Make Paradise Happen

Lk 23:35-43

There is an apocryphal story that Bill Gates died and went to the Pearly Gates. St. Peter greeted him and said, “Bill, since you have made lots of things happen, set up Microsoft and did great charitable works, you can choose whether you want to go to paradise, heaven, or to hell.” Bill said, “Well, I’d like to see them first before I make my decision.” Saint Peter showed Bill paradise, where everyone sat around happy and blessed and very mellow, talking with God and with Jesus. Bill said, “That’s a little dull, show me the other place.” So Saint Peter took him down below and there were palm trees, gentle breezes, beautiful women in bikinis, sumptuous food and wonderful music. “Wow,” Bill said. “I’ll take this place.” Several weeks later St. Peter went down to hell to check things out. Bill was being roasted over roaring fires, and was in excruciating pain. “St. Peter. This is awful. What happened to the south sea, the breezes and the beautiful women?” “Nothing,” Saint Peter replied. “That was just the screen saver on the computer.”

Our vision of paradise tends to be like Bill’s. We define it in temporal terms. Islam evokes a picture of heavenly paradise in which there are beautiful women and an abundance of pleasures. In our secular would we also evoke that image. Many is the time I’ve had dinner or lunch at The Paradise Grill down on Southfield Avenue. There the idea of paradise has a  south sea island flavor.

Now in today’s reading Jesus is taunted by the laity, clerics, soldiers and rulers. He is called “King of the Jews.” They ask him, “If you are the Messiah, then why do you not save yourself?” One of the criminals crucified with Jesus scorns Him, saying, “If you are the Messiah, a king, save us and yourself.” The other criminal says, “ Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

What is this paradise, of which Jesus speaks? My reference books point out that the Garden of Eden before the fall is seen as the ideal of paradise. Man and woman live in harmony with creation and with God. After all, they are made in the image of God. Their relationship to God is positive, peaceful, gracious, beautiful, harmonious and blessed. As a result of the fall, temptation, evil and sin are prevalent in the world, and mankind’s relationship to God is stressed. None of us lives in harmony with our maker. Through the gift of His Son, God has reached out to you and me and revealed that through faith in Him and by His actions we have attained an element of harmony and blessedness. The Bible also depicts paradise as heaven, where eternity awaits you and me and where our relationship to God can be either harmonious or fractured. Even so we are held in incomprehensible love. Hence through our faith and through the work of Christ there is the possibility that you and I can in our lives have a touch of paradise. Through our love and faith we can “make paradise happen” in a very slight, tiny degree. Much depends on whom we choose as our king.

As you know, it annoys me no end that the lectionary readings right before Advent and Christmas are so grim. Here right before Thanksgiving the liturgical high priests of the lectionary give us a scene out of the crucifixion of Jesus! 

The fact of the matter, however, is that this is the last Sunday in Pentecost and it is The Feast of Christ the King. The references to Jesus as King in Luke underline that Jesus is unlike an earthly king. His kingdom is not of this world. His reign is in the hearts of men and women who have faith and love. Jesus upon the cross turns the values of this world, apparent in today’s passage, on their head. Earthly force, military might, political power, juridical rules, and the pressure of social classes in the last analysis have feet of clay, don’t really count. His realm is in the world beyond, in heaven and eternity and at the same time it shows forth on our earth as we begin to enter the kingdom of God and paradise through our allegiance to Jesus, through our faith, through the sacraments and through our participation in the body of Christ, in our life, in the Church.

Hence you and I are challenged on the Feast of Christ the King to see whom we hold important, whom we follow in our lives and in our faith. We touch paradise by our actions and by God’s compassion. When we realize that, then we are ready to marvel at the incarnation, which we celebrate in the Christmas season. 

And now I am going to tell you a story I have often told before. It is the story of the first Thanksgiving. Faye and I have been married for fifty-two years. We went together for five years and were engaged for three before we married. You see, both sets of parents on either side were dead set against our getting married. Faye’s parents were Roman Catholic. For her to marry a Protestant was an anathema. It placed her soul in jeopardy and her parents in disgrace. They threatened to disown her and to refuse to recognize the marriage. My parents were equally opposed to our getting married. My father, the son of a Methodist minister, and himself a minister at one time, had suffered strong prejudice in Chicago where he lived, being ostracized and bullied by Roman Catholics. Remember, this was the late nineteen fifties and relationships between the denominations had not thawed, as they did for a while under Pope John.

My game plan was just to persevere and wait them out, moving ahead ever so slowly. We finally got married in 1961 in a small chapel at the base of Harkness Tower on the campus of Yale University. There were only seven of us. My parents attended. Faye’s parents did not. Her parents were always civil and polite to me, as were my parents to Faye, but there was strong opposition and hostility based on the conviction that each held the creedal truth, based on the Bible and was right.

At the end of the summer Faye and I moved to Evanston, Illinois so that she could teach at New Trier in Winnetka and I began my Biblical studies at the University of Chicago. In the middle of November my mother called up and said that she and Dad were going to fly out to Chicago, spend Thanksgiving with us, and then go on to see my grandmother in Rockford, Illinois. Faye was stunned. She would have to cook for my mother, an excellent Swedish cook, show her our apartment, my mother was a meticulous housekeeper, and make nice to people who basically had no use for her. Not only that, she didn’t have a clue how to cook a turkey. Faye was Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude and had put herself through college completely on scholarship with no help from family or anyone else. Cooking was another world for her. But not to worry. She did what any intelligent, well educated person would do. She did research. Faye bought a copy of The New York Times and read Craig Claiborne’s article on how to cook a turkey. It was an interesting recipe, because it included instructions for stuffing that included English walnuts. That seemed strange to me, because they are a little tart and taste like tannic acid.

Anyhow, Faye went to the grocery store, purchased a Butterball turkey, made the stuffing and put the bird in the oven. My parents arrived at O’Hare and came out in a taxi. We were scheduled to eat between three and four. My parents were tea totalers and not given to small talk. Four o’clock came. The bird was not done. Five, six. The bird was not done. After a while my mother joined Faye in the kitchen. You see, my dear wife had made two mistakes. In the first place, she forgot to thaw the frozen turkey. In the second place, neither she nor I had thought to check the calibration of the oven in our rental apartment. At eleven o’clock, we just made Thanksgiving, the turkey was served. I guess it was good, for we were all famished.

Obviously my wife was embarrassed. As I helped her clean up and was doing the dishes, I said, “ That stuffing had an unusual taste. Was it the English walnuts?” “No!” she snorted. “ It called for cooking sherry. Since we didn’t have any cooking sherry, I threw in two cups of bourbon.” I looked at my parents in the living room. They were totally zonked. My father could hardly make it to the bed, and my mother was not much better. The next day my father said, “I can’t figure out why I have this headache.”

Now I tell this story, not to embarrass my wife, but because we inadvertently “made paradise happen” just a tiny bit. You see, by six o’clock my mother was helping Faye solve a problem. All the barriers were down. All the nonsense was out the window. They were two women making a meal and engaged in a common task. My parents were God fearing Christians. Christ was their king. They were committed to decency, charity, loving kindness, humility and forgiveness. Over the years my father came to adore my wife. My mother and Faye became good friends and cared deeply for one another. At the same time, Faye’s parents learned to tolerate me because they were good Christians. They believed in love, compassion, charity and humility. Christ was their king. For them, the dogma of the church was something to be honored and respected, but love, family, compassion and forgiveness were the main teachings of the church as they saw it. In the end I gave communion to my ninety three year old mother-in-law, and she gladly accepted it. I anointed her, blessed her, and kissed her. She said to me, “There is only one God, and Christ is Lord.” So much for the schisms in the body of Christ.

Both sets of parents knew that Christ is king, that His kingdom is different from that of our secular and materialistic world and even transcends that of race, religion, doctrine and creed. By their faith, both parents made a little bit of paradise happen.

You and I are called to “make a little bit of paradise happen” by our faith, our allegiance to Christ as king, our compassion and our anticipation of the birth of a baby in a manger in a strange town in the near east. You and I are called to “make a little bit of paradise happen,” to bring blessings into the lives of others and into our own lives by our love, faith, charity and support of one another and of those around us. You and I are called to come to the altar and to receive the body and blood of Christ the King, to receive a blessing upon our souls, to receive “a little bit of paradise” in order that we may go out into the world “in the name of Christ.” In other words, you and I are to go into the world and through our lives and participation in Christ’s body to “make a little bit of paradise happen.”

Let us go forth in the name of Christ and “make a little bit of paradise happen.” Amen.