You may listen to Mother Nora's sermon here.
Decades ago, in a small town in Southern California, in a very modest little house, my great-aunt Alice and my great-uncle Eddie had a dining room that betrayed their quiet ambition. It was a very simple dining room, nothing fancy or imposing, but it had a special wall. On that wall were three portraits, visible from where guests sat at the table. I remember them as very large portraits, but perhaps that’s just a trick of memory. Because these three portraits collectively made a very large statement about what was expected in that house. The first was a portrait of Pope John XXIII, who had famously presided over the Second Vatican Council. The second was a portrait of John Kennedy, the slain Irish Catholic President. The third was a picture of Alice and Eddie’s son, John Edward. Pope John, John Kennedy, and our son John. That little triptych expressed some serious first-generation Irish-American assimilationist parental pressure. Pictures are powerful. What we see when we look at the face of another says a lot about what our aspirations are.
Like many, in this week that saw the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I have been looking at pictures of the president and his wife Jackie, marveling again at their astonishing ease, their accessible glamour, their apparent comfort in a position of extraordinary power, and feeling again the strong sense of loss that is forever written into those photographs. I know, just as I’m sure you all do, that there was no “Camelot” in Washington in the early sixties, and that deeper knowledge of both the politics and the personalities of that administration will tend to take the edge off the glamour. It’s all the more surprising, then, to find that even after fifty years, even when so many of the uncomfortable facts are known so well, a picture of those faces, or those clothes, or that convertible in Dallas will call up such utopian longing. Whatever else he did or didn’t do, John Kennedy was a politician who knew how to present a face to the world. A face that made promises: about what we could accomplish, about who we could imagine ourselves to be, about what it might be possible to hope for. One source of his power was the ability to promise more than any politician can deliver. We require that of our leaders, and he did it exceptionally well.
When the crowd around Jesus in this morning’s Gospel looks at him upon the cross, I don’t think they see anything like promise. I don’t think anyone knew, on that Good Friday, that they were standing at the gates of Paradise. I don’t think they imagined us cherishing this Gospel passage as we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. More likely, the leaders and the soldiers and the criminals who were dying with Jesus saw an image of failure before them. They saw what they were afraid of. They didn’t see salvation in front of them because they couldn’t see in the dying Christ an image that they could identify with to make themselves feel powerful.
We can tell the people around Jesus were afraid because Luke lets us hear what they say about the dying man in front of them. The leaders of the people are the first ones to begin the taunting: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” We may have grown so used to hearing these words that we no longer hear the anxiety they express. But think about it: it’s one thing to condemn a person, or to believe that a criminal deserves the death he or she faces. To stand in judgment like that is already a solemn, terrible thing. It should have brought them to their knees. But something made the religious and political leaders do more than condemn. Something made them mock the man they wanted to see executed.
That extra desire to be cruel to a dying man is a tell-tale sign. Cruelty usually means one thing in us: it means that we are defending ourselves against the fear that we are like the person we despise. So when the leaders of the people look at the dying Christ, they see the fraudulence of their own political and religious authority: “You pretend to save, but you have no power to save.” You could say that about their leaders, you can say that about our leaders. Those in power in this world pretend that they can save, but they have no power to save. They may do great good, and they may do great harm, we may give them that power, but they do not have the power of salvation we all seek. Hear how the leaders in Jesus’s day saw in his own suffering an image of their secret weakness.
So too, the soldiers echo the taunting of the leaders: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” What did they see in Jesus? Perhaps in his failure they saw the secret weakness of their own military might: “You promise peace, but you have no power to bring order and stability to the people.” You could say that about the Roman army, you can say that about armies now. Whatever the bravery and selflessness of those who fight, war will not save us. The kingship of Jesus, the God who forgives us, exposes the lie of military strength.
Even one of the criminals who is dying with Jesus joins in mocking him: “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” Now, we don’t know anything about these criminals, but there is a tradition of referring to them as thieves. I like that tradition. Thieves have an aura of invulnerability about them. They are clever enough to go their own way, clever enough to get around the law and avoid the penalty. They don’t have to pay for what they take. The outlaw in the wild west. Cary Grant in that Hitchcock film, stealing jewels in the French Riviera. Here too, the kingship of Jesus--the God who “gets around the law” by fulfilling the law in perfect love--exposes the glamorous lie of individual human ingenuity. You could say it about the clever thief, you can say it about us: “You pretend to know how to get whatever you want, but here at the hour of death you have no power to help yourself.”
Fighters and thieves and leaders who know on some level that their power is not real. That’s who we are at the foot of the cross, and that’s why it is so difficult for us to accept the authority of our suffering King. There is no whiff of Camelot about this death. And the only one we hear in the crowd who can follow Jesus is the criminal who seems to feel no need to exalt himself at Jesus’s expense. The one we call the “good thief” is given some glimpse of the salvation before him.
Listening to a whole chorus of people mocking Jesus, a whole chorus of authority figures and strongmen and clever scoundrels, this thief makes no attempt to raise himself above another human being. He catches a spark from the humility of Jesus. He simply tells the truth about himself and about them. “Aren’t you afraid?” he asks? “Don’t we all stand condemned?” “Why the extra cruelty in your attack upon this innocent man?” “What are you hiding from?” And he asks Jesus what any lowly follower of any would-be worldly leader might ask: “Think of me when you are a king.”
Who knows what he believed about Jesus at that moment? For all we know he spoke out of human kindness and humility, perhaps with a sense that he had nothing to lose in humoring the poor man dying beside him. Whatever he intended, it was enough for Jesus to work with.
At that moment the gates of another world open to the good thief. “This day,” says Jesus, “you will be with me in Paradise.” Paradise, a word for heaven, I guess, but also familiar to us as a word for Eden. It’s a word associated with royal gardens. It’s the world that Adam and Eve lived in before they tried to be sovereign powers in their own right. The world we all belonged to before we tried to become like kings and gods. A world in which we let God create us, redeem us, and save us because we know we cannot create, redeem, or save ourselves.
And in the middle of that second Eden, a new tree of life. Jesus on the cross, speaking words of forgiveness, transforming the place of the skull into the place of the new creation. A new heaven and a new earth.
This feast we celebrate this morning, the feast of Christ the King: it’s not something we do for Jesus because he needs us to pay homage. This feast of the kingship of Jesus is something God does for us. God gives us a savior who humble, who teaches us what we can be.
There is nothing that you and I can be, or need to be, apart from fidelity to that forgiving savior. This feast day is for us, to help us surrender our fantasies about power. This feast day is for us, to bring us into the new world of God’s forgiveness. This day is for us, that we may rest beneath the sheltering arms of the tree of life.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
24 November 2013
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia