Preaching at the nursing home


This being the third Thursday of the month, I preached at the local nursing home this morning. Amazingly, I’ve been doing this just about every month since I got here in July of 1987.

There are generally about a dozen or so women there, mostly in wheel chairs. Where are the men? There aren’t many in the nursing home. They don’t seem to last the way the women do.

I can’t say I always look forward to going. I expend a good deal of energy preaching, praying and singing for about forty straight minutes. I tend to feel a bit wiped out afterwards.

But I’ve experienced some wonderful things there. Though sometimes my congregation at the nursing home falls asleep while I’m preaching, they really do come with their hearts wide open. Their eyes sparkle.

In some ways I’ve learned how to preach at the nursing home. For better or for worse, I simply don’t have time to prepare a sermon in advance. So I go there and wing it. It forces me to me in the moment, and to trust that the words will come — that threads of thought touched by the holy spirit will hopefully take hold.

There are advantages, of course, to having a congregation whose short term memory isn’t what it once was. As far as I can tell, they don’t seem to mind if my sermons from month to month have elements of repetition. Praying the 23rd psalm and singing “Amazing Grace” never gets old. Its just familiar, reassuring.

There may be some folks there who are looking for something more sophisticated or complicated than what I’m offering them, but generally speaking, I assume the folks I preach to aren’t looking for a lot of subtlety on my part. They sure aren’t looking for me to give them pep talks on the importance of making time in their busy schedules to slow down and pray.  In a certain sense these folks have loads of time: no jobs to go to, no classes to attend, no children to look after, no meals to prepare. Just time. In another sense, of course, they don’t have much time at all. Death can’t be too far off for any of them.

I had this seminary in professor who used to say something like this: If it won’t play in a cancer ward, or a nursing home, whatever it is, it isn’t the Gospel.  So I tend to say the same sorts of things over and over to them: that they are God’s beloved daughters. That God has prepared a place for them in heaven, and that heaven is really, really beautiful. That until that day when God calls them home, there life here has a purpose that nothing can take away: to host the presence of God in this world. It doesn’t require that they do much; its more of a matter of being — of simply letting Christ be inside them as they continue to exist in this world. To simply bear Christ’s light. I tell them that their prayers are important, and that because they are very close to God, their prayers are powerful, so keep at it. I ask them to pray for me. I tell them that in the end, love is the one thing that never ends.

There’s this one old woman named Josephine who is 103 and has been sitting front and center for as long as I can remember. She truly shines like the sun.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.

Another thing this congregation perpetually reminds me of is that a preacher is utterly dependent upon her or his congregation. If the congregation isn’t interested in letting God happen, well, there isn’t much you can do — whatever you say, it will sound hollow.  On the other hand, if the congregation is standing on the threshold of heaven, open to God big time, well, the words will take off, and it won’t be the preacher’s doing.

In the past year I’ve made a point of ending my time there by going from old lady to old lady, placing my hands on their heads, and praying for them individually, by name. They seem to really like it.  I like it too.

This morning when I was done I said, “Well, I’ll see you next month.” To which one old lady responded, “A month is such a long time.”