Famous Last Words

On Wednesday, Leroy and I attended a community Thanksgiving meal in the little town in South Park where we spend my days off. We had stopped at a thrift shop the day before to buy some books, and a woman we had never met before invited us to the luncheon. She said it was free and that they would not take donations and she hoped we’d come. So we did. We had the usual turkey and pumpkin pie, along with red Jello filled with fruit cocktail and that green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup and French fried onions, along with food I haven’t eaten, let alone seen, since coming to health-conscious Boulder. We felt a bit out of place in that community hall where we knew no one, like strangers in a foreign land of pointy western boots and cowboy hats. Every person we met, though, went out of their way to tell us how glad they were to see us and to thank us for coming.

The title of the sermon today is “Famous Last Words.: Here are some famous last words from folks you may know of:

“Nothing will ever separate us… we’ll be married forever.” - Elizabeth Taylor, 5 days before announcing divorce from Richard Burton

“Gone with the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood History. I’m glad it will be Clark Gable falling on his face, and not me.” - Gary Cooper, after turning down the role of Rhett Butler

Thomas Watson, Founder and Chairman of IBM: “I think there’s a world market for as many as five computers.”

Those are not literal last words, but they are the sort of words that people live to regret and wish they’d never spoken.

The reading from Second Samuel contains the reported actual last words of King David. Traditionally, the final Sunday of the church year before the start of Advent is called “Christ the King Sunday.” That is why the Lectionary directs us to reflect on the words of a king who was an ancestor of Jesus.

David was reflecting on his life and on the unique position he had been given as ruler over Israel. He used his final breaths to voice his gratitude for God’s faithfulness and to share his perspective on wise leadership. He used very descriptive language to portray what he calls a just leader, saying that the effect of such leadership is a beautiful thing, like the sun rising and reflecting off blades of grass after a gentle rain.

David also takes time at the end of his life to consider the covenant that God had made with him. He gives a testimony about God’s protection and the way everything important had fallen into place throughout his years on earth.

As inspiring as David’s words are, and as much as they make me want to start writing and memorizing my own last words so I’ll be ready to deliver them at the right moment, it’s a little hard to read the final verses here without wincing. After waxing poetic about the person whose life prospers because of their faith in God, David say that godless persons are like thorns to be thrown away. The only way to touch them is with an iron bar or a spear. He says they will be consumed by fire. And then having said that, David dies. Or at least that’s the way the book of Second Samuel describes his last moments.

I wish those last two verses weren’t there. It would be easy to write a nice Thanksgiving sermon based on the themes of David’s gratitude and God’s faithfulness as described in the prior verses. It’s not surprising that David would speak as he did about those he understood as godless. The Psalms are filled with beautiful expressions of praise to God that are right next to urgent pleas for God to destroy David’s enemies.

The Church of Sweden has designated the final Sunday of the church year as Domssoendagen, which means "the Sunday of Doom." My best understanding of this peculiar feast day is that in a typically Scandinavian stoic or kill-joy fashion (and I can say that because of my Norwegian heritage), people are reminded of how bad things can really get, and that we’re all going to die. That is apparently important before a little bit of hope is allowed at the start of Advent the next Sunday.

David’s words, as he faced his own demise, concluded with a bit of doomsaying about spears and fire and the deserved fate of those outside his faith.

A great deal has been said this week in the public sphere about persons outside our faith. We have moved quickly from a unified national response of horror and compassion following terrorist attacks to a sharply divided response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

We see the faces of refugees on our television and laptop screens, but they are still the other for us. How do we relate to the other when they and their inner thoughts are unknown and when questions of safety are sincere and when fear is contagious and politically expedient?

I confess that I have been angry and disappointed this week by what has not seemed to me to be a very Christ-like response to refugees by many who are celebrating Christ the King Sunday today. A common text for this day is from Matthew 25. Jesus told a story about judgement day – a kind of “domssouendagen” – when people are separated like goats and sheep according to how they have treated the poor and the strangers and the imprisoned and the hungry. He says, “The king will say to them, “Just as you have done it – or not done it – to one of the least of these, you have done it – or not done it – to me.”

Quite a bit has been made of the irony of celebrating Thanksgiving, which is a meal more or less based on a feast to formally welcome religious refugees to a new land, at the same time that more than half our states are trying to defy a federal edict providing for refugee resettlement. Some have pointed to the portion of the upcoming Christmas story which depicts Jesus himself and Mary and Joseph as refugees in Egypt escaping the murderous threats of Herod.

I wish we lived in a world where everything could be easily decided, where answers were clear, and where danger could always be avoided. We obviously don’t want to expose our children to violence, and I’m certain that many wanting to close our borders do so with that as their priority. What concerns me greatly, though, is the use of religious language to justify what at times looks very much like a lack of any empathy for those who suffer. And I’m vexed by the assumption that people are prone toward violence because their religion has at times been co-opted by extremists for evil instead of good. I’ve tried to imagine what it would be like for me to successfully escape from injury and death with my children, only to discover that those who value the freedom I seek have their arms folded and their hands closed.

I think it’s important to listen to one another and to find reasonable ways to discuss critical matters of national security and compassionate care for those without a homeland, and without a home, without building our own walls because we are so passionate about what we are certain is a right and just cause. I would like to think that we can model David’s ability to be grateful for a good, comfortable life and also want to be sure that others will live to see the start of another day. And I’d also like to believe that we can be grateful for God’s covenant of faithfulness without labeling those outside our own experience of faith as godless or unworthy of the abundant life we enjoy.

On Wednesday, when I was eating my red Jello and green beans, sitting among strangers and being overwhelmed by their hospitality, I thought about refugees and others are on the outside, hoping for a place at the table. Will they receive a welcome? Will they hear that they are worthy of a place where they are safe and where they are valued? Our church is a community that is known for its hospitality and the ability to make the stranger a friend. Whether the outsider is from across the street or across the world, we will not stop finding ways to welcome and honor anyone and everyone.

The theme of our stewardship campaign has been “Treasuring our Abundance.” From our abundance, we give generously to sustain and further develop a unique faith community and to continue a witness in the world that is not always heard. We will keep speaking a message of love and hope that is inclusive of all people, including those who others would label as unworthy.

What will your last words be? Will they bless and inspire others? Will they be written down for others to read and consider? Or will they be forgotten? I think it’s more important to think about the words we speak right now while we are in the midst of our living and to consider the actions we take every day to demonstrate our love for all people. May we do so from thankful hearts.

Amen.

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