Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Shape of Our Lives

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 14, 2017

Year A: The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

The Shape of Our Lives
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Lately I’ve been thinking more than usual about death.
            Part of that, I’m sure, is because yesterday I celebrated a milestone birthday, which, among other things, reminded me that life goes by quickly and every day is precious.
            And, I’ve been thinking about death because for the past week, the mother of my oldest friend was in hospice, in that mysterious in-between time and space between life and death. She died yesterday afternoon.
            And, on top of that, as we all know, today is Mother’s Day: a joyful day for many but, for at least as many people and for all kinds of reasons, it’s a hard day – a hard day for people like my friend now facing life without his mom.
            Well, now that that I’ve officially bummed you out, let me remind you that today is the Fifth Sunday of Easter – it’s still Easter – but in today’s Gospel lesson we look back, look back before the Resurrection – we look back before the arrest and death of Jesus – we look back to the Last Supper.
            Jesus has gathered with his closest friends one last time. And, the way the Evangelist John tells the story, at this final meal, Jesus, like a teacher preparing the class for the final exam, tries to get his disciples and friends to focus on and finally get what’s most important.
            And, as every teacher knows – and, I guess, every student knows, too – this is no easy task.
            But, one thing’s for sure: at this final meal, the disciples are beginning to understand that their friend and teacher – the one who they had come to believe was the long-awaited messiah – was going to suffer and die.
            You can hear the confusion and dismay and fear in the disciples’ voices.
            Thomas asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
            And Jesus replies with the now-famous words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
            And, for the past two thousand years, we Christians have been reflecting on, puzzling over, the meaning of all that.
            What does it mean for us that Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life?
            As some of you know, this is the gospel passage that we often read at funerals – yet another reason I’ve been reflecting on death.
            We hear these words as we mourn the death of a brother or a sister, as we reflect on their life, and, most of all, as we celebrate the great Christian hope of new life.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            You know, in the days after a death, during the viewings and visitations, during the funeral, as we talk with one another and hear people reminisce about the deceased, we often get a sense of what this person was all about.
            At a really good funeral, we begin to see what shaped this life.
            Which might – should - get us thinking, what is shaping of my life?
            Last Sunday, after the 10:00 service, a parishioner hung around until I was free and then he said, “Can I ask you a question?”
            I was expecting some serious issue in his life, or something about the sermon, or about whatever’s been going on at church.
            But, no, instead, he asked, “Why don’t Episcopal churches have crucifixes?”
            After a startled hesitation – I definitely wasn’t expecting that – I said that it’s true that crucifixes aren’t so common in Episcopal churches – that usually we have unadorned crosses signaling that Jesus isn’t on the cross anymore.
            But, then, I said that, in fact, some Episcopal churches do have crucifixes, and, in fact, St. Paul’s has a crucifix.
            He looked surprised. I pointed above us to the small crucifix that hangs on a beam right in front of the pulpit.
            I assume it was placed there so that each time a preacher stands in the pulpit he or she would be reminded that our job, my task, is to preach Christ, and to remember his great sacrifice that opened the way to new life.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            I’m embarrassed to say, though, the truth is that I almost never pay much attention to that crucifix, or to any other cross, for that matter.
            And, I think that for a lot of us, unfortunately, the crucifix, the cross, has become just part of the backdrop, part of the clutter, part of the decoration, of our lives.
            But, for us Christians, the cross, and especially the crucifix, is meant to shape our lives.
            If we accept Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, then we’re expected to live lives of loving sacrifice, following the example of the crucified Jesus by giving away our lives in loving service to others.
            Very difficult. Only possible with God’s help.
            And, of course, the way of Jesus is not – and never has been – the way of the world.
            Just the opposite, really.
            Which is really too bad.
            Now, I’m not going to name names, but you can pick up any newspaper or turn on any news channel and see what happens when a celebrity or politician never sacrifices anything at all, but instead worships his own wealth, power, and fame, worships only himself.
            Sooner or later, that selfishness, all those impossible-to-satisfy appetites, lead to nothing but unhappiness, a total lack of joy, a kind of insanity, and, finally, self-destruction – sometimes destroying others along the way.
            And, it’s not only politicians or celebrities.
            For too many people, our lives are misshaped by what we want or what we think we’re entitled to, the never-ending pursuit of maybe even just a little more money or security or approval or stuff or whatever it is we think will finally, truly satisfy us.
            If our lives are misshaped by those desires, then we’re doomed to unhappiness and, self-destruction, too – sometimes destroying others along the way.
            And, yes, all too often, the Church itself has forgotten that the crucifix, the cross, should shape its life.
            Instead, all too often, the Church has focused on its own power and influence, has focused lately on just surviving, keeping the doors open. Too often, the Church focused on our own petty little internal issues and debates that seem absolutely ridiculous and irrelevant to the hungry but skeptical people out there
            Too often, we’ve focused mostly on feeding ourselves and our own people - focused on having our own needs met - and, maybe, giving to others if, by some chance, there’s anything left over when we’re done.
            All too often, we’ve given the side-eye to outsiders – to those who seem different, not really our kind of people. We’ve looked at them with suspicion, as a threat to the way things have always been.
            Definitely not the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus.
            And, sure enough, just like with politicians and celebrities or anybody, that kind of misshapen selfishness ultimately leads the Church - St. Paul’s or Incarnation or any church – to joylessness, sickness, and, finally, self-destruction – sometimes destroying others along the way.
            My friends, if we’re going to witness to the love and power of Jesus, then the cross must shape our lives.
            We’re called to live like Stephen, who, as we heard in today’s first lesson, proclaimed the Good News and was rejected and killed for it – and, yet, just like Jesus himself, even as he died, Stephen prayed that God would forgive those who had wronged him.
            So, you and I, we’re not there yet, we still have a ways to go, but I hope that when our time comes, when people gather for your funeral and for mine, when they tell stories and share memories, when they begin to see the shape of our life, they’ll see the loving sacrifice and loving service that opens the way to new life.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!