November 20, 2022

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

“When you come into your Kingdom”

As many of you know, I spent part of this past week in Mississauga at meetings of the Governing Board of the Canadian Council of Churches. You may be relieved to know (as I am relieved) that it was my last trip away from Regina for this calendar year. And I’m looking forward to moving into the seasons of Advent and Christmas with First Church without having to fly off to Ontario for any more meetings.

But besides the contributions that I am called to make to these larger church committees and organizations, I always benefit personally from my attendance, learning a great deal from my colleagues and hopefully sharing some of those benefits with all of you.

One of the things that struck me this week came from President Das Sydney’s report to the Governing Board, which connects well with this morning’s readings. He began his report by setting the context of this time in which we live. He wrote: “As the nuclear age became entrenched in the years following the last Great War, W.H. Auden created a phrase to describe the ethos and climate of the times. He called it an Age of Anxiety. The anxiety has not diminished, but we encounter a fresh meme, that we are living in an age of uncertainty.

“All over the world, we are reaping the dividends of a laissez-faire attitude towards climate change. There is growing insecurity and widening income inequality. We have another war in Europe which has the possibility of expansion in multiple ways. We have advances in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence that outpace important ethical and moral considerations. COVID is over but not quite – or will it ever be over?

“In this unrelenting fog of uncertainty, we hold firm to our faith and vision of what may yet be…”

In this morning’s psalm, we read words of encouragement to hold firm in our faith – words that we need today more than ever: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult… the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

This week when I saw the news that Trump plans to run again for President of the United States in 2024, I was reminded of November 2016 when he won the election. In those first few weeks after the news, many of us were feeling rather sick about what we had just seen happen in our neighbouring country.

No matter what our political stripe, most Canadians were horrified by the racist, sexist, and hateful things that we had been hearing from the U.S. President-Elect, and the prospect of what his presidency would mean for America and for the rest of the world. In retrospect, we were right to be worried.

I remember being at the church I was serving in Saskatoon the morning after that election. I was doing some work in my office when I overheard part of a conversation. A postal worker had rung the doorbell to deliver a package, and our Office Administrator, Karen, went to the door to sign for it. I guess they got to talking about the election, and the Canada Post employee was clearly reeling from the shocking result.

What I heard Karen say to him was something like this: “I agree, and I’m as disappointed as you are with what’s happened. But don’t despair. Don’t give up hope. We have to remember that God is still in charge. Christ is Lord, and God has not abandoned us.”

Of course, the theological danger in a situation like this is to start speculating too much about HOW God may or may not have been involved in what was happening. We don’t want to assume that if a certain person was put in office that God WANTED it to happen that way, or CAUSED it to happen that way. But the fact is that it DID happen, and it was the new reality. But no matter what happens, we must remember that God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

That is part of what this Reign of Christ Sunday is about. It is acknowledging that even in the midst of the most terrible circumstances, God reigns, and God will triumph, and the Reign of God that Jesus preached, and proclaimed, and predicted will come in its fullness one day.

The lectionary texts that are given for today are all about that hope. Beginning with the passage from Jeremiah, we hear a warning to the shepherds – a warning to the leaders who do not care for the people – who scatter them, divide them, drive them away, and do them harm.

God promises that he will raise up good shepherds for the people, and they will no longer live in fear or be dismayed. God promises that he will raise up a good and wise ruler who will execute justice and righteousness in the land. And ALL the people will live in safety.

As Christians, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise. He is the Good Shepherd, the righteous descendant from David’s line, who came to rule as a wise king. But as Jesus tells Pilate in the Gospel of John, his kingdom is not “of this world.” Christ is not just the “King of the Jews,” as the inscription over him on the cross declared, but he is the ruler of all.

This is how the author of Colossians described the Reign of Christ to the early Christians in Colossae: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Although we don’t know much about the date or place of the writing of this letter, or even for sure if it was written by Paul, it is safe to assume that the Christians who received it were struggling with difficulties and persecutions. The author probably wrote it in the name of the great Apostle Paul (who had likely already died) as a way of providing assurance of the wisdom and authority of the letter’s teaching.

And then the words of the letter itself provide even more assurance, in the midst of the inevitable struggles of an early Christian Community, that Christ is Lord – both of the church and of everything else. And Christ is able to reconcile all things and make peace.

Shortly after that shocking U.S. election in 2016, I attended a Governing Board meeting of the Canadian Council of Churches. (Yes, those meetings happen near the end of November every year.)

I remember that throughout the couple of days of meeting we heard reports from the Theological Commission, called “Life and Witness,” as well as from the Action-oriented Commission, called “Justice and Peace.” We reflected on how our different churches are structured, how we make decisions, and how our common faith is the foundation for our common witness, common mission, and common work for justice and peace.

We had almost finished what had been a pretty positive and hopeful meeting when, on Friday morning, the General Secretary at the time, Karen Hamilton, announced some distressing news about vandalism that had just happened against faith communities in Ottawa.

As a Council of Churches, we did what such councils are able to do when we are gathered together. We made a public statement:

The Canadian Council of Churches—25 member denominations representing more than 85% of the Christians in Canada—decries the recent attacks of racist vandalism on synagogues, a church, and a Muslim Association in Ottawa, our nation’s capital.

“We believe that all persons are made in the image of God. We will oppose such attacks in presence and in spirit. We will stand with those subjected to them in love and strength. We will pray and we will commit ourselves again to working for a country of peace and justice for all people, in God’s name.”

After agreeing on the statement, we reflected on the situation some more, and Karen said something that I remembered: “It behooves us to start thinking about what our denominational responses will be to these and other attacks. I expect there will be many more incidents like this in the future.”

I suppose that she was reflecting on the significant change in our world that the 2016 U.S. Presidential election seemed to represent. Things seemed different now, and the expectation of hatred and violence running rampant became much higher.

Speaking at the University of Alberta around the same time, to a group of recipients of honorary doctorates in law, Stephen Lewis described what had happened in that way also. He said: “I beg you to understand that the world has turned. It hasn’t just changed; it’s turned. And your collective response—moral, principled, determined, tenacious, indefatigable—it can save this world.”

We’ve been through a lot since 2016. We’ve been shocked and saddened again and again by racism and xenophobia, growing nationalism, violence, and terror in the U.S., in Canada, and in many other places around the world. Add in the global pandemic to those years and all the controversy and division over how to deal with it, and it becomes clear that we live in an age of uncertainty.

But those years have also been marked with good things. I’m thinking of millions of people marching together to declare that “Black Lives Matter.” I’m remembering thousands of communities welcoming refugees from Ukraine and many other places. I’m thinking of people and churches responding to the discoveries of unmarked graves near former residential schools with repentance, solidarity, and support. I’m remembering that even when downtown Ottawa was occupied by a truck convoy, neighbours were rallying to help those who were most vulnerable and impacted by what was happening.

This past week at the Canadian Council of Churches, our conversations were open, honest, and intense as we explored topics related to interculturality and grappled with our experiences of racism that is present and systemic not only in society, but within the churches.

It takes faith to believe that our actions and our words and our ways of being as followers of Jesus can make a difference in the world… that sponsoring one refugee family is significant, that standing with one person who has been discriminated against matters, that treating our neighbours with common decency and respect will have an impact.

It takes faith to keep trusting God, and doing what we can, and learning to do better, and hanging on to hope… because it does not always look like God is in charge.

Just think about this morning’s Gospel text, with Jesus hanging on the cross between those two criminals. It wasn’t exactly a moment in which it looked like God was in charge, was it?

The people stood by watching, the leaders scoffed at him, the soldiers mocked him, and one of the criminals derided him as he hung there dying.

But then there was the repentant thief. This man admitted that he had been condemned justly for the wrong things that he had done, whereas Jesus had done nothing wrong. And after defending Jesus against the taunts of the other criminal, he asked Jesus to consider a request. He said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Now that is an example of faith. Even as Jesus hung there dying on the cross, this man believed that Christ was Lord – that he would soon “come into his kingdom.”

It looked like he was defeated, like his enemies had won and his story would soon be over. But the repentant thief somehow believed that Jesus would be triumphant, that his kingdom would come, that he would reign forever with God.

And Jesus assured him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

We also are invited to have faith and to live like Christ’s kingdom IS coming and WILL come. We are invited to live like Jesus is Lord of our lives, of our decisions, of our occupations, of our pursuits… And we are invited to trust that when we allow Jesus to be Lord of our lives that our actions, and our words, and our seemingly small acts of goodness and righteousness will transform the world.

Today we are encouraged not to despair when we see Christ hanging on the cross – when we see the violence, injustice, and cruelty of the world. But we must let that vision inspire us to re-double our efforts towards seeking Christ’s will, following his way, and letting him be the Lord of our lives. All the while praying, “Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.”

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear… the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” Amen.