March 25, 2018

Famous Last Words, VII: If I Should Wake Before I Die

Passage: Luke 19:29–44; 23:44–49

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Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.'
Having said this, he breathed his last.  —Luke 23:46


In Richard II, Shakespeare writes:

O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony
Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.[1]

Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain.  We pay attention to famous last words. Some famous last words, unexpect­edly, are played for comic relief.  Such as: “Are you sure the power is off?”  Or, “Which wire was I supposed to cut?”  Or, “I wonder where the mother bear is?”  There was the famous Civil War General who was looking out over a bunker at the enemy troops, and when warned to keep his head down said, “They couldn’t hit an ele­phant from this dist–”

Do you know what they carved on Mel Blanc’s tombstone?  “That’s all, folks.”

Others are much more serious.  Do you know who said this?  “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have.” That was Leo­nardo da Vinci.  Queen Elizabeth I said, “All my possessions for a moment of time."

Ludwig von Beetho­ven’s contemporaries don’t agree on what his last words were. His secretary recorded this: “Pity, Pity, too late.”  The second ver­sion is a little better: “Friends, applaud.  The comedy is over.”  But my favorite is the third:  "In heaven, I shall hear."

The Greek mathematician Archimedes was so busy drawing in the sand trying to figure out a math problem that he did not notice that enemy soldiers had invaded his home town of Syracuse.

When a Roman soldier came to lead him away as a prisoner of war, Archimedes said, "You're standing on my problem."  The soldier said, "You're under arrest."  Archimedes said, "Wait till I have finished my problem."

The Roman legion­naire did not appreciate his insolence, so those were his last words.  "Wait till I have finished my problem."

Shakespeare said, "Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain."  Do you know what Shakespeare said at the end?  They say his last words were "Father, into thy hands, I commend my spirit."

Charle­magne, Christopher Columbus, Martin Lu­ther, Michelangelo, George Herbert, and Charles Dickens, all these apparently felt that it would be hard to improve upon the last words of Jesus Christ, at least as they are recorded for us by Luke.  We have the Roman and Anglican Books of Prayer to thank for that, of course. It’s what you say when they give you last rites.

The words are not even original with Jesus.  They come from an old song which pious Jews had been praying for 400 years, just before falling asleep, the words of Psalm 31:5—"You have redeemed me, O Lord, faith­ful God; into thy hands, I commit my Spirit."  When breath dies and life wanes and shadow enshrouds the mind, maybe there is nothing left to remember but the prayer your mother taught you when you first learned words.

Jesus died as he lived: talking about ‘spirit.’ When Jesus talks about ‘spirit,’ you hardly know whether he's talking about his own spirit, his own psyche, his own soul, or the spirit of God, because in his life they were virtually indistinguishable. With every breath he took, he breathed the spirit of God and lived the life of God.

This is especially true about the way Luke tells the story.  Here’s a profitable Lenten enterprise: read through the Gospel of Luke during Holy Week; you could read four chapters a day, about 20 minutes, and reach Luke’s resurrection story on Easter Sunday.

You will discover that in the Gospel of Luke, God’s Spirit was there before his birth and after his death.  It breathed him into being and it carried him out of life.

Even before he is born the angel says to Mary, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will over­shadow you; therefore the child which is within you shall be called holy, the Son of God."

At his baptism the Spirit of God falls upon him. His first sermon started like this:  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to speak good news to the poor...”

Jesus’ lived his life with intense and singular purpose, so he can die in the Lord because he lived in the Lord.  Jesus means to set up his kingdom in Jerusalem, no matter what the cost.  Smack dab in the middle of his Gospel Luke tells us that despite all warn­ings about the recklessness of going to the capital city of his fierce opposition, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusa­lem.”

At first the people give him a hero’s wel­come and throw their coats in the road for the donkey to walk on and cut palm branches from the trees and yell “Hosanna!  Blessed be the One who comes in the name of the Lord.” It took all of five days before ‘Hosanna!’ morphed into “Crucify him!”

But that was the singular purpose of his en­tire life: to set up the kingdom of God right next to the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Tem­ple and Pilate’s Palace too. When you com­mit your spirit into God’s hands in life, you can hand it over to God one last time in death.

Have you ever seen August Wilson’s play called Fences?  Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play, 1987.  Or maybe you saw the filmed version from a year ago with Denzel Washington.  Four Academy Award nominations, one win for Viola Davis as Best Supporting Actor.

Fences is about Troy Maxson, a black mid­dle-aged garbage handler from the streets of Pittsburgh.  In his youth Troy Maxson had been a brilliant baseball player in the old black baseball leagues before Jackie Robin­son broke the major league color barrier.  He had been major league material, every bit as good as Robinson, but the wrong color.  In the play someone says to Troy, "There's a lot of colored ball players in the big leagues now.  You just come along too early."  And Troy says, "There ought not to be a time called "too early."

That's the way of the world.  It's always too early.  But Jesus says "It's never too early to accept the unacceptable, to love the unlova­ble, to throw lavish banquets for the starv­ing, to make kingdom citizens of the dispos­sessed and the disinherited.  Why is it al­ways too early?

When my son graduated from university in 2010, he went straight to Houston for five weeks of intensive training to learn how to be an educator for Teach for America, this organization that sends bright college grad­uates into the classrooms of America’s toughest schools.

It’s sort of a domestic Peace Corps arrangement; you sign up for two years and then they send you into the wilderness and you have the option to reen­list for a third year.

Michael taught biology for two years at Miami Central High School, kind of a hard­ship assignment, living in a high-rise on a canal off the Bay in North Miami Beach with 20 other Teach for America kids.

When he’d completed his two years he went to work for TFA headquarters in New York; he used to boast that his desk was five down from Wendy Kopp’s (founder of TFA).

So I have a high regard for Teach for Amer­ica.  Many smart people in education ques­tion the wisdom of staffing wild classrooms with 22-year-old kids who’ve had five weeks of preparation instead of the four or six years most real teachers get, but their goal is to pump valuable human capital from elite universities into poor neighborhoods, and Michael felt he made a positive if mod­est contribution.

A while back The Washington Post pub­lished an article about the Wheatley Elemen­tary School in the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  The Trinidad neighbor­hood sounds just as neglected as some of our south and west side neighbor­hoods in Chicago.

Michelle Rhee, Chan­cellor of the Washington Schools at the time and also a Teach for America veteran, asked Scott Cartland, another TFA alumnus, to try to turn the school around.

When Scott be­came Principal there two years before this article was written, it was just chaos.  The kids ran the school, says Scott.  When he arrived as Principal, Scott replaced 80 percent of the staff and also added seven Teach for America kids, including a young woman named Amber Smith.

No one claims people like Amber are chang­ing the world.  Some of her fifth-graders are labeled non-readers, which means that somehow they’ve managed to get to the fifth grade with less than kindergarten-level read­ing skills.   It’s a tough situation, and the improvements have been modest, but there they are.

The Post reporter telling Amber’s story says of her that she is “impossibly young and im­possibly committed.”  I loved that combina­tion: impossibly young and impossibly committed.

Amber lives in the rough Trini­dad neighborhood.  She walks to school with her students.  She attends their dance shows and basketball games.  When this reporter talked to her, Amber’s two-year commit­ment was almost complete.

When asked what she would do next, she said, “I’m stay­ing.  I can’t leave until it has changed.”[2]  Impossibly young and impossibly com­mitted.

"Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit," says Jesus from the cross, gathering up his last breath to cry out the most famous and copied last words of them all.  It was no time to get creative.  It was a prayer his mother had taught him when he was two years old, maybe the first words he ever spoke.

It’s not unlike the prayer we all learned in our own childhoods:

            Now I lay me down to sleep
            I pray the Lord my soul to keep
            If I should die before I wake
            I pray the Lord my soul to take.

That’s a great prayer. But life is short.  Commitment is now.  Maybe our prayer should be “If I should wake before I die.”

“Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”  If we live in God, we shall die in God, and that’s never the end at all.  In life and in death, we belong to God.   Three days later, it all begins again.


[1] William Shakespeare, King Richard II, Act II, scene 1, ll. 687–690.
[2] Michael Gerson, “Teach for America: Education Reform in Action,” The Washington Post, June 9, 2010.