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Last Words First

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Apr 08

Easter Sunday
Lesson: Luke 24:13-49

I want to begin today by sharing with you a few last words, some famous, some not so famous, some touching and some that are rather amusing if not downright funny. In case you need a little permission to laugh, the Eastern Orthodox have a tradition of telling jokes at Easter, and some have even said that Easter is God’s laughter. Since we just passed Good Friday, maybe God’s gallows humor is more like it. In any case, last words first, and yes, what follows are reportedly the last words spoken by people just before they died. Ready?

I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis. Humphrey Bogart

My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go. Oscar Wilde

Am I dying or this my birthday? British Parliamentarian, Lady Nancy Astor

Ok, ok, I’ll come. Just give it a moment. Pope Alexander the IV

Where is my clock? Salvador Dali

Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough! Karl Marx

Die, my dear? Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do! Groucho Marx

Is everyone else all right? Robert F. Kennedy

I love you too, honey. Good luck with your show. Desi Arnez, spoken on the phone to his wife Lucille Ball.

Now comes the mystery. Henry Ward Beecher
Last words first! I think Henry Ward Beecher’s is my favorite. And now comes the mystery, indeed. Whatever else Easter may be, it is a profound mystery, one that has unique and staggering power to change the last word on everything!

Some of you may be thinking you know where I’m going next. Jesus’s last words, right, perhaps the most famous of them all! Not quite. It’s actually his first words that I’m more interested in for today, the first words he speaks to his disciples throughout that first Easter day and evening. But I want us to consider those first words in the context of his last days. Indeed, we might wonder what were his disciples last words to him? What were those last conversations like? Here we have to do a little imagining. Scripture offers us Jesus beautiful words at the last supper, but what were the last words spoken to him by his disciples, his mother and the women? Do we think they had the chance to “say it all” to each other, before he breathed his last?

Last November I helped lead a workshop on End of Life issues for a Greater Boston Interfaith Organization Public Health Conference. In addition to being attentive to the fact that end of life is one the biggest cost drivers in healthcare right now, we were addressing measures that could help save families unnecessary turmoil and heartache as loved ones are dying. As part of the spiritual care portion of the workshop, we offered a list of the things we all should to strive to say to each other and to loved ones before they die. Get your mental notebooks ready. I’ve come across this list in various forms. Perhaps some of you have to. Here’s the list of five things we offered at our workshop:
Thank you.
I’m sorry.
I forgive you.
I love you.
Goodbye.

I myself was a good 4 out of 5 with my dad when he died of prostate cancer. Not bad for a 17 year old. It didn’t occur to me until years later to thank him for being so open and honest, courageous and loving, especially towards the end. I recognize that our lives, stories, relationships are sometimes too complex and diverse to assume that saying these things is possible in every case. And, one thing I’ve learned is that the possibility of finding genuine closure in relationships is somewhat overrated. In the workshop, we especially stressed how hard it can be for some loved ones to say sorry and to forgive to each other, let alone themselves. And it’s precisely when dealing with these loose ends that we need God’s help and God’s love. Here, the Easter story can be an especially valuable guide.

Those disciples to whom the Risen Christ first appeared were showing up on that first Easter Sunday, not unlike many of us today I imagine, carrying loose ends of their own grief, anxiety and fear. What’s more, embedded underneath their startled present state were all sorts of powerful and painful memories and regrets from their recent past. They knew that they had fallen asleep on him in his moment of need. They knew they had abandoned him. Perhaps they regretted that even after the last supper, they were still engaged in their petty quarrels about who would be the greatest. Peter was crying bitter tear of remorse. It is into the specificity of their anguished past that Christ speaks good news to his disciples on that first Easter Day. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has written in a commentary about the Resurrection: “God does not to come to “humanity” in the abstract: God’s forgiveness engages with a particular past.” Imagine the particular past of those disciples with which the living Christ’s love and forgiveness had to engage. It is no wonder they were so terrified.

So just what does Jesus say? Take our passage for today that includes two of the so called appearance stories. Amazingly, if not miraculously, he does not come back with words of judgment, disappointment, anger, though all would have been justified. Instead, his first words on the road to Emmaus, much like God’s first words to Adam in the Garden, are a question. God asked Adam in Genesis 3: where are you? Jesus asks the disciples: what were you talking about? Rather than judgment, its curiosity reaching out in relationship!

After they told him what they were discussing, after they shared a meal, after they recognize him in the breaking and blessing of the bread, itself a remarkable exchange of gestures of hospitality and gratitude, he moves on to another group of disciples who are seeing him for the first time. His first words to them are simply: “Peace be with you!” He speaks this peace not only to their bewilderment and grief! He speaks it to their regrets, to their presumably earnest wishing that they had done more for him, that they had said more when they had the chance. He speaks peace to their fears of judgment, and to the fears of being cut off! In this context, “peace be with you” comes as a radical declaration and a divine gift.

And then, what comes next is an invitation to share this good news. Did you catch that in our reading? The last words of our passage today are the first words that commission the disciples and the rest of us who want to follow in his way. Verse 48 -- Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins can be proclaimed in his name, to all nations!”

So, Jesus comes back with a question that welcomes friendship and honest dialogue. He comes back with a heartfelt greeting of peace. And he comes back with an invitation to go into the world and usher forth a cycle of recognition of mistakes on the one hand, and abundant forgiveness on the other. These are the first words, the first things, that inaugurate a new community modeled after the liberating, reconciling, all-inclusive love of God in Christ.

Dear friends (and dear strangers who I have never seen before), in order for us to experience a genuine celebration of Easter, we have to start by getting in touch with our own hunger for God’s gifts of curiosity, of peace and of invitation. And in order to do that, we need to ask God’s help as we imagine the particulars of our past, and conjure the brokenness in our lives and relationship. We need to do our best to muster self awareness of the ways we are needful of and longing for God’s love and forgiveness to engage our story.

Into the very heart of our specific fears, our specific ways of striving, of judging ourselves and others, the risen Christ’s response to the disciples and to us is always one of an openness and peace. To understand this power for us, we have to first believe that God is ready to meet us in the details and specifics of our lives and stories. Like the Psalmist says, God has “searched us and known us”, in all our comings and goings. God knows our very hearts, knows our every flaw, weakness and human limitation. Into the context of our broken humanity, Christ invites our honest self-reflection and says: Peace be with you! Be at ease! That old pattern, that endless cycle of blaming and shaming and self-doubt and other directed violence and scapegoating. It stops here and now! Do you get it? It’s not just that he rose! It’s that he rose -- from torture, suffering and despair -- in love, with peace on his lips and clearly having forgiven all complicity on the part of his disciples and indeed having forgiven the world. Rowan Williams puts it this way: “If forgiveness is liberation, it is also a recovery of the past in hope, a return of memory, in which what is potentially threatening, destructive, despair-inducing, in the past is transfigured into the ground of hope.” The resurrection is just this raising up and transfiguring of the past in hope, and it now our job, to continue this work and exchange of forgiveness in the world.

Church, it would appear that we have our work cut out for us. What that invitation to repentance and forgiveness of sins means for us as a community is that we’ve been called by God on this Easter day to bring a collective “we’re Sorry” and a collective “we forgive you” into the world, enough to conquer the polarizing and paralyzing forces of shame and blame that cripple our politics and our hope! Don’t get me started on all the things the church has to say we’re sorry about! Don’t get me started on all the gross injustices in the world we are called by God’s mercies to forgive? The power of this new community that Jesus gathered, and this new life that we are given today, is the ongoing chance to practice resurrection by practicing reconciliation, by practicing gratitude, by practicing peace in the specificity of our own. This is the good news and the good work that is set before us.

Thankfully, the tradition reminds us that Easter doesn’t just happen once a year, but every Sunday on the church’s so-called “little Easter”. It happens every time we have the opportunity share those words we most need to say and hear – thank you, forgive me, I forgive you, I love you, peace. It’s why these words come up so often in our liturgy, our communion, our prayers, our hymns and blessings! The church gives us so many opportunities to practice these words; hey come at us so fast and furious that we may not even realize that they are training us not just to say them but to live by them.

If we can continue to put those last words first, we can join God in this resurrection community, in assuring that betrayal, judgment, violence and death will never have the last word, but that love eternal, forgiveness and a peace that the world cannot give is the first and the last word, the alpha and the omega of our life, our love and our community.
Say it with me again: Christ is Risen: He is Risen Indeed.

And let us speak his words to each other: Peace be with you! Peace be with you!

Sisters and Brothers, Christ is Risen indeed, with a profound message of peace and a charge to receive it in our hearts and share it in the world. Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Amen!

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