In the summer after my first year of seminary, I spent ten weeks interning as a chaplain at San Francisco General Hospital. The General, as it is known by those who serve and are cared for there, is the Level One Trauma Centre for the Bay Area. It is, in other words, the place that you are brought after the biggest and the worst accidents. It is also the major public hospital serving that hilly and foggy city, it is where you go if you have limited insurance or no insurance at all.
Interning as a chaplain – or doing CPE, short for Clinical Pastoral Education – is an intense experience at any hospital. In a culture that hides away limitation and injury and illness and death like the Wizard of Oz behind a curtain, being in a hospital tears that curtain down. A hundred years ago, it was common to die at home. Today, you can go for years, decades sometimes, without ever setting eyes on a dying person or a dead body. But in a hospital the façade is gone. And the reality of mortality and grief – including your own mortality and your own grief – is immediate and inescapable.
Interning as a chaplain at the General is especially intense because of the level of poverty there. When I was growing up, it rarely or never occurred to me that my family was privileged, that I was privileged. Having stable housing, having regular and easy access to health care, never wondering where my next meal was coming from, never being hassled by the police, more or less assuming that I would someday attend university – all of this struck me as obvious and self-evident and universal. The General was one of the first places that I regularly encountered deep poverty, generational poverty, that I talked with and sat with and prayed with people who had nowhere, nowhere to go after they got discharged.
For a number of the General’s patients, a big part of poverty was tied up in addiction. In the General’s beds, I saw addiction that was radical in nature. The drunks that I had known growing up – and here again is my privilege – were more or less functional: they held down jobs and were raising families. Whereas the people whom I met at the General who were struggling with booze or smack or meth were not functional at all, they had lost their grip on the island of normalcy and stability long ago. They were being tossed about in addiction’s storm.
For still more of the General’s patients, poverty was tied up in race. It was impossible to avoid noticing the correlation between having brown skin and lying in one of the General’s beds.
Funnily enough, in the midst of all of this suffering and injustice and hardship, all of this hanging out with illness and unfairness, one of the hardest things for me about being a chaplain at the General (and maybe for my fellow seminarians, most of whom were also Episcopalians, I’m not sure) was the absence of a predictable routine, the absence of a set of rules. Actually, maybe that is not funny at all: many of you have told me that church, and this church in particular, is a kind of rock of stability in a tumultuous world. One of the reasons that so many of us are drawn to the Episcopal tradition is the liturgy, the structured, rhythmic nature of the seasons, of the Eucharist. It is one of the gifts of this tradition that, on any given Sunday, even when you are travelling, you can go into an Episcopal or an Anglican church and right away say:
I know this. I’m home.
But at the General, the stability of the BCP, the stability of the liturgy, all of that was gone. A lot of its patients were Christians. But I don’t think that I ever met one who was an Episcopalian. (Indeed, I met quite a few who had never even heard of The Episcopal Church.) By and large, the Episcopalians – who, let’s be clear, were mostly white people – were off at the hospitals reserved for folks who had good insurance. And so the General was a hospital populated with Baptists and Roman Catholics and Pentecostals and folks who went to churches with names like Life Centre and The Crossroads.
I remember Will Hocker, the head of the chaplaincy program at the General saying to my colleagues and me:
I advise against taking a prayer book with you when you go visiting. If you have to take a prayer book, take a small one.
And leave it in your pocket.
And so I knocked on the door of hospital rooms, as nervous, as scared, as I had been in a long time. If felt like an elementary school student knocking on the Principal’s door, saying in the least terrified voice that I could muster:
Hi. My name’s Martin. I’m a chaplain. Would you like a visit?
And so I got some experience with rejection, with finding out that I could survive when people said “no.” But mostly what I encountered were people who did want to visit, who welcomed me graciously and generously into their rooms.
The General’s patients started to teach me. They taught me about the Bible – most of the Christians at the General read it carefully and often, far more carefully and far more often than a lot of Episcopalians. And they taught me about prayer as well. About just being with another person, about listening for the Spirit, about doing your best to put what was happening in the room into words.
Generally speaking, my visits began with my nervous knock on the door, when I cold called at a room. But occasionally someone would phone down to the chaplaincy office and ask for chaplain to come to a patient’s room. I remember vividly being in the office by myself – all of my colleagues, all of my supervisors were somewhere else – and the phone ringing. I picked it up and I heard the voice of a nurse. She said:
There’s a patient in Room 504. He is dying. His family is there. They don’t have a connection with any kind of church or religious community. And they want a chaplain to come up and say something.
Oh my God.
It is probably an exaggeration to say that my knees were knocking as I walked out the door of the office and rode up the elevator to Room 504. (It was three floors above my office. I remember the buttons of the elevator counting them off.) But it’s not much of an exaggeration. If you had given me my choice between walking into the room with the dying man and his family and taking a dare that involved coming to church naked, I would’ve needed to give my decision some thought.
Today we listen as Jesus gives a charge to his disciples, a commission to his disciples. Jesus’ commission is kind of perfect inversion of the commission from the coach or the general or the scout master who tells his people to go forth meticulously prepared, to triple check that everything is in their backpacks and strapped forth to their belts.
Jesus tells his charges to go forth and take nothing. No money, no bag, no sandals (implicitly, the disciples are to go in bare feet), no change of clothes, no staff. If Jesus were giving this charge to you and me right now, he would tell us to leave our wallets and our cars here at church and go. We are to go forth with empty pockets and open hands. We are to go forth with nothing.
Well, not quite nothing.
We are to go forth with nothing except having met Jesus.
And maybe that is everything.
Because notice what Jesus tells his deliberately unprepared disciples that they are prepared to do:
Cure the sick.
Raise the dead.
Cleanse the lepers.
Cast out demons.
Change the world.
It is simply having known Jesus, having followed Jesus, having said yes to Jesus that empowers them to do these things.
And maybe that empowers you and me to do these things.
You are going, Jesus says, going without sandals or staff or money or change of clothes, going like sheep into the midst of wolves. They will flog you and betray you and drag you before governors. You will suffer. It will be hard.
And then Jesus goes on to say something that was one of the first passages of scripture that I ever heard, a part of the Bible that is cemented in my mind. Again, here is the theme of taking nothing. But now it is a kind of mental or psychic nothing that are to take:
When they hand you over, don’t worry about how to speak or what you are to say. For what you say will be given to you then. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
When the time comes, you don’t need to prepare your speech.
You will have everything that you need.
I knocked on the door of Room 504 of the San Francisco General Hospital. The man dying in the bed was younger than I expected, maybe seventy years old.
His wife and his adult children and maybe some siblings were gathered around him. I don’t really remember what I said. I do remember that I invited everyone, the whole family, to gather with me and to hold hands around the bed, to tell stories about the dying man, to say thanks to him. To say I love you. Maybe I said something at the end – a kind of prayer. Maybe I just allowed the prayer that was silence and tears to hang in the room.
Somehow, somehow it was enough.
It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Maybe Jesus tells the disciples – maybe he tells us – to take nothing for our journey, because he knows that, left to our own devices, we might just keep on preparing forever, that preparation is sometimes the way that we disguise procrastination. That sometimes preparation is what we do instead of living life. And so Jesus says: you don’t need to pack your suitcase, you don’t need to raise a bunch more money, you don’t need to take another course. You just need to go.
Or maybe Jesus tells us to take nothing because he knows that when we walk into the hospital room clutching our Prayer Books or our carefully prepared speeches, we can be so intent on delivering our lines that we forget to listen to the people in the room, that we forget to listen to the Spirit.
Go forth, Jesus says, with your pockets empty and your hands open. You have met me. You have received the gift of the Spirit. You have what you need.
You are ready.
If you are a user of the internet, particularly of social media, you might be familiar with the blog called “Humans of New York.” Humans of New York is essentially a collection of interviews of people on the streets of New York City. It began as a photography exhibit – photos of people – faces, full bodies – accompanied by quotes and short stories about their lives. The now blog posts new stories – just a photo and a quote – weekly. Sometimes they’re incredibly brief, a line or two that illuminates some piece of that person’s life, and sometimes they’re lengthier & in a serial form…the quotations from individuals are posted as paragraphs one at a time throughout the day to highlight the drama of the story unfolding. Occasionally the blog focuses on specific groups rather than just capturing the stories of random people encountered on the street, and most recently that specific group was adults and children in the pediatrics department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Here are excerpts from two longer stories that were part of that series:
“I used to be a really happy person. I really was. I was the person who would walk outside and say: ‘Isn’t everything beautiful? Isn’t life wonderful? Aren’t we so lucky?’ I don’t have that sense of joy anymore. I remember the Mother’s Day before Max was diagnosed. It was four years ago. We were in this same park. On the lawn over there. It was beautiful. All three of us were there. Irene and I were in love. And Max was lying on my feet and pretending to fly in the air. And he was laughing so hard and I remember feeling so happy and full of life. It was the last moment that I truly felt joy.”
They called me in the office to give me the results. They told Grace to wait outside. I was so nervous. I could barely stand. When I walked in, nobody was saying anything at first. I thought: ‘Oh, God. They don’t want to tell me.’ Suddenly they said: ‘This is amazing. It’s never happened before.’ And they held up her scan and the cancer was gone. It had been everywhere: her pelvis, her skull, her bones, her arms. And now it was gone. All of us started crying.”
Imagine the parents of those two children meeting in the halls of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, pacing late at night, unable to sleep maybe, sharing the stories of their children and their prognoses, knowing that these stories – their stories – will likely end very differently. What does the story of healing say to you about who we are – parents, children, oncologists, nurses, research scientists? What about the story of the loss of a child’s life. Does that say something different about who we are? And what do these stories say about who God is?
Today’s Old Testament & Gospel readings also tell two stories, but in this case both stories end with healing. Last weeks’ Gospel reading – about Jesus healing the centurion’s servant – also ended with healing. And while the writers of the Gospels in particular are telling us something about Jesus when the recount these stories, we know that people were also dying, untouched by Jesus’ healing hand, and so the same questions – about what these stories tell us about who we are and who Jesus is and who God is – can be asked.
Before delving into the work of interpreting a piece of Scripture, I usually try to remind myself of a couple guiding principles for interpreting the Word of God. That in itself – how do we interpret Scripture – is a question for another day, perhaps a question for Father Martin, but today I think there are two concepts that can help us understand our readings.
First, the Bible is full of complication and discord. The overarching narrative – the meta-narrative if you will – is the salvific love of the Triune God. But not every story in the Word of God points toward or furthers that narrative. Some seem to flat-out contradict or even reject that narrative. To steal a phrase from the Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann, when we encounter one of these “little stories” that doesn’t match the “great story,” what do we do? Ignore or discard it? Make it fit? I love how Walter Brueggemann encourages us not to just “make it fit,” saying that doing so dismisses the text and denies us access to the oddity of the text, the oddity of God and the oddity of life in the world. Despite the fact that today’s readings seem to fall into line with the great narrative of Scripture – the narrative of life – there are some oddities for us to notice and consider.
Last week’s Gospel reading told us the story of Jesus healing the servant of a Centurion and this week’s Gospel reading tells us a similar story, of Jesus bringing back to life the only son of a widow, as does our Old Testament reading of Elijah raising from the dead another son of a woman. Fairly straightforward, similar stories of healing. The odd thing is that the ones asking for healing couldn’t be more different. The centurion played an active role in his story. He sent elders to Jesus on his behalf, elders who appealed earnestly to Jesus for help, who spoke highly of the centurion’s faith. He showed his reverence by saying he wasn’t worthy to have Jesus enter his house. He showed an understanding of Jesus’ authority, saying that Jesus would only have to speak and his servant would be healed. The widow? She’s practically a bystander in her own story. Jesus simply looked at her and, knowing her misery, had compassion and acted. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask for anything, does nothing to “prove” her worthiness of Jesus’ healing, and yet she receives that grace. And then we have the woman in Elijah’s story, who is outright hostile toward Elijah for what she sees as his bringing illness into her house and onto her son. Not only doesn’t she ask Elijah to heal her son, not only doesn’t she demonstrate belief that he can, she accuses him of being the reason her son is ill. She says to him, “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!”
The story of the widow shares another oddity both with the story of the centurion and with our Old Testament reading today about another healing – Elijah’s bringing to life the son of a woman. In all three stories, the one healing brings upon himself what the Jews & Israelites of the day would have considered defilement…by physical contact with something unclean. Jesus touches the bier, the plank basically, that the widow’s son is lying on. And in 1 Kings, Elijah takes in his arms the body of the dead son, carries him to his own room and lays on the body. Even in last week’s story of the centurion, Jesus is on his way and intending to enter the house of a Gentile, a breach of Jewish purity law.
A final oddity. The healing of the widow’s son in Luke is followed by these words – “Fear seized all of them.” Those are words we hear regularly in Scripture and I think we conceive of that fear as something like awe. We imagine the shepherds on the hill being greeted by an angel at Jesus’ birth and we envision a light, something starling in its brightness and power and majesty. But put yourself for a moment in that scene. The son has been dead, for some amount of time we don’t know, but the widow and villagers are sure enough of his death that they have begun the procession of mourning and burial. His body has been on a plank and covered with a shroud. His life is gone. And here approaches a man, a man unknown to them, who within minutes, seconds maybe, has upended death. I think – before it turned to awe and glorification – they were legitimately terrified. As the passage says, “seized by fear” which implies a tenseness, an inability to move, being struck, without words.
Once they recovered – at least momentarily – from their fear at what they’d just witnessed, Luke tells us that the villagers of Nain said, “A great prophet has risen among us!” It’s an interesting way to make sense of what they’d just seen, and it wasn’t an uncommon way. Matthew & Mark also both describe in their gospels how Jesus was thought by some to be the risen project Elijah. I doubt quite seriously we would verbalize our awe in the same way now – the word “prophet” doesn’t hold a lot of tangible meaning for us today. We don’t call people prophets in a serious or respectful way. But for the villagers of Nain, there was history they were referring to in calling Jesus, this man otherwise unknown to them, a prophet. In the English translations we hear the exact same phrase in each passage describing what Jesus & Elijah did with the now risen son – he “gave him to his mother.” But the fact that the wording is verbatim isn’t just coincidental or just in our English New Revised Standard Version. When Luke writes the words “gave him to his mother,” he is quoting verbatim the wording used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, of that story in 1 Kings. The Septuagint was the version most often used by the apostles when they cited the Old Testament, and as Greek or Hellenistic culture spread throughout the Middle East, it’s quite likely that many Jews were also familiar with the Septuagint. For those steeped in it, this similarity may very well have occurred to them, hence their exclamation, “A great prophet has risen among us!”
The simple fact of these stories being about healing fits easily into the greater story of the Scriptures, the story of love & salvation. But these oddities point to something a little darker, something captured in all of the stories from the Humans of New York series I referenced, even those that ended with healing – the proximity to death, literally and figuratively, the passing into death & back, the fear, the power and authority unleashed by Jesus, dare I say the capriciousness of God – to attribute healing to faith in one instance (the centurion) and in the others, to have faith play no role. It’s a bit unsettling, especially if we like the idea that because Jesus was human we can understand him a bit better than, say God the Father or God the Holy Spirit. In the wake of Trinity Sunday a couple weeks ago, these stories remind us of Jesus’s divinity, of Jesus’ authority, and of Jesus’ unknowability. Luke has brought his readers to a point in the gospel where is now ready to pull back the veil and demonstrate the authority of Jesus. This is the first time in his gospel where Luke refers to Jesus as Lord. Luke is saying, “things are not as they seem.” And they’re still not as they seem, and there isn’t comfort in that.
An early – 2nd & 3rd century – scholar & Christian theologian, Origen, dedicated much of his thought to interpretation of Scripture, with particular attention to the contradictions in Scripture, the oddities to use a modern word. Origen wrote, “The Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have meanings, not as they appear at the first sight, but also others, which escape the notice of most. For those (words) which are written are the forms of certain mysteries, and the images of divine matters. And so, if at times we do not understand what is said, we shall not lessen our obedience or subside to easier material explanation, but wait for the grace of God to suggest to us an answer to our question, whether by direct enlightenment or through the agency of another.”
If we believe the Word of God is alive, then it must mirror life – the oddities, the mysteries, the unexplainable, the conundrums, the unfairness. There may not be comfort in those mysteries when we encounter them – mysteries like the Trinity, mysteries like why one child lives and another succumbs to cancer – but we are not alone. The mysterious, odd Word of God, is with us.