Fall Foliage Day Sermon
I don’t know about you, but I can totally relate to the people in today’s gospel. There have been a number of times in my life in which I have prayed for guidance or answers or solutions – when I have boldly approached the throne of grace – and the response given was not quite the answer I was looking for. When this happens, I react in a number of ways
I ignore God’s answers because I fail to trust.
I challenge God’s answers because I think I know better.
And sometimes I go away grieving because I know God’s answer is truth.
Truth is not always what I want to hear. Truth doesn’t conform to my agenda, and my wants. Occasionally, I even abhor the truth! It just seems like too much work!
Christians know that we have a wonderful gift in Jesus Christ. Our savior came to earth and took on our wretched skin and our hopeless situation. Christ lived and walked among us – as one of us – and experienced our pain and loss and the worst ugliness that humanity can dish out. And because Christ lived and died as one of us, we can boldly approach the Throne of Grace and ask for what we need, knowing that we will receive God’s word – a word of grace and mercy and truth – from a God who knows our frailties and the intentions of our hearts.
Our problem is that we love the grace and mercy… the truth? Not so much. Just like that poor guy in the gospel, we go to Jesus for answers and then we’re not happy with what we’re told.
“Sell all I have and give it to the poor?”
You’ve got to be kidding me, Jesus!
Jesus is not kidding, of course. He was, perhaps, a bit sarcastic in that line about the camel, but he wasn’t kidding about the offloading of the things that prevent us from living the way God intends us to live.
“There is nothing you can do to inherit eternal life. That’s been taken care of for you. However… there is this one other thing you could work on…”
Jesus spoke truth to the man. And the truth seemed impossible. So impossible that the man went away grieving. It seems like no one would be capable of living the way God intends, but every now and then, we find someone who comes pretty close.
Alice Dietz, a former Nawakwa nurse, was one of those people.
Alice’s life did not begin well. She was born in March of 1922, in the midst of a flu epidemic. In the week that she was born, her mother and two siblings died. Alice and her remaining sister were sent to live in the Lutheran Home for the Aged and Orphans in Germantown, Pennsylvania. (We should stop here and note that Alice loved it there and recalled the orphanage and its staff with great fondness.)
Several years later, Alice’s father remarried and brought the children home – which sounds like a good turn of events, except that Alice’s father abused his daughters in unspeakable ways. When Alice’s sister left home, the situation became so intolerable that Alice ran away. She found refuge with family friends who allowed her to work in their family business until she graduated from high school.
Alice belonged to a Lutheran congregation that had a strong interest in developing leadership in its young people. They sponsored Alice’s sister’s involvement in Luther League, and sent her to several national conventions. Alice didn’t have the same interest in Luther League, but she was interested in academic pursuits, so the congregation sent Alice to the Lutheran Leadership Training Camp at Nawakwa.
She enjoyed her classes there, but even more, she enjoyed hearing the faculty and visitors talk about their work in the church and the world. Alice was especially captured by the stories told by the deaconesses and missionaries she met at Nawakwa, and it didn’t take her long to discern that a career in nursing would be perfect for her.
She enrolled as a student at the Lankenau Hospital School of Nursing outside of Philadelphia. After graduation, she worked at other local hospitals, including the University of Pennsylvania Hospital – which allowed her to earn a Masters in Social Work at no cost.
Not all of Alice’s life was about education and work. Along the way, she met a young serviceman from Carlisle named Lyle Ferguson. She and Lyle did well together and decided that they should someday get married. On Lyle’s Army salary, he even managed to buy Alice a ring.
Alice knew that marrying Lyle would likely mean that she would leave her own career behind – and she grieved that. But they were happy and excited about beginning a life together and starting a family. Alice felt certain that this was God’s plan for her.
Everything seemed to be going along swimmingly until Lyle went home on leave to his parents’ farm. While test-driving his father’s new tractor, Lyle had an accident and was killed. Alice told me that she did two things when she heard the news of Lyle’s death. The first was that she sent her ring to Lyle’s mother because it was the right thing to do. The second thing that Alice did was that she began to pray in earnest, asking God, “What is it that you want me to do?”
Alice told me that, over time, it became clear to her that missionary work would be her direction – and she did not grieve because of that answer. She had had classes and conversations with missionaries at Nawakwa. It sounded exciting and fulfilling to her. Missionary work would allow her to use her skills and knowledge for the sake of others – AND she could give back to very church that had formed her!
Alice knew exactly where she wanted to go – AFRICA, specifically Tanganyika.
She remembered learning of the many different mission fields served by the ULCA while she was at Nawakwa. Someone representing the Board of Foreign Missions had done a presentation of different opportunities available. Alice was fascinated by what she heard about Tanganyika. She also remembered that the gentleman shared with the class that every organization has its areas of strength and weakness… and the area of greatest weakness for Lutheran missionary work at that time – and the place you DIDN’T want to go – was Liberia.
Alice took steps to apply to the Board of Foreign Missions, fully convinced that she was moving in the right direction – the direction given to her when she boldly approached the throne of grace and asked for an answer. Life had never been easy for her, but the church had always taken care of her… serving the church by giving back in this way was the right thing to do… Alice knew that she was doing what God wanted her to do.
And so, on the day that Alice was to receive her assignment, she was confident and ready.
But Alice was not assigned to Tanganyika. Alice was assigned to … Liberia.
Her reaction was not the reaction of the young man in today’s gospel. Alice did NOT go away grieving. Instead, Alice reacted more like Peter. She marched up to the man in charge and said, “Excuse me, but I believe there’s been a mistake… I requested Tanganyika, and my assignment was Liberia.”
What Alice received in return was exactly that which we sometimes dread the most. She received the truth.
The man in charge said, “Alice, we need you to go to Liberia. We’re building a new hospital and we are desperately in need of skilled nurses. We need you to help us start a collegiate nursing school.”
Alice told me that at this point she said, “Okay, God. If this is what you really want me to do, I will do it.”
And off she went.
Over the next few years, Alice worked in all aspects of setting up that nursing school – from designing curriculum, to going out to find eligible students, to teaching the classes once the students were gathered. Her first class of four young women graduated in 1965.
Alice worked in Liberia for a total of ten years, training up nurses as she had been taught, but in a part of the world very different from anything she had known. Alice remained in Liberia – embracing her call and loving those she served – until the Board of Missions determined that it was no longer safe for her to stay. Civil unrest had made it far too dangerous. She grieved over the thought of leaving. She had so grown to love her life and the people with whom she lived and worked in Liberia. And she prayed about this – you know she prayed about this – but when a student from the first graduating class was brutally murdered, Alice knew that the truth was it was time to leave.
The work started by Alice and others continues even until today. Despite being attacked and looted during the Liberian civil war, Phebe Hospital has never stopped giving care – and nurses continue to be graduated from the program begun by a young woman who followed God’s call to serve in a faraway land.
And Alice never stopped praying. In praying for guidance, she felt herself being called to teach in the exotic mission field of Durham, North Carolina. Positions were open at the Duke University School of Nursing. Alice applied and was told that her credentials were unacceptable. While she possessed a Masters Degree, it was not in the required field. The truth was: even though she had just established a collegiate school of nursing from the ground up, if she wanted to teach nursing in the states, she would have to earn another degree.
Instead of grieving or protesting, Alice enrolled at the University of North Carolina and earned her Masters in Nursing, and THEN returned to Duke, where they offered her the job, and where she taught until the program ended seven years later. And she didn’t stop there – she went back to UNC and taught in the very department from which she had graduated for another seven years… and at the age of 65, Alice finally retired.
She moved to a Lutheran retirement community, and as some of you may be able to relate, she LOVED it there! This was now her community, her village, and she built relationships and cared for the people of Twin Lakes as she had cared for people all of her adult life. And Alice continued daily to seek God’s guidance in her life.
Alice told me that, around the time she turned 80, God began to show her that she was carrying unnecessary burdens. The truth was: Alice was still angry with her father and it was time to let that anger go. It was getting in the way. Alice told me that of all the life-changing decisions she had ever made, and there had been several, this one was the most difficult and the most rewarding.
And so, at the age of eighty, Alice experienced new life, letting go of the one thing that had been weighing her down and preventing her from living a full life with Christ. So great was this revelation that Alice made it her mission to share her story with her peers and the staff at Twin Lakes, and when I met Alice last September, she shared her story with me. She never passed up an opportunity to encourage others to let go of anger and to forgive those who had wronged them. Alice knew the rewards that could
be found in releasing burdens, because she had experienced this firsthand – and Alice prayed that everyone
might know the same joy that she knew.
I just learned that Alice died in August.
I don’t know the circumstances surrounding her death, but I have a strong inkling that when God told Alice that it was time to go, Alice didn’t grieve OR protest. I want to believe that Alice boldly approached the Throne of Grace one last time, knowing that she would be welcomed by a God who knows her frailties and weaknesses and the intentions of her heart. And the truth is – and this is truth we WANT to hear – Alice received mercy and grace a hundredfold.
I also don’t know what happened to the man who approached Jesus. We know he went away grieving, but then what?
Did he continue to live his life, held back from eternal life by the prison of his possessions?
Did he come to believe the truth that Jesus revealed to him? Did he sell all that he had and give it to the poor?
Did he spend the rest of his days trying to force a poor camel through a tiny opening just to prove that he could get into Heaven?
We just don’t know. But I do know that, given the chance, Alice Dietz would have encouraged him to let go of his own plans and his own desires in order to live the life of abundant grace that God wills for us all. And she would encourage each of us to go and do likewise.
Alice Dietz, full of grace and truth, thank you for showing us how to live the way God intends.