Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Emmanuel K. Akyeampong, Minister for Worship and Formation in the Memorial Church; Ellen Gurney Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies; Oppenheimer Faculty Director of the Harvard University Center for African Studies. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
May I own behalf of all of us, thank the music directors and the choir for such uplifting and beautiful music. God bless you.
Please pray with me. Lord God, as we enter into the sermon of Your word, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to You Lord, our God and our Redeemer. Amen. The path to ordination requires experience in clinical pastoral education or CPE. As a pastor should be able to minister to the ill and those are the end of life and their families. I spent the summer of 2015 as a full-time chaplain intern at St. Vincent's Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts. This turned out to be one of the most formative experiences in my life and my faith journey.
Personally, I have a high threshold for physical pain, but I'm troubled by pain or suffering in others, especially the weak and vulnerable. I am one of those who averts his eyes during news when the newscaster headlines a story and announces that the following images may be disturbing to watch. To work for an entire summer in the sight of illness and healing was a challenge. God is a God of humor. I was assigned to ICU, the dialysis unit and orthopedics. My day was divided between visiting patients in ICU who were often unconscious and connected to machines. And so I usually spoke to their families, spending time with patients in dialysis who I got to know quite well as they came three times a week for four hour sessions. And stopping by orthopedics to see patients with broken limbs and replaced knees and hips who could not wait to go home.
CPE was tough. I have never prayed as fervently as the three months at St. Vincent's. And if God answered all my prayers the way I wanted, Worcester would have been in pandemonium. You would have heard in the news, people getting up in ICU in St. Vincent's and disconnecting themselves from the life support machines and folks in orthopedics throwing away their crutches and going home. Pressed, I asked the Lord to show me how to pray for the patients I visited.
It was tough going to St. Vincent's in the morning. My wife and Julie would edge me to hurry as I would be late. I would murmur under my breath, "Who is in a hurry to go to a hospital?" Our wise and experienced CPE supervisor, Rev. Dr. John Weagraff, must have noticed the struggles of his new interns. One morning during our theological reflection, he pointed out to us that we were not the ones who brought God's presence or grace to the wards. That God was already at work on the wards before we showed up. Our job was to descend what the presence of God was up to and to align ourselves.
There are times in our lives when we don't feel, see or hear God. The context would be a dreaded medical diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, the loss of financial security. You feel overcome by darkness and you feel there's nothing to love. The French philosopher, mystic, and political activist, Simone Weil wrote that affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time. In the resulting darkness, if the soul does not find someone, something to love, God's absence becomes final.
I've read the two Scriptures for today several times and each time different nuances appear. Both juxtapose top of the mountain and bottom of the valley experiences. In the reading from First Kings, Elijah goes from a remarkable victory over the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in chapter 18, to fleeing for his life from Jezebel in chapter 19. In the wilderness, in a state of depression, Elijah prays for death. The shift, the transition is steep and baffling. Elijah is burnt out. God decides to take Elijah on a pilgrimage and angel feeds Elijah in the wilderness and from the strength of that food, Elijah walks from the south of Judah to Mount Horeb, 40 days and 40 nights away.
Rev. Stephanie Paulsell is leading a reading group at Memorial Church on pilgrimage. Though I have not attended the reading group, I have bought the books and I've been reading alongside the group. Reading “Fumbling” by Kerry Egan impressed on me how walking on a pilgrimage is itself a spiritual exercise as pilgrims walk and pray. Stephanie has preached that the practice of pilgrimage is powerful because one cannot predict what will happen on a pilgrimage, but one expects to be changed. So it would be reasonable to expect that by the time Elijah walked to Mount Horeb, he would be in a different spiritual space and ready for his encounter with God.
It is easy to focus in this story on the still small voice, and how God was not in the strong wind, the earthquake and the fire. The few phonic pyrotechnics are impressive, but it is not that God was not in them. What is striking is that they don't shake Elijah out of his depression. When he comes out to the still small voice, it is to repeat his complaints from the wilderness when he wished for death. Elijah seems determined to relinquish his prophetic office, but God recommissions him.
Richard Nelson writes that God's therapy for burnout or prophetic burnout includes both the assignment of new tasks and the certain promise of a future that transcends the prophet's own success or lack of it. God tells Elijah that he's not the only one faithful to the Yahweh and the burden is not just his to save Israel. That there were 7,000 faithful Israelites who were true worshipers of God. God is always at work even when we don't see it.
There are times when the thorn in the flesh we pray for the Lord to remove from our lives is not removed as Paul experienced in our reading from Corinthians. Again, here Paul juxtaposes the apostolic confirmation and the divine favor conferred on him with his experience of paradise to his struggle with the thorn in his flesh. What commentators have speculated could have been a physical or a mental ailment. Paul initially saw the thorn as a hindrance and prayed to the Lord a number of times for its removal. The theologian Ernest Best writes that like all of us, Paul was not only ready to pray to God, but also to tell God what the proper answer to the prayer should be. God answers prayer, but not always in the way we expect and not here in the way Paul expected. In his weakness, Paul is forced not to look to himself but to God and God's power.
The climax of my internship as St. Vincent's was an experience in July 2015, in which my faith was solely tested. There was a three-week period that month when four young men struggled for their lives on life support in ICU. A 17-year-old who had attempted suicide, a late-20s-young-man who had attempted to hang himself in his prison cell, and two other men in their mid-30s both of whom had suffered cardiac arrest linked to drug use. I was particularly drawn into the family deliberations of the 35-year-old man. Let us call him Jerry, who had suffered a cardiac arrest. The medical prognosis was not good and it was soon clear that not much could be done for Jerry. Though the patient list identified Jerry as Catholic, conversation with the mother revealed that she and the husband had become Baptist without severing ties with their Catholic church, more attracted to the evangelical form of Christianity. Jerry's mother hoped for a miracle and she kept vigil over her son playing Christian music from her phone, reading her Bible, and praying.
On July 18th she invited me to take the hands of a son and for us to pray for a miracle for nothing is too difficult for the Lord to do. I looked at the purplish tinge to Jerry's skin and spoke about how healing was not only physical but could be emotional and spiritual. Having stated my theological caveats, I then took Jerry's hand and prayed. As I left ICU to return to my office, I told the Lord, "I just pledged your credibility on ICU. You better show up."
The next day, Jerry was declared brain dead at 10:35 a.m. and the family agreed that he be removed from life support. As I walked onto the ward, I was not sure what to expect. A mournful waiting room. Recriminations about having been disappointed by God. Instead, I walked into a celebratory atmosphere. Jerry's mother waved to me with a piece of paper in her hand. "Pastor, come and see. When Jerry passed away, the hospital released the information that he has signed up as an organ donor in 2013 and would be donating his liver." His mother told me proudly, "He is an angel of life."
The irony of the situation is that one of our workshops sessions as chaplain interns was with representatives of the New England donor bank. We were told the importance of encouraging families to consider organ donation. I was asked to talk to Jerry's family about organ donation, but balked at the idea, "Why bring up organ donation with people who are already in pain?" Little did I expect that this would be the avenue of divine light and celebration. This was like the 7,000 faithful worshipers of God Elijah was ignorant of.
I know that God's grace and presence is always at work in our lives. We may not feel this when we are in the valley of darkness. I cannot overstate the importance of Simone Weil's admonition that it is love that dispels darkness in affliction. In Toni Morrison's “Home,” another book in the pilgrimage reading group, the protagonist Frank Money, who had joined the army in the 1950s to escape his too-small world in rural Georgia, with a resolve never to go back there, returns because the life of the little sister he loves, Cee, is in danger. Wrestling with PTSD, in caring for Cee, Frank finds healing in his own life. The community of women in his small hometown of Lotus form a protective ring around Cee and nurse her back to health. Surrounded by this cycle of love, seeing his sister get better gradually, even how Frank sees Lotus is transformed. He could not believe how much he had hated this place. Now it looked both fresh and ancient, safe and demanding.
They are sacred paths everywhere around us and within us as Rev. Paulsell tells us. One John points out that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. Darkness will come into our lives for joy and suffering are both integral to life, but God is not the source of our darkness. And as we love to love through pain and loss, God's light dispels our darkness. God's grace and presence is always at work in our lives. This is one of the certainties of our faith. Amen.