A sermon for the Last Sunday After Pentecost, Luke 23:33-43
One of the most powerful experiences of church that I have ever had the privilege of enjoying was the week I spent at the Taize community. Taize is an ecumenical monastery with over 100 brothers living in community with one another in central-eastern France (the Burgundy region). And to that community, the world is invited to come and join in prayer every day of every week of every year.
Taking a just over 90 minute train ride out of Paris, waiting for the local bus to arrive and take you the remaining 30 minutes into Taize, you arrive in a tiny village that has become synonymous with a religious movement and expression of peace, of love, of active Christianity specifically among the youth of the world (18-30 years old).
In summertime, when I visited, weekly pilgrims number between 4-6,000, sleeping in on-site dormitories and in tents in designated camping areas that stretch out into the distance.
Each day you work for the betterment of the community in a job (I was a quiet keeper in the reflection garden), you eat basic meals that meet your needs for sustenance and nothing more, you attend Bible study, and you develop deep relationships with people from all over the world (to this day, I know I have people in England and the Netherlands that I would reach out to if I found myself in their neck of the woods).
And, you pray.
You sing prayers, you listen to readings, you listen to prayers, you sit in silence, and you pray.
Taize is truly holy ground. It is soaked by the prayers of thousands upon thousands each year. Since 1940 (its original founding by Brother Roger), millions have been touched by the space that is held at Taize. Three calls of prayer each day call those gathered together to unite as one global community. Raising voices in song from languages that represent the pilgrims present in any given week (my favorite song of the week was in Dutch), there is a powerful surge of relationship building across barriers, of spreading a message of hope into the world.
The music of Taize is perhaps the one piece that has truly influenced modern Christianity beyond the mission that Taize continues to work towards, sharing that God is love alone and through that reality we can change the world.
One particular piece of music from Taize that I was exposed to long before I even thought visiting there would be a possibility, is a simple refrain that comes directly from today’s gospel message: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
This powerful expression of hope even in the face of death, of watching ridicule all around you, has resonated deeply for centuries.
Does this thief make this request because he has faith in Christ? Perhaps.
Does he have belief that his request will be fulfilled in a specific manner? Doubtful.
What this request does point to though is an acknowledgement.
It is an acknowledgement that this man Christ not only does not deserve this end, but this great injustice is a reflection of the blindness of those in authority and power to see who this man truly is.
It is an acknowledgement that this thief sees Christ as someone set apart in this moment, that his crime was refusing to fall in line and allow the religious and political authorities of the time break him from the message he was spreading into the world. And in this crime, Christ has accepted this coming end because he has the faith and belief that God is with him, even in this moment.
In the unwavering reality of Christ then, the thief sees God in him, and calls out an acknowledgement that God is present in that moment between these three men hung on crosses to die.
“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom!”
When we sing this refrain, when we let these words tumble out of our mouths in lament, in praise, in fear, in joy, how are we acknowledging Christ, acknowledging God, present in our lives, in the moment?
Do we know, deeply, that when Jesus says “today you will be with me in paradise,” that this promise is expanded upon and assured in our understanding of faith?
I think one of the greatest challenges we have in Christianity today is leaning into this element of our faith. Of needing to acknowledge the presence of Christ with us, even in our hour of greatest need, greatest despair. I think the failure to remind faithful believers of this reality is how Christians come to compartmentalizing their faith and call in following Christ in order to justify the mistreatment, the outright hatred, of fellow brothers and sisters in creation, of fellow beloved children of God.
We make it really hard for Jesus to remember us when we join with the first thief who hopes that in mocking and deriding the least, the most hated, the most despised, perhaps will garner him favor, that he’ll somehow be forgiven by those who have convicted him because he is joining in the bashing of another. But, the only thing this serves is a death that does not include a promise in that moment that on that specific day, in that imminent moment of death, paradise awaits.
And what of Christ in this moment?
Being mocked by the crowds, being tortured, being mocked by another who is being executed alongside him, and yet, through all of that, he hears the plea of the second thief and recognizes in that plea something real. Christ, hanging on the cross, nearing his end, responds to this man’s plea. Offers a promise of peace and love, even when he himself is at his lowest point.
What do we remember about Christ at this moment?
What does this story point us towards in the reality of our own faith and the expression of that faith that we are called to live into every day, especially on the days that are the hardest to do so?
Before his untimely death, Brother Roger was compiling a letter that encapsulates the very essence of what he had set out to do and teach through the Taize community. In this unfinished letter, Brother Roger wrote:
“In his Gospel, in a dazzling intuition, Saint John expresses who God is in three words: “God is love.” If we can grasp only those three words, we shall go far, very far.
What captivates us in those words? The fact that they transmit this luminous conviction: God did not send Christ to earth to condemn anyone, but for every human being to know that he or she is loved and to be able to find a road to communion with God.
But why are some people gripped by the wonder of a love and know that they are loved, or even cherished? Why do others have the impression that they are neglected?
If only everyone could realize that God remains alongside us even in the fathomless depths of our loneliness. God says to each person, “You are precious in my sight, I treasure you and I love you.” Yes, all God can do is give his love; that sums up the whole of the Gospel.
What God asks of us and offers us is simply to receive his infinite mercy.
That God loves us is a reality sometimes hard to comprehend. But when we discover that his love is forgiveness above all else, our hearts find peace and are even transformed.
And then, in God, we become able to forget what assails our hearts: this is a wellspring from which we can draw freshness and new vitality.”
If we are willing to accept this reality of God’s love and mercy, then we come closer to seeing God present with us. If we are willing to live into this reality of God’s love and mercy, then we will live lives that are memorable for their faith and faith in action. If we know this reality, and teach this reality, and hold this reality up for others, then we begin to help others also know and remember what Christ has done for us, to know deeply the promise that “today you will be with me in Paradise.”