Sunday, November 10, 2013

The God of the Living Never Lets Go of Us

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
November 10, 2013

Year C, Proper 27: The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

The God of the Living Never Lets Go of Us
            Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while I’ll get a call about an emergency. Someone was rushed to the hospital. There’s been an accident. Someone has taken a turn for the worse. Someone is dying.
            Can you come right away?
            I remember when I was preparing to be ordained and first had experiences like that, gathering around a hospital bed as a beloved family member or friend took his or her last breaths; as people suffered terrible shock and great loss. I remember thinking, how am I ever going to do this? How am I ever going to get through this? How am I ever going to find the right words? How am I ever going to help people suffering such heartbreaking grief?
            It certainly hasn’t become routine. And I still get nervous.
            But, I’ve learned that, thank God – thanks to God - it’s not all on me. Often, gathered at a bedside, I’ve sensed, in some hard to explain way, God’s presence – I’ve received God’s grace. And, I think the heartbroken people around the bed and the person whose life is drawing to a close somehow also sense God’s presence – also receive God’s grace.
            I’ve learned that my job is simply to be present – to be a sign of God’s presence – and to stay out of God’s way.
            I had one of those experiences just a couple of months ago.
            Through a connection with a parishioner, I received a call that a man in a nursing home was dying from complications of AIDS. His family wanted a priest to see him, to pray for him, to bless him, before he died.
            I’m still not sure which is harder: being in a situation like that when you know the person and the family. Or when you’ve never met them.
            Anyway, in this case, I had no idea who these people were. I had no idea about the baggage they were carrying, about their family dynamics, about their faith or lack of faith. I had no idea how prepared they were for what they were now enduring  - and what was yet to come.
            When I arrived it was clear that this poor man was near death – painfully thin and wide-eyed, heavily medicated, softly moaning, though seemingly not in much pain.
            The only people there were his mother and his sister.
            After a deep breath, I introduced myself. We talked for a few minutes. I said a short prayer. The three of us had communion and I anointed the dying man on his forehead with Holy Oil.
            As sometimes happens, after I anointed him, the moaning stopped and he grew quiet and peaceful.
            Having done my priestly duty, I wasn’t sure if the mother and sister wanted me to stay or to go. I decided just to sit quietly and wait and see.
            After a few minutes, the man’s mother said to me with her eyes and voice pleading for assurance, “Do you think my son can go to heaven?”
            I’ve been asked questions like that before, of course. I usually talk about God’s mercy – about how God’s mercy always trumps God’s judgement. But, this time I seemed to say something before I had even thought it, surprising myself. I looked into this suffering mother’s pleading eyes and said,
            “God’s not going to let go of him now.”
            “God’s not going to let go of him now.”
            In today’s gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus’ earthly journey is beginning to draw to a close. He is in Jerusalem, the center of religious and political power. And religious and political power is taking notice of him, questioning him, beginning to plot against him.
            Today we heard a story found in Mark, Matthew and Luke: the Sadducees question Jesus about eternal life.
            Back in the First Century, the Sadducees had a lot of power because they operated the Temple, which was the center of Jewish life. They also were religiously conservative, sticking with the Books of Moses - the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible. Since there seems to be nothing in those first five books about eternal life, the Sadducees rejected any idea of resurrection or life after death.
            For the Sadducees, the only way to live on was through children, grandchildren and beyond.
            So, in an effort to make the whole idea of resurrection seem silly, the Sadducees ask Jesus their question about this ridiculously unfortunate woman who died after being married consecutively to seven brothers who had died one after the next. The Sadducees ask Jesus, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.”
            I can almost imagine Jesus rolling his eyes at the question.
            He patiently explains the difference between earthly life and resurrected life.
            And then Jesus uses the story of God appearing to Moses in the burning bush to make a profound point about God. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – who were all long dead when God appeared in the burning bush to Moses. Or rather, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all long dead in the eyes of the world.
            Jesus concludes by saying, “Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
            The God of the living never lets go of Abraham, Isaac or Jacob.
            God never lets go of Moses.
            In the triumph of Easter, God never lets go of Jesus.
            God never lets go of the man, painfully thin and wide-eyed, dying from complications of AIDS in his nursing home bed, surrounded by his mother and sister.
            And, God never lets go of us. God never lets go of any of us who put our trust in God, who leave even the tiniest of spaces in our lives, in our hearts, for God.            
            In a little while I will baptize Chris, Giovanni, Precious and Julian. In the water of baptism, they will die and rise with Christ.
            And in the water of baptism, God will make an indissoluble – an unbreakable bond – with these four great kids.
            Like all of us, over the course of their lives they will make lots of mistakes, big and small. They will hurt other people, maybe most especially the people they love the most. They will choose their own pleasure and gain over what’s good for the people around them.
            Like all of us, over the course of their lives, they will use people, treating them as things instead of as brothers and sisters with their own hopes and dreams. They will disappoint the people close to them - and, maybe most painfully of all, they will disappoint themselves.
            Like all of us, over the course of their lives, there will be lots of times when they forget to pray, when they neglect to make room for God, when they skip church more often than they show up.
            And yet, no matter what they do or don’t do, God’s bond remains indissoluble, unbreakable.
            No matter what, the God of the living will never let go of Chris, Giovanni, Precious and Julian.
            And God will never, ever let go of us.