Memento Mori


"Who then is the faithful and wise steward, whom the Lord puts in charge of his servants to give their food allowance at the proper time?" The word put in charge' is what Paul tells Pastor Titus to do in Crete: "Appoint elders in every city as I directed you." This is the word Hebrews consistently uses for "appointing" priests. And who does Paul say are stewards of the mysteries of God? Pastors.

This text is about what I'm to be doing for you. I'm to be giving you your food allowance at the proper time. And what time is it? It's the Last Sunday in the Church Year. It's New Year's Eve, and surely you noticed that what the despairing pastor does in the Gospel eat, drink, and get drunk, typifies the world's New Year's Eve. Memento mori typifies ours.

That's Latin for "remember to die." The expression is said to date to ancient Rome when during a general's triumph a slave would whisper it in his ear meaning "remember you have to die." That's what this slave does for you each Ash Wednesday. I put ashes on your forehead and say, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."

Memento Mori. The world discourages this. How many times have I heard this year: you can expect to live 30 or more years after retirement. That seems like a deliberate forgetting of death. And maybe it's my age, but every other ad is about retirement planning. I went to a financial planner. He showed me a graph with 3 dozen lines going across it each mapping out the possible courses of my next 40 years. He said, "You have a 95% chance of not outliving your money." I noted that not one graph stopped short of age 95. Memento mori indeed.

Remember the term amortality from a sermon last year? According to Time that's the belief that you can live in the same way, at the same intensity, doing and consuming the same things from the late teens till death (23 March 2009, 53). In that sermon, I referred to an 84-year-old super model. A few weeks ago, I saw a bare chested, buff 85-year-old male vigorously striding down the runway. Memento mori? Are you kidding? Forget death. It's a downer, a loser. Eat, drink, and be merry for there is a 99.9% chance you won't die to tomorrow. Death is so remote for you that you need not think about it at all.

I wouldn't be a faithful steward if I let the Lord's servants feed on that lie. Luther didn't. He quotes in a sermon St. Jerome saying, "'Whether I am eating or drinking, sleeping or awake or doing something else, the voice always sounds in my ears, Arise, you dead. Come before the judgment''" (LW, 58, 143). Luther himself said that he had only two days on his calendar today and that day (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 296). Not me. I have all 365 days not only on this year's calendar, but next, and the next, and the next. That's why we pray to memento mori.

We prayed it in the Introit: "Show me, O Lord, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before You. Each man's life is but a breath." If you pray come Lord Jesus' before meals, you remind yourself that Jesus could come for you at any moment. That table prayer is based on Jesus' last words, "Behold, I am coming soon." "Amen, come Lord Jesus," John writes in reply and we pray.

In the Lord's Prayer, we remember our death, twice! We pray, "Thy kingdom come." That's not just a prayer for the spread of the reign of Christ by the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament. No, that's also a prayer for the Lord to bring us to His kingdom where faith gives way to sight. That's death. In the last petition, "Deliver us from evil", we pray for God to give us "a blessed end and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven."

We memento mori when we sing Simeon's song after Communion. We say "Lord lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word." The Word Simeon refers to is the one where the Lord promised him that he would not see death until he had seen the Savior. After communing we haven't just seen Him: we've eaten and drank Him. Communion given to someone on their deathbed is called viaticum. That's means literally "bread for the journey" (ODCC, 1436). Two things. You don't have to be communed on your deathbed in order to be able to make the journey to see your Savior. Second, by celebrating Communion here each Sunday I'm being a faithful and wise steward giving the Lord's servants their Bread for the journey. Whether they're here eating it is on them.

I don't want you to suffer the fate of the pastor in the text. He forgot his own mortality thinking he had plenty of time to get his act together before His Lord would return for him. Jesus says, "The Lord of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of." The pagans said when the gods come in judgment they wear wool socks. And the true God's judgment is a fate worse than death. He skins that faithless pastor, cuts him in two, and then he damns him. Remember that!

I'm amazed at the number of people who think they deal with things with sin, with conflict, with problems, with reality by forgetting. We can forget by ignoring or by enjoying. The joys of this life can wash out the memory of needing to face what we don't want to. Luther in a sermon again quoting Jerome said, "'If there is any joy in this present life, then one should enjoy it in such a way that the gravity of the coming judgment does not leave our mind nor fall from our memory'" (LW, 58, 144). It's easy to forget God, death, judgment while living, and even easier while living good, but everyone, believer, unbeliever, atheist remembers him when dying.

So as God's steward at this place, I want you to remember now. Memento mori so that you don't get death and life mixed up. Babies do that with day and night. You bring them home from the hospital and they think night is day and day is night. That passes, but people live for years getting death and life mixed up. "Now this is really living," they will say while on vacation, when surrounded by family, when eating, drinking and being merry. No, that is dying. All a fallen, sinful person can do is die. And the dying happens the moment you enter this decaying world. Remember, when sin entered the world death did.

You can't deal with death by forgetting it because you're always working for it. "The wages of sin is death," Paul says in Romans, and Death never fails to pay its debts. "We owe God a death" said Shakespeare (Second Part of Henry IV, III, II, 105). No matter how well you live, no matter how good you live, no matter how long you live you still owe God a death. Memento mori remember you have to die. You can't escape that. Thanks be to God with every Lord's Prayer you pray, you petition God for "a blessed end," a good death. We sing of this on Good Friday when it seems like Death triumphs: "Who dieth thus dies well."

So, what type of death is that? "O Sacred Head Now Wounded" fleshes it out. You die well with Christ as your Consolation; your Shield when you must die. You die well when you're reminded of His Passion and your eyes dwell not on your ailing, aging, dying body but upon the cross.

Yes, we each owe God a death. Jesus didn't. Jesus the holy Son of God who is Life itself, didn't owe God a thing. Even when He took on flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary, He didn't incur any debt. He came out of the womb with no Original Sin which alone is enough to kill you. And He racked up no debts while living. Imagine, He went through childhood, puberty, youth without once sinning. Although suffering and tempted in all ways we are, still Jesus never sinned not in deed, not in words, not even in thought. I don't go through a day without doing all 3.

Yet Jesus died. Jesus paid a debt He never owed. He was handed over by His heavenly Father to the cross and went willingly. He was abandoned by Him on the cross for those 3 terrible hours where hell on earth actually happened, and it was all centered on one Man, Jesus. Jesus died the death of a damned sinner. He died the death you and I deserve to die. He died the death we don't like to think about much less remember. And most importantly, He died it in our place.

Whoa. That is some serious stuff. The death that stalks me with every breath I take, in every move I make; the death that I keep stuffing to the back of my mind but keeps popping out like some hideous jack in the box, that death has already been died? Yes, on an ugly, little hill 2,000 years ago. And to prove to you, to the world, that this death was good for all, paid for all sin, closed all accounts in God's eyes, God the Father raised Jesus from the dead. And He came forth preaching forgiveness, preaching life, preaching salvation, and He still preaches that today.

Even those in Christ baptized into Him, Absolved by Him, bodied and blooded to Him in Communion even they die. But they die like the thief who that very day was with Christ in Paradise. They die like St. Paul who departed to be with Christ. They die like sore-covered, dog-licked Lazarus in the arms of angels carrying them to heaven.

Memento mori. It's debatable if the Roman's started it. It's not debatable that in the in the 16th century it was popular to put skulls on your desk or even on your dinner table as reminder that you would die. It's also not debatable that the 2nd century Plutarch speaks of the ancient Egyptian custom of bringing in a mummy at the end of a feast to remind the guests that all men are mortal (Heavens to Betsy, 25-6). My point is that even pagans know it's salutary to memento mori. It's the how that makes the difference. You can remember Death as unstoppable, as a debt, as a fearful sting. Or in Christ you can remember Death as paid off, defeated, and without the sting of your sins. So as often as you memento mori, memento Christi. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Last Sunday of the Church Year (20161120); Luke 12: 42-48