Sermons

Last Words; Rev. Dee Ledger, November 21, 2021

Roger Ebert was the first movie critic ever to win a Pulitzer for criticism in 1975.  Just before his death of cancer in 2013, the famous critic wrote these last words for the Times, “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”[1]

Siblings in Christ, have you ever imagined what your last words might be?  It’s a worthy question on this last Sunday of our church liturgical year, 2021, and as we lean into Advent in the midst of a pandemic still unrelenting around the world, after a recent U.S. jury verdict that has rendered us more politically and socially divided, and in the midst of a disruptively beautiful, technological,  physical, and substantive change in the church, not to mention the way many of us conduct our professional and social lives.  (For a good article on the ways church has changed in 2021, see link below)[2]

Last words may seem to be a macabre topic or sad, but they really are not.  Last words are like a summary statement for your heart; a message for those who have an ear to listen and a mind to care.  Jesus’ last words to the disciples from the cross are instructive for us every Holy Week and Good Friday in perpetua.  His last words to the disciples are not only meaningful, but foundational as he leaves them to figure things out at his Ascension and the church’s first Pentecost.

And today, on this Reign of Christ Sunday, on this Sunday before people gather for turkey and mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and all manner of holiday shopping, canned music, and traditions as unique as the families who gather, this Sunday before we light Advent candles and sing quietly “O Come, O Come, Emanuel” in a time when singing is still debatable and potentially dangerous in aggregate, we hear King David’s last words as our Sunday reading.

Yes, King David.  David, Jesse’s son, the shepherd boy, who took on Goliath with a slingshot and became intimate friends with the royal son, Jonathan.  David, the one who played the lyre and softened the psyche of his predecessor, King Saul.  King David who danced before the Lord, and before the people, to the chagrin of Michal, who told him to go get dressed already and not to make a complete spectacle of himself in front of the royal household and the paparazzi.  King David who had his privileged way with Bathsheba (a royal rape for certain),  with his own loyal general’s wife, and then sent that poor man to the front lines to be conveniently killed.  THAT King David.

David is a sinner, but he is more than his sin.  The bible reminds us of that at every narrative turn; yet he, and others like him, like Cain, carry their sin, as well as the mark of God on their very brow, their very life. Christopher Dankovich, who at the age of 15 killed his mother by stabbing her 111 times despite his squeaky-clean background, once said, “I think two things I fear most about my future is that I will die without ever having really lived, and after I’m gone, I will only be remembered for the worst moment of my life.”

Friends, I don’t know what your “worst moment” is—but likely, you don’t want to be remembered by it, particularly if you have a conscience.  Far more likely, you’d like a bit of control over what remembrance comes to mind in the eyes of your family, your friends, and perhaps the community at large.

But here’s the thing—a thing that my little boy figured out as we sat at the dinner table 2 nights ago and as we puzzled over David’s final words.  Like my boy said, we really have no control over what “last words” are remembered; in fact, death and goodbyes have a way of taking us by surprise, and we rarely plan for surprises, even the good kind.  Some of us, like me– and maybe you too– simply hate surprises.  That being said, we DO have control over what truths we choose to say and how we say it.

Some last words are more like raindrops scattered quietly and privately at the point of death, if we are indeed allowed such grace to be alert and cognizent, with our spouse, a family member, a friend, or beloved caregiver at our side to listen.  As my boy realized, some people are in a coma and can’t speak their last words– the words that “come before” are the ones we remember.

Yet, some last words are more like a carefully painted picture, an opened window into the future, a last public proclamation meant to be discussed and acted upon.  In fact, many of the old patriarchs of the bible had last great proclamations and they were viewed as oracles or words that show something of a distinct horizon.  Witness Jacob in Genesis 49, or Joshua in Joshua 24, or Samuel in 1 Samuel 12.  David’s last words, as heard today, are part of this pattern.

Have you ever thought about what you would choose to say, if you knew that those words would be your last?  Does it matter if they are for public consumption or for private sharing?  Have you ever regretted the parting words of a loved one or significant other?

Some last words, some exit words, are revealing because they are ultimately about the person.  They are self-referential and lift up what the person has done or not done.  For example,  Winston Churchill, after being offered champagne by his son-in-law, famously said, “I’m so bored with it all.”  One wonders what the “it” was that so bored him.  The great painter, Leonardo da Vinci reportedly said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”  And Humphrey Bogart’s last words were, “I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”

These are words that can be full of ego, full of regret, and potentially full of pain.  They can also be words of great hope or yearning; they can speak of longing, of seeking, of a soul in distress, or a soul captivated by wonder. For example, Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder, left this world saying “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”  François Rabelais, the Renaissance writer and monk reputedly said, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”  And Plotinus, the Greek philosopher, said, “I am striving to give back the Divine in myself to the Divine in the All.”  After accidentally stepping on the foot of a man moments before she was executed by the guillotine, Marie Antoinette asked for forgiveness saying, “Pardon me, sir.  I did not mean to do it.”

What makes King David’s words so memorable is that he puts the focus on God—on what God has done in his life and with his life, as well as his household—which included all those serving with him– not simply his own extended family. His last public words are offered as though God is speaking through him to the people with whom he has tried to govern wisely and well.  He offers this piece of direction: “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”  Can you imagine such a world wherein “just rule” is like a bright morning sun, or a refreshing rain that causes plants to root deeply and grow?

Later, if you read further into the next chapter, you will hear of all of David’s “mighty warriors”—those people whose exploits and dedication to the kingdom and God, and not simply to David, are evident.  Leaving aside the listing of only males for a minute, we can remember that no leader serves in a vacuum.  For every “mighty warrior,” there is one who tends the home, the children, and the farm.  For every mighty warrior, there is one who birthed that warrior, helped him (or her) to grow, and gifted their support and yes, wisdom or ponderings.  These “mighty warriors” of David have their equivalent in the lives of countless others who further God’s realm, beyond whatever leader is standing on the dais.  God-fearing leaders do not serve alone; David’s last words speak of the covenant he has with God, but also specifically state all of his house as well—meaning, all those who serve God with him.

As we consider last words today, and as I encourage you to consider your own, we might also look at what David says regarding the “godless.”  Here, David says that the “godless are all like thorns that are thrown away” and I have to say, I have been rendered “godless” at different times in my life.  Called “godless” for my orientation.  Called “godless” for my beliefs as a former Unitarian Universalist.  Rendered “godless” by my questions about the Divine.  Rendered “godless” by times of honest questioning and grief.  Now, having been rendered godless at several junctures in my life, I thoroughly bristle at the message of fire consumption, iron bars, and spears as a way to somehow control the “godless.”  Whenever we call someone or something “godless,” we must ask ourselves why– what are we declaring about ourselves and others in that moment?

But right?  This isn’t just about what specific god we have declared the other to be without.  We realize, don’t we, that this isn’t just about what one believes, but about how one’s heart is set, or rather, turned—to the good or to the evil– though I am sure that if our hearts were dissected on the spot we’d have enough of good and evil mixed up together that David’s words would simply fall short or implode us all.

And that is why, I look to Jesus as the great gatherer of hearts and helper of last words that we might speak in love and gratitude at every moment of our lives, even and especially in our last moments, our goodbyes, our thanksgivings, and our final proclamations.  For when we are too much with ourselves (and we often are, because we are altogether human), we might look to the perfecter of our faith who seemed to know when to speak and when to be still, when to lift up a soul, and when to turn a table or two.  Even in death, we remember that Jesus knew how to forgive and how to create life and courage from the cross, and from what seemed only death.

I want to end with Christopher’s Dankovich’s words—which are, thankfully, not his last, and which give testimony that lives and hearts can truly change.  Dankovich is presently serving a 25-37 year prison sentence and has earned a degree and won prestigious awards for his writing behind bars.  In a recent blog, he wrote this,

something I think about at this point, though: is it possible to change the fruits you leave behind? Can a metaphorical tree that made bad fruit produce seeds that grows a tree that makes better ones? I’m not in a position to answer. I can just choke or take a deep breath… try to be the man I am today, grab the fruits I am offered by life, and try to leave better ones myself now.

“That’s a piece of who I am going into this next segment of my life.

“I’m 31 now. I’m not some wizened old sage (though man, has a lot of my hair turned gray over the past year). I’ve been through a few lifetimes worth of turmoil, at least half of it completely brought on by myself. I’m not institutionalized…

“Half of the approximately one-billion moments I’ve been alive have been here in prison. I still have many years left on my sentence, over a hundred months. I’m going to do the best I can. I’m going to keep surviving (to the degree it’s up to me) for myself and those who love me. Today, what else can I do?

“And maybe I can do something good, give something back, if I can encourage anyone else to do that same thing… if I can help or teach someone something… if I can leave behind something better than I have.[3]

May it be so for him, for you, and for me.

And so may our words, whether final or not, be ones spoken in love for the One who loved us first and  who taught us to Love in all and for all.

Amen.

 

 

[1] https://techcrunch.com/2013/04/04/the-inspiring-tenacity-of-roger-eberts-last-words/

[2] https://careynieuwhof.com/8-disruptive-church-trends-that-will-rule-2021-the-rise-of-the-post-pandemic-church/

[3] https://prisonwriters.com/half-my-life-in-prison/