“Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’”
This is the last Sunday of the Church year and it always ends with a celebration of Jesus as Christ the King. On the wall above the altar you have a grand representation of the victorious King in all his glory. But this begs the question, “King of what?”
If I say, “The president of the United States” you can quickly bring up an image of a person, probably several. You know where he, or maybe someday, she might live. You know what they are suppose to do and how what they do affects your life and the life of those around you. The image is relevant and important. It is practical. It is useful and it affects life. But to say Jesus is King, well, what does that have to do with the price of cabbages?
Every king has a kingdom. Where is this kingdom of Jesus and what does it look like? What does life look like in this kingdom? Is this kingdom here and now or is it yet to come? Not even Jesus’ disciples understood, at least at first, what Jesus was trying to say about the Kingdom of God. In Acts we find the disciples, right after the Resurrection, asking Jesus this question, “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The Roman occupation of Israel had everyone’s minds thinking that the messiah would bring an end to that occupation and establish once again Israel’s independence. In the Gospel of Luke we hear of a story where the Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come. Jesus replies, “The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For in fact, The Kingdom of God is among you.” And to make matters worse, in our Gospel lesson for today we have one of the criminals next to Jesus on the cross say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus responds by saying, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Is Paradise the kingdom or is it something else?”
I start work at Genesis House usually around 6:30 in the morning and I feel lucky to get away by 5:30 in the afternoon. Days are always long and those that we serve can take all the energy I have. The day is usual filled with one story after another of human need, suffering, injustices and, thank God, the occasional good news report. At the end of the day I come home and feed the cats, have my supper, catch up with Sally and her adventures, do whatever items I need to keep my personal life going and then finally I head for the Lazy Boy. I sit down and spread a blanket across my lap and pull the handle that stretches out the chair into that wonderful plane of relaxation. The feet are carefully spread apart so that the view of the TV is not blocked. There is a moment or two of calm and then it begins to happen. I become something else. Zelda, our 14 year old cat, and queen among the other cats, manages to find her way into the house during these colder months. She usually hovers over the heating vents. The warmth does old bones some good. She waits and when she knows I am properly prepared she finds her way to the Lazy Boy and climbs aboard. After kneading my tummy to confirm her softness standards she curls up, closes her eyes and purrs until she begins to dream the dreams of old cats. As I breath in and out she bobs up and down, which I think adds to her experience. Buster, the family dog, is next. He bounces up, turns around several times, until he finds his place at my feet. He lays his head across one of my ankles, takes in a deep breath and then sighs as if to let go of his busy day as well. They fit perfectly. The view of the TV is still clear. And there we are safe, warm, and enjoying each others companionship. The transformation is complete. I have become the resting place. It is not Paradise, but in this weary, weary world it is as close as I will get. But this is not the kingdom. It might be a room in the kingdom but it is not the kingdom.
For me the Kingdom of God happens at Genesis House. It is where I meet the world, not hide from it. Genesis House is not the kingdom, rather it is the place where the Kingdom happens. It happens when guests enter our doors. It happens when volunteers, staff, and our guests meet and begin to interact. It happens when donors come and offer up their gifts. It happens when hope finds new strength.
We come together today to celebrate a king. What a strange picture we have to remember this king by. Unlike the image we see on the wall, our Gospel lesson shows us a king stripped, tortured, in pain, weak, suffering and nailed to hard wood between two criminals. No effort to humiliate Jesus has been spared. His suffering companions wait for death with him. One, in his anger and rage, finds the strength to lash out one more time and derails Jesus with mockery, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The other criminal, amid his suffering, can only make a plea, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In the midst of Jesus’ crucifixion , when others would have no strength to look beyond their own pain and suffering, Jesus does something I find incredible. He is able to discern the needs of another and even in this seemingly powerless position, offers hope, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Hope is the language of the Kingdom of God.
I mentioned earlier in the sermon a quote from Luke. Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees was, “For, in fact the Kingdom of God is among you.” There is another way of reading that passage and in the King James Version it does so, “ For, in fact the Kingdom of God is within you.” You and I are the Kingdom of God. This places a great responsibility upon our shoulders; where ever we go we carry the Kingdom and its King into this world. Our responsibility is to make the Kingdom relevant. It must speak to life. The Kingdom of God must speak to those who are poor and to those who are poor in spirit, to those who hunger now and to those who hunger for righteousness. And we can do that if we use the language of hope.
Many of the people I see have lost hope. They have surrendered. What has filled the gap is the raw energy of just trying to survive. Surviving has its own logic, its own reason and its own values. They believe that an injustice has been done and they do not find anyone who cares. They are not heard. They can find charity but they can not find anyone who hears. In our Hebrew Scriptures today Jeremiah recalls a time when God spoke of shepherds who had scattered his flock and driven them away because they had not attended to them. But God said that he would change this. He would raise up shepherds over them who would care for them and they will not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor would any be missing. God would raise up a King who would bring back justice and righteousness to the land. God gave them hope.
We are to be those shepherds that God in Jeremiah said he would bring to his people. We have to hear their plight. We have to give them hope that someone is listening and add our voices to theirs so that the whole world can hear. The world will not like it. It will fight back. And sometimes so does the church.
In America we have decided that for a single person, if they have an income of $950.00 a month or below, they live in poverty. Poverty means that they will live in need, not getting basic human necessities. Food, shelter, health are all in jeopardy. A disabled person, someone who has lost the ability to provide an income for themselves, will spend years applying for benefits, that hopefully, will allow them to take care of themselves. During this period of no income during the application, they change. Hope begins to be replaced by the culture of survival. When they finally do get benefits approved, and I have seen it over and over again, the number $667.00 a month pops up on our intake sheets as their total monthly income. That is $283.00 a month below the poverty line. We as a culture have decided that our weakest will remain the that way for as long as they live.
I can bring a hundred other examples to your attention. There is the working class who are homeless because they do not have a living wage. What happens when the healthy become sick and have to leave work for three months only to lose their home after all their savings is used up. The mentally ill who can not afford their medications and once off their medications the spiral of chaos begins. In a small town called Siloam Springs, I have counted over 250 new homeless children so far this year. What is it like in Bentonville? Who is listening to them? How do we give them hope? We are their shepherds and we are to bring them into the Kingdom of God.
Think about this, what would it mean if we were able to rise up out our lives filled with all its problems and hear someone else’s need, and like Jesus’ say to them, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” As their Shepherds, what is God calling us to change?