If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do today?Where would you spend your time? With whom would you want to spend time? What are the things you would talk about?
Those are difficult questions for most of us to answer. They are difficult questions, in part, because we don’t like to think about our own death. But the truth is, death is coming to all of us.
Some scholars believe that tonight’s 2nd reading are Paul’s very last words, and they shed light on what kind of a man he was. To many of us, Paul’s writings are problematic: on the one hand he speaks with such eloquence about there being “neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female” in Christ. On the other hand, there are condemnations of women throughout his epistles, reminding women that men are made in the image of God, while they are made in the image of man. He doesn’t tolerate women in any teaching capacity and they may not speak in church. They are to be submissive to their husbands. As for slavery, Paul accepts the cultural situation of his day and simply tells slaves to obey their masters in all things. Paul is for many of us post-moderns problematic and complicated, and not someone we’re sure we want to get behind.
So, here we have Paul’s reading, his last will and testament if you will. He can see that his days are numbered. He is in prison and will soon be led to his death. And in those precious moments left of his life, he asks for some warm clothes, a few close friends, and some books. He is clear about which particular articles of clothing and which particular people he wants with him.
Paul’s request for his cloak reminds me of a story about an old man who wore the same coat every day for nearly 20 years. It had been an old coat when his wife sewed a new lining in it, but he wore it faithfully during her extended illness and then continued to wear it. He was afraid to have it cleaned for fear it would fall apart — and he didn’t let anyone repair it. This was frustrating for his family, but after the man died, they realized what the coat was about. It was his way of knowing his wife loved him. It was as if her arms were wrapped around him every time he wore it.
It’s not clear why Paul requested the cloak, perhaps it, too, had some special memories associated with it. The people he names are people with whom he had worked. While he hadn’t always agreed with them, he knew these were trusted and faithful friends in whom he could confide. My sense is that he wants to leave them with some final encouragement for their continued ministry. He wants to remind them, and us, “I have done what was necessary in my time; now you must do what is necessary in your time.”
And so, we ask ourselves: How many lives have we touched? How faithful have we been? Has a child stood a little bit taller because of something we said? Is the planet a little greener, the sky a little more blue because we have lived? Who will carry the message we’ve carried after we’re gone? Important questions to ask, yet some of us go too many years without evaluating our situation and spend our lives pursuing goals and objectives that ultimately aren’t fulfilling. I don’t want to be one of those people, and I’m sure you don’t either.
People have let Paul down. His clothing has worn thin. His friends are far from him. But God has remained with him. Including the final days of his life, Paul serves as a model for us — one who never tires of learning, one who never tires of finding new understanding, a new way to interpret the message of Jesus into his life.
Paul understood clearly that “yesterday’s trophies do not win today’s races.” He may be in the last lap of life, but the race is not over.
His example demonstrates to us that we’re never too old to learn, never too old to hear the stories of our faith, never too old to share what we’ve learned with someone else. It’s like Paul is standing outside the elevator: he’s pushed the button and is waiting for the doors to open. All he can take with him is what he can remember, nothing else. It will be the same for us when the elevator doors open for us.
Throughout the history of the Church, people have tried, with lots of successes and lots of failures, to follow the example of St. Paul. For many, the Church has been a warm coat in the cold of winter, a refuge in times of turmoil and stress; for many, the Church has been the source of turmoil and stress. Through it all, the delicate balance we seek for ourselves is precisely what we are creating for our Church. The Church is not an institution, it is the body of believers, it is you and me. It is us. It has always been us, struggling to be the best, sometimes showing the worst. When the world around us is caught up in warfare and violence, we need the Church to show us the way to peace, inner peace and global peace. When the world is deprived and suffering lack of so many basic resources, we need the Church to call us to generosity of spirit and genuine love of others. When our world is bearing unbearable pain, we need the Church to bring healing to all.
Yesterday, a delegation of 10 parishioners and me made the trek to Columbus, Ohio, to march with the Archbishop and several other clergymen in the Gay Pride parade. We purposely wore our clerical collars to show that we were priests who were there to support lesbians and gays who have for so many centuries, endured persecution and hostility from the institutional Church. At first, people were unsure how to react to us, thinking that maybe we weren’t really priests, but were just dressing up for the parade. But as we marched the 2 mile parade route, suddenly people began cheering us and applauding us, like we were heros or something. Some called out asking for prayers or a blessing, others ran out into the street to give a hug and shout encouragement. It was emotional and beautiful and humbling because it showed me firsthand how hungry people are for simple acceptance and love. And although there were fundamentalist hecklers present, some of whom called us pedophiles and perverts, the overwhelming response of the crowds was positive and loving. And so, like Paul, we prayed for our enemies and for their conversion of heart, and kept moving forward.
We are marching, all of us, in a parade behind Sts. Peter and Paul, as our parents and grandparents before us– and still we have not finished their work. The Church calls us to stand in solidarity with the outcast and the rejected, regardless of what the so-called “good people” might think of us. It is the age-old struggle between the Church and the world and we are called to witness to the larger truths of our faith even in the face of opposition.
T. S. Eliot writes:
“There shall always be the Church and the World
and the Heart of Man
shivering and fluttering between them,
choosing and chosen.”