My third sermon: Kings in Unexpected Places

November 24, 2013
Christ the King Sunday
Luke 23:33-43
American Lutheran Church, Lincoln

Good morning!  As was mentioned earlier, I’m Day Hefner and I work for the Nebraska Synod office.  And I appreciate the opportunity to be here today to share a little bit with you about our work through Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries in Omaha.  To be honest, I’m a little new at this whole preaching thing — actually, this is the third sermon I’ve ever preached!  (I hope you like it!)

I’m still sort of wading my way out into the deep end of Lutheran theology.  So when I first read the Gospel text for today, after learning I’d be preaching on “Christ the King” or the “Reign of Christ” Sunday, I was a little perplexed.  I mean, yeah, it talks about Christ as a king, but it’s nothing like the image that a “king” brings to mind.  In this story, it’s a joke — a cruel mockery of the strong, conquering military leader that the Israelites had been hoping for.  This isn’t King Christ laying waste to enemies and reclaiming the promised land.  This isn’t Christ resurrected, victorious over the grave, laughing in the face of those who killed him.  This isn’t even Christ riding triumphantly into Jerusalem, knowing he’s going to be killed.  The image we’re given today of Christ the King is Christ crucified.  Christ weak, vulnerable, dying.  It’s heartbreaking.  

As we watch Christ humiliated, tortured, it’s easy to see in his broken body the apparent failure of his earthly mission.  We are tempted to cry out as the one criminal does — “You’re the Messiah!  You’re the Son of God!  What are you waiting for?  Save yourself!  Save us!”  How often do we utter this cry in our own lives?  In the face of hunger, poverty, illness, and all that is not right with the world?  What are you waiting for, God?  Save these people.  Save us.  Other Gospel accounts tell us how Christ’s own disciples flee the scene.  They walked with him personally and were told from the beginning that this would happen — must happen — but when they see this man who was meant to be king dying a criminal’s death, they are overcome with hopelessness and fear.

The one person who inexplicably “gets it” in this whole scenario is the other criminal being crucified.  He calls out the criminal mocking Jesus, saying, “Do you not fear God?  We’re being punished because we deserve it, but this man has done nothing wrong!”  Then he makes the most extraordinary request of Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Now, to us, this may not sound so striking.  We’ve heard these words a hundred times and we know how the story ends; we know that Christ really is king.  But what was there in this scene that spoke that truth to this common criminal?  What was it about this battered, dying man hanging on a cross that said “King”?  Jesus’s own followers lost faith at the sight of him being led to his death.  Yet, somehow, in Jesus’s greatest moment of weakness, this man perceives his power and acknowledges Jesus as king.

This is one of the most powerful messages we receive from the cross.  It is not in Jesus’s life and ministry that he is most truly recognized as king, but in his suffering and death.  It’s a message that where there is suffering in the world, where there is desperation and weakness and need, Christ is there.  Christ is there walking with those who are in need, strengthening their hope by sharing their suffering.  Christ’s kingdom does not begin with the wealthy and powerful, but with the poor, the hungry, the criminal, and the outcast whose voices are not heard.

At Lutheran Metro Ministries, that is where we meet Christ — in the place where his kingdom is strongest.  Our ministry is centered in North Omaha, a community that daily struggles with poverty, violence, homelessness, chronic hunger, and food insecurity — that is, not knowing where your next meal’s coming from.  We provide emergency assistance to those in need:  assistance with paying utilities, transportation assistance, fuel assistance, and also food pantries at locations in south Omaha and First Lutheran in Omaha.  We maintain a free closet of professional clothing and are dedicated to helping people figure out where they need to go.

But our real ministry goes much deeper than this handful of short-term aid solutions.  The Lutheran Metro Ministries staff and volunteers get to know each person who walks through the door by name, and truly care about what’s happening in their lives.  People aren’t just checked off a list and sent on their way.  We believe strongly in being present with these people in the midst of their suffering, as Christ was and is; we believe in being in community with those we seek to serve, and that means we listen to stories and learn the context, and let the way we serve each person grow naturally out of that.

My very first day at Lutheran Metro Ministries, I was helping fill out paperwork for people who had come seeking food from the food pantry at our neighbors, Project Hope.  One of the women I assisted was a Mexican woman named Maria.  She had come for the food, but when she learned that I speak Spanish, she stuck around for conversation.  As we talked, her story came tumbling out, and I learned that she had recently been laid off from work, and was now left with the challenging task of raising three kids on her own after her husband walked out on them.  She had done some digging online and had found some promising leads for jobs; however, she had no transportation of her own to get to the interviews, no money for bus tickets, and no professional clothes to wear once she got to the interview.

Well, gosh! — I said — we’ve got bus tickets!  We’ve got clothes!  And best of all, we’ve got our main staffperson, Francine Wise, who, I swear, knows everyone in Omaha.  She can give you all kinds of connections for where to look for a job and where to find any other kinds of immediate assistance you might need.  By the time Maria left, she had a suit jacket and skirt over one arm, a grocery sack full of food, a long list of phone numbers to call, and a fistful of bus tickets.  And just as importantly, she walked out with a smile, knowing there was somewhere she could come where people actually cared about helping her.  She knew she had a place to come with problems that just seemed too large to deal with alone, where instead of being told, “I’m sorry, but we don’t do that here, that’s not our problem,” she’d be welcomed with, “Let’s figure this out together.”  A huge chunk of the ministry that goes on at Lutheran Metro Ministries is exactly that: figuring things out together.  Accompanying people in their troubles.

In addition to the services we provide directly, a lot of the ministry we do actually happens over the phone.  One of our major strengths is a network of connections with aid agencies throughout the greater Omaha area.  If there’s a service we don’t provide directly, we will get on the phone and find it.  Recently, we served a 76-year-old gentleman whose gas and water had been turned off — for four years.  He had fallen off of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s radar and wasn’t sure where to turn for help.  So he just bundled himself up in the wintertime and slept under extra blankets to try to keep warm.  A few simple phone calls was all it took to clear up the problem.  Francine called the utilities companies and convinced them to forgive the old balances and they turned the gas and water back on.  Day in and day out, our phone rings off the hook with calls much like this one.

One of the things that really drives this kind of service is the humble recognition that we are no different from the people who come to us seeking help.  We strive to do for them what we would have them do for us if the tables were turned.  They are our neighbors, as Jesus has said, and we realize that there often isn’t much more than luck separating our situations from theirs.

A great reminder of this came through Dave, a man that Lutheran Metro Ministries served not long ago.  Dave was a wealthy businessman who had climbed his way to the top.  He had made his way up the corporate ladder and had carved out a very successful, lucrative career for himself.  But when his parents both got deathly sick, he moved back to Omaha and ended up spending all he had to take care of them.  Finally, his father died, followed by his mother a few years later.  Left on his own in Omaha, Dave struggled to find work and make ends meet.  Eventually, he took a job driving clients around to different aid agencies in Omaha.  His route often led him to Lutheran Metro Ministries, but he never came in or made direct contact — until he was threatened with eviction from his apartment.

Desperate, he called the office, and staff worked with another agency to stop the eviction.  Francine directly contacted Dave’s landlord, who turned out to be a member of a church that regularly donates to Lutheran Metro Ministries.  She was shocked to find out we were involved and spoke about how impressed she was with all the work the ministry does.  In the end, Dave was able to keep his apartment and is now working to get back on his feet.  He swears that once he’s able, he will be a solid LMM supporter for life.  That will make him one of three people I’ve met in my short time at Lutheran Metro Ministries who have gone from receiving assistance from us to giving back assistance to us so that we may continue to help others.

These are the places that Christ shows up.  In every encounter with his children who come to us seeking help, in every relationship formed with people whose experience is different from ours, in every moment we realize that maybe they are not so different from us, we experience the kingdom of Christ.  The kingdom of Christ works in us and through us.  All of you here at American Lutheran are part of this.  You share in the work of bringing Christ’s kingdom to the world.  You do this as individuals in the lives you touch day by day, letting the light of your faith shine on the people around you.  You do this as a congregation through the relationships you form with the community around you, by supporting groups like Lincoln Literacy, the Girl Scouts of America, CROP walk, the Lincoln Lutheran Food Pantry, and others.  And you do this as a mission center, contributing your share to the Synod, where every last dollar goes toward bringing Christ’s kingdom to every corner of Nebraska, and even further out into the world.  One of every six people in Nebraska is touched by the work your Synod does.  And it is the generous support from communities like yours that enables Lutheran Metro Ministries and other ministries throughout our Synod to do their good work on your behalf.  Together, in Christ, we are making beautiful things happen here and now.

Which brings us back to the story.  This criminal dying on the cross humbly asks Jesus to remember him, someday, when he comes into his kingdom.  Nothing more.  But Jesus, in his extravagant love, says to the man, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  His response carries two beautiful promises.  One is that promise of paradise — the reign of Christ we celebrate today, where all are welcome, and where tears will be wiped away and sorrow will be no more.  The other promise, just as beautiful, is that this isn’t some distant future for our descendants to enjoy.  Jesus says now!  Today!  Today you will be with me in Paradise!  Today, my kingdom comes.  And it comes through us, Christ’s body on earth, the church.  God has given us the power to make all people welcome, to wipe away tears, and to lift sorrows.  God has given us hearts for justice, and the power to feed the hungry, to care for the sick and the dying, and to love those who need our love.  God gives us the power to bring Christ’s kingdom now.  Today.

Today, American Lutheran, on your Mission Sunday, it is your turn.  Where will you spread the extravagant love with which Christ has loved you?  How will you bring the reign of Christ to the community around you?  What will they see in you that speaks the truth that Christ is King?

Amen.

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About Day Hefner

Day Hefner is a seminarian at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago (LSTC), going through the candidacy process to become an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Before moving to Chicago for seminary, she worked teaching English and job skills to refugees and immigrants in her native state of Nebraska, and also spent a year on staff at the Nebraska Synod office. Prior to that, she served for four years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Currently, she works part-time as an itinerant preacher. Her interests include Latinx ministry and immigration activism, as well as interfaith and development/redevelopment ministry. She also has a degree in music, loves cats, and is an avid crafter.
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