I started the marathon, I believe, in an exceedingly good mood, and really felt God's empowering grace as I represented the Church at Allegheny General Hospital and then Montefiore Hospital, and eventually Jefferson Hospital. I have to confess, though, that as time went on, I became more and more irritable, and God's ever-present grace began to feel in short supply. By the time my last few visits came around, I did my best to proclaim the loving presence of Christ even as I was thinking, "Lord, get me home. Amen."
And then the power of the words I was sharing hit me. Hard. I was sharing with most of the patients the Gospel selection in the week's lectionary readings, which is also serving as my primary text this Sunday.
"'...the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.' From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" - Matthew 4:16-17 (ESV)Certainly, Jesus is the Light of lights, and the Gospel prophetically quotes a passage from Isaiah which (in part, at least) looked ahead to the coming of the Messiah, who would bring light into the darkness of this broken world. Light in darkness, then, is (again, in part) the coming of the kingdom of heaven.
In a more immediate way, as a representative of Christ's Holy Church in those hospital rooms, I was also a light, for most of the wonderful people with whom I spent time were in their own kind of darkness...the darkness of disease, illness, and an uncertain tomorrow. They needed to know that in the midst of their darkness, they were loved - not simply by Pastor Keith, but by a living, sovereign God. They needed to experience the kingdom of heaven.
When I finally got back to the office, I looked up a marked passage in a favorite book to which I return often.
"However important other tasks of ministry may seem - sermons, committees, administrative planning, social service - a significant claim upon the pastor's time is the immediate sufferer. Even if the task at times becomes burdensome or distasteful or irksome, visitation of the sick remains a primary duty of representative ministry. Based on the example of Jesus, reinforced by the ordination commission and by centuries of social expectation, the pastor is ill advised to neglect this ministry." - Thomas C. Oden, Pastoral Theology (1983), p. 253
That's when I heard myself. I have said - I've actually spoken aloud - words something like, "I wish folks would recognize that my job as the pastor is not to be the 'visitor-in-chief', but to equip the saints to do ministry and to raise up leaders for the Church."
I remembered my words, and I felt ashamed.
It is absolutely true that my job as pastor is to equip the saints to do ministry and to raise up leaders, and my visitations do not in any way relieve the laity of their own responsibility to visit the sick. But any leader must lead first by example. And, to the kind sisters and brothers I was blessed to visit today, I was a light in their darkness, announcing the inbreaking of the heavenly kingdom. For these beloved souls, for one brief moment, I was Jesus.
How dare I make light of this transformative moment of grace! How dare I deceive myself into thinking that other acts of ministry are simply more important! How dare I allow myself to grow so cynical that I diminish the importance of pastoral visitation!
I'm relieved that the Gospel passage I was sharing concludes with Jesus' call to repent. I need a little of that today. I need some penitence, and need to kneel before my Lord in a sincerely contrite manner.
May God forgive me for ever losing sight of who I am, to what I am called, and what ministry in Jesus' name is truly about.