“The Deep End”

There is one word in this homily that you may not wish young children to hear, I will raise my hand just before I say it.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital is a 1,000-bed, Level-1 trauma center in the heart of downtown Chicago. It sits on the Magnificent Mile, one of the priciest city shopping districts. It is equipped with state-of-the-art genetics and immunotherapy research labs. Its doctors and nurses are ranked annually at the very top of their profession, and its Children’s Hospital, the Lurie, provides award-winning prenatal and neonatal care. Patient’s views from the upper floor rooms are stunning. It also costs visitors $25 an hour to use their parking garage.

Heaven forbid that you ever get sick in Chicago and need hospitalization but if you do, this is the place you want to be.

Northwestern is sought out not only by patients but also by medical interns, residents and also by ministry candidates seeking to complete Clinical Pastoral Education or CPE. For ministry candidates, providing Pastoral Care in a top-rung Level-1 trauma center like Northwestern is the exception, not the rule. So, when my CPE application was accepted there, a certain amount of pride washed over me. But there was fear too. I questioned whether I could withstand the high levels of emotional stress that I knew would come. Before I began the program, a colleague warned me: “Get ready to have all your personal shit exposed.”

As a Level-1 trauma center, Northwestern is capable of providing total care for every aspect of injury—from prevention through rehabilitation. As the only Level-1 in the city center, its emergency room is very busy. During my five months in the program, I sprinted to countless dozens of people who suffered cardiac arrests, gunshot wounds, catastrophic car crash victims, devastating construction accident victims, and suicides. As John, Clyde, Mary Kay and others in this sanctuary can attest, providing pastoral care to families under these circumstances is heartbreaking. In their grief, families often ask, Where is God? Why did God make this to happen? This is how I know there is no God! They are often hopeless and completely lost.

In CPE, this happens several times per day; it’s not always possible to maintain one’s composure. Over time, a pastor’s resilience builds. But for a ministry candidate, this is jumping into—or getting thrown into—the very deepest end. Day after day, shift after shift.

Newborns were the hardest. Standing at those bedsides, all of our worst fears come true. These were the moments I was most afraid of when I began CPE. And this was why I had little belief when I started that I would make it through.

Usually on Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate as the birth of the Christian church fifty days after Easter, we hear homilies or sermons based on the story in the book of Acts, which says, in part,

They were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting…. Tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each one. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

That is the classic Pentecost text. Our text from the book of John is a companion text. In our scripture passage, the disciples are together at the time when fear is most present to them. Jesus had been crucified and buried. Their friend and leader has been taken from them and they are overcome with grief. Sitting in that room, we can imagine the emotions running through them and the questions they asked. Where is God? There is no God! To heck with this! Who is to blame? I give up! They are hopeless and completely lost.

When we feel fear and doubt we can fall victim to those tapes that play in our head, that urge us to rely on our well-worn coping mechanisms. We all have them; you know what they are. These are the unhealthy methods of handling grief and trauma that guarantee we will react the exact same way the next time. Fear and doubt are normal human reactions, but they should also act as red flags for our reactions to them. In our desperation, fear and doubt can make us believe in the biggest lies thundering from the loudest megaphone. No matter how ludicrous, how harmful, or how untrue the claim. Fear is also a state of mind that our enemies take advantage of to turn us against each other.

A few days from now, on June 10, a national organization that is recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a violent racist hate organization is sponsoring a “National Day against Sharia.” Their rally will be held at our state capitol. That day the evil heretical sinful racist bigotry that is enabled by inequality and empowered by an authoritarian political climate will be on full display all across the country.

Hopelessness weakens us. It’s Christian kryptonite. And it was here, at the time of their greatest doubt, that Jesus appears to his friends. Mary Magdalene was the first to be healed of her despair. In the prior paragraph, after Jesus called her by name, she did as Jesus told her and she ran to tell the others. The disciples are so afraid and distraught at the loss of their friend and brother that they have barricaded themselves behind a locked door. And now Jesus appears in the room with them and says, “Peace be with you…. peace be with you…as God has sent me, I am sending you.” And he breathed on them and said, “Receive the holy spirit.”

When he said this they were overjoyed and their fear and doubts left them. When the disciples saw, heard and believed, Jesus became the turning point in their lives. Being sent forth, from that point on, the ekklesia, or gatherings of people, and much later kirche, or church, would begin to grow. But the creation of the church would not go smoothly. Complete transformation never does. Between then and now, among many other struggles, we encounter Thomas the doubting disciple, rejection of circumcision, multiple wars, ethnic cleansing, a big fight over selling salvation to the highest bidder, and the near complete silencing of women. On this last point, the brilliant Indian author Suzanna Arundati Roy says, “There are no voiceless, there’s only the deliberately silenced or purposely unheard.”

Unfortunately, deliberate silencing and the purposeful unhearing of others is undergoing a revival. Just last week, the pleas of 195 countries around the world went unheard when the White House decided to remove the United States, arguably the planet’s most belligerent polluter, from the Paris Climate Accord. And in recent months, the White House has threatened to withhold funding from cities that provide deportation protection to immigrants. And just as with the fearful disciples, with and through us, God is showing up full of hope and inspiration in the midst of this political deafness and blindness. One of my seminary professors, Ted Jennings, describes the hopefulness this way:

An interesting aspect of our current political scene is that States’ rights, which once primarily served as a cover for states to deny civil rights to their own citizens, is becoming the preferred mode of resistance to White House decrees on climate change, immigration and so on. When states haven’t signed on, their major cities have.

At the risk of losing a combined $288 million in federal funding, the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul have both committed to remaining sanctuary cities. These mayors joined more than a hundred other mayors, and Governor Dayton joined a dozen governors, to reinforce their commitment to pursuing the benchmarks set forth in the Paris Climate Accord.

All of this tells us that from its earliest beginnings, our church of Christianity has never been a spectator sport. God is always present in the midst of our deepest despair, even where the water is deepest. And just as a community of twelve were called to go forth, when the rains come we too need each other to reach the high ground.

Pentecost is not a happening and it is not a moment. Rather, this scripture teaches us that Pentecost was always intended to be a movement, with each of you as disciples being called by name to perpetuate it courageously and collectively. This movement must be accessible to everyone, without exception, and it should lead us to deepen our relationships with the poor and oppressed.

After spending a particularly traumatic week with patients and families in the emergency room, I had a major meltdown that became the catharsis that empowered me to complete CPE at Northwestern. I knew that God was with me. And this is how the Gospel of John ends: “Jesus performed other miracles which are written about so that you would believe in him and have life in his name.”