With the changing of each season, there is always a clear and noticeable way to mark the passing of time. The four seasons of the calendar year, as most of you probably know, are marked by the relative position of the sun and the earth – with the summer and winter solstice, and the vernal and autumnal equinox – the first day of each of the four seasons. The changing seasons of the church year are marked by the rotation of the colors of our vestments – from the blue of Advent, to Christmas white, to the green of Epiphany, to Lenten purple, back to white for the Easter Season, and finally to green for the long season of the Sundays after Pentecost. But there is another changing of the seasonal cycles of the year which is most often noted in the greeting card section of your local drug store or supermarket. That seasonal shift takes us from Halloween, to Thanksgiving, to Christmas, to Valentine’s Day, to St. Patrick’s Day, to Easter. And I am sure you have noticed, if you’ve found yourself in the card aisle lately, that we are now deep into the next season of the Hallmark calendar… for exactly two weeks from today is Mother’s Day.
Just as was the case with the cherry blossoms several weeks ago along the mall in Washington D.C., right now the selection of Mother’s Day cards is probably at its peak. In most places it is a stunning array, with row after row (and sometimes aisle after aisle) of cards in all shapes and sizes and colors and textures and languages and price ranges. You’d think with all of those cards to choose from, there would be an endless variety of messages. But I’ve decided that Mother’s Day cards are the quintessential example of the creativity of the men and women who can dream up a million and one different ways to essentially say the same thing. If Mother’s Day cards are to be believed, every mom is overworked and underappreciated. And spouses, and sons, and daughters all across the country seem to think that showing their appreciation with one measly little card can make everything come out even again for another year. With cute little rhymes or passionate prose, with funny cartoons or slightly hazy photographs in sepia tones, Mother’s Day cards speak of love as though just giving Mom the card could make it all come true.
I suppose, then, that it’s somehow appropriate that on this lead-up to Mother’s Day, our gospel lesson for the day speaks of love as well. Taken from the 13th chapter of John’s gospel, we hear Jesus speaking to his disciples of glory, and God, and going… and most especially about love. Did you notice, however, the rather peculiar way in which the lesson started out today? It began, “When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified.’” Our story picks up this morning just at the point where Judas has left Jesus and the other disciples right in the middle of the Last Supper – left to go and speak with the civil authorities, to betray Jesus, and to turn him over to the hands of those who sought his life. It is indeed interesting that Jesus’ response to Judas’ betrayal is to say: “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
What’s so new, do you suppose, about the commandment to love one another? Jesus’ word to his disciples that evening comes right at the end of a three year sojourn where they had spent nearly every moment together. Hadn’t those disciples been loving one another all along? What was so different about the kind of love Jesus was imploring them to have for one another on this particular night? I can imagine that they already had great affection for one another… great mutual respect… that they already cared for, and cared about, one another in deep and abiding ways. But the love which Jesus had for them on this night… the kind of love he invited them to have for one another on this night… was somehow different.
What was different was that Jesus put a new twist on an old message. And in doing so, Jesus raised the bar, so to speak, and spoke of a kind of love that was more precious, more dear, most costly than any love which those disciples had previously experienced. Already looking ahead toward what would lie ahead for him in the coming days, Jesus could say: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” “Just as I love you so much that I am willing to die for you, you also should love one another so much that you are willing to die.” I’ve got to tell you, my friends, when I stand in the greeting card aisle at the supermarket, I don’t see any Mother’s Day cards which speak of that kind of love. Because, you see, this is where things start to get real tough. I mean, I like a lot of people. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that I downright love a lot of people. But am I willing to lay down my life… to live like I was dying… especially for people I don’t know or don’t particularly like all that well? That’s a hard question – especially because I already know the answer I am most likely to give.
There is a harsh reality to life – one which many of us would just as soon not think about too much if we don’t have to. And that reality is this: “None of us is going to get out of here alive.” The offer in this morning’s gospel lesson is that we are invited to live our lives as though we actually believed it. One thing we have absolutely no choice about – one way or another, we are all going to die from something – be it old age, or accident, or illness. But there is one thing we all do have a choice about – we can also die for something if we choose to. We can live our lives as though there is something bigger, something more important, something more central to life in the cosmos than us. And when we do that, we die a little, so that something even greater than ourselves might find life. We love… so that the world might be a better place.
As you might imagine, with my driving between here and Altadena on a regular basis, I have the distinct pleasure of getting to spend lots of time alone in my car. Much of that time I spend in quiet reflection, with only the roar of the 18-wheelers in the lanes on either side of me to break the silence. But when I do listen to something on the radio, my first choice is most often a country music station. I like country music because the melody is usually pretty straight-forward and I can actually understand most of the lyrics in the songs. But what I really like about country music is that the best musicians are, in their heart of hearts, excellent story tellers. And like any good story – whether it’s a country song, or a fairy tale, or an epic novel – the story that is being told triggers other stories deep in my memory. So they might be telling one story… but I’m listening to another story.
One of the songs that’s receiving lots of air time right now is a song released by Tim McGraw back in 2004, and has found a bit of a resurgence lately. The song tells the story of a conversation between the singer and an unnamed person who apparently has received a dire medical prognosis – which is always good material in a country song. The singer is asking the other person what they did when they got the bad news. The lyrics of the chorus in the song go like this:
I went sky diving.
I went Rocky Mountain climbing.
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named “Fumanchu”.
And then the refrain continues:
And I loved deeper,
And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’ve been denying,
And he said someday I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dying.
There’s one of those old nuggets of wisdom which says that someone once asked Jesus how much he loved them. Jesus responded by holding his arms out wide and saying, “I love you this much.” And then he died.
If someone asks you how much you love them, hold your arms out wide and say, “I love you this much.” And then act accordingly. If you happen to go out to breakfast or lunch after church this morning, when you encounter the wait staff who is there to take your order or the busser who comes to fill your water glass, look them straight in the eye, and live like you were dying… and then act accordingly. If you’ve got to stop and fill up the gas tank in the car on your way home today, and someone pulls up to the pump next to you, live like you were dying… and then act accordingly. If Sunday afternoon is the day to call your parents or your kids or your grandkids, when you’re talking with them, live like you were dying… and then act accordingly. If you walk by a mirror and notice that reflection looking back at you, take a good hard look at that person, and live like you were dying… and then act accordingly.
In this morning’s gospel lesson, as Judas left to betray him, Jesus said to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Someday I hope you get the chance… to live like you were dying. Amen.