theolog cabin

Hosted by semfem, this is a warm, cozy place to curl up and ponder theological matters.

Monday, August 07, 2006

November 21, 2004 (Christ the King C)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20 (read responsively)
Luke 23:33-43 (primary text)

Often I go back and read old sermons and cringe a little bit (or a lot) inside. Not this one. To borrow a preaching adage, I had a dog and I walked it proud. Wow!

Click on the time link (and ignore the time it says) to read the sermon.

"Save" is the magic word for a lot of people. Jesus saves. Get saved. Follow these five easy steps and you, too, can be saved. "There are just two kinds of people in the world, the saved and the lost." That's a quote from Jerry Prevo, who also says that "Are you saved?" is "life's most important question". Pray these special words and you will be saved. Ask Jesus the magic question and you'll be saved. Don't forget to click on the link that says, "What to do after you're saved." For a lot of people, getting saved is the whole burrito.

That magic word, "saved," is also like a lightning rod for Christians of all traditions and non-Christians as well. Try typing "get saved" or "Jesus saves" into Google sometime. Actually, that's how I got a lot of these images.

You'll find links like the Anchorage Baptist Temple website that give you step-by-step instructions and an exact prayer to pray in order to "get saved." You'll also find a lot of satire, people using these phrases to make fun of Christianity or certain Christian groups. You'll find jokes, like "Jesus saves...but Gretzky shoots, he scores!" and "Jesus saves, Moses invests." You'll even find joke software that claims to save you by deleting your sin and installing Jesus in your life. Whatever it is, the serious and the satirical swarm around that word "saved" like clouds of mosquitos.

Everyone in Luke's story today seems to be swarming around it as well. The leaders of the people scoff, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The Roman soldiers yell, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" And even one dying alongside Jesus whines, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" In other words, "You say you're buddy-buddy with God, so prove it! Do something useful for a change!" Some of these people are using "save" as a joke to make the point that Jesus is the exact opposite of a king. Others are putting all their trust in that one word, using it to test Jesus and see if he is really the Messiah.

Gradually the logic puzzles in this text begin to emerge. First, note that all of them are challenging Jesus to save himself (although of course the first thief wants him to save all three being crucified). They agree that Jesus saved others. But "saving himself" seem to be the two magic words for them. Now, Luke often uses words that already have a meaning established in the cultures of the Old Testament. In this case, "save" has a very particular history. Throughout Israel's history, God is the only one who can ultimately save. However, God is always the one doing the saving rather than the one being saved. Being saved is a one-way street; Israel and Judah need it and God does it. So you see, it's a little confusing when people tell Jesus to save himself. The second thief crucified with Jesus is the only one who can see that Jesus does save, but the very nature of that saving means that it must be given to others, not to one's self.

Here's another word puzzle for you. In every instance, the word "save" is right next to a title, either "King of the Jews" or "Messiah." For some, these titles are jokes; for others, they are desperate cries for help from the powers that be. Traditionally, both of these titles did not mean "God," they meant a human favored by God. But how does that second thief address Jesus? He uses no title at all. He doesn't ask Jesus to save him. He asks Jesus to remember him. Saving someone means that you rescue them from harm, that you allow them to flourish, that you get them out of a tight spot, that you come along and save the day.

So what does it mean to remember someone? Using Luke's method of drawing words from the Old Testament, we see that God remembers key people at key times in Israel's history. God remembers Noah. God remembers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the promises made to them. God remembers Rachel, the wife of Jacob. God remembers Hannah, the mother of Samuel. This kind of remembrance is not a detached recollection of someone completely separate. Part of having memories is having emotions. Strong memories can cause you to feel emotion as though they were happening all over again. Sometimes we encase memories in hard little shells when they are too painful, but when those memories escape, they speak to us as though no time had passed. I discovered this last June when a close friend of mine from seminary suddenly died. Sometimes I can almost hear his voice and I know that his memory is speaking to me.

Memories do not simply come and go without creating a bond between the one remembering and the one being remembered. When God remembers someone, a connection is re-made; a new relationship is being created. This is a remembering that makes someone or something present alongside the rememberer.

So when the second man says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," he is giving Jesus the only title he needs: one who remembers. One who reaches out and draws us close. He knows that Jesus is one with the God who remembered the Israelites in the desert, one with the God who remembered Noah and his family in the ark, one with the God who remembers those who cry out for help. This man knows that Jesus is more than an unlucky human being whom God happens to like. And he says, "Jesus, if you're a king, then you're the king of people like me. Don't let me slip away when you become king." Only in Luke do we hear this man's voice. He has been forgotten in every other story of Jesus' death, but here he's remembered. He knows that Jesus is not the king who rides in on a white horse to save the day and bring independence to Israel and Judah; he is God in their midst who draws all to himself.

This full definition of "remember" lives on in the New Testament and in the Christian church today. Jesus' words are alive in the disciples through their memories of him. In Communion, we remember Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and that memory becomes present for us and in us as we gather to share bread and wine. And the beauty of remembering is that it goes in many directions. It's not just something that happens between us and Jesus, and it's not something that only happens backwards in time, like remembering those who have gone before on All Saints Sunday. We are also called to remember each other. This is what our Colossians reading is talking about when it says, "in him all things hold together." Through the memory of Christ, we are made present to each other.

Does this mean that the phrase "Jesus saves" is completely off the mark? No, it doesn't. But it does mean that Jesus saves others by remembering them and drawing them to him. Those who taunted Jesus and told him to save himself didn't understand the connection. For Luke, saving and remembering go hand in hand, connecting different people and creating a new communion with God. The second man understood this.

Surely there have been times in your life when you don't want to or can't be connected to other people, or times when you want to forget someone or forget that something ever happened. Surely you know of people who think that human beings are generally good and decent--until they start getting together. The philosopher who claimed that "Hell is other people" was from France, but he could have been a stereotypical Alaskan individualist trying to escape the oppressive presence of other people.

What does it take to forge us together in a way that overcomes our own weaknesses? The shared trauma of war forges veterans of armed conflict together. Forty years wandering in a desert forged a chosen people from a wandering group of escaped slaves. Shared life experiences, like raising children or buying a home, forge a marriage from two separate lives. Days like September 11th forge a nation as opposing forces mourn together. And yet all of these can dissolve--friends of fifty years can have a bitter argument, Israel and Judah can split and despise each other for centuries, marriages of thirty years can reach the breaking point, and a nation brought together by September 11th can bicker endlessly about what to do on September 12th.

And yet, in Christ, all things hold together. Invisibly. Cosmically. Things hold together. In the memory of Christ, the jagged shards of each person are melted enough to fit together.

Maybe you've heard "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats, with the line, "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold." This poem dates from the years right after World War I. Indeed, things seemed to have fallen apart. During this same time, as leaders like Hitler and Mussolini emerged from the ashes of the first world war, the Pope first named this Sunday "Christ the King" to point to the true center of things, the only one worthy of ultimate trust. No doubt you can remember times in your history when things seemed to be falling apart. And when things seem to be falling apart, all kinds of centers volunteer themselves. Leaders assure us that they will hold things together. Commercials assure us that certain products will help us hold things together. Self-help seminars and life coaches promise us the power to hold things together.

It is a bold statement to say instead, "Things hold together; Christ the center makes it so." But that is the message we are given to proclaim, in our words and in our actions. It is one thing to "get saved," and another to remember Jesus because he first remembered us. It is one thing to follow a King who can get you off the hook, and another thing to know that you are not alone on the hook. It is one thing to follow the guy on the white horse who saves the day and rides off into the sunset, and another to follow someone who saves us by joining in our brokenness and calling us to resurrection.

Have you ever wondered why we don't have a "Jesus saves" sign here at Amazing Grace out on O'Malley? Maybe there's a city ordinance against neon. Or maybe there's a lot of red tape to wade through, so we just never bothered. We have a different kind of "Jesus saves" sign--an simple illuminated cross. No fancy titles. Not only does it remind us that Jesus saves. It also reminds us that we are held together and remembered by Jesus through his life, death and resurrection. Things hold together. We are held together. Christ, the King, the center, can and will hold. Amen.