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In my first rural parish in North Carolina, I was as a young whippersnapper of a pastor even more of a liturgical and theological and musical snob than I am now. I regularly used as my example of what we ought not to sing the hymn "In the Garden." Why would Christians, whose biblical faith values community far above individualism and who have heard Jesus' explicit command to deny self and live for others, why would we ever sing, "He walks with me, talks with me, tells me I am his own"? Some years later, a Baptist clergy friend of mine helped knock me off my high horse when he heard my rant about that hymn and quoted some familiar words: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters," and so on.
Touché! Of course, we have a personal relationship with God, but still, I think "private" is rarely a helpful word in communities of faith. As an aside, that reasoning is why "In the Garden" still has never appeared in a Lutheran hymnal. Anyway, one night in that first parish, that know-it-all young pastor was called to the hospital by the family of an elderly parishioner who was struggling in his last hours. I rushed to the hospital, and we waited for all of his children to arrive; and when all of them were there, we all held hands around his bed and commended him to Jesus and prayed for his peaceful passing. This dear old salt-of-the-earth farmer looked up and smiled, and then he spoke. He spoke last words. Sacred, Holy ground. "I love every one of you. I'm ready to go. And I love Pastor Tim, too, and I love his voice and I know he'll sing "In the Garden" for you at my funeral. Whereupon in that very instant he flat-lined on the monitor and died. Through tears, the oldest son looked at me and said, "Thank you, Pastor. Daddy always loved that song!"
And this is how we know God has a sense of humor: In no construction of reality that you could conjure would I ever have considered, especially not publicly as a solo, singing that song in a worship service over which I presided. But I got trumped, trumped by love and the power of last words. And at Zeb's funeral, with three of my clergy colleagues who had heard my self-righteous rant about that very hymn and with whom I had shared my hospital story, sitting in the congregation with ridiculous smirks on their faces, I sang, "and He walks with me and he talks with me." The whole thing. With feeling. Last words are holy, compelling.
Several years back while Ken Burns was doing research for a PBS series on the Civil War, a professor sent him a little-known letter written by a Rhode Island soldier to his wife Sarah. The author, Sullivan Ballew, had a premonition of his own death, and he wrote to his wife:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eyes when I shall be no more. Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence could break. The memories of the blissful moments that I have spent with you come creeping over me. I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long, and hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood around us. If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
The imminence of death is indeed sacred ground, and in those moments we cling to last words in hopes of gleaning some meaning, some promise, some legacy. Every transition, every transformation, is a death of sorts, as well as a new birth. For something new to be fully born, something old must die. It's the way of the world. Even the transitions we welcome are always bittersweet. Having launched three adult children, I think of the series of last words with which we bombarded them, before first getting on the school bus, before driving the car alone, before that first date, going off to college.
But dying words are in a league of their own. How about you? If you could say just a few last words as you knew you were dying, to whom would they be addressed and what would they be? I'm guessing that somewhere in those last words would be a heartfelt "I love you," as well as some sincere request like "take care of your brother," or "live your life."
Chapters 13-17 of John's gospel are Jesus' earthly life last words to his disciples as he prepares them for a major transition. Something new, namely, the ministry of the disciples and the church, is about to be born; and as with all births, something, namely Jesus himself, has to die. In that holy ground context, Jesus says, "As the Father has loved me, so I love you, and so you should love one another." What is it that matters when all else, including life itself, is said and done? What is the most compelling, the most powerful, the most enduring force in all of the cosmos? What, as we prepare both for living and dying, becomes the echoing refrain? Love. Not the normal "What do I get out of it" kind of love we usually mean when we use the word. Jesus was specifically commending to his followers agape love, the unconditional and self-sacrificing love that he himself exemplifies.
How does one measure such love? "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for one's friends," for the beloved. Last words matter. They are precious. Of all that Jesus might have said, he chooses love and relationship, even as he chooses us in love and sends us into the world to be love. Not a feeling or inclination, this love, but obedience to his commandment to choose to love others as God has chosen to love us.
Sullivan Ballew was killed seven days after he wrote that letter, at the 1st battle of Bull Run.
"When my last breath escapes, it will whisper your name, Sarah." And the next day after Jesus shared his parting words, he was crucified, his last breath on the cross and first breath in the resurrection whispering your name, your forgiveness.
"As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you." It is your name he whispers before you're formed in your momma's womb, in the waters of baptism, around the altar, in the word, in the fellowship of Christ's people.
It is your name, no matter how far you may wander, that if you pause to listen you will always hear. "Listen to me, Child. I love you. And now your only job is to share that love." The first, and the last, word is love. Amen.
Let us pray. Gracious Lord God, we give you thanks for every precious gift and blessing that you shower on us so abundantly. But most especially, we thank you for the precious gift, the relationship with you which we could never deserve, but in which you call us and love us anyway, and also the precious relationships with others to which you command us in love. Help us to be your loving children. Help us to be aware of the needs of others and to serve them as your church and your people. In the name of Christ we ask it. Amen.
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