by Rev. Terry Minchow-Proffitt @ St. Martin United Church of Christ High Ridge
Today is our Second Sunday of Lent. We began on Valentine’s Day, so we’re exactly eleven days into our season to draw near the cross of Jesus. Each Sunday, we’re taking a close look at each of Jesus’ last words. Last Sunday we explored Jesus’ prayerful cry: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Today, we’re back at the same cross, in the same scene, told by the same gospel, Luke’s.
We’re looking up at the same Jesus. But this time he says something different... “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The passage is familiar. There are three crosses, three people being crucified, Rome’s version of capital punishment, reserved for the scum of the earth. Two criminals hang on either side of Jesus. Well, they weren’t just criminals, or even simply thieves. According to Mark and Matthew they were worse: they were bandits, armed robbers, men of violence, prepared to kill as well as steal.
It’s hard to take in. We’re forced to look away. It all seems so strange. Sad. Unacceptable. It’s all just too much. We step away by asking understandable questions: How can this be? In a million years, how could this awful fact be at the heart of my faith? Of any faith?
You may recall that on Ash Wednesday we talked about viewing Lent as a time for letting go of bad habits and taking on good habits. We hoped to do this by taking Steven Covey’s advice: “To begin with the end in mind.” That is, (i) to know that one day we will end, that we are mortal; and, (ii) knowing this, what sort of ends, or goals, do we want to live by? We become our good habits, the patterns of living that manifest us in the world. These “ends” set the course for where we “end” up. So what are the deepest ends that we want to live by?
When we explore Jesus’ words from the cross, we see that how he ended his life was completely in keeping with how he lived his life. His last words, then, have lasting meaning for all of us.
When we muster the courage to look up at these three crosses, to take this experience in, we see that the Innocent One in the middle is the same Jesus who dined with sinners and prostitutes, who called fishermen and tax collectors to follow him. Jesus always aligned himself with the “bad elements.” As he lived, he died: reviled, mocked, beaten, scorned—and absolutely, irrevocably loving.
The prophet Isaiah wrote, “he was numbered among the transgressors” (53:12). He was not numbered among the members of the Sanhedrin—the religious establishment. He was not numbered among the Republicans and Democrats—the politically connected. He was not numbered among the members of the Rotary Club and the Elks—the good, upstanding pillars of society. He was numbered among the transgressors. Crucified among the “bad elements.”
Who do you see as the bad elements? Who would you hate to have move next door? Who, if they sat next to you in your pew, would tempt you to move? But wait, let’s not stop there. Since I’m meddling, what are the parts of your own life that you judge most harshly? The bad elements of your own self that you’re ashamed of, or find it hard to face? Do you harbor bad neighbors within? Try to imagine Jesus in the middle of all that. Not because he has to be, or is forced to be, but because he knows what Paradise is and he wants all of us to join in on this party he’s throwing.
I have a mechanic named Brad whose shop sits just around the corner from where I live. I like to drop by, just to check in. Most every time I ask Brad how he’s doing, he’ll say, “Just another day in paradise!” His voice might come out from under an old Buick with a “God Bless American” bumper sticker in bad need of some new breaks, or from under the hood of a Honda Civic “beater” with a “Coexist” bumper sticker. Brad might have grease all over his hands, but he’ll go straight to the sink and wash them, because he wants to shake my hand. Maybe there are days when he says “just another day in paradise” with a little sarcasm, but only a little. He delights in the difficult job he does. He likes taking broken things that need repair and making them run again. His shop is filled with such bad elements.
We worship a God who cannot bear to part with us, a God who celebrates the good and heals and mends the bad, a God who has a real affection for our honest scrutiny and confession. The more we can admit our own weaknesses and deal with them, the better we can love ourselves and those around us who have their own share of weaknesses and sin. This is the best we can hope for this side of Paradise: to be remembered, re-membered, put back together again by the honest love of friends and family who are rooted in the deep and abiding love of God.
That’s really all the “good” bandit asked for. The other bandit mocked Jesus for being so powerless. He wanted Jesus to save himself and save them. But the bandit on the other side was different, more honest. He asked only, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He sees Jesus as the one who can remember. Don’t we all want this? Isn’t our deepest fear that we are nothing? That our lives do not matter and will soon be forgotten? But he doesn’t simply want to be seen as significant. He asks to be let in on what Jesus is doing—his Kingdom. That’s paradise, both now and forever. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “To be in paradise is to be ‘with Jesus,’ to be pulled into God’s life by the love made visible (and real) on the cross.” Amen.