Saturday, April 26, 2008

Preaching an Unknown God in the 21st Century

Easter 6 April 27, 2008
Acts 17:22-31, John 14:15-21

During the summer of 2001, I traveled to Greece. I stood in the place we read that Paul stood in today’s epistle. The marble steps were worn down by thousands of steps of thousands of people who, like me, had toured to see this ancient place.

Something you may not know about me is that I’m a skeptic. I’m not one to be overcome with emotion at the sight of ancient ruins. More recently I traveled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage. While others were overcome by emotion at the places reputedly to the places where Jesus was born, where he died and where he was supposed to have been buried, I know my ancient history enough to know that the exact sites were speculation. But the place we read about Areopagus—Mars Hill is the literal translation—this site has been preserved and it’s history is well-documented, so I thought, “This is the spot, the very spot where Paul spoke to the people of Athens.” And I was moved to think that my feet were in the same spot where Paul had told the Athenians about an Unknown God.

Now the people of Athens were a sophisticated lot. At Mars Hill they’d heard from all sorts of speakers, talking about all sorts of subjects—political, religious, commercial. And they weren’t overly impressed with what Paul had to say. In fact, some of them sneered at him when he talked about the resurrection. And perhaps it’s significant that we have no “Letter to the Athenians.” Maybe there was a Christian community there, maybe not. We do know that he converts two followers but we don’t hear about them in any of Paul’s letters that have been preserved.

But why should you and I care about Mars Hill—an outcropping of rock in Athens, a city far away from us? Historically interesting, yes. But why should we care? Let me put it to you another way: where are the Mars Hills of the northwest suburbs? Where are the places where people gather to discuss and debate politics? To hear the latest news? To find out what’s going on?

Because those are the places where the community of St. Hilary’s is called to be. Where, like Paul, we are called to remind people that we know the identity of their unknown God. And to remind people of the joy that we find in knowing and loving this God.

It’s not so different—our times from first century Athens. The northwest suburbs are just as much mission territory as what Paul faced. Not convinced? Although it may be that most of the people around us may identify themselves as ‘spiritual’ and may know the highlights of the Jesus story, it’s clear that the world still doesn’t love Jesus in the intimate way he calls us to love him.

If the world loved Jesus—really was in relationship with him as brother, Lord and friend would we have war, division, killing in our streets? Would we have the food crisis? Would one part of the world grow fat off the resources of the rest of the world? Would people suffer alone because they don’t want to ‘be a burden’ on others?

Sure we’ve gotten sophisticated: our idols are not the statues of gold or silver or stone that Paul found in Greek temples. Today we worship idols of self-satisfaction, consumerism, isolation. Sometimes our idols look like us. Isn’t our temptation to worship science’s ability to solve our problems while at the same time failing to realize the importance of relationship? The importance of seeing the starving people across the world as our brothers and sisters? Or closer to home, do we erect idols of protection and fail to see the need in our own backyard?

When we love Jesus we keep his commandments. Not out of fear, not even out of the promise of reward but out of a sense of kinship with his mission. And what are his commandments but to love God and love the whole world. The love for the broken world is what sent Paul out to potential mockery and scorn to speak to the men at Mars Hill. It is the love for God and for our broken world that moves us out of here every Sunday and drives us into the world.

Where is your own Mars Hill? Where is the place where you meet other people and where you are called to help them know the unknown God—by what you say and by what you do? Because the world has changed—no longer can we expect people to find us by walking by the church and deciding to venture in. We need to be like Paul and go out into the marketplace and meet people there.

What might that look like? You know, the birthplace of Anglicanism, England has become a place where 95% of people do not go to church. If we lived there we might be tempted to despair. That’s one choice or we could choose to be like a young man named Neil. Neil is a computer scientist. Neil is also a deeply commited Christian who's exploring what it might look like to witness in the work place among his unchurched, thirty-something friends. He meets his friends for sports and games on Sunday, then they go to the pub. Where they engage in purposeful discussions about the important things in life. “Meet people on their own terms and at their own places”, he said, “rather than expect them to come to your church.”

What might it look like for us at St. Hilary’s to be like Paul: to consider that all people are God’s offspring, that all people are hungry for meaning and purpose in their lives and then to talk to them about our relationship with Jesus? No way! You may say. I’m no evangelist. I’m not smart enough, not versed enough in scripture to talk to my friends about that.

But that’s where we’re wrong. Because through our baptism, through our living as Christian community, through Jesus’ gift to us of the Spirit, we’re equipped. In his farewell speech to his followers Jesus told them—as he tells us—that he has not left them orphaned. He sends the Advocate, the Counselor, the Spirit who lives within us.

As Paul preached to the Athenians, we confess that God "made the world and everything in it," and we declare that every single person is "God's off-spring.” So I ask you: where is the person or the place that is outside of God’s concern?

Every part of our so-called "secular" life, are places where God is already or potentially acting: whether it’s in our schools, in our work, in our sports, in the worlds of law or the internet, medicine, , the arts, business, government, science, quite literally anything and everything is a place where God can be met and where Jesus can be encountered. We can truly say, like Paul said to the Athenians, "He is not far from each one of us."

At our best as Christians, we are called to engage people right where they are—to find out the truth of their lives and to speak of the truth of what and who we encounter in Jesus. There are places in your lives that are your own Mars Hills. There are people in your life who are hungry for some good news. Maybe they are people who used to sit in these pews. If you’ve not heard from them in awhile, give them a call. Talk about your hope. Find out what’s going on in their lives. Or maybe you see your neighbors struggling. Go beyond helping them. Ask if you can pray for them, bring their concerns to us. Bring the struggles of your neighborhood here and we will see what God is calling us to do about these struggles.

Visit our blogspot and engage in some lively debate with you fellow parishioners or see what others are doing by visiting other faith-based websites. Instead of just bemoaning the sad news in the paper—pray the paper, write a letter to the editor.

There is no place where God is not. Help others to see that and you will be amazed at the ways you see God in new ways. The world may no longer see Jesus. But it sees you, knows you, works and plays with you. He lives in you just as surely as your blood courses through your veins. Be his presence in the world. Go from here to your own Mars Hills and know that the Advocate already empowers and enlightens you.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Living Stones and a Stony Way

Sometimes, sometimes it is no easy task to be a preacher. Sometimes the texts just don’t speak to me. Sometimes I struggle to find a connection between the scripture and the lives of the people and the community I’m serving. I struggle to know what to say. I find myself at a loss for words.

This week though the texts are so ripe, so full that the opposite situation has occurred: there is so much richness in God’s word for St. Hilary’s. Where to begin? Let’s begin with what is scattered here in front of the altar—coats and stones. You will recognize these stones from our Lenten practice. During Lent, we are invited to take the stones as part of our meditation and to lay them at the foot of the cross as we lay our burdens down and as we remember that Jesus has taken all of our sin and all of our burdens upon him.

Today I invite you to consider these stones and the ones you have in your hand and consider them in a different way. We cannot help but notice the notion of the ways the scriptures talk about stones. Stones were used by an angry crowd to kill Stephen, the first martyr to die for speaking out about Jesus.

The psalmist talks about God as a rock and a fortress—a large, secure steady stone. And Peter. Peter whose very name could be translated as Rocky! (What irony there!) Peter talks about Jesus as a living stone, the cornerstone that the builders rejected and as a rock that some stumble over. He then goes onto encourage this early Christian community to see itself as a living stone, just like their living Lord.

Take a moment to look at your stone. Feel it in your hand-- its weight, feel its temperature. Think about what it would be like to throw a rock at a human being. Think about the last time that you stumbled over a rock.

Now think about the last time you went to a groundbreaking ceremony. Maybe even the groundbreaking for this church. What words were said? What ceremonies did you participate in? Did you insert a time capsule in the foundation?

Now I invite you to think about what it might mean when Peter called Jesus a “living stone.” What does that mean? Take a look at the stone in your hand. Is there anything you could do to bring life to something that seems so lifeless?

Which is the point. Nothing we can do can bring life to the lifeless. But it is within God’s power and what is more Jesus showed how God can bring life to what was once dead. Dead as a stone. For Jesus truly was dead. Dead as the stones we hold in our hands.

And so were his followers’ hopes. That Friday night and the next day, the Sabbath, their hopes were dead as the stones you hold in your hands. But God did a new thing and brought new life to the whole world when Jesus rose victorious from that dead tomb. Buried in the earth, he rose. And as he rose so did the hopes of his community. And a new people were formed—the people of the Way (as the early Christians called themselves).

“Who are we now?” is a question the community of St. Hilary’s has been asking itself since your rector left. It is a question you will be asking yourselves in a more formal way as we begin the discernment process to discover who God is calling to lead this community. We will be asking those questions through a survey, through parish meetings and through story-telling.

“Who are we now?” is the very question the community Peter was addressing in his letter. Exiled Gentile converts to “The Way,” we might expect they were uncertain and anxious about their future—they’d probably experienced prosecution and were excluded from their old lives. If they followed The Way, not only who they worshipped with but who they ate with and dealt with would be changed. And Peter gives them words of encouragement.

Listen to how he describes them. Listen and realize that that word is describing this community of St. Hilary’s as well. Who are we?
• a spiritual house
• a holy priesthood
• a chosen race
• a royal priesthood
• a holy nation

All of which lead to the conclusion, "You are... God's own people..."

Whew! “Now wait just a moment!” you may say. “I don’t feel very spiritual, I don’t feel very holy or chosen and certainly I’m not ‘royal.’ And no one ordained me a priest! I just try to do what I can do—in the church and in the world. And what I do doesn’t seem very big or important.”

But I say—and I think the writers of 1Peter and John’s gospel were saying the same thing—don’t shortchange God on this. For you are mightily anointed, you are mightily commissioned just as surely as any priest or deacon or bishop. For the anointing of God’s people takes place first at our baptism. It is our being brought into this family of God’s that makes us followers of the Way.

And what is more, because God has equipped us just as Jesus has promised, we are capable of doing even greater works than Jesus did. “Whoa! Whoa!” You may say.
“I’ve never raised the dead, never cured someone suffering from leprosy and the only crowds I’ve fed are my marauding family at the holidays.”
But see, since Jesus has gone to the Father, he still equips us as his saints and perhaps the miracles, the great works that we can do in his name are more diffuse. But they are miracles, nonetheless. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you about a miracle I participated in—a miracle that Jesus couldn’t have performed without some folks right here in the Chicago area.

Some of you know that I used to be the director of an interfaith group home for adults with developmental disabilities. One of the women who came to live at L’Arche lived nearly her entire life—from the time she was abandoned by her alcoholic mother when she was 6 until she turned 37—in an institution for people with developmental disabilities. When Jean came to live with us she was full of anger. Jean has the mental capacity of a seven year old. She could be charming one moment and throw a fit the next—particularly when she didn’t get her way. Jean had never known the love of a family, never known what it was to be loved unconditionally and she lashed out.

When she first came to L’Arche, although it clearly was a Christian community, Jean wanted nothing to do with prayer, or Jesus, or the cross. She claimed she was a vampire and had some dark fantasies. But the people living and working at L’Arche embraced her for who she was—a child of God. She was gently but firmly encouraged to come to evening prayer every night with the other residents, to sit while grace was being said at every meal and to join in Sunday worship.

One day, standing outside of church after Mass, she turned to an older woman with bright red hair and said to her, “I want you to be my godmother in the Holy Spirit.” The astonished woman, a retired special ed teacher had been observing Jean for several weeks but had not met her. Jean, of course, had no way of knowing Mary’s background nor do I think she would have cared. The two were put together by some higher power, that was clear.

Mary and the former director of L’Arche contacted the catechesis instructor who agreed to individual sessions. For months, every Wednesday, Jean was picked up by one of our volunteers and she was taken to catechesis instructions. When asked why she wanted to be baptized. “So that I won’t be so sad and so that Jesus will help me with my anger,” was Jean’s reply. And so, after months of catechesis instruction, on the feast of the Ascension, Jean was baptized, was brought in to “The Way.”

The Holy Spirit acted in this woman of limited mental capacity and acted by enlivening the whole community that made her baptism possible: There was Frank who picked her up from work, Chris, her baptism instructor, David, Megan and Vicky who work at L’Arche and helped plan the meal, Maria and Mary who saw to it that Jean got her baptismal instruction. I contributed in a small way by holding the community together, encouraging the staff, writing grants to make sure our bills were paid and that everyone had a roof over their heads.

The dead stone that was Jean’s soul and the dead stone that was her life in an institution came alive through a community gathered around our cornerstone—Jesus. See a cornerstone sets the pattern for the entire building—in this case, not a physical building but a community gathered in the name of the One who calls us and who empowers us.

A miracle that was. A miracle that the historic Jesus could not have effected—he didn’t live long enough to do that, so we, the followers of his Way needed to do it. Now when we were doing it, none of us considered ourselves miracle workers. We were all just trying in our own clumsy ways to follow the Way that had been set before us. Together with Jean we were learning what it meant to follow Christ.

Jean, like all of us who remain open to the workings of the Spirit, was being transformed. She used to lash out in frustration and in anger. The incidences of uncontrolled anger dramatically decreased since she came to live at L’Arche and since she began learning about Jesus. “I want Jesus to come into my heart,” Jean would say. And Jesus most certainly did enter her heart. And through our living, working and praying together, he entered the hearts of each of us who walked with Jean on the Way. And turned hearts of stone into living, joyful heart, hearts more deeply on fire with love and gratitude for God revealing God’s self in a two-flat on the west side of Chicago.

I don’t know all your stories: in the coming weeks, we will have a chance to talk about how this community has walked with Jesus on the Way. We will work together to dream about the ways that God might be calling this community to do even greater things in Jesus name. So let us take his words to heart, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He has gone ahead of us. He is good to his promise. He has prepared a place for him. A new place for St. Hilary’s to be ‘along the Way.’ And wherever we go, he is with us. Because he is the Way. In him is found the truth of what St. Hilary’s is to become. And with him we share an abundant life.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Walking with the Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd
April 13, 2008

I invite you this morning to walk a labyrinth with me. A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. The Labyrinth represents a journey to our own center and back again out into the world. Labyrinths have long been used as meditation and prayer tools. A labyrinth has only one path. The way in is the way out. There are no blind alleys. The path leads you on a circuitous path to the center and out again.

For you see, Psalm 23 presents us with a kind of labyrinth walk. The path with God is from a description of how the Lord provides us, his sheep with food and drink. Step One. Then we hear how God provides us with safety and security: Step Two. We travel with the Holy One to the center of the Psalm, to the center of our journey: trust in God. Such deep trust that we “fear no evil.” For God is with us—his rod and staff comfort us.

So walk with me: Scripture has many ways of describing God. We hear about God as Rock, as King, Judge, Ruler. Jesus is described as Bread of Life, Friend, Light of the World. Today we hear about God as shepherd. Now what do we know about shepherds? They lead their flocks out in the open. Up and down hills, through river valleys, always on the lookout for lions or wolves, the shepherd guides his flock. David, writing this Psalm describes the Lord as his shepherd. Great King David—does he take comfort in his armies for protection? No. His protection and his trust is in God.

Walk with me as we turn another corner in this labyrinth: Scene two turns to food and drink for animals. “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” Like in California in the Holy Land, pastures are green each year for a maximum of two and a half months in the middle of winter. The rest of the year the fields are brown. So this is a good shepherd who can find his flock good things to eat. Much as we gather each Sunday for Eucharist—which is another word for thanksgiving—for all we have received from God. Just as we pray the Lord’s Prayer where we ask for our daily bread. Just as we gather to break bread together. There are many ways that God feeds us.

What comes next in our walk? “He leads me beside still waters.” Now sheep are afraid to drink from a moving stream lest it hide deep water into which they could fall and drown. Still waters and green pastures are, for a sheep, the best of all worlds.

So for us too. How many people come to church as a respite, a rest from their hectic lives. A time and a space apart. A time to gather with other sheep who know the Lord and to rest, just basking in God’s goodness.

Let’s walk a little further on our labyrinth path: Once God has satisfied our hunger and thirst, we move to a place of safety and security: Literally, God brings us back, back to the right path. “He restores my soul. He leads me in right paths.” Why? Not because of anything we do but because of who the Good Shepherd is: “for his name’s sake.”

We probably all know times when we’ve been rescued. Not because we’re so upright and holy but purely because of God’s generosity. The late Andrew Roy was a missionary to China who opted to remain after the Communist takeover in 1950, he was placed under house arrest and his interrogators attacked the person of Jesus by noting that Jesus told of a shepherd who left “the flock” and went after the one who was lost.

The communists argued that such an act was utterly foolish and irresponsible. The collective mass was all that mattered. Roy defended Jesus by pointing out that when the good shepherd in the parable goes after the lost sheep he gives ultimate security to the rest of the flock. Each sheep thereby knows, If I get lost, he will come after me. On the other hand, if the good shepherd cares only for the herd and does not put himself out for the lost sheep, each sheep is left with the ultimate insecurity. They will think, “If I fall one step behind, he will leave me to die.” But God’s kingdom is not survival of the fittest but rather a promise that Jesus has come for all us lost sheep. So even at times we feel most lost, we can hold onto that image of the Good Shepherd and hold onto that trust.
Now we get to the center of the labyrinth and the middle of Psalm 23: “Even though I’m walking through the valley of death, I’m not afraid. There’s nothing I fear because you are with me.” This is the climax of the Psalm and the center of our lives as Christians. We don’t need to fear death because we have already died with Christ. With his conquering death, we too have conquered it. This is the hope and the promise and the reality of the Resurrection.

When we walk a labyrinth there are three movements: the movement inward. Here we’ve moved inward from concerns about our basic needs: our food and drink. To concerns about where we can feel safe and secure. In the center there is the movement upward, up we go to praise God. So we rest awhile in this confidence that Jesus has conquered death. We can rest awhile in the fact that the Lord walks with us on our individual journeys and on the journey that St. Hilary’s is taking here and now.

And once we’ve rested, then the journey continues outward. We are commissioned outward—as individuals and as community—just as the sheep would venture out from their sheepfold. The movement of the Psalm takes us there: “Your rod and your staff—they comfort me.”

Again echoing the themes of safety and comfort—the Good Shepherd’s rod—like a mace—wards off marauding thieves or wolves. We invoke God’s protection as we journey out into the world. And he promises, he will protect us.

The shepherd’s staff had a crook in it to pull a sheep away from danger and to guide it. We pray this Psalm and consider how God is leading St. Hilary’s as a community to experience the kind of life described in our passage from Acts. As we move out from the familiarity of what St. Hilary’s had been, we can be secure that Jesus will guide us.

And look at the final movement in the Psalm—the final place we come out of the labyrinth. Again we find the Lord spreading a table before us. Keep in mind that a shepherd didn’t have any permanent ‘table.’ He’d spread out his cloak. Even in the midst of whatever enemies we may have, God treats us like royal guests. He feeds us as we go about our work in the world. He is ready to provide St. Hilary’s with whatever this community needs as it goes about fulfilling its mission in the world.

Our cup is overflowing with God’s abundance. We have confidence in what Jesus said: that he came so that we would have life and have it abundantly. The Christ of John’s gospel comes so that everyone would have such a richness of life that it would overflow into the world.

We cannot stay at the center of the labyrinth anymore than this community can stay in one place. The Good Shepherd protects us and also leads us out to new pastures. He is the gate to both lead us to protection and also to open ourselves to new experiences of what it means to be church. Over the next weeks you will pray, work and discuss new ways of being church. May you always remember who it is who is leading you.

And may you be aware that goodness and mercy will follow you and that even now. Even in the midst of sorrow and uncertainty, even now, you are right now dwelling in the house of the Lord. And this dwelling, this kinship with your Good Shepherd is indeed, forever.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Eyes Wide Open

Easter 3
Luke 24: 13-35

Who doesn’t love a good story? We go to the movies not only to see rock-em-sock-em, crash and burn action pictures but to be immersed in a good story. We like to tell stories about our lives and listen to funny or revealing stories that our friends tell. We complain when a movie or a TV program doesn’t have a good plot. A good plot—that’s just another way of saying that a story engages us, interests us, tells us more about the characters than we knew before.

This past two days, the vestry and I met with Canon Randall Warren from our diocesan offices to trade stories with each other. We heard some silly stories—like when I asked folks to talk for a minute or so about lawnmowers or spatulas. We heard some personal stories—like the view out our kitchen windows or to tell another person about the first car they owned. And we heard and told many stories about the community of St. Hilary’s—about some of the joys and pains you have shared these past years.

I heard about stories of the church’s activities in holding a silent auction or participating in the CROP Walk. I learned about how it used to be a practice to ring the bell in the bell tower. I heard about the time Fr. Crist found some kids sledding off the roof of the church. We heard about how some people felt excluded by some of the past ministries of the church. We all heard about how some folks are feeling nervous and anxious since Pastor Terri left. And we heard again about the things that are important to this community—good worship, a sense of belonging and a commitment to providing help for refugees.

If we look at the gospel we’ve just heard, let’s count the number of stories contained in this large story: First, there are the stories that Cleopas and the other disciple are telling each other. Stories about Jesus, his betrayal and his death and the fantastic story about the women finding an empty tomb and the hope that Jesus had risen.

Then along comes this stranger and Cleopas and the other disciple start telling the stranger the same stories, maybe giving him some background that they didn’t have to tell each other—since it appears this stranger is the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about this Jesus character.

Then the stranger turns the tables on them. Count it—we’re up to three stories. The stranger begins to tell them stories they thought they knew—stories of the prophets and their ancestors—but he tells these familiar stories with a new twist. And they move from being downcast to being delighted in what this stranger is telling them. Their cold, lifeless hearts are warmed and their passion begins to grow.

Then they invite him to stay with them for supper. And their eyes are opened—they recognize him for who he is. He vanishes and story Number Four begins—they run the seven tough uphill miles back to Jerusalem—and tell their story to the disciples who are gathered behind closed doors.
Four stories contained in this mega-story. But wait! There’s more. Because, you see Luke wrote the story down and we’ve heard it. So the story has become ours once again. Whether you’re hearing this story for the first time or for the 50th, this story is ours as well.

I love, love, love this gospel passage: it was the passage we read at my wedding, the passage I selected at my husband’s funeral, the passage I want read when I die. Because it captures so much of our journey as Christians. It captures so many truths—how story shapes us as individuals and as community. Yes, even the silly stories our vestry told each other about lawnmowers and the view out our kitchen windows and first cars. We come to know one another in deeper ways.

And the Road to Emmaus points us to the delightful ways that God meets us just where we are and takes us by delight and surprise. Delight and surprise. The disciples felt the reality of Jesus’ presence even before he revealed himself to them. Their hearts were burning within them. Notice that the gospel doesn’t say: They became satisfied with themselves because they finally figured out the logic of the scripture. The story doesn’t say that they high-fived one another because they were able to put down on paper what they’d experienced. No, their hearts burned within them.

And then “their eyes were opened.” Now this is a phrase that echoes another eye-opening experience…do you remember what that one was? Go all the way back to Genesis when Adam and Eve disobey God. Their eyes were opened and they saw their nakedness. They were revealed for who they are.

But in this story, the disciples eyes are opened and not only do they see Jesus for who he is…but they also see themselves for who they are—evangelists—people who are compelled—not by guilt or a sense of duty but joy—to high tail it back to Jerusalem and tell the others what they’ve seen and who they’ve experienced.

A journey that began with shattered hope becomes one of reversal—they literally change direction and are transformed in the process. As layer upon layer of the story is experienced and revealed, God shines through. So it was for Cleopas and his companion. So it is for St. Hilary’s.

As I heard stories from the vestry members, I saw Christ revealed and your vestry members experienced Christ revealed—in each other, in the stories about St. Hilary’s past and in the hopes for the future. We spoke and prayed about this community’s strengths and discussed how we might discern new ways God might choose to reveal God’s self—to St. Hilary’s and to the world.

God is all around us. Jesus is present to us in the breaking of the bread and also in the opening of this church to house a refugee family. In the dedication of people to Meals on Wheels. In the fun to be had in outdoor summer services. In the ways we welcome and incorporate new members and support each other in our daily lives. In the ways we pray for the world.

Now we may want to try to hold onto a particular experience of Jesus but “He will not stay put, stay the same, stay with us. "Stay!" is our chorus, but his refrain is, "Follow!" B.B. Taylor

The living Lord has called your former pastor to follow him to a new community. He calls this community to follow him to a new way of being—with each other, with the community and with the world. One thing stays the same—this Lord loves you, protects you and will never abandon you. This Lord even now is strengthening you for the journey.

Invite him in to stay, yes. And recognize when he goes, he has not left you alone. But calls you out to tell your brothers and your sisters—we have met him. And in this way, another layer of the story is revealed. Your story becomes another chapter in this marvelous, transforming megastory. Kingdom without end.

So stay tuned. Stay involved. Stay committed to each other and to meeting him on the road—wherever he may be met.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Blessed are You...when you believe AND when you doubt

Sermon March 30, 2008
John 20: 19-31
Preached by Pastor Deb Seles

Call me Thomas, tho that is not my name. My real name’s been lost to history. Generations know me only as “Thomas” meaning “The Twin.” Even my Greek name, Didymus is just another way of saying that I was a twin. So call me Thomas.

The other way you know me is as “Doubting Thomas.” “Thomas the Unbelieving One,” “Thomas the Skeptic,” Hestitant, suspicious, mistrusting. You’d be too if you’d heard the tales they were telling.

We hadn’t been together since that awful Thursday night. That night we last ate Supper with him. That night he blessed the bread and the wine with those strange words—this is my Body, this my Blood. We were repulsed by the suggestion of cannibalism. Blood is unclean to us Jews. And to be invited to partake of our leader’s Body and Blood—well, we thought it a sacrilege. And yet he seemed to indicate it was a necessity. A way of reliving what he was about to go through.

We were all skeptical and unbelieving that night. From his pronouncement that one of us would betray him. And when he said Peter would deny him—well, some of us could believe it—Simon always being the impetuous type. Still, none of us was prepared for what would happen. And we were disgusted by our behavior that night. To a one, we abandoned him when he needed us the most. We argued and wept and fought with each other in the intervening days. Accusations flew back and forth about what we could have, should have done.

So when they came to me with tales about his reappearing, part of me wanted with all my life to believe that death had not conquered the One we knew as pure Love. But the other, sensible part of me declared that it could not be. No man has ever risen from being three days dead, never mind that he predicted it. I thought it must be mass hallucination. Wishful thinking because we were so filled with guilt.

I said what any of the rest of them would have said if they hadn’t been there: “Until I see the place where the nails went and plunge my hand into his wounds, I’m not going to be fooled.” Angry? You bet. Angry at God, that He, the Almighty would allow this. What kind of Father demands that level of sacrifice. And I was angry at myself, at us for both believing him and then abandoning him. Even if he wasn’t the Son of God, as he said, he was our friend and deserved better than we gave him. Deserved much, much better.

But living in my heart was the passionate desire to believe what the rest of them had experienced. Those emotions were twins living side this Twin—anger and desire. I suspect you’ve experienced twins like those: guilt and desire, anger and desire. I suspect that’s why my story resonates with your own, you who have never walked with him in the flesh, never felt the hot sun of Galilee on your necks as you walk mile after mile with him and the crowds that gathered arond him.

Maybe your doubt runs high when your own children suffer, when you see good people punished and wicked people reign, when you wonder about your own ability to do good. Maybe secretly you yearn to see Him in the flesh when the news of the world is more and more about war and corruption and division than it is about peace and love and forgiveness. I don’t blame you. None of us would blame you.

But HE called you “Blessed” because you do believe without seeing. Millions after us have believed without seeing Him in the flesh. And there is the miracle, the miracle that you and all his followers have been living. Not the stupendous, being raised from the dead miracle, but a miracle, nonetheless. For you are the evidence that He LIVES!

See, he commissioned us that night: He sent us out to be to the world what he had been. He gave us the gift of His Spirit, the spirit of His love and reconciliation. And he gave us the gift and the power to forgive sins. Again, no small thing for us Jews—we’d always been told that only God had the power to forgive sins. His saying that when he was alive got him into trouble again and again with authorities. And even we wondered about it but we gave him the benefit of the doubt—because of who he was. But that night he gave us, our sorry lot, the very people who abandoned him, he gave us that power to forgive. And above it all, he granted us peace.

Of course, as we all eventually learned, his peace is not the world’s peace. It’s not the peace of complacency and comfort or safety. We huddled together in that room looking for the world’s peace, the safety that is found behind locked doors, behind old ways of living. His peace called us out into the world. His peace gave Peter, the Denier, the courage to stand in front of the crowds gathered for Pentecost and to declare who Jesus really was. His peace caused many of us to be tried by suspicious, fearful Romans and to be put out of the temple by suspicious, fearful fellow Jews. His peace caused many of us to go to our deaths, martyrs.

And perhaps his peace causes you, 2000 years later, to move out of your own comfort zones. To forgive one who betrays you. To speak to a person very different from you and to really learn her story. To minister with refugees from across the world and to learn of the gifts they have to give this nation.

Perhaps you, like us, struggle to find your unique mission. “How,” you may even now be asking, “how is God calling us, this community to love the world as God loves it?” Not how do you grow you membership, how do you bring outsiders to know or to believe exactly as you do, but how can the people of St. Hilary’s love the world as God loves it?

There are those who say that a religious person never doubts. They want certainty. And maybe that is why some are attracted to churches and movements that seem to promise all the answers. But even a casual reading of Scriptures reveals that doubt always has had a place in faith.

For a sincerely religious person is humble. As we walk with God, we discover a deepening of our lives and we know there are points at which the human intellect and reason cannot fathom the Infinite. I don’t know how Jesus rose, don’t know how it is that people fall in love, don’t know why some people are inspired by music and others by constant challenge. I do know that lives have been changed because we choose to believe and choose to follow the One who calls us to new life.

A poet once said: “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” So maybe it’s significant that I’m nicknamed Twin—the Doubting Twin who knows faith. I doubted because I feared the others had succumbed to an illusion. I wanted to believe in the reality of a risen Lord but it was too much for my mind to wrap itself around. I had to let my experience and my heart take me where my mind could not go—to a greater reality. And when I saw him, that’s when I threw myself to the ground and confessed him as My Lord and My God.

Perhaps your own doubt is leading you to a greater faith, a desire for a higher God. If you doubt there ever would be a kind of God who would create human suffering, you are saying there is a kind of God who is all Good and all Loving.

If you doubt there is a kind of God who would hate people and punish them, you are believing in a Higher God - a God of love and of forgiveness.

If you doubt God could solve your problems, you can nevertheless WONDER how he will do it and be willing to be pleasantly surprised "Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother."

My prayer for you is that your journey with God may be full of WONDER. I pray that you will experience faith that is a radical trust in God as the ground of your being. I pray that you will have faith that is a centering of your whole life in the Risen Lord. I pray that you will experience faith that results in a new way of seeing, seeing all of creation as abundant rather than hostile.

May your faith be more about “beloving” than “believing.” May this community be bearers of God’s love to a world that is crying out for healing and forgiveness. May the community of St. Hilary’s be instruments of the peace Jesus breathed on us that evening. The peace he still breathes on the world.