Sermon from April 7, 2019

You Do Not Always Have Me
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
April 7, 2019    Fifth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

We are now in the deepest wilderness of Lent, and the lectionary readings have arrived at the final days of Jesus’ life, so it is no surprise to find ourselves brought face to face with death.  Our challenge is to find a way through despair to hope, a way to live that overcomes death and creates a more meaningful life.  Today’s scriptures help us do that.

The 126th Psalm cries out from a time of catastrophe, “Restore our fortunes, O God!”  Its faithfulness is rewarded with a mouth filled with laughter and a tongue with shouts of joy.  In Philippians Paul dies to his former successful life, and chooses instead to share Christ’s sufferings and he gains a life on earth of surpassing value.

But Jesus speaks devastating words in today’s gospel passage, and it is hard at first to hear any hope in them.  He is defending Mary’s sacrificial act of pouring a jar of nard on his feet, which was worth an entire year’s wages.  Judas asks why the oil was not sold and the money given to the poor.  We can imagine the stunned silence when Jesus replies, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Remember that Mary was the one who loved Jesus so much that she sat at his feet absorbing his every word.  She did it even though it meant turning her back on social expectations and bearing her sister Martha’s rebuke for not helping in the kitchen.  Mary saw Jesus raise her brother Lazarus from the dead.  Imagine how much she loved him for how he freed and saved and served her and her family.  And then imagine him saying, “You will not always have me.”

We know what it feels like to realize that we are not always going to have someone or something we love and need.  We may live in denial, but if we have ever suffered or feared a loss, deep down we do not need to hear anyone say, “You do not always have me.”  We know it.  We can hear our own body saying to us, “You do not always have me.”

The earth has said, “You do not always have me,” from time to time over the ages.  Dinosaur fossils testify to it.  Whole civilizations testify to it from where they lie buried under desert sands.  They heard arid winds whispering it as they shriveled their crops and dried up their wells.  But our generation is hearing what no human generation ever has, which is the entire planet crying out that we will lose the stable environment that makes life possible if we do not respond wisely to its warnings.

Every minute says, “You do not always have me” as it arrives.  Yet we let opportunities go by unfulfilled, we let the gifts, talents and possibilities God has given us for making a difference go undeveloped and unused.

We will not always have this moment.  We will never have it again.  We need to let ourselves feel the shock of that because if we can learn to live into the truth of life’s transience, it can transform our lives into their fullest meaning.  We see what we value most when we live in the awareness of death, and we can sacrifice lesser things for the loving service of that higher good.

Philip Simmons was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 35.  He had two young children and was at the start of a promising academic and literary career.  He became well known for his wise and joyful book entitled, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, a collection of sermons he gave in his New Hampshire church during the course of his illness.

Simmons wrote, “Only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious—our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom.”

He wrote, “A fuller consciousness of my own mortality has been my best guide to being more fully alive…. Only when we accept our present condition can we set aside fear and discover the love and compassion that are our highest human endowments.”  Simmons lived twice as long as expected, fully alive and free, inspiring those around him with his humor, compassion and love.

Tim DeChristopher is a former evangelical Christian who is now Unitarian Universalist.  He heard a talk in 2008 when he was in his 20s by a leading climate scientist.  DeChristopher asked her after the talk if it was too late to avoid the worst-case scenario.  She told him that she didn’t say it publicly because she did not want to scare people into paralysis.  Then she put her hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry my generation failed yours.”

DeChristopher spiraled into deep grief and despair, but once he hit bottom and accepted the truth, he saw that if everything was going to be lost, then he had nothing to lose.  He felt freed to follow Christ’s way more purely.  He found that what remained at the core of his being once he had confronted the worst was a Christ-like love and a desire to serve.

DeChristopher became famous when he disrupted a gas and oil lease auction in Utah.  He served a prison sentence and after his release he entered Harvard Divinity School.  He explained why in an interview last December, “I realized the challenge of the climate movement was beginning to shift from being about reducing emissions quickly to also being about…how to deal with catastrophic impacts of climate change. How do we hold onto our humanity as we navigate that period of chaotic hardship? Our religious traditions have a set of tools and skills for that.”

DeChristopher is back today in a place of grief as he sees climate change growing rapidly worse than studies had predicted, and yet he still has hope.  He says, “I see it in the resilience of people. There was a little video that went viral during the latest California wildfire with a father [escaping the burning town] with his 3-year-old daughter and she is saying, ‘Are we going to burn up, daddy?’ and he starts singing to keep her calm while they drive, with walls of flame on either side. It is that sort of beautiful resilience of the human spirit that gives me hope, not that things are going to be OK and we are not going to face unprecedented hardships, but that there is a loving part of our humanity that’s going to carry us through that time.” (from The Salt Lake Tribune, 12/15/18)

The hope is that like that father and Philip Simmons and Tim DeChristopher we will transform our suffering into wisdom when we hear life saying, “You do not always have me.”  The wisdom comes from recognizing that now you do have me.  You will not always have this moment, but now you do have this moment.  You may not always have the gifts and opportunities that you have, but now you do have them.

The hope is that like Mary, we will use this moment to pour out the precious oil of our lives to serve what we love.

In a real sense, we are each always in Mary’s position.  We each have this chance to love and serve a Christ that we will not always have, and we each must decide how we will respond.  Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew that we would find him in the poor and sick and oppressed of the world.  He said in the Gospel of Thomas, “Split a piece of wood and I am there.  Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”  He said in the Gospel of Luke that the realm of God is within and among us.  He said in the Gospel of John that he himself is in us.  Christ is wherever we are, in every moment, in us and in all that surrounds us.

Christ is saying, the earth is saying, this moment is saying, everything we love is saying to us, “You do not always have me.”  God is calling us through every threat, asking us to sacrifice, to serve, to use the gifts we have been given for this very purpose.

What is this moment in your life on earth asking of you?  What gifts do you have to offer, what seeds can you sow today so that there may be a future harvest when you come home with shouts of joy?

Let us pray in silence …


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