Everything on this blog is my own work, unless otherwise noted. Please cite me appropriately, and link back if online!
Preached at Concord Presbyterian Church, July 12, 2015
Game of Thrones has nothing on the Bible, huh?
That might come as a surprise for some of us. But somehow it is always the stories of violence and betrayal and intrigue and hurt that capture our imaginations and inspire cult followings, and that has been true since even before ancient people began to write our stories down.
Now I don’t watch Game of Thrones myself, but I am a huge fan of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (with its focus on sexualized violence against women and children), Orange Is the New Black (set in a women’s prison), and The Walking Dead (about survivors of the zombie apocalypse).
So what’s that about?? Aren’t Christians, like, not supposed to read that kind of stuff?
Well, I guess someone should tell that to the writers of our scriptures. You’ve been reading recently from 1st and 2nd Samuel, which are as full of death and political maneuvering and exploitation and violence as any of the stories that grace our TV screens today; while in my church we’ve been following the gospel of Mark, with stories of sick and wounded and mourning people finding healing, while Jesus is thrown out of his home synagogue by the people he loves and then sends out his faithful disciples with nothing but the shirt on their backs and sandals on their feet.
They are not pretty or happy stories, but they feel like true stories. We would like our world to be a place where these things don’t happen – where there is nothing that drives us to be hateful to one another, where the inhumanity of our power structures does not trap us in destructive patterns, where we can trust the people around us not to betray us when times get hard. But that is not the world we live in, and stories that start and end with “love one another” just aren’t quite enough to help us make sense of a world where that feels like pie-in-the-sky dreaming.
* * *
So today, we get this bloody scene from the palace of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. He is deeply conflicted, this almost-king, which we can see from the very beginning of the story when Herod hears of Jesus and immediately thinks that John the Baptist must have been raised from the dead and come back to terrorize him. He is afraid.
In a long flashback, Mark tells the story of John standing up against the bad behavior of Herod’s family, calling them to repentance from their immorality. Herod, Mark tells us, is greatly perplexed, but somehow he is drawn to John and “likes to listen to him.” But his new wife Herodias has a grudge against John, maybe just because he drew attention to her scandalous marriage, or maybe his preaching struck something deeper for her and she would rather have him killed than be faced with his call to repentance.
Herod throws John in jail to keep some peace, and for a while Herod can protect him from anything worse. But finally Herodias gets her way, by using their daughter to back Herod into a corner. Herod makes an extravagant promise, under the influence of the party and probably wanting to show off for his friends and officers: anything you ask me is yours!
The girl runs to ask her mother. We don’t know how old their daughter is in this scene, but she doesn’t seem quite ready for the world where she finds herself. In her innocence she becomes a pawn for her parents, and I can imagine her getting caught up in the excitement of trickery and intrigue, knowing that she is doing something important, adding an extra flourish when she asks for John’s head on a platter.
And then she gets what she asked for. Suddenly the game is not just a game, and I imagine the scene crashing to pieces around her as she takes the bloody head and feels its surprising weight in her hands.
* * *
Maybe one of the hardest things about this story is the question of how do we find our way in? Who in this story can we identify with to help us figure out what on earth we’re supposed to learn from this story?
First there’s John the Baptist. We know him, we’ve met him earlier in the gospel story, wearing animal skins and eating locusts, preaching repentance and foretelling God’s chosen one. He’s a striking figure and probably not someone that most of us would associate with, but he’s the only one in this scene who acts ethically and so maybe we want to side with him at this point.
He’s speaking truth even when it defies the ruler, but then his truth-telling goes and gets him executed! And how does that help us understand anything? Sometimes doing the right thing will get you killed?
Well, that’s certainly true, as we keep seeing over and over again. But that’s not a very satisfying end to the story.
So how about Herod? That’s a tough one. He’s obviously the bad guy, but then again, the story is more complicated than that. He’s got a little bit of power, but not a lot – his father’s kingdom was broken up into pieces among the brothers, and now Herod Jr. is a tetrarch, literally “ruler of a quarter,” and pretty conflicted about how to exercise his power.
We don’t want to see ourselves in Herod, but it might be useful for a moment. As our society again is starting to boil up with conflict about who’s got power and why, especially along lines of race, perhaps those of us who are white should take some particular time to consider where we fall in this story. Are we hearing God’s prophets call us to repentance for our past behavior? Is their message perplexing, but somehow compelling?
Do we hear God’s truth and mostly know what we probably should do, except when it would upset our family and friends too much?
At what point might our silence become fatal?
Or have we gotten ourselves caught up in something bigger than ourselves, and without even realizing it we become the ones who pull the trigger and end someone’s life?
Or, do we hear God’s prophets and turn away in protest? Like Herodias, have we stopped our ears when suddenly the message got too personal? When God’s truth means we ourselves might have to change something?
That’s not a very comfortable place either. But then, I’ve begun to suspect that God’s truth is rarely very comfortable.
* * *
There’s one other place we might find ourselves in this story: John’s faithful disciples who come to the prison when all has been said and done, to take the body of their dear truth-teller and bury it with care. They have stayed carefully out of the spotlight and off of the chopping block, but they heard God’s word being spoken and followed.
Some of them, I suspect, went on to follow Jesus, and maybe they were with the twelve or the seventy who were first sent out to proclaim the gospel. Mark places this flashback story right between the sending-out of the twelve and their return some weeks or months later, as if to say, this is the world into which we are sent. We who would follow in their footsteps are not sent just to tell happy stories to happy people; we are sent into a world of hurting and betrayed people to tell stories of impossible hope, of God’s goodness breaking into the most despairing situations, of even the most broken people finding wholeness.
The gospel we are sent to tell is a story of resurrection; the absurd faith that life really can come out of deep, smelly, bloody death.
It is a hope that is steeped in death, because our world is steeped in death if only we can open our eyes long enough to see it. The good news of Jesus of Nazareth, executed like John to keep the peace, is that resurrection can come – will come – even in those worst moments. Yes, sometimes the scariest stories are real. But God’s story is not done yet, and somehow God’s story will end with life, and peace, and wholeness.
In the meantime, our job is to make sure that we’re living that hope and not getting caught up on the side of death. The story of this world is too often a story of brokenness and betrayal, and too often we are swept up without realizing it – or maybe we do realize it and just aren’t ready to admit it.
There are many parts to play in this drama. We have a choice: we can fall in, out of habit, into the pattern of self-interest and greed and willful ignorance, or we can see what brings death in our world and make the choice to stand outside it. God’s prophets are outside the structures of power and dominance, and we are invited to follow.
That way will not be easy, probably, but that way lies God’s truth, God’s peace, and God’s hope. That way lies resurrection.
May we too find the real joy of following in God’s way.
Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, July 5, 2015
Mark picks a heck of a story to launch the apostles out on their new mission, doesn’t he? Here it is, the first time Jesus is sending the apostles out on their own, two by two – don’t take anything with you but the shirt on your back – oh and by the way, if you go back to your hometown, they’ll probably kick you out of the synagogue and won’t even listen to what you have to say. Good luck!
It’s a wonder the Good News got this far, isn’t it?
And yet, that’s how God has been speaking to humanity all the way back to Moses’ time – a long string of ordinary people one after the other, some better preachers and some mediocre at best, each with their own human failings and idiosyncrasies right along with their gifts. Ezekiel has trouble even finding the strength to stand on his feet without the Spirit of God in him.
And the results have been mixed, as you might expect! God sent out prophets, and some people heard the good news and changed their lives, and just as many walked right past and wouldn’t give God’s messengers the time of day. Or, more realistically, some people tried to change their lives and mostly succeeded (except where they didn’t), and the others nodded their heads and maybe smiled politely, then went on doing just what they did before.
God speaks through humanity even knowing how risky and ineffective that is. “Whether they hear or refuse to hear,” says God to Ezekiel as he is called into the mission of God to the people of Israel – and somehow even while God grants that a message might not be well-received in that way, God sends words through people anyway. If even the purest of God’s words through Jesus won’t be heard by people who can’t see past what they think they know about him as the son of a carpenter, the son of Mary, why on earth would God ever think that sending words through people is a good way to get a message across?
And maybe that’s the important distinction – a good way or an effective way. God in all God’s holy omnipotence certainly could do things effectively if God so chose. God could control what messages we hear (like the mandatory TV viewing of the world of the Hunger Games), God could write God’s ways on our brains, God could force us to believe or to behave.
And yet God doesn’t. God chooses to speak through broken vessels to stubborn, impudent people, knowing full well how little good that might do. Somehow this is the way God believes is the right way, the better way.
And that says a lot about God’s character, doesn’t it? Speaking through people is about invitation rather than imposition; relationship rather than decree. Our God is not one who rules by force, or would even consider it. Our God speaks truth through regular humans like Ezekiel and the apostles, and then appears on Earth through a human person, who for all his eloquence and power still looks to some people like “that kid Joshua from down the street – you know, Simon’s brother.”
Now when we think about evangelism, we want effectiveness, right? We want people to hear and believe now because we have empty pews and bills to pay!
But God is in the unique position of having the ultimate long view – God knows very well who we humans are, and God knows we require patience. God also knows enough not to take it personally when we fail or dig in our heels or walk right by God’s prophet on the street corner because that homeless trans kid or that woman protesting silently with a Black Lives Matter sign doesn’t look like where we expect God’s word to show up. God knows that says more about our own prejudice than it says about the goodness of God’s message.
In fact, God’s message often goes unheard, it seems, because of the ones God chooses to speak it. I wonder if the folks in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth had trouble hearing what he was saying because he wasn’t what they were expecting? The Messiah wasn’t supposed to be just some guy from Galilee! How could an ordinary carpenter’s son heal us of anything? Who let this guy teach in the synagogue?
And maybe today that happens in a less conscious way. There are some people we expect to hear truth from, and so we believe them when they speak; maybe we even give them the benefit of the doubt when they say something hateful or just wrong. And there are others we’ve been taught not to trust. Who we expect to hear speaking in exaggerations or manipulations or outright lies, without even realizing it.
Usually that falls along the lines of gender and race, which makes it doubly and triply hard for us to talk about the ways we treat one another, because so many of us just don’t believe it when someone talks about facing bias or hatred. We’re starting off those conversations not believing that the world could be different than the way we ourselves perceive it, and then we assume that our conversation partners must be exaggerating or maybe trying to get something out of us, and we hear nothing.
And then there is nothing left for them but to walk on, and shake the dust off their feet as they go.
* * *
God speaks through all sorts of people, and we can be glad of that because it means someone in our midsts, someone around us might be speaking God’s truth to us; just as we ourselves might be led to take up God’s call and speak some good news. It is not an easy or a glamorous call – that’s pretty clear. It’s not even always a very effective call. People will hear, and people will not hear, and we will stay or we will walk on.
But if we want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus’ sent-out ones, then we are called like them to speak God’s word in our actions and our speech as best we can to the people around us. And if they hear it then we stay with them and practice the sacrament of gathering around a table together, and if they can’t or won’t or just don’t hear it then we move on, knowing that we tried and that God’s word will go on being God’s word with or without the crowds to hear it.
God’s word, in fact, is present simply in this action of going into the world depending on the hospitality of others. When the first apostles took no food or money with them, if they wanted to live they had to go find someone who would listen and then accept what they had to offer. Can you imagine how much humility that takes?
We like to think of ourselves as a hospitable congregation, and I think we are, as long as we’re talking about offering hospitality to others. But it’s a whole different thing for us to depend on the hospitality of people we don’t even know yet.
The call of God requires a fairly radical shift in how we approach the world, and how we approach people, especially those we don’t know well. We know God speaks through ordinary humans, especially people we wouldn’t expect. We know that God’s word is proclaimed when we sit with one another at this table and at other tables; when this food is not simply a liturgical snack on the first Sunday of the month but is the bread of life which sustains us.
When we can go out into the world knowing that we need one another to live, then we know God’s work is being done.
It is hard work; it is scary work; and it is the only work that matters.
Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, June 28, 2015
This has been quite a week, hasn’t it?
In the last 10 or so days, a white supremacist murdered 9 people at a bible study; the Supreme Court released decisions on same-sex marriage, health care, and housing justice; four more Black churches across the South were burned by arsonists; and terrorists attacked in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France on the same day. President Obama, even, went from making a celebratory speech on the Supreme Court decision straight to the funeral of Rev. Senator Clementa Pinckney, where he delivered a eulogy full of grief, anger, and resolve.
It’s almost too much. And meanwhile, our own lives go on, full of daily needs, mundane things and beautiful things; happiness and sorrow and frustration and gratitude.
It’s been a rough week for me personally, as my relationships with two people who are dear to me feel like they’re ripping apart at the seams, both at the same time. There were a few days when I wanted to wail with the Psalmist, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!”
And then, you know, just to top it all off, yesterday I spilled boiling hot coffee on my foot and all over the counter on my way out the door.
This week I can sort of resonate with Jesus walking through the crowd by the sea – coming straight from the madness of one healing in the country of the Gerasenes right into Jairus’ need for his daughter’s healing; while the crowd continues to press in on him with their own needs, their own hopes, their own pains, their own longing for a messiah. The muchness is so great that he can’t even finish one miracle without being interrupted by more desperation!
Weeks like this one, I think we’re all that crowd pushing in: with rejoicing and mourning and confusion and anger and tentative happiness and grief and fear and maybe some more feelings we don’t even want to acknowledge yet. Probably some of us are looking for healing, like the people we meet in this passage, but all of us are looking for something.
* * *
Mark tells these healing stories together to make a point, or more probably several points. It’s a fast-paced gospel, and these two woven-together healings drive the narrative forward, picking up speed along with the urgency of Jesus’ mission and the assembling crowds.
But these two characters belong together for other reasons, too. They are a dramatic pair, this young girl who has grown up in a wealthy important house, together with this woman who has lost all the status she might have had because of her disease, declared unclean and therefore unable to worship, be in her family’s house, or even to be touched. She has spent all the money she had, trying to stop this bleeding that has continued as long as the girl has been alive. One has an influential father who can stride right up to Jesus on her behalf, while the other is so filled with shame that it takes all her courage to approach him unnoticed.
It seems to me that if we were to transplant this story to our place and time, Jairus and his daughter would probably have white skin like ours, and the unnamed woman would more than likely have brown or black skin. Right?
Jesus knows all this, too, about the women who need his healing, and so he knows just how shocking it will be when he stops following Jairus and says “Wait! I have to find this person.” Really?! That could have been anyone or no one, Jairus is thinking, and you’re going to take the time to find her while my daughter is dying?!?
Yes, Jesus would say, except he’s too busy now taking this woman’s hand, looking into her eyes, and hearing her story. Daughter, he calls her, you who had no family left are my family, and your faith has made you well. Your outlandish hope when you had no reason to have any more hope at all has finally healed you. For her it means not just a physical healing, but also a social restoration – you who had been cast out are welcomed back with love and healing touch.
And then Mark cuts back in and barely lets this lovely moment finish before word comes that Jairus’ daughter has died. But again, Jesus tells them that their faith is what matters. And this girl does not need the same kind of social restoration that the woman did, but she does need some pretty big healing!
And, for all the social implications of these juxtaposed healings, the girl is just as tenderly healed. Jesus takes her hand, with the ritual uncleanliness that implies now that she is dead, and she gets up and she walks and she eats.
* * *
Now I don’t know that I have a neat packaged message about these stories – because healing is messy and complicated, and why does healing seem to come so fast in some cases and take so long in others? If it is faith that makes us well, then why are so many good and faithful people suffering with disease and debilitation?
So I ask, how are we bleeding? What are the places in you that are crying out for healing? What is it for which you would throw yourself down at Jesus’ feet?
Who are the people around us who bleed, and what can we do about it?
* * *
Following in Jesus’ steps means that we might still need healing as much as anyone else, but we also are called to notice where hurting people have been kept out – and then to stop what we’re doing to take their hand and start to heal the wounds of exclusion.
And we do that not because we’ve never been wounded ourselves, but precisely because we have. In the midst of all these needs – all these conflicting emotions and joy in the midst of sorrow in the midst of hope – our strength comes from those places where we were hurt but have started to heal. And in those very scars we can see where others are still bleeding around us.
In those scars, in those places we may have felt cast out but now have been brought back by the healing love of friends, of family, of God, we can follow in those holy steps and search out the ones who need healing so badly they might slip through a crowd unnoticed, following their last hope.
Make no mistake, there are hurting people in this country, and the wounds cut deep. The events of these past weeks make that abundantly clear if it wasn’t already. And if we say we follow Jesus – prophet, messiah, and healer of wounded people – that must matter to us.
The sin of racism is woven deeply into our lives all over this country – and if we think it’s not our problem, then it most certainly is our problem. We who are white have a very particular responsibility at this time, and that is to start listening to the voices of hurt that we have tuned out or avoided or just disbelieved.
We are caught up in our own lives and our own swirls of emotion and hurt and need, and that is okay. But we have to notice when Jesus might take time out of helping us to turn to someone with an even deeper need, and would keep us waiting because theirs is the hurt that needs to be attended to right now.
* * *
And, you know, so much of Jesus’ healings was the social and communal reconnection that went along with the physical healing. We may not be able to raise people from the dead, but we surely do have the strength to begin to heal social wounds.
Our genuine connection with others will be healing for all of us, whether we know it yet or not. It is in our relationships where we find the greatest, holiest joy, along with all the difficulties and annoyance and pain. And that is true not just for our relationships with people we’ve decided are “like us,” but it is especially true when we’re able to make real connections with people who are different.
It is messy and complicated and hard, like so much of life if we’re honest. But we proclaim a God who does not give up on us, no matter how broken we are or what kind of mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, no matter how little breath is left in us or no breath at all: God does not give up on us. If there is one thing we can say about the healing love of God, it is that each and every one of us can trust it. Even when we are in the deepest pain, or grief, or loss, God’s healing comes through our faith and through the people around us.
In all the confusion of these weeks like all weeks, Jesus is there cutting a path through the crowd. Stick with him and somehow, we will all be healed.
Thanks be to God.
Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, May 17, 2015
Most of you will have gotten a letter from me this week letting you know that I am following a call to go back to school this fall, and moving to California. I will be with you through the beginning of August, and then I’m switching gears to return to full-time theological study. This is one of those momentous decisions that feels, to me, on par with choosing the twelfth apostle – although I guess it’s not quite as significant for Christianity as a whole.
But certainly we as a church are in a transitional moment now, just as the disciples were in these two moments on the eve of Jesus’ death, and then on the eve of Pentecost. And what they model and pray for us in times like these is an attitude of prayer, and of unity in God.
We as a congregation are in a season of transition, not just of leadership but also of your own identity and focus. A generous monetary gift might be the springboard for some of this discernment and refocusing, but the questions we’re asking in these times about who we are and what we value are bigger than simply deciding what to do with a chunk of money, even a very large one. In this changing cultural landscape, where churches simply don’t take on the same role they have in previous decades, individual churches like ours are faced with something of an identity crisis, right along with the big-C Church as a whole.
This week the Pew Research Center released their 2014 religious landscape study, confirming what many of us had probably suspected: the numbers of people in the US identifying with any Christian faith have dropped sharply even since their previous study in 2007. Our world is changing, rapidly, and we are not sure what to do about it. We are anxious, we are confused, we are scared – because the world we knew has changed, and we’re not quite sure how we’re supposed to act in this new world.
I think the apostles, Jesus’ closest friends, might know something about that.
In our reading from John, Jesus is about to be arrested and killed, and he is saying his long and drawn-out goodbyes around the dinner table. In the reading from Acts, Jesus has been resurrected and then ascended back to heaven and left them again. The disciples are a bit at loose ends because Jesus is gone and the Holy Spirit has not yet come with a hope for new things and a new mission to send them out with.
So they decide to have an election. Because that’s productive, right? Or at least it’s familiar.
Jesus had come and shook up the world they knew – upset everything they had known and taught them a whole new way of existing in the world. And now he’s gone again! So now what are we supposed to do?? Do we go back to the world we knew, before everything changed, and just try to hold on tight while everything changes around us? Do we pretend the world hasn’t changed, and just do what we’ve always done?
Or can we trust that the Holy Spirit is coming and will lead us into something new?
* * *
In the midst of all that uncertainty, the disciples gathered to pray. Which is a great start! But look at the contents of their prayer – instead of asking, “Okay, God, what next? What should we be doing now?” their prayer is shaped entirely by the assumptions that they’re bringing. It becomes, “Okay God, we need to replace Judas as an apostle, and here are the criteria we’ve set out, and there are two of us who meet those criteria. Can you help us pick one of these two men?”
That’s a very different sort of prayer. They were only listening for one very particular word from God, one predetermined direction, rather than being open to the possibility that God might lead them somewhere entirely new. And it’s hard to say whether Matthias was the right choice for the twelfth apostle, because neither he nor Justus appear again anywhere in the scriptures.
I wonder if God cared as much as they did about filling that twelfth chair at the table. It’s hard to say, because no one stopped to ask – or at least no one bothered to write that part down.
So as we start to consider our own transition, in leadership as well as in the bigger picture of what our mission might be in this new world, perhaps one lesson we might take from this text is the challenge to be open to new possibilities. Maybe the comfortable default answers used to be, okay, we’ll hire a new full-time pastor and we’ll stick all this money in the bank. And maybe that is what God wants for us in this moment amidst a rapidly-changing cultural landscape, and maybe it’s not.
Our challenge is to recognize the times when God is leading us, and when it is we’ve already decided where we want to go and we’re just tacking on God’s name at the end like an ecclesial seal of approval. We’ve already seen over the past 3 years that the old familiar model of one full-time pastor is not the only one for this community. This model of shared leadership has been a great and life-giving one, and yet I think trying to run out and just find another young pastor to slot in to this Associate Pastor role is not necessarily the right answer either.
I’d suggest, instead, that what we need to do is to let the transition be uncomfortable and strange for a minute. And I don’t just mean our particular leadership transition – I mean also the shift in culture around us and the change in our place in the world. Our world has changed, and will continue to change. Trying to deny that won’t help, and trying to act in all the old familiar ways isn’t going to work anymore. The world around us is just different than the world we once knew; as dramatically as the disciples’ world was different before Jesus died and after.
Their world after Easter would never be the same again – and yet for them to long for the good old days when Jesus was alive would completely miss the point.
* * *
Our scriptures are full of stories of God defying humanity’s expectations. We like sameness and familiarity, and yet God insists on changing things and making us new.
Jesus knew before he died that his disciples would be sent into a turmoil. And his prayer on their behalf is a prayer for their protection; he asks God, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” He does not ask for their comfort or their security, that they might have resources for the future, but he asks for God’s protection and the people’s unity.
And this, then, is our reassurance in the times of change and uncertainty: looking for God’s presence with us, and being in relationship with one another as closely as Jesus is with his Father, our Creator. The promise is not that our lives will be easy or stable as followers of Christ – far from it. But our comfort and our challenge is being with God and truly one with each other. As close, as mysteriously one-yet-different as are the beings of God and Jesus, this is how Jesus prays we might relate to one another, all the believers and all those who might come to believe.
In this strange union, we know God as we know each other. We can seek God’s will for us, and we come to know God better as we draw closer together in Jesus. Our way forward is always in God, and somehow we find God in our being together.
Friends, in all the change and excitement and anxiety that the next year or so will hold for us, however the particular faces change, let us be together in God, in prayer, and in fellowship with one another. Because in that we will know God.
Yesterday, I mailed this letter to my congregation. It’s time for a new chapter!!
My time with you began as an experiment — a new staffing arrangement for a new era of life at Head of Christiana. First I was a guest preacher, then nearly a year as Outreach Associate, and then we set out a two-year contract for my position as Associate Pastor, which will conclude this August.
And what a time it has been! Together we have been through Vacation Bible Schools, worship services both familiar and new, Theology on Tap meetings, Girl Scout Sundays, congregational discernment times, bible studies, baptisms, funerals, weddings, harp concerts, an expanded choir, and so much more.
I have also grown a great deal during our time together. I have been blessed in my experience preaching and leading worship with you, stretched and strengthened in efforts at community outreach, continually challenged with improvement in administrative areas, and always moved by the ways you have let me into your lives and welcomed my pastoral presence in difficult times.
The time has come for me to grow in a new direction: I have accepted admission to the doctoral program in Systematic Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and will begin there as a Ph.D. student this fall. My last Sunday with you will be August 2, and I will use a few days of study leave and my remaining vacation days as I relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area and begin this new chapter.
I am not finished with pastoral ministry, but it has become clear to me that my calling exists somewhere in the intersection of the church as it has been with the articulation (and then practice) of what it means to believe in the contemporary world. Head of Christiana has been an invaluable place for me to begin formal ministry, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to work in this unique community and get to know you, the devoted and talented people of God who have called this place home.
As with many transitions, mixed emotions seem only natural at this time! Every beginning is also an ending, and I will miss you deeply. But for now, I will remain a member of New Castle Presbytery, and will be very glad to see Head of Christiana’s continued growth and vibrant community spirit from afar.
Thank you so much for all you have meant to me! From the bottom of my heart, may Christ’s peace be with you.
Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, April 12, 2015
Amidst all the hand-wringing about young adults leaving the church, there’s a lot of guessing and a lot of speculation. So church scholar Diana Butler Bass set out to examine this idea we hear frequently of “spiritual but not religious,” and to actually break down what people mean by it, and what this phrase means for the church. So she started to explore the meaning and history of these two categories, ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious.’
One idea that goes together pretty closely with ‘religious’ is the concept of belief. Now we use the word ‘believe’ a lot. You’d think we’d at least agree on what it meant. And maybe we do, mostly, but it turns out that what we we mean when we say “I believe this” has changed a whole lot since the time when Thomas talked about having trouble believing in Jesus’ resurrection.
She starts out telling a story of a young woman she met when guest preaching at a small Lutheran church, known mainly for its potlucks and its quilting bees. They sat down at lunch together, and at some point the young woman says to her:
“I love this congregation. The people have become my family. But I don’t know what to say to my classmates when they ask me what I believe. Whenever I say ‘I believe in Christianity,’ they look at me as if I’m crazy. Besides, I don’t even know if I believe ‘in’ Christianity or Lutheran doctrine or anything like that. I just experience how to love God and how God loves me through these people, by learning how to quilt and singing these hymns. I don’t know what to call it, but it is less about believing and more about living. Does that still count as being a Christian?”
This student had trouble articulating what it is she “believes” in part because our modern understanding of belief seems to be mostly about intellectual assent, as if God is a yes or no question: “yes, I believe that God exists,” or “no, I do not,” with very few options in between. But Diana Butler Bass argues that this is a fairly recent evolution in our language: that until the last few centuries, the word “belief” was not about evidence or intellectual choice, but it was “more like a marriage vow – ‘I do’ as a pledge of faithfulness and loving service to and with the other.”
She quotes historian Wilfred Cantwell Smith: “The affirmation ‘I believe in God’ used to mean: ‘Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe, I hereby pledge to him my heart and soul. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to him.’ … Today the statement may be taken by some as meaning: ‘Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not, as a fact of modern life, I announce that my opinion is “yes.” I judge God to be existent.’”
That’s quite a shift, isn’t it?! She suggests that we might be better off translating “believe” as trust, to capture this idea of belief coming from the heart rather than from the brain. “I trust in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. I trust in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord. I trust in the Holy Ghost, I trust in the forgiveness of sins, I trust in the life everlasting. Amen.”
* * *
Our gospel story today is known to many as the story of Doubting Thomas, as if he’s the one disciple who just doesn’t get it, the one stubborn guy, when really he just wants what everyone else already got: to see Jesus!
And it’s not like everyone else was doing much better. They had all heard that Jesus had been raised, and yet there they are on Easter evening, hiding themselves away in a locked house, afraid. And then, amazingly, Jesus comes speaking peace, moving through even those locked doors and the fear that overcame them. But then a week later, even after Jesus sent them out with the Holy Spirit upon them, there they are again behind those same closed doors.
And Jesus comes to them again. We know Thomas needed to see him, and apparently the rest of the disciples needed to be reminded as well. They’re certainly not acting like Christ is risen and they were sent out into the world to proclaim it.
Jesus came for Thomas, sure. But Jesus also came because it really didn’t seem like the other disciples trusted this good news either.
Thomas got the scolding, perhaps; that line which usually gets translated “Do not doubt but believe.” And yet in the Greek, those words really mean something more like, “Do not be unbelieving but believing.” Or, maybe, “Do not be untrusting, but trusting.”
And then John’s summary sounds more like: “these are written so that you may come to trust that Jesus is the Messiah, and that through faith and trust you may have life in his name.”
“Distrustful Thomas” isn’t much better as far as Thomas’ reputation is concerned, but I do think that Jesus’ message to us can shift dramatically. We are not being asked to agree to the literal truth of the resurrection – even the first disciples and the gospel writers disagreed on exactly what happened and what Jesus looked or felt like after Easter! But we are told with Thomas to trust that Jesus is risen. To have faith. To profess our love for the resurrection of Christ.
* * *
And it’s a big deal to pledge allegiance to the risen Christ. This is much more about saying yes or no, or about checking a box on the to-do list for eternal life: yup, I’ve agreed that Jesus can be my Lord and savior if he wants to do that. Trusting that Christ is risen changes everything.
We get a little snapshot of what that might look like in our reading from the book of Acts. It’s a bit of a simplified portrait, to be sure, but think about what that might mean! “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” And they did this because they gave testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and they cared for one another as any of them had need.
And then the writer goes on to tell stories of some people living up to this ideal and some people having trouble with it, just like any community in the world. But what is held up is the idea that the resurrection of Jesus means caring for one another. And it means completely redefining the way they understood property and wealth, because it means completely reorienting themselves in the world.
Living into the resurrection of Christ, for them, meant really trying to live up to all the stuff Jesus had taught them about loving one another, in the very practical sense of caring for one another’s needs. “There was not a needy person among them,” because they had come to understand that living out their faith and proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection was not just about what words they said or what they did on Sunday mornings; it meant living their whole lives through the lens of Jesus’ teachings.
Suddenly the astounding fact that their messiah had been brutally executed and then came back meant that all their assumptions about the way life was and how people were just supposed to live because that’s the way the world worked – suddenly everything changes. Suddenly death might not even mean death anymore, and so why should they let the world tell them that they should really be saving some money for themselves when Jesus has just turned that world upside down?
* * *
Well sure, we might say, that’s all well and good for them. They were caught up in the excitement of the newness of the church, and they didn’t have to worry about saving for retirement because they didn’t live as long as we will. If they’d seen Jesus during his life it’s no wonder they’d be excited! And didn’t they think Christ would be coming back soon? We know better now.
Maybe so, but let me assure you that this picture of the early believers would have been just as counter-cultural then as it is today. People still had the same motivation to look out for their own futures, their own families, their own security in a world where the future was even less secure than our own. I’m sure they got the same eye rolls from their neighbors about those darn hippies.
And they did it anyway, because they had experienced something amazing in their contact with Jesus’ teachings and followers. It wasn’t a well-reasoned explanation of how salvation worked, it wasn’t a logical exposition of the way that following Jesus’ teachings would lead to increased happiness. They had experienced the love of God and the love of a community, and they trusted that.
In the words of the Lutheran student who talked with Diana Butler Bass, it’s less about believing and more about living.
And in our belief-centric world, we’ve lost some of the passion that drove the early church to their radical change of life inspired by the resurrection. Sure, we might “believe” it. Yes, we can say with some historical certainty that there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, and that his followers afterward experienced him as alive again. But can we trust it? Can we pledge our hearts and souls to the resurrection of Christ? What does that even mean?
Like Thomas we have been separated from the experience of those who first met the risen Christ. We have heard testimony, but we are skeptical. Okay, Jesus is back, if you say so. We’ve heard stories, but we haven’t quite witnessed the power of the resurrection to change anything.
So what on earth does it have to do with me? That happened two thousand years ago, halfway around the world. I’m just going about my life, planning for things to happen the way I expect them to happen, saving for the future, because I certainly don’t expect anything miraculous to happen. The world just doesn’t work that way.
Until I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not trust this crazy story. I will not allow the risen Christ to change my life.
Friends, we have heard the testimony from believers through the ages: Christ is risen. The world has changed. Can we trust this amazing news?
Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, April 5 2015, at the Easter Sunrise service outside next to the cemetery
A cemetery is a strange place, isn’t it? Eerie, sometimes. Often for us it occupies an in-between space of life meeting death, death meeting life. We don’t like to think about what happens there, once the bodies get into their graves. Oftentimes we don’t even get that far – we leave the casket perched on its rollers, hovering above the emptiness, as we say one last prayer and then turn away to let the funeral staff take care of getting the body, finally, underground.
The same is true for that odd silent day called Holy Saturday. It is the nether space between the mourning of Good Friday and the rejoicing of Easter Sunday; and when it begins, Jesus is in the tomb, and then by the time we get back at sunrise on Easter morning, the tomb is empty and the graveclothes are folded, no longer needed.
And we don’t quite know what happened in between. We don’t know what was going on that day, under the earth in the deep cool stillness of the tomb.
Was Jesus weaving a silken cocoon around himself, to grow wings and burst out just before morning, renewed and transformed? Or was Jesus busy descending into Hell, as the creeds affirm, grasping souls by the hand and pulling them up out of torment, like some grand Renaissance painting? Was he observing his sabbath, lying there on the hard stone shelf, coming slowly back to consciousness as God painstakingly knit his flesh back together?
How do we get from the agony and despair of the crucifixion to the astounding joy and new life of Easter morning?
And the truth is, we don’t know, and we won’t know. But the mystery is one of the things I love most about Easter, when we get right down to it.
I don’t know how God brings life out of death; all I know is God does. I don’t know how broken places are healed or torn things get mended or despair ever becomes hope. All I know is that, sure as the night becomes day, healing comes. And the scars will still remain, but slowly the blood clots and the wound scabs over and the white blood cells work away, and the skin regrows.
Well sure, but most of the time dead things stay dead! Yes. Except this one time they didn’t.
And what Easter means for me is that God is life, and God is love, and God can do whatever God wants for God’s beloved ones.
And I know that there is one force pulling us toward death, whether you call that entropy or sin or just the way the world works; and there is something else pulling us back toward wholeness and life and love. I know I am caught in their tug-of-war, and I suspect we all are, most of the time.
* * *
And so this mystery – the sacred unknowing of these in-between spaces – that mystery means that God does not need us to be good enough or devoted enough or pious enough to “deserve” to be healed. That’s what grace is about. Somehow, miraculously, God finds us where we are, wherever we are, and tugs us back toward life.
Whether we’re feeling lost and alone, or mostly okay except for the nagging doubts in the back of our mind that we just don’t look at too closely, or like we might as well be dead in the tomb with Jesus, God is there with us. God has been there, God is there, and God brings life there too.
Sometimes it comes so slow we might not notice right away, and sometimes it’s a rush of warmth like a bear hug from a dear friend, and suddenly the weight lifts from your chest and the world is a little less broken. All these things that tug us back toward life – these are God and these are Easter, and sometimes there is nothing else to do but throw back our heads and shout in thanksgiving.
Christ is risen! Indeed! And so I lift my voice with the poet e.e. cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)