Monday, December 22, 2008

Barb's last sermon . . .

A number of parishioners asked me what I thought of Barb's passing. Why would God take her in the Christmas season? Don't you think it was better that she passed quickly and suddenly? What will her family do? How can this ever be redeemed? These are just a few of the questions that I heard. Some were easier to answer than others. But the question about redemptive death struck me the most. I heard that particular question most often. On the one hand, I could state "redemptive death -- that is a story that sounds strangely familiar," but I also knew what was meant. Many of us knew Barb and the issues she faced in her daily life and work. For many of her friends and families, there will be a tremendous void, a tremendous sense of loss at her passing. Yet I wonder . . .

During the course of the end of the "regular season" and the beginning of Advent, we have been looking closely at the reminder that Jesus' return will be swift and unexpected. We have heard the parables of the wise and foolish young ladies, we have heard His warning of being like a thief in the night, we have heard Him remind us that He will come suddenly like a bridegroom, we have read His stories about the coming judgment, and we have heard His warning to "be ready." Over the course of these readings, we have looked at the life to which He calls each of His disciples, and we have considered how He should find us when He returns. We should be clothing the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, remembering the forgotten. We should be serving those to whom Jesus ministered when He walked the earth in human form.

We have also talked any number of times that one's life is the best sermon that anyone will ever give. In many ways, Barb's life and death were a wonderful sermon. She visited the prostitutes, the imprisoned, the homeless, the forgotten veterans, the poor in our schools, the aged, the infirm, and any number of other groups looking for a way to serve them. I cannot begin to recount the number of people who came to visit me and began their conversation with "This crazy lady invited me . . ." or "This crazy little lady told me I should come here . . ." Immediately, I knew who had invited this person before me. They called her a crazy lady because she went to places no sane person would ever go! Prostitutes were shocked she came to their hotel, the homeless were shocked she came to the shelters, and the paroled were shocked she had been to the prison. Invariably, I would be asked "Why would she ever consider visiting or helping someone like me." But, her ministry was what first drew them to the love of God. Did any accept His offer of salvation because of her ministry? I cannot say. God only knows. I do know, however, when she met her Lord last week, He found her doing the ministry to which He called her. That Sunday, she had asked us to fill out cards to send to veterans recovering at Walter Reed hospital. Once again, Barb reminded us of those whom many of us had forgotten, many of whom wonder at this time of year whether their sacrifices cane be redeemed, whether anyone truly cares for the suffering they have born on our behalf.

Yet Barb's passing also served as a stark reminder of the coming judgement. Her passing suddenly was not unlike His future return. It was sudden and unexpected. Because of His delay, we are always tempted to think that we still have time. "i do not need to apologize to _____________ because I can do that the next time I see him or her." "I do not need to repent of _________________ and reconcile myself to the one harmed by my actions because I can do it another time." "There is always tomorrow to set things aright." "I do not need to worry about ministering to a co-worker or a family member because there will be time to do that next week, next month or next year. Barb's passing, as sudden as it was, reminds us that there is no guarantee that we have time. Every moment that we have, just as every possession, every loved one, everything we have, is a gift of God. Barb's sudden passing reminds us that we all need to examine whether we are good stewards of all that He has given us, including our time.

So often we Christians fall into a trap of thinking that there is no urgency to our mission, that we have all the time in the world. Yet Barb's passing reminds us of the fallacy of such belief. Those who saw her on Sunday saw Barb in good health. She had no outward sign of that vessel that was about to burst. To all outward appearances, she was in excellent health, particularly for one 68 years-old! She was even ministering, praying and worshipping just like always. And just like that, she was gone. Now, we as Christians can take hope in the promises of God. We know that He can redeem all things, even death. And we can make our alleluia at her grave, though we will mourn her passing. But even her death can serve as that last sermon to us. If He returns now, how will He find us? Are we prepared to meet Him this moment? Have we repented where necessary? Have we reconciled with those whom we sinned against and those who sinned against us? Have we done what He has asked of us? If our answers to these questions and others is no, then for what are we waiting?

Advent is that season of the year which causes us to look with amazed joy at His first coming and with joyful expectation at His next. In many ways, Barb's death is a reminder of that season. Her life reminds us of the calling we all have as His faithful disciples, and her death reminds us of the urgency to which we are all called to act on behalf of His ministry. Will we make excuses for why we do not want to accept His calling, or will we embrace the callings He gives us as His faithful laborers and stewards?

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