It is a distinct honor to be with you on this occasion when our church thanks so many of you and thanks God for you. Your hard work over the years is balm to our corporate soul. I hope that you enjoy a deep sense of personal satisfaction along with the accolades we are able to send your way. There is much that could be said about you and your ministry, but this is the sermon and sermons are about God no matter how tempting it would be to talk about each other.
It is obvious that the lessons for today were chosen because they all mention older people, people like you and me. But when I read them over I began to see a portrait emerge. A portrait painted by God through the medium of scripture, using the hues and textures of Genesis, the Psalter, James, and Luke. Come with me for a moment as we look at each of these texts and see the portrait they make.
In the first lesson from Genesis, Abraham, and Sarah are up in years, carrying the disappointment of a childless marriage they had so hoped would be otherwise. Strangers come—visitors from God—who promise that Sarah will have a child in her old age. Sarah laughs. If that were the news for Mary and me at this point I am not sure that laughter would be the response, but we have to go with the story we have. So the first stroke of this portrait is laughter.
Some of you may remember a poster artist of the 1960s, a nun named Sister Corita. One of her posters famously proclaimed, “With God we know the rules will be fair and there will be wonderful surprises!” Good stuff for the sixties when nobody looked too closely at what was actually being said because it felt so good to say something whether it made any sense or not. In that sixties spirit, Sister Corita was half right with her poster. There are wonderful surprises in life but it is hard to maintain that the rules are exactly fair. Life is uneven at best and pretty obviously not fair by our standards. You and I have been around awhile and we have seen people bearing great and uneven burdens of health, circumstance, and consequence. Life is not fair by any human measuring of that term and I have no way make it right.
But, in the midst of it all, the surprises have been wonderful. Look at your life and look around to see where it has brought you. I don’t know your story but I will bet that it includes some wonderful people you did not find on your own, some really dumb things that did not have the consequences they deserved, some outcomes you could not have imagined. And here you are, sitting in this great cathedral where people are being thankful for your life and its impact on others. Let us, like Sarah, put our hands over our mouths and laugh … at what? Absurdity? Amazement? Irony? Or maybe just the miracle of our lives. Yes, all of that and more. Life is full of wonderful surprises, and we are sitting in the middle of one right now. That is how the portrait begins.
The psalm is full of praise. I used to think that God needed us to praise him. I thought maybe God had some esteem issues and needed bucking up from time to time. He needed me to say, “Good job on the sunset … loved the Grand Canyon … keep up the good work on springtime.” But that is not it at all. To praise God is to enjoy God and to know that it is God we are enjoying. To enjoy life and know that it is God’s gift. To know that dogs have better noses than we do but they don’t know anything about the smell of new cars or clean babies or coffee in the morning. To know that foxes have better ears than we but they never hear a symphony or the way rope swings rub against trees or screen doors slam in the summer. To know that deer have better eyes than we do but never see the shapes that clouds make or the patterns stained glass throws on the floor or the wisdom in wrinkled hands. The enjoyment of God—that is the essence of praise and is the second brush stroke in this portrait.
In the epistle, James writes about living generously, with life turned outward for others rather than inward on ourselves. It is the simplest and most profound of life’s secrets. Why God gave us instincts of self-protection and self-interest when the key to living well is self-giving is beyond me. I intend to bring it up on Judgment Day. But until then, it is balm to those who know it and bane to those who do not. Life works best when it is turned outward. Giving is the key to spending time and energy and money. Service rendered is an infinitely richer joy than any service received. That is the third stroke of the portrait.
The final touch is in the Gospel, the story of Simeon and Anna whose lives were rendered complete by seeing Jesus. Living life so that, when it is over, it is completed rather than ended is the finest art. Anna, Simeon and people like them know the wisdom of a funeral prayer I once read—
Teach us, O Lord, not to hold onto life too tightly. Teach us to hold it lightly, not carelessly but lightly, easily. Teach us to take it as a gift to enjoy and cherish while we have it, and let it go gracefully and thankfully when the time comes. The gift is great but the Giver is greater still. You O God are the giver and in you there is life that never dies.
Holding life lightly and letting it go gracefully is the very heart and essence of living well.
There is the completed portrait: Sarah laughing at life’s surprises; David enjoying God to the fullest; James pulling in life by giving it away; Simeon and Anna holding lightly and letting go gracefully. It is a portrait of life well lived and it looks a lot like you. Because it is your portrait, your life well lived, your church is honored to honor you this day. Enjoy.
Episcopal Senior Ministry Eucharist is an annual Eucharist at Washington National Cathedral honoring the contributions of all older adults in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.