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Archive for March, 2013

The following sermon was preached on March 29, 2013 at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH on Good Friday.  The message was based on Luke 23:39-43.

crown_thorn_cross“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

With his arms stretched wide, bloody and pounding from the pressure in his palms and the gravitational force pulling on the nails that keep him suspended in the air, Jesus makes a statement that will change the world forever.

Jesus welcomes the criminal into paradise.

We can easily see ourselves in the role of either of these criminals.  The two figures that surround Jesus are almost like the angel and devil figures we see surrounding cartoon characters when they are about to make a tough decision.

On one shoulder is the cartoon devil, the one who scorns and doubts the power found in God.  In life filled with pain, illness, financial uncertainty and turmoil, it can be easy for us to embody the example of the mocking criminal, the one who says to Jesus, “Okay, Messiah, let’s see what you got.  Save yourself from this cross.  Save me from that speeding ticket.  Stop that school from closing.  Prove to our satisfaction that you have the power.”

On the other shoulder is the wisdom of the angel.  The part of our self who recognizes that God provides in ways beyond our satisfaction and ways we could never expect.  We are the criminal that says, “I understand, Jesus, that you sacrificed yourself for me.  Forgive me for the times I neglected to help my neighbor.  Guide me to remain strong in a life of service and prayer.  Remember me and hold me solid.”

These two criminals, while represented as two separate beings, show the whole of our human nature.  They represent the part of us that is the victim of a fallen humanity, casting our fair share of lots against those around us.  They also represent the person who seeks redemption from the limitations and shortcomings that comes with this humanity.  They represent the fear and the trust, the saint and the sinner.

What makes this penitent man criminal remains unclear.  We never learn about the crimes either man committed.  While it can be easy to see our spiritual limitations and possibilities in the examples of these criminals, one thing is certain.  They were not crucified for their lack of piety or failing to uphold the Ten Commandments.  Rome, Herod and Pilate were not concerned with spiritual laws.  These two criminals were crucified because they broke a law of the state.  They must have committed some crime so heinous that it would warrant a painfully unspeakable death.

It begs the question, who exactly is Jesus welcoming into paradise?

I recently read the transcript from Nelson Mandela’s 1964 trial.  He was arrested and sent to trial for encouraging people to go on strike when basic human rights were violated.  Over and over throughout the transcript, Mandela stated that these rights were so important he would be willing to die for it.  He was a criminal about to be crucified, and he would have gone to the cross to defend those rights.

His example reminds us of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero and other civil rights activists who in the same way were persecuted and imprisoned for advocating for similar rights of equality.  Committing a crime for the sake of advancing human society is a tale as crown_of_thronsold as time.

Just this Wednesday the pastor I work for in Chicago was arrested for civil disobedience at a rally speaking out against upcoming foreclosure of 54 Chicago schools located primarily in African American and Latino communities.  He was willing to go to prison to help speak out against the injustice toward 30,000 children belonging to minority groups.  His crime, like so many others, was a crime rooted in peace and compassion.

Could the criminals hanging beside Jesus have committed the similar sort of crime, crime of civil disobedience speaking for peace and justice?  At first I thought that was doubtful that such a crime would warrant a crucifixion, but then again, many of those supposed crimes were what brought Jesus to trial before Pilate.

Throughout Luke we see countless examples of Jesus civilly disobeying the laws of society while reaching out to the disenfranchised and the outcasts.  Jesus heals the sick, cures leprosy, casts out demons, and raises people from the dead.  Jesus dines with women, fishermen and tax collectors.  No matter where he went, Jesus preached and taught a message of grace and acceptance so strong that societally bordered on the absurd.  The examples of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son increasingly with each tale become more gracious and fabulous with grace filled acceptance, all the while disobeying society’s status quo.

Perhaps our criminals hanging next to Jesus are justice advocates.

Or maybe they were criminals who merely the victims of their environment.  Between currently attending seminary in the SouthSide of Chicago and formerly working in Cleveland, I have met many children who joined gangs at extremely young ages, sometimes in elementary school, because the protection of the gang was more consistent then the protection of local law enforcement.  I have worked with homeless teenagers who have turned to a life of prostitution so they could have enough money for food and clothing.  In the cold of winter, I have several friends who have had their cars broken into by people looking for a place to sleep that would shelter them from the rain, sleet and snow.

Maybe the criminals on the cross are these kinds of criminals, the down on their luck, committing crime for survival sort of criminal.  Of course Jesus would welcome them into paradise and be so generous with that sort of crime.

But what if they are not?  What if they are the sort of criminal who committed crime for the sake of pure evil?  What if they stole for fun, or hurt for sport?  What if they were sex offenders, or murderers?  What then do we do with this welcome from Jesus?

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus’ use of the word paradise tells us a great deal.  Paradise was often associated with the place where the righteous Jewish souls would go to at the Day of Judgment, like heaven.

Paradise also meant a new beginning.  The same word in Greek that Jesus uses on the cross is also the same word that is used to describe the Garden of Eden.  This new beginning is the ultimate new beginning, the formation of a new way of being human, a beginning of life that is as fresh and fertile with opportunity as the garden itself.

When Jesus tells the repentant criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he is not merely talking about some afterlife experience.  He is giving this criminal the opportunity to start a new life, to restart what it means to be human, to operate in a way that is fertile with potential for a better existence.

This new beginning happens now.  Today.  Jesus extended paradise to the criminal the moment the criminal repented on the cross and acknowledged his wrongdoings.  Jesus extended that paradise to us the moment he died on the cross.

In his death and resurrection, Jesus created a revolving door of new beginnings for us.  No matter what crime we have committed, what spiritual law we have failed to uphold, what thing we left undone, Jesus welcomes us into paradise.

In this paradise every criminal and law abiding citizen is welcomed.  No one is excluded.  The limits that we place on one another; single, married, divorced, straight, gay, the 99%,the 1%; these limits have no standing in paradise.  Jesus welcomes us if we are the ones committing crimes of spiritual or civil disobedience, or when our crime is purchasing illegal narcotics to feed our addiction.  Jesus welcomes us into paradise when we hurt others by accident and welcomes us when the right and just choice is obvious and we choose the other option instead.

This sort of welcome is absurd in our society.  It is outrageous in its generosity and faithfulness to us.  This sort of extreme, totally unwarranted welcome is as foreign to us as searching for a lost coin or sheep.  Society would never get on board with it.  Then again, throughout his ministry Jesus has shown us repeatedly that he cares little for the living into society’s expectations, and instead welcomes us boldly in a way that is truly paradise.

This welcoming into paradise does not absolve us of our responsibility or suddenly make the challenges of our life disappear.   The penitent criminal was granted paradise today, but not abruptly removed from the cross at the sound of Jesus words.  We are still accountable to one another for the actions that we take.

In Christ, however, the future of our lives is not determined by one moment from our past.  Thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus, the gift of paradise remains before us.  As Jesus welcomes us into paradise, we are welcomed into a new way of thinking, welcomed into a new way of being.  We stand in a garden of hope and possibility so strong that we can be courageous in redefining what it means to be criminal.

Welcomed into paradise, we are empowered to change the laws that perpetuate systems of oppression.  We are emboldened to share the love of Christ to the stranger.  We are strengthened to follow the counter cultural example of Christ.

No matter what our crime, Jesus welcomes us into paradise, inviting us into the possibility and freedom of a new beginning.

Amen.

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“Do not be afraid, I am with you.  I have called you each by name.   Come and follow me, I will bring you home.  I love you and you are mine.” – David Haas, 1991, “You Are Mine”

This month has been filled with what feels like one-to-many life changing moments.

As I got off the phone tonight from yet another life-changing conversation, as I await more life changing moments that I know will be coming in five days, and then six days after that, and seven days after that, I can’t help but realize that it is in the transitions of life that we see where are our hearts really are.

My heart is one of vulnerability.  When my world becomes increasingly unstable, I become rather quickly insecure.  I hear accusations in short statements.  I feel pressure in supportive voices.  I find myself saying, “You’re not hearing me,” when really I want to say, “Look past my words and hear the vulnerability in my voice.  It is costing something to say these words, and I feel exposed.”

The irony is that I amflower_tomb most affected by life-changing moments that are not directly about me.  Last year at this very time I learned I had to take a drastic turn in my health care maintenance, the consequences of which I am still processing.  Yet somehow I feel more vulnerable now as I wait to get back phone calls of test results, doctors decrees and surgery dates for people I love than I ever did in those countless hours I spent in doctors waiting rooms focusing on myself.  Navigating the changes within my own body is far less terrifying for me than navigating the changes in the body of a person I love.   Their safety is to physically removed for me to feel comforted by a sense of control.

I keep on thinking about Mary and Martha at the tomb, having their life changed because of the change that had occurred to Jesus’ body.  Risen from the tomb, it was not where they expected him to be. His rising altered how they understood the current role of their relationship.  It was beyond their control and as such they could no longer care for him in a way that was familiar.  This life change made them very afraid and achingly vulnerable.

There is a deep and humble beauty that resonates in the fear of that empty tomb.  The beauty is that we as readers of Mark’s gospel who know what happens next can be reassured that things will work out for Mary and Martha.  Things have already worked out, even before they reached the tomb.  The fear they feel in not knowing why their relationship to Jesus changed  is secondary to the wondrous power of the action that altered their relationship forever.

With so many people I love in states of deep and powerful transition, I feel a bit like Mary and Martha.  I am afraid.  I am vulnerable.  I am feeling a bit too raw to change my “You’re not hearing me,” to “Hear the vulnerability I cannot yet say.”  As we wait for tests and pray that the next six weeks will bring strength and healthy cells, it can be easy to forget that things have already been worked out.   Salvation has already come.  Love already surrounds us.  We have already been given all the support we will ever need, as long as we are brave enough to look into the darkened tomb.

“Do not be afraid.  I am with you.”

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