2 PENTECOST - PROPER VI - A - 17 MATTHEW 9.35-10.8-23
The dean had been without an assistant for almost a year, and thus had not taken any time off. After I had been there long enough to know which key opened what door, the dean left for an extended and much over due vacation. I found myself in charge of a church family of over 1000.
The Cathedral was a busy place. We conducted daily Morning Prayer in the chapel at 7:30 followed by Eucharist. On Sunday, there were three services of Holy Communion. In addition, there were the usual hospital calls, shut-in visits and the unscheduled walk-in “Father do you have a minute?” The normal day-to-day parish responsibilities now all belonged to me. It was a bit overwhelming as you might imagine but a wonderful experience.
The dean had not been out of town for a week when tragedy struck. A very popular young man from the parish was killed in a traffic accident. He was a member of a prominent family in the community who were also very active in the life of the Church. I had not personally met him or his parents other than to speak them on Sunday morning.
It fell to me to make that dreaded visit to their home and sit down with the grieving parents to discuss the funeral of their oldest son. It would be only the second funeral I had conducted since becoming a priest. My first one was for an infant. It was the kind of foot-in-the-door experience that no priest looks forward to and hopes he will ever have to endure.
The tragic nature of their son’s death only added to my anxiety as I knocked on that door not knowing how or what I would say in order to try and console and comfort them. Sometimes I don’t think people realize how stressful these types of pastoral situations can be for the priest. That was over thirty-five years ago, but as you see, I have never forgotten it.
I did my best to minister to them and as it turned out, they ministered to me. Their genuine display of faith in the face of death made a lasting impression on me as a priest. I sat there and listened as they reminisced about their eldest son. The more they talked the more their faith and trust in God was revealed.
They weren’t angry. They didn’t blame God. Yet their grief was evident in their tears and their what ifs, but their faith never wavered, then, or on the day of the funeral, or the months and years afterwards. We became very close that day and remained friends through the years.
Six months later, I found myself in the hospital room of the father of that very family who had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. He had only a few months to live. Just the two of us were in the room that day. We talked about life and death, family and God. I asked him how he was able to maintain his faith under the circumstances and having only recently endured the death of a son.
He said to me simply that he believed in the love of God and the promise of Christ and the hope of being re-united with his son in the life to come. It wasn’t that he did not wish that things could be different, but that he learned a long time ago to place his trust in God’s providence. He had to be strong, he told me, for his family. He wanted his legacy to his wife and children to be his faith.
It was his faith, he said, that enabled him to endure the death of his son and now to face his own. St. Paul wrote to the church at Rome that it was “suffering that produced endurance and endurance that produced character.” I learned a lot about genuine Christian character from this man and his family in the way they lived their lives in the face of adversity in witness to their faith.
Jesus said to his disciples in today’s gospel that those who endure to the end will be saved. But this was only after he had detailed the mission he was about to send them on down to what to take and what not to take as well as what to wear and what not to wear in order to teach them to depend on God.
His instructions also contained warnings that to choose to follow him would not be an easy thing to do. The world, he said, can be a most inhospitable place. He told them that they could expect rejection, physical and verbal abuse. Moreover, that they would be hated by some simply because they belonged to him. Sometimes, he told them, they would find peace and sometimes not.
Not many of us, if we knew exactly what awaited us in life would choose to march out and face it as they did. However, the disciples did, and in doing so set an example for others to imitate. The family I meet through tragedy as a young priest did likewise. They looked death in the face more than once and yet remained steadfast in their faith and love of God and the promise of His Son, Jesus, of everlasting life.
In doing so, they set an example for all who knew them and admired their ability to endure suffering, including me. Only by the grace of God were they able to maintain their faith, their hope, and their trust in a loving God that sustained them in their trials and enabled them to endure. It is by the grace of God that any of us are able to endure the trials, sufferings, and temptations of life that come our way without throwing in the prayer shawl.
Life is a challenge on a good day. When things go wrong, when tragedy strikes, when failures occur, is when our faith is truly tested. As St. Paul says, we have access to the grace in which we stand through Jesus Christ and through Christ the hope of sharing the glory of God. But as Jesus warned his disciples as they were about to set out on their journey, if we choose to follow Jesus, we can expect suffering in this life to precede the glory that will one day be revealed. In this, Jesus set the example for all of us.
The trials and temptations of this life are meant to temper us, in order that we might endure to the end. “Endurance produces character,” St. Paul wrote, “and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that had been given to us.”
It is this Hope that anchors our soul; that keeps us steadfast in our Faith, Trust, and our Love of God; a God who knows our sufferings only too well. For God proved his love for us in sending His only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross, but with the promise that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. AMEN+