Year C, Proper 29
Mr. Kyle Cuperwich
Trinity Episcopal Church
Moorestown, New Jersey
November 24, 2019
I heard my first Christmas song for the 2019 holiday season on November 9th. I was innocently walking in the T.J. Maxx off Rt. 38, when at around 7:45 pm, I heard the jolly sounds of “Step Into Christmas” by Elton John. While this song is not one of my favorites, I nonetheless began to get those feelings associated with the Christmas season: feelings of excitement and anxiety.
We as a culture like to do a lot of activities during this season: visit friends and family, by one another gifts, go to Christmas parties, celebrate Advent at church, and (for some of you) watch bad movies on the Hallmark Channel (God bless you if that is part of your Christmas piety). Our culture can get very busy and excited during this time of preparation for the celebration of the incarnation, that moment where humanity and divinity fully came together in the Christ child, born in a manger in Bethlehem.
Yet what’s weird about today is that while the world is getting ready to celebrate the incarnation, we travel through Luke’s Gospel to the cross. We decided to take a little side trip to Good Friday on this the last Sunday of November. What is also weird about going to the cross today is that it’s Christ the King Sunday; the Sunday in the liturgical year where we really celebrate and acknowledge that God’s in charge, that Jesus is king, and we recognize the hope that comes with making such a bold proclamation.
As you have been coming to worship over the past few Sundays and listening to the scripture, you may have noticed that the Scripture passages have been focusing on getting ready for the end of the world – that time when God’s going to come and shake things up and change things as we know it. Just last week, the prophet Isaiah told us that God is going to create “a new heaven and a new earth.” When we ventured into the Gospel of Luke, we heard Jesus talking about signs of the end times: earthquakes, famines, wars, plagues, and signs from heaven that will tell us that God is about to shake things up and that we need to be ready.
So one would think that after spending all this time getting ready for the end of the world that we would finally arrive at Christ the King Sunday and hear a passage of victory from Scripture; Jesus on his throne, with all this power and glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Yet here we are at the cross. It’s all so weird.
The whole crucifixion event itself is so confusing. The major characters in the account in Luke’s Gospel are all trying to make sense of this event and reacting in their own way. The religious leaders, who feared Jesus’s teachings and popularity, were scoffing at him as he was being crucified. The soldiers who were actually doing the dirty work mocked him. The two criminals who are hung next Jesus on his right and on his left were arguing over just what exactly he was doing there. Then there was the crowd who just seem to stand by and watch. Lastly there was Rome, the state actor that actually ordered Jesus’ crucifixion, who made a sign saying, “Here is the King of the Jews” to hang on the cross with him. There’s just so much weirdness in this moment. Here is this King, going through the most public humiliation that the ancient world had to offer. This is the passage of Scripture that we use to commemorate Christ the King Sunday in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Amid all this weirdness, however, there’s one character that seems to understand this King Jesus the most. It’s not a religious figure who has a change of heart. It’s not someone in political power who could have stopped this heinous act from taking place. It’s one of the two criminals who was arguing over Jesus. This criminal said to the other, “Do you not fear God? You are justly condemned for doing something wrong, just as I am. Here is Jesus, in this place he does not deserve to be – in this place he does not need to be.” This criminal turns to Jesus and says, “Remember me, Jesus, when you come into your kingdom.” It was this criminal on the margins, moments and inches away from his own death, who understood this King and who embraced him. He saw Jesus as a King who entered willingly into the darkness, messiness and depravity of human sin. He saw Jesus as a King who could be embraced in that darkness, even by a common criminal.
I don’t know about you, but all too often I forget how Jesus operates as King. The Christian journey can be tough. After all, we want to be holy and rightly in God’s eyes and love our neighbors as God calls us to. Yet at that moment we slip in sin and we think we’ve fallen from grace, we start to tell ourselves, “God has no desire to be in this darkness and despair with us.” As our life falls to pieces, we tell ourselves, “We’re not worthy of our King’s love. Our King is not here with us.”
Additionally, the church has all too often forgotten how Jesus operates as a king. When you look at the history of The Episcopal Church and other American mainline denominations, as soon as they move from the sidelines—from a sect on the margins to mainstream respectability– their mindset begins to change. God is no longer seen in the margins where they once found themselves, but in order, decency, politeness, and respectability. They continue to look for God in places of power, high status and refinement while turning a blind eye to those places of darkness and despair in our society and the people who find themselves there. They turn their eyes from those things that bring darkness and sin to our society: racism, sexism, homophobia, economic injustice. After all, God is only seen in order and decency, and those things must be maintained at all costs.
So maybe it’s not so weird that we go to the cross on Christ the King Sunday. This passage forces each one of us to ask ourselves, “How do we understand Jesus as King? How do we understand how he operates? Do we see Jesus as a king only of those who are pristine, who is distant from us and who only embraces the most holy of us? Or do we see Jesus in the mess of human life? How we answer this question as individuals and as a church institution impacts how we live as disciples, how we engage in ministry and mission and giving as God’s people.
I had an experience in my college years that changed my mindset and understanding of how our King Jesus operates. During those years I was active in campus ministry at alma mater Ramapo College. I was even Vice President at one point of Campus Crusade for Christ. I led Bible studies, had taken part in prayer groups and campus outreaches, and even went to the streets of Newark, New Jersey to do some street preaching. I did everything I could to build my piety, strengthen my life with God to remain in Jesus’ embrace. At the same time, however, I was struggling with anxiety and depression that has been a thorn in my side for my entire life. In the fall of 2008, things got so bad that I had to check myself into a mental health facility. The moment I entered that hospital, I felt that I had failed God. I failed those I was a ministry with. I said to myself, as I was in that place of darkness and despair, “Surely God was not here with me. I’m not strong enough for God to use me.”
Yet, it was in that hospital where I was embraced by Jesus our King in a way I had never been embraced before. It was in that hospital where I had some of my first pastoral experiences. As folks found out I was a Christian, they would come to me and ask me questions about faith, about their struggles, and about the Bible. I even got the chance to lead a small Bible study. In that place of darkness and despair, among people who are often misunderstood and feared by society, I was embraced by Jesus.
Take a look at the cross at the front of this sanctuary. It’s beautiful. It gives sacredness to this space with its focus right above the altar. I challenge you, from this day going forward, to not simply look at that cross as a nice decoration. Let its weirdness be a reminder that the one we proclaim as King is willing to meet every one of us when we find ourselves in the darkness and despair of human life and loves us so much as to embrace us. May you remember that embrace as you leave this place and encounter others in your everyday life. Amen.