Sunday, May 11, 2014

Easter 4A

My phone rang. I recognized the number, so I answered it, thinking one of you were having some sort of medical emergency, since it was the number at the nurse’s station at the Stony Plain hospital that appeared on the screen.

“Pastor Kevin, we’re sorry to bother you,” said the nurse on the other end of the line.

“It’s no bother,” I said.

“We have a gentleman here who was brought in this afternoon who probably won’t last the night. The family has gathered, but we can’t get a hold of their pastor. The church doesn’t have an answering machine, and we don’t have the pastor’s cell number. The family would like someone to come and pray with them, and since we can’t reach the family’s pastor, can you come in?”

“You mean to tell me that this person’s church doesn’t have voicemail or an answering machine?”

“Yes, we tried and there was no answer.”

“And no voicemail or answering machine?”


“In 2014?”

“Apparently so.”

“What kind of church doesn’t have voicemail, or even have an answering machine, with all the pertinent info on it: worship time, office hours, and emergency contact? Isn’t that common practice? This is nuts! This can’t be the first time they encountered this problem!”

I didn’t say that out loud. But that’s what I was thinking. It wasn’t the nurse’s fault that this particular church hasn’t kept up with the technology of the 1980s. The medical staff were just doing their jobs, which was much more than I could say about that church.

And what was worse, I thought, what kind of witness is that? It felt like this gave further evidence to the culture that church is outdated and irrelevant.

If their church couldn’t be there for them at their time of greatest need, then why bother with the whole religious enterprise at all? 

If this family couldn’t be wrapped in the arms of their faith community at their moment of grief and loss, surrounded by their sisters and brothers in Christ to hold them up when they are weak, then what’s the point of having a church? 

Doesn’t this just trumpet to others to stay away? That church is only in it for themselves? That church, ultimately doesn’t care about anything other than passing the plate for its institutional self-preservation?

Perhaps I was overreacting. After all, churches are made up of people, and people make dumb mistakes and poor decisions. I’ve certainly made my fair share of blunders. It could be that I was placing too much importance on the ministry value of an answering machine.

But, again, none of this was the nurse’s fault or concern. All she cared about was a dying patient, and a family who was about to lose a loved one.

“I can be there in 20 minutes,” I said.

However, if I was honest with myself, I would have to admit that I wasn’t just annoyed that I was called in to deal with someone else’s problem. I was miffed because, when the nurse called, I was just about to leave the house to go and watch football (I know...priorities, right?).

But I still thought my frustration with the church and the pastor being unreachable in a time like this was justified. Human or not, we have obligations to our people because that’s who we are together, under God’s covenant of love and community.

I arrived at the nurse’s station, and was then shown to the room. I had my tools of the trade: a prayer book with the appropriate liturgy, and a small vial of oil for anointing. 

However, I was in NO mood to be doing this. I was fully aware that my frustration with my colleague and my colleague’s church was getting the better of me. But I didn’t want to show it to the family. It had nothing to do with them, and they had their own stuff to deal with. 

So, I took a couple of VERY deep breathes, not because I was nervous, but to try to release all my negative energy so I could be completely present for the family.

It didn’t work. But I pushed the door open and went in anyways.

The scene was one I’d been in many times before. A large family gathered around the bed listening to grandpa’s laboured breathing, wondering which one will be his last.

“Good evening, I’m Kevin Powell, I’m the pastor at St. John Lutheran Church of Golden Spike,” I announced softly.

I looked around the room to figure out who was who, and I identified who I assumed was the man’s wife.

“Do you mind if I pray for ‘George’?” (not his real name) I asked her.

“Yes. Please.” she responded, not looking up at me.

I then remembered that these folks weren’t Lutheran. And I had NO idea what their tradition did a time like this. I didn’t want to guess, and then improvise. But then I figured they probably didn’t know what happened in these situations either. So this fellow was getting a Lutheran send off.

I read some scripture, prayed the Lutheran Commendation of the Dying liturgy, anointed the man with oil, gathered the group to say the Lord’s Prayer together, gave a blessing for the man and for the family, and told them to call me again if they needed me. Then left. In and out in just under five minutes.

And as I left the room, I was disappointed with myself. I was disappointed because, even though I did my job according to my job description, even though I read appropriate bible passages, even though I prayed the appropriate prayers, and even though I said the appropriate things, I felt like I phoned it in. That my mind was in a different universe than that hospital room. That I already had one foot out the door once I walked through it. I didn’t even take my jacket off. I wasn’t present for the family. I was lost in my own negative emotions that had NOTHING to do with them, but I felt like they paid the price for my frustration.

I was disappointed with myself because I didn’t know what was worse, their church not being there for them, or my being there but only in a half-hearted way. 

I have to admit, I was ashamed of myself by allowing my negative feelings to get in the way of doing my job the way it really needs to be done, or of just being a normal, caring, human being to people who are going through a terrible loss.

So, after checking back in with the nurse to tell her I was done, I went and watched football, but don’t really remember anything of the game. And I don’t even remember who was playing. I couldn’t focus on anything but what had happened in that room. I still was angry with myself and with my colleague for having let that family down. For not being the agent of grace that they needed. For failing to speak and be good news when they were going through some pretty awful news.

On the one hand it’s easy to say that all people make mistakes, that no one is perfect, and that churches are human, and that this was just one visit among hundreds were I WAS able to minister effectively to people in need. 

But on the other hand, ministry isn’t about stats. Love isn’t about percentages. Grace isn’t about numbers. It’s about bringing people and God together. And I felt like, for that family, at that moment, I missed that connection.

A week later I was in Superstore and I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and there was a couple I didn’t recognize.

“Are you Kevin?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” I responded trying to locate the face.

“I don’t know if you remember us, but you came to the hospital last Sunday to pray with dad.”

Uh Oh...

“Oh, yes, I remember,” I said.

“We just want to thank you for being there for us. You gave us just what we needed. Your words were so meaningful, and we just wanted to tell you that. When we saw you over by the produce aisle, I had my husband run after you so you wouldn’t get away before we could talk to you. So, thank you for being there for our family.”

“I was glad to help,” I said.

She gave me a hug, and then her husband shook my hand. And they left.

I was stunned. Breathless. Unable to fully process what had happened.

I tell you this story, not to show you how awesome I am, but to show you how ministry can happen when I am decidedly NOT awesome. How God’s love and care can happen when the church is anything but awesome.

It’s those unexpected moments that remind us that God is faithful when we are not. And God is faithful when we are. That God will not be bound by our attitudes or actions. God is free to dispense love and grace wherever God wants.

Like the apostles in today’s first reading, in their brokenness and inadequacy, gathered under Christ’s canopy, sharing their lives, held together by God’s Spirit and their own mutual care, offering grace to each other when they fail to live up to expectations, adding not just numbers to those being saved, but beating hearts, generously participating in each others times of love and sorrow.

Our life with each other as a family of faith is about connecting, from one heart to another heart, bringing two hands together, so that life and healing may emerge from our collective longings, no matter what that looks like, and being surprised by what God is doing. 

Because God has drawn us together as a people joined to Jesus’ cross and empty tomb, that we can jump face first into our moments of defeat and ineptitude, trusting that something new and beautiful will rise within and among us, speaking words of abundant life in the valley of the shadow of death, expecting that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and knowing that we - all of us together - will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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