Sermon Maundy Thursday 2019

I’m guessing nobody knows the name Carla Faye Tucker … she died on February 3, 1998, executed by lethal injection by the State of Texas.  She was on death row for 14 years.

Carla Faye’s case was much in the news as her execution approached.  It’s a sad, pathetic, stupid story:  born into a broken home, she began taking drugs and sleeping around at 12, dropped out of school at 14, and followed her mother into prostitution with a biker gang.  At 21 she got high on crack with a sad, pathetic, stupid older man;  stumblebummed her way into a robbery that ended in two grisly – and I mean grisly murders.    The details are straight out of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  She was guilty as sin.  She pled guilty and was sentenced to death.  At the time many people at home in Texas agreed with the sentence:  if anybody ever deserved to die for murder it was Carla Faye.

She was a sad, pathetic mess, and she was no rocket scientist.  But over 14 years in prison she discovered something else about herself:  all her problems had molded her into a vessel for faith.  She became a passionate Christian, devoured the Bible, founded a prison ministry, led the singing,  preached and taught and brought immense spiritual joy to the prisoners and the staff.  One could almost say she was possessed by the spirit of Christ.  Now that might seem a little extreme, but Pope John Paul II was convinced of her conversion,  He was a friend of Mother Teresa, and knew what holiness looks like.  Pope John Paul publically and personally asked the Governor of Texas to commute her sentence to life without parole.  Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson did the same, along with the United Nations and the World Council of Churches.

Governor George W. Bush didn’t see it that way, and so Carla Faye was duly executed on February 3, 1998.

We identify with her.  Carla Faye was a murderer; she had no special claim on the grace and favor of God.  We are not murderers, but neither do we.  Like Carla Faye, we are under sentence of death.  And also like Carla Faye, our faith won’t save us from dying, Jesus himself wasn’t saved from dying. 

No, death comes for us all.  That’s why in giving us the sacrament, Jesus put his death front and center, as Paul explains, “When we eat this bread and dink this cup we show forth the Lord’s death until he comes.”   Jesus does that because that’ exactly where he wants to take us every time we get together in his memory:  to his death, to the cross, with all its horror and pain.

Jesus takes us into his death, and he means for it to be horrible, repulsive, Texas Chain Saw repulsive – here, eat this,  This is me.  Take a bite out of my flesh.  Here, drink this.  This is my blood.  Drink it.   This gruesome command will make any faithful Jew nauseous.

There’s no way around it:  Jesus calls us to follow him, to take up the cross, to come and die.   The pope can beg that we be spared, the whole world can clamor for our release, still we all must walk as Jesus walked that lonesome valley of the shadow of death.

Jesus puts his death front and center in the sacrament, and so puts our own death front and center, because that is where, as they say, the rubber meets the road.  That is where faith erupts, where faith happens, where the power of God ignites.   Her sins brought Carla Faye to death’s door.  There she met God.  There she opened herself to the power of God and there she was transformed.  There she found the faith to face her own execution, filled with the grace of God, confident of her future, of eternal life with God, confident of her safety.  Carla learned what God wants us all to know, that if we are united with Jesus in a death like his, we will be united with him in a resurrection like his.  She took this saving hope with her into the death chamber.

There is more to say:  Jesus walks us into the horror of his death and we follow him there, but we do not have to pretend we don’t know the end of the story; we follow him but we don’t cringe with fear and terror.  Just as Christ’s death is our death, so Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection.    This is what the Christian faith is, this is what the Christian faith is for:  to do the heavy lifting of life and death.  

Today/tonight we share Jesus’ last meal before his execution.   Today/tonight we eat and drink his bitter suffering and death.  It’s built into the sacrament.  We share this meal with all who suffer, and, according to our confession of faith, with all the saints and martyrs, with the angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven.  We share this meal with Carla Faye … we are all together in this together, down the centuries, across the world as we proclaim, Christ has died.  Christ is Risen.  Christ will come again.

Carla Faye began her life in physical and moral squalor.   The unspeakable, senseless curelty and horror of the murders she committed earned her a death sentence she well deserved.   Yet God found her.  God saved her.  She lived her life on death row joyfully and walked fearlessly to her death.

It’s good to remember her and walk with her as we follow Christ to the cross.

Let us pray

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