Sunday, April 30, 2006

It's Still Easter and It's Still Lent

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Year B: The Third Sunday of Easter
April 30, 2006

Acts 4: 5-12
1 John 1:1-2:2
Luke 24: 36b-48
Psalm 98: 1-5

It’s Still Easter and It’s Still Lent

It’s great to be back at House of Prayer for the Third Sunday of Easter. I don’t know about you, but actually it feels like to me that Easter was quite a while ago. We’ve moved on to the next thing. I’m finishing (OK, starting) term papers and getting ready for exams. The stores have long since discounted the chocolate bunnies and even the peeps. Easter, it seems, has been put away for another year. But in the Church, at least, it’s still Easter. It’s still Easter.

Today’s readings give us a very dramatic before and after picture. Or, actually I guess I should say they give us a dramatic after and before picture. In the first reading from Acts we find the apostles Peter and John imprisoned by the Temple authorities for healing the sick and publicly teaching that Jesus is the Messiah who has risen from the dead. Questioned by the most powerful men in Jerusalem, the lowly fisherman Peter boldly tells the priests that Jesus, the man who they handed over to Pilate to be executed – the stone that was rejected – has become the cornerstone. This Jesus who was killed as a common criminal, has become the way to salvation. To speak that way to the chief priests must have taken a lot of courage! Remember, both Peter and John knew very well that if the religious establishment could get rid of Jesus, they could just as easily get rid of these two nobodies.

But in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel we have a very different picture of the apostles. Not much courage or boldness here – more like fear and confusion. It’s still Easter – it’s Easter night. Earlier in the day, remember, Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other women found the empty tomb, and heard from the two men in “dazzling clothes” the most amazing news – Jesus is risen! Of course, when the women told the men what they had seen and heard, the guys were understandably skeptical, but, to his credit, Peter runs to the tomb - where he finds only linen cloths. His Lord was gone. Could it be true? Could it really be true? Could Jesus really be risen from the dead? It’s still Easter.

Then Luke tells a wonderful story of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognize it’s Jesus at first, not until he breaks the bread and vanishes from their sight. It’s my favorite passage in the Bible and I’m tempted to preach on it right now, but this morning all we need to know is that these two disciples don’t actually make it to Emmaus. No, they turn back to Jerusalem and tell the other followers of what they have seen and heard. Jesus is risen! We saw him in the breaking of the bread! It’s still Easter.

This is where today’s reading from Luke picks up. Try to imagine yourself as one of Jesus’ followers right now – especially one of Jesus’ male disciples. These guys had really let down Jesus. I’m sure Jesus was disappointed, but he probably wasn’t surprised. He knew their weaknesses better than anyone. Remember what had happened in the garden the night he was arrested? The disciples couldn’t even stay awake for Jesus. And when the going got really tough, the disciples got going all right. According to Luke, they abandoned Jesus to die alone on the cross. As Luke rather politely puts it, “all his acquaintances, including the women who followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

Now, I’m going to guess that the amazing news that Jesus had risen, the reports that people had actually seen Jesus and talked with Jesus, would, yes, make the disciples wonder and hope, but this news would also make the disciples very uncomfortable and even afraid. I mean, the feelings of guilt must have been intense. Think for a moment of a time that you really let someone down. Still feels terrible, doesn’t it?

So now imagine you abandoned Jesus in his great moment of need. You left him to hang on the cross to die alone, to die the most shameful death, to die nailed to a tree as a common criminal. And now it seems somehow that Jesus has risen from the dead. I’m not sure that I could face Jesus, or would want to face Jesus, after all that has happened. What if Jesus is angry? Who could blame him? What if Jesus now rejects us because we failed him, abandoned him, rejected him, in his greatest moment of need? I am sure the disciples were very sorry. I am sure the disciples repented for what they had done, or for what they had not done. I am sure the disciples hoped, somehow, for forgiveness. It’s still Easter.

And then late that night Jesus appears. “Peace be with you,” he says. It seems to me that those simple, beautiful words are meant to immediately let the disciples know that, yes, they are forgiven. Although he has every reason in the world to at least be angry, Jesus instead offers peace. But, notice that Jesus does not pretend that nothing has happened. How uncomfortable it must have been for the disciples to see those wounds. To see the nail marks in his hands and feet. To truly face what had happened. To be reminded of the real pain and suffering of Good Friday. But, although they can’t, and shouldn’t, forget what has happened, the disciples who were filled with sorrow and repentance are forgiven by Jesus.

It’s still Easter. In fact, repentance and forgiveness is a powerful, central part of the Easter story. And it’s a powerful part, or should be a powerful part, of the church’s message today. Notice in today’s gospel how Jesus describes the mission of the church – uh, that would be our mission, yours and mine – “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all the nations…” Repentance and forgiveness of sins. I wonder how much attention the church actually gives these days to repentance and forgiveness. And yet Jesus says proclaiming repentance and forgiveness is the mission of the church!

The disciples must have been amazed and very relieved to hear Jesus call for repentance and offer forgiveness. So it turns out that yes, it’s still Easter, but in a sense, it’s still Lent too.

You know, I love the church seasons as much as the next person. I like when we shift our focus in Advent and Lent, Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. I like when we change colors, prayers and music. I like that we get to see all the beautiful vestments and altar hangings that we’re blessed to have here at House of Prayer. But, there’s a danger if we take the seasons too literally. We can end up dividing our faith into boxes – sort of like the boxes where we might keep our Christmas or Easter decorations. You know, well it’s Lent so let’s open up the “Lent Box” and take out the awareness of our sinfulness and need to repent, and God’s ever-willingness to forgive us. Repentance, that’s a nice decoration for Lent. And when Lent’s over we put repentance back into the “Lent Box” and it’s out of sight until next year. Because, now it’s Easter, so let’s crack open that box, move the bunnies and baskets out of the way, take out the alleluias, the joy, the sense of Jesus with us even now.

Well, if that’s what we do then maybe we would be better off getting rid of the seasons, or maybe just celebrating all the seasons all the time. Sure, the different colors in church might clash and not look so nice, (and I guess the altar guild won’t be happy) but mixing the seasons together would be a reminder that yes it’s still Easter, but in a sense it’s also still Lent. Yes, hopefully we experience the joy of the resurrection, but at the same time hopefully we also can still feel our sinfulness and need for forgiveness. All year long – not just during certain seasons.

This is important because at the center of Christianity is transformation, a change of heart. That’s what the disciples experience as they move from fear and failure to courage and confidence. Peter’s heart is transformed by Jesus’ forgiveness. He goes from being the man who cowardly denies Jesus three times to being the man we read about in the Acts of the Apostles today – boldly telling the priests and the scribes that Jesus the messiah has risen from the dead. What a powerful transformation – what an amazing change of heart! And the transformation doesn’t just happen once. Through prayer and by trying to live the Christian life, year after year season after season, it grows and deepens. That’s the power of Christianity! And that power, the power of the Holy Spirit, is available to all of us right here, right now in the House of Prayer!

How does this transformation start? I think there’s only one way, and that is through repentance. Admitting the times we have failed, the times that we have abandoned God and abandoned our brothers and sisters. Turning to God and asking for forgiveness. In today’s epistle reading from First John we heard such a hopeful message, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Even if it scares us, and if we’re being real it should scare us, we can repent and offer our confession to God. And we can do this with confidence because we know that God is ready always to forgive – in fact, it is God who is calling us to repentance and forgiveness. And Jesus is saying to us right here and now as he said to the disciples long ago, “Peace be with you.”

Just as that repentance and forgiveness transformed the apostles from a bunch of cowards hiding in a locked room to bold people risking and sacrificing their lives to proclaim Jesus as messiah, so we too will be transformed. Our hearts will be changed. That’s the power of God working through us – transforming fear and death into hope and new life. It’s still Easter and it’s still Lent. Thanks be to God!

Someone who understood the need in our lives for both Lent and Easter was our new friend Lancelot Andrewes, the 17th Century English bishop we reflected on this morning in the spirituality group. I will close with one of his beautiful prayers, which I hope can be our prayer today:

Let us pray.
Blot out, O Lord, as a thick cloud of night our transgressions
and as a morning cloud our sins,
make us children of the day and of the light,
grant us to walk chastely and soberly as in the day.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
Keep us from the arrow that flieth by day,
and from the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday;
deliver us from the hand of the hunter and from the noisome pestilence;
from the evil of this day keep us.
Today salvation and peace be to this house.
O let me hear thy loving kindness, for in Thee is my trust;
show Thou me the way that I should walk in,
for I raise my soul to Thee.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Faithful Thomas 1.0

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
April 23, 2006

St. Paul's Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ

April 13, 2006

Year B: The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 3:12a, 13-15, 17-26, 13-15, 17-26
1 John 5:1-6
John 20:19-31
Psalm 118:19-24

“Faithful Thomas”

I’m not just saying this because I’m a Thomas too, but I think the Apostle Thomas has gotten a bad rap thanks to our reading today from the Gospel of John. Obviously, John criticizes Thomas as someone who actually needs to see Jesus in order to believe in Jesus. Now, before all the Peters and Andrews of the world start congratulating themselves, let’s remember that the other apostles didn’t believe Mary Magdalene’s story of the resurrected Jesus, either. They needed to see Jesus too. But we don’t use the expression “Doubting Peter” or “Doubting Andrew,” do we? No, it’s only Thomas who seems forever to be stuck as the doubter.

And let’s face it, Thomas does say “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And so Jesus gives Thomas what he seems to need – Jesus shows him his wounded, resurrected body; invites Thomas to touch, to believe. And then Thomas says maybe more than he actually understands, crying out to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” It’s Thomas more than the others who really recognizes who Jesus really is – “My Lord and my God!”

Yes, Thomas is a doubter. But, I would like to suggest to you that Thomas is also for us a model of faith. One of my professors at the seminary has said something a few times over the past semester that has gotten stuck in my head. This professor has suggested that we are wrong to say that doubt is the opposite of faith. No, he says, the opposite of faith is certainty.

I’ve thought about that a lot these past few months. And I think he’s right. I could be wrong, but certainty seems so easy – it seems almost dishonest. It’s like enjoying the happy, sunny Easter Sunday morning without living through the drizzly gray Good Friday. I mean, honestly, how can we go through our lives, seeing and experiencing all the mindless and purposeless suffering that we do, and not sometimes wonder – where is God? Why does God allow these terrible things to happen? Maybe this sounds strange to say in church, but it is very healthy and normal to doubt, to question, to be skeptical.

Now, if we think of faith as having convinced ourselves of something, if we think of faith as something you either have or you don’t, if we think of faith as something that you can get but can also lose, then doubt can be a truly frightening experience. As a young man, Martin Luther was very concerned about how he could know he had enough faith. He wondered, what if I need just a little more faith? Or, what if I was supposed to say just one more prayer? What if I don’t have enough faith? What if I haven’t done enough? He called the predicament the “terrified conscience.”

After agonizing about this for a while, Luther finally came to realize that it’s not about us, but instead it’s about God and God’s grace. Luther came to understand that faith is not a thing that we can possess, but instead faith is opening our hearts to let God’s grace work within and through us. In a real sense, faith is a way of living, it’s not a thing that we either have or we don’t have. Faith is a verb, not a noun.

If we recognize what faith really is, then it’s pretty easy to see Thomas as a man of faith much more than a man of doubt. Faithful Thomas, not Doubting Thomas. Truthfully, we don’t know too much about Thomas, but he seems to be a man of action, a courageous man, a true disciple of Jesus. Back in Chapter 11, Thomas says to the other disciples, “let us go, that we may die with him.” Despite that boldness, the events leading up to Good Friday must have been shocking and frightening to Thomas as they were for others. Like nearly all of Jesus’ followers, of course, Thomas stayed away from Golgotha. He didn’t hear Jesus cry out from the cross in agony or ask God to forgive his persecutors. He didn’t see Jesus breathe his last.

What happens next is crucial. If faith is just a thing then it’s very easy to imagine Thomas giving up in the face of this horrible execution. I was fooled. I thought this Jesus was the messiah, but I was wrong. Look at what’s happened to him – the most shameful death of all. I should have listened when people mocked me and said I was crazy to follow this carpenter.

But, faith is not a thing, it’s an openness to the power of God. Faith is not having everything figured out, it’s a trust that God is at work in the world, restoring the world to the way things were meant to be. So what does Thomas do after Jesus’ death? Well, we don’t know, but we do know that he is not fearfully hiding with the other disciples. Maybe he went off by himself to pray and to try to make sense of these horrible events, this huge disappointment. Maybe he cried out to God – Why did you let this happen? Jesus preached the Kingdom of God was near – why did you let his enemies arrest him and kill him? Was it all fake? Was I fool for following Jesus? What do I do now?

Maybe that sounds like doubt. But, really, it is faithfully reaching out to God. It’s honestly admitting to God that this does not all make sense – but I’m not going to give up, I’m not going to close myself off, no matter how much I’m afraid, or confused, or skeptical.

So what does Thomas do when the other disciples tell him about the resurrected Jesus? Is he doubtful? You bet. But the story doesn’t end there. He doesn’t say some first century equivalent of “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” He goes back with the disciples to the house – despite his doubt, he is still open to the possibility that God is at work, that things are not quite as they seem, and that death is not really the end of the story.

It’s that openness that gives Thomas the insight and the wisdom to say to Jesus more than he probably understood, “My Lord and my God!”

Faith - that openness to God, that trust in God, is easy to talk about but not so easy to live out in our daily lives – it’s not even easy when you’re like me and surrounded by church nearly all the time. It’s a constant struggle to be open and mindful – to really pay attention for God at work in the world around us. But, here’s the good news - we don’t have to do the work. If we’re open even a little, if we leave even just a little room for God, then God will do the rest.

My Good Friday experience this year is a good example. This year I was in charge of the Good Friday service at the seminary chapel. Since this is an important service, and everyone there is sort of an expert who knew how it was supposed to work, there was a lot of pressure on me and others involved, to do our jobs right. Everything turned out fine, although honestly I didn’t get to really experience the service because I was paying attention to all the little details. After that was done, I literally had to run in the rain carrying my vestments in a garment bag, ten blocks north to Penn Station to catch a train to get to House of Prayer in time for the beginning of the Good Friday walk at noon. Again, not a very open and mindful experience.

I just made it, and when I walked into church someone said, “Oh good, our crucifer is here.” Now, no one had told me that I was to carry this big wooden cross from House of Prayer to the next church a few blocks away on Broad Street. So I sat there, feeling irritated and taken for granted, angry that no one had bothered to even ask me about this ahead of time. Stewing in my negativity I wondered, what’s the point of this? What am I doing here? This is silly, just a waste of time. I have to admit, I was also trying to figure out how I was going to carry the cross and I was also hoping that I wouldn’t embarrass myself if the cross turned out to be very heavy. Needless to say, again, not very open or mindful.

Once the service was over, I stepped up to the altar, picked up the cross, put it over my shoulder and slowly walked down the aisle. Somehow, there was just enough space for God to cut through my bad mood and my self-centeredness. I began to forget my irritation and began to realize, to feel - It’s true, our story is really real – God came into the world and the world rejected God, but God transformed that defeat into victory.

As I walked down the aisle, I touched the roughness of the wood; I felt its weight on my shoulder. As I led the procession out of the church, wearing my black cassock, carrying this large cross through the streets of downtown Newark I could see the mix of curiosity, surprise and even sadness on people’s faces as they looked at me, and looked at the cross. I could hear the hush that seemed to fall even though cars and buses continued to drive by. After all these years the story has lost none of its power. And when we arrived at the next church, I felt an odd bond to the person I handed the cross over to – that in some way we were sharing a very special experience of discipleship. For a moment anyway, the doubts and fears fell away – the wounded Christ was really present - “My Lord and my God!”

I am sure in the years after seeing the still-wounded, yet gloriously resurrected Christ, Thomas still sometimes wondered and doubted. It was all so amazing. Had it all been a dream? What did it mean? In a way, it seemed like everything had changed, and yet nothing had changed. Death was defeated, yet there was still plenty of evil and suffering and death all around. According to a wonderful tradition, Thomas brought the Good News all the way to India. Wherever he ended up we can be sure that, despite his doubts, despite his uncertainty, he remained faithful - he remained open to God’s work all around, and within, him. And as he faced a martyr’s death, even if he had doubts, even if he was not totally certain, “Faithful Thomas” must have cried out to Jesus once again, “My Lord and my God!”