March 3, 2019
Whenever I’m visiting someone in a nursing facility or a convalescent home, I find myself flashing back to my father’s final years. As his Parkinson’s Disease advanced to the point where my father was losing his balance, among other health issues, it became clear to my mother and to all of us that it was no longer safe for him to live at home. As many of you can attest to from your own family experience, that decision was emotional and not easy to make. But we took some solace knowing that the skilled nursing facility where my father spent the final part of his life was one of the nicer such facilities any of us had seen.
One of the things I liked most about that particular place was the signs they hung up outside the doors of each of the residents. The way I remember it, each sign had a picture of the resident who lived in the room and then there was some helpful information listed below. Like a brief biographical sketch, that information included what the resident did for work during his or her life, the members of their family, the name or nickname they preferred people to use when addressing them, and something about their hobbies or what they liked to do in their free time.
There were a few occasions when I walked up and down the hallway near my father’s room to read the signs outside the doorways of my father’s neighbors. Just to get a sense of the people with whom my father lived. Often the photographs give me a window into someone’s mannerisms or their clothing style. And when I read the information below, I developed a feel for who the person inside the room was.
For that particular nursing facility, the pictures and the information outside each door was a way of communicating an important message. Namely, have some respect for the person inside. This is who he or she is and this is who he or she used to be. This woman was once accomplished and successful. This man once touched a number of people’s lives. In other words, this person had an impact and their life made a difference. Those pictures were a lovely gesture and I appreciated the effort and the thoughtfulness behind them.
At the same time, I can remember thinking to myself, especially in relation to my father, what about the man he is now? Even though he was confined to a wheelchair. Even though it was sometimes hard to hear and understand what he said and other times his thoughts weren’t coherent. Even though his body and his mind didn’t work as well as they once did. I loved my father for the man living with Parkinsons Disease in that nursing facility the same way I loved my father for the healthy man he was during my earlier years.
And the truth is someday in the future I might be a resident living in one of those rooms. And there might be a picture of me hanging outside the door, with all kinds of information about my life and the people in my family. If and when that day comes, I hope people who work in that facility or people who visit me will love me for the man I am at that point. Whether I’m incoherent or incontinent. Or I’ve lost memory or mobility. Take me and love me as I am, I hope. Not just the person I used to be…
The prophet Isaiah in this morning’s Scripture lesson sounds like a preacher when he envisions a community where young people aren’t cut down in the prime of life. A world where a mother won’t have to fear that her baby will die of malnutrition or some other easily correctible sickness. A world where people’s labors come to fruition and where workers aren’t discarded like trash at a moment’s notice. A world where neighborhoods are filled with the sounds of children laughing and playing on the streets. Where there are no empty houses or boarded up windows anywhere in sight.
The thing is that none of those things Isaiah talks about in the beginning of this morning’s verses are extraordinary. In fact, you could probably find them in any party or candidate’s political platform. Our children shouldn’t die. Our workers shouldn’t be laid off. Our homes shouldn’t be foreclosed and abandoned.
However, Isaiah goes on to paint a larger picture…one that transcends politics and history. By the end of this morning’s lesson, Isaiah describes the lion and the lamb feeding out of the same trough. It’s a vision of peace where annihilation does not have to precede redemption. Where reconciliation with our neighbors is the sign of God’s favor. Rather than defeating our neighbors. Isaiah lays out a vision of God’s brightest future. A new creation where the old days have passed away and a new era has dawned…
One of the problems in our culture is that we tend to confuse newness with youth. The world belongs, or so it seems, to those with the biggest and the longest future. In the eyes of God, however, I don’t think we have our messaging right. God doesn’t promise to make anybody youthful. What God does promise is to make all things new.
The world would have us believe that human bodies are infinitely rechargeable, as if they are batteries. One pharmaceutical company will tell us they’ve invented the fountain of youth. While another promises us they have found the key to eternal life. Meanwhile no one out there is telling us the message we will hear in this sanctuary a few nights from now at our Ash Wednesday service. “You are dust, and unto dust you will return.”
It seems to me the people in the world who best understand the dust and ashes message also understand God’s enduring message of hope. Going all the way back to Jesus, the people who responded best to Christ’s ministry were the people who were down and looking up. The ones who were fresh out of future.
The ones who have options in life, like you and me. It’s harder, I think, for us to understand hope. I talk all the time to people who have no idea what they will be doing five years from now. But I never talk to anyone who thinks that in five years they will be in some sort of desperate need. That’s because you and I have options.
There is some imagination required to see the future through the eyes of the ones brought low. Then again, we could get in our cars after worship this morning and drive a few miles in any direction to a nearby nursing home and catch a glimpse. The residents who look out their window with a blank stare. Or the ones who shout out with indiscriminate noises that are hard to decipher. People whose bodies are failing them and whose words and thoughts make no sense.
If you didn’t know better, you could walk through the halls of any nearby nursing home and get the sense you were witnessing the hopelessness of what used to be. What the prophet Isaiah referred to as the old creation.
But I’m here this morning to tell you about a God who makes all things new. Lisa and I went to visit someone recently in a nearby nursing facility. The walls of that facility were dull and non-descript. Many of the residents in that facility looked down when we walked through the entrance or they stared straight ahead with blank expressions on their faces.
Together we visited with one man in his room. There was no picture hanging outside his door and no biographical information about him anywhere in sight. And the man was sitting in a wheelchair.
The three of us talked about a number of different things in our conversation. We talked about the past. Lisa and I asked some questions. We passed along the thoughts and prayers of this congregation. Yet it was really hard to tell from sitting there whether anything Lisa and I were saying was getting through. Because his responses to us didn’t make sense. Talking with someone who has dementia or Alzheimer’s can be like that. Things simply don’t fit together.
It was getting toward lunch time when Lisa and I decided to head on our way. Before we left, however, we offered to pray with the man. And instead of offering a spontaneous prayer, we decided to pray the Lord’s Prayer together. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”
I looked up as I was praying and the man we were visiting was praying the words out loud along with us. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” It was as if a light went on for the man we were visiting. Words that had been hard to come by for him suddenly came easily. What looked like a sense of relief crossed his face with the realization that he didn’t have to try so hard. And Lisa and I didn’t have to try so hard either.
“Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.”
We finished the prayer and the three of us looked at each other with smiles on our faces. Yes, even when we are older and struggling with health and our glory days appear to be behind us, the message is the same. God still promises to make all things new.
This is our assurance. And this is our hope. Amen.