An Image for Caregivers

A Sermon for 23 June 2019 – Caregiver Sunday

Let us pray: Holy One, who is Life itself to us; calm the restless places in us. Quiet the constant chatter in our minds. Center our spirits as we listen for your Spirit to speak to the deepest places in us. As Scripture is read and proclaimed, may we hear your abiding word to us. Through Christ we pray, Amen.

From the prophet Isaiah, we hear beautiful words for those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. As I told the children, today we are focusing on the needs of those who care for the needs of others. Many of you know because you are now, or you have at some point in your lifetime, cared for a loved one. Maybe it is a young child who is exciting to watch grow each day, but whose needs are endless until they are old enough to tend themselves. Maybe it has been your partner: your husband, your wife who, because of disease or age, became your daily responsibility. Maybe it is a parent – near or far – a grandparent, a grandchild, or the neighbor next door who has no one else. So you, out of your love for God and others, are stepping up to do what is needed. Caring for others can be a 24/7 job – you know that. It can be one of the greatest challenges of our lives. But it also can be one of the most rewarding experiences of growing as disciples of Christ who daily find contentment and connection with The Holy as we listen, feed, bathe, help in a whole variety of ways. Caregiving for a loved one as they age can be one of the most difficult things we ever will do in our lives as we grieve the loss of the one we have loved while they still are among us – just not quite as we’ve always known them. It can bring out the worst in us even as it allows the best in us to shine.

If you’ve been reading A Spirituality of Caregiving by Henri Nouwen, then you might find familiar Nouwen’s thoughtful words about caring. Nouwen writes: “To care is the most human of all human gestures. It is a gesture that comes forth from a courageous confession of our common need for one another and the grace of a compassion that binds us together with brothers and sisters like ourselves, who share with us the wonderful and painful journey of life.” Nouwen writes, “In the very act of caring for another, you and I possess a great treasure. One of the great riches of caregiving is that it embraces something more than simply a focus on cure. Caregiving carries within it an opportunity for inner healing, liberation, and transformation for the one being cared for and for the one who cares. And because we who offer care and we who receive care are both strong and vulnerable, though in different ways, our coming together in a caregiving relationship is an occasion to open ourselves to receive an unexpected gift” (A Spirituality of Caregiving, Henri J. M. Nouwen, Upper Room Books, 2011, p. 16-17).

So, for us who are giving care and us who are receiving care; this morning we are invited to listen to beautiful reminders to us from Holy Scripture. First, we hear God’s word to us in a reading of Isaiah 40:28-31.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. The LORD does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable. The LORD gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31 but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

Our next reading actually is the lectionary gospel reading assigned for this Sunday. Hear God’s word to us through Luke 8:26-39.

“Then they (Jesus and his disciples) arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” — 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So Jesus got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So the man went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

 

Irene had a most generous spirit! She came to a church I was serving shortly after a decade of caring for her husband in his last years of life. I loved Irene from the start! Her eyes sparkled like the bright summer sun shimmering across the ocean water. She was just the right combination of a beautiful spirit sprinkled with a dash of sass. Though frail when I first met her, you still could tell that this was no one to be pushed around! In fact, as the first to go to college from her rural Kentucky family, I sat in awe as Irene told me what it was like to be one of the first women allowed to study at Yale Divinity School. I admired Irene from the start. Not just for the trails I knew she had blazed for people like me, but for the way she came to me on like week two in worship to say: “Pastor Jule, now just because I can’t get around the way I used to, doesn’t mean I’m going to join this church to be the kind of person who sits back to do nothing from the pew. I intend to serve and want to talk to you about my gifts for teaching.” Irene wasn’t allowed to finish her studies at Yale Divinity School; but later in life, she earned herself a Ph.D. in English Literature and had enjoyed her students at the university where she and her husband both had taught. Irene was the kind of new church member pastors dream about. Not afraid to jump in to a new church family to see what she could do! I loved her from the start.

Which might explain why it was so obvious to me how tired Irene looked. She came to us a few weeks after moving into the local assisted living center. She couldn’t take care of her stately old home any longer. She really didn’t want to after the decade she spent there taking care of her husband’s every need as slowly he slipped away from her. Irene confided that those ending years were tumultuous. The daily demands of taking care of the man to whom she had committed her life so many long years ago swallowed up any other thing she might have needed to do – like process with him and by herself the struggles their life together included. But now it was too late. He was gone. Her spirit was troubled and her body was giving way to itself as all the years of lifting, washing, holding, dressing, feeding, caring for her beloved husband left her hobbled over. Unsteady on her feet, no longer able to stand erect. Irene was tired, in body, mind, and spirit after a decade of tending the father of her children, the man she had loved despite the painful challenges their marriage included. Irene had given daily care for a decade – she wouldn’t have traded a moment of those days for anything in the world. She had given care. The grace of compassion had bound her to her husband through his deep need. It was evident that she needed to receive. Grateful, yet weary, she needed rest.

Another preacher told me this week that nothing in the lectionary’s text from this week’s gospel of Luke jazzed him. Ugh. Jesus on the other side, healing the Gerasene Demoniac. Pigs rushing off a cliff. Town’s people all upset. At one level I agree. But then all week, I kept seeing in my imagination that man. Healed. All that was in him: gone. Can you see it too? In peace he is sitting at the feet of Jesus (Luke 8:35). What a shame that when the neighbors arrived at the place of all the commotion, they were afraid. They had grown accustomed to seeing the man whose whole world had been taken over by the “legions” inside. Possessed by forces beyond his own control. The story goes that for years the man lived in the wild. Naked. Alone. Homeless. He’d endured being shackled by the community to keep him from hurting himself or anyone else. Clearly this man was in deep, deep need. Upon meeting him, Jesus wants to know his name. The man doesn’t even know anymore. If you’ve ever been in deep need, you know how isolating the experience can be. How our memory can grow fuzzy. How the pain in our bodies turns our own minds on ourselves. It’s easy to forget who we are – who we were before – who we remain no matter the circumstances. Precious. Honored. Adored children of a God who invites us to come. Rest. Remember a love that never lets go. Can you imagine what it feels like to find yourself again centered in yourself? Sitting at the feet of Christ simply able to be.

Sometimes I think that the most difficult thing about caring is that there are no quick fixes to getting through the times we are pouring ourselves out for the needs of others. When we become the one who is responsible for the daily needs of a child, a parent, a partner; nothing is going to swoop in to magically make things all better. It’s hard. Hard work physically and challenging work emotionally and spiritually – we can give so much and feel so guilty that it’s not enough. I wonder if, in the most trying moments, maybe we can remember. Maybe we can steel away as many small moments as possible just to take one deep breath. To close our eyes – if even for 5 seconds – to see in our minds’ eye this Gerasene man. We may feel as tossed about within as he was by all that had taken him over. But with that breath – in that small moment of our great need while we’re receiving or giving care – might the image of this man whole. Centered. At rest at the feet of Christ, be something we can hold on to in the most challenging of moments? Might the gift of this story for caregivers and care receivers everywhere be the beautiful image of that man. Restored to his former self. Resting before the Great Caregiver. The Mighty Healer who is with us in our challenges, more concerned with our wholeness than anything else.

For those of us caring and those of us receiving care, please remember. Please be gentle with yourself even as you seek to find the tracings of God’s Spirit in and around it all. Tend those in need well and be gracious with yourself. Look for the ways God is with you. Know the compassionate Healer, the Great Caregiver, is at work. Rest. Centered fully at the feet of our Savior and Lord who shall make all things whole.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)

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