A LAST REQUEST
John 17: 1-19
The late Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a pioneer on the subject of grief, particularly on the subject of death and dying. She writes: “Anticipation heightens the senses and enhances birthdays, holiday celebrations, and vacations. Unfortunately, anticipation can also magnify the possibility or reality of a loss….Knowing that we and all of our loved ones will die someday creates anxiety. We see this early in life. ‘Bambi’s mother was shot!’ many little girls cried [out] when they [saw that movie for the first time.] And who didn’t cry at or get choked up the first time they saw the movie ‘Old Yeller,’ or most recently, ‘Marley and Me?’ Other children learned about death watching Simba’s dad dying in The Lion King.” [ON GRIEF AND GRIEVING, Scribner, p.1] Dealing with the death of a parent, grandparent, friend, or a pet can be devastating. Dealing with the death of a child is a loss from which most tell me they do not fully recover. How do we deal with all that life and death throw us?
This summer our daughter, and your seminary student, Jenny Sumner, will spend an intensive three months at Tampa General Hospital, our closest trauma one center. There she will doing Clinical Pastoral Education, what others training for the ministry have done before her: getting used to seeing blood, broken bones, twisted limbs, scarred faces; trying to help people cope with untimely illnesses, find her own places of vulnerability and deal with them and learn how to help others come to terms with dying when she has yet to come to terms with it either. It is a daunting training experience. So far it didn’t go well: to work in a hospital, people have to get a blood test. As they drew blood from her, she fainted and grew nauseous! But as you either laugh or wince at that story, it reminds us of how much anxiety surrounds our times of grave illness, of death, and of dying. Some have spent time in the military and experienced post traumatic stress disorder from the horrors of war; some have learned how to treat the dead, and the families of the dead, with the greatest of respect and honor. The just released HBO documentary film TAKING CHANCE is an extraordinary example of military honor and care: I highly recommend it.
One of the best ways to deal with our mortality and the illness of others is to hear the words of those who have faced it. German Christian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was executed in a Concentration Camp while he was working for Hitler’s defeat. Among his last requests was a prayer to God that he wrote down: “God who doest punish sin and willingly forgive, I have loved this people…. Seize me and hold me! My staff is sinking; O faithful God, prepare my grave.” (From Der Tod des Mose, 1944). Theologian Henry Nouwen return from visiting his father one year and stopped to have dinner with one of his friends named Nathan. “During the meal, Nathan asked [him], ‘Where and how do you want to die?’ He raised the question in a gentle way. It was a question that came from our awareness that [our friend was soon going to die.] Our awareness prompted us to ask ourselves: ‘Are we preparing ourselves for death, or are we ignoring death by keeping busy? Will our death give new life, new hope, and new faith to our friends, or will it be no more than another cause for sadness?’ … Nathan’s question brought me face-to-face with a great challenge: (said Nouwen,) not only to live well, but also to die well.’” [OUR GREATEST GIFT, Harper, 1995,] Fainting at the sight of blood; having to come to terms with death: what can we do to gird ourselves for our fateful day, and to give help and hope to those around us when we pass from this world? On this Memorial Day weekend, we turn to a most sacred moment, and a chance to know the prayerful exchange that our Lord Jesus had with his Father in Heaven. Scattered in the gospels are his so called “seven last words” where some humbling cries and requests are shared. They include: 1) “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It’s a high calling to offer forgiveness ourselves and to ask forgiveness of others in a daily fashion, for we know not the day or the hour we will breathe our last. 2) “Verily, thou shalt be in Paradise today with me.” It’s a word of surprising blessing, something that we can choose to share too. 3) “Dear Woman, behold thy son.” That was Jesus’ assignment to John, whom he trusted to care for his mother, a wonderful example of care. 4) “God, my Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?” reminds us that even the Lord Jesus felt the anguish of human life leaving his body. We are not alone in our trials. 5) “I thirst.” From discomfort to anguish, whatever you experience, Jesus too has experienced it. 6)“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” At some point Jesus chose to set his face toward Heaven, leaving Earth behind. At some point we too can cross over to “the sweet by and by.” And the 7) last word: “It is finished.” When Jesus said those words, they did not just describe his death; they described all his purposes in life as well. “Those words from us can also let others know we did all that we could with the hand we were dealt. In the prayer we read today, Jesus prayed to his Father, and showed first, how to give God the glory. Jesus saw his death as bringing glory to his Heavenly Father. A life well lived, with remorse when needed, and forgiveness offered as appropriate, and the good news shared naturally is a life that glorifies God. Today we remember all those who have gone before us, some living well, some poorly; some dying quickly, and others slowly. How will people talk about us after we’re gone? Second, Jesus lived so that others might know God. Is there one person- a child, a youth, an adult- who you have invited to know God, by inviting them to church, by showing kindness to them, by teaching them, or by offering care to them? Is there at least one person in the world who thinks well of God because of you, and thinks well of you because Jesus shines through you? If not, you have another job description from our Savior: Besides first glorifying God in all things; and second to live so others might know God. Third: Jesus asked his Father to protect us; we ask him to protect the souls of our loved ones as well. Our prayer, like his, is that they are protected from the temptations the Evil One offers. That is a tall order, but one for which we work and pray. Jesus had a number of last requests, most of which were to glorify God and to help others. Those who take steps like that follow in the footsteps of the Master.
And so, dear friends: many well prepared people, Jesus included, put their wishes in writing: in their will they have helped others and glorified God; some have given bequests that helped God or others in visible or lasting ways; some wrote words that guided their children, their spouse, or their friends to more meaningful and peaceful
living. Last requests, written well, can bless those who remain behind. Who will you seek to bless at your passing, with your gifts or your guidance? Let this weekend not just be a memorial weekend, but one of thoughtful planning as well.
Jeffrey Sumner May 24, 2009