Third Sunday of Advent, Dec 11, 2005
A Sermon for Seekers Church
by Marjory Zoet Bankson
Anointed by Love
Isa 61: 1-4, 8-11… the spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, …and proclaim the year of the Lord.
John 1: 6-8, 19-28…John came as a witness to testify to the light.
As many of you know, my mother died last week. I am deeply grateful for the emails and cards which were waiting for me when I got back from Colorado, and for the flowers which reminded me of Seekers at the simple memorial service which my sister and I led last Sunday afternoon. I felt anointed by your love to preach, then and now.
For me, our theme for this Advent season-Binding Up the Broken-hearted-seems particularly appropriate. Not that I am so “broken-hearted” by my mother’s passage, but that I see the unintended suffering which our modern medical system can cause for those who have NO access to healthcare…and to those who get caught in it. That breaks my heart!
Our culture seems to have lost the capacity for asking “Why” instead of “How.” Nevertheless, our faith can provide a context for those deeper questions and we can keep those conversations alive with our caring-whether we agree with each other or not.
The ringing words from Isaiah are not meant only as words of hope for the captives who were sent off to Babylon, but for us as well…for each of us carries some experience of pain and oppression, of captivity or broken-heartedness in our own lives and in the world we live in. It is part of the human condition. We constantly need to be reminded that oppression, captivity or broken-heartedness is not the end of the story!
Like John the Baptist, I want to testify to the light, to the good news that evil and cynicism do not have the final word. God is not mocked by our attempts to control others for gain or profit. The gift of my mother’s dying is, I believe, her invitation to encounter the spiritual realm afresh.
In some small way this morning, I too want to bear witness to what is good about the way Jesus is present among Seekers, for it was my experience in this community, this particular Body of Christ, which prepared me to walk with my mother in her dying process.
(1) Seekers has been a place where I was expected to be working on matters of confession and forgiveness … with each other here … and with my biological family. It is not a popular pastime, this business of accepting responsibility for our cultural patterns of self-absorption. As I deepened my sense of belonging to Seekers through my mission group, I can remember thinking that Sonya was more like my spiritual mother than my own mother was — teaching me how to address difficult relationships and to let go of my perceived hurts.
My mother was an alcoholic in those years, and I was very angry with her. In the crucible of my mission group, I learned a lot about loving the unlovable parts of myself, which I projected out onto various members of the group. I would say that years of writing weekly spiritual reports gave me a tangible record of my inner life, pondered as Mary might have, on yearly silent retreats. I know that over the years the simple act of showing up for mission group, for worship and for Stewards has softened my hard edges a good deal, so that when my father died in 1987, and we had an intervention with my mother over her drinking, I was able to receive her healing with some gratitude. I had learned much about confession and forgiveness by then.
God has been good to us, because she and I had nearly 20 years to build a relationship of trust and love since the intervention. It did not happen overnight of course, but that is why I come to worship regularly: I am reminded in worship, week after week, that God’s story is larger, longer and deeper than my own. That I have a place in that story, but it is not ultimately about me. It is about tending that of God in our midst. It is about keeping the hope for justice and mercy and peace alive in our time. Isaiah’s word of hope is addressed to me and to us in our day just as much as it was addressed to the dispossessed Israelites in his day. In this season of Advent, God’s promise to bind up our wounds, both personal and communal, is an invitation to be about the inner work of compassion and reconciliation.
(2) Let love be your guide.
Isaiah proclaims release in “the year of the Lord.” While most scholars equate that with the Jubilee or 50th year, I would claim this as a year of fulfillment for me, even though it was marked by my 66th birthday…and my mother’s 91st. Let me tell you the story of her last week.
Peter and I flew out to Colorado for Thanksgiving because my sister was going to be away. When we arrived on Wednesday, she wanted to go out for a steak dinner. I noticed that her feet were too swollen for shoes, but she seemed in good spirits and was willing to wear her bedroom slippers to the Texas Roadhouse. Peter took this picture of her that night.
On Thanksgiving, she enjoyed the table set with the beautiful linen cloth she had embroidered with a fancy “Z” for her trousseau, 70 years before. She held one of her mother’s crystal goblets with both hands; enjoyed her own recipe for cranberry relish and ate every bite of the oyster dressing which we always had growing up in the Pacific Northwest. She seemed quieter than usual, but attentive and appreciative.
On Friday, she came for leftovers, but went home early saying that she was not feeling well. By Saturday, her lungs began to fill up and she was coughing unproductively. It looked like congestive heart failure to me. The head nurse wanted to send her to the hospital, but my mother was firm: “I want to stay here, in my own bed.” Therefore, I told the nurse “No” and began to push back against the system dedicated to life at all costs.
In the past couple of years, the Living Water Mission Group has offered Seekers a number of sessions on home care for the dying. Because Emmy Lu, Muriel and Emily have not been afraid to offer their gift of aging as an occasion for all of us to consider death more closely, I felt confident that I could stand against the system which wanted to send my mother to a hospital to keep her alive. I talked with my sisters by phone and Peter backed me up, but I know that the countless conversations that we had in our mission group gave me the confidence to ask for Hospice care instead.
That night, I dreamed of Mary Magdalene at the tomb…encountering Jesus in a different form. She only knew him when he called her by name. I woke, knowing that death is not the final word…that the angel of death would be a merciful messenger for my mother. “Fear not,” I heard the angel say in that nighttime annunciation, and the image I had was of this bulletin cover… which I painted in Florence in October, before this journey with my mother intensified!
With the palliative care from Hospice, my mother felt better on Sunday. She got up, dressed and ate some Jell-O and cream pie as people came in to say “Good-bye.” When I remarked about the many people she had apparently touched in the past four months on Assisted Living, she whispered, “It makes me feel humble.” I suspect she was letting herself know-maybe for the first time-that she had made a difference to others. (We all need to know that. Please, let us tell each other-for Christ’s sake as well as our own!)
I began to think that we should have a memorial service there, on the Assisted Living wing, so these friends could participate. That day, she told me that she had had a “crazy dream” about a week before. In the dream, she had been chosen to join a group of women who were crawling, single-file, along a wooden plank toward the “veil of mystery.” They were searching for an opening in the veil. She paused after telling her dream and said, “I think that’s what I’m doing now…crawling toward the veil.”
Again, my experience at Seekers stood me in good stead. I did not need to interpret her image or make it fit some doctrinal understanding. I could simply accept it as a gift from God and say that. When I asked if she would like to speak with a clergy person, she smiled and said, “I already am.”
Monday and Tuesday were more of the same. She ate less and listened more. She said “good-bye” to Peter and welcomed my younger sister back home. The weekday staff wanted to send her into skilled nursing and again we were able to side step a power struggle by staying in her room to keep her from falling on her way to the bathroom. There were three aides and two LPNs who quietly formed a team to make it possible for mother to stay where she was.
On Wednesday, she was restless and agitated. It reminded me of going into labor and I began to think more about death as a birth of the spirit. Maybe that is what Mary saw when Jesus called her by name in the garden! It was Jesus in his spirit form! It is the mystery of life beyond death!
At one point on Wednesday afternoon, we panicked and called Hospice for help. He came right over. My sister and I were sitting on the edge of the bed with mother pinned between us. We were holding her, rocking her, and trying to get her to lie down again. Bill watched us for a while and then said, “You’re doing all the right things. Just let love be your guide. You can’t do anything wrong at this stage.”
It was exactly what we needed to hear. Mother eventually relaxed and lay down again. Barbara kissed her “good-bye” and left. I stayed on, singing softly thru my tears and stroking her face, letting love be my guide. I could feel her drawing away, into herself, and eventually I also went home to sleep.
Mother died as dawn came on December 1. Barb and I rushed over when the nurse called, and we dressed her in a green and pink dressing gown that my father had given her 40 years ago. It was something the grandchildren had seen on every trip and it never looked worn! She looked wonderfully gaudy! Moreover, she looked natural, with her mouth open and her ruddy color gone. The Hospice nurse came and stayed with us for several hours, until we felt her spirit entirely gone from the room. Then the mortician came to take her away for cremation.
I tell you the story of my mother dying on this Third Sunday of Advent because it is a story of waiting and release. It is a witness to the healing power of love in a dark and broken world. In addition, it is a plea for us to stay conscious of the little ways we may affect big systems. It turns out that the Assisted Living unit had not allowed a death to occur on that wing before. Now, with the participation of the unit administrator, the new chaplain and key personnel working with Hospice, they may be able to help others die “at home” instead of moving them away.
Finally, I want to speak about Seekers encouraging spiritual leadership in all of us. Last Sunday, Barbara and I led a memorial service for about fifty participants. Every chair was filled. The chaplain said that most families whisked their loved ones away, so the staff and tablemates never got a chance to say “good-bye.” He hoped this would be a model for others. Barbara did not even tell her own pastor about mother’s service for fear he would try to take it over.
We sang and prayed and I spoke of Mary Magdalene at the tomb. Love held her there, at her place of grief, when the other disciples went on home. As dawn came, Mary encountered the Holy, the Divine Otherness of Jesus in a form she did not recognize. Like the dream my mother had, Mary did not understand all of its meaning, but she knew enough to hear when Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, but go and tell the disciples what you have seen.”
Indeed, that is the invitation that we have here at Seekers…to claim the pulpit when we have encountered Christ at some unlikely juncture of our lives or simply to reach out to one another-listening, loving, challenging, going the extra mile. Seekers calls forth gifts of spiritual leadership in many different ways. All of us can respond, can step into a role or task that we have not done before, because we are “anointed by love” to offer ourselves for something we have never done before. That intentionality is at the core of our membership commitment. It was the gift my mother’s dying gave me.
This is the season of Advent, when (as Madelaine L’Engle says) love blooms bright and wild.
May we tend that flame as it flares in this community, knowing that our lives are shaped by long years of faithfulness to the disciplines of confession and forgiveness, of self-knowledge and learning from others, and knowing that we can claim the authority to lead worship and interpret scripture because Seekers invites all of us to share in the leadership and responsibility for this community.
Isaiah says, The spirit of God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; … and to comfort those who mourn.
We have all been anointed to do the work of love where we are, in the ordinary structures of our lives. Amen.