Saturday, August 14, 2010

Death, Marriage and Honor

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 1, 2010, my first Sunday back after a three month sabbatical: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Aside from the public, professional ministry things I wanted to accomplish while I was on sabbatical, there were some personal things I wanted to tend to as well. One of them was for John and I to get our wills and other legal documents in order, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, we had not done since before we moved here from Maryland.

I was reminded why a lot of people don’t tend to these things aside from plain old procrastination. Paying attention to them means thinking about death. In fact, as we went through the process I began to call them our “death documents,” no doubt trying to scare death away with a little humor.

Thinking about death was not really on my agenda for my sabbatical, but there you have it. And, interestingly enough, it wouldn’t let go. While we were in the midst of the “death documents process” I decided to go ahead and read the Scripture readings for this Sunday, my first Sunday back, so that they would be in my head and perhaps something would occur to me over the next few weeks.

To be perfectly honest, I wrinkled my nose at the Ecclesiastes reading. “All is vanity.” I have no doubt that is true, but I have no desire to preach on it at all. Thank God for a system in which there is always more than one reading to use as a jumping off point.

Then I read Colossians and there was that word again. Death.

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (3:2-3)

Now that passage of Colossians is very familiar to me. Back in my college evangelical phase as part of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, that was among the verses of Paul we were asked to memorize. And this one was easy because we had a little song that went along with it. And I am blessed or cursed (depending on which moment it is) that most every little song I have sung more than once, whether I like it or not, stays in my head. And it rises to my consciousness every once and a while whether I want it to or not. And it tends to stick there for a little while so that it is going on in my head sometimes for hours on end. For an interesting conversation, ask John Bradley what it is like to live with a person who has this “gift.”

So, of course, now that I’ve peaked your curiosity, here’s the little song.

Seek the things that are above,

Not the things of the earth,

For you are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God.

You are dead, you are dead,

You are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God.

Seek the things that are above,

Not the things of the earth,

For you are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God.

So with that little ditty bouncing around in my brain, I went off to Iona in Scotland. Well, I think, maybe I’ll have time to figure out what those two verses of Scripture actually mean. But no, the change of scenery seems to wipe it from my brain, and I deal with other things there.

But I do buy a book (yes, I actually bought several books). During my week there I heard several quotes from a man named George MacLeod, who was, among other things the founder of the Iona Community in the late 1930’s (you’ll be hearing more about Iona and the Iona Community in the weeks and months to come). So I bought a book of Daily Readings from his writings.

When I got back I started to use it and 12 days into it, I turn the page and the next reading is entitled, “The Undertaker has Been and Gone.” He references these two verses from Colossians about being dead already and writes,

It means that so far as we are concerned the undertaker has been and gone; it is a matter of indifference to us whether at some future date anyone will or will not put a wreath of flowers on the box that contains our mortal remains.[1]

I don’t know about you, but I find that challenging. I’m not sure if I find it “a matter of indifference” whether people will honor my memory when I have gone.

One of the things I had done at the same time we were revising our wills and other documents, was to update my funeral directions. If all is vanity, than that exercise, at least for me, qualifies. I suppose most of you can imagine that mine are quite detailed. No, I am not preaching at my own funeral, but my mark will clearly be all over it. I realized in contemplating the quote from MacLeod that in planning my funeral it was clearly not a matter of indifference what people thought at it. I want to be remembered in a particular way, as a priest who was committed to the Gospel, and a man of dignity and even of honor.

Yes, it’s the truth, I want people to honor me when I die. I say that without too much embarrassment, though, because I do not think I am alone in that at all.

Well, there was one more step in this particular journey during my sabbatical. And it helped me to embrace a little more what MacLeod and Colossians is trying to say.

Some of you know because it was on our Facebook pages, but not all of you do, that John and I were married two weeks ago on Prince Edward Island in Canada. Why we did that is a story for another time, although, interestingly enough, it had its genesis in re-doing our wills and a conversation we had with our lawyer.

Many jokes could no doubt be inserted here as to why my wedding is part of a story about death, but, nevertheless, it is. It’s actually about that word “honor,” the admittance that I do want to be honored when I die.

A part of the marriage service that has always struck me is the giving and receiving of rings. In the Prayer Book Marriage Service, each member of the couple says to the other,

I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am and all that I have, I honor you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I’m always struck by the word “honor” there? What does that mean in that place? I’ve always had that question, but never finished thinking it all the way through. But saying it for myself two weeks ago, and the coincident of having come upon the word in my reflections about death over the summer, means that I’ve thought about it some more. I’ve not finished thinking it all the way through, but I have latched onto a couple things.

First of all is what the word “honor” means. I think for most of us in our time it carries the implication of “reward.” It is treating someone in a special way because they deserve it.

But here’s where Colossians and MacLeod come in. Colossians says to me this mysterious thing: I am already dead. My life is already united with Christ’s life. “You are dead and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” This means that God has already honored me in every way possible. It hasn’t been, nor is it, nor will it be a reward. It already is and always will be a gift.

One of my most important tasks as a Christian is to live into this honor that is already mine, which means that I do not need any honor the world is prepared to give me, nor do I need to be ashamed of any honor the world has seemed to withhold from me. That is gospel; it is extraordinarily good news. It is also challenging because our egos need honoring. The question always before us is can we be satisfied with being honored by God?

Which means that in a marriage, by saying “I honor you,” I am saying, “I will be God’s honor for you.” I will make sure that you are never without a sense of God’s honor. This is to say, by the way, that the promise of a wedded couple is to be a sacrament for one another.

Now marriage is not the only place we can get such a sacrament, in fact, it’s not the primary place, even for people who are married. What we do at this Altar every week is that primary sacrament. God is honoring us in each Eucharist, restoring our honor.

So, to tie this all together. God wants us to hear, in this Eucharist, God saying tp us what the partners say to each other in the marriage rite: “I honor you.” That is what God is saying to us when we hear the words, “the Body of Christ, the bread of heaven; the Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” I honor you.

And because this is true, I can be less and less afraid of death. It can come to be even, as MacLeod puts it, a matter of indifference to me. Ultimately I don’t need to be honored because of my “achievements” either before or after my death. My dignity, my honor, is already intact as a free gift of God. Which is to say that I can live, as Paul says, as if I have died and my life is hidden with Christ in God. It is. It just is.

What a privilege it is to be back among you to speak a word of good news.

[1] Daily Readings with George MacLeod (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2001), p. 34.

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