Message from Rev. Brian Adkins, Sunday March 22, 2020
Epworth UMC, Berkeley
A STRANGER IN THE NIGHT
A couple of years ago I received an email, written frantically and late in the night, from a woman in Kentucky, named Viola. A midnight email from a perfect stranger. At first glance it looked very much like one of the many emails I have frequently received from a crown prince of some foreign land, who apparently needs my help in a financial transaction. But this wasn’t one of those, Viola asked for my help in locating her granddaughter who was missing somewhere near Richmond.
As pastors, we get requests all the time from strangers, though rarely from folks so far away. Rather than try to decipher the information contained in the email, I took a leap of faith and just wrote, Viola, please call me.
She called immediately, and identified herself with all of the credentials she could think of that I might want to hear to believe she was who she said she was. They were lifelong Methodists and she had found our church online. Their granddaughter, Rhonda, was in the throes of the disease of addiction, in an abusive relationship and now, Viola feared, homeless and hungry in Richmond, California. She had called the hospitals and the police but they couldn’t help. She wanted to know whether there was anything the church I was serving could do.
I didn’t know what to do other than to share her name in the community. For weeks I watched for Rhonda as I drove through Richmond and El Cerrito, I kept an eye out for her. But I never found her. Viola and I stayed in touch for a little while, but that eventually faded. In her voice I heard my grandmother’s pain and worry. The same Appalachian twang, the same tears.
As the Fall approached, I still found myself praying for these strangers. The grandparents, and the young woman. Suddenly very early one morning- on my day off- the phone rang. It was Viola. She was asking for prayer. Rhonda had resurfaced in Northern California, near Eureka; abusive boyfriend in tow. Their car had broken down outside Fortuna. Viola was trying to convince her to leave her boyfriend behind and catch a bus back home.
Rhonda had walked or hitch hiked from where their car broke down to Eureka, and she found the United Methodist Church there; and that pastor was trying to help her get a bus ticket home. Viola was praying she would make the right choice.
The next Sunday, on my way home from church, I called Viola and she and her husband were literally pulling into the bus station to pick Rhonda up. Of course, we know that this is not a happy ending, but a new beginning, afforded by grace. The road ahead is long for this family.
I praise God that our United Methodist connexion- that is the network of our church- still works sometimes. For years I’ve been telling friends and loved ones who were traveling, “If you’re ever in trouble, find a Methodist.” Now, I hope that someone in trouble could find any church, any Christian and receive assistance. But my experience in Methodism gives me great hope that this is still part of our identity.
The second thing that this story reminds me is that hurting families are everywhere. It reminds me of Mr. Rogers says, “Look for the helpers.”
A NEW REALITY
Over the past few weeks we’ve drifted into a strange new world. While there have always been unknowns — we’ve always heard of wars and rumors of wars, disease and pestilence — for most of us, those things were in our history books or in news articles. We could read and say, “Oh, that is terrible.” And then go about our day. And now we find ourselves in someone’s news story, halfway around the world.
And we struggle with the emotions- the fears, the worries, maybe the anger, that accompanies our new experience.
I wrote in our weekly email that our shelter-in-place order has made me aware of the experience of those in our community who are and have been homebound. I wonder how this collective experience might change our attitudes toward those folks once we’ve made it through this and we find our way back out into the sunshine?
The Apostle Paul writes to the Church at Galatia this letter, and particularly this chapter, which I consider one of his greatest hits:
He opens with, “You foolish Galatians!” (Oh, you are spoiling us, ambassador!)
But he goes on to say, there’s room for everybody here in the family of God. And not just room, but equality. Regardless of your ethnicity or gender or socioeconomic status, there’s a place for you at the table of Christ.
Not to get them to believe what we believe or think what we think. We don’t all even agree on what we believe or what we think. But we want them to know what we know. That there is a love God who calls us to love. Everybody, everywhere, all the time, even when it’s challenging- especially when it’s challenging. It’s agape love- a love for love’s sake.
People don’t have to have a church to have a community. Or to belong. But there is something special about a community who’s purpose and mission it is to love.
GOD’S WORD BEARS WITNESS
Theologian Simone Weil wrote, “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, "What are you going through?”
In the Wesleyan tradition, we often ask, “How is it with your soul?”
Somewhere along the way, my dad developed this habit of asked my sisters and me, “Has anyone told you they love you today? I do and God does.” He started saying it everyone. Cashiers and baggers in the check out line at the grocery; people in drive through windows; telemarketers.
It was a shocking question. Some people looked at him like he was crazy. Some laughed and answered the question. Some broke down in tears at just being asked.
There’s a whole world out there dying to be seen; to be loved, unconditionally. A whole world that doesn’t have the benefit of a community of faith to journey with- a place to get a hundred hugs a Sunday.
Elsewhere Paul writes, “We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy…”
What will it take for our endurance to spill over into joy?
I spoke with a friend the other day who told me the thing she misses most about being at church is the hugs. At church, you’re guaranteed a hundred hugs, if you want ‘em.
Now, that we’re separated from friends and neighbors by the germs that we fear spreading, I wonder if we might be able to see that the things we thought stood between us before we never really there in the first place. The politics, the silly disputes and grudges.
I come from people who feud for generations about who started the last feud. We know how to hold a senseless grudge. (Ask my partner, Miike.)
Were it not for the church, I am not sure where in life, Viola and I would have crossed paths and had an opportunity to minister to one another.
But I have to admit my interaction with Viola- the cumulative couple of hours we spent on the phone, the emails we’ve exchanged, gave me a hope I have seldom felt in recent years. Being able to counsel with her, to strategize, and to pray together, was powerful and encouraging.
There are a thousand thousand more Rhonda's who need us to reach out, be present and bear witness. The Gospel still matters. It still has power to save. We are Christians- bound together by this belief that God is still at work in the world through and sometimes in spite of us. We do not have the luxury of hopelessness.
The forces of evil hold no power over us. Those who came before us have seen kingdoms and empires rise and fall. Institutions build and break. As the old ways crumble around us- again- and as our sense of what is normal is uprooted again, and in the face of the unknown, we press on in our commitment to
do no harm - in word or deed
to do good - always and everywhere
and to attend to the ordinances of God - practice of our faith, loving God and neighbor more fully.
In this way, journeying toward perfection - together - perhaps socially distant, but may we be spiritually closer than ever.
Thanks be to God.
This is usually the point in the service where we would have a moment of silence and music for reflection. We’re adapting to this new medium, so I just invite you to take a deep breath. As we will enter into prayer time, I invite you to share your prayers in through chat if you are watching this on Facebook live. If you have prayers to add to our prayer chain or would like someone to pray with you one-on-one, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.