This week, the church year comes to an end. The lectionary calls this “The Last Sunday after Pentecost”. Now there’s an ominous phrase – the last Sunday.
The day has a second name – Christ the King Sunday. This is the day when contemporary preachers try to make sense of this medieval, patriarchic image as if God were the head of a government who lived in a palace and sat on a big chair giving audiences to rich tourists. To my 21st century ears, a king in heaven sounds more like a cartoon than an inspiration.
It’s an uncomfortable Sunday. Most American Christians have not yet recovered from the obscene dance of consumption that passes for what should be our nation’s High Holy Day. We give thanks by eating until we can’t move while most of the world can’t move because it doesn’t have enough to eat. The next day we join the great procession to the temples and high places where we pay homage to the things we love and worship – the things we can own.
So by the time Sunday morning rolls around, we’ve had at least three meals of turkey and old mashed potatoes, we’ve spent time we can’t spare spending money we don’t have buying things we don’t need.
This Sunday’s gospel is the last thing any of us needs to hear.
The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
The stores are playing Christmas carols. Miracle on 34th Street was just on TV. Our football team is going to a bowl game. Why in the world to we want to hear about Good Friday today?
It just seems so --- distasteful.
Is this just another example of the way the church tries to take the fun out of anything that gives us real pleasure, or is there something more going on here? What does the thief on the cross have to teach us about Thanksgiving and the end of the church year?
Our text tells us that the first thief derided Jesus. Even at the threshold of his own death, he found the strength to mock Jesus. Under normal circumstances, sarcasm is a lazy sort of self-gratification – a cheap substitute for thinking. Under these circumstances – two men being publicly executed – the first thief’s will to hurt his neighbor is at once pathetic and terrifying. Is the impulse to abuse one another really so strong that it can distract us from our own mortality? Upon finding himself in the presence of the living God, was he really so blind that he could not see what was happening right in front of him?
Yes, he was. He had the words right – “you are the savior, save us” but he had the spirit all wrong. He saw no farther than his own suffering. The world beyond his outstretched arms had no meaning for him.
The second thief had vision that the first did not. We are not told anything about him. We don’t know why he saw the truth that so eluded all the wisest and most powerful men in Jerusalem. We only know that he testified. He was able to see beyond his own pierced hands and feet – to gain a cosmic perspective on the scene of which he was a part.
And from that cosmic point of view, we hear his prayer. Such a prayer! If you could ask God for anything – and you knew your request would be granted - what would you ask? Peace and prosperity? Good health? Security?
Jesus, remember me.
Remember me: the last request of a dying man. Don’t forget me. Hold me in your memory. Keep me alive in your imagination, though I am dead and gone. Don’t let me stop mattering.
He looks at a man suffocating on a wooden beam, suspended above the earth, covered with blood and spit and his own filth and he sees a King.
But to the thief, this is not the last day of Christ the King. He sees not only the tortured present, but also the glorious future. In testifying about this unjustly condemned man, the thief becomes more than a good thief – he becomes a prophet. The universe is peeled open, and from his cross, he peers at the truth of who Jesus is and who he will be. On a day when all whom Jesus knew and loved betrayed him with their silence, this visionary thief spoke the word of the Lord. And Jesus blessed him for it.
The thief was not naïve. He knew they were all going to die. But he also knew that their terrible ending would bring about a new beginning. His testimony to the world that day was that by dying, Jesus would become a heavenly king - Christus Rex - the ruler who redeems.
The King who remembers.
The church year will soon be over. We will change the altar cloths, take out the Advent candles, and begin a journey toward a manger in Bethlehem. We will agree that the commercialization of Christmas is a sad thing, even as we browse the internet for presents and cruise the parking lot for a closer space. Sometimes we will be like the first thief – so consumed with our own wants and desires that we can’t see anything beyond our own reach. Other times we will be like the second thief – blessed with a prophet’s vision of the truth about who we are and who Christ is.
This cycle of vision and blindness, of awareness and distraction is a part of what we are as human beings. We are made in the image of God. Inside of us live both creature and creation. We remember and we forget.
Before a bloodhound is set on the trail of a lost child, the trainer will place some article of the child’s clothing in a bag and hold it over the dog’s face so he can remember the scent. Then they begin the long journey in search of the one who has been lost. It is an amazing thing to witness these animals using senses far more perceptive than our own as they follow the path toward their goal. It is also instructive to see that before they can begin their journey, they must have a way to recognize the true path from the false trails – a single tone to pick up out of the symphony of scent that they encounter on their way – their trainer gives them something to remember.
Before you set off on the Advent trail to Bethlehem, remember that the stable is not the end of your journey, any more than the cross was the end of the thief’s own path. The cross and the tomb are not the end, any more than the second coming or the New Jerusalem. The last Sunday after Pentecost is the first Sunday before Advent and the seasons, far from beginning and ending, flow into one another like rain feeding a stream into a river into the sea whose water vapor becomes rain clouds.
This circle of life is who we are. It is the reflected image of the God who made us. It is full of scents that are both beautiful and repulsive and it is a very easy place in which to become distracted and lost.
This is why we talk about life at funerals and about death at Thanksgiving. We need to remember who we are, where we are going, and why. We need to remember the ones who have taught us, and the ones who will learn from our own journey. We need to remember that neither joy or grief or prosperity or poverty or weakness or strength can change our value in the eyes of the Christ who sees us for who we truly are.
The Christ who saved us.
The king who, in spite of the billions of reasons we give him to put us out of his memory forever….
Jesus, remember me. And for God’s sake, help me to remember you.
Links to the images used in this post.
The Good Thief, Albrecht Dürer
Black Friday Shoppers