Oh Lord, uphold Thou me, that I may uplift Thee. Amen
Sometime ago, I came across some wonderful epitaphs from some real tombstones. I want to share with you a few of my favorites. From a tombstone in Nova Scotia: “Here lies Ezekial Aikle, Age 102, The Good Die Young.” The next two come from England, the first is a lawyer’s epitaph: “Sir John Strange – Here lies an honest lawyer, And that is Strange.” And: “Anna Wallace – The children of Israel wanted bread and the Lord sent them manna, old clerk Wallace wanted a wife, and the Devil sent him Anna.” All of the rest come from American cemeteries, the first from a grave in Vermont the epitaph written by a grieving widow: “Sacred to the memory of my husband John Barnes who died January 3, 1803. His comely young widow, aged 23, has many qualifications of a good wife, and yearns to be comforted.” The second is from Winslow Maine: “In memory of Beza Wood, Departed the life November 2nd, 1837, Aged 45 years. Here lies one Wood enclosed in wood, One Wood within another. The outer wood Is very good: We cannot praise The other.” The next from a grave the grave of a Margaret Daniels in Hollywood Cemetery: “She said her feet were killing her, but we didn’t believe her.” And this last one from a Thurmont, Maryland cemetery is my favorite: “Here lies an Atheist – All dressed up and no place to go.”
I think all of us from time to time think about what will be written on our gravestones. We wonder what our legacy will be, what people will think and say about us after we have left this earth. As a member of the clergy, I spend quite a bit of time thinking not about my own epitaph but about that of the Church’s. When we are all long gone, what will the history books say about Christians in the late 20th and early 21st centuries? How will we be remembered, what will be our legacy? Quite frankly, many contemporary historians say that Christianity today is at its best irrelevant and at its worst dangerous. At best, they say that mainstream Christianity has become so irrelevant that Christians are hard to identify. They look and act and live in the world just like everyone else. Unless you were to ask specifically about religious preference, there would be no way to tell whether someone was Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, agnostic or indifferent. Christianity is simply a private set of beliefs that has very little bearing outside of Sunday morning. At its worst, some contemporary thinkers see modern trends in Christianity as dangerous. With the rise of the more fundamental, evangelical branches of the faith they see a rising tide of intolerance, judgmentalism, and exclusivity. From this point of view, they understand Christians as interested more in pointing out who is outside the faith, outside of salvation and worthy of God’s wrath then they are in spreading the good news and saving souls. Although both of these perspectives represent extreme generalizations, they are nevertheless tragic descriptions of our faith in the new millennium.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Jesus was very clear as to what ought to be the mark of the Christian. In our lesson from John’s Gospel for this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that after he is gone the world will know them not by their teachings, not by their liturgies, but by their actions in the world. In short, they will be known by their ability to love. They will be known by their ability to love as Jesus loved, sacrificially, selflessly, and extravagantly. Literally, they are to love enough to lay down their lives for one another. And interestingly enough, the history of the early church is marked by just this kind of love.
Church historians have for centuries pondered what it was about the early faith that allowed it to spread so rapidly over a large portion of the world. Besides the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, what made Christians special, what made Christianity stand out in a world full of thousands of cults and religious groups? Henry Chadwick in his wonderful book entitled, The Early Church, writes that without a doubt the “practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success.” (p.56) Tertullian, an early church father, remarked that pagans in the ancient world would often comment, ‘See how these Christians love one another.’
Roman culture did not have any understanding of social welfare and so the Christian attribute of selfless love on behalf of believer and stranger alike was a novel idea. Early Christians expressed their love for Christ through their love of their neighbor. The faith grew in reputation and in strength because of the way the early church cared for the poor, for widows and orphans, visited those in prison and used the church’s money to free slaves who were trapped in bad households. An account from the middle of the third century reports that the church in Rome provided for the care of 1500 widows and needy persons all of whom were, “fed by the grace and kindness of the Lord.” (p.58)
There is an old joke about a man who was brought to Mercy Hospital for emergency surgery. His arteries were badly clogged and he underwent a quadruple bypass. When the man regained consciousness, he was reassured by a Sister of Mercy that he was going to fully recover. “Mr. Smith, you are going to be just fine,” said the nun. “But we do need to know how you intend to pay for your surgery. Are you covered by insurance?” “No I am not the man whispered.” “Can you pay in cash?” the nun asked. “I am afraid not sister, sorry.” “Well, do you have any family who might be able to help?” “Just my sister in New Mexico,” the man responded. “But she is a humble spinster nun who has no money.” “Oh, I must correct you,” replied the Sister of Mercy. “Nuns are not spinsters they are married to God.” “Wonderful,” said Mr. Smith perking up a little. “In that case, send the bill to my brother-in-law.” (H. King Oemig)
The promise of the resurrection is that Christ has paid the bill for us all. As the body of Christ we are now the stewards of this self-sacrificing love in the world. Most of us when we hear the word Stewardship begin to clutch our wallets a little tighter. Stewardship has become synonymous with requests for money and as a result, the church has killed this wonderful word. But stewardship is not primarily about money. Rather, being a good steward means using the gifts that God has given us to act in the world in loving ways. If the old saying by Kahlil Gibran is true that, “work is love made visible.” Then the work of the Christian as steward is to use his or her gifts in order to make the love of Christ visible in the world-the free, sacrificial, selfless love of Christ. Archbishop George Carey once remarked that the Church of England is like and elderly lady, “who mutters away to herself in the corner, ignored most of the time.” Has it really come to that? Have we so lost our sense of purpose that we are irrelevant? I pray not. We have to much to be thankful for and far too many gifts that we can give to the world. “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus says. That is the essence of discipleship. To love in the world as Christ loves us is to be a good steward of God’s gifts to us. To love in the world as Christ loves us is to make our faith real. To love in the world as Christ loves us is the only real remedy for irrelevance. Amen.