Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sermon -- 30 March 2008

2 of Easter—30 March 2008
St. John’s, Keokuk — 10:00

Acts 3:2:14a,22-32 Ps 16 1 Peter 1:3-9 John 20:19-31

Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands . . . I will not believe.”

“[The White Queen said to Alice,] Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’

“‘I ca’n’t believe that!’ said Alice.

“‘Ca’n’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one ca’n’t believe impossible things.’

“‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”

(From Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll.)

The apostle Thomas is not good at believing impossible things. One of the impossible things he can’t believe is that dead people come back to life and visit their friends. (Yes, even in the first century they knew that was impossible!) So Thomas doubts. And at this point we can have a certain amount of sympathy with Thomas.

But there are other reasons why we doubt, besides skepticism about things we think are impossible, and some of them are probably more important in the basic issues of life. Maybe some of them were what was really behind Thomas’ doubting. Maybe some of them are what is behind our own doubting.

Sometimes we doubt out of fear. We doubt that “Proposition A” is true, because if “Proposition A” is true, then that has consequences that affect the way we live our lives; and we are afraid of those consequences and afraid of the effect they will have on our lives. So we deal with our fear of the consequence by doubting the antecedent.

Maybe sometimes it isn’t so much fear as stubbornness. We don’t want to change the way we live our lives, and so we refuse to face up to any claim that would involve changing. We close our eyes. We stop our ears. We try to drown it out by running our own mouths. We distract ourselves. We change the subject. We ridicule. We go into denial. We doubt.

And maybe sometimes it’s neither fear nor even just simple stubbornness. Sometimes maybe it’s conscious, willful, self-centered, self-satisfied pride. We just ain’t gonna believe because we just ain’t gonna let anything but ourselves be at the center of our little worlds. Nothing and nobody is gonna define my reality for me but me! Our doubting is an act of defiance. Here we’re getting into the realm of the sin against the Holy Spirit; it’s a good way to go to hell.

I don’t know where Thomas was in this picture. I think not in the last category, defiance, nor even in the second, stubbornness. Perhaps in the first, fear. I don’t know where you are; I’m not even sure where I am.

But they are all stages in faithlessness, and faithlessness is the issue which Jesus addresses when Thomas finally sees him. “Do not doubt, but believe. . . . Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (The English translations usually fumble this verse, which in Greek plays on the word that we translate “faith” or “belief.” “Do not be an unbeliever, but a believer,” reflects the play on words; “Do not be faithless, but faithful” is much more on target. Mé ginou apistos alla pistos, the text says.) (Don’t let it be said that the sermons in this church aren’t multi-cultural!)

“Faith” is not the willingness to believe six impossible things before breakfast. “Faith” has to do with trust, it has to do with being willing to be open to, being willing to accept, being willing to receive, the life-giving power of the Risen Christ. It has to do with being willing to let go of our fears, our stubbornness, our pride. It has to do with being willing to let our lives be changed. If we are not willing to let God raise our lives through Jesus Christ, I’m not sure it matters a whole lot whether we believe that God raised Jesus or not. If we are willing to receive the power of new life through Jesus Christ, then his resurrection is indubitable; we’ve experienced it ourselves.

In the Gospel today Jesus says to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and he gives them power over the brokenness of human life. And that’s really the text and the issue in the Gospel for today. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus gives us the power to live within the Reign of God; he gives us the power to proclaim God’s Reign to others; he gives us the power to enact the Reign of God in this world. Jesus not only gives us the power, he gives us the commission, the mandate, to do so. And that, I think, is where we really start doing our serious doubting.

This applies to each of us personally, individually, but it also applies to all of us corporately as the Church, and to you as a congregation—especially now as you reflect on your challenges and opportunities as a worshipping and ministering community. “Receive the Holy Spirit” for the work of the Reign of God in this place: that’s a promise, that’s a promise that’s already been delivered on. Will we accept it, will we receive it, will we believe it, will we let ourselves be transformed by it? Will we trust God? Or will we let our fears, our stubbornness, maybe even our damnable pride keep us among the doubters? You in this parish, and all of us throughout the church, we can be what God calls us to be; we can do what God calls us to do. We don’t need anything we haven’t already received. “Receive the Holy Spirit … Do not be faithless, but faithful.… Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sermon -- 9 March 2008

5 LENT—9 March 2008
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa—10:00

Ezekiel 37:1-14 Psalm 130 Romans 8:6-11 John 11:1-45

“I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live!”

Long, long ago (though not in a galaxy far far away, but just on the other side of our own planet!), God called Abraham to leave his home and father in Mesopotamia and to go to a new land, where, God promised, he would become the ancestor of nations. And, in faith, Abraham went. And his family prospered and multiplied in the land of Canaan.

Yet famine drove his descendents south into Egypt, where they were eventually reduced to slavery. But God liberated them from their bondage, with great signs and wonders, and God gave them the Torah, the holy Law, to teach them how to live, and God promised, “You will be my people and I will be your God.” And God brought them back to their own land.

Again they flourished; and from among them God raised up a shepherd boy to be king. And God promised David, “Your dynasty shall reign forever over my people Israel.” And David’s son Solomon, the next king, built a great temple, where the Name of the Lord God of Israel might dwell, at Jerusalem in the midst of God’s people.

[Pause] And now that temple lies in smoldering ruins. The land lies desolate and abandoned, pillaged by the heathen Babylonians. And the People of God languish in exile. “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” The promises have all come to naught. God has forgotten us. If indeed God is even there. All is lost.

But God has not forgotten; and in far-off Babylon God speaks to the priest Ezekiel: “Mortal, Ben-Adam, Humanchild, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel says, “You know, Lord God.” And God says, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.”

In the Gospel today we see another of Jesus’ signs. Now, Jesus’ miracles are never just “wonders” to astound the onlookers, they are always signs which point to the breaking in of the Reign of God; they are effective signs which themselves inaugurate the breaking in of the Reign of God. In the case of the raising of Lazarus, we see and experience the glory and power of God, and that it is God’s will and purpose, indeed, God’s very nature, to give new life to God’s people. If Jesus were concerned only for Lazarus and for Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha, he could have arrived in time to save Lazarus from death. Jesus makes rather a point of not arriving in time, actually, and is reproached for it by Martha and Mary. But God had a more important vocation for Lazarus—to be someone in whom the glory of God would be shown forth.

The raising of Lazarus was not an ultimate resurrection—that is, Lazarus was resuscitated and restored to his previous state of life, but later on in due course he would die again. But it was a real raising from a real death—Jesus waited until he had been dead four days—so that everyone would understand that Lazarus was really dead. The Gospel, the good news, is not just that God can rescue us in the nick of time, but that the power of God can reverse a final situation. Lazarus was dead—stinking dead—and Jesus called him out of his grave. And Lazarus came out.

And that’s the Gospel. That’s the Good News. God raises the dead. The Gospel is not just about some sort of personal immortality in which our souls survive somehow in some sort of afterlife. The Good News is not that somehow everything will be patched up. It is not that we can go back to some Good Old Days. It is not just that we can escape this vale of tears, or somehow get through it with minimal damage. There is no such promise. God’s promise is that we, and this whole vale of tears with us, our whole valley of dry bones, will in Christ become a new creation, raised and brought to fulfillment. This new creation, this new life, is fully accomplished only at the consummation of the ages, but it begins in us now. We do not escape death (in any of the many ways the power of death intrudes and encroaches upon our lives)—but we pass over from death to new life, risen life, through the death-conquering Passover of Jesus. The power of sin and death and hell is not escaped, it is not avoided; it is finally and forever broken. And although the fullness of the realization of this victory is not yet, the beginning and the promise and the effective sign of it are already. God can raise us from the dead now.

As we think about this in terms of our common life and mission as Christians in the world, and as you think about this as your Christian parish community in this place in the world, let us think on this: When Jesus called, “Lazarus, come out of there!” ol’ Lazarus could presumably have just lain there and replied, “Oh, no thanks, it’s okay, I’m comfortable this way, this is how we’ve always done it, so if you don’t mind I’ll just lie here and stink.” But he didn’t. Lazarus came out of there.

This Lent—as indeed always—Jesus is calling to us: “Come out of there!”

“I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live!”

Monday, March 3, 2008

Sermon -- 2 March 2008

4th Sunday in Lent — 2 March 2008
St. John’s, Keokuk — 10:00

1Sam 16:1-13 Ps 23 Eph 5:8-14 John 9:1-41

“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

This text, from today’s Epistle, the Letter to the Ephesians, seems to be a line from an early Christian hymn that St. Paul is quoting. And it’s a very apt summary of the good news, the Gospel. “Once you were darkness,” the apostle says; “but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”

There’s something almost inevitable about the symbolism of light and darkness. There’s nothing esoteric about this symbolism — it’s very immediate. We use it all the time. Darkness is a symbol for ignorance, for instance, and light for knowledge. “I’m completely in the dark about this,” we say; “let’s shed some light on the problem.” But light and darkness are also symbols of moral value — goodness and evil, truth and falsehood, reality and nothingness. This is familiar to us, too — remember the old western movies where the villains all wore black hats and the good guys wore white hats and rode white horses?

The New Testament makes much use of the symbolism of light and darkness — especially the Gospel according to St. John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.…In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
[1] So St. John’s Gospel begins. And John explains further: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.…And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil love the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”[2] And Jesus himself proclaims, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[3]

We see this in action in the dramatic healing and subsequent encounter with the Pharisees that is related in the Gospel for today. Jesus heals a man who has been born blind. An unheard-of thing! But we need to bear in mind that Jesus does not heal the man to create awe and wonder among the onlookers. Jesus never performs stunts of that kind — that’s not what his miracles are about. Nor does Jesus do it simply out of compassion for the blind man, although certainly Jesus does have compassion for him and is concerned that he be made whole. The miracles of Jesus are always signs — that is, they point beyond themselves, they are indicators of the Reign of God. They are signals that God’s Reign is breaking in, and they tell us what that Kingdom and its King are like. So it is that Jesus points out at the beginning: “Look, this man’s blindness is not a punishment for his sins, or his parents’ sins, or anybody else’s sins. God doesn’t do that kind of thing!” That’s worth repeating: “God doesn’t do that kind of thing!” “But this man’s blindness is an occasion in which God’s great love and power can be shown.”
[4] For the Reign of God is a realm in which people find healing, wholeness — God wants us to see — really to see — and to be filled with the light of the Kingdom of God.

The healing of the blind man provokes a big squabble with the Pharisees — that sect of Jews who were very devout and very committed to the Law of God — so much so that they had gotten the notion that they had some exclusive franchise on being devout and committed to the Law of God. And they were all out of joint because this healing wasn’t done according to the Rules. For one thing, it was done on the Sabbath Day, when you were forbidden to work. And for another, this Jesus had no credentials as a healer. He wasn’t licensed. He wasn’t ordained. He wasn’t a Pharisee. The Pharisees were so concerned about their own system of religious rules that they could not, would not, see the power of God even when it was right in front of their eyes. The Pharisees are the blind ones. And Jesus then: “My coming into the world is a judgment — that those who cannot see may be given sight, and that those who claim that they see may be shown to be blind.”
[5] In what ways are we choosing to remain blind? What are our favorite little systems that keep us from seeing what God is doing right in front of our eyes?

God wants us to see. God wants us to know the truth about God and about ourselves, and to be filled with God’s truth, God’s life, real life forever in God’s kingdom. but we cannot receive God’s light if we continue to try to walk by our own light. Only as we recognize our own blindness can God open our eyes. Only as we admit that we are dead can God raise us to newness and fullness of life.

It’s significant that in the early days of the Church, Baptism was often spoken of as “enlightenment” or “illumination.” That’s what Jesus Christ is to be for us — illumination, the healing of our blindness, the opening of our eyes to the glory of the Reign of God. Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. By him we see and can walk the highway of the Kingdom of God into fullness of life. But we must turn away from darkness, and receive God’s gift of learning to look, and to see, and to live.

[1] John 1:1,4-5.
[2] John 3:17,19-21.
[3] John 8:12.
[4] John 9:3, my translation/paraphrase.
[5] John 9:39, my translation.