"Last Words"
Scripture - 2 Timothy 4:6-10a; 16-18
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, August 3, 2014

They do not write epitaphs as they did in years gone by. I don't know if that is because more people are choosing cremation and have only memorial plaques or because many carry so much anxiety about death that anything humorous seems lacking the appropriate gravitas. However, the Christian faith recognizes that death is a natural part of life, and our belief in life beyond the grave allows us to deal with death without collapsing in despair. That's why traipsing around some old English churchyards can turn up some interesting epitaphs.

Here is one that gives tribute to an amazing accomplishment. "To the memory of Ann Jennings: "Some have children, some have none, here lies the mother of twenty-one."

Some play off of the name of the deceased: "You are passing the resting place of Willie Yeast. Pardon me for not rising." Ugh.

Because of limited space and grammatical confusion, some convey a message that may not have been intended: "Major James Brush, Royal Artillery, who was killed by the accidental discharge of a pistol by his orderly. Well done, good and faithful servant."

And this one: "She lived with her husband for 50 years, and died in the confident hope of a better life." Do you think that is what she intended to say?

Some epitaphs pick up on the person's profession. "John Newman, dentist. He is filling his last cavity." Hiss, boo.

The headstone of Professor S. B. McCracken reads: "School is out. Teacher has gone home." Not only an acknowledgement of his life-long profession, but also a nod to his faith.

While catchy and corny epitaphs are out of fashion, some obituaries have become quite lively. Thurman Winston's obituary begins as many do. But, then, the final sentence reads: "He leaves to cherish his memories, his wife, children and grandkids, and a whole host of back-stabbing (expletives) who still owe him money."1

Mary Mullaney, known to everyone as "Pink" had a lengthy obituary written by her children. Here is a sample of what it said. "We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years; among them: Let a dog (or two or three) share your bed. Say the rosary while you walk them. Go to church with a chicken sandwich in your purse. After the service, give the chicken sandwich to your homeless friend. Go to a nursing home and kiss everyone. Invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner. If they are from another country and you have trouble understanding them, learn to "listen with an accent." Never say mean things about anybody; they are €˜poor souls to pray for.' Keep the car keys under the front seat so they don't get lost...(and) Help anyone struggling to get their kids into a car or shopping cart."2 She sounds like someone I would like to have known.

Here is one about a man who obviously loved life and loved to laugh. (Tom) Brown finally stopped bugging everybody on Tuesday, October 15, 2013. Right to the end, at age 91, he would do things like pushing fist bumps at perfect strangers, playing boogie woogie and other foot-tapping piano right in front of innocent people, and racing to beat other oldsters to empty chairs (which is how he tripped and broke his hip, leading eventually to his well-earned demise)...Ruth Walker began putting up with him when they married in 1945. They lived in Des Moines when he was trying to scare the neighbor kids by acting like a barking dog when he threw open the front door, only to find himself barking at the Avon lady...He pestered his children and others until they suffered by thinking and feeling deeply about others and all kinds of meaningful things. They still have not recovered."3

Romelle McMullen wrote her own obituary. Excerpts from it include: "I have done very little. None of which requires obit space that I have to shell out money for. I don't want a bunch of my friends sitting around writing glowing reports of me, which we all know would be filled with fish tales, half-truths, impossible scenarios, and outright-honest-to-goodness-lies. I don't want to put people in that situation...I just tried to do the best I could. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I failed, but I always tried. For all my crazy comments, jokes, and complaints, I really did love people...I did not always do or say the right thing and when you come to the end of your life, those are the things you really regret; the small, simple things that hurt other people."4

Those obituaries remind us that our legacy is not merely our financial estate. For good or for ill, all of us make our mark on others. What kind of record are you leaving? What will be your legacy?

A few days ago I received an email with a subject line that read: Every transgression from your past has been posted online. How could they know that? I don't even know all that. And there cannot be enough available space on the server for all that!

In today's passage, the Apostle Paul is writing his obituary, and from it we can draw his epitaph. The writings of the New Testament make it clear that Paul was a tireless servant of God. He did not allow hostile opposition to discourage him. He endured harsh treatment, yet refused to modify his message. And despite disappointing set-backs, he refused to alter his mission. Our passage from the Second Letter to Timothy is Paul's brief obituary and we can pluck from the passage the words that should have been chiseled into a granite headstone for him: "Fought the good fight, Finished the race, Kept the faith."

Paul is captive in a Roman prison, with a fixed gaze on his fast-approaching fate. With death closing in, Paul sums up his situation with bittersweet words. After noting that his death is imminent, Paul confidently writes, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord will give to me on that day." But, then, regretfully he writes, "Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica."

Demas is briefly mentioned three times in the New Testament and all we can glean about him is that he was a fellow worker with Paul who helped spread the gospel message. But something happened to Demas. He severed his ties with Paul and turned his back on Christ.

Paul says Demas was in love with this world. What exactly does he mean? Was Demas lured away from ministry by a desire for possessions or extravagant living? Was he a womanizer? Did he fear the consequences of sticking with Paul? We do not know. But, what we do know, is that Paul's words stand as an epitaph for Demas. For 20 centuries, people have read: Demas - deserted Paul - abandoned the faith.

How will you be remembered? All of us want our lives to count for something. When people think of us after we are gone, we do not want to be remembered for our golf game or our good taste in clothing or our political views. We want to be remembered for the positive difference we made in the lives of others.

A great leader was discussing with his friends how he would like to be remembered after he was gone. He said he did not want a long funeral and if anyone made personal comments about him, he wanted the remarks kept brief. He said, "(Do) not mention that I won the Nobel Peace Prize...and do not mention (the) other awards, that's not important...I would like somebody to mention that (I) tried to give my life to serving others...I want you to be able to say that I tried to feed the hungry...(and) to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity...Say that I was a drum major for justice...and a drum major for peace."5

How do you want to be remembered? When you reflect on your life - your accomplishments, your blessings and the things you have been privileged to do - what rises to the occasion?

You may know the story of Alfred Nobel. He was a Swedish chemist who made a fortune inventing powerful explosives and licensing the formula to governments that could use his formula to make weapons. When Alfred's brother died, one newspaper accidentally printed an obituary for Alfred, not the brother who died. That provided Alfred with the unique opportunity to read his own obituary while he was still alive. The obituary identified Alfred as the inventor of dynamite who made a fortune by helping armies achieve new levels of mass destruction. Alfred was stunned to see how he would be remembered as a merchant of death.

So, he took his fortune and used it to establish the awards for accomplishment in various fields that benefit humanity, and it is for that - the Nobel prizes, not his explosives - that he is remembered. When he was successful in the eyes of the world, he was working against life and against humanity. When he woke up to the tragic legacy he was creating, he dedicated the remainder of his life to a more redeeming purpose.6

How will you be remembered? If someone were to paint your life, would the canvas be filled with large splashes of bright colors or would it be mainly sepia tones? Would it convey a compassionate and generous spirit or it would it be drab and anemic? Each day of your life, in the way you live, you are sketching your legacy.

One woman ended her obituary in a way that the Apostle Paul would have certainly approved. She wrote, "If you think of me and would like to do something in honor of my memory, do this: volunteer at a school, church or library. Write a letter to someone and tell them how they have had a positive impact on your life. If you smoke, quit. If you drink and drive, stop. Turn off the electronics, take a youngster out for ice cream and talk about his/her hopes and dreams. Forgive someone who does not deserve it. Stop at all lemonade-stands run by children and brag about their product. Make someone smile today...I have to go now. My sweetheart is waiting for me. Love you all! See you later."7

When I glance around this sanctuary, I see some amazing legacies that are being written. I see people who are kind and generous and self-sacrificing. I see people who work hard for justice and do what they can to spread peace. I see people who are exceedingly patient and quick to forgive. I see people who are faithful to their loved ones and faithful to God.

Although none of us have endured what the Apostle Paul endured or accomplished, I hope that each of us will be able to embrace his epitaph and claim it as your own. "Fought the good fight, Finished the race, Kept the faith."


  1. Reported in The Huffington Post
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Washington
  5. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  6. Harold Kushner, When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, p.59.
  7. Romelle McMullen's obituary in The Spokesman-Review.

Prayers of the People

Eternal God, as we reflect on the course of our lives and ponder the mark we are making on the world, we confess: that there are days we would like to live over, decisions we wish we could reverse, actions we yearn to undo and words we would love to unspeak.

You create us to delight in your good creation, to reap pleasure in loving relationships and to live in harmony with others. But too often we are tempted to give in to the things that destroy us: explosive anger when things do not go our way, envy of others who have what we want, fear of those from different cultures, the desire to dominate those we do not understand.

Gracious God, we can persecute ourselves and wallow in our guilt, but that will not blot out the past or elevate the future. Instead, help us to accept your forgiveness for our failures and to make amends by living in ways that you declare are right and true and good.

Friend of the forgotten, help us to remember that Jesus made friends with outcasts and ate with those stripped of their dignity. He brought his healing touch to people society deemed unfit reminding us that each person is your beloved child.

Forgiving God, rather than living in our regrets, remind us of the times we have shared the burden of one who was suffering, sparked laughter in one who was sad, calmed the pulse of one who was anxious, showed respect to one who felt invisible, rubbed healing balm on a bruised ego, forgave someone who had stabbed us, raised our voice for someone who was persecuted, wrote a generous check, boosted the confidence of a child, reconciled a broken relationship.

God of all nations, when we witness the many violent conflicts convulsing our planet, our hearts are weighed down with sorrow at the devastation and death. You did not create us to kill and destroy, yet wars rage around the globe in Israel/Palestine, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Congo, Egypt, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, and on and on and on. So many innocent men, women and children are perishing.

God of compassion, simply because we do not know the individuals personally, do not allow us to think they are merely numbers; do not let us imagine that they did not possess dreams and ambitions similar to ours; do not let us brush aside their deaths as if their lives were not as worthy as ours.

Everlasting God, source of all wisdom, you have called forth your foundational principle in every world religion: treat others the way you want to be treated. Persuade all people to come to their senses and heed this word that is etched in their souls. Help everyone to embrace the things that lead to life and joy and peace.

As individuals in our families, as members of our communities and as citizens of the world, may we respond to the needs around us in Christ-like ways. Amen.