Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Scaling the Heights

A sermon for the Feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa, March 9, 2005
Preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, St. Joseph, MI

Lord, be present in my speaking and in our hearing to your glory. Amen.

Well, it was quite a night last Sunday. Kristen’s sister Becky is a musician and she had a gig in a bar on the north side of the city, so we drove in to hear her. While we were there listening, her mother tripped, fell and hit her head, so we took her to the hospital. We wanted to make sure that she didn’t have a concussion or a broken nose.

Now her insurance insists that we go to Mount Sinai Hospital. Mount Sinai is a huge institution on the West Side of Chicago, one of the last few such places to consider medical care a not-for-profit pursuit. As a result they take everyone and anyone.

It’s named Mount Sinai because it was founded by Jews to serve what was at the time a mostly Jewish population in the surrounding area. Now it is situated between a huge Latino population on the south, an equally large Black population on the north, and a mixture of Italians and others on the east. It is smack dab in the middle of one of the poorest areas in America and sees more than its share of violent crime.

We wandered in and sat down in the nondescript waiting room. There was the usual assortment of sick children with their families and adults with various late-night maladies. To my left sat an Italian woman whose son died three months ago, who was injured and had been brought in on a charge of being drunk and disorderly. She went back and forth between muttering at the cops under her breath and hurling violent imprecations against her brother and sister who called the police in the first place. The police stood around, grimly watching their charge.

After a few minutes, there was a commotion at the door and a couple of orderlies come dashing in with a young man in a wheelchair. He’s been in a drive-by shooting and his body is riddled with bullet holes. He was almost certainly DOA, but they race to get him in and taken care of. His girlfriend comes in after, in shock, covered with blood. She drags a knot of plainclothes officers in tow, and struggles to answer the questions that they pepper her with.

Shortly after, a man wanders by with blood on his clothes and a couple of soaked makeshift bandages. He’s been in a knife fight.

Throughout it all, the doctors, nurses, orderlies, security guards, police officers and everyone involved just keep working away, doing what they have been given to do, trying to ensure that the institution keeps going and serving this population. These folks are unflappable, and although it surely takes a toll on them, I would be surprised if there is anything they have not seen.

I have been pondering this experience ever since. I think I’ve maybe two or three ideas about it that I’d like to share with you.
The first is pretty obvious: this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Shooting, stabbing, drunk and disorderly, poverty and hopelessness, disease and injury, even death – none of these were God’s intention in creating all this.

But second, it’s Mount Sinai that takes care of all this. The hospital is named after the mountain that Moses climbed to go away from the world and meet with God. It would be very tempting to think of this as pure irony: in the face of all the violence, death, and hopelessness, what more God-forsaken place could there be?

Perhaps though we might take refuge in the Trinitarian faith that people such as Gregory of Nyssa championed. It is his feast we celebrate today. For in the Trinity, we see a God who is not far off, but a God who draws near to us in Jesus Christ, and whose continued presence is known in the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps then we might see not an absence of God, but rather an earthly Mount Sinai. Not a mountain hidden in clouds that only the people’s representative might ascend, but a place where God descends to us in the tired eyes and rough hands and gruff demeanor of those people who serve without question all the suffering who are brought to them at this latter-day Mount Sinai. And finally it is perhaps a challenge to us: who is willing to go and serve, to be the eyes and hands and voice of God at any of the many Mount Sinais we find in our lives?


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