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A Kingdom of Nobodies

Sermon - 11/25/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 23:33-43

The text I want to reflect on this morning comes from the crucifixion story, from the 23rd chapter of the gospel of Luke:

33When 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. 34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’  And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And 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!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

We come on this Sunday after Thanksgiving to the end of the church's year, the liturgical year.  Because next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, which is the beginning of the church year.  The Sunday when we 'start over', we look for a fresh, new coming of God.  We Duck fans wish we could start the football season over J.  But next Sunday we look for those ways that God comes into our world in new and unexpected ways.

But this Sunday is more about looking back than looking forward.  And it is on the church's calendar, on the liturgical calendar, called "Christ the King Sunday".  Hence the reading this morning from this passage, to help us reflect on the nature of Jesus as King, and the nature of that kingship.  To remind us that Jesus is the one who reigns, who sits at the right hand of God, to whom our allegiance belongs, above all others.

So before we enter into that advent season and start singing carols about Kings from the Orient Afar, we stop and take this notion, to take a look back at the kingship of Jesus.

And I want to do so this morning by drawing a picture.  This triangle here, may be a pyramid, we'll use this morning to represent the class structure of agrarian societies.  And especially that first century society.  We'll call it 'The World of Jesus':

This world is divided into 2 groups -- the upper class and the lower class.  There was no 'middle class'.  And because there was no middle class in ancient societies, we're drawn a gap between those 2 classes.

That upper class had essential 4 groups in it -- the Rulers who are in charge, the Retainers who are the bureaucrats that keep it moving (the lawyers, the scribes, the soldiers, the ones who preserve this structure), there are the Merchants who make the business happen, and lastly, there is the Priestly class, the religious leaders, the ones that provide the theological justification for this structure.

And then you have the lower class.  In that, the first group are the Peasants.  We typically think of Peasants as being the poorest of the poor, but that was not the case in ancient agrarian societies.  The peasants were the ones that provided the economic engine for this structure.  They're the farmers, they're the ones who have a little piece of land, growing things, producing things.  They are the ones who are paying most of the taxes.  They constitute about 60% of ancient agrarian society.

Below the peasants -- surprisingly for most folks -- are the Artisans.  The bricklayers and the carpenters.  We tend to think of Jesus as a carpenter, his father as a carpenter, being a step above the peasants.  Actually the reverse was the case because the artisans who had to work with their hands did not have a plot of land that they could use to sustain themselves, support themselves.  So they're forced to go out there and compete in a very difficult labor market, and are usually a step below the peasants.

Below them are the Unclean, the people who do the jobs that no one else wants to do -- the undertakers, the street sweepers, garbage folks.

And lastly, the Destitute.  The disposable class.  In Chinese agrarian society, a great example of this last class are the rickshaw drivers.  The average life-span of a rickshaw driver in agrarian Chinese society is 5 years.  It's a very tough life.  They literally work themselves to death -- they're disposable.

Now, this is the basic class structure of the first century.

Your role is now to name for me the people in the life of Jesus, and to put them in this structure.  Let's start first with the friends of Jesus -- name all the folks you can think of, that come to mind, who are the friends of Jesus [the following was the result from the congregation]:

Now, name for me the enemies of Jesus [the following was the result from the congregation]:

Judas is an interesting one -- on the one hand, he's part of the 12, but think about Judas, what does he do?  He's the treasurer of the 12.  He's the one that knows where to go to turn Jesus in.  I kind of think Judas belongs toward the upper class.  That may tell us something about his frame of mind, why he's the one who betrays Jesus.

Now isn't this interesting -- look at that picture.  What do you note?

Take note also how Luke begins his story.  Who are the first characters in Luke's gospel?  The parents of John the Baptist -- Elizabeth and Zechariah.  They're priestly, but they're barren -- they're abandoned by God.  And hence probably part of that lower group, even though they come originally from a priestly class.

And then you get to the end of the story, the criminals who are crucified with Jesus definitely part of this group (the lower class).  From beginning to end, you see, the mission of Jesus, the Kingdom of Jesus, was predominantly from this lower group.

This is Christ the King.  His kingdom is a parody of earthly power, represented by that upper group.  A kingdom of nobodies.  And that's precisely why Jesus entered Jerusalem -- most intentionally -- on a donkey, mocking the powerful processions of Roman rulers.

Think about the stories that Jesus tells.  Stories about peasant farmers sowing seeds, about shepherds looking for sheep, stories comparing the kingdom of God to that woman who was so poor that if she loses a single coin she's got to sweep the entire house in order to find it.  When was that last time you did that, looking for a dime or a quarter?  The story of great banquets where the blind and the lame are brought in off the street to sit at the banquet table.

And then when Jesus tells stories about the upper group, how do they fare?  The story of Lazarus and the rich man, Lazarus at his table and his door begging for crumbs, and then in the next life it's the rich man in torment.  The story of the rich farmer (part of the Merchant class) who builds bigger barns so he can sit back and retire, eat, drink, and be merry and live off of his '401K'.  And God says to him "fool!", your life this night will be taken.  That rich ruler that comes to Jesus and says 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?'.  And Jesus asks 'Did you keep the commandments?'  "Yeah, I've done that".  Then Jesus says 'What you must do is go and sell all that you have, give it to the lower class, come and follow me'.  But he's part of the upper group, he can't do that.  And so he leaves sad, because he was exceedingly rich.

Jim Wallis, in his book "God's Politics" that we're reading in our Monday-morning group, notes:  "The best known scripture about the poor is also the most misinterpreted scripture".  What is that scripture?  "The poor will always be with you".  Which typically is interpreted as 'There is nothing you can do about poverty because the poor will always be with you'.  So why bother trying.  But that's not what Jesus was saying at all.

Remember that story?  "That woman", you know the one I'm taking about (down there in the lower class), pours out that expensive perfume on the head of Jesus and they complain 'What a waste!  We could have sold it, we could have used that money to really help somebody'.  And then the famous response of Jesus:  "Leave her alone, she has done a good thing.  You will always have the poor with you, you can show kindness to them whenever you want".  We often forget the second half of that sentence.  "But you won't always have me".

So the question is:  why will they always have the poor with them?  And it is because if they are followers of Jesus, where are they?  Who are they spending their time with?  The lower class.

This scene takes place in the 14th chapter of Mark's gospel in the home of Simon the leper.  Part of that 'unclean' class.  The point of the story is exactly the opposite of the way it is most often used.  The poor will be with us when we are following Jesus.

Wallis says "The critical difference between Jesus' disciples and a middle-class church is precisely this:  our lack of proximity to the poor". 

I'll never forget James Forbes from Riverside Church (in New York City) when he was here in 2004 as part of the "Let Justice Roll" campaign, and he told us:  "No one gets to heaven without a reference letter from the poor".

Ernie Unger, I just happened to catch on this morning on the radio, talking about the work of the rescue mission, and said that some of the finest people he has ever met have been at the front door of the rescue mission.  You see, poverty is a moral and a religious issues that is at the core of our faith.  Jim Wallis says that when he was in seminary, he and some friends (you know how students are, they can get radical) took a Bible and they literally cut out every single text that had anything to do with wealth or poverty.  When they got done, they had a Bible that was so full of holes, it would barely hold together.  That is the Bible that we too often use -- a Bible full of holes.

I don't know if you've noticed, there's this little conversation going on about healthcare across the nation.  Got these people talking all about it, traveling around the country.  We call them presidential candidates.  It's no wonder it's an issue -- 45 million Americans have no health insurance, the number is growing.  Over 8 million children who have no health insurance.  We are the only industrialized nation that has this problem.  I learned a couple weeks ago in a workshop sponsored by the Human Rights Commission of the City of Eugene that one of the reasons for that is because we view healthcare as a privilege (something you have to earn), rather than a right (as declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  Article 25:  "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care".  And even though our government was instrumental in the formulation of that declaration of human rights (remember, Eleanor Roosevelt had led the effort), and it has been ratified by almost all of the nations of the world, we have not yet ratified it.

Our failure to reform the way that we provide healthcare has left us at the bottom among Western nations in just about every measurement of health statistics you can find.  From live births to longevity.  So it does not matter who we elect as our next president if we do not get some kind of meaningful healthcare reform for all of our citizens -- it will be a disgrace.

This is not really a political issue, I don't think, I think it is a moral issue.  It is a religious issue of the highest order, and we -- as people of faith -- need to demand better from our government on behalf of the voiceless poor, the ill, the nobodies in our society.

So look at what Jesus did when he was with this group.  The two principle signs of that kingdom were food and healing.  Stands in direct contrast to what the political kingdom of his day was doing.  When Jesus wasn't eating with lepers, tax collectors, and sinners, he was feeding the crowd.  When he wasn't feeding the crowd, he was healing the blind and the lame.  When he wasn't healing the blind and the lame, he was curing those possessed -- we call them today the mentally ill.  And when he wasn't curing and healing and feeding and eating with these folks, he was telling stories about others who were doing those things.

Providing food for the hungry, healthcare for the uninsured, are probably among the most important things we can do as a community of faith striving to follow Jesus.  Building a kingdom of nobodies.

One last story from Jim Wallis.  In that neighborhood, just 20 blocks from the Capital Building, he says there's an old Pentecostal woman, Mary Glover, who taught him more about the call of Jesus than any seminary professor he'd ever had.  Mary, he says, was a self-appointed missionary to the poor.  A regular volunteer in their food basket program.  And because she was such a great 'pray-er', she was one of those people that when she prayed you just knew that she knew that person to whom she was praying.  So they would call upon her to give the blessing before they opened up the doors to provide food for people in the community.  People would come just to hear Mary pray.  And she would pray:

"Thank you Lord, for waking us up this morning!  Thank you Lord that our walls were not our grave, and our bed was not our cooling floor!  Thank you Lord!".

And she would continue to thank the Lord for all kinds of things, and then invariably she would say:  "Lord, we know that you will be coming through this line today, so Lord, help us to treat you well".

Wallis says that there in the shadows of Washington's power you learn from Mary Glover who was really important in the kingdom of God.  

He quotes Mary so often in his speaking engagements around the country (even around the world), he said that prayer of Mary Glover can now be found in the official prayer book of the World Council of Churches.  He told Mary that, thought it would please her.  She was amazed, she was just a humble Christian woman, and she asked:  "What's a council of churches?"

Gifted blind composer Ken Medema wrote this song about Mary Glover:

      I'm just a coal black Jesus with a hole in his shoes,
          On a D.C. street with no more to lose,
          Get into the line and there you'll stand
          And sing, "Sweet Mother Mary, put some food in my hand."
          A coal black Jesus with a hole in his shoes,
          On a D.C. street we got no more to lose,
          Get into the line and there you'll stand
          Saying, "Sweet Mother Mary, put some food in my hand."

You see, Mary Glover knows that in Jesus' kingdom, everybody is somebody.


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