Smart Sailing with the King

[audio]Choices. Life is a series of choices. For example, my Sunday morning ritual often begins at a local coffee shop. So as not to confuse my personal patronage with an official church endorsement, I will refrain from using its name. Let’s just say it rhymes with Bar-stucks. This morning, I noticed that they’ve begun preparing for the holiday season. And on the door, in large letters, is this slogan: “Stories are gifts. Share.” I thought, “You know, some day I’ll be able to use that in a sermon,” and stored it away in my back pocket.

And then, as I was driving out of the parking lot, I noticed another establishment, the one I didn’t choose, one which shall also remain nameless, getting ready for the same holiday season. In their door was a sign which read, “Joy to the McRib.” And I thought, “Now I know what my sermon title will be on Christmas Eve.”

I don’t tend to see the world in a binary way. I rarely see things in terms of “either/or”; there are those choices in our lives where it is absolutely clear what is right and what is wrong. For the most part, we don’t live our lives in blacks and whites, but in a whole range of colors, choices that are often fraught with both good and bad mixed together.

These two restaurant slogans, at first glance, couldn’t be more different. One, “Joy to the McRib”, is meant to be playful. It takes a Christmas hymn, one which sings about how the Christ child’s arrival changes the world forever, and molds it into a cutesy sales pitch.

The other, “Stories are gifts: share”, is a little more poetic, subtle perhaps, and nostalgic at its core. It has very little to do with why we anticipate the upcoming Christmas season, but is rather a more generic sense of togetherness in the midst of holiday celebrations. It made me pause and think on its meaning. The other made me chuckle before I thought, “Is that really the best you could come up with? How about Away in a Happy Meal? Big Macs We Have Heard on High? Silent Fries, Holy Fries?”

But here’s the reality: one slogan wants you to buy a sandwich that contains some form of meat; the other wants you to buy dirty water that tastes like coffee. They’re two sides of the same coin. One might be more elegant than the other, but they both ultimately serve to advertise. It’s not an “either/or”. Neither choice is completely good or bad. In the end, that’s all they are: choices.

There’s another kind of choice that jumps out in our gospel lesson today. The lectionary jumps ahead in Luke’s gospel to Jesus’ crucifixion. Luke reminds us of the Roman Empire’s use of crucifixion as the death penalty to show what a debased end Jesus faced. He was accused of claiming to be both God and King, and so his sentence was both political and religious, and his death on the cross was meant to humiliate: killed like a common criminal, between two petty thieves.

The reactions of the two thieves could not be more different, and maybe this is where the element of choice comes in. The first thief, perhaps seeing an opportunity to draw attention away from himself and point it toward another as the object of ridicule, joins in with the rest of the crowd in mocking Jesus: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself!” The second thief immediately rebukes the first. And as though looking to make up for a lifetime of misdeeds with one final act of mercy and confession, gives his own version of a profession of faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

This is beginning to look like one of those “either/or” moments. And perhaps that’s our point of departure from this lesson into our own lives: with which of the two thieves do we see ourselves resonating?

The first thief seems to boil over in anger. And maybe that sounds familiar to us. There are times when we know what it means to be driven by an anger which burns and consumes, which motivates us toward impulsive and explosive reactions.

That same thief also puts Jesus to the test. If he’s the Messiah, then surely he is powerful enough to hop down from the cross and establish his kingdom. And there are times when we put others, even God, to the same kinds of tests, ones of our own design, forcing our own expectations on God and God’s providence.

And that first thief also shows himself a hypocrite. He and Jesus hang there in the same predicament, but somehow he manages to lord it over Jesus. And if we’re honest, we’re not that different. We can let our own sense of identity move us to both denial and self-righteousness when, in reality, we’re not very different from the one hanging next to us.

Or maybe it’s the second thief who seems more like us. Even at that moment of death, he brings true perspective, reminding the first thief that the two of them are hanging there because of what they’ve done, while Jesus has done nothing to deserve such punishment. Perhaps there are times when, even in the midst of our own valleys of despair, we can still give thanks to God for blessings and mercy.

We may wonder if that same thief is motivated by true sorrow or by fear of his impending death. If the latter, then he might be thinking, “If this really is the Messiah, this might work out for the best; if not, what’s the harm?” We know that there are times when we are motivated by fear: fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of people finding out what we’re really like deep down inside. And maybe it’s that fear that motivates us to be people of faith. We hedge our theological bets, just in case this “hell” thing is real, in which case we better back the right horse.

Or maybe the second thief is truly sorry for what he’s done and genuinely seeks the face of God. Maybe we have taken that long, hard look at what we’ve done, whether in the past or in the present, and are truly, truly sorry for injuries we have caused. And in that moment of absolute repentance, we can come our own truest profession of faith: Jesus, have mercy.

If we live in a binary world, then the choice from this lesson is clear: the moral choice is to behave more like the second thief than the first; and such a wise choice will be rewarded. Don’t ridicule or put Jesus to the test, but ask instead that mercy and grace be extended to us. However…and here’s the mind-bending, world-altering truth…both thieves end up with the same offer. Divine forgiveness is extended to them both.

It’s an obvious point when we look at the second thief. After his profession of faith, Jesus lets him know his fate: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” His rebuke of the first thief seems to be rewarded with the promise of eternal rest.

But this forgiveness is also there for the first thief. Before this man joins the crowd in the mocking, Jesus utters the most fantastically absurd of grace-filled statements. There on the cross, moments away from his own death, he prays for those who have carried out his punishment and who now ridicule and humiliate him. Before the first thief even opens his mouth, Jesus has prayed for him to be forgiven. Mercy is there; all he has to do is recognize it.

Friends, that’s no less true for us today. Whether we are motivated by anger or fear, whether we are truly sorry or deeply arrogant, whether we have or lack perspective, that is all irrelevant when it comes down to the fact that we are all offered this gift of divine love and mercy. It’s the truth of the table, our feast, our celebration, in which bread and cup are shared, and all are invited into citizenship in Christ’s wondrous realm, each carrying a piece of the divine spark within us.

The better question is not whether we approach the table more like the first thief or the second thief, but rather, what do we do when we leave it? When we hear this promise, that we are forgiven, that even on the cross, Christ’s hands of mercy are extended to each and every one of us, what do we do with that?

Do we see it as an opportunity to lord it over others? Or do we work to extend this table and its fantastically absurd invitation that more might come to know of its wonder?

In other words, how do we respond? We can, of course, ask the same question about our stewardship, about our generosity of time and money both in this community of faith and in the world at large. But whether it is giving or serving, we ought to be clear about one thing: we are invited to generous lives of faith not because we think we can earn this forgiveness; indeed, the reality is the exact opposite. We have done nothing to earn it at all! And so, our lives become gratitude writ large. We become the body of Christ, the connective tissue of grace, in all that we have and with all that we are.

My friends, these stories of Scripture, these stories of God at work in our lives, are so much more than stories. They are, as the store’s sign says, precious gifts. May we share them, with joy, to the whole world!