St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for Passion/Palm Sunday (March 20, 2016)

Liturgical Color: Purple

Reverend Colleen Montgomery


Seven Words

Overall, it's an overwhelming week in a lot of ways. Most schools will start back after spring break, students and teachers alike looking towards the final half of the second semester. Another week of political competition for our presidential candidates and another week of basketball competition for our Hoosiers. So sorry to all you, Boilermakers. And in the midst of all these things, we journey to the cross. As we enter into the final days of Lent, this week we call Holy Week, we enter into the story of Jesus' crucifixion. We read a huge amount of scripture this morning, and to take it all in is an overwhelming task. The stories of this week are painful, beautiful, and grace-filled, but they are a lot. We read all the stories about how our God worked grace into the world, one act at a time, culminating, with the death of God's own Son on the cross.

Several weeks ago we began Lent on Ash Wednesday by reflecting on the life and words of Katarina von Bora, particularly her last words before she died, "I will stick to Christ like a burr to a topcoat." It has been meaningful to hear all the ways this phrase shaped your Lenten devotion this year, from reflecting on the peskiness of the ways we pursue Christ to remembering Jesus when you are picking burrs off your cat. To parallel beginning Lent with her final words, we'll begin Holy Week of Christ's final words.

Traditionally, the Seven Last Words of Christ are the seven last phrases that Jesus says before his crucifixion.

1. Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

2. Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.

3. Dear woman, here is your son.

4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

5. I am thirsty.

6. It is finished.

7. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

This list of seven phrases is compiled from all four gospels. Interestingly, no single gospel has all seven phrases, nor is a single phrase in all four gospels.

Mark and Matthew give us just 1, they share: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

John gives us 3. Number 3: The words Jesus says to his mother and his beloved disciple, Dear woman, here is your son. Number 5: Jesus' request from the cross, I am thirsty. Number 6: And one version of his final words, It is finished.

The three that Luke gives us bookend the other phrases. They are the first two and final words for Jesus. And compared to John's succinct phrases, Luke's Jesus is downright chatty. First last word: Father forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing. Second: Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.Third: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

Since we are in the year of Luke, and it is his words we read today, we'll spend some time reflecting on these three final words of Christ.

Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing.

Every article I read about this first of the final words began with a phrase like this: It is unsurprising and deeply fitting that Jesus begins by praying to God for our forgiveness. God's forgiveness for us is the very core of the mystery of the cross. I don't know how our forgiveness happens there or why our forgiveness happens there, but I do believe that our forgiveness is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

We began Lent on Ash Wednesday with the most thorough confession of the whole year. We laid out our sin in very specific ways. We confessed the ways we lack faith, the ways we are harsh towards our families and friends, the ways we benefit from the oppression of others, and the ways we abuse the earth and resources given to us. We received forgiveness from God for all of these things. Yet we begin Holy Week with words from Christ praying for our forgiveness because Jesus says they don't know what they are doing.

There is a double meaning there. Jesus stating that his executioners didn't know that they were killing the Son of God. But also the meaning that we don't know all the ways that we sin and hurt God, hurt others, hurt the earth. We may know generally, but we don't really understand the full consequences of our actions.

We can never fully comprehend how our words have hurt another person.

Scientific pursuits are still working out the implications of pollution on our planet, and the predictions are grim.

Sins of racism are a powerful example. The dangerous intersection of privilege and prejudice, and that ways many white Americans don't know, understand, fully comprehend what the affect that our complicity has on our sisters and brothers.

I want to join my voice with Jesus, and maybe you do too: Forgive us, because I don't know what I do.

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Jesus says these words in response to one of the men who is being crucified with him. The man pleads, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." While many around Jesus do not recognize him as the Son of God, as the Messiah, the criminal hanging next to him on the cross sees Jesus for who he is and asks Jesus to save him. The man knows that there is nothing else to be done in this life, but there is hope for the next. In these words, Jesus promises the man new life with God.

In an utterly hopeless place, Jesus offers hope. There in the last place any one would expect to find hope, grace, compassion, Jesus offers it freely. Without hesitation, without reservation, Jesus gives grace to this man. The promise to be with him in paradise.

Jesus also offers us these words of grace. While these words are a comfort to us when we are imminently facing death, they can bring hope to us in our non-fatal struggles too. We have the assurance that our eternal lives will be spent with God, but also that God is present with us in this life as well. Jesus is with us in the bread and wine of communion. Jesus is with us in the community of believers. Jesus is with us in our hearts, to give us strength. In our most hopeless places and in our most desperate times, Jesus is with us.

Father, into your hand I commend my spirit.

These are ancient and holy words that we find in Psalm 31, words that had been repeated by thousands of followers of the Jewish faith for countless years. Jesus trusts his faith, trusts his God, and with these words, Jesus lets go. I don't know if he knew what was going to happen next, what was going to happen when his lungs stopped and heart quieted. But in this moment we see Jesus' abiding trust in God to sustain him through whatever comes next. It's a final release.

Just as thousands of faithful Jewish believers used these words, we use them to make our big moments too. To me these words feel, like that final moment before jumping from a zip line, but with more serious consequences than just an awesome view and huge adrenaline rush. These are the words we whisper before committing to a big decision, starting something new, or finishing something beloved. These are the words we utter to remind ourselves that we are not alone, that God is with us and for us.

These are the words that accompany that final breath, that next step. These are the words that Jesus used and what we use to let go, and see what happens next in this new reality, this new world. These are Jesus' final words before what happens next. (PAUSE)

In the coming days, we're going hear more words, more stories, going deeper into God's love for us.

On Thursday, we're going to be commanded to take care of one another and to celebrate a holy meal of forgiveness and family.

On Friday, we'll hear John's holy words of the crucifixion.

After sunset on Saturday, we'll hear seven amazing stories about how God's promise wove through history and time to bring salvation to all. We'll experience the moment of Easter, God's victory over the grave and celebrate through Sunday the miraculous resurrection of our Lord.

But until then, and through it all: remember that you are forgiven for even the things you don't know that you do, remember that God gives hope in the hopeless places and welcomes us home, and that even in the unknown God is with us and protects us.

Amen.

 

 

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