Dancing in the Streets with Jesus, Old First Sermon 11.24.13

Dancing in the Streets with Jesus, Old First Sermon 11.24.13

Psalm 46 and Colossians 1:11-20.

Today is Christ the King Sunday.
If you aren’t sure exactly what that means, you are not alone.

I’ve always known, well at least since my seminary years,
that it was the last Sunday of the liturgical year.
Right before we get started again with Advent.

But for the first 20 years of my ministry, I mostly overlooked it.
Oh, I may have preached a sermon or two about how the Reign of God
is an alternative and an affront to the Roman Empire
and all the Empires thereafter
with their claims to “be all and end all” status.

But mostly — I’m not proud of this — I ducked.

On the congregational side of the UCC,
where I served most of my ministry,
this Sunday…
well, one can always opt for indian corn and wild turkeys,
dour black outfits with big buckles and hats and some doeskin loincloths,
the pilgrims and the native americans,
the first thanksgiving.
And a resounding congregational rendition of ”Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”

But when I got to Old First, something happened.
Maybe it was “Reform mystique.”
I’d finish my preaching schedule for the fall in late August,
or more often early September,
and give it to Julie to start working on musical selections.

She’d scan it…
and amongst a few stray comments here or there,
— in that Julie way —
she’d say something like,
“Nov. 24th, that’s Christ the King Sunday, right?”

I always nodded my head heartily,
hoping that my agreement would hide that we were sort of skipping that one,
… guilty that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this day in the liturgical calendar.

Here it is again, Christ the King Sunday.
But now Julie is retired,
and Louis didn’t mention a thing about it,
–maybe because he’s too new,
or because he was sick last week…

But I got up my courage and wrote Julie to ask:
“I’ve been more aware of Christ the King Sunday.
since I’ve been at Old First because it was on your radar.
What’s it mean to you?” 

Pretty smooth, huh? Slid right by the unedited, rawer version,
“Steiner, with you, I haven’t been able to ignore it, because you always remembered it.”

See, Louis, a pastor who can work with his musician!
None of that struggle stuff with me:
we’re in this together;
it behooves a minister to ask the musician about her or his faith and insights…
We’re more working together than we can be on our own… or struggling with one another!

And what did I get back?
Classic Julie:
“Huh? It’s the end of ordinary time…”
(Julie knew I knew what that meant, but just in case,
since we’re not all that churchy here,
“ordinary time” — that’s the long season after Pentecost)

Julie wrote: “It’s the end of ordinary time —
and mostly, there are some nice anthems with that kingly vibe. 

And I like that you have one Sunday of Christ the King
and then you go right back to Advent,
wondering when the “king” will show up,
and getting a baby instead. 

It isn’t a big part of my theological ‘whatever’
(not that I have much of a ‘theological whatever’ anyway),
but I’m fond of the church year
and like to hit all the possible celebrations and accompanying hymnody.”

Yes, church, faith and faithfulness is this wonderful mysterious combination of holy things,
profound and mundane,
familiar sights and sounds bumping up against eternal mysteries,
all mixing together in sensitive souls.

To Julie’s insight, I want to add another story.
It’s of Simchat Torah,
the Jewish holiday that crowns the season of Sukkot
with a celebration of the Torah.
For our Jewish neighbors, it was back in September.

The Hebrew “Simchat Torah” means, “Praising the Torah,”
and involves removing the Torah scrolls from the ark,
so the congregation can leave their seats to dance with the Torah.

In — for me — the most wonderful manifestation of Simchat Torah,
the whole congregation and their Torahs and their dancing
pour out into the street in a show of their thankfulness and pride
in being Jewish.

My insight into Christ the King Sunday this year
comes from a story about a Simchat Torah celebration that goes like this:

Henryk was very young in 1945,
when the War ended
and solitary survivors frantically searched for their missing relatives.

Henryk had spent most of his remembered life with his nanny,
a Catholic woman who’d taken the child
and hidden him away from the Nazis at his father’s request.
There was great personal risk involved,
but the woman had readily accepted the responsibility,
as she loved the boy.

The Jews were being deported if not killed on the spot,
and Henryk’s nanny rightfully never expected Henryk’s father,
Joseph Foxman, to survive the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto.
If he did survive, he would have been sent Auschwitz -—
and even before the war ended, people in Vilna realized
no one was expected to come back from Auschwitz.

She therefore never doubted she should adopt the boy,
and for his own safety, have him baptized and raised in the Catholic church.

But Joseph did somehow survive,
and it was on that first Simchat Torah after the war
that the father arrived came to claim his son.

The heartbroken nanny, as she packed the little boy’s clothing,
included his small catechism book,
stressing to Joseph that his son had become a good Catholic.

As the started off, walking away from the house,
–they hadn’t gone very far,
when the boy passed the local Catholic church.

Henryk reverently crossed himself
because he’d been taught one does so
when one passes by the consecrated elements.

When a priest who Henryk recognized emerged from the church,
he dropped his dad’s hand and rushed over to kiss the priest’s hand.
The priest greeted him, tossled his hair, and reminded him of his Catholic faith.

All this caused Joseph great anguish,
and everything inside of him wanted to snatch his son from the priest and the church.

But he knew this was not the way to do things —
after all it was this community that had welcomed and harbored and saved his child’s life.

He nodded to the priest, and lifted his son up in his arms.

More than anything else, Joseph wanted to reintroduce Avraham to Judaism, living Judaism.
Joseph decided to take his son directly to the holiday celebration
at the Great Synagogue of Vilna.

As they were walking to schul,
the father explained to his son
— who clearly couldn’t have made much sense of it —
that he was a Jew and that his real name was Avraham.

When they entered the old synagogue,
it was clearly, tragically just a remnant
of a past, vibrant Jewish community in Vilna.

There were some survivors,
but the reality of their suffering and terrible loss was visible in their number and in their faces and bodies.

But despite all that, it was Simchat Torah,
so this little band of survivors was singing and dancing,
making the 7 circles with the few Torah scrolls
that against all odds had also survived the destruction.

Avraham stared wide-eyed at what was for him
a foreign religious celebration.
Somehow however he picked up a tattered prayer book
with a touch of affection.
Something deep inside of him was responding,
and he felt happiness to be there with the father he barely knew.

Also in the synagogue for the holy day,
there was a Jewish man wearing a Soviet Army uniform.
The soldier could not take his eyes off the boy.
Finally, he came over to Joseph,
and asked, “Is this child… Jewish?”
Joseph nodded.

“Over these terrible past four years,” the soldier explained,
“I have traveled thousands of miles and seen untold atrocities,
and through all this, Avraham is the first living Jewish child
I have come across in all this time…”

The soldier bent down to Henryk-Avraham,
fighting to hold back tears.
“Boychik, would you like to dance with the Torahs… with me, on my shoulders ?”

The little boy looked to his father, who this time nodded permission.

The soldier hoisted the boy high onto his shoulders and
with a heart full of joy,
the soldier joined in the dancing with the Torah scrolls.
About Avaraham, he declared exuberantly, “He’s my Torah scroll.”

Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League
— the Avraham in our story —
remembers this as his first conscious feeling
of a connection with Judaism and of being a Jew.
(Adapted from “This Is My Torah Scroll” by Ruth Benjamin and found on chabad.org.)

How’s my Simchat Torah story, moving as it might be, relate to Christ the King Sunday?
Let me explain.

It turns out that Christ the King
is a late-comer to the ecclesiastical calendar.
It got it’s start in a 1925 encyclical from Pope Pius XI.

The pope was trying to set up a bulwark
against the rising tide of nationalism in Europe after WWI.

At first the celebration of Christ the King occurred
right before All Saints Sunday
— when we Protestants usually celebrate Reformation Sunday.
From 1925 until 1969,
Christ the King was the last Sunday in October.

But then Pope Paul VI moved Christ the King to
the last Sunday of the liturgical year
to give it the eschatological significance that Julie rightly noted:

We have Christ the King,
Then we move right into Advent wondering when the “king” will come.
And we get a baby instead.

But how’s Simchat Torah tie in?
Well, it’s also the end of the cycle of lectionary readings.
Simchat Torah is day in the synagogue when the last Torah portions are read.

And more pointedly, in Judaism,
the Torah plays roughly the same role
as Christ does in Christianity.

Sometimes we Christians describe our difference with Judaism as,
We have our Messiah, while they are still waiting on theirs.

But better, more accurate, is to think:
Jew’s have the Torah as their bridge to
or way of connecting with God
as for Christians, that bridge and connection are in Christ.

So Praising the Torah for Jews would translate to Praising Christ for Christians.
(You might notice our hymns this morning.)

So my question to us on Christ the King Sunday,
how do we celebrate Jesus?

Do you, do we ever dance for joy because we have Jesus?

Do we take him out of whatever box the church keeps him in?

Do we take him with us out in streets,
to share with pride and exuberance our Savior with a world that often needs to be redeemed,
or at least to share our identity and loyalty as Christians with our neighbors?

Oh, I know, it’s not exactly apples and apples.

And surely some of us are already feeling anxious:
about how any public mention of Jesus, much less extramural Christian spectacle,
any Christian worship experience in a public place…
— what with the less than perfect history of the church
and the persistent claims or condescensions of more conservative Christians —
… how public professions of Jesus
often feel almost inevitably
like we’re condemning or even threatening people of other religious understandings.

Those are real problems,
part of our inheritance too.

Still, can I leave you with an open question?

What would our worship and service look like if,
at least once a year,
at least in the safety of our own sanctuary,
we celebrated the gift of having been given Jesus?

I guess that’s what Christmas is,
but sometimes that can feel more like a soft “Silent Night” than an echoing “Joy to the World.”

What if our joy over Jesus wasn’t some sequestered, quiet, intramural question mark
for the last Sunday of the year,
before we get all started up with Advent?

What if we gathered in worship at least once a year,
maybe more often,
as our offer to hoist Jesus up on your shoulders,
to spin with an almost ecstatic joy,
and like the soldier in the story, exclaimed, with tears of joy,
“He is my torah.”

What would it mean for us to proclaim loudly, physically, for all the world to see,
“He is for me the word of God”?

To say to yourself and the congregation and maybe even the world at large:
“I’m not afraid to show and to share this relationship,
to celebrate, sing and dance my way right into living in his Kingdom.”

Maybe it’s as easy as sometimes explaining why we do certain things…
When one remembers to forgive or to give or to lift up or to say thanks,
maybe it’s simply beginning to say out loud, “I did that because of…”
…Because of my faith.
…Because of Jesus.
…Because church has taught me.
…Because with God I’m supposed to…
(you have to figure out how authentically, but not arrogantly, in your own faith to finish that sentence).

I’ll end by asking each of you,
as a baby step,
or the first two or three steps in our “Praising Jesus” dance
to ask yourselves,

“What would it mean…
how could it change me and how I act
if I rejoiced more in Jesus,
— shouted a little, was moved a bit more —
by Him and the Way He opens before us?