Sanctified Doubt: a Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on April 12, 2015, is built on the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

 

It’s so, so difficult… maybe even heartbreaking to walk into a group of people whom you love, who love you, with whom you have shared your life and your trials, your joys and your successes, and suddenly find yourself on the outside. Maybe it’s something as small as they all watch the same episode of Downton Abbey last night and you missed it and so you can’t be part of the conversation. Maybe you don’t even like Downton Abbey. But that conversation is happening and you can’t be a part of it. Maybe this is the moment when all of your friends have decided to talk about their partners and how wonderful life is as a couple and you are the only single person in the group. It’s as if you suddenly have no part in the conversation, no part in the community. Or maybe you’re the only childless couple in the group and this is the day that everybody decides to talk about the miracle of what’s in the baby’s diaper this week. You can’t participate. You are not part of that conversation. The more important the issues the harder it is to speak up. Maybe you’re the only social conservative and a room full of liberals and you find your self unable and unwilling to risk saying what you think and believe. So I think we have some sense of what life must of been like for a whole week for Thomas.

Thomas shows up there in that upper room with the rest of the disciples who have seen the risen Lord, they’ve seen Jesus, and he comes into the room and they’re excited the room is filled with energy. But you weren’t there and you don’t have that same experience. I think it was a tremendously courageous thing for Thomas to do, to give voice to his doubts. Well it was either courageous or he was from Madison. I’m not sure which it is. But Thomas did. He said that unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and the wound in his side, and touch those wounds, I won’t believe.

It must have cost him a lot to say that there in that group of people. I’m sure he was afraid he would alienate himself from them or that he wouldn’t be able to participate in the life of this group anymore. We don’t know how that time played out. What we do know is that it wasn’t until a week later that Jesus appears again in that upper room and presents himself to Thomas. So for a whole week Thomas is wrestling with his doubts and his concerns and his lack of participation in this conversation. It must have been excruciating.

I also wonder what it was like for the rest of the disciples. They were excited, they were on fire, the room was filled with energy… and here comes Thomas the buzz kill. Thomas comes into the room… can we still talk about this? Can we be as excited as we were? Is Thomas still a part of us? Do we even still want him around? It must’ve been in excruciating week.

And then Jesus does present himself once again, there in that upper room, to the disciples. I think it’s really important for us to recognize what his goal is, what he’s doing in that moment. When he walked into that space I wonder what was going on in Thomas’ head. Did he think “I was wrong!” Was he afraid? Was he concerned? Was he filled with joy?

Jesus didn’t come into that space and say, “Thomas, you doubter… get out of here! You have no place with us!” He didn’t say, “If you can’t understand this then you need to go…”   What he did was he showed up in that space to offer Thomas what he needed. He showed up to offer Thomas what he needed despite his doubts, despite his concerns, despite his struggle.

I wish we could re-create that moment when we need it here in this place. So often I talk with people who are in the midst of some crisis, who are having some terrible loss in their life, experiencing some tragedy… and they express their doubts, and their concerns, and their fears, and their struggles to me… and they do it with an apology. It’s as if there’s something wrong with struggling, as if there’s something wrong with doubting, as if there’s something wrong being human. Because to be human, to be flesh, is it to wrestle, to strive, to struggle with God, and with our faith, and with our belief. All through our Scriptures we read about people who struggle, and test God, and are tested by God and the relationship ebbs and flows back and forth and yet God does not abandon them. God uses them to bring about God’s purposes in the world.

I don’t think today’s story is a story about doubting Thomas. I think today’s story is a story about God, and how God acts in the world, how God interacts with us. And in this moment what God is doing is sanctifying, sanctifying Thomas’ doubt.

Thomas is there with his doubts and Jesus comes to him and offers him everything he needs but doesn’t ask anything of him; doesn’t demand that he assent to the truth of his resurrection. I think that’s the key thing for us to remember. Oftentimes I hear people ask, “What does God need, what does God require, what does God demand of me?” I think the only answer to that question is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

But the real way answer to that question though is to turn it, as Jesus would do if we asked him the question, and to say, “It’s not what God requires or wants from you that matters in this story. It’s what God wants for you.”

What does God want for us? God wants for us to have life and to have it abundantly, to be freed from the shame and self doubt and fear that binds us, keeps us isolated from one another, keeps us isolated from God, keeps us isolated and alienated from our very selves!

In this story we see God coming to us and saying, “Have what you need. Take from me what you will. And step into the light and live here with me.

I think it’s crucial for us to recognize that all of this happens in the context of this community that, we are imagining but to believe, was under some great stress for this week between Jesus’ appearance to the disciples and his coming again to meet with Thomas. I think that it’s a remarkable thing that Thomas is still there. After a whole week he still showing up in that upper room with the rest of the disciples. And it’s a remarkable thing that a week later the rest of the disciples are still welcoming him, at least on the surface. They’re letting him in. And so when Jesus comes to present himself to Thomas it’s not just Thomas’ doubts and fears that are being addressed. It’s the relationships that exist between everyone in the community, and this becomes a witness to the rest of the group. That to doubt is not a sin. To wrestle and struggle is not wrong. But to be together while you do it means everything.

So I don’t know if it was courageous of Thomas to give voice to his doubts and concerns or if he was just for Madison, but I know one thing for sure all the people in that room that night they were Episcopalians. Because that’s who we are. We are a people, we are a tradition, we are a group of Christians who recognize that to struggle and to wrestle with God, and with our faith, and what we believe is human, and important, and part of the relationship; that relationship that moves back and forth, that ebbs and flows, that is breathing, living, and dynamic. That’s who we are; a people bound together by the things that unite us, who are willing to set aside the differences that may divide us, because we know that what binds us and makes us one is far more important to who we are, to whom God is, and to who God is calling us to be.

When we gather here together I would be willing to bet that there are people in this room, in this community, there are people among us who struggle with some of the words of the creed, who struggle with other parts of the prayers. And yet we come together, and we say these things out loud in one another’s presence, and hope that they will shape and form us and make us one.

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard me tell this story before but it just fits so well… It’s an apocryphal story. I heard someone else tell it in the sermon so I don’t have names, and dates, and specific places…   It’s a story about a seminary professor whose family is killed in a tragic automobile accident. Daily Eucharist is required as part of this seminary’s life for all students faculty and staff. After a month this professor goes to the Dean and says, “I have to resign my post.” The Dean is shocked and asks why. The man says, “Because I can’t sit in the pew and say those prayers. I can’t be there in that place and proclaim my faith because it seems to have gone dry.” The Dean says to him, “That’s all right. You continue to teach your classes. And you continue to come to chapel. And we will say the prayers for you until you can say them again your self.”

As we make our way through this life we will all suffer loss. We will all experience tragedy. We will all encounter events that will call the deepest parts of who we are into question, and leave us wrestling, and struggling. What’s key, what’s more important than anything, is that we continue to come together, to hold one another up, and to allow ourselves to be held. Because when we gather together, here in this upper room, we can be sure that Jesus will appear and give us what we need to believe.

Look around you will find him in the faces of the people in the pews beside you, in front of you, and behind you. You’ll find him in the light streaming through these windows. You’ll find them here at this table as we gather with our hands outstretched to receive the sign and the symbol of his ongoing presence among us. You’ll find him offering his wounds, his love, his light, and his truth as we gather together as the body of Christ. This is not a story about a doubter. This is a story about a God who sanctifies our wrestling, our struggling, and our doubts and love every bit of it, as God loves us, and forms and shapes us, so that we can offer that same love to one another here in this place.

Thanks be to God!

Amen

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Telling Stories and Singing Songs in the Dark: A Sermon for The Great Vigil of Easter

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

So what did you tell them? How did you explain to your family, friends and co-workers that you wanted, that you needed to be in church tonight?

I imagine that it might have been a pretty hard sell. It’s Saturday night and Madison is filled with attractive options: restaurants, theaters, music… The weather is finally beginning to feel like spring and people are anxious to be out and about… And I hear tell that someone is playing basketball tonight….

Funny thing is, no one asked me what I was doing tonight. I guess my family, friends, and co-workers all had a pretty good idea where I would be and what I would be doing. But if they had asked… I would have told them that I was going to be busy telling stories and singing songs in the dark.

Telling stories and singing songs in the dark… How would that have worked for you? How would people have responded to your describing this night in that way? They might have thought you were joking. They might even have laughed for a moment. But that’s when you would have had them.

“Yeah. It’s great! We light a fire and use the flames to light candles for everyone. We tell stories about our family: who we are, where we come from, and where we have been. We sing songs that describe what we hold dear and what we believe. Then, as we get to the real turning point in the story, the moment where it all comes together, we turn on all the lights, shout for joy, and share a meal together while we continue to tell our story!”

I am guessing that at this point anyone to whom you described the Easter Vigil in this way, even if they had never been to church, would be recognizing something very familiar and powerful in what you were saying. Something in your description of what we do this night would have resonated with them because there is something primal, something central to who we are, something that transcends all boundaries and divisions in the ritual telling of stories.

We engage in the ritual telling of stories all the time. We gather for marker events in the lives of individuals and groups, of communities and nations; at birthdays and anniversaries, when goals have been met or accolades won, at moments of celebration and of loss, on the occasion of important decisions or the declaration of decisions joined…

We play our music, dance our dances, relive and recreate our dramas. We dress in the way of our people. We eat the food that has fed us in the good times and the bad…

And we tell the stories that bind us together and form our identity; the stories that grind and polish the lens through which we interpret our lives and the world around us.

This is the night when we, beloved children of God, spiritual descendants of Abraham, gather to retell, to rehearse, to recollect the stories that bind us together, that define and shape our identity, that grind and polish the lens through which we interpret our own lives and the world around us. This is the night when we proclaim once again, who we are, and whose we are.

We gathered in the dark, and engaged in ritual, kindling a flame to represent the light that has come into the world. We have shared that flame among the people gathered and by its light alone we have participated in our story; claiming and proclaiming that God has created all that is, that all of creation draws its life and meaning from its creator, and that we: you, me, all people, are created in God’s image.

We have rehearsed the checkered history of our walk with the God who created us. Who created us not out of necessity or in response to any deficit within God, but out of extravagantly generative Spirit of creativity and love. We have recalled God’s promises and God’s faithfulness even when we were unable or unwilling to be faithful to God.

We have walked on dry land as the seas foamed and raged about us, finding our deliverance and freedom from slavery as God has delivered us through the waters of baptism.   We have heard once again Wisdom’s promise of a life lived in God’s joy, peace, and abundance and the promise that God will place God’s spirit with in us, that we will be God’s people and that God will be our God.

Here in a world lit only by fire we experienced the despair, the dryness of spirit and the desolation that falls upon us when we rely on ourselves alone and forget the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us.   And in a foreign land, far from home we have felt anew the vigor and life that comes when the Spirit of God fills us and breathes in us and through us once again.

And with God’s promise to restore us, a reaffirmation of God’s faithfulness and the promises that God has made to us, ringing in our ears, we stood and renewed our promises to God, binding ourselves once again to the one who comes among us to set us free, trampling down sin and death by rising victorious from the grave!

We engage in ritual story telling all of the time, at all sorts of events, and for all sorts of reasons. But this is the night when we, beloved children of God, spiritual descendants of Abraham, gather to retell, to rehearse, to recollect the stories that bind us together, that define and shape our identity, that grind and polish the lens through which we interpret our own lives and the world around us. This is the night when we proclaim once again, who we are, and whose we are.

Beloved of God, on this night, this is where we want and need to be!

Our story is compelling. It is life giving, but there are other stories, other narratives to pick from. Every day we are flooded with stories about our own self worth, about things, things that might make us whole, that might fill the hole we feel within ourselves. Every day we hear stories about the “others’ in our world, about their intent to do us harm, their desire to take what is ours, to destroy what they cannot have. Every day we hear stories that demean God’s children, that point fingers and cast blame, that divide, that alienate, that corrupt and destroy the children of God.

These stores are wrapped in rituals of their own: the Nightly News, Political Speech with all of it’s pomp and circumstance, the infallibility of the internet, Facebook… These might not strike you as rituals at first blush but look closely. They are presented with ritual and we create our own rituals around the way that we receive them.

This is the night when we, followers of Christ, must proclaim again and again, who we are, and whose we are.

We need to gather as a people, to engage the rituals, the liturgy that adds depth and meaning to the stories. We need to hear the stories as happening in the present, to live them as they are told, to recollect them. It is essential, if we are to be faithful to the vows and promises that we have made to one another and to God, that we gather in the dark, light a fire, tell stories, sing songs, and share a meal.

We tell this story not for ourselves alone but for him who died and rose for us. We tell this story to stand against the stories and narratives that demean, corrupt, and destroy. We tell this story as an offering to the world, as an invitation to life and love abundant. We, along with God’s beloved children all over the world, tell this story so that it’s light is never overcome by the darkness.

Our families, friends and co-workers may have been amused by our decision to spend this Saturday evening telling stories and singing songs in the dark, but even a short explanation of what we are all about this evening should strike a chord, might even stir some longing within them, and who knows… It might even offer you the opportunity to tell the story wrapped in the particular rituals, an early morning walk, a cup of coffee shared in a favorite place, a meal shared around your kitchen table, that mark your relationships with those people.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sermon for Wednesday in Holy Week

A Mad City Episcopalian

This sermon, given at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on April 17, 2014, is based on the Gospel reading for Wednesday in Holy Week. 

You will find that reading here.

Here on Wednesday in Holy Week we sit riveted as the pace of the unfolding drama picks up speed. Today we hear a story that is part John’s account of the Last Supper. We hear the story that sets the machinery of the world into motion and that will finally result in Jesus hanging dead on the cross on Good Friday. It is story of terrible juxtaposition. We have the beloved disciple, the one whom Jesus loved leaning against his breast as the Disciples share this last meal together; and we have Judas, one of the twelve, leaving to summon the temple guard to the place where Jesus will be arrested. This juxtaposition heightens the anxiety we feel when we hear…

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