Waiting

A Sermon for Sunday November 28, 2010; Romans 8:18-24 and Luke 1:8-23, 57-66

I was driving along I-20 East, just outside my hometown of Birmingham. The skies were a bright blue and the sun was shining brightly on that Monday afternoon in August 2003 as I traveled down the road, filled with joy and excitement. I was feeling good about the summer internship experience I had just completed at a Presbyterian church in Florida and looking forward to returning to Columbia Seminary in Decatur to spend time with Elizabeth and other school friends.

But then my phone rang. A close peer and church friend from my youth group days called to tell me that another dear friend of ours was on death’s bed. “Kathy was in an accident last night,” said Rachel, her voice trembling with each word. “Her car overturned into a creek and by the time paramedics arrived, she had already suffered significant brain damage due to being underwater for so long. She’s unconscious and on life support now. The doctors say that Kathy only has a few hours left.”

I told Rachel I would be there as soon as I could and after hanging up the phone, I pulled off at the next exit.  Heading back on I-20 West toward UAB Hospital in downtown Birmingham, my joy and excitement instantly turned into sorrow and worry.  I called Elizabeth and left her a voicemail, telling her the news about Kathy, and that I wouldn’t be returning to Columbia that day. And then I phoned the associate pastor who supervised me during my internship. Nancy expressed condolences and offered up a powerful and comforting prayer as I navigated the busy downtown streets to find a parking spot near the hospital.

Within a few minutes, I had parked the car and was walking briskly toward the hospital. I was expecting to go directly inside where someone at the front desk would quickly direct me to Kathy’s room so I could see her and say goodbye before time ran out. But reality—which is not as dramatic and sensational as I pictured it to be—soon set in as I approached the entrance of the hospital and saw several old friends from youth group, including beloved advisers and pastors, gathered on the front steps, waiting for a life to end.  A familiar knot twisted tightly in my stomach as I joined them, ever so reluctantly, in the waiting.

One friend, after giving me a hug, said with tears in her eyes, “You’re in seminary, isn’t there anything you can say or do to change this?”  I didn’t know what to say so I simply shook my head, feeling the knot inside me become tighter. After my friend walked away to comfort another, one of my pastors and mentors said to me, “Folks always expect to minister to fix things but there’s nothing we can do but wait.”

So we waited…and waited… and waited.  For 90 minutes that seemed like an eternity, we waited till the family came outside and told us that Kathy died. But although Kathy’s death had come, our waiting continued. Only this time, instead of waiting for death, we began waiting for our emotional wounds to heal in the week leading up to her funeral and beyond.

And the waiting, says rock legend Tom Petty is the hardest part—“Every day you get one more yard/You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/The waiting is the hardest part.” [1]Many of you in this congregation know first-hand about the difficulty of waiting—

waiting for scans, chemotherapy treatment and test results

waiting for a new job that will help you turn on the lights and heat

waiting for a broken relationship to be healed and reconciled

waiting for a child to return from a war-torn country

waiting for a friend to get better from their illness

waiting for a relative to die peacefully and without suffering

waiting for the grief over a loved one’s death to subside

I confess that I don’t care much for the waiting precisely because it’s difficult, especially as a minister, feeling so uneasy and helpless when others are suffering.

I could only wait on a stool in a hospital room in Maryland (in the church where I previously served), and stare at the slowly-tumbling vital signs on a monitor as a mother of two teenage boys died of cancer.

I could only wait at my office desk here in Duluth and gawk at a Facebook page that said a young man had committed suicide or an email that said a teen has run away from home and cut off ties with family, school and church.

I could only wait in the back of a pick-up truck in Haiti and gape as a boy with a traumatic head injury was carried through a crowd of people waiting in line to see a doctor at a makeshift Red Cross clinic.

I could only wait on the edge of the bed and gaze at my wife as she tearfully shared how it’s unfair that her father is gradually losing his 3-year-fight with cancer.

I could only wait on my living room couch and read a news reports about a plane crash in Pakistan or deadly gang violence in Brazil.

I could do nothing to fix any of those situations, which only made me more anxious, frustrated and angry at having to wait.

At the very least, I should be able to come up with insightful questions that instantly give me the answers I need to make sense out of all the suffering that occurs in the world.  There are folks outside this sanctuary who are waiting for me, a minister of the word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA), to speak profound words of wisdom that will soothe their anguish. But like the priest Zechariah, I am usually struck with silence, incapable of saying (much less doing) anything that will magically take away the pain and grief.

Even fictional characters gifted with magic, like Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley in the book and new film version of The Deathly Hallows, can’t waive a wand to make their troubles disappear.  Despite their extraordinary powers, these heroic teenage wizards—in the middle of their difficult and harrowing journey to stop the evil Lord Voldermort—hit some unexpected snags and are soon forced to hide out in a tent in the forest and wait…for two weeks doing absolutely nothing.  [2]

Their frustration at not being able to immediately fix their situation or plot out the next steps to successfully defeat Voldermort stirs up their anxiety so much that they began to get angry and distrust one another. After a heated argument that nearly comes to blows, Ron (previously injured in a nasty fight with Voldermort’s Death Eaters) storms off and doesn’t return. Harry and Hermione, however, remain in the tent…waiting.

But it is in the waiting—the thinking/questioning/pondering/wondering/remembering/discerning/healing—that Harry and Hermione find some answers, discover important truths, and have an occasional “Aha” moment that enables them to eventually move forward in their quest to defeat Voldermort.  It is in the waiting that Harry and Hermione realize that they are stronger people and friends, having persevered through a difficult and painful experience together.

Interestingly enough, the period of time in which Harry and Hermione’s waiting occurs in The Deathly Hallows is the season of Advent.  This weekend I was reminded of the powerful significance of this special celebration in the life of the Church when I picked up a copy of the newly published book Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals, and read the comments on Advent. The authors write the following:

Advent, meaning “the coming” is a time when we wait expectantly. Christians begin to celebrate it as a season during the fourth and fifth centuries. Like Mary, we celebrate the coming of the Christ child, what God has already done. And we wait in expectation of the full coming of God’s reign on earth and for the return of Christ, what God will yet do. But this waiting is not a passive waiting. It is an active waiting. As any expectant mother knows, this waiting also involves preparation, exercise, nutrition, care, prayer, work; and birth involves pain, blood, tears, release, community. It is called labor for a reason. Likewise, we are in a world pregnant with hope, and we live in the expectation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. As we wait, we also work, cry, pray, ache; we are the midwives of another world.[3]

This note on Advent is reflected in Paul’s letter to the early Church in Rome where Jews and Christians are being violently persecuted by the Roman Empire and waiting expectantly for hope in God’s kingdom—another world that is free of suffering and oppression. The apostle writes:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in* hope we were saved.

Paul and other followers of Jesus thought the coming of God’s kingdom would happen in their lifetime, and that their wait would be a short one. They never suspected that believers living in the 21st Century would still be waiting for God’s world to arrive.   Whether God’s kingdom comes in our time is anyone’s guess…but I am convinced that God’s kingdom is coming, and that it is our calling—especially during Advent—to actively wait for the kingdom to be fully realized.

To actively wait means that we become the Church—members of God’s covenant family who are the eyes, hands, heart and feet for all those who suffer and mourn.

To actively wait means that we as the Church prepare, exercise, nurture, care for and work on our own spiritual life as well as that of the faith community through education, conversation, fellowship, mission, prayer and worship.

To actively wait means we as the Church make Christ’s mercy known through quiet discernment and subtle acts of compassion, not quick and showy fixes nor empty words.

To actively wait means we as the Church discern how to be patient and still to see how God and God’s goodness is moving among us.

To actively wait means we as the Church call a teenager who is grieving and mourn with them; encourage a moment of reflection and prayer after a long and hard day serving the sick and poor; offer a shoulder to cry on for the parent who lost their child or for the child who lost a parent; hold tightly the hand of a loved one whose best friend is dying; and pray for God’s reign of peace for people who live millions of miles away in areas devastated by disease, poverty and violence.

To actively wait means we as the Church ponder how God—by entering our lives as a poor and defenseless child who will later suffer a horrendous death on a cross—connects us to one another through difficult and painful experiences; joins us together in our humanity and our love for God and neighbor; brings our hearts closer to the Redeemer of the whole creation.

Amen.


[1] Tom Petty “The Waiting” from the 1981 album  Hard Promises

[2] Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling, 2008. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part 1, directed by David Yates, November 19, 2010.

[3] Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, John Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro, Nov. 16, 2010.

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