Mystic Sweet Communion, Reflectionary

A Word About Bob

(A meditation for All Saints Sunday, using Luke 19:1-10)

What makes a saint, a saint of the church? When you hear those words, you might think of a little old lady in hat and gloves, or a mission worker, or the person who first taught you of the love of Jesus in Sunday School, long ago.

But I want to say a word about Bob.

I met Bob at a reception the day before I preached my candidating sermon at my first church. A short man who had trouble meeting my eye, he had me curious. I made an effort to engage him, and as it turned out, we would have a lot of contact after I began my ministry a few months later.

Bob was, by his own admission, a hothead, and I learned it the hard way when he took my side in a question of whether the pastor needed private office space. He got hot with the people who disagreed, wanting to continue to use one side of the pastor’s study for another purpose. Bob, as Chair of the Trustees, let them have it.

Needless to say there was a bit of a mess to clean up after, and I wondered whether Bob could be trusted. It worried me because Bob played a lot of roles in the life of that church: Trustee, Deacon, member of the Mission Committee. And every month, Bob coordinated and cooked the church’s Roast Beef Supper. A retired chef, he had the skills both to produce a wonderful meal and to organize the kitchen and the dining room. But as a person with a temper, he also rubbed people the wrong way at times.

And that brings me to Zacchaeus.

We spoke last week about another tax man, a character in a story told by Jesus, a perfect case of foreshadowing that reminds us the gospels are more literary than historical or biographical. The set up has been made, like a well-placed word on the Scrabble board, and here comes the real life illustration.

2345678910He entered Jericho and was passing through it.
A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

When Jesus came to the
place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down;
for I must stay at your house today.”
So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stood there and
said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to
the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back
four times as much.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus may be rich, but in the eyes of the acceptable, Temple-going folk in his community, he is not part of the crowd. He works for the Romans. He takes money from his own people, money they might have used to support their families or given in sacrifices, as a tax to the Roman occupiers. Like many other tax collectors, he may have lined his own pockets with a percentage here and there. And whether he did or not, the people who knew him assumed he did, because once a person betrayed the community by working with the Romans, it seemed only logical that he would be a selfish thief as well.

I can hear them at the marketplace, chatting normally until they see Zacchaeus approaching, then dropping their voices to make a remark he is not intended to hear…or is he? He was the CHIEF tax collector, surely a person did not rise to that position honestly?!?!! If we speak of him in undertones, say things that may not be completely true, well, even then, we are not as bad as he is, are we?

Zacchaeus make it into the Bible because he wanted to see Jesus badly enough that he climbed into a sycamore tree.

As a person short enough that I don’t come out of the pulpit while preaching for fear you might not see *me,* I understand his challenges. In a crowd I wonder not only if I will be seen but if I will be able to keep track of what is going on around me. Before Peter went away to school, he played in the Portland Youth Symphony Orchestra. I gave up on going to the post-concert receptions, because in a room so crowded, I felt lost in a sea of people. I could not find my own child. 

Zacchaeus resolved his dilemma in a practical manner, and I wonder if his entry into tax collection wasn’t a similarly practical decision. Both of these choices changed his life.

There are a lot worse things to be than short, of course.

Bob was an orphan, which is the charming, old-fashioned way of saying an abandoned child. Born in 1930, he grew up in a boys’ home in Portland. I don’t know the whole story of his parents, and I’m not sure he did either. Perhaps they didn’t sign the papers that would have allowed his placement when he was still a cute little fellow. Or maybe he never WAS a cute little fellow. Certainly, he was that boy no one wanted to adopt, tried out and returned by a number of potential families.

Every Sunday the boys from the home walked together to the little church on Stevens Avenue. I can imagine Bob among them, just as reluctant to meet the eyes of the adults as he was to meet mine. He believed he was unacceptable, and nothing he did really mattered.

But it mattered to one person, an older woman in the church, and when Bob was about 11, she convinced her husband that they ought to adopt him. For the first time in his life, Bob had a home. He respected Mrs. Elder, his new mother, the only mother he ever knew. He finished school and became a chef. He married and had three children. He moved away to pursue his career.

Like Zacchaeus, he found a way to function in the world, but also like Zacchaeus, Bob felt incomplete. As we got to know each other better, he still hesitated to meet my eye, but he told me pieces of his story. While raising his children, he worked many places. He worked many places because he could not accept authority in the kitchens where he cooked and fought with the boss everywhere he went. He got fired. A lot. He moved his family, over and over again. His wife worked as a practical nurse to help support the family.

Finally a day came when the argument with a boss came nearly to blows. And for once Bob met someone’s eye. He met his own, in the mirror, and had to be honest with himself. No matter how hard his early childhood had been, he thought, he did not want to be this angry and unsettled person, making life hard for the wife and children he truly loved. He could not salvage the job where he had gotten into the fight, so he brought his family home, to Maine. And it was then they finally managed to settle down and have some small measure of security, some sense of home. He cooked for many years in the kitchen of an elegant inn, rising to be head chef before he retired. And he came back to the church where he had learned the lessons that came back to him on the day he looked himself in the eye, in that bathroom mirror.

Bob, too, was a child of God.

It was never that God didn’t love Bob. Bob just couldn’t see how much until he decided to love himself and to make the most of the gifts God had given to him. He found a way to take better care of his family, and he shared his gift of cooking both at the soup kitchen and those wonderful Roast Beef Suppers.

Oh, he was still cranky! I’m sure Zacchaeus had his moments, too, times he wondered how to make his short self be seen, even after hosting Jesus at his home.

In the fall of 2004, Bob asked the church to find someone to “help” him with the suppers. He was having trouble breathing, and anyone could see his color was terrible. The doctors got after him because he was still smoking, despite their warnings over the years. He tried to quit, and a short hospitalization helped, but soon I saw him again in the parking lot before church, lighting up. On the day of the supper, he sat in a chair in the corner of the church kitchen and gave instructions to the people who would try to fill his place.

By November, he was much worse, and it surprised no one when he went back to the hospital with congestive heart failure. Because his wife had gone to a nursing home, church members made a particular point of visiting him, as he had faithfully gone daily to see her while working nights as a security guard to help pay for her care.

“Have you seen Bob?” became a familiar refrain on Sundays at coffee hour, another event over which he had presided faithfully for years. I later learned that he confided to a church member, during one of those visits, that he was sorry he had been the one vote against me! He didn’t think a woman could be a pastor, he told her, but he had changed his mind.

On the night of the November Roast Beef Supper, a longtime church member took me aside and said, “There’s going to be a lot of roast beef left over. We got double the delivery of groceries yesterday.”

You see, the helpful new volunteers had followed Bob’s instructions to the letter, ordering all that was needed for the supper.  And from his hospital bed, from his death bed, Bob had ordered the groceries, too. Although he knew he would not cook that meal, Bob kept faith with us and believed we would so the same. Really, his heart never failed.

19 thoughts on “A Word About Bob”

  1. Geez! You need a larger audience than us! It’s not right that your congregation is limited to those in the pew and those of us who know your bloggage.
    I should be seeing your face and name as the headliner at Big Preaching Conferences.
    This is another of your great sermons!

  2. I was in a church not too long ago that had little travel packs of kleenex in the pews. you might need those. it’s wonderful.

  3. Songbird— what can I say… you continue to feed so many of us in beautiful ways with God’s words.
    What a blessing you are to us.

  4. Oh, WOW, Songbird. This is just lovely. Luminous, actually. I have chills and tears at the same time. Thank you for sharing this with us – and blessings as you preach!

  5. What a great story. There is nothing more fascinating than people’s lives and the ways those lives intersect with God’s grace. Thank you.

  6. So before leaving or going to bed, just take the 30 extra seconds to lock away anything special and you will eliminate the opportunity for someone to just reach in and pick up a camera, etc.. Then you may fully enjoy the openess of our style of living which often includes no vista-obstructing windows.

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