One of the great joys of this job is that I get to meet a lot of fascinating people. People who over their lifetimes have truly become the saints of God on Earth. One such person was Ken Hogan. I met Ken soon after I arrived at St Luke’s in the fall of 2003. At the time, Ken was part of one of the two large families that made up the congregation.
What made Ken fascinating and inspirational is how he chose to live his life. As a youth, Ken was a skilled athlete who at nineteen entered the military and married the love of his life. Three weeks after his wedding, Ken was involved in a freak accident while riding a friends motorcycle home. The accident left him paralyzed from the waste down.
Ken was always open about the years which followed the accident, the depression, the drinking and the drugs. All of which would have continued if he and his wife had not conceived their first child ten years after the accident. This is when his wife gave him the ultimatum to either shape up or ship out, she was willing to take care of one child not two.
The prospect of fatherhood was the incentive Ken needed to turn his life around. For therapy Ken went back to sports. He involved with wheel chair basketball teams in Central New York with other injured veterans. He returned to swimming. In time he competed internationally in para-olympic events.
Ken’s recovery didn’t end here. Ken came to realize he could help other disabled veterans. A brilliant individual, Ken became a lobbyist for accessibility for veterans with disabilities, he worked for the advocacy office, and ultimately counseled others recovering from spinal cord injuries.
Throughout Ken’s recovery, set backs and every day of his life, Ken lived with one simple mantra, “focus on what you can do, not on what you cannot do.”
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells the crowd, “do not be afraid.” This line is repeated several times in Luke’s Gospel. The Angel Gabriel, when speaking to Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds opens with “Do not be afraid,” or “fear not,” for they come bearing good news from God. Jesus also bears good news today. The Kingdom of Heaven is ours.
When Jesus originally proclaimed the Kingdom of Heaven was near, there was a lot to be afraid of. As I have discussed so many times before, living within Roman captivity was not an easy life for those who were not Roman citizens. Taxes were high, life in general was controlled by the whim of the emperor and viceroys. Centurions were known for their brutal abuse of power. And it did not take much to qualify for crucifixion. Even as Luke writes his Gospel, he is writing to a church under siege. The mere act of being a Christian was grounds for death in the Coliseum.
For those who followed Christ, there was a lot to be concerned about. That is, if one chose to focus on the here and now. However, if one choses to focus on the Kingdom instead, there was nothing to fear. Christ tells the people the Kingdom is theirs. Freely given to us by the Father. And this he tells us, cannot be taken away.
St. Paul, understood this. As he awaits execution, he writes to Timothy with no fear of death, no resignation, just hope.
the following words, “6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2Timothy 4:6-8)
Without the fear of death there is nothing to fear. This is what Christ taught and what St. Paul came to live. All that we have on earth, our bank accounts,our homes even our mortal bodies are temporary, fleeting in the presence of God. They are as Jesus taught, all susceptible to thief and moth.
In Advent, the Prophet Isaiah reminds the world of this reality with these words,
“the grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever. (40:7-8)
There is one and only one reality that is permanent and eternal, life with God within the context of the Kingdom of God. It is to this reality, the Kingdom, that we are to remain alert and aware of.
So often I have been told to live as if the Kingdom is already here for as Jesus told his disciples, “the Kingdom is at hand.” As I mentioned earlier my friend Ken learned not to focus on his paralysis but to focus on everything else he could do. Being alert for the Kingdom is living the same basic principle with which Ken lived his life. Instead of looking for all the signs of how the world is going to hell in a handbag, Jesus calls us to look for the signs of the kingdom around us. These signs are all around and visible if we are willing to look and accept. . .if we are willing to place our trust in the Kingdom and not in our bank accounts, if we are willing to accept no matter how difficult life can be in the moment, there is always greater life before us.
Several weeks after I was ordained, I received a letter from a colleague with whom I worked with at DCF. Several weeks after her mother’s funeral she shared with me the story of her mother’s last hours on earth. How her mother amazed the nurses as to how peacefully she was slowly transitioning from this life to the next. She mentioned how one nurse exclaimed that she was amazed at how little medication she required. Most patients she said would require morphine every hour of so at this point in their progress. Her mother required none. While the nurse may not have understood, Olivia did. Her mother lived a life in the Lord and died in the Lord. She became unconcerned with what was happening to her earthly body as she calmly and peacefully departed with hope and confidence into eternal life.
So fear not, for the Kingdom is ours and nothing, not even death itself can change that. Amen