Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 17, 2015
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
Towards the end of the movie Boyhood, the central character, Mason, reflects with his father on the trajectory and purpose of his life. Over the course of the movie, we have seen Mason grow from a small, innocent six-year-old to a mature, wizened high school graduate. By his eighteenth year, Mason’s life has acquired a complexity and depth from the variety of events and changes that he has experienced. After Mason is dumped by his girlfriend at the end of his last year of high school, Mason finds himself bewildered by the twists and turns of his life and asks his father what the point of everything is. “Everything?” his father responds, unsure what to say, himself having carved a roundabout path through life, “what’s the point? I mean, I sure don’t know. Neither does anyone else.” The only statement he seems to be able to make with any kind of confidence is the following: “we’re all just winging it,”—a comment that serves as a poignant summary of the movie as a whole and echoes through the unique contours of our own life journeys. Life indeed appears to be unpredictable and volatile, requiring all of the flexibility and improvisation of which we are capable. None of us can truly know what will happen next or be fully prepared for the change that the future will bring. As Mason’s father suggests, we’re all just winging it.
I have thought quite a bit about Mason’s father’s comment recently. Many of you know that I was ordained to the priesthood this past Thursday evening, and may also know that in the next week I will both graduate from my master’s program and turn twenty-five years old. It seems, in a sense, that I am approaching the end of my own boyhood, as I transition from a lifetime as a student preparing for the real world to becoming a full-fledged member of it. I won’t have a chance to sleep in on Monday mornings or be on my parent’s health insurance for much longer, God willing. As I prepare to step out on my own, untethered, I battle a not-insignificant amount of fear and hesitation, unsure if I have the skill, perseverance and courage that are required to live up to the responsibilities to which I have been called. At the same time, I think about how I got to this point and recognize just how tangled, circuitous and messy the project of living can be. It may make sense that I’m standing here in this pulpit now, but at many other points in my life I was convinced that it would turn out differently. I may look like I know what I’m doing, but I’ve had my share of stumbles, wrong turns and leaps of faith. Still unsure about how I will be able to proceed unfailingly into the future, I look back at the past and realize that, in truth, I’ve been winging it all along.
And I’m guessing I’m not the only one. I doubt I’m alone in facing a transition this morning or in facing a transition that is by no means seamless or straightforward. Change, after all, is that undeniable, unavoidable, persistent fact that continually confounds our expectations and shocks us out of any plans that we had previously made. A train suddenly derails outside of Philadelphia, altering everything. You receive out of nowhere a job offer or promotion, providing you with far more money or status and taking you to another city or country. You are told of a serious diagnosis that shows you how little time you really have left. Even when change is slower and more subtle, it can still shift our realities in ways that are difficult for us to handle. A friendship or relationship gradually deteriorates over time, in the process causing you to reconsider everything you thought you knew about the other person and yourself, or a baby slowly forms in the stomach of a woman, soon to transform your home, your schedule, and your entire way of life. The transitions of our lives awake us from our complacency and self-satisfaction and remind us of the limits of our control. They show us that we have so much less power over or knowledge about the future than we might have hoped or assumed.
Viewed from such a perspective, this morning’s readings are comforting. They tell us that Jesus and his disciples also struggled with the same uncertainty and incompleteness of transition that we do. Before his death, Jesus himself articulated a sense of irresolution and anxiety about the state in which he would leave his followers. Jesus was the one who had cared and shepherded his followers for so long, but, as we heard in the reading from John’s Gospel this morning, he knew that after his transition to the next life he would be unable to do so personally. He pled with his Father to keep his friends safe, protected and together. The work he had begun was not yet finished; the outcome his followers deserved was not yet achieved; his joy in them had not yet been made complete. Jesus’ transition brought him pain because he had not yet accomplished what he had desired for those whom he loved.
After Jesus ascends into heaven, leaving his followers for good, they then wrestle with how to carry on without him. He had been their fearless leader, giving them comfort and direction, and now they have to fend for themselves. They begin by undertaking what seems at first to be a concrete task: appointing a successor to replace Judas, the disciple who had become the great betrayer. You would think such a process would be simple—after all, all the disciples need to do is merely pick one person—but the situation is flooded with ambiguity and imprecision. Initially, of course, there is the embarrassing fact of Judas’ betrayal in the first place: how could the person selected so carefully by Jesus have turned out to be such a failure? What does this say to the disciples about the project they are continuing to engage in? It must have been difficult for them to admit that a transition needed to take place, that someone new needed to be introduced—which may explain why Judas’ replacement wasn’t appointed immediately following Jesus’ death, but only after Jesus’ resurrection, ascension and a time of prayer and reflection. It takes the disciples time to realize what they need to do next. Meanwhile, the disciples seem to have been ambivalent as to how they would actually choose Judas’ successor. Rather than rely solely on their intellects or their religious faith or utter chance, the disciples appear to have struck a compromise, first narrowing the field down to two candidates through their rational faculties, then praying to God for guidance, and making their final decision according to no particular criteria at all, casting lots. Without a clear plan for the future, the disciples invent a way forward. They wing it.
The thing about transitions is that, however dramatic they can be, they are not typically complete overhauls. In praying to the Father for the disciples’ protection and in promising the disciples that the Holy Spirit would later come, Jesus suggests that, though he will eventually ascend into heaven, God will not abandon Christians altogether. God will remain present to them, he assures the disciples through his prayer; only the way in which God will remain present will change. Similarly, in many of the transitions of our lives, God is not abandoning us, but becoming present to us in a different way. In most transitions, we will experience some stability even in the midst of so much change. For instance, I am lucky enough to be transitioning into a new office and role in a community I already know and love. But even when a transition involves far less stability, one can still rely on some fairly fixed entities, like a family member or friend, or one’s inner sense of self, or even God. The world rarely ends altogether.
Sometimes I can get quite worried about the days and weeks ahead. I like to know what the future holds and, whenever possible, to adhere strictly to a well-formulated long-range plan. The insecurity of the future really gnaws at me: what if I’m not always sure what I’m doing? What if I do something wrong or get scared? I could be in a hospital room at the bedside of a dying patient and not know what to say, or get asked about First Chronicles in a Bible class and not be able to recall even one single factoid from my Hebrew Bible textbook. If I am really unfortunate, I might even drop the thurible over the Eucharistic gifts—my worst nightmare.
But when I get going like this, I try my best to take a deep breath and gain perspective, to recognize the promise as well as the uncertainty of a future that is as yet unknown. Relax, I tell myself. You can’t plan ahead for everything. You’re just going to have to wing it.