April 18, 2012
Text Jno: 20:24-29
It is an honor to be here. I have over the course of my time here known Lutheran chaplains reaching back to Susan Thomas. I cannot recall all of them by name; time and brevity of service come into play. This ministry has been a vital component of the religious scene here at MIT for a long time and I pray it will continue.
The gospel text is familiar and powerful. Others have been convicted by what they did not see, an empty tomb, burial clothes lying unused. Thomas wants to see and to touch and his response when given the opportunity shakes the foundations.
Questions are a big part of what it is to be here at MIT. We all have questions, but more often than not we are asked them. Sometimes we ask our own. Some time ago I was tempted by and purchased a pair of designer jeans. They are Levis with attitude. I was tempted by spandex and the promise that they were really comfortable when traveling. The haberdasher was an ample gentleman who seemed to know whereof he spoke. The price was too high, but comfort is not to be scoffed at and I bit.
I often carry my wallet in my rear pocket. It became clear quickly that those who wear such jeans seldom carry wallets. The pocket wore out and I had to have it repaired by a seamstress. The next time I was in the store where I had bought the pants I asked the young woman at the counter if she had noticed that designer jeans wore unevenly on the seat. The owner was nowhere to be seen. The young woman was running the store and she drew back at the question. She replied: “You know I really do not spend much time looking at men’s rear ends.” She was offended. I tried to explain and it got worse. I still think designer jeans made with a bit of spandex have a design flaw, but I have not found a way to ask the question that works and for the time being I just have the pockets fixed.
Asking questions at MIT is important, but you need to know how to ask the questions. That is daunting. Your sense of curiosity and willingness to inquire must be fearless. I spent a part of the afternoon on Tuesday learning about prions—the smallest infectious particle that resists even the most vigorous cleansing protocols. I was not taught about prions when I took biology. I asked lots of questions and need to ask more.
The other day I was talking with a young couple about getting married. They are from China. I had them look at the traditional marriage ceremony that I often use and when we met again they were a bit sheepish. They asked me a question: “Is it alright if we are not religious?” I knew that coming from China it was unlikely that the language of the ceremony would resonate with them but I wanted to talk about it with them. Their question was appropriate. They went on to tell me that they had been to lots of Bible classes, they were seekers in his words, but they were not Christians. I told them that they were more than all-right; they were honest and the ceremony would have been inappropriate for them. We rewrote it so that it served their needs as they told their friends what it meant for them to get married.
These are good questions, seeking insight, direction. When you are talking about jeans it is not a fatal flaw to be imprecise. When you are asked about religious beliefs it is important to listen well before you respond because you may not have an answer. Your response may well be a guide to further conversation. And in those circumstances there is a large part of me that would like to stop and give the answer that ends the conversation, but it is more likely that their best teachers will be their peers who from experience will tell them what being a part of a Christian community can mean.
The questions that come to us may not always have answers. We invite people into further conversations. I had a memorial service recently for man who was a Nobel laureate. His life was marked by his love of science; he was not a believer. As the memorial service unfolded it became clear that at a point in his career his belief in science had left him with unanswerable questions: science could not cure his daughter of cancer. He was a friend and I wondered how we would have talked about that? We live with unanswered questions.
Every student is a work in progress and on Monday they may not believe anything and on Tuesday they may well have all the answers. Occasionally we may even meet a Thomas: “Unless I see the marks…I will not believe.” Thomas ought to be the patron saint of nerds. We ask questions; we answer questions! And sometimes our faith sources call out to us: think about this! Data, details, did Thomas actually touch the Lord? We do not know, but we do know that he came to believe and then we are told: good for you! But those who come to faith without having seen are blessed. I take this to mean that facts are not the end of the conversation. Sometimes the facts are not enough.
The memorial service for James Q Wilson was last Friday at Harvard. He was known as a data driven researcher who simply sought the facts and let the implications play themselves out. He was concerned to discover where or not human kind has an innate moral sense and his research was thorough. He wished to counter the relativism that too often seemed to dominate contemporary conversation. He did not find the evidence he had hoped he would find, but he did conclude that humankind had a moral sense that often was dwarfed by violence, greed and the lust for power. His concluding words were these: Mankind’s moral sense is not a strong beacon light, radiating outward to illuminate in sharp outline all that it touches. It is, rather, a small candle flame, casting vague and multiple shadows, flickering and sputtering in the strong winds of power and passion, greed and ideology. But brought close to the heart cupped in one’s hands, it dispels the darkness and warms the soul.
Like Thomas he had seen enough to answer his question but the answer was not as robust as he would have liked. For us who follow he casts a bright light. The posture here is of the servant who protects and nurtures and sometimes that is our role as well. We ask questions, we answer questions and sometimes we wait while the implications of what we are about become clear. It is not glamorous work, but it is God’s and it the work to which chaplains are called.
Kari Jo, May God bless your ministry.