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Christ the King Cycle C (3)
In one of my favorite Peanuts comic strips, Lucy’s feeling sorry for herself and she laments, “My life is a drag. I’m completely fed up. I’ve never felt so low in my life.”
Her little brother Linus tries to console her and he says, “Lucy, when you’re in a mood like this, you should try to think of things you have to be thankful for; in other words, count your blessings.”
To that, Lucy says, “Ha! That’s a good one! I could count my blessings on one finger! I’ve never had anything and I never will have anything. I don’t get half the breaks that other people do. Nothing ever goes right for me! And you talk about counting blessings! You talk about being thankful! What do I have to be thankful for?”
Linus says, “Well, for one thing, you have a little brother who loves you.”
With that, Lucy runs and hugs little brother Linus as she cries tears of joy, and while she’s hugging him tightly, Linus says, “Every now and then, I say the right thing.”
Right now I’m going to say the right thing to you: We have a God who loves us. Remember that on Thursday and every day.
Have you ever gotten really upset with the ending to a book or movie? If the ending is too unexpected, or too weak, or if they kill off your favorite character, it can ruin the whole story for you. In other cases, the ending might be offensive to some people, but that’s a risk you take when you go to the movies.
Here’s something you may not know. Movie censors in China are allowed to change the ending to movies to protect Chinese citizens from “scenes that might disturb social order or impart criminal methods.” If you’re familiar with the movie Fight Club, which starred Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, it’s got a violent ending. Edward Norton’s character kills Brad Pitt’s character, and then a bomb explodes, causing a bunch of buildings to burst into flames. The burning buildings are visual images of Norton’s desire to destroy modern civilization.
Well, this ending did not make it past the movie censors in China. Before they would show the movie in theaters, they changed the ending. The last few minutes of the movie are cut out. The movie ends with a screen image of a large sign that says the police caught all the bad guys, they prevented the bomb from exploding, Edward Norton’s character spent time in a sanitarium where he received psychological treatment, and he was discharged from the sanitarium in 2012. (1) So if you’re a big fan of Fight Club, now you know the Chinese version has an unexpected happy ending.
But what if we had the power to change the ending to a true story to make it as happy or as chaotic or as unexpected as we wanted? There is a genre of books in the publishing world that does exactly that. It’s called “alternate history” or “counterfactual history.” The authors of “alternate history” books take one major event or influential person in history and imagine what the world would be like if that event had never happened or that person had never been born. The book Virtual History contains essays from eight historians answering questions like, “What if Germany had won World War II? What if John F. Kennedy had never been assassinated?” And they use a lot of research and their vast knowledge of history to construct a totally different ending to a true story.
That’s a mind-boggling idea, isn’t it? What if? What if one major event in world history had never happened? What if Vladmir Putin had never been born, or had decided not to attack Ukraine? Or, more important, what if Jesus Christ had been unwilling to go to the cross in our behalf?
Think about that question as I read our Bible passage for today from Luke 23, the story of Jesus’ death. This passage begins, “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Three times, the accusation was made against Jesus, “If he is God’s Messiah, if you are the king of the Jews, aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” This is a déjà vu moment for Jesus. He’s heard these words before. In Luke 4, Satan presented Jesus with three temptations in the desert, and taunted him with the words, “If you are the Son of God. . .” Three times, he was given the opportunity to change the ending to the story. Three times Jesus refused. And in Matthew 26, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. Three times he prayed and wrestled with his calling. Three more times, he was given the opportunity to change the ending to the story. Three times, Jesus refused. And here, as he hung on the cross in agonizing pain, with crowds shouting at him and rulers sneering at him and soldiers gambling over his clothes, Jesus was given three opportunities to change the ending to the story. If you are the Messiah, save yourself. And he refused. Why? The people in the crowd that day were questioning the power of the Messiah because they didn’t understand the purpose of the Messiah.
Our actions define us. Not what we say, not what we intend to do, not what we feel. It’s what we do that reveals our true character and values and priorities. And we are also defined by what we choose NOT to do.
In 1966, a young British woman named Jackie Pullinger became a missionary in the Walled City of Kowloon, a place in Hong Kong that was notorious for high rates of poverty, drug addiction and crime. The city was practically run by criminal gangs. Jackie, without any supplies or support of a mission agency, began walking the streets of Kowloon and sharing the message of Jesus with the addicts and prostitutes she met. Over the next 40 years, she brought thousands of people to Christ, and established drug rehabilitation centers in Hong Kong that have helped thousands of people escape their addictions.
Jackie claims that in the early days of her ministry in Kowloon, her limited language skills may have worked in her favor. Instead of being able to preach the gospel effectively, Jackie had to show people who Jesus was by her actions. As she said, “. . . I found out that the people there were not listening anyway, they were watching to see how I acted, whether I really did love them. And if I really did love them, maybe God really did love them.” (2)
It’s what we do, and what we choose not to do, that reveals our true character and values and priorities. This is never more true than in times of crisis. What we choose to do or not do in that crucial moment reveals who we really are. Our choices, to act or not to act, can literally change the ending to our story. On Christ the King Sunday, I’d like us to examine what Jesus chose to do and not to do when his life, and the salvation of the world, hung in the balance.
On the cross Jesus chose to offer forgiveness and mercy for those who didn’t deserve it. Jesus had already undergone beatings and humiliation by the soldiers before they nailed him to the cross and hung him there to die. Our passage goes on to reveal that the crowds were watching him, the rulers were sneering at him, the soldiers were mocking him, and one of the thieves hurled insults at him. We can’t even imagine the horror, the humiliation, the agony and the abandonment Jesus suffered in these moments. God in the flesh looked on the worst of His enemies and He chose to forgive them. He set aside wrath in favor of restoration.
Carolyn Maull McKinstry grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the ’50s and 60s, during the painful struggle for civil rights. She remembers that her home city was nicknamed “Bombingham” for the frequent bombings that targeted Black homes and businesses. Carolyn’s parents tried to shield her from the hatred and violence that were so prevalent at the time. Her family attended the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where they were surrounded by a loving community of fellow believers. Carolyn was baptized there at age 13. Her best friends were there.
September 15, 1963 was Youth Sunday at her church. As Carolyn walked into the sanctuary that morning, a bomb went off. The next thing she remembers was the sound of police sirens and screams as people ran into the streets to escape the explosion. Four members of the Klan had planted a bomb in the church that morning. Later, Carolyn would learn that her four friends—Addie Mae Collins, age 14; Carol McNair, age 11; Carole Robertson, age 14; and Cynthia Wesley, age 14—died in the explosion.
Carolyn’s family rarely talked about the bombing. Grief counseling wasn’t widely available then. So Carolyn learned to suppress her fear and confusion and grief into adulthood. But she struggled with depression and blunted her feelings with alcohol until finally her husband encouraged her to get some help. She visited a psychologist who suggested that she needed to deal with something from her past in order to free herself from the grip of depression.
When she got home from the psychologist’s office, she went to her closet and pulled out a box of childhood mementos. On top was the Bible her parents gave her for her baptism. Carolyn began shaking as she reached into the box. She says she prayed, “God, I am in so much pain. Please fix my body. Take away my cravings for alcohol. Please touch me with your healing so I can go forward.” And as she picked up her childhood Bible, a bulletin fell out. On the front was the date September 15, 1963. And inside was printed the sermon title and Scripture verses: A Love that Forgives, Luke 23:34. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
Carolyn began a journey of forgiveness and healing that day. She prayed that God would let her see the bombers as God saw them. She prayed that God would forgive them as God had forgiven her. Carolyn went on to attend Divinity School so she could preach and teach about God’s love and forgiveness and reconciliation to others. And In 1978, Carolyn and her family moved back to Birmingham and rejoined the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a church that symbolizes to Carolyn “God’s infinite grace and love for all his children, and how we are given that love in order to forgive what seems unforgivable and release our burdens to Him.” (3)
Our actions define us. What we choose to do, or not to do, reveal our truth. In Jesus’ worst and most agonizing moment, he chose to forgive his enemies and grant salvation to a dying thief. And on the cross, Jesus—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—chose not to save himself, but to save humankind instead. In Matthew 26, when Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he says, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” All power in heaven and on earth was available to him. He could have changed the ending to the story. But he chose to suffer and die in our place to heal our broken relationship with God. The King of Kings took our place so that we could have eternal life with God.
Brennan Manning was an author and Franciscan priest who served in the Korean War. He tells the story of how he and his best friend, Ray, enlisted together and served in the same Marine platoon. One night a grenade landed in the foxhole where Brennan and Ray were sheltered. Ray threw his body over the grenade and died to save his friend.
Years later, Brennan visited Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. In the course of their conversation, Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?”
Mrs. Brennan stood up, shook her finger in Brennan’s face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?”
Brennan said that at that moment he pictured himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, “Does God really love me?” And Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “What more could he have done for you?” (4)
And that’s what I want to ask you this morning: what more could Jesus have done for you? He had the choice to destroy his enemies. He had the choice to save himself. He had the choice to change the ending to his story. And he gave it all up to save humankind from the penalty of sin and death. Our actions define us. And in his worst moments, Jesus chose to suffer and die because of his love for us. When you look at the cross, can you really ask the question, “Does God really love me?” And if God really loves you that much, what is keeping you from giving your life to God today? If you understand the love of Jesus Christ, then I hope you will pray and ask Jesus to be your Lord and Savior. And in that prayer, you will change the ending to your story too.
- “China Censors ‘Fight Club’ With New Ending, but Some Execs View It as Bizarre ‘Win-Win’” by Patrick Frater Variety https://variety.com/2022/film/asia/fight-club-china-ending-censored-1235162643/.
- “We’re going to feel stupid for eternity if we waste this life” interview with Jackie Pullinger by Sam Hailes, “Premier Christianity,” January 2019. https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2019/January-2019/Jackie-Pullinger-We-re-going-to-feel-stupid-for-eternity-if-we-waste-this-life.
- “The Power of Forgiveness Was Stronger Than Her Addiction,” by Carolyn Maull McKinstry Sept. 10, 2018, Guideposts magazine. https://www.guideposts.org/better-living/health-and-wellness/addiction-and-recovery/the-power-of-forgiveness-was-stronger-than.
- Lee Eclov, Vernon Hills, Illinois; source: adapted from James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God(IVP, 2009), p. 142). Cited by Pastor Joe Wittwer, “Love is a verb,” https://lifecenter.net/sermons/2014/love-is-a-verb/.
ChristianGlobe Network, Inc., Dynamic Preaching Third Issue Sermons, by King Duncan
Christ the King Cycle C (2)
I want to introduce you today to a man whom we would not want for a friend. That’s different. I do not introduce you to people like this very often, but today we are going to pretend that we are listening to a thief. This is not an ordinary thief, but a very special thief. This is the thief who died on a cross beside Jesus when Jesus was crucified. Church tradition tells us his name is Dismas and because scripture tells us he is in heaven we call him Saint Dismas. Will you now please pretend that the thief is here, and that he is ready to speak to you?
[Raise the mask.] I am a thief. If you had lived next door to me, you would not have liked me. But I don’t care, or at least I didn’t care then. I took whatever I wanted from anybody when I wanted to. If you had something I wanted, I would wait until you went away, or when you were not looking, and then I would take it. I was that way until the day I died. I want you to know that I changed at the last minute and I mean the very last minute.
The first time I saw Jesus, I was standing on a hill with my hands tied behind my back. Jesus was walking and sometimes stumbling up the hill. Another man was carrying his cross. We knew that he was supposed to die with us, but I had never seen him before. I say “us” because I was not the only thief who was supposed to die. There was another one. We had done many things which were against the law, and we knew that if we were ever caught, we would be crucified.
I remember how bad it was waiting for Jesus to come up the hill. The soldiers called Jesus “crazy.” They laughed and said that some people called this poor man a king. Some even said that he was the Savior, and the Son of God. I wondered what kind of a man this was, but most of all I was afraid of dying. When Jesus arrived, he looked awful. His back was bloody, he had a crown of thorns on his head, and the people were screaming at him like animals. I was afraid for myself, and I felt extra sorry for him.
Shortly after Jesus arrived, they put me on my cross. I will never forget the pain. There is nothing in the world that hurts as much as when you are being crucified. I forgot about Jesus because I hurt so much. I must have passed out because I do not remember seeing them lift Jesus up in the air on his cross. The next time I remember seeing Jesus, he was hanging on his cross between me and the other thief, and the thief was shouting at Jesus. He said, “Prove that you are the Savior, help yourself and me down from the cross.” Then he began to curse at Jesus and say the most terrible things you have ever heard.
I looked at Jesus, and I knew that he was different. He was not like us now, and he was never like us. He looked at the other thief and gave him a sign of love and hope. But the thief screamed more curses, so many that I had to stop him. I told the thief to be quiet. I told Jesus that we were different and I hoped he would remember me not as a thief, but as a man who was dying beside him that day. Jesus looked at me and told me that I should remember this, “Today, you will be with me in God’s Kingdom.” I felt forgiven and loved for one of the few times in my life. Jesus was the Lord. He did forgive, and he understood me.
I didn’t stop hurting. I even died on the cross that day. Jesus died first, but I will never forget how much I loved him. I gave my life to Jesus, and I tell everyone I can how much he means to me. Dying on Calvary was awful, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. That’s where I met Jesus and it is the day that I became a follower of Christ.
[Remove the mask.] That was the way that the thief who followed Jesus wanted you to remember him. I hope that you will remember him and his story for a long time. All of us need to be forgiven for our sins and this man certainly was forgiven for his on the day he died. He loved Jesus and Jesus loved him. Jesus is like your parents. They love you no matter how bad you are and they are always willing to forgive if you are really sorry. (This doesn’t stop you from being punished but it helps the relationship of love.)
“Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?” Those words from the Good Thief, whom we call Dismas, bother me. How could Dismas say that God is dying with them? I could perhaps see his line of thought if Dismas were a pagan. The pagan gods of Greece and Rome had all sorts of human traits and failings. Their gods could be punished, as some were in their myths. But Dismas wasn’t a pagan. He was a Hebrew. And he didn’t say “a god” is dying with them. He said God. Why would Dismas consider that God could be condemned?
The answer might be found in a terrible movement from the last century. In 1966 Time Magazine published a cover story that asked, “Is God Dead?” This blasphemous article suggested that modern man no longer needed God, so therefore, he is dead. They weren’t original, the 19th century philosopher, Frederich Nietsche, said this in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. His theories led to Nazism. Those who claimed that God was dead did so because they didn’t need him. He was no longer relevant to them. They had the world very well in control without having to be concerned with the presence of God.
Perhaps, Dismas could see through the hypocrisy of the Temple priests and leaders of the Jewish people, who really didn’t want God imposing himself on the nice neat order of things they had established for themselves. They had things under control. They certainly didn’t want a Messiah coming who would question their lifestyle. Jesus did exactly that. They didn’t need this. They didn’t need him. So he was condemned to death.
Here in the 21st century only a few people will say that God is dead, but many people act as though He is dead. They think that they don’t need Him. They certainly don’t want Him in their lives. They have everything under control, or so they think. And so they put God to death, attacking His Presence in the social structures of the world. Freedom of religion has been reduced to freedom from religion, and the Christmas Season has become the winter holidays.
When we push God aside, keep him out of our lives, or at least parts of our lives, we are joining those who tried to put Him to death. If we do this enough, we, in our minds, will no longer consider the actions of a living God in the world or in our lives. Those who think they don’t need God are joining the people who condemned Jesus to death.
Jesus did not deserve to die. Dismas was very clear in stating from his cross that Jesus is an innocent man. Dismas also shouts out to the other criminal, that the two of them are certainly guilty and were suffering for their crimes. None of us are completely innocent. We are all dependent on the Mercy of God. Jesus did not need mercy from His Father. He was beautifully innocent. The one who was suspended on a cross for us, hanging between heaven and earth is the one whose death redeems us from the bondage of sin.
Today’s gospel presents this question: with whom do we identify? Do we identify with Dismas who recognized Jesus’ innocence, and who realized that Jesus’ death could be his passage to heaven, or do we identify with those who have no need for God and removed him from their lives, ignoring His presence?
Dismas looked at Jesus and said, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Dismas saw that he was being crucified next to the ruler of the spiritual kingdom. He realized that Jesus was the King of Kings. The spiritual is real. Jesus is Son of God; yet is one of us. We are members of His spiritual kingdom.
This changes everything. The way that we approach life. The ultimate goal of our lives. Our plan to achieve this goal. Everything changes because we are members of the spiritual kingdom. We have experienced the love of Jesus. We need to live for Christ. We need to spread this love to others. We cannot be vengeful. We cannot be people of hate. We cannot allow or support any form of prejudice or bigotry. We are the people of Jesus Christ. We cannot join those who live in a way that says, “We don’t need God.”
We do need God. And we love needing Him. We want the world to know that Jesus is our King. We need to proclaim to others with our lives, “Jesus is your king too.”
Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom
Christ the King Cycle C (1)
The word “smear” can refer to how much cream cheese one puts on a bagel, but, more often, it refers to the way we demean other people by our words. Smearing has long been part of American political life. In 1884 James G. Blaine attacked Democrats as the party of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion. But it backfired; so angry were Catholics at this attack, they turn out and voted for Grover Cleveland to be president. Today smear seems to be our most popular discourse; we can imply, without evidence, that someone is a crook, a traitor, or weak in mind and character. Smearing has made public conversation almost impossible. One side says “libtards” and the response smears with “Nazis.”
Yet “smear” is a very accurate word because smearing covers or hides something. And smearing a person is a way to make him or her almost disappear. We don’t see that person anymore; we see the slogan and the imputed defects. Smearing is a way to demean someone and help make them vanish.
On this feast of Christ the King, this is exactly what we see going on. For the Roman practice of crucifixion was a carefully constructed method to debase and demean a person. It was not only the torture that people endured, sometimes for days; it was the shame that was hurled at them by anyone who passed by. If the Romans could make a leader disappear then maybe other troublemakers would hide themselves and become invisible too.
The Crucifixion shows us how the shaming worked, from the leaders who manipulated the death of Jesus, to the soldiers who shamed the victims as part of their job, to the passers-by shouting insults, even to someone dying with Jesus. “Aren’t you the Christ? Then save yourself and save us.” So shouts one rebel crucified with Jesus, parroting the general barrage hurled at Jesus.
But the other rebel manages to break through the smear. He first of all sees the innocence of Jesus. “We’re getting what we deserve, but what did this man do?” And this allows him to go even further, to see Jesus even more clearly: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He not only calls Jesus by his name, but he implicitly acknowledges the Kingdom to which Jesus committed his life. He sees, amid all the scorn thrown at Jesus, the thread of redemption that smears ultimately cannot hide.
As an aside: Remember me then is a very powerful prayer. It got Dismas into heaven. We should in prayer always ask our Lord to remember ourselves and those dear to us living and deceased.
This feast provides us an opportunity to try to see Jesus more clearly ourselves. Jesus is proclaimed a King. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925, less than 100 years ago, as a comment on the crisis in government and leadership he sensed around the world. Just a few years earlier, World War I had ended, with all its destruction, and Russia had just adopted atheistic Communism in 1917.
But we see Jesus as a different kind of leader. Not a king or president like anyone else, Jesus’ Kingship is tied to the Kingdom that he came to inaugurate. His Kingship is not based on money, power, or politics. It is based on the vision of a redeemed humanity finally coming to its fullness under the grace and mercy of God. This is true power: mercy in the face of scorn, and indomitable love in the face hate. This is exactly what Jesus shows in his exchange with the repentant rebel, or the Good Thief, as we call him.
Who knows what will break through our terribly destructive politics? But at least we Catholics and Christians have an alternative to the cynicism that pervades our public space. We have a King who promises Paradise to one who saw only destruction and death. If that man’s halting faith can gain so much for him, what can our robust faith gain for us, and even for our world?