Rather than the recent church tradition of celebrating the Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, on the last Sunday of the church year, we at Holy Cross celebrate our complex relationship with Jesus the Christ. readings include the parables of the lost from Luke 15:1-32.
Listen to the sermon here
A number of years ago, I’d only been doing this job for a couple of years, immediately after a worship service, I went over to the hospital to visit one of you. I was all decked out in my Sunday best, so I very much looked the part of a pastor. Even though, I still felt more than a little like an impostor. I’ve been at this for over sixteen years now and sometimes I still feel like I have so much to learn before I’ll feel like a real pastor. But it was Sunday and even though the collar around my neck often felt like it might choke the life out of me, it proclaimed to everyone at the hospital that I was there in my professional capacity. I enjoyed a very pleasant visit with one of the seasoned members of this congregation who went out of their way to ensure that we both enjoyed the visit.
As I was leaving the floor a woman beckoned me over to the visitors’ lounge, “Could I please help her.” I sat down beside her and listened to her tale. When you’re wearing a clergy collar people presume all sorts of things about who you are. This distraught young woman presumed that I was a competent professional who could accomplish what she could not. She told me that her father from whom she’d been estranged for many years was dying and needed a priest. They’d called both the Roman Catholic churches in town and none of the priests would be available for a few hours. She was afraid that that might be too late for her father and wondered if I was willing to administer the last rites.
I hesitated. The young woman presumed my hesitation was because I was obviously not a Roman Catholic priest. She asked me, “Protestants do have last rites don’t they?”
I refrained from telling her that since Vatican Two Roman Catholics no longer have last rites. Instead I simply told her what I had been trained to tell her during my scant few months of training as a hospital chaplain. Which was that I’d be happy to spend some time with her father. The young woman persisted, “Can you give my Dad the last rites? Please!”
I nodded and asked her for a few details about her Dad. Armed with only some basic details and the fear that I was in way over my head, we entered the room and the daughter announced to her father that this nice Lutheran priest had come to give him the last rites.
With that, the young woman slipped out of the room and I was left with a man not much older than myself, who looked very much worse the wear.
I introduced myself and explained that none of the local Roman Catholic priests were available for a few hours and that I would be happy to stay with him until one of the priests arrived.
“You’re a priest?” the man in the bed looked unconvinced.
I assured him that I was indeed a priest although in the Lutheran church we call priests pastors. I was babbling. I do that when I’m nervous.
He told me that he’d never met a priest who was a woman. He’d met lots of priests who acted like old women, but never a priest who was actually a woman. He reached out and took my hand, “Can you hear my confession?”
I felt my head nod up and down as my heart began to race. I remember thinking; this man needs a priest, poor fellow. I pulled up a chair and sat down beside him. He must have sensed my unease because he asked again, “Can you hear my confession?”
I assured him that Lutheran pastors can and do hear confessions, even if we don’t use the same words confession and absolution is still a part of Lutheran practice. Not entirely convinced, he extended his hand and asked, “Do you mind?”
Then he placed his index finger on my clergy collar as if touching it to see if it was real. As he rubbed my collar, his body seemed to relax a little and he smiled. “God is here.” he said softly.
I was relived to remember that God was indeed present.
“Forgive me Mother for I have sinned. It’s been so many years since my last confession.”
I listened carefully; with all that I am, I listened. After what seemed like a lifetime, what was indeed a lifetime, he paused and looked expectantly at me. I realized that this was my cue to speak. My brain began searching for words. I tried in vain to remember what I’d heard Roman Catholic priests say in countless movies. But I could remember were words about various penances that were expected; like say four Hail Mary’s or something…
He looked at me and as if to help me along said once again: “Forgive me Mother for I have sinned.” I responded with words familiar to Lutheran ears: “As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by Christ’s authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Thank-you Mother. Thank-you Mother. Thank-you Mother.”
We both relaxed after that. A nurse came in and so I suggested that it was probably time for me to leave. “Please don’t go Mother. Please stay.”
After the nurse finished making him more comfortable he asked if I’d read to him from the bible. He hadn’t been to church for a very long time, but he still read his bible, it was sitting on his nightstand. I picked it up and turned to the page that was held a book-mark with an image of the Virgin Mary. From there I read aloud in prosaic King James English, Jesus’ parables of the lost. When I finished, the prodigal in the bed once again took my hand and said, “Thank-you Mother. It is so good to be home again.”
I kissed both of his cheeks as a benediction and quietly left his room. Sitting in my car in the parking lot, I wept not for the prodigal who lay dying, but for the prodigal that I continue to be. Coming home over and over again into the arms of LOVE itself.
Over the years, I have thought about the events of that blessed afternoon often. As the memory of it morphs and changes over time, I can’t help but wonder at the way in which our memory enables us to see ourselves and those we have known in ways that perhaps reflect our need to understand this incredibly complicated life that comes to us as pure gift. We want to know what it’s all about. We want to be able to explain life, to point to this or that and say there, right there that’s it, that’s where love is, that’s how love is, that’s what love is. We craft the way in which we tell our stories in ways that make it clear to others that this is life, that this is love. Humans somehow need to know, we need to recognize it, we need to name it, to point to love and say there it is right there. Recognizing love, naming love, speaking of love, makes us feel at home in this great big universe.
Our memories are expressed in story, as tales we tell, as plays we preform, songs we sing, movies, novels, antidotes, fables, and parables all designed to help us know what love is. To help us remember that we have been loved, that we can love, that we have loved, that we will love. For in loving we are at home.
When I read or hear the stories of Jesus of Nazareth, I am reminded of what love is, and of what love can do, and who love is. In the stories about Jesus and in the stories Jesus tells I see a man who constantly and consistently points not to himself but beyond himself to God. What little we know about the historical Jesus is based on the reality that Jesus obsessively proclaimed the One whom he called Abba. This Abba, this God whom Jesus preached in stories, and in parables, and in deeds, and with his very life, is the God who is LOVE itself. Jesus pointed to a God at home with human complexity, a God undefeated by death, a god whose love for creation is prodigal. When asked to describe this God, Jesus told the story of the father whose bond with his son, no matter the son’s unworthiness, was unbreakable. The story was an echo of an unfaithful people who walked away for the promise of life in creation, as it was understood and told in story by their ancestors. The story of a covenant, the promise of the Creator to the created, I will be your God and you will be my people; a covenant broken when the vicissitudes of life drove the people of Israel into the wildernesses of their own creation.
In the midst of life, however horrible, however frightening, however sweet, however good, however confusing, however lost, in the midst of life there is Love; a power so all-encompassing that it can embrace even the most lost with a love that enables us to celebrate life simply by living with the knowledge that we are at home. Whatever else Jesus is in our stories, our texts, our lives, Jesus is the one who points beyond himself to the LOVE that lies at the heart of all that is. And it is in that pointing to what lies beyond that we see Christ present here and now.
We humans are always that prodigal child; always imagining our own doom, if only because we know that we somehow deserve it. When we tell our stories we can see the rampant injustices that are part of the reality of our existence. In our stories we can recognize that we are lost, alienated from the love we strive to be. In our stories we can see the need for justice to be served. Jesus’ stories and parables point to something beyond justice as he insists that justice is not the whole story or even the main story. Jesus points to a God who is LOVE and draws us a picture of a merciful God, for whom just deserts are not the point. God is the prodigal parent forever prepared to rush out in greeting, with the fatted calf prepared for the celebration. Our need for judgment is trumped by LOVE as the lost are welcomed and celebrated.
The LOVE who created us embraces us and LOVEs us back into being at home in life. This prodigal LOVE embraces us all, is open to us all, is home for us all; if we but live and love.
A couple of weeks ago, I was very much lost. We thought my Mom was dying. There is so very much that has happened between my mother and I that is broken. There is much that ought to be said between us, things that need to be mended. But I was at a loss as to how to fix what we have broken, how to say what needs to be said, how to mend what I have left unmended. Sitting in the interminable silence that often passes between us, I was lost.
Lost and alone the prodigal Christ came to me. She was not at all what I was expecting. I think she was Pilipino, I’d seen her a few times before but I hadn’t recognized her. Christ is like that sometimes, appearing without notice in the midst of our wilderness. I wish I could remember her name. Let’s call her Mary. Mary is a hospital dietitian. Despite the fact that my Mother was at that time being fed through a tube, Mary greeted me and asked me how I was doing. I was annoyed and not particularly interested in being bothered by a stranger. I struggled to be polite. I kept my responses short and as sweet as I could. Mary smiled and told me how good it was for my Mother to have me near. I struggled to believe that what Mary said might be true.
The next morning Mary returned. She expressed concern that I was still there. I needed to take care of myself. I needed to go and eat and rest. Mary assured me that this was what needed doing. She almost chased me into the hall and told me to go outside the sun was shining. Take a walk. Mom would be ok.
Each day Mary checked in on me. Sure she kept tabs on my Mom and when out of her way to find things that Mom would eat. But each day Mary checked in on me. Mary’s visits became a pleasant interlude and I learned a lot about Mary’s life. Mary always gave me a smile. Mary reached out beyond the requirements of her job, to offer me a kind of tenderness which kept me grounded and nourished me along a difficult path. After five days of Mary’s loving care, she explained that she finally had a day off so she wouldn’t see me the next day. “You”ll be all right?” Mary asked me.
I assured her that I’d be ok.
“Not if you don’t go out and play.” Mary scolded me.
I promised Mary that I would go out and play. Mary asked me if it was ok if she said good-bye to me. I nodded and Mary opened her arms and we embraced.
In Mary’s embrace I knew that I was home. Mary’s love pointed beyond herself to the ONE who is LOVE itself to the God who lives and breathes, in, with, through, and beyond, Mary, the God who is the LOVE that nourishes, grounds, and sustains us, in this life; the LOVE that is our home; the LOVE that is embodied in those who love beyond themselves.
Let us be that Love in the world.