Preached by Tracey Leslie
Around the time I first began to consider entering the ministry I had an experience that I knew I should not forget. I worked that summer in a Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, mentored and supervised by the church’s pastor. That summer her mother died. Mom was quite elderly and had been declining for some time so her death was not a surprise. But earlier in her life she had been a vital, involved and committed part of her congregation. When my supervising pastor returned from the funeral, I asked how the service was. She responded with great energy. A new pastor – who had not known her mother – presided over the funeral and it was clear that he had not invested any time or energy in discovering the person her mother had been. Jaime felt hurt and angry; he had not even said her mother’s name once until he reached the end of the service, the prayer of commendation. There was a greeting; there were prayers, scriptures… never once speaking her mother’s name. A beloved member of that congregation had been rendered nameless.
Luke 23:44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last. 47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, "Certainly this man was innocent."
Have you ever wondered what your final, dying words might be? We’ve all heard the cliché “Famous last words.” Well, you would be amazed by how many websites exist devoted to just that; the last words of famous people. Some are quite sad. According to one site, actress Joan Crawford died of a heart attack in 1977. It is said that as her house keeper began to pray for her, Crawford said – as her last words – “Don’t you dare ask God to help me.” Charlie Chaplin also died in 1977. A priest was present and offered up the prayer “May the Lord have mercy on your soul” to which Chaplin replied, “Why not? After all, it belongs to him.” In 1865, Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt was hanged; the first woman executed by a U. S. military tribunal. Her dying words, “Please don’t let me fall.” James Donald French, put to death in the electric chair in 1966 had a rather cavalier approach to his demise. His last words to the press who had gathered for his execution: “Hey fellas, how about this for a headline for tomorrow’s papers; French fries?” Clearly French had put some thought into his final words.
That is, perhaps, the singular advantage of capital punishment. One has plenty of time to consider the words by which they want to be remembered. Given ample time, one would hope that their dying words would reflect some of their deepest held wisdom and beliefs; be a reflection of their true character.
And so in Luke, Jesus final words were “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” In truth, they cannot be separated from the prior two statements Jesus makes from the cross in Luke. On that cross, before Jesus breathes his last, he implores the mercy of his heavenly Father on behalf of his murderers who, he says, have acted in ignorance. Then, when a criminal hanging next to him asks Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, Jesus reassures him saying, “Amen. Amen. I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
And so it is that, despite his own injustice, pain and suffering, Jesus remains consistent to the bitter end in proclaiming and living the message of God’s forgiveness, grace and mercy. His famous last words are not words of anger or judgment; desperation or fear; they are words of mercy and trust.
When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, he did not fight them off. In fact, one of the disciples instinctively responded to the threat by drawing his sword and cutting the ear off a slave. Jesus restored the ear and informed the disciples it was time to dial it back. Jesus says to his captors, “…this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”[i] And so it would appear. Yet, by the time Jesus is nailed to that cross, it seems their hour has expired. Ultimately, they cannot take Jesus’ life because, in his dying breath, he entrusts his life, his spirit, to his heavenly Father.
Jesus has always known that he belonged to God. As a young boy, his parents discover he’s missing when they’re on a return trip from Jerusalem. Frantically they go back to the temple and find Jesus there. Giving him a stern scolding as any worried parent would, Jesus tries to put it in perspective: “Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?”[ii] He belongs with the heavenly Father; he belongs to the heavenly Father.
It is God’s Spirit that descends upon him at baptism;[iii] the same Spirit that anoints him for his ministry of making the grace, forgiveness and mercy of God known to those most in need of hearing it.[iv] Jesus knows he belongs to the heavenly Father and, hanging from that cross, he knows he has accomplished what the Spirit anointed him to do. And so, even amidst such hideous violence and hatred and fear, Jesus can say with his dying breath, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor remarks that this is standard procedure when death comes to call on God’s faithful. As clergy, at a funeral, we stand near the corpse and commend the person who’s died to God. We say words like, “We commend your servant into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints of light.”[v] We acknowledge that although we thought this spouse or child or parent or sibling belonged to us, we know, in truth, that they belong to God. They came from God and now return to God.
Likewise Jesus knows: his place has always been with his heavenly Father and so he commends his own spirit back into the merciful arms of his Father.
But if you ask me, our lives are commended (entrusted, that is) long before death. Jesus’ life had always been entrusted to his heavenly Father; always been dedicated to his Father’s purposes. He simply brings the message home one more time with his dying breath. Our lives, too, are undoubtedly entrusted to someone or something. There are some who commend their lives to the world which can be a place of darkness, fear and aggression. We see it all around us. When we human creatures feel threatened, like those disciples in the garden with their Lord, it is hard to resist rashly grasping for something with which to defend ourselves.
Those final words Jesus speaks from the cross, “into your hands I commend my spirit” have a long history. They are taken from Psalm 31. They are the cry of God’s faithful ones across the ages.
Friends, as we watch and listen to news here in our country and around the world, it may seem that darkness has come over the earth and in fact, darkness can and does settle in wherever and whenever people commend themselves to the world’s fear and aggression. But what Jesus did on that cross delivers us from fear and darkness. My friends; life without mercy and forgiveness is truly death and darkness. But Jesus on that cross delivered us from darkness and death. Praise be to you, O Christ.
[i] Luke 22:53
[ii] Luke 2:49
[iii] Luke 3:21-22
[iv] Luke 4:16-21
[v] United Methodist Book of Worship, p. 150
Scripture: Luke 23:32-34
Preached by Tracey Leslie on March 20, 2016 at Lafayette Trinity UM Church
We have all heard the cliché “Forgive and forget.” I’ll be honest, though. I have a hard time with that cliché. Frankly, I think it’s pretty worthless.
We sometimes apply it to circumstances that, in my opinion, cheapen the idea of forgiveness. Let’s say, for example, that you and I were having lunch somewhere and I happened to be wearing a new, much-loved, pair of slacks. (And, keep in mind it’s tough for me to find clothes that fit.) Now imagine that you inadvertently knocked over your cup of coffee and it spilled onto my slacks. You would probably begin to apologize and might even offer to pay my dry-cleaning bill. I, although upset, might respond “Don’t worry about it.
It’s not that big a deal. Forgive and forget.” But, really; do I need to forgive you? What is there to forgive; that you’re human and, like every other human, sometimes a little clumsy? That hardly requires forgiveness. Does it?
And as for forgetting… I can think of plenty of occasions when forgetting is bad advice. If a woman, or man for that matter, is in an abusive relationship with a partner who beats them or publicly humiliates them on a regular basis, do we really want to encourage that person to forget – as if it just isn’t important, really doesn’t matter?
Finally, what if I had hurt you in a deep way, like betraying your trust? Will you really ever be able to forget that? And, think about it. Which would say more about our friendship: a response in which you forgave me despite my having caused you pain OR a response in which you tried to suppress with great effort a memory that just wouldn’t budge?
I think there are all kinds of difficulties with how we understand and practice forgiveness. We teach our children to say they’re sorry, even if they don’t mean it. And, we encourage them to accept the apology of another child even if their sincerity is highly suspect.
I think to be perfectly frank about it, that we often don’t know what to do with forgiveness and struggle to understand what it really means.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ first words from the cross are “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Hanging in agony on that cross was not the first time Jesus addressed the topic of forgiveness. It comes up quite a bit in Luke’s gospel.
In chapter five, Jesus heals a paralytic man. But the story of the healing is very much focused around the subject of forgiveness. Through the miracle, we are clearly shown that Jesus has the power and authority to forgive sin and that his willingness to do so has dramatic, tangible effects on our lives.
In chapter 6, Jesus engages in teaching that might be likened to our cliché “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” when he says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…”[i]
In chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel, a story of Jesus and a sinful woman shows that, no matter how bad one’s reputation or however immoral one’s lifestyle, Jesus is still able to forgive them and accept them.
And in chapter 15, Jesus tells one of his most popular parables about a prodigal, disrespectful, good-for-nothing son whose father welcomes him back home with a party to rival the best of celebrations.
And so, perhaps it ought not to surprise us that Jesus, from the cross, pronounces forgiveness for those who have humiliated him, rejected him, betrayed him, beaten him and, finally, are killing him. He has the opportunity and the authority to forgive. And, just as importantly, he has a mercy abundant enough to really mean it.
But, that’s not all because Jesus expects us to continue his radical ministry of forgiveness. Unique to Luke’s gospel is Jesus’ post-resurrection commission to his disciples in which he tells them: “repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in his name to all nations…”
Today we remember, just as we considered last Sunday, that Jesus – despite full knowledge of the fate awaiting him in Jerusalem – walked that journey for our sake. He came to reveal and make real the forgiveness and the saving grace of God. And it is something so enormous, so outlandish; we can’t fully comprehend or even know what to do with such a remarkable gift. Who could really understand a love that is able to grant forgiveness to one’s own murderers?
Retired Methodist Bishop William Willimon tells a story of a tragic event early in his tenure as professor at Duke Divinity School. He writes:
I held the newspaper before me and looked at the picture of a tall, thin blonde-bearded man. The headline said he was bricklayer George Richard Fisher whom police had charged in the kidnapping, rape and murder of 8-year old Jean Fewel of Chapel Hill, N.C. At the time of his arrest, Fisher was free on parole after serving 8 years of a 30 year sentence for three arson convictions and 5 B&E and larceny convictions. Witnesses identified Fisher as the man they saw near where Jean’s body was found hanging from a tree, a few miles from Ephesus Elementary School where she was a student. I rummaged through a stack of old newspapers and found the picture of Jean that had appeared with her obituary. Only a year ago, this smiling little girl had been adopted and brought here from Hong Kong by her new parents. Friends at Binkley Baptist Church knew how much Tom and Joy Fewel had wanted a little sister for the 11 year old Korean they had previously adopted. Everyone at the church celebrated Jean’s arrival. They all pitched in to teach her English and to try to contain her vitality at children’s choir practices. Binkley Baptist is known as the most liberal Baptist Church in the area. The pastor, Bob Bracher, has long been at the forefront of social causes, and one of his longtime concerns has been the North Carolina death penalty. He’s preached on it on many occasions and last fall urged parishioners to demonstrate with him in Raleigh when Velma Barfield was executed. I set the picture of Fisher next to the picture of little Jean. I thought of Jean. I thought of her parents. I thought of my own seven year old daughter. Julie Stroupe, associate pastor at Binkley, led the funeral for Jean. The sanctuary was full. The children’s choir sang. A tambourine lay on the communion table. “Jean often played it during children’s worship,” said the pastor. “Now it is silent.” On the way out, one of Binkley’s deacons, with tear-filled eyes, turned to me and said, “I thought I was clear about capital punishment, but this has really made me think again.” I looked again at the picture of Jean. I wondered what I would be thinking if it were a picture of my seven-year-old daughter. What theological position would I take then? I looked again at the picture of Fisher. I tried to feel compassion for him. I tried to see him as a brother – or even just a fellow human being. But God help me, I couldn’t. I tried to imagine what I’d say to him if I were his pastor. Nothing came to me. I tried to imagine what it might be like to be hung on a cross next to a three-time loser like Fisher. I tried to look into his eyes and say the words, “Father, forgive…” but I could not.
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.
[i] Luke 6:37
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