Sermon, Nov. 20

Today we conclude our annual Giving Campaign, the weeks in which we invite members and friends of the parish to make a pledge of financial support for the coming year, so that we can develop a budget and move ahead on a sound footing. In a few moments we’ll bless the pledges we’ve received. And we’ve celebrated with pie, which is the best way to celebrate.

But I have to say: This has been a TERRIBLE year for preaching about financial stewardship. For hitting the usual themes of generosity and gratitude and laying up treasure in heaven… First, there was an election. As your pastor and preacher, I could hardly pretend that wasn’t on everyone’s minds, including my own. And now we end the Giving Campaign with the Crucifixion? Seriously?

The lectionary does this every three years. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the church year – the first Sunday in Advent, next year, is our New Year’s Day. On Christ the King Sunday, our liturgy and scriptures invite us to reflect on the cosmic and paradoxical kingship of Jesus. In one year of our three-year cycle of readings, we have the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which reminds us that we serve our King by serving those most in need. In one year we have Jesus’ conversation about kingship with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. And this year – Year C, the year we end today – we have the scene from today’s Gospel: Jesus on the cross, alone, defeated, dying. Not much of a king.

It’s not an easy thing, but I think it’s a good thing, that the lectionary places the Crucifixion in front of us now and then when we aren’t expecting it, when it’s not Good Friday and we don’t have jelly beans and Alleluias stashed in the cupboard, all ready for Easter right around the corner. Of course at St. Dunstan’s, the Crucifixion is always in front of us. It’s unusual for an Episcopal church to have a crucifix – an image of Jesus on the cross – as its focal point. But that’s the choice our elders made, here, back in 1963 or so. So we worship with the Crucifixion, Jesus’ moment of greatest pain and weakness, right in front of us, all the time. Some of you are OK with it, and some of you really don’t care for it – I don’t know of anyone who claims to love it? Kids notice him, and guests, but for a lot of us the image has become so familiar that we don’t really see it, let alone think about it.

Let’s think about it today – about the Crucifixion, and more to the point, about the kingship of the Cross. I’ve got a few thoughts to share – roughly in order from Things I Understand Pretty Well, to Things I Find Deeply Mysterious But Still Believe.

Thought number one: Following this King – this one, the one hanging from a cross in shame – claiming to be subjects of this King should give a certain skepticism, a kind of critical distance, to our views of any human king – or president, principal, mayor, et cetera. Really, ANY leader – the ones we like as well as the ones we fear.

On Good Friday afternoon, every year, I invite kids here to walk the Stations of the Cross with me. And when we come to the eleventh Station, Jesus is Nailed to the Cross, I tell the kids: Sometimes the people in charge are wrong. Maybe because of a mistake or a failure, maybe because their priorities or intentions are not good, but one way or another, sometimes, the people in authority, our leaders, teachers, principals, moms and dads, policemen, presidents, can be wrong. I always half-expect a parent to grab their child and march out in indignation at that part, but nobody has. We all know it’s true; it’s just hard to admit to our kids. But it should be easy for us to remember, with the Crucifix before us every week. Our God was executed as a criminal. Knowing that must help us remember to question our leaders, and the mechanisms of power and punishment in our time, holding them up to God’s standards of justice and mercy.

And let it be noted, please, that the leaders in Jesus’ day weren’t just wrong because they condemned and executed Jesus, the Son of God. They were wrong because they perpetuated a system that punished theft with brutal execution. It’s not clear from the text whether the criminals crucified with Jesus were simple burglars or violent bandits. But it is clear, from a survey of ancient sources, that crucifixion was routinely used as the punishment for theft, fraud, and other non-violent crimes, especially when committed by those of low status, the socially and economically vulnerable. The criminal justice system in Judea under Roman rule was wrong because it murdered people for minor crimes. The leaders of that time and place were unjust, because they created and reinforced a political and economic status quo that drove people into poverty and desperation, and then punished them harshly when they did the things that poor and desperate people sometimes do.

Following this King should give us a critical eye for earthly kings and leaders.

Thought number two: Jesus on the cross is God’s greatest argument against the mindset of self-preservation, of “I’ve got mine,” of looking out for Number One. Notice that three times, in Luke’s account, somebody suggests that Jesus should save himself. “Let him save himself is he is the Messiah of God.” “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

That word “save” – Sozo in Greek – it’s the same word as the root of Soterio, Salvation. Those two words are a core concept for the New Testament. Save: rescue, deliver, free, help, heal, sustain, restore – all of that wrapped up in one word. It’s the right word for this moment, for what Jesus is doing, on the cross. But the people taunting him are pointing it in the wrong direction. Jesus will not save himself. The people mocking him think he’s powerless. “Save yourself!” is a joke because how could he? Look at him.

With the Gospel writers, we know better. We know he has chosen this. Could he have used divine power to step down off the cross? To cast himself into the arms of angels, as Satan tempted him to do, way back at the beginning? Maybe; or maybe he had laid down divine power and protection, as he turned his face towards this moment. Regardless, it’s very clear from the Gospel accounts that Jesus chose not to resist this death. Chose, even, to walk towards it. Praying in the Garden, submitting his fears to God’s purposes. Rebuking his disciples for resisting his arrest. Silent when asked to speak in his own defense. As human, and as God, he gave himself over to this. Saving himself was never the point.

Following this King means never being satisfied with our own salvation. With being safe, free, healed ourselves – as long as another is in danger, in bondage, or in pain.

Thought number three… I warned you, didn’t I, that these thoughts moved from clarity towards paradox? Thought number three: The Crucifixion, this moment when everything seems as broken as possible, points us towards reconciliation.

The early Christians used a lot of different images, metaphors, to try to capture their experience of the transformation of their lives and of the world by Jesus’ death and resurrection: Redeeming someone, buying them out of slavery. Freeing someone who’s imprisoned. Healing someone hurt, rescuing someone from danger, exonerating someone in a court of law. Cleansing and purifying someone by way of sacrifice, as in the rites of the Temple in Old Testament Judaism. Renewing a broken covenant. Reconciling the parties in a conflicted relationship, or a relationship where the parties have simply drifted apart, lost the mutuality of care, trust, and respect they once had.

Reconciliation is a key concept in Jesus’ life and teaching, as again and again he calls his followers back into a relationship of loving trust with the God who made us. And it’s a key word for the apostle Paul in his understanding of the work of the Church and its people. Jesus came to reconcile humanity to God – and to send us forth to continue the work of reconciliation. That’s how Paul sums up the Gospel, in the second letter to the Corinthians – “In Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message and ministry of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, [begging the world to] be reconciled to God.” And the letter to the Colossians today – written perhaps by Paul, perhaps by a disciple of Paul’s – uses that same language: “Through Jesus, God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”

Reconciliation is one of the core practices that we have named together, as a congregation, as a way we strive to live as disciples of Jesus. In Greek the word is katalasso, roughly translated as, Called to the side of the other. Called from our separateness into solidarity. As disciples of Jesus, we strive to live and act so as to restore unity and love among humans, between humans and God, and between humans and creation. We reconcile both by responding to the needs of our neighbors, through church ministries and everyday acts of mercy; and by working to confront and change the systems of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.

Reconciliation is a powerful concept – and also sometimes a slippery one. We can fall into thinking it means the same thing as niceness. And niceness, as I mentioned in a sermon a few months ago, niceness is not a Christian virtue.

Liturgical scholar Derek Olsen wrote this week, “In this ministry of reconciliation [described in 2 Corinthians], we are not being called to be nice or pleasant, or to smooth things over with those who disagree with us. We are called to work on the reconciliation of humanity with God, and God’s vision of the world that God created… This is a vision that puts the poor, the people at the margins, the “alien in your midst,” … as the central figures for our care and concern… If we are exhorting the Christian faithful to be… reconcilers, then we need to be clear that [the call of the Gospel on us is to work] to reconcile the people and society around us to the vision of the world that God intends.”

Reconciliation, for Christians, doesn’t mean pretending things are fine, or ignoring the ways in which the world around us falls short of God’s intentions for us and for all. There is nothing nice about the cross, about a death like this. But following this King means accepting this as an icon of reconciliation: messy, ugly, painful. Necessary. Holy.

Thought number four… There’s a word in the Colossians text, in verse 19: Fulness. “In Jesus, all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s easy to read right past it, but it turns out there’s a lot of theology packed into – and flowing out of – that word. Fulness, pleroma in Greek, is used a number of times in the Epistles, the letters of the first Christians – as is its opposite, Kenoo, which means emptiness, inadequacy, incompleteness. Those words, dancing around each other, trace the outline of a theology of the cross: In this moment, Jesus emptied himself (Phil 2:7), to make room for the fulness of God. His weakness makes room for God’s strength, his brokenness opens the way for God to restore and heal. And early Christian leaders and teachers see in this a path of discipleship – they urge one another, especially in times of struggle and fear, to empty themselves. To let God’s fulness work in them. To trust, in the words of Paul, that whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:10)

This idea is mystery and a challenge for me. When something is difficult, I respond by trying to put more of myself into it. And sometimes – I believe this – sometimes the better response would be to put less of myself in. To let my inadequacy, my weakness, my emptiness drive me to a more profound openness to God. To serving God less like an independent contractor. More like an instrument or tool.

Following this King challenges us to find grace, to find hope, even in the moments when we feel like we have nothing. Like we are nothing. Because when we are weak, God is still strong. Now, over the next few weeks, we’ll be revising and refining our church budget for next year, based on the pledges we’ve received. And I would, frankly, prefer to be talking about gracious plenty, than about the opportunities offered by inadequacy. But I’m trying to be faithful, in this as in many things….! Faithful to this King – Jesus, my King. And to the ways of his kingdom, which is so profoundly different from the kingdoms of this world. A kingdom that should give us, as its subjects, a critical eye for earthly leaders. That urges us never to settle for our own salvation. A kingdom in which emptiness can be strength, in which brokenness can reconcile, in which dying can lead to eternal life.

Derek Olsen’s essay may be read in full here: