The Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön tells the story of a woman being chased by tigers. She gets to the edge of a cliff as the tigers close in on her. She looks over the cliff and luckily discovers a vine with which to climb down. As she’s descending away from the tigers, she looks down and notices that on the ground below, more tigers pace back and forth. She looks up as the original tigers hungrily peer at her over the edge of the cliff, then she looks at the vine to which she is clinging, and sees a small mouse gnawing at it. There are tigers above her and tigers below and a mouse eating away at her chances for survival. Suspended between heaven and earth, the woman looks around for some kind of salvation, and instead she sees a beautiful patch of strawberries growing next to her out of the cliff. She looks up, she looks down, she looks at the mouse – then she picks the strawberry, pops it in her mouth and enjoys it thoroughly. (1)
Today is Christ the King Sunday, also known in more equitable terms as the Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the culmination of the Christian liturgical year, which begins all over again next week with Advent. Throughout the liturgical year we witness Christ’s birth and epiphany. We suffer with Christ through Lent and Passion Week. We celebrate the resurrection during Eastertide and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Then we get these rather vague and unfocused “ordinary” days that build into the grand finale that is today – the moment when Christ’s authority and power are revealed to the world and the Kingdom of Heaven descends.
The only problem is our scripture for this glorious day isn’t Jesus ascending into the clouds or sitting on a gold throne at the right hand of God. Our scripture today is Jesus on the cross. It ends with his burial. Instead of Christ sitting on a throne, he is laid in a tomb.
This can’t be right. We want to fix this. After all, this is Christ the King Sunday, celebrating sovereignty and dominion of God. We like that image – a lot. We, as Christians, like our God to be the biggest and the strongest kid on the playground. I see a lot of bumper stickers and FaceBook memes declaring Jesus as King of the World. The youth in my church sing the song “King Jesus Is All,” and I sing along with them because I learned it when I was a youth. We want Christ triumphant. We want to rush to the end of the story and get to the resurrection already, so Jesus wins and therefore by association, we win too. We’re team Jesus and team Jesus are winners, and winners don’t win by dying and being placed in a borrowed tomb.
The gospel image of Christ the King is the opposite of what we expect. In the story we are given in Luke, everything is falling apart. Everything Jesus worked toward – peace, equity, truth, love – it’s all unraveling before our eyes. He is condemned to death against the better judgment of the King Herod and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate – arguably the two least ethical characters in the story. They are the only ones arguing for Jesus. And though it’s unjust and unfair, Jesus – the one who was supposed to bring about the Kingdom, the one who healed and cared and promised a better world, the chosen one of God, the Messiah – this Jesus is crucified, because the people demanded it. The people drowned out the objections of everyone else who knew better. So he dies. The people’s will prevailed and in our passage, those same people stand by, unsure of what they’ve actually accomplished by trading in an innocent man and releasing a murderer into their community. They watch, unable to do anything but stare as the soldiers nail a righteous man to a cross.
Over the past few weeks, our nation has had to come to grips with the will of the people, albeit not the majority of the people, but the lawful will of the people nonetheless. We, as a country, are dangerously divided. We are at a terrible impasse, neither side listening to the other, each side attacking the other in a winner-take-all-and-to-heck-with-everyone-else kind of attitude. Seeing this kind of venom splashed across the news each day has caused no small amount of anxiety. And so, I’ve found myself reading a lot of Pema Chödrön, the woman whose story of the tigers I read earlier. In her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times, Chödrön explains that when we try to fix a problem or pass a test, things don’t ever really get solved. Things come together and they fall apart. And then they come together again, and then they fall apart again. The problems are never fully solved. Something or someone is always left behind. We are always somewhere in this cycle of falling apart and coming together. This is life – up and down, and up and down again. The key to our healing is being open to letting the cycle happen, leaving enough room to experience the grief, the relief, the pain, and the joy.
By we, I mean all of us – not just the losers and not just the winners. We are all falling apart. We are all stuck between heaven and earth, with tigers above us and tigers below us, hanging on for dear life as a mouse gnaws away at our lifeline. What are we to do?
We want rescue. The first thief in the story gets belligerent with Jesus: “You’re the Messiah! Save yourself, and save us while you’re at it!” We cry to God, “Get us down from here! You’ve saved others, why not us?” What kind of a God let’s his children suffer? What kind of a God creates tigers and mice anyway? We want a God to release us from the falling apart. We want a God who gifts his children with comfortable homes, roomy SUV’s, and wide-screen televisions. That’s a winner God. But we must remember that God does not even save his own son. Jesus doesn’t even save himself.
For me, this moment, when Jesus hangs on a cross between two criminals, suspended between heaven and earth, seeing in the distance the stricken faces of his followers, as his life-blood drains away, knowing that he has been beaten and that the tigers are nearly upon him – this moment, in my opinion, is the most powerful moment of Jesus’ life. He demonstrates a power greater than healing the sick, greater than telling the future, greater than even the resurrection. Because even in the midst of his own suffering, Jesus chooses compassion. The second thief acknowledges his own crimes, acknowledges his own just punishment, and declares to everyone what the crowd wouldn’t say – that Jesus is innocent. He offers Jesus the only thing he has to offer – his trust and his belief; and then asks one thing – to be remembered. Jesus, hanging between heaven and earth, on the verge of losing his own life, looks around, sees the man, and in a moment of utter tenderness, promises to be with him, beside him, ushering him into heaven. Hanging on to a failing vine, Jesus finds the strawberry, then chooses to give it to someone else.
This is Jesus’ greatest power: No matter what is happening around him, no matter what happens to him, no matter if he will be rescued or not – Jesus still chooses love. This is the entirety of the Kingdom of God.
We are, all of us, hanging by a failing rope, between heaven and earth, between life and death, between the past and the future. Nothing is guaranteed. There is no such thing as security, and the world is filled with tigers and mice. But here’s the thing – we aren’t alone. All of us are hanging together – and that’s everything. If we open ourselves up to the possibility that no matter what happens around us, or what happens to us, we can choose our own way, then all is not lost. We can choose to be love in this world of desperate people. We can be the ones who stand in the gap, who fly in the face of hatred, who comfort the hurting, who champion the oppressed, because there is something indelible in each of us that is strong enough to survive whatever the world throws at us and still be vulnerable enough to offer a hand in kindness. That enduring place in all of us is the throne of God.
I know we’ve been through a lot. I know there are millions of unhappy people, distraught and angry and afraid. But that is not a good enough reason to turn on each other. Like it or not, we are in this together. We can choose to focus on the tigers above and the tigers below. We can choose to fret over the rope. We can choose to close our eyes and pretend everything’s going to be all right. We can rant at God and demand our rescue. But none of these options fixes anything.
We – all of us hanging between heaven and earth– we have to get to work. Even when our dreams and hopes have died, like the women and Joseph of Arimathea, we must find the proper way to lay those hopes and dreams to peace. Then we keep busy, doing what we must to make this world a better place. We find all that is good and right and kind in this world and we savor it, then give it away. We look for strawberries. They’re there, I promise you, even in the fear and the uncertainty – like a miracle – strawberries are growing out of the cliff we cling to. Pick them. Eat them. Give them away. And pray for resurrection.
(1) – from The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World by Pema Chödrön