Sunday, May 25, 2014

Rogation Sunday

        St. John 14:15-21

And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever.”

In this morning's Gospel lesson, we have a continuation of the Gospel from last week. The text is part of the farewell discourse, the final teaching of Jesus to his disciples before his arrest, trial and execution, contained in chapters 13 to 17 of St. John's Gospel. In this particular section of it, Jesus consoles the disciples that though they will lose his physical presence yet he will send them another comforter. The disciples are distraught. They are sorrowful. They are in anguish. Their attachment to Jesus is more than just an attachment to an idea like a person who is rabidly attached to a particular social or political cause. No, they are attached to a real man; they love this human being, not least because he has opened their eyes to the truth regarding God and the truth concerning their human situation. In an earlier passage in John's Gospel, Jesus—not surprisingly—makes some controversial remarks. The Evangelist reports that he lost some disciples on account of those remarks. Jesus then questions the twelve, will you also leave? Peter's response is quite wonderful. It speaks to what the disciples felt about their teacher and master. Peter says to Jesus: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” Undoubtedly that question was rolling through their heads—to whom shall we go?--on the night of last supper. It goes without saying that the disciples’ encounter with Jesus changed every aspect of their lives. They gave up their professions; they gave up a settled lifestyle to follow a traveling preacher; mostly importantly, they experienced a spiritual transformation as a result of their encounter with Jesus. I suspect the mere thought of his departure from them would provoke a sense of dismay and revulsion. Deep in them a shudder would rise up at the mere hint of his being taken from them. They did not want their time of earthly fellowship to come to an end.

The man Jesus however was bound by time, and like everything in time, there is a finite end to life and human relationships. This is part of the pain and sorrow and frustration of human existence. But of course, our Lord is more than a mere man. We believe he is the eternal Son of God. In his person, then, both eternity and time are united together. This is part of the mystery of the incarnation. We live in a world of change and decay, a world of time. God does not just perceive this from afar. The Christian story is not that God is only touched remotely by a feeling of sympathy for our time-bound existence. Rather, God takes that existence into himself in the man Jesus. He knows directly the cycles of time: the circle of hunger and satiation; the annual cycle of seasons and harvests; the reality that in the days given to a man to live, he will be preceded by many in death; he will witness some born; and finally he himself will leave others behind at his death. Our Lord, the Son of God, takes all this to himself. He doesn't turn away from the frustration and anguish that time can wreck on us. His embracing of our finite existence reaches a climax in his crucifixion and death. The Apostles' Creed states that our Lord “descended into hell.” In the original Latin of the Creed, the word for “hell” is infernos, literally the place of the dead. In other words, Jesus did not just appear to die. Upon death, he didn't have the after-death equivalent of the presidential suite to ride out his stay. He plunged into the uncertainty of death, about which on this side of the grave we know so little.

Our Lord's resurrection is a triumph over the ravages of time. He, in the words of the Orthodox hymn, tramples down death by death. In these events, he takes away from us the burden of sin; in the words of St. Paul, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The disciples can and will know a degree of this resurrected life in this world, but it will only be a taste of the full transformation that is yet to come. They are still in this world. We are still in this world. Jesus tells his disciples that are living in time, “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.” Jesus comes to the twelve and us not in the physical reality of his resurrected body. Rather, he sends the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Now we tend to think of comforting as that which assuages pain, sorrow or disappointment. However, the older meaning of comfort is to strengthen. The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, is sent by our Lord to strengthen us. He comes to give us strength to live in this world as witnesses to the light and love of God. It is the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who today communicates to us the reality of our Lord Jesus and leads us into the fellowship of the Father and Son. If the Holy Spirit has come, there is a source of joy that is not overcome by the vicissitudes of life. If the Holy Spirit has come, there is the power to love in the way that our Lord loved us, a self-less, self-offering love. If the Holy Spirit has come, there is a peace and faith that knows our Lord is aboard the ship with us, and we need not fear the tempest of even the fiercest storms: he will see us safely to shore. This is the Comforter from the Father, he that will abide with us forever. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Eulogy for my mother

On Christmas Day this past year when my mother asked me to compose a eulogy for her funeral, I was naturally reticent. She had been perilously close to death in the preceding days, but had miraculously rebounded very early Christmas morning. I tried to talk her out of her decision--explaining that I did not think I could get through it without breaking down. She was immovable however. My mother possessed an iron resolve once she had made a decision. Furthermore, in general I would say she asked very little of me and at the same time she gave herself so freely and completely to her family that I had finally to accept that she was not to be refused and I had little power or right to refuse her in this request.

It is true that I have been called into the priesthood and serve an Episcopal congregation in New Jersey. Today, however, I stand before you as Judy's youngest son, the last of five children born to her and my father. I cannot of course set aside my faith--nor would mom want me to do so--but my primary aim is to speak well and truly of her, and in this, I hope my remarks will represent the feeling of all of our family.

My mother was born in 1947 in Columbus, Ohio in a decidedly middle class family. One of the great loves of her life was her father, Robert Swan, who died tragically when she was only 12. Though this was a great sadness in her life, his memory was kept alive in our family by her warm recollections of him. Though he died more than 20 years before I was born, we always had a sense of him and that he was our grandfather. She gave his name to my brother, and I, in turn, have given it to my son.

Though my grandparents were not terribly religious, especially during the early part of their marriage, they had both grown up in devout households. My mother used to tell the story that while in Elementary School, she came home one day, and asked her parents what Sunday School was. After that, the story continued, her parents took her regularly to church, principally St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Park Ridge outside of Chicago. Here she was eventually confirmed and married and where her eldest daughter was baptized. Mom was always a daughter of the church, and served in a whole host of ways as a layreader, chalice bearer, member of vestry, member of altar guild. She volunteered at the gift shop of the cathedral here in Albuquerque for many years, and taught a Bible study out of her home during the last decade of her life.

Though she was very active in the life of the church, she would have been the first to say that all of that activity is no substitute for a lively and heart-felt faith. Although she was baptized, confirmed, and attended weekly service through almost all of her life, it was clear that she was awakened to matters of faith in a more substantial and thorough way after a retreat she went on with my father in the early nineties. It was during and after this time that she became a real student of the Bible, reading it through numerous times and becoming involved with many Bible studies. In her life, it has to be said, she was a woman of strong and abiding Christian conviction.

If my mother were asked what her greatest accomplishment was, there would be no disputing about her answer. It was as a mother. The trajectory of her life was clear from the beginning. Her life's work would not be the type of thing found in newspapers or books. It was not the type of work to gain her honors and awards outside of the love and devotion of her family. No, she always knew that she wanted to be a mother. As a little girl, she had her Jenny doll and picked out the name Beth from Little Women. She was naturally inclined to care in a maternal way for her younger sister Debbie who was seven years her junior. By the time she started dating my father in the mid-1960s, it was clear that she wanted to be a full-time mother. She loved to tell the story about how in the summer of 1966, three years before they were married, she and my father picked four names, Jenny, Beth, Robert and John. Of course, my mother had other occupations in her life--she worked as a special education teacher out of college and was a secretary for a non-profit in my teens--yet even these employments seemed to be drawn in and tied to her work as a mother. She always spoke of how her training and experience in education was an asset to her as a mother, and I believe part of her motivation in going back to work as a secretary was to help fund her children's education. In some notes that I took after she asked me to give this eulogy, I wrote down the following quote. Concerning her children, she said, "I could not be more blessed." She was not invariably proud of decisions I or my siblings made, but there was never any question of the constancy of her love as a mother.

Dad, it was clear that she loved you in part because you gave her what she always wanted: a family; she also loved you because you supported her in the work that she most wanted to do: being a stay-at-home mother. But in addition, it was evident to all that you were the love of her life. My mother was not quick to judge those who remarried after being widowed. She said that often times people remarry because marriage had been good to them. In a sense, remarrying could be a tribute to a happy marriage. She also said that for others, one marriage could give the fullness of matrimony; for these, remarriage would never be an alluring option. Dad, I believe she hoped the former for you, but I know that she felt the latter way about her marriage to you. You were it.

Last November my mother came to visit me and my family in New Jersey. A few weeks earlier she had noticed a small bruise on her breast. While visiting, she learned that she had breast cancer. The news went from bad to worse in the weeks following: first her cancer was determined to be a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer; then we learned it had metastasized into several other parts of her body. It would be misleading to say that she was not sad at these developments--I will never forget when she told me her diagnosis--but there was a devout acceptance and a holy resignation to whatever the future would bring. To those who observed her, she put in practice the words of what she called her life verse, Proverbs 3:5-6; "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths."

I suspect for her the hardest part of dying was leaving her family: her husband, her children and grandchildren. But she also spoke of the hope and expectation of being reunited with her family that had gone before her: her father and her mother; her beloved grandparents, Guy and Gladys, her firstborn son who died shortly after birth and for whom she never stopped grieving. When my father called early Wednesday morning to tell me the news of mom's death, it was the words of an Easter Hymn that came to me: "The strife is ov'r, the battle done, the victory of life is won." The hymn is of course speaking of the triumph of Jesus over sin and death in his resurrection, but it applies in a measure to my mother as a Christian. It is to this hope of the resurrection that she witnessed, and it is to this hope that I commend her. Her strife is over; may she now and evermore know the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.