Monday, April 20, 2009

Sermon -- 19 April 2009

2ND OF EASTER — 19 April 2009
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00

Acts 3:12a, 13-15, 17-26 Ps 111 1John 5:1-6 John 20:19-31

Do not be faithless, but believing.

The Gospel on the Second Sunday of Easter is, every year, the account from St. John about Jesus’ appearances, first to the Ten (the Twelve, less Judas of course, and also with Thomas missing) on that first Sunday evening, and then a week later to the Eleven again, this time with Thomas present. Thomas, we are told, refused to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead until he saw Jesus with his own eyes and touched Jesus’ wounds with his own hands. And hence poor Tom has been nicknamed “Doubting Thomas” ever since. And we’ve been reading this Gospel passage on this Sunday in the year almost ever since; and it gives us good occasion to talk about faith and doubt.

Faith and doubt are often seen as opposites, as incompatible with each other. If you experience doubtfulness about something - especially something “religious,” something the Bible says, something the Church says - then you obviously “don’t have enough faith,” and folks use this as a club to beat you over the head with. Maybe you even use it on yourself as a club to beat yourself over the head with.

I don’t think God expects us to give our assent to things blindly and uncritically. God does not expect us to hang our brains on the hat rack when we walk into church (although, God knows, plenty of us do just that!). On the contrary, I think genuine faithfulness includes a readiness to use our minds rigorously, to think critically, to judge on the basis of credible evidence, though always in a spirit that humbly seeks truth, rather than one that proudly seeks power.

But back to our story. There’s nothing in the Gospels that suggests that Thomas was a skeptic by temperament. On the contrary, he was fervently devoted to Jesus. When Jesus starts up to Jerusalem the last time, even though the disciples warn him that the establishment has it in for him, it is Thomas who convinces the others, “Let us go with him too, and die there with him!” Thomas doesn’t have any trouble believing in Jesus; he just has trouble with pious platitudes and wishful thinking.

St. John’s Gospel, we might note, comes out of an early Christian community which (among other things) was trying to deal with people who tried to be more spiritual than God. (Later on some of this kind of super-spiritual religion would take forms which we would later refer to as “Gnosticism” - sort of the “New Age” of the second century - very lofty, anti-materialist, anti-worldly, esoteric stuff.) One of the things which the Fourth Gospel is at some considerable pains to defend is precisely that in Jesus “the Word became flesh, and pitched his tent right here among us.”

And so in John’s Gospel, when Thomas hears that the rest of the disciples have seen the risen Jesus, he says, “I don’t want to hear a bunch of inspirational stuff about the triumph of life over death, I don’t want a meaningful experience, I don’t want to be uplifted, I want to know the truth! I want to see his body, nail-holes and all!”

And note that Jesus really doesn’t seem to have any big problem with this. Look at the Gospel story again. That first Sunday night he appears to the Ten, and they’re all scared blue (fair enough!). (Incidentally, have you ever noticed in the accounts of the resurrection appearances, that people normally don’t recognize the risen Jesus when they see him? The women don’t, until Jesus speaks to them; nor Mary Magdalene; nor the disciples, in Jerusalem, on the road to Emmaus, or in Galilee; nor Paul on the Damascus Road. We don’t find him; he discloses himself to us.) (Anyway.) Jesus appears to the Ten, and says, “Peace. Don’t be afraid.” And he shows them his hands and his side. “Look, it’s me.” Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. It’s okay that they should first experience the reality of his body. And it’s okay for Thomas, too, a week later. “Come and look,” Jesus says. “Come and touch. It’s really me. I’m really here. Do not be faithless - be faithful.” (That’s what the Greek says. It isn’t really talking about “doubt” in an intellectual or conceptual sense at all - it’s talking about personal commitment, personal trust, personal relationship.)

Thomas believed, Thomas placed his faith, Thomas let Jesus disclose himself to him. Because he saw.

“Blessed are those who believe, even though they don’t see,” Jesus says. Well, yes. He’s talking about us. Because we’re not going to see Jesus the way Thomas did (well, probably not.). We’re not going to, not exactly that way. The folks for whom and among whom St John’s Gospel was written weren’t going to see Jesus exactly that way either. That’s why the Gospel was written (and it says so, right there): “These things are written down so that you may believe.” Thomas needed some evidence, and that was okay. We need evidence too, and it’s still okay, and we’ve got some. The real crunch comes when we do meet Jesus, when Jesus does disclose himself to us through the people around us; do we recognize him then? Do we commit ourselves then? Are we faithful, rather than faithless?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sermon -- 5 April 2009

PALM SUNDAY — 5 April 2009

St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00

Mark 11:1-11a Isaiah 45:21-25 Pa 22:1-11 Phil 2:5-11 Mark 15:1-39

At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I’m told there is a common nightmare — though I haven’t had it so much as a dream during sleep as rather that sudden bolt of fear while wide awake in the case itself: driving too fast in the rain and dark on a narrow highway, and coming suddenly to the crest of a hill, only to discover that there is no other side. The bitter and empty chill of the abyss.

One of the things we're all looking for, and may come to church to find, is some kind of peace, a sense of fulfillment, the assurance that the road does go on, a connection with other people and the universe, a sense of God's presence in our lives. That's okay! We have this longing for God (let’s name it as that, because that’s what it is, even when we don’t always recognize it as such), we have this longing for God because God built it into us; “we come that way.” And we do, at least from time to time, experience the presence of God with us. Different ones of us in different ways; sometimes in overwhelming ways, sometimes in quiet ways; sometimes in the great events of life, sometimes in the midst of the thoroughly ordinary. Sometimes we experience God's presence when we most need God.

And sometimes when we most need God we do not experience God's presence with us.

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Of all the words of Jesus, these from the cross are for many Christians the most troubling. If ever there was anyone who, we assume, always felt the presence of God, surely it was Jesus himself. Was not Jesus God’s own Son? Is not Jesus the Incarnation, the humanization, of God’s own Self — the Word become flesh and living among us? And yet Jesus cries, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

It's not enough to point out that what Jesus says is in fact a quotation of the first verse of the 22nd Psalm — a psalm which verse by verse foreshadows and resonates with the events of the crucifixion — a psalm which begins as a cry of distress but concludes thirty verses later in a song of faith and praise (though we didn’t read it that far this morning): “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall come and make known … the saving deeds that he has done.” Doubtless Jesus, steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures as he was, even in the depths of his agony, knew what psalm he was beginning to quote, and how that psalm ends. And yet there's more than that; that's too easy an answer. We must not so cheaply deny or so piously explain away Jesus’ experience of the absence of God. Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Oh, if only I were a better person, if only I had more faith, if only I prayed more, if only I read the Bible more, if only I were holier, then I would feel God’s presence all the time, I would know God is with me, I wouldn’t feel so cold and lonely and empty. Well, perhaps so. Or Not. It is especially to the holy that God risks stepping back into the shadows. It is the holy ones who really experience the Dark Night of the Soul. It turns out that one such was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who even while feeling God’s absence still shared God’s love faithfully.

God is never really absent, of course; but we know that by faith, not by evidence, and it doesn’t warm the chill very much when we don’t feel God's presence. But God is not Mr. Fixit rushing in to repair all our problems. God is not a control freak who makes everything turn out all right all the time. God is not a vending machine dispensing heavenly consolation for those with the right spiritual coins. Those who claim that God is always right there for them haven’t been to the cross yet.

“But this isn’t what we were seeking. This doesn’t fulfill our longing. This isn’t the God we wanted.”

Jesus cries out in the words of the 22nd Psalm; the words of the same psalm, verse 8, are thrown back in his face: “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him.” But God didn't rescue Jesus. God let Jesus die. Oh, God raised him from death on the third day, but first God let him die. Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?

I don’t really know why Jesus experienced abandonment on the cross. I can talk about it, but I don’t really understand it. I do know this: Jesus shows us — in his life, in his teaching, in his death — Jesus shows us who God really is. Or, perhaps better, in Jesus, in his life, in his teaching, in his death, and, yes, indeed, in his resurrection, but only after “in his death,” God reveals who God really is.

For remember this: Given that this is what it takes to reconcile a broken humanity to its Creator, God did not find somebody else to do the job. “Love does not send others to suffer in its place. Love comes itself.”1 Whatever else we may want to say about the relationship between the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth and the divinity of God, that much is fundamental. And so we may even say: in Jesus on the cross, God tastes the bitterness of his own absence. And that says something about who God is, too.

God's presence with us is not a matter of our feeling; nor is it a matter of our deserving. Being better or holier may make us more keenly aware of God's presence, but on the other hand it may make us more keenly aware of God's absence. Our relationship with God is not, in the end, a matter of feeling anyway. It's a matter of decision, of response to a call. God calls us to faith, to commitment to the service of an eternal cause, a heavenly kingdom. But this is a call to a faith which trusts even when we do not feel God's presence; a faith which seeks not to use God to make us feel good but which seeks to be used by God to make the world holy; a faith which says Yes when everything around us and even within us cries No; a faith which seeks not to escape death but which trusts and knows that only through death can we be raised to true life.

1 John Austin Baker, The Foolishness of God (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970), pp. 407-8