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Sunday, April 18, 2021

You are witnesses of these things

Image: Nick Thompson.

"You are witnesses of these things."
A sermon preached on Easter III - April 18, 2021
St. Paul's, Georgetown, DE and
Facebook Live Broadcast - Sirach 26:10
The gospel stories for the first weeks of Eastertide seem bound and determined to have us believe – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that Jesus is resurrected. In the flesh. Skin and bones, tongue and teeth. His whole body. Whole. Complete with the holes in his hands and side.


And, just so we know this is not a ghost, Jesus expresses hunger. “’Have you anything here to eat?” he asks. They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate it in their presence.“


Obviously, ghosts don’t do that. Jesus also wants to assure us of two things: God’s forgiveness and God’s love.

Jesus says,
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem."

My work in Hospice has taught me that there is no greater evidence of the divinity and humanity of Jesus than his exquisite understanding of this human need and extraordinary tending to it.


In Hospice, I’ve learned that the spiritual work of dying revolves around four questions one must answer before leaving this good, ‘round planet in peace. There are two, actually, each with separate, equal but different facets.


The first is: “Am I forgiven?” Of all the dumb and stupid things I've done in this life, have I worked to make amends?" And, the second is the other side of it: “Do I need to forgive?” Has someone hurt me and I need to let go of that hurt, unconditionally?

The next two questions are also crucially important. They are: Am I loved? And, have I loved?


From my experience, while I think that, in many ways, the second question is more important than the first, knowing that we are loved is an important precedent to being able to love others. As the verse from 1 John 4:19 reminds us, “We love because God first loved us.”

God is love, created love, and loved us first. We are not to take credit for the love we have and show to others. God loved us, before we were capable of loving God, and we can only love others because of what God has done in our lives.


Am I loved? Have I loved? Indeed, the answers to these two questions provide the groundwork for the first: Am I forgiven? Do I need to forgive?


Here’s one story from my Hospice experience: I had been visiting with a lovely elderly couple, both in their mid 80s. They had been farmers all their lives - raising chickens as well as cash crops like corn and soy - and had also raised four children, now adults with families of their own who were beginning their own families. 


Jack was my patient. He had been diagnosed six months before with prostate cancer which had metastasized to his bones and lungs. He winced often. His pain, which was pretty intense, was being managed with morphine which he took in liquid form, under his tongue. 


SueEllen, his wife, came into the bedroom from the kitchen.  She was almost a vision out of a 1940s magazine "The Farmer's Wife". Gingham dress. Print Apron. Gray hair pulled back in a bun that danced on the top of her head when she talked or laughed and she laughed often. Her smile was warm and genuine.

"I've made some tea. Please join us," she said.


I assured her that I would be delighted to have a cup of tea with them. "How 'bout a brownie," she called over her shoulder. "Fresh from this morning."


"Twist my arm," I called to her and we both laughed.


She was no sooner over the threshold when Jack took my hand. "Promise me," he said. I looked at him quizzically and before I could speak he said, "Look, I really don't think I have much time left, so I need you to do something for me while you're here."


"I made a huge mistake,” he continued. “SueEllen doesn't know about it. I never told her, but she needs to know. Before I leave, she's got to know." I nodded my head for him to continue. "Look, I didn't mean for it to happen, but it did."


His words came out fast now, "I had an affair. It only lasted a few months because I just couldn't go on with it. She worked at the weigh station when I brought in the chickens. I didn't mean for it to happen but it just did. Before I leave, SueEllen needs to know that it happened. It’s important that she know that I'm so, sorry."


"Of course," I said. "I will be here. I'll help you tell her."


"No," he said, and he coughed and then went into a spasm of coughing which triggered his pain. SueEllen came in from the kitchen and said that it was time for him to have his morphine, anyway, and helped him take his medicine after the coughing stopped.


When she went back into the kitchen, Jack said, "No, I can't tell her. I want you to promise me that you'll tell her. Tell her what happened. Tell her I'm sorry. Tell her I love her. Please, Chaplain, promise me you'll tell her."


I looked at him kindly and said, "Jack, I can't promise that. I can promise that I'll help you tell her. It's important that she hear the truth from you."

He looked crestfallen. "Please. Please promise me. It's all I ask. It's my dying wish."


At that moment, I could hear SueEllen in the hall and dishes and cups rattling on the tray. I got up to help her. I took the tray from her and set it on the floor and then steadied her with both hands on her shoulders. 


"I just got a little dizzy spell, but I'm okay now," she said. She took a few deep breaths and when I was sure she was okay, I left the tray on the floor and said, "I'll come back and get that as soon as I get you’re seated in your chair."


She put her arm through mine and we were chatting and laughing as we walked slowly into the bedroom. When we looked at Jack in the bed, we both stopped in our tracks. 


Jack was gently gasping for air. As we made our way to the bed, he took a few last gasps and then slowly, slowly, slowly, stopped breathing. 


SueEllen sat on the bed, and holding his hand, started to weep softly. "He's gone, isn't he, chaplain?" she asked. I said I couldn't be sure but it certainly seemed that way. I said I would call the nurse, who was the only one who could legally pronounce someone dead.


When I returned to the bedside, SueEllen looked at me and then him and said, "Jack, you damn fool. You left before I could tell you that I had forgiven you for that affair you had."

She looked at me and said, "He thought I never knew, but a wife knows these things."


"I had hoped to tell him that I knew and that I had forgiven him, and still loved him, but he left and now he'll never know. What a damn fool. Always was. Is now. Even in death."


I'm not really sure why, but the words came to me with some urgency. I said, "You know, the nurses tell me that hearing is the last sense to go after death. I don't know for sure, but he still may be able to hear you. Why don't you tell him that you forgive him and that you love him? He might hear you. We can't know for sure, but it may be the last thing he hears before he takes his leave.  You just can't give a person a more perfect gift than a sense of love and forgiveness and peace."


She looked at me and then turned to Jack and told him that she knew about his affair and that she forgave him and loved him and hoped he would be at peace when he came face to face with Jesus, who she was sure had already forgiven him years ago.

I can't be sure, but Jack seemed to be at peace. When I looked at SueEllen, she smiled and said, "I think he heard me, Chaplain. Look at him. He's at peace. And, so am I."


What I learned in Hospice is that, part of the work of dying involves two things: Forgiveness and Love.  A person may need forgiveness or they may need to forgive. 

Yes, a person needs to do that spiritual work in order to die in peace. But a person also needs to do that spiriual work in order to live in peace.

A person may need to feel loved or they may need to tell someone they love them. "I forgive you." "I’m so sorry. Will you forgive me?" "Do you love me?" "I love you." These are important words to say and hear anytime but especially before we take our leave from this life.


And, in life, I've discovered that there are no more powerful, healing words than these three: I am sorry. 


Second only to I forgive you. 


But the greatest of these three words is "I love you."


Sometimes, it's as clear as it was with Jack and SueEllen. Other times, people never get to that point, no matter how hard I've tried to coax the story that they've locked so deep in their hearts they've even forgotten it's there. 


Jesus knew that about himself and his life as well as the lives of all human beings. For me, this is proof enough of his resurrection: That he made his way back out of the darkness, after he had released all the captives from Sheol, because he wanted to make certain that we know that we are forgiven and loved – that this - THIS! -was the whole point of his life. And, he wanted to make certain that we forgive and love others as we are loved and forgiven – even if that means we must put our hands right into the messy, raw flesh of human life so we may believe.


Luke’s gospel reports that while the disciples were beside themselves with joy at the resurrection, “they were disbelieving and still wondering”. Some of us may feel the same way today. It’s almost too good to be true, isn’t it? And yet, we are assured by all four evangelists of that the resurrection is both Good and True.


Here’s the thing Jesus knew about resurrection: It’s much easier to fly when you don’t have a lot to weigh you down. So, what are you waiting for? If you love someone, tell them. Today.

If you forgive someone, tell them. If you need forgiveness – or at least to express your regrets – make amends. If not right now then soon.

Let go of the secrets you have hidden in your heart. You’re going to have to, eventually, if you want to fly with the angels and leave this life in peace. Indeed, your life will be a lot burdensome if you do this while you are still alive.

Don’t be afraid. Love and forgiveness are the gifts of The Resurrection.


Jesus lives! We sing that great hymn during Easter. We sing so many songs that rejoice in that truth. Now, I'm asking that you live your life as if you believe it.


You are witnesses of these things.    




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