Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Reign of Christ, November 22, 2015
Loosen a little our grip, O Lord, on our words and our ways, our fears and our fretfulness, that finding ourselves found in you, we may venture from the safety of the shore and launch afresh into the waters of grace with Christ, the Morning Star, as our guide. Amen.
Arnold Rothstein was an American gangster most famously accused of conspiring to fix the 1919 Word Series. His last words came after being shot during a poker game in 1928. When asked who shot him, Rothstein said,
Me mother did it.
In other words, in spite of the fact that he was close to death, Rothstein refused to cross a line and rat out his attacker from the world of organized crime. This is who he was to the very end — a guy who wouldn’t rat. His last words were intended to convey that message to the police.
That story about Rothstein introduced an episode of This American Life on public radio back in 1998. The episode was entirely about last words and why they matter to us. The host of This American Life, Ira Glass, went on to say:
. . . this is what we want from last words, let me tell you, this kind of summing up of who a person is. You know, sometimes you’ll see those collections of famous last words that were printed in the paper or in the Sunday magazine, and they all have this quality — they always do — of pretending to sum up an entire life. Bing Crosby, “That was a great game of golf, fellers.” WC Fields, “I’ve spent a lot of time searching through the Bible for loopholes.” Oscar Wilde, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.” And you know, the fact is, Oscar Wilde didn’t even say that on his death bed. It’s a remark he made to a friend at a cafe a month before he died. That’s how much we want to believe in these things.
But, you know, we want our lives to mean something, and we want to believe that words can capture that meaning. And, seen in that way, last words, attempts at last words, a one final shot at figuring it all out, summing it all up, they have this way of asserting the fact of our existence at the exact moment of our annihilation.
This morning we’ve already heard royal last words from the Old Testament. According to the Second Book of Samuel, here is the introduction of the final testimony of David — the second but most important king in the history and memory of ancient Israel:
The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel: The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.
So these are really the words of Israel’s God, described as the Rock, who declares:
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.
David asks a rhetorical question in response, and, making it all very clear to the people who surround him in his final days, he connects what God has said to the promise that God made to him long ago:
Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.
David is referring to the divine promise that his family will become a dynasty that “shall be made sure forever.”
This old man, chosen of God, concludes with the assurance that the godless, being not only useless but also harmful to life will face destruction. Now that’s really interesting, if you take a moment to think about it, coming from the lips of someone who had an affair with Bathsheba and arranged for her husband Uriah to be killed on the battlefield and who also ignored the rape of his daughter Tamar, igniting a war with his son Absalom that nearly ended his reign.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that he has some additional last words for his heir to the throne — Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba. Think of these as footnotes that were not included in the royal press release about the dying king. But they do appear in the Bible, in the second chapter of the First Book of Kings. David opens with pious wisdom about walking in the way of the Lord. But his words quickly turn toward a different and more practical kind of wisdom about dealing with three individuals who pose a threat to Solomon’s future.
One was a wealthy landowner, who had been generous to David and to whom David’s family would remain indebted unless he was repaid. But the others would receive a different kind of repayment at the wrong end of a sword. Joab had been David’s “trusted general and hatchet man.” He had resolved the “Uriah question” for David. Shimei had publicly insulted David but sought to be reconciled with him after Absalom’s failed rebellion. So David had given his oath to Shimei, saying,
You shall not die.
It’s easy to imagine this as a movie about the mob. David, on his death bed, whispers into the ear of Solomon. As he tells his son what to do, the ominous background music intensifies and what you see is the future silently unfolding on the big screen. A briefcase full of cash is opened in front of the wealthy landowner, followed by a handshake. Then Joab is slain while seeking sanctuary by grabbing the horns of the altar. Finally, after three years of house arrest, Shimei is killed too.
But Solomon doesn’t stop there. Having learned from his father how best to run the family business, Solomon adds others to this list of those who might not remain loyal to him. So the circle of violence and bloodshed continues to widen — all in the name of establishing peace and security.
Yet David isn’t remembered primarily for being unfaithful, unforgiving, and unmerciful. He’s remembered instead as an unlikely vessel of God’s grace, which is always oriented toward God’s future. It has been said that God writes straight with crooked lines, bringing good out of evil and transforming our mistakes, which are many. That is certainly true here. The promise that the house of David would be established forever was “the beginning point of graciousness without qualification” in the experience of God’s people.
Did you notice how that promise was remembered in today’s psalm? Because our human nature can’t stand it to be otherwise, Psalm 132 adds a conditional clause:
If your children keep my covenant and my testimonies . . .
But that’s not how the promise was given. It was an unconditional pledge of love.
That promise would not be fulfilled through the perpetual unsheathing of swords and spilling of blood. It would not be fulfilled in an unbroken political dynasty with borders drawn as lines in the sand. It would come a thousand years later when another descendant of David, a simple carpenter named Joseph, went to bed worried about his future. In a dream, an angel told him not to be afraid to marry his pregnant fiancee. So she became his wife and bore a son, whom he named Jesus.
It is Jesus who reigns in love across the pages of the gospels as he forgives and heals those in need. It is Jesus who reigns in suffering from the cross as he embraces those who feel abandoned and godforsaken. It is Jesus who reigns now as the Prince of Peace, whose kingdom — both temporally and spatially — will have no end.
That kingdom of mercy includes not only a deeply flawed human being named David but also you and me and the person sitting next to you, the woman who really gets on your nerves, the stranger who scares you, and lots of other surprising folks. In his book Grace in Addiction, Episcopal priest John Zahl describes it this way:
Grace is the hope that seeks us out when we are at our worst. It looks forward to the long, hard road ahead. Grace is not worried, even if everything falls apart and everything goes wrong.
It is the love of God that does not let go. It brings good out of bad, and it sees hope where there is none. Grace always gives another chance. Grace waits. It stands when you have fallen; it leaves the door open.
Grace stays awake for you when you can’t keep your eyes open for another minute, even though you know you should.
I love that last part about grace staying awake for you when you can’t keep your eyes open for another minute. I would only add this: Grace also stays awake for you when you close your eyes one last time and fall asleep in the arms of death, an embrace that neither gangsters nor anointed kings can escape. Grace comes from a love that’s stronger than death.
Our last words are not defiance before annihilation, as Ira Glass put it. They are the unvarnished thoughts of forgiven sinners. That is who we are to the very end — forgiven sinners. It’s either true or not true. I believe it’s true.
I hope our last words will be more charitable than David’s advice to Solomon. But let’s face the harsh truth: There’s alway the possibility that they might not be. Even then, remember some of the last words of Jesus, who said of those torturing him,
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
So David’s God, the Strong One of Israel, our Rock and our Redeemer, will take us by the hand and welcome us into his presence, saying to each one of us,
I love you anyway.
No, scratch that. God will say,
I love you.
Period. This I believe.
1 BACK TO POST Revelation 22:16, among the Bible’s last words, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.”
2 BACK TO POST Ira Glass, “Last Words,” This American Life, originally aired October 23, 1998.
3 BACK TO POST Glass.
4 BACK TO POST II Samuel 23:1-2.
5 BACK TO POST II Samuel 23:3-4.
6 BACK TO POST II Samuel 23:5.
7 BACK TO POST II Samuel 7:16.
8 BACK TO POST Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2000) 27.
9 BACK TO POST II Samuel 19:23.
10 BACK TO POST Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997) 605.
11 BACK TO POST Psalm 132:13.
12 BACK TO POST John Zahl, Grace in Addiction (Charlottesville: Mockingbird Ministries, 2012).
13 BACK TO POST Luke 23:34 (KJV).