Jesus Leads Side by Side, Cross by Cross

Hello, my name is Bryan Matias.

I’ve been a parishioner here for about 2 years and I am also a seminarian at Bexley Seabury in Hyde Park. It didn’t really surprise anyone that I decided to go to seminary because, almost as soon as you meet me, it becomes apparent that I am a huge religion nerd. That being said, I hope you’ll bear with me as I geek out about our Old Testament reading for a moment.

We open on Jeremiah condemning the leaders of Judah. He calls them wicked for letting the flock scatter and stray. To us, this is a blanket criticism. But there is a pun we miss in our English translation. Jeremiah says the future, better king will be called “the LORD is our righteousness.” It just so happens, that the current king was called “the LORD is my righteousness.” Jeremiah was calling out King Zedekiah.

Let’s talk about King Zedekiah. He became king because the Babylonians decided they didn’t like the previous king. This foreign government arranged to have him become the nation’s leader. Then once in power, he ignored his advisors and broke with his international allies. Huh, sounds familiar.

Things not end well for King Zedekiah. Jerusalem is placed under siege and falls to the Babylonians. The king and most of his people are carted off into exile.

In stories like these, of displaced peoples and corrupt leaders, where can we find hope? Jeremiah’s answer is a new king. A righteous branch of the line of David. We as Christians, and especially during this season of Advent, recognize that Jeremiah is pointing to the coming of Jesus. So let’s turn to the gospel to see how Jesus will lead us out of this mess.

If you were expecting the Gospel to show Jerimiah’s ideal king crashing onto the scene to overthrow the wicked government, you would be wrong. Instead, we are shown a pathetic dying man in the midst of being executed by the state. Our attention is called to leaders, but Luke isn’t talking about Jesus. It’s the local leaders, mocking him. The Roman leaders, though not even present, are mocking Jesus too. The glib description of his crime hangs over his head “This is the King of the Jews.” These leaders are effective in a way. The soldiers follow them, mocking the poor man on that center cross. Even one of the other men being executed joins in, asking why Jesus can’t save himself.

Where, in this scene, is the hope that Jeremiah promised? Where is the shepherd who will bring the sheep back into the fold? How can this man, gasping out his last words, be our leader? The answer lies in those words, gasped to the man beside him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus is leading, but not in the way we are used to. He does not lord over his subjects like a wicked king, an emperor of Rome, or a corrupt politician. He leads side by side, one cross next to another. He understands the agony the men beside him feel as they struggle to catch their breath. He knows this because he is experiencing it too.

This is a dangerous way to lead, standing beside instead of in front. Without someone in front, it can appear that there is no leader at all. In the darkest depths, we can feel abandoned with no one to guide us. But we are not abandoned. This is how Jesus leads, with confidence, but also with humility, side by side, cross by cross. And this is the leadership that Jesus calls us to.
But what does leading beside look like today? The movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, opened Friday. It is about Fred Rogers, that sweater wearing, infinitely kind man, famous for asking, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” I was reminded of one of my favorite stories about him. In an episode of his show, Mister Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to sit beside him and cool his feet in a small plastic pool. This was a kind offer, especially on a hot day, but what really made this a moment of leadership is that Officer Clemmons was played by a black man and this was 1969. Pools were still segregated. These men shared a pool and even a towel. Mister Rogers led his viewers from his spot by the pool, seated right there beside his neighbor. He gave the nation hope that we could overcome the evils of segregation and racism.

How can we take up this mantle of leadership? In the midst of the darkness of this world, how can we use Jesus’ dangerous, revolutionary model of leading beside to usher in hope? I’ve already seen examples of it here at All Saints. When we stood with our siblings in North Lawndale, refusing to let the city ignore them any longer. And every Tuesday when we meet and share food with our neighbors right here in this church.

Advent may be a time of waiting, but we cannot wait for earthly leaders to save us any longer. We must work together to lead each other into a world that is worthy of Christ’s coming. Perhaps this is as simple as walking beside someone and asking won’t you be my neighbor?