My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads. 6Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. 7Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. 10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
23:33 When 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.
23:34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
23:35 And 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!”
23:36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,
23:37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jewish people, save yourself!”
23:38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jewish people.”
23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
23:40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
23:41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
23:42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
23:43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This is a time in the liturgical year, the wheel of the year, where we abruptly stumble over the changing season and growing darkness, acknowledge our reformation history, remember our dead on All Saints, and try to hold on until Advent. This particular Sunday is the last in our Christian year, and we have an opportunity to visit the paradox of our faith by joining with Jesus on the cross, where he is both being tortured to death and lifted up as a savior-king. We will not linger here, it is merely a waypoint for us to consider preparations for Christmas and the coming-again of Jesus in our lives. Reign of Christ Sunday reminds us about the huge, unjust gap between what is supposed to be and what is.
It’s a good time to check in with ourselves as well. How are you doing? Many of us have been in deep grief, and are carrying such burdens of pain for ourselves and for each other. It’s rough. It’s a difficult time for being in this country, and for many of us, being who we are authentically.
One of the scariest things for me about the public discourse in the last few weeks is the fevered uptick in hate speech of all kinds. Hate speech against Muslim people, against queer people, against Black people, against Jewish people, and against transgender people. I am concerned, friends. I am livid that this year’s day of trans* resilience is spent here in this new order where our trans* and non-gender-binary friends have more to fear than ever. Healthcare might go. Threats against those who are not gender-binary are way up. I am concerned because first of all, no one deserves to hear hateful language or actions against them, and our Bible is very clear that we are to love both our neighbors and our enemies. But there is another, painful reading of the Bible, one that provides the kernel of alienation for women, for queer people, for Jewish people, and for Muslim or other “non-Christian” religious people. This language in the passion or death story of Jesus, that put Jesus on the cross, the condemnation for being King of the Jewish People, is one arrow in the sling of Anti-Semitism. When we hear that other Christians are using this story, the death of Christ, to justify alienating Jewish people, then we must speak up. We know that one of the roots of the horrors of fascism in the 1930s was that a story about economic disempowerment, and another one about a frequently-scapegoated group of people, came together in the mouth of evil and was not rejected. So keep in mind that our stories have power: the stories we tell ourselves about why we are where we are politically, and the story about who put Jesus up on that cross. They all have power, and we must continue to tell the stories that we know to be true, and to speak against the lies of evil.
And so when we turn to these texts we must have in mind that Jesus’ identity was that of a devout Jewish person. That the charge laid on him was close to one of treason, against Caesar and the Roman state. Remember the biggest truth of the Roman Empire: There is no king, but Caesar. Kingship claims – of which there were many in the centuries surrounding Jesus, made with reference to the Davidic branch of kingship – were a way to challenge the power of the Roman state, and appeal to the religious belief in right worship at the Jerusalem temple.
Jesus was condemned for being one of these claimants, a messiah figure. Did he commit this crime? The two criminals in our scripture today bring up the argument: “Are you not the messiah? Save yourself!”
Save yourself. If you are for real, don’t die up on that cross. Save yourself.
By the way, sometimes we have a hard time locating the evil in this story and we look around for funny-hatted priests and at condemned criminals and for the Devil himself to walk into the story, but I tell you now that the evil in this story should be recognizable to us. It is the system that put these men up on the cross. This is a society that is hanging people, killing people, for being “criminals,” and for kingship claims. So when we talk about unjust imprisonment in our country, when we talk about the disproportionate arrests and longer sentences for men of color in this country, when we talk about execution still being used as part of these United States’ justice system, when we talk about the school to prison pipeline, when we talk about for-profit prisons, when we talk about one in fourteen children in this country having a parent incarcerated (Child Trends “Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?” Oct 2015), well these are all common to societies that are unjust, including the Roman Empire and including the United States of America.
And the truth is, none of us, not even Jesus, can save ourselves. The TRUTH is that people will keep dying at the hands of unjust societies because the system is rigged. That is the evil.
So what is the other word? Where is the word of hope? The second word comes out of the mouth of the other condemned man who tells his story, “do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Do you hear the words of assurance? God is with us, even when we are condemned. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It’s a mocking irony that is written above his body as he dies, but that is not the last word. God is with you, as you storm the streets with righteous anger, protesting a broken and unjust system; and God is with the condemned, and God is in the words of the second criminal. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. I believe that this empire that condemns and divides, and that this empire is not the last word. I believe that God’s kingdom is good and just.
The last word is: today you will be with me in paradise. The present and future hope of all we have in God our creator is opened in this verse. Today you will be with me in paradise. Even though today we are with you at the Cross. The good judge is real, the righteous ruler is real, and the coming reign of God that we long for is the truth, and it is already breaking in. This is the good news, but what can we do to make this vision reality?
Theologians Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock say (Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock “Proverbs of Ashes” p 10):
“We can resist and redress violence by acting for justice and by being present: present to one another, present to beauty, present to the fire at the heart of things, the spirit that gives breath to life.”
Be present. At my best, I think I can be present. One thing that’s been helping lately, is that I’ve been knitting this shawl for the past couple of months, the pattern is called the authenticity shawl. Some of you may be familiar with the work of Brene Brown, and she is one of the inspirations for the pattern. Her quote was printed on the instructions: “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” Be present. I’m knitting it through this time of transition in my life. When I started knitting it, poorly and slowly, I had a secret. The secret of this row is that I am enough. The secret of the next is that I am afraid of change. The next row is my fierce love for all of you, and anxiety to leave. And I will be honest: there are some rows in there that are grief, and rage. They are followed by rows of hope, and love. They’re all knitted together now. As I kept knitting, kept adding layers, kept repeating the pattern over and over, I started to be authentic to those around me. And now it’s time to be authentic with you, my church. My secret is that I deeply desire to answer God’s call in my life to serve as an ordained minister in the Lutheran church, and for 16 months, I have been taking deliberate and tentative steps towards doing that with the help of COTA. I have come to a crossroads, in this season, of having a choice to say yes, I would like to pursue this with the fullness of my being, or to say no, I would like to seek comfort and stability and keep doing my work as I have been doing it and find a way to create meaning elsewhere in my life.
I have said yes at this time. It’s an interesting moment to be entering full time ministry, and I know that I could not do it if I were alone. Fortunately, I have the blessings of you, my beloved community, beside me as I become a vicar at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church.
And also, as I prepare to step away from this community for the near future, I know that you are good. That COTA is good and that our friends beyond the church are good. I’m so fiercely proud of you, for you who stood up and protested, for you who are making new commitments to reach out as a volunteer or simply as a good friend, for you who have taken a new look at where your financial priorities lie and choose to give more, for you who are working to turn your fear into acts of loving kindness. I am so glad to have spent time in this beautiful community where we try to be present.
Our faith is what lies between what is supposed to be and what is. Our story – all of our story – is being present through the worst of what is now, the worst of what the next four years will bring, and simultaneously holding on to the truth that this is not the last word. Today, we will all be together in paradise. The road to paradise goes right through the cross, right through all the lies and death-dealing that our world will bring. We can’t save ourselves by denying the truth, we have to live through all the worst of it and we have to hold each other and keep doing the work. And we have the opportunity to hold all our family up: our black family, our queer family, our transgender and genderqueer family, our Muslim family, our Jewish family, our non-human environment family. Paul says “Bear one another’s burdens, and in so doing you will fulfill the law of Christ.” This is the law that I can uphold: I will try to bear some of the burden, and I want your help to bear it with me.
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at the harvest if we do not give up. Don’t give up, friends.