The Cold and Dark Season

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian, Kalamazoo

Click here to see the bulletin of the liturgy, including the biblical text

After an unseasonably mild autumn, it’s finally beginning to feel like winter here in Michigan. The nights are getting longer and the weather is getting colder.

I love that the Church’s celebration of Advent happens to coincide with the onset of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. I take it as an apt metaphor for my spiritual life.

In spite of the commercial holiday hype, I have always been more of an Advent person than a Christmas person. Advent is about waiting in the darkness and the cold for God to show up, and when God finally does show up (at Christmas), it doesn’t look how I expected. Those expecting the “King of kings and Lord of lords” are met with a refugee baby born into poverty in a backwater village of an occupied country. It’s not what anyone expected, yet this is how God chooses to come to us.

I strongly suspect that I am not alone when I describe my spiritual life as “waiting in the darkness and the cold.” Popular conceptions of faith and spirituality focus on feelings of serenity, unshakeable commitment, and an immediate sense of God’s presence through dramatic events like visions and miracles.

But most who have seriously tried to live the life of faith will tell you that it’s not much like that at all. In fact, it’s mostly just a struggle. There’s an awful lot of waiting around involved, and in the internal space created by that waiting comes pouring all the junk of my ego, old habits, and false perceptions of myself. It’s not fun or particularly peaceful.

The benefits and blessings are certainly there for those who persevere, but they are often much more slow and subtle than we would like. So, why on earth would anyone put themselves through the trouble?

Because, to quote the novelist Gertrude Stein, “there’s a there there.” There really is something to it. One might call it “the peace that passeth understanding” or the presence of the Holy Spirit. This presence is often subtle and unexpected. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. Most of the time, I’m not able to accurately identify what God has been working in my life until after the fact. Looking back, I can sometimes put the pieces together and go, “Oh yeah… there’s a there there!”

Spirituality is a process that takes time to grow. I think that’s why Christ compares faith to a mustard seed: it’s not much to look at in the beginning and it doesn’t sprout all at once, but give it time and you will begin to see that it is a living, breathing, growing thing. It requires patience and a willingness to keep an open mind. The good news is that Christ is an experienced farmer who understands the slow, subtle ways of growth and refuses to give up on his struggling crops.

That is the lesson that St. John the Baptist is learning in today’s gospel.

John, as we know from last week, was a revolutionary prophet and a dangerous radical. He was among the first to correctly identify his cousin Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” He understood the purpose of his whole ministry as preparing the way for the Christ.

Unlike the apostles and the crowds, John understood that the Messiah’s liberation of God’s people would be more spiritual than political. But he himself also had a few preconceived notions about what this would look like that turned out to be a little off-base. John believed that the Christ would finally come to “set things straight” in Israel. He would cleanse the people of their sin and get them back on track to having a healthy relationship with God. These notions were confirmed, in his mind, at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. Here, finally, was the in-breaking of the Messianic age. Now things would really start to change… except they didn’t… at least, not right away.

Jesus turned out to be a more gentle Messiah than the one John was imagining. He led with grace, accepting sinners as they were and trusting that grace to do its slow, subtle work in their lives. He kept company with a rough crowd and seemed to condone their unseemly activities by his relative silence.

To make matters worse, things were not going particularly well for John. After speaking out against the personal life of the local puppet king, John was arrested and thrown into prison. Didn’t Jesus realize how bad things were getting? Wasn’t he going to do something about all this injustice? Wasn’t Jesus supposed to be the one who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire”? So… where was that fire, already?

St. John the Baptist, like so many of us in this long, cold, and dark “Advent of the soul” (as my friend Renee calls it), was struggling with his faith. Let’s take a look at what he does about it:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to [Jesus], “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

And how does Jesus respond to this question? With characteristic gentleness. He doesn’t berate or upbraid John for his lack of faith. In fact, he compliments him. He says to the crowd:

“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? …A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet… Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist”

Jesus praises his friend and cousin. John’s doubt does not reduce Jesus’ opinion of him one iota.

Too many of us feel afraid to engage with faith in the midst of doubt. We have this bizarre notion that doubt is the antithesis of faith, so it couldn’t possibly belong at church or in our conversation with Jesus. But I reject that idea outright.

Doubt is what makes faith possible. Without it, faith is nothing more than a blind acceptance of ideas that don’t ask anything of us. I don’t put much faith in the Law of Gravity because I simply accept it as a fact. It requires no imagination or personal commitment on my part. Faith in Christ, on the other hand, is of an entirely different order. Because I struggle with doubt in this area of my life, I have to dig deep and risk the very essence of my being on this mystery. It’s like doing a trust-fall exercise off the edge of the Grand Canyon. I have to give my whole heart, soul, mind, and strength to it. That’s why it matters to me, more than anything else in this world. None of that would be possible for me without the simultaneous presence of doubt. In the words of Episcopal priest Fr. John Westerhoff, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

Christ understands this reality, which is why he is then able to be so gentle with John.

And John, for his part, does the perfect thing: he goes to Jesus with his doubts and asks the honest question that is on his mind.

Those of us, like myself, who find faith to be a constant struggle have a good friend in St. John the Baptist. He shows us how to come to Christ with our doubts and incorporate them into our faith and spirituality. Christ, for his part, is not scared of us or our struggles with doubt. Christ has the grace to accept us, not just in spite of our doubts, but with them. That is the good news that Christ has for us in today’s gospel.

And with that good news comes a call to respond:

Christ loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to allow us to stay that way.

After complimenting John (“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist”), Jesus invites him and us, by extension, to take the next step of faith:

“yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Now matter how much Christ loves us, and no matter how far we have come in the life of faith, there is always room to grow. There is always a next step to take in faith. That is what Christ is inviting us to do today: Not to be perfect or pretend that we don’t struggle with doubt, but simply to take that one, small, next step toward God.

Jesus has some very specific advice to John for how to do this:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus invites John to open his eyes, ears, heart, and mind to what is happening around him. He asks him to pay attention. John, as we know, had some pretty specific ideas about what he thought the Messiah would be and do. When he didn’t see those things happening, his doubt momentarily got the better of him. The things he thought God should be doing were not getting done.

So Jesus very gently redirected his attention to the things that were getting done. It’s not as though Jesus was simply sitting down and twiddling his thumbs all day. Far from it:

“the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

God was doing something different from what John thought God would do, but that didn’t mean that God wasn’t doing something. Jesus invites John to take the next step of faith by setting aside his own preconceived notions and keeping an open mind. That’s what faith looks like in the midst of doubt.

Here in this Advent season, I believe Christ is inviting you and me to do the same thing.

It is so easy to stumble into old patterns of doubt and despair when life doesn’t go the way we think it should. We look around at the way things are in our personal lives/families/church/country/world and can’t help but wonder whether something has gone wrong. In the darkest and coldest times, it may even seem like God is absent. We may wonder, like John, whether this Jesus guy might not be everything he’s cracked up to be. We question whether the Christian life is worth all the effort.

In those moments, Christ comes to us with all the love and acceptance he gave to his friend John. He invites us to look around at all the good that is happening, instead obsessing over the things we wish were happening. It might feel like Advent, but the truth is that Christmas is already here: God is with us, meeting us in the cold and dark seasons of the soul, working for the good in our lives and world, and loving us with a love that will not let us go.

Doubting Thomas

Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubting_Thomas#mediaviewer/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg
Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubting_Thomas#mediaviewer/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg

Religion, for me, has always been an exercise in pain management.

And faith has always been a struggle.

My friends and family all must have the spiritual gift of patience, seeing how they’ve walked with me through each new crisis of faith and theological discovery: Evangelical, Charismatic, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Universalist, Liberal, Benedictine… it seems like I’m always dipping my toes into another tributary of the great Christian river. I’ve never quite felt at home.

As such, I feel like today is a holiday for Christians like me: the Feast of St. Thomas. Thomas, colloquially referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas’, is famous for his struggle with faith after the resurrection: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

But just as surely as he lagged behind his fellow apostles in believing the truth of the resurrection, he also charged ahead of them when it came to confessing the divinity of Christ: he was the first to address Jesus as “My Lord and my God!”

In my experience, a faith that is open to struggle often ends up being deeper and wider than a faith that simply accepts what it is given without question. I wonder whether Thomas would have had his insight into Christ’s divinity had it not been for his struggle with Christ’s resurrection?

For people like Thomas and me, faith is always an open-hearted struggle, not because we are stiff-necked unbelievers, but because we so desperately want to see Jesus.

“If I can learn, so can you”

Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter

When I was serving as a priest in the Free Episcopal Church, my bishop had a wonderful saying that I continue to carry with me in life: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.”  I love that.

I love that saying because it so beautifully messes with our society’s cultural assumptions about what it means to have faith.  To the modern mind, having faith means possessing absolute certainty about a set of ideas, even if you can’t prove those ideas to be true.  If faith really does equal certainty, then a person of faith would necessarily have to be like the character Horshack on the old sitcom, Welcome Back Kotter: “Oh! Oh! Oh!  I know the answer!”

If faith is all about certainty and knowing the answer, then the voice of faith becomes just one more voice, shouting above the noise of every other political ideology and commercial product that claims absolute certainty for itself about the answer to “life, the universe, and everything”.  If having faith really is just about being certain, then the church is just another Horshack, shouting from the back of the classroom: “Oh!  Oh!  Oh!  I know the answer!”

But I don’t believe that’s true.  I don’t believe that faith is just another voice, trying to shout over the crowd in the marketplace of ideas.  Furthermore, I don’t believe that faith has anything do with certainty at all.  If anything, I believe that absolute certainty is the exact opposite of faith.  If you’re absolutely certain about your faith, then there’s no stretch that your intuition or imagination has to make.  In order for faith to be authentic, our hearts have to be free to make that leap of trust into the unknown.  We have to come to that healthy and humble point of being able to honestly say, “I don’t know.”

The modern world doesn’t like those words: “I don’t know.”  The modern world wants certainty, but our ancestors in the pre-modern world (ancient and medieval) were much more comfortable with not knowing the answers when it comes to the mystery of existence.  Ancient theologians and philosophers taught their students that, if they truly wanted to understand the meaning of God, then they always had to keep their minds in motion.  Anytime they settled on an idea and claimed to have the final answer, they were told to keep looking, because any answer that a human being could fully understand was obviously not the whole truth about God.

Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian, claims to present five proofs of the existence of God.  But if you read his five arguments, you’ll walk away frustrated and disappointed because he brings his readers to the point of accepting the need for an explanation of the origins and orderliness of the universe, but then he just stops cold in his tracks.  Aquinas leaves his readers on the brink of a precipice, peering into the dark abyss of the unknown, wondering what might be out there.  He never actually goes so far as to prove, once and for all, that God exists.

This, it would seem, is the stance of faith for the ancient and pre-modern spiritual masters: the stance of openness and reverence toward the great mystery of existence in the universe.  This kind of faith is not a faith that claims to know all answers with absolute certainty.  This faith is a leap of faith, made by a mind in motion.  In today’s gospel reading, we can see that kind of faith in Jesus himself and in the Syrophoenician woman he meets in the city of Tyre.

At this point in the gospel story, Jesus is traveling through foreign territory.  As a Jew in the city of Tyre, he was “a stranger in a strange land”, a fish out of water for sure.  The text itself doesn’t say exactly what business brought Jesus to that city, but it does say that, for whatever reason, he was trying to lie low while he was there.  But, unfortunately for Jesus, word got out that he was in town and someone in need came to see him.

This woman was not Jewish.  She came from a different race and religion than Jesus.  On top of that, she was a woman speaking up for herself.  In the patriarchal world of the ancient Middle East, this was not the norm.  She may have been a widow with no surviving male relatives to act as her official mouthpiece in public.  Whatever the reason, the fact that she was making a scene remains the same.  A non-Jewish woman was confronting a Jewish man in public.  This would have been the scandal of the week in the city of Tyre.  If they’d had tabloids and paparazzi back then, this would have been on the front page.

But you see, she didn’t care about that.  She was desperate.  The text of Mark’s gospel tells us that her daughter had “an unclean spirit”, but it doesn’t tell us exactly what that means.  In the ancient world before the advent of modern medicine, mental and neurological illnesses like epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, and schizophrenia were often misdiagnosed as demonic possession.  This might have been one of those cases.  On the other hand, it’s not entirely inconceivable that there really was something happening to this little girl on a supernatural level.  Jesus and his fellow Jews in the first century CE would have had no problem whatsoever with that idea.

A first century Jew would have been especially unsurprised to hear of demonic activity in a city full of pagans, like Tyre.  “Of course she has an unclean spirit,” a typical Palestinian Jew would have said, “All these people in this city have unclean spirits, on account of their bowing down to false gods and idols!”

At first, Jesus seems to concur with that party line.  He refuses to help her because she is not Jewish.  He says to the woman, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Dogs?  That’s a little harsh, even for Jesus.  No one would have blamed her for storming off, offended, but that’s not what she does.  This woman is desperate and she believes that Jesus is the only one who can help her.  Her love for her daughter leads her to stand up and ride roughshod over the sacred barriers that separated people of different genders, races, and religions in that society.  Here, at the end of her proverbial rope, she throws all caution to the wind and takes matters into her own hands.  I like to imagine that she got up off her knees, looked Jesus right in the eye, and put a finger in his face when she said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

I wish the text of Mark’s gospel had described the look on Jesus’ face when she did that.  But we don’t get that luxury.  In the text, Jesus responds to her boldness by saying, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  There is a TV movie on the life of Jesus that came out about 13 years ago.  This scene from today’s gospel reading appears in that film.  The screenwriter takes some liberties with the text and embellishes the point being made with additional dialogue from Jesus.  In the movie, Jesus turns around and says to his disciples, “This woman has taught me that my message is for [all people, not just the Jews].  If I can learn, so can you.”

I love that idea.  Jesus, far from being a distant and static object of worship, is an intimate and dynamic presence in our lives.  The Spirit of Christ grows within us as Christians in every generation are called to speak the truth in love to an ever-changing world.  The needs of the world today are different than they were two thousand years ago.  We are called to follow where Christ is leading us today, not where Christ led our ancestors five hundred years ago.  Let me give you one example: just a few decades ago, the idea of racial integration would have sounded ludicrous.  But today, none of us would want to worship in a church that had “Whites Only” printed on the marquee outside.  The fact that we would now find that offensive and unacceptable is a sign of the Holy Spirit working and growing within us, leading us into new levels of truth that our ancestors weren’t yet ready to hear.  What new truths is the Spirit leading you into today?  What ancient barriers of close-minded prejudice is Christ tearing down in this generation?  When our children and grandchildren grow up and look back at this era of history, will they be proud of us for taking risks and standing up for what we thought was right?  Will they see evidence of Christ growing in our hearts?

I certainly hope so.  I hope we leave them a legacy that they can run with.  I hope that same Spirit will grow in them and lead them to follow Christ in ways that make me feel uncomfortable.  I pray today that your faith in the growing Christ will lead you out of the static realms of certainty and across the established borders of this world and up to the brink of the precipice where you too can gaze with reverence and humility into the darkness of the unknown abyss, defying every humanly-constructed ideology, confessing with scandalous honesty the creed openness before the mystery of existence: “I don’t know the answer.”

 

 

 

Cherish Your Doubts

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth.
Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.
A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error,
for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let no man fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it;
for doubt is a testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing;
For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.
He that would silence doubt is filled with fear;
the house of his spirit is built on shifting sands.
But he that fears no doubt, and knows its use, is founded on a rock.
He shall walk in the light of growing knowledge;
the work of his hands shall endure.
Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help:
It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.

-Robert T. Weston, from Hymns for the Celebration of Life

Found at http://revdawn.wordpress.com/2012/05/

The Empty Tomb

Easter sermon from Boonville Presbyterian.

The text is Mark 16:1-8.

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

A Wall Street executive once hired a consultant from the Czech Republic to come and advise him on business matters.  After a highly productive and successful series of meetings, the time had come for the consultant to return to his home country.

“I want to thank you for all you’ve done to help our company.”  The executive said, “Before you return to the Czech Republic, is there anything you would like to see or do here in America?”

“Well,” the consultant said, “I have always heard such wonderful things about the zoos in America.  We don’t have anything like them back home in the Czech Republic.  I would really like to go to the zoo.”

So the executive makes arrangements and takes the rest of the day off in order to escort his new friend to the zoo.  While they are there, the consultant is fascinated by the lions’ den.  He leans as far as he can over the railing to get a good look at them.  But suddenly, the unthinkable happens: he loses his balance and tumbles headfirst into the lions’ habitat!  The lions are on him in a flash and devour him so quickly that there is nothing left by the time the zookeeper arrives with the police.

“Okay,” the authorities say to the executive, “You were the only eyewitness to this tragedy.  Did you happen to see which lion actually ate your friend?”

The executive gives it some thought and says, “Yes.  It was the male lion with the large furry mane.  I’m absolutely certain that he was the one who ate my friend.”

So they shoot the male lion and open him up.  Alas, the lion’s stomach was empty!  So they proceed to shoot the female lion and open her up.  Sure enough, there was the poor consultant in her stomach.

Now, there are two morals to this story:

The first is that you should never trust the word of a Wall Street executive who tells you, “The Czech is in the male.”

The second moral to this story is that you should never be too certain about certainty.

As a society, we tend to put a lot of stock in certainty.  We buy products that come with a “guarantee.”  We buy all kinds of “insurance” to protect us from anything bad that might happen.  We trust the words of our political and religious officials as if they were gospel truth.  But just take a minute and think about all the times in history when people lost their lives over a certainty that later turned out to be completely false?

Several years ago, there was a science fiction movie called Men In Black starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.  In one scene of this movie, Will Smith has just found out that there are aliens from outer space living on Earth in disguise.  Tommy Lee Jones tries to comfort him with these words about certainty: “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”  Certainty, it seems, is a very fickle thing.

Certainty is also something that is commonly associated with people of faith.  Preachers, theologians, and church goers often speak with great passion and conviction about things they know to be true, beyond any shadow of a doubt.  On the other hand, those who struggle with faith are often called “agnostic” which can be translated as “not knowing” or “uncertain.”  Agnostic people sometimes ask religious people questions about certainty like:

  • “How can you be so sure that God exists?”
  • “How can you be so sure that there’s life after death?”
  • “How can you be so sure that everything will turn out for the better in the end?”

In the minds of average people (agnostic and religious alike), certainty and faith seem to go hand in hand.  This association is so firmly ingrained that religious people are often made to feel a deep sense of guilt whenever they question some or all of their beliefs.  Likewise, agnostic people are often made to feel like there’s no place for them communities of faith (like church).  So many of them feel like they have to choose between the intellectual integrity their minds long for and the sense of reverence and belonging their hearts long for.  If faith and certainty are permanently associated with one another, you have to make a choice.  There is no room for questions or doubt.  It’s black and white.  You’re either in or out.  In the minds of average people (agnostic and religious alike), that’s what faith is all about.

This morning, I want to take that preconceived notion (faith = certainty) and put it on trial next to what the Bible actually says or, more importantly, what it doesn’t say (because you can learn a lot by paying attention to what the Bible doesn’t say).

Let’s start by looking at today’s New Testament reading.  Do you notice anything missing from it?  We have the women who show up at the tomb.  The stone is rolled away.  There’s a young man in white telling them that the person they’re looking for isn’t there.  They run away in fear.  Do you notice anything missing?  How about anyone?

Jesus!  That’s right, Jesus forgets to show up to his own party!  Today is Easter and we’re celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Isn’t it at least a little odd that the risen Christ doesn’t even make a single appearance in the reading?

Let me add a little more wood to this fire: today’s reading is from Mark’s gospel, which most biblical scholars agree was the first of the four canonical gospels to be written.  It was probably written about thirty or forty years after the death of Jesus.  Now, we don’t have any original manuscripts for this (or any other) book of the Bible.  All we have are copies of copies.  Sometimes, these copies differ from one another.  For example, the later versions of Mark’s gospel have Jesus showing up and giving some sage advice to his disciples, but the earliest manuscripts we have end with this passage: the one where the women run away in fear at the end.

That’s kind of anti-climactic isn’t it?  I mean, the resurrection is kind of the central miracle in the Christian faith.  It’s the reason for today’s celebration, the highest holiday in our religion.  Wouldn’t you expect a more certain and definitive record of it in the earliest accepted account of its occurrence?

Now, let me be clear, I’m not trying to argue that it did or didn’t happen.  What I’m trying to point out here is that the earliest available editions of Mark’s gospel leave us with a big question mark, rather than an exclamation point.  Mark simply presents us with an empty tomb and then leaves us to make up our own minds about what happened.

I think this is good news for those of us who struggle with faith (and I include myself in that number).  It means that we are not required to check our brains at the door when we come into church.  It means that there is a whole lot more mystery than certainty in authentic Christian faith.  Most of all, it means that faith is more about staying open and asking honest questions about what might be true rather than forging and holding onto hard-and-fast answers about what we think is true.

It means furthermore that doubt is a friend of faith, not its opposite.  In fact, if we’re defining faith as openness to possibility, then doubt is what makes faith possible.  For those of us (like me) who worship at the empty tomb, standing there with a big question mark hanging over our heads, the only real opposite to faith would have to be certainty.

You and I seem to live in a time of unparalleled questioning.  Thanks to many brilliant advances in information and communication technology, we probably know more but understand less about the incredible diversity on this planet than any generation that has come before us.  We’re facing questions about science and sexuality, faith and philosophy, politics and pluralism.  Whether we’re talking about robots, rocket-ships, or religion, we are already coming up with answers to tough questions that our ancestors never would have dreamed of asking.

In the face of such daunting challenges, it’s only natural (healthy, even) to feel more than a little intimidated.  There are powerful voices in our society who are calling on us to return to yesterday’s answers in response to today’s (and presumably tomorrow’s) questions.  These fearful folks long for the comfort that certainty brings, so they hunker down, roll up the sails, and batten the hatches, hoping that their ship has the right stuff to weather the winds of change.  As those winds grow stronger and stronger, those voices of fear grow louder and louder.

It would be easy to let those loud voices and that powerful wind of change intimidate us.  It would be easy to give in and huddle together below decks in hopes that the wind will eventually stop.  That would be so easy to do if we didn’t know who we are, where we’ve come from, and how we got to where we are today.  Our ship, the church, was made to sail in these winds.  The wind is our friend.  If it wasn’t for the wind, we never would have left our home port.

Allow me to offer a few examples:

Today’s wind has brought us to face controversial and challenging questions about issues like religious diversity and human sexuality.  Fifty years ago, we were asking questions about whether two people of different races or ethnicities could get married and have a healthy family.  There were those who said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order for human society laid out in the Bible.  Sound familiar?  It wasn’t until 1967, in the case of Virginia v. Loving that the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled bans on interracial marriage as unconstitutional.

Before that, folks in our church were arguing about whether or not women could be ordained to serve as clergy in our church.  There were some who said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order laid out in the Bible.  Yet, here I am, a proud member of a generation where women in ministry are not only my peers, but also my predecessors in the pulpit.  I don’t think I even need to mention the name of Rev. Micki Robinson and her epic seventeen year ministry in this church.

Before that, there were folks who stood up and proclaimed that, because all people are created equal, the institution of slavery should be abolished.  People said it would never work because it was unnatural and went against the established order laid out in the Bible.  They even fought a bloody war over that question.  Yet, I think we can all agree that our country is better off for having faced that question and challenged its previously conceived notions.

Before that, another group of people declared that, because all people are created equal, a country should be run by democratically elected leaders and not a royal monarchy that was handed down from generation to generation by supposed “divine mandate.”  These same people also had a bold new idea that church and state should remain separate, in order to protect the freedoms of both.  Thus, the United States became the first country in the history of the world to be founded on an idea, rather than a common ethnic identity.

Before that, people like John Calvin and Martin Luther challenged a millennium of church tradition and authority, believing that people have the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, rather than waiting for some Pope to issue an authoritative doctrinal statement on behalf of the people.

Before that, a man named Jesus of Nazareth challenged the very foundation of religious and political power in his day.  He proclaimed a bold new vision of the kingdom of heaven-on-earth.  He gave us the core spiritual principles and beliefs that continue to shape our lives to this day.

Before Jesus, in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), there was a long line of Jewish prophets like John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Moses, who stood up to “the way it is,” questioned the legitimacy of the status quo, and proclaimed a bold and prophetic new vision of what might be possible, which leads us right back to that definition of faith as openness to possibility.

We gather together this morning to celebrate this mystery of the resurrection of Jesus.  We are confronted with the image of an empty tomb and a huge question mark hanging over our heads.  We are not given many concrete answers, backed up by the guarantee of certainty.  But, as we have already seen, we gather at this empty tomb with a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.  They, like us and the women at the tomb in today’s gospel story, were gripped with an overwhelming sense of fear and amazement.  I can imagine us all standing there, staring into the darkness, maybe holding onto each other for support, wondering together what might be happening, not certain of anything, but open to what might be possible.

Where do you find yourself in this story today?  Are you perhaps a questioning believer who is afraid to let your doubts shine, for fear that they might invalidate or undermine your faith?  Are you perhaps a hopeful agnostic who yearns for a sense of transcendence and community, but is afraid that there is no place for you in any institution that calls itself a “church?”  Are you perhaps one of the frightened faithful who miss the old comfort of certainty from the “good old days,” who long for an anchor for their souls amid the winds of change, and who look to answer today’s questions with yesterday’s answers?  Whoever you are, I want to invite you, on this Easter morning, to join us at the empty tomb.  Let us hold onto each other as we stare into the darkness together with more questions than answers, overwhelmed by that odd emotional combination of fear and amazement, and let us do our best to remain faithfully open to what might be possible for us at this time and in this place.

Not Thomas’ Problem

This week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

The text is John 20:19-31.

There is a phrase attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire that goes something like this: “God created man in his own image, and then man returned the favor.”

What Voltaire meant by this is that people tend to conceive of God in ways that match their view of themselves and the world.  To liberals, God is a liberal.  To Tea Partiers, God is a Tea Partier.  To chauvinists, God is masculine.  To feminists, God is feminine.  To self-haters, God is judgmental.  To narcissists, God is all about them.

As finite human beings, we inevitably have to use limited human language to describe our infinite God.  We rely on images like “Shepherd” and “Parent” to understand the relationship between God and creation.  These metaphors can be helpful, because they take what is ultimately unknowable and present it in terms that are familiar to us.

The problem comes when we hold onto these images and ideas too tightly.  We try to squeeze the infinite mystery of God into finite boxes of our own making.  We try to force God to relate to us on our own terms.

Psychologists call this kind of behavior “delusional”.  The biblical authors called it “idolatry”.  People would rather bow down to visible and tangible gods of their own making than stand in awe of an invisible and eternal mystery that moves outside the realm of their understanding.

When people in our society think of “idolatry”, they imagine ancient polytheists offering various sacrifices before stone statues.  But the truth is that idolatry is not limited to one kind of religious practice.  Even Christians fall prey to idolatry.  They do it every time they try to squeeze God into the walls of a church or the pages of the Bible.  Don’t get me wrong: churches and Bibles are wonderful tools that can guide us in our relationship with God.  They can show us how to find God in our daily lives, but they are only a means to an end.  When Christians do the opposite, when they treat the means as an end in itself, and they stop looking for the divine presence in the world around them, then they are guilty of the sin idolatry.  By limiting God’s sphere of operation to a book or a building, they force God to meet them on their own terms (so they think).  This is exactly the sort of thing that we can see going on in today’s gospel reading.

The apostle Thomas, who is often called “Doubting Thomas”, gets an undeserved reputation from this passage.  There are some who chastise him as the one apostle who was unwilling to believe the truth of the resurrection.  Others praise Thomas as the father of all skeptics who demands facts before faith.  Doubt is the sentiment most closely associated with Thomas.  But I don’t think he deserves that distinction.

After all, wouldn’t you or I do the same if we heard that one of our loved ones had suddenly returned from the grave?  We would want to see it for ourselves, wouldn’t we?  Any of us would ask a lot of hard questions before we accepted the reality of a dead man walking.

Also, in his questioning of the other apostles, Thomas was only following one of Jesus’ own commandments!  In Luke 21:8, Jesus said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”  How can we blame Thomas for doing his job as a faithful disciple of Jesus?  So, from both rational and religious perspectives, one can understand Thomas’ reticence to accept these rumors of resurrection.

Doubt is not Thomas’ problem.  Doubt is the sign of a clear head and an honest heart.  If Thomas has a problem it has to do with one word: “Unless”.  He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  With this one word (“Unless”), Thomas is demanding that Christ meets him on Thomas’ own terms.  In the arrogance of his ignorance, Thomas is convinced that he, more than all the other disciples, has what it takes to establish the criteria for true faith.

As it was with Thomas, so it is with us.  You and I live in a society that is becoming increasingly polarized in more ways than one.  People on all sides of the religious and political spectra have stopped listening to one another and started insisting on certain ideological criteria that must be met before we validate the intelligence and good faith of those who disagree with us.  Even though much of this debate takes place in the name of Christ, I fear that too little of it takes place in the spirit of Christ.  People on all sides are quick to squeeze God into boxes with labels like “biblical truth” or “human rights” and demand that Christ meets them on their own terms (whatever those terms may be).

So then, what are we to say?  Is there any hope for us “Thomases” out there?  Does this passage offer any relief from this impasse?  I think so.  John’s gospel continues the story on the next Sunday, when Thomas and the other disciples were once again gathered together.  It says at verse 26: “Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

In spite of Thomas’ roadblocks to faith, in spite of the “shut doors” that surrounded this motley crew of disciples, Jesus is present.  No barrier is sufficient to keep the risen Christ at bay.  Jesus encounters Thomas in the midst of his struggle.  He doesn’t wait until Thomas has resolved his issues.  He even offers to meet Thomas’ criteria for belief.  Jesus says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

I find it most interesting that John’s gospel doesn’t tell us whether Thomas actually did reach out and touch Christ’s wounds.  That much is left up to the reader to decide.  Whether he did or didn’t, the emphasis of the story is on Christ’s offer and Thomas’ response, “My Lord and my God!”  When faced with the real presence of the crucified and risen Christ, Thomas’ issues seem to just melt away.  In the words of the philosopher John Hick, Thomas moves from “self-centeredness” into “reality-centeredness”.  All of a sudden, his agenda, his criteria, his arrogance, and his terms just don’t seem to matter as much as they used to.  This new openness paves the way for Thomas to rejoin the fellowship of disciples and believe the truth of the resurrection, even if he wasn’t quite clear on the facts.

This gives me hope for all of us as well.  It gives me confidence that the infinite God who dwells in our midst will continue to come bursting out of our finite little boxes.  The presence of the risen Christ speaking peace to struggling unbelievers in a room full of shut doors gives me fuller assurance that the “shut doors” in my own arrogant, ignorant, and unbelieving heart cannot and will not keep the peace of Christ away from me.  This is true for you as well.  It is true for all of us.  This week, as you go back out into the cacophony and conflict in your work, home, church, and society, I invite you to meditate on this Easter truth.

The apostle Paul puts it so well in Romans 8:38-39:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Faith in Doubt

Annunciation, by He Qi (2001)

One of my favorite things about our crew at St. James Mission is the theological diversity among those present and the willingness they all have to explore the tough questions of faith and reality.

This week’s Bible study happened to fall on March 25th, which is the Feast of the Annunciation.  It comes every year, exactly nine months before Christmas.  (I guess that means Jesus wasn’t a premie!)

We reflected on Luke 1:26-38, which can be read by clicking here.

What the people of our community noticed most was Mary’s faith in accepting the angel’s invitation.  Some people remarked that they long for that kind of faith.  They want to respond to God in that same kind of instinctual and immediate way.

The next logical question to explore has to do with the definition of faith itself.  What does it mean to “believe in God”?  One woman was honest (and brave) enough to admit that she had trouble accepting the idea that Jesus was literally born of a virgin (i.e. without a biological father contributing his portion of the DNA), but that she too wanted to share in Mary’s faith.  This is a bold thing to say in the middle of worship.  I was elated to hear someone speak so openly about doubt.  What’s even better is that I believe this person, in her honest doubt, was able to draw out certain truths from this text that would have otherwise remained unspoken.  Truthfully, I think this text readily lends itself to a definition of faith that transcends an acceptance of certain facts and cuts deep into our souls.

If faith is simply a matter of acknowledging established church doctrine, then Mary herself fails the test immediately.  We read that she too was ‘perplexed’ and we see that she began by questioning the angel’s proclamation: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  If doubt truly is the opposite of faith, then it’s helpful to know that we who doubt stand with the Blessed Virgin herself in the company of the faithless.

However, I believe that true faith is something that encompasses doubt and welcomes it as a partner in the journey.  Mary is unafraid to show her cognitive noncompliance with the royal decree of heaven.  Even in the presence of an angel, she has the cojones to shake her fist at the sky.  And the ironic thing is that her challenge of the divine edict did not disqualify her from participating in God’s plan, but confirmed her place in it.

Deep in Mary’s heart, with all its doubt and perplexity, there lived (and still lives, I think) a profound openness toward God.  Her open-mindedness prepared her to accept that truth which reaches beyond mere fact.  It is in the incarnation of that mystery that she takes up her calling as the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

If we say that we too want to share in the faith of Mary, I think it is her openness toward God, not the mere acceptance of church doctrine, that we should pray for.