Famous Last Words, II: Occupy My House
Then the thief said,
'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.'
Jesus replied, 'Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'
“Come to me?” I do not know you—
Where may be your house?
“I am Jesus—Late of Judea—
Wagons—have you—to convey me?
It is far from Thence—
“Arms of Mine—sufficient Phaeton—
I am spotted—“I am Pardon”—
I am small—“The Least
Is esteemed in heaven the Chiefest—
Occupy my House.”
—Emily Dickinson, #964
At the seminary which attempted, with only modest success, to educate me, the Professor of Philosophy was a fiercely smart guy named Diogenes Allen. Diogenes Allen held the Stuart Chair of Philosophical Theology at Princeton Seminary for 21 years.
I always suspected that little Diogenes’ name thrust upon him an inescapable destiny at a very young age. I mean, how can you play shortstop for the Chicago Cubs with a name like Diogenes? You absolutely have to be a philosopher.
I’ve always remembered the question he asked in regard to Jesus’ second word from the cross: “Which kind of thief are you?” It’s a penetrating interrogation and at first hearing a little blunt and censorious. But let me pose it anyway.
According to Luke, Jesus was crucified between two thieves, one on his right and one on his left. One of the thieves joins the taunts of other onlookers and mocks the crucified Messiah: “Hah! Some Savior you are! You run around the countryside curing hangnails and acne but when we really need a miracle, what good are ya? Get us the hell out of here!”
But the other thief, perhaps recognizing for the first time where that kind of insolence had landed both of them, tells his mafioso buddy to shut up. “Yo, Bro! Put a lid on it. We’re getting exactly what we deserve, but this man, what has he ever done, but love and love and love.” And then, turning to Jesus, he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Who knows what motivated this last-minute attitude adjustment? A lot of these death-bed confessions seem a little suspicious, you know, as if the dying man were determined to have all the fun in this life and yet somehow by the skin of his teeth enjoy the felicity of the next as well, sort of like going for a joy ride on a runaway lifestyle in a red, two-seater Mercedes convertible and then jumping out at the last minute just as it flies out over the cliff, as if Thelma and Louise thought better of it at the last instant and jumped out of their convertible just in time.
Perhaps his little confession to Jesus was mercenary through and through, a last-ditch effort to jump from hell into heaven.
Whatever the motivation, Jesus doesn’t care, and simply accepts it as sincere, and who knows, maybe it was. Luke doesn’t tell us, and Jesus doesn’t care. All you’ve got to do is know who you are, what got you there, and where to find help. “Today,” says Jesus, “in just a little while, before the sun sets, you will be with me in Paradise.” Paradise—an old Persian word the Old Testament uses to describe the Garden of Eden.
So there they are, the two thieves—one a sneering knave to the end, and the other a penitent child of God at the last minute.
But they’re both thieves. Golgotha is not peopled with saints and convicts; there are only crooks there, and a Savior. We’re all in this together. There’s only one distinction: are you blind to who you are, or do you know?
It’s so hard to face the truth about ourselves. A ten-year-old boy knocked on his neighbor’s front door. When the man answered it, the boy said, “Mr. Fulton, there’s something that belongs to me in your garage, and I want it back.”
When Mr. Fulton goes out to the garage and opens the door, he instantly notices two things: there is a baseball on the floor of the garage, and a baseball-sized hole in the garage window. He asks, “So, Tommy, how do you think this baseball got in my garage? Tommy looks at the baseball, and then he looks at the hole in the window, and then he looks at Mr. Fulton, and his eyes get really wide, and he says, “Wow, I must have thrown that baseball right through that hole!” It’s hard to face the truth about ourselves.
Now, most of us, maybe all of us, are pretty hard-working, conscientious, compliant, law-abiding citizens. We try to be kind. We do our best. We’re embarrassed to get a parking ticket. Perhaps you have never shoplifted so much as a pack of gum from the local 7-11, and have been always faithful to your spouse, and never cheated on an exam at school, and never claimed the TV in your den as a business expense with the IRS.
But just because we haven’t committed any felonies doesn’t mean we don’t share the human condition. We all fall far short of God’s exacting intention for our lives. My daughter didn’t really walk until she was five. From the day she stood up on her own two feet till the day she walked into kindergarten, she hopped and skipped everywhere. It was kind of disturbing. One time I said, “Would you stop bouncing off the walls like a crazy person?” She burst into tears. I didn’t mean it, but I said it.
A friend of mine said to his 14-year-old son whose first girlfriend had just broken up with him, “You’ll get over it; it was just puppy love.” Before the words were out of his mouth, he was punished with regret.
Have you ever verbally scoffed at a young colleague’s far-fetched idea at work? “That’ll never work.” I don’t know about you, but I have larcened laughter and shoplifted joy and trampled on the self-confidence of another.
At Calvary, you don’t find any saints, just two thieves and a Savior. We’re all in this together. Are you blind, or do you know?
My church in Connecticut is 36 miles from the World Trade Center, and 44 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, so my two most vivid memories of my time with that church are from September 11, 2001, and December 14, 2012. My own congregation was completely untouched by both events, at least directly, but everybody in my congregation knew somebody who died on 9/11. Both of those events were seared into our memory.
Do you remember the nation’s resolve after Sandy Hook? In the five years since then, there have been 239 school shootings. In five years, 438 children and adults have been shot, and 139 have died.
It was months ago when I decided to preach this sermon series and talk about this word of Jesus from the cross on the First Sunday of Lent, long before I knew two violent, almost unimaginable brigands would be all over the news media this week. I can’t even speak their names, but I’m thinking of Commander Bauer’s killer in Chicago and that unthinkable person who took all those beautiful lives in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day, of all days. I don’t know if that coincidence is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s certainly a challenging thing, to think about how broad God’s mercy stretches in the presence of such titanic malice.
Well, enough of all that gloom and doom. Let me end with some good news from our glad God. Emily Dickinson had a checkered relationship with God. She strove mightily to believe, but firm and certain faith eluded her.
Her family were all pious Calvinists. They attended the First Congregational Church in Amherst every Sunday and prayed and read the Bible as a family in their parlor every day. Emily had many minister friends—she may even have been in love with one—and she was intimately, uncommonly familiar with scripture. Allusions, quotes, and references are all through her poetry.
But she never joined the church and stopped attending at some point in her life. “Some keep the Sabbath going to church,” she famously wrote, “I keep it staying home.” All this made her feel like an outsider among her family and friends and in the village of Amherst. She couldn’t figure out how they found it so easy to believe. Here and there in her poetry and letters, she seems almost terrified that she would be left out of the embrace of God’s grace.
And I love this little poem that I’ve printed in your bulletin. She calls it simply “A Dialogue.” Her vocabulary is obscure, and her syntax broken, but the idea of the poem is simple. In her imagination, or in a dream, or in a vision, she encounters a rustic Galilean in rough carpenter clothes.
He says to her, “Come to me.” She responds, “I do not know you. Where may be your house?” He says, “I am Jesus—Late of Judea—Now of Paradise.” “Wagons have you to convey me?” she asks. “It is far from thence.” He says, “Rest back into my strength.”
She protests, “I am spotted.” He says, “I am Pardon.” She protests again, “I am small.” And then he says, “The least is esteemed in heaven the Chiefest. Occupy my house.” Almost the same words he spoke to the thief on the cross. Occupy my house.
Someone here wonders if God’s love is bigger than her doubt. Someone here wonders if there even IS a God. Someone here wonders if he will be ultimately numbered among God’s children.
Well, the truth is: God’s love is thicker, God’s grace is broader, and God’s mercy is stronger, than all our flaws and fumblings and failures. That’s the entire New Testament in a single last word from the cross.
Bruce Radmonski, Reader’s Digest, January, 2004, p. 40.
Statistics compiled by Gun Violence Archive, cited by Jugal K. Patel, “After Sandy Hook, More Than 400 People Have Been Shot in Over 200 School Shootings,” The New York Times, February 15, 2018.
Emily Dickinson, “Unto Me?”, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little Brown, this poem published c. 1864), #964.