Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Unbelieving Thomas

(a reworking of numerous Thomas sermons:  he remains one of my favorites to preach on)

We talk about the disciples fairly regularly here at church:  we see and hear them at their best and worst throughout the New Testament scriptures.

But one thing I find interesting about the disciples is that their traits and actions have not, for the most part, been incorporated into everyday sayings.

Take Peter, for example. He gets two known personas from the Gospels: he gets nicknamed “the rock” for his tendencies as a leader (perhaps also for saying things that are dense as a rock). Peter is also widely known for his denials of Jesus.

And yet, people don’t go around saying “your such a denying Peter.” And if someone calls you a rock: well, there’s all sorts of possibilities as to what they’re saying about you, but I’ve never actually heard anyone say “you’re such a rock like Peter.”

That’s pretty much true for all of the disciples. There are only two exceptions that I know of:

I have heard people be called “Judas”: usually in mock betrayal, and much less often with a real sense of betrayal. Thankfully, for obvious reasons, I think most of us are hesitant to really call someone a Judas.

The other exception is found in this morning’s Gospel: “Doubting Thomas” has made it into our vocabulary.

Being called a “Doubting Thomas” is seldom a good thing. The suggestion usually is that you are stuck in doubt that is misplaced, wrong and hurtful.

Thomas was wrong to doubt, says conventional wisdom.  And Jesus seems to call him out, saying that those who don't have to see to believe are blessed.

This leads many people to get the idea that doubt is something to be avoided...that we are not suppose to question things...and that when we question issues of faith, it must mean that our faith is weak.

In fact, it is often suggested that the opposite of faith is doubt.

Ironically, the Greek word for “doubt” is not found in this passage...anywhere. Yes, our NRSV Bible translates Jesus’ words to Thomas as “Do not doubt, but believe.” But that’s not really what the text says.

It’s more like: “And do not be unbelieving but believing.”

Now, you might say that “unbelieving” and “doubt” are about the same thing, but I want to challenge that notion. “Doubt” is questioning something. Doubt is honest searching for answers. Doubt is challenging one’s beliefs in order to understand. Doubt is about taking new discoveries, on both an individual and a world level, and then attempting to understand how it clarifies and challenges previous understandings.

Doubt is not a threat to faith. In reality the reverse is true: doubt and questions help us strengthen our faith...it allows our minds and our hearts to grow with new insights and understandings.

“Unbelieving” is different. “Unbelieving” suggests that Thomas is going through something other than doubting or questioning. And it is important that we understand what it is.

In one way, Thomas is just like the other disciples. They are all hiding away behind locked doors, out of fear of the authorities (not the Jews…I’ll say it yet again…everyone here is Jewish).  None of them really believed Mary Magdalene when she told them that she’s seen the Lord. It’s only after that they see Jesus that they believe.

So then the disciples go and tell Thomas “We’ve seen the Lord.” And, just like the others, Thomas doesn’t believe words. He even makes an outrageous request: “Unless I see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Now, Thomas is asking for some serious proof. The question, is why? What’s going on here? Why this extreme reaction?

I think the answer can be found in what we know about Thomas. Earlier in John’s Gospel, when Jesus decides to go to Bethany to heal Lazarus, Thomas says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)

It’s another extreme reaction, but an understandable one. There was grave danger to Jesus in Bethany: people were already trying to kill him. Thomas knew that there was a good chance that none of them would survive such a trip. Thomas is professing a willingness to follow Jesus into very real danger. This is not someone who lacks faith.

But what has happened since then? In the garden, Thomas nerves got the best of him. He, like the other disciples, was not strong enough to remain with Jesus when he was arrested. Thomas gives in to fear.

And then, in the midst of feeling ashamed of himself, Thomas witnesses the worst thing possible: Jesus’ crucifixion, and the end to all of the hopes and dreams that Jesus had inspired.

Thomas’ heart was broken.  There's a line of poetry that comes to mind, from Emily Dickerson...something that's hard to access when your heart is broken:

Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all.

Can you imagine what Thomas was thinking as he walked through the streets? He must have been in pure agony. He must have hated himself right there and then. There was no way to go back: no way to change what he had done.

So consider what it must have sounded like to Thomas when the disciples came to him, saying that they had seen the Lord...

It was too much to hope for. It was too much to believe. It was like saying that all was forgiven, and Thomas was not in a place where he was able to even consider the possibility of being forgiven.

In this context, we can begin to understand his outrageous claims of touching hands, feet and side. It wasn’t about Thomas doubting. It was about Thomas fearing.

It is fear that is the opposite of faith. It is fear that keeps us from living the way God wants us to live.  As I said on Easter, Mark’s Gospel ends with the women saying nothing because they are afraid, but it’s not just that one moment where fear creeps in.  All of the events of Holy week are laced with fear.  Not only did fear cause Thomas and the other disciples to flee, but Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal, Caiaphas’ plotting, and the crowd’s anger:  they are all about fear. Even Jesus...at the table, in the garden, and on the cross...has to confront his own fears. Fear is a powerful, undeniable force in the world: whether we’re talking about 1st Century Palestine or 21st Century America.

But the miracle of Easter is that fear is not the end of the story. Jesus lives because he refused to give in to his fear: and brings us new life in faith, hope, and love.

This is what Jesus offers to Thomas, with the words “And do not be unbelieving but believing.” Jesus offers Thomas what he needs to find life after fear and despair: new life found in hope and love.

And it’s Thomas, in choosing faith instead of fear, who then makes the boldest statement found in the Gospel: “My Lord and my God.”

What would it take for us, today, to challenge the fear that presently dominates our world?

What outrageous proof would we require to make us believe that we could end poverty and have economic justice...that we could peacefully address our differences...that we could acknowledge our wrongs and heal our pains....that we could preserve and care for our environment...that we could truly love our neighbors as ourselves?

Our fears tell us that these things are just not possible.

The Gospels counter this by suggesting that God offers what we need to overcome fear.  Thomas receives exactly what he needs to move past his fears, and Jesus promises we have what we need as well.

The ending…“Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe”…becomes a mantra for John’s audience (who live in the faith without the firsthand experience of the risen Christ).  Rather than a putdown of Thomas’ disbelief, it is a statement for us all to stand fully in the hope of God.

Christians are called to be Easter people:  that means people marked by hope.  It is to permeate every aspect of our lives, and it is in hope that we work together to make God’s vision of love, peace, and justice come true.

Jesus tells us: “do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

Hope is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tell the Story: Again...and Again

In our Finance, Facilities, and Administration meeting last night, we were talking about bringing in new volunteers to church ministries, and I told the story of "everything I did wrong" with my first volunteer, Bryan, who served as a Sunday School leader.  Someone asked if he "burnt out", and, with great emotion, I shared what ultimately happened.

I am grateful for that conversation, for Bryan's memory made me smile this morning.  I am reminded to keep telling our stories.  This one was originally published in August 2011:

(For my friend, Bryan)

Last week we heard the story of Joseph: from being sold into slavery by his brothers, to his rising in Egypt to considerable power. Ultimately, Joseph chooses to be reconciled to his brothers: realizing that even though they did evil to him, God sent him forward with great purpose.

The high note that last story ended on is quickly dashed by this morning’s opening line :

“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)

It may seem on the surface to only represent the passage of time, but it is so much more. Joseph and the former Pharaoh had became close. Joseph was a trusted and powerful person for Pharaoh, and the king respected him. There was unity between the Israelites and Egyptians, even in the midst of their differences. They lived for many years together in peaceful harmony: united for each others benefit.

But for some reason, the closeness ended. We don’t know why. Perhaps the peoples stopped working with one another, and stopped seeing benefits in each others differences. Ultimately, the stories of valuing each other were lost.
And so, a new Pharaoh looked upon the Israelites as a numerous and powerful people, and started to fear them. “...they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.”
The new Pharaoh in this story is responsible for the change to hardship afflicted on the ancient Israelites. It is an all to familiar story of those with power getting fearful about losing it, and to preserve power they turn people against one another, creating discord where there is none. But it is worth remembering that peace and unity must be constantly worked at by everyone. The generations had the responsibility to not forget the relationship formed between Joseph and Pharaoh, Israelite and Egyptian.
There are two other moments in this story that contain both a bit of humor and an important message. The Egyptian midwives to the Hebrew women, despite not having much power in their society, are held up as heroes. They defy Pharaoh himself to keep from killing the Israelite boys. (The funny part: only a man who has everything done for him would believe their story that Hebrew women give birth before the midwives can reach them...) And then there is the very daughter of Pharaoh who takes Moses as her own child. The humor in the story is that Moses’ mother is ultimately paid to nurse her own child. Of more importance to the reader is that, for some reason, Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the Nile to bathe, instead of her wealthy palace where she could of easily had her bath drawn. Is she coming specifically to look to save a Hebrew child? Or perhaps she felt dirty from the policies of the palace, and wished to bathe outside it to be mentally as well as physically clean. Clearly she uses her power to defy Pharaoh in her own way. The story establishes from the start that, among the Egyptians, at least the women worked against Pharaoh and his ruthlessness.
I now want to remind you of my point in last week’s sermon.
I suggested the Joseph story counters the popular saying “when God closes a door, God opens a window.” Joseph recognized that it was his brothers that had done evil: God did not cause the evil act...closing the door on his former life. God does not cause bad things to happen.
God, however, may be the one who opens windows, by which I mean that is is often God who shows and sends us on a way forward. God sent Joseph forth into slavery, where he found both a new life and connection to the old. The promise of God is not that bad things won’t happen: what God promises is to be with us, even within the bad, and that it is never the end. Even in the midst of death and destruction, there is always new life.
One can see how our lesson from last week informs these stories: despite the dark times within Pharaoh’s command to kill, both the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter find their own way to serve God.
But as it turns out, I personally needed a reminder of this...
In the summer of 2002, I came to Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland. They wanted me to be their Curate, but it was still (God willing) six months until my ordination, so I couldn’t be a Curate yet. They gave me the title of “Pastoral Associate”: my areas were to be youth and young adult ministries, coordinating pastoral care, and newcomers. One of my very first meetings with a newcomer was with a guy named Bryan Schwegler. He was younger than my 30 years (a bit rare for a church newcomer, for the most part), but I was amazed by the extent of his church experience and the depth in his search for a new church community. We sat and talked, and talked, and talked for a few hours in a coffee shop. Led by his enthusiasm (and perhaps my inexperience), I did two things you’re not supposed to do. First, it’s a bad idea to immediately put a newcomer into a position of responsibility. Second, you NEVER...EVER...place a newcomer in a position of working with youth. I did both: and it was one of the greatest calls I ever made. Bryan was a spectacular youth leader: greatly appreciated for his questioning and fun loving nature, and a wonderful mentor for the youth. He, along with his co-mentor Kim, journeyed with a group of Jr. High students as their mentor all the way to their High School graduations
I was blessed with a friendship that spanned my entire ministry at Trinity. He went to my ordinations, my installation as a Canon of the Cathedral, and was part of the farewell celebration to send Darlene and I off to New Hampshire. I in turn spent countless hours with him and Kim, led his confirmation class and was there at the celebration, and I also saw him become a member of Cathedral Council and worked with him there. Bryan was the first of what would become a core of young adult friends at Trinity that shared significant parts of our lives together.
Bryan died Thursday night after a sudden, unexpected brain aneurism. I am stunned from the loss of my friend. I am sick with sadness for Adam, his beloved, for Barb, his mother, and for the many family and friends who are heartbroken.
It is shocking when someone young dies suddenly. We are often compelled to as the unanswerable question: why. Was there some purpose in what has happened?
It’s a complicated subject.
I believe that there is no "purpose" in Bryan's death: in other words, God didn't do this for a reason...God didn't do this at all. I believe God’s actions in the aftermath of this difficult time are comfort and care of those who are hurting.
But there’s more to the question of purpose. You see, Bryan lived with his life with great purpose. He was engaging, generous, and kind. He loved and was loved by family and friends. We who know him might think his life was too short, but we can also honestly say that he fully lived the life he had.
And that leads us to this: as we are reminded that life is precious and fragile, we are called to live our lives with purpose.
The unexpected death of someone we care about is a reminder to live our lives with a real sense of urgency. It is a reminder that real purpose in life comes in the sacred moments we share with others. Perhaps a moment like this might call you into action on behalf of others, as the midwives and Pharaoh’s daughters were...but at the very least, it is a reminder to not wait to tell others what they mean to you.
“...a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
(Because no one continued to tell the stories.)
Don’t let this happen...
Tell and listen to your stories of one another.
In doing so, you honor their memory: and with God, you find a way forward.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

New Beginning

Darlene and I, and many of the people of St. Paul's Salt Lake City.