Monday, December 5, 2011

He comes and He gathers . . .

     I so enjoy those weeks when the sermon is done by Tuesday. One reason, of course, is that it does not happen very often. The second reason, though, is that it is usually very obvious and I feel a bit of excitement about sharing it. This week was one of those weeks in spades. I so wanted it to be Sunday by Wednesday that I thought I would not make it until today! It sounds weird, I know, coming from me. But wait until you hear it. If I do my job well, you will share the excitement too! That’s not to say that I had no difficulties this week. I felt rushed all week, as a result of a number of these conversations. Plus, while I have the stories, I lacked the big unifying theme until Pauline asked me a question this morning.

     Why do the members of AA keep coming in earlier and earlier when we meet? To put it in context for those of you who do not join us on Thursday mornings, we meet in the Parish Hall from 10:45am to about 11:45am. We do book studies and Bible studies, depending upon the desire of those present. It is a question we have all wondered at from time to time. Our scheduled time used to run until noon, but we found it easier to stop a few minutes early so they could get settled in time.  Admittedly, some of those present for their meeting will have loud conversations. But, when we look closer, we often notice other people straining to listen to our conversations while wanting to keep their distance. I have chalked this response up to the ladies of Thursday morning. They are a fabulous group of ladies, excepting Joshua and me. What makes the time so valuable is their willingness to share both the good and the bad. Youngsters would say that these matriarchs are “keeping it real,” the “it” being their faith journey. Those present will talk about their peaks and valleys and how God was at each, carrying them, cajoling them, or even encouraging them to come back down the mountain. How do I know this? Sometimes, those straining end up spending the most time with me that week. This was one of those weeks.

What made it interesting to me, however, was the subtext in many of the conversations. What’s the big deal about Advent? Why do you guys get all decked out in purple and black? And, do you think He knows my hurt, my pain? Those questions have been similar to your own. What is a holy Advent? Why is it such a big deal? Our conversations, and our reading from Isaiah, remind us of Advent’s importance and our needs.

     Chapter 40 of Isaiah reminds us of a dilemma that we all face in our lives. Just as with his contemporary Israelites, who wondered in the face of the Babylonian Exile whether God had been defeated and whether they could ever be restored to their ancestors’ relationship with Yahweh, you and I sometimes face the same questions. Sometimes they are our own: Does He really love me? Why doesn’t He ever answer my prayer? Why won’t He changed me? Why won’t He listen to me? Sometimes, those questions come from those in our midst: why do you follow Him? Do you really believe? If He is good, why did this happen? There are tons more questions that can be asked, but you get the idea. Thankfully and mercifully, God has given us the answers to those questions in a beautiful way in chapter 40. Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. How?, we ask. See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep is His answer and our proclamation.

     Sometimes, as Christians, I think we get too caught up in the cross and the empty tomb. It might surprise you to hear those words coming from my lips, but I do think it is true. Often as Christians, when we are confronted by people or by life’s events with those big questions, our default answer is “Jesus saves,” or "Give it over to God," or something along those lines. To fellow Christians, such a statement might make sense. But what of the non-Christians in our lives? Do they have any understanding about the power of those words? Do we even understand what we are saying when we parrot them? Part of the hope and promise of the Gospel, brothers and sisters, is that our Lord comes and and that our Lord gathers. Our God is so powerful that He can accomplish whatever He wills. If He wants the river or ocean to part, it parts. If He determines to execute judgment on His enemies, they cannot escape Him, His power, or His judgment. Even death must yield in the presence of His power; His rule is that absolute. But, despite all that power and all that authority, He gathers. Like a shepherd looking for his lost sheep and fragile lambs, He gathers His own to Him and protects them. Part of our cry ought to be that He comes in power to break power of evil and death with His strong arm, but part of our cry must contain the idea that this power is exercised while He is, at the same time, gathering all those broken by the world and its powers into His loving arms. Can you imagine a more comforting message? Yet how little do we speak in such words.

     I was reminded of His coming this week in several excited phone calls and visits. Too often, only our Intercessors hear of the results of their labors, but this was one of those weeks when the stones would cry out even if I did not. It began with Pete. Doctors were arguing in the hospital ICU over whether they should operate. The pledge to “first, do no harm” was in play. Something was terribly wrong with his body. He had lost pints of blood. They suspected his tumor had simply grown and was causing his body to finally break down. Surgery, they thought, might get him a few weeks at best. Was the pain of recovery worth the weeks? During my last visit, he simply asked for me to pray for healing. I anointed him with oil and prayed to God that He bring true healing to Pete. Truthfully, I thought such healing would result only when Pete was carried to our Father’s arms. But God had other ideas. Pete went to Iowa City and had surgery. Iowa City was one of the few places that could balance all his needs and the difficulty of his case. Genesis could not. Pete went through the procedures and now is at home expecting to celebrate at least one last Christmas with his family—something not believed possible by doctors as close as three weeks ago!  And Pete and his family have a chance to make a good ending, a chance to be reconciled for hurts and sins, this Christmas season. He comes with power!

     Following quickly on that call from Tanya, his niece, I got another excited call from Sue. Allison had been pronounced in full remission by her doctors! You might recognize her name. We pray for her each Healing Sunday by name. You may not know her story. Allison is a three year-old girl. She had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer by her doctors. It was a diagnosis confirmed by other hospitals and doctors. Her time was expected to be measured in a couple months, rather than in a long life. Her family went in search of prayer warriors. Amazingly, through a couple different connections, they discovered ours! Within hours, three Intercessors had contacted me about getting the word out to the rest of the Prayer Chain that Allison and her family needed prayers, desperately. Talk about answered prayers!  A little girl goes from full blown stage 4 cancer to remission in the time she was expected to die!  He comes with power!

     The last one I will share, many of you know. I had to share it on Facebook. Larry, not our Larry, but rather a gentleman from Houston, showed up in my office. He asked if I remembered him. Weirdly, I remembered he had a great story and I remembered he was from Houston. I mention his story because it was one of those stories I had to reward for creativity, if not true need. Listening to him a couple years ago, I decided either it was true or he was the absolute best storyteller I had heard in many years. I bought him so gasoline and some insulin. He was on the prayer list for a time, until I gave up that he was never going to tell us what happened to him. He beamed when I remembered his story and his hometown—he was not the least disappointed that I had forgotten his name. He said he had a couple favors to ask. He tossed on my desk more than double what I originally gave him. I swore to God that day if He provided for me in my need, I would pay in back multiple times. He did through you. I thought to myself this week, as I prepare to finish medical school, who better to give it to serve Him? I reminded him that I don’t expect ever to be paid back. Discretionary funds are reminders of God’s grace, we serve because He first served us. Larry said he understood but that I needed to understand that he had sworn an oath to God, and such oaths always had to be kept in light of answered prayers. I asked if he wouldn’t rather wait until he had graduated (kicking myself with the words get behind me Satan ringing in my ears over what I had just asked). Gracefully he answered that he could see the light at the end of his long, dark tunnel, and it was beautiful to behold. Whether he gave up something over Christmas did not matter much to him now. But that money he gave me might well get another desperate soul in sight of their own tunnel’s end. I accepted the money and asked about the other favor. He wanted prayer for provision for a good landlord and place to live. He had decided to settle here in the QCA and wanted a place to live, a good place. He figured, given how powerfully God answered prayers here, he could save a lot of running around by having us pray that he find a landlord. We prayed. He gave me his number with instructions to call if the landlord showed up here. He promised to call if the landlord showed up in his life—we can never be sure how He will fulfill a promise like this, you know. He might go through you. He might cut out the middleman and just have the landlord "bump into me" out there. Whichever way, it does not matter. He’ll provide. He always does! I still wonder who's jaw was closer to the floor, mine or Vern's, as he whistled on his way out of the office.  He comes with power!

     But he also comes as a shepherd to gather up the broken. Though He can accomplish amazing things in the world, He cares for those forgotten and abandoned in the world. I was reminded of that, too, this week. One of my visitors included a lady who had fallen away from the church for a time. Her story might be familiar to you. She was married to someone who was abusive. Her faith had dictated for many years that she put up with it. So she did. Trying to be a religious lady caused her to raise a daughter in an abusive home. It should come as no small surprise to us that her daughter, upon reaching the age of maturity, fled the church and fled God. What kind of sick God expects a woman to take a beating? This lady that I mention has travelled quite a distance. As you might imagine, she, too, had no use for such a God. She had been quite content not to serve Him or worship Him in her life. But “events” conspired to draw her back into His loving arms. She eavesdropped of Jane, and Jan, and Karen, and Maralyn and the rest of us on Thursday mornings. Our discussions, she later told me, were real. Some of our ladies had the same problems, the same thoughts, the same hurts and pains as she did. Through it all, though, they had seen God’s deliverance. Listening to them for a few months prompted her to return to church. Her return was one of those perfect “God-incidences” about which we talk. She happened in on a sermon where the clergy apologized for the mistakes of those who had come before, of himself, and of those who will come after. She realized, listening to his words, that God was speaking directly to her hurt and her pain. Yes, humans had failed her. He was sorry. He would never fail her.

     Her story would be beautiful, if it ended there. A prodigal daughter returns home! But another part of her is broken. She is a mom. She is a mom who realizes the damage she has wrought in her daughter, a damage that could have eternal consequences if she does not “fix it.” She jokes from time to time that she loves strolling into my office and asking all these really hard questions. All those questions, of course, come from her daughter. You see, her daughter claims to embrace atheism. She fires questions left and right at her mother trying to dissuade her of her faith in God. Mom, not being a trained theologian, admittedly struggles with some. Those are the ones she brings to me. As her story has unfolded before me over the past year or so, I like to think we have caused the daughter to think, to reconsider her relationship with God. Certainly He knows how important that relationship is to the mother, the mother who blames herself for her daughter’s rejection of our Father in heaven. Truthfully, she is wracked by guilt over this far more than over her divorce. Through it all, though, our job has been to remind her of her daughter’s questions and her own circumstances. Prior to the last year, it had been ages since she stepped inside a church to talk with a clergy, rightfully so! Yet day after day and week after week, we chat. And when the daughter has a hard question, we struggle together. And it has become my job, as an extension of your ministry here in Davenport, to remind her of God’s work even in such a singular circumstance. If the daughter is such an atheist, why all these questions? (Truthfully, mom gets excited by the questions now because she recognizes that the daughter may only be prodigal) Better still, how can she explain the fact that she knew a clergy, who was willing to struggle with tough questions, given her life circumstance, save the gentle gathering and direction of her Father? He will gather the lambs in His arms.

     Another story comes from one of our local care facilities. I had gone to visit a parishioner with my trusty box. I know with some of you I do not have to, but I bring the box as much as an announcement to the rest of the facilities that God is present as much as anything. He is, after all, the great physician! Missing a parishioner and leaving, I was grabbed by someone I did not know. Understand, some people like their clergy to be anonymous. If they don’t know me and I don’t know them they do not have to fear me being judgmental. He asked if I would hear his confession and absolve him. Things were not going well, and there was a decent chance he would die. It had been quite a while since I had heard the word shriven. So I entered and began to talk with him. He confessed his sins; I granted absolution. As we were wrapping up and I was preparing to leave, the family came in. Why was I there? What was I doing? Who did I think I was? And if I managed to get a word in edgewise, two or three more questions were thrown at me. I note that I have the pastoral skills of a slug oftentimes, but it was clear even to me that there was a fight happening in that room that was essential to that family. When they demanded that I leave never to return, I turned to ask if he had any other needs. One of the boys began to yell at me for not hopping to it. Now, I must confess my hackles were more than raised. I had not gone to see the man—he had asked me to come in. I certainly had not been rude to him or them—the same could not be said of them. Just as the words for the stinging retort formed on my lips, the patriarch spoke.

     “Father, I have one more sin I need to confess. I should have done it while we were alone, but maybe it is best that they hear it, too.” The room exploded in a cacophony of protestations about not needing absolution, about not needing a priest, about not needing God. “I repent before God, this priest, and you all that I have failed as your father, uncle, and husband. My chief job should have been to raise you to love and trust God. Instead, I let football, golf games, hangovers, and whatever else was happening in my life take precedence. I have failed you and I have failed God. Now, as you all face the possibility of my death I see the fear in your eyes and the panic in your voice. I have so failed each one of you. Father, do you think He can ever forgive me for that?” The cacophony of voices changed to a bunch of protests about his failure. I reminded dad that He had died for all our sins, all of them. He asked what he could do to atone. I told him absolutely nothing. Such a failure required the cross and His mercy. But, I suggested a prayer that maybe in their remaining time together he would fulfill his role. Dad agreed. Dad agreed so much that when the protests began, this man who, less than a half hour earlier had told me of his uncertain prognosis, roared and demanded silence. “We will pray, Father, all of us.” I have to confess it was a longish prayer. I prayed for healing for all in the room. I prayed that their time together would be spent in the glory of God. And I prayed that everyone in that room would experience that peace that passes all understanding. Though my eyes were closed as I prayed, I am not naïve enough to think that everyone enjoyed it. I am also a sinner enough that I laughed this week as I checked on dad. He had been sent home. The nurses were laughing at dad’s newfound strength. It had been a difficult family when he was on death’s door, as families often are, but something had changed in all of them. I chuckled as I left the facility. A dad got to repent of a terrible sin. Now he had been sent home to celebrate a priceless gift—the opportunity to try and live into the life expected of him even at this late stage—a gift worthy of our Lord’s coming! He will gather the lambs in His arms.

     I know I am running long. You all have sales to get to or games to watch, but I heard this tale twice this week, such is its importance. I think He told me it twice, with different specifics, because I know many of you understand the pain of which I will be speaking. I’ll probably conflate the details, but that is ok; if you ever hear the tale firsthand from one of them, you will be enraptured by the differences. Why are all these churches celebrating Advent, Father? His question was unexpected. We had talked at least once a week for several months, but never of weighty matters. Our relationship had been one of polite conversation, until now.  When I pointed out that liturgical churches all follow the same season, he pointed out the number of other churches that were following Advent as well. I joked about those churches being led back into the fold and using the season to remind themselves that He has come and that He will come again. But it’s just lip-service. I wanted remind him to be careful of judging others, but the word’s that came out of my mouth were more along the lines of “what do you mean?” Advent is supposed to be a season of expectant waiting. It is a season when we are called to remind ourselves that we are to live our lives as if He might return any second, repent where we fall short and sin, and recommit to do what He commands. So far, so good. I wondered what made him so convinced they weren’t waiting in expectation? He gave his reasons. Truthfully, I still questioned whether he was being judgmental, so I asked what made him an expert in expectant waiting. Twice I heard an answer similar this week.

     He explained that his wife had left him. He was divorced. What had gotten him to this point was the result of that divorce. When his wife left him, suddenly from his perspective, he had given up on life (one had been suicidal, the other not). He quit eating. He started drinking. Bathing was an option, one that, as he reflected upon this period of his life, he chose not to exercise much at all. He lost a lot of weight, maybe as much as 60lbs in one case. By the way, it is not a diet that he commends to anyone.  Alcohol came to figure prominently in his life. In both cases, the family selected a brother to do the intervention. I’ll not bore you with the details but, the brother managed to convince him he was an alcoholic. After some time, the brother said he would be back in an hour to get him to take him to Genesis or Iowa City, whichever he preferred. When I asked him what had convinced him to seek help, he said it was his reflection. He did not recognize the person in the reflection of the china cabinet. All I can say, Father, is that I was not myself.

     Anyway, he turned the shower on super hot and began chopping at his beard with scissors. His wife had never tolerated whiskers, so the beard was new to him. In the shower he scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. He shaved and shampooed. I tried to get the funk of whatever I had become off me, know what I mean? Once his skin was bright red, he got out and dried off. He went to the closet to get his suit. I’m not one of those people who has lots of suits. I own one suit and wear it to funerals and weddings. I work for a living, know what I mean? He distinguishes the suit by changing ties. I went back and forth over which tie. Then he gathered his things in an overnight bag, exited the house, locked up, and waited for the ride. You know, Father, as I stood there waiting for my brother, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I was kinda glad I had not eaten cause I might have messed my pants. Would this work? What was wrong with me? How could this happen to me? I wanted desperately to run back into the house, grab a drink, and hide. But I kept seeing my face in the mirror in my head. Who was that imposter? What had happened to the real me?

     Sadly, this is where the two stories diverged. In one case, the brother showed up and whisked his soon to be divorced brother off to detox. In the other case, the brother failed to show. You can well imagine the stories from there. In one case, a brother rescued a brother, got him to a place to find help, and loved his brother in thought and deed. In the other case, the brother’s own battles with drugs and alcohol got the better of him. He stood on the curb waiting for the help that never came. Both of them, however, understood Advent very similarly. He will gather the lambs in His arms. Each man realized that he needed something. What both needed was the love of God. In the case where the brother served him, he came to realize in treatment that the funk he so desperately was trying to scrub could never be erased by his own efforts. He needed God to fill him again and make him whole. As for the man whose brother failed him, he came to realize that expectant waiting that involves hope, must be focused on God. Two similar stories. Different twists near the rescue. Same wonderful ending! Both were found and know themselves to be loved by God. Advent for them is not a season. It is a way of life! He will gather the lambs in His arms.

Brothers and sisters, you and I are called to be heralds of His coming kingdom. We are called to a priesthood of reconciliation. It is our job, empowered by His grace, to lead other back into right relationship with one another and with God. One of the best ways we accomplish that task is to share with those in our lives both of His power and of His tenderness. Each of us gathered today knows the big stories in the Bible. We can speak to the Exodus, we can talk of the Exile’s end, and we can certainly speak with authority of His Easter event. Just as importantly, though, we can share stories of His power at work in the world around and through us, whether it is curing cancer or providing daily needs. Yet, not to be lost in those so-called big events is the tenderness of a loving God, who knows us each by name, and who meets us where we are. He meets us at our darkest moments, at those moments when we know ourselves to be most unworthy, most covered in our funk, and tries gently to lead each one of us home with the rest of His sons and daughters. Brothers and sisters, each one of us has a role to plan in His plan of eternal salvation. Advent is that time of the church year when we remind ourselves of His power to save and how He acted to save each one of us. Those are love stories which can reach the world, reach the world for His glory and His honor and for the welfare of all whom we meet!

Christ’s Peace,

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