Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
November 17, 2019
Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19
Of Words and Work and Wisdom
It was Friday afternoon. Phylis and I were on our way home from a brief visit with her sister and her husband in Ohio. We had stopped mid way at a Dairy Queen to take a break and to share our ritual travel treat, a pecan turtle sundae. I checked my email and saw a request from Phil Douglas, that I please call him. He told me that Karen (who for four years had suffered with Alzheimer’s disease) had not eaten for two days and was declining rapidly. So before going home, we detoured that evening to Robinwood Landing, a facility dedicated to the care of those with this mind-ravishing disease.
In my Pastoral Care book there are prayers and scriptures for those who nearing death and for their loved ones who watch and wait. But that book was home. As Phylis and I walked into Robinwood, I thought about this gospel for today, about what Jesus wanted his followers to remember when they felt fearful and ill-prepared for the difficult times they would surely face: Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
It’s certainly not that Phil would be an opponent, but I was aware of an old fear in my heart that I might say something inappropriate or hurtful or inane. My opponent was not any of those Jesus said his disciples would one day face: a governor or a king or members of one’s own family whose criticism or betrayal or hatred would silence them. It was the old tapes of fear in my own heart.
I will give you words and a wisdom…
And so in the room where Phil and Karen had been dwelling, Phil greeted me and suggested we sit together on a bed next to his beloved wife of 61 years. And the words were given to us, words of anguish and sorrow, of helplessness and of self-inflicted guilt. And then these words of Jesus came to me, which I slightly paraphrased because I hadn’t memorized them exactly:
My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. [John 10:27-28]
And we prayed together the Lord’s Prayer (in the traditional version), prefaced by a thought about what it meant that night to pray “Thy will be done.” And I said the benediction to Karen, marking her forehead with the sign of the cross.
Yesterday morning Philip called and said that Karen had just passed away. En route to see him, I thought about how meaningful Psalm 121, read by Abby and Emily and Elizabeth, had been for the Callen family just two days before. And I remembered how precious Holy Communion had been for both Phil and Karen just two weeks ago, how she always said “thank you” for this holy gift. So I asked Phil if he’d like to partake, and he readily said “yes.” With his granddaughter, Morgan, who just then arrived, we listened to Psalm 121, and we celebrated this gift of forgiveness and life and salvation in communion with Jesus and with one of his most recent arrivals in heaven. Yesterday morning in the midst of all the brokenness Phil and his family was experiencing, Jesus gave us words and a wisdom, words stronger than our fears, a wisdom that somehow knew that God’s love and mercy and the promise of eternal life would not fail us.
I hope you’re hearing that you and I can trust this promise of Jesus in the hard times in our lives. It is exactly in the hard times, the scary times when we’d prefer just to be invisible, when we don’t want to be embarrassed or shamed, or, in these very polarized times, when we really need to express our convictions, when we know we should speak up when we know something is being said that is unjust or false, when we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, that is exactly when our Savior and Lord gives us the words, gives us the wisdom we need to impart.
Know that it is in the very midst of the work to which each of us is called that Jesus gives us his words, this wisdom. I believe Phil’s email to me Friday and our subsequent phone call was God calling me to work, to spend time with him and with Karen before the day was over. As I think about the Second Reading for today, I believe St. Paul would want us, all of us, to know that there is something God calls us to do every day of our lives. This work will always be respectful of our individual abilities (some of which we never thought we had because we had never exercised them or practiced them or been called to use them before). This calling, this work of God when accompanied by Jesus’ words and wisdom will always be for the sake of the community, for the blessing of our life together, for our common good.
I think about the funeral for Ron on Thursday. It was just about 20 minutes before the service was to begin when Bob, looking at the pretty bare altar, asked me if we would be celebrating Holy Communion. In that moment I realized I had not remembered to alert members of the Altar Guild that Communion would be part of the service. So I went to those working in the kitchen who already had their hands full, who said, “Talk to Charlene.” Which I did….and my potential embarrassment was averted. (Had I not just shared this with you, except for Bob, Linda, Meredith, Luanne, Nora, and Charlene, no one would known that I would probably progressed well into the service before realizing my oversight.) In that moment God had given quiet work for a number of us to do so that all of us would be blessed.
Truly it is in the midst of Jesus’ gift of words and wisdom that Jesus calls us to work. (For me to heed Jesus’ calling I needed to show up at Robinwood Landing Friday night and yesterday morning. I needed to work, to be in Phil and Karen’s’ life at this particular moment as Karen’s earthly journey was ending.)
There are no exceptions. At any given time, at whatever stage of life we find ourselves, with whatever our weaknesses or limitations or disabilities, all of us are called, called to work each day of our lives as the Lord directs. Paul’s words in this letter to the Thessalonians and at times to us are both harsh and loving: Beloved…we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly…Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.