Sermon given 12-8-09, in Santee Chapel at Lancaster Theological Seminary.
I have a name of my study where I type all my papers. I call it “The Death Star.”
Here I am thinking I’m Mr Diversity. I’ve received diversity training from my under-grad and in my work experience. I’ve had customers who were from all parts of the world thanks to Washington D.C.’s diverse population. I’m on the committee on diversity here and claim friends from all sides of the political and theological lines… But John is calling me out here… You see, growing up , I was taught to read judgment passages like John not as being about some fictional “them” like the Pharasees or Roman soldiers, but addressed directly to me. How am I like a viper?
Here in this academic setting, we’re forced to operate a little differently from how we would in a church. Here I’m more apt to jump and challenge any logical inconsistencies I find in others theology. I lay in wait, just like a snake, and strike when something stupid hits my ears. I am called to defend my point of view, logically and with evidence. I use this method quite often but it can turn into a defensive stance, guarding my position. I could do this easily with John and his words from the gospel.
He doesn’t challenge the existing social order. John doesn’t tell the tax collectors to end their relations with the occupying power but just take what they should. To solders, not to give up their jobs and live a life of peace, but not to be bullies and to be content with their pay. John seems to never even consider the possibility of there being an unjust wage! I have a ton of problems with this… well.. I would have a ton of problems if it weren’t for my time at Lancaster General Hospital this fall, working as a hospital chaplain.
In the hospital, you can’t be a viper. You can’t lie in wait and jump all over the theology of patients and show how your theology is superior. That would be abuse and Lancaster General wouldn’t have you as a chaplain for long. I find that I keep coming back to a phrase I’ve learned from a book by Pema Chodron that I’ve used a lot while in CPE. This phrase is the core of what I think John is talking about in today’s scripture.
One of my firsts requests was for pastoral support up on the 5th floor of the hospital. I enter to find a woman in her mid-40s who immediately asks if I’m ‘born again and saved.’ This is one of my buttons and I feel my anxiety rise. My first visit and it’s someone who is from the sinner world. I feel my judgment welling up and my mind goes into battle mode… but my seminary training kicks in, esp. thanks to the MS sequence, and I turn judgment into curiosity.
I ask why she would like to know. We then spend the next half hour in one of the coolest conversations I’ve had in a long while. I find out she’s has heart trouble because she’s overweight but she’s also joined a small group in her church to help deal with this, a Weight Watchers support group. She tells me she’s a new Christian, having being born again April 17th, 2009.
After awhile, she requests for prayer and I pray and immediately afterwards she starts giving me pointers on how the prayer could have been improved. Her criticism made me very angry. I said to myself “how dare she teach me a lesson about prayer! For years she has lived a carefree life and that’s what’s landed her artery clogged hiney here in the hospital! Meanwhile, I’ve been steeped in prayer my whole life and I can honestly say there is not one day I haven’t prayed. Now she’s converted, she is trying to tell ME, ME THE SEMINARIAN, THE HOSPITAL CHAPLAIN, THE FUTURE PULIZER PRIZE WINNER? how to behave?! Does she know my GPA?”
I offer up a silent prayer… not to John the Baptist… but to the one who neither John nor I am fit to touch the sandals of. I thought “Jesus… help me out here. I don’t want to chase this newly found sheep from your flock, but I’m greatly tempted. This is exactly the type of follower of yours that drives me nuts and gives me second thoughts for pursing this call you gave me.”
Jesus said “Trust. Have faith. You have nothing to defend here…You know how to start where you are…but can you start where she is?” I know how to start where I am… can I start where she is?
That’s when I felt a strange warming of the heart. Right there I felt what John was talking about, this wasn’t a baptism by water that john offers… this is beyond that. This is a baptism by fire. I found compassion for this woman.
I ask her to pray for me. She offered a much different prayer than I offered, ladened with Father language and that dreaded HE pronoun that I despise. But she blessed me. I got past my issues; I stopped listening to content and went after the meaning. Afterwards I asked questions where the meaning wasn’t clear to me. The conversation was great! We had a great time! She told me as I was saying goodbye that I was “covered in the blood of the lamb.”
Normally I would run screaming from the room and straight to a shower to try to get the blood off. But that woman was paying me the highest compliment she knew how to articulate.
I am honored to have received her blessing. It is something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life and one I hope to honor.
Every time I feel my complaints start to rise, things like “Why aren’t they seeing me? I’ve worked so long, did so much, and have so much wisdom to offer and this person isn’t listening! They haven’t even considered my point of view! Why do they not thank me, invite me, honor me etc?” I remember to start where I am. I’ve been there; I’ve already traveled those roads. I’m centered and I’m now able to look for intersections where I can meet the other person. I am able to stop the self-perpetuating and counterproductive cycle of complaint and self-rejection and I’m able to embrace the other person. Right where they are. Right at the cross roads where our stories meet.
What this style does is follow in exactly the type of religious experience John is pointing to. John is talking about a religion that is beyond our control. Because it arises from a responsiveness to what God is doing among us, such experience cannot be channeled or domesticated to our tastes. There is mystery, God acts in ways that defy explanation or institutionalization. God calls for genuine repentance and a commitment to the life-style of a covenanted people. Our experience of God is always as Spirit and Fire. Moving and burning.
When we lay down our need to be affirmed, to defend our closely guarded positions, this leaves us vulnerable to this grace. Being vulnerable is key here whether you’re a scholar teaching these strange students. Or student in a learning situation with these strange sounding scholars. Or a staff member surrounded by excited and self-focused students and scholars? Starting where you are and looking to meet the other is wonderful testament to absolute grace. It says, "It’s done." It doesn’t say, after this if you do something, then you’ll be OK. It says, "You’re saved now," not because you did something or thought something or figured something out, but you’re saved now because Jesus says so. It isn’t religion that makes you OK with God, its God who does it. The sacraments are not religion. They do not cause something to happen. You don’t change the wine in the Eucharist into the blood of Christ, the presence of Christ. You just put up a sign in which you say, he is present in this sign as he is present in all things, including us. When we hold up the bread and wine before communion and say, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." That means that the whole world is changed, changed by Christ.
So now when I’m asked in the hospital, “are you born again? Are you saved?” I say “Yes. And it happened almost 2,000 years ago when a babe was born in a manger.” This advent, I ask you to consider, how would you answer that question?