Sermon for St Mark’s, Easter V
Someone Knows You’re Coming
You have often heard me mention my teachers. To you they are known and unknown people, some names recognized, most not. To me, they are the lights of the world in their several generations. I keep a list of their names in a journal, and every All Saints’ Day, November 1, I lay the journal on the Altar and mention each person by name in my thanksgivings.
Among the teachers you might not recognize are my hospice patients. For ten years, it was my privilege to walk end-of-life journeys with people in Oregon from all levels of society. There were elders and children, women and men, people of faith and people whose faith was quiet, and people for whom faith was more hope than belief. All had doubts, and there was usually some measure of fear in patient and family. It was the most intense and grounding experience of my priesthood. At the bedside of a person terminally ill, there is little use for religious speculation, and most of the theological issues of the church were of little interest. Some of my most profound teachers I found through hospice.
People wanted assurance that God is real, that there is welcome in the arms of that God, and that their pasts would not keep them from whatever life there is after life. The irony is that for Christians, most of the work I did was healing images of God. Atheists and non-Christians were not afraid of God. Most of the spiritual fear came from images of God as judge, God as policeman, God as a prosecutor who was righteous and vindictive. I remember calling on a woman in her fifties with whom I had been working for some months. I found her unusually agitated, and the agitation was not alleviated by medication. She asked if she had to remember every sin she had ever committed, so she could confess them before she died. Her brother had visited, a strong evangelical Christian, and he told her if she died with even one sin on her heart, she would be lost eternally. No wonder she was agitated. I told her I did not believe that severe inventory was necessary. If there were specific memories troubling her, we could deal with them through confession, but it was not necessary spend her final days in fear that she might have forgotten a few. Personally, I wonder if God is as interested in our sin as the Church has made it out to be. I am not convinced God will inquire after my sin when I face the day of my judgment. I expect God’s questions will be more along the line of “What have you sacrificed for? Show me your scars.”
I worked with a strong Baptist who was so sure of her faith that she had no doubts but she was heaven-bound. I asked her what she would do when she got there? Who would she want to see first -parents, husband? She said, “No, first I want to see Jesus.” I asked how she would greet him. She thought a moment and said, I’d like to hug him if he will let me.”
I have seen mending of relationships, miracles of long-standing feuds overcome, and deep sharing of stories which had been buried for years. There may not be curing when hospice is called in, but there is healing and healing and healing.
One of the angriest patients I worked with was a good Catholic woman in her nineties. She had been faithful all her life to the Church, but when at end of life she had something weighing on her soul, the Church did not take her seriously. When she went to confession the priest, out of respect for her age, gave her a light penance, like, “say an ‘Our Father’ and two Hail Mary’s”. Several priests had treated her this way – they thought with respect, but she felt she was being dismissed as insignificant. What was on her soul was anything but unimportant, and she had carried that secret burden for nearly forty years. She was tiny, but her rage at not being taken seriously was full and red. I found a Catholic priest of her own age to hear her confession. He took her seriously, gave a meaningful penance, and her soul was released. Thereafter, light was in her blue eyes, and there was music in her voice when she spoke. Even when she lost her ability to speak, she would hold my hand and in her eyes there was pure grace. She was healed in soul, mind and spirit, and when she left this world, it was without fear or anxiety, but in a state of grace and in the company of angels.
Some of the most interesting were the atheists. Yes, even a few atheists said on admission to hospice, “Send the Chaplain. I have questions.” I remember a psychoanalyst who greeted me with, “You’re the Chaplain? Are you Freudian, like me?” There was little room for anything but my spiritual honesty which I could ground in Tradition and Scripture. I answered, “No sir, I am Christian, and more Jungian than Freudian.” It took a moment, but he finally decided we could work together. What I learned is that atheists’ questions were the same as the people of faith: Is God real, is there an “Other Side”, and am I welcome there with the past I have?
We are blessed with many teachers, people who have touched our souls and made us who we are. These people who had invited me into their end-of-life journeys are some of mine, and I am continually reminded what a privilege, though penetrating at times, it was to walk these journeys. And all the while, I was working in the shadow of my own mortality. I could not be that close to death and not realize that one day, I will die. While acceptance has come, and fear has been depleted, I can tell you I have high expectations for whoever is Chaplain for me.
As we remember today Mothers who are our elders or deceased, when we realize that some of our loved ones, teachers and friends are with us no longer, when we take to heart our own aging and mortality, then Jesus’ words are more precious:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also (John 14.1-3).
This is the voice of God: You are my beloved. You came from me, and you are coming home to me. No fear. No guilt. No hiding. Nothing will separate us. When you make your own journey home, Someone knows you are coming.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.