"One of the Criminals"-Sermon for Palm Sunday, Luke 23:1-49
I am long-time fan of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. both his fiction and essays. Ashely and I actually have a screen print of Vonnegut by Tim Doyle hanging in our bedroom with a quote on it that is addressed to babies…so I will dedicate this to our own newest baby, Rosie McManus-Dail, and it reads, “Hello babies welcome to earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside babies you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule I know of, babies—[gosh darnet] you’ve got to be kind.” Now, I am certain spurred on, in part, by the great global challenges we have and continue to face as a world, as a community, and as individuals…but I have been thinking a lot over the past couple of years about the importance and the various attributes of…kindness. Kindness is, in my mind, not simply a matter of sentimentality. Franklin Roosevelt, a fellow Episcopalian…though of course better known as a former president…once said, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people.” And the death we remember today, Jesus’ own death, was, indeed, the supreme act of kindness and is intended to set us free. Free from the shackles of sin, evil and death. Free to, instead, be…to choose to be the fully alive, life-giving, love-spreading, kind-hearted people that we were created from before time and forever to be.
Now, no offence to the late, great Janis Joplin, but freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose. I think of freedom as the individual agency, the God-given ability for each of us to always choose…whenever and wherever it is required of us…the freedom to choose to lose, not nothing, but everything for the life of the world…like Jesus on the cross. For Jesus, the freest human to ever walk on this earth, chose to use his freedom to first suffer and die on the hard wood of the violent cross, to give up everything even his very life, before entering into his glory. And Jesus makes this choice, clearly not for comfort or personal gain, but out of the kindness of his heart…emptying himself of all power…that in the supremely kind choice to give up of his life to the brutality of this world…God might act…God might act to defeat for all time and for each of us…all that seeks to hold us back from living the very life we were created to live. For absent from the power of sin and self-centeredness, absent from the fear of death’s strong hold, both of which Jesus defeats on the cross, we are now free…free to choose selflessness, free to choose compassion and empathy, free to choose kindness with and for each other.
Thus, if we want to honor Jesus’ sacrifice and death that we so personally and so sorrowfully feel today…if we want Jesus’ death to mean something…to affect us…to transform us…to matter to us…and through us…to continue to make a difference in our world…to bring light into our world…to better the lives of those entrusted to our care…if we want Jesus’ free and most kind choice to sacrifice it all, to give it all up, if we want that choice to continue to be a present reality in the present moment…we must name and acknowledge the freedom that such kindness, such all-consuming love has granted us…the freedom to today, tomorrow and each that follows throw off the chains of sin and fear of death…for in cross and resurrection they have no power over us…and chose, instead, to freely extend, without fear any consequence, the same all-consuming love and kindness to each other and to all those who need to experience more kindness. For if I am sure of anything…it is that our world desperately needs more kindness. And, each and every time we offer kindness to another, Jesus’ own kindness, that is his choice to suffer death on the cross, is more than just honored…it comes alive…it continues to transform the world back into something that more closely resembles Eden…which I like to remind us is a word that means delight. And such delightful moments of kindness that we offer one to another, following in Jesus’ own footsteps, is nothing less than the hope of the world.
And, in addition to, the world altering kindness Jesus demonstrates as he goes to and suffers death on the cross, there are other moments of kindness that we witness in Jesus’ passion. There is his mother and his other loved ones who stay close to him through all of his suffering so that, as he dies, he does so surrounded by love. In John’s gospel, there is Simon who helps carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha…kindly sharing Jesus’ back breaking burden…and there are other examples of kindness as well. For kindness is often found and perhaps most clearly seen in times of great suffering, pain, loss, and injustice. And, such kindness is so clearly seen in such moments, because it so clearly stands in opposition to and condemnation of the evil that is so often perpetrated by the hands of humans. And, in such contrast, the light of kindness in the midst of such darkness…lies hope…and always gives God the space to act.
And one of these moments of kindness that is particular to Luke’s telling of Jesus’ passion, which we read together today, is the kindness shown, by of all people, one of the two criminals who Jesus is crucified alongside. As I am sure you recall, there is the first criminal…the one who mocks Jesus, sarcastically suggesting that if he is who he says that he is, God’s own Messiah, that he should save himself and them while he is at it…not really believing Jesus actually could. Instead, perhaps just trying to ameliorate some of his own pain by kicking someone else while they are down in a twisted sense of logic. I know we all have experienced that suffering has the tendency to bring out the very best and the very worst in others and even in us.
But, there is the still the second criminal, the one who indeed shows kindness. It is a very sweet moment really. Of course, this criminal is also mightily suffering…hanging and dying on a cross. Thus, he has very little to offer Jesus. But, he does have his words. And, let us not forget that words are very powerful. Most of the kindness I have been blessed to experience in my life where formed from other’s words. Words of encouragement like the regular texts I would receive from our two Bishop’s Wardens at St. Julian’s who served us during the heart of the pandemic, Bea Smith and Nancy Dolan, who would just send the occasional text to make sure I was doing alright and expressing gratitude for the job I was doing leading us as lovingly as I could through those difficult days…such kindness was balm for my soul…wind for my sails…kept me buoyed up in difficult days…their kind words literally meant the world to me. And, I could give you hundreds of similar examples…the words of kindness I have experienced…that have brought hope, love and light into my life…and so many from all of you…they have been life-giving…dare I say even lifesaving.
So, setting aside what choices led this second criminal to his cross, he speaks words of kindness. He says first to his fellow criminal, “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 says to Jesus, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Here is a man, who in his time of great suffering, brings forth his very best…all he has left…words of kindness. And they are words that might even inspire the kind words we choose to use with one another. For, he stands up for one who is being abused, and there is perhaps nothing more kind that stepping in and standing up on behalf of someone who is being abused. He humbly recognizes that he’s no better than others suffering a similar fate to his own…recognizing that by the grace of God go we all…and it is kind, indeed, when someone normalizes our sense of weakness and fragility. He names out loud that a person is being treated unfairly…for Jesus is indeed innocent…and it is such a gift of kindness when someone names for us and to us when we are being treated unfairly. And, though he asks for something, his request is only to be with Jesus…and when someone cares enough for me to ask to be with me…that desire to be together is a great expression of kindness. And, as is always true with the choice to be kind to another, this man is the beneficiary of own blessing…for Jesus grants his request…to be with him in the place to which he goes…to Eden…to delight…to paradise itself. For the choice to be kind is never a wasteful act…in fact…like Jesus’ kind choice to go to the cross for us…kindness always gives God the space to act…and, thus, both the giver and the receiver of such kindness are always both blessed.
Friends, kindness is not a little thing. Whether random or long-planned, there is no such thing as a small act of kindness. They all matter. They all produce a butterfly effect…making a difference down the road or in another place and time that we cannot be aware of in the moment we freely choose kindness…for they all allow God to act…in, through and even beyond us. If there is, again, anything, anything our world needs more of it is kindness. Kindness heals. Kindness empowers. Kindness saves lives. Kindness can change a person’s life. Kindness gets us through the day. Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “Do your little bit of [kindness] where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
Jesus’ supremely kind choice to go to the cross sets us free from the power of sin and death, sets us free from anything that might hold us back from, like him, choosing kindness, even in our own times of suffering...or celebration. When we use the freedom God gives us to choose kindness, we honor Jesus’ death that we remember today. Kindness, in small and large ways, brings the power of love overcoming death…that is the power of Jesus’ cross…into the present. Kindness, the little acts and the big, fuel hope, especially when the darkness seeks to overwhelm. Thus, as I began, there is only one rule I know of babies…you got to be kind. Amen.