Lent Wednesday 2 Luke 23:39-43 Revelation 5:1-10
Our theme for the Wednesdays throughout Lent is seeing God in the unexpected places. To that end, I give you this story:
Once upon a time, there was a little town not too far from here with people who were not too different from us called Sunny Forest. Sunny Forest was a very nice place to live, with very nice people. They even had a sign that said, “Welcome to Sunny Forest, a very nice place to be.”
All the people in Sunny Forest got along very well and life was very good there. However, there was this one growing problem—trash. You see everyone in Sunny Forest liked to keep a very neat and clean house, so at first, people started putting their garbage in boxes. They stored these boxes in their garages and attics. Then, when these places started getting full, the garbage began to pile up in their back yards. After a while, the very nice town of Sunny Forest began to have a very bad smell!
This simply would not do! Something must be done! Such a very nice place needed some way to fix the problem and very quickly! So all the townspeople of Sunny Forest got together and decided they needed to have a Mayor. They elected the smartest, bravest and wisest person in Sunny Forest and put him to the task. However, it seemed to be a very difficult problem to resolve.
Laws were passed forbidding people from creating more garbage, but that didn’t work. Burning/Burying Programs were instituted but they didn’t work either—the smell was even worse! All the citizens of Sunny Forest were getting very angry with the Mayor. Why oh why won’t he save us from drowning in all this garbage?
Then one day, the very nice Mrs Smith saw what looked like a homeless man PICKING UP TRASH. He was, of course, on the OTHER side of the train tracks, but it was quite amazing! Someone—one of those people—had left a bag of garbage on the side of the road and this man picked it up, put it in a cart and took it away. Hmmm, the very nice Mrs Smith thought to herself, I wonder what would happen if I put some of my garbage beside the road. So, early that next morning, she filled a big bag with lots of her very smelly garbage, put it beside the road and went back inside to watch and see what happened. Sure enough, the same man came by, picked up her bag and put it in his cart! Miracle of miracles!
He was a strange looking man. Very disheveled, very dirty and dark and covered in very strange tattoos. Mrs Smith thought that she could even smell him over the stinking garbage left in her back yard. Well, what would you expect, she thought, clearly he is from the OTHER side of the train tracks, probably homeless and he is messing around with garbage. Pew. Of course he’d be very smelly.
Soon, word began to spread and everyone would put their garbage in great big bags beside the road and the man would come by, put it in his cart and take it away. It was quite amazing. No one knew what happened with the garbage and, frankly, no one really cared. Sunny Forest was back to being a very nice place to be, plus there were more important things to worry about now. For a long time Sunny Forest had been in competition with Dillsboro for the title of Nicest Town in the County, and that certainly took precedence over worrying about anything else. The Mayor had things under control. He was such a good Mayor and really took care of the very nice town of Sunny Forest.
Every day, the garbage man came by, picked up everyone else’s garbage, put it in his cart and rolled it away, down the road, across the tracks, out of town and up into the hills on an old country road. People pretty much stayed clear of the garbage man. After all, he did smell, he was dirty and, with all those tattoos, he was very strange. He would sometimes wave at people, and always seemed very friendly, but really, who wants to associate with a garbage man? After all, this was a very nice town with very nice people.
One day, after the people of Sunny Forest had put their garbage beside the road, the garbage man did not come by with his cart to pick it up. Well, people thought, perhaps he was sick. Then one day turned into two and three and four. Finally, some of the townspeople decided to go investigate and see when the garbage man would get back to work. So off they went, down the road, across the tracks, out of town and up into the hills on the old country road. After a while, they knew they were going the right direction because they began to see pieces of trash beside the road. More and more as they went. When they finally turned a very sharp corner and headed down into a very shadowy valley, they were completely shocked by the site in front of them.
The valley was full of garbage! Bags and boxes. Smelly and dirty. Everywhere they looked there was garbage. In the very center of the very smelly valley was an old house and outside the house was a very large mountain of garbage. The townspeople braved the stench and headed down into the valley and as they got closer, they realized there was someone partially buried in that huge pile of garbage! Looking closely, they recognized the dirty, tattooed body of the garbage man. Oh my, the townspeople all said, he took all our garbage home with him! It was the first time some of them had ever been up close to the garbage man and one of them pointed to his tattooed hand and said Look!
On the palms of his very dirty, very calloused, very scarred hands were the words: I Love You.
Our God is a God of surprises and mysteries. Our God does not always do things the way we expect him to. I remember as a child seeing a beautiful painting of a lion, sitting regally at the edge of a valley, paws crossed, proud and royal look on his face. The title of the painting was “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah”. But there was a lamb in that painting as well. It wasn’t like the paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom, where there are lions who lay down with lambs in peace. This lamb had a bloody side wound. This lamb laid beside the great kingly lion as though it were nearly dead. I thought the lion was so beautiful and I really wished that lamb wasn’t there. It was so hard to look at and it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
That painting was an illustration from our reading from Revelation. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah; the descendent of King David who was to be the King of Israel, and the pure Lamb of God; the one who had been slain and who was worthy to do the work of God that would save the world and rid it of evil once and for all. The painting was, symbolically, of Jesus, who is both this lion and this lamb. He is the King of Israel, the king of kings, the ruler of the universe, but he is also the lamb. The sinless, innocent lamb.
When the three men were crucified on that hill—a garbage heap outside of town—one of them looks at Jesus and says what so many people wanted to say. You’re not the king we wanted. You’re not able to save us. You can’t even save yourself. But the other man, for some reason, says something completely different. The other man asks Jesus to save him. And Jesus, this defeated king, this failed hero, declares to him: today, you will be with me in paradise.
In the scene depicted in Revelation, we hear a new song sung to the lamb. “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation”. It is like another hymn taken from scripture that we sing every Sunday. “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.”
It was not Jesus’ kingship that saved that second thief on the cross; that saves all of us. It is not Jesus’ authority, strength and power alone, which he does have in abundance, but his weakness, his pure and sinlessness that saves. “This man has done nothing wrong” the thief says about Jesus, and that is where his real power lies. He was innocent but died anyway so that those of us who are guilty may live. And on the scarred, calloused palms of his hands, we see the wounds that say: I Love You.
This story owes a debt of gratitude to Fr. Edward Hays who has written many a story and parable. I cannot remember which of his books contains the story of the garbage man, but his first and most memorable book for me is