The Rev. Libby Wade’s Last Sunday as Interim – June 27, 2021 Proper 8B Mark 5:21-43
If we had a marquee out front with a sermon title on it, then today’s sermon might be named “Sometimes We Need to Stop on the 4th Floor.” I begin with a personal story.
One summer Sunday several years ago, I left my church after the morning worship service to visit a parishioner, Mr. Wilson, who was a patient on the 6th floor of a nearby hospital. I was happy to do that, even though feeling a bit drained by the morning of preaching, teaching, and celebrating eucharist. I planned to spend a short time with Mr. Wilson and then head back to the church for a fellowship activity later that afternoon.
Though I was the first person on the hospital elevator, I quickly found myself standing against the back wall in that small space crowded with Sunday afternoon visitors (obviously a pre-COVID visit!). One last woman got on just before the door closed. I heard her say to no one in particular and to all of us in general, “I sure could use a place to pray.” Although I had spent a fair amount of time in hospital elevators during my years as a priest, this was the first time I had heard someone say those words out loud in the midst of a group of total strangers. I suspect a lot of people may be thinking something like that, however, as they ride the elevator to visit a friend or loved one. It was a bold and forthright statement of the woman’s immediate need. I was in the back of the elevator, remember? She couldn’t see me or my clerical collar. I could stay anonymous. I had no responsibility for her. She wasn’t my parishioner. My ministry destination was the 6th floor, not the elevator. I was silent.
A more helpful passenger said to the woman, “I think there’s a chapel here somewhere.” I then ventured a toe ever so slightly into the waters of pastoral interaction. “The hospital has chaplains on call 24-7. You could ask a nurse to call one for you.” At the time, it seemed a reasonable response, but in hindsight, it was really a bit absurd. There was, after all, a priest right there on the elevator with her and that very priest was suggesting a nurse could call a chaplain! I can sometimes be a bit slow understanding the need right in front of me and accepting responsibility to respond.
My destination was the 6th Floor. The woman’s destination was the 4th Floor. The elevator stopped on 4. She got off and went around the corner toward the Intensive Care Waiting Room. I waited impatiently for the door to close so I could get on with my mission. Someone on the elevator commented softly, “You can pray anywhere, you know.” It was obvious we had all been affected by the woman’s plea for help. Meanwhile, the elevator doors seemed to be stuck open. It was as if the woman in search of prayer had touched me and was pulling me out of my original plan for a quick visit with a parishioner to remember that the need to reach out a helping hand doesn’t always come in neatly planned blocks of time. Sometimes, perhaps more often than not, it comes in the interruptions to our plans. Thank goodness for the helpful delayed closing mechanism on the hospital’s elevator doors! Before those doors completely closed, I finally got the message that the 4th Floor definitely needed to be one of my stops that afternoon. I pushed my way to the front and got off!
Finding the woman in the waiting room, I explained that I was a minister and offered to find a spot where we could talk and pray. Her face lit up. “Thank you,” she whispered. We didn’t go far, just to another set of chairs in a quieter corner of the ICU waiting room. She poured out the story of her husband’s heart surgery and her fear that his intense pain would cause him to lose the will to live. We prayed together, and I thought my work was done. She was calmer and I was, too. Then, almost embarrassed to ask, she posed a question: “Would you visit my husband and pray with him, too?” I’d learned my lesson earlier on the elevator and was now convinced that this interruption in my afternoon plans was more than just an interruption, so I said, “Sure.” We spent a few minutes in the ICU unit with her husband before I made my way to the 6th floor and my original mission.
The elevator woman and her husband in ICU with whom I spent a bit of time that afternoon were from another state, far from their own pastor and church and in need of pastoral care – nothing major, just a listening ear, a hand to hold, someone to help give voice to her prayers, help hold her fears, and remind her of God’s presence in the midst of all that was happening with her husband. It would have been so easy to ignore their need, to pass off this encounter as someone else’s responsibility. It would have been simpler to keep focused on my 6th Floor destination, while persuading myself that this woman and her husband were, after all, not part of my flock. Thank goodness the Holy Spirit was working hard that Sunday afternoon and didn’t let me get away with that line of thought! Yes, Mr. Wilson did need me to visit, but there was time to do both. God had given me the abundance of most of an afternoon at the hospital. The fellowship event back at the church would move along quite nicely without me. At the very moment when I thought I had almost no reserve energy left, nothing much to give, somehow a woman whose name I don’t remember touched me with her need, and I learned once more that God gives us strength and nudges us to open ourselves to those in need rather than putting on blinders and tightly closing our fists and hearts.
Life is full of interruptions. Ministry, it seems to me, often happens in those interruptions–in a chance meeting with a stranger on an elevator, a knock at the door from someone who didn’t make an appointment, a simple conversation with a co-worker. We can shut out the person and ignore the need or be open to it and let God shape the possibilities. The choice is ours, and the blessings are ours when we follow our Lord’s example of caring for neighbors and strangers.
Mark’s gospel tells a story about Jesus’ experience of ministry in the interruptions and his profoundly generous compassion for the needs of others. Jairus’ daughter is ill—near death—and Jesus is on the way to visit her. It’s a busy and stressful time for Jesus. His healing powers are creating a reputation in the countryside and the crowds follow him wherever he goes. There are many demands on his time, and his energy must have dropped pretty low at times. We know he sometimes needed to take time away to recharge himself, but on this day he had a destination in mind and was purposefully heading toward Jairus’ house to help his sick daughter. As usual, a crowd gathered around him on the road.
In the midst of the crowd pressing in on him, Jesus felt someone touch him. It was an interruption in the day, a distraction from his mission of compassion. In the narrative structure, it’s a whole paragraph thrown right in the middle of the first story. The story of Jairus’ daughter will have to wait a bit. Jesus doesn’t take as long as I took in that hospital elevator to understand what’s going on. He immediately responds to the woman who interrupts his journey. This woman with a twelve-year flow of blood – a chronic and undoubtedly debilitating situation – needs help, and Jesus stops his forward movement in order to attend to her needs. He settles into the interruption.
Does he then forget about the twelve-year-old girl waiting for his healing touch? Not at all. When someone comes to tell Jairus that his daughter has in fact died, it seems that Jesus might have made a poor choice by ministering to the woman in the crowd, but Jesus continues the trip, and in the end there is healing for the little girl, also. There was time for both the woman and the girl, and there was energy for both from Jesus’ abundance. He gave to both out of his generosity and compassion. It doesn’t come as naturally for me as it did for Jesus – this ministry-in-the-interruptions thing! I like to keep things neatly organized and planned out, as Rick and Kathy can attest based on my weekly e-mails to them. In spite of that, time and time again I’m reminded in small and large ways that we ignore the chance encounters and interruptions to our schedules at great risk. The lesson in all this? Pay attention to the interruptions and be open to the ministry possibilities.
My work as your Interim Rector was interrupted just before Christmas last year by a cancer diagnosis. Your leadership team might have decided to find a new Interim, one who could more fully devote time and energy to your transition needs. If your 6th Floor goal was calling a new Rector, you might have logically decided it didn’t make sense to get off at the 4th Floor to hold my hand through a crisis! Instead, you took that interruption in stride and ministered to me, giving me generous space for surgery and recovery in February, and then in April, space for radiation treatments. You showered me with care and compassion, carrying me through a very difficult time and helping me to begin healing. I will always be grateful for your generosity and kindness. Now your goal of having a new rector in place is on the near horizon, as you prepare to welcome the Rev. Tina Rathbone in August. Excitement is building around that.
We’re back worshipping in person here at Crissey Farm after the pandemic exile of more than a year. That’s exciting, too. Yet even the pandemic interruption in the trajectory of the parish has brought positive results and opportunities for ministry. We’ve learned a lot about what really matters in building and sustaining community. We’ve learned that technology can offer broader ways to connect us. We’ve tried some creative ways of worshipping together on Zoom, such as the Healing Service last December, the Virtual Intergenerational Christmas Pageant, and the Festival of Hymns last Sunday. We’ve developed stronger collaborations with our fellow Berkshire Deanery congregations, and a vestry sub-committee called “Connections” is working to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks as we re-assemble in person. As the Wisdom Group begins meeting again this week to discern the way forward for Gideon’s Garden, we give thanks for the fine work of Annalise and Matt in this transition time as we joyfully watch the garden grow. We know the names of that powerful garden ministry and of Lee Food Pantry and People’s Pantry and Multicultural Bridge and Berkshire Immigrant Center. However, there will be other ministry opportunities that touch the edges of this congregation and call out for attention–perhaps ones that aren’t even on the horizon yet. Please be willing to stop and listen.
God’s grace is amazing. We see that grace in action as we watch Jesus stop to minister to the woman who touched him as he headed purposefully toward Jairus’ house to minister to a dying child. It is our role as Christians to follow Jesus’ example whenever and wherever we can with whatever resources we can muster. Sometimes the opportunity to respond to another person’s needs hits us when we are tired or hurrying to meet an appointment or obligation. Jesus needed to get to Jairus’ house. I was headed to the 6th Floor of the hospital that summer Sunday. Jesus stopped along the way to help a woman who interrupted him by touching his cloak. I was prodded to realize that I needed to get off on the 4th Floor and minister to a woman whose words had interrupted my carefully planned afternoon. May God give us the courage to pay attention to the interruptions in our neatly ordered lives and open our hands ungrudgingly to the needs placed before us, all the while trusting that God gives us strength and grace sufficient for the day. Sometimes we really do need to stop on the 4th Floor for a little while!
God bless you, each and every one, and God bless those to whom and with whom you minister. Amen.
The Rev. Libby Wade