Never Alone

Hugh preached this sermon on April 30th 2017 at Raleigh Mennonite Church. The text was Luke 24:13-35.

Her name was Nina, and she was in her early 30’s. One of the first things you noticed about her was that she was beautiful. You would also quickly realize she had a 13 year history of opiate addiction, and of life on the streets, and of living the sort of life one leads when one is beautiful and lives on the streets and needs to finance an opiate addiction.

She had two daughters, by two different men. The oldest lived with her dad, who is some years sober now. The birth of the youngest had been the catalyst for the brief period of sobriety she was in when I first met her two and a half years ago.

She had gotten into a program for single moms in recovery, but then she got sick – her body was very frail after years of the abuse she had put it through – and she ended up in the hospital with pneumonia, and the state took her daughter. This put her in a catch 22 scenario – she was no longer eligible for the program that housed her, because she no longer had custody of her daughter, and she could not gain custody of her daughter until she had a place to live.

It broke Nina’s spirit. The life she was working for was gone now – the fairy tale of her and her daughter living a sober life together – and she relapsed. She relapsed hard.

She moved in with a guy who was her dealer. He was sometimes nice to her, and sometimes abusive, and whether he was treating her kindly or treating her as a punching bag or pimping her out to his friends, he was always providing her with heroine.

She would sometimes make the court-mandated visitation dates with her daughter, and sometimes she would not. She would call the foster parents late at night sometimes – drunk calls the foster mother called them – and sometimes she would show up at their church and sometimes she would do it while sober and sometimes she would do it while she was high as a kite.

During the 18 months or so following her losing her daughter, she was in and out of the hospital, as her lungs and her kidneys began to deteriorate. I would get a call from Rex Hospital – I was listed on her chart there as someone to call – and I would go sit with her, hear her stories, pray with her when she wanted it, and sometimes, I would just sit beside her and listen to her breath when she had drifted off to sleep.

And then, in the fall of last year, she disappeared. None of us knew where she had went. She quit making her visits. She missed court dates. I expected a call from Rex Hospital again, but it never came.

One day in February, I got an email.


My name is Lisa, I am Nina’s sister.

I want to take a moment to thank you for all you have done for my sister.  Unfortunately we have some bad news. Nina is currently on life support at Wake Medical Center in Raleigh. She passed out on Tuesday with no pulse and went into cardiac arrest . They had to preform CPR for 25 min. We were told to prepare for the worst. I’m so very sorry for writing to you with such heart breaking news, but we thought you should know. My mom, dad, brother and myself will be visiting her within the next few days. I ask you to please say a prayer for Nina.

Thank you so very much for everything.

God Bless You

I wrote back right away, and learned that Nina had apparently overdosed and went into cardiac arrest. Her family was in New Jersey and in Florida, and none of them had much money, and none of them could afford to miss much work, so the doctors had told them to wait before they came, since they would probably only be able to come once.

Once again I was sitting at Nina’s bedside while she was unconscious, this time in a different hospital, the ventilator rising and falling, the nurses coming in and out. But this time, there would be no follow-up conversation when she woke up.

The tests were done, and our fears confirmed – she had failed the neurological tests, and was only being kept alive by the machines. She wasn’t going to make it.

Lisa asked me if I could be there with them when they took Nina off the machines. Of course I can.

They all came into town the following week – mother, father, father’s new wife, sister, sister’s husband, and baby brother – and they all stayed in two motel rooms at the Econolodge, because that is all they could afford.

The family dynamics were a mess. Mom and dad had been divorced for years, and this was the first time they had seen each other in nearly a decade. The sister had left home because she was afraid of falling into the life that ultimately consumed Nina, and so felt all sorts of guilt and “what if I had stayed” questions.

And we all met over the hospital bed of Nina, who was not going to wake up, and who we all loved, and who we had come to hold vigil with until she was gone.

Being there at death with a family is a holy thing. I prayed. Nina’s bed was draped with favorite childhood toys and family pictures. The family sang sing-along songs that they had all sang with Nina on childhood road trips. And then the nurses remover her ventilator, and dimmed the lights and we all said our goodbyes and we waited for Nina to die.

It isn’t like in the movies. She lingered for hours. It would be nearly 21 hours before she would breath her last, and in the meantime we sat there, telling stories about Nina, sharing memories, looking at pictures. Sometimes it was light-hearted, like when mom showed pictures of a birthday party where Nina as a toddler was covered in cake and sometimes it was serious, like when Mom asked me what I thought happened to people after they die.

I don’t care who you are, when you are watching your child die, you are probably going to be mad at God. You are going to have anger. You are going to have doubts. You are going to have questions.

Somewhere around 4am, Nina began to decline. Her heart slowed and her breaths dropped and it looked like it was finally the end. We roused from our drowsiness and prayed and sang again. It would be another 11 hours though, before she was finally gone.

But we were all wide awake again, so someone went to the cafeteria and bought pastries and coffee and we sat around that bed in the ICU unit and had a serious conversation about life and death and afterlife and all of that. There was room for doubts and room for anger and room for cursing. And then we prayed and, in the midst of all of that hurt and pain and anger and loss and heartbreak, over a shoddy meal of tepid coffee and stale pastries, our eyes were opened and the presence of God was made known to us in the midst of the tragedy.

We sang more songs and maybe it was the exhaustion, but the family finally let her go. Eleven hours later, she finally passed, entering more fully into the love of God and more completely into our memories.

In the midst of all of that pain and loss, God was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.

The two men walking in the scriptures we read today were also in the midst of tragedy. They also had their own stories of loss and pain, and were filled with doubts and fears about what is next.

They had watched, just days before, as Jesus rode into town, triumphant, palm leaves scattered before him. The crowd wanted to crown him king.

They had watched as Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple, calling shenanigans on the ways that money and religion interacted then, and continue to interact today.

One of them may have been in that upper room as Jesus broke the bread and drank the cup that gave us the Lord’s Supper, and felt the breath of Jesus as he invited the Holy Spirit to come upon them.

But maybe they were also in the garden when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus. Were they in the courtyard with Peter when he denied knowing Jesus, and did they see the flush of shame on his face when he heard that rooster crow for the last time?

Had they watched Jesus stagger enroute to his death, carrying his own cross across bloody shoulders? Had they watched him get nailed to the cross, had they stood on a distant hill and watched this Jesus, who they thought would be king, die a horrible death?

Today, all around the world, Christians will wrestle with this text. There will be a lot of discussion about what it means and what we can take from it, but here is one thing that stands out to me:

As the disciples walked the long road to Emmaus, as they tried to make sense of the pain and the tragedy, Jesus journeyed with them.

Even though they did not recognize him – they were not alone.

Just like in Nina’s hospital room, as we gathered around her and prayed and cried out to God, we were not alone. Jesus journeyed with us. And he was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.

And when they ate together, suddenly, they knew Jesus had been there all along. They knew as they went to Emmaus that they had not been alone.

The whole time they were on this journey of escape, Jesus walked beside them. Jesus taught them, showed them how to make sense of what they had been through and gave them hope to go on.

And I believe that Jesus still does.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen