The scriptures you read today are about the story of the Ascension in the Book of Acts.
The lectionary places today’s gospel, John 17:1-11 – Jesus’ prayer concerning unity – at the end of the Easter season; but in John’s gospel the prayer for unity among His followers occurs at the end of the last supper, so that it leads into Christ’s passion. After Jesus shared His final thoughts with the disciples, He then left the last supper and headed to the Mount of Olives where He prayed deep into the night. Soon thereafter Jesus was arrested and led to His execution. Our application for today is to ask ourselves, if we were going to have a final meal – literally our last supper with those we love – what would our final message be?
But first, a word about Memorial Day weekend and COVID-19.
Ordinarily Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer, beach trips and no school! A weekend filled with hotdogs, hamburgers, watermelon, lemon aid, and corn on the cob! In addition to being an annual weekend celebrated largely around, sun, waves and food, in the backdrop of all of this celebration is a far more serious and consequential national holiday – a day we set aside for remembering our fallen dead – those who died defending our freedoms.
Last Sunday, here in my neighborhood in Burke, we had an opportunity to support an Army veteran named Fred as he celebrated his 100th birthday. Fred’s birthday party got canceled due to the coronavirus – so one of our Burke neighbors quickly put the word out to all of us inviting us to participate in a drive-by parade so we could all tell Fred Happy Birthday and to let him know we care. 250 of our neighbors got in their cars and drove by Fred’s house to thank him for his service. The lineup included Veterans of Foreign Wars, local police and fire departments, local restaurants where Fred often eats dinner, neighborhood children on decorated bicycles and a uniformed soldier who stood in front of Fred and saluted him. Cars were decked out with balloons and parade-goers held signs as Fred and his loved ones looked on. The parade ended with the singing of the National Anthem and Amazing Grace. A fitting tribute to one of our nation’s hero’s and a good reminder to us all how personal Memorial Day is to many.
While in some ways this is a weekend when we celebrate our freedom, more profoundly we also pause to remember that this holiday was not purchased for free. People died. Families were stricken with grief. Primarily wives, mothers, fathers, siblings, children, and now husbands too, grieve because the highest price was paid. Our service men and women literally laid their lives down so we can live free today. I know we’ll all remember this as we celebrate the wonderful things about Memorial Day weekend. And thank you to those who have served, those who serve now and thank you to those who think they’d like to sign up for service. We owe all of you a great debt. One we can never repay. But we can say Thank you. And we do say Thank you.
By my calculations today is also the tenth time we have gathered in our own homes rather than celebrate as a community in our church building, so as to maintain precautions recommended by our governor and diocesan bishop. While we’re not in a church – we still are the church. The Church of Christ and that we will forever be.
At some point this week I got to thinking about germs and how this pandemic was caused by a tiny little germ we can”t even see with our eyes. Through the years of my life I can’t imagine how many times I have washed my hands; but I’m betting there’s never been a year when I have washed my hands as much as I have these past ten weeks. I’m fairly confident I can say that I washed my hands maybe five or six times a day back then; but lately, because of this pandemic, I wash my hands upwards of twenty times a day. Before COVID-19 I am pretty sure I never wiped down door knobs and cabinet handles in my kitchen … it just never dawned on me. But this germ. This tiny little killer, it has my respect. I can honestly say I never gave germs the credit they deserve. They have my respect now.
COVID-19 has me thinking a lot about a lot of things. As we move forward together in this homily, tuck away in the back of your mind the application I just shared. I’ll share it again so you can think about this as I share a little more. Our application today is to ask ourselves, if we were going to have a final meal – literally our last supper with those we love – what would our final message be?
Sometimes near the end of a life people have regrets.The thought of someone’s last supper got me thinking about regrets people might have at the end of their lives. My job as a priest regularly brings me into close conversations with people who are nearing the end of their earthly lives. At first, 30 years ago, the thought of having conversations with people about the end of their life scared me to death! But now, I love these conversations. They’re real. Honest. Sometimes brutal. I think sometimes the truest words are said near the end. Near the end there is phenomenal clarity of vision and wisdom to be gained if we but listen. Near the end, for whatever reason, people often share regrets. I share my short list of common regrets not to bring you down today; but rather so that you can reduce the number of regrets you might have near the end of your life. We’ll all die with some measure of regret; but we can intentionally reduce the number of regrets if we plan accordingly.
1. The most common regret I hear from dying people is the wish that they’d had the courage to live a life that was more true to themselves, and not the life others expected them to live. When people realize their life is almost over and they look back more clearly on their life, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Many people share that they didn’t live even half of their life’s dreams, and as they grow closer to death they share that the lack of achieved dreams was due in large part to choices they had either made or not made … usually to please other people.
2. Dying people sometimes look back and wish they had not worked so hard. I think every man I have ever known close to death has expressed this. For many reasons as they look back they see how they missed their children’s childhoods and their partner’s companionship. Fewer women, thankfully, have this regret. Almost all of the men I have known close to death regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
3. Many people near death wish they had the courage to express their true feelings. Sadly some people surpass their own feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many even developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.
4. Many wish they had stayed in touch with friends. Often dying people would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and then it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let decades old friendships slip away. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.
5. The last regret I hear a lot is the regret of not allowing one’s self to be happier. Many dying people did not realize until near the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called “comfort” of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh deeply and thoroughly and have silliness in their life again.
We’ll all die with some measure of regret. I think this is merely a matter of our human condition. AND, we can reduce the number of regrets we’ll have at the end of our life if we plan accordingly now.
While others may have regret at the end of their lives, suffice it to say, Jesus didn’t. Jesus had a crystal clear message He wanted to share with His disciples and John, the Gospel writer, wrote it all down for us to remember. Jesus final message was one of unity, service and love. Jesus prayed that His disciples would all be one, and He prayed that we, His followers, would all be one as well.
As you know, we live in a world where 10:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings is one of the most segregated hours of the week. We Christians all seem to seek out worship experiences that vary greatly among believers. Personally I do not see our gatherings in many different expressions of worship as a lack of unity. Rather I see all of these different worship experiences as diversity in unity. We’re still worshiping the same God; but we’re certainly doing so in very different ways. None are wrong per se; but all are different; and that’s a blessing; because maybe found within this diversity really is a place for everyone.
Jesus prayed that we’d all be one. I think this is an opportunity for us as a faith community to thank God that by and large we don’t have any big fissures in our parish community. Sure, we’re all different, and see the world about us differently; but how great is it that we can all still come together on a Sunday morning and worship God together.
Don’t get me wrong though, the work of maintaining unity in our church is something I work at every day. Rarely up front, but often behind the scenes, I work with individuals who sometimes find our differences challenging and I see it as a part of my job to help others try to see our differences as blessings, rather than as obstacles. It’s not easy work; but work I am committed to doing. Feel free to pray I am successful at my work of helping to promote unity among us. It’s sometimes a daunting task!
It’s like that within our own families too, isn’t it? We all come to Sunday dinner from many different places and thoughts. It’s our job to safeguard our family unity, so we’re flexible enough to celebrate the differences, while still maintaining unity.
That’s what Jesus was praying for. At the end of His human life here on earth, Jesus wanted His followers – His Family – to work towards unity. Unity is still our work today. As are the two great commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor.
Which brings me back to the application – if you were to have your last supper soon – what messages do you still have left unsaid.
What is the message you want left ringing in people’s ears for generations to come? What work do you still have left to do? Do others who know and love you know that you know and love them too? Is there some amends that needs to take place? Some cracks in your foundation that need shoring up? If yes, work towards minimizing your life’s regrets. Work towards healing that which is broken to create – or restore – unity where it once existed or you’d like for it to exist today. You’ll never be sorry you did.
Even though COVID-19 is a germ of mammoth proportions, perhaps one blessing of this time is some extra time to consider what it is like to be apart during social distancing, so that when we do come together again as church – and as family – we come committed to heal the places in our relationships which need healing – so that unity can be a part of our reality.
Please pray for me everyone and know that you are in my prayers too.
— Chuck McCoart May 2020
Spirituality The Episcopal Church Clergy Homily Sunday after the Ascension The Rev. Charles C. McCoart Jr.
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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog
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