A sermon preached by the Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall
at the Eucharist during Diocesan Convention
on October 9, 2010.
It would not be completely accurate to call them terrorists, but the two men crucified with Jesus were by no means shop-lifters or jay-walkers. The word we are used to translating as "thieves" means something like brigands, bandits, or perhaps insurgents, seriously violent people, desperados. Rome was publicly torturing them to death that Friday as a message to other potential career criminals: resistance to the state is useless.
It is not often that we hear conversations among people who are being killed, so it is worthwhile to listen in.
How could we not identify with the first thief? Reality had caught up with him, his future was zero. Tragically, he isn’t getting it.
Do we? At what point in life do we realize that the limitations we experience in career and relationship may have something to do with us? There is no one for whom it is not true that personality offers both possibility and limitation, and that some choices follow you. Some people are too frightened to face this, and our thief was one of them.
The first robber had not reached that moment of insight—he blames what is wrong in his life entirely on the outside. From the depths of his rage he lashes out at Jesus.
And who has not been there? Who hasn’t been furious with God for something that has gone horribly wrong in their life, furious to the point of bitter rejection of the creator? Who doesn’t know something of the robber’s emotions about his fate? Who doesn’t secretly know or half-know that things at work or at home would be different if they themselves had been different? Who do you blame for your personality defects?
A comedian one said, "My one regret in life is that I am not somebody else." I have often wondered about the pain beneath a joke like that.
So the robber spits out his rebuke to Jesus. And Jesus, who is at that moment bearing the sins of the world in the most literal of senses, bears this outburst as well. Jesus, whom the gospels show us besting the best debaters of his time, just lets it go.
I wonder if we always realize that God's apparent silence when we challenge the universe or life itself is a kind of toleration, a non-engagement in what could only get worse. There are times when you argue and times when you don't. Job is an extraordinarily difficult book to read, and no explanation is satisfactory, but I wonder if God’s silence through most of it is a species of kindness.
The second thief is in a different place. He has recognized that his life has caught up with him, and tries to shut the first one up. We don’t know how that dialog turned out, but we hear from him the words we will sing many times this noon as the we pray for our dead, "remember me when you come into your kingdom."
That cry from the other cross is an act of surrender, and second robber reminds us of another aspect of our being. After the rage, after running into the brick wall for the millionth time, what is there to say except, "Lord, have mercy?"
There isn't a lot of content in that plea, there are no explanations or apologies, or promises to do better, but there is the heart's cry that each of us who has survived the fourth grade knows, the cry for peace, acceptance, and an end to struggle. From Huckleberry Finn to Catcher in the Rye to The Great Gatsby, in William Shakespeare, Earnest Hemingway, and Iris Murdoch, there is a longing in us for things to make sense and come connectedly to rest. That longing may be sharply defined or just a vague groping after something more, but the second crucified robber gives it voice.
Unlike the first robber, he is ready for peace, and Jesus promises it to him, that very day. Each of these condemned gets what they can handle at the moment.
Jesus takes the rage of the first robber, and responds to the plea of the second—all while he himself is dying. If we believe that Jesus was a real human being, really dying by the exquisite torture that was crucifixion, we might wonder why he didn’t say, "can't you let a person even die in peace?"
Bruised, beaten, and punctured with spikes, Jesus is shown to us summoning the energy to care for the person on the cross next to him.
To come to today's point. You and I already know that God can absorb our rage. You and I know that Jesus promises to share paradise with us. That is why we are here. These new prayers and lessons "For Forgiveness and Reconciliation" encourage each of us to discover new depths to which we have been accepted, forgiven, and promised peace.
And if we were about to break out into groups, the question I would offer is, But what about the person on the cross next to yours?