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

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Doubting Thomas" Sunday

19 April 2009
Easter 2B
John 20:19-31

Almighty God, help us to show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It’s “Doubting Thomas” Sunday. We read, hear, and preach on this text from the Gospel according to John every year on the Second Sunday of Easter.

It’s a bit of an unfortunate designation that we’ve bestowed upon Thomas. Poor Thomas. It seems that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He missed that first post-Easter appearance of Jesus to the disciples. Perhaps he was just down at the market buying milk and bread in preparation for being hunkered down with the disciples for an indeterminable period. Perhaps his mother had become suddenly ill and he had to rush to her side to care for her. We have no idea what caused Thomas to miss out, but nonetheless, he did. As such, he is forever labeled “Doubting Thomas”.

But in reality, who could blame him for doubting? He had been there through the previous week – that week before Easter. He had seen the emotional rollercoaster that had taken him, Jesus, and all the disciples all the way from the cries of Hosanna on Palm Sunday to the cries of the angry crowd on Good Friday. He had seen his friend and teacher endure that sham of a trial and the ensuing shame of one condemned. It had all been very real. He heard the driving nails, he smelled the blood and death, he saw the sky grow dim… The crucifixion had been, for Thomas, an entirely empirical experience. How could it not be? So who could blame him for demanding the same standards of proof for something so incredible as the resurrection of one whom he knew to have been dead?

Certainly preachers throughout the generations have blamed him. We have lifted poor Thomas up as the icon of the kind of faith to be avoided. “Doubting Thomas,” we call him. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe!” We say it with an air of superiority. “We have not seen and yet have come to believe… Surely we are more blessed and righteous than even this apostle!”

But poor Thomas was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And the rest of the disciples weren’t much better! They, too, did not just rely on the report of the women who had seen the empty tomb and who had first heard about and reported the Resurrection. These disciples, too, did not believe until Jesus came to them revealing his wounds.

Somehow we’ve allowed ourselves to overlook the band of doubting disciples and focus instead on the one – the outsider – who is no worse than we are.

It’s true. We are “Doubting Thomases”. We are the outsiders who know of the Resurrection only through its retelling. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We, too, lack the measure of certainty that Thomas sought. But that is not cause for deriding and castigation.

Doubt is a part of faith. They aren’t opposites – they are two sides of the same coin. One always accompanies the other.

If we listen closely to the story, we hear that Jesus isn’t denying us doubt. We can hear those words, “Do not doubt, but believe,” less as Charlton Heston and more as Sally Field. They are not so much an edict of judgment from on high as a kind of gentle pleading from one who holds deep love for the other.

Jesus does not order Thomas to betray his doubt – he meets him where he is, he supplies what is needed for faith, and he allows it to bloom.

Later today we will baptize Colin Douglas Blekicki. If you notice, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant, we make statements of faith, we promise to live out our faith in the ways that we believe ourselves to be called, but never do we promise that we will be free from doubt. Never do we promise to even strive toward such a lofty goal.

But we do promise to support Colin in his life in Christ. We promise to be with him in the midst of his doubt. We promise to do our best to supply him with what is needed for faith, and to allow it to bloom.

And in our own renewing of our Baptismal Covenant we are making those same promises to each other, and to all the baptized.

Deliver us, O Lord, from the way of sin and death.

Open our hearts to your grace and truth.

Fill us with your holy and life-giving Spirit.

Keep us in the faith and communion of your holy Church.

Teach us to love others in the power of your Spirit.

Send us into the world in witness to your love.

Bring us to the fullness of your peace and glory.

This is our prayer each time we welcome a new member into the household of God – that we will live out the story of Doubting Thomas. That, like Christ, we will meet each other where we are, that we will offer one another what is needed for faith, and that we will give that emerging faith room to bloom.

We offer this prayer with the faith of a people of great doubt. We are outsiders of certainty, but insiders in the doubt from which deep faith can grow.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, April 17, 2009

It's Official!

Click image for larger view

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Great Vigil of Easter

11 April 2009
The Great Vigil of Easter
Mark 16:1-8

In the name of Christ. Amen.

A few months ago I had the good pleasure of going home to be with my family in Mississippi to celebrate the baptisms of my two youngest nephews – twins who are now seven months old. My oldest nephew, Brooks (who is now four and a half years old), watched all of the events of the day with great interest – but, in that way that young children often do: he never let go of his space shuttle that he had brought with him to play with during church. Even when he was standing around the font with his parents and his brothers and their Godparents he continued playing with his toy, flying it through the air, landing it on the font, launching it from the floor. You might have assumed that he was off in another world, but he was there – surreptitiously taking it all in.

Later that afternoon, while our family was gathered for a festive lunch to celebrate the baptisms, Brooks took a break from playing with his cousins and he came over to sit next to me and join me in admiring his two brothers. We were playing with them, with them each in their little seats, when Brooks began steering the conversation to the worship service that we had attended just before.

Brooks is no stranger to church. He and his family are faithful attendees of their parish is Jackson, Mississippi. But he recognized that church that morning had been a little different. Reverting back to his surreptitious presence, Brooks wouldn’t take his eyes off of his brothers or stop his playing with them, but he started asking me questions. He was impressed that he had a chance to be so close to the action – he’s used to staying in his pew for most of the liturgy, leaving only to receive Communion. He asked questions about the things that the priest said in the sermon and questions about the words that were spoken in the liturgy. All with his eyes still fixed on his brothers.

Suddenly, he lifted his head, fixed his eyes firmly on mine, and asked the question that had really been troubling him: “Uncle Jon, where’s the cross?”

He asked it defiantly. Protectively, even.

I noticed the shift in his mood, and maybe even sensed where he was going with this, but I wanted him to find it a little more on his own, so I asked for more information. “What cross is that?”

With a sense of exasperation in his tone, Brooks said, “I saw the priest draw a cross on my brothers this morning and I don’t see it anymore. Where did it go?”

Now, I know this sounds like the kind of story that preachers make up to use in their sermons, but I promise – it really happened! And I couldn’t let such a perfect moment go to waste!

I looked down at the boys and started playing with them again – taking on Brooks’ surreptitious attitude and I said calmly, “It’s still there.”

Brooks grew noticeably annoyed with me. With firm defiance he said, “No it’s not! I saw her draw that cross and I don’t see it anymore. Tell me where it is!”

I looked back up at him and told him, “It’s still right there,” and I touched my nephews on their foreheads. “She dipped her thumb into a little bit of oil, and she drew a cross on their foreheads, and she said to each of them, ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. You can’t see the cross, but it’s there and it will be for ever.” I reached up and traced the cross on Brooks’ forehead and I said, “and you have one, too. We can’t see it either, but I know it’s right there. And it will be for ever.”

I don’t know if Brooks believed me. I told him the truth, as best I knew it, but it wasn’t the truth he expected. It must have seemed a little unreal.

We had a little bit of an experience of the Resurrection that day. Sitting at that restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi, we experienced something not entirely unlike the women at the tomb on that first Easter. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”

They must have felt like my nephew looking for the cross. They had seen something that didn’t make any sense, and as wild and untrue as the explanation seemed to be, what else did they have to go on?

Just yesterday the darkness and death of Good Friday seemed to have prevailed. Everything this week has been pointing to that. But tonight we stand in the presence of the Resurrection and we see that there is more to the world than we had previously been bold enough to imagine. Almost in retrospect we allow ourselves to drift back through the story of God in our lives. It seems entirely unbelievable and against everything else that we think we know about how the world works, but the more you think about it, the more you can see that God has not abandoned us.

The truth of the Resurrection is not revealed so much in the empty tomb as it is in the retelling of our story:

When “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” God was there, willing order out of chaos.

When there was “rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights” there was, through God, a way to be saved.

When we faced the enslavement of oppressors on one side and certain death on the other, God made safe passage where before there had been none.

In the light of all that has been told and taught, Resurrection is less a surprise and more like a logical next step!

Like the women at the tomb still seeking opportunities for service to their friend, or like the young child looking for the mysterious cross that once was on the heads of his brothers; we, too, approach this night in an unexplainable mix of stunned disbelief and expectation. We have come “looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” But “he has been raised.”

We can’t see it anymore, but the cross is still there. And it is our calling to go out and tell the good news. Alleluia!

Good Friday Reflections

The Shrine at Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem (2007)

10 April 2009

It’s been something of a crazy week. Of course churches keep a crazy schedule this week, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Like every Holy Week, it’s been a kind of emotional rollercoaster.

From the child-like exuberance of our Palm Sunday Processions, to its shocking turn toward the solemnity of the rest of the week, there have been many ups and downs. And today is no exception. In the course of just this day our story will take us high upon the cross and low into the tomb – a kind of living image in miniature of the highs and lows of the rest of the week.

I imagine this service must be something like what it was like on that day in Jerusalem so long ago. After the crowd lost the energy of the moment that spurred them on in the trial, after the beatings and abuse, after the humiliating walk to Golgotha, after the hammering of the nails through flesh and into wood and hoisting the cross and its cargo into position… After all of that, there must have been at least a moment. Perhaps some of the crowd grew bored of the spectacle. Perhaps the spectacle began to die. After all of this, there must have been some moment when quiet intruded on agony. There must have been some moment for reflection, even if those present couldn’t really know what they were reflecting upon.

So it makes sense for us to suspend the spectacle and to allow the quiet to intrude and to make space for the real work of today – the work of the quiet.

I’d like to share a poem that I heard this week on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac.

Feeding the New Calf
by Joyce Sutphen

The torso comes out slick and black,
after hoofs that are yellowed
like smoker's teeth, the back
two legs crossed over each other and
the head last, bunched over front legs.

Minutes later he is standing wobbly,
and the blunt mouth is sucking at my arm,
tongue rough as sandpaper, tickling along my
skin, ripping up the fine hair over my wrist.
I tie him with a rope of bailing twine,

Shake out a chunk of straw around him,
as the dust rises in the sunlit aisle. I pet
the wet coat that curls over his sharp
backbone, scratch ears that are thick as
tulip leaves, bent in the womb. Angus baby.

I think of the blue-gray afterbirth, like a shawl
he wore, now left in the gutter, of his mother,
how she groaned him out of her belly, her back
rocking back and forth in the metal stanchion,
the velvet fold of her throat on the cold cement.

After I pour the milk into a pail, I go to
where he is lunging on the rope, where he is
singing a desperate duet with his mother:
din of soulful mooing. I get him to suck
at the nipple, pulling his mouth over to it
with my hands dipped in his mother’s milk,
my small solid fingers and not her warm udders,
no peach-veined bag to sink his cheek on.

The clouds sunk in his large brown eyes
float blue. He nudges me, hard.

I’m a faithful listener of Writer’s Almanac. I don’t catch every episode, but I always find that whenever I do, something in my soul gets fed in an unexpected way.

Earlier this week, while driving home from a Tenebrae service, I happened to accidentally stumble across Writer’s Almanac once again when I heard this poem. It struck me how much this picture of birth is similar to the picture we paint in our annual reliving of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Birth and death really aren’t that different. They stand together as some of the messiest and most mysterious moments of our lives. Of course, scientists have done amazing work explaining the processes of both to us, but they never can really get at the biggest question around these most significant life transitions – “why?”

Today the story of Jesus’ death was told again. We tell it again and again because we need to hear it again and again. It was messy. In was inhumane. It was wet and cold and lonely.

It was life.

Like the cold, wet, messy story of the birth of a calf, the story of Jesus’ death on the Cross was simply the truth of life. Neither good nor bad in its own merit. Just truth.

Theologians, like scientists, have tried to answer that persistent question – “Why did he have to die?”

If you listen to the story of the Passion as it is told in John’s Gospel, you hear of a Jesus who is in full control. Even to the moment of his death he was at work fulfilling the prophecies of ancient Israel, until at last he speaks those final words, “It is finished.” The words of the prophets have been made true, and now the time of death has come. He submits in humble service to humanity and to God.

So according to John, it seems that the answer to the question of “why” is about fulfilling the prophecy – about making the messiahship of Jesus appear valid to the skeptics.

Others throughout history – and probably people in this room – think that Jesus had to die as a kind of sacrifice for our own fallenness and brokenness. Like the offerings to God in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus was the ultimate offering. The best, first, and only Son of God – slain in exchange for our life. He suffered so we wouldn’t have to.

More recently theologians and social theorists have begun to examine the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. As one who challenged the prevailing authorities of his day, Jesus (not surprisingly) encountered resistance. When he refused to back down in the face of that resistance, the social powers began to fear him, and in a predictable reaction, that fear drove them to murder.

It’s a common story. Those who challenge authority risk the wrath of authority. And Jesus certainly challenged the authority of his time.

So, why did he have to die?

All of these are attempts at an answer to that question. I won’t stand here and presume to tell you which one is right. In the mystery of this Holy Week, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that they all are right, in their own way.

But our job here today is not to figure out the answer to that persistent question – why? The “why” can wait. In the weeks and months and years that stretch out before us we can start to tackle that one. Like his friends who were left behind, we, too, who are left behind will have time enough to wrestle with “why”.

Today we are not scientists or theologians. Today we let the questions rest.

Today we are poets. We simply stand in awe and observation like a poet who reflects on the mysterious holiness of the transitions of life.

When the time was right, the calf of Joyce Sutphen’s poem sloughed off its mother’s womb in a messy and lonely journey to all that would lie ahead. A beginning – entirely natural and perhaps even predictable, yet unlike any other.

And when the time was right, our Jesus would become Christ. He would slough off the weight of this world in a messy and lonely journey to all that would lie ahead. “It is finished,” yes. But it’s only beginning.

So we wait.

In awe and wonder at the mystery and the holiness, we wait. And we watch. And like a poet, we take it in, as much as we can, because there will be time enough for the “whys”.