The readings on which this sermon is based are found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r077.htm
s077g03 St Peter and St Paul Lockleys 29th June 2003
"someone will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go". John 21:18
Every time I hear these words of Jesus I think how even the chief disciple of Jesus did not escape the frustrations of old age. For we can cope with just about anything except the loss of independence - that loss of the ability to determine what we do and when we will do it.
It is a great blessing to grow old gracefully as it is indeed a blessing to live graciously while we breathe. There is an old chinese story of a whirlpool. Many youths were drowned trying to conquer it. One old person entered the water and eventually came through the turmoil unharmed. This person let the water take him rather than fighting against the forces.
And the reality is that God is with us, in the times of tranquility and in the times of turmoil. We hear the word of Jesus "Follow me" as if it were a command - but contained within this word is the important reality that we will never go anywhere where Jesus isn't already. The command to follow is not a command to go where Jesus is too scared to go himself, or to go where it is not sacred enough for Jesus to go himself. We follow Jesus only to find that he has already gone before us, and we are invited to see the extent of where Jesus is willing and able to go - everywhere. There is nowhere where Jesus is too scared to go, no place so profane that Jesus would desist. Indeed there is no place where Jesus isn't there already, waiting for us to arrive.
I suppose that it is a function of the age profile of Anglican congregations here in Adelaide, but I cannot tell you how frequently I've heard elderly people ponder on the wisdom of moving or staying put. Some people only want to be carried out of their home in a wooden box - horizontally. Others are happy to move on rather more early in life. The reality is that it is not a question where one ever wins 100%. Staying in one's own home may well mean the retaining of one's "independence" but it is often at the cost of the frustration of not being able to care for the home in the manner one did when one was more young and active. Moving to more supported accommodation one looses something of that independence but the frustrations are diminished greatly.
The reality is that we are all interdependent, to a greater or a lesser extent. I have said before that some people may kid themselves that they are "self-made" persons, but in reality they need the people over whom they have trod to give them that illusory sense of self satisfaction. It is lonely at the top.
The message today is as we follow, wherever we go, the risen Jesus will have already gone before us. The risen Jesus is as present in the homes where we live and are most comfortable, as we will find the risen Jesus waiting for us in the nursing home or independent living unit.
Because Jesus is there before us, wherever we go, it also means that God's purposes are not always served by us "being in control", by us doing what we "know" is what the Lord wants, even by us being "useful" to the Lord.
God's purposes are often as frequently achieved when we accept the leading of others, when we allow others to do what the Lord is calling them to do without interference, when we allow others to help us. I often have cause to comment that some of the most lovely eulogies I have heard were from the staff of Minda Home (a home for intellectually handicapped clients). Here are people who aren't in control of their lives, seemingly have little capacity to discern a personal ministry, let alone undertake it - but at the end of their lives are spoken of most highly and with so much affection by their carers.
On the other hand, I always recall the lovely cameo from the TV series "Keeping Up Appearances" of Hyacinth and Richard retiring for the night, when Hyacinth says to Richard: "I find it a great comfort to think that we will enjoy eternity together in heaven" - to which Richard can only roll his eyes heavenward in a gesture unable to be captured by words :-)
What will our eulogy be? Or perhaps what is more important - what will be in the hearts of those who mourn our passing - for that cannot be faked. I am sure that neither the Lord nor anyone else will be interested in how we have avoided doing the wrong thing or how much we have given to charity. The Lord and everyone will be interested in a person who has done what they could and being open to others. What will be important is how easy we were to live with, not our achievements or lack thereof.
Speaking of eulogies, I was taken by some words in a review of the book "Dorothy Day: Writings from the Commonweal" by Andrew Hamilton SJ (Eureka Street June 2003 p42). In it he quotes her as speaking of the Korean War: "We shall of course be called defeatists and appeasers. Nevertheless I would say that our way of life, as we are living it, is not worth saving. Let us lay down our way of life, our life itself, rather than go on with this senseless slaughter." He concludes "Dorothy Day to too catholic a treasure to be enshrined as a merely Catholic saint".
And finally today a rather long parable a photocopy of which was recently given to me - hence I cannot give a complete reference to it. I think it is retold by Byung Mu Ahn under the title "Jesus and People (Minjung)".
Chi-Ha Kirn, a Korean poet, wrote a play titled The Gold-Crowned Jesus. The scene plays in front of a Catholic church, where a statue of Jesus, made of cement, is to be found. On his head he is wearing a golden crown. Below the statue there are beggars lying around. The time is early morning on a cold winter's day.
As time passes, first a pot-bellied priest and then a fat man, looking like the boss of a company, walk by. The beggars ask for alms again and again, but are refused with contempt and scorn. Eventually a policeman is seen on the scene. Far from wanting to help them he immediately tries to drive them out of the place and demands a fine from them in return for his connivance.
After all of them are gone, one of the beggars starts to lament: "I have neither home, nor grave to rest from all the exhaustion. I am abandoned in the midst of the cold winter, abandoned in an endless cold, in a bottomless darkness. I cannot endure it any longer, this miserable time. ... It is unbearable, really unbearable. But where shall I go, where can I leave for, where, where?" As he so laments to himself in despair, his eyes, filled with tears, meet the cement statue of Jesus. For a moment a vague expectation flickers in his mind. Yet, pulling himself together he &emdash; with a critical glance at the statue &emdash; grumbles in his mind: "This Jesus might well be a saviour to those who have enough to eat, who have a home and a family. But what has he to do with a beggar like me?" And then he says in a loud voice: "Hey! How on earth can Jesus speak without a mouth? Can a lump of cement speak? Even though he were alive, he couldn't open his cemented mouth. So what kind of relationship could there be between that lump of cement and me? &emdash; Hey, listen! They choose cement or concrete or bronze or gold to have a statue of Jesus made, so solid as to last for 1000 or 10,000 years."
Crying out loudly, the beggar, overwhelmed with grief, begins to weep. Right at that moment he feels something wet, like small drops falling on his head. Is it raining? No! -When he look up he finds the cement Jesus weeping and dropping tears. The tears are falling right on him. "How strange a thing! Really, there are tears dropping down from his eyes! I could never have imagined a thing like this. Could it be that this cement is made of some strange material?"
He watches Jesus intently, and only then does he realise that Jesus is wearing a golden crown. He begins to touch and feel the crown with his hands. Having found that it is real gold, the idea crosses his mind that if he sold the crown, he would have enough to eat and something to live on. Following an irresistible impulse he grasps the crown and takes it off. At this very moment he hears a voice: "Take it, please! For too long a time have I been imprisoned in this cement. Feeling choked in this dark and lonely prison of cement, I wish to talk with poor people like you and share your suffering. How eagerly I have been waiting for this day to come - the day of my liberation when I could once again flare up like a candle and bring light to your misery. Eventually you have come and made me open my mouth. It's you who saved me." These are the words spoken by the gold-crowned Jesus.
"Who put Jesus into prison?" the startled and frightened beggar asks. "Who were they?" The Jesus made of cement answers: "People like the Pharisees did it, because they wanted to separate him from the poor in order to possess him exclusively." Then the beggar asks: "Lord, what is it that has to be done for you to be released, for you to live again and stay with us?" Jesus answers: "It is impossible to do so by my own strength. If you are not going to liberate me, I will never become free again. Only people like you, that means the poor, the miserable, the persecuted, but kind-hearted people, will be able to do it. You opened my mouth! Right at that moment when you took the crown off my head, my mouth opened. It is you who liberated me! Now come near to me, come very close! Like you made me open my mouth, you may now make my body become free. Remove the cement from my body. And remove the golden crown too. For my head, a crown of thorns will just be enough. I do not need gold. You need it much more. Take the gold and share it with your friends." But at that very moment the pot-bellied priest, the fat boss of the company, and the policeman reappear on the scene. Immediately they snatch the crown from the beggar's hands and put it back on the head of the Jesus-statue. The beggar is arrested by the policeman and, charged with larceny, taken to the police station. And the Jesus, made of cement, returns to his former state - a blank, expressionless statue, dumb, nothing more than a lump of cement.
Today is the feast of St Peter and St Paul, and the faith they knew was a living faith. We do the faith they held and themselves no favours if we turn that faith into something fixed, immovable and dead, as useful as a lump of concrete. You and I are more important to do that.
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