Sermon: October 24, 2010
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence
Incarnation Episcopal Church, Santa Rosa
Text: 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18: 9-14 (Year C Proper 25)
It’s good to see you. I was out of town last week, at a conference in Indiana; and so I missed being with you as I began to come to terms with my brother’s death, which happened last Monday the 11th.
My brother, Chris, was the number 3 child in our family of 5 kids; I was number 4; we were two years apart. He was a healthy, confident boy and a graceful athlete; he had bright blond hair and a big smile and an irrepressible, goofy sense of humor. I adored him as only a little brother can; I followed him everywhere. I watched everything he did and tried my hardest to be just like him.
Chris was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of brain cancer just over a year ago. From the moment of diagnosis it was clear that it was just a matter of months, not years; so the fact that he had a full year of life was a blessing; it was a year of grace; a year for him to prepare for death. It was a year that few of us ever get: to live with the sure and certain knowledge that death is coming sooner rather than later; coming like a freight train that will not be stopped, so there is nothing to do about it except get ready.
Most of us are never so sure that our end is coming; even some of those among us who are fighting cancer have good reasons to believe they could go into remission and live for many more years. Even the guys sitting on death row have the mercies of the governor to hope for, up to the last minute.
Not so much my brother. It’s a rare thing; and it was a great mercy, in its own way; because all the layers of denial were stripped away; he was undistracted by false hopes; he could focus on living each day as fully as he could, preparing for the end and never letting a moment go by without words of love being spoken.
I mentioned that Chris was a graceful athlete; this was most true on the ski slopes. He would slip down a black diamond chute of moguls with equal parts courage and poise and laughter. And he faced his death with the same elegance that he faced the mountain; he made it look easy, moving straight down the fall line; so graceful you didn’t realize how fast he was going - until he zoomed right past, always first to the finish line.
Like my brother, Paul also knew when his time was up. In this, his second letter to Timothy, Paul is writing from prison, and he knows it won’t be long now. “I am being poured out as a libation,” he says, “and the time of my departure has come.”
This is like Dr. King’s “mountain top” speech; these are Paul’s last words of hope. He is hopeful, but he isn’t suffering under the weight of false hope. He knows the end has come, and he has shifted his attention from this world to the next.
He reflects on his legacy, and he testifies on his own behalf: “I have fought the good fight,” he says. “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
And like my brother, Paul is fearless in the face of death. He knows that when he is called to account, he will be greeted with the crown of righteousness – and, he takes pains to point out – not only will that be his reward, it will be the reward for “all who have longed for his appearing.”
Paul knows that he has nothing to be ashamed of; because he has given everything, and has no regrets.
Unlike Paul, and my brother Chris, I can’t say I have the same fearlessness. Whereas Chris would shush toward the cliff face with his skis flashing, I would tend to stay a little while at the top, adjusting my goggles, gathering my nerve, studying the moguls, trying to figure out my path down the hill. I tended to be a little more conscious of the potential for disaster. Chris would fly down the slope as if he were weightless, while I would remain at the top, rehearsing in my mind the many ways in which this could end badly.
When it comes to my own death, my hope is that Paul was right: that while God might take special delight in the gymnastics of an expert skier, he’s got a trophy for everyone who makes it down the mountain.
That is my hope; but I can’t say that I fully believe it. And one reason why that’s difficult for me, I think, is because I’m a priest. In the middle of the night, I imagine a special circle in hell for the priests who didn’t live up to the expectations of their calling.
Garret Keizer, an Episcopal priest in Vermont, wrote about this in his beautiful memoir, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees. He writes,
The thought that I will one day be called to account for what I have done in this place often seizes me like the realization that I’ve failed to turn off an iron or stove, and that it was hours and miles ago. I can smell the smoke.”
I mean, I know that my God is a God of complete love and forgiveness. I know that in my bones. But I also can’t shake the feeling that I haven’t done enough; that I’m not worthy of this privilege, not strong enough to carry this burden, not good enough to wear this collar.
I believe in a god of forgiveness but I also believe in a God of accountability. And I believe that we priests will have much to account for.
That’s why, when I read this Gospel story for today, I identify much more with the tax collector than the Pharisee. And as I say that, I suppose some people would consider that a boast rather than a confession. But for me, it’s just the way it is. I’m not content with the way things are for me. I am too conscious of the saints who have gone before me; too sensible of my limitations; to aware of God’s expectations.
But in a weird kind of way, I think that’s okay; in fact I think that’s as it should be. I can’t say why but I think it’s kind of comforting to believe in a God who has high standards; I think it’s okay not to rest on our laurels.
Maybe it’s because I’m from Minnesota but I think a little humility is a good thing. I mean, between the chest-thumping athletes, the preening politicians, and the unrepentant Wall Street executives, I’m thinking the world might be a better place to live in if humility were as highly valued as expertise.
I've been wondering what disaster will have to befall our nation in order for us to remember that old and awful lesson of history: that "pride goeth before the fall." We’ve become so certain of God’s forgiveness that we consider pride a virtue and heaven our birthright; as if we were entitled to heaven; as if it were our just reward for a lifetime of self-serving pleasure.
Everyone gets a trophy? I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.
As a culture we are offended by the bare mention of things like sin or judgment. “Shame” is a dirty word these days - but I’m not so sure we couldn’t use a bit more of it.
Our God is a God of radical forgiveness, I know… But God is also a God of accountability.
A number of years ago, when a guy broke into my house in the middle of the night, and was caught by the police, I had the rare chance to forgive him. Which I did. But I didn’t for a moment think he shouldn’t also be prosecuted and go to jail.
Without some measure of accountability, everything falls apart. I heard this morning that in Mexico, the prosecution and conviction rate for murder is 2%. Who can live in a place like that? In the United States, we eased up on regulating the financial industry, and look what happened.
Human beings are not to be fully trusted.
And yet, this is what we do here at Incarnation. We live in trust: with one another, and with God – even when it’s not in our immediate interests.
The other day I heard about a church that has, on its bulletin board, the names of every member of the congregation, listed according to the percentage of their income that they give to the church. The church has been doing this for years and according to the pastor, it’s a great way of inspiring his members to give more.
Of course, what it says to me is that they’re not so sure they can trust their members to give adequately to the church, so they have to resort to peer pressure.
At Incarnation, we would never do that – but don’t think I’m not tempted! We would never use shame as a motivation to give. To do so is to create a culture that makes Pharisees of us all.
That said, I would bet my paycheck that if we did create such a list, most of you would be surprised by who rose to the top.
Some of our biggest pledgers are not the least bit wealthy – in fact, most of our biggest pledgers live extremely modestly. Of course, they would be horrified if their giving ever became public knowledge. But as one who has seen this list of pledgers, I can tell you that this is a document that would put most of us to shame.
But I also have to tell you that it is a beautiful thing – to witness these acts of generosity among people who give, not out of shame, or obligation, or fear, but out of the sheer joy of giving. It is my great privilege to get to know people who have found a new way of being in the world – a way of being that is not defined by anxiety over how much we don’t have, or how much we want, but rather a way of being that is defined by generosity and deep gratitude. As I get to know these people – these people who give out of their substance, not out of anxiety but with joy and thanksgiving – I become witness to something very rare and beautiful: I see people who are free.
Free from the anxiety that comes from a belief in scarcity rather than abundance; free from anxious calculations over what they have left over at the end of the month after they’ve paid for everything else they think they want or need.
These are people who have made one thing clear to themselves and to me: that God comes first, not last, not at the end of the month. God is not picking up the scraps from under the table, feeding on whatever is left over. God is at the table; God comes first. Because God is the source of all that is. These folks don’t just say that’s true; they live that truth; and as a result, they live in deep gratitude for everything that comes from God: the smell of the moist earth; the sound of the rain; the feeling of fresh air as we breathe it in.
I strive to be one of those people. I am still more of the tax collector than the Pharisee, I hope; I am still more aware of how much more I could; but Rose and I do give of our substance – that is, we give proportionally. We still don’t give as much as we would like; but we give out of our abundance, not our scarcity; inspired by the saints in this congregation who put us to shame; and we give with joyful hearts, filled with gratitude for all of you, and for the amazing ministries that you make possible.