Sunday, April 28, 2013

Before and After

A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, April 28, 2013

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Each of us has a before and an after.

Each of us has a before and an after.

For some, the moment is clear. The moment up to which is “before.” The moment that in an instant turns everything from then on into “after.” Sometimes we see that moment coming. Most of the time, we don’t.

Joshua was 19 years old. He was sitting in the back of a minibus by the side of the road outside Jerusalem looking up at a stone town on a hill. He was in the bus going to collect a pizza that he had won playing basketball the night before. He was healthy and strong. He’d grown five inches and done 20,000 pushups in the last eight months. Joshua was 19. He was invincible. He was Superman.


Joshua didn’t see it coming. He didn’t see the truck loaded down with blue tile barreling out of control as it came down the hill. He heard a great bang behind him, like a bomb going off. His head snapped back, his eardrum blew, his shoes flew off. His body, neck broken, flew through the air with the rest of the bus and when he landed, he was a quadriplegic. In an instant, everything had changed.

Before.…. After.

Hear Joshua Prager tell his story -- and the incredible story of searching for the man who was driving that truck in this TED talk. Thanks to Robert Duffy for sending this my way.

In the coming months, Joshua had to learn to breathe on his own. Can you imagine having to learn again even how to breathe? This was the after. This was, what’s the phrase we use now: “the new normal.” After his first stage of recovery, Joshua’s “after” … his “new normal” … was that he was a hemiplegic – his body was divided vertically. He was in a wheelchair. His life would never be the same. Before was over. This was after. Nothing could change that.

But was the die cast? Did what happened determine who he was, determine who he was to be? Was Joshua, and in a larger sense, are all of us merely the result of things done to us or for us. Are we all just the sum total of genes and experience?

Joshua decided the answer to that was no. He spent four years in that wheelchair then got up out of it never to return. He learned to walk with a cane and traveled the world. He became a writer, working his way from news assistant to senior writer at the Wall Street Journal and became an award-winning author, typing every word with one finger of one hand.

Joshua’s after is not what he thought his life would be. He is not the doctor or the baseball player he thought he would become. That was his before. This is his after.

Each of us has a before and an after. Sometimes we see the things coming … the birth of a child, a graduation, a wedding. We know that “this will change everything” – partly because people keep telling us “this will change everything.”

But the most profound things, the most significant watershed events are the ones we don’t see coming.

The car crash. 

The phone ringing in the dead of night with news that couldn’t wait until morning.

The discovery of infidelity. The letter with news of the scholarship. The test results from the doctor. The lottery ticket. The police officer showing up at our door.

The chance meeting with someone who makes our heart jump and dance and sing and who through some amazing chemistry and physics and grace we do the same to them.

The cup of coffee shared where inspiration happens that changes the course of our life.

Each of us has a before and an after … and in fact each of us has many befores and afters, many moments that are watersheds, hinges in our life. These moments have the potential to define us. They have the potential to be our masters, whether the moments be good or ill. They have the potential to convince us that we are nothing but the sum total of genetics and experience. That what code was embedded into us in our conception and what happens to us from birth to death is the sole determinant of who we are.

But we are much more than that. We are human beings created in the image of God. There is a depth of beauty and possibility breathed into in each and all of us that transcends the seeming whim of genetics and experience. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” and each of us is waiting to burst into that glory, to become fully alive, fully that image of God that God dreams for us. And our ability to do it is not limited by genetics or experience. It is only limited by the choices and response we make when these shaping events happen.

Each of us has a before and an after. What is yours? What has your response been? What will your response be?

The disciples were living in the before. But the after was barreling down on them like that runaway truck. And like Joshua sitting in the back of that minivan, their attention was elsewhere and they had no idea it was coming. But Jesus knew. And so at the last supper, when Judas had gone out, Jesus tried to prepare them:

“Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me but ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’”

But Jesus was trying to do more than just give them a heads up that a new normal was on the horizon. He knew that this was his last time with them. And when we know this is our last time with someone we care about, we want them to know the most important thing. We do it all the time.

It’s the coach who says “no fouls” as the team heads back onto the floor or the parent who says “do all your homework” as they head out the door for the evening … or the soldier who looks deep into her partner’s eyes and says “I love you” before getting on the plane perhaps never to return.

It was the night before Jesus died. Judas had just left. The wheels of Jesus’ betrayal, torture and death were already in motion. The truck was barreling down that hill and the impact would not just affect Jesus but all who had followed him. So he wanted to tell them that most important thing they would need to know to sustain them. And this is what he said, and he said it three times just so they would be sure to hear it:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. 

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Everything was about to change – and in ways they couldn’t expect. Jesus was about to be arrested and killed and they might be next. But even more than that, they were about to be given news too good not to share but which would put their lives in danger when they did – that death had been defeated, that there was a power greater than empire, that God’s surpassing love did not recognize the human boundaries of Jew and Greek, rich and poor, slave and free.

And Jesus knew that the disciples – and all of us – are not just the sum total of genes and experience. He knew that they would have choices to make. And that often the choices we are tempted to make in moments of great stress and tragedy are to run away from our best selves, to turn inward, to let fear, pity, and anger consume us. To let the moment and not our best response to it define us.

And so Jesus gave the disciples that most important thing: Love one another. Love one another in the same self-giving way that I love you. In the midst of a new normal that will tempt you to be only concerned with your own skin, be instead only concerned with one another. Give yourselves to one another. Rise above the difficulty of the circumstance by holding one another up. And in so doing become the glory of God. Become human beings fully alive.

Jesus’ words to his disciples that night are the constitution of the church. For we are not a safe haven from the changes and chances of this world. We are not a community immune to the moments that create the befores and afters. But we are a community that loves one another through them, that calls one another to our best selves in the wake of them, and that uses those moments to create new normals of opportunity = to glorify God by pushing the limits of the potential of each and all of us as beautiful creatures made in the image of a loving and self-giving God.

We tend to look at stories like Joshua’s and marvel at what an extraordinary person he is. But without diminishing Joshua's story, that misses and truly even cheapens what he and his story can teach us. Because the true marvel is that it’s not just that Joshua is extraordinary, it’s that we all are – or rather we all can be. We all have the potential to move from the dreams of before to extraordinary afters.

Joshua talks about people’s reaction to his story and says, “People are wrong to marvel at those like me who smile as they limp. People don’t know that they have lived through worse. That problems of the heart hit with a force greater than a runaway truck, that problems of the mind are greater still, more injurious than a hundred broken necks.

“What makes most of us who we are most of all? Not our minds, not our bodies and what happens to us. But how we respond to what happens to us. This, wrote the psychologist Victor Frankel, is the last of the human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Jesus stood among his disciples and stands among us today not promising that life would never change but knowing that life will continue to change – change in profound and traumatic ways. Knowing that we share a life where trucks slam into buses and bombs explode at finish lines and gunshots ring out of passing cars, a world where pension and health benefits labored for for a lifetime disappear with the stroke of a pen, where in the middle of raising children we all of a sudden have to care for parents. A life where cancer comes and goes and comes again.

A life where each next moment might be the moment that changes everything.

Jesus stood among his disciples and stands among us today not promising that life will never change but that those changes do not define us. But that what does define us, what enables us to create afters of power and glory is our ability to love one another with the depth and passion that Christ loves us.

What can define us is our ability to be honest and vulnerable with one another about our struggles and to love one another through them.

What can define us is our choices to love in the face of fear, to give instead of being tempted to hoard, to reach out in those moments when all we want to do is curl up and cry out “Just. Leave. Me. Alone.”

Each of us has a before and an after. What is yours? What has your response been? What will your response be?

Each of us has a before and an after. And Jesus has just one important thing to tell us as the truck barrels down, as we hear the bang and our neck snaps back, as we fly through the air and land in a place we never expected to be and didn’t see coming. Jesus has just one important thing to tell us as we are learning how to breathe again … and walk and write and hope.

And he really wants us to hear it, so he is holding our shoulders and looking deep into our eyes.

And he’s saying it three times just to make sure we hear him.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. 

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. 


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