The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Friday, May 30, 2008

We'll begin with some ancient work. Though I am admittedly very much a novice preacher, these are some of the earliest. Be kind! And pray that I grow!!

Sunday, April 23, 2006
Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Since before my first day in this church, one of my greatest points of anxiety about our ministry together has been about preaching. When Elizabeth and I sat down together for the first time to begin to imagine with one another what my time here would look like I uttered an audible gasp when she mentioned “preaching.” I blame much of that anxiety on my father, because as a child I remember him often quoting Carlisle Marney when he said, “It takes great audacity to stand up and claim to speak for God.” Indeed, this peculiar task of “preaching” is no small undertaking for a person of faith. A faithful person must walk softly when approaching the business of “God-talk”. But if I have learned anything in these months with you, I have learned that if preaching isn’t honest it isn’t worth doing, and it sure isn’t worth your having to sit there and listen to it.

Therein lies the problem. If I were to be completely honest in this sermon, you might learn that I identify with Thomas a little too easily for anyone’s comfort. I might have to publicly face the fact that the idea of the resurrection is at least a little hard for me to swallow. Now, before you judge me, it’s only fair that I justify this by saying that I’m a product of this logical, empirical, and scientific age. I was raised in a world of premises and conclusions, the scientific method, and cable television documentaries neatly explaining, with pictures and computer animations, everything from the mating habits of toxic tree frogs to the miracles of Jesus. It’s only fair that I would look skeptically at this tradition that claims to laugh in the face of the finitude of death because it stands in contrast to everything that logical reasoning would say. And I’d be willing to bet that I’m not the only one who thinks that way.

Indulge me for a moment while we examine the evidence: last week we had the big party to celebrate Easter. In case you need a reminder here’s a brief synopsis: we had a packed house, we had candles on everything that would sit still, we had special music, special guests, and special flowers; we rang bells, we sang triumphant songs, and we used all of our finest silver. We really put on quite a show. We pulled out all of the stops and tried to celebrate as genuinely as we know how our belief that our God triumphed over death and that Christ is risen. It was fun.

But here we are this week, gathered in the place of last week’s celebration, yet again. It’s a bit odd. We are still celebrating the risen Christ, but the tone this week is undeniably different. You have probably noticed that there are a few less candles and a few less flowers and not quite as many cars in the parking lot. [You may have even noticed that there is even a little more room this week to spread out in the pews.] I would propose that this is at least partly because this is the week when our shock at the resurrection begins its retreat and instead we are forced to consider what it means to live in a world where our view of the Hope of Christ has changed so suddenly. Sure, for one Sunday it’s really easy to go with the flow and enjoy the party, but sooner or later we must face the reality that Easter is a big deal! It’s a lot to get our minds around, and for many people it’s just easier to try not to think about it.

But for all of us, who are back for the after-party, hear this good news: our church, in its wisdom, has recognized that while the Easter moment itself is quite profound, its implications in our lives are even more profound. As such the church has given us this great gift of not just one Easter Sunday, but an entire season of Sundays to begin to make sense of this Christ in our midst. We are not left to wander in our musings with no direction! For each of the next several weeks we will learn in new ways the implications of living in the new community of this Word made flesh that continues to dwell among us.

As I’ve read through today’s prayers and lessons a few words and ideas continue to reach out and grab my attention. Reconciliation. Fellowship. Unity. The Collect speaks of the Easter experience as “establishing the new covenant of reconciliation”. The first lesson tells of these people, who in the wake of Jesus, formed a community around his life where together they “were of one heart and soul.” The Psalm exclaims, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is when [people] live together in unity!” In the Epistle, St. John reminds us, “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another….” And even in the gospel, though the message is slightly more subtle, we continue to hear echoes of Christ calling us into community.

When I first learned that I would be scheduled to preach today I quickly read through the gospel lesson and said to myself, “Oh, that’s the ‘doubting Thomas’ story, it’s a familiar one so I should be able to find something to say about that pretty easily.” So I filed it away in my mind and brought it back out occasionally to stew over while waiting for trains or classes or whatever…. But I found myself continuing to get stumped by that last beatitude – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In the spirit of honesty, I could not bring myself to join what is undoubtedly a large chorus of other preachers this Sunday who say that while shaking their fingers as if to say, “You better believe even if it doesn’t make sense, because that’s how you’ll earn God’s blessing!” That is the kind of reading of this story that has led many churches to demand blind, unthinking faith from their parishioners. Furthermore, I would argue that the fact that people tend to expect those kinds of demands from the church is a big part of why you find yourself with so much extra space to spread out in the pews this morning. We know that this Easter stuff is a lot to get our minds around, and I think we really want to think about it; but, too often the Church is afraid to give us that chance – too often the Church is afraid that our analytical and reasoning minds will simply give up on the mystery of this moment and cast aside the living Christ because it doesn’t make sense. But when I started to think about this story in the context of all of our other readings for today, it began to occur to me: this oft-interpreted finger wagging call for faith might not be the only possible point to this story.

Recently I heard someone comment that it was hard for her to move past Good Friday and into Easter. I can certainly understand that. Very often in our lives it is our pain that seems most real, not the hope of the resurrection. And when we are in such places it is easier and more natural for many people to retreat from their communities – because perhaps the only thing worse than suffering is suffering on display. So very often, when we are hurting and grieving, we pull away from the very ones who would try to help lift us up out of our despair. I can’t help but imagine that this may have been what some of the disciples – what some of Jesus’ closest friends – were feeling. But the grieving Thomas, though still wincing at the pain of his lost friend, eventually came back to be with the others. And it was not until he was in community that he could experience the risen Christ. This is the reconciling power of Christ: that even when our communities are broken and scattered Christ draws us together, and all along the way as our community becomes more and more whole we see new glimpses of the risen Christ in our midst.

Recently the Episcopal Church has been the subject of many newspaper, internet, and magazine articles. The internationally-proclaimed “Chicken Little” cry for a few years has been “The Communion is fracturing!” In their efforts to snuff the schism-lust of conservatives both in the Global South and at home our Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies appointed a Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion to propose responses to the last General Convention that would be aimed at “maintaining the highest degree of communion possible.” Finally, after meeting for more than a year, the Special Commission published their report just before Easter. In it, they suggest that all who are involved in electing, consenting to, and consecrating new bishops should “exercise very considerable caution” when considering candidates “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church”. When I hear this language I cannot help wondering whether we are being too easily seduced by the threats of a few conservative leaders. Of course our communion with one another is very important, but are we giving up too easily on the power of the risen Christ to draw us together?

At that first Easter, Christ appeared to most of the disciples, but Thomas missed it. Even so, as Bishop Spong reminds us in his book, The Easter Moment, “Thomas never abandoned the community of faith even when he was the only unconvinced member….” Moreover it is important to recognize also that the community of faith never abandoned Thomas, even though he was the only unconvinced member.

Though I’m a seminarian and I’m supposed to act like I know everything, I won’t try that today. I’m not going to propose some fool-proof plan for keeping the Communion together, or for getting past the grief of the Good Fridays in our lives, or even for making sense of that troublesome beatitude from earlier. Instead, I’ll just share with you the words of Bishop Steven Charleston. He says, “In the end, when asked what was the most important thing for people to do, Jesus did not say that it was for them to be ‘right’. He said it was for them to love. [And] love is not about being ‘right’. It is about being in relationship.”

So I invite you to stick around for this next season of Sundays. Come and be a part of this community just as we are a part of the larger community of Christians – yes, even the Anglican ones. Come and grow with us as we struggle together to find new meaning in this illogical concept of a risen Christ. And come and celebrate the Word made flesh that continues to dwell among us in these communities that we form in his name.

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