“Let the little children come to me”- A Sermon for Oct 7, 2018 (20th Sunday after Pentecost)-The Rev. Libby Berman

let-the-little-children

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts together be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

“(Jesus said to them):  Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

After our several weeks of using a new Sunday liturgy and our using sermon time to learn more about it, I wondered where the Spirit would lead me, as I re-engaged with a more familiar kind of homily.  I was not to be disappointed by the Spirit. On this past Tuesday, I attended the annual Clergy Day gathering in our diocese–about 300 gathered in the same space where many of us shared in Amy’s installation celebration last weekend.  Programs at such “professional development days,” as you likely know, sometimes can be terrific…but at other times are just deadly dull. I hadn’t heard about who was speaking, so as I sat down, I wasn’t sure what to expect. (I had forgotten my cross-stitch, too, so I was particularly anxious about the morning to come!)

The speakers, it turned out, were a couple that Bishop Alan had known during his time in parish ministry in Cleveland.  Tracy, the first woman who spoke, had recently retired as Dean of the Cathedral; her wife, Emily, had worked in real estate but also recently had retired, in order to travel with Tracy, as they have undertaken, together, an entirely new ministry together.

Tracy told us, right off the bat, that two years ago this fall, she had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, that her life expectancy supposedly was somewhere in the 7-10 year range, that the diagnosis turned her family’s life upside down, that they have been astonished and demoralized by the stigma around this disease that they have experienced—AND, that by the grace of God, she somehow has found her footing and, (having retired from her position as the head of a large cathedral staff,) she is giving her time, for as much time as she has, over to living well and to teaching, around the country and around the world, in fact, about dementia and the ways in which we all can work some much more healthfully with it in our communities.

At the end of her talk, Tracy said those of us assembled, that, given the usual demographics in the church today, probably about 30 of us in the room were actively facing this disease, and that probably about 5% of the people in most of our congregations actively were facing it.  Many of us sat quietly, then, thinking about our colleagues in the room; thinking about our parishes at home. Tracy then encouraged us, as she said, “to find some Sunday when the lessons of the day seem to lend themselves to this topic and speak about it.”

“(Jesus said to them):  Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

I have spoken, so far, only of Tracy’s words to the clergy gathering.  Emily, her spouse, spoke to us, too. The two handled the program beautifully, going back and forth, trading places at the podium throughout the morning.  Each woman spoke about what her experience of their love and relationship had been like before Tracy’s diagnosis, how they experienced the diagnosis, and what their life feels like now.  Both stories had pieces that were hard to hear. Both women painted beautiful pictures of their lives pre-diagnosis; both were happy, they reported, and completely engaged in their vocations and communities.  Then, each in her own way, they devastated by the diagnosis; the first year afterward was filled with change and fear. But then Emily and Tracy’s stories diverged a bit; they changed in content, as they each began to share stories of their changed senses of self and their changed relationship.  Emily has needed to change from the quieter spouse to the more proactive spouse. She has felt called to co-leadership in travel and speaking ministry with Tracy, in ways that she could not have predicted, or even imagined. She has continued to be angry, but is settling into a relationship with the new Tracy that is emerging, and ever-evolving.  She was honest about her anger and sadness over what has been, but also open-hearted about the blessing of very much more time together, and the openness about loving relationship with one another which she says comes more easily now, with even just the touch of Tracy’s hand.

Tracy’s journey since diagnosis has, as it must, be different.  She described needing to let go of her cathedral ministry; she said that, while initially it was hard to do, she now knows how much it controlled her, worried her, kept her aiming at “perfection.”  She has let go, she says; she is learning how to live in the present moment, which is what she has been given. And she has been falling in love with it. Tracy is trying to come to terms with increasing dependency on others, which she (like so many of us) deplores.  But who among us, she says, will not come to this stage of our lives at some point? For whom is it not appropriate to name our fears of it, make good plans with others for it, and imagine what gifts this stage of life might bring? One of the most profound things Tracy said about her life is that she, living as she is, more and more in the present moment, delights in things she never really saw or explored closely before–the sunset, a flower, a piece of art, silence, Emily.  She feels she is seeing–and has full permission–to see life more and more like a child, and that she loves it.

“(Jesus said to them):  Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

So I could not help myself from bringing you Tracy and Emily’s story this morning.  It moved me, and so many of my colleagues, very deeply. We all have worked with individuals who are have been diagnosed with one of the many forms of dementia, and with their families.  Most, if not all of us, here, have at least one family member who has experienced this disease. In my case, my mother experienced increasing dementia (which no one “really” spoke of) for several years, before spending her last few in an assisted living facility (albeit a very good one) .  At our clergy day, we were invited to take a few moments, mid-morning, to share with those at our table our personal experience with dementia. I will tell you that it was a period of deep sharing. I invite you to take a moment to do the same, if you are called, in a moment with a friend after this service…

So, where does all this naming leave us?  I am left, after Tracy and Emily’s stories, and my own experience, with the realization that there are all kinds of feelings we can have about the dementia that, given folks are living longer, is all around (and perhaps in) us.  AND, I am continually learning that it is healthy and liberating to acknowledge those feelings–and to find people to share our stories with.  It also has reminded me that dementia is an illness, not a failing, and that talking out loud about it–all of it–demystifies and de-stigmatizes this disease.  It’s in the world we live in, like the many, other conditions of people; it’s actually a pretty normal part of the human experience.

Finally, that last teaching of Tracy that hit home with me is the one I’ll end with–good for any of us to ponder, whether we’re living with or near someone with dementia, or not:

Tracy says she is living more and more in the present moment, delighting in things she never explored closely before–sunsets, flowers, art, silence, Emily.  She feels she is seeing–and has full permission–to see life more and more like a child, and that she loves it. In our passage from Mark, today, the disciples “spoke sternly” to those who were “bringing little children” to Jesus.  But when Jesus saw this, he said to them, “Let (them) come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  Often, in the Gospels, we hear Jesus honoring children–he honors their place in our communities, he suggests that they are wiser than the wisest adults, and that they have special knowledge that we adults do not have.  Here, he makes an even stronger point:  “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

How is it then that we can become more childlike, in the way Jesus is suggesting?  What is it that children do that we could learn from and thereby making ourselves more receptive to the kingdom of God?  Perhaps by taking time, as Tracy now does, to stop-and-smell-the-flowers? Perhaps by speaking plainly–about sadness and joy, as Emily now does?  Perhaps by letting some of our anxiety-about-the-cares-of-the-day go by the wayside? There are so many possibilities.

I give thanks for the life and witness of the two women who shared about their lives on Tuesday.  May we all have the courage to do the same, and thereby come closer to the Kingdom of God. Amen.

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