Sermon, September 17, 2017

“Help for the Helper”
Rev. David Pruitt
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC

Mark 14: 32-42
September 17, 2017

We like to consider Jesus as perfectly resourceful, without our human vulnerabilities, above the strife of life. But within this mornings scripture we read that distress and anguish came over him so that he confided to his disciples, “The sorrow in my heart is so great that it almost crushes me. Stay here and keep watch.” He had brought Peter, James and John with him into the Garden of Gethsemane. He did not go alone, he needed them to watch and pray with him in his hour of extreme need. He did not pretend that God’s presence alone was enough. Christ’s genuine humanity left him vulnerable to grief and sorrow and he felt the need for human companionship and human understanding.

Abraham Lincoln is arguably our greatest president and unquestionably a magnificent strong and noble human being. And yet, having already survived almost fatal periods of depression in his personal life before the White House he was later severely stressed by the agony of The Civil War. During the second year of his presidency, during a particularly painful crisis over who he should place in charge of The Union Army, already “wrung by the bitterest anguish: he told his cabinet that at times, “he felt almost ready to hang himself.”

During May 1863 after the devastating defeat at Chancellorsville, Lincoln walked into a meeting, the telegram in hand confirming news of the disaster, his face was ashen, and his voice trembled as he said to those assembled, “Read it–news from the army.” One staff member later remarked, “At no other time, did the President appear so broken, so dispirited, and so ghost-like.” Lincoln paced up and down the room, exclaiming “My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!” More so than any of us might guess. I’m convinced Abraham Lincoln also felt the words of that desperate prayer of Christ, “Let this cup pass from me!

It is said that what does not kill us makes us stronger. Often it does. Sometimes it does not. But without question we must recognize that there is no possibility of becoming fully human without suffering grief and the loss of what seems dear to us. Here is verse four of the hymn, “How firm a foundation.” “When through the deep waters I call Thee to go the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow; for I will be near Thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee, thy deepest distress. When our deepest distress do become sanctified to us we are enabled to become more fully human.

And then, and then we can help each other. We develop the sympathy, the compassion, the understanding to help each other.

Here is a short story of such help written by Marleena Thompson. At age eighteen I left my home in Brooklyn, New York, and went off to a university in England. It was exciting but stressful time in my life, for while trying to adjust to the novelty of unfamiliar surroundings, I was still learning to come with the pain of my father’s recent death–an even with which I had not yet come to terms.

While at the market one day, I spied an elderly gentleman having difficulty holding onto his walking stick and his bag of apples. I rushed over and relieved him of the apples, giving him time to regain his balance. “Thanks, luv,” he said in that distinctive Yorkshire lilt I never tire of hearing. “I’m quite all right now, not to worry,” he said, smiling at me not only with his mouth but with a pair of dancing bright blue eyes. “May I walk with you?” I inquired. “Just to make sure those apples don’t become sauce prematurely.” He laughed and said, “Now you are a long way from home, lass. From the States, are you?” “Only from one of them. New York. I’ll tell you all about it as we walk.”

So began my friendship with Mr. Burns, a man whose smile and warmth would very soon come to mean a great deal to me. As we walked, Mr. Burns leaned heavily on his stick. When we arrived at his house, I helped him set his parcels on the table and insisted on lending a hand with the preparations for his “tea”–that is, his meal. I interpreted his weak protest as gratitude for the assistance. After making his tea, I asked if it would be all right if I came back and visited with him again. I thought I’d look in on him from time to time to see if he needed anything. With a wink and a smile he replied, “I’ve never been one to turn down an offer from a good-hearted lass.”

I came back the next day at about the same time, so I could help out once more with his evening meal. The great walking stick was a silent reminder of his infirmity and, though he never asked for help, he didn’t protest when it was given. That very evening we had our first “heart to heart.” Mr. Burns asked about my studies, my plans, and mostly, about my family. I told him that my father had recently died, but I didn’t offer much else about the relationship I’d had with him. In response, he gestured toward the two framed photographs on the end table next to his chair. They were pictures of two different women, one notably older than the other. But the resemblance between the two was striking. “That’s Mary,” he said, indicating the photograph of the older woman. “She’s been gone for six years. And that’s our Alice. She was a very fine nurse. Losing her was too much for my Mary.” I responded with the tears I hadn’t been able to shed for my own pain. I cried for Mary. I cried for Alice. I cried for Mr. Burns. And I cried for my father to whom I never had the chance to say good-bye.

I visited with Mr. Burns twice a week, always on the same days and at the same time. Whenever I came, he was seated in his chair, his walking stick propped up against the wall. He always seemed especially glad to see me. Although I told myself I was delighted to be useful, I was happier still to have met someone to whom I could reveal those thoughts and feelings that, until then, I’d hardly acknowledged to myself. While fixing the tea, our chats would begin. I told Mr. Burns how terribly guilty I felt about not having been on speaking terms with my father the two weeks prior to his death. I’d never had the chance to ask my father’s forgiveness. And he had never had to chance to ask for mine. Although Mr. Burns talked, he allowed me the lion’s share. Mostly I recall him listening. But how he listened! It wasn’t just that he was attentive to what I said. It was as if he were reading me, absorbing all the information I provided, and adding details from his own experience to create a truer understanding of my words.

After about a month, I decided to pay my friend a visit on an “off day.” Coming up to the house, I saw him working in his garden, standing with ease and getting up with equal facility. I was dumbfounded. Could this be the same man who used that massive walking stick? He suddenly looked in my direction. Evidently sensing my puzzlement over his mobility, he waved me over. I said nothing, but accepted his invitation to come inside. “Well, luv. Allow me to make you a ‘cuppa’ this time. You look all done in.” “How? I began. “I thought..” I know what you thought, luv. When you first saw me at the market…well, I’d twisted my ankle a bit earlier in the day. Tripped on a stone while doing a bit of gardening.” “But..when were you able to..walk normally again?” Somehow, his eyes managed to look merry and contrite at the same time. “Ah, well, I guess that’ll be the very next day after our meeting.” “But why?” I asked, truly perplexed. Surely he couldn’t have been feigning helplessness to get me to make him his tea every now and then. “That second time you came ’round, luv, it was then I saw how unhappy you were. Feeling lonely and sad about your dad and all. I thought, well, the lass could use a bit of an old shoulder to lean on. But I knew you were telling yourself you were visiting me for my sake and not your own. Didn’t think you’d come back if you knew I was fit. And I knew you were in sore need of someone to talk to. Someone older, older than your dad, even. And someone who knew how to listen.” “And the stick?” “Ah. A fine stick, that. I use it when I walk the moors. We must do that together soon.” So we did. And Mr. Burns, the man I’d set out to help, helped me. He’d made a gift of his time, bestowing kindness and understanding to a young girl who needed both.

Mr. Burns was capable of helping to heal Marleena’s grieving heart because his own heart was able to be sensitive and perceptive about her grief and distress.