Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2: 13-22
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Earlier this week I had a conversation with Jack Ogg, a parishioner at this church who because of mobility issues related to his age (he’s 84) isn’t able to easily come to church. So, I visit him on occasion, and as you might imagine our conversations focus on several things: University of Houston football, the Houston Texans, and God – not necessarily in that order.
The conversation I had with Jack last week was different. We talked about death. I suppose I prompted the conversation when I asked him if he was afraid of dying. He said that he used to be, but that now he wasn’t. And then he told me the story of how he learned to not fear death. Nearly forty years ago, when Jack was in his mid forties, he was swimming in the ocean when at some point he got caught up in a riptide or strong current that began to drag him down in to the water. Jack admits to not being a strong swimmer, and he was scared of dying.
Until this point Jack was afraid of death. He was afraid of dying because he wasn’t sure if he would meet God or not. In the experience of being caught up in that riptide, Jack said he saw something – an image familiar to many who describe near death experiences. Jack said he saw a tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel was this light, but not just any light, the light was like a stained glass window, like one of the windows in this church, with a bright light shining behind it, reflecting color through the tunnel. And when Jack saw this light he said that “when he saw death, it was beautiful.”
Jack Ogg died peacefully yesterday in his home. Prior to that, just a few days before, Jack told me he was ready.
Tomorrow morning in this church we will have a funeral for Oscar Wright, a man most, if not all of you, know. He was not a member of this church, but I know him from another church at another time. Ten years ago I buried Oscar’s wife, and weeks after that, I buried Oscar’s son, and tomorrow, I will bury Oscar. Oscar was 94 when he died.
When you live to be 94, there aren’t many who make it to your funeral – frankly because Oscar has outlived most of them. He lived an extraordinary life, serving in three branches of the United States Military. While he was in the Army, Oscar drove General Patton’s jeep during World War II. He was also amongst the first wave of military forces to liberate the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camp.
One final story. Last week I received a phone call from a person also of advanced age, and this person wants to meet with me to make a final confession before dying. So I will meet with this person, and will hear their final confession next week. Hearing a confession is one of the most personal things I do, though I do not do it often in a formal way. Typically the confessions I hear are more spontaneous and outside of the church, when a person shares with me troubles they are having with money, or their marriage, or their children.
When I think of what drew me to the priesthood initially, it was ultimately the sharing of an experience between two people when secrets and confessions are admitted. To me the sharing of a confession or of a secret is itself an act of dying. The death one undertakes through confession, is in Jack Ogg’s words, a beautiful death. We are in a confessional season, a season called Lent. Lent begins with our acknowledgment of death when we receive ashes upon our heads, and Lent is also a time for confession, which results from an inward examination of our hearts and souls.
This is the perfectly appropriate time of the year when we acknowledge the things we have done, and the things we have left undone. We do this every Sunday together – it’s how we began our service this morning – it is an important moment for us every Sunday, that moment when all of us acknowledge our shortcomings, our failures, our mistakes, our sin. We confess those things together, and we receive God’s forgiveness together. And although that is a powerful experience, the prayer book of our church also offers a service for individual confession. The prayer book offers that service, called “reconciliation of a penitent,” because the church knows that sometimes we have something in our heart that we need to confess to a person. Sometimes, there is something in us that needs to die so that we may live. If you are feeling that way, know that I am here. If there is something that is weighing on your conscience that you feel you need to share with another being in a safe manner, where that person will not share it with anyone else – Carissa and I are here. We will hear your confession. We will pray with you, but we will also ask you to do something in return: we will ask you to pray for us.
What does this sermon have to do with the readings we have heard this morning? Not much. But I have spent the better part of last week in and out of hospitals, visiting the sick and dying and so confession and reconciliation and death is very much on my mind. And if mortality and repentance are not appropriate themes for a Lenten sermon, then I don’t know what is.
Last Wednesday night during the Music for the Soul concert series, James Derkits, himself a priest in Port Aransas, shared his thoughts on suffering as being a pathway to God. I believe he is right – I believe that one of the ways we encounter God most profoundly is in our suffering, in our daily dying to our ego and our agenda. In this way, death is beautiful as Jack describes, because death transforms our soul, and when the parts of our soul that are inhibiting the passage of God into our life die – God moves in. As a surgeon removes a blockage in an artery to allow the flow of blood, when we remove our spiritual blockage, God flows. Suffering and repentance are the tools that accomplish this. Anyone who has had surgery knows that surgery is painful. And so is surgery on the soul. It too is painful, it too is hard work.
But it is so worth it. In confession an old part of yourself that prevents you from being who God intended you to be – that part of your self dies a beautiful death, so that you may live. AMEN.