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"Words to Live (and Die) By" 23rd Sunday After Pentecost - October 31, 2021

Famous last words…I was curious about the most famous of the “famous last words” – those words spoken from a deathbed. Here are some:

Oscar Wilde, from his death bed looked around the room, critically examining its interior décor and said, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”

Emily Dickinson whispered before her death, “I must go in, the fog is rising.”

Harriet Tubman, that great emancipator, said, “Swing low, sweet chariot” and then died.

Groucho Marx’s last words, exhibiting comedy genius to the very end, said “This is no way to live.”

There are two reports of Humphrey Bogart’s last words. The first: he told his wife, actress Lauren Bacal, as she was leaving to pick up their kids from Sunday School “Goodbye kid, hurry back.” (They went to an Episcopal Church, by the way.) The second report has Bogart’s last words being, “I should have never switched from Scotch to Martinis.” (So…if you have any doubt that Bogart was an Episcopalian, that should clear it up right there.)

My favorite last words, though, come from Bob Hope – his wife, sitting bed-side, holding his hand as he was dying asked, “Do you want to be buried or cremated?” Bob Hope replied,

“Surprise me.”

Last words…Have you ever heard someone’s last words spoken? I have only a few times. Like the time I was with Fr. Bob Hedges. We served together at Emmanuel in San Angelo, and he became a kind of mentor to me in that season. Fr. Bob was very ill, unable to communicate with his family or friends, floating in and out of whatever it is you and I will float in and out of one day. I sat down next to the couch where he was lying and began to read the office of Evening Prayer out of our Book of Common Prayer. And I saw this man, unable to speak to anyone, mouth the words of Evening Prayer from memory - right along with me. You couldn’t hear his voice, but those were his last words…That’s why we do this Liturgy thing, by the way, saying the same words over and over – that’s their gift! They can become words to live and die by. Our famous last words…

The Jewish people, both ancient and today, have famous last words. For centuries they’ve spoken them at dawn, and at dusk, and at the time of death. It is called The Shema.

Traditionally it is recited with a hand placed over the eyes and begins with these words:

Hear O Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is One

Blessed is the name of his glorious kingdom forever and ever.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.

And it was last words the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, and the Scribes were trying to get on Jesus. Pressing him on several hot-button topics of the time. But it was Jesus who got the last words in every time, leaving them stumped and wordless. Then, another Scribe approaches Jesus but not with the hostility of the others. Maybe that’s because he was fresh out of grad school and felt a little trepidation or maybe it’s because he was old and possessed the kind of humility that can come with age.

“Good teacher”, he asks, “What is the greatest commandment?”

This was a popular question among the religious elites of the day – as they had something around 613 commandments and often conversation (or debate) turned to what is the ESSENCE of the law. What is at the heart of the law that they cared so much about? And Jesus’ response…he recited the Shema.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind (and then Jesus adds) strength.

Love the Lord with all your will, all your being, all your moral conscious, and with all your energy. In other words, love God with every fiber of who you are but then Jesus goes even further…

And the second is like unto it, love your neighbor as yourself.

But that’s not in the Shema…he’s drawing from the book of Leviticus and combining it with the Shema. No one, until that point, had done such a thing. No one had combined these two. What’s even more striking is the passage from Leviticus that he draws from – that the Scribe would have absolutely known - articulates what love for neighbor is to look like. It’s from the 19th chapter – leave your field for the immigrant to gleam, don’t steal or deal falsely with people, which profanes God; don’t do anything which leads to oppressing your neighbor, don’t exploit employees, or discriminate against the poor and disabled, and do no injustice to anyone.

I cannot help but think of the Psalm, and wonder if the Scribe did too, which says, that “righteousness AND justice are the foundations of God’s throne.”

Righteousness….love God with all that you are.

Justice…love people with all that you are.

You see…the Scribes and the religious elite created a whole system based upon righteousness, which inevitably, whether it be in the first century or today, just leads to self-righteousness. It seems this Scribe grasped that as he not only agrees with Jesus, but adds –

You’re right…it’s not about all the sacrifices and rituals we’re doing in the temple…love of God and love of neighbor is the greatest.

There is a not so hidden critique Mark includes in this whole interaction. Just look at what Jesus did leading-up to this…

He walks into the temple, chases all the money changers out, turns over tables, critiques their whole system. Leaves…but then he comes back to the temple (to the scene of the crime) and goes toe to toe with all the people who wanted him gone, right. He’s teaching about authority and power, taxes and Caesar, theology of the resurrection, and now we see him telling a Scribe that they got only part of the greatest commandment, only a portion of the ESSENCE of the law.

You are not far from the kingdom of God, he tells the Scribe.

Not far…?

Not far….

Not far…

Because orthodoxy isn’t enough. Correct belief isn’t enough. Right answers aren’t enough.

And for so long the Church has emphasized just that…orthodoxy, right answers, doctrines…

Right after this sermon we’re going to recite the Nicene Creed. But we can’t separate that from what we’ll pray together at the conclusion of the service.

Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.

And all through the gospels we see that to love and serve God is to love and serve others.

Sometimes I wonder if Christ’s message to the Church in America might be what he spoke to this Scribe.

You are not far…You are not far…You are not far from participating in the kingdom…but you’re still really interested in participating in other things, things that let you overlook your neighbor, things that keep you from loving people the way I love you.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

And love your neighbor as yourself.

Famous last words. I wonder if we might speak them with our last breath?

Those dying words might give birth to a new world.


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