Just one year ago, the state of Georgia executed Kelly Gissendaner. You might remember that Kelly’s crime was orchestrating a successful plot to murder her husband Douglas. You might also remember that Kelly experienced a conversion to personal faith in prison, earned a ministerial degree from Candler School of Theology at Emory, and brought a message of hope to fellow prisoners including those who were suicidal. She developed a friendship with theologian Jurgen Moltmann after sending him a paper she wrote about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian imprisoned by the Nazi regime in Germany. Despite pleas by correction officers, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia and Pope Francis himself to commute her sentence to life in prison, a stay of execution was denied. Kelly’s death became further evidence that our criminal justice system prioritizes retribution over rehabilitation. It also prompted us to ask the question,”who is worthy of mercy?”
In our Scripture text, two criminals hang on crosses next to Jesus. We don’t know their crimes, but there was no clemency that day for either. One joined the raucous crowd in taunting Jesus as a failed king. The other came to Jesus’ defense and said “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
A staggering lack of judicial process resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion. The second thief knew that. He said, “This man has done nothing wrong.” False charges, backroom deals, and the momentum of a crowd stirred up by the specter of blood coalesced in the vigilante murder of an innocent man.
A few weeks ago, a black teenager in Mississippi had a noose placed around his neck and pulled tight by four white members of his high school football team. His family and others in his community have since spoken out about increased intimidation as students are emboldened to commit racist acts. In Buffalo, New York, a black doll with a noose around it was found hanging in a college dormitory elevator last Wednesday. The Southern Poverty Law Center has tallied over four hundred and fifty incidences of harassment and intimidation in the past week and a half. Most of these are categorized as anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-LGBT, and anti-Muslim. What we don’t know, of course, is whether these are an immediate but short-lived response to the election by a limited number of individuals that will dissipate in time, or whether this is indicative of a new and pervasive reality. Regardless, innocent people are being targeted and our world seem much less safe for many.
This is the final Sunday of the Christian Year. The last Sunday before the start of Advent has traditionally been called “Christ the King” Sunday. Because of our particular UCC aversion to ascribing words from patriarchal and often abusive systems to Jesus, we refer to this day as “Realm of Christ” Sunday. If you thought it was strange to have a reading from Good Friday on the Sunday before Advent, the reason for this oddity is the references in the text to Jesus as King while he was strung up on the cross. A crudely written sign was suspended over Jesus, mocking him with the words, “This is the King of the Jews.”
There is something inherently fascinating about royalty. We just need to look at the supermarket tabloids about the goings on and misdeeds of the British royal family to see how true that is. This weekend, Leroy and I watched the first episode of the Netflix series “Crown.” In this episode, Prince Phillip and the future Queen Elizabeth were married and presented on a balcony high above an adoring crowd. After a moment of applause, the throngs began to chant “We want the king! We want the king!” over and over until he reluctantly came into view and was cheered by the masses.
The Hebrew people were also obsessed with the idea of having a king. Judges had ruled well, but the Israelites wanted to be like other nations. According to Hebrew scripture, the constantly expressed desire for a king moved God to essentially say “OK – I don’t think this is a great idea, but I’m giving you want you’ve asked for.” The monarchy was established and good kings and bad kings reigned for centuries. Now, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is ridiculed on the cross as a would-be king even though he never sought such a title. He did talk about a kingdom, though, and his kingdom is what we often refer to here as the “realm of God.” In this passage from Luke, a thief on a cross beside him said “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” We sometimes say that the kingdom is “already but not yet.” The thief’s request was concerning the “not yet” part of God’s realm that is difficult to define but is often equated with our ideas of heaven and an afterlife. Jesus also said, though, that the realm of God is within us. Even better, I think, he urged us to pray that we would see God’s kingdom here on earth just as it is in heaven.
We have a lot of praying and a lot of work to do before this earth looks like heaven. God’s realm isn’t demarcated by boundary lines found on any map. In fact, it isn’t characterized by borders at all. There is most certainly no wall keeping people out of God’s realm; instead it is a constantly moving, growing, changing territory that is best defined by the influence of Jesus’ message to love one another. Wherever that love exists, the kingdom is present.
People understandably look for human rulers to make life on earth more prosperous or at least more bearable. The recent huge upset in our own nation shows how urgently a sizeable portion of our own citizens have felt unheard and excluded. And the protests following the election show how much many believe still others will be harmed and further pushed to the edge by anticipated policy. Regardless of our convictions or priorities, we are likely to be disappointed if we put our whole faith in human governments and mortal leaders. That is why Jesus and other writers in the New Testament encouraged us not to place our ultimate loyalty with royalty but instead identify primarily with God’s realm. The Apostle Paul in fact called us strangers and aliens within our own land.
The repentant thief on the cross said to his partner in crime, “We got what we deserved.” I’ve heard those words a lot lately in reference to the presidential election. Republicans and democrats alike are second-guessing and having regrets of all kinds as armchair analysts try to figure out what could have been different. Did we get what we deserve? Did they?
The realm of God is a place where we don’t spend a lot of time calculating what we or anyone else deserves. Jesus recognized that those hanging there beside him were guilty of crime and he was not. That didn’t keep him from embracing the one who turned to him and asked for mercy. He said “today you will be with me in paradise.” Welcome to the kingdom. Who do we want to join us in the kingdom? Only those who think like us? It’s terribly hard to be charitable toward those whose values we abhor, but Jesus did that again and again in the gospels. Last Sunday was a powerful experience for me as we shared our fears and hopes and commitments for the future. Feelings are still raw, even this week and perhaps for many weeks to come. I wonder if we could have successfully engaged in last Sunday’s exercise if we were not relatively uniform in our progressive views? We don’t want to build walls to keep out those seeking a better life, and I think we need to be careful not to build walls to keep us from those who are different from us. I know we may not be ready for a sermon on loving our enemy and praying for those who oppose us, but at some point we need to consider how to get there.
Last week we talked about our commitments, and it was inspiring to hear so many who are fiercely determined not to back down in the fight to make justice a reality for all. I imagine this week as we have heard about a possible registry of Muslims and the selection of of cabinet members with records of racist words and actions, our commitment may have grown even stronger. Today many of us are making another commitment, and that is to the financial health of this congregation. Our stewardship and our passion for love in the public square are not unrelated. As we give, our generosity provides a home base for spiritual nurture and a place where justice work emerges from our faith.
We are citizens today of God’s realm. Our mandate is to love without limits and to persuade the powers on earth to join in blessing all people. I think it’s appropriate this weekend to quote Alexander Hamilton who said this: “The sacred rights of humankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased.” Who is worthy of mercy? All of us and none of us, and because of that and despite that, we are welcomed fully into God’s realm as fully valued and deeply loved citizens. Amen.