March 18, 2018
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
(Formerly known as: Passion Sunday)
(Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12:20-33)
Some famous people have made famous exits. Elvis left the building. Lou Gehrig said he was the luckiest man on Earth and quit baseball. Jesus had more than one exit. He died, rose again and then ascended to heaven.
What is the best exit and/or exit line of all time?
To draw on recent history (and by recent, I mean the last 50 to 75 years), you'd have might mention Richard M. Nixon's exit address. On November 7, 1962, Richard M. Nixon conceded defeat to the successful candidate for the California governorship, Pat Brown. Addressing a crowd of reporters at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Nixon gave vent to the bitterness of that campaign. He castigated the media, saying, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference." (Seems US Presidents and media have animosity going back further than the current administration I’d say!)
Although Nixon -- and much of America -- thought it was his last exit line, it was not. In a remarkable comeback, Nixon returned to politics and in 1968 was elected president.
On August 8, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, then-President Nixon resigned from that office. The final words of his speech on that occasion were: "To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American. In leaving it, I do so with this prayer: May God's grace be with you in all the days ahead." Unlike Nixon's 1962 exit line, that one stuck, and it was certainly more positive than his previous exit lines.
Or, think of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's retirement from public life with his observation to Congress that "old soldiers never die; they just fade away." That one seems to have been remembered a bit more.
Then there's baseball player Lou Gehrig's farewell speech. On July 4, 1939, Gehrig stood in front of the podium, speaking to the Yankee faithful, proclaiming despite his recent health issues that he considered himself to be "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth." That was the last day Gehrig would ever wear a baseball uniform again as what is known today as Lou Gehrig's disease claimed his life two years later.
Finally, let's mention Randy Pausch, professor of computer science, human–computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. Pausch did not know he had pancreatic cancer until September 2006 and less than two years later he was passed on.
About a year before he died, he delivered an upbeat lecture called The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. It became a popular YouTube video, and later a best-selling book, The Last Lecture. Among the many lines that emerged from this lecture is Pausch's comment that if he only had three words of advice, "I'd say, 'Tell the truth.' If I had three more words, I'd add 'All the time.'"
His last lecture was an amazing exit and an equally inspiring exit "line" or lines. It is a touching nook that I highly recommend. I have the book here with me today in case anyone might want to glance at it.
In the religious category, one source says that three leaders are tied for the best exit of all time: Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha. You have to give them credit for the religions they founded, especially since more than 4 billion people combined now count themselves as followers.
It's hard to argue that Jesus' exit wasn't the most dramatic. And you might say that he had more than one. Jesus made a habit of leaving during his short ministry of three years. He makes an astonishing appearance at the Jordan River where his cousin John is baptizing people. After John baptizes Jesus, he disappears for 40 days into the wilderness.
He often made a quick exit from crowds to get away on a retreat.
He left the Last Supper to go to Gethsemane to pray.
And then the big exit. He died. On a cross. A few sympathizers got his body and put it in a tomb. He was dead and entombed. A final exit?
Noooooo, he reappears and spends some time with his disciples and then exits again. See Acts 1. Into the clouds. Poof. Gone. And the Bible says he now sits at the right hand of the Father.
As for exit lines, Jesus had a few of those, too. Of course, you might refer to the so-named "seven last words" of Christ on the cross, though they were more light seven last statements, but let’s not quibble.
You might refer to his post-resurrection exit line recorded as the last words of Matthew's gospel, "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
So Jesus not only had a fabulous exit or exits, he had a few good lines, too.
One of these lines, spoken only days before his death, is in today's text. "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
Soon after Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover festival, some Greeks approach the disciple Philip and say to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Philip relays their words to Andrew, and then the two of them take the request to Jesus. He tells them -- in so many words -- that he will die soon, and then he compares himself to a seed. "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
These Greeks have grown up with Aesop's fables, so they know the power of a simple story to teach a moral lesson. But in case they do not get his point, Jesus goes on to say, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
In other words, although death is very close for Jesus, he tells the disciples that his own literal death is a metaphor for understanding how his followers must live every day: they must live by dying. When they do, like a seed in the ground, they will grow and bear fruit.
You can certainly understand the confusion of the Greeks. They know that the dead tend to stay dead. But Jesus is telling them that fruitfulness comes from going into the ground, and a loss of life leads to eternal life. And then he drops this exit line: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” When he is lifted up on the cross, he will not repel people. Instead, he will draw people. Fruitfulness and eternal life. Both are connected to the power of the cross, a cross that Jesus elsewhere says we must embrace as an instrument of our own metaphorical death. And when we do, we will bear fruit and live.
So the cross, in a sense, is not an exit but an entrance -- an entrance to a new level or plane of living.
For some, however, the cross is both metaphorical and literal.
For an example, we need only turn to events that happened 50 years ago in Memphis, Tennessee. On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. On the night before his death, he gave a speech in which he said, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life -- longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land."
This was King's "mountaintop" speech, and it contained some powerful truths about his life and about the Civil Rights movement. He was right to say that "longevity has its place," and it would have been marvelous if he had been able to live out his life and die peacefully. But at the same time, he delivered a vision of the Promised Land that continues to inspire people today.
We are still on the path to that Promised Land, as we work for racial reconciliation and try to fight racism wherever we see it, in ourselves and in our communities. King's death did not kill his efforts for justice, but instead it gave life to a movement that is bigger now than it has ever been.
"I've seen the Promised Land," said King. "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land." He was right. He went into the earth like a grain of wheat, and his efforts have borne much fruit, even though hatred seems to still be very much alive, ever so unfortunately.
And how about eternal life? Jesus says that "those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Those who love life are those who are attached to the things of this world, and who want to become rich and famous and powerful. Jesus knows that you cannot take material goods and worldly achievements into the grave, so in the end these kinds of lives are lost. As the country song says, "I ain't never seen a hearse with a luggage rack."
Here's another example: This time it's an example of a metaphorical death, not a literal one. In this death, a baseball player "dies" to the temptation to put the god of money and financial reward ahead of his core values.
A couple of years ago, baseball player Adam LaRoche walked away from a $13 million contract with the Chicago White Sox. He did this because he wanted his son to spend a lot of time with him and the team, and the team's management did not agree. He announced his retirement on Twitter, thanking God for the game of baseball and ending with the hashtag “Family First.”
Fellow players responded by commending LaRoche for "standing up for his beliefs." One said, "Nothing like father and son in the clubhouse. It's a family game."
LaRoche is a Christian who once asked himself the question: "What do you want written on your tombstone? Do you want 'Adam LaRoche: Gold Glove, batting average, hit so many homers, and has a million dollars in his bank account,' or do you want 'Adam LaRoche: Man of God, integrity, raised a great family, loving.' Let's be honest: I don't know anybody who wants their [job] stats."
LaRoche is living -- by dying. He "puts to death" his natural desire for fame and money. What he gets is richly rewarding: fruitfulness and a life of meaning and significance.
You might say that it was easy for him to do this because perhaps he already had earned millions and stashed it away. Maybe. But how much money you have doesn't deliver you from the demon of greed and avarice. Sadly, some of us have had to learn that in hard ways.
Fruitfulness and eternal life are both found in the cross, the daily cross we bear. The Greeks who came to see Jesus were probably mystified by his exit line: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” They saw the cross as a scandalous death and a humiliating defeat. As the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, "Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).
We Christians proclaim Christ crucified because we know that the cross is the clearest sign of just how far Jesus will go to show us the love of God. Jesus died so that we could receive forgiveness and new life. He gave himself for us to demonstrate the value of a life of self-denial. Such a life is powerfully attractive, and people continue to be drawn by the power of the cross.
I want to end this with a true story.
“One day a Nazi called on a Jewish man, who along with his wife had become Christians. The man asks the Nazi, ‘How many Jews have you killed this week?’ The Nazi answered, ‘Oh about 25,000.’ The man continued and asked, ‘In this particular village, how many did you kill?’ The Nazi answered, ‘Oh, I killed everyone in that town.’ The man asked another question, ‘do you ever ask God for forgiveness?’ And the Nazi responds, ‘God doesn’t exist! There is any such thing as forgiveness!’The man continues and says, ‘Alright, my wife is upstairs asleep. She has not heard this conversation. And I’m going to ask her to come down.’ When the wife appeared before them, the husband said to his wife, ‘Levena, this is the man who killed your father, your mother, your three brothers, and your two sisters.’ The wife looked at the Nazi for a moment, and then threw her arms around him, kissed him, and said, ‘As God forgives you, I forgive you!’”
Let's follow where the Cross leads us, toward fruitful service and eternal life. Let us each find our cross and deny some natural desire in our lives and live for what we can take with us when we too make our exit. Let us follow Christ by offering forgiveness not only to those who may have hurts, by especially to ourselves. Let us walk with our cross with open abandonment and patience, because when we exit, we too will have an exit line. We know not when the Lord will take us, but we must always be ready. And with that, let me leave one last thing for you to ponder.
A man approaches the gates of heaven and asks to be allowed to enter. “Tell me one good thing you did in your life,” asks St. Peter. “Well,” says the man, “I saw a group of punks harassing an elderly lady, so I ran up and kicked their leader in the shins.” St. Peter’s impressed. “When did this happen?” “About 40 seconds ago.”
Let us pray.
That those in civil governance will dedicate themselves to justice, peace, authentic freedom, and the generous defense of the poor. We pray to the Lord.
That our parish will grow in holiness so that we will always love one another with perfect charity. We pray to the Lord.
That God will cleanse the world of all errors, banish disease, comfort those who mourn, grant safety to travelers, love for those who differ from us, health to the sick, and salvation to the dying. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to be ambassadors of Christ in the world. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week as we follow Lent toward Holy Week that begins this coming Sunday known as Palm Sunday, to live in greater faithfulness and love for Christ our Lord. We pray to the Lord.
We especially pray for those of our parish and their personal needs that they may be granted assistance and hope. And for those in our parish who are suffering from illness that they may be granted healing. We pray to the Lord.
We continue to pray for an end to violence and that within this country that allows the bearing of arms, that those who do bear these arms may not use them against fellow human beings. We pray to the Lord.
Most merciful Father, forgive our evildoing and remember our sin no more. Let us always be prepared for our inevitable exit of this world, by being Your faithful children throughout our lives. Help us to prepare our hearts for the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Your Son. Help us to find greater peace and tranquility with a humble heart, as we continue the final weeks of Lent in preparation for the great solemnity of Christ’s resurrection. We ask all this, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA