Famous Last Words
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At NCP Meeting at National Presbyterian, Washington, DC
On November 27th, 2012
II Samuel 23:1-5
Now these are the last words of David:
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.
The God of Israel has spoken,
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
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.
Is not my house like this with God?
For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure.
Will he not cause to prosper
all my help and my desire?
We just listened to what the author of II Samuel calls
“the last words” of King David.
Ever since I said yes to preaching for Presbytery,
And preaching on this text,
I’ve been thinking about last words.
I’ve even looked up some famous last words.
They range from the ridiculous to the sublime.
There are the last words attributed to Humphrey Bogart,
words a gathering of Presbyterians can surely appreciate:
“I never should have switched from Scotch to martinis.”
How about these, from Dominique Bouhours, the famous French grammarian?
“I am about to, or I am going to, die: either expression is correct.”
Then there are these from Nostradamus, that famous 16th century prognosticator:
“Tomorrow, I shall no longer be here.”
There are, of course, the famous last words of the redneck,
Spoken just as he is about to try some ill-advised stunt:
“Hey, ya’ll, watch this!”
We all know the seven last words of the church. Say them with me:
“We’ve. Never. Done. It. That. Way. Before.”
Maybe you remember the last words of Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple,
at least as his sister Mona Simpson reported them:
Before he breathed his last, she revealed, Jobs said, “Oh, wow!”
Perhaps the saddest ones were spoken by Joan Crawford to her housekeeper, as the maid began to pray aloud:
“Dammit, don’t you dare ask God to help me!”
Last words. We’ll all get a chance to speak them someday,
because the truth of the matter is, we are all going to die.
Someday, it will be our turn to have our names read
in the Necrology at the Presbytery meeting.
It’s not a wildly cheery thought, I know, but it’s true.
And the truth of the matter is that not only will we each
have our own turn at death,
we’ll also all have our share of opportunities to fail,
to stumble, sometimes miserably—
because as optimistic as I want to be about human nature,
I’m Reformed enough to know
that our best efforts are often feeble and frail.
Just yesterday I re-posted a great e-card a clergy friend of mine
put up on his Facebook wall
“I never make the same mistake twice,” it read,
“I make it like five or six times, you know, just to be sure.”
Not all of us make the same mistake with that kind of dogged regularity,
but all of us are human 24-7.
Because we share in that human condition
relationships get broken,
organizations come to an end,
churches fight and close.
Nothing—well, no thing—lasts forever.
Even King David—
the man whom God exalted,
the anointed one of the God of Jacob,
the favorite of the Strong One of Israel—
went the way of all flesh.
And he didn’t just go the way of all flesh when he died, as we know.
There was that whole Bathsheba and Uriah thing, which lends
extra resonance to the fact that David Petraeus’ nickname is “King David.”
As good as his own PR machine was,
the first King David—son of Jesse—was human, too.
Which makes his last words, in their way, all the more revealing:
Because for all of their confident assertion of God’s presence and favor,
for all of their celebration of David’s achievements, power, and gifts, David’s last words, placed on his lips by the Deuteronomist,
make it clear that it is not David, but God, who brings low and lifts high.
My old seminary professor Walter Brueggemann has this to say about David’s last words, which he rightly calls a psalm:
“When read attentively, this psalm debunks the very royal claims of David that it seems to celebrate. In the end, it is Yahweh, not David, who has made the decisive difference. The psalm gladly celebrates David as the great warrior and deliverer. But David is celebrated only penultimately. Israel knows that not David but Yahweh is the deliverer and the rescuer who wins battles. It is Yahweh, only Yahweh, who is sovereign in Israel, among the nations, and in all creation. Kings may come and go, may succeed and cry out, may obey and disobey. After all that kings do and do not do, however, Yahweh is still sovereign and must be praised.”
Isn’t that what we have to acknowledge on the night when we read our necrology?
As faithful and as flawed as all of those elders and pastors
whose names flashed on this screen were,
as dramatically as they succeeded and failed,
as loud as they cried out,
as wonderful and wounded as they all were,
whether they obeyed or disobeyed,
the truth is, they came and went.
Bodies, like kings and pastors and elders, come and go.
Isn’t that what we come up against when our frail bodies give out,
whether suddenly or after a long siege of illness?
We can do our best “Dylan Thomas” and “not go gently,
but rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
However in the end there is one thing we cannot do. We cannot avoid death.
And we cannot raise the dead. Only God can do that.
And it is God, whom Israel called Yahweh,
whose Love and Presence was and is embodied in Jesus Christ,
whom King David, at his best, served.
With God, we remember that power—royal or otherwise—
is meant to be used for the sake of doing justice.
With God, we remember that human sinfulness,
as destructive as it can be to lives and relationships,
does not have to get the last word.
With God, we can approach our own death or the death of loved ones
with confidence, knowing that as heartwrenching
as loss and separation can be,
there is One who will not let death have the final say.
Tom Long, that great Presbyterian preacher and teacher of preachers, says that at every funeral there are at least two preachers.
One of them is the minister, the other is Brother Death.
And Brother Death preaches a mighty convincing sermon.
“This life is all there is,” he says. “I have the last word on everything,
so you might as well give up hope. Eat drink and be merry,
for tomorrow you die.”
In the face of that sermon, it is up to you and me, Tom says,
to outpreach Brother Death,
to let people know that Death really doesn’t get the last word after all
—but the God whose love was embodied in Jesus does.
I don’t know about you and your preaching,
But on a good day I think I’ve outpreached Brother Death.
Some days, I’m wise enough to know that I haven’t.
Sometimes, Brother Death about has me convinced.
But the good news is, as hard as I’ve worked and as feebly as I struggle,
It is not really finally up to me to triumph over death, or sin, or evil.
I have to keep remembering that it’s up to God, and that I just do my part.
This past Friday night I was part of an improbable celebration.
32 of my family members and a host of my mom and dad’s friends
gathered in Columbia, SC, where my mom and dad now live,
to honor their 50th anniversary
with a celebration and renewal of vows ceremony
in their local Presbyterian church.
31 years ago, a sane betting person
would not have taken a plug nickel for that celebration ever happening.
My Dad was in the midst of active alcoholism and infidelity.
My Mom was in the throes of codependency.
And my family was in turmoil.
I was a high school freshman watching the wheels
come off of my parents’ marriage.
When my dad walked out of the house,
that marriage was as good as dead.
Death could easily have had the last word there, but it didn’t.
On April 12, 1982, my father took his beginner’s chip,
And in April of this year he received his 30 year one,
One day at a time, death has not had the final say.
It is one of God’s great miracles that my mom and dad are still together—
a testimony to the power of costly forgiveness
and to how God can and does work
through the 12 step programs and communities
of Alcoholics Anonymous and Alanon.
It is also not saying too much to affirm that the youth group I was in,
a joint venture between The Woodlands Community Presbyterian Church and Shepherd of the Woods U.C.C.
was instrumental in giving me enough emotional
and spiritual support to save my life, and my soul,
whether my parents’ marriage survived or not.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of marriages that fail,
(and some of them should)
there are plenty of relationships that don’t get healed,
there are plenty of teenagers who fall through the cracks,
just like there are plenty of men, women and children
we pray for fervently who still die of illness,
and there are plenty of social and economic injustices
that persist in our world.
What I will say is that celebrating my mom and dad’s 50th anniversary
for me constitutes pretty good evidence of the power of God’s
love , embodied in human lives and communities,
to bring life out of death.
And speaking of such evidence, so do the various efforts of
Individuals and families and congregations in this presbytery
working in Jesus’ name and through the power of the Holy Spirit
to house the homeless, to feed the hungry,
to visit the sick, to break down barriers, to work for reconciliation,
and to change systems of injustice.
Yet troubles persist. So in the meantime,
When it seems like Brother Death has indeed gotten the last word,
(and to be honest, sometimes it feels like he has)
I’ll just keep trusting, and acting on, the Gospel truth
That love does.
In Jesus’ name.