Friday, April 3, 2015

God Is Never Done with Us

This is what I preached on the second word for a 7 Last Words Service at Clarks United Methodist Church. Eight United Methodist Churches (with 7 pastors) came together to remember the crucifixion: Cokesbury Memorial, Presbury, Union, Salem, New Beginnings, Union Chapel, Clarks, and New Hope Christian Fellowship UMCs. 

Scripture: Luke 23:32-33,39-43 (NRSV)
Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Jesus. When 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.

Photo by Aaron Harrington, 2015
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 

He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Let us pray:
Even on the cross, you show yourself to be our patient teacher. In the midst of ridicule and torture, you offer words of hope to another who was in need. In the midst of real human ugliness, you speak of paradise. So even in the midst of the stresses in our own lives, the grief, the fear, may you speak to us again of paradise through the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, and help us to call out to you in search of your kingdom. Amen.

Last month, some of my friends and clergy colleagues began circulating a petition with the hashtag #kellyonmymind. Kelly Gissendaner, Georgia's only female death row inmate, was scheduled to be executed on March 2. The execution was first postponed because of snow, and then because of cloudy drugs, almost as though some Georgia state officials were just looking for reasons not to execute her. Yet the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles who can actually grant her clemency has no interest in doing so, despite the prayer vigils and demonstrations and phone calls.

You see, Kelly readily admits that the act that put her on death row was heinous. As she has said in a much-quoted clemency petition:
There are no excuses for what I did. I am fully responsible for my role in my husband’s murder. I had become so self-centered and bitter about my life and who I had become, that I lost all judgment. I will never understand how I let myself fall into such evil...
And we know from Georgia's actions in 2011, that even in the face of evidence of a wrong conviction, which Kelly admits hers was not, the state has no qualms about executing people. Troy Davis was executed in spite of pleas for clemency around the world and continued maintenance of his innocence.

Kelly is not innocent. But her story has garnered so much attention because of the repentance at the heart of her story. Kelly has transformed completely, from this self-centered and bitter person to a redeemed and renewed child of God. Testimony after testimony of guards, inmates, and theology students who studied alongside Kelly speak to her transformed life.

So when I imagined the criminal beside Jesus, I imagined Kelly. I imagined the injustice of the Roman death penalty much like the injustice of the death penalty in Georgia. I imagined the wailing of the women following the cross to sound like the wailing of those who have called for life for their friends like Troy and Kelly. And in my imagining I knew that God's justice and mercy are nothing like Georgia's. And nothing like ours.

Now, I do want to point out that nothing in this scripture indicates that the criminal in Luke's gospel repented. We often refer to him as the repentant criminal, but he never asks forgiveness for what he has done. He doesn't express remorse. He doesn't say the sinner's prayer or confess Jesus as his savior. We can assume, given what we know of Rome historically, that the criminal was a political one, a revolutionary, but we do not know for sure. Luke's description of the criminal gives us absolutely nothing in the language of today's traditional understandings of salvation with which to explain what this man did to merit paradise. But what Luke does show us in this encounter between Jesus and the criminal is that God's justice and mercy, God's saving work, are not limited like our understandings of them are.

God is never done with us. God can work with whatever we give, no matter how small. God does not give up on us. When Kelly was coldly planning her husband's murder, God did not give up on her. When her husband was murdered and Kelly planned to get his insurance money, God did not give up on her. When Kelly was sentenced to death by human courts, still God did not give up on her. And finally, she realized that. And she accepted God's love for her.

Now, you might agree with me that God does not give up on us, but you may disagree that the criminal crucified alongside Jesus did nothing to accept Jesus. He might not have confessed Jesus as Lord, but he did reach out. He stood up for Jesus against the derision of the other criminal. He admits his guilt, though he does not go into detail. And then he addresses Jesus. He asks Jesus to remember him. It may not be what we expect, but what Jesus' response shows us is that it is enough. God's saving power is enough.

So when we start to forget that God's saving power is enough, whether because we have given up on ourselves or whether because we have promoted ourselves as gatekeepers for who can and cannot be admitted into Paradise, Jesus reminds us from the cross "how deep the Father's love is for us." "How vast beyond measure," it is. As Kelly writes, "I have learned first-hand that no one, not even me, is beyond redemption through God’s grace and mercy. I have learned to place my hope in the God I now know, the God whose plans and promises are made known to me in the whole story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus."

Here we find ourselves on Good Friday, men hanging from crosses, the fear clinging around them as though it was fog. It was an evil place, soaked in the blood of so many. But even there, no one was was beyond redemption. Even there God's saving power was enough. "Jesus, remember me," one criminal said, finding it more difficult to speak as he was painfully, slowly robbed of his breath. And Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be wth me in Paradise." You, even you, will be with me. For God is never done with us. 

References Read in preparation for the sermon: