Because of the holiday, we printed up the bulletins on Tuesday and as tends to happen over the course of a week, the sermon evolved from the title that seemed to fit it on Tuesday into something completely different. So even though losing is still important, it won’t be the subject of the sermon. If there would be a replacement title it would be something like “Parting Words” or maybe “Last Impressions.”
We’re used to thinking of the importance of first impressions — job interviews, dates, business presentations. It’s fairly well accepted that the human brain tends to lock in information about a person or place quite early in an encounter. One of my more memorable first impressions was with my freshman year roommate at Hesston College. This happened on moving in day as I walked down the hall with the sound of loud music getting continuously louder with each step I made. When I turned the corner into the room, there was Shem with no shirt, long curly hair, rocking around the room getting his things in order. When he saw me he threw open his arms for a big hug and we were well on our way to being close friends.
But people who study memory and how the brain works have noted that we most easily remember beginnings and endings. If we’re having a conversation with someone we tend to best remember the opening minutes and the closing minutes. I’ve attempted to study a few foreign languages at different times and one of my professors gave us the advice that when you’re trying to memorize a long list of vocabulary words it works better to break the list up into several short lists and study them separately. That way there are more beginnings and endings that stick in the mind easier. In thinking about this this week I figured out that what I should have done was to study only two words at a time. That way they all would have been either a beginning or an ending and I would have remembered everything. Unfortunately I didn’t think of this when it counted.
So last impressions might be just as important as first impressions. This makes sense to me when I think about how conversations or events end. When we were leaving our family after Thanksgiving we went the through usual final hugs, kind words, saying that we love each other and that it was good to be together. We naturally want to end on a meaningful note and make sure we express that we will remember this as a good time with family.
In the cycle of our church year, this is the Sunday of Last Impressions. Just as the malls and shopping centers are hitting a full head of steam heading into the holiday season, the lectionary cycle that we follow each week is winding down and ending today. We begin a new year next week with the dawning of Advent and the expectation of birth. We’ll move again through the celebration of Christ’s birth to the light of Epiphany, the sorrow of Lent, the surprise of Easter resurrection, and the multi-lingual gift of Pentecost, where the Spirit unleashes us to speak love and healing within all of our vocational languages. But now, we are witnessing parting words, the culmination of this past year of worship.
What are these final words? What kind of closure is God offering for us to lock in to our hearts? What kind of impression are we being left with as we leave this year behind us?
The scene in the gospel is Jesus on the cross. We are witnesses to a suffering man breathing his last gasps of air before he dies. And in these closing hours of his life, he speaks – to those around him, to one who is dying with him, to God. Between the four gospels, there are seven different phrases that Jesus speaks while on the cross, often called the seven last words. Three of these are recorded in Luke, which we will meditate on briefly together.
#1 – Luke 23:34 “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
After having been in the faith for a while now, after becoming somewhat familiar with the teachings of Jesus and the examples of saints, after having been surrounded by a supportive congregational community for some time, you’d think by now that we’d know what we’re doing. You’d think we’d have at least the basics figured out. Maybe turn that dark corner and see the light.
But this is quite often not the case. As much as we feel ourselves to be on the right road we still have the tendency to drive full steam ahead toward danger. We harm those close to us by saying hurtful things, not paying attention to others’ needs and wishes. We struggle to see beauty in our own selves and be at peace with who we are. We miss God. Not only do we miss God. We injure God, we exclude God.
And for all the time that the disciples and the crowds were around Jesus, it still wasn’t enough to overcome that deep impulse for self-preservation. Deep within our evolutionary programming is our drive to survive by ensuring our own safety at the expense of others. Since the beginning of our species we have developed a highly effective form of maintaining our own emotional and physical survival by allowing all that is wrong with us to be projected onto someone else. We scapegoat. If we can just get rid of them, or if she would just get out of our life, everything would be right. This is the same kind of logic that brought Jesus to the cross. The anxiety of everyone, from leaders to peasants, became focused on one individual. Caiaphas the high priest knew this well when he said earlier that it would be good for national unity if somebody would die.
In Jesus, we get the perspective not of the survivors of this process, but of the victim. In this first parting word, Jesus is not asking God to forgive any particular act on our behalf, but our entire orientation toward self-preservation that always produces victims. Something we do so often we barely know we’re doing it. It is now for us to learn how to live as forgiven people who allow ourselves to be reprogrammed with the self-giving love of Christ.
#2 – Luke 22:43 “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
These words are in response to a request. The request comes from a criminal, one of thousands of those accused of crime against the state who have been given the Roman death penalty of public crucifixion. What he asks of Jesus is that he be remembered. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” More than the fear of physical death, this man next to Jesus is facing a greater fear. The fear of being forgotten. Of getting buried beneath the rubble of history so as to disappear from memory with no connection to anything meaningful or long-lasting.
The desire to be remembered is one that speaks especially strong to those of us informed by the wonders of modern science. Reflecting on this reality, Stanley Hauerwas describes our present situation. He says it appears “that our solar system is but a passing case, a local accident, in a wilderness of space and time where no life will finally exist. Whatever purpose our world may have, it is that which we impose….The weather of an aimless universe produced us, and that same weather will kill us. We worry that we will die without a trace because there will be no one to apprehend or remember the trace we were.” (Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ, pp. 40-41)
This criminal stands out from everyone else on the scene because of his different request of Jesus. The leaders, the soldiers, and another dying criminal each say to Jesus that if he is truly the Messiah he will save himself from death. But Jesus’ power as Messiah doesn’t come from his ability to do some magic, step down from the cross, and walk away unharmed. He’s not going to run over into the phone booth, tear off his street clothes, and emerge as the man of steel. And he’s not going to rescue any others from death.
Jesus’ power as Messiah comes from a completely different place. One that this single criminal recognizes. He recognizes that the far greater miracle is to be remembered.
Jesus is silent toward the taunts of the majority, but responds to this request. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Whatever Jesus means by paradise, it is very much connected to the phrase, “with me.” Jesus offers his presence and so offers that the criminal will never be alone and forgotten. Stanley Hauerwas also says this: “To be ‘with Jesus’ means we are not ‘lost in the cosmos.’ (p. 44) This second parting word is one where Jesus is inviting us to live with him and so be part of God’s eternal outpouring of love for creation.
#3 Luke 23:46 -“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”
This is the last word of the last words of Christ. Third and final in Luke and considered the seventh and final word among the gospels. They are said right before Jesus breaths his last and dies. This is what is said when there is nothing left to say.
These are the words that span the distance between life and death. If you’ve ever sat with someone in the closing hours of their life, this is the prayer that makes for a good dying. Maybe it isn’t these exact words that are said, but it is this act of letting go, of releasing control and accepting the mystery of the crossing over, however that is expressed. Not because we know the path, but precisely because it is such an unknown. These words represent the horizon that we can’t see beyond.
One of the more recent times I found myself entering this prayer was not a time of death, but a time of birth. During the time when Abbie was pregnant with Eve there was plenty to be excited about. Our first child. Starting a new phase of life as parents. But there was also more uncertainty than ever before. We realized pretty quickly that what was going on inside Abbie was completely beyond our control. Something could go wrong. We weren’t guaranteed anything. When Eve was born healthy that realization was still there. Her safety and health are never guarantees. So the final word is never one of certainty, but one of releasing our need for certainty. Commending our spirits and the spirits of those we love into the Divine care.
In any situation where we face the unknown, or the limitations of our own strength, we are invited into this prayer as our final word. At the point where we fail in our ability to hold everything neatly and securely together, this prayer enables God to have the final word. It is the ultimate letting go of our grasp on preserving control. And so it provides God the opportunity to speak us into life. Into your hands I commend my spirit. When our words end here, we become available to the Great Spirit who hovers over the chaos of our world and speaks light into darkness. We pray, so that God can pray us into being, whether we be living or dying.
If you remember very little else from this liturgical year, I invite you to allow these last impressions to hang in your memory, and linger in your heart. The words of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise,” “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” When taken to heart they are parting words that produce a new beginning. God’s last word is never death, but always resurrection.