06.25.2017 Genesis 21:8-21 (also 16:1, 2), Mathew 10:24-39
Last week our Minister, Tom, called and said he hadn’t been able to find a substitute minister for this Sunday when he needed to be away and could I possible preach. I hesitated. I could think of a lot of things I’d rather do. I asked Tom what the lectionary scriptures were to see if anything I had preached before would serve as a framework to do a new sermon. When I read the scriptures some thoughts immediately came to mind and I agreed to be here today. I could make excuses to Tom but it’s a different matter turning God down. That’s the way it is with a sermon. Once you begin to think about it it’s hard to stop thinking about it until you given the sermon.
We read last week the story of Abraham and Sarah, who had been called Abram and Sarai and how God promised them a child in their old age. Today’s lesson talks of Hagar and her son. Ishmael. What connects these two passages is the story from Genesis 16 verses 1&2: Now Sarai, Abrams’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar, so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to do what Sarai said. From this point on Sarah and Hagar do not get along. God sets up his covenant with Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah; He also blesses Hagar and her son, Ishmael. I remember this story well from my comparative religion class where I learned that while people of the Christian and Jewish faiths trace their ancestry back to Abraham and Sarah, Muslims trace their ancestry back to Abraham through Ishmael and Hagar. We learn in scripture that God blesses both sons and this seems to be the beginning of centuries of trouble. Which is the favorite son? Why does God bless both? Which son does Abraham love best? Why, if it’s the same God, do we have different concepts for Him? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions but I think it’s interesting that the problem we are still plagued with today started with an issue spoken of roughly 600 years before Christ.
The scripture reading from the Gospel isn’t any easier. In Mathew we are told that when Jesus commissions his disciples he expects their allegiance, to love the Lord more than anything, more than family and more than life. This was certainly the sacrifice that proved to be true for the apostles and early Christians but does Jesus expect this allegiance still, from modern day Christians, from us? This scripture lesson struck a nerve for me.
Tom invited me to give a sermon here last January and I talked a little about my calling experience when I was 25. At the time I received some “not” very helpful pastoral counselling. I guess if I’d been more mature I should have stop and prayed and listened for God’s direction. Instead I asked for advice from everyone. I did not trust my own heart. It was as if God called and I saw His name on “caller I.D” and instead of picking up I asked everyone I could think of if they thought it really could be God and what do you suppose He wants? Had God called the wrong number? Was I in big trouble? Was I supposed to become a minister? I phoned my parents thinking they would understand. My maternal great grandfather had the calling and was regarded as the patriarch of our family. He was working in upstate New York starting a partnership with his cousin in the retail business when he was called; he served as a missionary in China. His cousin, Frank Woolworth, went on to develop the 5 & 10 cents stores by himself.
I thought when I announced I’d had a calling experience everyone would be pleased that I’d finally found some direction to my life; but no. Ten years later I announced my decision to go to seminary at a dinner with my parents, the same dinner where my sister announced she had volunteered to run the Follies at the Beach Club. Guess which announcement they were thrilled to hear?
I spoke in that sermon, last January, of how that initial hope for a new direction to my life began to fade the more I asked for other opinions. I thought God had hung up on me and I went through a long period of depression. But when I came out of the depression a year later God was nice and called back…
After that sermon someone who had not been at church that day asked to read it. She told me she had enjoyed my writing but felt there was something more to the story and there is; the part that is hard to talk about. I believe God wants me to share that part today:
It was the day after Thanksgiving in 1982 when I felt God called a second time. This time I didn’t ask anyone else what they thought and didn’t tell anyone. I was not being called to be a minister. What I heard God say is: “I lost you” and then later “you understand, Gerry, what we need is a story.” And I answered, “sorry and okay, sure to the story part.” It seems logical to assume God likes stories and there was a story that day and the next, that week and that month and somehow it was God’s story and I was a part of it. I was excited and it made me feel important. I had planned to visit an older friend in Newport. When I arrived at the house a man answered her door. His name was Mr. Fisher, he was English and he was renting a room from my friend. He had accepted a job nearby and was searching for a house so that his wife and children could join him. He made me feel very welcome and when my friend came home from work we had Thanksgiving dinner all over again. It felt like a homecoming. They were both so much fun and easy to talk to. It also felt as if they were a part of my calling. Mr. Fisher offered to give me a tour of Newport the next day. This was a little strange because I had worked there for a couple of years and he was relatively new to the area. As we drove he would point out shops and businesses. We spent the day together and it was fun. The next day they both went to work and I was supposed to stay home and make dinner. I still felt I was being called by God. I was excited and anxious and not sleeping well. My mind was racing and I decided I would look for Jesus throughout downtown Newport. I went back to all the places Mr. Fisher had pointed out. Starting at the graveyard the “dead center of town” as he had called it and onto the business and shops we had talked about; like a treasure hunt, asking is there someone waiting for me or if there a message. People asked if I was okay but I kept on. Finally I ended up at the harbor. I saw a boat with a name that seemed like a clue and I went into the water on that cold November day. Emersion into that cold water was like a baptism and though I never made it out to that boat I felt that the cold water was the first time I’d felt clean after my long struggle with depression. I am telling you all this so you will understand how I ended up Pond House, the mental health wing of the hospital in New London Ct.
I was admitted and met with the psychiatrist on call. A nurse took me to the upper floor which has bedrooms and the nurse’s station. I was told to go down the hall and wait in the sitting area. There was no one at all in the hallways but in the waiting area was a young man who looked like Jesus Christ. As I walked down the corridor he looked up at me and smiled and I decided maybe I wasn’t ready to meet the Lord after all. I took the seat furthest away. He got up and moved to the seat next to me. He said, “Hi my name is John.” I said, “my name is Gerry. “He said, “I have a little brother named Jerry but he got bigger than me.” I thought, “oh, I’m supposed to be a boy.” John said, “I’ve been here 3 years.” “Waiting for me, “I thought and then thought “3 years! You must be crazy!” John seemed to read my mind, He smiled and said, “I’m staff.”
I was shown a room. My roommate reminded me of a friend, Margot Fleming, my best friend when I was a little girl. The kind of friend where you sleep over at ach others houses so much that their family becomes your second family. I was put on a medication called Moban which has the side effect of making your extremity’s stiff, mostly your tongue. There is another medication to counter the side effect but it takes some time to figure it out. A minister from my sister’s church came to see me. He scolded me for trying to kill myself. If I could have talked, with my stiff tongue, I would have said I wasn’t trying to kill myself, I was trying to save myself. As he left he said, “at least be thankful to God for your supper.” The first night you’re in the hospital you don’t get to choose your own supper. I took the cover off my tray to find a dried up piece of liver, a blob of mashed potato with a long black hair covering the entire plate. I prayed, “thank you God, but really no thank you.”
When I came up from dinner a nurse said goodnight as she was leaving and I thought it meant that I was supposed to go to bed. I went in my room where a pair of white flannel. P.J.’s were laid on the bed. I put them on and brushed my teeth and then the panic set in. So I pulled both cords that say “pull here if you need help.” I got into bed and then John ran in to turn off the alarms. He came over and said, “you’re going to ruin our security system.” I said, “I’m not tired.” He said, “it’s not time for bed it’s only 7:00.” Then as he stood there I had a vision. Instead of John I saw Greg Fleming, Margot’s older brother. The last time I’d seen Greg I was about 18 and he was ringing the Salvation Army bell downtown in front of the department store. The following year he died of a brain tumor. Greg looked at me with such love that I really felt it was a sign from heaven that I wasn’t really in trouble with God after all. Then I saw John there again. I said, “promise you won’t leave without me.”
The next day I called Mr. Fisher and told him I was in the hospital. He said, “that’s all you needed Gerry. Just some love and a little rest.” I didn’t see John for a couple of days and wondered if he’d been a delusion. Then I passed a room where they were having a staff meeting and saw him. When he saw me he came right out and said he wanted to show me something. I sat beside him as he showed me two beautiful drawings he had made; one of a Native American man, the other of a baby. Of course I had sessions with my Dr. and group therapy and classes at the hospital; yet while the hospital staff would keep their professional distance, John became kind of an older brother to me though he was, actually, a few years younger. Whenever I could I would plunk myself down beside him. Once he said, “you are going to have to learn to speak louder and lower. Try practicing in the shower.” I answered, “I suppose next you’ll make me speak with marbles in my mouth and tell me not to wipe my nose on my sleeve.” He said, “I’ve never seen you do that.” John came on duty at 2:00 and the first thing he’d do is get a group of patients together for a walk. I always walked beside him, it was a chance to talk more. He seemed to know a lot of people in the neighborhood. Our first walk, though, he said I was too superstitious and I got annoyed. “I’m superstitious”, I thought, “you’re the one who looks like one guy and then looks like another, you’re the one who’s somehow dead then alive.” We walked in silence for a while. A little girl up ahead of us was dropping a letter into the mailbox. As we passed her she opened up the slot again and called into the box, “are you in there?” We both laughed. It reminded me of my search in Newport and I conceded that I am too superstitious.
Other patients at the hospital had regular visitors but I didn’t. The psychologist on staff had me ask my family to come for a meeting; I guess to see if family therapy might help. They came and each said that I was not their problem. My older brother said just because he had been sick that was no reason I should be. He had been diagnosed as schizophrenic at 17 but seemed to have outgrown it. His illness had overwhelmed my parents while I was growing up. I could understand why they would feel burned out. When my brother was in the hospital I would go with one or the other of my parents to visit him. When my sister was having trouble at boarding school my mother turned to me and said, “well there’s nothing I can do.” I said, “let’s go visit her and we did.” I’d been like a mother hen for each of them but when I started to struggle with depression my older sister said, “Gerry you have to be happy!” I don’t know how a kid goes from 16 to 26 staying happy and without making some mistakes. At this session the Dr. said, “I see a few issues with this family it’s not just Gerry.” In private my father asked me how I could do this to him. But at this session all he said was to put me on medication, my mother wouldn’t talk to me at all but just rocked the newest grandchild. I was not her baby anymore. My sisters said they had their own families now. The Dr. said, “but she is your family” then he leaned over and pinched me very hard and said, “most people say ouch!”
I was in shock. When I’d set out in search for the Lord I had no intention of breaking away from my family. I just needed God in my life. It seems that sometimes and for some people following Jesus will mean making sacrifices. When I went upstairs I looked to John for sympathy. But what he said was essentially “buck up”. It felt as if the family I thought was my foundation was slipping away. As if I were standing on a sinking ship but I did not go down. In the couple of weeks I had known John I knew I was not alone. As if the rescuer had come from above and said hold on, I’ve got you.
Later I was able to reconcile somewhat with my family. In fact my siblings and their children and grandchildren will all be here with us in a couple of weeks. But this memory still hurts. When I talked over this experience with Rev. Leinbach last year he helped me to see it with a different perspective. A friend drew a similar conclusion: years after this experience she asked how did I like my sister’s new house. I answered, “I’ve never been invited to her new house but it’s too hard to explain.” She asked,” where are you in the family? I said the youngest. Well, that explains it, she’s mad because you were born!”
One Saturday when I was 10 and the only child still at home I went to find my father. He was a brilliant man and lots of fun but he had a demanding profession and we all craved his attention. I found him raking at the bottom of the driveway. I asked if I could help and from that point on we spent time together every weekend. My siblings asked, “what do you find to talk to Dad about?” I said, “we don’t talk I just go with him.” A couple years after this he announced to the family, including my mother, that he had hidden some emergency money in the house, a lot of money, and I was the only one he trusted to know where it was. I think the rest of the family were not so happy with me after that.
I was in that hospital for almost a month when John and my Doctor said I should think about going home. I could be home with my family for Christmas. I did not want to go home but I did as they said. And because John trusted my Doctor I decided to continue my therapy with him privately. I knew I would never see John again.
Now I can understand how someone might say to me: “Gerry that wasn’t really Jesus. You clearly weren’t in your right mind. Just because someone is kind and has a beard doesn’t mean they’re the Lord.” Well John was a Godsend to me and just knowing he lived 20 miles away gave me courage to start my life anew.
I got a job as a live-in companion where I had time during the day to work part-time and pursue my new life as a Christian. I did not hear anything from or of John for 5 years. I was working a few mornings a week taking care of my infant God daughter and I was also very involved with my church’s partnership with a Native American church in South Dakota. The Native American and the baby. During Lent the church was open on Thursday nights for quiet candlelit prayer and meditation. I left the sanctuary somewhat depressed. The next morning I came down early to get breakfast started and the table set. I brought in the newspaper and opened it to look for the comics. The page opened on the obituaries and I read John Christopher Joseph died. I thought, “I know someone named John Joseph.” It was the same John Joseph I had known. The article did not say how he had died but a friend at the newspaper said he would find out for me. John was found hanged in his apartment.
The day I learned this news I had promised to walk the assistant minister’s dog. I walked that dog in an open field behind the church. I walked and I walked yelling at God and mostly what I yelled is “I hate this story!” God became real to me that day, more real in my anger at Him than He had ever been in my prayers and praise. I knew He heard me and when I calmed down, I knew He understood, understood more than anyone how I felt. Now this story lives in my heart.
I was able to write to John’s mother and tell her how much he had helped me. She wrote back a simple reply: “Thank you for your kind words. Yes he was, and is and will always be very special.” Amen
Geraldine E. B. Nolin