Risk-Takers

I tried something new.  I enrolled in Clinical Pastoral Education.  This is a requirement for all pastors for ordination. Most pastors take it during seminary. A few years ago, ordination through unconventional means became a possibility for me, and I decided to do the work, even though I doubted my ability and my motive for pursuing ordination.

On October 17, I reported to the Spiritual Care office of Genesis East Hospital in Davenport.  I spent four days with three classmates and my supervisor, 8:00-4:00, learning about the Genesis hospital systems (I toured four hospitals in one day), about entering information into Genesis computers, about myself and my classmates, and about talking to patients.  I returned to one more class this past Monday.  I decided this was not for me.  I was feeling overwhelmed and afraid.
After thinking about the demands for a few days, I decided that I did not want to “do this.” I thought up eleven reasons to quit:

  1. I don’t need to be ordained.  I’m 67, for crying out loud. I have two congregations who accept my leadership and authority and who trust me to be their shepherd.
  2. I’ve changed my mind about the purpose of ordination. At first, it was going to be a great big church service with choirs and trumpets, starring Dianne. Once I engaged in the process,  I realized that attempting ordination was a pivotal moment in my life.  It was the first time I’d ever sought to intentionally examine my faith. It was also the first time I’d taken on a project of that magnitude that was unnecessary. The work was benefitting me.  For the first time, I was giving attention to myself instead of others. And it was not mere indulgence.
  3. I have an ailing husband.
  4. I (any day now) have a new grandchild. I want to be footloose and fancy-free (except for Sundays)
  5. My children need me. (They’re only in their thirties.)
  6. My dad needs more surgery.
  7. I don’t have to work. I have a pension and Social Security.
  8. Starting a new job, all the details and all the responsibility that go with it terrifies me.  I lead a very comfortable life; I don’t need to be terrified.
  9. I have a lot of work to do to get the Peer Run Respite House up and running.  I have finally figured out that even though there are lots of people and agencies supporting us, I have the majority of the organization work on my shoulders. I don’t have the energy or the time to do CPE. The Respite House would suffer.
  10. If  I get too stressed, my depression returns.
  11. My daughter’s wedding!  I might be needed to help plan! (Not likely.)

Here is the irony: I often claim that I am a risk-taker.  I have taken risks, especially in community activism. I have stepped out, I have stepped up, and, occasionally, I have stepped in it. When I saw a need, I organized support groups for friends and family members of mentally ill people. I pushed for remodeling the Operahouse to make it handicapped accessible. I took a chance when I told my friend that I could be the head cook for the Davenport Diocese.  I took a chance when I decided to retire.  I risk being hung-up on, being de-friended, refused, ridiculed when I support my opinions about health, government, food, gardening, when I go door to door, when I write letters to the editor.
But during the last two weeks I’ve turned into a chicken.
I need to intentionally reclaim that title of risk-taker now, in possibly the biggest challenge I’ve faced since I started teaching. Am I going back to Genesis?  I guess so.
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Zacchaeus was a risk taker.  First of all, he was a tax collector.  Tax collectors were considered necessary evils by the Romans and the Jews.  Zacchaeus probably had few friends.  He had material wealth, but not the riches that we cherish, such as friends and community respect.    I imagine him hanging out on the edge of the crowd, being ignored by everyone, maybe getting a few sneers.  That was the risk he took, being a tax collector.
On this particular day, he was curious just like the rest of the crowd. Jesus was the hottest ticket in town and everybody wanted to see him.  There wasn’t much else to see.  No Hawkeyes; no World Series.  Here comes Jesus, talking and teaching and healing and, to the delight of the crowd and the consternation of the Jewish leadership, breaking the conventional rules of class and status.  Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, but the crowd won’t let him through, so he does the smart, if undignified thing: he climbs a tree. That was pretty risky: he could have fallen out of the tree; no doubt, people would make fun of him.  But he really, really wanted to see Jesus. And guess what?  Jesus saw him!  Would you want to be noticed by the most famous person in the world if you were hanging in a tree?  It gets better—and riskier.  Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “Zacchaeus, hurry down! I want to stay with you today.” What?!?!?!?!?!?
Imagine what is going through Zacchaeus’s mind!  “What kind of food do I have in the house?”  “Do I have good wine or just the cheap stuff?”  “Are my servants on duty or are they goofing off somewhere?”  “Has the floor been swept?”  “What will we talk about?”  “What will people say?”
People were starting to talk already: 7 Everyone who saw this started grumbling, “This man Zacchaeus is a sinner! And Jesus is going home to eat with him.”
Zacchaeus risked his reputation, bad as it was, when he climbed up in that tree.  It was the smartest risk of his life.
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In this month of October, I think of Martin Luther, the Martin Luther of the 16th Century, the Martin Luther who unknowingly established a denomination named after him.
I grew up in a family that idolized Martin Luther.  Until I was an adult,  I believed that everything Martin Luther ever wrote or said was infallible.  As I studied more history of the Christian church, I discovered that Martin Luther was a pain in the neck for a lot of people and that he had his own set of weaknesses and prejudices.  (Perhaps the person we should admire equally  is his wife, Katie.)
Martin Luther was a monk, priest, and professor who loved the Church; he loved his Savior and this love became a passion that discerned with wide open eyes and heart the abuses of the institution to which he had dedicated his life.
On October 31, 1516, Martin risked his position, his career, his reputation and his life to redeem the Church he loved.  He nailed a large piece of paper on the door of the Chapel at the University of Wittenberg. He listed, in bold letters for all to see, 95 statements, 95 Theses, describing the abuses and sins of those who ruled The Church.
The sequence of events that followed put him in jeopardy for the rest of his life. He risked everything to bring about reform within the Holy Roman Church.  His goal of reform was not achieved in the way that he had hoped.  It ended up as part of the 100 years war, as one of the causes of unending warfare between kingdoms loyal to the Pope and kingdoms loyal to the cause of Reformation. But his reformation did survive, in the form of a multitude of Protestant (Protester) churches.  In  Germany, the followers of the Reformation were called Lutherans, after the name of this devoted Christian.  In other countries, other leaders, Zwingli, Calvin, continued the Reformation and other groups emerged, claiming their own version of reformed theology.
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Risk-taking is admired in our culture, but it is also punished.  Another name for risk-taker, especially in the worlds of business and government, is whistle-blower.  Often, these whistle-blowers are persecuted or prosecuted by the institution they are trying to help.  The most famous example in recent years is Edward Snowden.  He risked his future to expose wrongdoing by the United States government.  Unfortunately, the government thought it was right and that Snowden was wrong. He is now living in exile. Regardless, he has received eight international awards in support of his risk-taking.  He has this to say for himself:
I didn’t want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself. All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.
That sounds remarkably like Martin Luther—caring for society, caring for people, caring for what he loved.  Five centuries later, Martin Luther is a hero. Three years later Snowden is still considered an Enemy of the State.
I am no Martin Luther; I am no Edward  Snowden.  As far as climbing a tree like Zacchaeus, not for me—-I have enough trouble climbing stairs.
However,  I am able to take risks and so are you.  Sometimes being a Christian means disagreeing with what you see, what you hear, what you are told. When we disagree, we can, in the name of Jesus, observe, speak up, and change minds. Following Jesus is risky because we can be labeled do-gooders, prudes, pansies, radicals, even trouble-makers.
If you follow Jesus, you may be embarrassed, you will embarrass others, you will be humiliated, you will be mocked.  By the same token, you may be thanked, admired and appreciated. How will the world, how will your friends and neighbors and family see you and treat you?
It is easy to do the right thing when no one disagrees with you.  But when you do the right thing, knowing you’ll be criticized, you have someone at your side, someone backing you up. You have Jesus and all His followers giving you the courage to take a chance, to be a risk-taker.
Today of all days, Reformation Sunday, we should honor risk takers and whistle blowers, all those who have dared to make better this imperfect world. After all, Jesus took a chance on us. Jesus risked his life for us because he loved us.  God, give us the courage to risk a little bit of ourselves out of love for you.  Amen.