Sunday, March 30, 2008

Faithful Thomas

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 30, 2008

Year A: The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
(1 Peter 1:3-9)
John 20:19-31
Psalm 16

“Faithful Thomas”
Each year on the Second Sunday of Easter – otherwise known as “Low Sunday” – the Apostle Thomas gets his moment to…doubt. Now, 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 today’s familiar reading today from the Gospel of John.
Yes, 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, of course not. Thanks to this gospel passage, 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; Jesus invites Thomas to touch, to believe. And then, amazingly, 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!”
So, yes, it’s true - Thomas is a doubter. And the gospel uses Thomas as a stand-in – as sort off a model for all of us who do not see Jesus in the flesh but are called to believe. 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 said something a few times that has stuck in my head. This professor suggested that we are wrong to say that doubt is the opposite of faith. No, he said, the opposite of faith is certainty.
The opposite of faith is certainty. Try that on for size. The opposite of faith is certainty.
And I think he’s right. Aren’t you usually suspicious of certainty? Doesn’t certainty close our minds and hearts? Doesn’t certainty often get us in to trouble? Certainty seems so easy – it seems almost dishonest. 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.
These past few months I’ve learned a lot from teaching Confirmation class. We’ve talked about some of the major topics of the Christian faith and many of these young people have been open and honest about their questions and doubts about the faith. All I’ve asked of them is to really grapple with these questions and doubts. I’ve asked them to take the faith and their questions seriously – to keep asking and searching. And I believe that our doubts, our questions, our struggles give God just enough room to enter into our lives and hearts.
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 worried, what if I need just a little more faith? Or, what if I was supposed to say just one more prayer? Or go to one more Mass? What if I don’t have enough faith? What if I haven’t done enough? Maybe you know the feeling! Luther called his 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. Faith is putting our trust in God. In a real sense, faith is a way of living, it’s not a thing that we either have or we don’t have.
Like love, 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 of John’s Gospel, 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 the 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 from Nazareth.
But, faith is not a thing; it’s openness to the power of God. It is not necessary to have everything figured out. Faith is 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 let God work through us - 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 all 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.
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 Jesus had changed everything, and yet nothing had changed. Death was defeated, yet there was still plenty of evil and suffering and death all around.
Like us, Thomas no longer saw Jesus in the flesh but was still called to believe – to trust – in Jesus.
According to a wonderful tradition, Thomas’ faith led him to bring the Good News all the way to India. Wherever he ended up we can trust that, despite his doubts, despite his uncertainty, he remained faithful - he remained open to God’s work all around, and within, him. And, according to tradition, Thomas gave his life for his faith in the Jesus he could no longer see. As he faced a martyr’s death, even if he had doubts, even if he was afraid, even if he was not totally certain, “Faithful Thomas” must have cried out to Jesus once again, “My Lord and my God!”

Sunday, March 02, 2008

It's All About Choices

Grace Episcopal Church
March 2, 2008
The Fourth Sunday in Lent

(1 Samuel 16:1-13)
Ephesians 5:8-14
Psalm 23
John 9:1-41

It’s All About Choices

Well, another week, and another long gospel reading. Once again we’ve modified our gospel procession to save the arms of our verger. And once again we get a long, but powerful, reading from the Fourth Gospel. This time we get a whole chapter – the healing of the man born blind. And what a chapter it is! There’s the healing itself, of course. And the conflict with the Pharisees who are so concerned that this healing has taken place during the Sabbath. And there’s the skepticism of the other bystanders who doubt that this seeing man is the same person as the blind man who sat and begged for all those years.

It’s a great story, filled with irony and paradox and lots of theological meat to chew on. But scholars suggest that there might be something else going on in this story of blindness and sight. There’s general agreement that the Gospel of John was written around the end of the First Century. And it was around this time that the Jewish followers of Jesus were faced with a very difficult choice.

For the first few decades after Jesus’ earthly ministry it seems that Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah were able to continue going to the synagogue with not too much problem. But now, for a variety of reasons, it had become very difficult to be both Jewish and Christian. Now, a choice had to be made.

The bad news for us today is that we have inherited all this hostile language about the “Jews” in the New Testament, most especially in John’s Gospel. And it’s probably needless to say that this hostile language has all too often served to fuel anti-Semitism among Christians. But, of course, the Gospel of John was written nearly two thousand years ago by Jews for Jews. So, the angry language reflects a bitter battle between Jews who had accepted Jesus as the messiah and those who had not.

In this story of the healing of the man born blind, John the Evangelist is calling the Jews of his time to a choice – Jesus or not. And, of course, you and I here in Madison today are faced with the same choice – Jesus or not. Can we see or are we blind?

Choices. At one of the schools I taught at the dean of discipline had a little mantra for both students and teachers: “It’s all about choices.” “It’s all about choices.” So when a student cut class and got caught, he would say with a little half-smile, “It’s all about choices.” Or when a teacher would create problems for himself by being inconsistent or unfair with students, the dean would give him the same line, “It’s all about choices.”

After a while, of course, we all got sick of that line. But the dean was right – it is all about choices. And as I get older I’ve become more and more aware how my own choices – good and bad, big or seemingly small – have shaped the unfolding of my life.

To give you one little example, many of my seminary classmates chose to attend General Seminary because of its history, or its style of worship, or particular professors. I chose to attend General Seminary really for one reason – it was an easy commute from Jersey City. But that choice, made with very little reflection or consideration – frankly made with very little discernment - set in motion a chain of events that led me to be standing in this pulpit today.

So, yes, it’s all about choices. And today’s gospel lesson is all about choices, too. The bystanders choose to be skeptical about the miracle right in front of them. I can imagine them squinting their eyes and tapping their finger on their chin and saying, “Wait a second, I bet that’s not even the same person as the blind man who used to sit and beg.” They’ve seen the truth - but they choose not to accept it.

And there are the blind man’s parents. They acknowledge that it’s their son who used to be blind but now can see – but they’re not quite able to proclaim that it was Jesus who did it. They are reminiscent of Nicodemus – in a very real and personal way they know about Jesus’ power but are not quite ready, at least not yet, to proclaim Jesus in public, in broad daylight.

And there are the Pharisees – who come up with everything they can think of to discredit Jesus. The Pharisees who, because of closed-mindedness and perhaps fear, choose not to accept the miracle right in front of them. The Pharisees – who choose to be blind.

And finally there’s the blind man himself. It’s interesting that he doesn’t ask for anything. When the story begins he’s sitting there minding his own business, trying to eke out a living. But when the miracle happens he chooses to accept it and is unafraid to tell everyone what happened to him. And something else happens to this man blind from birth. By choosing to accept the miracle and to tell his story, his spiritual vision improves. First he says that Jesus is a prophet. Then later he confidently tells the Pharisees that Jesus is from God. And then finally he tells Jesus that he believes that Jesus is the Son of Man. He sees that Jesus is the messiah.

All of the people in today’s gospel made their choice. The followers of Jesus at the end of the First Century made their choice. So, what about us? It’s all about choices.

Obviously, we’ve already chosen to be here this morning. Obviously, we’ve already chosen to make at least some kind of commitment to Jesus. We’ve chosen to make some kind of commitment to the Church.

The question is how does that commitment translate into the choices we make when we’re not here in church? How does our commitment to Jesus and our commitment to the Church translate when we’re at work or at school, or with our families and friends? How does our commitment translate when we’re out there – out in the world? Jesus or not? Can we see or are we blind?

[And I can’t think of a better question to ask on this Sunday as we mark some of our young people taking another step toward adulthood. So far in your lives most, but not all, of your choices have been made by your parents. But now – and I’m sure this is scary for your parents – more and more choices will be yours to make. And the choices you make will very much shape the kind of person – the kind of Christian - you become. It really is all about choices.]

[This is why I believe discernment is so important. One writer says that discernment is the whole Christian endeavor. Which is a fancy way of saying being a Christian is all about choices. Every day we are presented with all sorts of situations and questions which call us to choose what will either bring us closer to God or drive us away from God. Ignatius of Loyola called them consolation or desolation. Every day we are presented with situations which call us to choose what will help to build the kingdom of God here on earth. And those questions or situations usually don’t come up here in church. That would be nice and easy! Instead, we face them at work, or when we try to balance our checkbooks, or in the parking lot at Shop Rite. It’s all about choices.]

Are we like the parents of the blind man, or Nicodemus from a couple of weeks ago, who although they know the great gift they have been given, choose to keep their faith in Jesus secret because we are afraid or ashamed?

Or are we like the man born blind? Do we see the amazing gifts we have been given – gifts that we never asked for or deserve? Do we see that it’s all gift – the love of our families and friends, the laughter and the tears, the good times and the bad? Do we see that this wonderful church of ours is a gift – a gift freely given by God for us to nurture? Do we see that our very life, our every breath is a gift? Do we see that God has given the greatest gift of all – the gift of God’s very Self in Jesus Christ? Does it make any difference at all?

Are we like the man born blind? Do we see the great gifts we have been given and boldly proclaim, “Lord, I believe”? It’s all about choices.

The early followers of Jesus faced a choice. And today we face a choice. Jesus or not?

It’s all about choices.


Saturday, March 01, 2008

Servant Leadership

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 2008

Servant Leadership

The whole issue of leadership has been on my mind a great deal lately. First of all, as a priest I am supposed to be a leader and so I find myself reflecting on my own skills and actions and wondering about the kind of leadership I can offer to the Church. General Seminary’s mission statement declares that its goal is “to educate and form leaders for the Church in a changing world.” I guess we’ll see how good a job the seminary did in my case!

I have also been thinking about leadership because Bishop Beckwith has appointed me to serve on the Commission on Ministry. In the past the COM has served mostly to assess whether people who hope to be ordained as deacons and priests truly seem called to those ministries. Since I am just through the “process” my memories of all sorts of paperwork, psychological tests, criminal background checks and questions ranging from “What is your favorite psalm?” to “Now that you’re entering midlife do you have greater awareness of your mortality?” are still very fresh in my mind. This is a particularly exciting time to join COM because the Bishop has put a year-long hold on people entering the ordination process and has charged the Commission on Ministry to reflect on its role in discerning leaders for the church – leaders both lay and ordained. It is an important and daunting responsibility.

Like many of you, I have been following the presidential campaign with great interest. It is certainly the most fascinating and exciting race in my lifetime. And regardless of our political beliefs I think we can all agree that in a time of war and economic uncertainty our country is hungry for strong and effective leadership. The media have mostly, as usual, been focusing on polls and personalities, but there has also been at least some talk about leadership itself. What makes a leader a leader? What is good leadership? Is a leader someone who has lengthy experience and offers detailed plans for grappling with our national challenges? Or is a leader someone who offers a grand and compelling vision, inspiring people with the hope of a dramatically changed society? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle?

Finally, I have been thinking about the leadership of Abraham Lincoln. You may have missed it, but February 12th was the 199th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. In Jersey City the Lincoln Association has been faithfully meeting every year since 1866 to honor the Great Emancipator on his birthday. This year the Association asked me to return to my hometown and offer the Benediction at the end of an evening of speeches and toasts. As I thought about what to say – what to pray - I remembered that Jesus had a good deal to say and teach about leadership.

On a recent weekday the lectionary offered us Matthew 20:17-28, the familiar account of the mother of James and John asking Jesus, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” After this bold request causes a dispute to break out among the other disciples, Jesus makes clear that his idea of leadership is very different from the kind of leadership found in the world. He tells his followers, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” In his teaching and in his very life Jesus offers the model of servant leadership. The one who hopes to lead must be the servant of all.

When the world thinks about leadership it rarely focuses on service. Instead the world considers leadership the ability to make people do what you want them to do – the power to get things done. By that standard, of course, Jesus with his little band of frequently confused and disobedient followers was a spectacular failure. In reality, although the leadership celebrated by the world may provide power and glory for a time, it is the servant leadership of Jesus Christ that offers true glory and everlasting life.

Let us all pray that God will raise up for us in the Church and the world true servant leaders. Here is part of the prayer that I offered at the Lincoln Association dinner, incorporating some of Lincoln’s own words:

We ask you to raise up leaders like Abraham Lincoln in our own time. We ask for leaders who offer malice toward none and charity to all.

Loving God, we ask you to raise up in our own time leaders who do not presume that you are on our side.

Instead, give us leaders like Abraham Lincoln who hope always to be on your side.