Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Have No Fear: Reach out in Love": Kathleen's final Easter sermon

I felt led to write something about Easter, but wasn't sure what to say. It's been almost two years since Kathleen's passing, and I wanted to write about the way she faced death with grace, courage, and dignity--and how her life and death gave me new insights into the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection.

I pondered and meditated but couldn't think of suitable words, so I searched my archives and found a sermon that Kathleen preached a year before she died, and a few months before she learned she had cancer. It was her last Easter sermon. As usual, Kathleen expressed the heart of Jesus' teachings far better than I ever could. She spoke not only with words, but with her whole life, her whole radiant being.

Two months after she gave this sermon, she discovered she had lymphoma--the same kind of cancer that killed her mother at the same age. I wonder if Kathleen had some inkling of what she was going to face when she spoke these stirring words on Easter Sunday:

I don't want to die a natural death, like a plant. Just fade, whither, and flop over. I don't want that. I want to face death with courage, boldness, and hope, because I know that though I die, I will live, because of the victory given to me through my Lord Jesus Christ.

Truly Kathleen did not want to die. She loved life and did everything possible to escape death and find a cure for her cancer. But she knew that life was more than just a physical experience, and that cancer could never conquer her soul. Her soul was unconquerable because of her deep faith and love.

Kathleen was victorious over her cancer because she faced her final challenge with love, and without fear. She made a whole-hearted effort to fulfill her life's purpose, which was to be "perfect in love." She was grateful for each day, and for each person she encountered. The world became her parish.

I will always cherish her final Easter sermon, which ends with the words:

"Have no fear…reach out in love. For 'No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.'"

Kathleen's words and life express better than I ever could the essence of Easter. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed, when we open our hearts to the Love which never dies. 

Easter Sunday 3/23/08

“Have No Fear”

John 20:19-31

Rev. Kathleen Ross

Have you ever had a sense of panic? There’s that fear that wakes you up in the middle of the night. There’s the anxious sense you have during the day that there’s something very important that you forgot to do. Was it my rent check, or my house payment?… O yes! I’ve got to fill out my taxes!

Fear and panic not only makes our heart race or our minds seize up. Fear also causes us to do some very strange things.

I read, for example, that in 1947 Vladimir Zenchenkov, a government accounting clerk in Russia, returned home from a night of drinking to discover that he had lost 400 ration cards which belonged to his boss.  This was not a good thing. In postwar Russia ration cards were worth your life. To lose these cards meant that Vladimir would be sent to Siberia. So Vladimir’s wife took quick action. The next day she told his coworkers that he had run off with another woman. Then for the next twenty-two years the terrified man never once left his house.  In 1969 Vladimir’s wife died, so he went to the local police station to turn himself in. The police looked up the case and told him that the ration cards had actually turned up in his desk drawer the day after he disappeared in 1947. So for 32 years he had been cowering in his house simply because he panicked. It’s amazing what fear will do to us, isn’t it?

In the story of Jesus’ resurrection, John tells us that the disciples panicked, too:

It was late that Sunday evening, and the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities.

You could hardly blame them, of course. Their leader had just been tortured and killed in a brutal, cruel way by both the Roman and the religious authorities. It was logical to assume that they would be next to be nailed to crosses. Fear had frozen their thinking about the future. There were just two choices – hiding or running away.

So when the women came to the tomb with completely new information that would completely change their plans, it’s no wonder it took a while for this news about Jesus’ resurrection to really sink in. You mean… we don’t have to be afraid, we don’t have to run and hide?

Then when Jesus appears Himself in their midst, they are completely bowled over by this completely surprising and new possibility for their future.

Jesus said to them, "Peace be with you. As the Father sent Me, so I send you.”

Then He breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit.

Carlyle Marney told about an old man who was asked once, "Have you ever seen God?" He said, "No, but I have known a couple of Jesuses in my lifetime.” That’s what Jesus meant by breathing new life into the disciples – they were sent to be Jesuses to others.

The St. John writes in his first letter: “

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:12)

That is what John is talking about. No one has ever seen God, but what you can see is God's love. And in another place St. John writes: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18).

According to John, love is the continuing testimony of Jesus’ resurrection and ongoing life in the world. And there are two places especially where you can see how love casts out fear. You can see it when you approach death, and you can see it when you approach the neighbor.

Look first at what the end of life looks like when, in fact, God dwells in us. If God's love dwells in us, then "we will have boldness on the day of judgment." That is the way John puts it. We will have boldness on the day of judgment because "there is no fear in love, perfect love casts out fear."

The fear he is talking about is the fear of what is going to happen to us at the end of our life. These days adults prefer not to talk about death. I found out last Friday night at Kids Club that children love talking about what happens when you die. But adults don’t like to talk about it directly. We use euphemisms or rationalize it. We say death is "only natural." We have analyzed the process of dying, the stages of dying and grief. Science assumes that if a process is repeated enough times, it becomes natural.

Well it may be natural for you to die, but not for me. For me, it is the most unnatural thing that I can think of. The natural thing for me is to keep on living. Naturalists tell us there are six phases to human life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age, old age, and death. I can accept five of the six. Five of them are natural. One of them is unnatural. The sixth is not natural, it is terrible.

A woman's mother died. Somebody hears about it and says to that person, "I am sorry. You have our sympathy." Then she asks, "How old was your mother?"

"Well she was ninety years old."

"Oh, well, then it is all right."

As if it matters how old the person is! As if it is less painful when we lose a parent, or a friend, or a spouse.

Our problem with death is that we are the only animals that know that we are going to die. That knowledge creates anxiety in us. We cover up the anxiety with euphemisms, objectify it with science, and we soften it with cosmetics. That is the way we handle death.

I prefer the biblical way. In the Bible, death is the enemy, "the last enemy." God has sent His son to conquer it, which He did in His resurrection on Easter. Now because He lives, we, too, shall live. So St. John says you can have "boldness" in approaching this enemy called “death”.

I love the word that he uses, "boldness." It is a word that is used to describe somebody going to battle the enemy. It is the way David approached the giant, Goliath, without fear. I can see David going to face Goliath, wearing only a T-shirt saying "No Fear." David rejected the armor of Saul. He said, "I don't need it, because the Lord is with me." John says if God's love abides in you, then that is all you need." There is no fear if God's love abides in you, for perfect love casts out fear."

I say, no more of this natural business. I don't want to die a natural death, like a plant. Just fade, whither, and flop over. I don't want that. I want to face death with courage, boldness, and hope, because I know that though I die, I will live, because of the victory given to me through my Lord Jesus Christ.

That’s why I love the final verse of our Easter hymn written by Charles Wesley, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”. It goes:

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!

Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!

Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!

Where’s thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!

“Where's thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!” That’s the hymn that shows that Christians need have no more fear of death!

That is our hope. No one has seen God. But you can see God's love in the way Christians approach death with boldness, hope, courage and, no fear, "for perfect love casts out fear."

You can also see God's love in the way Christians approach the neighbor. There are no more unequivocal words in all of scripture than these in 1 John 4:20-21:

Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

John was writing to a congregation that had lost its vision, had grown fearful of the future and had closed in on itself, shutting others out. But John reminds us that the Church's vision is outward. When churches turn inward, as so many do, the members argue with one another about all kinds of things. The results are predictable: hurt feelings, divisions, things said that shouldn't be said, recriminations. You know the way it happens.

John writes to them. If you say that you are Christian, then give the evidence. Not only in the way you face death with boldness, but in the way you face your neighbor in love. "For if you say you love God, and you hate your neighbor, then you are a liar." And love for God begins at home in our country, and reaches out around the world.

I’m sure you are as concerned as I am that the neglect of children and youth in our society is already a tragedy. The use of drugs in our society drops to a lower age every year. Forty years ago we were concerned that there were drugs in our colleges and universities. Now they are in the elementary schools. Teenage suicide has doubled in the last ten years. We hold the world's record now for teenage pregnancy.

If we are going to save kids, we give them a caring adult. If there is a caring adult in the life of a young person, the chances are that that person is going to live a more productive, happy, joyful life, even in a troubled environment.

It seems to me that the sign of a civilized society. No matter how sophisticated the society is, or how advanced technologically, or how wealthy it is, it is not civilized if it doesn't care for its young. It seems to me, and also to the writer of the epistle of John, that if a church says it is a church, and is too afraid to do anything about suffering neighbors, then it is lying. That is the kind of blunt language John uses to the Church.

I know that this church is committed to do something about what is happening in our society. Whether it’s addressing the needs of neglected children and teenagers, finding homes for the homeless, treating people of all races with dignity, caring for the disabled, or encouraging our leaders to provide health care for every citizen in this great land. A sure sign of a Christian community is that they are concerned about such things, concerned about those who are neglected in our society. In fact, this church has always been involved in what is happening in our society.

And now we have a new opportunity to courageously step out with love and faith into the future. We are not dead – we are alive! Many of us are excited about the new connection being formed between our congregation and Rolling Hills United Methodist Church through the appointment of Rev. Diane Rehfield to Walteria UMC in July. Among other things, this new partnership will help us serve the needs of the older members of our congregation through their health programs led by their parish nurse, as well as new fellowship opportunities through field trips and other learning programs. Of course, our service to the needy will continue through our partnership with Torrance Korean UMC. And now our outreach to teenagers will be led by Steve Oak, who has begun an English-language Bible study on Friday nights for middle and high school youth from our Kids Club graduates and TKUMC.

We have always said that our priority as a church is to be a place to provide service for the Walteria neighborhood, and now we can continue to do this in new ways. This is a real resurrection time for us as a congregation. The opportunities and joy we share in the Lord will grow as we continue to overcome our fear by reaching out in love to our neighbors near and far.

When Jesus appeared to His disciples He said two times: “Peace be with you!” Then He offered these words of assurance, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit...” 

Why did they need the Holy Spirit? Because He would no longer be with them physically, but He would be a living breath of spiritual life living within them. And look what happened to them! They went from being fearful to being some of the most daring people who have ever walked this earth.  Ridicule could not deter them, or torture or the threat of death. Nothing could stop them. That’s why more than one billion people on this planet today bow at the name of Jesus. Their terror turned to trusting, their fear was replaced by faith. They left the panic room to plant the Gospel in every corner of our world. 

Jesus’ two most important commands were “Love God and one another”, and “Don’t be afraid.” So on His day of resurrection, have no fear…reach out in love. For “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.”

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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