We want lives that matter. And so we set out, hoping to create a purposeful life: choosing work to do, finding people to love, settling into a pattern for our days.
Six years ago, this powerful desire to create a meaningful life gained clarity for me; as I sat watching my father struggle to stay alive; willing his failing heart to hold out just a little longer. He lives now with some consequences of that struggle: an implanted defibrillator, strong and harsh medicine. He also lives with a deeper awareness of each day as a gift of God’s hand; each beat of the heart as a reminder of God’s grace.
More than anything else, those tense days called forth from me a profound listening, as my father reviewed the questions that arise from life at the edge of death. Has my life mattered? Has it had a purpose? Have I served God well?
I do not believe my father is unique in asking these questions. I may have heard them more deeply because he is my dad. And yet, throughout my years of ministry, folks, young and old, have asked them.
Most of us, if we speak honestly about ourselves, can touch a place of restless uncertainty; not quite sure about the ways we are spending our lives and being spent. In our secret heart, we harbor a sense that life might be meant for something deeper; something more.
And yet, we resist our profound yearning to fall more deeply in love with God. For we know instinctively that such deep love will unsettle our settlements. And so we wonder. Do our lives matter? Are they pleasing to God?
Our readings today, filled as they are with talk of God’s judgment, make us anxious. The time for accounting has come, Ezekiel says; is coming soon, says Jesus. Will we be found wanting?
Ezekiel lives in a Jerusalem of increasing clouds and darkness. Israel’s kings busy themselves governing: levying taxes, engaging in war games, shoring up walls. Promising the people security and safety, and all the while, taking very good care of themselves.
Israel’s kings fail. The holy city lies in ruins, the nation occupied, many of God’s people deported and scattered.
Ezekiel speaks with exasperation to God’s scattered flock. “You, — you sheep! You are so lost that God must now go to considerable trouble to come and find you; to come and rescue you.”
Then, softening: God’s finding holds the promise of great tenderness. “For God will feed you, will wipe away your tears, will bind up your wounds.” If only God’s strong prophet had stopped here, we could relax!
Ezekiel continues: The day of reckoning will not be painless! For the great disobedience of God’s people is our lying! We distort God’s ways for our own purposes; calling war peace, self-interest generosity; greed opportunity.
The stronger sheep exploit the weaker ones; pushing forward to graze on the best grass, then trampling what remains; rendering it inedible for the weaker ones. The strong sheep push forward to drink the clear, cool, clean water. And after drinking their fill, they stir up the mud, leaving it undrinkable for the smaller ones.
“It’s not enough that you partake of the good things” says the prophet. “You also have to ruin them for the weaker, smaller ones.”
God will have none of it. We cannot justify our dismissal of the last, the least, and the lost among us. Our settlements must be broken in order to reconcile God’s people to God’s truth.
Today, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Here, at the end of the Christian year, we profess and proclaim that in Jesus; all the fullness of God enters human history. God holds nothing back; leaves nothing out. In Jesus; the crackling, snapping, quickening source of all creation gets loose; making all things new.
In Jesus, all that God is, all that God loves, all that God imagines resides and rules and reigns among us.
Urgency drives today’s gospel. Jesus’ time on earth grows short. Unlike Ezekiel, who spoke only to God’s chosen people, Jesus gathers everyone; all people of every nation. It does not matter to Jesus whether they know him or not. What matters is who has served him in acts of mercy, in expressions of kindness.
Serving Jesus means feeding the hungry; not just at Thanksgiving, but every day; even those we believe could manage on their own. Serving Jesus means giving water to the thirsty; even when we believe they should never have crossed the border or entered the desert to begin with. We serve Jesus himself by visiting the most reprehensible prisoners; by tending the sick, even those whose own continued choices make them sicker. We welcome Jesus into our midst when we welcome the stranger who frightens us most; who calls God by another name, whose prayers are not our prayers.
Seeing and serving Christ in others requires holy imagination. And in God’s imagination, says Fred Craddock, we are never free to look at a starving child with a swollen stomach and say “That’s not my child.” To look at a widow and say “That’s not my mom”. Or a person murdered in a house of prayer or on a city street and say “That’s not my church, that’s not my street.”
According to Matthew, Jesus will look upon these failures in love, this void of mercy, this narrowed imagination, and find us lacking. And those whose compassion and kindness have spilled out into the lives of others with natural grace and goodness, Christ will gather unto himself.
Today is also Stewardship Sunday in this Cathedral Church. All that we have comes from God’s hand: and so the stretch of God’s imagination extends to everything entrusted to us; including our bank accounts and our stock portfolios. How do our means and God’s purpose come together in a life that matters?
Not long ago, I heard Dick Looney, retired bishop in the church of God, speak about money and meaning in a compelling and winsome word of testimony. Born in rural Virginia; plain spoken in the way of country folk; a towering 6’8’ tall; voice deep and gravelly; Dick told of being called out of retirement to serve a large, prominent church. “I realized” Dick said “that I was going to have more money on my hands than I knew what to do with. I’m retired; a widower; and better off than I have ever been. And I am about to get the salary of the pastor of a very large church.”
“Just think of what I can do with all that money! I can travel and not worry about expenses. I can add to the money I plan to leave the children and grandchildren. And of course, I will tithe my 10% to the church, because that’s what I’ve always done.”
“And then I thought: I ought to give another 20%. Because I don’t need it, and this church is committed to being Christ’s body in the world, strong and true. I’ll do that!”
“And then, one day” he said “I was out walking, and from somewhere the thought came: ‘Dick, why don’t you just give it all away; just give it all away.’ “
“Now that thought didn’t come from me. And yet, all of a sudden, I was overcome by joy; my pace quickened; and I felt warm all over. Generosity carries a special kind of joy.”
“Do you know” he queried “who complains the most about the church? The people who give the least. I wonder: do we know the joy of giving, of being silly, extravagant, generous?”
Dick’s words had great power for me, for I had recently made a choice towards greater generosity myself. And to be honest, I had to step over a good bit of fear. I can easily be swayed by memories of extremely lean financial times, and by the anxiety about money that permeates our culture.
I hesitate to speak this personally, for fear of being misunderstood. And yet I know Christians do not give because no one asks. And that clergy do not ask because we don’t always give generously ourselves.
For as long as I have earned my own money, I have tithed; given my 10% to the church. It hasn’t always come easily. Two years ago, I felt a call to deeper generosity. It grew from this Cathedral’s vision to live more deeply into its identity to live as a house of prayer for all people.
For me, the beating heart of any church pulses in its worship and in its prayer. So for two years, I have given back to God 25% of my salary; in addition to my tithe, in addition to my charitable giving – to endow the ongoing life of worship and prayer that spills out of this building through our worshippers and our online friends.
You know what? I have discovered a new sense of freedom; a surprising sense of assurance; and I understand the deep joy that Dick describes.
We want lives that matter. And yet, we cannot create them. We receive them as a gift of the hand of God. God comes to us in Jesus, that we might see God’s holy imagination, embodied and full.
Welcoming Jesus, serving Jesus, we become more and more like him: gathering and tending and binding up wounds; practicing small acts of kindness, deeds of mercy, and generosity, joyful and free.
So come, my brothers and sisters. Let us bow down and bend the knee. And kneel before God our maker. For God is our shepherd, and we are God’s sheep: and that marks the beginning, the middle, and the end of a life that matters. Amen.