I preached this morning and administered the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for the small, devoted congregation of the Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea in Broad Channel, Queens. It was only my second time with them, and, once again, they welcomed me, (and today my entire family), with open arms, like old friends.
When I called for the offering, my 5 year-old and 3 year-old ran forward and grabbed the collection plates before the ushers even had a chance to stand. My children had participated in collecting the offering at last week’s presbytery meeting and simply assumed the task again, to everyone’s surprise. The good folks at Christ by the Sea laughed and passed their offerings forward, and my heart filled with gratitude. They kept smiling as my children moved back and forth from the front pew to the chancel during the service. And when we left, they made a point of inviting my children to attend again. My son and daughter responded with big smiles and high-fives all around.
It was a radically new experience for me as a pastor, having come from a very different liturgical culture, with a large weekly attendance and prescribed liturical elements for children. Today was an experience of ‘the church for all ages’ that has captured my attention and imagination. Spontaneous. Gracious. Inclusive. Challenging.
It was a good day.
What follows is my sermon for Sunday, October 5, 2014:
The Stories We Tell
Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea
Three weeks ago, I began work as a chaplain-in-training at New York- Presbyterian Hospital on the Upper East Side. I will be, for the next seven months, part of a multifaith team of chaplains serving the entire inpatient population of that hospital. We are a collection of clergy and non-clergy, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish, who have been charged with the responsibility of looking after the spiritual well-being of our patients, as well as their family and caregivers.
I have been assigned to a ‘general medical unit,’ which means that patients on that floor have a wide range of diagnoses and presenting ailments. When I tell other hospital staff which unit I’m on, they tend to smile and nod knowingly- ‘Oh, we know that unit. It’s… exciting.’ I think exciting is really a euphemism for ‘crazy,’ but I can neither confirm nor deny that yet.
Here is what I know. For as much as I considered myself prepared for the task of chaplaincy– a minister and social worker by training with over ten years professional experience, and, in the privacy of my own head uniquely qualified to succeed in chaplaincy– nothing, nothing could really have prepared me for what will be required of me… to walk into a room knowing only the name of a patient and be confronted with, in my case, a woman in her early 50s, bald from the side effects of her chemotherapy and wrapped in tubing, and alongside her, her 15 year-old son, propped in the corner with a look of fear and bewilderment etched into his young face.
If we shared anything in common, me and this stranger to whom I was supposed to offer spiritual care, it is this… Whatever health or status any of us may have been born into, whatever honor or education or privilege we may have acquired by our own efforts, at some point in our lives, we will be confronted with the reality that it all amounts to a pile of beans. Me, with my official hospital badge, and she, in her worn hospital gown, had been thrown together by something other than our own preparations, and we were powerless to do anything about it.
I am preaching to the choir today. You know what it means to have your life upended in a singular moment. By natural disaster, of course, but perhaps also by illness, or the whims of an unstable economy, by violence, maybe, or addiction. We are buffeted by these outside forces like a storm’s lashing winds, and we see our careful preparations tossed aside like the flotsam on an unsettled sea.
This is the stuff spiritual crises are made of. These are the moments when our frailty and mortality take center stage. This is the moment when the future is uncertain, and we are balanced on the fulcrum that can send us toward hope or despair. These are the moments when our choices are not so much about the outcome, so much as they are about our participation in the unknown and unknowable.
For the apostle Paul, who penned this beautiful letter to the Church in Philippi from a prison cell, whatever we claim as our own- rather acquired by birth or effort- will ultimately become obstacles to knowing God in Jesus Christ. Those things that we work so hard to achieve and which can provide so much satisfaction, when piled one upon another, serve only as stones to build high the walls that block out the light of Christ and leave us isolated when those singular moments arrive.
Paul knows this firsthand, and so he tells us his story, so that we will tell ours.
Paul had it all, by his own account. He was born into privilege and achieved renowned for his righteousness. He was known throughout the region as blameless before the law. ‘If you think you have reason to be self-confident,’ he says, ‘look to me, I really had it all.’ Until, in a singular moment, everything he once believed came crashing down around him and what once held value became worthless, in his words, ‘rubbish.’
He is referring back to the moment of his conversion, told in the Book of Acts. Still called Saul at the time, he was journeying from Jerusalem to Damascus, puffed up by honor and arrogance, when he is struck down by the voice of God and an inexplicable blindness. We know he’s about to turn into the great Apostle Paul (that the story has a ‘happy’ ending), but Paul didn’t know that, nor does he depict his conversion as the solution to a problem, or the release from some deep spiritual crisis. He didn’t think he had a problem or a crisis; he thought he had it all. So it’s possible that in that moment, Saul was devastated, terrified and despairing at the loss of his physical health and his status. He was, we know, powerless, probably for the first time in his life. He had no control over this future and had to rely on strangers for his well-being and care.
His letter to the Philippians is, in part, his reflection on that moment, looking back through the lens of his new life in Christ.
His former achievements and status, Paul says, “mean nothing when I compare it to what I have found in Christ. It is all considered rubbish to me now, because knowing Christ, being found in Christ, is all that matters.” It is the only prize Paul now seeks. In response, he is willing, even eager, to bear these worldly losses, as he says, “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
I’ve heard it described that “knowing Christ refers to those moments when we feel Christ’s presence, feel Christ’s grace, and know Christ’s assurance deep down in our very hearts.”
“Knowing Christ is, for most of us, not a sustained thing; it may be momentary, although its effects may be permanent.” It is also a singular moment, unique and irreplaceable. We may be able to describe it; we probably can’t share it.
John Wesley, credited with the foundation of the Methodist Church, recounts his own personal experience of “knowing Christ” in an entry from his journal for May 23, 1738. He writes,
‘In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’
Moments like these are fleeting. Most of us, can’t sustain them, and so we go back to living our lives, participating in the daily ups and downs that each day brings. This happened to John Wesley too, as he recorded in the same entry: “After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again.”
But the memory of that night on Aldersgate Road burned constantly before him like a beacon in the night. It gave him a newfound sense of his own strength. In Wesley’s words, “I as often lifted up my eyes, and God “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.” [i]
Wesley tells his story, because Paul told us his story… so that now we will tell ours.
I met another patient last week, on my first day on my new unit at the hospital. The first thing he told me when I introduced myself was that his mother was a Methodist minister. I laughed and said, and which we did you go? Because preachers’ kids, I’ve heard, go one of two ways- all the way in, or all the way out. He laughed and said, “I went the latter.” When I asked how he was doing, he told me “Better this week than last.” The doctors had told him that his liver is failing, and he would need a transplant, but they can’t put him on the transplant list until he’s been sober 60 days. “They just told me,” he said, “ straight out, and I’m glad about that. Glad they didn’t sugarcoat it. Was I surprised? Yeah, a little. But it didn’t come totally out of the blue. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m 58. I’d like to see 68 or 78.”
What’s different this week? I asked. He answered, “Well, I’ve made my peace. I can’t look back, only forward now. Get my 60 days sober; get the transplant; hope for the best. I can only do what I can do, and that’s my plan.” And he smiled. And his eyes twinkled. And the space between us became a living prayer, and like, Wesley, my heart felt strangely warmed by the peace bestowed on me from that hospital bed, a peace which passes all understanding.
He told me his story, so that I could tell mine.
Paul writes, “But one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Since walking into the hospital on that first day, I have felt my training and experience slough off me like a snake shedding its skin, and what I have been left with, thankfully, is God. Not platitudes, nor false promises, but a silent plea to Christ to enter that space of fear and sadness. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Because Christ Jesus has made US his own.
Paul tells us his story, so that we will tell ours. If the outcome of our efforts is a mystery, the goal, life with God, is assured.
So what is your story?
[i] This entire section about John Wesley is summarized and also quoted verbatim, with thanks to the author whose name I cannot locate from the The United Methodist Church worship resources.