Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Ordination Sermon–Hospice Chaplaincy

The Ordination of Kate Kennedy                                     5:00 PM, Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sermon by Roger Jones                                                            UU Church of Davis, California



Rarely do we see a new minister so gifted in so many of the arts of ministry at such a young age. Rarely have I seen such optimism, clarity of calling, and passionate commitment as I’ve seen in Kate, not to mention spiritual depth and emotional balance. Given all that, it’s amazing that I actually like her.  But I do!           

I am awed by the special ministry of hospice chaplaincy to which she is drawn.  To give pastoral care near the end of life is demanding, painful and scary. Through my dozen years as a parish minister, it’s been daunting to try to be of service to people in their last days or months and to those who are grieving a loss.  It’s humbling to be asked to lead a memorial service.  Yet all these daunting tasks are fully engaging, and I recall such moments as among the most rewarding in my career.  Like many other aspects of ministry, this work does not yield something concrete like a sermon, classroom lesson, service project, fundraising goal or a long-range plan.  Instead this ministry yields personal transformation and enriching memories.  And this ministry embodies a calling that is shared by us all, in a congregation and beyond these walls, by ordained and lay people alike.

As we heard in the song, we are called to sing “with love and the will to trust.”    We are called to serve life, Life with a capital L.  We are called to affirm life, even in the face of death and even with the knowledge that we will lose all that we love.  We are called to affirm life by going places in our world, communities, relationships and our souls where life is not fun or clean or easy.

Hospice chaplaincy seems primarily to embody pastoral work, yet it has a priestly aspect as well.  A friend of mine reminded me of the priestly role of the shaman in some indigenous traditions.  In ritual the shaman descends into the holy and secret place where death resides, and encounters death, face to face.  Symbolically, the shaman takes us along on the journey, and returns us to life.  Of course, the hospice chaplain or pastor is a companion of the dying person far into this journey, though not the whole way.  The chaplain must draw close to the one who is dying, close to the mystery of death.  This is holy work and hard work.  Though gratifying, it causes pain to get close to someone, only to say goodbye and let go.  Such holy work requires spiritual care for the care giver as well as the client.  The care and support of colleagues and community is crucial to this hard and holy work.  So is care of yourself. [Looking at Kate.]  Do I need to say anything more about that? Good.

Orson Scott Card is a contemporary science fiction writer.  In his short story Mortal Gods, space aliens have come to earth and established themselves in American cities as friendly neighbors. They build homes that look like houses of worship—temples, churches, mosques.  They, however, not human-like at all.  They are slithering blobs that look like bunches of green seaweed. These smart aliens inform humans that it’s not feasible to visit any planet with life on it, for getting to the closest one would take 500 years.  That’s how long it took the aliens, and the reason they could make it here is that they never die.  They are immortal. 

When they meet an old man, they explain that when humans die, we leave behind the things we have created.  The aliens, on the other hand, must endure the decline and loss of everything they create.  Nothing they build can outlast them.  For this reason, they worship human beings.  To these alien observers, because we are not immortal, we are worthy of worship.  Death causes us to fear, but it gives them cause to revere our lives.  I think the people who work in hospice are like the aliens who praise and honor human life precisely because it is going to end.  Except, of course, hospice workers are mortal, and they are not slithering bunches of seaweed.  

St. Francis of Assisi said:  “Preach the Gospel at all times.  If necessary, use words.”

What is the Gospel of hospice care?  I’m sure everyone involved in it has his or her own good news, which is what the word Gospel means.  My impression of their good news is this:  Though you are dying, you are alive now.  And you are not alone. You are embraced and valued.  More love, grace, wisdom and healing are possible for you and others in your life.   “No matter what is going on,” the opportunity remains to “develop the heart,” in the words of the Dalai Lama. Life continues to offer itself as you receive love and reflect it to others. 

I hope to benefit from hospice care when my time comes, or when someone close to me needs it.  Four decades ago, my family needed it, but hospice care was not on our radar screen. 

When I was nine years old and my brother was a junior in college, he married his high school sweetheart.  This was against our father’s wishes and loud protestations, but I had a new friend in my young sister in law. I had fun watching movies and shopping with her, and going to stay with them in their new mobile home.  Within two years they had a baby boy, and I was an uncle.  Not long after that, my brother’s wife began having serious physical symptoms.  Weeks and weeks of tests at the university medical center revealed a rare type of cancer.  Because my father was a physician, he learned from his colleagues that her prognosis was fatal.  He told my mother; she told her sister.  In a moment of upset, Mom told me, in a vague but foreboding way.  Nobody else in my or my sister in law’s family heard it straight, including her.  Photographs from her baby son’s first birthday party show that the illness and the treatments had withered and weakened her.  Three months later, she died.  I don’t know how or when the denial about her fatal condition ended, but I think she asked if she was going to die, and they told her no.

Those were the days when medicine was heroic and its inadequacies were cause for hushed words.  As I recall, many people with a terminal diagnosis spent long stretches in hospitals and died there.  Death was a shameful enemy, something to fight so much that you couldn’t let up for a moment, even to talk about it.  As a boy, I didn’t know how to talk about it, didn’t know when and with whom it would be okay to talk about my sister in law’s prognosis, or my fears, or my love for her.  I was an invisible witness, not an invited or included participant in this family drama, even though I had been foretold its conclusion. I was thought of as too young to visit her in the hospital.  Had I been able to go, it might have been a source of comfort for her as well as me.  When she died, my brother called my parents on the phone.  I listened in on an extension.  After expressing their sorrow, they told him, “Come on home, Honey.” Then my mother called her sister, long distance. I listened in on their conversation too.  I wanted to hear how you say these things, and how one reacts to the news.  Just after my aunt’s “Hello,” Mom said, “She’s gone.”  My aunt let out a sigh full of pity.

My sister in law died with the best medical care in the state, but maybe not the most complete care.  It was a time when people felt censored from speaking openly about death.  It was a time when the concept and practice of hospice care was just coming out of exile.  In the western world the first hospice opened as early as the 14th century, and of course people have been dying at home through most of human history, with family and care-giving team often one and the same.  The modern, interdisciplinary ministry known as hospice has made it natural once again to face dying with honesty, and face it as an opportunity for growth. 

The minister we ordain tonight has given this ministry her energies and her soul.  She joins with teams of medical and social service professionals not only to ease the last few months of patients’ lives, but to help them experience as much presence, kindness, truth and love as life can hold.

 I wonder how my sister in law’s family and my own might have been enriched by hospice care when she was dying. Instead of keeping separate all those who care for the dying person, hospice invites people to come together.   This is what ministry is about:  calling people together, sharing the joys and sorrows of life, encouraging one another, and revealing new possibilities of relationship.

In 1886 the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy published his short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  The title character sustains a minor injury in his abdomen while hanging curtains in the nice new home he has found for his upwardly mobile family.  At 45 years of age, Ivan is a high-court judge in the pre-communist Russian bureaucracy, with a wife, a daughter of marriageable age and a son early in his school years. Ivan is proud of  “the agreeable, easy, and correct life that [has] established itself in the…family.”  He enjoys playing bridge and “giving little dinners to … men and women of good social position.”  His “drawing-room resemble[s] all other drawing-rooms, [and] his enjoyable little parties resemble all other such parties.”

“Everything [is] as it should be,” Tolstoy writes.  Ivan and his wife are living as each one had planned to, but they feel ambitious and impatient for more, and unsatisfied with each other. 

            Symptoms develop in Ivan, and his condition worsens over the course of months.  His wife and colleagues try not to take it seriously.  So does he.  When he dares to ask each one of a series of celebrity doctors whether the condition is grave, none gives a straight answer, but each one is confident in the advice and prescription he delivers.  Ivan sees that the doctors treat him with the same attitude that he has treated the accused in his own courtroom—powerful, distant, cold and very competent.  

            Till his last few weeks, Ivan obsesses:  was it the appendix or a kidney or something else?  Which doctor was right?  Then he realizes what nobody else will admit:  “It’s not a question of appendix or kidney, [he says] but of life…and death.”  Tolstoy’s depiction of Ivan’s decline, physical pain and emotional isolation is haunting and heartbreaking.

Looking at the people around him, Ivan sees his dying reduced to “an unpleasant and almost indecorous incident.”  He feels he is in the way—his sickness is an inconvenience to both his wife and daughter.  His questions put off his doctors, challenging their formal ways and superior knowledge.  A colleague visits him and they talk only of work.   He knows that government lawyers are speculating on the opportunities his death will give to their careers.  Tolstoy writes:  “This falsity around him and within him [does] more than anything else to poison his last days.”

Of all the people in Ivan Ilych’s life, the only person willing to be honest with him is the butler’s assistant, Gerasim, a young peasant man. Ivan asks the young man to help him move to the sofa.  Then he apologizes for the bother, and for being helpless and “unpleasant.”  Gerasim says not to worry:  “We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble.”   To relieve his pain, Ivan has Gerasim sit and prop Ivan’s legs up, with his feet on the young man’s back and shoulders, for long stretches of time.  Tolstoy writes that Gerasim does “not think his work burdensome.  [He] hopes someone [will] do the same for him when his time [comes].”  Ivan knows he’s a grown man and an accomplished one, but “at certain moments…he wishe[s] for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied.  He long[s] to be petted and comforted.” 
            Ivan’s wife asks him to let her ask a priest to bring him communion and hear his confession, and he agrees.  Tolstoy gives this event barely a paragraph.  In his final three days, Ivan screams non-stop, a sound his wife cannot block out, though she keeps a few doors closed between Ivan and the rest of the family.  As his body writhes, Ivan asks: Why am I being punished?  He’s been proud to achieve a life that was pleasant and proper, doing what was expected of him.  Now he can’t believe what’s happening.  I thought I lived as I was supposed to live, he asks.  Was I wrong?   The novel depicts an ordinary man whose deathbed regrets are not for any major sins he’s committed, but for the kind of life he did not live, but might have.  Tolstoy shows the insight of many who have counseled the dying.  He shows that even with the guilt of “what might have been,” this dying man deserves mercy.

  Near the end, Ivan Ilyich’s schoolboy son slips into Ivan’s room without the mother’s knowledge.  He takes his father’s hand, holds it and kisses it, for a moment relieving the man’s loneliness and sense of failure.  Ivan’s wife comes in and he sees a tear on her face.  He wants to say he forgives her, but the words come out garbled.  As he feels himself slipping away, he accepts the truth of his death and of his life, and he feels released.   

            Ivan’s death in middle age is terribly painful, but what makes it tragic is that he is isolated nearly until the end.  He’s been isolated from the most important people in his life, and from his own soul, for most of his adult life.  Yet before dying, he receives the ministry of presence from a servant and a child:  he receives a partial easing of his pain, an honest acknowledgment of his fate, a healing touch, and a loving, innocent kiss. 

            In spite of his flaws, he feels God’s love through human love and his own sense of release.  If those space aliens of Orson Scott Card’s science fiction story had known Ivan, those seaweed-green immortals would pray not only for him, they’d pray to him, granting him honor and praise, for the simple miracle that he lives and he dies. 

            Tonight, we give thanks for a new minister and pray for the flourishing of her life in ministry.  Yet by coming together we affirm that we are connected to more than just this minister, but to one another, to all those beyond these walls, those living on this earth, and those who are gone. Whoever we are, each of us is called to the same holy task of relating to the world with honesty, courage, kindness and love. 

The song we heard earlier has these words as its last verse:
“This is the sound of all of us/ Singing with love and the will to trust/Leave the rest behind, it will turn to dust/This is the sound of all of us.” 

It is the will to trust and love that calls a minister into service.  To be our companion, a minister draws on her trust in life, in other people, in herself, and in the Spirit of Love.  To be companions to one another, all of us can rely on this Love.  We can trust it.

So may we live.  So may it be.  Amen. 




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