So I’m just going to jump right in and say that if there’s one fear that all people over a certain age share, it’s the fear of ending up in a hospital or a nursing home, powerless and alone. This doesn’t have anything to do with our readings for today, but it’s been on my mind and my heart quite persistently this week. This past year I have visited a lot of people who are finding themselves in this situation - having fallen or suffered a stroke or a serious episode of dementia - and, having been admitted to the hospital, are no longer allowed to return to their home. Usually this situation comes along with issues of not being able to drive anymore, having to sell your home, and not being able to make medical decisions any longer, or not understanding what the medical situation actually is. And what strikes me most in these cases is the feeling of complete powerlessness and total uselessness, and how hard it is to adjust to that after living productive and independent lives. And, of course, the doubt that God is with them in this hell, actually, which is how some describe it. Because where on earth is God to be found amongst people who have to wait for someone to help them go to the bathroom, who need their shirts buttoned up for them, who can’t properly follow a conversation anymore without getting confused, who have, for all intents and purposes, regressed back to the point of being a toddler? It is emotionally devastating to lie in a hospital bed or sit in a wheelchair in a nursing home and reflect on one’s life of hard work, caring for a home, raising a family, going to church, making decisions, being responsible for one’s self and others, and to know that all of that is now gone. We all pray to die suddenly at home, without pain, without illness, working at something we love. We fear that moment when we end up in the hospital or in a full-care facility; we dread that unproductive and useless life. What on earth would we do with ourselves when we got there? How can God still love us when we’re like this?
Almost five hundred years ago, Martin Luther took issue with the idea that Christians had to be productive and useful and hard workers in order to be holy and worthwhile in God’s eyes. We celebrate the Reformation because Luther proclaimed to us in a new way that God’s grace is a freely given gift from God to us - not something that we earn or work for or deserve. And one of the ways that Luther emphasized that God’s grace makes us holy apart from what we do was by talking about Christians as a royal priesthood. Luther reminded us what we already knew from 1 Peter, Chapter 2, that “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” When we were baptized, we were made one with Christ. Luther emphasizes this union over and over again - we were made one with Christ, which means that Christ’s holiness and righteousness and worthwhile-ness become ours. Because we were baptized, we are now on the same level of worthiness as Christ, we are made royal priests just like Christ. And that means that, as Luther said, we “may be confident that whatever we do in the presence of God is pleasing and acceptable to God.” Working hard is pleasing and acceptable. Caring for your family is pleasing and acceptable. Living independently is pleasing and acceptable. But even more than that, you may be confident that lying in a hospital bed unable to get up on your own is pleasing and acceptable to God. Being helpless as medical decision are made about you and without your input is pleasing and acceptable to God. And I don’t mean that God is pleased with or accepts the fact that you are powerless. I mean that God does not use what you can or cannot do as the basis for which God accepts you and God is pleased with you. God accepts you and is pleased with you because you are one of the royal priesthood, because you are one of Christ’s brothers or sisters, because you are baptized and redeemed by Christ, not because you are capable of taking care of yourself, or because you are independent, or because you are of sound mind. God sees your worth and your holiness and finds pleasure in being with you because you are God’s child of grace, because God has already made you holy in Christ.
And because we are royal priests, God entrusts us with a particular responsibility. Now it might strike you as strange that I am telling you that when we are in the hospital or when we are in the nursing home, or when we are shut-in at home, that God has given us a particular task to do. But God has. And I want you to remember this, because when that day comes, when you find yourself alone and in the hospital and struggling with what is going on, with hours of time on your hands, awake in the middle of the night, I want you to remember that God is giving you a responsibility as one God’s royal priests: the responsibility to pray.
As Luther says, this is the duty of a priest, to pray for others. And this is your duty, too, and I would add, your privilege. But note this carefully - our duty as priests is not to pray for ourselves, although we should always do that. Our duty is to pray for others. You see, not enough people pray in the world. We are too busy living our lives - working at our jobs, raising our families, taking care of our homes, going to church, driving our cars, doing all of the things we can’t do in the hospital. And we end up too busy to pray. But God needs more people to pray - prayer is what brings the world together, because prayer is love. Prayer is one of God’s most holy callings, because when we pray, the Holy Spirit moves and brings new life and brings us together into a community of God’s love. God needs us to pray so that God might act in the world.
So when you find yourself one day in a hospital or a nursing home, you will find yourself finally with time to pray. You will find yourself with time to focus exclusively on being one of God’s royal priests - released from all responsibilities but that of praying for the world. That hospital tray is your altar and that wheelchair is your throne and you are a royal priest. So pray for the person in the bed next to you. Pray for their family. Pray for the nurse who comes to give you your medicine. Pray for the hospital staff who brings you your lunch tray. Pray for the pharmacist working in the hospital pharmacy to calculate your medicine. Pray for the technician who examines your lab work. Pray for the doctor who reviews your case. Pray for the cooks who make the food. Pray for the ones who are sick, that they are healed. Pray for the caretakers, that they find rest. Pray for the medical community, that they have wisdom. But also just pray for them as people - pray for their families, for their friends, pray that they find meaning in their work, that their loved ones are happy, that they get enough rest. When you don’t know what to do with yourself, pray. They don’t have to be fancy prayers, with long sentence and flowery words. Just pray from your heart. When you hear the ambulance siren, pray for the paramedics and their passengers. When you hear the Code Blue announcement over the intercom, pray for the doctors and for the child of God who is hovering between life and death. Pray for this church, pray for your friends, pray for your pastor and her family. Pray for the Bishop and his family. Pray for your great-grandchildren and their teachers and classmates. Pray. Don’t for a minute think that you are useless and forgotten and that you have lost all control or independence. You are doing God’s work - you are fighting for God’s kingdom, praying against death, and evil, and all of the forces that would convince us that the world is and always will be darkness. You are bringing God’s light to the place you are in. You are a royal priest, you are sanctified and set aside, your prayers are holy and God’s work. So pray.
One of the great revelations of the Reformation was Luther’s reminder to us that all of the work we do as Christians is God’s work. Whether it is changing diapers or cleaning up garbage or calculating someone’s taxes or walking someone’s dog, it is all God’s work, and we are all holy because of it. But there comes a time when we can no longer “work,” as it were; when we can’t “do” any of the things we are used to doing. Even then, though, God continues to bless us and to make us holy in all that we do. God continues to be with us no matter where we are, even in a place that seems so lowly and so abandoned as a hospital bed among so many other hospital beds. God continues to esteem us as one of God’s royal priests. And so we pray, because it is all that is left that we can do, but also because God needs us to, and because the world needs us to, and because it is what we are all called to do. I suppose it is too much to ask that we look forward to the time when we are confined to a hospital bed or a nursing home room; it is too much to suggest that we greet it with open arms when it happens, but I pray that you remember that when you find ourselves in this situation, that you remember that you are neither useless nor abandoned. In hospital beds, in wheelchairs, you continue to be sanctified, set aside, and made holy, and given the indispensable task of praying for God’s people and for the world; for you are now and will always be one of this “royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” Thanks be to God. Amen.