For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son
Lent 4, 30 March, 2003
Deacon Tat Hean Lie, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, also known as Mothering Sunday. So called because tradition has it that in some parts of England this was, or perhaps still is, the day when people go back to visit their mothers. I notice that here at St Peter's Eastern Hill there usually are some folk who will remember to wear pink to honour the day, and we always have simnel cake tied with pink ribbons.
In my culture, there is no such thing as a separate Mother's Day or Father's Day, at least not when I was growing up. My earliest recollection of being told the day was my father's birthday and that I should go and pay my respects to him, also included the instruction to go and pay my respects to my mother as well. The same goes for my mother's birthday. For me, the two parents become inextricably linked together.
So today I would like to take the opportunity to honour some of the mothers and fathers that I have met in my life's journey. Finding God in my encounters with them have shaped the person I have become today. They have dared me to use my imagination to break down the divisions between the sacred and the secular to discover that God may be in our lives in very unexpected places.
I would like to begin with my own parents. A little over fifty years ago, as a young child of eight, I witnessed the death of my eldest brother, after a two-year struggle with cancer. When the realisation finally dawned on my mother and my father, that this, their first-born had gone, never to come back, their despair was beyond what words could express. Many years later when I shared the events of that day with a close friend, she commented that there is an old Jewish proverb that says something like: mothers and fathers should not be expected to have to bury their own sons and daughters. I can't agree more.
And yet, paradoxically, from the depth of this great loss, my mother and my father came to a transforming understanding of the words: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son."
My mother and my father accepted the Word and became children of God. This incredible transformation was not the product of human power, but the gift of divine power.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God. [Eph. 4:8,9]
And the same divine power that enabled my mother and my father to become the children of God enabled the Word to become flesh. In the convergence of these two movements "the glory of an only Son coming from the Father, filled with enduring love" became manifest to me. And thus began my own life's journey with God.
This journey brought me to Australia, where I was fortunate enough to have a career in medical research. For almost a quarter of a century I was a staff member of the University of Melbourne's Department of Surgery at St Vincent's Hospital. And that was where I met Joan.
Joan was a mother of five, she was also a wife and grandmother. Joan had bowel cancer. I got to know her rather well after assisting the professor in several clinical investigations, which must have been very unpleasant for her. But I have always found her to be compliant and very easy to get on with. Therefore I was surprised to hear at one of the unit meetings, when some of the young surgeons complained that Joan was being difficult and uncooperative. On my next meeting with her she told me this story.
Joan said, "My husband and I and our five children were fortunate enough to live in a house with at least two toilets. But even so, when we were both working, and the five children were going to school or university, could you imagine the pandemonium, not to mention the fights every morning for the toilets. Because there is only one toilet for every three and a half bums." I wonder if it ever gets as bad at St Peter's on Sunday mornings?
"Anyway," Joan went on, "all the children are married now and they have all left home, so my husband and I finally have the luxury of one toilet each." "But now your wretched surgeons want to operate, stick a colostomy bag on me, and take away that luxury. I will have none of that, thank you." And she burst into peals of laughter, and so did I. Joan refused surgery and died a few weeks later. In my encounter with Joan, I discovered the God, who in the face of death, sends us courage, to laugh at it.
A little less than three years ago, I returned to St Vincent's Hospital as the Anglican chaplain, thanks to the vision and foresight of our Vicar, Fr John, who believes that ministry to the local hospitals is the responsibility of the local parish. Thank you Fr John for your vision.
One of the first patients I met was Kathleen. Kathleen is a mother, she is also a wife and a grandmother. Kathleen suffers from Crohn's disease, which is a debilitating condition of the intestinal tract. One of its most unpleasant symptoms is pain. When it hits you, sometimes it is so bad that the only thing that can be done is to bung you into hospital with an intravenous morphine drip and hope for the best.
When I first met Kathleen, she was curled up in bed and obviously in pain. She informed me that when the ambulance was taking her to hospital she had told her husband that this time she is giving up, she has had enough and she is not coming home. But, she said, "He pleaded with me to hang in there, to fight back, and that he'll buy me another pair of shoes when I come home." Shoes apparently are her weakness.
So I told her that back in the sixties when I was a poor student who enjoyed walking everywhere, I too had developed a fondness for quality footwear. I quickly learnt which are the good brands of shoes. One of them is Bally, spelt B A L L Y, they're Swiss, made of beautiful leather and lined on the inside with the softest of chamois leather, the kind of leather that is used to make very expensive gloves. Bally shoes feel heavenly on your feet but they cost the earth.
One day I came across a pair in the bargain bin of a shoe shop. I couldn't believe my luck. Except, there was one problem; actually two problems. First, the colour was two-tone grey. And secondly, as if the two-tone grey wasn't hideous enough, when I put them on I noticed that the two tones were opposites from one foot to the other. In other words they were an odd pair. But I thought what the heck, a pair of Bally shoes for two dollars, you can't go wrong. Anyway, if I keep my feet far enough apart, people probably wouldn't notice.
Kathleen and I laughed and laughed until we cried. As she was wiping her tears, she suddenly said, "Hey, the pain has gone. You are a chaplain after my own heart." Those of us who work in chaplaincy know that you are not a chaplain until the patient claims you as his or her chaplain. So in my encounter with Kathleen, I was affirmed in my vocation and I discovered the God, who in the midst of pain sends us laughter
Not so long ago I met Robert. He is a father and a husband. His wife is an invalid and has been for a long time. In his own words, he said, "There are more things that have gone wrong with her than with a dog." He has been her carer all that time, he has had to do everything for her, and now here he is in hospital himself with leukaemia.
"But," he said, "Since I have been diagnosed, my wife has decided to get a motorised wheel chair and do the shopping herself. She has even been visiting me here in hospital. Got herself to the railway station, got into the train, and wheeled herself in here. You wouldn't credit it would, would you?"
To which I gently commented, "God's answers to our prayers are often quite different from what we expect, aren't they?"
"Yeah," he said, "I met a guy at AA once who told me that he doesn't believe in God. Because he prayed that God would stop him from drinking, and instead he landed in jail for twelve months. But that stopped his drinking though."
When I met Robert's wife, she told me that she is very careful now about what she wish from God, because He might just give it to her.
Two weeks ago, I heard in a sermon, a poem by one of our modern day prophets, Michael Leunig. I like to read that poem to you.
God give us rain when we expect sun,
Give us music when we expect trouble,
Give us tears when we expect breakfast,
Give us dreams when we expect a storm,
Give us a stray dog when we expect congratulations.
[from A Common Prayer]
"For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son, ..." when we expect ... what?
The Lord be with you.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.