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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Grace at the End

Christ the King, 2010
Luke 23:33-43 11/21/2010

I chanced to see on the internet this week a video clip from a Chicago morning news program. The two good-looking and perky anchors were telling the TV audience that they had live footage of a bridge that was going to be demolished at exactly seven o’clock. They cut to a helicopter shot of the bridge, and the count down began. Three, two, one . . . nothing. Nothing happened. The anchors waited for about thirty seconds, and then, desperate to fill the empty air with something besides and empty bridge still standing, cut away to their weatherman. As they chatted aimlessly with him, suddenly the camera cut back to the bridge, now lying in the river. They had missed the explosion completely. The anchors pounded their desk, tore up and wadded up pieces of paper, and the man began eating his script. So much for eyewitness news.

How many times has it happened to you? You get up to get a drink, and miss the touchdown. You go in another room and miss the baby’s first steps. One of the thousand times it has happened to me was in the spring of 1974, in Atlanta. A seminary buddy of mine stopped by my dorm room to tell me he had gotten two left field tickets for the Braves home opener that night. Hank Aaron had tied Babe Ruth’s home run record earlier in the week – maybe he would break it that night. “Aww, he won’t hit it in their first game back,” I said, turning down the ticket. Guess what? Left field!

Throughout Jesus’ life, pretty much everyone misses what’s happening. The owner of the inn in Bethlehem misses it. Hundreds of pilgrims to Bethlehem miss it. Herod misses it. Pilate misses it. The rich young ruler misses it. The three would-be disciples miss it. The disciples nearly miss it. Judas missed it. The soldiers who crucify miss it. Jesus comes into the midst of God’s covenant people, people who have been praying for a savior for hundreds of years, and they miss it.

But here and there, somebody, usually an outsider, sees it. Eastern astrologers follow a star, shepherds on a hillside see angels and follow the instructions. An old man and old woman in the temple see something different in the baby brought for circumcision. A crazy prophet down at the River sees a dove over Jesus’ head. A Roman centurion, a tax collector, a prostitute, and a pagan adulteress understand there’s something different about this carpenter’s son.

Messiah. The anointed. Usually reserved for kings, performed by priests and prophets. But the only person to anoint Jesus is a woman who enters the dining room and pours expensive perfume on him, to the outrage of the disciples. His disciples not only will not anoint him, they won’t even wash his feet – he has to wash theirs.

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year – the Feast of Christ the King. We remember that when all the Presidents, Kings and Queens, Prime Ministers and Sultans, Princes and Popes have turned to dust, Jesus alone will reign. The church has outlasted every economic and political system on the face of the planet, every party and ideology and denomination. The day is coming, said St. Paul, when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. It puts all our frantic economic and political posturing in perspective: in the end, as in the last Sunday of the year, Jesus reigns.

So, on this last Sunday of the Christian year, the gospel lesson is of the last moments of Jesus’ mortal life. Once again, almost everyone misses who Jesus is: the disciples betray and flee, the soldiers arrest and flog, the government equivocates and kills, the people who had waved palm branches on Sunday yell “crucify him” on Friday.

Of course, it’s not hard to understand why the people around Jesus don’t recognize the king in their midst. He is beaten and bleeding, he refuses to call down legions of angels, he tells his followers to throw away their swords. And, as he is nailed to a cross and the soldiers gamble for his clothing, instead of calling down judgment upon them, Jesus asks God to forgive them. Any king, any governor, any President worth his salt knows that you can only rule through strength, not from weakness and mercy. Evil doers must be punished, we all know. But this false king exercises mercy rather than judgment. No wonder no one believes him.

Yet, in the midst of this scene of horror, there are two proclamations of Jesus’ kingship, from the most unlikely sources. The first is from the soldiers, who nail above Jesus’ head the charge of treason against him, shortened to “King of the Jews.” It is meant to be a cruel joke on their part: look at this king, naked, bleeding, dying on this cross. Does this look like a king? We don’t think so. And, you meddlesome Jews, get the message – this is what lies ahead for any of you who challenge Caesar’s authority.

Sometimes it’s the jokers who speak the truth. That was the role of the jester in medieval courts: he spoke truth to power by mocking the authority and self-seriousness of the king and nobles. Two of my childhood heroes were the Smothers Brothers, who paved the way on television for the political satire we find today in people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who are sometimes more insightful sources of news than are the news networks. The soldiers thought they were being hilarious, but God was working, again, in mischievous ways.

Two men were being crucified with Jesus. They are often called thieves, but the gospel uses more generic language for them: criminals. One of them, probably having heard the gossip about Jesus earlier in the week, as well as having listened, in his agony, to the abuse being hurled at Jesus, joins in the mockery. Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself, and us!” It’s hard to know how much this is a last, desperate hope, and how much this is anger driven by the unbearable pain of this execution.

The second criminal rebukes the first: You’re dying – have you no fear of God, even now? You and I are getting what we deserve. But this man hasn’t done anything to deserve this. And then, the second criminal becomes the one person in the entire gospel story to label Jesus as a king without mockery: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Last week we talked about the witness we make when we are suffering and when things aren’t going our way. People are watching us, I said, to see whether we turn into the Incredible Hulk and explode with rage and blame, or whether we show something else when all our polite veneer has been stripped away. What do we see when Jesus is out of life and out of hope? Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.

What do we see from the first criminal? Save yourself and us!

But from the second? Compassion towards Jesus. The last act of kindness Jesus will know in his life is from a criminal being executed for his crimes. The last act of grace in Jesus’ life will be from a dying stranger who defends him. At the excruciating end of his life, Jesus is recognized as a king not by disciples or family or priests, but by a condemned man hoping to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom to come. At the end, the criminal gives Jesus grace.

And Jesus returns the grace: Today, you will be with me in Paradise. You will not be alone. This is not the end. Love will win.

That’s the good news, on this Sunday when we remember everything ends, except for love. Grace wins, and Jesus reigns.

Thanks be to God.

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