Learning from Death: Slowing Down 7-2-17

Genesis 21:8-21 The child grew, and on the day of weaning, Sarah and Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah noticed the child that Hagar the Egyptian had borne for Abraham, playing with her child Isaac. She demanded of Abraham, “Send Hagar and her child away!  I will not have this child of my attendant share in Isaac’s inheritance.” Abraham was greatly distressed by this because of his son Ishmael. But God said to Abraham, “Don’t be distressed about the child or about Hagar.  Heed Sarah’s demands, for it through Isaac that descendants will bear your name. As for the child of Hagar the Egyptian, I will make a great nation of him as well, since he is also your offspring.” Early the next morning, Abraham brought bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar.  Then, placing the child on her back, he sent her away.  She wondered off into the desert of Beersheba. When the kin of water was empty, she set the child under a bush, and sat down opposite him, about a bow-shot away.  She said to herself, “Don’t let me see the child die!” and she began to wail and weep. God heard the child crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven. “What is wrong, Hagar?” the angel asked.  “Do not be afraid, for God has heard the child’s cry. Get up, lift up the child and hold his hand, for I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened he eyes, and she saw a well of water.  She went to it and filled the skin with water, and she gave the child a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up.  He lived in the desert and became a fine archer, He made his home in the desert of Paran, and his mother found a wife for him in Egypt.

During the month of July, I am going to reflect in my Sunday meditations on the experience I had last month of sitting with my mother and helping her in her final journey. I hope you will find these rather personal reflections useful on your own journey of faith. I’d like to use the Genesis text that Fred read this morning as the basis of my reflections this morning. Both our readings this morning are rather complex. The Romans reading uses death as a metaphor for a changed life. Paul is challenging the people of the early church in Rome to realize how profoundly baptism changes their lives. He really sees baptism as a death to our old lives and a resurrection to a new life. Listen.

Romans 6:1b-11  We’re dead to sin so how can we continue to live in it? don’t you know that when we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into Christ’s death? We’ve been buried with Jesus through baptism, and we joined with Jesus in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by God’s glory, we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with Christ in the likeness of Christ’s death, we will also be united with Christ in the likeness of Christ’s resurrection. We must realize that our former selves have been crucified with Christ to make the body of sin and failure completely powerless, to free us from slavery to sin: for when people die, they have finished with sin. But we believe that, having died with Christ, we will also live with Christ—knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will never die again:  death is now powerless over our Savior. When Christ died, Christ died to sin, one for all, so that the life Christ lives is now life in God. In this way, you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin—but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

July 2, 2017

Learning from Death: Slowing Down

Lauren was the name of the hospice worker who told me I would never regret staying with my mother during the last three weeks of her life. She is right, I will never forget it. And I will never forget this congregation for making it possible for me to spend that sacred time with her.

You made it possible for me to go out to Cincinnati at least 4 times this year alone. Our new District Superintendent Dawn Taylor Storm also gave me strong encouragement to go, even if it would have been over Easter. She said, “The church will be there when you come back.” She said, “You will be modeling what we do as ministers of the church.” I have always considered a death to pre-empt everything else I’m doing as a pastor. If someone calls me to say someone in their family died, or if someone in our congregation dies, I drop everything to go, if I possibly can.

We are all called to be ministers of the Living God in Christ. So if there are going to be lessons in this Learning from Death sermon series, let that be the first one. When a relative or friend in your life is near death, or has someone near them who is dying, minister to them. You may not know what to say; you may not know what to do; but your presence, your caring shows the love of God and you may be the presence of God for that person.

I have a friend whose son was recently in a car accident. His son is just about the same age as my son and he is in a coma in a hospital in New Jersey, unless something has changed. It is a horrendous situation and there are no words to speak. I have forced myself several times to contact him by phone and through friends to let him know I’m thinking about him. I offered to go to the hospital with him. I have no idea if anything I did was helpful to him in this situation. I have not seen him in months, so it seems like there’s a good chance my incompetent attempts and my uncomfortable feelings were obvious, but pushing through my feelings was the right thing to do, and with God’s help, I will keep trying to be there for him.

(You know that I’m not bragging here, right? I’m telling you, that being there for each other around death experiences is difficult. We need to talk about our feelings about death, not just our beliefs about it.) That said, I also want to be clear that God will be with us. God is with us in these difficult times in our lives. We know it. We proclaim it. What more important time do we have to act on that belief than when those close to us are in need?

 

Our reading from Genesis this morning is the story of Hagar, a servant/slave of Abraham. You may not remember hearing about her much, but in recent years, theologians have been reclaiming her story. When Sarah, Abraham’s wife had trouble having children, having an heir, the story goes that she told Abraham he should try to have a son with Hagar. He did, and they named the son Ishmael.

After Ishmael was born, we hear the more familiar story about God coming to Abraham and Sarah and announcing that Sarah in her old age would have a child after all. Sarah can’t believe it and laughs, and that was how their son Isaac got his name, since Isaac means ‘laughter.’ In our reading today, we hear about Sarah getting upset that Ishmael is still in their lives when Isaac stops nursing. It is likely that she is worried about Ishmael taking the place of her son as heir in the family.

She insists that Abraham kick Hagar and Ishmael out of the house into the desert wilderness. Hagar is distraught when she runs out of water because she can no longer take care of her son and leaves Ishmael under a shrub to die. God hears the cries of the baby and God’s messenger comes to Hagar to assure her that God has not abandoned her. Indeed, God declares that Ishmael, like Isaac will be the progenitor of a great nation. Our ancient tradition and the tradition of Islam look to Abraham as a common ancestor, Muslims through Ishmael and Hagar, Judaism and Christianity through Isaac and Sarah.

 

Hagar is one of only four people in our scripture with whom God speaks directly. It’s a remarkable circumstance arising out of God’s concern for a mother and her son who was dying in the desert.

Two years ago, I began a new prayer discipline. The teachers of a kind of healing touch called Reiki helped me learn to pray and meditate an hour a day each day. When I got to Cincinnati, I of course continued my prayer discipline in the early mornings. A couple days after I got there, my cousin, Stephanie, who also does healing touch called me to see how I was doing. She asked me if I was doing Reiki with my mother.

“Oh, I always forget that I can do it with someone else!” I said. I rearranged my brain and began to pray and meditate with my mother instead of by myself early in the morning. That meant that at least for one hour, I stopped checking my phone every 2 minutes. I stopped trying to get work done for at least that one hour, and I stopped and prayed with her.

That time of prayer made a huge difference in our time. Not because of the words I said, of course – just because of the quality of time I was able to spend with her, holding her hand, holding her head, listening to her breathing and heartbeat, paying attention. It often felt like God was present – to my mother and to me.

I didn’t get to speak with God with the same directness as Hagar did, but those prayers were the best kind of communication. I’ll talk about them in the next few weeks, but I’ll just mention one today. My mother taught my brothers and me to say a child’s prayer every night before going to bed. I don’t know why it was considered a child’s prayer because it’s rather grim. But I felt like it was a very appropriate prayer to pray with my mother in the evening.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die, before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Then we would bless everyone we loved. Praying for everyone we loved was the best part. So I prayed this prayer with my mother in those last three weeks with her. The first day, I named everybody I could think of, all our family and friends alive or dead, everybody we love.

And when I had named everybody I could think of, she was still lying there with eyes closed. I didn’t know if she had been asleep, but I asked her, “Did I miss anybody, Mom?” And she nodded her head and whispered ,”Yes.” I said, “Who’d I miss?”

She whispered, “Amo” my father’s best man, who had died a couple years ago. I was blown away that she had been paying such close attention that whole time and that she noticed that I had missed this wonderful man, so close to my father.

Today we come to the table aware that this meal of blessing unites us with people here and with our ancestors and loved ones. We receive the meal giving thanks for their love and the care of all our friends who help us when we are in need. We receive this meal as nourishment of our souls to be present for each other when we hear a child crying or a parent in distress. We receive this meal as encouragement for our own journeys with the Living God in Christ, to take the time we need for rest, for prayer and for communing with God, so that we can be there when God asks us to be.

Offering – communion offering for the work of POWER Metro in honor of Lauren Nunnelee becoming convener of the Leadership Team

Communion Hymn    2202 Come Away with Me