This a sermon preached at a Vesper Service on January 29, 2015 at Epworth Villa, the retirement village in Oklahoma City to which Sarah and I moved in April 2012.
How Did We Get from There to Here
and Where Are We Going?
1 Cor 13
Fifty years ago few of us who are residents here would have entertained the thought that we might someday be old enough and with bodies tired and worn enough that we would seek shelter and care in a retirement village.
My mother called the predecessors of such villages ‘old folks homes for the poor’ and vowed she would never be sent there. In 1994 in her 91st year she died in her living room on a hospital bed suffering terribly for five years and tended by fulltime nursing care. My father would die in the home two years later. No ‘old folks home’ for them!
In contrast, Sarah’s folks moved into Epworth Villa in the early 1990s and both, being well cared-for, would die here. Because of our good experiences with them at EV, when we needed such care ourselves, we too came here.
So, lets be candid we residents are here because we need to be here as we feel the encroachment upon us of the vicissitudes of aging, and because, somehow, we can afford to live here—at least for awhile!
It is also true that many of us are here at EV because of Christian or religious reasons as we variously wrestle with the prospect of death somewhere on the horizon. And once here, in various ways including in vesper services, we find ourselves asking: how did I live on the way to getting to this age and living in this place? Just what is the real narrative the heavenly angels might have recorded about me? Sometimes, feeling burdened by our aging bodies and souls, we muse whether we even have the wherewithal to be honest and truthful about ourselves. And in that musing we each might ask: have I, in how I have lived, breathed life and hope into others or have I sucked it out of them as instruments of my own desires and fears?
Yet it has also been my impression that some of our Vesper speakers seem to speak down to us, as though we are children afraid of the dark who need to be cheered up with quips and slogans and jokes. But we know better! We are the ones whose pains physical and mental never take a holiday and cling to us as we walk—if we can walk—gingerly down the hallways. It is our bodies and souls that feel worn and tired and occasionally quite useless.
It also inescapably dawns on us, that we residents here are exclusively white folks and many of our caregivers are nonwhite. That is not an insignificant fact about us and about EV.
I graduated from Classen High School here in OKC in 1954 and my class has maintained an unusually high level of continuing contacts and conversations. In September of 2014 we had a picnic to celebrate our 60th year since graduation. I was asked to give the pre-meal prayer, which I did prepare. I think it might be relevant to some of us today. It went like something like this:
O Lord—are you listening to this, or is this ritual exercise in praying merely a shot in the dark? Yes, if you are listening, we ask that question a lot. But we hope you are listening, because we are a bunch of old white folk who graduated from Classen High School in 1954.
*So, you have heard of us before? And you know that we are getting older and older and that many are they who were classmates and have already died. Yes, we are the ones still alive or mostly alive or striving to stay alive amid grave doubts, enfeebling bodies, and haunting losses.
*So, Lord, have you got us located now on that great cosmological map you keep?
*We are gathered here at Mickey’s splendid place—yes, that is the same Mickey-the-pitcher whose rocket fastball sometimes went astray—to eat and visit with old friends, many not regularly or easily accessible otherwise.
*Well, Lord, our lives have had some uncommon blessings and some rather common disappointments and misgivings.
*So, we do confess right now that we did not have a clue when we received our diplomas in 1954 that we were exceptionally privileged in the great scope of life before thee.
*Yet, even so, we had no clue about the role fear, rivalry, and hatred would come to play in our actual living.
*We had no clue how close death would linger around the edges of our lives.
*We were completely oblivious to the fact that we had no black classmates or black friends, as a strange guilt festered within us.
*We were clueless that we took for granted the inherent advantages socially and economically of being male rather than female.
*We were utterly clueless about how many of us would be crippled with addictions fierce and unforgiving.
*We were utterly clueless just how hard it would be to care about the truth when it seemed socially acceptable to tell and to repeat lies.
*And Lord, we were clueless how hard it would be just to live with honesty and good will and about the hard demands of justice that might cut against our presumed self-interest.
*We were clueless about what it would mean to have bodies that were destined to decline in health and function, about the role death and the dying of loved ones would play in our lives.
*We were utterly clueless about the tender mercies friends and strangers would convey to us in a sometimes tenuous future when we felt overwhelmed with doubt and fear.
*And yes, Lord, we are surprised by some of the simple but enduring pleasures of friendship and family. And yes, we are surprised to be still alive as we live into these late seventies, maybe into our eighties.
*But Lord, even as we might have doubts about thee and thy goodness and power, we do long for a healing of our wounds and a forgiving of our self-indulgences and a restoration of our capacity for great love.
*And Lord, we really do need to know whether there is a balm anywhere in Gilead?
Let us now return to our scripture today: the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. I am assuming that most of us realize that some of the great upheavals and recoveries in the life of the church over the centuries pivoted around the writings of Paul and especially his letter to the Roman church.
This 13th chapter is sometimes riveted on our minds as the great celebration of love. But which ‘love’ is Paul talking about? Our various affectionate attachments, our sometimes intense passions, often propelled by overwhelming sexual attraction? Or perhaps the various ways in which we feel pulled into the future by a vivid image of a person or a goal that possesses us with a startling power?
Without condemning those loves, often referred to as eros or what I call erosic loves, most of us have heard in our previous church life that Paul uses a Greek word agape when he starts celebrating the love a follower of Jesus is encouraged to have.
This love is not whiplashed by the changing erosic loves of our lives. Rather this agapic love is patient, kind, not envious or rivalrous, does not insist on its own way, it is not inclined to be resentful or incessantly irritable, it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but it does rejoice in the truth. This love never ends because it needs no satisfying gratification to calm it down—it does not harm and it does not intend to wound. Quite simply, agapic love becomes a deep habit of seeking the good of others.
Yes, yes, we have heard these and similar words before. But we have to confess that in our actual living it is the erosic loves that have pulled us into the future and defined for us what is most desirable and good in life. Yes, those loves have been much more commanding and powerful for us. Agapic love sounds good in the abstract, but it is eros that is concrete and incessant.
But—and this is an important but—Paul goes on to say that we won’t understand truly what he has written about agapic love if we forget this:
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. Now faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is agape.”
We will not understand this agapic love Paul proclaims if we do not give up childish ways of life. Paul admits that even he had to give up childish ways of living. But just what are these childish ways that seem to stand in the way of truly understanding and living a life of agapic love? We can be sure that he is not recommending that we become childish in order to love in the agapic way. Is it possible that such childish ways of speaking, thinking, and reasoning—actually ways of life—are evident in howwe have lived our lives, well beyond childhood. Perchance these childish ways are the tortuous but almost irresistible ways in which we have lived under the power of fear and anxiety, of rivalry and wanting what another has and even to have more than the other, of resentfulness, of doing harm to others or refusing to see the harm being done to others, of speaking lies about others or turning our eyes and hands away from the miseries of other lives.
When an inescapable honesty overwhelms—perhaps in the darkness of the night—most of us residents have careened through life awash in childish ways and in our elderly years we are haunted by those ways. And it is especially gripping that many of us are childishly tempted by the dark and mischievous thought that we will ultimately fall into the hands of a childish god who is a mirror image of our childish selves. Our childish selves have always thought that life is like striking-a-bargain, a quid-pro-quo, and making-a-profit. Surely this childish god is—like us—subject to wile and guile and self-interest—will actually admire our inventive strategies for gaining leverage and advantage among the vicissitudes of life and save us from ultimate death. Wow, a-god-like-us, subject to wile and guile and self-interest!
Is it possible that we old folks might both be candid about the wretchedness of our lives at various moments in time and still trust unpresumptiously that the God we know in Christ Jesus is not a childish god subject to bargaining bychildish folk. Rather, the God we know is Christ Jesus is ultimately gracious, even to us, and, well, even to them—who we have long thought were really unworthy and worthless. And we still have time to live these remaining years lovingly and gracious, in the disarming faith that God’s loving grace is freely given now and in whatever future.
All this dear friends, in the name of the Father and of Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God, and Mother of us all. Amen