by Bob Wadley
When I read the lectionary for today, I thought, what does the Jeremiah reading about God making a new covenant with Israel have to do with the reading in John in which Jesus talks about losing one's life in order to save it? Well, maybe we can make a connection. But, first, a few words about why I'm standing up here this morning. As a young boy I was active in a fundamentalist church, learned a lot of Bible verses and thought I might want to be a minister when I grew up. Then, as I moved into my late teens, through college and early adulthood, church wasn't a major part of my life. I didn't turn away from the church, I just didn't give it much thought. Occasional attendance, but no commitment. I suspect that might be true for many of us here today during that time in our lives. Then came marriage, children, career and re-involvement in church, including being Senior Warden of St. John's Episcopal Church in Tallahassee, Florida. I was involved, but I still wasn't committed. I believed, but my belief was superficial. Then I went through a life changing experience. Much like the farmer whose mule wouldn't pay attention until he picked up a stick and hit the mule on the forehead, God hit me pretty hard and He got my attention.
Let's fast forward a few years. On March 1, 2000 I came to Ascension to be the Parish Administrator. Ascension's need and my need coincided and coming here was, and is, one of the most unlikely, but greatest, blessings of my life. A couple of years ago, Fr. Howard suggested that I might want to consider entering the process leading up to ordination as a deacon. After some thought and a meeting with Bishop vonRosenberg, I said I would and began the process. Then Bishop Charlie announced his resignation and all deaconate applications were put on hold. That was another intervention by God. He obviously knew that, with my personality, I shouldn't be a deacon. If you're familiar with Myers-Briggs personality indicators, deacons need a lot of F, I. e., feeling. I'm a devout introvert, an INTJ; my F is minimal. However, I was still looking for a way to serve and through Rick Govan, the diocesan Deputy for Ministry and Congregational Development, I was introduced to the lay preaching program. This is one of several lay ministry opportunities offered by the diocese which are described in the service bulletin insert this morning. It has been a bit of work, but enjoyable, studying the Bible and learning preaching techniques. I expect to be licensed as a lay preacher in the Diocese of East Tennessee later this year, but, in the meantime, as part of the Homiletics course I'm currently taking, I'm required to do some preaching to gain sufficient experience, so, thank you all for being here this morning to help me with my homework.
Let's begin by looking at verses 25 and 26 in the Gospel of John: “Any one who loves his life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me, must follow me, and my servant will be with me wherever I am.” (The New Jerusalem Bible translation) Does this mean we must die to follow Christ? Does Jesus mean that we must actually hate, that is, detest, our present life? That really doesn't make sense, does it? I believe that, sometimes, word meanings change over time and in translation from Greek or Hebrew into English. I'm not a Biblical scholar, but as used here, the word hate means to not choose, that is, to make something else the top priority of your life. Like, making God and following Jesus the top priority.
OK, so what do I mean when I say I will follow Jesus? How do I follow Him? Certainly not literally. But, am I to admire His teaching and His life. Of course, but not just that. No, following Jesus means being a disciple, adopting His model of unselfish love for others as the orientation of your own life. And it is a choice to put others ahead of self, to be freed from our compulsion to serve ourselves first. Now, isn't that a strange idea? Demanding really, if you think about it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “He has become like a man, so that men should be like him." I'm supposed to place someone else's interest above my own? Well, sure, if its someone I love. I mean, I would jump in front of a train to save my child's life. But, what if its someone I barely know? What if someone I don't know is drowning and if I jump into the swirling river I might be able to save them, but I might also drown myself? Or maybe less dramatically, what if I'm on my way home and have waited a while for the oncoming traffic to pass by so I could turn left onto Lyons Bend Road, but there is someone sitting there who has been waiting to turn onto Northshore and can't because of the heavy traffic? Do I allow them to turn before I do?
Sometimes, being a disciple of Christ can be found in the smallest details of our lives. Sometimes, loving another person is simply taking the time to focus on them and listen to them. In a recent daily meditation, Henri Nouwen has written, “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings.” Let me share a true story with you about how important listening can be. A man I knew named Dave owned a small business in Park City, Utah. On a very cold, early December day, Dave had an appointment with his attorney in Salt Lake City. He parked his car and walked to the corner to wait for the light to change so he could cross the street to the office building where his attorney's office was located. Dave was warmly dressed in a cashmere overcoat, with a hat and gloves. As he stood there, he saw an obviously homeless man approaching. The man's clothing and jacket were torn and dirty and not really adequate for the weather, and he was carrying a shoebox with a lid and a rubber band around it. Dave's first inclination was to ignore the man, but when the man said, “Good morning, my name is Jimmy, what's yours?”, Dave answered, “My name is Dave.” Then Jimmy told Dave about where he had spent the night and who he had seen and then asked if Dave knew where he could get a hot meal. Dave thought for a minute and then told Jimmy about a restaurant where he knew the owner. He told him to tell the owner to fix Jimmy a hot plate and send the bill to Dave. Then, Dave crossed the street, but as he did, he looked back and saw Jimmy write something on a scrap of paper and put it in his shoebox. Three weeks later, a few days before Christmas, Dave was back in Salt Lake City for another appointment with his attorney. As he approached the office building, he noticed a crowd of people just past the building where an alley met the street. He walked up to the crowd and asked, “What's going on?” Someone answered, “Some homeless guy froze to death last night.” Dave leaned in and looked at the body lying in the alley. Just then, the policeman, who was kneeling beside the body, looked up and asked, “Does anyone know this man?” Without thinking, Dave answered, “His name is Jimmy.” The policeman stood up, walked over to Dave, and as he handed him Jimmy's shoebox, he said, “Here, since you know him, take this. Maybe you can notify his next of kin,” and he turned and walked away before Dave could say, “Wait, I don't actually know him.” Dave didn't know what he should do, so he opened the box and looked inside. There were various items, including three small packets of scraps of paper, each held together with a rubber band, and with the words “Places to Stay”, “Places to Eat”, and “Friends” written on them. Dave removed the rubber band from “Friends” and on the first piece of paper under the one labeled “Friends” was written the word “Dave.” Having someone listen to him had been special for Jimmy, but it changed Dave's life.
All of us have busy lives and, in today's world, information is instantaneous and voluminous. All kinds of information. News about what's happening on the other side of the globe and gossip texted or tweeted by a friend. We are always on the go. Who has time to listen? Who has time to show love? Well, actually, we all do. As Nouwen wrote in another meditation, “We are not called to save the world, solve all problems, and help all people. But we each have our own unique call, in our families, in our work, in our world. We have to keep asking God to help us see clearly what our call is and to give us strength to live out that call with trust.”
So, maybe what this all boils down to is covenant, entering into a covenant with God. There are several synonyms for covenant, depending on whether it is being used as a noun or as a verb. As a noun, a covenant is an agreement, an understanding, a pledge, a promise, a commitment. As a verb, such as in the sentence, the landlord covenants to repair the roof, covenants means contracts or commits to do what was agreed upon. When I was going through a really tough time several years ago, I wanted to strengthen my commitment to God. My Rector at the time recommended that I look into becoming a member of the Fellowship of St. John. It is an adjunct to the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal religious order, located next to Harvard in Cambridge, MA. The brothers of the order take the customary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but to become a member of the fellowship only entails a one year discernment period and then committing to a rule of life. The cross I'm wearing this morning is a symbol of my membership in the Fellowship of St. John. Let me share another quick story with you. Two summers ago, David and Ellen Lovett graciously invited Cathy and me to join them on their sailboat and sail up the coast of Massachusetts. It was a wonderful few days, and then, Cathy and I and her sister, who had met us in Salem, went to Boston for a couple of days. While there, I decided I would go to the monastery to attend the noon service. As I entered, I was met by Brother David Allen. I told him my name and that I was visiting from Knoxville. We spoke briefly, then I took a seat. Sixteen years earlier, while in the midst of my personal nightmare, I had spent a few days at the monastery in solitude and prayer, and had talked and prayed with Brother David. Following the service, he came up to me and said, “You lived in Charleston and were going through some difficulties.” I said, “Yes, how did you remember?” He said, “We've been praying for you.”
So, I had entered into a covenant with God, but really I was only responding to God who had already made a covenant with me. In our Old Testament reading for today, we read, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant... this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel... I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people... they shall know me from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” And, hasn't God kept His covenant? Two Sundays from now, won't we be celebrating exactly that? Easter. The Risen Christ. God's covenant with us. Calling us to keep our covenant with God.