A PLACE OF TEARS AND FEARS
A Place of Tears and Fears – 11-8-2020 – Rev. Rhonda S. Cooper, First & Franklin Presbyterian
Joshua 24.1-3a, 12-15, 22; I Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13
I spend most of my week in a place of tears and fears. As many of you know, I am the cancer center chaplain in one of the hospitals in Baltimore. I hear words like relapse, recurrence and remission every day. And although there is a lot of anxiety, and fearfulness, floating around the cancer center, I can also say that every person with cancer who comes through the front door has some measure of hope, and all are looking for compassion. All are praying for healing, whether they are religious or not.
This is what I am saying: While there are tears and fears, there is also a great reservoir of hope within the Cancer Center walls where I spend so many of my waking hours. And I was inspired by today’s Scripture lessons to share a bit of my story-of-faith-and-ministry with you, with the hope that you will be encouraged, especially at the end of a week filled with both hopes and fears (and perhaps some tears). I hope that in sharing my testimony, it will in some way resonate with your own story of faith and encourage you to share it with others.
I was raised in the United Methodist church by my parents and grandparents in east Tennessee. My home church was a big brick building full of stained glass and lots of good music, a church with a tall spire and a lighted Red Cross at the top. The church was nicknamed “The Red Cross Church” because you could see that glowing spire from the whole neighborhood. My grandfather Melvin had a barber shop across the street, and he used to point to the church and say to me, “As long as the red cross is shining, I know that God is with us.”
My parents met in that church as young adults; they married there; and my brother, sister and I were all baptized there. Church was part of life, especially the Sunday School, youth choir and Vacation Bible School every summer. (I confess, I loved the craft-making as much as the Bible lessons.) The pastors, teachers, ushers and church people were kind and forbearing, and they impressed upon me that I must make a difference in the world.
Maybe it was predictable that I would become involved in Christian activities in high school. My friends and I were typical teens, unpredictable and moody, to be sure. Yet we also looked to the adults in our lives for stability in the tumultuous days of the 1960’s and early 70’s. Some of you can remember those days of campus unrest, the Vietnam War, racial cruelties, assassinations, burgeoning drug and alcohol use among youth in the suburbs – not to mention our own adolescent struggles to “find ourselves” and achieve independence. The generation gap was as wide as the Mississippi River, and we were anxious to find direction and purpose, as well as acceptance and hope.
To be sure, the youth leaders could see – and experienced – our rough edges, and they loved and supported us all the same. By the grace of God and with a great deal of patience, they saw us as Christ saw us, as God’s beloved. And they gently encouraged us to “choose whom we would serve” – as young people and adults-in-process, just as we encourage our youth today. Echoing the words of the Scriptures, they gave us hope that we had a choice about our future.
And by the grace of God, we found direction and purpose in the paperback Bibles we carried, all marked up and annotated by our own hands. We went to Bible study and prayer groups with our friends. We sang Amazing Grace to the tune of the Coca Cola song. We marched for Jesus. We attended revivals in all the churches, for we were very democratic as far as the denominations go. And honestly, our parents were not sure what to do with us, given our evangelical enthusiasm.
So … there were plenty of tears and fears in those adolescent days, but big dollops of hope as well … in a God who loved and accepted us “just as we were”. We found hope in the promises that God would not desert us or the world, a world that seemed so uncertain, even frightening, to an anxious teenager. In fact, we were entranced by the passage from I Thessalonians about the “rapture” – that cataclysmic event in which all the departed would rise up to meet Jesus at the end of the age. We were so enthused by the thought of Jesus returning for us, the people he promised not to desert even in the most fearsome of times. We were inspired by such a grand display of faithfulness and fantastical promise.
So perhaps unsurprisingly, one evening during a revival service – for in the South going to revivals was a part of our social life – one evening at the Baptist Church I felt my heart “strangely warmed”, as John Wesley would say. I went down front at the altar call, and I signed a big leather-bound book, committing my life to Christian ministry, scarcely knowing at age 19 what that really meant. To college and seminary I would go, to prepare my mind and my heart for ministry. In 1977, my call was confirmed by the same church where I was baptized years earlier, leading to my ordination as a clergy person.
I began my ministry as a pastor in the United Methodist Church 40 years ago, and for over half of those years as a hospital chaplain. My “parish” for the last 15 years in the Cancer Center includes the patients and their loved ones, to be sure, and the nursing techs and the environmental services staff, the painters and carpenters, the social workers and physical therapists, the nurses and doctors. So that, in the spirit of Christ who once said, “I was sick and you visited me,” I can testify that I run smack-dab into Jesus every day – in the faces and stories of the sick and all who suffer with and care for them. And I am so grateful, so very grateful for my calling.
One thing we all know is this: We know neither the day nor the hour when life can suddenly change. We know neither the day nor the hour when the bad news will come, about our health or our job or politics or the economy or a natural disaster or the lives of our loved ones. We are warned by Jesus to be neither forgetful nor foolish about this fact of life. We know neither the day nor the hour that life will change forever, and we are called to live aware of the promise as well as the fragility – and unpredictability – of this life.
Oftentimes, I’m in someone’s hospital room and I look out the window and I see the First and Franklin spire, majestic as it is, piercing the sky above Baltimore. And I am again reminded that God is with us, and that all along the way people have not only loved us but also taught us that we can choose whom we will serve, each and every day, always with hope, even during the most fearsome, tear-some of days. By the grace of God, hope resides with us, around us, within us, among us … carrying us through … this fragile, unpredictable life.
When I was confirmed as a child, the preacher told us that when he sang the refrain of “Blessed Assurance,” he substituted his name, as in “This is Charlie’s story, this is Charlie’s song”. And we children all joined him, substituting our names in the same way, a choral experiment that has remained in my memory after all these years.
So my friends, may this be our story, may this be our song … that we have chosen anew whom we will serve, with the hope and expectation of meeting Christ – in the air, on the street, around the corner when we least expect it, in the faces of those we encounter. May that be our purpose, may that be our goal. May that be our story, may that be our song. For God is with us … all the time. All the time … God is with us.
So be it. Amen.