The Epistle lesson appointed for this Sunday is Philippians 4:4-7: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
I was surrounded yesterday with people who are rejoicing. They are not rejoicing because all of their Christmas shopping is done or because they anticipate the arrival of family next week for the celebration of Christmas. In fact, none of them are Christmas shopping this year. And none of them will have anyone come in from out of town to bring them Christmas cheer. Still, they were rejoicing as if they had just read this passage from Paul.
I went to the nursing home yesterday to visit a member of the church who has recently suffered a stroke. Ruth is an amazing person who has lived in Washington since the early 1940s. She is someone I have grown to love and appreciate as she is at the church any time the doors of the church are unlocked. You could always count on Ruth to be there whether it was Wednesday morning Bible study, Sunday worship, or Wednesday evening activities. She's quite remarkable and quite wonderful. She is in a different place right now as a stroke has removed her ability to enjoy her Massachusetts Ave. apartment for now. She can no longer walk all over downtown as she loves to do. She's not wearing her favorite outfits right now -- two pantsuits in very bright colors. Instead, she has different clothing, and she sits in a chair, allowing the wheels to take her to therapy instead of her feet taking her to the church.
If we were Ruth, many of us would find ourselves complaining right now. But not Ruth. Ruth was filled with laughter and joy when I saw her yesterday. She boldly sang "Silent Night" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" with me. She smiled. She said everything was fine. She said she was thankful. Ruth was rejoicing. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Accompanying me on my visit to Ruth yesterday was another one of our members. I take Eddie with me to nursing homes because I always get to see him rejoicing when we walk into a room. Eddie has an uncanny way of bringing comfort and joy to others. He has a way of making jokes that can always bring smiles. He has a way of reaching out and taking people's hands that enables the person holding his hand to grasp tightly. Eddie is a remarkable care-giver. And while he has never been to seminary, I always learn a lesson in pastoral care from him. Eddie always rejoices with the people we are visiting, encouraging them to rejoice, too, despite their circumstances.
I saw a bit more of Eddie's joy an hour before we left to visit people, however. I was sitting at a window table at a restaurant on 7th Street when Eddie went by on his bicycle, smiling as he peddled. Eddie's bike is not new. In fact, he bought it at a corner market for $30. He came in rejoicing on the day he bought it -- showing everyone his new found treasure. When I asked Eddie where he was going on his bike yesterday, he informed me that he was going to the downtown holiday market --a place where he could admire artwork and compliment the artists. Seeing other people show their art was enough to make Eddie rejoice. While he wanted to buy different things, he did not. He simply went to see the art and then was able to rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Prior to leaving the church to visit in the afternoon I met a man named Michael. Michael likes stuff. He has lots of stuff. He has some six different grocery carts. He has a couple of bikes. He has dozens of blankets and lots of clothes. He picks up things all over town and brings them to the corner of the church's parking lot. The corner was becoming quite a mess, as you can imagine. It seemed to be growing each day as I would drive into the parking lot. I was never able to meet the person who kept his stuff there, however, until yesterday when Michael was cleaning up his mess. Our building engineer had noticed him in the morning and asked him to clean up the corner, and he spent all of Thursday cleaning. The progress he made was amazing!
When I was leaving the church last night, I noticed Michael cleaning another spot at the church -- a pile of belongings that I did not know belonged to him because they were in a different place. This particular pile has caught my attention often. No one would see it from the street or the sidewalk as it is down in a window well next to the church. Michael has collected enough milk crates to make steps that lead down into it. He has made a place to sleep there at times while simply putting a lot of stuff there at other times. He then carefully covers it all up with plastic each morning, doing whatever he can to make sure nothing gets wet. The pile has made me ask often how on earth anyone could live this way, and why some people in our neighborhood have so much while others have so little.
Michael taught me a lot yesterday. When I complimented him on his cleaning job, he smiled big, sharing how he was thankful to have a place for his belongings. "The stuff is not safe at the shelter -- it will all disappear," he said. He was rejoicing. He was rejoicing because he had a 'place' to put his things.
Michael's 'place' is not a place many people would put their things. It is dirty. It is wet. It is near trash. It is open to all. Still, Michael is thankful to have it.
I then mentioned to Michael that the buildings would soon be demolished. I told him how fences would go up around the church sometime soon, closing the property off for construction. It was then that Michael's rejoicing ended, and his face became filled with uncertainty. "But where am I going to put my stuff?" Michael was immediately disheartened.
I now cannot seem to get Michael's face out of my mind. I learned yesterday that the building project is impacting him just as much as it is some of the members of the church.
It was only recently that I noticed everything in the window well. I now cannot help but to notice it. I have to stop and look in it each morning and each afternoon. I have prayed often for the person who spends time in that well, and now I know his name.
Michael, we can still rejoice. You do not know where your stuff is going to be kept come January. But we can rejoice. For the scriptures appointed for this week tell us one more thing. They tell us that a day is coming when the outcasts will be gathered together and everyone will have enough. And it is then that you will have the seat of honor. It is then that you will be welcome anywhere at anytime. It is then that your stuff will not really matter because you will have everything you have ever needed.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.