In her day Ruth might have been called a “sour puss” or perhaps a “gloomy Gus.” She was one of many elderly shut-ins at a previous parish where I served and I just called her Ruth. She was taxing, to say the least, and visiting her was exhausting. Our monthly conversation was always monologue; a prolonged, detailed, graphic litany of ills, anguishes, and perceived slights (I heard enough from her about goiters to last me a lifetime). Her ancient stories of injustices were so well rehearsed I could almost repeat them verbatim as she spoke. She droned of her exaggerated health problems; the only skeleton structure supporting her personality, near as I could tell. And no matter how long I stayed, it was never long enough. “Do you have to leave so soon,” she would say after an hour of rambling on about her afflictions. “But you just got here!” she lamented as the sun sank low in the afternoon sky. I always left feeling deflated, disheartened, and inadequate.
One day I learned Ruth had fallen and broken her hip. She had been taken to a hospital 60 miles away and then transferred to a remote nursing home some distance beyond that. I carved time in my schedule so I could get away and made the lengthy trip to call on her. Given how miserable she had been when she suffered just from perceived illnesses, I was apprehension about how I would find her now that she was truly incapacitated.
I walked into her drab, sparse room and to my surprise found Ruth to be in near beatific joy. In spite of the pain, in spite of the nursing home environment, and in spite of the changes her injury would surly mandate to her lifestyle, Ruth was upbeat, even glowing. She told me her long-estranged daughter was coming from Florida to be with her. And she told me her daughter and her daughter’s live-in boyfriend (an arrangement of which she disapproved in the past) insisted she move to Florida to live with them as soon as she was able to travel. Ruth had been estranged from her daughter for years and over the course of that time they never spoke, much less visited. But in a matter of days it was all going to change and the restoration of the mother/daughter relationship completely transformed Ruth’s countenance and personality. It is a miracle and a healing so stunning I have never forgotten it.
Today is the last Sunday of the season of Pentecost, the last Sunday in the Church year. Known as Christ the King Sunday, its theme is found in the Collect of the Day: “Almighty God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son...” The reign of Christ and the work of the Kingdom are all about restoration. It is the work of mending the torn fabric of our society, our relationships, and our lives.
In the end, at the last, we believe this work will be finally and firmly accomplished. But the Spirit, moving and active in our lives, stirs in us with a prodding suggestion: “Why wait until the end? Why not begin the process of restoration now? Why not experience the life of God’s Kingdom in this life by allowing the healing work of restoration to begin?”
The gospel reading points to this possibility. Scholars note Luke’s narrative of the Crucifixion differs from other gospel accounts in that it portrays Christ as reigning victoriously while on the Cross. Luke does not record the words of Jesus, “Abba, Father, why have you forsaken me?” because he wants to convey even the Cross could not rupture the communion they enjoyed with one another. In Luke’s gospel Jesus reigns as he forgives his persecutors because they do not know what they are doing. And in Luke’s gospel we learn of the conversation between the other two men crucified alongside him. Notice Jesus does not condemn the one mocking him, rather his focus is on the possibility of restoration with the one we refer to as ‘the penitent thief.’ “Today,” Jesus says to him, “You will be with me in Paradise.”
Not even the agony and the shame and the pain of the Cross are able to keep Jesus from doing the Kingdom work of restoration. In fact, in his darkest hour we find our clearest glimpse of God’s nature. We see the core disposition of God’s Kingdom. It is a place where all things are restored in Christ. Because Jesus is able to lift up this work even as he is lifted up on the Cross we learn the work of the Kingdom is stronger than the bitterest brokenness we have experienced and the worst we are capable of doing. We learn the power of the Spirit to bring about restoration is more compelling than all the pain and injury we create or suffer. And because Christ is able to continue this work on Cross, we who live by faith see in this moment not a human being nailed to a plank of wood, but a Lord and Savior reigning from a throne.
It is popular (but mistaken) to believe the Old Testament paints of picture of a God who is judgmental and consumed with wrath. We live into this notion by imagining God is constantly looking over our shoulder (as it were), wrathful at our every wrong thought, action, and motive. Today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah gives us a very different portrait of God to ponder. Jeremiah states clearly bad shepherds (and here he is referring both to religious and to political leaders) have scattered the people. Their actions have led to Israel’s fall to the Babylonians and subsequent exile.
Now if Jeremiah believes God is a God of judgment you might expect him to wax eloquent on how the people get exactly what they have coming to them; to connect the terrible events of the day to some communal sin or short-coming. You know what I mean, a kind of statement that might say, “We got what we deserved because we __________.” You can fill in the blank.
But Jeremiah does not even address question of why this misfortune came about. He moves right to what God will do in response to the people’s brokenness,
“I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where they have been driven, and I will bring them back to their fold. And they will be fruitful and multiply. And I will raise up shepherds who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing,” says the Lord.
The prophet gives us a vision of God who works not to judge, not to condemn, but rather to restore all things.
Restoration is something so desperately needed in our time. I don’t need to tell you there is a tremendous civic and cultural divide in our country. What does it look like for America to a have a sense of unity and common purpose? How can such a thing be restored? I don’t have an answer beyond a hope it is God’s intention for this to happen, so it falls to each one of us as people of faith to move toward what God seeks to do. We do this through our prayers, by the transformation of our attitudes, and with a change in our actions.
I once had lunch with a colleague who talked of officiating at the burial of a small child. The parents, he told me, have not come back into the church. They report all they can see when they enter the worship space is the tiny casket of their dear child. What does restoration look like for these grieving parents? My friend says to them, “That image stays with me too. But when I am in the church I also see an image of the time you two were married. And I see an image of the time when we baptized your child. And I see an image of the time when your child was in the Christmas pageant. And I remember this place as being more than a sanctuary of pain. It was also a place of great joy and celebration and thanksgiving.” Obviously no mere words will turn the heart of a grieving parent and my friend realizes it may be lifetime before some sense of restoration occurs, but our faith holds and hopes God is working to restore all things… even, and especially, the broken hearts of grieving parents.
So we come to this last Sunday in the Church year and are reminded God seeks to mend the torn fabric of our community, our relationships, and our lives. As I ponder the brokenness in my life I come face to face with the realization either I can join God in this work or I can resist it. What does it mean, in practical terms, to join God in the work of restoring those things broken in my life? What strength and healing do I need to find before I am ready to allow God’s work in such a way? These questions are far too personal for me to elaborate on in a sermon (and probably the answers are far too boring for you to hear), but they are real for me and I realize again the preacher’s challenge: It is one thing for me to do the work of writing a sermon while it is another thing for me to allow a sermon to work on me.
I invite you to walk for a while with a couple of Kingdom questions: What is broken in your life? Where is God working to bring about restoration? How might you join in this work in order to make our future hope a present reality? The great irony of Ruth’s life is that she had to fall and break her hip before the real brokenness of her life could be mended. A thief had to be crucified next to Jesus before he found Paradise. Two grieving parents still struggle to find what God wills and works for them. What is broken in your life and how can you join in God’s work to bring about restoration?