“So I shall say to myself, ‘Self, you have so many good things stored up for so many years, so rest, eat, drink, be merry!’” Famous last words—but not my favourite ones!
My favourite, famous last words come from General John Sedgwick during the Civil War: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…”
There’s something that fascinates us about last gasp, dying breath, final testaments. Wouldn’t you like to go out in a blaze of wit? Oscar Wilde: “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” Or even St. Laurence, martyred on the grill “Turn me over—I’m done on this side.”
I like the innocent last words better though, the uncalculated revelations of what is important. Anna Pavlova, the ballerina, asking for her Swan costume, or Tallulah Bankhead calling out, “Codeine … Bourbon…”
Our readings today are playing with the notion of inheritance, of legacy, what you leave behind and who gets their filthy paws on it. For death is a funny thing—in one sense the most private of all life’s passages, the one you make alone and send back no messages, the final accounting that can only be made by you. But on the other hand it is where you are most public—handed over into memory, into legacy, inheritance …things.
What do you want to be remembered for? … What about Orville Wright: “No flying machine will ever make it across the Atlantic.” Or the Warner Brother, “Who the heck wants to hear actors talk?” Or the unnamed executive at Decca Records, “We don’t like their sound, and, anyway, guitar music is on the way out.” The Beatles!
I like it that Jesus was only willing to answer the disgruntled brother in the gospel with a rebuke and with a joke. Because even though Luke calls it a parable it is really more of a joke. But what’s the punch line?
Imagine this you are rich—well pretty well-off anyway—and then you go and win the lottery and you have suddenly more money than you know what to do with. What do you do? Well, what do you do? The guy in the story doesn’t have a bad idea—he plans: “well my checking account won’t do—need to make that money work—dodge the taxes—buy a neat house, a few gadgets—never need to work again. And as we hear it the voice from heaven seems mean-spirited. There goes God ruining everything again. We know death is coming to us all sometime—but why now? Why take away all the innocent pleasure this guy was going to get?
Well maybe that’s the way we might hear it being so used to deciding for ourselves, to having a surplus, however small, in the bank. We hear the story as if it were about famous last words: foolish pride or something.
But back then was another world. And the rich guy’s problem wasn’t so much his pride as his selfishness. Listen to him: What shall I do? I shall… I, I, I. I shall say to myself, Self… Two things are going on. He is treating the windfall as his own property and he is treating himself as his own property. He acts as if the wealth belongs to himself. And he acts as if he belongs to himself. And both would have been a scandal to Jesus’ hearers. They saw both those things as belonging to the village and ultimately as belonging to God. We are used to idea of profit, the lie that one person can gain without depriving others, that wealth trickles down. But to the Palestinian peasant life was a zero-sum game. If I get rich I do it off your back. Probably by your labour. What I have you lack. And when God gives a bumper harvest it isn’t mine to store away—it belongs in part to everyone. … And who am I anyway? Am I a separate self who can forget family and community and all those who hold me in life? In a way, our own lives are based on that lie. You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. Here in the states we call it freedom. Only in church do we regularly remember the truth of our lives. We are not alone, we are handed our selves by others, by community. We are most our own selves, not when we are alone and free to do what we want, but when we are relying on each other in worship, in faith, in justice.
That’s the punch line. Look at this dummy—he thinks he belongs to himself. He thinks he can go it alone. He thinks he knows what’s in his own interest. Dummy!
What do we want to be remembered for? As if we could decide that on our own! Dummies! It is always someone else who does the remembering.
Oh, legacy, leaving, memory … we English don’t do goodbyes very well. The stiff upper-lip gets in the way. But God has been insistent that I don’t let this one get away. My prayer 5 years ago, when you all sent me off to be ordained, was that I, as priest, not get in your way, in the way of your work of being the body of Christ. I hope I haven’t. But if I haven’t, I have you all to thank for not letting me get in your way. … It has been tempting this week, with all the farewells and good wishes and embarrassing praise, to think about my impact, my gifts, my legacy—as though this were my bumper harvest and I have to store it all up for myself. But what I have learned here—what you have taught me—is that this—this community, this worship, this really bumper harvest of the spirit—is your work, your joy, your gift to each other, oh and to me. We are each, each other’s work, each other’s joy. If I arrive in England a better priest, a better Christian, a better person, then that is your work … and my joy. I can’t imagine any better place to begin ministry than here with you.
And I’m going to miss this place so much. Miss all your faces. Miss the support you’ve given me, miss your ongoing stories. But where I have been expecting to feel loss and sadness in these last weeks I’ve only found a bumper harvest of surprising joy and tender celebration. And I don’t have to store it up at all. Neither do you …In my prayer in these recent days I find God is immensely proud, proud of what you all do here. Is that a good enough legacy?
August 5th, 2001