The text for the sermon comes from the Epistle reading Romans 13: 8
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
Today we begin our Advent series on the Four Last Things. Today I will preach on Death. Next week Fr. Gene will preach on Judgement, followed by Fr. Mark’s sermon on Heaven and concluding with Fr. Sean’s rousing sermon on Hell.
In his poem, Aubade, Philip Larkin wrote,
I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark. I stare.
In time the curtain-edges grow light.
Till then I see what is always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thoughts impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation; yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and terrify.
Such a world view is so earth bound, materialistic and hopeless. More often our avoidance of death in our materialistic culture is often expressed in Hollywood movies and television. The hero and heroine defy death effortlessly, jumping off tall buildings or out of fast moving cars, while fighting off hordes of armed adversaries with their bare hands, as they walk into the sunset; smiling though, perhaps a bit dirty and must up hair.
Even in the more serious and reflective aspects of our culture we shrink away from the consideration of death.And this is no truer than for much of the church today in our American culture, where funerals have been replaced with “celebrations of life,” alters and crucifixes replaced with video screens depicting endless scenes of chirping birds, billowing of clouds and sunlight, masking reality with banality.
Yes, Jesus most certainly is our loving shepherd. He leaves the 99 sheep to find the one lost lamb. He heals our broken lives and loved us enough to die for our sins. He is all that but more than that He is, thankfully, also our judge. In our culture, the denial and avoidance of death, of contemplating, reading and talking about it will diminish our Christian world view. We are creatures of the earth, but we are also creatures of spirit who have been given an eternal future. Death is part of our future, our last enemy, and will be so till the second coming of Christ.
When I was the paster of Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church I walked through the cemetery every day to get to my office. Founded in 1756, by Scots-Irish settlers, the oldest seventy five or so graves were on the front lawn. You had to pass them or go around them to get inside the building.
The world in which these Scots-Irish Christians lived was harsh and unforgiving. The reality of death biting at their heals from the day they were born. Only a handful of people (literally 5, I counted them) in the first 100 years of that church lived to be as old or older and Fr. Glenn and I. One of the newer graves on the front lawn, from the early 1800s, stood out. The man’s name, birth and death dates (he just made it to 60) were followed by these words,
“As you are now so once was I,
and as I am now
you must be,
prepare thyself to follow me.”
Initially this inscription could seem morbid and morose. But in his time he was being a heavenly minded optimist. Pay attention to your life, live it well so you will be ready, as ready as you can to meet your great Shepherd and Judge. What does this preparation look like?
“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another; for he that loves another has fulfilled the law.”
This truth every Sunday when the Celebrant of the Mass declares, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all they soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On the two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Paul was concerned that the Christians in Rome knew how to live out their Christian faith, to love others as Jesus first loved them. He wanted the best for them in their small churches, the best being lives lived together for the common good so completely that non believers would come to faith through their witness. Paul wanted them to be law abiding subjects of Imperial Rome, and top known as good neighbors on their streets. Such love is subversive, it will change everything around it.
To love this way requires one to fully engaged with all of ones human faculties, engaging those five theological imperatives Fr. Glenn is forever pointing us to. Preparing for our death is summed up in this, “Be loving.”
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Love is not an emotion which “happens” to us. It is not something over which we have no control. Love, the love of which Paul speaks, rooted in a conscious act of the will, my active participation on behalf of the welfare of others. Doing what is beneficial and not harmful.In other words, exercising my will to love others as God, the Blessed Trinity, first loved me.
Every human being is my neighbor whether I like them or not, whether I agree with their politics and world view or not, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.
Preparing for death requires an attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible and loving life.
Imagine for a moment Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was a report of an actual historic event, which actually it was since He is “The Good Samaritan,” but suppose he was talking about a Jewish victim of a mugging.
The victim, a law abiding Jewish man, is left beaten, robbed and naked in the gutter on the side of the road. The Jewish priest and scribe walk past their fellow Jew. Then comes the Samaritan, whose social standing with the victim lying there is less than that of a dog, a half breed, not !00% human person he would never sit down with to break bread. It was the Samaritan who was moved by love, who stood on the side of the road and then walked over, stooped down and attended to his Jewish neighbor’s need.
Owe no man anything, but to love one another, for he that liveth another hath fulfilled the law.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The text appointed for the Sermon comes from the Gospel: And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would.
This is the third time we have been presented with the narrative of Christ feeding the multitudes during the liturgical year. First, we get the same passage from John 6 at the 4th Sunday of Lent. Then we receive the feeding of the 4000 from Mark 8 in the 7th Sunday in Trinity. And now, on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we again hear this narrative from John 6. When we encounter the narrative in each new season, new insights emerge and new applications must be made.
Now that we are in the last week of the year, the lectionary pushes us to examine the Gospel in a new light. And to do that, the wise compilers of these readings inserted an Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah as the Epistle to help guide our reading of the Gospel. Let us pay attention to the text from Jeremiah first and read it in light of the Gospel.
“BEHOLD, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgement and justice in the earth. ”
Ah! This prophetic passage is looking for the day when a new David will come to save Judah and Israel. Obviously, we are supposed to read this in light of Jesus’ coming. And so it is Jesus who is the righteous Branch, the king who is bringing salvation and safety to Judah and Israel.
Think of what Simeon declared when he finally held the Incarnate Lord in his arms at the Temple: “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” [Luk 2:30-32 KJV]
And indeed, Jesus Christ has brought exactly that. He has issued in the Kingdom of God. And he has done this as a judge, as a King, as a prophet, just as Jeremiah foretold.
And Jeremiah shows when this king comes, Israel will no longer just remember the ancient Exodus from Egypt, but they will now speak in present of a greater Exodus when they shall dwell in their own land again. This is an important connection with the Gospel this morning. In the original Exodus, the nation of Israel escaped the tyranny of Egypt and wandered in the desert for forty years. During that journey, God sustained his people by feeding the multitude with the bread of heaven. Through that nourishment, they were brought to the promised Land. So when Jesus feeds the multitudes in the wilderness, feeding them with a new heavenly bread, the people notice at once the implications. Jesus is now the new messiah who may lead the people of Judah and Israel on an Exodus to the promised land. But as we have seen many times before, what exactly this kingdom looked like, and what exactly this exodus entailed was missed. Remember, this is John 6! It turns out that most of His disciples leave Him just after this episode when he claims that the true Bread of Heaven is His flesh. This was a radically different Kingdom than expected, leading towards quite a different promised land….one greater than those Israelites, or the Romans, or even Americans have ever conceived. Jesus was leading His people on a much more amazing Exodus into an eternal Kingdom of Love in Service of God Almighty.
This is our present state. Now Jesus leads his people as a triumphant King, who has conquered the tyranny of death and the bondage of sin. He has freed his people and leads them into his eternal kingdom. This is beautiful–but this is more than a good story that we get to watch from the outside, like a movie. This narrative is the narrative of our own lives, for it is the narrative of the Church.
But the question is how do you experience it? How do you live in or through this narrative? As finite humans, we do not understand immediately or comprehensively but step by step. We read books page by page, watch movies scenes by scene. And we experience our lives day by day, season by season through time. This can be a terrifying concept to think about for some, because time cannot be grasped and conquered like material things. And yet it is our relationship with time that underpins or supports are relationship with things, that material world. As Abraham Heschel, the great modern Jewish philosopher and rabbi says: “We must not forget that is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significant to things.” Heschel goes on to point out that one of the most important words in the Old Testament, Kadosh, which means holy, is first applied, not to any physical creation, but time itself: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” It is time itself that is declared holy!
This Jewish sense of time was not lost as the early Church grew and more Gentiles were converted. Let me give you an example: Even the most ordinary day in the liturgical calendar is called a Feria, the Latin for Feast! Why? Because even the most ordinary day, a Tuesday in the 14th week of Trinity that is not marked by any special day, is a day when we get to celebrate God’s great gift to us: the Mass. Even on this most ordinary day, we are fed by his Body and Blood, get to enter into the most Holy presence of God Almighty through his Son, and partake in the eternal feast in a temporal moment.
And by living through the calendar of the church, rather than the calendar of the secular world, what we see is that there is no ordinary time, but always the chance of us lifting up our mundane into the time of the kingdom of God. Therefore the process of your life through time, and your experience and understanding of time really matters. This is why I often think of the liturgical calendar as a great gift that God has given us, because the Church leads us through this narrative of Redemption each year by the liturgical calendar. The Holy Spirit has worked within the church to develop this calendar so that we may grow deeper in the knowledge and love of God.
The challenge for all of us is whether we are going to be attentive to living in this holy time. It is difficult, to say the least, to re-order our lives so that the calendar of the Church becomes the primary way we experience time. It takes a real sacrifice. Like Gospel reading this morning, the miracle depended on a sacrifice—someone giving up of their own to God. A young lad, John tells us, gives up five barley loaves and two small fish to Jesus. And Jesus then takes this sacrifice, blesses it and returns it as a gift overflowing. In our own lives, God demands a sacrifice, and Christian Rosetti puts it so well:
What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him —
Give my heart.
When you give God your heart, your will, your mind, your time, he will take that sacrifice, bless it, and return it to you transformed. God has already given us the gift of the liturgical calendar—it is our sacrifice to dedicate ourselves to it! Let me give you an example: this Sunday is declared as the Sunday Next before Advent. This week is set aside to help us prepare for a new season which is itself dedicated to preparation. Preparation for preparation! Truly, there is a wisdom that humans cannot jump from one attitude/mindset to another without time to prepare. And so our sacrifice is to spend the time to focus on the upcoming season.
This week, therefore, make time to prepare for Advent. Plan ahead to have a day in December set aside for quiet and meditation. Order a book on a spiritual topic to read during Advent. And start focusing on the meaning of Advent. This whole season is dedicated to preparation. But prepare for what? Well, as the Gospel and epistle are showing us, we are preparing for much more than just an empty celebration of a historical event. We are preparing our own lives for the coming of the Kingdom. And this is why Advent is often dedicated to ponder the 4 last things of Death, judgement, Hell, heaven. We are preparing ourselves for eternal life!
The seasons help us understand God’s glorious work of redemption step by step. Advent leads us to Christmas which moves us into Epiphany. Then we prepare again for three weeks before starting into Lent which prepares us for Holy Week and the glorious season of Easter, Pentecost, and back to the long season of Trinitytide. And so through the calendar, living it out, paying attention to each new season and meditating upon the work of God both in time and space, we are really preparing our own lives for that eternal feast we all hope to attain.
And so we prepare and as we prepare we grow in knowledge and devotion to God.