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A sermon for travelers and other sinner/saints

May 2, 2013

I’m back home after two whirlwind weeks of travel, first to Minneapolis for my last Augsburg Fortress board meeting, then to Houston for a training with the North American Association for the Catechumenate.  I meant to post field notes from my trips while I traveled, but early mornings, late nights and a strong desire not to lug my laptop around with me mean I’ll be catching up and posting as I can now that I’m home.

One of the (many) things I missed while traveling was getting to preach at Redeemer.  This was especially hard given all that was going on in the news that first week in particular–the bombings in Boston, the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, the earthquake in China, all happening at once and making me long for the opportunity to worship and pray with my congregation.  The story that follows may show up in a sermon someday, but I wanted to share it with you now while it’s still fresh in my mind and on my heart.

On Thursday, April 18 I made my way to the Central Wisconsin Airport, feeling nervous and excited about my first solo trip since my son, Walter, was born.  In the car on the way there, I listened to some of the interfaith memorial service in Boston. Governor Deval Patrick’s speech hit home, with powerful honesty: “In my faith tradition, scripture teaches: ‘In every thing give thanks.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18) That isn’t always easy to do. On Monday afternoon, I wasn’t feeling it. What I felt, what so many of us felt then, was shock and confusion and anger. But the nature of faith, I think, is learning to return to the lessons even when they don’t make sense, when they defy logic. And as I returned to those lessons this week, I found a few things to be thankful for.”

We come back, again and again, to the “idle tale” of Easter morning.  It defies logic; it doesn’t make sense.  Bad news overwhelms us.  And yet, we have hope.  And yet, we give thanks.  Not because we are ignorant of all the bad news in our lives and in the world, but because we know that the Good News is stronger.

Governor Patrick introduced President Obama, who focused his remarks on the remarkable resilience of Boston, and on how even those of us who live far away have been touched by these events.  After the Governor’s humble and heartfelt words, the tone of the President’s remarks and “claim” on Boston didn’t sit quite right with me.  But, at that point, I couldn’t quite say why. I arrived at the airport, turned off the radio, and turned my attention to getting to my gate.

I didn’t really need to hurry to the gate, it turns out.  There was snow in Minneapolis, Chicago was flooded and there were tornado warnings in Detroit.  My fellow travelers and I settled in for a long wait: none of us were going anywhere.  We packed into the one tiny gift shop, which I was surprised to find offered a couple of hot meal options.  I would live to regret that chicken bratwurst, but in that moment, it hit the spot.  I read a book about funerals, propped my feet up on my roller bag, and enjoyed some lively in-womb activity. Baby Sally has just recently moved from the “gentle flutter” to the “persistent internal organ pummeling” stage, and it’s early enough in the pregnancy that I delight in every one of those punches and kicks.  It was nice to have some quiet time alone together so I could really focus on her movements.

As our mother-daughter bonding time in the waiting area dragged on, however, I started to think about my options.  Minneapolis is only about a 3 hour drive from the Wausau airport.  I’d decided against the driving option when making my travel plans because rest stops are not super plentiful on the route and I figured my pregnant self would need bathroom proximity.  Knowing that the weather would get nasty as I headed west gave me pause, too.  But when the flight had been delayed 3 hours, I started getting antsy.

“I could have been there by now!” I thought, and many of my fellow passengers started thinking and saying the same thing.  They were all trying to get to Minneapolis on their way to somewhere else, and were rightly worried about missing their connections and getting stuck overnight.  I eavesdropped on their conversations with our increasingly harried, but very kind, gate agent.  He assured each one that no flights at all were getting out of Minneapolis–their connecting flights weren’t going anywhere without them.  He tried to keep us updated, but that just added to the confusion, as the story coming out of MSP changed and changed again.  Small signs of hope (“One of the runways is open! We’ll board in 10 minutes!”) were followed immediately by discouragement (“Nevermind. The airport is closed. I’ll  give you an update in 20 minutes.”) Hope and woe, hope and woe.  It was a bit of a roller coaster.

In the midst of this, we were all aware of the news unfolding on the televisions all around us: the FBI had released grainy photos of the bombing suspects.  We peered at the blurry pictures, our own very minor troubles suddenly put into perspective.  We talked to each other a little bit; the friendly, lighthearted commiserating of people who are in it together.  I started to get a sense of who my plane-mates were and where they were going: the two ladies headed to Vegas for a conference, the very tall man and his teenage son going to Atlanta, the young mom on her way to Wyoming via Denver.

The young mom and I ended up being seatmates on the plane.  We discovered pretty quickly that we’re both from Stevens Point, and that her son goes to 4K at Redeemer.  As we talked, the plane made its way from gate to runway … and then stopped.  And turned around.  Back to the gate!  MSP was closed, and they were estimating another 2 hour delay for snow removal.  Our wonderful flight attendant, who had bonded with us during the delays in the waiting area, tried to rally our spirits with spirits: “I have wine and some ingredients to make cocktails,” she said. “Tell me what you want as you’re leaving the plane and I will hook you up.  I also have juice and snacks. We can do this!” Laughter and applause.  We made our way back into the waiting area and called our loved ones with the latest.

I called Sean and told him I was going to get in the car and drive.  At this point, the flight had been delayed 6 hours.  If I left right now, most of my drive would still happen during daylight hours.  I went to find the gate agent to find out what I needed to do to get off the flight without penalty.  When he appeared, it was with another update “We are cleared for take off!” he said, “Everybody come back right now and get on the plane!  Boarding all rows, let’s go!”

“I have a good feeling about this one,” I told my seatmate. “We are definitely going to get to Minneapolis this time.” She wasn’t as confident as I was, but she seemed hopeful, too.  And a little tired.  We were all a little tired.

The flight from CWA to MSP takes about 30 minutes.  You basically just take off, ascend, prepare for landing, and land.  Not long into our short flight, we hit terrible turbulence.  The bumps and rolls went on for what felt like a very long time.  This is when I began to regret that chicken bratwurst.  I looked in my seat pocket for an air sickness bag.  Nope. My seatmate checked hers, as did our immediate seat neighbors.  No bags to be found.  The very tall man caught the attention of our stewardess, way at the front of the plane.  The turbulence was so bad she couldn’t get up to help me, so she got on the PA and asked everyone to look for bags at their seats and send them my way.  Passed quickly from hand to hand, about 10 bags immediately arrived in my lap.  “I hope I don’t need any of these,” I told my seatmate, “But just to be safe.”  She nodded, looking quite green herself.

We leveled off for a moment and I took the opportunity to scoot across the aisle where there were two empty seats, left open by fellow passengers who’d given up and decided to drive.  I settled in and thought about not throwing up.  Soon, we had an announcement from our captain explaining why we’d leveled off.  “We are flying over Menominee right now, and we just got word that the airport is closed.  We’re going to circle up here for another 20 minutes or so, and then we’ll hopefully get to land in Minneapolis.” The captain sounded deeply depressed.  My seatmate and I exchanged looks of despair.

As we circled, our flight attendant made her way back to my seat with a bag of ice to put on my neck, a can of ginger ale (“Just little sips!” she warned,) a pile of paper towels and kind words of concern and encouragement. The ice helped a great deal, but I was still worried.  While pregnant, once you get nauseous it’s pretty hard to recover.  The stomach acid isn’t easy to call back.  But I kept breathing and thinking positive, non-vomitous thoughts.  Soon, we started our descent into MSP. As we hit the runway, I looked across the aisle and my seatmate gave me a huge smile and two thumbs up.  “You made it!!” she said.

And that’s when I threw up.

With my head firmly ensconced in airsickness bag #1, I became aware of a very large presence suddenly filling the seat next to me.  It was the very tall man.  My first thoughts ran along these lines: “Very tall man, you are sitting very close to me.  I am kind of trying to have a private moment with my bag, here.” But within seconds he had cleared away my coat and other traveling debris, giving me more space and air.  He took the bag of ice and held it up to my neck.  When I was done throwing up, he took away the bag, sealed it, and passed it to the flight attendant who took it away.  He dabbed gently at my face with the paper towels and offered me some tissue, some water, and some ice.  “This happened to my wife when we flew and she was pregnant,” he said.  “It seems like just yesterday, but look!  He’s seventeen.” I looked over and saw the very tall man’s son sitting by the window, looking a little green himself. “Yeah, he’s not feeling too good, either. I was watching both of you,” said the very tall man, “and I figured at least one of you was going to need my help!”

We arrived at the gate and everyone got up and gathered their things.  I was the only person on the plane who had arrived at my final destination, so I stayed put to let everyone get off and get to figuring out their connections. The Vegas ladies gave me a breath mint and big smiles. A beautiful woman traveling with her granddaughter patted my shoulder and said, “You did very well.”  My seatmate and I wished each other luck and exchanged looks of mutual exhaustion and encouragement.  The flight attendant came back and helped me clean up some more, all while making sure I was feeling better and had a way to get to my hotel.

When I got to the hotel and collapsed in a heap on the bed, my first thought was: “People are basically good.”  I went to sleep full of faith in the basic goodness of humanity.

As I reflected on it more the next day, though, I revised that thought.  People are basically complicated.  People are basically saints and sinners–all of us, we are both saints and sinners at the very same time. We are living paradoxes traveling about and behaving in all sorts of contradictory, illogical ways.  That’s why Governor Patrick’s speech touched me in a way that President Obama’s didn’t.  President Obama’s speech was just one story: the story of a mighty and resilient city.  Governor Patrick’s speech was about paradox: about faith and confusion, thankfulness and despair all at the same time.

At our meeting the next day, one of my colleagues said, “The public narrative about Boston right now is about amazing courage, about the people who ran toward the blast and helped people.  But most people did not run toward the blast.  They ran away, or they froze … they didn’t help anyone.  They are trying to make sense of all this, too, and they are struggling.”

Any human story has to be about more than the public narrative, more than courage and resilience and helpers. Any human story has to be about humans, and humans are about paradox … a story that can’t be easily told.

The final verses of the Gospel of Matthew are my favorite example of this. “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Face-to-face with the risen Christ, the disciples worship him … and doubt him, too.  You’d think the situation couldn’t get any clearer than this, but they are human beings, and anything involving human beings is not going to be easy or clear. Jesus looks at these human beings–these confused, doubting, conflicted sinner/saints–and says, “Good enough.  I can work with this.”  Jesus sends all of them–even the doubters–out, commissioning them with all the authority of heaven and earth to baptize and make disciples, to be messengers of the Good News.  It’s not their basic goodness that makes them disciples.  It’s the goodness and the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, which works through them, and through all of us, in amazing, surprising ways.

We never travel alone.  And when we reach out in kindness to our fellow travelers, we don’t do that alone, either.  Thanks be to God for traveling with us, for embracing our full, complicated, paradoxical selves, for sending us out with our doubts and our faith to be disciples in our daily lives.  Amen!

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From → Field Notes, Sermons

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