Sunday, November 24, 2019

Bullies and Tyrants Beware: Christ the King Sunday

Last Sunday After Pentecost (Christ the King), Year C
Luke 23:33-43; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ps. 46; Col. 1:11-20
St. Monica and St. James, Capitol Hill

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 
In the name of God…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Church has been calling this last Sunday after Pentecost “Christ the King Sunday” since the early part of the 20th century. Yet nothing about this situation in our Gospel seems fitting for a king.
Let’s consider this scene for a moment. The man Jesus hangs bloodied and bruised between two criminals. “Leaders” are shouting at him. And in their taunting, they are calling into question his healing works and undermining faith in his teachings: 
“You saved others; save yourself!” 
Soldiers are making fun of him and laughing as they take articles of his clothing like they are party favors at this execution. The people stand by watching. We don’t know who they are, what they are thinking or feeling. We can imagine that if they are fellow Jews living in this Roman-occupied state, they might be angry, dejected, hopeless in the face of tyranny, and quite probably afraid. That was the purpose of crucifixion: to instill fear into the hearts of anyone who might dare to stand up to the authority. Terrorizing people who are powerless is a favorite tactic of bullies and authoritarians. It’s the way to keep people anxious, uneasy, silent. 
What kind of a King dies in such a horrible way, stripped down with his arms outstretched and pinned high above his chest and his head dropping to one side? How can a king be hung up on hard wood like a common criminal? If he’s a king, why are the leaders mocking him? As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry once noted, the man called “The King of the Jews” was nailed to a cross by the unholy alliance in First Century Palestine of the political, religious and economic powers out to protect the status quo. Sadly, we know that such unholy alliances continue to remain in force in our world today and are ready to crush any attempts to change things. 
For those who claim earthly power, both then and now, 
Jesus is a joke. 
Encouraging an ethic of love, 
loving the stranger as your neighbor, 
forgiving the wayward one who comes home and says, “I’m a screw up and am not worthy,” 
healing people struggling with all kinds of demons; 
that’s not how a powerful person lives their life. By earthly standards, such caring and compassionate behavior shows weakness and vulnerability.
But then isn’t it interesting that even though there are three people being crucified, only Jesus draws out the ire of the powerful. 
There is something about Jesus that makes them so bitter that they make a spectacle of his death. Something about him has a strange pull on them. He seems to be such a threat to their comfort at the top that they feel they must not only inflict punishment and shame on him; they have to kill him in order to remain strong. Perhaps deep inside their hearts they are also afraid. 
Maybe they sense that he is stronger than them and his strength might expose their own weakness. 
That is the paradox of being a bully, isn’t it? It’s because they are weak, the bullies and tyrants of the world act out in destructive ways to mask their own vulnerability. 
In this whole scene there is only one person who sees through all the horror and the mayhem and can fix upon the truth of Jesus. 
And it’s not a soldier. 
Not a leader. 
It’s one of the criminals, another rejected member of society. 
In his own dying moments, this condemned convict looks to Jesus, and in his suffering, he pleads: “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This man knows that Jesus is innocent. And in his request to be remembered into Jesus’ kingdom he is signaling to us that he has seen below the skin level of Jesus and is perceiving something more. He is seeing God made incarnate in the flesh. Realizing this, he knows this is the one who came into the world to 
“preach the gospel to the poor, 
heal the brokenhearted, 
free the captives, 
give sight to the blind, 
and liberate the oppressed.” 
It takes one who is among the broken, one who has been brought low himself, to know the divinity of Christ shining through that bruised and battered skin. It is one without earthly power who can perceive the real power hanging in agony with him.  
Here again we see the wonderful and un-worldly way that God’s grace works. Because it is not the prestigious and powerful or the bullies and tyrants who recognize Jesus. It’s the one who’s been banished to die. The one who might otherwise have been intimidated into silence. The one who, realizing that he has done wrong, begs Jesus: remember me. Remember me when you come into your kingdom. 
What this man sees in Jesus is what so many who have ever found themselves on the margins of society throughout history have seen in Christ. 
This is the king who can maintain compassion in the face of violent opposition. 
A king who can resist anger and can keep loving all the way to the end. 
A king being unjustly crucified by a corrupt system and yet can still maintain dignity enough to promise Paradise to the repentant criminal. 
If social media had existed in the First Century, Jesus would have been vilified by all those hiding behind their avatars. Because he is type of king whose power of love and true righteous justice intimidates and topples the bullies who feed on fear and hatred. 
We proclaim Christ as King because…in his dying and then his rising again… Jesus makes a pledge to one on the lowest rung of society that he will restore and liberate him from his worst self…and deliver him from his separation from God. 
If Jesus can say this to a criminal, how much more so do his words apply to us? How much more is he bringing us into his mission to face the injustices of our time which keep people in poverty, keep them captive to their fears and addictions, and press down upon those who yearn to breathe free?
This promise of being “re-membered” into God’s kingdom is renewed each time we come to this Eucharistic table and receive the body and blood of Christ. We are being renewed and reinvigorated with a life force, grounded in love, to resist the powers of this world that want to break us. When we take in Christ we are being given the strength to meet the needs of our community in the mission of God to love those who are lost, alone, or afraid. 
It is through us and our resilience to live into that love that we wear the crowns of our royal priesthood. And it is in this way…working through us… that Christ reigns as a true king on earth as in heaven.