A Sermon for November 24, 2013, Christ The King Sunday, Jeremiah 23:5-6 and Luke 17:11-21
There once was a man who skipped worship at his family’s Presbyterian church every Sunday during hunting season, as it had been his ritual for 15 years. On this particular Sunday, as the man rounded the corner on a perilous twist in the trail, he collided with a bear. The impact sent him and his rifle tumbling down the mountainside. During the fall, the rifle went one way and he went the other, landing on a rock and breaking both of his legs.
Unable to move as the bear charged toward him from the top of the mountainside, the man prayed: “Oh, Lord, I’m so sorry for skipping worship every Sunday for the last 15 years to come out here and hunt. I swear I will be a faithful church-goer if you could just forgive me and do something about this bear . . . Please make a Christian out of that bear that’s coming at me. I would be forever grateful to you Lord! Please help! ” That very instant, the bear skidded to a halt, fell to its knees, clasped its large paws together and began to pray aloud right at the man’s feet. “Dear God” the bear said, “Thank you for this food I am about to receive!”
Thank you: two short words that form a simple phrase which we’ve known and used all of our lives; a cherished sentiment that can be understood on a deeper level as thankfulness, thanksgiving, gratitude and grace. But like the hunter in the story, many people often take thank you or gratefulness for granted, promising to be thankful only after God has gotten them out of harm’s way.
Like the guy, who after a wild Saturday night of drinking, tightly hugs the toilet early on a Sunday morning and cries: “Please God, don’t let me be sick anymore! Oh God please! I’ll go to church every Sunday if you’ll just let me feel better. I would be so grateful and I’ll do anything you want!”
Or the girl who after causing a minor traffic accident in which no one was hurt says, “Thank you God, this could’ve been a lot worse! Thank you!”
Sometimes, folks don’t wait till something bad happens to say thank you. Instead, a person might utter the expression when they’re in a rush as an automated or trained response, never actually stopping to ponder why they should be thankful.
Like the college graduate who is headed to an important interview in downtown Atlanta but gets lost walking around, and has to duck into a restaurant to ask for directions. As soon as help is given, the graduate, anxious to make the interview on time, rushes out the door with a fleeting, “thanks.”
But then there are some businesspeople that master the art of skipping thankfulness all together! Walk into any store or mall and one will find Christmas decorations and products that have been on display since Halloween. Open up the newspaper sales pages; flip on the TV to commercials; or surf the Internet and a person will be bombarded with ads about the latest and greatest Christmas sale and gift. Thanksgiving is ignored for the most part, possibly because it is boring when compared to Halloween and Christmas.
No glitz and thrills. No bold and striking colors. No flashing lights or fun songs. No exciting presents. Just boring orange, yellow and brown leaf decorations, a brown turkey and yellowy-orange-ish side-dishes with brown stuff crumbled on top, along with just a splash of something green—albeit a drab olive green.
There’s just not much profit and manufactured happiness to be gained from giving thanks in today’s self-centered consumerist culture of power and entitlement.
But maybe it’s the lack of gratitude we see in our culture that has prompted so many people throughout the month to daily give thanks on Facebook and other social media sites for the small and large things in their life. Or quite possibly it’s caused several people to say more prayers of thanksgiving while in worship or at home.
On November 1, my wife Elizabeth introduced our family to a new way of showing gratitude by making a “Give Thanks” banner with a felt leafless tree in the center. Each night after dinner, my mother-in-law Anne, Elizabeth and our daughter Katie and I say what we are thankful for and write that particular thing on a red, orange, brown or green leaf. Then Katie tapes each leaf onto the tree. Over time, the tree (and each of us) has become more beautiful and vibrant with these leaves that express thankfulness to God for family, friends, food, resiliency, music, dogs, teachers and dinosaurs.
The Rev. Lynne M. Baab, a Presbyterian minister in Seattle who created a denominational Bible study entitled Gratitude as a Spiritual Discipline writes that prayers of thankfulness “transform us because they help us develop habits of noticing God’s work in our lives.” She says further:
These prayers teach us to pay attention to the good gifts of God that surround us. We develop habits of gratitude, and these habits make our hearts more open to God’s presence in our lives…When we thank God, we acknowledge that we love God and that we are grateful for our relationship with God. Expressing our thanks to God also acknowledges our dependence on God.
“Developing habits of gratitude” is important for Christians to acknowledge and practice. The prolific Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that:
“During November we reach the conclusion of the church year. We remember our dead (All Saints Day) and ponder the God of life. We begin Advent and the season of alert waiting for the newness that God will give. Between…is Thanksgiving. Perhaps thanksgiving is the right segue from old to new. It’s appropriate that the great festival of gratitude should provide the transition from old to new. Gratitude is, in the life of faith, for every season. It is characteristic in American Thanksgiving that we look back and remember the pilgrims and God’s providential care for them. Lodged next to Advent, Thanksgiving is not only for remembering; it waits and it expects. Faithful gratitude believes that the God who has given good gifts has more good gifts to give. While God’s gifts are welcome…they do disrupt… God’s gift of mercy interrupts our hard-hearted indifference. God’s gift of justice exposes our systemic injustice.”
God’s gift of mercy and justice—which disturbs our apathy and reveals a system of inequality, prejudice and oppression—is none other than the God-in-the-flesh Jesus, “the king of kings and the lord of lords.”
It is quite fitting that Christians around the world begin their week of Thanksgiving, which precedes the season of Advent, by celebrating Christ the King Sunday. On its website, the PC(USA) explains:
“The church gives thanks and praise for the sovereignty of Christ, who is Lord of all creation. The festival of Christ the King ends our marking of Ordinary Time…and moves us to the threshold of Advent, the season of hope for Christ’s coming into our lives. Christ’s truth judges falsehood…. In Christ, all things began and in Christ all things will be fulfilled. As sovereign ruler, Christ calls us to a loyalty that transcends every earthly claim on the human heart. To Christ alone belongs the supreme allegiance in our lives.’”
As I shared with the children earlier in the service, Jesus the King does not fit our earthly traditions, experiences, ideas and images of royalty, power and prestige.
Jesus is not a king like the Israel monarchs or the Roman emperors of his time nor is Jesus like any crowned figurehead, dictator, world leader or president that has existed throughout history.
Jesus is not a king who comes riding in on a horse, brandishing a sword or a riding atop a tank, sporting a machine-gun as some renowned Christian preachers would have you believe.
Jesus is not a bloodthirsty revenge seeking warrior king or a ruthless drug kingpin as some aspects of pop culture depict Jesus to be.
No, Jesus is the King of love and peace because Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace-filled sovereignty in our world and lives.
And this all-knowing, almighty, mysterious King arrives not as a power-hungry, oppressive deity seeking to wipe out sinners and evildoers.
But as a small defenseless child born into poverty—no less a cow trough in the poorest part of town.
A child that grows into a man, who breaks bread with outcasts, heals the sick, visits the prisoner and loves the marginalized, “the other.”
A man who reigns wisely and does what is just and right in the land, according to the prophet Jeremiah, not through acts of coercion and violence but through the supreme act of unconditional, selfless, suffering love.
That is the King Jesus whom we recognize and give thanks for being in our lives and world. That is the surprise gift of our faith that doesn’t come packaged in shiny ribbons and fancy paper or gold jewelry, expensive metal and hefty bank accounts.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that only one of the 10 lepers cured by Jesus turned back toward him, dropped to his knees and gave praise and thanks to God for the healing. That one leper recognized the true Christ the King–the justice, mercy and love of the sovereign God in Christ. And he responded with gratitude.
In a commentary on this passage, R. Alan Culpepper says that:
“Gratitude may be the purest measure of one’s character and spiritual condition. The absence of the ability to be grateful reveals self-centeredness or the attitude that I deserve more than I ever get, so I do not need to be grateful… The grateful person reveals humility of spirit and a sensitivity to love expressed by others. The grateful person, therefore, regards others’ acts of kindness and experiences of God’s grace with profound gratitude.”
When we adopt a habit of gratitude for ordinary acts of kindness and experiences of God’s grace, we are ultimately giving thanks to the God who created and rules our lives—the Christ who is the King of our hearts.
After the healing of the 10 lepers, the religious leaders ask Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming as if the kingdom can be observed empirically by astronomy or natural science. Jesus tells them that the kingdom can’t be detected in such a precise way but that “the kingdom of God is among you.”
Like the King himself, the kingdom of God also defies our earthly labels. The kingdom of God is not a conquering war in the Middle East or a luxurious island resort or a mega church with stores and a coffee shop or a wealthy gated community or a landlocked sovereign city-state ruled by one religious leader.
The kingdom of God exists among ordinary, boring, sinful, broken people who are created and chosen to share God’s mercy, justice and peace with others.
And this kingdom is forever ruled by Christ the King, who in the fullness of humanity, freely gave us the gift of divine love and who promises even now that there are more good gifts of grace to come.
Thanks be to God!
 “God’s Reign Cracks into Our World” by Walter Bruegemann, Sojourners magazine, November 2010.
 The image in the top left corner is a T-shirt design (featured on the popular website Tee Fury) that is based on the iconic character Walter White of the acclaimed TV show Breaking Bad. The show is about a high school chemistry teacher who resorts to making and dealing meth to take care of his family after learning he has terminal cancer. The artist of the T-shirt named the design “King of Kings” in reference to Walter White’s drug kingpin alter ego Heisenberg and his anti-hero allure. The artist is likely not intending to make a statement about Jesus but using the phrase to describe Walter White is counter to the King of Kings we know in scripture and in our faith journeys. The other depictions of Jesus are all courtesy of Google Images.
 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Commentary on Gospel of Luke by Alan R. Culpepper, 1995
 No offense to Pope Francis. I like the guy and I am thrilled about what he is doing to make the Catholic church more relevant and to truly live out a gospel message that commands us to love “the other.” That said, and I think the Pope would agree, Catholic leaders in Rome do treat their Vatican City as if it was the one true kingdom of God.