Sermon for Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 4A); June 1, 2008.
Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, MA (8:00 a.m. service only.)

Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28 Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28
Psalm 31:1-5 Matthew 7:21-29

Building on Rock

Yesterday was a big day for our family – our son Sam graduated from high school. Soon he leaves home for a summer job far away, and then he heads off to a college that is farther away still. I am reaching the end of whatever capacity I had to guide and protect him, at least on a day to day basis, and for the last few weeks, I’ve been wanting to give him something that lasts — a touchstone, a compass, a rock. This week I went on the Internet and looked for a Bible with a leather cover. I looked at books and ended up buying one that was called Living a Life That Matters, and, in case that wasn’t good enough, another that was called, Leading Lives That Matter.

I felt like Moses in today’s reading from Deuteronomy, who wanted so much to pass along the deepest wisdom he knew and the most likely path to joy: to love God with our whole heart and mind and strength. As Moses said, “Put these words of mine in your heart and soul… Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” [Deuteronomy 11:18-19].

We want so much to pass on to those we love the deepest treasure of our hearts, the hard-won wisdom that we’ve found. What a satisfying ceremony it must have been yesterday at the Cathedral to those of you whose children were confirmed and to those of you who were confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church. It is a precious thing to know that each day we have a choice to make between a blessing or a curse, between building the house of our lives on the rock of God’s love, and building it on shifting, unreliable, unstable sand.

Listening to God, carrying out God’s will in acts of love and mercy – that is what gives our lives a sure foundation. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” [Matthew 7:24]. Rains fall, floods come, winds blow, but that house stands firm – unlike the house of the foolish man, whose house falls down with a crash because it was built on sand.

I can’t protect my son from the storms of life, but I do know that in his life, as in yours and mine, storms will come. The day of reckoning will come. For a while we may be able to get away with building our lives on sand – on shopping and acquiring more things, on entertainment, on trying to gain power over other people or compulsively trying to please them. But sooner or later we will step forward, desperately reaching for something solid, something everlasting on which to stand.

I have a story for you. I heard it this week on an audiotape by Kathleen Rusnak, a Lutheran minister and hospice chaplain who travels around giving lectures on lessons learned for living from the dying.1 Kathleen explains that when we learn that we have only a few months left to live, we often begin to carry out a “life review.” It’s a time of reckoning for us, a time of coming to terms with our lives as we look back and ask: What was my life all about? How did I spend my time? What was important to me? What was my purpose for living? What did I accomplish? What do I regret? What is left undone? What did I wait too long to do? Who did I love?

Then Kathleen talked about a man she met who had been given a three-month prognosis and was in the care of hospice. By the time she – the chaplain – met him, he had spent nine months in hospice and had refused to see most of the team – not the social worker, not the chaplain, but only the nurse. He was a strong, independent, 70-year-old fellow, a tough guy, a man who avoided feelings. “Married, grown children, retired, dying.” Ten days before he died (though of course no one knew that then), he told the nurse that he wanted to see the chaplain. Kathleen was glad to do it and made the appointment. The man’s wife answered the door, looked at Kathleen, and said, “I don’t know what he wants to see you about, but whatever you do when you go in that room — and I’ve put a chair beside his bed so you can sit there – don’t you tell him he’s dying, because he doesn’t know it.”

Kathleen said, “I don’t set the agenda in the room; he does. I’m not going in there to tell him anything. He asked to see me, and I’ll see what he wants.”

Kathleen walked into the room and was there for all of five minutes. Yet she calls this one of the most significant encounters of her life. The man, she says, was rude and crude; he didn’t say hello, didn’t look at her.

She sat down in the chair beside his bed and he said, “I’ve been thinking about my life. When I was a child,” he said, “my mother died and my sister raised me. She did a good job. I never told her that; I never thanked her. In fact, I’ve been mean to her my whole life.” Then he talked about work. “I spent forty years at the same workplace and the guys I worked with always reached out to me. They invited me to lunch and to do things together with their wives. But I always said no – I was interested in my own world, in my money, in doing what I wanted. I ignored everybody.” Then he talked about his marriage. “I had a fifty-year marriage. It was a bad marriage, a crummy marriage. I never told my wife I loved her. On weekends she had to go out with her girlfriends. Why? Because I’d stay home and read my book; it was my time.”

Then he looked at Kathleen. He was finished. He had told the chaplain three places where he was stuck. Then he asked, “Can you help?”

On the tape, Kathleen paused at this point to ask her audience, a group of hospice workers, what they would have said in reply. Oh, said one, I would have assured him of God’s love; I would have told him that God forgave him. Oh, said another, I would have reminded him that he must have done some good things, too; I would have tried to help him put the bad things in perspective.

Well, the chaplain didn’t do any of that. When he said, “Can you help?” what she said was, “Yes, I can. You’re not dead yet. Is your sister still living? Are some of your friends at work still around – are they in the neighborhood, in calling distance? Your wife is right here. What are you telling me these things for? Tell them. Call your sister and ask her to come in, or speak to her on the phone. Tell your wife you’ve been a bad husband. Don’t tell me – tell her.”

The man added one last thing. He said, “My wife doesn’t know I’m dying. Please don’t tell her; it would upset her.”

“Why haven’t you told your wife you’re dying?” asked Kathleen. “Because I think she knows. You did sign those hospice papers.”

Then she saw his vulnerability, for he said – and it must have been a difficult thing to say – that he was afraid that if he told his wife that he was dying, he would start to cry and never stop.

Kathleen replied, “I can only tell you what has happened when other people in your situation have told loved ones that they are dying. You’re going to start to cry, and then you’re going to sob, and you’re going to cry so hard and for so long that you’re going to think you won’t be able to stop, and she’s going to cry, and she’s going to sob, and then you’ll get these dry heaves of the eye ducts, and you’re not going to be able to cry anymore, so you’re going to look at each other and you’re going to get giddy and silly and you’re going to hug each other, and then you’ve got a beginning – because if you don’t tell them you’re dying, you can’t deal with any of these issues.”

The man said, “OK, come back next week.”

And she did. The man’s wife met Kathleen at the door and she said, “I don’t know what you did with him last week, but there’s been a stream of people going into his room, and they’ve all been coming out crying. His sister, and the people he worked with — and even my sister, whom he hates – they were invited in and they came out crying. He told me he was dying; he told me what a rotten husband he was and what a rotten marriage we had. It doesn’t make everything better between us, but it helps that he said it. We sat on the sofa and went through all the pictures of our wedding, the birth of our children, buying a house, vacations; he phoned his lawyer, he made his will; he called in the kids and gave them things; he called the priest and the funeral home; he even picked out his hymns.”

Kathleen was amazed – she hadn’t expected the man to do a thing. She went into his room and sat down on the chair.

He said, “I did what you said… But I have one last regret.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“I didn’t live my whole life like this.”

Kathleen said, “Look what you’ve discovered about yourself, that you never thought existed in you.”

To use the terms of this morning’s Gospel, that man discovered rock. As death approached he saw that his whole long life had been built on sand. What a waste it had been, all that hiding, all that self-centered meanness and refusal to connect! By the grace of God, the man used his last days to touch the rock of God’s love. He re-connected with the people around him. He apologized and made amends; he expressed his gratitude; he shared his love.

That’s the rock we get to touch today: that place deep inside us where God is always speaking to us in a voice of love. If any part of your life is built on sand, let it fall. Let it fall. Today is the day to reach for the rock, to set our lives on the rock of God’s love. Whether we are launching into life, as my son is, or whether we are reaching the end of our days, today is the day to listen to God’s love and to act on what we hear.

1. Kathleen J. Rusnak, Ph.D., “Because You’ve Never Died Before: The World of the Dying”; her Website is www.thebrickwall2.com. The story as told in this sermon is a shortened, edited version of a story she tells. Used with permission.