Sermon for The Reign of Christ, Sunday, November 20 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jer 23:1-6; Lk 1:68-79; Col 1:11-20; Lk 23:33-43
I grew up in an old limestone house on the outskirts of Kingston, Ontario, a few blocks from Kingston Penitentiary, and the federal Prison for Women; and my parents taught classes in both, as well as in the several other prisons located just outside the city, so the prison system was very much a part of my life as a child. And, as well, we lived right across the street from the Church of the Good Thief, a Roman Catholic church dedicated to the crucified criminal whom we meet in today’s Gospel, a man whose name, according to most Western versions of the legend, was Dismas. There are not many churches dedicated to St Dismas, but this was one of them; built, I’m told, from limestone blocks quarried by prisoners in the penitentiary in the 19th century.
We weren’t a churchgoing family, and I didn’t get any religious education aside from what I pieced together for myself. But we lived across from this church, and we had car thieves and drug dealers and other assorted felons in and out of our house all the time, all the distress and confusion and emotional mess of their lives, people who’d often been abused since childhood, left out of respectable society, had learned no other way to be. And one of the very first things I knew about Jesus was that he was executed alongside a thief , someone probably a lot like the thieves I knew, and one who was in some way “good.” Whatever else I learned, this childhood left me with a clear understanding that goodness is much more complicated than we sometimes think, and that being close to God is both a dangerous business, and not much related to easy ideas about what “good” might mean.
Dismas might indeed have been a thief, as the older translations have it, either out of greed or out of a desperate need to feed himself or his family. But the Greek words could mean other things. He might simply have been a poor man who defaulted on a loan, because failing to make payments to a debtor could, in some cases, get you crucified. Or he might have been a political dissident. All we really know is that he had fallen out with society enough that he had been nailed to a cross to die, alongside a difficult prophet from the Galilee who called himself the Son of Man and spoke of the coming of God’s kingdom.
Today, the last Sunday before Advent, is known as the Sunday of the Reign of Christ. It is the Sunday when we remember that Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection, shows us, and brings us into, the Kingdom of God whose presence we dimly know here, and whose coming we pray for. And this Gospel reminds us that the Kingdom was made real when God’s incarnate Word gave himself willingly to be crucified, accepted in his own body the worst that the world of power and violence could deal out, and responded with nothing but love, love that went all the way through death and hell and into new life, love that could not be killed. And if the Cross is the place where the Kingdom was once and for all made real for us, it’s worth looking at who was there, because perhaps that tells us a bit more about the shape of this Kingdom, about who its citizens are.
It is not an intially promising picture, especially in this version. There were Roman soldiers, of course, who were there under orders, enlisted men in a dirty job they didn’t choose, there because they had to be there. There were the religious leaders who thought they had beaten back a threat, who fall back into cruel mockery in their moment of apparent victory. And there were two criminals, nailed to their own crosses, the ones who were closest to Jesus in his final moments, the ones who really had no choice but to stay. And one of these two criminals, suffering his own physical and emotional torment, knowing that he is dying, speaks in defense of the man beside him, and in trust, and in hope. And in that moment, the kingdom opens.
These are the citizens of the kingdom, here at the cross. The weak, the unwilling, the lost, the poor, the compromised and the sinful. Those who have nowhere else to go, no goodness of their own. The ones who can be nowhere but here, at the centre, where the powers of the world are doing their very best to kill love. And among them, this one who can still hope, can still suppose that this is not the end, that love’s kingdom will be realized and that he, outcast from everything else, may be able to enter it.
I think about Dismas’s last desperate act of trust, his final choice to place his belief somewhere, to be kind to someone dying beside him, and the gospel’s absolute assurance, placed in Jesus’ own mouth, that this was enough. That this was everything. That this is what it means to be good.
We are not received into the kingdom because we deserve it, because we have been nicer or more helpful or more law-abiding than other people. We are received into the kingdom when we realize that we have nowhere else to go. Whatever lives we may be living, however shaped or mishapen by our families and our societies and the flaws in our selves, the meaning of our lives lies in whether we can, even if only briefly and at the last of all possible moments, hand ourselves over to trust in love.
One of the two wrongdoers, the one less remembered by tradition, chose to fall in with the mockery of the crowd, to turn against the person dying beside him, to take the side of power, the very power that was killing him. Maybe it gave him some sense of security, some feeling that, at least for the last few minutes of his life, he could be part of an in-group by attacking someone else. We’re all familiar with that, with the way we try to make ourselves feel better or stronger or more acceptable by rejecting someone else. We’re seeing that now, in the appalling racist acts which seem to have been unleashed by the US election, white supremacist posters in the east end of this city, racial abuse hurled on the TTC, anti-Semitic graffiti in Ottawa. It is all too familiar, the way we broken humans try to convince ourselves that by attacking the weak, we make ourselves strong.
Dismas chose otherwise. In some kind of half-articulate insight, he understood that this dying man, this man rejected by society and abandoned by his friends, was, as Paul says, “the image of the invisible God.” He grasped somehow that this is what love looks like, and that we have the choice to be at the side of love. To be welcomed into God’s kingdom of the lost and the outcast, the desperate beloved children. It is to this choice we pledge ourselves at baptism, the choice of love in the face of power, the choice of kindness when it seems futile, the choice of trust in that final place, at a time when we have nowhere else to go and no one to help us. This is the community we enter, of those who are made welcome because we can’t go anywhere else. Those who turn in hope and hold up our hands to be fed by the God who was willing to die at human hands. This is the kingdom.
Jesus never says, by the way, that the other thief won’t be with him in paradise. I just want to point that out, because otherwise we’re still going to be in the business of rating people and rejecting some of them. Jesus on the cross, surrounded by soldiers, asks for forgiveness for everyone. For the people who treat killing as their job. For the people who make fun of dying men. For the disciples who lose their nerve and run away. I don’t think the other criminal is excluded from that; I think the love that radiates out from Jesus’ self-offering embraces him as well.
So there is hope for all of us, foolish and petty and misguided as we so often are. Maybe we cannot even be Dismas. We are still forgiven. That infinite forgiveness is always reaching out. Only turn, in the smallest and most stumbling way, and it is always there.