MARCH 13th 2011 SERMON
Service in Commemoration of those whose lives have been affected by Alzheimer’s and Other Memory Disorders.
2 KINGS 2: 1-12
I knocked hesitatingly on the door to Pete’s room, there at the end of the hall, last door on the right; I there in my clergy collar shirt and the ill-fitting jacket that had been handed down to me by my father, dress codes and all. It was my half of the hallway in the 69 bed medical unit of a large Methodist retirement complex in central Pennsylvania, where as a seminary student I was serving as a chaplain trainee that summer. Folks ended up in the medical unit for a number of reasons – but a lot of them were recovering from medical procedures or had suffered strokes or were in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s.
“Come in,” the voice, hoarse with age and hard working years called out as soon as my hand touched the door. I found Pete sitting in a chair, but quickly he rose to greet me. I began talking, asking questions, inquiring about his health and general nervous chit chat, but Pete wasn’t interested in talking. Gently, he lifted my sleeve, measuring the length of the jacket, tugging it to its full length towards the end of my hand. His eyes said, “Too long.” Next, he squared my shoulders and pulled at the corners of the jacket. “Too wide,” now his head shaking back and forth in disappointment. “A bad fit,” he said. “Leave it with me and I will fix it.”
A quick scan of his room revealed a carefully made bed with a handmade quilt, the kind made of colorful crocheted squares, on top. A small dresser, a night stand, framed photos, the room simple and neat. I had no idea how he intended to tailor an old Sears Arnold Palmer brand jacket, a size too big for my 32 year old frame.
A bad fit,” he said. “Leave it with me and I will fix it.” Then as an afterthought, “Whoever did this, they know nothing. Nothing. You should have come to me.”
It was the farewell tour of a sort for Elijah with his prophet heir-apparent, Elisha, in tow. At every town they approached, Elijah would gently suggest that Elisha stay put while he would go forward. But Elisha could not let Elijah go. Couldn’t bear the thought of the bonds of friendship and mentorship being severed. So Elisha followed Elijah to Bethel, to Jericho and finally to Jordan. And in each town, a whole company of prophets would go out and meet them, reminding Elisha that that day, his master would be taken from him. As if he needed anyone, especially some fifty-odd people, to remind him of his private fear. And as they entered Bethel and Jericho and Jordan Elisha must have wondered, had to have wondered: “Would this town be our last time together? Would this town separate us and leave only the memories of what was?”
A few weeks later I found myself once again knocking hesitantly on the door to Pete’s room, just down the hall from another early Alzheimer patient, a minister, who thought that it was 1945 and almost the day of his wedding. Pastor Day was quite excited, about to marry his childhood sweetheart, and begin his ministerial career. He was so glad that I could attend the wedding. I excused myself and moved on down the hall, my mind reeling, I found the door to Pete’s room open, his wife having come for a visit.
I poked my head in and saw them sitting close, at peace, smiling. The old Italian tailor and his bride of nearly 60 years. The moment was too sacred for me to interrupt, so I apologized and said something about stopping by later and hurried away, me wearing a different jacket, hoping that this one fit a bit better for his liking.
The time had nearly arrived for Elijah. We read: “When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." Elisha wanted the greatest gift to be passed on. To be able to remember and put into practice in his own life all that was in Elijah’s life, to receive the fullness of Elijah’s legacy and honor him by embodying that legacy in his own life. "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit," he asks. Figured, we imagine, that a single share wouldn’t be enough, so much greater was his master, than he, Elisha, would need more just to get by.
Pastor Day’s daughter called: she was coming to visit. The summer heat had given way to a beautiful day and Pastor Day and I met her outside. She wanted to wheel him around a bit and spend some time with him; to walk and talk and remember. It didn’t occur to me until much later what it must be like for her, never knowing if the next visit would be the one in which he could no longer recall her name or remember who she was. It didn’t occur to me until much later if during each visit – at the moment that she stepped out of the car - if she heard the sound of voices in her head declaring: “Today he will be taken from you.” And then I wondered about Pete, if his wife thought the safe thing. If she worried that the next visit would be the one in which the old tailor would have forgotten her, thought her a nurse or just another kind soul come for a visit. If the next visit he would forget to take in the fit of her clothes, measure them with his eyes, and offer to adjust them so that they fit just right.
More than memory, more than love, more than life itself, something else binds us together against the forces that seek to tear us from one another: time and distance, Alzheimer’s and dementia, even death itself. That priceless treasure is God’s promise for us in and through Christ Jesus, our Savior. Through God’s gift of grace in Christ, we know that nothing separates us from the love of God. Likewise: we know, trust and believe with our whole hearts that nothing can separate us from one another, bound together as we are in Christ. As memory fades and years add upon years until death comes, we are still bound together in Christ who will never forget who we are and whose we are. Through Christ we live in the promise that the day shall come when all that diminishes us will come to an end; when all that leaves us broken and fearful and sad shall come to an end; when the burden of forgetting and the burden of caring for those who forget will fade until it diminishes into nothingness to be replaced by peace of the heavenly garden, the joy of the heavenly banquet, the waters where Christ bids us recline in peace and rest our weary souls and we find ourselves restored once more. We are bound to one another, even as we are bound to Christ and nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Whatever we may in time forget; whoever our loved ones may in time forget; let used cling with fierce determination and fearless hope that in Christ we will never be forgotten. The promise in which were marked and sealed in our baptisms never fades, never fails, always is remembered. Thanks be to God!