So I Send You

Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31

Near the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns to life. His adversary had executed him on that table in place of the boy Edmund. The witch thinks she has won a decisive victory, but Aslan knows of deeper magic than she. So the witch doesn’t expect the risen lion to appear at her castle while she’s off trying to conquer the land of Narnia. But that’s what happens. Aslan, the Christ-like figure of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, races to the witch’s home to free all those whom she had turned into statues. And do you know how he releases them from their captivity? He breathes on them. Continue reading “So I Send You”

Two Gardens

Sermon for Sunday, April 16, 2017 || Easter Day, Year A || John 20:1-18

On three occasions over the last couple years, I have left Home Depot laden with weather-treated boards and decking screws. I brought the materials home, lugged them to the backyard, and set about shaping them into rudimentary boxes. I’m not much of a carpenter, so “rudimentary” is actual quite a compliment. Thankfully, all these boxes have to do is sit in the sun and rain, full of soil and compost and manure.

You see, my wife Leah has become quite the gardener since we moved to Mystic. There was a single three foot by six foot box in the yard when we arrived, a remnant from a previous occupant. I built another the same size, and, let me tell you, the tomatoes Leah grew that first year were…mwah…delicioso! I put in a 4 x 8 bed last fall, which now has little stalks of garlic reaching through the soil. And a few weeks ago, I knocked together the last box, a long narrow one, 12 x 2, for peas. Needless to say, the surface area for gardening at the rectory has tripled in the last year, and I am looking forward to eating the results. Continue reading “Two Gardens”

The Recipe for Doubt

Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2016 || Easter 2C || John 20:19-31

recipefordoubtBoth my first and last names come from the Bible. To be sure, a large portion of names used in the United States do, but many if not most of them do not share the dubious pedigree of mine. Every Hannah out there gets to claim as her namesake a woman of complete devotion to God. Every Matthew and Mark and Luke and John out there gets to share a name with a writer of the Gospel. But me? I get the guy who ate the fruit he wasn’t supposed to eat and then shifted the blame to his wife. And I get the Doubter – and that’s Doubter with a capital “D.”

And while I don’t have much energy to defend Adam’s poor decision-making, I do get a bit revved up whenever I hear someone label the disciple Thomas as “Doubting,” as if it’s his first name. As if he’s one of the seven dwarfs: “I know you’ve met Grumpy and Happy and Bashful, but have you met Doubting?” This really irks me – and not simply because Thomas and I share a name. No. Calling him the Doubter is not just unfair (why single him out?); calling him the doubter is actually a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. So let’s unpack Thomas a bit, and hopefully by the end of this sermon we will see that doubt is not an evil thing.

Once we move past the caricature of Thomas as the Doubter, we see a fuller picture of him form. He is one of the more visible disciples in the Gospel of John; indeed, after Peter, he is tied with Philip for most lines of dialogue. When we look at his interactions with Jesus as a whole, we discover a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions.

We see his deep faith in today’s lesson. When the other disciples find him, he sets this condition: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Then when he meets Jesus, he never actually follows through. He sees Jesus there in the flesh, and then makes the most startling claim of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep faith.

Earlier, about halfway through the story, Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is dying. The trouble is that Lazarus lives only about two miles from Jerusalem, and things are pretty hot for Jesus there. In fact, the immediate result of Jesus raising Lazarus was to confirm in the chief priest’s mind the necessity that Jesus be put to death. The disciples know how dangerous it is for Jesus to head towards Jerusalem. But it’s Thomas who persuades them, saying: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep convictions.

Soon after, Jesus is having that famous meal with his friends in the upper room. His arrest is imminent, but before they go out to Gethsemane, Jesus speaks many words of truth to his friends. We often quote some of these words at funerals: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling-places…You know they way to the place where I am going.” Here Thomas interrupts Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To this Jesus responds: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” A deep answer to a deep and desperate question. Yes, Thomas is a man of deep questions.

When you combine faith, convictions, and questions, do you know what often results? It’s the recipe for Doubt. Our faith gives us a reason to ask deep questions about God and life and what it all means. These deep questions do not have readily apparent or digestible answers; if they did, they wouldn’t be deep questions. Conviction gives us perseverance, which allows faith to exist within the sphere of uncertainty. This is actually where faith thrives. Certainty is the enemy of faith because it leads to stagnation, or worse, fundamentalism. Doubt, on the other hand, gives us the fuel to push on our beliefs, examine them, strengthen them.

And yet, our Gospel passage today seems to set doubt up as the enemy of belief, to put them on opposite sides of a dichotomy. After all, Jesus chastises Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.” Except that’s not what he says. Our English translation takes some liberties to get the word “doubt” out of the Greek word that’s on Jesus’ lips. Another translation reads like this: “No more disbelief. Believe!” (CEB). In English, when we add the prefixes “un–” or “dis–” to something, we give it the opposite meaning, right? Kind and Unkind. Belief and disbelief. That’s exactly what happens in Greek when you add the letter “a–” to the front of a word.* In today’s passage, Jesus says just such a pair of opposites. Belief and unbelief. Not belief and doubt.

So what he’s really saying to Thomas is this: “Don’t jettison your belief all in one go. I know you have deep questions, but you have deep conviction too. Your faith is still there in the midst of your doubts. But here I am. It’s really me.” And that’s when Thomas drops to his knees and proclaims: “My Lord and my God.”

We all have our doubts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been brushing my teeth or pumping gas and been stricken by a wave of doubt. What if this is all just a bunch of hokum? Even if there is a God, why would God care about lil’ ole me? And those are just the entry level doubts, the nagging ones that don’t really have a particular trigger. Bigger ones surface when we confront egregious disappointment or untimely death or heinous acts of evil like what took place in Pakistan on Easter Day.

But remember, doubt is not something to be feared. Doubt is not something to ward off at all costs. In fact, doing everything in your power never to doubt is the way to dangerous fundamentalism. Jesus never said not to doubt. He said simply: “Believe!” And belief in the Risen Christ – the One who overcame the power of death itself – can survive an onslaught of doubt. In the power of the resurrection, eternal life swallowed up death. In the same way, belief fueled by the enduring promises of God swallows doubt into itself. Just as death is part of life, doubt becomes a part of belief – the part that keeps it moving and growing and alive.

Thomas was a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions. He desired to follow Jesus no matter the cost; he wanted so fervently to know the way; and in the end he proclaimed Jesus for who he really is: “My Lord and my God.” I’m sure Thomas had his doubts. After all, he was off wandering on his own during those frightening days. I’m sure he was processing his confusion, wondering how it all went wrong. But in the midst of his confusion, his teetering belief, the Risen Christ comes and calls him back: “No more disbelief. Believe!”

When you are struggling with your own doubts – about God, about yourself – remember that doubt is a part of belief, not the opposite. And remember that you’re not alone in your doubts. Don’t be afraid to be like Thomas, who heads back to the upper room even though he hasn’t seen Jesus yet. Ask your deep question. Share your struggle with us. I guarantee you someone else will say, “Oh, me too.” And together, with God’s help, we will find deeper wells of faith and conviction, which will compel us to drop to our knees in front of the Risen Christ and proclaim: “My Lord and my God.”

* Some of these survive in English: atheism (NOT God), anaerobic exercise (NOT exercise that gets your heart pumping).

Whom are You Looking For?

Sermon for Sunday, April 5, 2015 || Easter Sunday, Year B; John 20:1-18


2015easterdayGood morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s on this glorious Easter Sunday. This morning we walk with Mary Magdalene to the tomb and find it empty. And yet our emptiness doesn’t last for long because Jesus, the Risen Christ, stands there, shining before us, as the dew glistens on the early spring flowers blossoming in the garden.

But before we get to this beautiful encounter, I want to talk to you for a moment about my favorite comic strip. Calvin and Hobbes and I grew up together. Bill Watterson’s impeccable creation began its run about two months before my third birthday and ended just before I turned thirteen. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you I learned to read so I could consume Watterson’s genius. What attracted me to Calvin and Hobbes turns out to be the same element that makes our Christian faith so beautiful. The comic strip is all about the adventures of a young boy and his stuffed tiger. Yet while Calvin’s parents see only a stuffed tiger when they look at Hobbes, Calvin sees a living, breathing beast who might hug him or pounce on him depending on the tiger’s mood. For Calvin’s parents, the stuffed tiger is a “what.” It’s just another thing, a toy. But for Calvin, Hobbes is so much more than a “what.” Hobbes is a “who.”

In the same way, our Christian faith is based not on a “what,” but on a “who.” Yes, we have doctrine and catechism and creed, but none of those trappings matter if we forget the answer to the “who” question that undergirds them all. In the garden this morning, the Risen Christ asks Mary Magdalene this “who” question. Whom are you looking for? At first, Mary answers with a “what” response. She’s wondering what has happened to the body of her Lord. But when Jesus says her name, she recognizes him for who he is – he’s still Jesus, and yet he’s more somehow, as if the power of the resurrection made him a truer version of himself. I imagine Mary launching herself into his arms and their embrace lingering because she thought she had lost him – she had lost him – and yet here he is. You can try embracing a “what,” but only a “who” will embrace you back. The Risen Christ is the answer to this “who” question our faith asks.

Throughout the last two chapters of the Gospel according to John, Jesus appears to his friends five times. In each encounter, something could keep the disciples from recognizing the Risen Christ in their midst, but his presence dispels those barriers. The same barriers often stand in our way and keep us from embracing the Risen Christ in our midst. These barriers trick us into seeing just a stuffed tiger, so to speak, when Hobbes is standing there grinning with a pile of snowballs at the ready. I’d hazard to guess we’ve all known each of these barriers. But today, on this feast of the Resurrection, Jesus gives us the opportunity to answer his question anew and dispel those barriers once again. So whom are you looking for?

The second half of our Gospel reading this morning begins with tears. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” Her sorrow could be a barrier keeping her from seeing the Risen Christ. Indeed, when she sees him, she thinks he’s the gardener. She even accuses him of stealing her Lord’s body. She’s hurting, and not even a vision of angels staunches her pain. In moments of sorrow, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Responding with his name won’t necessarily make the sorrow go away. But it will help us notice his presence in our midst, suffering with us, and offering us strong arms to carry our burdens when they become too heavy to bear alone.

Later that evening, “The doors of the house where the disciples had met where locked for fear of the Jews.” The disciples have hidden themselves away because they’re afraid they will be next for the cross. The fear is so palpable that it hangs in the room like fog, silencing all attempts at conversation and isolating each man with his own dark thoughts. But a locked door and fog of fear cannot stop the Risen Christ from appearing in their midst. He dispels their terror with a word of peace. In moments of fear, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” As we breathe out his name, we breathe in this same peace, the peace that passes all understanding.

The next week, Thomas is with them. He wasn’t in the house the last time, so he still hasn’t seen the Risen Christ. “I need to see him and touch to know you are telling the truth,” he says to his friends. His doubt is understandable. How could he possibly believe a story so incredible without some shred of proof? And yet when the Risen Christ stands before him, he falls to his knees and utters the most resounding declaration of faith in the whole Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” And all without ever touching Jesus. In moments of doubt, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” And in those moments, even the smallest, most doubtful voice we can muster is enough when we say, “You, Lord.”

Some time later, seven of Jesus’ friends are out on the Sea of Tiberias fishing. Or should I say trying to fish. They’re out all night and they catch nothing. You can imagine their frustration mounting as the morning sun gilds the clouds. But then someone on the beach beckons to them and tells them to cast the net one more time. And the bulging net is so full they can’t haul it in. In moments of frustration, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Saying his name helps us reorient ourselves to what matters and let go of our frustration long enough to try again, this time with Jesus’ posture of abundance replacing our frustrating and shriveled posture of scarcity.

Once on the beach, with the fish grilling away on a charcoal fire, the Risen Christ takes Simon Peter aside. He knows Peter feels ashamed for the way he acted on that terrifying night when Jesus was arrested. Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus. So three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” With each affirmation – “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” – Jesus replaces Peter’s shame with a new sense of worth. And with this new sense of worth comes a mission: “Feed my sheep.” In moments of shame, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Shame has a way of making us feel unworthy to say his name. And so he asks again and again until we know that his concern for us makes us worthy to respond: “I’m looking for you, Lord.” And for him to say, “Well, you found me, and no amount of shame will ever make you unworthy of my love.”

Sorrow. Fear. Doubt. Frustration. Shame. These are just a few of the barriers that can keep us from being aware of the Risen Christ in our midst. But in each case, Jesus does not let those barriers keep him from coming near, embracing us, and never letting us go. Never letting anyone go. This is the power of the Resurrection: the barrier is temporary, but the embrace is eternal. The “who” at the center of our faith outlives and outshines all of the “what” that we clutter our lives with. So when you leave this church today, go out into the world with Jesus’ question to Mary on your lips: “Whom are you looking for?” Today, tomorrow, every day, and on into eternity, make this your answer: “You, Lord. I’m looking for you.” And here the Risen Christ say to your soul, “You found me. And you have been found.”

Art: Detail from “Mary Magdalene in Meditation” by Le Nain Brothers

Resting All My Weight

Sermon for Sunday, April 27, 2014 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31

WinslowHomerFarmerToday we are going on a journey to the center of a word. This word happens to be one of the most misused words in the English language, and it happens to be an important word in our Gospel lesson today. This word is “believe.”

For several years now, I’ve tried to use the word “believe” only when talking about God. This is tricky because practitioners of modern English rarely treat the word with that kind of discretion. The word “believe” has become commonplace. How often have you heard a question like this: “Do you believe in [fill in the blank with a hot button issue of the day].” Somehow, the word “believe” has become synonymous with “think something is okay.” This watered down understanding is a far cry from how the word is used in our Gospel lesson today: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Here “belief” is synonymous with life and relationship with God, not with mere assent to a particular position. As we journey to the center of the word “believe,” let’s try to recapture an undiluted definition.

The best way to talk about the word “believe” is to tell a story. Here’s a version of one that I heard a priest friend of mine tell several years ago (and he heard it from someone, too, so there’s no telling to whom this story belongs).

A Bible scholar trekked deep into the heart of the Amazon River basin, and there he found an indigenous tribe that had barely had any contact with the outside world. Like any decent Bible scholar would do, he set about learning the language of the people in order to translate the Good Book into the local tongue. While staying in the village, he lived with a farmer and his wife. For months, the scholar worked and worked: he listened to the people talking, made notes, slowly built a lexicon, and then set to the task of translation. He spread his papers out over the rough wooden table in the kitchen of the hut and put pen to paper.

But soon he stopped. He was stuck. In all his study, he had never heard the villagers use a word that seemed to him synonymous with “belief,” which was, after all, an important word in the Bible. He put his pen down and sat there, just thinking and feeling sorry for himself. Just then, the farmer came in from the fields all hot and sticky from a hard day’s labor. He sat down in the chair opposite the scholar, leaned back on two legs, propped his feet on the table, and let out a grateful sigh. In halting words, the scholar asked the farmer what his word for “believe” was. The farmer didn’t understand. The scholar tried to explain using other words, and comprehension dawned on the farmer. “Do you see me sitting here,” he said in his own language. “I am leaning back in this chair after a hard day’s work. My feet are up. I am resting all my weight on these two legs.” And the scholar found his word.

So to believe in something is to rest all of your weight on that something. Think about the first time you ever went to the pool. The older kids who knew how to swim were doing cannonballs into the deep end and playing Marco Polo in the shallows. The teenage boys were staring at the lifeguard in her red one-piece and layers of tanning lotion. The adults were laying in reclining lawn chairs around the edge of the pool, far enough away to be out of the splash zone.

But you took no notice of any of this. You were too busy contemplated your next action. You were standing by the edge of the pool, your toes curled over the cement lip of the shallow end. You had your arms crossed in front of you and your knees bent in. Your teeth chattered – from either fear or cold, you couldn’t tell. And there was your Dad standing three feet from you. He was standing waist deep in the water like a titan, impervious to Poseidon’s attempts to plunge him under. And he was extending his arms out to you, beckoning you to jump. He would catch you, of course, he said. You would not drown. You would be safe. You would have fun once you got used to the water. All you needed to do was jump into his arms.

You had a choice to make. You could waddle back to the safety of the towels and the bag with your sister’s change of clothes in it. Or you could jump, believing with all your might that your Dad would catch you, that you could rest all of your weight in his embrace. That’s belief.

But recall, I mentioned that belief is a tricky concept. It’s tricky for several reasons. Here’s one. When you decided to jump into your Dad’s arms on your first visit to the pool, you took the leap because you believed what he said. He would catch you, no matter what. You could rest your weight in his arms. Equating this belief with belief in God is where everything gets tricky. Here’s the problem.

There is a chance, however slim, that your Dad would fail to catch you.

No matter how earnestly we believed in a parent’s omnipotence or a coach’s perfection or a teacher’s omniscience, those people turned out to be…well, people. They were all stricken with the gene for human fallibility. Of course, not being perfect didn’t make them bad people. It just made them people. When we equate our belief in humans with our belief in God, we often make the mistake of hedging our bets were God is concerned. We apply to God the expectations we have when we believe in other people, thus unwittingly reducing God’s power and glory to the levels that fit comfortably in a fallible human body.

Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not telling you to repel all human contact because those fallible humans are not to be trusted. Human beings are fundamentally good. We usually do the right thing. We usually live up to the trust others have in us. What I am saying is this: there is no “usually” with God. God always does the right thing. God always lives up to the trust we place in God, else God wouldn’t be God.

So when you speak of belief, remember that God is the One in whom you can always rest your weight. God is the One who never fails to keep a promise. Therefore, God is the one whom we can always believe. When we reserve the word “believe” for God alone, we can begin to recapture the majesty that the concept of belief has lost through overuse in unworthy situations.

If believing is about resting your weight on something, then belief means knowing and trusting the something that takes your weight. This is your foundation. Every foundation that is not God is not a foundation at all, but a structure built on God, who is the ultimate foundation. God is, so to speak, the ground upon which everything rests. Believing in God is all about not being content until you find that ground, that deepest foundational level, upon which to rest your weight.

In our Gospel lesson today, Thomas discovers this foundation when he sees the Risen Christ’s wounds and says, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’s journey has led him to rest his weight on the Risen Christ – to believe. The next time you use the word “believe,” ask yourself if the context surrounding that word is your foundation, something you can truly rest your weight on. If not, try a different word. We rest our weight on the One who is our foundation. For we believe in God.

*Art: Detail from “For to be a Farmer’s Boy” by Winslow Homer (1887).

Four Layers of Peace

(Sermon for Sunday, April 15, 2012 || Easter 2B || John 20:19-31)

Last Tuesday, I received two rather large packages in the mail from my parents. Turns out they have been cleaning out closets in their house, and they decided for me that I would like to be in possession of all of the Star Wars memorabilia I collected when I was a kid. This includes about three-dozen action figures, none of which is old enough to really be worth anything and all of which are now taking up space in my closet, rather than my parents’. Many of them are still in their boxes (yeah, I was that kid), and I spent a while on Tuesday looking at them, trying to dredge up all the intricate details I used to know about the Star Wars universe. And I noticed on the back of every box an advertisement to purchase more action figure, which states: “The Force is with you in all the Star Wars figures and vehicles.”

Even if you don’t know much about Star Wars, I’m sure you’ve heard the most famous line of dialogue from the films. And if you’re an Episcopalian, I’m also sure that you have a kneejerk reaction to this line. Let’s try: “May the Force be with you.” (And also with you.) I like to think that George Lucas borrowed and tweaked that bit of dialogue from the Book of Common Prayer. We say something similar three times during an average Sunday service – at the beginning before the Collect (“The Lord be with you”), in the middle during the Peace (“The peace of the Lord be always with you”), and a few minutes later at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer (“The Lord be with you” again”).

Let’s focus on the middle one: “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” (And also with you.) George Lucas might have borrowed his dialogue from us, but we borrowed ours from Jesus. Three times in this morning’s Gospel reading, the Risen Christ says to his disciples: “Peace be with you.” (They aren’t Episcopalians, so they aren’t trained to say, “And also with you,” back to him.) On one level, Jesus saying, “Peace be with you,” is just a greeting to the disciples. And he has to repeat this greeting after showing them his maimed hands and side because they don’t recognize him the first time around. But as the words of the Gospel according to John so often do, even something as simple as a greeting is loaded with layers of meaning.

So what is this “peace” that Jesus offers to the disciples when he appears to them on the evening of the first day of the week, the day he rose from the dead? The surface level is the greeting still heard today in Hebrew and Arabic speaking countries. “Shalom” and “Salaam” – one wonders how there can be so much conflict between and among peoples in these countries – countries like Syria, Israel, Iran – when their special words for greeting one another means “peace.”

On the level below the surface, Jesus’ word of peace to the disciples acknowledges their current situation. There they are, huddled together in the house: shutters drawn, candles doused, door locked for fear of the people who colluded to put Jesus to death. Would the disciples be next? Would the chief priests and the council be satisfied with the blood of the leader or would they pursue the followers too? How had the disciples gotten everything so wrong? How could they have followed someone so disposable, so utterly breakable as Jesus turned out to be?

And into their fear, their confusion, their uncertainty the Risen Christ comes and says, “Peace be with you.” He comes to them even though the door is barricaded. He comes to them even though three days earlier he had died an excruciating death on the cross. He comes to them even though they aren’t expecting him, even though they haven’t understood what he told them about who he is. And when Jesus gives them peace, their fear turns into joy.

But let’s not stop there: let’s go a level deeper. When the Risen Christ offers the disciples peace, he is offering them more than a greeting and an antidote for fear. He is offering them “the abiding presence of God.” This is how a member of our Wednesday Bible Study group described what “peace” means to her, and I adore this definition. Peace is not simply the absence of conflict. Peace is “the abiding presence of God.” Peace happens when we tune ourselves to God’s abiding presence. Peace happens when we resonate with God’s movement in our lives. Peace happens when we discover the inner serenity that God provides in the midst of the maelstrom of activity that marks our lives today.

We might naturally conclude that the peace, which the Risen Christ offers to the disciples and to us, would excuse us from the pain and suffering that life sometimes brings. But Jesus never promised us a reprieve from tragedy. Rather, he promised something so much greater. He promised to be with us always to the end of the ages. He promised to suffer with us, to cry with us, to break his heart open when our hearts break and pour his heart’s love on our wounds. There is no door we can pass through, which the abiding presence of God has not already entered. There is no depth or height that we can attain and not be where God already is. As the psalmist says in one of the most beautiful passages in the book of Psalms:

Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast.

But all too often we forget that God’s presence abides, and we fail to look for God in situations where we conclude that God couldn’t possibly be. And yet how many of us have said at one time or another, “I just need a moment’s peace.” By our definition, when we say that, what we are really saying is, “I just need a moment to remind myself that I am in God’s abiding presence, a moment to drink in God’s love, a moment to be folded into the arms of grace. This is what “peace” is.

And yet there is another level deeper still. When the Risen Christ offers peace to the disciples, the peace comes with a mission: “Peace be with you,” says Jesus. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Thus, Jesus not only gives them the word of peace; he also breathes God’s abiding presence into them through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Father has sent Jesus to bring peace, and now Jesus commissions the disciples and us to do the same. The peace, which Jesus offers, is not for us alone, but for us to share with this damaged, broken world.

In about five minutes, we’ll have a chance to practice bringing this peace. I will say, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” And you’ll respond: “And also with you.” Then we will greet one another with God’s peace. Just think how powerful an act this is. In these simple words – “Peace be with you” – we bring with us greetings from our Lord. We bring with us the joy that quells fear and uncertainty. And we bring with us the abiding presence of God and of the Risen Christ. Now just imagine: if we took this greeting we practice in church and carried the peace of the Lord into every handshake, every wave, every high five, every tilt of the head, every smile of recognition, every embrace, then we would change the world.

Four Names

DevotiONEighty will be taking a break during the week following Easter. It will return next Monday, April 16th. In the meantime, here is my sermon for the Easter Vigil from Saturday evening. –Adam

(Sermon for Saturday, April 7, 2012 || The Easter Vigil || John 20:1-18 )

If you’ve ever been to a Bible study that I’ve led, then you know that I have a lot of favorite scenes in the Gospel according to John. But the one we just read is easily in the top three. What always strikes me about the scene is the movement from Mary’s desolation when she weeps at the empty tomb to her utter elation when she recognizes the resurrected Christ. John paints the scene with a special tenderness he reserves for only the most intimate of moments between Jesus and his followers. John focuses our attention on this intimate moment, the first reaction to Jesus’ resurrection, because the moment of the resurrection itself is far too mysterious and far too momentous for John to attempt to narrate. That moment belongs to God alone. And so John gives us a sliver of Mary Magdalene’s story – her move from desolation to elation when she realizes that Jesus is still with her as he promised he always would be. And the pivotal moment of this story is Jesus calling her by name.

Names are rare in the Gospel according to John. I went back and counted, and in the entire 21 chapters of the Gospel, Jesus calls exactly four people by name. There’s Simon Peter, first among the disciples. There’s Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to life. There’s Philip, who had been with Jesus from the beginning. And then there’s Mary, who heads to the tomb before dawn on the first day of the week. In each of the special moments when Jesus calls these four people by name, he is somehow affirming or strengthening his relationships with them.

The first thing Jesus does when he meets Simon is give him the nickname “Peter,” which means “Rock,” which is a pretty cool nickname. We invest all kinds of theological motivation to this name because of Peter being the “rock” on which the church is built. But if they were any two people besides Jesus and Peter, we would see the nicknaming as a sign that their relationship is moving into the territory of good friendship. At the end of the Gospel, Jesus says Peter’s name three times, and this naming reasserts the relationship that Peter had denied three times during Jesus’ trial. In the end, their relationship is repaired because Jesus calls Peter by name.

The Gospel describes Lazarus as “one whom Jesus loves.” When Lazarus dies, Jesus is days away, and Lazarus’s sisters make the faithful accusation that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died at all. So Jesus goes to the tomb and shouts out, “Lazarus, come out.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Lazarus, I raise you from the dead.” Rather, he says, “Come out.” Jesus calls Lazarus by name, but does not give Lazarus the option of remaining in the tomb. The naming is joined to Jesus’ command to return to his family and his friendship with Jesus.

Jesus calls Philip by name after Philip says to him, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.” Jesus replies, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus calls Philip by name in the midst of wondering how Philip could possibly not know him yet after being with him from the beginning. With this, Jesus calls Philip into deeper, more committed relationship with him.

And then there’s Mary Magdalene, who is weeping at the empty tomb. She is desolate, thinking that her Lord’s body had been stolen and possibly desecrated by the people who put him to death. With tears and the fog of despair clouding her vision, she sees the gardener, who asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Could this gardener be in collusion with the body-snatchers, she wonders? And she accuses him of being in on the plot. But then he says the all-important word: “Mary.” And she turns and the desolation vanishes in an instant of delight. And new elation, new hope, new life surges in to fill the void. “Teacher!” she shouts, and I imagine her jumping into his arms. Then Jesus gives her a task – to be the first to proclaim his resurrection.

So why does Jesus saying her name change the story? Why is this the pivotal word? As with Peter, Lazarus, and Philip, saying Mary’s name proves Jesus’ relationship with Mary. Her name is the outward sign of her inward identity. In this way, names are quite sacramental. Know a name and you know something of the person. Who among us didn’t feel elation when we found out our high school crush did, in fact, know our names? On the flip side, take away a name and you begin to take away the humanity of the person. How many Jews had their names erased and exchanged for numbers in the concentration camps?

Saying Mary’s name is Jesus’ shorthand for saying that he has returned just as he promised and that life would never be the same again because their relationship would never end. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus foreshadowed this when he said, “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice.” Later in the same passage, Jesus talks about the command from his Father that he “give up” his life in order to “take it up again.” Thus, Jesus links the power of the resurrection with the power of naming, which is really shorthand for the power of relationship.

This is the good news of the resurrection: Christ rose from the dead to show us that nothing, not even death, has the power to keep him from remaining in relationship with us. Christ knows each of our names. They are written in the book of life. They are written on his heart, just as his name is written on ours. As Jesus called Peter, Lazarus, Philip, and Mary to deeper relationship by saying their names, he calls to each of us. He calls to each of us, speaking our names, and thus ourselves, into being.

These names of ours are special things – they carry within them the promise of eternal relationship with God in Christ through the power of the resurrection. So the next time you find yourself in a moment of silence, a moment of peace at the center of the maelstrom of busyness that marks our lives today, just be still. Be still and listen. Be still and listen for the resurrected Christ calling you by name.

Breathing on Statues

(Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2011 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31)

Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is in Rome near the end of his life, talking to a friend about the day when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples in the locked house.

"Aslan Breathes" by Melissa Carter. Click the picture to see more of her paintings.

I wish I could tell you that seeing the empty tomb was enough. I went inside the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face folded up in a corner. Thinking back now, surely grave robbers would not have folded his ceremonial burial garments while stealing his body! But in the semi-darkness of that early morning, I wasn’t thinking rationally. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was numb on the outside, immune to the sliver of hope that the empty tomb brought.

I was numb on the outside, but on the inside, I was at war. I always thought of myself as his most faithful disciple, but at the time of his greatest need, I abandoned him, I lied about knowing him to save my own skin. In the garden, I had been ready to fight to the death for Jesus. But the moment he took away my sword, I crumbled. I wasn’t strong enough to remain by his side without a weapon in my hand. I wasn’t strong enough to trust him, to trust that his plan included death without fighting. I was at war within myself, and I could not access a single crumb of the peace that Jesus had always radiated.

I saw the empty tomb, but the conflict within kept me blind to what the emptiness might mean. The war inside of me – with fresh reinforcements of guilt – was still raging when I returned to the house we had used a few nights before, on the night when I didn’t want Jesus to wash me feet. Nine of the others were there; they had been locked in the room since the mob had formed three days before. As I was shutting the door, Mary Magdalene rushed up and squeezed her way into the room. “I have seen the Lord,” she shouted.

She was breathing hard. I had left her standing outside the tomb, so she must have raced all the way to the house to catch up with me. I looked at Mary: her face glistened with sweat, her eyes were bright. If the conflict within had not been blinding me, I might have identified the brightness in her eyes as “joy,” but how could there ever be joy again after what had happened? The other disciples barely looked up when she burst in shouting. She looked around the room, then back at me. “He has risen from the dead,” she said, defiantly.

I took a step toward her. “Just because the tomb was empty,” I began, but my voice trailed off. She backed away, and now her voice was very small, small and wounded. “But I did see him,” she said. And I shut the door with Mary on the other side.

Sliding the bolt home, I slumped against the door and slid to the ground. Oblivious to Mary’s pounding on the door, I looked around the room. Judas was gone, of course, but everyone else was there, I was sure. We had escaped the mob and the authorities. Would they be content with the death of our leader or would they be coming after us, too? I counted the others. Nine, and I made ten. Someone else was missing. “Where’s Thomas,” I called out.

Philip looked up for a moment and managed a one-word response. “Gone,” he said, and he put his head back into his hands. I sat with my back to the locked door. Eventually Mary gave up her pounding. I could hear her sobbing, her breath coming in great heaves. She was, no doubt, sitting against the other side of the door. Three inches of wood separated us: three inches of wood and my disbelief and the war raging within me.

Inside the room, we might have been statues. I couldn’t even hear the others breathing. Hours passed and no one noticed. No one spoke. No one ate or drank. We were entombed in the locked house, alive but acting like dead men. And all the while the war raged on while numbness froze my body against the bolted door.

The ten of us were still frozen in place when evening fell. I had been staring at nothing in particular when I began unconsciously counting the others again. “Eight. Nine. Ten.” I counted aloud, and then I put my finger to my own chest. “Eleven.” I counted again. Eleven again. I leapt up and stared at the man in the center of the room. He was slowly spinning in a circle, studying each statue in turn. I looked where he was looking: at the hollow eyes, at the sunken cheeks, at the dried up streams of tears that had washed clean lines on dirty faces.

As far as I could tell, I was the only one who had noticed his presence. Since my rational mind was still turned off, I didn’t even wonder how someone else had entered the room while I was sitting against the locked door. I just stared at him, uncomprehending, but the sliver of hope that lay dormant in me since the tomb was beginning to glow. Then he said, “Peace be with you.”

They were the first words spoken since Philip’s one-word response to my question hours earlier. The words rang out, and the others began to stir. They raised their heads. Some stood up. The man walked over to me, gripped my arm in a firm grasp, and I noticed fresh wounds that cut through both of his wrists. He went around the room clasping the others’ shoulders and lifting their chins with his fingers. “He can’t be,” I said, as the war of guilt and pain and loss continued to rage within me, stronger now that the faint glow of hope was illuminating the battlefield.

The man heard me and turned to face my direction. “Peace be with you,” he said again. We were all standing now. The room, so empty a moment before, seemed full now, but not full enough for him. He gestured to me. I turned, unbolted the lock, and opened the door. Mary, still slumped against the other side, fell into the room. I helped her to her feet. “Is he?” I whispered to her. She looked from the man to me, and she beamed at me through brimming eyes.

“As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” he continued. With these words, we, who had been as still as statues mere minutes before, all leaned in, like trees bending toward the sunlight. And he exhaled a deep, cleansing breath, then another and another. As he breathed out, I breathed in. I breathed in his breath, the wind of his life. I breathed in the words he had spoken twice since his arrival, the very peace that he proclaimed, that he radiated. This was Jesus, and he was alive, and he was breathing life back into us, into the ones who had entombed ourselves in that locked house.

As we leaned closer, Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And his breath washed over me, into me, through me. His Spirit brought peace to the war raging within. His breath blew across the faint glow of hope, turning the glow into a spark, and the spark into a flame, and the flame into a fire. And the fire set my heart alight with all the fervor of rekindled belief in this Jesus, this risen Lord, this one who would not abandon me to the grave even after I had abandoned him to die.

I tell you, friend, that in the years since that day, my daydreams have often brought me back to that moment when Jesus breathed his Spirit into me. When I am in distress, when I am in grief, when I forget that I believe that I am with God, I can take a breath. And I will remember that I am breathing in the peace that our Lord has given to each of us, the peace that passes all my ability to understand and lodges where I need that peace the most – in the secret places within where the war still rages from time to time. You see, every time I take a breath, and, for that matter, every time you take a breath, we are not only filling up our lungs with air. We are filling up our souls with the Holy Spirit of God, who continues to breathe into us the new life of the Risen Christ.

Faithful Thomas

(Sermon for April 11, 2010 || Easter 2, Year C, RCL || John 20:19-31)

I’ve always had a special affinity for Thomas. Perhaps, because we share a name, I feel fraternally responsible for defending him against those who label him with one of the most enduring epithets of all time: Doubting Thomas. (Curiously enough, I’ve never felt much like defending Adam for his stupidity in the garden, but that’s another tale.) So, we have this fellow uncharitably nicknamed Doubting Thomas. We remember him for exactly one reason: he doesn’t trust the words of his fellow disciples when they tell him that they have seen the Risen Lord. Their witness is not enough for Thomas. He needs to see and touch Jesus, just as the other disciples had done when Jesus came to them the first time in that fearful room behind a locked door. Thomas needs the visual and tactile proof of the resurrection for himself. And for this one, simple reason, Thomas has been stricken with his unfortunate nickname, much maligned for his obstinacy, and readily dismissed for his doubt.

But this caricature misses the subtle interplay between doubt and faith that we are going to explore the next few minutes. Notice that Thomas never actually follows through with his stubborn ultimatum. He tells the other disciples, “Unless…I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” The next weekend, Thomas is with the other disciples when Jesus comes to them again. And when Jesus invites Thomas to fulfill his requirement for belief, Thomas no longer needs to. Rather than reaching out his hand to touch Jesus’ side, Thomas lets loose from his lips the highest affirmation of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas is a man of deep faith.

This is the same Thomas who, when Jesus decides to travel near Jerusalem to raise Lazarus, says to the other disciples, “Let us go with him, that we might die with him.” Thomas is a man of deep conviction. This is the same Thomas who, when Jesus tells the disciples he goes to prepare a place for them, asks of his Lord, “How will we know the way?” Thomas is a man of deep questions.

When you add faith, conviction, and questions together, oftentimes doubt results, at least for a time. Faith gives you the reason to ask questions, and conviction gives you the perseverance to allow doubt to temper faith into a stronger whole. Too frequently, trouble happens when we mistake doubt for the opposite of faith, and therefore as something to be avoided at all costs.

One of the reasons for the persistent mistake of thinking that doubt is the opposite of faith comes from this very Gospel text (and indeed, this particular English translation of the Gospel text). When Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, Jesus says, “Do not doubt but believe.” This sets up a dichotomy between doubt and belief and puts the two in opposition to one another. You can either doubt or believe, but you can’t do both. However, “Do not doubt but believe” is not actually what Jesus says. I don’t say this very often, but the English translation we read in church gets this sentence horribly wrong.

Because the New Revised Standard Version messes this verse up so badly, we need to have a short lesson in ancient Greek, the language in which the Gospel was written. I promise that I won’t make a habit of giving these lessons from the pulpit. But I also promise that you already know more Greek than you realize.

You're probably wondering why this picture makes sense in this context. I promise it does. Go watch the recently cancelled Dollhouse to find out why.

In Greek, to turn a word into its opposite, you add an alpha, which is really just an  “a,” to the front of the word. We do the same thing for English words that come from Greek. Try this one: Bios is a Greek word that means “life.” We get the English words “biology” and “biotic” from it. “Biotic” means “relating to living things.” If we add an “a” to the front, we get “abiotic,” which mean “relating to non-living things.” Or how about this one: Theos is the Greek word for “God.” In English, “theism” is the generic word for belief in God. So, add the “a” prefix and we get “atheism,” which is the belief that there is no God. We could come up with a dozen more examples, but I think you get the point.

Now let’s go back to our verse, which, if you recall, this morning’s reading translates as “Do not doubt but believe.” The Greek word translated “believe” comes from the word pistis, which means “faith.” The word that is translated as “doubt” is simply the word pistis with the “a” prefix – apistis. Therefore, the word should really just mean “unfaith” or “unbelief,” rather than “doubt.” With this new translation, the verse becomes, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.”

“Do not be unbelieving but believing.” This is a far cry from “Do not doubt but believe.” Jesus never tells Thomas not to doubt. Rather, Jesus tells Thomas not to jettison his belief all in one go. There is a huge difference between the two. This supposed “Doubting Thomas” is still incredibly faithful, even in the midst of his doubts. Remember, Thomas is a man of deep faith and conviction, who has the nerve to ask tough questions. Doubt arises in such a chemical makeup. But having doubts does not signal the loss of belief. Having doubts does not signal the abandonment of faith.

Doubt happens when you have enough conviction about your faith to question it. Thus, doubt gives you a reason to reexamine your faith and to sign up with Jesus Christ over and over again. Of course, too much doubt can lead to unbelief, just as, conversely, too much certainty can lead to stagnant faith.

Okay, now that we’ve established that doubt is not something to be avoided at all costs, let’s use our Easter celebration to bring the power of the resurrection into this discussion. Our faith finds its home in Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus triumphed over death in order to keep his promise that he would be with us always, despite the end of our physical existence. Resurrection happens with eternally vaster scope than death ever could. Because of this, death exists within the power of the resurrection. The resurrection subsumes death into itself, making death a piece of the reality of eternal life. In the same way, belief is so much more expansive than doubt; belief subsumes doubt into itself, making doubt a part of the pathway of faith.

Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.” And Thomas responds with such grand words to express his belief: “My Lord and my God!” Rather than dismissing Thomas as that good-for-nothing doubter, embrace Thomas as a faithful, thoughtful, courageous follower of Christ whose doubts ultimately lead him to a wondrous confession of faith.

God knows that we, too, have our doubts. We wouldn’t be human without them. But belief in God gives our doubts purpose, shape, and context. Do not be ashamed of your doubts. Shame only works to erode faith. Rather, see doubt as a sign of your conviction, as a sign of the fact that you care enough to ask tough questions. Then use that conviction, that perseverance to push through the doubt to the deeper faith beyond. And with those five glorious words of Faithful Thomas, praise the Risen One who is the beginning and end of our belief: “My Lord and My God.”

Inspiration (Davies Tales #3)

The irony was unbearable. A theology paper about the Holy Spirit due in less than twenty-four hours, and Aidan Davies had less than nothing. No topic. No thesis statement. No inspiration. No inspiration for an essay about the Spirit, the source of in-SPIR-ation. Davies snorted and shook his head. I hate irony. He focused again on the glow emanating from the screen in front of him. He and his laptop had been engaged in a staring contest for the better part of the morning, and the blank document on the screen was winning handily. He reached into the empty bag of pretzels, forgetting about the last half dozen failed attempts to discover untapped sources of pretzel crumbs from the bag’s darker recesses. No thesis statement. No inspiration. And now no pretzels either.

Davies stood up abruptly. Black spots appeared in the corners of his eyes. He swayed and grasped the back of the chair to steady himself. He shut his eyes, willing the oxygen to double time it to his brain. A deep yawn built in his chest, which he exhaled in a frustrated groan. Then he stretched, and his fingertips brushed the ceiling of his dorm room. He looked up and pushed the square tile with his middle finger. He knew that by evening he wouldn’t be tall enough to touch the paneling above him. No oxygen in my brain. No inspiration. And I’ll be getting shorter for the rest of the day.

Davies looked down at the screen. “You win,” he said aloud to the blank document before shutting the laptop with perhaps more force than normal. He stuffed the computer into his messenger bag and cast around for his trainers. He laced up his shoes, slung the bag over his shoulder, and stalked from the room. He didn’t know where he was going. He had only a vague notion that he might walk a bit before lunch. He passed Mark Riley’s room, whose door was ajar as usual. Mark looked up from a comic book (He calls them ‘graphic novels,’ Davies reminded himself) and said, “Where you off to, brother?”

Davies poked his head into the room, “I dunno. It’s just this Holy Spirit paper. I’ve got—” He cupped his hand into a zero. “Zilch.”

“Same here,” Mark said grinning. “That’s why I’m doing some background reading.” He held up the graphic novel and tapped the title: The Spirit. Davies grinned back, appreciating Mark’s ability to justify his procrastination.

Leaving the dormitory, Davies drifted up the twisting sidewalk. He inhaled the perfume of freshly-cut grass and felt the early spring sun warm his hair. He wandered past the library, down the stairs behind the academic building, and across the parking lot. He watched a pair of squirrels zig and zag up a tree trunk before losing them in the budding canopy. He followed his shadow to the sporting field, its rolling expanse dotted with the stragglers of the flocks of migrating geese.

The moment he stepped onto the field, the geese took flight. Davies watched them until he could no longer distinguish their honking from the ambient noise of lunch hour traffic. As his eyes lost the geese to the distant clouds, a sharp breeze reminded Davies that winter hadn’t quite given up yet. He watched the breeze spiral through the trees, the new leaves spinning and dipping with their unseen partner. Words echoed across Davies’s empty mind: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”*

Wind and Spirit, Davies thought, remembering his Greek class from the first semester of seminary. They’re the same word. When Jesus tells Nicodemus about the wind, he could be talking about wind or Spirit or both. Wind and Spirit act the same: you can’t see the wind until it moves the leaves. You can’t see the Spirit until it interacts with us. You notice the Spirit when you see the change, the movement in our lives.

Davies raced back up the hill, his messenger bag bumping his back with each stride. He reached the bench outside the administration building and put his hands on his head. His breath came in ragged gasps as his lungs and heart protested the sprint after a winter of idleness. Several minutes later, he was able to catch his breath. Catch your breath. What a strange phrase. It’s not like a baseball or anything. More words echoed in Davies’s mind: “Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ”**

Breath and Spirit, Davies thought, reaching all the way back to high school Latin. Respiration comes from the same root as Spirit. When Jesus breathes on the disciples, they ‘catch’ the Holy Spirit. Every time I take a breath, the Spirit is breathing life into me. The Spirit is always with me, changing me, moving me, giving me life. ‘Giver of life’ – that’s what the Creed says.

Davies sat down on the bench and opened his laptop. No staring matches this time. He looked up at the leaves pirouetting in the wind. He took a deep breath. And he began to write.

Footnotes

* John 3:8

** John 20:22