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SAINTS AMONG US

A sermon preached by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, October 29, 2017

Next week I will be formally installed as settled minister to this marvelous congregation. Earlier in the week, Anji and I were looking through the history books we have stored in the office trying to figure out exactly how many ministers have served this church. Since 1870, when this religious society was founded, 24 courageous individuals have served as minister; I feel so blessed to now be the 25th. On average, if you’re curious, ministers serve just about 6 years here, 5.88 to be exact. The longest pastorates have come to you all by way of the two most recent settled ministers, the Rev. Glenda Walker and the Rev. Paul Beckel, who served 10 and 14 years respectively.

I thumbed the photo and memory albums that go back decades trying to get a sense of what life has been like here throughout the years, and overall, I came away with the feeling that this has been a place of refuge and sustenance for hundreds, if not thousands of people for the past century-and-a-half.

I was having dinner with a colleague of mine who recently retired after serving his church for 33 years, as long as I’ve been alive, and he told me this: “Don’t forget, Brian, we’re all interims in the end.” My esteemed friend went on to say, “the gift of this work is that you’ll get to sit on a few community boards, write a handful of memorable sermons, marry a few of your members’ daughters, and hopefully leave something fun and exciting and meaningful for whoever it is who ends up succeeding you. But the true gift is that you’ll get to memorialize the lives of some amazing people.”

“The point,” my colleague went on to say, “is to realize that we do the work of the eternal.” When you look at the church’s photo albums from years past, you might notice, if you’re like me, that so many of those smiling faces belong to individuals who are no longer with us, they’ve since died, and moved into that all-encompassing mystery that awaits us all.

In the two-and-a-half months here I’ve been here I’ve memorialized three extraordinary people. A minister’s work is eternal because part of our responsibility as called spiritual leaders is to uphold and midwife into the future the history and heritage of our congregation. I call this work “Holy Work.”

What makes this work holy is multifaceted: in one hand, what sanctifies this church is the spiritual authority you bestow upon your ministers in the gift of your call, and then the minister’s acceptance of it. But what most certainly makes our church a holy place is the lives and legacies that have been entrusted to us for eternal care.

And there’s no denying this is a legacy church. The souls of hundreds of people have been entrusted to us. Families and friends have trusted us to share in the work of honoring the lives and memories of their beloveds.

Of course, most families don’t expect us to keep genealogies and tell their family stories. What they do is gift us with their loved ones’ ideals, that which they stood for, eternal things like freedom and truth and love. I believe that by adding their names to our ranks they are saying, on some level, that even though they have died, a part of what they stood for, a part of what they lived for no less, lives on in the spirit of this religious society. And in so doing, they add weight to the responsibility of our task to protect and uphold the best of what this society has stood for, for almost 150 years.

And so, their soul and spirit continues on in our hearts and minds, in our work and play, but so do they live on in our hopes and prayers.

I’ve said a lot of prayers in my life. I’ve blessed meals and prayed with kiddos before having their tonsils taken out; I’ve prayed with doctors and nurses, helicopter pilots and nuns; I’ve prayed with my hands in the air, with laughter in my voice, and often with tears in my eyes. I’ve prayed for the souls of the dead whose families have asked that I petition God to allow their beloveds entrance into an eternal rest with God, in heaven.

But most of the time, whether it be in hospitals or living rooms or memorial services, what most people are concerned about isn’t heaven; rather, people tend to think far more often about the time they’ve spent with their friends and families, about the time we have left, and the impact we have on the people we love most; and how we might contribute to the betterment of their lives once we’re gone. One of the great privileges of my work has been the honor people have given me, which is to pray for an individual some other person loves more than their own life.
Maybe it’s All Saints’ Eve, the recent memorials, or the approaching holiday season that has been thinking this way; maybe it’s both.

In any case, a couple years back on Christmas Eve night I drove to my wife’s hometown in southern Illinois to celebrate the holidays. I was getting there a couple days later than the rest of my family because I had work to do at the church I was serving and a chaplaincy shift to cover at the hospital. So, as you might imagine, it took about 30 seconds after the second Christmas Eve candlelight service for me to get from the receiving line, down two flights of steps, and into my car; I was probably across the river by the time anyone even realized I was gone.

Once I got to my in-law’s house I gave my niece and nephew hugs, and my wife a kiss, before moseying on down the hallway to drop my bags in the spare bedroom. As I got closer to the doorway I heard a strange voice grow louder and louder as I got closer. I slowed my pace down, trying my hardest to figure out what I was hearing. It was also a little disturbing because, with the exception of my daughter who was reported to be asleep in the room, the rest of the household was in the living room.

So, I peeked my head around the door and saw my daughter’s face lit up by an iPad she was holding. I was totally caught off guard, so I asked her, “Aren’t you supposed to be asleep and what the heck are you listening to?” To which my daughter responded: “I’m listening to one of baba’s sermons.” And she was! I was so flattered that my daughter thinks enough of me to want to listen to one of my sermons, but I was a little annoyed that someone put it on for her at ten o’clock at night.

So, I marched back out to the living room where everyone was sitting and asked my wife, using my best stern dad voice, “Are you aware that our daughter is back there listening to one of my sermons on an iPad?” to which she replied, “oh, yeah, I always put on one of your sermons when she has trouble falling asleep, it works every time.”

Unfailingly, when I’m gathered with friends or family to celebrate special occasions or holidays, some portion of our time is spent in nostalgia, remembering loved ones and time long since passed. And, as I believe I mentioned before, holidays and milestones make me think about my own mortality.

Thankfully my seemingly morose disposition is benefited by the backbone of philosophy’s Western canon. In Plato’s “Apology,” Socrates says these inescapable words: “if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to [humankind], and that the unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates says elsewhere in the “Phaedo,” “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” Thus, to contemplate life’s abundance and finitude, the time between the womb and the tomb, as the saying goes, is how we add value and definition to our lives.

But it’s not easy to ponder such things; doing so requires that we consider a future where we no longer are. I’ve found that some people avoid this kind of introspection and honesty. Some wrestle with such questions in adolescence. In many ways, my hand was forced into conducting my life with concern; in fact, I remember where I was when it finally happened (perhaps some of parents here can relate): I was standing in the middle of a hospital delivery room, gowned up and giddy with excitement, watching my wife give birth. After Eleanor was born and the nurse handed her to me this is the first thought that popped into my head: “I’m going to have to teach this tiny, screaming little human how to do everything.” So finally, I began to question my existence, taking seriously life-style choices, financial arrangements, and most of all my mortality. Just a few weeks after we brought Eleanor home I can remember my wife saying to me, “What’s your life insurance look like, Brian?”

I started to think about what it means to be a part of someone else’s life, what it’s like be present when someone learns to walk and talk, what it’s like to be there someone tries a lemon and chocolate, and what it’s like to be there when someone falls in love and has their heart broken for the first time. Becoming a parent, I felt part of something larger than myself, connected to the world in a way I never had. Moreover, I realized that I am the result of hundreds of years of peoples’ lives, my parents and siblings, ancestors and nations, mountains and rivers. I exist in a long line of mysterious and unknown people, who through their actions came to bear in the man that stands here in front of you. Maybe you’ve had few of these thoughts yourself?

I tend to forget that we’re all in this together; I fall short of properly showing “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” To deny that our own lives depend of the lives of others is to deny knowledge itself. On this topic, the late neurosurgeon and writer, Paul Kalanithi, writes in his beautiful memoir, “When Breath Becomes Air,” “Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”

I thought of the hospital where I worked as a microcosm of the world itself. After all, on any given day I’d communicate with Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Hindus, doctors, nurses, social workers, homeless people, drunk people, sober people, mentally ill people, farmers, nuns, ex-nuns, the annoyed, and the annoying. But most of all, I interacted with people that are sick and damaged, people that are scared and heart broken.

One of the unfortunate aspects of being a hospital chaplain is that I was only temporarily involved in peoples’ lives; I’d be there when they were diagnosed, after surgery, and unfortunately, I was there when many people died. I seldom knew what happened to people in the long run. However, upon occasion, I’d find out what happened when patients and their families would write me lovely and touching letters. The individual you’re about to meet I made the acquaintance of after a team of doctors and nurses managed to stop major bleeding in her head, but not before the bleeding and loss of blood would cause damage to her brain.

I later learned that the patient was a cheerleader and honor roll student; she was the proud sister of a metal head and skater brother; she was the proud daughter of a loving mother who had just moved to North Carolina to care for her own mother, who was in the final stages of dementia; and she was the proud daughter of her father, an auto mechanic who had a talent for remodeling classic muscle cars. A dad who, going against his ex-wife’s wishes, went ahead and gave his daughter, on her sixteenth birthday, a cherry-red ’68 Corvette convertible, the same car that she would lose control of, just days after her birthday, on a back road in southern Illinois, resulting in our meeting in an ICU.

By the time I saw the young woman she was resting under a specialized warming blanket, all you could see was her head, most of which was covered in white rapping. However, the surgical nurses had washed her headband and pinned it on her bandages, right where it had been hours ago when it kept the hair out of her face as she and a girlfriend enjoyed an afternoon road tripping. The car lost traction in the gravel and flipped into a ditch.

The passenger managed to escape with cuts and bruises, only to find her friend unresponsive after the back of her head struck a rock. Standing next to her father in silence I couldn’t take my eyes off his child. She looked like she was only sleeping, as if at any moment her eyes that were still painted with blue eye shadow would suddenly open, and she’d leap out of bed and walk right out the front door. “Is this it?” the young woman’s father kept asking me. “Is this what it all comes to?”

I was speechless in the face of such tragedy. Selfishly I thought of myself in that moment, my own daughter. I wanted to run out of the room and drive home, pull my daughter out bed, and hold her through the night.

Before I left I went to say “goodbye” to the young lady’s father, who was alone, waiting for his ex-wife to make it in from North Carolina. I told him how sorry I was, and promised him that his entire family would remain in my thoughts and prayers. The man, in his gentle and honest way, said to me this: “I wish there was something you could say that I wanted to hear. No offense to you, Brian, I like you very much, but I wish I’d never met you.” It’s impossible not to understand what the man was saying. I wish I had never learned of the man, his ex-wife, son, or daughter. In that moment, I wished that they were just another anonymous family tucked safely away in their small Illinois town, unknown to me.

That night and many more that followed I was terrorized by dreams in which I’d find myself confronted with doors. And behind everyone I’d discover that young woman inside, lying in the ICU. I’d yell at the top of my lungs for her to wake up but my voice was silent, locked somewhere deep in my throat. Over time the dreams began to fade, but occasionally I would think of that family when I’d see someone wearing blue eye shadow, or driving a convertible. And then I received this letter in the mail. It reads: [read letter portion]

I will never fully understand how a tragedy can also be a miracle, or how in an instant one person’s death results in the furthering of 5 peoples’ lives, people whose lives swell and ripple outward into the world through their own families and friends. Nor do I fully understand how a mother and father can love their daughter and the world so much that unaware of whose lives will be changed, bestow upon anonymous human beings a future they would have otherwise been deprived of.

There are times I find myself wondering when I’m in traffic, surrounded by mysterious people, or sitting next to someone nose-deep in their iPhone at the dentist’s office, if beating in their chest is someone else’s heart. I wonder if they’ve lost someone they loved more than life itself, if, like me, they find it strange to do all this living and loving and planning, only to meet a certain end, at an uncertain time. I wonder if they comfort themselves to sleep with the voice of someone who was there for them when they learned to walk and talk, when they first fell in love, or had their heart broken. In Carson McCullers’s, “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” the narrator asks, “How can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?”

That Christmas Eve night when I found up my daughter soothing herself to sleep at the sound of my own voice I thought of that young woman’s mother, father, and brother that I met two years ago at the hospital, and how, there at my in-law’s house in southern Illinois, we were only a few miles apart at that moment. I thought about how hard holidays and birthdays must be. I thought about his ex-wife and wondered about her mother, and I worried about the young woman’s brother. And I thought of all of those families whose lives were made possible by that young woman.

I think of the sixteen-year-old boy who’s probably in college by now; the thirty-one-year-old mother and her husband and child; I think of that four-year-old boy and I wonder if he still likes hanging out with his sisters and shopping for shoes, or if he thinks he’s too cool to be seen with them in public by now. As strange as it may sound to you these are some of the people that live in my heart.

They’re there when I take my morning runs and when I’m asked to pray over family dinners. And they were there that night in the illuminated face of my daughter who has in her heart my voice. One day I plan to tell her about the cheerleader that grew up near her mom’s hometown. I will tell her about the young lady’s brother, mother, and father. I will tell her because one day I hope that she discovers for herself the magnificent power of love, and welcomes each of those people into her heart.

We never really know where we’re headed, but it’s hard to deny that we’ll end up there. Along the way, if we’re lucky, we get to try our hand at love and learn a thing or two from heartbreak. We get to taste the sour and the sweet. And we get to live it in the midst of other peoples’ lives, our friends, lovers, and family. And we get to laugh until it hurts along the way. And as inheritors of this great tradition we do eternal work, we weave history into the now and not yet.

Time, my dear friends, is our most precious commodity. My question for you all, as people of history and people of faith, is this: how will you live on in the souls of the living? How will you contribute to the loves of your life? For me, I’ve come to believe that there’s only one-way to really know: Live now. Amen and Blessed Be.

 

[1] Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1, trans. by Harold North Fowler; introduction by W.R.M. Lamb (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966), http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=plat.+apol.+38a.

[2] Plato, “Phaedo,” in The Trial and Execution of Socrates, trans. by Peter George (London: The Folio Society, MCMLXXII, 1972), 103.

[3] http://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles.

[4] Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (New York: Random House, 2016), 172.

[5] Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 333.