Christmas Hope

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New family members . . .  a hoped-for daughter-in-law and her son, Muslims whose journey has taken them from Somalia to Italy to France to England to America.  The world with its news and conflicts and politics has landed in our living room, where the young people played a game on the floor last night, as loud and boisterous as any game ever played there before.  The challenges of religious interface have landed in our kitchen, where the dinnertime conversation covered holidays, and around the tree, where presents have been carefully wrapped so that all are included.

A new and soon-to-be former church . . .  I have been pastoring a Lutheran congregation this year as they have worked through the transition from former pastor of nearly 40 years to someone new and unexpected.  They are ready, I think, to say good-bye and hello, and to embrace ways of being church which will bring fresh delights as their gifts are ignited and expanded.  Tonight and tomorrow, probably my first and last Lutheran Christmas liturgies as I near the conclusion of a year of surprise and growth.

A new sense of where I fit in my family’s puzzled pieces . . .  my dad died six weeks ago,  and with him went most memories of my mother and youngest brother.  Not that he mentioned them much over the past 56 years, but he knew them better than I did, better than my brother who recalls them not at all.  The moment which has flashed into my mind most frequently over the past weeks?  I am six years old, and my dad is teaching me to ride my bike without its training wheels, out in front of our new house on Azalea Lane in Vero Beach.  I am terrified, and the bike veers in lopsided arcs across the street and onto the sidewalk — without crashing, for reasons which remain a mystery to me.  My dad seems confident that I will triumph in the end.

I have never had much of an idea of how to do anything that my life has demanded of me.  How to care for a daughter-in-law and grandson from other worlds, pastor a church, ride a bike.  But the light shines and the darkness has not overcome it.  The light shines, as I tell sometimes skeptical Christians, on all of us, and it seeps into places of worship, and it flashes from the metal of blue Schwinn bikes.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

Streams in the Desert ~ Sermon for Advent 3

 

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We are waiting.  We are waiting in anticipation and hope for the coming of the infant Christ, “God in the manger” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, and we are waiting in anticipation and hope for the saving grace of Jesus to renew and restore all of creation and all of us.  And today, we have two texts in particular to help us with this waiting.

The first comes to us from the prophet Isaiah, writing about God’s faithfulness to God’s promises in light of the horrors of the Babylonian exile.  In the late 500s BCE, the Jewish people were utterly defeated in war by the Babylonians, their holy city of Jerusalem destroyed and their temple reduced to rubble.  As was typical in that time, the elite of their society —  the political, literate, artistic, and construction elite – were dragged into exile in Babylon, so that they could not rebuild their community and its life.  Exile was their destiny for the next sixty years – three generations of Jews.  Many born in Babylon would never see their homeland.

But Isaiah speaks a message of hope, a message of hope in God’s salvation, a message which we read as hope in the Messiah coming to us at the end of Advent.  And Isaiah’s hope encompasses all that is broken – the earth itself, and the people who live here.  Isaiah proclaims that God promises streams of water and blooming flowers in the desert, and healed human beings – the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the lame leaping.

Our gospel text, reiterating some of Isaiah’s words, is from Matthew: a text from the gospel readings for this new lectionary year which tells us that Jesus is the one.  It’s not John the Baptist, it’s not any of the other prophets wandering around Israel – Jesus who is the one who has come to save the world.  Jesus is the one who has come to inaugurate the kingdom of God.

And here’s something you should know about Matthew as this church year begins:  Matthew is very much focused on the kingdom of God, the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God – already among us in the person of Jesus Christ, but not yet fulfilled, as we can easily tell by looking around or watching the news.  Already underway but not yet fully realized.

So, in this world of Advent 2017, in which we long for the fulfillment of the promises we hear in Isaiah and Matthew, where do we look?  I want to tell you about two possibilities in which I engaged last week-end – possibilities open to you as well

Last Friday I “attended” a webinar produced by Interfaith Power and Light.  For those of you who maybe aren’t familiar with the term webinar, it means an online presentation, which you “attend” by  sitting in your office or home or local coffee shop, and watching and listening on your computer.

For those of you who don’t know what Interfaith Power and Light is, it’s a faith-based organization whose mission “is to be faithful stewards of Creation by responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.”  Some of you may recall that Rev. Drew Genzsler, the Director of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, preached here at the beginning of this year, and that his wife, Alycia Ashburn, who works for the Ohio chapter of Power and Light and used to work for Lutherans Restoring Creation, spoke as well.  And last summer Bethesda on the Bay joined Power and Light, and immediately proceeded with an energy audit of our building, which we hope will help us make more informed choices and decisions about energy in the future.

Now, you may be thinking, here we go, veering into politics.  Not sure I like this.  And indeed, the webinar I attended was about politics, urging us to make contact with Congress, with the in-coming administration, and with the media on matters of climate change and energy conservation.

But it was also about education – always the first step in decision-making.  I will tell you honestly that I don’t know a lot about climate change.  I do know that the vast majority of scientists believe that it is taking place.    I know that many people question whether it is caused by human beings, but I’m not sure of the significance of that – humans don’t cause cancer, either but we certainly try to address it.  And I know that one of the first things that the Bible tells us is that God has made us stewards of creation —  the caregivers, the lovers, and the defenders of our beautiful planet and universe.

Isaiah’s text today begins with God’s restoration of creation – a critical component of what will happen when Christ comes again.  An essential task for us as we seek to build the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God.  There can be no question but that work done by organizations like Interfaith Power and Light represent streams in the desert – streams of hope and life in the desert of destructive forces damaging our earthly home.

So that was Friday- a creation-focused day.  On Saturday –a  people-focused day — I spent the morning with a Northeast Ohio Synod discussion group on race and culture at New Covenant Lutheran Church in East Cleveland.  Similar gatherings have been occurring about once a month as an outgrowth of initial conversations at the Synod gathering in Akron back in May.  A couple of us attended one of those meetings at the Synod event, and came away renewed in the hope of Bethesda becoming part of a long-term inter-racial and inter-cultural conversation among Lutherans here in northeast Ohio.

The morning’s pattern was simple and easy to follow.  Some instructions, two brief presentations, and an hour discussion around a table, based on a Biblical passage – or not.  One of our presenters was Rev. Charles Eduardos, whom I know from our mutual interest in health care and spirituality, and whom many of you know as the pastor of All Saints in Olmsted Falls.  Pastor Eduardos talked about racial prejudice as he has experienced it, starting with his high school years in which as a bright student he was discouraged from participating in Cleveland’s elite academic programs because he was a young man of color and thus considered not capable of the work – a young man who would eventually go on to study engineering and theology.

Our other presenter is a seminary student in Chicago, Mexican by heritage, who is active in the Decolonize Lutheranism effort.  What does that mean? you might be asking. Well, the Lutheran Church is no longer home solely to people of western European descent.  It no longer encompasses solely the descendants of European colonial powers.  Today Lutherans can be found all over the world, people of all colors and ethnicities.   The goal of Decolonize Lutheranism is to pursue “a strategy toward authentic diversity in the ELCA.”

Does that sound scary to you, or does it sound exhilarating?   If you attend – or perhaps host – one of these events – you will like find the discussion to be both scary and exhilarating.  At my table we talked openly about the election, but mostly we talked about the challenges of talking with people with whom we disagree and who disagree with us — which means that we talked about the challenges of listening and hearing what others have to say.  Our Biblical text was Jonah – fresh out of the whale and headed to the city of Ninevah to warn the people there of God’s coming judgment.  Now, you may recall that God sent Jonah to Ninevah, but Jonah didn’t want to go.  He didn’t appreciate God’s love for a people whom Jonah thought should rot in hell, and he wasn’t about to preach God’s love to them.  So he hopped on a ship to another city, hoping to escape his call.  But a big storm tossed the ship about and tossed Jonah into the belly of a whale – after which dreadful experience he reluctantly agreed to follow God’s instructions and go to Nineveh – a place to which he did not want to go, and where people did not want him to come.  And that story – of speaking and listening despite many challenges – was the jumping off point for our table’s discussion – and we did have a scary and exhilarating morning. 

I would call it a morning on which the desert bloomed in East Cleveland, exactly as Isaiah promised it would. The desert of prejudice and fear and apprehension bloomed into flowers of conversation and hope.

It’s Advent, my friends.  God promises the restoration of the desert – and we see that restoration beginning to take place, in the efforts of people of faith to care for the earth and to care for one another.  The kingdom of God is among us – Jesus IS the one – and joy in the form of a baby on  a manger nudges us to set aside our doubts and fears and open our hearts to a world in need of our faithful presence.  Amen.

Saying good-by to my dad ~ Part 2

Sudden death has been a constant in my family’s history.

From my own reference point ~ myself (!) ~ my mother was killed instantly in a car accident when I was seven, and my almost-year-old brother died a few hours later of injuries sustained in that accident.  My first step-mother died immediately after a fall from a window the summer after I graduated from high school.  A few years later, while I was in law school, one of my aunts died quickly of a heart attack or stroke.  When my third step-mother died about ten years ago from lung cancer, I was somewhat surprised by the time it had taken.  But then a couple of years later, my 24-year-old son died of suicide.  We were back on track for disaster and its consequences: sudden horror and heartache.

When my third step-mother died, I was also surprised by her age ~ she was in her early seventies.  By that point, several of my friends had recently lost parents, and I was adjusting to the idea that death was not always sudden and did not claim only the young.  Fewer than 10% of Americans die suddenly, and the average life expectancy in this country is 76 for men and 81 for women, but my experience had indicated otherwise.

My father’s death was, I suppose, more typical of the American experience.  He was a few weeks short of his 85th birthday and, while his actual demise was unexpectedly sudden, he was suffering his third bout of lung cancer and had been experiencing symptoms for several weeks (although the latter had been news to me).

A lot of statistics . . . but I am seeking a context for my father’s death.  My life has been overshadowed by the instantaneous disappearance of one person after another, and now,  yet another.  Although I had been informed by internet sources that he might well die from a sudden hemorrhage, I suppose that I imagined a lingering end.  I had already been mentally preparing for several drives across the state to spend time with him during what I suspected would be his final weeks.

But, no.  Vanished.  Again.

I wonder where they have all gone.

Saying good-bye to my dad ~ part 1

I don’t even remember it; so casual was the moment.  I’m sure there was a quick hug and a “see you later” before I walked down the path from my dad’s woodland house to my car.  I had spent the  first two days of a planned staycation week visiting with him and my former stepmother, B., his partner of the last eight years, following his previous week’s diagnosis of lung cancer.  Third time around.  The news over the week-end was confusing and I had expected, when I left my house at about 7:00 on Monday morning, to be going to the hospital, where he was scheduled for a biopsy.  But before I arrived a few hours later, he had been sent home.  With one of the tumors wrapped around a pulmonary artery, the doctors had concluded that no surgical procedures would be possible.

We spent the next day or so relaxing and talking. It seemed that the cancer had appeared recently and spread rapidly. He and B. were optimistic, anticipating a short round of chemo and radiation and, B. told me privately, perhaps a few more good years. “Perhaps it will disappear as quickly as it arrived.” I did not say anything about that not being the way in which cancer behaves.  My dad seemed to have completely forgotten the horrors of his last wife’s debilitating treatment for the same vicious disease, and his resolution at that time that he would never pursue a similar path.  I did try to present some of the realities of treatment and to question its advisability, although some serious testing loomed ahead and it was impossible to get too far in our discussions.

Before I left, I asked my dad to try to consider what he would want if he had five years left, or a year, or weeks.  “If the latter,” I said, “you may want to purchase a new winter sleeping bag and curl up on the deck to watch the birds.”

I meant to ask Dad and B. to be sure that his living will and health care power of attorney were next to the front door, but I got distracted and forgot.

I drove home Tuesday afternoon, wondering about my own answers to the questions I had asked him to ponder.  I read about the consequences of a tumor tangled around a pulmonary artery ~ quite possibly catastrophic.

On Wednesday there were visits to oncologists, and on Thursday, extensive testing.  And on Friday morning at about 9:15, I received a frantic call from B.  “Robin!  Your father is dying!”  It developed that the EMT guys were there, engaged in all the activities he had hoped to avoid, and she couldn’t find the paperwork and hoped I had it.  My cousin, a vet, was standing there with her and repeating, “Peter wouldn’t want this; Peter wouldn’t want this.”  The medical personnel were apologetic, saying that in the absence of his instructions to the contrary, they had to act.  We found the file in our house, and my husband went off to fax the papers to the hospital, while I started to pack.

No one called.  I talked to a nurse at the hospital, explaining that my dad was en route.  A few minutes later, I called again, and reached a neighbor, who was there with B. and my cousin.  After a couple of exchanges, I said, “Well, how is he?”

“Uh. . . he died,” she said.

Oh.

Later, as those who were there put the pieces together, they concluded that he had gone into the bathroom off the bedroom, begun to load the washing machine, and collapsed — probably gone before he hit the floor.

B. said that a few minutes earlier he had dressed and been sitting on the bed, and she had brought in an email harshly critical of the president-elect, to ask him whether it was too much to send to an acquaintance three days after the election.  He read it, gave her a big grin, and said, “Send it.”

A few days later, the test results came back ~ extensive metastases.

My dad had always articulated a desire to depart this life quickly and without fuss.  I would have been honored to care for him for a bit.  But quickly and without fuss it was to be.  Thanks be to God.  Sort of.

 

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