Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Preparing a table in the midst of our enemies . . . On the life and witness of Ruth!

     I must confess sermon-crafting in situations like this can be incredibly paradoxical.  On the one hand, I did not know the Ruth that all of you all did.  When I arrived at Advent a couple years ago, Ruth was already not herself.  In fact, she was so ravaged by her memory loss that caregivers in her facility told me on my first visit not to expect her to be able to receive Communion.  Swallowing was already a difficult challenge for her, as it often is for men and women in her condition.  So, me trying to figure out Ruth’s testimony to you all, her friends and family and partners in crime, is really tough.  I have no first hand stories from her upon which I can draw.
     On the other hand, as Ruth had been stripped of all the façade of what we call life, I did get a view into her core being that parishioners often try to hide from clergy and each other.  And Ruth’s was amazing, at least from the perspective of an outsider.  Keep in mind, I had not yet met Susan and heard any stories.  The caregivers were very insistent about how hard it was for Ruth to eat and drink and for me to keep my expectations low.  Yet every single time I or Holly brought her Communion, Ruth’s face lit up and she consumed the Sacrament.  There was no hesitation, no gagging or choking, just grateful that her hunger and thirst were being met by the Lord.
     And make no mistake, Ruth was not happy to see me.  Quit laughing, I did not mean it like that.  We had no prior relationship.  It was not as if Ruth was excited to see this green-shirted or white-shirted or red-shirted clergy show up like a long lost friend.  I did not look like Tom or Rick or anyone else who had ministered to her over the years.  She was just happy to be receiving the body and blood of our Lord.  That was her focus.
     That was her focus on all my visits save the last.  My last visit was on Maundy Thursday last month.  That was the first day that she could not receive the Sacrament since I had been here.  She was disappointed in her eyes.  I saw it, and so did Susan.  I offered to lay hands for prayer and to anoint her with the new oil the bishop had blessed that morning and pray for her.  As the fragrance of that oil wafted over her, Ruth visibly relaxed and sunk back into her pillow.  Having seen that hunger and thirst for a couple years, I’ve no doubt that Ruth has received the healing for which she longed and for which I prayed that afternoon last month.
     That is, of course, great for her, but funerals and funeral sermons are more for the living.  We gather as a group of people touched by the life and witness of this lady we call Ruth wondering where God is and was in the midst of all this.  How can God redeem a death that seems so cruel?  Many of us worry about dementia and Alzheimer’s and other diseases which cause us to lose our minds.  Many of us will mouth the words, “If I can just keep my mind when I get older, it will be ok.”  We might grudgingly accept a need for assisted living.  We might even grumble as we are forced to depend upon a cane or walker to help us balance.  We might even choke down an unholy and bitter cocktail of drugs to help our hearts, our blood, or whatever ailments we have.  Heck, we might even think we have the courage to withhold prolonging treatment in the face of a terminal disease or condition.  Ah, but to lose one’s mind, THAT is a fate worse than death.
     And if we fear that so much, it makes sense that such a condition would be better visited upon those other than God’s people, right?  I mean, what good is it to serve God, to worship God, to love one’s neighbors as oneself—as by all accounts Ruth seems to have done in the stories many of you have shared with me—if He won’t honor His end of the bargain?  Where was He when Ruth started to lose her mind?  Where was He when Ruth lingered and lingered?  Where was He when the Ruth we knew left and was replaced by this shell of what we knew?  In rage, we might demand of God where His justice was in how she lived the last years of her life.
     Where is He for the family?  Susan and Edgar will have a really tough time over the next few months as these issues are raised in conversations that are meant to be comforting.  Some of us will make the horrible mistake of telling them that this, the death of their mother, is for the best.  As outsiders we may look on their emotional, physical, and financial investment in the care of their mother and think that a burden has been lifted.  Susan and Edgar will feel only the pain of having lost the lady who raised them, who nursed them, who taught them, who mothered them.  And our heartless words of “comfort” will serve only to make us feel better that we do not have the answers.  Yes, Ruth is in a better place.  Yes, Ruth is joining the choir of angels and archangels and singing in glorious harmony the praises of the Lord.  But we are not.  We are left searching, seeking, struggling.  That is where Ruth’s witness to you and to me is most profound.
     As Adventers have shared their favorite stories of Ruth, one common thread was the table cloth.  Adventers, some jokingly and some not so jokingly, spoke of that table cloth for dinner as the acknowledgement that they were finally Adventers.  It was a great thing to be invited to Ruth’s house for dinner and be asked to sign the table cloth.  Ruth’s practice, for those of you who never made it to dinner, was to embroider the signature of all those who shared a meal with her in her house.  As I was laughing about this practice, well more the responses to the practice, with Susan yesterday, her lightbulb went off.  Susan had the table cloth and planned to bring it today.  Most of you saw it over in the parish hall this morning.  A lot of you went looking for your own signature.  As people found their names, they shared stories about the meal.  A few remarked on the color of the embroidery thread Ruth had chosen for them.  And some people panicked.  Where’s my name?  Did she wash me out?  I know I signed it! 
     I suppose I should take this moment as you are all chuckling, nudging , and murmuring to remind you that, if a stupid human priest can notice all these details about you, imagine the details that God can see in your or my life!
     Watching and listening, of course, drew me right in to Psalm 23 this morning.  I often think it is a foolish preacher who bothers to preach on that well known psalm because it is so well known.  But, I am sometimes cognizant that we are too familiar with things and thereby miss them.  Psalm 23 might just fall into that category. 
     One of the great myths about our faith is that when we convert, when we “get Jesus,” all our problems will be saved.  I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I wonder how many people chose to be baptized thinking they’d never have another money problem, they’d never have a health issue, they’d never have a relationship issue, that they’d be taken care of by God.  That’s a failure on the part of clergy leadership.  We should be telling people it gets harder.  The Enemy of God is not happy when we choose the Lord, so the pressure points often get more acute to drive us from the faith.  If we discover that our problems do not go away, maybe we will think God does not really love us or that His covenant does not apply to us.  And we will turn away.
     Certainly the psalmist recognized this issue or temptation.  Does the psalmist understand that God will take away all his or her problems?  Of course not!  The table is spread before the enemies.  They are not destroyed.  They are not removed.  The enemies are still there, surrounding the psalmist.  Yet the psalmist understands that God will provide abundantly in the midst of his enemies.  We think of pastoral enemies because of the setting of the psalm, The Lord is my shepherd.  Because we are familiar with the psalm and the setting, we think in terms of wolves or lions or brambles or grassless pastures, but the psalm was intended by God to be so much deeper for us.
     Even in modern Nashville, where sheep have not been seen outside the zoo since pretty much ever, God was shepherding Ruth.  Like us, she experienced the normal vicissitudes of life.  Susan and Edgar might be a perfect son and daughter now, but I bet Ruth could share some stories that would disabuse us of our silly notions.  By all accounts, she and Edgar had a wonderful life together, but I bet she could share with us that there were marital difficulties at various times.  Perhaps we perceived her as having all her material needs met, but I am sure she could tell about the hard times in her life, too.  None of us would dare make the claim, “At least she had her health.”  Nobody, but especially no disciple of Jesus, goes through life untouched.
     But she recognized where her protection, her abundant life came from.  Not a person outside my church has failed to mention how Ruth’s dinners were meant to be an escape of sorts, that for the few hours you were wined and dined at her table you could forget your cares and enjoy the feast and the friendship.  Where do you think she learned to model that behavior, my friends?  Right here in this psalm!  She loved you, her neighbors and her friends, as she did herself.  She wanted each of you to experience, however insignificantly she could provide, the Peace and abundance offered by her Lord.  She wanted you, her friends and family, pointed in His direction, because, in the end, He is the true shepherd.
     Those of you perhaps wrestling with her testimony and the claims of the Christian faith might well point out her end of life as justification for your doubts or fears or disappointment.  I would not leave you without a couple thoughts to consider in light of the life of Ruth.  We serve a God who specializes in redemption and resurrection.  For reasons known only to Him on this side of the grave, He often chooses to work through suffering.  The ultimate example of that suffering was, of course, modeled for us by Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, and His call to us is to pick up our cross and follow Him.  Crosses are not easy things to bear.  There is not much glory in this world to be found in following God.  Sure, from time to time, a bright light (we call them saints) will shine for a brief moment, but the world is often determined to snuff out the memory of those lights.  By all accounts, Ruth lived a life that glorified her Lord.  For most of you in attendance, she was that kind of light we call a saint.  Many of you have spoken how she loved you like a sister, a daughter, or a son.  All of you who have shared that with me have pointed out how Ruth wanted you in her inner circle of love, that being a cousin or a co-worker or a friend was just a little too distant for her.  And each of you has remarked how you have missed that Ruth these last years.
     She simply loved you as best she could in light of her certain knowledge that God loved you even more.
     How do we know?  As I mentioned in the beginning, let’s consider the end of her life.  In no way would any of us choose to suffer what she suffered.  In absolutely no sense of the word would we ever expect that any good could come from such evil.  The veneer that we all put up in front of one another was stripped bare from Ruth.  What’s worse, there was a time when she knew it was being removed.  How did she respond?  At her core, still she hungered and thirsted for her Lord.  And those of you who saw it, or have seen it, know what I mean.  There was no “appearances” in Ruth at the end of her life.  She did not pretend to be pious.  This was who she was.  God was whom she desired in spite of her sufferings and her losses.  And as we recall that this day, God is again glorified in suffering.
     Make no mistake, God did not want her to be a widow or to suffer the loss of her memory as a lesson to us.  Just as we read a couple weeks before Easter at the tomb of Lazarus, our Lord weeps with you, her family and loved ones.  This was not the life He desired for Ruth when He created the heavens and the earth.  But He still has the power to redeem all things, even those of us who have entered the shadows of the valley of death.  Even as He weeps with us at this tragedy, He has power and authority to call her out!  To bring her to Him for all eternity!  And that is the promise which comforted Ruth.
     That, brothers and sisters is what makes Ruth’s testimony a Gospel lesson for us all.  If this was the end of her story, it would still be tragic.  She has died.  But in this season we call Easter it is appropriate that we remember the promise upon which she staked her entire life—that He would redeem her from all things, even her own death!  That, my friends was the promise upon which her hope rested.  That, my friends, was the promise that compelled her to love you each as she did.  That, my friends, was the promise that caused her to set that table for you and point you in the direction of her Lord who sets an even better feast!  A feast whose foods make Ruth’s look bland!  A feast whose wine makes Ruth’s taste like Boone’s Farm!  A feast to whom the invited never need worry whether their name can be found, for it has been cleansed and sealed in the Body and Blood of our Savior, Ruth’s Savior, Jesus Christ!

In Christ’s Peace,


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