“Now these are the last words of David…” That verse captures my attention. For lately, I have been noticing last things: the words, music, creativity a person puts out into the world when they sense that, for them, the veil between heaven and earth grows dim and they have truth to speak.
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony stuns the world to silence; he dies of cholera just days after conducting the premiere. Matisse, no longer able to paint, lies on his back; and with scissors creates energizing, beloved cut-outs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s magnificent meditation, “Solitude of Self”: the last words of her public life given over to the struggle for women’s suffrage.
The intensity of love and wisdom; the spark of Spirit that quickens and brightens; the vulnerability and willingness to become all flame, all passion at the edges of life: last words have power. We attend to them.
I remember my grandmother’s dying. My family called me home. She wanted to see all her grandchildren while she still had the capacity to speak to us. I had been tentative in my family connections for several years; the years since my divorce. Divorce is not part of our family story. It had left me feeling awkward, inadequate, distant.
As I walked in the door, my grandmother, recognizing my footsteps called out “You are the one I’ve been waiting for. Come on in here and sit down.” I pulled a small stool up beside her recliner so she could see me as she spoke.
“Honey, I want you to know I have dreamed about the person every single one of my grandchildren married. I never dreamed about that man you married. Listen to me. Pay attention.” Not long after, she was gone.
I will never know whether or not she really dreamed those dreams. I do know that her words—the last personal words she ever spoke to me—brought me back into the arms of my family in a way that nothing else had.
Gently, indirectly, she spoke of forgiveness and welcome, invited me home, and blessed me. I have never forgotten her words, or the feeling of freedom and release they brought to my life.
Last words: they permeate the Biblical narrative. Moses blesses Israel’s twelve tribes by name. Then, with tender care, he calls out their strengths, notes their vulnerabilities, reminds them of God’s promise to be their resting place. Then, he was gone.
Naomi tries to send her widowed daughter-in-law back to her people with words of parting. Ruth surprises her with a proclamation of fidelity to Naomi, Naomi’s people, Naomi’s God.
Old Simeon: we sing his last words at every evensong. Waiting in the temple, praying for a peaceful death; having at long last held the world’s tiny Savior in his arms.
In Scripture, worship, prayer the church holds on to last words. For they witness to our covenantal God: who calls a people into relationship, who makes of us a family of faith, a priesthood; in whose company and in whose service a people—we—become holy.
In today’s readings, we hear last words. David, Israel’s most beloved king, praises God in song as he moves towards the edges of life. And in the last extended conversation Jesus will have before his crucifixion, he and Pilate consider the nature of kings and kingdoms. What do we learn from them? Listen!
We become what we sing. In deep ways, the church learns this from David. Says Eugene Peterson, whatever David knows of God, David prays. And whatever David prays becomes song; the Psalms of worship. And David’s Psalms and worship shape his kingship.
Not a perfect king; not by any measure a perfect king. David’s singing serves as a reminder. Israel’s governance flourishes when David’s heart and mind and soul and strength remain open to God’s guidance.
Here at the last David sings. “The God of Israel has…said to me; ‘One who rules over people justly, who rules in the fear of God, is like…the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.’”
It could sound arrogant. And yet David sings from a place of gratitude; for David has literally prayed his way into being God’s king.
Wishing the same for God’s people, David bids them to sing; to develop “an astonishing vocabulary of praise”; so that God’s firm covenant of love and God’s just and merciful character might take root in them. Singing and praying, we become evermore God’s people.
Meeting Jesus this day in the Praetorium unsettles us; leaning as we are toward joy-filled holidays. Bloodied, bound, beaten; Jesus stands before Pilate. His time on earth grows short. The staccato of their conversation pulses with urgency.
We meet in Pilate an arrogant ruler. Confident he is in control; Pilate relies on his usual ways of governing: intimidation, brutality, cruelty. Jesus stands before him unwavering, unimpressed. Pilate is undone, growing more frustrated, more agitated, more frightened with each exchange. Jesus turns the tables on Pilate with a power of his own.
For what Pilate fails to comprehend is that Jesus is both king and inbreaking kingdom. In Jesus, God’s will and way pour into the world with a grace that takes our breath away. In Jesus, all that God imagines resides and rules and reigns among us. In Jesus, God holds nothing back; leaves nothing out.
Jesus’ kingdom lives and grows in the prophetic imaginations and longing hearts of a people; people who bind themselves to him with cords of love and acts of tender mercy.
Jesus speaks a last word to Pilate. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” I remember the grace of my grandmother as Jesus offers grace to this arrogant man: a way of belonging, a new home, the promise of freedom and release, entry into life, abundant and free. Pilate cannot leave behind the ways of death and power and privilege.
Jesus will die upon the wood of the cross. In the paradox of God’s love, it becomes a throne of suffering love; lifted up, drawing all things up into God; up into God’s Christ.
The cross is not God’s last word to us in Jesus. By the goodness and grace and love of God; God raises Jesus victorious from the grave. Jesus reigns. No kingdom on earth proves greater than God’s kingdom. No power on earth greater than God’s power. The whole creation sings a song of praise. Death is swallowed up in victory.
And yet, we have to tell the truth. Sometimes the brutal powers of this world overwhelm us: our tolerance for violence, our penchant for cruelty, our greed and our sense of privilege give power to the world’s darkness. Listen!!! For then and there we sing.
When it seems the oppressors, the special interests, the Pilates of the world are winning, listen!!! For then and there we sing. When we cannot raise our voices with the gratitude of David; cannot touch the promised love of God; cannot live with the compassion and mercy of Jesus, listen!!! For then and there we sing.
In his book Whispering the Lyrics, Tom Long speaks of African-American freedom riders; civil rights leaders who traveled by bus into the cities and towns of the South to challenge segregationist laws.
They came, and continued to come, in hopes that God, through their efforts, would raise up the just and peaceable dominion they could imagine in their heart, and could not yet see with their eyes.
In one town, the police stopped their bus; arrested and jailed them all; then set out to break their spirits. Using lights and noise, they deprived the prisoners of sleep. Oversalted food left prisoners hungering and thirsty. And one by one, jailers removed the mattresses from the cells, hoping to create conflict among the jailed.
And it almost worked. Morale began to sag in the cells. Until a single voice began to whisper a gospel song; joined by another voice, then another, until an entire cellblock shook with songs of praise.
When the jailers went to investigate, the prisoners began pushing all the remaining mattresses through the bars of the cells, saying, “You can take our mattresses. You cannot take our souls.”
In the classroom and in the café, in the factory and in the field, in the neighborhood and in the nave; whenever we find ourselves losing courage, losing imagination, losing hope. Listen!!! For somewhere, someone is singing praise to God.