Seven Last Words

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Original film poster for the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar

My first memories of the Passion of Christ come not from church, but from listening to the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, with music by Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics by Tim Rice.

When I was a child my family traveled to Israel and Palestine where my father, a priest, was enrolled in St. George’s College in Jerusalem to study the life of Jesus in the Holy Land. My brother and sister and I would ride the public bus from our home to school and then summer camp during the three months we lived there.

Throughout those months, the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar played constantly on Israeli radio and now is the background music to many of my memories of that time. As it happens, the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar was likely being filmed in Israel at the time we were there, which might explain why the soundtrack was getting so much radio play. To this day, I watch or listen to Jesus Christ Superstar almost every year during Holy Week.

There are many problematic aspects to the 1973 film version, not least among which is the racial stereotyping of the cast, so I don’t necessarily recommend the film. However, in preparing for this sermon I watched the 2018 version starring John Legend as Jesus, which is much better on many levels.

In a piece of inspired casting, Alice Cooper plays King Herod.  The scene when Jesus, played by Legend, and Herod, played by Cooper, encounter each other manages to be comic, ironic and tragic. We see a Superstar from the past meeting the Superstar of the present and future and Cooper/Herod and Legend/Jesus both know it. I won’t say anymore for those of you who have not watched it.

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Jesus Christ Superstar ends at the cross with Jesus’s last words: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” 

The scene is searing, just as it is rendered in the text today from Luke, who is every bit as gifted a librettist and scene painter as Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Jesus, ever the teacher, takes his final words from Psalm 31:

In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; * deliver me in your righteousness.

Incline your ear to me; * make haste to deliver me.

Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe, for you are my crag and my stronghold; * for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.

Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, * for you are my tower of strength.

Into your hands I commend my spirit, * for you have redeemed me O Lord, O God of truth.

Given the scene that Luke describes and all that we have heard leading up to this final moment, one can imagine the emotions that Jesus is feeling: fear, anger, hopelessness. However, by quoting Psalm 31, attributed to King David, Jesus flips the script. The crowd standing at the foot of the cross would have understood Jesus’s reference to Psalm 31 and its full meaning.

Taken out of context, Jesus’s last words can come across as conveying that he has given up, or as words of surrender, which is often how I have tended to hear these words and how Legend acts them in Jesus Christ Superstar.

However, if we turn to the words that come earlier in the Psalm, we can see that Jesus is calling on the LORD in confidence and hopefulness, knowing that as he traverses from his life here on earth to the next, he can have faith in his father’s love and protection and his ultimate victory over death on the cross.

By taking refuge in the LORD, Jesus will not be put to shame.  

The LORD will be his strong rock and castle and keep him safe.  

The LORD will lead and guide him.  

The LORD will free him from the secret traps set for him.  

The LORD will be his tower and strength.

So, while he addresses his last words to his father, he is instructing all of us as well.

We, too, by taking refuge in the LORD, will not be put to shame.  The LORD will keep us safe, lead us and guide us.  The LORD will free us and be our tower of strength.

Jesus is not surrendering.  

No. 

He is calling us to hope.

He is calling us to victory.

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We are now well over a year into the COVID-19 Pandemic and while the vaccines have given many of us hope, the last year has been filled with unspeakable tragedy and despair. For those of us who may see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must remember that for many, the pandemic rages on. Early on in the pandemic I took comfort in the Old Testament prophet Zechariah’s admonition: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.”

Yes, we are “prisoners of hope,” but we are called to be more than that.

The great South African theologian Steve De Gruchy took the concept of hope a step further and once said that as Christians “We are called to be midwives of hope” and to bring hope to others.

Despair is not an option.

Indeed, Jesus’ last words on the cross are not words of despair or surrender.  They are words of hopefulness and victory.

If Jesus can be hopeful and victorious under those circumstances, we have no excuse, even in the face of what we all have endured this last year.

Jesus was telling his followers, just as he is telling us today, that as darkness comes over the whole land, while the sun’s light fails and the curtain of the temple is torn in two, and as he breathes his last, that not only must we have confidence in the LORD and remain hopeful ourselves, we must bring hope to others so they can see that there is victory after the cross.

As Jesus sings in Jesus Christ Superstar: To conquer death you only have to die.”

AMEN

This meditation was presented as part of the Good Friday service at St. Bartholomew’s Church in the City of New York. The full service, including this meditation, can be found on the parish’s YouTube channel.

The Three Beating Hearts of Maori Leadership

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“Haerenga” Painting by Daniel Ormsby

Since taking up my role as president of Episcopal Relief & Development over 13 years ago, many people have kindly sent me articles and books about leadership.  How is it recognized? How is it developed? What does it look like in a faith context? How can one be a non-anxious leader? You get the picture.

I read much of what was sent to me as I searched for my vision of how I want to be a leader.  After over 25 years serving in various leadership roles, I can’t say that I subscribe to one school or genre of leadership.  

So much depends on context and how one’s personal gifts and graces (or lack thereof) interact with circumstances and the people you are trying to lead.  I’m reminded of the quip about pornography—it doesn’t have a definition, but you sure know it when you see it.

Nonetheless I am always intrigued by new and interesting takes on leadership.

Continue reading “The Three Beating Hearts of Maori Leadership”

Interstellar Space

Living as I do in an urban environment, it is not usually possible to see many, if any, stars on a regular basis.  Fortunately, my work takes me off the beaten path to places where there is little ambient light to obscure the night sky.  

Most recently, I found myself in the desert of New Mexico at the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert on a silent retreat.  There, after the sun had set, the heavens blazed.

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Continue reading “Interstellar Space”

Fulfilling God’s Dreams

IMG_2399One of the great and humbling honors of serving Episcopal Relief & Development is the opportunity I have to visit our work around the world.  

In April, I led a pilgrimage of friends and supporters to Zambia to learn about our work with children.  

For the last several years we have worked with the Zambian Anglican Council Outreach Program (ZACOP) to establish nearly 70 Early Childhood Development Centers across the country.  

We’ve focused on the most vulnerable children—those impacted in one way or another by HIV/AIDS.  To date we’ve served over 10,000 children. We’re scaling the work up over the next three to five years.  

What I love about this program is that it speaks both to my head and my heart.

Continue reading “Fulfilling God’s Dreams”

“The silence has been broken.”

liberiaToday I find myself in Liberia where I am learning about Episcopal Relief & Development’s work to mobilize faith leaders in the effort to end violence against women and children.  It’s innovative and impressive work (and I’m not just saying that because I’m the president).

Often, approaches to working with faith leaders “instrumentalize” them.  That is to say, it uses faith leaders to deliver messages, usually created by outsiders, around good and bad behavior.  This approach has met with modest success.

Here in Liberia we are trying a new way.  

Continue reading ““The silence has been broken.””

Servants of God: St. Nicholas & Bishop Paul Jones

Sveti_NikolaOn Wednesday, December 6th, Episcopal Relief & Development, the organization I have the privilege of leading, marks the anniversary of its founding. It also happens to be St. Nicholas Day. That is a happy coincidence and provides an opportunity to reflect on the values that shaped St. Nicholas’ life and inform the work of Episcopal Relief & Development. Continue reading “Servants of God: St. Nicholas & Bishop Paul Jones”

Advice for Clergy (and the rest of us)

Did you know that October has been designated “Clergy Appreciation Month” by the good people at Hallmark Cards?  It was news to me.Young_Woman_Writing_Calligraphy_MET_TR_103_3_2012_Strm1

So, in honor of all the clergy who are a part of our lives, I offer some insights and advice from Sei Shonagon, an 11th century Japanese noblewoman living in the imperial court near modern day Kyoto.  She is, perhaps, an unlikely source of guidance.  But her wisdom is timeless. Continue reading “Advice for Clergy (and the rest of us)”

The Water and Sanitation Mystery (Part Two)

In last week’s installment of “The Water and Sanitation Mystery” my colleague
IMG_0594discovered that, to his alarm, the project had not gone as planned. Household latrines had not been built and the one public latrine that had been built was not in use.  Most concerning, however, the community was not capturing and protecting its clean water supply.

Trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, my colleague convened a meeting of the community Water and Sanitation Committee, whose responsibility it is to manage the project.  

To them the explanation is obvious. Continue reading “The Water and Sanitation Mystery (Part Two)”

The Water and Sanitation Mystery (Part One)

IMG_0607A trip report from one of my colleagues at Episcopal Relief & Development recently crossed my desk.  I find these reports extremely helpful in understanding the challenges my co-workers are facing as they visit our programs around the world.  Each of these reports is fascinating.  

However, this one was exceptional: it contained a mystery.   Continue reading “The Water and Sanitation Mystery (Part One)”

The Kumari’s Blessing (Part Two)

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Author’s note: The second part of this story reminds us that, even after the most terrible of disasters, we can find hope and healing. I hold onto this as we count the losses of the most recent series of tragedies we are enduring.

The morning after we received the Kumari’s blessing, my daughter and I set out to visit the epicenter of the massive earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, 2015.  The memory of the Kumari’s gaze calmed me as we sat in traffic making our way out of Kathmandu. Continue reading “The Kumari’s Blessing (Part Two)”