November 24, 2013

Christ the King, Year C

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-42

A few years ago, I went to Padova, Italy to present a paper at a conference on Medieval translation.  (Hopefully this sermon is more interesting than that paper.)  I flew back to the U.S. on a plane that went through Amsterdam, which is a hub for a lot of flights in Europe, and we had to go through passport control there.  It was a huge passport check area, with lots of long lines—but I use the word "lines" loosely.  Whenever one line seemed to be moving faster than another, people kept sliding out of their own lines and slipping into something better.  We were mostly just a mass of people trying to press our way through a row of narrow gates.
Standing in that so-called "line" at passport control, I happened to catch sight of someone who looked familiar—a nun.  Now, I hope it's not offensive to say this, but nuns can be really hard to tell apart.  If they're wearing a traditional habit and their hair is covered, they look kind of the same.  But I was pretty sure that the one I'd seen was Sister Maria.  (There are lots of those too.)
As I've mentioned before, I lived in Nepal about a decade ago, and I used to tutor kids after school in a program sponsored by the Salesian sisters.  (Salesians are a Catholic religious order.)  Sister Maria was the head of the Salesian community in Kathmandu, and during our break in the tutoring session, Sister Maria would always invite me in for a cup of tea.
Well, after I left Nepal, Sister Maria got promoted, and she returned to India from Nepal.  As part of her new religious duties, she got to represent her order on a visit to Rome.  But I didn't actually know any of this at the time I was going through passport control, since I hadn't seen or heard anything about Sister Maria in many years.
But I pushed ahead through the crowd and reached out to tug at this nun's sleeve.  She turned around, and, sure enough, it was Sister Maria!  We only had time for a brief conversation, but that moment of mutual recognition was incredible.  How amazing that we who had worked in mission together for a couple of years, and who came from opposite sides of the world, suddenly crossed paths again somewhere in the middle.  Actually, I think that the place where we crossed paths was not so much Amsterdam, but the kingdom of heaven.
This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the king.  Our collect—or our opening prayer this morning—reminds me of that moment with Sister Maria: We prayed at the beginning of this service, "Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule."  Today we celebrate Christ as the king of the whole universe, and try to live as citizens in his kingdom.  And as citizens in Christ's kingdom, we overcome the divisions and enslavements that separate the earth's people from one another.
Now, I know that in a lot of ways, passport control at the border between countries is not much like Christ's kingdom.  At passport control, you have to be ready to show your paperwork and have it scrutinized, and you have to deal with guards who may or may not be friendly.  In the reign of God, Jesus doesn't scour documents to see if we're eligible, and he invites us in rather than keeping us out.  Also, at passport control people are trying to push ahead of one another.   We have the opposite problem in the kingdom of God: everyone keeps saying, "After you"—"No, after you!"  We try to be the last in line, "for the last shall be first."
But in other ways, Christ's kingdom is like passport control.  It's a gathering of people from all over the world—from every nation, tribe, people, and language.   And surely there are moments of extraordinary recognition in this trans-national kingdom—moments when we catch sight of someone's face and say, "It's you!"  Moments when we say to that person, "in spite of all the differences and all the distances between us, in spite of the fact that I thought I might never see you again, here we are."
Our reading from the letter to the Colossians describes God's power to pull us out of our limited world and move us into Christ's kingdom.  As Paul puts it, "[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."  Part of our Christian lives is to accept that transfer—that transfer into the kingdom of God's beloved Son—that transfer of our allegiance and our perspective.
As the letter to the Colossians tells us, forgiveness is what transfers us into the kingdom.  Our gospel today shows us that forgiveness is how Christ reigns as king.  If you tune in next week to see the president pardon a turkey, you'll remember that pardon or forgiveness is often a privilege of the executive authority in a system of government.  Likewise, forgiveness is the sovereign privilege that Christ offers from the cross.
And he offers this forgiveness with his very last breaths, with the only thing left that he has to give in his life.
In Luke's account of the crucifixion, Jesus seeks forgiveness for the people who crucify him—even though they don't grasp what they are doing.  Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."  Jesus extends forgiveness to people who don't even ask for it, who don't even know that they need it.  
Jesus also offers someone a place in paradise even though he's been condemned to execution by the state.  This criminal has also judged himself, for he says, "we . . . have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds."  But Jesus reaches through his society's official system for judgment and punishment, and he reaches even through this man's self-reproach, to invite him into paradise.  
In between these moments of forgiveness and acceptance, Jesus' authority as king is mocked and rejected by all levels of society.  The leaders scoff at him; the soldiers mock him; a criminal derides him.  From the leaders of the community through the condemned criminal, people resist Jesus' reign of forgiveness and acceptance.  Even one of the criminals—someone from the most rejected element of society—wants to find someone else to reject.  He decides to make it Jesus.
But today—and every day—we have the opportunity to accept God's invitation into the kingdom of his beloved Son.  We have the chance to cross a border into a world where Christ reigns through forgiveness and acceptance.
Many of us enter by Christ's forgiveness for things that we don't even know that we need forgiveness for.  And many of us enter when Christ offers us a degree of acceptance that defies all other norms for verifying our righteousness.   And where Christ is king, we enter his reign alongside people who differ from us profoundly, but who we recognize as fellow-citizens.  God has "transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son."  How lucky we are not only to be in the best small town in America, but also to be in that kingdom, right now.