The Geography of the Cross

A Sermon Shared with the People of St. Matthew’s, St. Paul, November 24, 2013
Luke 23: 33-43
Lisa Wiens-Heinsohn


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. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, also called the Reign of Christ Sunday.  It is the very last Sunday of the liturgical year, before Advent begins again next week.  Right now for many of us our attention is focused forward: toward holidays and shopping lists and events and finals and end of the year work projects and the general mad dash toward the new year.  Christmas decorations have been up in the store since October 1.

But we in the church have a slower pace.  Our year hasn’t ended yet, our advent hasn’t yet begun.  Today is Christ the King Sunday, and so right now I want to invite all of you to take a deep breath and just stop.  Today is a day worth savoring, exploring, because it is the summation of the entire story of the liturgical year: everything gets expressed again in Reign of Christ Sunday.  Fundamentally what it’s about is the “kingdom”, or the realm of God, that Christ inaugurated.  It’s about the realm of God that is real, that has already begun, that is all around us.  A kingdom always has a terrain, a geography.  In Luke’s gospel Christ traveled all over Palestine, but the major journey he took was always in the direction of Jerusalem, where he knew he would be killed.

Today’s gospel text shows us the geography of Christ’s realm, it shows us where Christ is active.  It is the geography of the cross.  It is Christ, crucified and dying between two other criminals, saying to the one who asked to be remembered, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  It is the expression of forgiveness and hope and radical togetherness with those who are guilty and those who are suffering. This is the realm of which Christ is and always will be King.  

At St. Matthews we have been talking a lot about following the way of Jesus through eight spiritual practices. I think it’s tempting to think of that way of Jesus as primarily a spirituality, and that’s not wrong.  But it’s not the whole picture.  The way of Jesus, like the realm of Jesus, has a geography and a terrain.  The spiritual practices are more like navigation tools than anything else.  This geography, again, is the geography of the cross.  It is one so-called criminal, Jesus, giving hope to another as they are stretched out and dying.  Now as my pastoral care professor often said to us, “You are NOT JESUS.”  Apparently we needed a lot of reminding.  Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel was a unique journey, reserved for him in the role God gave him as Emmanuel, God-with-us.  But we are called to follow the way of Jesus, and that way, that terrain, is shaped by the cross.  What does that look like for us?

I can’t answer that question for you, but I can tell you some ways I am trying to navigate this terrain for myself.  As most of you know I do spiritual care three days a week with young adults experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis, at an organization called Youthlink.  Last week I was there when one young man, let’s call him Ted, blew up.  He was really mad about something a staff member said to him that he thought was rude, and he was yelling.  The staff member decided to kick him out of Youthlink for the rest of the day because he couldn’t or wouldn’t calm himself down and be respectful.  Since I had a decent relationship with Ted, I was asked to go be part of the team that told him he was going to be kicked out for the day.

So I walked up to Ted and asked if he would come to my office because we needed to talk.  He blew up instantly because he knew he was going to be asked to leave.  He yelled and yelled.  I hung in there for a while with him, trying to get him to listen to me, because I had actually gone to bat for him with the other staff, trying to get him some of what he wanted. But he would not listen to a word I said.  He yelled at me for a good five minutes.  Finally I couldn’t stand it any more and walked away.  It wasn’t until the next day that I realized how upset I was about it.  I felt traumatized and a little bit scared.  Ted is a very tall, strung out 22 year old, and I worried a little bit about whether he would get violent.

As I processed this experience I realized I had no desire to see Ted ever again.  I pretty much felt done with him.  I was angry and wanted to protect myself from verbal abuse.  I felt no inclination to go to bat for him ever again, or even to talk to him again.  I was scared and mad and I’m still scared and mad. 

Now going forward I am certainly going to have good boundaries with Ted.   But as I’ve been praying over tonight’s text, and thinking about the geography of the way of Jesus, I realize for me the way of Jesus leads me precisely to youthlink, precisely to situations where I might witness this kind of behavior, even behavior directed at me.  This doesn’t mean I intend to be any kind of martyr.  I don’t intend to allow Ted to verbally abuse me or anything else.  I’m not Jesus.  But I am a follower of the way of Jesus, and that way leads to a cross: positioned on an execution hill alongside one bitter, angry criminal who cannot see his own sin, and one penitent one who acknowledges his brokenness and asks only for Christ to remember him.  If I’m honest I realize I myself switch between being angry and penitent all the time.  I’m both asking Jesus to remember me and hurling insults when things don’t go the way I want.  The way of Jesus, the kingdom of Jesus, is cross-shaped, and ultimately that means at least one thing: acknowledging the presence of Jesus, who is not us, who is already there with both the penitent and the guilty one who has no desire for forgiveness.  There Christ is, asking forgiveness for those who do not know what they are doing, and promising a radical new beginning in paradise for the one who does repent.  Jesus was at Youthlink long before I got there, and my call is to follow him there and find out how he is offering healing, forgiveness and a new beginning to all, including me.

The geography of the cross means that Jesus is and always will stand with the criminal, the outcast, the prostitute, the one who just got laid off, the orphan, the abused, the addict, the guilty.  Some of those folks will be like the penitent thief who asks Jesus to remember him, and some of them will be like the one who is still too angry to do anything but yell, unable to hear what Jesus is saying to him.  Either way there Jesus stays, stretched between them.  Following the way of Jesus, entering the kingdom of God, means following Jesus to those places he has already gone, regardless if those present recognize their sickness or blame the entire world for what they’ve gone through.

What does this look like in your life? Maybe you’re not at all called to go to Youthlink or prisons or the street.  What terrain does Jesus call you to travel?  Where is it and with whom are you called to acknowledge Christ’s forgiveness?

My own belief is that following the way of Jesus will always lead us out of our doors, whether they be the doors of home or church, and into encounters one would never have expected.  Maybe you know a neighbor who is homebound, or an only child across the street. Maybe you know someone who got fired from their job or someone who struggles with enjoying vodka tonics a tiny bit too much. Maybe you have been or are one of those people yourself and so you have a special capacity to offer compassion and hope, like Jesus did on the cross, one criminal to another.   Maybe you have been doing social justice work for a long time and you need to dig deep to keep finding the motivation to carry on, against odds that seem impossible—and what you really need to know is that Christ was there ahead of you and is still there, offering forgiveness and healing and hope to individuals and to systems.  Or maybe you yourself need a word of hope.  Maybe you need forgiveness, or liberation from legitimate anger, or the slightest trust that things can get better.

This week, as we approach Thanksgiving and Advent, I invite you to consider those around you.  Consider the terrain, the geography, of the way of Jesus, who stands forever with the suffering and with the guilty.  Know that Christ is always and forever still saying, today you can be with me in paradise.  Paradise was the Persian word for the king’s hunting grounds—and Jews and Christians used it to refer to the eternal garden of Eden, that place of radical new beginnings.  Jesus promised that a radical new beginning was possible, even to a criminal dying on Golgotha, that place of no hope.   

May we celebrate with fierce joy today.  Christ is indeed a king, but a king unlike any other king we have ever heard of. He is a king precisely in his powerlessness, in his capacity to forgive and to stand with the guilty.  We have all been penitent, and we have all been too angry to forgive, too angry to recognize the presence of Christ with us.  Either way, here he is.  May we follow him.   Amen.