"You will be with me in Paradise"-A sermon for Christ the King, Luke 23:33-43
So I want to begin with a bit of a crazy story…though entirely true…and I hope it works for what I want I feel called to share on this In-Gathering Sunday at St. Julian’s. So here goes…during my youth minister days…between college and seminary…I dated a person who won the lottery…really did...actually won the lottery. And I am not talking about good genes here…good health or an optimistic world view…I, again, mean she won the Texas State lottery. As I recall, it wasn’t like a hundred million dollar Powerball jackpot or some such…but it was, if my memory is correct, millions of dollars. Surely enough to radically change one’s life and future. On interest alone, I imagine a person could live with that kind of money as a one percent-er for the rest of his or her life without working a day…without lifting a finger. But here’s the thing. It was months maybe even a year before I ever learned of her financial windfall. The relationship was very casual…more friendship than romantic…she was a Baptist…I was an Episcopalian…she was from Dallas…I was from Houston…it was not destined to work out…Houston is better after all (I only kid). I remember picking her up on our first evening out…she lived in southwest Houston at the time...in a small apartment. I could describe it as modest…but actually it was in a fairly depressed part of town. She also drove a modest car…a ten-year-old Toyota SUV that she loved…and she was a teacher working with students in an underserved public school in a part of Houston that was full of many challenges. There was nothing about her life, form what I could see, that would suggest that she was a multi-millionaire.
As the relationship continued and our friendship grew…what I learned about her was that she was a deeply committed disciple of Jesus, that she had a very mature prayer life…way beyond my own disciplined, or lack thereof, prayer life at 23…even though I was the one working in a church. I learned that she was active in the ministries of her church. That she was kind and friendly. That she was very close to her family. And that she cared deeply for people, all people, with a particular call to live with and love children facing enormous challenges. Children whose lives were very different than those who attended my affluent west Houston church, not that they didn’t have many challenges of their own. And so when she opened up to me about winning the lottery…to say I was surprised might be the understatement of year. At that point what I learned, was that she lived only off of her salary as a teacher…and with her lottery winnings, she was supporting her younger sibling’s education, had bought a condo on the beach…that she only visited about one week a year that she rented out most of the rest year so it was actually making more money…and that she was using all she had been blessed with, all she had, to build God’s kingdom in our world…through her church and the many, many life-affirming non-profits and ministries that were able to enter more deeply into their good work through her profoundly generous support…and I am not just talking about her significant financial resources…but also by using her time and talent, giving generously of both, at the school, in her church, and in the community...all of which comprised her ministry. So after being told and once I picked my jaw up off the floor…all I can say is that I was deeply moved…deeply inspired…and honestly deeply troubled, or maybe just challenged, by the question with which I was left…which was essentially…which remains essentially…for I think the question is ever before us…or at least ever before me…so what about me? How much am I willing to give to further God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven? How much money, how much time, how much energy, how much am I willing to sacrifice…not for personal gain…not for accolades or applause or upward mobility…but for good and for God…for love’s sake…all to establish God’s kingdom here on earth…in our own community…in our own church.
And I tell this story with our Gospel lesson hanging around in the background…perhaps better said, with Jesus literally hanging on the cross in the background. To begin with, you can’t help but see the irony that so suffuses this moment. For today is Christ the King Sunday…and today we hear the story of a crucified king…not a throne room scene…but an executioner’s hill. Hanging just above Jesus’ head is a sign, the words crafted by Pontius Pilot himself, “This is the King of the Jews”. Now kings aren’t typically crucified in this world…tortured and put to death…in the most violent and painful way that inventive human minds of the day could conceive. The sign was a sick joke, mockery at its worst. For no one really thought this person was a king. Instead, he was to the Romans a treasonous usurper of the Emperor’s rightful authority, the real king, and to his own religious leadership a blasphemer and, if honest, a threat to the established order that provided them positions of privilege, power and comfort. And like we see so often in this world, those who question people with privilege, those who seek to upset the order of the day, those who seek to create a world of equity rooted in a profound sense of God’s love for all…so often end up crucified. No one really thought this person to be a king…thus his life taken from him was seen by those beyond his own followers as not only just and good but a means of twisted entertainment…an opportunity to mock one who is suffering to inflate their own sense of worthiness and value and innate goodness. We so often use the suffering of others as a justification for our own choices, beliefs, life-styles, and the power we enjoy.
Thus the whole scene again drips with irony. For of course, Jesus is a king, Jesus is the king of all of creation, but not in a worldly sense…not like a king or queen or president or prime minister…for as the great hymn reads, “The king of love, my shepherd is, whose mercy is never failing.” Jesus’ kingship and the kingdom…the paradise he offers each of us, just as he does to one of the two men crucified alongside him, looks nothing like the world that surrounds us…though blessedly we do, at times, catch glimpses of it in some of the most ordinary and extraordinary ways. Instead Jesus’ kingdom is always coming…it lies before us…ever before us…and we get to, we are blessed to, participate in that coming reign…participate in making it entirely real by faithfully following the way Jesus has set before us…a place, a world, a kingdom, where crying and pain are no more…only life and love…which are everlasting. Jesus’ kingdom is love perfected…a world in which all humans can flourish, be fully alive, discover love and belonging…whatever they look like…whatever they have…whoever they love...a world in which our own true self is discovered and affirmed in the mutual love and affirmation we receive through vulnerably, authentically sharing ourselves with God and with each other.
And again clearly this is not the world we live in…at least most of the time…and that might actually be the understatement of the year. The world never stops convincing me of this fact… that we are so far from God’s kingdom…there is so much wonderful and hard work…so much pain and joy…that lies before us. But here’s the thing…I believe in it entirely…I stand before you today and say I believe in the kingdom of God, the peaceable kingdom, the love filled kingdom, the kingdom in which we all can flourish…it is coming and will be made real. For it was inaugurated the moment Jesus gave his life…his entire life…all he had…the moment he was crowned as king with thorns not gold and jewels…holding nothing back, dying on the hard wood of the violent cross to firmly and forever establish his reign of love. Better than any well-intentioned monarch, I believe Jesus gave his life for something glorious that will follow…something firmly and forever established on a dusty hill, outside Jerusalem’s gates, in a place set aside for death, some two thousand years ago…Jesus firmly and forever established something that is coming…that is already but not yet…but in fullness of time will entirely be…God’s kingdom finally here on earth as it is in heaven. This give me hope…the energy to keep working…keep moving forward…one foot in front of the other. I hope it might for you as well.
But here’s the thing, I can say all of this will all my heart, in fact, it burst my heart wide open…while at the very same time knowing also with all of my heart that the kingdom of God breaking into this world, into our own communities, into our own church, is partly, though probably bigger than I want it to be, partly dependent…on me…on each of us. For Jesus has entrusted me…he has entrusted each of us, again, the gift to participate…I and we and indeed many, many folk who will follow after us and labor alongside us even now…get to participate in establishing God’s kingdom. We get to, we are blessed to, follow the example set before us by Jesus our king. This is our life’s work…it is our sacred trust, and, as I have said before, none of us are too young for this kingdom building work and none of us are too old…and we are not done until like Jesus we meet our own end…till we are dead.
Which takes me back to the question my friend’s revelation with which I began brings before me…I hear it…I feel it as clearly now as I did then…so what about me? I may not have won the lottery…but I…but we…have lots of gifts to bring to this kingdom building work…our pledges of prayer, talent and treasure we generously share today…are but one small expression of all we have to offer…so what about the rest…how far am I really willing to go…what sacrifices are we really willing to make…to be more like Jesus our king…the one we follow…in his living and in his dying. What hard while gracious conversations are we willing to have with those whose lives seem to be working in contrast to God’s kingdom…even among those we love? What material things are we willing to give up to provide bread for those who are starving? What ministry are we willing to give our time to in this place that makes us better kingdom of God builders together? What relationship are we willing to enter into with someone who is full of fear or anxiety…who indeed is threatened because of how they look, live or believe? To whom can we offer forgiveness, seek to be reconciled with though the pain we feel is still real? Where can we get honest with ourselves about our disciplines or habits that can make us more truthful, kind, healthy and generous? Your own questions may be very different than mine…but what about me…what about us…how are we called to be more like Jesus our king…the one we follow…in his living and in his dying. Amen.