The text for the day was Luke 23:33-43 – Jesus crucifixion. And of course I had to have them sing “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” as the sermon hymn!
Today is Christ the King Sunday. The day we observe and celebrate that Jesus Christ is our King, that as Christians we confess and acknowledge that Jesus Christ rules over our hearts and our minds, our very lives….but what exactly does that mean? And if we consider our gospel story, what does it mean that this Christ, our King, hangs from a cross, suffers and dies? Why does placing our faith and trust – our allegiance to this king matter for life in the here and now, for TODAY?
I may have told some of you this, but my mom was an alcoholic. And as alcoholism does, it not only made life difficult for her, but it made life difficult for the people around her – our family. And it was particularly hard on my dad. Looking back, I realize that my dad was one of those people who grew up and held the belief that marriage was something you stick through, for better or worse, til death do us part. And so, when the day he came to the difficult realization he needed to divorce my mom – while unfortunate, it was the right thing to do – he did so quietly and privately. But in small rural farming communities, such matters – they’re neither quiet or private.
And while people knew, nothing was ever said to my dad directly. But he heard the whispers and felt the stares – the judgment that your marriage failed, and at best, people pitied you for that, and at worst, they blamed you for it. And in the midst of knowing that, and in the midst of his own pain and guilt…I think the only option in my dad’s mind was to push it aside, hide it, bury it way down deep, and move on…because life must go on, and honestly, acknowledging the pain was just too difficult.
I remember my dad in those years not saying a whole lot…just farming, keeping to himself, never talking about my mom or the divorce. He was friendly with folks, but I don’t recall him really being happy. And I remember never really understanding why he wouldn’t talk about it – and being really frustrated and upset that he wouldn’t acknowledge how mom’s alcoholism and their divorce affected our family.
And I remember shortly after their divorce an argument started between us….about what, I can’t remember. It was probably unrelated to the divorce, but it got heated, and like some of you may have done, in the heat of the moment, I said words that cut way too deep. “Well, at least I can admit our family stinks; I at least can admit that you and mom got a divorce.” And I remember the pain on my dad’s face at those words, and I remember his EXACT WORDS in response. “DO YOU THINK I LIKE HAVING PEOPLE TALK ABOUT ME? DO YOU THINK I LIKE DISAPPOINTING THE FAMILY? DO YOU THINK I LIKE THE FACT THAT MY MARRIAGE FAILED?”
Like my dad, I wonder why when our suffering and pain is so apparent in one way or another…..why do we choose to deny that pain, to bury and hide it, to avoid it? And in our gospel story, Jesus’ crucifixion: like the crowds who mock Jesus, why do we deny others in their suffering? And like the criminal who denies Jesus on the cross, why do we deny the very presence of the one who suffers next to us, to look past them rather than see them?
Why do we choose to live a life of denial, where we fail to face our own suffering and the suffering of others? Why do we choose a of life of denial that leads to rejection of others and God…..and that leads to isolation? I wonder if we choose a life of denial, a life of continued suffering in isolation, because we don’t know of another way…..a way that leads to new and abundant life.
But we see in this story of Jesus’ crucifixion that God offers another way – vulnerability: admitting openly what we know to be true about where suffering leads to. It leads to the cross.
But it’s in the moment of vulnerability on the cross that something happens. The criminal discovers God hanging on his own cross, vulnerable and suffering for him. And in that moment of shared vulnerability, rather than rejection, he hears words of acceptance: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And in those words of acceptance, the depth and power of God’s grace and love breaks in – and God’s promise of everlasting relationship becomes a new reality.
The way of the cross – a way of vulnerability, not denial; a way that leads to acceptance; not rejection; a way where grace and love break into the world and usher in a reign of hope, built on the promise new life and relationship, not death and isolation.
And the way of the cross, this reign of Christ, isn’t so much for the salvation of our souls from eternal damnation, but it is a promise for us NOW. It is a promise that MATTERS FOR US IN THIS LIFE. Christ’s words are for you: “TODAY you will be with me in paradise.”
And this brings me back to my dad – in that moment my dad became so vulnerable in front of me, something happened: I saw his suffering, his imperfection; but he also became a bit more human to me – someone who felt rejected and isolated.
It was in that moment of vulnerability I saw that his suffering over our family was the same as mine. And in that moment grace and love broke through the isolation and separation we felt – and while it took time and effort, our relationship began anew.
And this reign of Christ, the way of the cross, matters for you today. We are congregations and people with deep hurt and pain. I know that as much as suffering has been a part of your past, and in hearing your words and stories since I’ve been here, it is also a very real part of your present. And the only way it will cease to be a part of our future is if we can be vulnerable with each other, trusting we will be met with acceptance. Because when we do, we will begin to see each other through the lens of grace, as human beings broken by sin, but loved by God….and perhaps then in that, a relationship can begin to form – love reigning in our lives just as God in Christ loves us so unconditionally.
If we allow Christ to reign in our lives – the way of the cross – something will happen. New life will spring forth in places we never imagined.
Now the way of the cross is not easy – vulnerability is not easy….because we still live in a world ruled by denial.
And so, perhaps living into Christ’s reign requires a small step….a step of faith. I’ve given each of you a note card today, and I want you to write on it one way that you’ve been hurt, hurt another, or one way you’ve experienced suffering – either now or in the past; within these walls or outside them. I will collect those cards….and I am going to put them on a board where we can read them, and maybe then we can take a small, but important, step towards vulnerability – admitting they ways we’ve suffered and caused it. I believe we can take this small step faith, because we remember who we place our faith in: Jesus, Christ the King, the One who suffers in the cross with us and for us, and whose reign of love can and will make all things new – today, tomorrow, each and every day, and forever. Amen.