The election is over. Advertisements telling you how to vote are replaced with Christmas ads, telling you what to buy. Many of us are beginning, or about to begin, preparation for Thanksgiving. Plans are being made or finalized for celebrating Christmas.
And in the midst of all this stress, tension and turmoil, just when we can use some nice, soothing words of comfort, today we have this Gospel of the crucified, dying Jesus! Why this story? Why now?
Today is the last Sunday in Pentecost, called the Reign of Christ. Next Sunday is Advent, the beginning of a new church year. Today is a point of transition, where we acknowledge the reign of the Christ by this lesson of Jesus all-to-human death on the cross.
These events; elections, holiday gatherings, even the crucifixion of Jesus are significant markers for us as Christians. They are dividing lines between endings and beginnings.
At each of these periods of change, these hinges in time, we gather together as a country, as a community, as a family, to share our stories of where we’ve been and to dream about where we want to go. These are times we set aside to acknowledge and confront our mistakes and misunderstandings. To discern where and how we can understand, reconcile, repair, forgive, and move on to plan for the future.
The very nature of this work requires our coming together with others, in community. We cannot do this work on our own.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is surrounded by his community who, as Luke tells us, “stood by, watching”. We have this grotesque picture of the crucified Jesus, broken and bloodied from torture. He is abandoned by his friends, mocked by the religious leaders and soldiers, and given sour wine to drink. He is unjustly condemned as a criminal, and is now surrounded by criminals as a final insult.
Jesus’ life of ministry is over. Indeed, his very human life is about to end. He can hear those in power taunting him, using language he heard at the very beginning of his ministry, when he was alone in the dessert. He again hears that voice of evil, telling him to take the easy way out. Save yourself! Give up all this nonsense, and just start getting along with the program. The ministry of Jesus begins with him being alone and tormented in the dessert. His human life now ends in torment, abandonment, and mockery.
He is flanked by two criminals. Theirs will be the last voices he will hear before he dies. This will be his final human conversation. One of the criminals is angry, unrepentant. He knows he is guilty, knows he has done wrong. But rather than seeking forgiveness, he joins in the taunting of Jesus, demanding that Jesus save his life, too. The other admits his guilt, acknowledging and opening himself up to his vulnerability. He is not asking to be spared from punishment, but recognizing the innocence and vulnerability of Jesus, he asks to be remembered. Jesus recognizes and assures him of his human dignity, and overlooks his guilt, replies, “Today, you will be with me”.
This final conversation of Jesus, his final act, is to reconcile and accept the brokenness and vulnerability of our humanity, even as he, Jesus, surrenders his humanness to death.
This past election clearly demonstrates our human brokenness, guilt and vulnerability. On both sides, we are surprised by its ugliness. Ugliness of things many of us refused to see or acknowledge over the past eight years. We elected a Black Man as President and declared the end of racism in America. It didn’t end.
We put our faith and trust in leaders who showed us a bright, shining picture of who we could be, but never did the work of dismantling a system built on the backs of slave labor, and designed to improve the lives of the privileged and the wealthy, leaving the disadvantaged stuck in a system they cannot overcome.
We put our faith and trust in institutions of authority whose only purpose is to increase the power of those institutions. We listened to and believed promises made to us that all these great ideals of freedom and equality, security and opportunity would be provided for us, as long as we went along with the system. We were not asked to participate in this supposed change. In fact, we were urged to just go about our lives, continue to operate out of fear and scarcity, rather than love and abundance. “Don’t worry”, we’re told. “We’re working on it. It’s those other people getting in the way, and holding us up”.
Some important advancements to personal freedoms were made, but the system continues and it is now pushing back.
Like the two criminals in the Gospel, we are guilty, of things done and left undone. We are now feeling broken and vulnerable, worried over what will come of us as individuals and as a nation. Like the two criminals, we can choose to remain in our anger and let it consume our lives, or we can turn to Christ, turn that anger in to energy to work for change.
That work can begin right here, at our Church of the Good Shepherd. At our Ministry Fair, several people told me how impressed they were, that such a small church could be doing so much for God and for the community. This church is a great place to use your gifts, your time, talent and treasure, to make our Watertown community a better place for everyone. Soon we will begin reaching out and partnering with other groups already working for inclusion and justice in Boston. We want your ideas. We can use your help. And, yes, we need your money! Through your pledge, your increased pledge if possible, our life-changing work will be enhanced. Opportunities to do that work will be increased. More people will be reminded that they are human beings. More people will be treated with respect and dignity. Our church will become an even more vital part of life in Watertown.
We do these things not because we desire to appear holy, not to be seen as “better than” others. We do these things because, as followers of the Christ, that’s who we are.
And as the dying criminal shows us, it is never too late to turn back to Jesus. We need to remind ourselves that God does remember us, that, indeed, God never forgot us! We need to find ways to acknowledge, celebrate and share the richness of God’s love as we set about rededicating and remaking our lives.
These are the discussions we can share around our Thanksgiving tables. These are the discussions we can share as we enter the time of Advent.
Jesus showed us how one person can change the world. It begins by letting the life and spirit of the Christ reign in our hearts, minds and souls. It begins by changing ourselves.