Fifty years ago last Friday, Nellie Connelly, riding in a motorcade sitting next to her husband, Governor John Connelly, took in the joyous crowds that lined the streets, turned in her seat, and addressed John F. Kennedy: “You certainly can’t say the people of Dallas haven’t given you a nice welcome, Mr. President.” “No, you certainly can’t,” he replied. Those were the last four words spoken by a man whose speeches moved nations and molded generations.
Famous last words. The last thing Conrad Hilton said was this: “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.” Bob Hope’s sister asked him where he wanted to be buried. The comedian’s response became his last words, “Surprise me.” The last thing a long-time writer for a television soap opera named Charles Gussman said was, “And now for a final word from our sponsor.” James French, sitting in the electric chair, turned to gathered reporters and said, “Hey boy, I’ve got tomorrow’s headline for you: ‘French Fries!’”
Famous last words. See if you can guess who said this:
· “I found Rome brick, I leave it marble.” – Emperor Augustus.
· “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” – Nathan Hale.
· “Strike the tent.” – Robert E. Lee
· “Don’t give up the ship.” – James Lawrence
· “Roger, go at throttle-up.” – Dick Scobee, pilot of the space shuttle Challenger
· “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” – Steve Jobs
On this final Sunday in the Church Year – a day when we acknowledge and celebrate the Kingship of Christ – we hear two of our Lord’s final ‘seven words’:
· Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.
· Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
Off all the things we have heard Jesus say, of all his teachings and parables recorded in Luke’s Gospel that we have read over the span of this liturgical year, these are the last two things we hear Jesus say. Remembering dying words hardly seems like a fitting way to celebrate kingship, does it. But these words, so intentionally spoken, reveal something significant about the Kingdom over which our Lord reigns. First and foremost, it is not a kingdom marked by geographical boundaries nor is it controlled by money or by might. It is a Kingdom of relationships. “You will be with me,” Jesus tells the thief. “We will be in relationship with one another this day and forever.” Wherever and whenever a person is in relationship with God there is the Kingdom. Whenever and wherever two or more people who are in relationship with God are in relationship with one another, there is the Kingdom of God we call the Church.
“Father, forgive them” – for any relationship to survive and thrive there has to be forgiveness because at some point or another, and then over and over again, we hurt one another. By forgiving those who put him to death, Jesus highlights that Kingdom relationships are to be resilient and should always rise above anything any of us does to harm or destroy them. The hardest work we are called to do as followers of Jesus is the work of reconciliation – the work of restoring and repairing broken relationships.
When a person is ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, he or she promises to preach the Word of God and to administer the Sacraments in such as way that the reconciling love of Christ is made know. This vow – which goes far beyond preaching and liturgical practice – is perhaps the most difficult to keep. We in the priesthood are not called to be perfect. We make mistakes. We hurt people. People hurt us. We are just like everyone else in this regard. What sets us apart is the vow we take to seek reconciliation; to make healed and whole and healthy Kingdom relationships our utmost priority. It is a vow not rooted in good behavior, you know the “I’ll be a bigger person and be the one to bury the hatchet first.” It is rooted in the essence and life of our King.
What do you know about the life of Elizabeth Barrett, the famous Victorian era poet? Her first books were published when she was just twelve years old. At age fifteen, she injured her spine and, as a result of complications during her recovery, was considered to be an invalid. After a family tragedy, her father refused to allow any of his children to marry and as a result Elizabeth became a recluse. And still she continued to write. At the age of 39, one of her publications caught the attention of another writer, Robert Browning. He visited Elizabeth and wrote to her frequently. He encouraged her to get out of bed and to resume a normal life, but his efforts were met with strong resistance from her parents. They refused to let Browning see their daughter, but love would not be denied. Eventually Robert helped Elizabeth break free from her domineering family. The two were married and moved to Italy where the sunny, warm climate helped Elizabeth to make a complete recovery from her long-time maladies.
None of this mattered to her parents. They disowned her and cut off all ties. Elizabeth persevered, writing a letter to her parents every week for over ten years. She told them over and over how much she loved them and longed to be reconciled. One day she received a huge box in the mail from them. It contained every letter she wrote to home and not a single one had been opened and read. These “love letters” now comprise a precious part of English literature that have touched the lives of countless many, but it is sobering to think that the people for whom they were intended closed their hearts to their author, their daughter.
I’ll say it again: Kingdom relationships are to be resilient and should always rise above anything any of us does to harm or destroy them.
Let me tell you another story, this one with a different ending. Two brothers lived on adjoining farms. One day they had a deep quarrel and ended all contact with each other. The feud became so bitter that one brother dammed up the creek that provided water for both farms, cutting off a vital resource for his brother’s livelihood. Well, that brother became so disgusted at the sight of the growing pond on his brother’s farm that he hired a carpenter to build a fence so the he would not have to look at his brother’s property. The carpenter worked tirelessly all day, but rather than build a fence along the water, he built a bridge over it. When the other brother saw it he was so moved by what he supposed to be a gesture of goodwill that he walked halfway across the bridge. The brother who hired the carpenter, on seeing his brother on the bridge, walked out to meet him. The two embraced and made tearful, heartfelt amends. After a while they noticed that the carpenter was packing up his tools and getting ready to leave. The brothers implored him to stay, but the carpenter refused, saying, “I still have other bridges to build.”
One of the most impressive structures ever created is the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a 1.7 mile expanse of that spans the bay between San Francisco and Marin County. Construction lasted over four years. The bridge is built of 83,000 tons of steel, 80,000 miles of wire bundled together, and at least 600,000 rivets in each of the two main towers. At its opening, the bridge’s chief engineer said the Golden Gate Bridge is built to last forever. Imagine the work and materials that went into spanning a gap of less than two miles. Now imagine this: the gap of brokenness between us and God, and the gap of brokenness between individuals and groups within the human family, was spanned by Jesus Christ with just two pieces of wood and three nails. It is a bridge we can walk to be reconciled with God and one another, or it is a bridge we can avoid. The choice is ours.
Think about the flow of today’s liturgy. We move from hearing God’s word to making a confession as we become aware of the ways we have fallen short. Confession gives way to contrition, forgiveness, the restoration of broken relationships, and ultimately to communion together at our Lord’s Table. This is the deep desire of Christ the King. It is the culmination of his life and work. His reign is found whenever and wherever Kingdom relationships are found.