt the loss of my father rather acutely because I adored him. Not long after my father left, I became aware that I had a heavenly father, who loved me and would never leave me, no matter what. At that point, I thought of Jesus as a really cool, older brother.

Eventually, I became a Vacation Bible School junkie. I was the kid all of the local churches would pick up to go to their VBS programs. I think I knew all of the ministers in my area. In VBS I finally understood that Jesus is also my Savior. I understood that I am a sinner and that I need to constantly ask for forgiveness for my sins. I knew that Jesus saved me from eternal separation from God because praying for forgiveness through him allows me to experience God’s grace.

My faith in Jesus Christ has been strong since I was a young three-year-old. Yet, what Jesus means to me has grown through the years. Jesus is my Lord because I pledge my allegiance to God alone, the three-in-one. I believe that Jesus is God, though don’t ask me to explain that strange math to you. Jesus is the example that I try to live into, not that I can ever be as perfect as him. I try to be a good person. I try to help others. I try to be a part of Jesus’ mission here on earth. I try to spread the knowledge of the saving love of Jesus.

Most of all, the one word that describes Jesus best for me is “love.” Jesus loves me, and Jesus loves you. Jesus loves us so much that he died on a cross so that our sins could be forgiven. I believe the ultimate act of love is giving up our lives to save others. I have heard recently that when people are asked if they would be willing to let their children die for God, they always reply that they would die in place of their children. I understand that. I would die for my child. Of course, Jesus, who is the Word, who was there in the beginning, who is God, would die for us. What greater love is there than that?

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Loved Ones with Alzheimer’s or Other Dementia

Recently, I have been thinking about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia a lot. Well, honestly, this is a topic that is often on my mind. You see, in my mother’s family most people die from Alzheimer’s disease. Three of my great grandparents and both of my mother’s parents had it, not to mention many of my great aunts.

I have to admit, I find this disease to be terrifying. I remember the first time my grandparents did not remember me. My heart broke into a million pieces. I had to walk away for a few minutes, just so they would not see me cry. You see, they were happy, and I saw no reason to disturb their happiness.

Now I worry about how many good years I have left with my mother. I am pretty sure that I have at least a decade. Yet, I wonder, “How I am going to deal with it when my mother no longer remembers me?” I also worry about my child having to go through the same ordeal with me.

When I have ministered to people who have loved ones with dementia, I mainly walk with them, letting them know I am there for them. I have walked that path myself, and I fully expect to walk it again. Sometimes we just need an ear to listen, a hand to hold. Sometimes, we need a break from our loved ones, which is why respite care is so important. Sometimes we need to hear that it is okay to tell God how we feel. It is fine to take off our kid gloves and let God know that we hurt or that we are angry this happened to our loved one. God can handle it. I have often found the psalms to be helpful prayers through the ups and downs of loving someone with dementia.

I am grateful that Clergy Against Alzheimer’s, an advocacy group that I am one of the founders of (http://www.usagainstalzheimers.org/networks/clergy), has just published a new book of meditations for caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s or other dementia (http://www.usagainstalzheimers.org/networks/clergy/seasons-caring). What a wonderful new way to minister to those caring for loved ones with dementia.

If you have found other resources helpful as you have cared for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or other dementia, I would love to hear about them.

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Music to God’s Ears

A few weeks ago, my little boy started saying “I love you” to my husband and me. It warms my heart every time I leave the house and hear him call out to me, “Bye, Mommy. I love you. Come back soon.” I love his good-night kisses and him saying “I love you” as we put him in bed.

A few nights ago, he was saying his nightly prayers with my husband and me. He ended his prayer with: “Good night. I love you, God. Amen.” Our hearts just soared. What a precious little boy we are raising. What a gift from God.

This all got me to thinking about how God is our ultimate parent. God gave us life. God is always with us. And most of all, God loves us. God patiently pours out his love upon us. He lets us make our many mistakes, and as any good parent, he wishes he could spare us the pain that we cause ourselves.

Yet, how often do we tell God that we love him? Many of our prayers are just a lot of gimmee, gimmee, gimmee. We often forget that prayer is a conversation with God. As in any good relationship, conversation is always both talking and listening. How often do we express our love and thanks to God? How often do we listen for God’s side of the conversation?

All parents love to hear their children say that they love them. They love when their children act the way they were taught to act. All parents love it when their children actually listen to them. How much more does our ultimate parent love it when we say we love him and show it with our actions? Every time we say “I love you” to God, it is music to his ears.

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Created to Be in Relationship

I just returned from the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network’s annual conference. While there, I had a great time catching up with many friends I have made over the years. The last evening, I had the privilege and great fun of sitting with two women whom I respect greatly and really like to be around. The three of us had a great time. The next morning, my two friends told me that they had both thought the other one seemed familiar. After a night’s rest, they both remembered where they knew each other from. Over thirty years ago, they had been in the same dorm clique in college. They had enjoyed each other’s company very much back then, and they found they still enjoy each other’s company.

This reminded me of a friend I met for lunch after General Assembly during the summer. My friend and I had been next door neighbors from when we were just babies and into our early toddlerhood. Somehow we remained friends over all the years through occasional letters and Christmas cards. We really enjoyed playing with each other as small children, and we enjoyed each other’s company when we met for lunch.

I am blessed with several very good friends like that. Even though I do not see them often, when we do get together, it is as though we have never been apart. It just seems that when you find true friends, you will like them and stand by them to the end. This is how God intends for our lives to be.

Our God is a God of relationship. God is in relationship within God’s self. We have a triune God, who exists in relationship. God is also in relationship with us. And God created us to be in relationship with one another. Friends make our lives more full, just as God intended.

I thank all of my friends for making my life so rich. You have all been with me through thick and thin. You held me up through my sorrows and encouraged me through my joys. You have laughed with me and cried with me. Thank you!

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Getting Burned

A month ago, I was in Florida at the Evangelism and Church Growth Conference. One of the days I was there, we had a free afternoon. My roommate and I headed to the beach to enjoy the warm sun rays. Being in a rush to get to the beach, I did not take the time to put on my sunscreen in my room. Rather, I put it on at the beach. Needless to say, the sand helped me miss a spot on my ankle, where I received a burn. Even today, I still have a dark spot where I burned.

My impatience to get to the beach makes me think how we are often too impatient to wait on God’s timing. Instead of waiting for God, we take matters into our own hands, and when we do, we get burned. Instead of going down the path that God lays out for us, we use our free will to pick the path that sometimes leads to pain.

Thankfully, we do not have a God who sits back and says, “I told you so.” Instead, we have a loving God who is full of grace. The good news is that God makes good things come from our mistakes, if we return to waiting for God’s timing. Now, the path is different, but God has a new plan for us. To hear that plan, we need to pray. And remember, prayer includes listening, just like any conversation.

As for my dark spot, it will go away. It is starting to look lighter by the day. Soon, no one will know I missed a spot in my application of sunscreen in my rush to enjoy the beach (unless you have read this, of course). But I do have to say, I have learned my lesson.

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Being a Foster Parent

Today, my foster child left for a new placement. You see, my husband and I are Respite Foster Parents. This means that we have foster children come stay with us for up to two weeks while their Foster Parents are away or in emergency situations between placements. You might think that it is safe to have a child for less than two weeks, that way your heart does not get involved, right? Well, no. You fall in love with each child the moment that you meet that child. You can see the Imago Dei (the image of God) in each child. You are reminded why Christ died for all of us.

Some of the children have pain in their eyes from the hard lives they have already lived. Those seem the hardest of all to not wrap your arms around them the moment they come into your home. You just want to take away all of the pain. Yet, you have to give them space and allow them to feel comfortable with you. You have to take your cues from the child. The best you can do is show them all the love possible. I know that Jesus Christ has never left their side and never will. I know that he felt their suffering with them. I pray for them each day.

While the child is in my home, I try to make the child feel special and loved. Well, I do love them and they are special, so this is not a hard task. I try to give them a safe place to talk. I listen to them. I respect them. When they leave, I feel sad, and I pray they find their way to good homes and have much happiness.

Today, I feel sad. I am not a person who gets depressed, but a piece of my heart goes out with each foster child who leaves my home. A piece of my heart is missing today.

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