It’s the Little Things

The featured image is courtesy of Catholic Online

In the reading from the First Book of the Kings the prophet Elijah is in a pitiful state of mind. He has just come from a major confrontation with the prophets of the Phoenician God Baal which has deeply angered Queen Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of Ahab, king of the northern kingdom of Israel. She’s now out for his blood. Despite his great victory over the prophets of Baal, his courage fails him, and Elijah flees to the southern kingdom of Judah from where he takes a day’s journey into the wilderness where he simply gives up and prepares to die under a broom tree. Yet, God has other plans for Elijah and I’ll return to these later.

By temperament I am drawn to the big brushstroke vision end of the spectrum. This means that for me being faithful in little things does not always come easily.

In her book, No Greater Love, Mother Teresa of Calcutta  writes, “Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .

This is a timely reminder for me and I suggest for all of us.

Always be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .

Mother Teresa

Last Thursday John Bracken, our Senior Warden, hosted a lunch for previous churchwardens – those still living, that is. Nine were able to accept John’s invitation and gathered around a long lunch table for what in essence became a process of shared reminiscence. We heard how each warden in their time had faced and surmounted difficult challenges. Amidst tales of woe, there was also much laughter as we mused upon some of the absurdities of human behavior.

No one at the table on Thursday imagined themselves as heroes who had achieved great things. In fact, I felt their experience was more akin to an attrition by a thousand small and tedious cuts. Yet listening to the men and women around that table brought home to me my deep admiration and gratitude for all those who when called answered the call to serve. In so doing these former churchwardens revealed a quality that Mother Teresa called the practice of fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that God is doing in our midst.

Sometimes we approach the call to be faithful with gritted teeth. But fidelity is a joyful experience and if we can be careful to note the desire to overreach, we can relax and enjoy being faithful, and take time and trouble in the small things of life.

An important question for all of us to ask ourselves is what sustains our life together in community? As I’ve noted community life can often feel like attrition of a thousand cuts that leave us drained and worn out. Servanthood can be costly and therein lies its real value because there’s no such thing as cheap grace.

Since Easter, increasingly aware of approaching the beginning of my sixth anniversary as rector, I had been asking God what is it that will emerge to sustain me for the next phase of my journey at St Martin’s. God responded with: I’m giving you the roof, Fr. Mark!

Actually, God doesn’t address me as Fr. Mark, but that’s beside the point for I have definitely heard the message of it’s the church roof. All I can say to that is ha God, you’re quite the joker!

This was not the message I wanted to hear. In fact, it frightened me because it immediately raised a question in my mind – will I be able to rise to this challenge? As the reality of a major renovation and the anticipation of a capital campaign sinks in, what I am coming to understand more clearly is that the roof is a catalyst for moving St Martin’s into the next phase of our journey as a community.

So, I want to share with you what I have discerned so far.

​Firstly, the church roof and tower are clearly physical realities that need urgent attention. Yet, they are also symbols and metaphors for something more than blocks of stone and strips of copper flashing.

​Secondly, roofs and walls are metaphors in stone and slate for the protection and nurturance of Christian community. We have been given a trust to fulfill so that our children and their children (metaphorically speaking) will find a spiritual home under the shelter of this roof and within the protection of these walls.

​Thirdly, in the course of new renovation work we ​will ​have an opportunity to also update our facilities so to become a better resource for the wider community we are here to serve.

​Finally, the building as​ a​ temple is only a metaphor for the community as the temple of God’s presence in the world. Mounting a long overdue capital campaign enabling us to provide for a dynamic future, built on the solid foundations of a strong community will challenge us, ​requiring us to dig deeper discipleship wells in our own spiritual garden.

In First Kings 19 a passage rich in symbolism Elijah, who has slumped down under a broom tree, waiting to die, is roused from his lethargy and given food that will sustain him on his journey to the mountain of God where in an earlier time Moses had encountered God. Whether he realizes it or not, at a point of real crisis when the covenant between God and Israel is in real peril, Elijah returns to Israel’s spiritual wellspring.

However, despite this Elijah still does not know why he’s come. When God asks him why are you here? he continues to cry out in self-pity: why me, God; why has this disaster come to me; how can it be that I am left as the only prophet in Israel? Elijah in his depression and self-pity has forgotten that he’s not alone for at least 100 other prophets of Yahweh have also escaped Jezebel’s wrath.

Elijah is then given a lesson about the source of spiritual courage. He witnesses God’s devastating display of pyrotechnics; which seems thrown in simply for entertainment value.  After the noise and turbulence subside there comes upon Elijah the experience of sheer silence. This palpable silence piques his curiosity and draws him to the opening of the cave. This is as much a metaphor for emerging from shock and depression as it is a description of emerging from the physical cave in which he’s found shelter.

Elijah emerges into the silence to hear once again God’s question: what are you doing here Elijah? Although from the text Elijah seems to give his previous answer to this question, something in him has shifted. Elijah has discovered through the sheer silence of God’s communication that faithfulness is a series of small steps taken one after another. He’s now ready to hear God calling him to return to his mission.

. . . Be faithful in little things, for in them our strength lies. To God nothing is little . . . Practice fidelity in the least things, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the great thing that is the will of God . . .

Teresa of Calcutta

Happy Father’s Day and Happy Trinity!

The Easter Season comes to a close with three essential recognitions:

  • The first is the Ascension of Jesus at which God embraced the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. Can you imagine what that means? Being fully human is not simply a projection of the divine nature, but that the full humanity of the Our-Space dimension is now incorporated into the energies of the God-Space. If there was only one reason to be Christian, for me, this insight is it because of its implications for the way we live in Our-Space i.e., to be fully human is to be most like the divine.
  • The second concerns the meaning of the day of Pentecost. which I liken to the contra-flow to the Ascension through which the energies of the God-Space flow across the dimensional membrane to infiltrate and infuse Our-Space.
  • The third recognition is the celebration of the Holy Trinity.

Some of us are God people in that our temperament is attracted to the mysteriousness and essential un-knowable-ness of God the creator. I myself have a strong sympathy in this direction.

Others of us are Jesus people in that it’s the intimacy of God in the face, the life and actions of the human Jesus that speak to us because he was like us in every way. Because I’ve admitted my sympathies for the God the creator, I am also attracted to knowable-ness of God in the humanity in Jesus Yet, at times it’s all too close for comfort. Being ever mindful of God radiating through the human face of Jesus requires me to live with greater care and concern for my human neighbors than I feel comfortable with most of the time.

However, there is a third temperamental option – and some of us are Spirit people who just pulsate with the power and energy of the Spirit’s infusion. My temperament makes being a Spirit person the least likely option, Although I am not without passion, to live too closely to it is way too hot, too emotional for me. Spirit people run a gamut. Aat one end, there are those whose passion and energy achieve pioneering things, realigning the experience in Our-Space more closely with the expectations of the God-Space. At the other, lie those who luxuriate in a warm sentimental spiritual bath which celebrates the hubris of individualism. These are those who say they don’t need to be religious to be spiritual, those who don’t need to be a contributor to the work of God’s people in this world to be close to God.

After the death and resurrection of Jesus his followers were faced with reconciling an experience of God that contradicted everything they as Jews had come to understand about God.

These first followers of Jesus and those for several generations who followed after were not Christians as we understand the term.

We assume a clear-cut separation between Christianity and Judaism. Those we call early Christians simply thought of their new understanding of God as one option within a range of competing visions for 1st and 2nd-century Judaism – particularly in the period following the destruction of the Temple. However, it’s their new understanding of God that makes them stand out and leads eventually to what we now recognize as a separation into two distinct yet interconnected religious traditions.

The followers of Jesus knew God as the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They knew about the mysterious un-knowable-ness of God the Creator. Yet, they’d also had an experience of God encountered within the intimate boundaries of a human relationship with Jesus of Nazareth, who inextricably had died and yet been resurrected to a new life, a life after life after death. After Pentecost, they had come to know God as the all infusing and empowering Spiritual presence in the world. Jesus was no longer with his disciples because he had become Jesus now in his disciples; reshaping them into a new experience of being human that shaped and reshaped the magnetic nature of the way they lived together in communities – communities that eventually changed the ancient world.

Eventually, by around the 4th-5th centuries the immediacy of this early experience of God mediated in three distinct, yet unified experiences had dimmed with the result that a whole host of competing explanations about who and what Jesus was and the nature of his relationship to God arose to endanger the distinctiveness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus.

Was Jesus just a man (Arianism) or was he really a God in disguise (Docetism)? Was the Holy Spirit the spirit of Jesus in the world or was it an independent force that allowed an end-run around Jesus making him redundant because the believer now had an unmediated and individualized relationship with God (Gnosticism).

What we know as the doctrine of the Trinity as distinct from the intuitive experience of the triune God arose as a need not to explain the mystery of God, but to protect the mystery of God and the Christians experience of God from being reduced to only that which human beings in this or that time and place were able to comprehend rationally – a bit like the modern practice of rewriting the creed so that it makes rational sense to us in our day and age. For modern people the doctrine of the Trinity is couched in a philosophical language that is no longer ours and which we don’t really understand. Yet, maybe even in the 4th-5th-centuries it was no better understood because to make it comprehensible was never the aim. 

This brings me to my central point.  

The doctrine of the Trinity is not an explanation of the mystery of God but a protection of God’s freedom from being reduced and imprisoned within the limitations of human understanding.

In the 14th-century the Russian painter Anton Rublev conceived the revelation of the Trinity as three figures seated around a table. What’s most striking about Rublev’s icon is that each of the figures has exactly the same face. They gaze upon one another with exactly the same look of loving intimacy. Except for their dress and location around the table the figures are each mirror reflections of each other. The essence of the relationship between them lies in the quality of their mutual gaze; a gaze of loving recognition of their shared identity.

We are made to be relationship seeking beings. We find ourselves reflected in one another within the context of relationships and communities. In short, human beings are both relational and communal by nature. Why is this so?

The answer is that we are made in the image of a God who is a trinity – a divine community formed out of the interplay of loving relationship. The distinct elements of the divine community that we traditionally refer to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not a statement about God’s gender but God’s mutual relationality. You can come up with alternative terms so long as these are capable of denoting the mutual relationships within the divine community. In this regard I prefer Lover, Beloved, and Love-Sharer to bring home to us a sense of ourselves as reflecting the centrality of relationship and community – the essential attributes of God. For instance, this is in sharp distinction to the attempt to escape gendered language by referring to God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. These are descriptors of function not articulations of relationship.

We thus become free to celebrate the multiple expressions of relationality encompassed within the divine nature. In 2019 the coincidence between the date of the Trinity and Father’s Day enables us to celebrate our human fathers [1]as the all too often imperfect but necessary and much loved expressions of the creativity, protection, and containing nurture of fatherhood of God.

Happy Father’s Day and happy Trinity Sunday!


[1]

  • Fatherhood is the masculine principle of creation, and a counterpart to the feminine principle of receptivity motherhood – both equally core attributes of God.
  • When our male fathers embody the divine principle of fatherhood, they become co-creators not just in the sense of biological procreation but as creators and protectors of an environmental and emotional space– within which the mother and infant experience an uninterrupted enjoyment of one another.
  • Fatherhood as a masculine principle is not coterminous with male gender.
  • Fathers need not be perfect but like mothers, need only to be good enough. They will sometimes fail in their early role as creators and protectors of the mother-infant relationship due to their own emotional unpreparedness for their role.

God’s Grandeur: Pentecost 2019

Prologue

Learning to read was a great gift to our granddaughter Claire – who has continued-on to become an avid reader. As a 3-year-old she would mimic her parents reading in bed. Lying on their bed she wanted to show us that she too could read a book. She would gabble away to herself in her 3-year-old language, clearly delighting in some gripping yarn, all the while completely oblivious to the fact that she was ostensibly reading the book upside-down.

When Claire first started reading whole books, I would ask her what she was reading? I’m reading a chapterbook, she would reply. I was struck by her response, which was to tell me about the type of book she was reading and not its content. By referring to her book as a chapterbook she got me thinking about the nature of story. Chapters organize the development and progression of  more complex stories. That was the point she had grasped; she was no longer reading books with a single simple story but was now reading books where the story progressed in stages by means of chapters.

Chapter 1

The term theology often has an adjective attached. For example, there is systematic, moral, pastoral, soteriological (salvation), ecclesial, mystical, and process theology, etc., etc. To call myself a theologian always seems somewhat pretensions and overblown, yet even if I think of myself as more of a practitioner, I guess theologian is an appropriate title for who I am and what I do.

But what kind of theologian am I? I suppose the adjective the I would attach to the title theologian would be narrative. As I continually assert in the entries of this blog, narratives are the building blocks of meaning. We make sense of the world around us, including making sense of ourselves to ourselves as well as to others through the construction of stories.

Constructing a story to make sense of her 3-year-old world was what Claire was doing when she lay on her parents’ bed mimicking their reading. It was irrelevant to her construction of a story that she was holding her book upside down. At 3-years of age, the problem for the rest of us was that only she could understand the story she was making.

The Bible is in a sense like one of Claire’s chapterbooks. It builds the story of God chapter by chapter. It’s primarily a story about God told from our perspective and each chapter is our attempt at making sense of our world.

Chapter 2

For Christians, the Story of Jesus forms the penultimate section of chapters in the long Biblical story. The the story of Jesus builds through the chapters chronicling Jesus’ birth. We read of his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, before coming to a close with his ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church as the continuance of Jesus’ ministry in the world.

The Jesus chapters form the penultimate part of the chapterbook of God because as Patel, the hotel manager in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reminds us: Everything will be alright in the end and if it’s not alright, it is not yet the end.

Continuing with my analogy of the Bible as a chapterbook, Pentecost is the final chapter in the story of the Jesus cycle. In the previous chapter of the story called the Ascension, the all too human Jesus has passed through the membrane separating the parallel worlds of Our-Space and God-Space. As parallel dimensions, Our-Space and God-Space occupy the same location although separated by a permeable membrane that allows energy to flow from one to the other.

At the Ascension the post-resurrection but still human body of Jesus passes through the membrane from Our-Space to God-Space. In doing so Jesus does not jettison his humanity like a worn-out suit of clothes in order to don a new divine suit on the other side.vIn the Ascension, it’s his very humanity that is embraced and incorporated into the nature of God’s self.

In the present chapter called Pentecost, energy passes in the opposite direction, i.e. from God-Space to Our-Space. Having received Jesus’ full humanity into the divine nature, God now sends the divine Spirit back through the membrane to empower us – now constituted as the community called Church – to continue the work begun by Jesus.

Chapter 3

We have two ways of talking about Pentecost – the 50th day after Easter. The first focuses on the pyrotechnics of the day: wind, fire, and an experience of instantaneous translation between the speakers of myriad of languages. The second is to develop a wider perspective with a focus on the fruits of the day itself.

Tom Wright describes Pentecost as:

the moment when the personal presence of Jesus with the disciples is translated into the personal power of Jesus in the disciples

Pentecost Day Sermon 2017

This is how Luke tells the story.

Awe came upon everyone, ….All who belonged were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

Acts 2

Luke’s description of the early Christian community is a description of what Our-Space infused with the energies of God-Space looks like. Equality and magnetic inclusion become the hallmarks of such a community where the phrase: from all according to ability -to all according to need – is lived out in real time. This produced among the first Christians the most magnetic community that drew increasing numbers of people into a new way of being human – in a new kind of community – namely –a community investing itself in those who had yet to become members.

Chapter 4

This image of Christian community frightens us – and so it should! For it stands as a perpetual indictment upon the values and practices thatwe live by in our own society.

Luke’s story in Acts 2 raises serious questions for us. Chief among them is how is this vision of transformation and risky living shaping the story we currently tell ourselves about American society? Clearly, there are several answers to this question because there are always competing visions. What matters is not the competing visions for our society, but the kind of Christianity that informs these visions?

As Episcopalians we pride ourselves on espousing a tolerant inclusive Christian vision. Yet, while heavy on tolerance and inclusion we run light on accountability. We like faith as a comfort as long as we can remain unchanged by its disturbing imperatives.

Many of us understand faith as personally life changing. We also understand that there is a connection between personal transformation and the process for social change – the WWJD -what would Jesus do, question. Yet, we also expect our faith to let us off lightly by making few demands on us. We do not expect to be made accountable to the imperatives of our faith.

The presence of God’s Spirit in the world of Our-Space demands of us transformation along the lines experienced by the first Christians.

To make a start:

  • We cannot engage in acts of charity towards the less fortunate while failing to confront systems that deprive whole communities of access to the fruits we expect to enjoy.
  • We cannot reject calls for personal accountability in our communities – leaving when we fell challenged or uncomfortable might be an option for members but not disciples.
  • The story we live by tells us we need to feel troubled if the fruits of our own material success blind us to the inequalities in wider society.
  • We need to stop expecting our faith to insulate us and allow it to disturb us.

Conclusion

Next Sunday, Trinity Sunday, signals the beginning of my 6th year at St Martin’s. I view my first five years as the period when we together stabilized the parish community and prepared it for new change and growth by deepening our encounter with spiritual resources, chiefly the Bible. So, what will the next five years bring us? More particularly, how will our challenges open us and to unforeseen possibilities? All I know at the moment is that without challenge, the stability we have achieved will slowly dissipate over time.

Pentecost reminds us that in looking forward to the next stage of community life, we know three things:

  1. In a community where many of us earn our daily bread in the financial investment sector, we of all people should know that the more we invest, the richer the return on our investment.
  2. Therefore, our community is only as real as the energy we invest in transforming whatever challenges lie ahead into opportunities.
  3. That which we can imagine for ourselves; that which through hard work and effort we can build by ourselves, pales in comparison to that which God – working through us – can and will empower us into.

Let us not forget that Pentecost celebrates:

the moment when the personal presence of Jesus with the disciples was translated into the personal power of Jesus in the disciples. 

PARAPHRASE of N.T. Wright

Now herein lies both our challenge and our opportunity!

Nobody’s Free until Everybody’s Free

Easter 7 Year C  Acts 16:16-34   

A sermon from Linda Mackie Griggs

It’s sad that I almost forgot about a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer. The daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, she was a community organizer and civil rights, voting rights, and women’s rights activist who was poll-taxed, literacy-tested, censored, arrested and mercilessly beaten in her struggle for justice and equality in the 1960’s and early 70’s. In her speech at the founding of the Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 she made the declaration that you just heard.

“The changes that we have to have in this country are going to be for the liberation of all people—because nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Fannie Lou Hamer

Hamer was outshone by other bright figures in the movement—M.L. King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, but her courage and persistence in the face of so many obstacles deserves more than a footnote in history.

That’s why it’s sad that I almost forgot her. Growing up in (barely) post-Jim Crow Virginia I didn’t hear much about her—certainly not in school–so I suppose it’s understandable. Threats to the racial status quo were rarely part of the standard school curriculum in my part of the country. But those of us who didn’t learn enough about Fannie Lou Hamer missed out. And since she has shown up on my radar twice now in the past few weeks, I’m taking the opportunity to see what she still has to say.

Today’s lesson from Acts is all about freedom and becoming free. It’s also about what still enslaves us.

The Acts of the Apostles, or Acts, is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author. Luke’s Gospel ends, and Acts begins, with the same event; the Ascension of Jesus into glory at God’s right hand, which we celebrated this past Thursday evening, marking 40 days after the Resurrection. This period we are now in—the ten days from Ascension to Pentecost next Sunday, marks the birthing of the Church. Acts chronicles the first steps of the Body of Christ as the growing communities wrestled with what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

It isn’t called “Acts” for nothing. It is one adventure after another as Paul, Peter, Silas, Timothy and the gang encounter mobs and demons, shipwrecks and assassination plots, miraculous healings and impossible escapes as they make their way around the Mediterranean world spreading the Good News and expanding the Church by leaps and bounds.

It is exciting and fun to read, but there is more to the story than action, drama, and the occasional earthquake ex machina. Today’s passage is about encounters with various kinds of enslavement: Paul, Silas, and their companions arrive in Philippi, a colony that is under Roman political domination. They encounter a woman possessed both by master and spirit. The apostles are imprisoned and tortured for threatening to upend the cultural and political status quo. The shackles aren’t just in the inner chamber of the dungeon—they are everywhere in this story—political, cultural, economic, and spiritual.  This story is about how the bound became free; but not all of them. It’s about whether, at the end of the tale, we will not only celebrate those who have been liberated, but remember that one has been left behind.

…as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.

Paul being quoted by Luke

This is a woman twice-bound: possessed both by a spirit and by her owners, for whom she is a source of income. As she hounds Paul for days, identifying him to everyone as a follower of Jesus, we wonder what is wrong with her message. Is she not speaking the truth that the missionaries serve God and proclaim the Good News? Yes, but the context is important. The word Luke uses for the spirit of divination is very specific—pneuma puthonos, or spirit of Python. Python is the mythological snake, slain by Apollo, which once guarded the Oracle at Delphi. So when Paul, finally fed up by being badgered by this spirit, orders it to leave the woman, he is exerting power, not over a demon, but over a vital cultural norm of the Roman community; the worship of pagan gods. Anti-Jewish sentiment was already powerful in the colony, and what Paul has done is a major insult.

So the woman is freed from the spirit, but remains bound to her masters, who now see her as useless to them, and for this they publicly blame Paul and his friends:

These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.

Christians were perceived by Romans to be a threat to the order and organization that made their civilization—the Pax Romana—possible and successful. Obedience and conformity to societal norms were hallmarks of the Roman way of life, and these upstart Christian Jews, who worshiped just one God, refused to pay allegiance to the emperor, and whose worship included cannibalism (body and blood, really?) were not to be tolerated.

One of the characteristics of Empire is its need to preserve itself, often regardless of the cost. And thus the brutal treatment of Paul and his friends is accepted as justified. But the jailer arguably shows himself to be as much victim as perpetrator in this situation. Imagine knowing that your only choice in the face of disaster is to kill yourself: Is he not as bound by the Empire as are his captives? So in the aftermath of the earthquake and in the presence of God’s mercy, is he not also freed? He is free to feed the hungry prisoners and to bind up their wounds. And he is freed to spread the Good News to others, adding to the growing tally of baptized believers.

Richard Rohr would describe the liberation of the jailer in terms of transformation through the Spirit: transforming the jailer from being a hurt person hurting people into being a wounded healer healing people. Because God’s liberation is not just the liberation of the oppressed. It is the liberation of the oppressor. The freedom into which most of the people in this story emerge is not a freedom to do whatever they want. It is the freedom to follow God’s call to serve and proclaim, free of the shackles of fear of difference and unrealistic expectations in others and ourselves; freedom to be vulnerable and to serve with joy. It is freedom from the need to commodify our relationships–of objectifying others as a means to our own ends, and instead being freed to relate to everyone as the beloved children of God that they are.

This story calls us to celebrate God’s liberating power. It calls us to celebrate the courage and trust it takes to surrender to the freedom of the Kingdom work of healing, compassion and justice.

And this story calls us to do something else. Something we almost forgot.

Remember?

Remember the slave girl? Remember that, freed of the spirit of divination, she is no longer of monetary value to her masters. She is now silent; she hasn’t said a word since Paul’s exorcism. She is the one person in this story for whom freedom is not complete.  The potential future scenarios for a woman no longer of worth or profitable use in the first century Roman world are not pleasant to contemplate. Her fate is a lingering question, a part of the story that remains unwritten. What are we to make of it?

Let her silence speak to us. Let it speak for all those in every age who remain economically culturally, politically, or spiritually imprisoned or enslaved. Let this silent nameless woman speak for them.

Never forget: Nobody’s free until everybody’s free

Amen.

Memorial Sunday Thoughts

The Memorial Day weekend betokens the promises of summer. We are all exhausted; exhausted by the long grueling New England winter; exhausted by a culture of work that despite its rhetoric despises and works against the interests of an effective work-life balance; exhausted by low paying and therefore the need for often multiple jobs. Our kids are exhausted by an outdated culture of teaching to tests and the consequent parental anxiety that results in overscheduling. The three-day Memorial Day Weekend is a godsend for many of us, and so I trust that families and friends will find time for well needed recreation.

However, the three-day weekend commemorates a more solemn theme; which is an invitation to a grateful nation to honor the men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

After 20 years of involvement in continual low level conflict in the Middle East sanctioned by a seeming permanent State of Emergency, we face the risk of growing even more cynical about of our national global military strategy, or the seeming lack thereof.

In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and A Great War Joseph Laconte writing about the tenacity and courage of the ordinary British soldiers who endured the unspeakable horrors in the trenches of the Great War, comments:

Historians still debate the ultimate achievement of these soldiers, and the causes for which they fought. Were they merely fodder for a vast and merciless military machine that ravaged Europe to no good end? Or did they play a vital role in halting ….. aggression and preventing the dominance of a brutal and oppressive juggernaut over the Continent?

In this section of the book, Laconte is locating the origins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision for the Hobbits and the role they played in his seminal Lord of the Rings epic. Tolkien the soldier, lived among, and fought alongside, very ordinary men plucked from the shires and towns of the British Isles. Laconte continues:

Thus the “small people” who fought and suffered in the Great War helped inspire the creation of the unlikely heroes in Tolkien’s greatest imaginative work.

Joseph Leconte

Laconte’s words could equally be applied to the men who made up the armies of the American Civil War; men plucked from the farms and towns of a nation barely 90 years old. It is said that there is no more brutal conflict than when fellow citizens – brothers, cousins, fathers and uncles take up arms against one another. As the armies of the Civil War crossed and re-crossed each other in what must at the time have seemed an endless game of tug-of-war for territory and advantage, it was also the women, the children, and the old men who remained at home who bore the brunt of this savage conflict. The American Civil War was the first mechanized war of the modern era. It presaged the true horror of a fully mechanized conflict between industrialized nations in the First World War, still rightly referred to as the Great War.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. He commented that:

The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.

General John A. Logan

Decoration Day, as Memorial Day was first known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. [1]

In 2019, the commemoration of the nation’s fallen in war evokes complex feelings. The great national emergencies of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War make it easy to feel proud of our experience of war. Both wars were fought in pursuit of a noble cause. However, the Vietnam War together with today’s continuous low level conflict in the Middle East evoke more ambivalent feelings in us about the merits of war.

Today, Memorial Day reminds us of a largely hidden veteran presence among us; a population of minds and bodies scarred by the trauma of war; war no longer as an epic struggle involving the whole nation, but of war as an interminable state of low level conflict the brunt of which is born by members of racially and economically deprived sections of society.

In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, And A Great War, Joseph Laconte seeks to uncover the sources of the hugely imaginative writings of J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S Lewis. Both men enjoyed a strong friendship forged by their common experience in the First World War. Their friendship grew out of a mutual need to take the memory of the horror of their experience of war and sublimate it into imaginative works of fiction that hold in tension the horror of war with the hope for something better. Together, Tolkien and Lewis created a transgenerational rediscovery of faith, friendship, and heroism.

In 1912, Cecil Spring Rice was appointed Ambassador from the Court of St James (Great Britain) to the United States. He was hugely influential in persuading Woodrow Wilson to commit America’s entry into the Great War. In 1918 he was recalled to Britain. Before he left he penned the words to the text that became the hymn I vow to thee my country. Rice’s words were later set by Gustav Holst to the tune Thaxted, a tune taken from the Jupiter Movement of his Planets Suite.

The two verses of the hymn are juxtaposed and give voice to a tension – a tension that also weaves its way in and out of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ writing; a tension we are today still grappling with. Is love of country and love of God one in the same?  Often these two loves are rolled together as if they are one, to love country is to love God and vice versa. But Rice juxtaposes the verses to evoke a tension between two kinds of love.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Cecil Spring Rice

The love that leads men and women to sacrifice their lives in war, while noble is also regrettable and grieves the heart of God. If we could but focus on our love of God, perhaps war as the embodiment of love of country would no longer be a continued reality in our national life.

Nevertheless, we can leave the unanswered questions about the purpose for and end achieved by particular wars. With gratitude we remember those who willingly, yet also with regret, were called upon to give their lives simply because they were unfortunate enough to live in a time when this sacrifice was asked of them. Let us pray that it not be asked of us.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. For the Fallen, Robert Laurence Binyon


[1] Taken form the History.Com

Heaven on Earth

Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven, love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_ju7o4Kl6Y

I am grateful to Bret Neely in the blog A Plain Account for reminding me of Belinda Carlisle and her song, a veritable blast from the past for all us 80’s boppers. Belinda Carlisle spoke about the song as a song of hope that might encourage each of us to make our lives a little piece of heaven on earth.

I am today, by which I mean that I have not always been, a card-carrying member of the Tom Wright fan club. Tom Wright is an Anglican bishop and our Tradition’s foremost biblical scholar -more commonly known in his writing as N.T. Wright.  

I am not uncritical of some of his more socially conservative opinions, but in the area of biblical scholarship I find him inspiring. In his book Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright tells us that:

Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. 

Many Christians today think that resurrection means being raised to spiritual life after death. According to this view resurrection is a triumph of love over death. We don’t need to worry too much about what did or did not happen at the resurrection of Jesus – empty tomb and all that – because resurrection is really an internal spiritual experience that means that all of us will go to heaven to live with God after we die. This is the theology of pie in the sky when you die. This may be a cleaver example of alliteration where each succeeding word repeats the sound of the proceeding one, but it is truly, terrible theology.

In fact, this is not a Christian theology at all because it severs resurrection hope from its context in God’s age-long promise.  Throughout the Old Testament God continually affirms his promise of a final resurrection of creation in a new heaven and a new earth at the end of time. It’s only within the continuity of this promise of final fulfilment of creation itself, that the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day makes any sense. Jesus’ resurrection is not a generalizable spiritual event. It’s a next step in the unfolding of God’s purposes, made plain in the promise of total renewal of the creation in a new heaven and new earth.

On Easter day I spoke about living between two bookends. Our earthly life unfolds between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of in a new heaven and new earth. Tom Wright speaks of the resurrection of Jesus as a foretaste of the future brought into real time as God’s promise of the kind of future we should anticipate in the present.

This first point is this. There is the important distinction between simply looking forward to a future fulfilment of the promise and anticipating the future promise as if it is already in the process of being fulfilled in the present. Anticipation is all!

Anticipating the future promise as if it is already in the process of being fulfilled in the present. Anticipation is all!

Tom Wright contends that the first Christians deliberately used the Jewish concept of resurrection –a belief they shared with many other Jews, in particular the Pharisees.  Here is the second point to note. For Pharisee Jews and the followers of Jesus, resurrection did not mean spiritual life after death, but the fulfillment of God’s age-long promise of a return to a new physical life, that comes after the phase of life after death. This is what is meant by a new heaven and a new earth. Which brings me to the 21st chapter of the Revelation to John, the epistle appointed for Easter V.

Resurrection did not mean spiritual life after death, but the fulfillment of God’s age-old promise of a return to a new physical life, that comes after the phase of life after death

In the N.T. we have possibly four Johns. There is John the beloved disciple, John the Evangelist, the gospel writer who must have been closely connected to John the beloved of Jesus, John the Elder who is the author of the letters of 1st and 2nd , a early second-century leader of the community established by John the Evangelist, and John of Patmos or John the Divine, the recipient of a powerful dream of the end time, which he wrote down in the book of Revelation.

Revelation is a tricky book to interpret and most Episcopal preachers stay as far away from it as we can for fear of being tarred by the wilder excesses of literalist interpretations that circulate in Pentecostal and fundamentalist versions of Christianity. Yet, Revelation is part of the apocalyptic (end time) literary genre that is woven-throughout the Old Testament and on into the New; a genre couched in dream imagery and the language of mystical symbolism.

The main thing to note in Revelation 21 is that the heavenly new Jerusalem, bedecked as a bride for her wedding day is not ascending into heaven, but is coming down from heaven to establish a new order in this world. In the promise that there will come a time when there is no more mourning and crying , a time when pain will end, God proclaims not only that he is making all things new, but that the home of God is not in heaven but down here among mortals, with us, in real time.

Between the resurrection of Jesus and the final completion we live in the here and now of eternal life. That does not mean we will live forever and never die. It means that the purpose of our earthly lives is eternal. Eternal life – whatever it might mean after physical death – is in this life a purpose and energy not subject to the limitation of time.

Eternal life is to live in anticipation of the resurrection as something that is already taking place and not simply something that happened to Jesus alone, or is still to come.

On Sunday morning we will baptize a new baby girl named Amaya.  Amaya will be baptized into eternal life. By this I don’t mean her soul will be saved. I believe that in the beauty of her birth, her soul is already God’s. No, though baptism Amaya will be made a member of the holy people of God, a member of Christ’s body on earth, a servant of heaven in this world. Amaya will be made a Christian, and to be a Christian is to be a member of the holy people of God in this world.

Remember Tertullian’s cry: one Christian is no Christian. You can be a spiritual person and you can even perhaps have a generalized spiritual experience of the triumph of love over death, but neither of these makes you a Christian.

Being a Christian is about belonging, before believing. It’s about being part of a grand project if working tirelessly for the healing of the world, of being partners with God in putting the world to rights. It is living a life bracketed between the bookends of Jesus resurrection and the resurrection of the world. A living in anticipation of resurrection as already taking effect.

A life of anticipation that is the hallmark of bringing about the new heaven on earth – in real time!

In the resurrection God raised Jesus to new life after life after death as the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven (Tom Wright). Or as Belinda Carlisle sings it: Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earth. They say in heaven, love comes first. We’ll make heaven a place on earth, Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.

It might come as a surprise to many of us to discover N.T. Wright and Belinda Carlisle in the same company – ha!

Of Shepherds and Mothers

I find myself reflecting on two parts of Jesus’ metaphor I am the Good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life  – a life that is – not restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

They hear my voice

In John 10, Jesus plays with the metaphors of sheep, shepherd, wolves, hirelings, and sheep pens to explore images of the relationship between God and humanity. Jesus is the true shepherd as contrasted with the hired hand; he is the defender of the sheep against the ravaging wolf; he lies down on the ground to become the gate opening of the sheep pen – through or over which the sheep tramp into the safety of the pen.

Throughout Jesus’ word play of rapidly shifting metaphors there runs, like a continuous heartbeat, the familiar sound of his voice. We hear his voice, not with our ears but in our bodies, in the yearning of our hearts. To borrow from T.S. Elliot for a moment -his is the sound of a voice … not known, because not looked for -but heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea. (Little Gidding)

In 2019, the good shepherd imagery of Jesus in John’s Gospel occurs on the second Sunday in May, otherwise known as Mother’s Day. Whether it’s by design or not, it’s an interesting coincidence that emboldens me to reframe Jesus’ metaphor the good shepherd.

Jesus says I am the good mother; my children hear my voice; I know them and they trust me. I give them eternal life – a life that cannot be measured or restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

We hear Jesus’ voice -the voice heard, and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of our memory. For the divine voice first enters our lives through that particular experience with our mothers. Nurture echoes nature. The human bond of mother and child is an echo of the bond between God and humanity. Jesus says I am the good mother, my children hear my voice, I know them, and they trust me.

In John’s story of Jesus, there is no distinction between Jesus and God the Creator; in each, the other finds its own reflection. God the good shepherd enters at first into our human experience as God the good mother. We learn to trust God the good shepherd; the one who calls us each by name, who protects us from danger,  because God has first loved us like a mother with a quality of unconditionality that is breathtaking to contemplate.

Imagine being loved because you are already good-enough? The problem for many of us is not that this reality is not true, but we dare not risk seeing ourselves as God the good mother made us to be. In life we come full circle – God the good shepherd enters our lives as God the good mother, eventually re-emerging at later stages of life into our awareness as God the good shepherd.

Jesus is a voice heard and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of our memory.

Donald Winnicott, the renowned 20th-century British pediatrician and psychoanalyst coined the phrase the good-enough mother. Winnicott was a formative influence on my own evolution as a psychotherapist and priest. My own analyst had been analysed by Winnicott himself and he was powerfully present as my analyst and I worked to find the good-enoughness in my experience of life. He was for me in a very real sense a good-enough mother.

By good-enough, Winnicott meant that mothers did not need to be perfect. The mother infant relationship, though vulnerable to mishap is also robust and able to withstand a variety of imperfect conditions. That mothers needed to be good-enough and not perfect, is a reminder for us all that the quest for the perfect in this arena of life is certainly the enemy of the good.

The essence of a good-enough experience of mothering lies in our experience of love that is consistent and unconditional. Some of us may find it difficult to locate the experience of consistent unconditional love within our experience of our biological or adoptive mothers – mothers can’t be perfect. Yet, if we didn’t find the memory of good-enough-ness in our early experience with our mothers, maybe we found it with them at a later stage of life? Countless others have experienced the qualities of good-enough-ness in a devoted teacher or mentor, a grandmother or grandfather, in the compensating love of an aunt or uncle who truly saw us and got us.

Yet an early experience of a disinterested or unavailable mother will leave its mark.  An early experience of the promise of love being restricted by conditions – I will love you only if — is not an uncommon experience. Yet, there are very few people who cannot locate an experience of unconditional love somewhere in their formation as a person.

Jesus says I am the good-enough mother who has no choice; for I cannot -not – love my children.

And I give them eternal life

Jesus says I am the good mother, and I give my children Eternal Life, that is, life that cannot be restricted by the limitations of time.

We live in a period of time between two bookends: the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of the resurrection of the world at the end of time. Because eternal life cannot be restricted by the limitations of time, between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of a new world we live in eternal life in real time, here and now. Our experience of life is eternal in the sense that our hopes, dreams and tireless collaboration with God have a lasting effect far beyond our time-bound life span. If God is our good mother, then our dream is to work for the building of a society configured by the priorities revealed in the experience of mothering and being mothered. Putting the world to rights begins here and now with you and me.

As a society, we frequently fail the women and men who are responsible for mothering through our failure to promote social and economic policies supportive of family life and child development. In a country that eulogizes mother and apple pie, the US ranks very low down on the scale of nations where public policy concretely supports family life and child development. A society configured by the divine mothering template will take care to ensure maternal and paternal paid leave, supported child care through public pre-school and free kindergarten education. The paradox at the heart of American society concerns the disproportion between our concerns for the unborn and social neglect of the born.

Human mothering and the experience of being mother only needs to be good-enough not perfect.  For some of us, Mother’s Day will be an opportunity to reaffirm the forgiveness of heart that soothes the discordant strings of our early memory. For most of us, Mother’s Day will be an opportunity to express feelings of gratitude for the love our mothers gave us. Whichever maybe the case, for each one of us God as the good mother encourages us to be good-enough mothers to those who trust us to love and care for them. Through the template of motherly love, both in our individual families and in the whole community of wider society, may we be led to the reality of the love with which God loves us.

I am the good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life  – a life that is not restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

Great Expectations

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for Easter 3

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

So, what now? This is the Third Sunday of Easter—day 15 of a 50-day season–and this is the question that should confront us. How are we different from who we were before the lights came on at the Easter Vigil, before the Alleluias returned from their Lenten exile, before we had digested that yummy Easter brunch?

We are people of the Resurrection, Alleluia Alleluia!

What does that mean?

The first people to encounter the Risen Christ changed the world. They did it because they themselves were deeply affected by the Resurrection, and they shared that experience by creating a magnetic community and by showing others that the Way of Jesus—the Way of Love—was the way of abundant life, healing and reconciliation. The Good News of Jesus Christ turned the known world on its head.

What does that mean now?

How are we changed by Easter today? Because of course we should be changed. The Good News that God has done a new thing in the Resurrection, that death does not have the last word, should transform how we see God, one another and the world around us. And yet Easter Sunday doesn’t seem to have changed us at all—we just—move on. Is it that we expect too much of Easter? As my spirit animal Anne Lamott says, expectations are resentments under construction. And certainly this year, as we awakened on Easter morning to news of suicide bombers in Sri Lanka; as we heard last week of a new synagogue shooting and of the rise of anti-Semitism and hate crimes when we had hoped that our society was moving beyond that; as we hear this week of still another shooting at still another university, all of this collides with what we expect to be Easter joy—it seems to give the lie to the resounding affirmation of the triumph of love over death and evil. We look for signs of Easter, and it seems all too elusive. If Easter has changed us and the world, we want evidence. And not seeing it, we let the lilies wilt, the Lenten discipline lapse forgotten, and we get back to the routine of coping from day to day.  We move on. Like Peter, we go back to work. We go fishing.

So the safer alternative to high Easter expectation is to expect nothing. But if we expect to remain unchanged by the empty tomb, that is an expectation that will probably be met.

Do we expect too much of Easter? Or too little?

Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what we expect of Easter we should be asking what Easter expects of us.

Perhaps, when we’ve been thinking of Easter joy, we’ve really deep-down been thinking of Easter happiness—that gorgeous chill-bumpy feeling that comes with the scent of the lilies and the resounding organ—so lovely to sing the well-loved hymns, surrounded by family and community. But as we often hear, happiness is not the same as joy. Joy is more mysterious–deeper than happiness–it gracefully accompanies real-world suffering and difficulty. We find joy when we know that we are upheld in prayer when we grieve. We find joy when we are loved and supported when we meet a tough challenge. We find joy when we find perspective—when we can hold our successes and our failures equally lightly because we know that we are loved for who we are, not for what we do or what we have or how we look.

The difference between Easter happiness and Easter joy?

Easter joy hasn’t forgotten the Cross.

Consider Saul and Peter. Their two stories, each rich with nuance in its own right, actually converse with one another. They offer us a compelling invitation as People of the Resurrection—an invitation to see this season in a potentially more fruitful and life-giving light.

So we see Saul, who breathed threats and murder against the disciples of God; Saul who held the coats of the people who stoned the deacon and first martyr Stephen to death. This same Saul will become a tireless, if irascible, proclaimer of the Good News throughout the Mediterranean world. And Peter, devoted but impetuous follower of Jesus who denied his Lord three times—Peter will become the first bishop of the Church. We see two men, one a respected Jewish official of the tribe of Benjamin and Roman citizen, and the other the son of a Galilean fisherman. The two could not have been from more divergent backgrounds and life experiences. Yet between the two of them, and the communities they gathered around them, they profoundly and irrevocably transformed the Jewish and Gentile religious landscape within a few decades of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension.

Why? Because of Easter.  But not on Easter morning. On Easter morning Peter was in hiding until the women brought him the news of the Resurrection. On Easter morning Saul was just waking up from his regular weekly Sabbath observance, oblivious to the turn his life was about to take. The lives of Saul and Peter converged, not on Easter morning, but later, in their encounters with the Risen Christ.

We’ve heard the stories: Saul, plunged into blindness on the Damascus Road—brought face to face with Christ and with his own violent past. Peter, plunged into the water of the Sea of Galilee at the sight of his teacher, and suddenly confronted by the shame of his earlier threefold denial: “Peter, do you love me? Do you love me? Do you?”

Saul, blinded. Peter, blindsided. Face to face with guilt and shame. An encounter with the Risen Christ is not always a journey to the Comfort Zone. And yet.

Saul, raised up, led by the hand into the care of community. Forgiven, healed, renewed. A new life, a new name, a new mission.  Peter, fed, forgiven, and given charge of a flock: “Feed my sheep.”

Grace upon grace offered to two flawed men who would turn the world upside down. Grace upon grace received by them, now knowing that they were truly known; nothing left to hide. There is a freedom in that; a freedom to embark on a new path, equipped with humility, purpose, and the unconquerable love of an Easter Christ.

What does that mean, now?

The stories of Paul and Peter offer us an invitation to see Easter in a new light; not as a single bright moment in time, but as an ongoing process that transcends time and history and that encompasses both light and shadow. It’s important to know that the Risen Christ came to Saul and Peter—and confronted them—in the days and months after the Resurrection. In other words, Easter is never really over. It continually challenges us to see the world through Easter eyes that see life-giving potential in even the most barren and difficult places. Especially in those places. Paul and Peter had to confront the barren places in their own lives before moving forward—before accepting the challenges that Jesus presented. They had to understand that to be a person of the Resurrection is to carry a small part of the Cross within you—to be able to see the world and all of its pain with at least a measure of the compassion and forgiveness with which God sees us. And when we can do that , we, like Paul and Peter, are freed to offer ourselves to God knowing that we are fully known.  But also like Paul and Peter, we are not promised a smooth path. We are equipped, though, with courage to live hopefully, creatively, compassionately, and, yes, joyfully for the healing of the world.

So, what now? The tomb is long empty, the lilies are fading, and the jellybeans are getting a little stale. But our Easter life as People of the Resurrection is just getting started—Alleluia!

Faith and Doubt

A sermon by the Rev. David A. Ames, St. Martin’s Church, 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019

Throughout this year, and I believe for the rest of our lives, the Church and all of us will be paying particular attention to the care of God’s creation.  During this past season of Lent St. Martin’s, along with many other Episcopal churches used the publication, “A Life of Grace for the Whole World.” Its purpose was for discussion groups to focus on the suffering of the earth.  It is time for us and for the whole world to work for the common goal of renewing the earth as a hospitable planet for the flourishing of all life.  We are called to speak and act on behalf of God’s good creation.

As our rector stated in his Easter sermon our epic Biblical story of salvation history including the Resurrection is about the repair of creation by bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. The first Christians recognized that raising Jesus to new life revealed in real time a foretaste of the future promise of a new heaven and a new earth. They felt called to a new way of living, in a new kind of community, where the goal was to leave this world in a better state than the one into which they were born.  

The Resurrection event itself was not, however, an immediate and decisive experience for all of Jesus’ disciples.  Today’s Gospel story about Thomas poses a certain tension between belief and doubt.  I find myself resonating to this story every year because Thomas raises some significant questions for all of us who tend toward skepticism as we continue the human quest for meaning and direction in our lives.  We live with science and technology as our constant companions.  We want to know that the products of scientific research and technological development will fulfill what they promise.  It is the same with our belief and our faith.  We want to know that what we believe is true and that our faith can be trusted.

In the earliest days of the Christian movement following the Resurrection of Christ, there were a number of different groups of Christians.  Near the end of the first century these groups were known by their loyalty to a particular apostle.  There were, for example, Peter Christians, Thomas Christians, and others devoted to Matthew, Mary Magdalene, John, or Paul. 

Since 1945, with the discovery of several early texts near Nag Hammadi in northern Egypt, biblical and historical scholars have been studying these documents for their impact on the early Christian movement.  Four of them are considered most important and examine differences among groups of Jesus’ followers.  They are the Secret Book of James, the Gospel of Thomas, the Book of Thomas, and the Secret Book of John.  It wasn’t until the end of the second century that the Canon of the New Testament as we know it came to be the accepted norm for all Christians.

The biblical scholar Elaine Pagels, in her book titled Beyond Belief, has a chapter about the differences between the authors of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.  For example, “John says that we can experience God only through the divine light embodied in

Jesus.”  Thomas, however, goes in a different direction.  He says, “the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made ‘in the image of God.'” John challenged Thomas’ claim that “this light was present in everyone.” (pp, 40-41)

John also makes the point that belief is crucial: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  What does John mean by belief?  In the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus berates his disciples for their lack of faith.  Those who beg for healing are required to have faith before Jesus can work a miraculous cure, and some of them pray, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” 

The Greek word translated as faith is pisteo, which means “I trust.”  It has to do with loyalty and commitment.  When the Greek was translated into Latin, the noun for faith became fides, and the scholar Jerome, used the word credo, which means “I give my heart.”  It was not until the late seventeenth century that our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, and the word “belief” was used to describe intellectual assent to a hypothetical proposition. 

Jesus did not ask people to believe, nor did he make claims about his divinity.  What he asked for was commitment, he wanted his followers to engage with his mission, to give all they could to the poor, to feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon pride, put aside their sense of self-importance, live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and to trust in God.  They were to live compassionate lives. 

In John’s gospel, unlike the other gospels, Thomas is singled out from the other disciples.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Thomas is referred to as “one of the twelve” and is not labeled a skeptic or doubter.

According to John, Thomas however, was skeptical and rightly so, because he was not present with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them.  When the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas replied, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” “I will not trust what you are saying.”

We don’t know where Thomas was or what he was doing when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, but we can imagine that he was grieving the loss of his friend.  In fact, all the disciples had been grieving, collectively and individually. But then, when Jesus appeared to them it was a Resurrection experience.  Jesus said, “Peace be with you…receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.”

Elaine Pagels cites three instances in which the Gospel of John sets Thomas apart by focusing on his skepticism.  John’s writing was near the end of the first century following Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It was from that point onward that Thomas would be known as “Doubting Thomas.”

The first instance of this occurred for John when he reported that Thomas, when hearing that Jesus was going to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, did not believe Jesus could do this.  He said, “Let us go, so that we may die with him.”  Here, Thomas is pictured “as one who listens to Jesus in disbelief, imagining that he is merely human like everyone else.”

In the second instance Jesus anticipated his own death and urged the disciples to trust in God as he promised to “prepare a place for you.”  He said, “You know where I am going, and you know the way.”  Thomas replied, “We do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Here, Jesus’ response to Thomas was, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except through me.”

Then, in the third instance Jesus returns after his death to rebuke Thomas.  He says, after Thomas was invited to see and touch the wounds of his crucified body, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Both Matthew and Luke have Jesus appearing to “the eleven” disciples.  Only Judas Iscariot was not present when Jesus conferred the power of the Holy Spirit upon them.  John’s account is different.  He stated, “Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  (Pagels, pp. 70-71)

What are we to make of this?  The fact that Thomas had to see, touch and feel is not at all bad.  It presumed a level of intimacy.  The story about Thomas also tells us that doubt and faith are related.  The more intelligent and deep the doubt, the more mature will be the depth of faith that needs to be expressed.  Doubt and faith are always in tension.

Thomas wanted his faith to be grounded in Jesus, not in what the other disciples said.  Our situation today is similar; we have received our “belief” and “faith” from our families, communities, and the generations that have preceded ours.  The meaning and the essential point of the story about Thomas has to do with Jesus’ compassion.  Jesus allowed Thomas to satisfy his “doubt” by letting him experience his wounds.  Thomas responded with a statement of profound reverence: “My Lord and my God!”  It was a feeling of deep respect, love and awe.  It is a “knowing,” a Resurrection experience of divine love.  It is also contemplative.  Jesus wanted his followers to have this experience of being loved by God and of being one with God. 

Today, in our wrestling with faith and doubt we are invited through Christ’s resurrection to new life to experience God’s love and to do the compassionate work of loving and caring for others and for all of God’s creation.  It is about trusting in Jesus and committing our lives to his ministry of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovering sight for the blind, and letting the oppressed go free.  It is by doing the compassionate work of ministry to those in need, and by caring for God’s creation that we trust in Christ and faithfully practice resurrection to new life.  Amen.

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