“Remember the Spirit,” a sermon for Purple Sunday (Alzheimer’s Awareness)

Romans 8:35-39: 35 Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, We are being put to death all day long for your sake.  We are treated like sheep for slaughter.  37 But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. 38 I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers 39 or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.

2 Timothy 1: 3-7:  3 I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night. 4 When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness.5 I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you.6 Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.

grandpa newton

When I was in college, I got a phone call one day that my grandfather, who lived in Gosport, Indiana, was going to be moved to Knoxville to be placed in a care facility for persons with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  He was no longer able to care for himself or live on his own in the house that my sister and I grew up visiting many times throughout our childhood.  We loved going to visit our Grandpa Newton because even though he lived in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, his house was the coolest house we had ever been in.  He had a huge collection of antiques and things that we had never seen before.  We could spend hours walking through his house and asking him questions about what things were, what they were used for, and why in the world anyone would ever use it.  I remember he used to play us old records with people in glass bottle bands- they would blow over the holes of bottles to make music.  He also told great stories, and his lap was one of our favorite places to be.

Our grandpa was a unique person for sure.  He taught people to fly airplanes in World War II, and encouraged my mom and uncle in their musical gifts.  He liked to make people laugh, and I’ll never forget the way he called my sister and I “kiddos.”    I’ll never forget that evening when I got the phone call from my dad that he had died.  My grandfather passed away on September 11, 2001- a day of tragedy for our country.  My mom always said that she was relieved that he did not know what had happened that day, because he would have been brokenhearted to see the events unfold.

Since I was in college here in Indiana when he was sick, my experience with him in his final months was limited.  I do remember celebrating his birthday with him and visiting him on several occasions.  Sometimes he knew who I was, and other times he did not or would confuse me with my mom.  My mom struggled with the fact that she no longer felt like his daughter, but his caregiver.  She felt that she had to say goodbye to him long before he was actually gone.  He quickly lost who he was and became angry, frustrated, and couldn’t remember things.  There were lucid times though, where he would share a memory from the past, or intelligently discuss finances or sing along to an old song.  A few days before he died, my grandfather had a conversation with my mom about a beautiful house.  She didn’t know which house he was referring to…maybe one just in his mind.  But it was a house he could describe in detail.  I remember her sharing at his funeral how now she hopes he is in his house, happy and at peace.

Many of us are affected by Alzheimer’s disease in one way or the other, or love someone with a disease that affects the mind in any form.  Our memories are a big part of who we are, and when someone we love begins to lose those, it’s hard for us to cope with the new relationship that develops between us and that person.  Many of us have watched loved ones fade away, even though they are still sitting in front of us.  Sometimes, we say goodbye long before we say goodbye for the last time.  In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he writes from prison to speak of his longing to connect with those to whom he writes, to encourage them with prayer, and share his heartache over those he loves and longs to see again.  Some call this letter one of Paul’s last wills and testaments where he shares his unwavering faith and love for Christ and the church.  He encourages readers to recall the faith that has gone before them, in this case a mother, Eunice, and a grandmother, Lois, and to learn from the lessons they have taught, to remember, and to carry them on.  He closes the greeting of the letter by reminding them that God gives us a spirit not that is timid, but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.

God gives us each a spirit- a powerful, loving, and self-controlled spirit.  But what if that spirit is no longer the same spirit that dwelled in us before or one that we cannot grasp?  One that we cannot remember or one that we can no longer see in someone else?  We know that the body and mind are fleeting, but we can have faith that even the human spirit remains, as well as the presence of God who gives it to us.  There are life circumstances that we cannot explain or understand, and people who suffer unnecessarily.  People die from random acts of violence or accidents every day.  People are diagnosed with cancer.  Natural disasters happen.  Alzheimer’s disease happens, and there is yet to be a cure.  There is no explanation for why these things happen to us.  Even in the midst of this, God’s spirit remains.  The human spirit remains.  Our hope in a restored humanity remains.  After all, Christ did not come to save a perfect world where disease doesn’t exist, people aren’t  hungry, children do not experience violence, communities aren’t oppressed, terrorist do not fly planes into buildings, and wars never break out.  Christ did not come to save a perfect world, but he did come to show how us the kind of sacrificial love that has the power to transform the world in the midst of suffering.

We are given a spirit of hope and transformation and healing, and are called to use that spirit to love, even when hope seems lost, even when the person in front of us may not know who we are or what day it is, or we struggle to understand how the mind works, or we feel that we ourselves are losing the capacity to think and function like we once have.  We are called to remember, just as Paul writes to Timothy that he remembers and prays day and night, and longs to see them so that he is filled with happiness.  We, too, can remember the spirit of God that is present within each one of us, even when it is difficult to recognize, even when thought and memory fades away.  We can remember and be present, and show that we still care.  We can share stories, and we should speak openly and honestly about the difficulties we face.  We can remind each other that at the end of the day, love is the most important thing we can offer one another.

This is why it is so important to remember Paul’s words to the Romans that still ring true in our lives today- that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Not death, or life, not angels, or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.  Not pain or suffering, or tragedy, or things we do not understand, and not disease.  None of these things can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Sometimes this is easy for us to grasp and sometimes it is not.  We may feel distant from God in the midst of suffering and cry out in desperation or turn to anything other than the love and grace that God offers to us.  Other times we cry out to God and feel God’s presence with us in the middle of it all.

No matter how we feel, no matter how far or near we may feel to God, God draws us in and holds us close, whether we know it at the time or not.  This is the kind of love that Paul speaks of in Romans, as well as the hope he clings to when he writes to the community of 2 Timothy- that they will remember the faith of those that have gone before them, the lessons they have learned, and the examples of God’s love they have seen in their midst, and to pass it on.  And finally, we are to never forget the strength and capacity of the human spirit, the importance of human love, and the role of community in the each season of life.

In the midst of pain and suffering, heartache or disease, we have a choice to make- we can let it define us or let it change us- to see suffering be a seedbed for transformation instead of anger and bitterness.  What can we do to offer hope in finding a cure to Alzheimer’s disease?  What can we learn from the times we ourselves have suffered or have suffered alongside someone else?  I know many people who have suffered, but Eva Kor is someone I know who has suffered immense physical and emotional pain- first with losing her entire family in the Holocaust, and then having to endure the physical scars of the medical experiments done to her.  Now she has a message for the world: that forgiveness is a seed for peace and transformation.  She has used her suffering not for harm, bitterness, or anger, but has turned it into hope and is making strides for a better world.  We have the capacity to do the same.  And we can draw hope from the message we hear from scripture this morning that we are called to remember and give voice to the strength of the spirit of God that dwells richly in each of us, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Today, I am able to honor my grandfather by sharing his laughter and his stories, remembering his antiques and his smile, and watching facets of his personality unfold in my mother, who takes after him in so many ways.  Because she continues to shape the person I am, I know that in a way, he also continues to shape me.  The spirit of God that was in him, even when his memories began to fade and he wasn’t himself anymore, remained with him even to the end, and lives on.  We had to learn to love him in new ways, and honor him for the person he was, while seeking to understand who is was becoming.  It was never easy.  But our diseases, our hardships, our sufferings do not define us.  It is God who defines us and the spirt that is given to us that upholds us, even when we stand on shaky ground and cannot find our center.  So we strive to remember, we love, we honor the spirit, and we hold fast to the love that will never let us go.  No matter what comes our way, may Christ hold us in the palm of his steadfast love.  Amen.

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