Psalm 46; Luke 23:33-43 Susan J. Barnes November 20, 2016 St. John’s, Minneapolis
33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
On this final Sunday of the Christian year, the story of Jesus’ life ends in death–as does all human life.
It comes at a time when many of us grieve deeply for our nation. In a presidential contest where the two major-party candidates had sharply-divided positions and opposing worldviews, the popular vote was very closely split. Irrespective of whom each of us had chosen, we awoke on November 9 to find that half of the nation’s voters had chosen the other.
It felt to me as though we were a people rent asunder. This wasn’t the usual loss in a political contest. It was as though something important had died.
In the following days, a strange silence descended. I did not reach out to my closest friends and family—people with whom I knew I shared the sense of loss. Nor did they reach out to me. We had no words. Silence was our refuge. Instinctively, unconsciously, we had fallen into the practice of sitting shiva—the ancient Jewish tradition of seven days of mourning.
What has died? For me it is a series of core beliefs: among them that hatred, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia would never be validated public discourse—much less celebrated and encouraged.
My soul is grieved by the anger, the hatred, the violence against minorities, immigrants, and all manner of vulnerable people that was legitimized by the victor during his campaign. I do not believe that all who voted for him are bigoted or xenophobic. But hate speech and crimes are on the rise in our own city, along with acts of intimidation. These aren’t anecdotes or statistics, friends. They are events, truths of the lives of our Northside neighbors, our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are afraid and they are right. When a six year old is beaten by classmates and told to go back to Africa; when a gang of white men menacingly cruise Northside streets at night, the specter of the KKK arises.
St. John’s was a safe place at a potluck Thursday night where friends from Kwanzaa shared their lives. On Friday at the NAZ benefit concert. Sondra Samuels said, “We have been roused from our slumber.”
As painful as these stories are, we need to hear them. I need to hear them. A white, privileged, able-bodied, educated woman, I take freedom and justice for granted—along with the presumption of innocence. They are mine to lose, mine to surrender by my own wrong actions. The same should be true for all people living in this land. But it is not.
I live in a bubble of privilege that insulates me, that I cannot fully escape, any more than I can shed this fair skin. It grieves me that I cannot truly walk in the shoes of dear friends who are people of color, who are immigrants, or differently abled–nor even of those who are white and poor. I cannot understand existentially “in my flesh” what shapes their lives, their fears, their hopes. I feel helpless to “fix” things.
I have put too much stock, too much trust, too much hope in human things, in political, earthly institutions.
So where IS hope?
These days of grief over our divisions have taught me that when you are shaken to your foundations, you find the ground of your being. I have found my ground and my hope in God, in our history at St. John’s, and in you.
“God is faithful,” said Earl, a new friend from Kwanzaa. The faithfulness of God courses through Hebrew Scripture. Nations crumble, empires fail. Heroes fall short: David, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph. God alone is faithful. Psalm 46 reminds that against the chaotic forces of nature and human power, God is our only sure refuge, our only stronghold—our mighty fortress, as Martin Luther sang.
The light of hope shines through in the darkest passages of the gospel. Even as the destruction of the Temple and the Crucifixion lay bare the wickedness, corruption and fallibility of human institutions, they attest the transcendent power of God.
God raised Jesus from the dead.
God preserved the faith.
Judaism did not collapse with the Temple. It was reborn in small communities that themselves were the nurseries for the emerging Christian faith.
Two seeds of hope are imbedded in Luke’s Crucifixion story—and uniquely there.
There is the hope for God’s mercy and for eternal life. Luke alone includes the words spoken by the two thieves, and Jesus’ promise to the thief who repents. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.
Most consoling for us as we continue here below, there is hope for the community of faith. In the other gospels the people in the crowds all taunt, mock and deride Jesus. In Luke (23:48-49), on the contrary, we read that many in the crowd were mourning Jesus’ punishment, “beating their breasts,” and that all Jesus’ followers stayed to bear witness to the Crucifixion. Their courageous presence is conveyed in our passage with the simple phrase “and the people stood by watching”. Those people will become the Apostles, whose Acts make up Luke’s second volume. They were empowered by the love Jesus lived to the end, by his faithfulness and the faithfulness of God.
There are times when all we can do in the moment is to bear witness, come together and gather strength for the long haul—grounded in the faith.
Our own history as a congregation brings hope. St. John’s has not just seen but WELCOMED epoch-making advancements: moving women, LGBT and people of color from the margins and shadows to the pulpit, the altar and highest positions of elected leadership. We have reached out in our community and beyond to support marginalized, vulnerable people and we will continue that work with even greater dedication and passion especially now, to counter the very present threats to people in our city.
St. John’s will remain a sanctuary—God’s own refuge—for the vulnerable. We will remain a voice for justice and a center for thoughtful non-violent response to words and actions that are against the love of God and love of neighbor.
We have work to do—to restore civility and kindness, and to make our community safe for all. One key to that work is self-examination and repentance. We need to look inward, to recognize the part that each of us has played in creating the divisions in our society and to embrace the part we can play in healing them.
Finally, in this—the most challenging moment of my lifetime–my hope lies with us, this family of faith, the Body of Christ that God has created here, where Christ’s love empowers us to love one another across our many differences. St. John’s extended family includes us all, our children, our long-time friends at First Nations Kitchen, Urban Homeworks, and Our Savior’s Shelter, and our new friends at Kwanzaa and Circle of the Beloved.
In our brokenness as a society, as a body politic, we hold fast to our unity in the Body of Christ.
We belong to one another. In the bread and the cup we share we are made one here, now and for eternity, in the mystery of Christ’s Body, the refuge and strength of our God.
And we give thanks.