Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Fall is beautiful in Chicago. I think it’s my favorite season. My mom texted pictures of fall colors from her back yard in Colorado this week. Here the trees have just a touch of yellow and red the first sentinels of change. The colors signal change is coming. The colors reassure us change can be as beautiful as it is inevitable.
Our scriptures hold out a lesson for when change seems overwhelming. We’ve had our belly full of change, haven’t we? Some we never saw coming. Changes so sudden and complete it is more accurate to call them a rupture. A rupture is when things torn apart cannot be put together again. A rupture can leave us disoriented, unable to focus, lost in the wilderness, facing into an uncertain future.
The end of a marriage is a good example of rupture. A divorce upends our lives and everyone around us, our children, extended family, friends, and neighbors. The forever-promise to love one person the same way God loves everyone is the foundation marriage is built upon. Yet this preposterous promise is possible for us because God provides unconditional love in such abundance, we may draw upon it as a natural resource to build a life together, become a family, and take part in something larger than ourselves that is more than the sum of its parts.
Jesus said see, “…they are no longer two, but one flesh,” (Mark 10:8). Yet because we hold the forever promise of marriage in the earthen vessels of our lives our vow can be shattered and not go back together again. Once upon a time this is where the preacher stopped preaching this gospel. Marriage is a blessing and divorce is bad. Ask anyone who’s been through it, and they would probably tend to agree. But thanks be to God, the good news of our scriptures extends beyond marriage and divorce to meet us as we are, and where we live, even if that happens to be in the wilderness of our losses and failures.
We are in a wilderness today. We are living in a time that one rupture after another has washed over us in successive waves. The nuclear age undermined confidence in our safety. 9-11 upended our trust in our security. January 6 unraveled our assurance we could be safe with enough surveillance. Cell phone video has forced us to confront our ugly history of genocide, slavery, and systemic racism. Gender equality and sexual orientation is reshaping daily life. Climate change is forcing us to reconsider our lifestyle and our economy. The list goes on –did I mention the pandemic?
Ruptures leave us feeling bereft, unfocused, shattered, exhausted—even when that change is necessary, overdue, and righting historic wrongs. Fortunately, the Good News was made for such a time as this. We are met in our wilderness by the grace of God. God is with us when things fall apart. God will not abandon us to our faults, our failures, our bad decisions, or our broken vows.
Our scriptures point like a compass needle toward the new and brighter future God intends. With striking and welcome unity, all the lessons for worship today focus on the healing power imbued in other people, animals, and all living things. We are fashioned in God’s own image. We are made for embrace. Creation is a love story that opens to us as we turn with compassion and gratitude toward our neighbors and nature.
The truth is, we encounter the living God, not only in marriage relationships, but also in compassionate relation to all living things, including animals and people regarded as unimportant non-persons living among us. God’s grace is a natural resource. It has saving power to heal and redeem us. It flows to us through and from other living things. I’ll give you an example.
In 1991, in upstate New York, a young physician named Bill Thomas took a job as medical director of Chase Memorial Nursing Home, a facility with eighty severely disabled elderly residents. About half of them were physically disabled; four out of five had Alzheimer’s or other forms of cognitive disability. Thomas soon realized working there depressed him. He saw despair lurking in every room. Old timers told him he would get used to it. But he didn’t get used to it. Instead, he tried to fix it. One attempt after the other all failed. Finally, he hit upon a solution that worked. He brought in two dogs, four cats, and one hundred birds. To bring the nursing home to life, we would fill it with life.
“People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking,” Thomas said. “People who had been completely withdrawn and unable to walk started coming to the nurses’ station and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’” All the parakeets were adopted and named by the residents. The lights turned back on in people’s eyes. Soon they added a colony of rabbits and a flock of laying hens. There were also hundreds of indoor plants and a thriving vegetable and flower garden. The home had on-site childcare for the staff and a new after-school program. Now children, animals, live plants, and seniors were all part of daily life of the nursing home.
The number of prescriptions required per resident was cut in half. Total drug costs fell to just 38 percent compared to other nursing homes. Deaths fell by 15 percent. Researchers couldn’t say why. But Thomas thought he could. “I believe that the difference in death rates can be traced to the fundamental human need for a reason to live.” (Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, Chapter 5, “A Better Life”, pps. 111-147)
We could add to Thomas’ answer words which we read from the book of Genesis. God said, ‘It is not good that we should be alone’ (2:18). Indeed, it is very good when we are together. Our lives are strengthened, our hope is restored, as we involve ourselves with one another and with all living things. In these helpers, partners, and friends we find a sustaining purpose for our lives. We walk the road out from the wilderness of rupture and change.
Colors in the trees proclaim a new season is dawning. Change may cause us grief, but the reality of God’s grace assures us each rupture will be followed with healing, and the possibility to begin again. Let us pray. “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through our Lord and savior Jesus Christ” (ELW, Evening Prayer, p. 317) Amen.