In the fall of 2001, I attended the College of Preachers at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The instructor for our class was the inimitable Rev. Herbert O’Driscoll, of the Anglican Church of Canada, accomplished writer, speaker, and preacher par excellence within the worldwide Church. Sadly, the College of Preachers closed in 2009, a victim of the economic meltdown.
Just arriving in Washington for the event that November Monday was memorable; it was the first day flights were being allowed to land at Regan International airport following the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11, just two months prior. The halls of the terminal were eerily quiet; few shops were open, and soldiers bearing huge weapons were posted every fifty yards of so.
As part of the sessions that week, we participants were to prepare a sermon for an upcoming Sunday, and practice preaching it to our cohort—I chose Christ the King, because then it would be done and I wouldn’t have to worry about it later.
One of O’Driscoll’s sermon styles is that of the “storytelling” type sermon. You simply tell a story, and let the audience discern their own meaning. Someone very famous made a career out of this once. Using some of what we learned, I wrote the following sermon.
I was thrilled when Fr. O’Driscoll agreed to hear it privately in the library early on our last morning together and offer his feedback. His first words were “I was moved.” He offered other valuable feedback, resulting in what follows.
Though it makes for a rather long post, I offer it to you, too, this Christ the King weekend. Remember, it’s a sermon, nothing more. But even as a story, it is a proclamation, nonetheless. God be with you.
A Sermon from St. James Episcopal Church, Greenville, SC
Christ the King~Year C 25 November 2001
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:35-43
A long, long time ago, in a place far, far away, a soldier—in his mid-20’s, and in another country—writes home to his family:
To my most blessed and honorable Father: Peace, good health and prosperity to you, to my beloved mother and sisters, to your brothers and their families who live near you, and to your entire household, whom I miss dearly.
Greetings, from what at times seems like the ends of the earth, both in location and culture. I write to you from Jerusalem, the ancient and holy city of the Hebrew people, the Judeans.
Our company of soldiers set out for Judea nine months ago, just after the summer solstice, on orders of his majesty, the emperor. We have been sent to help keep the peace and to suppress the constant threat of insurrection or open rebellion in this region. It is a miserable assignment, even dangerous in some respects.
For the most part, the Judeans are a peace loving, god-fearing people. They worship one god; a god whom they say has known them since the foundation of the world. Others of their people see us as evil barbarians, occupiers, and attack us in isolated, violent acts. If we are not careful, one can get his throat slit by a bandit. (We have lost three in our company since arriving.)
As you might guess, I’ve already learned a bit of their language. And I have begun to read a little in their sacred writings. I find them fascinating. I know you would, too, father. I also possess your love for knowledge about God and the pursuit of Truth. It is out of that shared love and pursuit that I write you today. I’m sorry I haven’t written sooner. However, I must tell you about something extraordinary that has happened.
I have just now returned to our quarters from an execution—our seventh in as many weeks. I hate this detail. I can’t wait for it to end in just over a month. But this particular execution was unlike any other I have seen, or probably ever will see.
Just before noon today, we crucified three Judeans, two bandits (a murderer and his accomplice), and a most unusual man: a wandering wonder worker from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. Three is a decent number for a crucifixion, easy to handle, usually not too big of a crowd—although the Nazarene attracted a large number of the religious leaders from the local Temple. It seems that many of the people of Jerusalem and the region surrounding Judea had considered this man a prophet of their god.
I first heard about this Nazarene from our kinsman, your nephew Justus, while visiting him on holiday in Capernaum last year. You recall that Justus oversees tax collection in that region. Well, I heard one of his collectors speak often about this certain prophet and his message. At times, this one collector would take a leave of absence and follow the prophet around as he taught and went about doing good.
Father, Justus told me—and he swears it’s true—that this man healed the slave of his neighbor, a centurion in our division. Apparently, the slave was near death with no hope of a cure. The centurion sent word to the prophet saying, “While I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, if you only said the word, even from a distance, I know my slave would be healed.” So he did it; he said the word. Justus said the slave was healed the very hour this man spoke his incantation.
As you can imagine, father, many of the Judean people have followed this wonder working prophet for some time. He traveled and taught throughout Galilee, including both sides of the lake located there. Apparently the people considered him to be someone called Messiah, the “Anointed” or “Chosen One” of their god. I myself have read in their writings that this Messiah would deliver the Judeans from their oppression, that he would bring them into their own kingdom to possess.
However, it seems the religious leaders of the Judeans did not believe that a Nazarene could be god’s chosen one at all. I do not fully understand their reasons for this. It all gets very complicated. Apparently these religious leaders saw this minor prophet as a major threat to their power. I know for a fact that they bribed one of his own followers to betray him. We had heard rumors they wanted us to execute him for treason. And in fact, he was arrested just last night. So much has happened since then; I am still thinking it all through.
This morning, Pontius Pilate, his majesty’s governor here, stated publicly that he could find no reason to crucify him. But to satisfy the crowds (and perhaps gain favor with these Judean religious leaders), Pilate condemned him anyway. You should have heard the crowds, shouting in madness that they wanted him dead. And so, he was brought to us straightway to be crucified.
As I have already told you, a large crowd came out to see it. Some were his followers—mostly women, for the men of his group feared arrest and similar punishment. Some in the crowd were the religious leaders themselves, and others, just curious bystanders, the kind we always get who like to come to crucifixions. In an unusual move, the whole of our company mustered out to Golgotha, a hill just outside the city wall of Jerusalem. Pilate sent us all to keep the peace if a riot broke out, or in case of a rescue attempt. But that really wasn’t a possibility.
I hate to put it like this, but I think that most of the human refuse that we kill or crucify makes the empire a better place in the long run—at least we hope it does. But this man, he was different. He was truly a good man.
It’s dangerous for me to say it, father, but I believe he was an innocent man—innocent of the charges brought against him, at least. And while I could get in trouble for thinking this, I also don’t believe he deserved to die. He spoke and acted like no other man that I have ever seen in any temple or religious shrine or school. And you, of all people, know that I have attended or visited countless houses of worship and shrines and schools all across the Roman Empire.
You would have loved him, father. And I know that you would have loved to hear him speak. I hesitate to admit this, but on my off days over the past few weeks I would attempt to disguise myself and go out to the nearby villages and towns to hear him teach and speak. It was dangerous for me to do that, but I found him irresistible, and likeable; and so loving and wise. He could really tell a great story. He taught by telling stories, leaving the listener to discern his meaning. It was brilliant, really. He was amazing.
Well, the time came for his crucifixion. Once we got his cross piece settled on the upright, the crowd started its usual scene. Every crowd does it: they deride and mock the condemned. For this one, they taunted, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the chosen one!”
Governor Pilate then did something I had never seen before. He usually stays out of these things, and lets us go about our business unfettered; but for the Nazarene he placed a plaque above his head. And the plaque said, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Some of our own company of soldiers also mocked him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” they cried. I felt so ashamed of their behavior, for they did not know him like I knew him. If only they had known him, I think they wouldn’t have said those things. I remained silent.
Then a truly remarkable thing happened—I have never seen anything like this! One of the two bandits being executed beside him, one of these filthy, guilty swine, he started to mock him. This murderer of Roman soldiers yells at him, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us!”—as if he had done nothing wrong, and the prophet was the guilty one being crucified!
But then, from the other side of him, for the Nazarene was crucified between the two, the other bandit begins to defend him. We can’t believe our eyes, or our ears! Out of his own anguish, this second bandit says to the other, “Shut up, you! We have been justly condemned, and are getting what we deserve; but this man”—and he nods towards the Nazarene—“this man has done nothing wrong!”
Then this second bandit said a strange thing, father, an eerie thing. Turning his head to the center cross, looking at him, he spoke—quietly, pleadingly—“Jesus,” for that was his name, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Somehow, in his final moments of life, this bandit saw something in this man that changed him, his outlook, even while death by suffocation beckoned him. He—how do I say it?—he placed his hope on this mystical stranger, whom he only just met, I presume.
After a long silence (for he was beginning to slip away), with a very great effort, and while in unimaginable pain, he answered the second bandit, saying, “I swear to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” And in a moment, his chin dropped to his chest, and he died. When all three were finally dead, our detachment left. The birds and wild animals take care of the corpses, if no one clams them. It’s rare that anyone does, the shame of such a death.
For the past many hours, I have been thinking about all this, trying to understand what I witnessed. I’m especially trying to figure out what changed in this bandit for him to say what he did. And sitting here, recalling all that happened before our eyes on that horrible hill overlooking the city, I remembered it—I remembered something else the Nazarene had said.
It occurred while we were nailing his hands to the wooden cross piece. Usually the condemned scream out at this point and utter all manner of curses and blasphemies. But not him. While we were holding him and driving in the nails (I say we, but I was actually doing it, I wanted it done as cleanly and swiftly as possible), he muttered something. I shall never forget it. I don’t think anyone else heard it, just those of us around him at the time.
He kept on repeating—“Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing. Father, forgive them, they don’t know…Father, forgive them…” over and over again until he was firmly fastened to the beam. Then he stopped saying it.
Even now it comes to me as I write it. I remember looking up and seeing the second bandit—in silence, and terror, and disbelief, he had watched us do this, but he had also heard that prayer of forgiveness from the prophet. It must have profoundly affected him—somehow, something in that absolution pronounced on us also gave him hope.
At the time, I felt terrified, father, unsure of what I had just done and seen. Yet looking back on it now, I think I am beginning to understand what the bandit saw in the Nazarene when he looked over at that center cross.
We soldiers can take life from a man, and do it, often; but we cannot touch the life that dwells within someone. In some strange way, I believe this Jesus gave people—a life within. Yes, that’s how to say it. Jesus gave people a life. It is a life that surpasses social and economic barriers, religious and national allegiances. It is a life that can only come from this God of his, a life that changes one from within.
This death was the most disturbing and fascinating death that I have ever seen, father, and I shall never forget it.
I’ve gone on too long. There is much more about this man that I wish to discuss with you, but will save it for when I see you again face to face this winter. And we should talk more about it later, after you get your letter from your nephew, my cousin, Luke. I told him all that I have told you now, and he has been very quietly documenting many other things for you concerning this prophet and teacher. He knows of your great interest in matters like these, and also he sends his greetings to you.
I must close now. May God, this God of Jesus, bring peace to you, father, and to mother and my sisters. And may the God of Jesus bring peace to all those who follow and believe in him and have his life in them. Even though he is now dead, in a way, he is not really dead at all. He’s not dead in my memory, anyway.
Blessings from your son, who proudly bears your name,
Ps. One last thing, which only comes to me now: In that paradise which he promised the bandit—in some way—I believe Jesus now, indeed, reigns as a king, far outside the reach of the Roman Empire. It is the Kingdom of God that he spoke of often, which, somehow, in itself begins in and exists in the hearts of human beings, the manifestation of this life he instills within his followers.
And while I thought I was going to another routine execution—which it was—in some strange way, and I can’t quite explain it, I believe it also turned out to be… a coronation.