The Most Important Things We Say

by | May 14, 2017

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” 
John 14: 1-8   

In the name of God, Amen.

Happy Mother’s Day to the mothers in our midst. I’m awed to be standing near the table of photographs that many of you brought of your mothers, many of whom are no longer with us. I give thanks to God for them and for you, the gift of life we pass on, one to another.

In keeping with the theme of this sermon, which I speak more of in a moment, and in light of Mother’s Day, I’m reminded of a writer whose mother had died. As he was still working through his grief and loss, he had a dream one night that his mother wrote him a letter from heaven. In his dream he was so excited to hold the letter in his hands. It made him laugh out loud–it was so like her, he thought, to reach across even that boundary. But just as he was about to open the letter to read it, he woke up.

Such disappointment! But then he realized that he already knew what she would say. So he sat down and wrote a poem with the contents of her letter (see below).

This is a time of year when I attend and sometimes speak at a lot of services that have one thing in common–they all end in tion: confirmation; ordination; graduation; celebration.  Perhaps some of you have taken part in such services or will in the coming weeks. There’s some of that energy here today as we celebrate both Confirmation and Reception.

Another thing these services have in common is that the person speaking attempts to give words of inspiration and meaning, the best they’ve got to share for those whose celebratory moment is at the center of the gathering.  

What I invite you to think about today are those moments when we take the time to say the most important things to one another. On Mother’s Day, for example, we take time to make our mothers feel special and appreciate. In a more everyday kind of way, many people, when finishing a phone call with a family member or close friend might say? I love you.  

A friend of mine used to work as a chaplain at an assisted living/elder care facility, and he took it upon himself to encourage everyone there to write a love letter to their families. It wasn’t their will. It was a letter in which they shared their most important life lessons and hopes for their loved ones.

That isn’t something you need to wait until you’re nearing the end of your life. You can write a letter to your children or grandchildren as they pass an important milestone, or whenever you want to give someone a blessing. It’s such a gift to say what’s in your heart, and give a word of encouragement to someone who is beginning a journey that you’ve already gone through. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 66: there’s someone behind you, about to go through what you’ve already experienced. What do might you say to them, in wisdom and encouragement?  

I remember one Christmas when our older son, who was in college at the time, struggled with what to get his younger brother for Christmas. He didn’t have much money, so he was scavenging around for silly–and cheap–things that he could wrap up and put under the tree. I suggested that he might write down for his brother, who was senior in high school that year, all the things he could tell him about life in college. He thought about that for awhile, decided it was a good idea, and then asked a couple of his friends for their thoughts. And on Christmas morning, he presented his brother with a list of advice about college. Actually, there were two lists–one that we, their parents, were allowed to read, and one that we weren’t.

My invitation to you–no matter your age or time in life–is this: sometime in the next few days, take the time to write down something of importance that you have learned in life and what matters most to you. Think of it as your love letter to those closest to you. Or imagine yourself speaking to someone about to enter a stage of life you have lived through–what might be helpful for them to know? What words of encouragement or love do you have to offer? And what  if those words were to be your last?

Several years ago a computer science professor named Randy Pausch gave what’s known in academic settings as a “last lecture.” This is when a teacher is asked to distill all his or her core convictions and essential knowledge into one presentation, and then speak as if giving the last lecture of his or her life. (TED talks are the latest version of this idea). It was particularly compelling for Randy Pausch, because at age 46 he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

He began by saying that his father always taught him that when there was an elephant in the room, it was important to name it. So he showed a slide of a recent cat scan of his liver and pointed out ten tumors. “The doctors told me I have three good months left,” he said. “That was a month ago; you can do the math.” He then showed a second slide of his family’s new home in Virginia. “I’m not in denial,” he said. “My family and I have moved to Virginia, so that when the time comes, my wife and three young children will live near family who will provide love and support.” He said this all this quite matter-of-factly. “If I’m not morose enough for you when facing death, I’m sorry. But I can’t do anything about the cards I’ve been dealt. All I can do is decide how to play the hand.”

The title of his lecture was, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” He spoke about the importance of overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others, and seizing every moment of life. He listed his childhood dreams one by one and described how he had gone about realizing or attempting to realize them. On his list of childhood dreams: playing in the NFL; authoring an article in the World Book encyclopedia; being Captain Kirk; winning big stuffed animals; being a Disney Imagineer. Some of his childhood dreams he, in fact, realized. Equally important, he said, was what he learned from pursuing the dreams that he didn’t accomplish.

Pausch, for example, never played professional football. But what he learned playing football as a child and adolescent prepared him for life more than anything else. In playing football, for example, he learned the importance of focusing on fundamentals, getting the fundamentals of the game down, for without them, none of the fancy plays work. He learned the importance of being pushed hard by coaches and critics, for when, he says, “you see yourself doing badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you about it anymore, that’s a bad place to be. It means they’ve given up on you.” He learned the importance of building self-esteem through the process of facing, time and again, what you can’t do, and working at it until you can.

Finally, in playing football he learned that there is more than one meaning of a head fake. A head fake on the field is when a player moves his head one way, so that you’ll think he’s going in that direction, but then move in the opposite direction. “Watch a player’s waist,” he coach would tell him. “Where his belly button goes, his body goes.” The second kind of head fake, he said, is the really important one–the one that teaches people things they don’t realize they are learning until well into the process of learning them. Kids on the football field think their coaches want them to master football skills, and they do. But what they’re really teaching them are skills for life.

Pausch’s lecture was full of deep insight and one-liner advice: Remember that brick walls give you a chance to show how badly you want something. Not everything broken needs to be fixed. Always tell the truth. Being earnest is better than being hip. Don’t complain, just work harder. Don’t obsess over what other people think of you. Look for the best in everybody. Show gratitude. A bad apology is better than no apology. Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted, and experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.

At the end of his lecture on realizing childhood dreams, Pausch asked his audience, “Did you figure out the head fake? This lecture it’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the dreams will come to you.” He asked again, “Have you figured out the second head fake? This lecture wasn’t for you. It was for my kids.” (You can watch his lecture on YouTube here. It was later published in expanded form: Randy Pausch with Jeffry Zaslow, The Last Lecture (New York: Hyperion Press, 2008)

We just heard Rev. Cassandra read a passage from the Gospel of John that is the beginning of what we could rightfully title as “Jesus’ Last Lecture.” The setting is at the last supper, the night before his death. He’s already shared bread and wine with his disciples, telling them that whenever they break bread together in the future, he will be with them. He’s wrapped a towel around his waist, taken a basin and pitcher of water and washed each one of the disciples’ feet, saying to them, “Do you see what I have done for you? I have given you an example, that you might serve others as I have served you.”

Then he sits down and speaks to them—three chapters’ worth of wisdom and assurance. They are some of the most inspiring passages of Scripture. It’s hard to read in one setting, for each sentence is enough to ponder for a day, or a lifetime.

The passage for today starts with a word of encouragement: don’t let your hearts be troubled. He wants to assure them that even though terrible things are about to happen, he is going to be fine, and that God is still God. I’m going away but I’ll never leave you. I’m going away but you know where I’m going.

The disciples are completely and totally confused. They have no idea what he’s talking about–they don’t know where he’s going; they certainly don’t know the way. And then he says to them: don’t worry. Just keep your eyes on me. I’ll get you there.

This is one of the great head fakes in the Bible. We’re reading a passage about Jesus speaking to his disciples, preparing them, it seems for his departure, for a life without him. But what he’s really describing is how they will experience his presence with them after his death.

And did you catch the second head fake? The words weren’t written for the first disciples. They were written for us. This is who he is for us and what he offers us now.    

There’s also a bit of a head fake to this sermon. All the while I’ve been encouraging you to consider what you have to say, what it would be like for you to take time to think through, write down, and share what’s most important for you. But what I really want you to take away from this sermon is the importance of finding those words of encouragement and wisdom for yourself.

Never forget, above all, that Jesus’ words are for you. Keep your eyes fixed on him, listen for his word, and no matter what, you’ll be all right.


Farewell Letter

by David Whyte

She wrote me a letter
after her death
and I remember
a kind of happy light
falling on the envelope
as I sat by the rose tree
on her old bench
at the back door,
so surprised by its arrival
wondering what she would say,
looking up before I could open it
and laughing to myself
in silent expectation.

Dear son, it is time
for me to leave you.
I am afraid that the words
you are used to hearing
are no longer mine to give,
they are gone and mingled
back in the world
where it is no longer in my power
to be their first
original author
nor their last
loving bearer.
You can hear
words of affection now
only from your own mouth
and only
when you speak them
to those
who stand
before you.

As for me I must forsake
and be bound gladly
to a new childhood.
You must understand
this apprenticeship
demands of me
an elemental innocence
from everything
I ever held in my hands.
I know your generous soul
is well able to let me go
you will in the end
by happy to know
my God was true
and I find myself
after loving you all so long
in the wide
infinite mercy
of being mothered myself.

P.S. All your intuitions were true.

(“Farewell Letter,” by David Whyte, in Everything is Waiting for You (Langley, Washington: May Rivers Press, 2003) p. 23.)