A friend of mine asked me kindly yesterday about my sermon. I love it when people do that, ask me if I'm ready for Sunday morning, or ask me how my sermon went. I've been at this for a little over two years now and I still get a kick out of the idea that I'm a pastor. That I get to preach on Sunday mornings.
When I began in this role, I was really clueless. I had barely started at seminary and I knew what I knew about church from sitting in pews, off and on, for most of my life. But I didn't take notes during those years so I started from scratch two years ago.
I love how life can throw us into something we have never done before. "In all beginnings dwells a magic force for guiding us and helping us to live," reads the poem/manifesto that sits at the core of my life: Stages by Herman Hesse. When I first read it, many years ago, I was curious about how it made so much sense to me. And since then I have been curious about how it has become the story of my life.
I told my friend, the one who asked about the sermon, that it had been a powerful one for me. That I had found myself having to refrain from yelling while I was speaking, and that I cried when I got to the part about the most vulnerable among us and the responsibility we have to go to them and meet their needs.
The sermon was based on Matthew 9:35-10:8 in which Jesus is talking about the tasks of this life: "the work is plenty but the workers are few."
Still true, two thousand years later.
Then he names the twelve, a motley and disheveled crew, who were asked to be of assistance, to go out and meet the needs of the world, not because they were special or endowed with any saintly qualities, but mostly because they were willing to give it a go.
Then comes the commission: go out and find the lost sheep. Raise the dead, heal the sick, drive out demons, cleanse those with leprosy.
That's a lot of work, that stuff. It's not for the faint of heart. It takes courage and tenacity and humility to raise someone in the depths of the death-grip of depression back to life. It takes patience to take care of someone who is sick. A friend of mine cared for her mother for eight years before she died last week. Drive out demons? That requires strength and the wisdom to know where the demons are hiding. Head to the nearest AA meeting today. You don't have to be an alcoholic to attend, and I'll bet there are some demons lurking there inside some folks who could use your sober sturdiness.
All of these things require a fair measure of what I talked about in the first part of my sermon: compassion.
Compassion isn't a passing feeling. It's not a fleeting sense that something's not right with the world, or a temporary understanding that someone needs help. Compassion requires that we, as the Charter For Compassion states "dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there."
Dethrone yourself from the center of your world and put another there.
That's why the workers are few.
I loved delivering the sermon I delivered yesterday because I got to speak publicly about everything I believe about this life.
My friend asked me if I had a special file for sermons like that, the fire and brimstone ones.
"No," I told him, "I write my sermon notes in pencil and when I get back home I put them in the fire pit. I don't save my sermons.
I don't save my sermons and I didn't save my journals and I give away things I love. "We must prepare for parting and leave-taking," wrote Hesse, and I believe this with all of my heart. All of life is a kind of leave-taking of one sort of another. We part with dreams and ideas. We have to let go of things we believed about ourselves, our parents, the life we thought we would live. People we love die; relationships end. We have to let go of our dogs, our kids, our gardens each fall. We have to let go our our youth, and then, eventually we have to let go entirely.
All of the partings and leave-takings along the way, hopefully, will prepare us for the Big Show, the final parting, the leave-taking to end all leave-takings, death.
I live surrounded by the dead, here in my home that is bordered by cemeteries. I encounter death in the work I do in hospice care and as a pastor. For me the jig is up. And so the giving away and the burning is simply part of the "farewell without end" of which Hesse writes.
What will remain when I am gone? The parts of me that are embedded in the DNA of my kids, and someday, perhaps, those bits will travel on to their kids. When Thomas Merton, theologian, mystic, monk, troublemaker, hero of mine, of sorts, died, he left behind his work jacket, his glasses and his boots. And the deep and lasting impact his work made on people who knew him and people who have read his work.
I sense the needs of the world spinning out of control, things are speeding up. The workers are, indeed, few. And I believe that a life less full — of objects, the desire for objects, the need to clean and organize the objects, the fear that someone will take the objects — creates more space, more time and and a greater inclination to join that rag-tag band of twelve to get some real work done. Amen.