Still Rising

 This is the sermon I preached on, April 23, 2017, the Sunday after Easter, at First Church Simsbury. I revisit the story of “Doubting” Thomas. Someone said that this sermon deepened their understanding of the Easter sermon Rev. Kev and I preached together last week. You might read them together.

John 20:19-31

I confess I groaned when I first saw that this Sunday’s reading was the one from the gospel of John about the disciple popularly known as Doubting Thomas. I groaned, in part, because I have preached so many times on this passage that I doubted, no pun intended, whether I had anything new to say. But also, because I have come to feel that Thomas has gotten a bum rap as a doubter, and I grow weary of having to come to his defense every year.

But the more Thomas and I spent time together this week, the more I felt compelled to again enter into his story together. So, here we go.

Let’s rewind to Easter morning. Peter and another disciple, the one who Jesus loved, see the empty tomb but have not yet laid eyes on Jesus. Mary then sees, touches, and speaks to Jesus outside the tomb and, we are told, tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

That’s where this morning’s story picks up. It is now evening of that same day, and we find the disciples locked in a room, afraid of those who crucified Jesus. If these are the same disciples Mary reported to, they haven’t believed that Jesus has risen from the dead. They have not had a personal encounter with Jesus following the resurrection. Until now.

Jesus appears to these disciples and shows them the nail marks in his hands and the wound from the soldier’s spear in his side. This confirms for them that this is in fact Jesus.

He then breathes on them, further confirming that Jesus is alive. This breath of the Holy Spirit empowers and equips these disciples to go forth into the world to forgive sins, to share the life changing grace of God.

We now encounter Thomas. He was not with the other disciples in the locked room who saw Jesus with their own eyes. As Mary first told them, they now tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas says, in effect, I need to have the same experience that you have had; I need to see the marks in his hands and the wound in his side just as you did. Then I will believe too.

Indeed, a week later, Jesus again appears to the disciples. This time Thomas is with them and Jesus invites him, not just to see, but to touch his wounds, saying “Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas touches, experiences for himself, and affirms Jesus’ divine authority, saying “My Lord and my God!” Note that there is no record that the other disciples make such a proclamation of faith following their encounter with Jesus. Even Mary does not make such a bold affirmation.

Jesus then says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” History has understood this as a rebuke of Thomas as a doubter, but I think this is where he gets a bum rap. Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubt. He goes out of his way to provide Thomas with an experience of the power of God, so that Thomas might carry that message to others. Rather than criticizing Thomas, Jesus’ words are a blessing upon those who follow Thomas, who come to believe without having personally experienced the power of God to bring forth new life from death.

So, that’s the rescue mission I feel obligated to launch on behalf of Thomas every year at this time.

And here are some of my new observations upon this text so framed.

In two separate sermons in the past month I have shared the view of Bible scholar Karoline Lewis that resurrection is not so much something to be believed, but something to be experienced. Mary, the disciples in the locked room, and Thomas all had first-hand experiences of resurrection. Their belief followed from their experience.

But there is more than that to these stories. Mary has an experience of the resurrected Jesus, believes and tells the disciples. The disciples have their own experience, believe and tell Thomas. Thomas has his own experience and believes.

An experience of resurrection can be communicated in such a way that others may then experience it for themselves. Resurrection is reproducible.

This ability to communicate and reproduce an experience are cornerstones of the scientific method.

We live in a time where that which is directly observable and reproducible, in fact science itself, is under attack by some. New words have been introduced to the lexicon, fake news and alternative facts. We watch a video that shows a politician saying something, then the politician says “I never said that.” A picture captures an event as it unfolds, and someone insists that the event never happened. The conclusion of years of scientific research are dismissed based on something someone read on the internet. Yesterday, Earth Day, thousands of people in Washington, D.C. and around the world participated in a March for Science. Frankly, it seems incredible to me that anyone should need to stand up for science.

Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that resurrection can be proved by science. But I am saying that individual experiences of resurrection can be shared and are reproducible. Jesus tells Mary, go tell the disciples what you experienced. Jesus tells the disciples, I empower and equip you to go forth in my name and share the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Those of you who were here last Sunday know that Rev. Kev and I preached that an experience of resurrection is any experience in which we first encounter a dead end in our life, undergo a crushing loss, make a mistake that seems irredeemable, or fall into despair or depression, only to encounter God’s grace, a second chance, new life. This is what I mean when I talk about an experience of resurrection.

I can’t imagine I am alone in saying that I have made mistakes in my life, betrayed and hurt those I love. In those times, I was convinced that this was the end, the end of a relationship, the end of a good life. I saw no way out. But beyond all hope and reason, the stone was rolled away from the tomb, a way was made where there had been no way. This is a resurrection experience, and it is reproducible. It is reproducible, not just by telling others about it, but by becoming, and being, and living resurrection as God’s new creation.

I am Thomas, believing in Jesus after seeing and experiencing resurrection for myself. Jesus says, blessed are those who have not seen but come to believe. Jesus no longer walks the earth to inspire such faith. But we do. We are, therefore, required to do more than tell of our experience, but like Jesus we are called to show our wounds and share our stories of redemption. We become as Christ, wounded and risen, that others might share in an experience of resurrection.

If you are a widow or widower who has been restored to a full and happy life after losing your spouse, then foster redemptive relationships with those who still mourn. Let them see resurrection in you. If you are gay or lesbian and have found joy and wholeness following a childhood of condemnation, then model that freedom for those who still doubt that they are loved by God. If you have betrayed ones you loved but confessed, made amends, and found forgiveness, share this hope with others, not just with your words, but by committing yourself to walk side-by-side with those who are trapped in despair. If you have overcome an abusive childhood to raise happy children who know they are loved, reach out to extend that love beyond your family to other hurting children.

Belief in resurrection follows an experience of resurrection. Mary to the disciples. The disciples to Thomas. Thomas forward into history to us. If you have experienced resurrection, tell it, live it, be it. If you are still waiting to experience resurrection in your life. Believe. New life awaits.

 

Advent I: Standing Watch

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on November 27, 2016 on the First Sunday of Advent.

Isaiah 2:1-5

Matthew 24:36-44

Many of you know that I was an officer in the Navy. For two and a half years I was stationed on a ship, the frigate USS Ouellet out of Pearl Harbor. Whether in port or at sea, ships operate twenty-four hours a day. To make sure all the systems operate properly and safely the entire crew are assigned to stand watches overlooking various aspects of the ship’s operations. In port I was qualified as the Command Duty Officer or CDO meaning I was responsible for everything that happened on the ship after the Captain had gone home for the day.

CDOs were allowed to sleep at night while several sailors would stand watch, checking machinery readings, making security checks, and standing at the brow, checking sailors on and off the ship. But I was always anxious about what might happen while I was sleeping. One night as I slept the ship got a call from the Honolulu police that two of our sailors had caused a terrible car accident, they had been drinking, speeding through a tunnel, hit another car that crashed and burst into flames, killing the occupants including a baby. The sailors then fled the scene and were later apprehended. When the call came in, the sailors standing watch came in to wake me up, I am told, but I fell back asleep and didn’t hear about the accident until I woke up in the morning. I remember the feeling of dread that consumed me as I realized that I had failed in my responsibilities and slept through this really important incident. At a minimum I should have woken up and called the Captain. When all was said and done, no additional harm came of my failure. But I can still recall that fear following my inability to “stay awake.”

This memory came to me when I read the Matthew passage in which Jesus implores his disciples to “stay awake” suggesting dire consequences should they fail.

This is what is known as an eschatological text, a teaching about the end of human history as we know it, and the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth, God’s eternal reign of peace. Every year, the Lectionary for the First Sunday of Advent, begins with one of these eschatological teachings or stories. And I can tell you, most preachers I know hate it, myself included! Why? First, because it is hard for many of us to wrap our minds around. So called “end times” are the stuff of bad books and movies. And second, because it is terrifying. These lessons bring up that same fear I felt at having slept through something important, failed in my responsibilities, sure I would be judged with terrible consequences.

This is the first Sunday of Advent. The church is decorated, we are looking toward Christmas with excitement and anticipation! I think these parables are inserted at the beginning of Advent as a way of framing Jesus’ birth as an end of the old order and the dawn of a new era. But really, is it necessary to scare the bejesus out of us just to say, “Something good is coming; get ready?”

But this is the text we have been given, so let’s see what we might find here to lead us from fear to hope?

Following the teachings of Judaism, many of Jesus’ followers believed that his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven would be followed in short order by his triumphal return to inaugurate a new age of peace and justice. This is what the prophet Isaiah anticipates when he says, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and…nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” Most of Jesus’ contemporaries thought this would happen in their lifetime. However years passed, and instead of a triumphal return, really bad things happened. The Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.

Matthew is writing to a fearful community of Jesus followers with a couple messages. First, no one knows when this will happen, not the angels nor Jesus himself. Only God knows the time when God’s plans for peace and justice will be fulfilled. And because no one knows, everyone better pay attention so as not to miss it when the realm of God breaks through.

Well, now almost two thousand years have passed and God’s promise of a new heaven and earth has still not been realized. So how are we left to understand passages like this?

We have three choices.

First, we can wait as Jesus’ followers did, for a once and for all end to our conflicted human history and the dawn of a new age with no more suffering or crying or pain.

Or, second, we could understand that this promise of life everlasting is fulfilled not at the end of human history, but for each of us as individuals at the time of our death. Many Christians share this hope that death will deliver us from the suffering of this life into eternal rest in the realm of God.

But there is a third understanding of eschatological passages like this one; we can find here God’s promise to us today. Each day is a day of judgment, God is forever revealing a new heaven and new earth if only we stay awake and pay attention. We can recognize these God moments, and choose to participate in them, or we may fail to see or willfully ignore them, and oppose God’s activity among us.

These understandings are not mutually exclusive, and many people of faith embrace some aspect or combination of the three.

But I believe that the third, the idea that God is beating swords into plowshares right here, right now, is especially compelling for us today. This reading makes sense of Jesus’ intense, almost threatening tone in this passage. He isn’t just saying get ready for good times; rather Jesus is saying I am revealing the realm of God to you in this moment, yet you refuse to see and accept it; and you’re refusal has consequences. Wake up!

So, how might we stay awake to recognize, and participate with the ways that God is breaking into our lives each and every day?

To do this, I want to return to that metaphor of standing watch.

My favorite watches to stand were bridge watches as Officer of the Deck underway. I especially enjoyed the mid-watch, stood from midnight until four in the morning, when we were out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Captain would be in his stateroom asleep, and I would be on the bridge with three other sailors, a helmsman, a lee helmsman and a quartermaster.

I was responsible for the safety of the ship. This meant staying alert for any danger, reading the chart with the quartermaster, looking at the radar, tracking the course of any other ships to make sure they would remain a safe distance from us, receiving reports from the engineering watch about the operation of the boilers and engine, and ordering the helmsman and lee helmsman to make the necessary corrections to our speed and direction to say on course.

But something else would happen on the bridge of the ship on those mid-watches. While staying alert for peril, I would also have a heightened awareness of the moon rising over the ocean, of the phosphorescence illuminating the bow wake, of the Milky Way undimmed by city lights, and of the taste of the salt air.

The Confirmation class learned recently about “thin moments,” experiences where the boundary between the mundane and sacred become porous, permeable, or thin. I had many thin moments on the bridge of the Ouellet.

Beyond seeing God revealed in the magnificence of creation, there was something about that darkened bridge of the ship that made one mindful of the relationships between us. A ship’s crew is a wonderfully diverse assortment of humanity. You’d get kids right off a farm in Nebraska alongside men who grew up in inner-city Detroit. I can’t say that we had deep conversations about philosophy or religion, but we had very genuine conversations. Along with funny stories about escapades in the last port call, we would talk about being homesick, of our hopes and dreams for the future, of having our heart broken.

These conversations were also thin moments. Though I wasn’t even active in a church at the time, I can look back on standing watch on the bridge and see the gentle stirrings of what would later become a call to ministry.

Thomas Merton once said:  “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through everything.  The thing is that we normally don’t see it.”

This is how I read this morning’s Matthew passage. Stay awake! Pay attention! God’s realm of peace and justice is being revealed, all the time, right here, right now.

Some describe the experience of giving birth as a thin place where human flesh kisses the divine. This is why Paul draws on the language of birthing in describing humanity’s relationship with creation, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” And this is why the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are uniquely powerful, human life is affirmed as holy.

I remember cupping Abby in the palm of one hand the day she was born, sure I was looking upon the face of God. Though being the father of a teenager is a considerably thicker experience, that divinity still lives in her and lives in each of us if only we have eyes to see. One of my favorite contemporary hymn writers Brian Wren expresses this beautifully in his poem Good Is the Flesh:

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Beginning with the uncertainty and anxiety we share with angels, this Advent we are asked to develop the art of watchful living. What lies before us is far from certain, but certainty is not required to act in a spirit of wakefulness.

Good is the flesh that the Word has become. God is shining through everything. So watch! Pay attention! Stay awake!

 

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