Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sermon for Second Sunday of Easter - Point of View: Thomas

Sermon 4/15/12
John 20:19-31

Point of View: Thomas

            My mother and I sometimes argue about which of us has the right approach. When it comes to life in the church, I tend to be an optimist. Despite forecasts to the contrary, I am usually sure that we are going to meet all our financial needs, that we will have a good turnout for something, that an event will be successful. But when it comes to everything else, I must admit that I am, well . . . my mother would call me a pessimist. My mother is an optimist in virtually all things and in all matters. For example, even though I am sure I have had some bad sermons, my mother, who reads mine every week, is quite sure that all my messages are excellent. You agree with her, don’t you? Don’t you? Also, my mom is always pretty sure she has enough money, regardless of her actual financial situation. It is a lovely attitude, to be sure, but sometimes it means she doesn’t ask me for help when I think she should. Ever the optimist. I, on the other hand, prefer to think of myself not as a pessimist, but as a realist. I am just realistic about how things are, and how things might be. My mother, though, says that pessimism is just being disappointed twice. You are disappointed before something even happens, and then disappointed again when it turns out you were right. Optimism, she says, means at least you are happy to start out with! What are you? Optimist? Pessimist? Realist?
            Today we look at our last Point of View study, Thomas. Of course, he is known mostly as doubting Thomas, but I think Thomas probably thought of himself more as Thomas the realist. Thomas, also called the Twin, was one of the twelve. Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not mention Thomas outside the list of the twelve disciples. But John gives us more to go on. First, we see him when Jesus' friend Lazarus dies, and Jesus and the twelve journey to his home and Jesus raises Lazarus. Jesus says that he is glad he was not with Lazarus, so that what is about to unfold will cause the disciples to believe. And it is Thomas who responds, saying, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.” Thomas knows something special is unfolding, and tries to show his dedication, even if he doesn’t know quite what it all means. We next hear from Thomas when Jesus is speaking the words we most often hear at a funeral: “In my father's house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus says that the disciples know where Jesus is going, but Thomas responds, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responds that he is the way.
            Finally, we come to today's scene. Our text opens on the evening of Easter Sunday. At this point in John's account, only Mary Magdalene has seen the risen Christ. Peter and another disciple had seen the empty tomb, but left before seeing Jesus. Mary had told them that she’d seen Jesus, but we see today that her news apparently had little effect on them. The disciples are locked up in the house where they’re staying, afraid because of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. They’re not rejoicing. They’re scared. But suddenly, Jesus appears, and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his wounds, confirming that he is the very Jesus they saw die. He talks to them about practicing forgiveness. He again blesses them with peace, and tells them they will be sent as he was sent. He breathes on them, and speaks of the Holy Spirit, and gives them authority.
            But Thomas isn’t there with them for some reason. The disciples share what they have seen – that they’ve seen Jesus. But Thomas, the realist, says that unless he sees for himself, he won’t believe. A week later, the disciples are again in the house together, this time with Thomas too. Jesus again appears, with words of peace. And this time, Thomas sees for himself. “My Lord and my God!” he exclaims. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
            We hear very little about Thomas after this, but church history holds that Thomas eventually travelled to India, and was the first to share the good news of Jesus there. For most, though, he is remembered as Doubting Thomas. But I think the gospel of John actually shows us someone who was trying very hard to be faithful, asked questions, and was looking for answers. A realist. I think Thomas would fit in pretty well with how most of us approach matters of faith in the 21st century.
            As you know, we have been having a Bible 101 study that started back in January. After a hiatus for Lent, we are back on (we will meet on Tuesday this week – 6:30pm, Panera Bread, Marshalls Plaza, Erie Blvd.) One of the things we've talked about a couple of times is this: Why doesn’t God seem to talk to us today like God used to? In the Bible, there are all these stories that seem to suggest God speaks to people in clear and obvious ways, with very tangible signs. But these days, most of us can’t claim to have seen a sea parted in half, or a burning bush, or someone walking on water, or someone feeding 5000 people with a few items of food. And so, we wonder sometimes: Is God still speaking to us? Is God just silent now? Do we just not get it?
            I told that class my theory on it all. I hope Marsha won’t mind if I use her as an example. Marsha shared with us that she has been told she has a child-like faith. I know Marsha has mixed feelings about this, but I figure that since Jesus tells us we should be more like little children, Marsha is doing just fine. But Marsha, when she reads the Bible – she reads it, accepts it, believes it, and feels like what she sees it what she gets. I am pretty sure that if God started chatting with Marsha, she would think it was awesome, but she wouldn’t bat an eyelid, she wouldn’t be skeptical. That’s a gift. But I think in this day and age, most of us just aren’t like that. If someone told us they had walked on water, we would think that they were nuts. If someone told us God appeared to them in a burning bush, we would, well, I think most of us would have our doubts. And I think, I believe, God knows it. Why would God insist on speaking to us in ways that we are not able to hear or understand or believe? Have you ever seen someone try to just speak in slower, louder English to someone who doesn’t speak English? Not very effective. So I think God gets our attention in different ways these days, ways that speak to our skeptical, realist hearts.
            Have any of you read seen the new movie, based on the book, The Hunger Games? The movie has a scene the book does not, since the book is in the first person, and the movie takes a broader view. In this scene, President Snow talks to the Game Maker, Seneca Crane, about striking the right balance between hope and fear among the oppressed people of the districts of Panem, the name of what once was the United States. Snow asks Seneca, “Why do you think we have a winner?” “What do you mean?” he replies. “I mean, why do we have a winner? Hope.” “Hope?” “Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.” “So?” “So… contain it.” I wonder, I wonder what would happen if we substituted faith in this exchange: “A little faith is effective. A lot of faith is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it is contained.”
            This image of Thomas is one of the most famous of the disciple – Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Thomas. An article I read this week brought something to my attention: Jesus has grabbed Thomas's wrist, and guided it to touch his wound. Thomas was a questioner, a skeptic a realist. And Jesus met him where he was at. In fact, Jesus went beyond that, guiding Thomas's hand to the proof Thomas needed. And apparently, that was all Thomas did need to say, “My Lord and My God” and to give the rest of his life in service to the gospel. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” though, and I believe Jesus is trying to nudge us, push us, beyond the little bit of faith we usually get by on, faith that sustains us, but maybe faith that is so safe, so realist­-oriented, that it doesn’t push us into the risk-taking places God would lead us if we were ready to follow.
            Thomas's faith was strong enough, in the end, to take him far away from the other disciples, into unknown lands, in order to help more people know about Jesus. Thomas, who needed to see Jesus for himself, spent the rest of his life helping others who would never see Jesus face to face believe in his message all the same. Isn't that something? Thank God for meeting us where we are. And thank God for pushing us beyond where we thought we could ever go. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Amen. 

Monday, April 09, 2012

Sermon for Easter Sunday - Point of View: Easter

Sermon 4/8/12
John 20:1-18, Mark 16:1-8

Point of View: Easter

            Typically, at Easter, we read the resurrection story from the gospel of John – the first lesson we heard today. It’s the most well known, the most liked – the intimate scene of Mary Magdalene discovering Jesus himself at the tomb, finally recognizing him and calling him Teacher. In the three year cycle of scripture texts, you might also hear the resurrection story from Matthew and Luke. But it’s hard to ever focus on the resurrection story from the gospel of Mark. That’s because, like the rest of Mark’s gospel, his resurrection story is pretty short on details. It is only 8 verses long, and it was so upsetting to the early church that by the fourth century, manuscripts existed giving Mark longer endings. In most Bibles today, you’ll see Mark ending at chapter 16 verse 8, with footnotes or other section headings noting a verse 8(b) listed as the “shorter ending of Mark” and then verse 9-20, called the “longer ending of Mark.” Most scholars agree, however, that verses 9-20, in any version, were added on later to compensate for Mark’s strangely brief Easter story, with some scholars speculating that perhaps Mark died before he could finish the gospel, or perhaps the last page of Mark’s work was lost somehow.
Why all this speculation and rewriting? Well, of course, if we take just verses 1-8 in Mark, we never hear about anyone actually seeing the risen Jesus. The young man at the tomb that the women see just tells the women that Jesus has risen and to tell the disciples about it. But the women respond differently than the messenger says. We read, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Leaving it where Mark leaves things, no one proclaims the Easter message that Jesus has risen, at least not right away.
I think the early church added to Mark’s ending because they knew that wasn’t all there was to the story. Obviously, if the women had never told anyone what happened, the news about Jesus wouldn’t have spread. No one would have thought he had risen. So eventually, they must have gotten over their fear and shared the news, and that’s the story folks in the early church wanted to make sure was in Mark’s gospel. But however it came about, I kind of like Mark’s short story, just eight verses long, because in Mark’s original ending, the women had probably the most proper reaction of all to the Easter story – they ran away scared! They were baffled by the news, they had no idea what to do with finding the empty tomb and the man’s strange words, and they were afraid to say anything about their terrifying experience. To me, at least in terms of initial reactions to what was happening, Mark’s gospel makes the most sense of all. But we will come back to Mark in a bit.
As I was preparing my sermon this week, I came upon an article by Carl Gregg that really touched on what I think of when I think of resurrection. Gregg starts with a quote from theologian Clarence Jordan, “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.” Gregg reflects on these words, writing, “As Easter approaches, I invite you to consider that we should worry less . . . what people say they believe happened 2,000 years ago and more whether we are living as if resurrection still happens. The question is, “How are we partnering with God today in transforming despair into hope, apathy into compassion, hate into love, and death into new life?” Gregg continues with one more quote, this one from Peter Rollins, who says, “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think. (Pause) I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.” (1) Resurrection still happens.
Were any of you fans of the TV show Scrubs? It was never my favorite, but it is one I liked to watch, enjoy watching reruns from time to time. There were a few standout episodes, and one that stands out is where JD, the main doctor on the show, was discussing what dying or heaven might be like with a patient. She, the patient, said that she envisioned a big Broadway production number, with her taking center stage. She dies in the episode, and JD envisions a complete show-stopping ballad, with this woman singing a Colin Hay song. These are some of the lyrics:
And you say, be still my love
Open up your heart
Let the light shine in
But don't you understand
I already have a plan
I'm waiting for my real life to begin
And you say, just be here now
Forget about the past, your mask is wearing thin
Let me throw one more dice
I know that I can win
I'm waiting for my real life to begin

The song and scene are beautiful. But the lyrics, though poetic, I find troubling. Waiting for my real life to begin. Sometimes, that is exactly what gets me into trouble, or at least, what keeps me from the real life I want: being convinced that I am just waiting for the right moment to start living as I really want to live. Is there something you are putting off doing? A dream you have for your life? Something you’ve wanted to accomplish, but haven’t even started at? Some deeper purpose for your life that you want to reach for and explore, but for some reason, keeping telling yourself, not just yet?
            I think maybe people of faith get the message a bit confused, mixed up about the good news of Jesus, the life-giving message of Easter. Jesus didn’t say: don’t worry about what you do now, because the afterlife is really awesome. He didn’t say this life is nothing and heaven is everything. The message Jesus tried to hammer home in a million parables and lessons and teachings and metaphors was: your real life is right now, because God's kingdom, God's eternity, God's good gifts for you are right now! So stop living like those who are dying, and start living like those for whom death means nothing in the face of abundant, everlasting life. And then, to make sure we really have the message, Jesus himself shows that his death is nothing, means nothing, holds no power over face-to-face with his life. Jesus, whom death cannot hold, asks us: “Real life is here, a gift from God. Why on earth are we not using up every edge and corner of it?”
            Resurrection still happens. Real life is here and now. To me, that is the core of the Easter message, the “so what” of it. All season, we have been asking, “who do we say Jesus is?” We have used the characters of the passion to draw us in closer, but ultimately, we must answer for ourselves. Mark describes followers of Jesus who were overwhelmed at first, on the first Easter. It took a bit for them to know what to make of it. But what we see in John, and in the stories that follow in Acts and in early church history is that resurrection happened – for them. Their lives were resurrected. And so now, the question turns back to us. What happened on that first Easter morning? The gospels point us to the story. But what will happen on this Easter day? You have to tell me. I believe resurrection still happens. I believe Jesus wants us to use up every nook and cranny of our abundant lives. I'm not waiting anymore for real life to begin. I'm going to start living it. Won’t you join me? Amen.   

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Lectionary Notes for Easter Sunday

Readings for Easter Sunday, 4/8/12:
Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, John 20:1-18, or Mark 16:1-8

Acts 10:34-43:
  • Peter is speaking to Cornelius and his friends and relatives in Caesarea. Cornelius had been visited by a messenger from God telling him to invite Peter to his home and here him speak.
  • "God shows no partiality". Do we get that? Believe it? Preach it? Live and practice it?
  • "preaching peace by Jesus Christ" Ah, the gospel message is a message of peace. Too much of our Christian history works to counter that claim. We struggle on!
  • A mini-sermon, all the facts needed to share the good news packed into one little blurb - this is Peter's quick pitch, at the opportunity he's been given.
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24:
  • Note that this is virtually the same selection from Psalms as on Palm Sunday, with slightly different verses. Included in Easter's reading, but not in Palm Sunday's: "the Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death." Hm. I don't like to think about God punishing us. But the verse's significance on Easter is powerful. The cup was not taken from Jesus - he drank it. And yet, he lives.
  • Even still, it's hard to focus on any scripture passage on Easter Sunday other than the gospel lesson of the Resurrection, isn't it?
1 Corinthians 15:19-26:
  • "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." A striking statement. I'm not sure how to react - I guess I don't exactly share Paul's perspective. I think we're so wrapped up in thinking about what awaits us after this earthly life, that we forget what Christ means for us right now, on earth. My hope for Christ in this life is powerful stuff!
  • "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." I'm a big fan of John Cobb and process theology. I remember reading that for process theologians, some could not get over the "ultimate evil of personal death." Conceptions of afterlife are tricky things. How can death be destroyed for you? When I was younger, I used to ask my pastor/mentor, Rev. Bruce Webster, if heaven wouldn't be a boring place. He, a math major in college, could draw some sort of graph to show it would be ok!
John 20:1-18:
  • I have to admit, as a woman, I get a kick out of the way the men behave here, versus the way Mary Magdalene acts. The men run there, almost competitively, after hearing Mary's report, and then they return home, apparently not too impressed or curious to figure out what's going on. It's Mary who is there to begin with to care for the tomb, Mary who sheds tears for Jesus, Mary who remains at the tomb long enough to encounter the risen Christ, Mary who is the first to spread the good news. You go girl!
  • "Rabbouni!" What would you say if you had a change to come face to face with a lost loved one again?
  • I just can't let loose of the sense of the importance of Mary staying at the tomb. She is honest with her emotions, and holds still, stays in place, soaks it in. She gets to see Jesus, the fruits of her devotion. Don't hurry through Easter, but rest at the empty tomb!
Mark 16:1-8
  • Ah, Mark. Eight verses for the resurrection. Of course, there are verses 9-20, but many scholars think this is an add-on, doubtfully from Mark, likely added later to compensate for Mark's alarming brevity.
  • "and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." Good thing they get over their fears and at least tell the disciples, else this would have really been a different Easter story altogether!
  • Note even Mark's description of who the women find in the tomb, as compared to the other gospels. Mark seems to describe a man, very simply, dressed in a white robe. Matthew, on the other hand, has an earthquake, and an angel descending from heaven with dazzling white clothing. Matthew is bells and whistles. Mark is "just the facts".