Sermon for Sunday, November 24th, 2019
There is a great line from the movie The Princess Bride, where the character Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, responds to another character’s constant misuse of the word “inconceivable” by saying: “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”
It is such a great line and Patinkin’s character is so memorable, that whenever I hear someone overusing or misusing a word or phrase, Inigo Montoya jumps into my head saying: “you keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Words can mean different things to different people. The power of language is that it can transfer meanings and idea and thoughts from one person to another, but we must recognize that the weakness of language is that there is always some translation and interpretation going on. If you have studied another language, or if you speak another language, then you probably know that there are some words that simply do not easily translate from one language to another; there just is not an equivalent word, so you have to use several English words to try to convey the same idea. For instance, the French words terroir or milieu, both somewhat complex ideas that don’t have an equivalent English word.
But even within the same language, sometimes we have a hard time communicating because what a word means to me, may not be the same thing as it means to you. And I’m not just talking about regional dialect differences here. I’m willing to bet that most of you know that the word “Yankee” has very different connotations if you grow up South of the Mason-Dixon Line, than if you grow up in the Northeast. But there are other words that have different meanings and connotations for each of us based upon our own lives and our own history and our own baggage. There are two such words in our gospel today.
The first of these words is the first word our Lord utters from the cross. The first thing that Jesus says after his hands of been nailed to the cross is a powerful word that has powerful meanings for each one of us: “Father.” “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” That is the first thing that Jesus says from the cross. Father. It is such a powerful, meaningful word. If you are looking at someone’s genealogy or family tree, then you know that father means “male biological parent.” But you know and I know that the word means so much more than that.
Those of us who have had the good fortune to have good and loving fathers will probably find the word comforting and reassuring. For us, father, means someone that is nurturing, loving, protecting. But we live in a world of broken human beings, and not everyone has had that kind of a father. Some people may hear the word father and think abuse. Some may think absence. What you think of when you hear the word father, may not be what I think of. What you think it means, may not be what I think it means.
So when Jesus consistently uses the word father, to talk about God, as he does throughout the gospels in his teachings, as he did when he taught us to pray saying “Our Father,” and as he does today, pleading from the cross, we need to pay attention to the kind of father he is talking about. What does this word “father” mean to Jesus when he says it? We need to look over our own baggage for a minute; put aside whatever your own relationship with your father is, if indeed you even have one and pay attention to the relationship that Jesus has with the one he calls father. What does that word mean to Jesus?
The other word that we get in the gospel today is a word that was written in three different languages on a sign nailed over Jesus’s head. King. It was meant as a cruel joke. Kings are supposed to have power and glory and strength. A great king was a symbol of a great kingdom. To shame and bring down a king was to shame and bring down his people. And that’s what Pilate wanted to do. Pilate wanted to humiliate the Jews by putting a sign over a beaten, dying man that said: “this is their king.”
Kings should be strong. Kings should be able to save themselves and their people. What could this man do? That is why the people kept taunting him. “Save yourself if you are the Messiah” the leaders of the temple jeered. “Save yourself if you are the King” the soldiers yelled between their perverse fits of laughter. Even one of the thieves crucified next to him drew a painful, dying breath to add his voice to those mocking Jesus: “Are you not the messiah? Save yourself and us!”
This was no king like the kings of the earth. The only crown he ever wore was the crown of thorns. There was no precious ermine collared cloak. No diamonds, no gold. No vast estate, no treasure chests, no earthly glory at all. The world would never use the word “king” to describe this man. That’s why it was a joke. Only maybe the joke was on us.
Maybe we were the ones who got the meaning of the word wrong. Maybe the things that we associate with kings: power and glory, riches and excess, maybe these things have very little to do with what it really means to be a king. Just like it may be possible for us to misunderstand the word “Father,” so too maybe we are likely to misunderstand the word “king.” Maybe the word doesn’t mean what we think it means.
One person recognized that on Calvary’s hill on that first Good Friday. The thief that was able to admit that he had done wrong, was also the one who was able to recognize that he had been wrong. He was the first to see that the word king might mean something different to God than it does to humans. That word “king” that was hanging over Jesus’s head, well it wasn’t a joke to this man. The thief saw a blameless man that was willing to suffer for others, willing to forgive, willing to love the most unlovable people and he had a moment of conversion, he thought: “yes, that is what a king really is.” I want to know this father that this man keeps calling out to; I want to see the world the way he sees it. This is what a king really is and if that is true then I really want to be a part of his kingdom. The thief is the only one there that actually believes that Jesus has a kingdom, and he is the one that Jesus promises will join him there.
Those that mocked Jesus got no reply. But the one that humbly asked to be a part of his kingdom, well to that one paradise was promised.
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. We celebrate and proclaim Christ as our Lord and King above all others today. It is good that we should do so. Being a part of his kingdom should mean more to us than being a citizen of any earthly kingdom or nation. We should celebrate it. But in doing so let us be mindful that this kingdom doesn’t look like the kingdoms of this world and this king doesn’t look or act like most kings on earth. The word king means something different to him than it does to us.
Some people would like for us to stop using these tricky words like “Father” and “King” because they want to avoid misunderstanding who and what God is. I disagree. In the first place, they are words that Jesus uses, and I have to think that he probably used them for a reason. In the second, well maybe the fact that these words have such baggage and various meanings, means that I am always having to readjust my own understanding of them; I am always having to remind myself that the way Jesus sees the world is not necessarily the way that I see it.
I think it might be better to let Jesus define what a father is and what a king is, and then adjust my understanding accordingly. Maybe I am the one misusing the word.