Be Reasonable: The Very Rev. Randy Hollerith
Back in 1986 after I graduated from college and before I entered seminary, I spent a year working in an inpatient psychiatric hospital for adolescents. Some of you have heard me speak about this before. I had already been accepted to Yale Divinity School, but I deferred for a year to give me some time to grow and learn away from academics. I spent that year caring for very ill teenagers who needed around the clock psychiatric care. It was a powerful experience. I learned an immense amount and I worked with some wonderful colleagues, but by the end of that year, I was sure that God was calling me into the ministry.
As I gave my notice at the hospital and began to let my co-workers know what I was doing, I was caught off guard by how surprised they were by my decision. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but most of the people at the hospital who had been in my position had gone on to get their Ph.D. in psychology or their medical degree in psychiatry. Here I was, this strange bird who wanted to get a Master’s in divinity. I will never forget one of the nurses coming over to me and saying – “Divinity school, what are you doing? Why don’t you do something real with your life, something worthwhile – like going into computers!”
For the good people I was working with, going into the ministry wasn’t a very reasonable thing to do. For them, who saw so much paranoid religious ideation as a result of mental illness, pursuing a career in the ministry was foolish, naive, simple minded, even irrational. In their eyes, I would be wasting my life on an archaic religion. I remember chuckling to myself when I heard the nurse’s response and having a very deep sense that her comment confirmed for me that I was doing exactly the right thing.
You see, I like the fact that the ministry and Christianity itself are often unreasonable. Think about it – we have to stretch reason to understand how new life, resurrection life, comes through Jesus’ tragic and painful death on a cross. We have to bend reason to understand how in God’s Kingdom the first are supposed to be last and how the last are supposed to be first. We have to suspend reason to believe that there will ever be a time when, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Further, is it reasonable to proclaim that in order to save our lives we must lose them, for Christ’s sake? Christianity is not reasonable, but it is deeply true.
That is why I like John the Baptist. There is nothing reasonable about John. Mark Twain once said, “Be virtuous and you will be eccentric.” To say that John was eccentric is to be kind. John was probably a member of an ascetic cult of deeply religious Jews who lived as separatists in the desert at a place called Qumran. You may have heard about Qumran as the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. One day, John decided he could no longer stay in the desert. He believed God was calling him to return to the people of Israel and speak as God’s prophet. He arrived pointing fingers and making accusations – “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near . . . you brood of vipers!” As Frederick Buechner once said, “John told the children of God that if they didn’t shape up God would give them the axe like an elm with the blight or toss them into the incinerator like what’s left over after you’ve picked the wheat.”1 The people of Israel wanted John to be reasonable, after all they were striving to be good, doing the best they could. But John was unreasonable, and he told them that being Jewish wouldn’t guarantee them anything. The only hope, he told them, was to clean up their lives and get right with God. John was not a reasonable man.
Did you know that tomorrow is the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death. It seems like just yesterday, but Mandela died 9 years ago – December 5, 2013. During his lifetime many people saw Mandela as another unreasonable man with preposterous dreams. He too was a prophet, a leader who emerged not from the desert but from a prison to proclaim the possibility of another way of life for his people and his country. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Mandela said, “We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born. This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars …and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees. …we undertake to do what we can to contribute to the renewal of our world so that none should, in future, be described as the wretched of the earth. …Let a new age dawn!”
Mandela’s faith permeated everything he did. As a follower of Christ, he had a vision for a new South Africa, a unified South Africa, a democratic South Africa where forgiveness and equality, not racial hatred and violence, were the norm. This vision was based in no small measure on his understanding of the reign of God’s Kingdom. As a follower of Jesus, who spent more than 25 years in prison, Mandela was just unreasonable enough to forgive his captors and strive for the crazy dream of a free South Africa.
John the Baptist emerged from the desert to proclaim that the Messiah was coming, and he was bringing the Kingdom with him. Those in power did not believe John, but 2,000 years of history have shown that the legacy of Jesus’ “unreasonable” ministry has outlasted every other princely power and nation. John the Baptist comes to us this second Sunday of Advent and asks if we are willing to be unreasonable for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Are we prepared to repent of our self-absorption and apathy, our cynicism, and our doubt, so that like Mandela we can see the possibility that our world can be a better place if we are willing to follow the way of Jesus?
During these remaining weeks of Advent as we prepare to receive the Christ child, ask yourself, how unreasonable am I willing to be for the Kingdom? Are we willing to be unreasonable enough to forgive someone in our life who does not deserve to be forgiven? Are we willing to be unreasonable enough to reach out in love and concern to someone who seems almost impossible to love? Are we willing to donate more money to the causes we care about than we think seems reasonable? In this city of constant politics, can we humbly reach across the aisle to our political opponent to find common ground even when our opponent is being unreasonable? John the Baptist comes to us this morning and wants to know if we are willing to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
My friends, Christ is coming. The Kingdom of God is about to break into the world from a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. This Advent, like Mandela and the Baptist, may God make us just a little unreasonable for the sake of this inbreaking Kingdom – to dream of better things for our community and our world; to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice; and to care for those who have no one to care for them.
May God use this Advent to connect us, through Christ, to the poverty of our own hearts and the poverty that afflicts the world. As we sang this morning, “Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding, Christ is nigh it seems to say; cast away the works of darkness, O ye children of the day.” Amen.