Sermon from November 24th, 2013. The text for the week was Luke 23:33-43. Hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday, filled with joy and gladness.
Jesus, Remember Me, When You Come Into Your Kingdom
One of the remarkable things about Luke’s telling of the Passion narrative is how crowded it is. Like the other Gospel writers, Luke mentions soldiers and leaders. But he adds two groups. First, he tells of a group of women, the daughters of Jerusalem, weeping and beating their breasts. Additionally, Luke tells us the crowds are also there, perhaps the same crowds that lay down their cloaks at his entrance to Jerusalem five days earlier, shouting “Hosanna (Save us!)” as he entered the city gates. They now stand mutely as he hangs upon the cross. Their silence highlights the loneliness of this moment. In spite of the many people who have come to see him crucified, Luke doesn’t mention any of his followers, friends, or family. In Luke’s telling, not a single disciple is present for his crucifixion.
Suffering is an isolating and lonely experience. If I’ve learned anything in ministry I’ve learned that the old saying is true, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” We walk around saying to one another, “I’m fine, how are you?” when the truth is that every person you meet has something they are going through. That nice doctor who seems to have everything he wants in life prescribes himself two glasses on the rocks each night to numb the pain. The woman who always seems so perfectly put together is grasping on to threads while her whole family unravels around her. The couple with that precious little girl know all too well how precious she is, she spent the first three months of her life on a respirator to fight a health problem, and they wake up every morning wondering if it might come back.
And what suffering does to us is it destroys all sense of context in our lives, our own suffering denies the reality of the suffering of others. We think that we are the only ones who suffer, and that we do it alone. We think no one could understand what we’re going through. We think that even if we share our burdens they cannot be eased. Our pain blinds us to the people around us, those who could help us, and those we could help. Our suffering denies us the ability to think about someone other than ourselves, to empathize with another’s pain. The teachings of the Buddha indicate that suffering and selfishness are deeply linked, if not synonyms. I don’t think he was so far off the mark on that one.
This is the heartbreak of our world: each of us nurturing a deep hurt; each of us unable to reach out to the deep hurts in each other. This is what’s going on for the leaders hurling insults at Jesus. They hurt like we do, they are afraid of what they almost lost, and they are ashamed of what they have done to keep it. So they reassure themselves that they had no other choice. “If you are the Son of God, save yourself!” they shouted at him, for they know of nothing better to do with such power than to save their own skins.
This is the situation of one of the bandits next to Jesus. He’s so blinded by his suffering that he cannot feel for anything beyond his own skin. He uses his last breath to curse the man on the cross beside him, trying to remind himself that his death, though tragic, will be slightly less tragic than the man next to him, who had so foolishly dared to try for something more.
The second bandit, alone among all the people on that hill, can see that something different is going on with the man on the cross next to him. While everyone else is blinded to the pain of others by their own suffering, this man is blind to his own pain, suffering on behalf of others. Even as he goes to the cross he consoles the ones around him. He tells the weeping women, “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children.” While others abuse him to make themselves feel a little bit better, he says, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Unlike all of the other people on the hill, who are controlled by their fear and their pain, only Jesus is free to see beyond himself, only he is powerful enough to overcome his own self.
The second bandit realizes that of all the people on that hill, it is Jesus who has the power to change the outcome of the story. It is Jesus who has the power to free us from our pain, who wandered Palestine and opened eyes blinded by accident and by birth, but also eyes blinded by hatred, by pride, and by anger. He sees the Roman soldiers and the leaders of the people, all terrified of a man who has done nothing to them, and he realizes that they offer no hope for humanity, only themselves.
It was then that he realized that the mocking sign they put upon his cross was not just true, but an understatement. This man was not the king of the Jews but the king of all kings, the Lord of lords, the light of the world. And in that moment he offers up a brief prayer, putting into words his deepest yearnings and ours. He says, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom” in the hope that the transformative, freeing power that Jesus showed on the cross might be his also.
We too, sing these words, from time to time, when we gather together to hope and to yearn along with him. Because we too have seen that the promises of the world have little to offer us other than destruction.. Because we know that a life lived in sin and selfishness and fear is hardly a life at all, and we want to be free. Because we too have seen in Jesus a power that touches the deepest longings of our heart. We come together to pray the bandit’s prayer because if what separates us from each other is that our own selfishness and pain keep us from seeing the suffering of others even when it is right in our faces, then what binds us together is the realization that nothing less than an act of God will overcome it.