You are not alone.
This month’s Bible study in the Christ women’s group was on this theme. Then women of various ages wrote on various situations: “You are not alone when you are at a crossroads,” “You are not alone when you’re sure you are right.” “You are not alone… when you are afraid.”
A teacher named Norma shared this story about that third one. “You are not alone… when you are afraid.”
When she was just 11 years old, she was home one mid-August evening. She was reading Little Women. The phone rang. “Mother said we had to go quickly to the hospital; she found a neighbor to take them. There they sat in a hallway for a long time waiting for someone to tell them something. Finally, Mother stopped a doctor passing by and said, ‘They brought my husband in, but I don’t know what’s happened to him.’ The doctor responded, ‘Don't you know he’s deceased?’ I didn’t know what that word meant—until mother cried out, ‘You mean he’s already dead?’” Norma writes, “To this day, I fear I will suddenly hear those words again. I feared I would hear them before my fiancé and I could marry… Burton and I have been married 55 years.”
The Rev. Dr. Norma Cook Everist, Summary of story from Gather, May 2017… page 23
You are not alone…
In response, Judy Nass shared her own story, and she’s given permission to me to share it with you this morning. When Judy was seven years old, she lost her Dad. When she was 22, she lost her Mom. When she got married, a great-uncle came to stand in for her parents. Maybe I already knew this story from years ago when I first sat in Judy and Dave’s home and asked them about their story… but this week, it sank in deeper, maybe because of these words from Jesus, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Judy is not the only one in our congregation who has had the experience of losing both her parents at a young age… of moving through some of life’s major milestones without beloved family members there to cheer her on… whether it was because of death or broken relationships, many of us have had these experiences of loss… and it’s from that deep place (whether we faced it with courage and determination or not)… that Christ promises, “I won’t leave you there.” Like Norma’s lifelong sense that this might happen again, many of us have a nagging sense that something has happened to us that no one else can understand… that in some way, we are on our own… and directly to that unspoken assumption and question, “Where are you?” Jesus speaks the Spirit of truth, “I will love you and make myself know to you.”
On Friday and Saturday, Pastor Elizabeth, Spence Blum, Kathy Kostad, Eric Miller (one of our seminarians who was invited to lead in worship) and I were at the synod assembly. Throughout 2017, our Bishop has been inviting us to reflect on a Bible passage from Matthew 9 where Jesus has compassion for the crowds and then says this to the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The Bishop’s report was crafted around this theme… of all the hard things we’re facing as church together, of all the hard things we’re facing as neighbors and communities, nations, globe, as a whole creation… and then, how God (the Lord of the harvest) is providing…
She told several stories and this was the third one…
She shared how she goes out regularly for breakfast with a particular friend, and on this day, their breakfast was at the French Hen. Right at 8 am, they walked in when their server unlocked the door. They sipped their coffee, opened the menu, and she began to imagine the dish she would order… maybe coconut lime French toast, or maybe biscuits and gravy with a cheddar chive biscuit, or maybe the quiche Lorraine… Then, their waiter, Ben, came over to take their order. He leaned right down to their eye level and said, “I have to be honest with you. The chef didn’t make it in today. So… I could give you a yogurt parfait or we have some pastries. I definitely have coffee, but if you want to go somewhere else, I would understand that, too.”
I’ve got to be honest with you. This is what we’ve got. Maybe it’s not what expected or hoped for but it’s enough.
Our church building was built 100 years ago with a capacity of 400. Our worship is typically 120, although if we all showed up at once, we would be more like 300… we could look at this as a reason for disappointment, shame, or embarrassment—that we’re not filling our space except when we host large groups who meet to advocate with legislators across the street… but this story of Ben-the-waiter’s honesty in the circumstances gives us a glimpse of how we might respond…
I’ve got to be honest with you. Changing patterns of religion, faith, and life mean there are those who aren’t showing up. So, look around. This is who we’ve got to reach out in this amazing neighborhood, along the Green line (with an average of 30,000 riders each day). This is who we've got and it's enough. Our Synod has just received a grant to gather young adults (19-29) to do local immersions such as the one Craig Dokken is doing right now in Tanzania in Atlanta, Georgia, and then, right here, along the Green Line, to imagine how to engage more actively with the diverse neighbors who travel the Green Line daily. We are going to want to be a part of that… to send young adults on our behalf and then listen deeply to what they learn together.
Recently, our youth members brought a resolution to Council to make even more clear our welcome to all people by making sure our congregation is included on websites promoting welcoming churches to GLBTQ+ people throughout the area. The Council passed this resolution, and at the Synod Assembly, I went to a workshop about welcoming where the need for this public welcome became even more clear… Did you know that in 28/32 states, if you are GLBTQ+, you can be fired or evicted for that reason alone? Did you know there is a travel advisory throughout Texas—that it might be dangerous to travel there? Did you know that by far, the majority of people 40 and under look for this marker—an openly welcoming church—because it matches their values around who should be welcome in our churches? So… as a congregation that has always quietly welcomed all, as we move into a time of having a more public welcome, how much are we willing to learn in order to be filled with compassion, again and again, as we learn more and more about God’s great diversity? Or as visiting Bishop Guy Erwin put it, "What's our capacity for change on behalf of the neighbor?"
“I will not leave you orphaned,” says Jesus in times like these, when there are crowds of people on the Green Line train, maybe feeling harassed and helpless… maybe wondering if they are all alone, going through whatever they’re going through…
Bishop Guy Erwin, visiting from the Southwest California Synod said that they joke in his synod that if every Lutheran would simply become an Uber driver and share the good news of Jesus’ welcome with one passenger, they would have an unprecedented wave of evangelism (that’s the churchy word for sharing the story of God’s love and welcome)… I think that’s true here, too. So, think about your own daily life… maybe you’re not a talkative Uber driver, but you do encounter people who need to know, they’re not alone. Though they may have been orphaned through death or rejection... God has not left them. God’s with them, and you’re with them—the body of Christ, the hands and feet and voice of Christ.Jesus says today, “It’s true, people can’t see me. But you can… the Spirit is living in you. Because you love me, you will do what I have said… (and remember last week, “You will do even greater things…”). Through sharing God’s outpouring, life-expanding love with others… it may be that we will know God in Christ far better than we have ever before, the God who will never leave us orphaned, the God who promises to be there for you.