Seeking what is real

Seeking what is real

This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Decatur, on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 3, 2022.


Resurrection Decatur 2022                     5 Lent – Year C                              April 3

I have had the privilege to hear one of the great evangelical preachers speak a couple of times:  Tony Campolo.  If you are not familiar with him, Dr Campolo is a Baptist, a sociologist, a pastor, a spiritual advisor to presidents,  and a progressive.  I want to draw our attention today  to a story he tells about his own preacher  back home in Pennsylvania.

It’s customary in Campolo’s home congregation to celebrate “student recognition Sunday.”  One morning from the pulpit  the preacher says to the students (and everyone else):  “one day you’re going to die.  And when people gather around your grave,  are they going to be remarking on the titles on your tombstone?  Or, are they going to be standing around your grave giving testimonies?”   He asks those teenagers:  “Is your life about collecting titles or testimonies?”   He says: “Pharoah had the title. He was King of Egypt.  But Moses had the testimonies. Herod was a king. He had the title. His tombstone had the title.  John the Baptist,  whom Herod executed,  had the testimony.”

He says,  “I wish for you titles on your tombstone. But when it’s all over and everyone is standing around your grave reflecting on your life,  I hope they are giving testimonies.”

This is a story that asks us to consider  what we chase, and if we are chasing something that’s not real or lasting.  In today’s reading from the Letter to the Philippians,  Paul writes:   “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,  I have more:  circumcised on the eighth day,  a member of the people of Israel,  of the tribe of Benjamin,  a Hebrew born of Hebrews;  as to the law,  a Pharisee;  as to zeal,  a persecutor of the church;   as to righteousness under the law,  blameless.”

Paul says,  “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,  I have more,”  and then he tells us about the privileges of his pedigree,  his social and religious status as a circumcised Jew,  and his moral superiority.  He’s saying,  “If anyone thinks they are privileged,  I am even more privileged.”   (It seems hardly anyone today will admit they are privileged;  maybe Paul is a good example here.)

Paul is acknowledging that he was “born on third base.”  (We cannot help where we are born.  The problem is when we think we “hit a triple.”)  Paul has figured out that he didn’t hit a triple,  but even more importantly that’s not what matters anyway.

He says,  “Yet whatever gains I had,  these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. … For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things,  and I regard them as rubbish,  in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him,  not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law,  but one that comes through faith in Christ.”

Paul now regards prestige,  and adoration,  and admiration,  and all the self-justifying things we chase to prove we are somebody  as rubbish.   They are not what matters.  They are not lasting.  They are not real.

I’m mindful of a story  told by Colleen McCollough entitled “The Thorn Birds.”  You may have read the book,  or if you are as old as I am,  you may have seen the television mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain as Father Ralph.

Father Ralph is an ambitious Roman Catholic priest  who is destined to rise to the high rank of Cardinal in the Church – a rank he will attain – but, not without a cost.  Father Ralph is in love with a young woman named Maggie,  which complicates things in the Roman Catholic Church.

As the story goes, Father Ralph falls in love with Maggie  while serving the Church in Maggie’s homeland of Australia.   He continues to rise in the Church, and eventually he goes to Rome,  leaving Maggie behind.  They are separated geographically for years,  but he cannot stop thinking about Maggie.  Finally,  his spiritual director sends Father Ralph from the Vatican back to Australia,  and tells Ralph that he must make a choice.

Father Ralph makes the trip to Australia,  and then he returns to Rome – presumably choosing the Church.   Clearly, it is torture.  He reveals to his spiritual director that he has broken all vows in Australia;  that he never wanted to leave her;  that he is wounded and cannot seem to be healed of that wound.

His wise spiritual director says:  “Perhaps,  you are not meant to be healed of that wound.  Perhaps that wound has saved you.”  He suggests to Father Ralph that he might be too proud to love;   might be too arrogant to count himself among mortal men.  “Yes, your vows are broken,”  he says – “perhaps, too,  that proud spirit that kept you from the thing you wanted most.”

Twenty years later  Cardinal Ralph returns to Australia – older and in poor health. Finally,  he returns to the woman he loves. And in what turns out to be the last day of his life – a day of grace – he gains his beloved Maggie’s forgiveness.

Ralph confesses to Maggie,  saying:  “I wanted to be Cardinal more than I wanted our son,  more than I wanted you.  And of all the wrong I’ve done,  the worst is  that I never made a choice for love.  Half given to you.  Half given to God.  But really,  all given to my own ambition.  And I knew it.  I did it anyway.  I told myself  it was meant to be.”

Cardinal Ralph looked back on his life,  and saw what he missed.  It’s not that he chose the Church over a woman.  For many,  that’s the right choice.  Cardinal Ralph made the choice out of personal ambition – not love.   Cardinal Ralph missed life,  chasing something that’s not lasting – and not real.

I wonder if that’s what is going on with Judas Iscariot in today’s Gospel.  Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead. Now Jesus, and Martha, and Mary, and perhaps some disciples (including Judas)  are gathered for dinner in Lazarus’ home.  One can imagine that Martha and Mary are filled with gratitude and affection, as Jesus has raised their brother from the dead. Staying in character, one serves dinner and the other anoints Jesus with expensive perfume.  It’s a moment of intimacy and devotion.

And in what may be the most in-authentic and tone-deaf utterance in the Bible,  Judas says:  “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Of course, the passage tells us that Judas doesn’t care about the poor;  he cares about himself.  He was going to line his pockets with the money. I wonder if Judas was most concerned, however, with his status as leader of a political revolution; that he hopped onto the coat-tails of Jesus,  believing he would be seen as somebody important in his movement.  Only, he was wrong about Jesus,  and he was wrong about the movement.

Judas was with Jesus all that time,  and he missed it. He missed the point. And he missed what Martha and Mary found (or found them).  He missed what was real.

One of my favorite poets – actually, my favorite poet – is Mary Oliver.  I suspect many of you know her and have been moved by her poetry, as well.  I want to read a portion of her poem, “When death comes.”

Mary Oliver writes:  “When it’s over,  I want to say:  all my life /  I was a bride married to amazement. /  I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. /   When it’s over,  I don’t want to wonder /  if I have made of my life something particular,  and real. /  I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, /  or full of argument. /  I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

I believe everyone here seeks what is real.  Not all the time,  for if we are honest, we can understand Cardinal Ralph,  and even Judas. Sometimes real life happens right before our eyes, and we miss it.  But,  I believe everyone here seeks what is real; that it’s our deepest desire;  and it’s one reason we are here.

We are here, because we choose love.  But let me suggest  that we don’t need to chase love,  for we are loved already.

You have nothing to prove.  You have no need to justify yourself. You have no need to chase prestige,  adoration,  or admiration, or all the self-justifying things we chase  in order to justify ourselves. You are baptized. And the same words the Voice spoke when Jesus came up out of his baptismal waters  are spoken to you. They were true all along.  “You are my beloved child;  with you I am well pleased.”

You are loved before you accomplish one thing.  You are loved without conditions. It’s true for you.  It’s true for the whole world.   And, it is the loving,  liberating,  life-giving Gospel message  we are called to proclaim and embody  in the Name of the Holy Trinity,  one God,  in Whom we live,  and move,  and have our being. Amen.