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Archive for April, 2020

To find our way into the future it is critical to ask questions, in the spirit of Thomas.

Probing Questions

A Sermon on John 20:19-31

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Let’s get something out of the way right up front: what Jesus actually said to Thomas is very difficult to translate into English.  “Stop doubting” is not a good translation.  The words that Jesus uses here for faith and unfaith are adjectives, not verbs.  A more accurate translation is, “No longer be untrusting, but trusting.”  The root of the adjective means trusting, having faith, believing.  Trusting and not trusting are about relationships.  Jesus is inviting Thomas to move towards trusting him.  A trusting relationship is what this is about, not whether or not Thomas has the correct beliefs, doctrines, or creeds and is sufficiently sure about them.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with the group that first Easter evening.  But sometimes people want to be alone when their hearts are broken.  It’s likely Thomas isolated himself in shock and grief, especially those first few days after the crucifixion.  Bless his friends.  They didn’t want Thomas to remain in isolation, so they reached out to him.

They shared their experience with Thomas.  In response, he trusted them enough to be real with them: “Until and unless I see and touch his hands and side, I don’t trust,” he said.  His friends continued to hold him in their fellowship nevertheless.  They accepted him as he was, and so he was with them the next Sunday night when the congregation of Jesus’ followers gathered.

That’s the way Thomas was: he was too honest to pretend he understood when he didn’t, or to pretend he trusted and believed when he didn’t.  He’s the one who asked the questions the others probably wanted to ask when Jesus told his followers he was going away, and they knew where he was going.  Thomas immediately piped up, “But Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?”  Even though others had seen Jesus after the resurrection, Thomas was too honest and sincere to pretend that all was well when he was still struggling hard inwardly.

That next Sunday night the community was once again gathered behind locked doors, fear still hanging over them.  Once again Jesus quietly slipped in among them and greeted them all with amazing, comprehensive grace and peace, Thomas included.

Jesus then proceeded to offer Thomas the same gift he had given the others the week before: the sight of his hands and side.  He welcomed Thomas to come and see and touch.  “Probe my hands.  Put your finger there.”  Jesus welcomed Thomas just as he was, questions and all.  He understood Thomas’ need to probe the situation.

Did Thomas actually touch Jesus?  The text doesn’t say.  The story moves immediately to his exclamation, “My Lord and my God!”  Maybe hearing Jesus’ welcome, experiencing Jesus’ grace was all it took to move him in the direction of trust.  Simple, powerful, real: “My Lord, and my God!”  If this isn’t the climax of the Gospel of John, it is certainly one of the high points.  It was a revolutionary declaration in those days when the empire declared that Caesar was lord and God.  Once Jesus’ followers went public with that statement of faith, Jesus is Lord and God, it was going to put them at odds with the empire.

Thomas needed to ask questions on his way to a more trusting relationship with Jesus.  But sometimes Christians and churches don’t take kindly to questions or to the people who ask them.  Your beliefs have to be correct.  You should be able to accept and repeat what you were told and not ask questions.  How you understand what Jesus has done for us has to be nailed down and certain.  If it’s not, keep quiet about it.

This week I heard yet another story about someone who was rejected by fellow Christians when he started asking questions.  He was a pastor in a tradition that has a very rigid system of beliefs.  For a long time he wholeheartedly subscribed to this system and preached it himself.  He remembers when the questions started.  He described a night when he was on retreat with some other men in the church.  As the others slept peacefully, he found himself wondering, “Where did the idea come from that God’s mercy towards a person stops the moment that person dies?  Doesn’t scripture clearly say God’s steadfast love is forever?”  And that sleepless night was the beginning of many.  It led to a painful journey out of that tradition, but into a deeper relationship with Christ. (See Colby Martin, The Shift.)

Jesus understood that Thomas needed to ask questions.  Thomas couldn’t draw closer and move forward with Jesus if he couldn’t be honest and say what was really in his heart.  Doubting and questioning are not the enemy of faith.  They are essential on the road to deeper faith.

Courageous questioning is essential for finding the way into the future.  Bold questions are essential in the service of the truth.  Raising questions is how we discern what’s true from what’s not, what’s truly helpful and what’s quackery.

Raising questions is essential as we move through the COVID-19 pandemic and find our way into the future.  We are not going to be able to return to a settled past, relying unquestioningly on former ways of doing things.

On one level there are practical questions.  The other day our governor outlined a multistage approach to returning to more normal activities.  It will unfold over time, and being able to move forward to a new phase will depend on accurate data about what’s happening.  For example, new cases of the illness will need to start falling and continue to fall, while our ability to test and determine who actually has the virus must rise.

Congregations will not be able to gather in person for activities for some time yet, and when we do, we will still need to be super vigilant, and our practices may need to be altered.  For example, passing an offering plate from hand to hand may not be wise.  We will be asking procedural questions, but also we’ll be asking questions such as, “Is there a way to maintain a connection so that people can continue to join the congregation for worship remotely?”  I really like having friends and family joining us from far away.  And think of what this could mean for people who are shut in in general.

And then there’s the whole question of where is God in all this.  People are asking, and some are quickly offering answers that are not helpful, and even harmful.  As they do whenever there is a disaster, a few are quick to proclaim that God is punishing somebody, usually blaming particular groups of people.  How will we answer that question?  Where do we discern the presence and activity of God?

If we’re going to call Thomas anything, we should call him “Honest Thomas.”    Be like honest Thomas.  His example is one to follow.  Be fearless questioners.

Jesus held out his hands to Thomas, welcoming him just as he was.  Welcoming Thomas’ searching, questioning heart.  The next thing you know, Thomas was entrusting that heart to Jesus.  

See, Jesus is holding his hands out to us.  Welcome, beloved.  Just as you are, questions and all.  AMEN.

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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

Lockdown

A Sermon on John 20:19-23

Sunday, April 19, 2020

In spite of Mary Magdalene’s testimony, Easter was not a day of overwhelming joy for Jesus’ first followers.  Joy was overshadowed by overwhelming fear.  The authorities had done the unthinkable to Jesus, and now anybody associated with Jesus was in danger.

To guard against people bursting in on them, Jesus’ followers hunkered down behind locked doors.  They were still too shocked to begin discerning what their next steps should be.  And if what Mary Magdalene said was true, and Jesus really was risen, what might he say to them if they did see him?  The memory of their faithlessness haunted them.  Easter evening found the church in lockdown.

A different danger has put us in lockdown.  The enemy we hope to keep out can only be seen through an electron microscope, and the best we can do is try to keep our distance from it by keeping our distance from each other.  One of the most heartbreaking things about this is that some people truly are locked in in institutional settings, and their loved ones cannot get in to see them.  People are doing their best to care and connect by phone and computer when possible.  They feel fortunate when their loved ones’ rooms are on the first floor.  I saw a photo yesterday of two brothers standing up on stools so they could see into their elderly mother’s room from the outside.

The fear is about more than the virus itself.  There are fears about finances.  How are we going to pay our bills?  What about our retirement funds?  What are we going to do when no job means no health insurance?

One of my big fears is that we won’t learn anything from this as a national family, and that we will go right back to the situation as it was before the coronavirus hit us: when millions and millions of Americans were already living just one paycheck away from disaster.  When a minimum wage job is not enough to be able to afford basic, decent housing anywhere in the country, and with many working two and three jobs and still being unable to afford insurance and basic medical and dental care.  With people at the top of the economic ladder accumulating more and more, indeed watching their bonuses and stocks and all their perks soar, at least until recently, while taking less and less civic and public and tax paying responsibility for the wellbeing of other Americans.  So critical functions like public health and critical maintenance are chronically underfunded.  As a character in a book I was reading yesterday put it, “Why is it that those who have the most want even more?”

And then there’s great uncertainty about when we will be able to relax the restrictions, and what our next steps should be so as not to unleash another wave of sickness.  What we are experiencing at Easter this year does resemble what Jesus’ first followers experienced that first Easter.

Locked doors didn’t keep Jesus out, however.  The risen Lord quietly slipped in among his followers, and the first words out of his mouth were gentle and gracious: Peace be with you.  Then, before they had a chance to respond, Jesus was already showing them his hands and his side, assuring them that he was real, not a figment of the imagination; and what’s more that he was one and the same as the Jesus they knew and loved.  That’s when joy started coming over them, John says.

Jesus then repeated the word of peace, that powerful word that was so full of love, healing, justice, and wellbeing, and he gave them a new sense of purpose.  Whatever their next steps turned out to be, they would serve the purpose of continuing Jesus’ own life and work.  “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” he said.  The gifts of peace and purpose were wonderful in themselves.  But Christ Jesus wasn’t finished yet.  He breathed his Holy Spirit on them.  As we’ve observed before, the word for breath and spirit are the same in both Hebrew and Greek.  Just as God breathed life into humanity in the beginning, now Christ Jesus breathed new life into his people, new life, and spirit power.

If we read on in scripture, a few chapters and a few weeks later, these same frightened followers had come out from behind locked doors and were boldly sharing the good news of Jesus any way they could.

No barriers are a match for Jesus now.  What he did for his followers that first Easter he does for us now.  Wherever crisis and pain have chased people’s peace away, Jesus slips in among them.  He speaks the word of peace, and brings the peace of his presence.  He opens his hands, those same wounded healing hands to us, encircling us with those same strong, everlasting arms.  He breathes his Spirit on, in, and among us.  Right here in my study.  Right there where you are.  He sends us to continue his life and work.

By the power of his Spirit, we will continue to be his body now, prayerfully sharing his good news any way we can even though our movements are limited right now.  And then, when next steps start to become clear, we will move out in power.  Yes, power!

We who pray over and over, “thy kingdom come, and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” will have the opportunity to practice our king’s way.  We can be a part of the healing, of making things better in all the communities of which we are a part, from the local to the national and the world.  We know our God is the one who can change things so that we don’t have to just snap back to the same business as usual and the same injustice as before.  

May the peace of the risen Christ be with all who suffer this day, and with all who are fearful for loved ones or for themselves.  May the peace of Christ be with all who are waiting on him, all you with longing hearts, all needing comfort and strength.  May the peace of Christ be with all of you who are heavily burdened, and give you rest.

Beloved, may the peace of Christ be with you all, holding you near to the heart of God, now and always.  AMEN.

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We Are Not Alone

This choral piece by Pepper Choplin is one of the songs that is sustaining me through this uncertain time.

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While It Is Still Dark

A Meditation on John 20:1-18

Sunday, April 12, 2020

photo of moon during night

Photo by Rok Romih on Pexels.com

Easter

Mary Magdalene and all those who loved Jesus were trying to find their way through the darkest time they had ever experienced.  They had watched helplessly as the state—urged on by the religious authorities—tortured Jesus to death.

They had pinned all their hopes on Jesus.  They saw him ushering in the kingdom of God, where things are the way they should be, with peace, healing and wellbeing for all.  The kingdom of love and light.  They had experienced it.  Mary Magdalene had experience great healing.

And now this.  Horror!

It was still pitch dark as Mary made her way to the grave.  She couldn’t wait even until sunrise.  She must go now.  But when Mary got there, the stone covering the entrance had been removed, and there was nothing inside but the burial wrappings.  Jesus was gone!  Somebody must have stolen the body—as if the crucifixion weren’t enough.  Mary grew even more distressed.

There is much to distress us in this present darkness.  The illness that has brought ordinary life to a stop is only part of the suffering.  We mourn the loss of life and livelihoods and more.  This week unemployment rose to levels our country has not seen since the Great Depression that began in 1929.  This crisis is making it impossible to ignore the fact that vast numbers of Americans live close to the edge even in so-called normal times.

Bad behavior on the part of some is adding to the distress: distressing news of people trying to exploit the situation to enrich themselves, and of people not even bothering to put their used masks and gloves into the trash, just dropping them in the grocery store parking lot.  Yuck!

Before all this started, many people were already struggling in so many ways, and the pandemic makes things even harder.

Mary Magdalene was so upset she just couldn’t stop crying.  She really couldn’t see anything clearly in the gloom, much less recognize Jesus in the shadows.

With deep respect in his voice, Jesus said, “Woman, why are you crying?  Whom are you looking for?”

She thought he must be the gardener.  “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where, and I will take him away.”

“Mary,” he said. The risen Christ reached out to her in the gloom. She knew that voice!  “Teacher,” she exclaimed.

Realization is like a light.  Recognition is like a light.  The Lord was near, and he was alive!

Think of what this meant!  It meant that while it was still dark the stone was moved.  While it was still dark, God had raised Jesus Christ to new life.  Long before daybreak God was already up and working to overcome the horror of Friday.  God’s work of resurrection got underway while it was still dark.  God overcame death while it was still night. 

Christ was alive before dawn, before those who loved him were able to see him and trust that he truly was there.  In the shadows, he was ready to reach out to Mary and all the rest again.

Surely the God of resurrection is already at work in this present darkness.  Surely the God of light is already working for goodness, love, and life despite the shadows of gloom and despair.  God’s power goes to work even while it is still dark.

In some Christian traditions the first Easter service takes place at midnight, long before sunrise.  People gather outside and kindle a fire.  Then they light a large, long-burning Easter candle from the fire, light their own small candles, and process into the darkened church.  There they maintain a vigil in the night.  They retell the story of God’s faithfulness through all the ages, and they start rejoicing before the light of dawn arrives.

That is because they know God is already at work to bring new life even before it can be seen.  They anticipate it.  They long for it.  They trust that it will come.  They trust that they will hear Jesus’ voice again.  They keep the faith.

Friends, let us keep the Easter vigil in this present darkness.  Thanks be to God for the beautiful flickers of light that we can see, where we can glimpse God’s great faithfulness, mercy, and love in the middle of all this.  Those who keep their candles lit, so to speak, join in the good God is doing.  Thanks be to God for that voice we know and love so well, the living Christ, who calls each one of us by name, inviting us to announce his good news.  Inviting us to live his good news.

Beloved, keep the Easter vigil, until our Savior takes us to the place where there is no more darkness, no more night, and it will be bright Easter forever.  AMEN.

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Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs

A Meditation on Isaiah 52:13-53:4a

Passion Sunday, April 5, 2020

Often when we reflect on the meaning of the cross we think about sin.  Human sin is what put Jesus on the cross, and his death on the cross overcomes sin.  It is the sign and seal that God truly does forgive us.

But the cross means even more.  As the early Christians tried to express its meaning, they found help in the words of Isaiah that we just read: God’s servant was well acquainted with suffering and infirmity.  Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.  Another translation reads, “It was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down.”  The old King James puts it this way, “He was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.  Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.”

Jesus carried the weight of sin on the cross, but he carried much more.  Jesus carried the whole weight of human pain and suffering and sorrow.  He drank the cup of human experience all the way down to the bitter bottom, in total solidarity with us, in total love, in total understanding.  Surely he shares our sickness and our sorrows.  He makes them his very own.

In the early 1500’s there was an artist name Matthias Grunewald who understood this.  The monks of the monastery of St. Anthony in the northeastern French town of Isenheim commissioned him to create a work of art to be used at worship.  They ran a hospital that cared especially for victims of the plague, and for people suffering from skin diseases.  They asked Grunewald to create a work of art that would bring comfort to their patients.   He created what is called an altarpiece, and it consists of several paintings by Grunewald, along with some sculptures that were made by another artist. Crucifixion-centre-panel-Matthias-Grunewald-Isenheim-Altarpiece

The center of the altarpiece is Grunewald’s painting of the crucifixion.   The artist shows Jesus on the cross as a victim of the plague.  Jesus is a plague victim.  He has in his body the very same wounds as the patients at St. Anthony’s.  To the left you can see Jesus’ helpless, grieving mother being supported by the disciple that Jesus loved, along with another grieving woman.  To the right you see John the Baptist emphatically pointing to Jesus.  

We are in the midst of a plague now, an invisible enemy that is disrupting life, making people sick and killing people on a scale that we haven’t seen in our lifetime, but that earlier generations like Grunewald and the monks at St. Anthony’s certainly saw and coped with, and tried to address.  The COVID-19 plague attacks the lungs, making it very difficult for the hardest hit patients to breathe.  As I thought about Holy Week, and Good Friday this year, I couldn’t help thinking of the Grunewald painting, and I also couldn’t help thinking of how when Jesus died on the cross, he died because he couldn’t pull himself up any more to be able to breathe.  This painting proclaimed the word from Isaiah to the patients at St. Anthony’s, “Surely he has borne our infirmities.  Surely he has borne our griefs.”  The suffering Savior shared their suffering.  And John points to him as if to say, “This is the one who can help YOU.”

This is the one who can help US.  Surely our Savior is bearing our sickness and sorrow as we contend with COVID-19.  Surely he is with us, with supreme love and understanding as the sick struggle, and others struggle to help them.  Surely he is with us in our grief, and as we wrestle with our fears, and as we cope.  Surely our Savior bears our infirmities and carries our diseases.

I am thankful.  But I am also longing for the resurrection.

AMEN.

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