I recently had a conversation with a professor about current events. He told me he had read a story about a neighborhood in another county here in Georgia having an argument about schools. There’s no school in the proximity of this relatively new neighborhood. The children who live here have to be bused to a school in a neighborhood across town. This has become a news worthy issue because the school the children are being bused to has seen a decline in the quality of life there. That neighborhood has experienced a transition along economic lines. With that, crime, drugs, and other bad influences have slowly become present at the school. The parents of the children being bused in are concerned about these influences and have banded together to decide whether or not to force the county to build a school in their own neighborhood, thus avoid the bad influences of the current school their kids attend.
I’m not a parent yet but I know enough parents to know this is a reality of life when you have kids. There’s so many bad things out there, we do all we can to help our kids avoid the wrong people thereby avoiding a negative influence in their lives. We try to keep them from friends who might be bad influences on them. For me, his name was Patrick. Patrick was a friend I had growing up who had two older brothers. The end of our friendship came the day I came home from school cursing like a sailor and using all the new words Patrick taught me. My mother was very mad and informed me I was not to hang out with Patrick anymore.
We try to not only keep our kids from negative influences in life; we work hard to introduce them to positive ones as well. In the church we face the pressure of needing to have quality children and youth programs because parents need a place to send their kids to encounter good influences. In the end, we want to not only help our kids avoid the wrong people in life; we want them to encounter the right ones along the way as well.
But it’s more than just our kids who are caught in the tug-o-war between the right and wrong people of life. Maybe it’s in high school or college where we learn that knowing the right people in life will get us ahead. This doesn’t mean we can’t be friends with all people. It simply means that it’s nice when friendships can benefit us in additional ways. Again, this is not a bad thing. If you have any drive or ambition in life you know it’s important that you surround yourself with the right people. I once read an article from a former insider of the Reagan Administration. When asked what President Reagan’s strengths were he noted that among his greatest was, “knowing who to surround himself with and when to do it.” Life just works more smoothly when we’re savvy enough to know how to hang out with the right people. On the flip side, we avoid a great deal of stress and temptation if we know how to avoid the wrong people in life.
Luke’s Gospel portrays an account of Jesus that’s a little different from this reasonable way of life we live. Luke hints at this early on in his account of Jesus as he worships in the synagogue on the Sabbath-something any good Jew would do. He gathers that day with friends and family and probably many of the right people of his society. There he is given the scroll of Isaiah, and he begins to read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Well it’s no wonder they drove him out of that place! What kind of nut preacher would stand in the place of worship and align themselves with the poor, the oppressed, the criminals, and the disabled in their very first sermon in a new place? I think sometimes if Jesus had the benefit of a good, solid seminary education, he would know you couldn’t be that radical so early in his ministry. There’s protocol to be observed. Sure we can minister to these folks, but where does that leave the good people of our congregation now? No, if Jesus had the benefit of a seminary education he would know that effective ministry begins by building a church of the “right” people and then you work to minister to those others.
Luke doesn’t stop there. If we read throughout his Gospel account we find that Jesus does indeed heal the sick and bless the poor as he promised. He had a knack of hanging out with all the wrong people. And his odd judgment of company he keeps doesn’t seem to have any regard for race (Good Samaritan), gender (he has female disciples and ministers to women), age (blesses little children) or even socio-economic status.
Remember that despite his particular word about the poor, Jesus takes the time to dine with Zaccheus-the rich tax collector who had swindled many out of their life savings. That’s a hard pill to swallow these days too. It’s as though he went to have dinner with the CEO of Enron or Lehman Brothers. This means he was willing to hang out even with a man who made his riches on the backs of those he swindled. Some probably lost their savings to this crook. And yet, Luke tells us that Jesus declares this crook is a child of God in spite of it all. Jesus really seemed to have a knack for hanging out with all of the wrong people in life.
As the Church, we struggle with this because we’re called to do much of the same ill advised way of living. We’re called to keep similar company as Jesus even when it makes no sense or is too uncomfortable for words.
Bishop Will Willimon tells the story of a pastor in his conference who had an interesting first few months of ministry. She was appointed to her new church and found a wonderful congregation of 10-15 people who worshipped together. She made up her mind early on that she worked much too hard on her sermons to have only 10-15 people come to worship. She asked someone about why the congregation was so small. One man told her very quickly, “no one is left-everyone has moved away and there’s no one left around us.” This puzzled the pastor so she decided to go driving around the area nearby. She found that across the railroad tracks there was a housing complex where probably 30 families or more lived in various apartments. She decided to go over there one day and tell them that if they would be outside on Sunday morning, she’d pick them up, take them to church, and then feed them a good lunch after. Willimon asked, “Did anyone show up?” “Oh they showed up all right. I picked up 3 carloads of folks and took them to church that next week. We’ve since added 10 to our roll and we’ll baptize 4 more this next Sunday.” Willimon said he was astounded. He told her that she should win the Denman Evangelism award. She just doubled her church size! She said, “Well, not so fast. I added 10 to our roll but I lost 8. I asked them why they wanted to leave. All they could tell me was that they didn’t feel comfortable going to church with a bunch of crack heads and their kids.”
Yes, Jesus has a knack for hanging out with all the wrong people sometimes. It’s not easy being the church when it means we’re called to get out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s not easy being the church when, frankly, life is much easier and often more pleasurable if we just avoid the wrong kind of folks when we can. Ministering outside of our comfort zones causes things to get sticky. They get complicated. Issues arise and we’re put in the place of having to make tough decisions about where to go and who to minister to. Yeah, life would be so much easier if we could carry on just as we are.
That brings us to our text for today. Isn’t it odd that here again we find Jesus doing the very thing he did so often in his ministry-he’s hanging out with the wrong people. Only this time, he’s literally hanging there-with two criminals-the wrong people. One criminal looks to Jesus in his time of need and asks to be remembered when he comes into his kingdom. And just as he did so many other times in his life, here in his final moments of life as he faces death, Jesus speaks a word of grace, and offers salvation. But it’s not to those in this scene we might see as the “right” people of the world. It’s to a criminal. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” And here we’re able catch a glimpse of a king with a very strange idea of what it means to build a Kingdom. His is a kingdom that is so deep and wide, it’s one where the poor and the disabled, the captive and the swindler and the crook and…it’s a kingdom that has a special place for all the wrong people-even us! Amen.