DO LIKE SUE

Author:
February 17, 2019

I spent yesterday morning at the funeral of an amazing woman.  When I first met Sue at my former parish she had already been living with cancer for more than two years.  She died at 65.  Throughout my six years there the disease kept coming back, and every time it did she would dutifully do her treatments and resolve that she was going to fight this.  She wanted to live.  And more than that, she wanted to serve.  We had, on average, about 50 funerals a year at that parish, and Sue was the face of welcome and hospitality at the church door for the grieving guests and family at almost all of them.  You would never have known to look at her that she was ill, or that her hair was not her own.  And she was not going to be the one to tell you about it, unless you asked.  And other than her ministry of welcome, the other reason that I saw her all the time at church was that she presided over the weekly gathering of stretching exercise called Nia, keeping herself and others as healthy as they could be.  She wanted to live.


We all want to live.  But recently Sue and her family got the word that there was nothing more to be done in this world to save her.  She and they agreed to stop trying.  We all want to live.  And we’re all going to die.  And when that happens, what will be the source of our hope?  What will have made us ready?  To what can we cling?


It won’t be anything that we can create for ourselves, because eventually absolutely everything that is of merely human origin will fail.  You don’t have to be a person of any faith at all to understand that.  It’s just true.  Although, cultivating a life of friendship with God means the difference between sliding into an unknown abyss and falling into the arms of a friend when our days on earth come to an end.  Getting to know God now can change the time of our disability and death from one of loneliness and disorientation to one of quiet confidence and hope.  My friend Sue knew that.


Each one of our Sacred Scripture today implores us to recognize the simple fact of our own mortality, of our radical dependence on a life force greater than ourselves if we are to be happy, if we are to be enduringly alive.  The Prophet Jeremiah could hardly have been more blunt about it:

“Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh…that person is like a barren bush in the desert.”

That curse does not come from the wrath of God.  It is self-administered—it comes from one’s refusal to see and respond to the truth of the human condition.  St. Paul also understood that very well when he wrote,

“If the dead are not raised then Christ was not raised, and if that’s the case then all we have to rely on is what we have in this life now, and that’s the saddest prospect of all because none of the things of this world can last.”


There simply isn’t enough money or power or pleasure or leisure or “stuff” in this world to make life enduringly meaningful.  Again, one need not be a religious person to figure that out.  One need merely to be honest…honest about just who, what and how we are—and who we are not.


In the gospel today Jesus reiterates much the same message in his preaching.  In blessing those who are poor and hungry and grieving and despised he is not saying that those are desirable conditions in and of themselves—or even acceptable ones.  He is merely assuring us that these situations are meaningless in evaluating the worth of a person’s life because they are all temporary, they will all cease.  And the equal and opposite is true for those who are now rich and satisfied and happy and popular.  Those things can be enjoyed for what they are, but they must never be depended upon to provide us with anything more than temporary, fragile pleasures.  They could all be gone tomorrow, and will most certainly be gone eventually.

 
In the end, lasting life and lasting love has to come at us from a source bigger than and outside of ourselves.  It has to come from beyond this world.  It has to come from God.  And so our greatest mission and responsibility in the here and now is to cultivate a friendship with our Lord, and to make that the center of our life, distinct from every other fleeting prize after which we may be tempted to chase.  God alone has created us in the first place, and God alone can raise us from inevitable death.

 
So what exactly does that mean—to work at a friendship with God?  What does it look like?  It looks very much like my friend Sue.  It looks like commitment to community, to hospitality, to prayer, to service, to peaceful perseverance in suffering, and finally to handing everything over to God, and so to become truly free ourselves.  On the funeral prayer card for Sue’s farewell there was printed on one side an image of St. Pascal Baylon, a still obscure 16th century Franciscan friar whose primary ministry in his community was to welcome visitors at the door, and to bake.  He was never ordained to anything.  On the other side of the card was this meditation by the late Henri Nouwen:


“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where changes can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”


If we’re interested in cultivating friendship with God, there’s a daunting and absolutely accurate mission statement for us to undertake today.
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