A number of years ago, back when I had only been a pastor for a couple of years, on the Sunday just before Christmas, immediately after our worship service, I travelled over to the hospital to pay a visit to a member of this church. I was all decked out in my Sunday best.
So, I very much looked the part of a pastor. Back then, I was very unsure of myself in my new role as a pastor. Nothing made me more uncomfortable than hospital visits. I felt like I was a bit of impostor. It was the Sunday before Christmas, and even though the collar around my neck often felt like it might choke the life out of me, that collar 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 her way to ensure that we both enjoyed the visit. As I was leaving the floor, a woman beckoned me into a visitors’ lounge, ever so quietly she asked, “Could you please help me?”
I sat down beside her and listened to her story. When you’re wearing a clergy collar people presume all sorts of things about who you are. This distraught young woman presumed from my attire that I was a competent professional who could accomplish what she could not. Tearfully, she told me that her farther, from whom she’d been estranged for many years, was dying and needed a priest. She had called the Roman Catholic churches in town and none of the priests were available to come right away. The young woman explained that she was afraid that there may not be enough time to wait for a Roman Catholic priest. She asked me if I would be able to administer the Last Rites to her father. I hesitated as I considered her request.
I was frantically going over what I had been taught about the Roman Catholic practices commonly known as “the Last Rites:” Confession, Absolution, Communion, Anointing the Sick. I had been trained to do all of these as a Lutheran, but not as a Roman Catholic. The Last Rites always were intended to provide comfort to those who were dying. But for centuries, many Roman Catholics had come to believe that the dying needed to receive the Last Rites in order to assure their place in heaven. This popular misconception created all sorts of anxiety about securing the services of a priest. While I was tossing this over in my mind, the young woman, grabbed my arm and loudly asked: “Protestants do have Last Rites, don’t you?”
I decided to forgo the theological considerations. Instead, I simply told her what I had been taught to tell her during my scant few months of training as a hospital chaplain. I told her that I would be happy to spend some time with her father, until a Roman Catholic priest arrive. The young woman persisted, “Can you just 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. The young woman 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 the worse for 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 am nervous. He told me that he’d never met a priest who is a woman. He’d met lots of priests who acted like old women, but never a priest who is actually a woman. He reached out and took my hand, “Can you hear my confession?” he almost pleaded.
I felt my head nod up and down as my heart began to race. I remember thinking; this man really 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 are still important parts 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. Then ever so softly, he said “God is here.” I was relieved 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 all 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, he 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. The weary man in the bed, reached for my hand, “Please don’t go Mother. Please stay.” After the nurse finished making him more comfortable, he asked if I would read to him from the Bible. He explained that 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 up his Bible and turned to the page that was book-marked with a small card on which an image of the Mother Mary serenely stared up at me. From the marked page, I read aloud in prosaic King James’ English, Jesus’ parables of the lost. During the parable of the Prodigal Son, tears flowed freely down both of our faces.
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 tear-stained cheeks as a kind of benediction and I quietly left his room.
Sitting in my car in the parking lot, I wept not for the prodigal son who lay dying in a hospital be. No, I wept for the prodigal daughter that I continue to be. Coming home over and over again into the arms of LOVE itself.
Over the years, I have thought a great deal about the events of that blessed, holy, afternoon. 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 own need to understand this incredibly complicated life that comes to us as pure gift. We want to know what this gift of life is 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 telling of 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 in which we live and move and have our being.
Tonight, we gaze into a story about darkness and in the light that shines through the darkness we see LOVE in the birth of a child. We know where that child’s story will lead us. In the stories told about how the child grows to become a man, and how the man lived his life, we recognize LOVE. In the stories about this incredible life, we see a teacher who constantly and consistently points not to himself but beyond himself to the MYSTERY that this man called God. Of this God, our teacher, whose birth we recall on this holy night, insisted over and over again, that this God is LOVE. When asked to describe this LOVE, Jesus told the story of a father whose bond with his child was unbreakable. No matter how unworthy the child proved to be, this father’s bond for the child was unbreakable.
This unbreakable bond finds its source in the MYSTERY that some people call God. In the midst of life, however horrible, however frightening, however sweet, however good, however confusing, however lost, in the mist of life there is LOVE. I’m not talking about the sappy, sentimental love, of a hallmark Christmas movie. I’m talking about the fierce, brilliant LOVE that lies at the very heart of all that IS. I’m taking about the LOVE that from the very beginning of time has allured all that IS to coalesce into being; the LOVE that continues to create all that IS. I’m talking about the LOVE that IS the MYSTERY at the very core of reality, the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being. The LOVE that lives and breathes and has its Being in, with, through, and beyond us. The LOVE that is symbolized in this very strange little birth story that we celebrate on this holy night. A story, that if you let it, also symbolizes your own birth.
Each one of us was born in the light of the kind of hope that can change the world. Indeed, each one of us is the hope of the world. And each one of us is also the prodigal child, who at one time or another finds ourselves lost. As prodigal children, we all too often lose sight of the MYSTERY that some call God.
The Good News on this night of nights, is that LOVE is born over and over and over again. Tonight, in the light that shines so brightly from a story told for generations, may each one of you see the MYSTERY that some call God, welcoming you home with open arms for an embrace that is pure gift. Tonight, each and every one of us is welcomed into the tender embrace of the LOVE that is God.
So, welcome home everyone! On, this holy night let us see the LOVE that shines in, with, through, and beyond all of us lost and found children of the MYSTERY. On this holy night let us reflect the LOVE that lives, and breathes, in, with, though, and beyond you. Welcome home! Tonight, and tomorrow, and tomorrow after that, remember to welcome everyone you encounter home. Welcome into the MYSTERY of the ONE who IS LOVE.