Alan Christopher Lee
Sermon at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Brooklyn NY
August 18th 2019
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength, and our redeemer.
I want to begin by saying how grateful I am to be back in this pulpit, and to have had the chance to worship here at All Saints’ again this summer. As many of you know, I’m currently preparing for ordination, and one of the requirements of that process is something called Clinical Pastoral Education, which is typically a 10-week summer internship as a hospital chaplain. So from the end of May to the beginning of August, 5 days a week, I took the A train all the way to the end of the line—Far Rockaway, Queens—and served as a chaplain at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital.
You may not know this, but St. John’s is actually owned and operated by our own Diocese, and as I understand it, it’s the only independent Episocpal hospital left in the entire country. But the uniqueness of St. John’s doesn’t end there. It’s the sole hospital serving the entire peninsula of the Rockaways, and its immediate neighborhood is an especially underserved, low-income community. St. John’s is what’s known as a “safety net” hospital. Its clientele consists almost entirely of patients on both Medicare and Medicaid, and the hospital doesn’t turn anyone away. That means that St. John’s provides tens of millions of dollars in free health care every year, which the state reimburses—as long as certain standards are met. With very little resources, the hospital is able to meet the needs of a community that itself lacks resources. The hospital’s mission, and the folks who carry it out every day, are something we as Long Island Episcopalians, can be proud of.
St. John’s is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a place where Christian ministry is performed in distinct and powerful ways. That’s one of the main reasons I was attracted to the program there. And it didn’t take long to find out why Clinical Pastoral Education is a crucial rite of passage for anyone preparing for professional ministry. A seminary education is mostly confined to the classroom and the chapel, and focused on mastering theology, church history, and liturgy. Subjects which are obviously important. But to truly become a pastor, a minister to the body of Christ, you need another kind of knowledge, drawn from experiential, real-time learning, in a curriculum taught by those who Christ came to lift up—the sick, the vulnerable, the poor and the powerless.
Needless to say, no reading assignment, no lecture series or tutorial could possibly prepare someone for the kind of education I received doing my rounds at the hospital, encountering suffering on a daily basis, literally in the flesh, up close, and face-to-face. In these encounters, questions and habits of doctrine, denomination—and even devotion—don’t do much good. You learn to rely on pure presence, and empathy, and especially on silence. You learn that raw faith is the common currency of all religions, and that the fundamental connection between two people—our shared humanity—far outweighs the thoughts and circumstances that otherwise make us strangers to one another.
Now all of this would have been unsettling enough, but visiting patients is only half of what the program is about. Every afternoon, after morning rounds and lunch, my five peers and I spent over 3 hours in a group session, where we critiqued one another’s work. These feedback sessions, guided by our supervisors, demanded relentless honesty, transparency and authenticity—the kind of enlightening but often painful work familiar to anyone in therapy, or recovery. Because the program, at the end of the day, is not really about just training hospital chaplains—it’s about discovering who we are as ministers. It’s about learning to recognize and manage our own hidden wounds, our sins and blind spots, which have a way of coming to the surface when we’re confronted with someone else’s pain and suffering. What happens to us in these moments? Do we run out of the room—literally or figuratively? Or can we find a way to be wholly present and fully attentive to the needs of the “living human document” in front of us?
The upshot of all this is that those 10 weeks were perhaps the most challenging experience I’ve had so far, not just in ministry, but in life. And now I see there was a holy purpose behind it all. In my case, at least, being taken so far out of my comfort zone, being confronted with not just the pain of others but my own wounds and flaws, provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for growth. Indeed, it felt like a baptism by fire. Ministering in a place of great need, to people on the margins of society, alongside peers from diverse faith and cultural backgrounds, gave me unprecedented clarity about myself and confidence in my vocation. I left St. John’s believing I might actually be a pastor after all. And no wonder; this is, after all, the way it works. There is no way to grow except through challenge.
Now I apologize for spending so much time on my experience this summer, but I think it sheds some real light on this week’s Gospel passage. The Jesus Luke shows us here is not the Jesus we usually prefer—we don’t get Jesus the gentle shepherd, the great comforter who preaches only love, inspires hope, and tells us “do not worry.” Nor is it the Jesus who gives us great parables of reconciliation and empathy like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. Here instead we have the Jesus who started a riot in the Temple, who cursed the fig tree and scorned the Canaanite woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon. This Jesus challenges us and unsettles us. He comes not to make peace but to divide us. He comes with fire and waits for a baptism by fire. He even admits to being stressed out by his job—he sounds just like us!
And so in a strange way I’m almost more comforted by this Jesus, because here is the fully human Jesus. Not the otherworldly enigma or the spiritual boyfriend, but the actual man from Nazareth, the one who sweats, who weeps, who bleeds alongside his real historical first century Palestinian disciples. The one who experienced and expresses the full range of human emotions, and who will endure—in a stunning, transcendent act of divine solidarity—the unimaginable pain and suffering of the cross.
I trust this Jesus. A God who is willing to share the worst kind of human suffering, and who is powerful enough to transform a shameful human death into a gateway to eternal life is a God I can believe in, a God worthy of taking the risk of faith. So if my faith begins with Jesus’ divinity, it seems somehow to hang on his humanity. But we still might be tempted to ask why, why do things have to be this way? The Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus endured the pain and shame of the cross for the sake of joy. But why not just give us the joy? Why is there no growth without trial and conflict?
I think the answer has to do with the kind of joy Jesus promises us. This is no ordinary bliss: it’s revolutionary and radical, because it exalts the poor and weak over the rich and powerful, and exposes the injustices of the status quo. It’s bound to cause disruption and chaos, to divide us before it reconciles us, because those who profit from the exploitation of vulnerable people and the natural world—and that includes most of us, to some degree—will never just walk away from their places of privilege. This is the sharper edge of the Good News: that the road to heaven runs through human selfishness, and getting there, bringing ourselves and our neighbors to repentance, often requires confrontation. So here, in Luke’s story, we have Jesus simply being brutally honest about that. And inviting us—daring us—to join him in this baptism by fire.
But what new and wonderful things will grow within us when we are brave enough to go there, to risk seeing ourselves as God sees us? To have our need for total control and security burned away, so that we can finally discover our true selves, vulnerable and dependent, lovable in our very brokenness? The fire Jesus came to bring is the fire of purification and of judgement. Judgement has become such a bad word for us, because for whatever reason, when we think of judgement we automatically think of condemnation. But to judge something correctly is a good and beautiful thing, it’s to see something for what it is, it’s to know the truth. And we believe in a merciful God, who always judges correctly and whose judgement never condemns us. God’s judgement only liberate us, by showing us the truth about ourselves, the truth that sets us free.
Working in the hospital this summer, I started to imagine that each room I entered contained a holy fire, the burning flame of another person’s need. And I had a choice. I could choose to stand beside the fire, warming my hands, and admiring myself for daring to stand so close. Or I could risk stepping into the fire, knowing that in some sense it would destroy me, but out of which I would emerge purified, transformed, baptized.
There is no growth without challenge. I spent my summer learning this lesson: our faith can’t be made perfect apart from the purifying fire of judgement. And that judgement, in which we see ourselves as God sees us, is not condemnation. That judgement is the very source of our joy. That’s what Jesus knew, and that’s where Jesus went. And we know that we have nothing to fear as long as we’re following him.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.