Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tales of redemption . . .

     As the e-mails, phone calls and personal visits increased last week, I realized that we perhaps do not pay close enough attention to how God uses our crosses to reach into the lives of those around us and spread His kingdom. I say we because it is a failure on both our parts. Sometimes, I err on the side of caution and do not share particular redemptions because I “know” that the parishioner will refuse permission anyway. At other times, however, people are sometimes slow to share their stories. Perhaps it is humility, perhaps it is fear that they might become a sermon illustration and don't like the attention, or perhaps they really believe that their particular crosses are irredeemable. Whatever the reasons, we tend to come up short when it comes to sharing redemptive stories about ourselves. And that is a terrible loss for this body gathered at St. Alban’s. What better encouragement can be found than in our own stories? Better still, as Jesus instructs us in this week’s readings and the psalmist reminds us (though we admittedly skipped a lot of it in our lectionary this week), God is always at work redeeming His people and their suffering.

     I spoke of Martha’s impact on the soldiers with whom I have spoken, but others among us had a hand in their care. Chief among those others was George. While we may think of him as a father of wonderful girls, a great brew master, or our Senior Warden, George has had another life, that of a career soldier. Among his contributions to the military has been his somewhat critical study and presentations of how troops are deployed and brought home versus how they were in past wars. Whether it was his own “civilian” experiences of waking in the morning in Davenport and finding himself some 30 hours or so later in a combat zone or just his discussions with soldier after soldier, George has been a champion of the need for more “debriefing time” for our soldiers. In wars past, soldiers would spend a week or two in transit together. While outsiders might view their time drinking or playing cards as wasteful, older veterans claimed that was the time they could talk about what each one was feeling or had experienced without judgment. Everyone present had experienced their own horrors. And that time together and the common experiences forged a brotherhood which allowed our soldiers to decompress before civilian life. It can be a challenge taking on the inertia of the military. It might not be good for his civilian career. Nevertheless, George has chosen to highlight the existing problem to improve the “resettlement” of our soldiers into society.  But, if the military continues to listen to such criticisms and acts upon them, think of the benefits!  Soldiers will be helped, military families will be helped, and co-workers will be helped.

     I mentioned Hannah’s words to me, but another parishioner’s words to me were just as comforting. Last Friday, a man called me at home in need of help. He was at the Flying J. To make a really long story short, he claimed to have been abandoned by a trucker. He was an Episcopalian from a church in North Dakota and needed help. Since it was the 19th, Discretionary Funds were spent (and, I explained to him, could have been spent many times over in August). But he was persistent. I reached out to some parishioners that I knew were usually good at prayerful discernment of need and, better still, possessive of the resources he needed. As I shared the story with one of our parishioners, she asked her usual questions. As I was complaining about not being able to meet his need so far and his response, her memory was jogged. “I think it’s a scam, Father. You may have forgotten, but this sounds like a guy from the Flying J when you had been here maybe a year. He called the bishop’s office. He chewed you out unfairly. They both have the same name and are from the same diocese. I think it’s a scam and we shouldn’t be giving him help. Besides, you have already talked to how many parishioners?” I answered. “We may not have a ton of resources, but we’re by no means miserly. That so many have been unable to help with this makes me think this is God’s way of helping us be good stewards. Quit answering your phone. It’s your day off. If he wants to yell at someone, he can call me.” I did not share her number with him the next time he called, but I did share her thoughts about our previous encounter. He hung up and did not call again.  The parishioner later apologized.  She agonized a couple days over what she had said to "the priest."  I" was taught that we were never supposed to speak to priests like that.  Besides, you are the one that is supposed to be able to discern these things best."  I, of course, told her there was no apology owed, but rather a thank you.  Her discernment and her willingness to speak with boldness has saved me some worry and the church some money -- the man never denied what she said.  Plus, whether she likes it or not, in our Lord's eyes, she is a priest in His eternal kingdom, too!

     One of my favorite stories is a reminder to many of you.  Toni the trucker has one of the most amazing stories of redemption.  Toni is one of those parents who has had the terrible experience of losing a child.  In Toni's case, his child was five at the time of his death.  Toni's testimony is out there for the world to see.  You see, Toni took his truck and made it a billboard for the redemption in his life.  After terrible mourning, after cursing God and all sorts of lashing out, Toni recalled God's promises.  As a memorial, he decided to have an angel and note of remembrance placed on his truck.  Those of us who have seen it when he delivers food for Angel Food know it stands out.  One of the gifts that Toni received from God through this terrible experience, though, was an eye to see those in need.  In days past, Toni admits he rarely saw disabled cars as anything but an obstacle to be avoided.  Now, however, he sees those cars, more importantly those people in the disabled cars, as people in need of help.  Nowadays, he stops.  What has truly amazed him has not been the needs:  out of gas, flat tire, broken belt, and etc. are very predictable.  No, what has surprised him has been the sheer number of people who have broken down in his path who have lost a child or baby.  They see his truck, they ask about its meaning, and they hear his testimony.  The last time we spoke with Toni, he had prayed with about three dozen cars for God to comfort them in their loss of a child.  As Toni has prayed to the Father who knows what it truly feels like to lose a Son, amazing windows into souls have been opened.  Toni now knows that his son's death, while still tragic and painful to Toni and his wife, has been used by God to reach into the suffering experienced by other parents bearing the same cross.  Better still, his son's death and Toni's willingness to share his hurt and pain and God's redemption have returned home several prodigal sons and daughters to their loving Father.

     So great is our God, brothers and sisters, that His redemptive acts in the world around us are not limited to just the "Christians."  Many of you know that a lady lost her life on Garfield tragically this summer.  Her boyfriend allegedly ran her over several times.  The shock and anger and other emotions have been evident in those who have come to speak to me.  Part of the redemption has been the neighborhood's increased awareness of domestic violence.  But, thankfully and mercifully, God does not think small.  When He acts, He often goes bigger than we can ever ask or imagine.  One of the victim's family is struggling with her death.  His anger towards the alleged perpetrator, to this neighborhood, to God, to local law enforcement, and to a host of others is palpable.  As he was railing at me this week about his certain knowledge that God does not act, if He exists, and that Christians were just like him--going about their lives ignoring the suffering around them, I asked him to turn around.  I won't ask people to raise their hands, but how many of us hate that never-gone-for-more-than-a-day pile out in the entrance hall?  We get rid of a load, and another appears almost immediately.  It's an eyesore to many of us.  Yet, as I shared with this gentleman, it is also a testimony to God's work in our lives.  Everything in those piles comes from people in our neighborhood.  Almost none is from us right now.  As I explained to the brother, those that have come to talk with me have determined never to assume there is no abuse in their neighborhood.  As an unwritten memorial to the neighbor whom they did not know, they bring items for Winnie's Place, that other women might have the courage to flee situations of domestic abuse and have some items to start their new life.  The brother's angered dissipated almost immediately.  He was incredulous that total strangers would give like that.  "Wow,  maybe they really did not know she was being abused."  Better still, skeptical as He was about whether God exists or acts in the world, he had to admit this was a wild coincidence.  "It gives me something to think about, that's for sure."  It gives me something, too.  A greater sense of awe and wonder of our God.  He takes our faithful service with food, nonmember's and in many cases non-Christian's increasing awareness of a social ill in their midst, the tragic death of a daughter who was created in His image, and reaches into a suffering brother's life and the lives of other women and children who have been largely forgotten or ignored by society.

     Brothers and sisters, how many among us have suffered addictions? How many have suffered divorce? How many have suffered need? How many have suffered disease? How many of us have experienced untimely deaths of loved ones? I could go on and on about potential crosses in the lives of those of us gathered here.  Each of us have crosses; some gathered here have more than one. No doubt they have all been painful and, perhaps, shaming. How many of us, however, have been left to wallow in our grief? How many of us have been left to live with the shame of our failures? Not a one! More amazingly, how many of us have later encountered someone in the exact same condition which we were?  How many of us have had a chance to impart our insights and our hope to those in similar circumstances to those we once faced?  Each of us who gathers in this place and celebrates the Eucharist as a local body of Christ literally gives thanks for the redemption of our lives! True, chiefly we celebrate the salvation of our lives for all eternity. But we also celebrate how each week he uses our failures and our weaknesses to reach into the lives of those whom we encounter daily, how our God is so great that He can take men and women like us, and in our circumstances, and build a kingdom full of saints. To be sure, the crosses are heavy. To be sure, they are always painful and sometimes scary. To be sure, we would often like to put them down before He is finished using them and us. Yet when has He ever let you down? When has He ever been unable to overcome what is happening in your life? Why not think of sharing (or allowing me the privilege) of sharing your story of personal redemption with those of us here? Your story may well be the seed which blossoms into amazing kingdom fruit in the lives of us gathered here or serves as a beacon that calls the lost in the community surrounding us into the loving arms of our Father!



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