Sunday, September 12, 2010
Lost and Found
So here it is, the last homily. My parish's last service is November 21, but this is my last preaching date.
The readings are all over the place, emotionally: fire and brimstone in Jeremiah and the Psalm, the ever-comforting parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel. These lessons are about repentance, of course, and if this were a more conventional preaching occasion, I'd talk about that. But since it's not, I decided to risk veering off-text and being more personal. I'm not sure my long-ago preaching class would approve of this homily (preaching about answered prayer is tricky, because it only makes people who haven't found answers to their prayers feel worse), but Gary likes it, and so do I. I just have to hope I don't alienate anyone, but since the pews are already pretty empty, that's less of a danger than it once might have been.
If nothing else, this is deeply felt. Any bets on whether I make it through without crying?
Quite a few years ago now, I headed off to my volunteer shift at the hospital in a really bad mood. I’d done nothing right at work all week. One of our cats was dying. I think I’d just had a fight with my husband. I think the weather was cold and rainy. (I also think I may have told this story before; if so, please bear with me.) I know that I felt both despairing and powerless. If Jeremiah had appeared in the passenger seat of my car and said, “You are a stupid child with no understanding,” I’d have agreed with him. If the Psalmist had thundered at me through my car radio, “You are corrupt and commit abominable acts,” I’d have offered up a meek Amen, although I probably also would have changed the station. If Jesus had shown up in front of my car, waving a dinner invitation, I’d have driven around him, hunching my shoulders and muttering, “Thanks, but I’m in no shape for a party right now. I’m no fun in through here, really. I’d just bore your other guests.”
I’d gone to the hospital to try to pull myself out of my own head, but it was slow going. The ER was sparsely populated that evening, and most patients were either asleep or didn’t want to talk. I felt as useless there as I had at home. I passed one room several times; the door was closed, usually an indication that the patient doesn’t want company. But finally, because I’d run out of other people to visit, I knocked, and heard a thin voice call, “Come in!”
Inside, I found an emaciated, hollow-eyed man stretched out on a gurney. He didn’t look heavy enough to dent the foam mattress. When I introduced myself as the chaplain, he started to cry. Because some people think chaplains only show up for last rites, I assumed that I’d terrified him just by walking into the room. Feeling even more wretched than I had outside, I said, “Please don’t be afraid! I visit everyone here. My being here doesn’t mean you’re dying.”
“No, you don’t understand,” he said. “I am dying. I’m dying of AIDS. Fifteen minutes ago, I was lying here praying for God to send me a sign that he still loved me, and then you walked through the door. You’re a sign from God.”
I remember this story whenever I feel useless. I also remember this story whenever I think about lost sheep. My job during that ER shift wasn’t to be good, or skillful, or even competent. My job was simply to show up so that God could use me as a vessel, as a tool to comfort and reassure a lost soul. God, serenely efficient, also used the patient to comfort and reassure me. Lost in our separate wildernesses, we found each other. Each of us reminded the other that God’s feast is for everyone. Jesus welcomes everyone to the table, even –- or especially -– those who feel lost, or unworthy, or too small to count: one sheep in a hundred, one penny in a pile, one parish in a community with too many Episcopal churches.
Wilderness takes many forms, both within and around us. As individuals and as a parish, we’re trekking through rough terrain right now. Our beloved home is closing its doors. All of us are being forced to set off on foot, carrying our grief and anger and loneliness. Some of us know where we’re going. Peering into the dusk for familiar landmarks and welcoming lamplight, we’ll head with joy towards those other homesteads. Some of us look forward to camping for a while, and will pitch our tents without worrying too much about where we are on the map. Some of us, frightened and in pain, may become trapped in canyons or caught in thickets.
Wherever we are and wherever we are going, God loves us. We are sure to find signs of that love if we look for them. The trick is remembering that God is everywhere and can take any form. Our telegrams from God -– those urgent messages reading, “I am with you always” –- may look like clergy in embroidered vestments, but they might also look like a hollow-eyed man lying on an ER gurney, or a heavy-eyed woman wearing a hospital volunteer’s badge. They may sound like church hymns, but they might also sound like birdsong, or children’s laughter. They may taste like bread and wine at the communion rail, but they might also taste like trail mix on the Tahoe Rim Trail, or pizza in a bar with friends.
And they might very well look like whatever we see when we look in the mirror. As my hospital story attests, God uses each of us to find lost souls, even or especially when we feel like lost souls ourselves. We carry into the wilderness not just our grief and anger and loneliness, but God’s love and healing and hope. Perhaps we are being sent into the wilderness so that, whatever home we find next, we will arrive there carrying lost sheep over our shoulders, calling out to our new neighbors, “Rejoice with me!”
Even if we don’t arrive with sheep, though, we’ll arrive with stories. Along with Jews and Muslims, Christians are People of the Book. Stories are how we remember who we are. The stories we tell –- here in the sanctuary, at coffee hour, or around our wilderness campfires –- become containers not just for our grief and anger and loneliness, but for love and healing and hope, for the resurrections we have witnessed. Because this is the last time I will preach at St. Stephen’s, I want to thank all of you for listening to my stories. And I want to leave you with another story, another tale about losing my way and finding a sign.
A few years ago –- but a few years after my visit with the patient dying of AIDS –- I went for a walk on the beach in San Francisco. Once again, I was going through a rough patch, and the sea and sky around me, bleak and cold on that sunless day, mirrored the emptiness I felt inside. I was a very small speck. I’d come to the beach to look for interesting rocks, a hobby I’d loved since childhood, but today I’d walked for an hour without finding any stones that weren’t as dull and blank as the sky.
I finally turned around to head back to my car. As I scuffed through the sand, I nattered at God, more out of habit than out of faith. “Y’know, a nice rock would help, right now. A pebble, even. One of those rocks with the pretty quartz veining, or a fossil? I’ve found fossil sand dollars here, fossil shells, but today they’re all just lumps. What’s up with that, God? How about a rock with a cross on it? I’ve seen what you can do with that quartz veining. A cross shouldn’t be too hard, should it?”
Even as I thought this, I knew my challenge was childish. The waves and sky, for all their grayness, were beautiful, as forceful a sign of the glory of creation as anyone could wish. But perhaps thirty seconds after my petulant dare, I saw something in the wet sand a foot or so ahead of me. I blinked, bending closer, and picked up this rock.
You may not be able to see it from where you’re sitting, but the quartz veins on this stone form a perfect cross, and the cross looks like a road. “I am with you always,” this sign tells me. “I am with you every step of the way, because I am the Way.”
If someone else had told me this story, I wouldn’t believe it. But I have to believe it, because I have this rock, this telegram from God. You can’t get much more solid than a rock. I can touch this rock whenever I yearn for proof of God’s love. I can hold it in my hands. (So can any of you, after the service.) It reminds me that even when I feel lost, God has not lost me. It reminds me that no matter where I am in the wilderness, I have a guide and provisions. And it reminds me that the cross –- the unwanted wilderness journey, the agonizing death, the searing grief -- is not the end of the story, but the beginning.