If It Weren't for All These Sick People

by Rev. Nick Chambers

A young resident at the hospital is off her shift and getting herself ready to go on a date. Just as she is headed out the door, her directing physician tells her that test results have come back indicating that one of her patients is dying. It is up to her to inform him and his family. When she protests the interruption to her plans, her director responds with less-than-subtle sarcasm, “Oh I know, this would be just the most terrific place to work on the planet if it weren't for all these sick people. Wouldn't it?”

The scene comes from Scrubs—a medical sitcom of “on-the-nose” moral tales—but the sentiment is often repeated, not least of all in the Church. The way our imaginations tend to move through the familiar landscape of Psalm 23, it is easy to look up from reading and think, "The Lord is my shepherd, but what are all these other sheep doing here?” We know the Shepherd's voice but the needy bleating of others seems to drown it out. Then when we turn to Revelation, we are faced with a paradox: the Shepherd is the Lamb.

Earlier this week, Jean Vanier, founder of l’Arche, died at the age of ninety. L’Arche is a network of communities for the physically and mentally disabled in which the workers live “in house” with the patients, sharing all of life. Through his work at l’Arche, Vanier discovered tender mysteries about human belonging. For Vanier, true human community is about showing hospitality to each and all, precisely in our weakness, not out of superiority or control, but because “we’re incomplete without each other,” as one person summarized Vanier’s voice. This is difficult and frightening because it is mutual. Refusal to be with those who are obviously weak and needy often comes from fear of our own weakness and need, the shadows of our own death. We are all sick and lonely and slowly leaning into death; we simply lack the courage to be honest about it. Vanier urges that only in that shared space of vulnerability can healing and wholeness be found. After all, as the saying goes, “The Church his not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners."

Christ himself becomes both Shepherd and Sheep, unraveling the myths that strength and self-sufficiency are essential to what it means to be human. “All blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might” is given to the One who embodies sacrifice and solidarity, to the One who suffered and was slain and yet stands. We experience the leading love of God precisely through the human weakness and woundedness—both our own and that of others. As Vanier wrote, “Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered, is at the heart of belonging, so it is at the heart of communion with another” (Being Human, 40).

We experience this communion most tangibly and mysteriously at Holy Communion, where we gather around the Passover Lamb who is sacrificed for us, where Christ’s human life—and ours along with it—is taken, blessed, broken, and given. We take courage in this sacrificial meal that gives material and meaning to the reality that we—"all these sick people"—are one body and “members of one another.”