Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday November 24, 2019
Luke 1:68-71, 74-79
You, Lord, are both lamb and shepherd
You, Lord, are both prince and slave,
you, peacemaker and sword bringer
of the way you took and gave,
you, the everlasting instant,
you whom we both scorn and crave.
That’s the first verse of the hymn we will be singing shortly. The tune in the hymnbook is called “Paradox” and indeed the hymn itself is paradox. Throughout, there is a juxtaposition metaphors used to name and describe Christ – on one hand the sovereign of the universe but on the other hand someone who is dependent and very much on the downside of our human struggles. The hymn writer was Sylvia Dunstan, a Canadian theologian and a minister in the United Church of Canada who died early in her life and ministry after being diagnosed with liver cancer. In her short span of years she wrote many hymns and was minister in several small congregations and was also a chaplain in a high security correctional facility. Very different and contrasting experiences in the life of faith.
This is often our experience of the holy. Perhaps we want too desperately to worship a being who is all powerful, in former times a super king, or emperor or sovereign; perhaps in contemporary parlance more of a superhero, with superpowers. A being who will swoop in and make everything right, who will conquer all the bad people and all the bad things in this world. The usual limits and restrictions and compromises do not apply. The bible and our hymns and our theology are replete with this. Our first hymn today, well known and often sung at Easter, “Blessing and honour and glory and power” makes me feel like I am in a coronation ceremony. Christ is the great king who sits upon a throne and whose power is endless. After the third century, when the followers of Jesus moved from being a marginal and often persecuted minority to being the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jesus is often portrayed with the Emperor, as an equal or even as the Emperor. We celebrate and represent the power of the resurrection as an ultimate manifestation of human power, power over all those who oppose us and who oppose the power of the holy.
And yet on this Christ the King Sunday, we cannot ignore that the reading from the gospel of Luke is part of the story of the passion, of the crucifixion of Jesus by the power of Rome with the collusion of the local religious authorities. Crucifixion was an horrific and torturous way to die; people could spend days on the cross with their bodies being torn by the nails holding them to the wood and suffering other forms of indignities by those responsible. It was meant not only to inflict as much pain and indignity on the one being crucified as possible but also to act as a warning to anyone who would dare challenge the power of the Empire. Jesus was no different from anyone else who was subjected to this capital punishment. The one whom the writer of the letter to the Colossians describes as: “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 . . . in [whom] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him”, is the one who is nailed to a cross outside Jerusalem with two criminals suffering the same fate on either side of him.
This is not power as we usually understand it. This is a person broken by power. Not a king but a victim with arms outstretched, not to demonstrate the breadth of all he rules but nailed there by others who wanted to ensure that he would no longer be any kind of threat to them. No one passing by that scene would name him as king, unless of course they read the scathing sarcasm in what was written on the sign nailed above him, “This is the King of the Jews”. The soldiers mocked him and goaded him to save himself if indeed he had the power of a king. One of the criminals crucified beside him also called on Jesus to prove himself with power. The other criminal though sees in the broken body of Jesus something very different. It was in his woundedness that the man glimpsed something of what Christ the King might be. On the cross, not on a throne, the kingdom that Jesus had proclaimed was at hand.
The world does not want this. And in the church we do not want this. We want “blessing and honour and glory and power”. Our buildings are designed to portray that. Our building here at St. Andrew’s is often referred to as “the castle”. It is beautiful and in its day it dominated the landscape at the corner of King and Simcoe. It still is beautiful but today it is dwarfed by the towers of concrete and glass and steel that surround us, the places where great power and influence in our city and in our country are located. Many of you know those buildings much more intimately than I do but the times when I have had opportunity to be on the top floors and looking down on the streets around me I cannot help but feel a sense of being in a place of power and influence. We want to be there.
Our beautiful building, our castle, is now way down there, not where it used to be. Up there, for a moment, you can get a sense of where power truly resides. But when you come down to street level again, you are faced by another scenario. As you approach our beautiful building, you are often confronted by those who sit and sleep on the grate at Emily Street. There is sometimes competition for that spot. Especially as the days get colder. We catch a glimpse of where power does not reside. In the brokenness of human life even surrounded by immense wealth and privilege. We do not want to be there.
And yet until we truly look upon brokenness, recognize it, see it and in it our own brokenness, our own need, our own lacking, can we see the Christ and the breaking in of the reign of Christ the King? The second criminal did not repent in his words to Jesus. He saw him. Andrew Fullerton in his book, “Tales from the Miry Clay” would say that he regarded him. Like in the French. And in him caught a glimpse of what might be. And he wanted Jesus to remember him, to bring him into that new place, that new realm, where the cross was leading him. He got it. A criminal. Being executed on a cross. He got it. Stripped of anything that could possibly give any hint of power, he glimpsed in his fellow crucified, something profoundly holy, something of a different kingdom.
You Lord are both lamb and shepherd,
You Lord are both prince and slave.
Did Sylvia Dunstan catch a glimpse of the coming reign of Christ in the eyes of those incarcerated in the maximum security prison where she was chaplain? In the overrepresentation of indigenous people among those imprisoned, was there a hint of a different reign of the crucified one? Paradoxically. Some would say that is only weakness. Strong leadership, of the kingly and imperial types, is what is needed. Those on the margins have nothing to offer. The prisoner. The newcomer. Those who are different in any way. We are told to fear them. We are told to see in them a problem to be overcome, eliminated if need be. Not a place where we might regard the holy. Catch a glimpse of the reign of Christ. We are told by some that we can only bring in the kingdom by battening down the hatches, sticking to what we have always said, drawing the lines and building the walls so that we can maintain our purity and our security. Then Jesus will be there among us. Christ the King.
Will he? There is a wonderful set of cartoons circulating on Facebook of Jesus as shepherd of the sheep. In each cartoon, in the flock of white sheep with black faces, there is a multi-coloured sheep. The other sheep don’t know quite what to do with this multi-coloured other. In one cartoon, Jesus appears carrying a sheep with transgender colours around his neck. The head sheep in the flock says to him, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold it right there. He wasn’t lost, we kicked him out”. Jesus replies, “I know. And I found her.” Sometimes we have to go outside the walls to find Christ the king, and to find those who recognize the reign of Christ. We need to listen to the criminals and to those who don’t fit, who end up in the places we don’t want to be.
I understand why we don’t have crucifixes in protestant churches. Just as we cannot understand the resurrection without the crucifixion, so we cannot understand the crucifixion without the resurrection. If the central image we gaze upon is Jesus on the cross, we may somehow negate the resurrection. But sometimes I wish we had a crucifix to gaze upon. And a crucifix that is not sanitized to make it more acceptable to our sensibilities. A broken, bleeding, mutilated body. We need to see that. It is the broken, bleeding, mutilated body of humankind, perhaps we can even say now of the planet on which we live. It is hard to look at. We do not choose to look at it. We do not want to look upon it. But there is the Christ. Christ the King. And in that moment can we say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”? In the crucified one, can we catch a glimpse of the holy? Of the truly powerful one who is always and ever with us and calling us to follow and recognize a kingdom where the first will be last and the last will be first, where the greatest among us will be the servant of all, where good news will be preached to the poor, where sight will be recovered, where captives will be released, where the least expected one will have compassion on the wounded, where a lost rainbow sheep will be thought important enough to look for, and where a rebellious child will be welcomed home with open arms.
Paradoxically. It is as we look upon the crucified one that we can imagine and step toward the coming reign of new and transformed life that awaits us. And it is not far away. “Today, just beyond the cross, you will be with me in paradise.” Thanks be to God.