Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What a Way to Die...and to Live!

Midweek Lenten Worship/Installation of Pr. Christopher Eldredge
PioneerCare Center, Fergus Falls, MN
April 13, 2011

“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” Luke 23:44-46.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

For some time now I have had a fascination with “famous last words”—you know: the words, the phrases, the statements that famous people utter just before they die.

For example, some famous last words are profound:

“All my possessions for a moment of time.” …the last words of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” ….uttered by the American spy, Nathan Hale just before he was hanged by the British in 1776

Other famous last words are more perfunctory, almost matter-of-fact:

“Gas is running low.” Amelia Earhart’s last radio transmission in 1937, before her plane was lost forever in the Pacific.

“I have a terrific headache.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945, just before he succumbed to a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

“Don’t you go making a fuss over me now; I’m just fine.” According to Garrison Keillor, the famous last words of just about every Norwegian Lutheran who has ever lived in Lake Wobegon, MN.

Some famous last words are profound, others are perfunctory, and a few famous last words simply take us by surprise.

For example, do you know whose famous last words went something like this:

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”??

Who said those words, just before dying? The answer will surprise you, because it’s Jesus.

Well, OK, that’s not exactly what he said….

Jesus didn’t really pray, “Now I lay me, down to sleep”…..but he did take on his lips the words of a favorite Jewish bed-time prayer of his day, drawn from Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Jim Limburg, who taught Old Testament at Luther Seminary for many years has even wondered whether Jesus might have spent much of his time on the Cross, reciting (to himself) whole psalms, taking these venerable prayers from the Bible and making them his own, including this favorite Jewish bed-time prayer from Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

That is not how most crucified men in first-century Judea met their deaths. Many of those executed in this most barbaric of ways, died with curses for their executioners dripping from their lips: maledictions for, condemnations of those who inflicted such unspeakable pain and shame upon them. That’s how most crucified men died.

But not Jesus. Jesus died precisely as he lived. Jesus died as you and I can only hope to die—freely, willingly, completely, handing his whole life back to God the Father, the source and goal of all things.

Father….in the Greek, pater….a term of intimate address….

Father, into your hands….which is to say: into your power and your protection, for that is what “hands” represent….

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit: I freely, fully return to you the entire life that you first gave to me.

What a way to die! If it is true that most of us face our deaths in stages…that we more or less go through steps such as denial, anger, bargaining and other reactions before finally arriving at acceptance….well then here is acceptance in its deepest and most faithful form. This is no grim resigning of oneself to one’s fate. It is, rather, acknowledging, in the most heartfelt of ways, that our times—all our times—belong to the only One who made us from nothing and to whom we shall all one day return.

What a way to die!

….and come to think of it: what a way to live! What a way to live every day we have on earth, up to and including our final day.

Since becoming bishop, over three years ago, I have come to treasure a similar night-time prayer supposedly coined by Pope John XXIII who ended each day with these words: “Dear Lord. Another long day is about to end, and I am very weary. This is your church. I’m going to bed now. Amen.”

If we don’t see Jesus’ famous last words as words for every day of our lives, chances are we’ll live as if it’s all about us…as if our times, our decisions, our actions, our lives were all in our own hands--accountable to no one else.

If we don’t see Jesus’ famous last words as words for every day of our lives, chance are we’ll take ourselves way too seriously. All of us, every last one of us, needs to cultivate the gentle art of confronting our dispensability. We are wise to recall the simple truth that on the morning of the day that we leave this earth, there will be things on our “to do” list that simply will not get done.

So Jesus’ famous last words aren’t just good for dying. They’re indispensable for living—each and every day, always and forever praying: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit. Whatever good I am privileged to do this day, whatever grace I am allowed to receive, it all comes from You. So at the start of this new day I pray: Father, in your hands I commend my spirit. Let me live, and truly live, before I die.”

These are particularly good words for us to ponder this evening, not only as we conclude the season of Lent, but also as we gather here for worship—for the first time in this lovely new facility, the PioneerCare Center--and as we formally welcome and install Pastor Christopher Eldredge as a valued member of the ministry staff.

PioneerCare has been around since 1928 and this organization still exists to help persons—whether they be residents, staff, visitors or members of sponsoring congregations—PioneerCare is about helping us all pray (and live!) as Jesus did: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

As a treasured partner in social ministry and a fine representative of Lutheran Services in America here in Fergus Falls, I am struck by how PioneerCare views its mission in such a faithful, well-rounded way--to “promote quality of life in a Christ-like way for those we serve by providing diverse and holistic care focusing always on individual dignity and worth.”

PioneerCare and all of its services and programs, is here to help persons of all ages and circumstances say, with their Lord Jesus: “Father—you who have fashioned my life, you who are my source and my goal—in your hands, into your power and into your protection—I commend my spirit, I turn over my whole life, now and forever.”

That my dear friends is the business we are in together—whether we’re talking nursing care, social services, housekeeping, food services, chaplaincy or administration—everything we think, say and do through ministries of caring like this—is aimed at making that ancient Jewish bedtime prayer, Jesus’ famous last words, …making them our own words to live by and words to die by: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

What a way to die!

And, better yet: what a way to live!

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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