It's the end of the church year this week, the last Sunday before Advent. As always, the year ends with a little jolt: just when we might set our sights toward Christmas, we find ourselves back at Good Friday, looking at the cross.
I'm a preacher who loves the lectionary, for the way it takes us through the church year from the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany stories of birth and hope, through the Lenten journey to the cross, and the Easter-Pentecost stories of the new church learning how to be the church. I like the subtle discipline of having to deal with texts I would otherwise ignore, and the way the text so often runs in counterpoint to the secular calendar's forward thrust. This makes me listen to the text a little more closely.
This week, Luke gives us Jesus on the cross, humiliated, dying, mocked as "King of the Jews," charged with fomenting rebellion against Rome. Two more men charged with treason against Rome hang with Jesus. In these two criminals Luke presents a paradigm of two opposites, and gives us what some scripture scholars call a "gospel within the Gospel."
Whatever these two had done, whoever they had been, it was all ending in defeat on the cross. One is hardened, scornful, cynical. The other still open, seeking, hopeful. In these two vignettes Luke's gospel gives us truth about human nature, truth about ourselves. We all have within ourselves these two ways to look at our world, to deal with loss and disappointment and brokeness.
I know that I have these two ways, these two voices, within me. I know the cynic, the clever and scornful voice that can meet with skepticism at anything the day serves up. I have honed and practiced that voice, coming of age in an era of disbelief, from Vietnam to Watergate to WMD in Iraq and each day's newest expose. And I know that other voice within, the one that says, 'please, show me paradise, show me something new, give me something to believe in.'
I don't want to speak with the empty derision of the one thief who, refusing to acknowledge his own despair, resorts to ridicule. He says, layering over his defeat with scorn, "save yourself.' There can't be anything good here for me, for any of us. All is lost."
And so I look at that other way, that other thief. He speaks not with a taunt, but with surrender. He has nothing left to lose, and in the defeat, the man is opened wide. He speaks not with simple innocence, not blind faith, but instead with a kind of boldness. He sees something in Jesus, and he wants it. He sees something new, something he doesn't understand, and he asks for it.
His stance is a willing posture of openness, a willing embrace of mystery. I see this as the posture of prayer. It is the anticipation of the seeker that says 'here I am, show me.' "Remember me," he says, " remember me."
There is no tidy formula for sweet salvation in Luke's story, of course, no easy path to a happy ending. There is instead the one promise, the single promise of Jesus, the single summary promise of the Christian life: I am with you, always. You are not alone, ever. "Today you will be with me in paradise."
All of our defeats, our broken hearts and our hardened hearts, are held by that promise. Not that we will be whisked away from our pain or confusion or fear or loneliness and taken off to some otherworldly paradise, but simply that we will not be alone. It is a promise that says the way of the world, the way of Caesar and Rome and power and terrorism and war and death does not have the last word. It is the paradox that finds life in the midst of death, new life in that dying on the cross. It is the hope that God really does enter into our day. God really does work in our world.
I believe that. I believe that God is doing something new with this warring and warming planet of ours, with the suffering and injustice of our world. I see it in the persistence of all the ones who keep working for economic justice and environmental justice, all those who keep pushing for inclusion, all those who keep resisting the forces of oppression, all those who stay hopeful and open to possibility.
So as the church calendar is about to send us into Advent, the season of expectant waiting for that birth of something entirely new, I locate hope first in that bold criminal and his embrace of mystery. I locate hope in the paradox at the center of our faith, the paradox that new life comes through dying. And I hear with fresh ears the echo of that promise: "You will be with me, today." I locate hope in the whispered promise of a dying man. It is a promise.
...and we follow Jesus
Echoes from the Edge
By Matthew Smith, 2012-13 Beatitudes Fellow - November 18th, 2013
The Table is re-booting the Christian campus ministry at UC Davis in collaboration with Cal Aggie House this fall. We gather on Tuesday evenings from 6:00 - 7:30 pm at 433 Russell Blvd for Christian worship followed by a free meal and conversation.
CA House is an ecumenical campus ministry at the University of California, Davis. CA House built a Multifaith Living Community in 2008 on its property directly across the street from campus. The Multifaith Living Community is a unique living environment for 40 students of various faith backgrounds who seek to live in ways that honor one another and the earth. While the Multifaith Living Community has grown over the years, the Christian community at CA House had dwindled to just a few students.
Fifteen a-frames and a simple outreach campaign (adapted from a similar campaign at Emory's Wesley Fellowship) were developed to connect with new students as the fall quarter began. Here are a few of the signs that blanketed UC Davis...
Matthew Smith is a Pastor at The Table UMC, Sacramento, CA.
Finally, the Poet
By Anne Sexton - November 18th, 2013
There is joy
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
in the spoon and the chair
that cry "hello there, Anne"
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.
So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.
The Joy that isn't shared, I've heard,