One of my clergy colleagues
recently reminded me of the story I had first heard years ago from a Hospice
patient. It’s the history of Julius Caesar who set out over 2,000 years ago to
conquer England by boat.
Upon landing at the coast, his soldiers soon realized the Celts had way more men, which caused Caesar's men to panic with fear and start preparing their boats for a quick retreat. Caesar burnt all the boats, forcing the men to fight with 100% commitment, which also sent a powerful message to his enemies that they meant business.
All of the scripture lessons for today talk about the focus and the resolve required if you want to be a disciple of Jesus. In the First Reading from Hebrew Scripture, we witness Elisha’s determined, steadfast loyalty to Elijah. The
Psalmist sings of God’s
determination to stay with us always, and not abandon us to the grave.
Paul tells the ancient church in Galatia to “Stand firm”.
And, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus encounters three different would-be disciples, all of whom express half-hearted responses to His call. Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem and his destiny.
Discipleship demands focus
and risk. It requires being very clear about who you are and whose you are, not
allowing distractions to deter you from what you know is right and good and
It doesn’t mean we have to be perfect. It doesn’t mean we have to have the answer – much less the right answer. It means we must discern the North Star in our lives and follow the path to the Light who, for us, is Christ Jesus.
But, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” we don’t always know where that will lead. Sometimes, it takes us through some very dark places. We don’t always know what we’re going to find when we get there – and whether or not we’re going to have to burn our boats to do it.
I want to tell you a story about a Hospice patient I had a while back who has since died. She was 94, almost 95 years old. I’ll call her Emily. She was not “officially” a Hospice patient. She was related to one of my parishioners by the proverbial “six degrees of separation” that is so common in church communities.
She was, at first, a little
leery about my visiting. Neither of us was clear about my role. All we knew was
that her daughter, with whom she had been living for the past five years,
thought it would be a good idea if she had a pastoral visitor “once in a
Emily was a very private person by nature but her last experience with the church had been far less than pleasant. She was very reticent to have a conversation any deeper than safely on the surface.
Eventually and slowly - very
slowly over time - after she and I shared our stories about family and friends
and life in general and listened together to some of our favorite music, and I
read poems and passages from some of our favorite books, she grew to like me
and I grew quite fond of her.
More importantly, she began to trust me.
One day when I went to visit she asked me if I heard confession. Yes, I said. Well, did I give absolution? Indeed, I said. Well then, said she, I have a story to tell you.
She took a deep breath and said, "When I was 15 years old, I was raped by my uncle. I didn't even have a word for it. I just knew that I was violated. A few months later, I found that I was pregnant. I was scared. I was terrified. I didn't know what to do except to lock myself in my room and cry."
"One of those times, my aunt, my mother and uncle's sister, came into my room and saw me in tears. She asked whatever was the matter and, against my better judgment, I told her."
"Once I started, the whole story spilled out. My aunt listened carefully and then announced that she would take care of everything but I was not to tell anyone. No one was to know. Not my father. Not even my mother. Not anyone. Not ever."
"So," she took a breath and continued, "I had an abortion. This was 80 years ago. It was illegal. Of course. But, my uncle was the 'star' of the family. The whole world was his oyster. Nothing could interfere with his future or his success or the family name."
"You know, I had no choice,” she said. Not about anything. Not about the person with whom I would have sex. Not whether or not I would get pregnant. Not whether or not to have an abortion. All of those choices were taken from me."
"And, " she said, "I told no one. Not my mother. Not my father. Not my husband. Not my children. My Aunt was the only one and she took that secret to her grave."
"And, now you know. You
are the only other person on this earth to know my truth."
"So, here's my question for you: When I get to heaven - IF I get to heaven - will the soul I aborted hate me?"
I was quiet for a while as I took her story to my heart and listened deeply to her question. I looked deep into her eyes, past the tears, past the pain, and into her soul and said, "I know this much to be true: There is no hate in heaven."
A tear fell from her eye and, after a long while, she smiled sadly and said, "Thank you. I don't need absolution. I got everything I need from you. I feel suddenly free - liberated - from the burden of this secret. Now, I can meet the one who created me with a clean heart. Now I can meet that soul and greet her - or him - in love. I can probably even meet my uncle again and. . . well, we’ll see what happens. Thank you."
We met three more times after
that conversation. Her daughter and I talked a bit after each visit. She
reported that her mother was eating less and sleeping more. She seemed more at
peace, she told me, but there was a certain other energy she detected. A
certain .. . Oh, she didn’t know . . . a “resolve” A sort
“May I ask?, she said, “What you two talked about?” I told her that our conversations were confidential but wasn’t it wonderful that her mother had found some peace.
The last time I spoke with
Emily I asked her if there was anything else she needed to talk about. “Well, she
said, “there is one thing. I am at peace. I have absolved myself of all the
guilt I’ve been carrying around for all these years."
"My defense has always been that I had no choice but, you know, here’s the truth: If I had had a choice, I would have done exactly what my aunt chose to do for me. It was absolutely the right choice. I’ve known that for years. But, I’ve hidden it – hidden behind the choices that were taken from me.”
She coughed and I could see
her mouth was dry so she paused while I helped her with a few sips of water.
“I said that I was afraid the soul I aborted would hate me, but it was I who hated myself for not being completely honest. There were some choices that were taken from me, yes. My innocence was stolen from me. I had no choice over my body. But, if I had the choice, I would have chosen to have an abortion. I can say that now. And, I feel lighter. I’m ready to fly.”
“So, burn the boats,” she
“Burn the boats?” I quizzed. It was then that she told me the story about Julius Caesar and his determination to conquer England, forcing his men to fight with 100% commitment and determination. “I’m ready,” she said, “because I know you’re right. There is no hate in heaven. And, my final choice in this life is to leave it and follow love.”
Emily had set her face toward heaven. Two weeks later, her daughter called me to say that Emily had died peacefully sometime during the night, taking her secret with her. I found myself smiling as I imagined the love that would surround her at her arrival.
We have had another challenging week in this country. Nothing seems “settled” – even decades law. Something has shifted in our land. We are off balance as a people. The only thing that seems to unite us is that we are divided about many things.
“Follow me,” says Jesus, as he set his face toward Jerusalem. If we are going to come together as a nation and a people, I think we are going to have to burn some boats. We are going to have to find the determination to live together in the unity of our diversity without infringing on or denying the rights of others.
“Follow me,” says Jesus, as he set his face toward Jerusalem and his destiny. After letting his would-be disciples know the risk and the cost of sacrificial love, he let those who would accept his invitation make their own choice.
As for me, I have decided to follow Jesus on the difficulty journey of sacrificial love and reconciliation. After the 2016 election, I wrote a prayer to heal a divided nation. I have made a few changes but my determination is the same and it is unwavering. I will close with this prayer.
A new day has dawned and this
country is more divided than it has been since the days of the Civil War.
Many of your people are rejoicing while many more are stunned and sore afraid.
Many of the things that
divided us then continues to tear at the seams of the fabric of this nation.
We are a Divided United States.
Help us to remember that the
experiment called democracy is not over; it is still being tested.
After 246 years of existence, the final results are not yet in. We still have work to do. It stretches out before us, across wheat fields and deserts, from the mountains to the prairies, from sea to shining sea.
In the midst of those who sense victory, help us to remember your call to us to love one another as you love us.
In the midst of those who sense defeat, help us to remember that you still reign; you alone are worshiped; you alone are God.
Help us to remember the words of one of your servants of old who reminded us that ‘perfect love casts out fear’. Help us perfect our love.
Help us remember that while Jesus rejoices in unity, Satan delights in discord.
We are your people. You know us by many names. You are our God. We know you by many names. Give us the strength and courage and determination to follow Jesus.
Help us always to choose life. Help us always to choose love. Help us remember that we were given the precious gift of free will and that when we make the wrong choice, there is always forgiveness, always plenteous redemption, always the gift of grace.
May we find strength in our
diversity and seek the determination and courage to live into what is written
on every piece of currency in this nation: In God we Trust.
In God. We Trust.
Only in you can we live in safety. Only in you will we find justice. Only in you will we know the peace that passes all human understanding.
So, we have 'burned the boats' to follow you, for we are assured that when
we leave this life, there is no hate in heaven.