The Beauty of Believing without ‘Seeing’

The scriptures tell us the evening on the first Easter Sunday; the disciples gathered behind locked doors to make sense of all the events that had transpired. From entering Jerusalem in an exciting display of heroic welcome to the last meal they shared to Jesus, to their brother, Judas betraying Jesus, to his passion and death, and then there was Peter- Jesus’ “Rock” who was a leader among them.  What on earth could have just happened?  What did it all mean?  Who would sort out for them so they could process all the events?

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Amidst all the commotion of the previous week events, one disciple, Thomas shows up late- for reasons not known –  and seems to miss out on the discussion.  What the disciples reported to their fellow disciple Thomas they had seen seemed unbelievable. And Thomas didn’t believe it! They said they saw Jesus alive. Well, Thomas saw him alive until late the previous Friday afternoon when Thomas saw him dead. It was now Sunday afternoon — and to what they said they saw, Thomas’ response was, “Seeing is believing,” and until I see something different from what I have already seen, I will not believe a word of what you say.

And for that little exchange, Thomas has gone down in history, not as the disciple Thomas, but as “doubting Thomas” — with his entry in my desk dictionary! I looked it up., a “doubting Thomas” as defined by Webster’s dictionary is “a habitually doubtful person.  And not just about Jesus. About anything. A “doubting Thomas” is one who when presented with the facts, stresses his or her right to raise questions, and demand proof, and doesn’t believe it until they get proof.

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Thomas wanted tangible, touchable proof that Jesus’ was still around.  He did not need further proof of Jesus’ death.  Thomas was there.  He saw with his own eyes that the Christ had been crucified.  He wanted the same proof that Jesus, whom he had witnessed beat to death, wanted evidence that he was alive and has been seen by the other disciples.  For Thomas, there was no doubt that Jesus was dead, and every reason under the sun to doubt that Christ was alive.  For his honesty, he has gone down in history as “doubting Thomas” — the man who doubted the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the term “doubting Thomas” has negative connotations to this day.

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But it shouldn’t.  Because Thomas isn’t alone, even in this Sanctuary.  And Jesus said not one negative word or comment about him.  From the very beginning, on the eve of the first Easter, doubt was a part of the risen Christ.  We say Christ is risen, we even sing it together in our worship, but do we act like it’s accurate?  Do we sincerely believe Christ was raised from the dead?  Or down deep do we, like Thomas, tend to doubt the story of Easter?

Jesus says to him, “Do not doubt, but believe.”  Don’t doubt, start believing.   Doubting has to do with debating the facts; while believing would have put our trust in something or someone.  One involves my intellect; the other my whole life.  One involves accepting something as true; the other is that I am already accepted by the one who calls himself “the truth, the way, and the life.”

It’s not really up to us to factually proof the resurrection the way the world demands facts and figures, but that we believe in the power of the creator that God’s love is naturally stronger than the power of death.  And consider what it means for you and me.

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Thomas insists that the risen Christ cannot be separated from the crucified Jesus.  And in these after Resurrection Sunday, when the altar lilies are beginning to fade, when the pretty Easter eggs are gone, and the bad news headlines are personal grief’s threatening to overshadow the good news of Easter, we need Thomas and his example of the persistent desire to see Jesus.  And grow in our understanding that doubting is part of our journey of faith.

As tender as it is to admit, we all have our doubts.  Doubting is not the opposite of faith, but are incorporated into our active life of faith, and our faith in Christ need not be perfected in this life.  There’s no way we can discover all that God wants to reveal to us in the waters of our baptism.  There is more to have revealed to us.  Jesus himself showed up with battered hands and scarred up fee, and that’s how the disciples recognized him.  That is the reality of our discipleship.

You are and doubt but are encouraged never to lose our faith.  His doubts lead Thomas to an encounter with Jesus.  For us, it might mean we seek a life of faith that serves us better as we mature, once we examine and let go some of the thoughts that formed our childhood faith as we discover a more profound richness to our adult lives.  Unpacking our doubts can indeed be frightening, going to the liminal place where transformation can happen, but much encouragement and understanding comes from those times when we face our misgivings head on and seek a deeper understanding of our lives in Christ.

Jesus did not blame Thomas for his questions and for seeking a new reality.  So often, we interpret our doubts to mean disbelief, but in the risen Christ there is no condemnation, not for Thomas nor for you and me.  Growing in our faith begins with curiosity, and faith being a living active thing, as Luther aptly describes it, must be fed for it to produce.  So what are you feeding your walk of faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ?

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May we learn a lesson from the life of the Apostle, Thomas, that there are things in life that will never be proven.  Jesus says, “Thomas, you have believed because you have seen.  But, blessed are those who have not seen yet still believe.”  With these words, Jesus is describing you and me.  We ’ll never see the crucified Jesus in this life, you and I will not have the opportunity to place my hands on his wounded side and my fingers into his scars.  It will never be proven to you and me that he was indeed raised from the dead.

There will be times when we encounter the darkness of doubt in our souls and will face our doubts about our faith in the risen Christ.  We might even equate this feeling of gloom and believe we are losing our faith.  Remember in the light; God reveals the glory of the resurrection.  In the moments of life, God has told you that God will not desert you.  In the moments of light, God had said to you that the resurrection is the reality.  Don’t let the darkness cause you to doubt.  Don’t doubt, but believe.  And if you question, know that that it’s ok.  God meets us just where we are.  Thanks be to God.  Amen!

Pouting in the Pit or Preaching to the People?

If I had been assigned the task of putting together the Old Testament, it would probably look a lot different than the one we use today.  First of all, I would take the opportunity to get rid of some of the folks I’ve never liked.

I know David is a pretty significant character, given that he is the ancestor of Jesus and all, but the whole infidelity thing has always bothered me—so, either David would have to go, or I would revise the story to take out his transgression.

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I would keep Deborah, for sure.  And maybe write a little more about her— we don’t really have enough female leaders in the Bible, right? 

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Elijah and his wonder-workings are too good to pass up, so he’d stay.

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Elisha, on the other hand, would have to go. After all, I think it is highly inappropriate to retaliate just because some little boy has called you – ‘baldy.’ (- 2 Kings 2:32-35)

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In my version of the Old Testament, Amos would stay with his beautiful metaphors of God’s justice rolling down like cascading waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Hosea would have go—his divine marriage metaphor just doesn’t work for me. —    (Hosea 1:2-3:5)

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And some of the smaller, minor prophetic books seem redundant, so I’d probably cut some of them and add someone a little more modern like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.

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But the person I’d be least likely to include in my canon would be Jonah.  Sure, it makes for a great story, being swallowed by a fish.  But if you look at his character, it just doesn’t meet what I like to think of as good family values.

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Let’s see, the first time he ‘got the call’ from the Lord, Jonah went running the other direction.

In fact, he tried to hide from God by getting in a ship with a bunch of sailors and going to sea. Jonah must have known what God had in mind.  God must have known that God wasn’t going to cause destruction upon those Ninevehites.  Jonah must have known that God was merciful, even to those who run away.  And Jonah, in his indignation, did not want the good news to come to people like them.  Jonah thought he could keep the good news from the Ninevehites.  So he wimped out and ran as far away as he could from God’s call.

Okay, maybe not the first place that I would go if I were hiding from God, but this is Jonah’s story, not mine.  Not only does Jonah not listen to God, but he tries to make things better by getting the sailors to dump him overboard.

Jonah goes into the ocean only to be swallowed by a giant fish.

I don’t recall enough of my high school biology classes to remember much about fish anatomy.  I presume they must have ample stomachs.

But one big enough to hold a person, for three days? 

Or maybe Jonah was just a petite person?

I’d be curious to know what the Biblical literalists do with this one.

At any rate, Jonah’s marine home is short-lived, as he is literally ‘vomited‘ by the fish onto the shores of Nineveh.  God comes to him a second time, as we have in today’s lesson.

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I wonder why God is so patient with little Jonah here. It’s equally as unbelievable as Jonah’s being swallowed up by the fish.  He’s already proven himself to be a bit of a weasel and reasonably fool-hardy to boot.  Why God didn’t look for another more qualified person to prophecy to Nineveh?

But God tells Jonah, again, to go to Nineveh.  Get up, God says, Go to Nineveh and proclaim the message. 

So Jonah, grudgingly, picks himself up out of the sand and wipes off the fish goo.  His fists are clenched, his face twisted, as he stomps off to do the ministry he was called to do.

We never get to find out why it is that Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh.  We don’t know why these people, the Ninevehites, who were so eager to hear good news, were the object of Jonah’s disdain.

Why did Jonah dislike them so?  Why is it that sharing the good news was so awful for Jonah, that he would have preferred the cold sea to ministering to them? Was it because the Ninevites were different than Jonah?  Was this an ancient ‘race problem’?

Perhaps Jonah wanted to claim God for himself, and not share him with those of a different lifestyle and culture?  Was this an ancient case of ‘affirmative-action’?  Did Jonah think that these non-Jews were getting special treatment?

Maybe Jonah was upset because he had been faithful to the covenant, keeping the law, and earning the love of God, while the Ninevehites—who had done none of these things, were about to receive this very same love of God.

Was he mad because he had played by the rules, the same rules that had gotten him ahead in life?  Was Jonah jealous that God would waste his time on people he refused to get to know? 

Jonah, in his refusal to go to Nineveh, was saying that he knew more than God.  Surely, you don’t want me to go there, to those people, Jonah was speaking.  You wouldn’t want me to spend time with people who don’t share my same values, could you?

God, Jonah must have been thinking, you must have misspoken.  I’ll just wait over here for a while until you come to your senses.  Indeed, your message can’t be for people like them.

I said earlier, how I would choose to keep Jonah, among others, out of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I mean, his story is disturbing, perhaps too distressing. There is a part of Jonah’s story that hits a little too close to home.

There is a part of Jonah’s story that looks a little too much like myself, like someone I wish I were not.

It’s the part of me that get jealous when I hear other people’s good news.  It’s the part of me that gets angry when it feels like others get rewarded for not following the rules.  It’s the part of me that would instead judge a person based on stereotypes then get to know her for myself.

And its this same part of me that fakes happiness for a friend when deep down I am scowling with envy.  It’s this little, but persistent part of me that would instead remain in my insecurity than enjoy the Nineveh’s of the world. 

It’s the part of me that would rather pout in the cold stomach of a fish than celebrate what God has done. 

There is this pit, deep inside of me that resists being seen.  There is an ugliness that shows itself when one’s guard is down.

And it is from this pit that we find ourselves doing things for which we are later ashamed, like feeling for our wallets when we walk past a person of color, like only having friends who look like us, like thinking less of immigrants or the working poor.

These shameful parts of ourselves show themselves at unexpected moments.  We try to hide them by insisting that, ‘yes, I have black friends,’ or ‘skin color doesn’t matter to me.’ But our ugliness keeps us, like Jonah, sitting in the pit of a fish, holding us prison to our jealous fears and insecurities. 

But God doesn’t want us to stay in these pits.  God doesn’t want us to stay in the stomach of a fish when there are places like Nineveh that have yet to hear the good news.  God offers us a way out of our hatred, our isolation, and our shame.

And God doesn’t want us to rewrite scripture or pretend that there are not parts of us yearning for connection and security.  God knows that we are held prisoner to shame and envy. But God does not want us to live that way.  God does not want us to keep on living in the stomach of a fish!

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  That’s why God offers us a new way to live, a new way that doesn’t see envy before humanity.  God teaches us this new way to live. God frees us from our pits of despair in the simplest of ways.  We don’t need to stay bound by our ugliness and insignificance.

Because God loves it away. 

God loved little Jonah, stuck in a fish, insignificant next to giant Nineveh, the giant sea, and the giant fish.  God found little Jonah, who had tossed himself away to sea, who was afraid of all that life had to offer and returned him to safety.

God seeks us out, especially when we feel insignificant, especially when we are isolated, and returns us to dry land.  God loves us out of our shame.  God loves us out of our insecurity and our envy. God loves away any ugliness that may be buried deep inside.

But the story doesn’t stop here. 

God rescues us from the pit, so that we may be freed to go to places like Nineveh, that we may be able to love others as we have been loved.

God rescues us from the isolation that we may connect with others.  And those of us, like Jonah, who know what it feels to be trapped in the pit of a stomach don’t forget this feeling of insignificance.

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But instead of being bound by this feeling, we use it to seek out others who may feel or who may be treated that way.

God sought us out, so we can do nothing else but seek others out, and share with them this great love that has restored our humanity and given us life.

Because with God’s love, no one is insignificant, no one is shamed, and all are made whole.

Amen.

 

“The One Who is to Come? Really?” A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

We in the church have made our doubts into something that has become a negative word for many.  It is rarely used in a favorable way.  For example, if I say to you, “I have my doubts about something.”  You would probably surmise that I don’t think too favorable about the matter.   Faith, not doubt, is the great word of the church.  I love the following quote from Fredrick Buesner who said the following:

  “If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.”

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I have a suspicion that many among us have our doubts about matters of faith. Perhaps you do not share these feelings with anyone; but your doubts are there, and they are real. Your worship does not express your doubts, uncertainties, and skepticism. In facing this situation, all of us at times cry out with the man in the Gospel, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” This capacity to doubt can often lead to some of life’s most profound questions.

Times when I find myself doubting faith, I remember that doubt is not the opposite of having faith, in fact doubting is simply one aspect of having faith in something.  Take for example the main character in our Gospel text this morning.  Such was the case for John the Baptist.  His question – “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – grew not out of his uncertainty, but out of his doubt. John the Baptist had heard about the words and deeds of Jesus, but what he had heard did not match up with his expectation of the Messiah.

After all, Jesus was born not to royalty, but to a peasant woman. He did not function as a military ruler or one who lead with power and might, but as a servant. He came not as a judge, but as a forgiving redeemer. He did not bring condemnation; he brought God’s love. He did not associate with the religious establishment, but he went from village to village associating the marginalized. He spent his time and energy with the least and the lost. He was most concerned with the powerless: the blind and the lame, the lepers and the deaf, and the poor and the outcast. And Jesus dared to teach the weak occupied the most important place in the Kingdom of God.

John the Baptist became confused about the way in which Jesus talked about being the messiah. He had doubts about Jesus.  No doubt, he was concerned.  He spoke the truth to power and as a result he was imprisoned on account of his believe about Jesus.  His skepticism caused him to send one of his buddies to Jesus with the question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Without pause, Jesus answers them,

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

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And that is one of the ways that we will have to respond to the One who comes to us during this season.  We will be forced to respond based on what we see and hear.  The One who is coming will not force himself on us.  No other person has the power to make us decide.  Our response will rest on what we hear with our ears and see with our eyes.  That was the way it was for John the Baptist and that is the way it is for you and for me.

There is a danger that we can look for Jesus in all the wrong places and listen to all the wrong voices.  The danger is that we look to the places of power, privilege and prestige as a sign of Jesus’ coming.  But chances are pretty good that we will not see Jesus in the halls of power and prestige.

Instead, Jesus will be found where sight is given to the blind, legs given to the lame, hearing to the deaf, and new life is found for the dead.  The Messiah is found wherever the powerless are given power.  Want to see Christ?  Look to the parts of today’s world where the weak are being made strong.

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It happens all the time, we simply need to open our spiritual eyes to see the power of God at work.  Weakness becomes strength for the homebound who receive a visit, for a homeless family who is housed in a shelter on a cold winter’s night, for a sick person who receives a visit from her friend, for a hungry child who receive nourishment because of the food pantry.

There is also a danger that we will not respond to the One who is to come because we do not hear his voice.  The reason that we do not hear his voice is because we are listening to the wrong ones.   Instead of responding to the voice of the Shepherd, we hear and respond to the voice of the commercial Christmas.  There are simply too many voices this time of year that appear so promising, alluring and so full of power, yet they are simply empty.  That danger for us is that we will listen only to those voices that promise us privilege, security, and power.  We buy into the idea that we need more stuff to live happy. And the greater danger is that we will not year the Voice of the coming One beyond and above the noisy crowd.

Only when we slow down and listen are we able to hear the voice of the shepherd. Only when we are alone, quiet and listen for the voice of Christ, does the story of Christmas make any sense.  Only then our doubts are overshadowed by our faith in Christ.

But, there is an even greater danger than the risk of looking in the wrong places and listening to the wrong voices. It is the danger of not looking afresh at what Jesus did and not listening anew to what he said. One of the ways that we can prepare for Christmas is to study again the deeds of Jesus and to read again the words of Jesus. Like John the Baptizer, we need to respond based on what we see and hear in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If we do not study Jesus’ deeds and listen to his words, then we will make the coming One into something that he is not.

Because of his doubts, John the Baptizer introduced us to the One who is to come. And like him, we will have to respond on the basis of what we hear and see.

As we move swiftly through the rituals of the season, let us not fail to look and to listen. Not looking and not listening might cause us to miss the point of it all, and that would be a sad and terrible thing.