A Sermon Preached at Trinity Church on the First Sunday of Lent, 1998 Hooding Ceremony Donald David Fehrenbach, M. Div. Rob Royal, of happy memory, used to start his sermons with a prayer asking God to make some sense of what he was saying to his listeners. I’ve just repeated his prayer adding “And if you’d make all that I’m saying make sense to me, I’d appreciate that too.” Let me begin by saying ‘thank you’ to Robert (Pastor) for sharing his pulpit. I think he guards this, of all his territories, most jealously, second only to his beloved Ann. I am flattered that he is allowing me to preach. Moreover, I am honored that he asked me to preach today. In one of our long ago conversations Robert asked the obvious question, “And what would you preach about?” I responded with the academic answer, “I’d start with the readings, listen to what the Spirit was saying to me in them and go from there.” Now I heed Bishop James Pike’s admonition “Preach with the Bible in one hand, and the Times in the other.” I take a further cue from Archbishop William Temple: I will take this one step further, and add my own experience as an important part of God’s revelation. And I’m doing what is usually not recommended for new preachers, putting my soul on the line. The Gospel from Luke tells us that Jesus went into the wilderness “for forty days.” This is the scriptural foundation season we call Lent. The invitation to a Holy Lent from the Book of Common Prayer sums it up quite nicely with these words: “This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the Faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution” — and might I add, the universal call to holiness — “in the Gospel of our Savior, and the need which all Christians continually have to renew their faith AND their repentance.” This annual remembrance is the oldest Christian cycle we know. The Great Forty Days, or quadragessimo, as expressed in Latin. In most of the rest of the world, and especially in the Latin countries of Europe and America, this season goes by the name of the Passion Season, or the Paschal Season, which means, literally, the Passover. It is only in the English-speaking world that this season is called Lent, and the word, like so many other distinctly Anglican phrases, carries a very different meaning and message. Lent is a word from Middle English, Anglo-Saxon, used for spring. The difference in the root meaning of the season is yet another way that the Anglican Church differs from her Latinate sisters. Many of you know that I started out in Roman Catholicism and found my true home in Anglican Catholicism, or as I prefer to call them Continental Imperial Catholicism and Celtic Parliamentary Catholicism. What fewer of you know, but might have guessed from my distinction, is that I wrote my synthesis paper for this degree on the differences between then two. I tried, and successfully I think to discern the essential difference between Rome and Canterbury. That, alas, is matter for another sermon, and not this one. Lent. Springtime. I rejoice in the Celtic understanding of this season. It is a time for rebirth. But the truth is that neither word, Passiontide or Lent, fully cover the mystery of this season. The message is a mystery that needs both. That is the great Mystery of Life and Death and
Rebirth in God through the person of Jesus. Life leads to death and death leads to life. Religious mysteries are not puzzles to be solved, but risks to be dared and loves to be undertaken. How does one enter into this mystery? Here I begin to get personal. For me, all paths to holiness, in whatever tradition or discipline you choose, come down to this: surrender. The essential part of all spirituality, and not just Anglican or even Christian, is unconditional surrender. Surrender to the power of God. Surrender, let me be clear, is not giving up. Do not accuse me, as some others have, of advocating quietism or despair. The first is heresy, the latter a sin against the Spirit. I am not a quitter. I am not a heretic. I am not a sinner against the Spirit. I am a man bound up in the Mystery of Salvation. Surrender is a subtle, and from my experience, very difficult status to achieve. Surrender is the freeing of oneself from the attachment to outcomes. It means letting God be God. We are NOT God, only God is. We are God’s beloved children. It is the indifference that T.S. Eliot reminds us of when he writes in Ash Wednesday, “Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.” Back to Luke’s desert narrative of springtime and the Passion in the desert. It’s interesting to watch the learning curve that the Devil undergoes in this story. He starts by hitting Jesus with the obvious: Jesus has just fasted for forty days (idiomatic Hebrew for “forever”) and knows he is hungry. So he hits him in the stomach. Jesus answers by quoting Scripture. Having failed, the Devil goes for something bigger: political power, social prestige, and economic clout. And again Jesus answers by quoting Scripture. You can almost see the little light bulb going on over the Devil’s head, “Aha, he quotes scripture! I’ll give that a try!” So in his third test he asks him to work a wonder and do so by fulfilling a line of Scripture. But still Jesus prevails, and he raises a warning against the Devil: “Do not do this again.” The Devil leaves him, “until the opportune moment.” When will this “opportune moment” occur? The music rises, and the wait begins. The author Luke sets the stage for one of the motifs of his gospel, the reappearance of the Devil at regular intervals to tempt Jesus again. You can see the Devil learning his tricks as he proceeds. Now I know that a fair number of you don’t believe in a devil or any other personal form of evil. You’ve told me so. And that’s okay, because we’re Anglicans. I do, however, believe in the Devil for a reason: I see a newer reading of the ‘Devil’ in a modern concept, that of the Ego. Reread the story with the “Ego” tempting Jesus, and you have something very contemporary. And very accurate. Our Egos learn how to be more and more devious with every encounter with the Self. With each encounter, the Ego becomes more savvy, more insidious, and more deadly. And like the Devil, it never gives up because it considers itself immortal. These are the first three temptations of Jesus. The Last Temptation of Christ, at least as I read Luke, occurs in the Garden, and not on the Cross, as it does in the other synoptics. The Lucan garden scene differs from the other two synoptics in at least two respects: first the location is different, and second, in Matthew and Mark, Jesus tells the disciples to watch and wait. In Luke, however, Jesus admonishes the disciples to “Pray, lest you too be put to the test.” Very different instructions. Jesus knows he will be sorely tested. Thus in Luke, we see the depths to which the Devil will go: something much worse: reality. The Devil tempts Jesus to despair by showing him what awaits him. A
hideous and horrible death at the hands of the very people he wanted to help. And at the sight Jesus sweats blood. I have reached my own Garden, my own point of sweating blood. I’m at a point in my spiritual and physical life where both my temptation and my surrender are forefront. Let me explain. Fifteen years ago last December 6, Saint Nicholas Day, I was received into the Anglican Communion and became a member of this parish. In those fifteen years you folks have seen me through two career changes, three Significant Others, four or more hairstyles and colors, and countless Vestry meetings. In the last few years, you’ve helped me live courageously and constructively with a serious and life threatening disease, HIV/AIDS. If that doesn’t make you family, I don’t know what does. In the last two years especially, your love, your prayers and your financial donations have enabled me to do something I still can’t quite believe I’ve done: ride twenty-one hundred miles across America on my bicycle for others with AIDS, primarily because they couldn’t and I could. I came back from the last of these rides, my eighth, the Boston to New York last September, weary and tired. After a summer of straddling a hard leather saddle I wanted a break, and I needed to clear up a chest congestion. My new doctor said I should not worry. It’s something going around. But it didn’t clear up. It got worse. In December I stopped taking the Communion cup thinking I was ill enough to pass something on. I even refrained from touching Baby Zachary (nephew) for months, knowing what a precious commodity he is. I changed doctors because the response I was getting “It’s just something viral going around” didn’t satisfy me. My new doctor suspected pneumonia, PCP to be precise, and I felt crushed by defeat. Three weeks and two intense bouts of antibiotics later we realized it wasn’t that, either. So my doctors went for the big guns and ordered a bronchoscopy. A biopsy turned up no traces of pneumonia, but something more insidious, “anomalous cells.” I will never forget that morning of January 15. I answered my phone and heard the pulmonary specialist identify himself. “So, what the good news?” I asked. “Well, we didn’t find any traces of pneumonia, but we did find some ‘anomalous cells’.” I’ve had enough experience with hospitals and doctors to recognize those dreaded words Anomalous cells. I could feel my body turning to stone, from my toes upward, as a wave of terror swept through me. Before the paralysis reached my voice, I squeaked out, “What kind of cancer do I have?” “We don’t know,” was his answer. “The pathology reports take several days to complete.” I made my way to my therapist’s office, and there I had the first of many sobbing outbursts. I arrived late, something I try not to do and which upsets my therapist, but I said to him “I have a good reason. I was talking to my pulmonologist, and we have a diagnosis! I have cancer.” I spent the next hour wailing in despair and grief. Four days later I was in the office of my new oncologist, still in shock, hoping against hope that the pathology report would reveal a mistake. It didn’t. My doctor informed me that I had a very rare form of lung cancer, called bronchoalveolar carcinoma. I couldn’t believe it. Lung cancer? Impossible. I rolled the words around in my mouth, hoping I could spit them out and the cancer along with them. I couldn’t. I repeated it several times, committing it to memory. It took several tries to get all the syllables together in the right order. But finally I could say it. “I have
cancer. I have bronchoalveolar carcinoma.” I marched into the Cancer Research Center at Mount Zion, and like an automaton announced to the staff, “I have cancer. I have bronchoalveolar carcinoma. What do you know about this?” It became clear to everyone that NO ONE had a clue. Two days later, the staff presented me with the results of its intensive research, and it fit on one eight and a half by eleven sheet of paper! “This is a rare form of lung cancer. IT is almost always found in older ladies.” My shock became crippling depression. It simply wasn't fair. In the previous two years I'd taken my body and turned it into a fitting temple of the spirit, an elite athlete, an outrageous biker. I couldn't be dying of an obscure form of cancer. I didn't think my God worked that way. I bargained with God, pleading for time to realize my dreams. But the evidence all seemed to say, "She can and will." By my next visit to my oncologist, I’d digested enough reading material to ask the salient questions, “What stage am I at? What is my prognosis? What are my chances of fighting this?” When she realized I’d done my reading, my doctor looked me square in the eye and said “Stage Four. And it has metastasized.” A blinking red neon sign went off in my head. “Failure! Failure! Failure!” I saw HIV drug failure. I saw personal failure. I saw the failure of dreams and aspirations. I saw physical and spiritual failure. I saw a suddenly endless list of failures. Most of all I saw the failure of my aspirations to Holy Orders. I barely heard her telling me of my time line, of the likely course of the disease, of my chances of remission. I was crushed. I stayed crushed for several days, ignoring phone calls, hiding in my apartment, screaming and crying at God or no one in particular. And then two important things occurred. The first was Robert calling and saying “I want you to think about how you are going to tell the congregation about this development.” I had, of course, called Robert, second with the news. The first had been my therapist. Then Robert suggested, “Is there a way to enroll the congregation in this process?” The other event was a pastoral visit from a Jesuit priest, Tim Meier, who asked if I’d been anointed lately. “Why, yes, just this morning.” I volunteered, “But hey, you’re here. Let’s do it again. It can’t hurt!” Tim talked of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin who’d recently died of prostate cancer. He used his death to show his diocese of Chicago, and the whole world, how a Man of Faith dies in Christ. The words of my heroine, Mother Theresa of Calcutta came to mind. When asked how she could go on, day after day, realizing she wasn’t touching even the tip of the iceberg, she shook her head with a laugh and said, “My job is not to be successful. My job is to be faithful.” In that moment, the flashing red neon sign went dark, fell, and then shattered into a thousand pieces. There was my answer, in the words of the prophet Micah. When he is asked what is required of a Man of Faith, Micah suggests human sacrifice, booty, spoils of war, tributes. In our parlance, cars, furs, planes and parties. Prestige power and politics, the whole bloody American dream. But God says, “No, I don’t want any of that. Only this. To act justly. To love tenderly. And to walk humbly with your God.” Through Tim’s prayers, I heard God saying to me directly that I must surrender even this. The message was clearly “For fifteen years, you’ve shown your companions how to live bravely, even brazenly, with a life threatening disease. Now maybe the last lesson left to you is show them how a man of faith dies with peace and dignity, how you might enter into Eternal Life with grace and graciousness.”
This is what I must surrender. My temptation might be to lose faith in God because of this. My call is this surrender. I must surrender even now to this process, without giving up. If I’ve learned only this about surrender it is that it never stops. I will never get to a point where I can face God and say, “See, I’ve met every challenge you’ve given me. And I’ve survived! You can’t possibly ask for anything more!” God will always be there to remind me that there is always some last little bit of control that I want to hold on to, and God will demand even that little bit! God always holds the last trump card! No matter how much we surrender there will always be that little bit more that God requires. This is where I stand. Jesus will bid me welcome and say "well done, good and faithful servant" only when I've surrender fuller into God, Jesus, and the Spirit. I must turn to you for help. We’ve lost 83 members of this congregation to this AIDS epidemic. We may be about to lose another. Most of them have just disappeared. I have been up front with all of you so far, and I don’t intend to retrench now. I do not want to disappear. I want you to be with me in this transition. I offer you my death as a process of really knitting this community together. We are born into this world alone, but we are born into a Christian family as part of a group. We can choose to leave alone, which I do not want to do, or as part of that same Christian family. I am inviting you to join me in this last stage of the process. I want you to hold me accountable for my beliefs and actions. And I want to be able to count on you. I need you to remind me of my priorities, of my commitments and keep my nose pointed in the right direction. I want what I’ve always asked of you, your love, your prayers and your support. Can I? God is asking of me that last and final surrender, and I'm not very excited about it! But whether I want to go there, as Jesus was asked to go in his personal agony, what I want doesn't really amount to much anyway. Jesus is NOT asking. He is asking with the painful instance of the God of surrender! I have a medically untreatable cancer. It is in the final stages and has metastasized to my brain and to my bones. This morning I reached a marker in my radiation. As I was showering my hair was coming out in handfuls. I am scared. I am angry. I am very sad, but most of all I am very disappointed. There was so much that I still wanted to do! These dreams, including that of Orders, too, must be surrendered. Last week, Robert spoke with eloquence about the three loves. I thought of C.S.Lewis and his book, The Four Loves, which is an expansion of Robert’s thoughts. Lewis believed in the power of love. But even more than love, he believed that all of creation was one big dance. And he wrote brilliantly about it. Whether it was the dance in the final and best of the Narnia Chronicles, in which the deaths of the children — and indeed of all of Narnia— is one large round dance, or the closing of his personal favorite, Perelandra, in which the entire history of the universe and salvation, physical and spiritual, is one very complex gavotte, Lewis believed that the answer lay in the Dance with God. We do not die, we simply change partners and the dance goes on, always with God as the center. Always with God with us as those that surrender. So I will close on a lighter note paraphrasing a line from my favorite of the current crop of Blockbuster hit videos, “will God hear our prayer? Will Cinderella dance again? You think, ‘What the heck? Life goes on. Maybe there won’t be marriage. Maybe there won’t be sex. Maybe for me there won’t be Orders. But, by God, there will be dancing!”
Read his sermon on this Eve of Easter and be inspired!