The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
As some of you are aware, St. Michael’s has been a bit like a Trauma Center over the last few months. 5 deaths; several potentially deadly diagnoses and grueling treatments; and a motorcycle accident that has left a parishioner paralyzed from the waist down. All of these people have been central in our community.
So for many of us, it has been a sobering season of mortality. We are highly aware of how fragile this precious life can be, and how, in an instant, everything can change forever. All we’ve got is this present moment. Obviously this is always true for every one of us. The only difference between us and those directly affected by these recent crises is that they know it for certain. The rest of us pretend it isn’t so.
When trauma or loss comes, or when they accumulate around us as they have recently, it weighs heavily. Death and danger, like a threatening black storm, lurk over us. And our minds dart restlessly around, unable to land on anything, unable to comprehend: Why her? Why now? What is the point of everything I have worked so hard for, if cruel, random disaster can slip in so quickly, so easily? How can I possibly make sense of death, the end of all that I know?
And then we come here, and hear words of faith and transcendence. They tell us that we can look beyond the trials of this present day, and place our trust in something more - whether that something is our hope for the afterlife or an inner strength that cannot be destroyed by whatever life might bring. That trust is, I think, what Jesus must have had. How else could he have spoken so calmly to his friends, as we heard today, about his own immanent betrayal and death?
Along these lines, I’m struck particularly by the assigned Collect of the Day. Let’s read it together. You can find it either on the handout with today’s readings that you may have picked up as you came in, or in The Book of Common Prayer on p. 234, at the top of the page. On your handout, it’s the second one, the contemporary version. Let’s pray together:
Grant to us, O Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever, Amen.
Now, how do we put together this collect with our disturbing experience of life’s fragility, especially in this season of mortality?
What I have witnessed first-hand over these months is that the answer is simply love. Love is what helps us with our natural anxiety about earthly things. Love is that heavenly thing to which we can hold fast. Love is the only thing that shall endure.
Whether your spouse or child is at the side of your hospital bed, parishioners are at your door delivering meals, or you’re remembering a shared lifetime during a funeral, it is love that carries everyone through. When everything else is stripped away - and it will be for each of us one day - love remains. That is what St. Paul said in that very familiar passage from Corinthians, the one we hear at almost every wedding: Love never ends; prophecies, tongues, knowledge, they all end. But love abides forever.
But love does more than just endure, or live beyond us after we die. It expands us in the here and now. It makes us more than just a limited, isolated individual. Throughout a lifetime of connecting with others - as we bring honesty, humor, concern, forgiveness, as we play and struggle together - we extend our very self into the people that surround us. And then, when hardship comes, you are bigger than just “you.” You are “us.”
There is an African term that has been introduced throughout the Anglican Communion in recent years: Ubuntu. It translates as “I am who I am because we are who we are.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “Ubuntu is the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't be human all by yourself. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected, and what you do affects the whole world.”
Jesus knew this, and it is what made it possible for him to face his own impending betrayal and death. He was bigger than just himself. He was a part of everyone who surrounded him. He referred to his friends and disciples as his family. At the end of his life in prayer, he acknowledged that he was one with them and with God. In the Spirit of Jesus, Paul spoke of us all as being physical members of the same body. You are who you are because we are who we are. You are bigger than yourself.
But Jesus knew that love - enduring love, saving love - is more than love of people. He loved God. We often hear the greatest commandment - to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves - and we skip right over the first part: to love God. What does this mean? How do we love an invisible, silent, often unfelt mystery? And how does that help when life strips us down?
For you, loving God might mean resting in the divine presence with an open and vulnerable heart, in prayer. Loving God might mean waking up with a sense of gratitude for the gift of another day, and offering your intention to be true, to be kind. Loving God might mean seeing this whole glorious world as God’s own body, and taking delight in it. Loving God might mean being determined to fulfill the potential that you were born with, in order to be the particular image of God which you were made to reflect.
However you love God, over time, this love makes you than just yourself. When you pray, you are lifted out of your present circumstances, into eternal time. When you feel gratitude for this day, for creation, you are a part of the energy of life’s flowing stream. When you strive to grow, to become more the person God created you to be, you stretch beyond the confines of your current self, into a new being in God. These are all ways of loving God, and they all expand us beyond ourselves.
Over the past few months, many have told me that this, too, along with love of people that surround them, is what sustains them. They haven’t had some dramatic feeling, no voices in the night, but they have told me “God is more real to me now than ever. I couldn’t do this without God’s love.”
Being human, we will always experience anxiety, doubt, uncertainty, and grief. We can’t - and shouldn’t try to - transcend our humanity. But when we love others and when we love God, we can be on two levels at once: humanly affected, yes, but also knowing that we are not alone, that we are part of the tapestry of all humanity, all time, all creation. We know therefore that ultimately, nothing can harm or move us. And we become much more than just our present hardship.
When we hear a gospel like the one we heard today, it is tempting to think that Jesus was so different than the rest of us that only he could talk with such confidence about being betrayed, killed, and rising again. But to assume this is to deny his humanity. He was fully human, subject to the same anxieties, uncertainties, and grief that we are.
He only got to the point where he could speak as he did in today’s gospel because he had, all his life, cultivated two things that made him larger than his many problems: love of others and love of God. He loved friends, family, and companions on the journey. And he had marinated himself in the divine presence all his life. So even at Calvary when most of his friends fled, he was not alone. He was still larger than Jesus of Nazareth. He was part of everyone and everything that is.
As we love others, we are extended into others. And as we love God, we are extended into God. Both loves make us much more than an individual unit coping with our current problems. This is , I think, what it means to say that even now, as we are placed among things that are passing away, we can love things heavenly, and we can hold fast to those things that shall endure.