Summary: Sermon prepared for observance of my fifteenth anniversary as pastor; confession that, like Joseph of Arimathea, I have waited too long to be bold and then have done my work all to alone; but that the basis for pastor and people is the grace of the Cross
If I know anything at all about life, I know that all of us want significance. We want to know that our lives have had meaning. We want to know, after we have invested a few years, that we have counted for something. We want significance.
Years ago, I heard a lecture by Victor Frankl. Some of you will know that Victor Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist, a Jew, who was imprisoned in a Hitler death camp. Every day he saw his friends trucked off to the gas chambers. Every day he waited for his own time to come. Victor Frankl did not die because the Allied armies liberated the camp, just in time. But Frankl said that, as he watched his fellow inmates and heard their cries, and as he listened to his own heart, he concluded that the only thing that keeps us alive is our search for meaning. Our search for significance. We are not ready to die until we know that we have meant something to somebody, indeed until we know that we have meant something to God.
We want significance. We do not want to live out our years and imagine someone slapping a cover on a coffin with a nonchalant, “That’s that.” We want more than that. We do not want to work at our jobs and then just get the obligatory gold watch and hearty hi-ho and simply move on. We want to know that we have made a difference.
However, the trouble is that no matter how much we have done or how many people we have touched or how many years we have been at it, we also are painfully aware of our shortcomings. We know where we have failed. Even if when we retire they serve up testimonies, or when we die, somebody reaches into his rhetorical bag of tricks and preaches a eulogy – even then we know better, don’t we? We know that we have failed at far too many points. We know that we have squandered many opportunities to be significant.
John Donne was a preacher and poet in England in the early Seventeenth Century. First a lawyer and then a priest, Donne was appointed by King James to be the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. John Donne was an exceptionally capable preacher, a fine poet, and a sensitive spirit. In 1623, during a serious illness, when he thought he might not live, he wrote a confessional poem called A Hymne to God the Father. When you hear it, notice that he was making a play on words, using his own name – Donne, spelled d-o-n-n-e, sounds the same as the verb done, d-o-n-e. So listen to John Donne, worrying about significance and confessing his failure:
Wilt thou forgive that sinne where I begunne,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sinne; through which I runne,
And do run still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For, I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I have wonne
Others to sinne? And, made my sinne their doore?
Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I did shunne
A yeare, or two: but wallowed in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sinne of feare, that when I have spunne
My last thred, I shall perish on the shore;
But sweare by thy selfe, that at my death thy sonne
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I feare no more.
Do you hear in that confessional poem the heart cry of a man who has stopped to evaluate his life, a man painfully aware of his failures? Do you hear in that prayer poem the hope that his will be significant? “I .. fear that when I have spun my last thread, I shall perish on the shore” and that will be that. But do you also hear – Oh, if you do not hear this, then you will miss everything – do you also hear John Donne’s hope of redemption, his faith in the love of Christ? Ultimately, our lives are in the hands of God. In the final analysis, what we have done is for Him to use as He will. But as for now, right here, right now, if we are honest, we know, like the Reverend Donne, that we need to confess and be forgiven.
That’s not easy. That’s not simple. It is not merely a matter of tossing off on God a few glib “I’m sorries”. Confession must go deep. Confession must be far-reaching. John Donne said to God about forgiving his sin, “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.” Who cannot identify with that? “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.”