Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Thief & His God
(A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday)

Sermon preached at Grace Church and SFH, November 24, 2013, for Christ the King Sunday.

[Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I serve as Chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal campus ministry just down the street. It is good to be with you. I have to remember to introduce myself to you because this space and your faces are so familiar, for which I am grateful. As you may remember, SFH officed out of and worshiped at Grace Church last year, while the apartment and relocation project on University Avenue was completed. So it is especially sweet to be back with you, to be able to express the thanks of our community for you - your graciousness and hospitality - and to worship the living God with you. It is good to be with friends.]

Today is Christ the King Sunday. The last Sunday of the Church year. Next week is Advent I, the Church’s New Year. No firework fanfare for the Christian's new year, but the quieter new beginning of wreaths and candles and nervous preparations for a child. That Thanksgiving is this Thursday will cause most of us to forget between now and then that next Sunday is Advent I, but once we emerge from the Black Friday smoke, Advent I it will be. Again. Like an unnervingly predictable thief in the night. We Christians like to complain that the Christmas music hits the airwaves too soon, that the decorations come out the day after Halloween now, but then we’re surprised how quickly Advent finds us. Ah well… You've been warned. :)

But all that is next week. Just now, today, it’s Christ the King Sunday, a day to collect the year that has brought us to this place, to the edge of the Promise. Of course, mid-to-late November is a strange place to end a year - it doesn’t fit any of our academic, fiscal, or terrestrial rhythms - but I suppose this is good practice for remembering that the end seldom comes on our terms. 

So we stand at the back end of the year that was. We stand tall. We stand tired. We stand every which way in between. We stand remembering the celebrations and sorrows this year has received. Great feasts and joys. Trials and tears. Both here, corporately, and in your soul, personally. In your life: both bright horizons and painful losses. We remember the carols we sang in late December and our Lenten preparations for the Paschal feast. We remember pancakes, flipped and devoured, and laughter. We remember the Great Fire of the Easter Vigil and the champaign reception afterwards. We recall those who have come into our communities, and those who have departed. We think back to countless meals shared with one another and others, even in shelters. Bread broken around this table with friend and stranger. We bear the soft impressions of several hundred daily prayers. And, looking back, we become acutely aware of the many and steady ways this life of faith has shaped us, is shaping us, even if we don’t see it at the time. And many times in spite of ourselves. But today we glimpse it, if however briefly: the accumulation of a thousand tiny, broken steps, walked prayerfully, in the midst of ordinary life.

Moments like this - the occasional glance back over the shoulder - they help us take stock, spot progress, and so inspire the patience of the ones who would endeavor to walk the way of the cross. Inspired patience is important; without it, one easily loses sight of the long view; like Peter, walking on the water’s waves, fear or desperation can overwhelm us; we panic. Without the long view, we might well forget the One whose crucified hands hold us on this journey. 

Without inspired patience, the call back, and long view, we will inevitably find ourselves arriving at exasperated questions like, “Lord, when do we finally get to slough off all this holiness and be the honest-to-goodness, son-of-a-gun sinners we have wanted to be all along? When can we finally take off the neckties and just be ourselves? Stop pretending. Maybe you aren’t that crass. Put another way, with respect to the life of faith, what do you sometimes wish you were doing instead? Even on your good days, what kinds of things push up against your patience? What things have you given up to follow this Jesus, maybe against your better judgment? 

A good friend of mine pulled me aside one day, said, “It’s strange, Jonathan. All these conversion stories, these guys like Augustine. They get converted, follow Jesus. And you listen to their stories, and there’s no originality. Two-thousand years later, they’re still Augustine all over. Some version of ‘You know, I used to sleep around, had as many women as I wanted; used to have money, more than I could spend, but I tried to spend it anyway - on drugs, power, the wrong kinds of friends. I’m telling you, it was terrible. But, thank God, I’m free from that now. I have Jesus. Thank God, I am free.” My friend would roll his eyes. He’d say, “Women, money, power, and fame. Yeah, must have been really miserable for you, before Jesus came along.”

Some people come to the cross because they find there a living hope, a true alternative to the violence of the world; a peace that passes understanding; a simple joy in the presence of Jesus. They leave everything and follow, like the old song says, “No turning back. No turning back.” But others of us have trouble letting go of the things the life of faith would have us sacrifice. Some might go so far as to imagine a heaven full of all the vices they were asked to swear off in this life. A well-earned payoff for those who, in this life, bit their lips, bottled up their resentments, and took the high road more times than they remember. But, boy, do they remember. And they wonder: when will it all pay off? 

If ever there was one, Christ the King Sunday would seem like a day - the day of all days - on which the victory of God’s people could be celebrated at long last, in all its oft-postponed, unmitigated, raucous, and self-indulgent glory. No more need for false modesty. No need to fake niceness. A day when we can finally call things like we see ‘em, open up the throttle, and celebrate the victory that, as Christians, belongs to us. Our vindication. The King in his glory, mighty to save. The justice we had prayed for, demanded, and on the terms we had demanded and prayed for. A kingdom of our own making. So close we can taste it. Enemies crushed under our feet. Maybe the Church could even unveil a fight song for the day - an ecclesiastical riff off of the old university tradition. An Episcopal ‘On Wisconsin’ - yes, our very own fight song! That’s what kings do, right? They fight. They conquer. They win. 

Of course, we know that kings win, but we would like to think of ourselves as too enlightened to be seen fighting religious wars in the public square. But watch how even the commitment not to fight in the name of religion opens us to the desire to finally defeat the other Christians who are not similarly enlightened. The ones who, by their crude incivilities, we imagine as giving the rest of us a bad name. There is always somebody to want to defeat. One priest liked to suggest to his flock that even marriage was, at bottom, daily practice in loving one’s enemies. If Christ the King Sunday is about kingship, and kingship is about victories, then surely today we get to beat somebody, right?

So the climactic, victorious, regal scene we’ve all been waiting for arrives at long last from Luke’s gospel, and it is Jesus, from the cross, mocked and spat upon, forgiving those who put him there. Telling some two-bit thief he’d never met that Paradise is his. The Kingdom in its glory. 

From the beginning, the distinctive thing God envisioned for Israel was that God himself would be Israel’s King. Later, God had somewhat reluctantly given in to the cries of the people and made other kings for Israel, and the kings, on the whole, had justified God’s initial reluctance. Jeremiah says they destroyed and scattered the sheep of God’s pasture. 

But just now, with this sordid thief at his side, the King is quietly reclaiming his Kingdom. The true King at long last restoring his reign; refusing the old, tired scripts of this world. Rejecting her stale appeals to power, force, and threat of death. Melting away the terror of Rome with the baffling words, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

And with these words, this vagabond thief is admitted entrance before everyone else into the hallowed halls of the heavenly banquet. So much for neckties. So much for standards. So much for any moralistic efforts to wrest the Kingdom away from this insensible, crucified King. 

Truthfully, the whole thing’s embarrassing. You deserve better. How can a preacher be asked to defend this debacle, this absurd abdication, this mockery, of the appearance and actions proper to kings? Kings don’t talk to thieves like this one, much less die with them, give their lives for them. “Jesus, remember me,” says the thief. Tell me, why should you remember the One who remembers this thief? How do Christians account for this reckless admission? It goes against strong-arming come Stewardship season. It risks looking cheap. Let me ask you: how do you tell others the story, when they ask, about this thief and his God?

St. Paul takes a stab at it. He writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

The crucified King, pouring out himself and throwing wide the Kingdom’s doors; entrusting the message of reconciliation to us - even us - we hapless, happy thieves. This is our King. This is the One we will follow. 


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