Sunday, June 05, 2005

Pentecost 3 - Year A

“Do not take off your jacket,” I was told. “Do not stop at the office. Head straight to neo-natal intensive care. The baby might not last the hour,” my supervisor at the hospital told me on the phone as I was leaving my office at another hospital site.

I had finished a year of seminary and had just begun what is called “Clinical Pastoral Education” or “CPE” in seminary-speak. Another good name for it might be “tear the seminarian’s heart out and show it to him.”

At CPE, they slap a badge on you and call you a chaplain. Whether it be in a hospital, prison, or transition home, you are parachuted into battle. You learn by doing. And I learnt a lot those 12 weeks.

I arrived at the hospital and did just as I was told. I made my way up to neo-natal, the rain was still dripping off my jacket and my shoes tracking mud on the floor.

I asked the nurse where I could find the baby and the family. It was then I was told that the baby had died. A stillbirth

The nurse told me that the family wanted the baby baptized. But there was a glitch: the mother didn’t want to know what name I would put on the baptismal certificate.

I called my supervisor because it either by custom or policy or just good theology, at least two people had to be present at any baptism.

I met my supervisor in the morgue. It was my first time in there. And it looks just like it does on TV.

The attendant, who knew we were coming, ushered us into a cavernous vault. She opened a drawer, and gently but methodically lifted the tiny body of a baby girl, placed her on the gurney, uncovered her head. Then she left us to our business.

The baby was smaller than I expected. And much more beautiful.

My supervisor and I hovered over that little girl. I read from John’s gospel “’I am the resurrection and the life,’ says our Lord.” I asked my supervisor what I should name her. He said, in these situations, the chaplains usually give his or her own name. So, as I poured water over that little girl’s head, I whispered in her ear, “Kevin George Powell, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

I waited. But I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for. The silence was broken by my supervisor’s gentle command: “Go with God, little one.”

Despite all appearances, that was the easy part. The hard part lay waiting in a bed five floors above me.

Before I went in to visit with the mom, my supervisor sat me down and asked me what my strategy was. I hadn’t thought of any. So we talked for awhile just outside her door.

She had headphones on and was watching TV when I went in. Her eyes were deep red. This wasn’t the first time this happened to her family, she told me. She showed me pictures of her kids and her husband. Who, for whatever reason, wasn’t there.

“We did everything right,” she said. “We read that damn What to Expect book through a thousand times. Why do things like this happen?”

This wasn’t just a question in the air. She really wanted to know. And I had no answer to give her.

Sure, I could have offered her a pat theological answer; some seminary answer that sounded good on paper. I could have even quoted some scripture, “All things work together for good for those who love Jesus.” But I wondered if that wouldn’t have done more harm than good. Sometimes, even the best intentioned words feel like ashes in the mouth and poison in the ears.

I had never before felt so helpless. So I pulled out the only tool left in my toolbox: I prayed.

She wept. She asked me if the baby was baptized. I said “yes.” Then I asked her why she wanted the baby to be baptized. Why that was so important to her.

“I just wanted to know that God loves her.” She replied. Her voice barley getting out the words.

Then she asked me to leave her to her private grief. She didn’t want me to see her cry.

I think she must have felt like the dad in today’s gospel reading. Losing a child and wondering what to do about it. I think he approached Jesus, not as an act of faith, but as an act of desperation. But maybe faith and desperation are not so far apart.

Just think of the woman who’d been hemorrhaging for 12 years, fearing that she’d been killed if she ever had the audacity to talk to Jesus, simply touched the fringe of his cloak. This too was an act of desperation. 12 years is a long time to be in pain. Chances were that her husband left her. She probably begged on the streets. Folks probably crossed the street and walked on the other side when they saw her coming. Women weren’t allowed to even talk to men without their permission. Also, men weren’t supposed to touch women who had her condition. The bible, the good book said that such women were unclean and anyone who touched them would be unclean.

So she was risking a lot just touching Jesus. Her heart must have jumped into her throat when Jesus turned and looked at her. But instead of condemning her to death, which according to biblical law was his right, even his obligation, he chose a different path. “Take heart, daughter;” he said tenderly, “your faith has made you well.” He then turned, and kept going to tend to a dead girl.

When he arrived, the house was in full mourning mode. Women wailing hysterically. Men weeping.

Children were not considered people under the law. Women were considered property. Girls didn’t even rate a mention in that society. But still, that didn’t stop the grieving dad from tracking Jesus down for his help. If Jesus lived up to his cultural obligations, he would have told the man to stop bothering him. But Jesus saw something more in the child than a piece of potential property.

The grieving dad and the hemorrhaging women took some real risks in getting Jesus’ help. I’m wondering if that’s because they saw Jesus treat another outcast with love and dignity when Matthew joined his band of disciples.

When the Pharisees saw that Jesus called Matthew the tax collector into his group of followers, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need for a physician, but those who are sick…For I have come not to call the righteous but sinners.”

No one was a bigger sinner than Matthew. At least that what folks back then thought. Tax collectors were thieves and traitors. They collected taxes for the hated Roman occupiers, collecting more than they were supposed to, and they pocketed the rest. Everyone knew what was going on. The Romans didn’t care because they were getting their taxes. The people couldn’t do anything about it. So the Tax Collectors lived cushy but lonely lives.

Jesus just says two words to him, “Follow me,” and Matthew leaves that life behind. They celebrate at Matthew’s house. Which turns into a huge celebration. That’s when the trouble begins.

He rubbed shoulders with them - he listened to them,
- he put his hand in the same dishes they put theirs in,
these men - and women - who were prostitutes and traitors and
adulterers and thieves,
- he sat with them and loved them and offered them the infinite love and
mercy of God.

And Matthew did follow him after that meal.

Matthew did leave behind his sin - and followed Jesus- a relationship that not only changed his life forever, but through him - - through his coming in from the outside – and then through his going out to bring others in - literally millions upon millions of people have been blessed.

When I think of our Stephen Ministers, I think of our ancestors in the faith like these three. Stephen Ministers use their experiences of grace to offer grace to their care receivers. But perhaps more importantly, they minister out of their pain and weakness, trials and triumphs because they minister where life is lived.

For me, it is a great joy that we are commissioning 5 new Stephen Ministers today. It is my prayer that God will continue to use this ministry of caring to share God’s mercy, love, and healing with a broken and hurting world.


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