Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus* there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ 34Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]]* And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah* of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him,* ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding* him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah?* Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into* your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
26 ‘So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.* 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
At some point in our friendship, B gave me a plaque that says:
“People who need loving the most are those who deserve it the least.”
It’s a gift I really appreciated and kept on a bookshelf in my church office where I could see it all the time. For a pastor, that is a really good quote to hold onto, because church life often hands us people who are hard to love.
And yet it is somehow true that those hard to love people sometimes need our time, attention, and prayers most.
We do our best.
But B was not one of those hard-to-love people, at least not for me. As a pastor, I appreciated his humor and his encouragement.
It was always a genuine joy to visit with B. He’d make a pot of coffee and I’d bring the good donuts. We’d spend a couple hours talking about life and cats and children, all the while watching car shows and old westerns. Spending time with B and his beloved cat was always time well spent.
And of course, it wasn’t always donuts and laughter.
There were hard times for B. He worried a lot about many things. He would talk and I would listen.
The long illness and death of his daughter hit B hard. Nothing is worse, I think, than not being able to save your own child.
He had some scary hospital stays that seemed to be his end. But it wasn’t.
He worried about money. He worried about his family. He dealt with significant pain and the slow, steady progress of aging and illness.
And every once in a while, B would talk about his wife’s illness and death. When he talked about her, B’s eyes would become a little less mischievous and turn misty and damp. He missed her so much.
And yet, there was always laughter. The one liners. The horrible puns. The marginally offensive joke. Lots of goofing over coffee and donuts, and occasionally over an ice cold beer and some pizza. All of this was B.
And every time B left phone messages, there would be his unmistakable voice: “And how’s my favorite little pastor today?” I will always carry with me the memory of that voice in my heart, because it will not only remind me of B, but also of who I am on those days when it’s hard to be anyone’s pastor.
It was not difficult to love B.
And yet I always sensed that B had a hard time believing he was lovable.
There was a sadness always beneath the surface of our conversations which would make me feel sad as well. We didn’t talk too much about B’s regrets in life, but I knew he had them.
And the reason I knew about B’s regrets is the simple fact that everyone has regrets. We all regret something about our lives. We all carry that heavy load of remorse with us.
That unkind word we wish we could take back.
That poor decision that we wish could reverse.
The road not taken. Or the road taken that we would have been better off avoiding completely.
And always, always the very human feeling that we have not loved enough or loved well enough, and that we’ve left too much hurt in our wake.
I loved B, and I know you all loved B. But I wish B had loved himself as deeply and truly as Jesus loves every single one of us.
I wish B had known and valued himself as completely as God knows and values every single one of us.
I wish B had forgiven himself as Jesus forgives us all. Jesus forgives our regrets, mistakes, and deep hurts.
In the scripture I just read, one of the criminals hanging on a cross next to the cross of Jesus turns to him and says: Please remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And what does Jesus say to this ordinary man who is physically suffering and spiritually hurting, perhaps remembering people he had hurt and the regrets of his life?
What does Jesus do?
Jesus makes a promise to the criminal.
Jesus promises the man that he will not be abandoned or left alone to die, but will be loved and cared for in this moment and through all eternity. Jesus says: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Truly, brothers and sisters, I stand on this promise of Jesus and say to you with confidence and joy that B is in Paradise, wherever that may be. Because I believe Paradise is not a place, but a sacred promise that our lives after death are held tightly by the One who has defeated death forever.
Earlier in his life, Jesus looked upon a group of frightened people who wondered if their lives mattered at all. After all, the world told them all the time that because they are poor and wretched, their lives are worth nothing. Less than nothing.
And Jesus made a promise to them. He said, every single person who hears my voice matters. You have more value to God than you can even imagine. Jesus told them to not be afraid and to remember:
29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Truly, brothers and sisters, I stand on the promise of Jesus and say to you with confidence and joy that B lived his whole life as a valued and beloved child of God. And in death, B was caught and claimed and redeemed by God who loves each tiny sparrow and every flawed human being, and knows each one of us intimately, by name, because God knew and loved us long before we were born.
Each one of us. We are loved. We are forgiven. We have immeasurable value in the Kingdom of God because we have been adopted as God’s own children.
We are deserving of love not because of who we are or anything we’ve done or left undone but because of who God is – merciful and kind, slow to anger and quick to steadfast love.
Perhaps in looking into the face of the suffering Christ on a cross, the thief saw the truth of a God who is with us in all that is good and all that is hard in our lives.
Perhaps that is why B stayed connected to a community of faith and to his favorite little pastor. Perhaps what B saw in all of us was the face of Christ himself and a promise that he would be always be remembered in this life and the next.
A writer talks about remembrance this way:
“When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.
For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost. When I’m feeling most ghostlike, it’s your remembering me that helps remind me that I actually exist. When I’m feeling sad, it’s my consolation. When I’m feeling happy, it’s part of why I feel that way.
If you forget me, one of the ways I remember who I am will be gone. If you forget me, part of who I am will be gone.” (Frederick Buechner)
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the good thief said from his cross (Luke 23:42). There are perhaps no more human words in all of Scripture, no prayer we can pray so well on this day.