Luke 23: 32-43
MEMORIAL SERMON FOR THE MICHIGAN AREA
Detroit Annual Conference – May 19, 2012
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
This man is dying and knows it. His last day is down to hours if not 60 minutes. Midnight draweth nigh. Yet, pain of body, leaving family behind, an outdated will or living trust, differences with his partner, sullied reputation and impending death do not immobilize the dying thief. Perhaps, his dire circumstances move him to do what he never contemplated, never had the nerve or the opportunity to do before, i.e., speak directly to Jesus. In the spirit of James 4:2, this man turns to Jesus on his dying day uttering these famous last words, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” And our Lord responds, "Today, you shall be with me in paradise." Given the thief's apparent fate, Christ snatches "victory from the jaws of defeat." That is my prayer and plea for all those we memorialize this sacred hour. That our Lord would remember them as he did the dying thief - that our loved ones would have "victory in Jesus."
The dying thief is like us, he wants to be remembered. Today's service is confirmation. Every year we remember and give thanks publicly for their ministry among us. Their contributions to our lives are legion. In us dwells their love of travel, fishing, books, singing and a passion for learning. In them, we behold a love of family, prayer, preaching and social justice. In this room, some of my hearers are fanatical about the Detroit Tigers, Pistons or the Lions because a loved one loved them. I know there is longstanding history and commitment for those who paint themselves blue or take the name Wolverine. Wearers of the green and white wax eloquent about the Spartans or a family legacy of attendance going back decades.
Radio, television and newspapers have capitalized on the core value of memory in a question posed to the living about dying, “How would you like to be remembered?” From the stories that follow, persons have provided a window into their mind and experience. Explained this young woman, “I want to be remembered as the girl who always smiles even when her heart is broken, and the one that could always brighten up your day even if she could not brighten her own." The late Shirley Chisholm didn't think that being memorialized as the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress or run for Presidency topped her list of personal achievements. Rather, Shirley Chisholm wanted to be remembered in history as "a catalyst for change in the 20th century." Pat Summit quit coaching women's basketball at The University of Tennessee because of the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Asked how she ought to be remembered, Summit said, "Remember, that I made a difference for my young people - that I did the best I could." At its best, remembering is relational. Remembering her father, one daughter remarked, "My father was hardly a perfect man...but we never doubted that he loved his family...He taught me how to forgive, love big and to never take life too seriously." For the rest of her life, she will be guided by the example of her father.
As we know, our Lord has his own experience with the death of a loved one. Remember, Jesus weeps buckets of tears at the grave of Lazarus. Besides his own loss, he feels the pain and loss of Mary and Martha. They hold him responsible for the untimely death of their brother. Why? Because Jesus did not come soon enough to save him. Why not? Jesus and Lazarus were best friends. Plus Mary and Martha knew he saved others; why not make haste to Bethany to save him "who he loved?” Bottom line, Mary and Martha held out hope that Jesus had not forgotten one of the tenants of human relationships. In life or in death, folk want to be remembered - especially by friends and family.
The desire to be remembered is not just a preference; it can be labeled revelation or transformational. Some of us have read the story of the man who changed his life after reading his obituary. The man was Alfred Bernard Nobel, inventor, chemist, poet, engineer, armaments manufacturer and peace advocate. However, inventing dynamite brought Alfred Nobel the greatest fame. When Alfred's brother Ludwig died in 1888, the French newspaper put his obituary there instead of brother Ludwig's. Alfred saw his obituary in the paper and was appalled. "The merchant of death is dead," it said. "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Dr. Nobel was stunned. Like the Prodigal Son coming to himself, Nobel decided that he did not want to be remembered to the world as "the merchant of death." His realization or conversion led him to new life. Seven years later, Nobel wrote a will leaving the bulk of his estate in a foundation. Since 1901, the Nobel Foundation has awarded international prizes to men and women in science, literature and peace who have contributed to the well being of the whole world. Today, Alfred Nobel is remembered as the creator of the Nobel Prizes, a great humanitarian and friend to all God's people, not the "the merchant of death."
Has this criminal begun thinking about his legacy by requesting our Lord to remember him? He does not have time or luxury to reform his life, like Alfred Nobel. But, in the final analysis, the thief does accomplish what Nobel accomplishes. How, you ask? We think of Nobel in terms of prestigious prizes. The "merchant of death" terminology vanishes. Likewise, we think very little of one thief's crimes against humanity. Or, we tend to ignore Luke 23:32, “Two others also were led away to be put to death with him.” His reputation is salvaged in Jesus' response to his question, “Today, you will be with me in paradise." In essence, he goes from a criminal status to one saved by grace, pre-venient, justifying, sanctifying or amazing grace.
When your beloved accepted a call to ministry, the ministry of all Christians or one set apart by commissioning or ordination, he/she decided how they wanted to be remembered. Recognizing that your loved one is embraced for more things than being in ministry, this service acknowledges what they gave for the cause of Christ. Our Lord needed folk to preach and teach; to baptize, marry and bury. Christ chose your loved one to share his love for the hungry and homeless; the imprisoned and the stranger, the sick and the well. Parishioners and pastors gathered in this place still remember because your loved one was there in good times and bad. Some of you might be saying, “But Bishop they were gone from home so much, sometimes too much.” All of us have fallen victim to overdoing it. I certainly have. Forgive them. If they gave themselves for the cause of Christ, and their sacrifice met the sacrificial response required of them by Christ, rejoice. Rejoice that God used them to accomplish his will on earth as in heaven.
It happened to me and my siblings. In 1970, my mother became a Black Community Developer through the General Board of Global Ministries. She loved the work. She gave it her full strength and devotion for 26 years. All of us lamented that Christ's ministry had too strong a hold on her. More importantly, we felt the church had stolen our mother away from us. Numerous attempts to interdict her work failed. So we had to live with it and accept it as best we could. We thought. We believed. We held on to the notion that she, our mother, belonged to us. Years later, all of her children came to the following conclusion. Mother's call and commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ demonstrated that she belonged to God. In that, I have learned to rejoice.
Following the Thursday night, April 26 worship service at General Conference in Tampa, a pastor from Texas asked me about my mother. He talked profusely about her impact on his life. Again the pain hit me. She is my mother, but she belongs to God. She came for God’s purpose not mine alone. When your loved one accepted the call to ministry, it shaped in part how they would be remembered beyond this life. They belong to God. Is that not our focus in this worship service? Every one of the folk honored this day receives commendation for their response to God's call. This is one way folk are remembered through Christ and his church.
Easter Sunday morning, I lay in bed and texted my District Superintendents, both Directors of Connectional Ministries, my children and my wife the following message, "Christ is risen." True to form, most of the responses came back as, "He is risen indeed." My son's text was both different and provocative. "Do you know him?" was his response to the declaration that "Christ is risen." Later, I found out that "Do You Know Him?" was the title of the Easter Sunday sermon at St. John's A.M.E. Church in Aurora, Illinois.
I did not answer my son's question. But I continue to wrestle with it in various contexts. For example, "Do You Know Him?" seems like an appropriate question for the thief on the cross. Neither the synoptic gospels nor John say much about him. If the gospel record is determinative, Jesus and the two thieves know very little about one another. They just happen to meet going through the criminal justice system of Rome. Maybe, their first encounter is on the cross. No record exists concerning place of birth or parents getting together. No healing stories, preaching or feeding stories point toward previous meetings with Christ. There are no parent narratives urging the criminals on the cross to follow Jesus. ‘Complete strangers’ may be the best description of their relationship. Nevertheless, a man who has fallen so low says to him who came from on high, "Remember me..."
Talking about a nonexistent relationship between Jesus and the criminals on the cross may go too far. The words of 1John 3:1-3 are revelatory. "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God; and that is what we are...we are God's children now (yesterday and forever), what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this; when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." In other words, the criminals are children of God, as Jesus is, as we are. They can be estranged from Jesus Christ but never strangers. They belong to God. They are children of God.
And yet, the two men respond differently to The Messiah. One thief joins the mob and the soldiers in mocking him. Unaware of his divine mission, they dare Jesus to save himself. And when he refuses, they deride for being impotent and powerless. The other thief, convicted by his own sin, and concerned about his soul's salvation, rebukes his partner by declaring the innocence of our Lord. Then, he makes a deathbed request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Take note, his words are not mere statement or request. On his deathbed, this man utters one of the most powerful sentence prayers recorded in the Bible, "Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom." The thief prays knowing that he is a child of God.
Now, at the hour of his death the man prays. First, he calls our Lord by name - Jesus. It’s like saying Savior, Deliverer or Jehovah to the man on the cross. He may not know who Jesus is by experience, but he knows him by reputation. In Galilee and Judea's, he opens the eyes of the blind, makes the lame walk and the deaf to hear. His reputation includes the healing of a bent over woman, the Gerasene Demoniac, changing water into wine and the raising of Lazarus. The dying thief believes that what Christ does for others, he will do for him. So he dares to petition Jesus as we petition, "Our Father, who art in heaven."
Second, the man addresses Jesus as one fully transparent. He is a chief among sinners and everyone knows it - including him. In rebuking his partner for joining the crowd and the soldiers in mocking our Lord, the thief confesses that he and his partner deserve the sentence of death. "We are getting what we deserve," he said, "Jesus has done nothing wrong." Perhaps, this is the first time remorse and repentance brings him to a new place. Impending death does what parental warnings, countless incarcerations, pangs of conscience could never accomplish. Here, at last, the dying thief does what we must do along the way, repent of our sins. No repentance, no forgiveness. No repentance, no leading a new life.
Third, the repentant thief knows that he deserves no mercy. But he asks our Lord to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. Why not just say, ‘remember me’ or ‘save me Jesus, save me now’ and jettison the kingdom language? He may be praying with purpose more than we know. If one looks at the naming stories of Mary's baby in Luke and Matthew, we may understand his request even more. In Luke, Mary is commanded to name her son “Jesus”. Also, she is told he will be great - that there would be “no end to his kingdom.” If the thief is familiar with this birth story, he knows that Jesus' kingdom will have no end. Would we not want to be present with one whose kingdom has no end? Of course. In the Gospel of Matthew, the angel of the Lord tells Joseph to name the baby of his pregnant wife “Jesus.” Plus, the angel reminds Joseph that their son Jesus will save the people from their sins. He is a sinner in need of salvation that desires to be with Jesus in paradise. To his utter shock and amazement our Lord gives him the best news at the hour of death, “Today, you shall be with me in paradise.” As I see it, the thief "went down to the grave with a shout."
You and I, our loved ones and those unborn serve a God who never ceases to amaze us with undeserved blessings. The prayer of the dying thief shows us that an answer to prayer is not always a drawn out, lengthy affair. Sometimes, Jesus answers in the blink of an eye, in a New York minute, faster than the speed of sound - that happened to the dying thief.
In the waning minutes of the sermon, I am going to do what the dying thief did - ask Jesus to remember your loved ones. "Jesus, remember our deceased now that you have come into your kingdom." Do it for them, Lord. Do it right now.
I ask because,
I heard an old, old story,
How a Savior came from glory,
How he gave his life on Calvary
To save a wretch like me;
I heard about His groaning,
Of his precious blood’s atoning,
Then I repented of my sins
And won the victory.
I heard about his healing,
Of his cleansing power revealing,
How he made the lame to walk again
And caused the blind to see;
And then I cried, "Dear Jesus
Come and heal my broken spirit,"
And somehow Jesus came and brought
To me the victory.
Oh victory in Jesus,
My Savior forever!
He sought me
And bought me
With his redeeming blood;
He loved me ere I knew him
And all my love is due him,
He plunged me to victory,
Beneath the cleansing flood.
In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen.