A beloved sexton of St. James’s, George Latham, died recently and several members of the staff attended his funeral at an African-American Baptist church. While the church was only a few miles from St. James’s in Jackson Ward, its traditions and the cultural differences with which it buries its dead seemed a world away. One of the things I was struck by were the prayers of thanksgiving offered to God for the opportunity to live another day. We give God thanks for this day, for everyday, but I do not think that we actually wake up and give thanks for the very fact that we did wake up and are alive to tell about it. I don’t know; perhaps I should speak for myself. The assumption is that, of course, we’re going to wake up in our own warm beds and have something to eat, put on clean clothing, get in our cars and go off to school and work. I, personally, was convicted by these prayers because, one, I had not given thanks for fact that I was alive on that dreary rainy day, and nor had I given thanks for my family being alive either.
But it is more than that. I take it for granted that I am alive to see another day; frankly I am often not thinking about today, but tomorrow, and the next day and a month down the road. You see I have already moved on, probably because I have things to look forward to. I am privileged. If I have problem I have resources and connections to correct it. If I am sick I receive first rate medical care that is not going to force my family into bankruptcy. I don’t go to bed worrying about the basic necessities of my life. I do give God thanks for my blessings, which are extraordinary, but for the simple fact that God has granted me another day to walk this earth, I had not, until now. When one leads a life of abundance—and I’m talking about material abundance—then the distance between life and death is often exaggerated and opaque. But when one doesn’t lead a life of material abundance then the distance between life and death is short and transparent.
In the epistle to the Philippians, Paul wrote about himself as an example of a man who shed all the social trappings that gave him identity and security: “a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5). Paul was a circumcised Israelite and a blameless Pharisee, who came to count all external requirements as worthless for the sake of Christ. He went about fooling himself for a long time, but in coming to know the love of Christ, Paul testified to having been saved by him and he now places all his dreams, the aim of his whole life, in reaching Christ. Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus when he wrote this letter so its context is as important as its content. All Paul had left was his life and it had been redefined, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish” (Phil 3: 7-8). Paul is saying that when the things of our fleshly, earthly lives are no longer idolized when we come to know the true God, the true Savior, all earthly ideologies, all worldly institutions, all the symbols of power, of money, of things material, become nothing to us. They lose their power over us—they become neutered. Paul uses an even stronger word, they become “like garbage,” “like manure”, so long as we can gain Christ and be found in him.
I would like to share with you an example of what Paul means when he says I want nothing more than to know Christ in this life and share in the power of his resurrection. Many of you may have heard the sermon I preached on Palm Sunday about my good friend and next door neighbor, Chuck Powers, who just days before, suffered a cardiac arrest while working out at the YMCA. His heart stopped and it took heroic measures and latest medical technology to bring him back to life. Chuck was at MCV, in intensive care, in an induced coma for almost all of three weeks recovering, not only from the heart ailment, but pneumonia and a host of other complications. Eventually he signaled an aggravation for the doctors to remove the ventilator and, just like that [snap], he started breathing on his own and was able to talk and communicate. We were singing God’s praises as it became apparent that he did not suffer any brain damage. After another month of intensive rehabilitation he was back at work being a lawyer. Chuck is a walking miracle as far as we are concerned.
His wife, Melissa, had said that one of the things that could have precipitated his cardiac arrest, apart from too much stress at work, was the negotiation he was in with their bank to refinance their house so they could break ground on an extensive two-story addition to their home with a state-of-the-art kitchen. A lot of money, and frankly, their hopes and dreams were on the line…that is until Chuck almost stepped from one door of life into another. A few weeks ago, just days before our country’s economic meltdown, she and I were sitting on her front porch, catching up, and I asked her about the status of her new kitchen. She said that they were taking things slowly but she expected that they would eventually return to the project. And then she paused, and said “maybe not.” After years of planning and investing in architects and drawings, contractors, permits, appliances, you name it; she was considering scrapping the project. I looked at her stunned, and she responded, “I thought a new kitchen would make me happy. God gave me back my happiness.”
As I was sitting in that Baptist church in Jackson Ward I got a good dose of what my neighbor was talking about. She and Chuck are grateful for the simple fact that they get to wake up together and live another day. As tenuous and capricious as life can be, I realized that I need to think and pray in more immediate terms—for the here and now. I know that these last two weeks have been frightening and devastating for people, our economic security has fallen through the floorboards. What we thought we had simply evaporated. Perhaps our prayers should seek guidance for how we keep it all in perspective. God help us surrender our need to control; God help us accept our helplessness; God help us to place our fears in your care, and trust that in the end it will work itself out. The cliché “God will provide” may have to suffice at a time like this.
And one could claim that many of the institutions that we have counted on in the past are unstable or not viable. This may be true except for one and that is our church. Regardless of what happens out there in the world, this parish will always be here and available, waiting to receive you. My hope is that you come here for solace, for serenity, to balance the craziness and instability of what happens outside of those doors. If you are in pain; if you are gushing with joy – we will be here waiting to receive you. That fact will never change. And many of you may be reluctant to make a financial gift to the church this year in light of the economy. My hope is that you will reconsider because you know what a gift our parish is to the community and to you in times of turmoil, personal and communal. This church belongs to all us and we must nurture and support it for those who need it most. If your time is not now, then God bless you. But your time will come, and know we will be here to receive you.
I was reading an obituary for Paul Newman this week, and in it he explained beautifully the giving and receiving of life and how it is best accomplished. He said, “We are such spendthrifts with our lives. The trick of living is to slip on and off the planet with the least fuss you can muster. I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”i
Beautiful is the moment in which we understand that we are no less than an instrument of God; we live only as long as God wants us to live; we can do only as much as God makes us able to; what we possess is counted as loss in the end because of a new life in Christ. To place all these limitations in God’s hands, to recognize that without God we can do nothing, is to have a sense, my beloved brothers and sisters, that a transcendent meaning of this time in our lives means to pray much, to be very united with those whom we love and to give God thanks that we have lived to see another day.
i. The New York Times, Sunday, September 28, 2008, p. A26.