Proper 22, Year C, 2016

Have any of you ever watched a live debate on a channel where they track audience response? Below the candidates talking, there are several lines representing different groups of voters. When a candidate says something the audience likes, the line moves up. When a candidate says something the audience doesn’t like, the line moves down.

I think sometimes we get fooled into thinking faith works the same way. Like, when I am praying in the car in the morning, my line goes way up! But then, if I get stuck behind someone driving slowly, that line goes way down. When I’m leading worship, up! When I’m feeling anxious about the future, the line goes down.

I have had multiple parishioners over the years approach me because they are concerned that they are not faithful enough. Perhaps at one point in their life they felt very close to God, but now they feel their faith dimming.

Anyone who has this concern is in good company. Mother Teresa struggled with this. St. John of the Cross struggled with this. Fearing the loss of faith is a tradition as old as the disciples!

Our Gospel lesson this morning is a perfect example. Jesus has just said some really challenging things to a large group of his disciples. He’s said things like, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. “ Can’t you imagine everyone’s eyes getting a little bigger when they heard that? I know I would feel a little nervous!

A group of the apostles—those disciples closest to Jesus—come up to him and tell Jesus, “Increase our faith!” They don’t want to have a millstone hung around their neck! They love Jesus. They want to be faithful! They want Jesus to zap them with faith. They want a doubt proof, mistake proof shield of faith so they will be sure to be pleasing to God.

Jesus goes on to tell them this famous anecdote about the mustard seed. He tells them if they just had the tiniest amount of faith that they could stare at a tree and make it leap into the sea. Now, I will confess something. I have tried this. Periodically, I’ll just stare at an overgrown bush in my garden really hard and imagine it tearing itself from the ground. News flash: This has never once worked. While I would very much like gardening to be a Mary Poppins like experience where all the weeds dance themselves out of the ground, gardening remains hard labor. Jesus here is using a bit of hyperbole. One might even say he is being sarcastic.

The disciples miss the point. The amount of faith a person has does not matter. What matters is who the faith is in.

If your faith is in the one God, who created the universe and inhabited a human body and whose spirit dwells in our hearts—if our faith is in that God, the tiniest amount of faith is enough. Because faith is not about us being superheroes. Faith is God using ordinary people to do his extraordinary work.

Jesus drives home this point in the story of the slave and the owner. Now, this is a very first century story. This story of household slaves is a little horrifying now that we understand liberty and equality as so important to being a human being. But, at the time, wealthy people had slaves who would work for them for a set period of time, and then earn their freedom. But keep in mind that Jesus’ apostles were not wealthy. Many were Galilean fishermen. So Jesus telling this story to them is like me starting a story by telling you, “You know how when you have a maid and chauffeur and a cook. . .” You all would be rolling your eyes at me! Jesus’ point is that someone who is staff doesn’t expect to be celebrated, they just do the work they are hired to do.

Jesus tells his apostles this parable as a way of saying, “You are overthinking this faith thing. Don’t worry about your level of faith, just do the work of a faithful person.”

Most of the time, Jesus sounds like a wise philosopher, but every once in a while, Jesus sounds like an exasperated mom. “Stop whining about all the homework you have to do, and just do the homework! If you had just started the homework when you started whining, it would be over by now!”

In the same way, Jesus doesn’t seem that interested in our anxiety about faith. We are not central to our own salvation! God does all the work of salvation. We are simply recipients of the hard work of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. However we feel about our faith is irrelevant. We are beloved by God and in God’s good graces because God says so, not because we feel faithful.

When God looks at us, he sees our faith meter as completely full, because Jesus has done all the work he need to do to make it so.

So, we can relax. But relaxing does not look like sitting on the sofa the rest of our lives. Relaxing looks like living the life of faith. Breaking bread together, serving the poor, doing our best to live lives of courage and integrity, forgiving those who hurt us, seeking justice, being kind. The life of faith is not easy. Following Jesus is not easy. But we don’t have to complicate it with anxiety about how God sees us.

Whatever your current level of faith, it is enough to serve God. You don’t to wait until you know more or feel more. You can start right now. I was so impressed by our youth a few weeks ago when they were packing up the bags for the food pantry. Many of them had never done it before. We gave them only the most minimal instruction. But they knew it was an important job and so they figured it out! There were twenty people in our tiny food pantry and so there was much shuffling around and trying not to bump into each other. But no one complained, they just did the work of faith. They served God in a new way. And I was impressed by the grown ups, too. The “experts” stepped back and allowed a little chaos. They did not try to micromanage. That might have been the bravest act of all!

There are things about living a life of faith that scare or intimidate us. But our God is so big. He has done all the work for us. So when God calls us to something new in our life of faith—new friendships, new leadership roles, new life adventures—we can have confidence that we are enough, our faith is enough. We don’t have to be a bible expert to teach Sunday School. We don’t have to have perfect pitch in order to sing in the choir. We don’t have to have been a CEO to serve on the vestry. We don’t have to have gone to seminary, to talk with a friend about God. Our experience with God is enough.

Now, God is not going to leave us where we are. We will continue to grow in our knowledge, and maybe even our faith. But we won’t be any more saved or any more loved than we are right in this moment. This is the paradox of the life of faith: God has done everything for us, but God can do great things through us.

I invite you to release any lingering doubts you may have about how God feels about you. Say your confession when we get to that part of the service and then really, listen to the absolution. Nothing stands between you and God. Not even your doubt is powerful enough to get in God’s way.

And then, when you hear, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” go out there and get to work!   You have all you need.

Amen.

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Proper 14, Year C, 2016

The internet has ruined family arguments, hasn’t it?

The minute you get heated about which pitcher played the last inning of the 1996 World Series, or what year it was that the Hindenberg exploded, or which Kardashian it was who called out Taylor Swift, all you have to do is get online and do a quick Google search. Argument short circuited.

We have such a vast store of information at the tips of our fingers. We can go as far back in history as there are written records. We can learn every piece of trivia about our favorite show. We can learn about obscure plants and animals, ways of life in other countries, the mysteries of space.

We can even go a little bit into the future. We can see projections of who is most likely to win an election. We can watch videos of what might happen to the earth if all human life ceased to exist. We can upload our photos into programs to project what we will look like when we are older.

We have so much information now that when we run into a situation where we cannot research an answer, we feel flummoxed! How long will my company survive? When will I meet the love of my life? How sick is my disease going to make me?

When we bump up against these questions, we are reminded that the future is not predictable. Our knowledge has a stopping point.

The second generation Christians to whom the letter of the Hebrews was written were running up against their own limitations. They had never met Jesus, but they had heard about him from people who knew him. They believed the stories, but because of their belief, they were running into real trouble in the world. They were being jailed and harassed. The author of the letter to the Hebrews has to convince them that their belief in Jesus is legitimate and that they have a future.

And so we get one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith in God is not the same thing as scientific belief. We can’t titrate anything and come to a clear answer about whether God exists. To relate to God is always an act of faith, facing the world with a clear hope about how the world is structured, without having concrete evidence to back up that hope.

While we don’t have evidence, we do have something even better: stories.

Before I became a Christian, when I was a teenager, I would read Madeleine L’Engle books and really want to inhabit her world. I did not have words to express why, but I loved her sense of wonder and the way people related to each other in her books. Years later, when I was a Christian and I learned she was Christian, it all made sense to me. The stories she created, while rarely mentioning God, were rooted in a Christian centered world. Her characters behaved the way they did because of their faith and it was that which attracted me.

Stories tell us things that are true, even if the stories are not historical. L’Engle’s books taught me that we are accepted even if we are awkward, that we all have important jobs to do in the world, and that love conquers fear and hate.

The author of Hebrews also uses stories to make his point. He tells the story of Abraham, to whom God promised descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, despite Abraham and Sarah’s old age. Abraham was given this promise. He did live to see Isaac’s birth, but he did not live to see his descendants grow to the millions. Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob after him, followed God without evidence. They trusted that God would fulfill his promises.

Well, according to the author of Hebrews they did. If you actually look back at the text in Genesis, you see Abraham doubting God at multiple points in his life. Every story of faith is more complicated than it might appear.

Second generation Christians needed to be reminded that they were part of God’s story. Like Abraham, they were faced with real doubts about God’s faithfulness. But through reminding them of the story of God’s faithfulness, the author hopes to encourage them and give them hope.

Today at the 10:30 service we will baptize Ellie Jane Simmers. When we pray over the water, we will tell ourselves the story of how God has used water throughout history. We will remind ourselves about how the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters during Creation, how the Spirit brought order out of chaos as land pushed through, separating the vast waters into oceans. We will remember the Israelites following Moses through the waters of the Red Sea, magically parted so they could escape slavery in Egypt. We will remind ourselves that at Jesus’ baptism the skies parted and God’s voice boomed down, blessing his Son. We will remind ourselves that in our baptisms we are buried with Jesus’ death and reborn into a new life of resurrection.

This story is so important. This story shapes our lives. If we are resurrection people than we know we can face hard things with courage. If we are resurrection people we know no one is their worst day. If we are resurrection people, then we know that there aren’t just second chances—there are third, fourth, seventy seventh chances to pick ourselves up and start over with God. If we are resurrection people, maybe we can even have faith that when everything looks bleak, God will show up and change the story.

Ellie Jane is becoming a member of a really radical community, a community based entirely on faith. And we have faith that God is already at work, claiming Ellie Jane and each of us as his own. We can’t Google whether or not God loves Ellie Jane, but we have faith that he does. And God loves Ellie Jane not because of her resume, because it is still pretty thin. God loves Ellie Jane because love is who he is. When we march babies down the aisle, I see the love in your eyes as you meet babies who now belong to you as members of the Christian family. I am always moved by how people will crane their necks, even leave their pews to catch a glimpse of our newest Christians.

Babies are cute, but I think we so enjoy greeting a newly baptized baby because there is joy in remembering that God loves us even more than we love these babies.

If you are in a place in your life where it is just too hard to believe in God’s love for you, may I suggest you tell yourself some stories? Maybe you need to read some stories from the Bible to remind yourself of the ways God has loved and challenged human beings. Maybe you need to tell yourself stories from your own past—times when God showed up in unexpected ways. When we are anxious about the future, telling ourselves stories is one of the best ways to shore up our faith.

And if you come to church once a week, you are guaranteed to hear stories about God, rather through Scripture or the sermon or the prayers at communion. We tell ourselves the stories of God’s faithfulness to us over and over again, so we can join those early Christians in faithfulness and hope.

Amen.

Proper 15, Year C, 2013

We pick up this week with Hebrews where we left off last week.  The author of Hebrews is trying to inspire and encourage second generation Christians who are starting to question their faith.

He continues his greatest hits account of the Old Testament.  His rhetoric is really ramping up, so he doesn’t get into a lot of details, he just starts rattling off names:  Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets.

Except for Samson and David, these are not the usual heroes of the Old Testament.  Even those of you who spent your entire childhood in Sunday School may be drawing blanks when you try to remember their stories.

And when you do hear their stories, you may raise an eyebrow!

Rahab was a harlot who helped out some Israelite spies, Gideon was a warrior against the Midianites who took a lot of convincing to follow God, Barak was Deborah’s general who refused to fight unless she came with him, Samson was a strong warrior defeated by love of the wrong woman, Jephthah ended up killing his own daughter after making a foolish promise to God, and David wasn’t exactly a prince.

These people had faith, but most of them weren’t role models.

And maybe that is why the author of Hebrews chose them as examples.  Because faith is not really about us.  Faith is not some moral characteristic we exhibit.  Faith is a gift from God.  God’s power isn’t dependent on perfect people to act in the world.  In fact, in the Gideon story, God commands Gideon to fire a bunch of his warriors so that the world would know that God, not military might, caused Israel’s military victories.

The author of Hebrews is writing to ordinary people.  Ordinary, scared, discouraged people.  They need to be reminded that the heroes of faith were also ordinary and often scared and discouraged!

And the new Christians needed to be reminded that often these heroes did not even see the end results of their faithfulness.  Abraham and Sarah did not get to see the multiple generations born that would become Israel, Moses never got to enter the promised land, David did not get to see a temple built in Jerusalem.

As we turn towards kick off Sunday next week and the beginning of our Christian Education year let’s think about how these two ideas—that ordinary people can have extraordinary faith and that even the faithful may not see results they hope for—can give us courage to minister to our young people.

Those of you who do not have children or whose children are grown may be tempted to tune out now.  Please don’t.  Remember, the children of this parish belong to you.  Every time you witness a baptism you make a vow to do all in your power to support that person in their life in Christ.  So you’re on the hook here, too!

As you know, we have been searching for a youth minister all summer.  We are very close now, but before this person joins our staff, I want to name something.  When we hire a youth minister, we are going to run a risk of outsourcing our youth’s faith formation to that person.  We are going to run a risk of forgetting that we have all made these promises to the youth in this room.  We run that risk by having a children’s minister on staff, too!

Ministering to children and youth can feel really intimidating!  Kenda Dean, in her book Almost Christian, argues that people avoid teaching junior high and high school Sunday School not because they don’t like teenagers, but they feel like their faith is inadequate to do the job.  Potential volunteers are afraid they don’t know enough about the Bible, they don’t pray enough, that they aren’t faithful enough.

But children and youth learn how to be faithful by being around people who are faithful!  And if everyone abdicates responsibility, we are in a lot of trouble!  Parents are the strongest influence in a young person’s life of faith, but other faithful adults are important, too. Dean argues that a person doesn’t need to be an expert to be a great teacher or mentor to a young person, but they do need to be seeking a life with God.  She writes,

What awakens faith is desire, not information, and what awakens desire is a person—and specifically, a person who accepts us unconditionally as God accepts us.  We may question what we believe, but most of us are pretty clear about who we love, and who loves us.  it is such a preposterous claim—God-with-us (oh please)—that young people are unlikely to believe it unless we give them opportunities to do some sacred eavesdropping on us as we seek, delight, and trust in God’s presence with us.  . . .People are not called to make their children godly; teenagers are created in God’s image, no matter what we do to them, and no matter what they do to disguise it.  The law called upon Jewish parents to show their children godliness—to teach them, talk to them, embody for them their own delight in the lord 24/7.  Everything they needed for their children’s faith formation, God had already given them.  In the end, awakening faith does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do.  (Dean p. 120)

The best thing you can do for your child’s life of faith is to seek to deepen your own relationship with God.  It is just as important for you to go to a Bible Study or prayer group as it is for your child to go to Sunday School.  And Sunday School teachers, it is just as important to show children that you understand you are loved unconditionally as it is for you to teach them the ten commandments.

And this is where Hebrews can help us.  Because realizing that the children around us need us to model faithfulness can make those feelings of inadequacy rise up in us like bile.  But God uses ordinary, flawed people.  God’s faith grows in imperfect people.  Are you selfish?  Great, then people will be more impressed when they see God at work in your life.  Are you really materialistic?  Super. Then God’s power will be truly evident when you decide to pledge a little more to church or charity this year.  Are you Biblically illiterate?  Perfect, then you can demonstrate humility by learning Jesus’ parables right along with the second graders.  Are you crazy busy?  Maybe God can’t wait to teach you about the joys of Sabbath.

The other thing that can be frustrating about teaching Sunday School is the lack of obvious results.  You show up week after week and sometimes kids are there and sometimes you have a faithful remnant staring at you blankly.  Sometimes you feel like you are connecting and sometimes you feel like everyone is wasting their time.

But remember our message from last week—faith is the conviction of things not seen.  There is always more going on than we can see.  You may have a child in your class who says not a single word the entire year.  But in twenty years, that child may remember your kindness to him and decide to come back to church.  You just don’t know.

In fact, you kind of have to have faith.

As a church, I hope we will all take a leap of faith to support the children and youth in this place.  I hope we will surround Audi and our youth minister with supportive, encouraging words and actions.  I hope we will show up to teach, to chaperone, or just to give a parent wrestling with small kids in a pew an encouraging smile.

I hope we will, as the author of Hebrews writes, “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Amen.

 

Proper 14, Year C, 2013

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

This is one of the most iconic statements in Scripture.  It has been emblazoned on plaques and embroidered on sweatshirts.  People have cross-stitched it, framed it, and hung in on a thousand living room walls.

But what does it mean?

The author of Hebrews is writing to discouraged, second generation Christians.  These aren’t the disciples who stood with Jesus as he was transfigured and listened to God praise his Son.  These aren’t the crowds that surrounded Jesus and saw his miracles.  These aren’t the friends who noticed the empty tomb and experienced the resurrected Jesus.

These followers of Christ have heard those stories, of course, but those stories are fading.  These followers have been through terrible persecution, seen their friends thrown in jail, know those who have been killed for their faith.  Now they are wondering, “Was it worth it?”  They aren’t seeing any results.  Jesus hasn’t come back.  There has been no revolution.  All they’ve got is the Holy Spirit and some old stories.

The author of Hebrews is encouraging his readers. He’s reminding them that faith is more than looking at the evidence around you and sighing in resignation.  Faith requires a person both to look ahead in hope and to look more deeply at the reality around them.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for—faith reminds us that Jesus promised us the kingdom.  Jesus promised us a new way of life.

But faith is also the conviction of things not seen.  That is, faith is the belief that there is more than meets the eye to the present.

Think of our news coverage.  Whether we open the Times-Dispatch or go to the New York Times online or turn on CNN, we are inundated with the fifteen most horrible things that have happened in the entire world the previous day.   On top of that, we are reminded that we are slowly poisoning our planet and that we probably have some terrible disease we just haven’t been diagnosed with yet.  Getting a bird’s eye view of the world is enough to make us want to hide under our covers for the rest of time!

Detroit is a perfect example.  What do you know about Detroit from the news?  Detroit is a big city that has collapsed and is filing for bankruptcy, right?  You probably picture poverty and violence and decay.  And all that is happening.  Buildings are abandoned, some with squatters living inside.  The drug trade and gun violence is all a part of life in Detroit.  But what happens if we have “the conviction of things not seen.”  What if we believe that God is at work in Detroit?

On her wonderful program “On Being”, Krista Tippet interviews people who examine the bigger questions in life, whether they are religious persons, scientists or poets.  Recently she re-aired an interview with a woman named Grace Lee Boggs.  Grace is a 98 year old philosopher who has lived in Detroit for decades.  She and her husband were instrumental in the civil rights movement in the area and she continues to live her life with energy as she tackles the big questions of what it means to be a worker in an era in which all the jobs have left your community.

As Tippett spoke with Boggs and others in Grace’s community, they talked about community gardens which have been springing up in blighted areas. They talked about artists gathering and expressing themselves.  They talked about people in Detroit gathering and breaking bread together, sharing life together.  You heard stories of true community.  Community rooted in love and respect.  Community that sounded quite a lot like a community of God.  There is more than meets the eye in Detroit.  God is at work, even amidst the blight, even if we cannot see that on the evening news.

Abraham and Sarah certainly had to draw on deep reserves of faith.  God send them forth without any real instructions!  God made promises about their offspring that he didn’t fulfill for decades.  Year after year Abraham and Sarah plodded forward, somehow trusting that God was at work, even when promises were not yet fulfilled.

We are not alone in those moments when we wonder whether God is a faithful, loving God.  We are not alone when we have moments in which we think the resurrection story is a little far fetched.  Waaaaay back, just a few years after that resurrection, people were already starting to think it sounded too good to be true.

So how do we nurture our own faith two thousand years, hundreds of generations later?  How do we keep ourselves holding on when the evidence seems thin?  When our own suffering, or the suffering of others makes us start to doubt the presence of God?

The author of Hebrews would encourage us to tell the stories.  Remind ourselves of all the people in the bible, all the people across history who have had encounters with God.  Remember our own stories of God’s faithfulness and listen to the stories of others.  Whether you choose to read about the saints or a more modern memoir of faith by Lauren Winner or Kathleen Norris, reading about the faith of others can encourage our own faith.

Worshiping together can also be helpful.  When a friend first invited me to attend a service at an Episcopal Church, I was a 21 year old evangelical who had just spend the summer on a poorly organized mission trip in Delhi, India.  The trip raised all kinds of questions for me about poverty and God’s work in the world.  It also made me doubt the church, whose cheerful attempts to lead Vacation Bible School amongst people who barely eked out livings in the slums of Delhi seemed patronizing, at best.

I came home uncomfortable in the cheerful, hand clapping worship services of the church I attended.  So, when I walked into the doors of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond, I did not know what to think.  But then the liturgy started.  And I teared up because for months I had not been able to pray, but now, praying these old prayers in unison with hundreds of other people made me feel deeply connected.  I had never seen the Nicene Creed before and thought it was the most brilliant thing I had ever read.  At the time I had no idea it was a statement of faith that had been cobbled out in the 4th century, but I could tell it was rooted in something deep and true.  I actually still have a scrapbook where I cut the Nicene Creed out of the bulletin because it moved me so much!

When we say the Nicene Creed every Sunday, we say it together and we always say it in the plural.  We help each other keep the faith.  When one of us doubts, another can believe for us.  We may have weeks, months, years at a time when we aren’t able to say the words of the Creed with confidence, but we can stand there silently listening to the chorus of voices around us and remember that faith surrounds us, even if faith is not within us.

And if you are struggling with faith today, know that we will believe for you.  We will hold onto the hope that God is at work in your present and that God has a future for you.

We hold onto the faith together.  No one has to go it alone.

Amen.

 

 

 

Second Sunday in Easter, Year A, 2008

When I went through the ordination process, one of the first steps was to have several meetings of a discernment committee at my parish.  My discernment committee at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond was filled with a wonderful variety of parishioners who asked me all sorts of good questions.  Mary Horton, a fabulous woman who single handedly inspired me about the beauty of pointy toed shoes, asked me, “Do you believe in resurrection?”  Now, I was thinking about human death, since my mother had just died, and I told them that I honestly did not know.  There was a long, awkward pause, and all of a sudden I realized she meant JESUS’ resurrection.  I quickly blurted out, “Yes!  Yes!  I believe in Jesus’ resurrection, I’m just not sure if the rest of us have the same kind of bodily resurrection!”

Phew.  I might not be here today if I hadn’t interpreted that long pause correctly!

I wonder if Thomas was met with the same awkward silence when he just could not believe the other disciples had seen the risen Jesus.

You can just imagine Thomas coming back into the locked room, completely innocent of what had just happened.  Maybe he went out to check on a family member, or to grab some lunch.  Maybe he just needed a break from the doom and gloom and wanted some fresh air.  Regardless of why he left, he was the only disciple not to see Jesus for himself.  He came back to the room and everyone was babbling excitedly about seeing Jesus.

Of COURSE Thomas was incredulous.  There are certain things you don’t expect in life-for, example, snipers shooting at cars right here in Greenwood.  Thankfully the thing Thomas was not expecting was not bad news-he had already heard the bad news of Jesus’ death-but really, truly wonderful news.

Thomas was a skeptic.  Thomas wanted more information.  Thomas wanted to see for himself.  He tells his friends that he wants to “see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands, and put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in his side”.  Thomas wants evidence and sensory proof that what the disciples saw was actually the resurrected Jesus. Thomas is not comfortable with the certainty that his friends are experiencing.

Thomas could be the patron saint of the Episcopal Church.
 
One of the reasons I joined the Episcopal Church is that it welcomes all of us Thomases and all the questions we have. I used to be part of a church community that would tilt its head and tell you, “We’re praying for you.” if you asked too many questions.  Questions were a sign that your faith was wavering, in danger.  To them, real faith looked like an iron clad suit-inflexible and dogmatic. 

John Polkinghorne, the English priest and physicist reminds us that truth is not the same thing as certainty.

Many people confuse the two, but truth is a much broader idea than certainty.

When Thomas finally sees Jesus, Jesus invites Thomas to put his hands in Jesus’ side.  After all his big talk, Thomas cannot bring himself to touch his Lord. Suddenly, Thomas no longer needs the certainty of concrete evidence.  He has a personal encounter with a loving, resurrected Jesus and no longer needs proof of Jesus’ resurrection.

The truth of Jesus, and our relationship with Jesus is much more complicated, and much more beautiful than simple certainty.

If we become absolutely certain about who Jesus is and what God is like, then we close ourselves off to the power of the Holy Spirit to teach us something new.

Our minds are very small.  Even here, in intellectual Charlottesville, our minds cannot begin to grasp the complexity of the living God.  All of our rumination and theology is nothing more than an educated guess, really. 

We like to be organized, so we come up with books and books of theology and all try to agree on exactly what the Bible means, but even the Bible is a complex and multi-layered text.  The Bible is for exploration, not classification.  The Bible is an adventure, not a set of rules.

Being too certain can lead to a limited experience of God.  Being too certain can cut us off from people different from ourselves.  Being too certain can lead to ugly talk, accusations, and even violence.  Being too certain can even lead to personal collapse.

Once I got past the point of just giggling about the whole Elliot Spitzer debacle, I began to get really fascinated at what motivated him to act out the way he did.  For that matter, what made Ted Haggard behave the way he did?  Or any moral leader who has a moral meltdown?  What men like these have in common is an intense and narrow perspective on the world to which they are professionally obligated to adhere.  They built their reputation on moral certainty that left no room for them to explore their own deep thoughts and feelings in a safe and open manner.  They ended up compartmentalizing themselves into irresolvable pieces and that loose construction eventually collapsed in spectacular and humiliating ways. 

If Spitzer and Haggard had been in tune with the complicated truth of who they were and who God is, rather than being so certain of a set of mores for those under their care, they may have spared themselves the humiliation of sexual and financial indiscretions that later came to light.

Asking questions, even taboo questions, about ourselves and about God is one of the healthiest, most faithful acts we can do as Christians.  Thomas teaches us that we are allowed to ask whether God is real, whether the resurrection is real, whether the virgin birth is real.  We are allowed to doubt.

Faith would not be faith without doubt.  Inherently, faith is about taking a risk, taking a chance.  Over our life, our faith will ebb and flow.  There will be Sundays where we can say the Nicene Creed with confidence and other Sundays where we might need to skip a part or just listen to our brothers and sisters recite it.  In the Episcopal Church, unlike most churches, to join you do not need to sign a statement of belief.  You do not have to sign off on specific theological points or agree to a proscribed set of ideas.  In the Episcopal Church we believe faith is expressed by coming together and worshipping, by the act of loving God, rather than the act of believing facts about God. 

We can no longer put our hands in Jesus’ wounds, but we can encounter him at the Eucharist.  The physical contact and assurance Thomas, and we, long for can still be met as we kneel before him and accept his body and blood in the form of bread and wine.  The intimacy that Thomas shared with Jesus, the gift of being in Jesus’ presence is still offered to us. 

And when we come to share that intimacy in the Eucharist, we don’t need to have all our ducks in a row.  We can come confused about God, confused about ourselves.  We can come with robust faith or whimpering faith and Jesus will still meet us and open his arms to us.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 22, Year C, 2007

I’d like all of you to turn your faces to the window and concentrate on the large tree between the church and the Marston La Rue House.

(Squeeze eyes)

Did it move?  Well, let me try again.

(Squeeze eyes, grip podium)

Oh, well.  I have to confess that every time I hear this passage, every time, I try to move a tree with the power of my mind.  This plan has yet to work.  Not one branch has wavered, not one root has become unhinged from the dirt that surrounds it.  I find this all very frustrating.

When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, they were frustrated, too.  They did not ask Jesus to increase their faith out of some selfless piety.  They asked Jesus to increase their faith because they had just heard Jesus say, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

This teaching was too much for them, as most days it is too much for us!  They did not want to have to forgive people who had hurt them, especially people who had hurt them a lot.

So, they ask Jesus to increase their faith-as if faith was a something that could be measured-as if faith could be used up and then replenished like gasoline in an automobile.

But Jesus reminds the disciples that faith cannot be measured in quantities. To have a gallon faith is not better than having a pint of faith.  Faith, in fact, is not about us at all.  Faith is about God, not about our capacity to believe.  Jesus tells the disciples that if they had the faith of a mustard seed, they would be able to uproot a local mulberry tree and toss it in the sea.  Obviously, none of us have the capacity to move a tree just by thinking about it.  God, however, can move a tree.

How many of you were around for Hurricane Isabel?  I was living at the seminary in Alexandria at the time.  When I awoke the morning after the hurricane I was shocked to see that giant trees, trees whose roots had stretched deeply, were knocked over as easily as playing cards.  In Richmond, the damage was even more intense.  In the lush Maymont Park, the carcasses of dozens of overturned trees littered the grass for almost a year. 

For God, moving a tree is as simple as creating a big wind.  For us, not so easy.

So, faith is not about us willing God do so something through the power of our own piety, but realizing that God can do things greater than we can even imagine.  God can even uproot us in places we are stuck and fling us into a new life of freedom and joy.  This part of the passage is about expanding our horizons, opening our minds, coming to terms with a limitless, powerful God.

And then, before we can get too excited about all this, Jesus turns a corner.

In the second part of our gospel reading today, Jesus tells a parable about a slave and a slave owner.  This parable is extremely, nail bitingly, glance around at your neighbor uncomfortable for us.  First of all, it addresses slavery, which in our country was the most shameful part of our past.  Secondly, Jesus encourages rude behavior!  We are in the South.  We thank people.  I sometimes write thank you notes for an event before I actually go to the event.  The idea of not thanking someone who has worked all day for you and then cooked is shocking!

When we think about this passage, it is helpful to remember the context of the time.  In Jesus’ time, slavery was not a race issue-it was a political and financial issue.  A person could be placed in slavery when his country was conquered by another country.  A person could also sell himself into slavery if he was deeply in debt and needed to buy his way out of the debt.  None of this makes slavery acceptable, but in Jesus’ time, it was a part of the system that was taken for granted.  So, when Jesus uses a parable about slavery, he is not endorsing slavery, simply acknowledging that it exists and using slavery as a metaphor his listeners will understand.

So what does this metaphor mean?  To Jesus’ listeners, the idea of thanking a slave would have been laughable.  Slaves had jobs to do-their whole purpose in live was to do these jobs, so to commend them would be silly.  I do not think that self-esteem was a big issue in Jesus’ time. 

Jesus is reminding his disciples that, as followers of Jesus, they have jobs to do, too.  Yes, their God is a mighty God who can uproot trees and transform lives, but that same God also calls us to responsibility.  When it comes to forgiveness, Jesus is telling his disciples to “just do it.”  He’s telling them not to expect to be coddled by God or thanked for doing what they are supposed to be doing. 

While these images of faith and slavery seem radically different, they are two parts of the same point.

God is God.  We are not God.

God can do amazing, nature defying, life changing things.  If we step back and let God do these things, all we have to worry about is doing what we’re supposed to do. We are not responsible for controlling the universe, or making miracles happen.  We are not responsible for changing the lives of others.  We are responsible for our own lives and how we live them-living with integrity, kindness, honesty, forgiveness, love.

If we acknowledge that we already have a mustard seed of faith within us, then all we have to do when we are worried about something or someone is to pray.  We are called to pray and wait for God and do the work God has given us to do without complaint.

When we do manage to do what God has called us to do, we don’t wait around to be praised, but we go on with our lives, knowing we have done the least we can do  to live lives worthy of God. 

So, we live in the tension of faith-of trusting in an endless God, while still navigating our own small lives.  We live in the tension of dreaming big dreams and praying big prayers, while still taking out the garbage every day.  The life of faith is both incredibly expansive and freeing, and limiting-as it provides us boundaries to live healthy and holy lives.

This tension is also a kind of freedom.  By trusting in God, rather than ourselves, an enormous weight is lifted off our shoulders.  By responding to God’s call when we hear it, we always know we are doing what God wants us to do.  Living out this tension offers us a life without anxiety-knowing that we are each fulfilling our own small role and that God is taking care of everything else. 

Epiphany 7, Year B, 2006

I am about to do a new thing.

God declares this through Isaiah’s words and in Jesus’ actions in our lessons this morning.

Jesus had only been in active, public ministry for a few weeks, but word about him had spread throughout the region.  Jesus was teaching all sorts of incredible new ideas about God.  And not only that, Jesus was also doing incredible things.  He was sending demons flying and healing little old ladies.  Even though he wanted to maintain a low profile and asked those he healed not to tell others about him, those who had received his healings could not help but go on and on about Jesus to their friends and family. 

When friends of a paralytic heard about Jesus, they knew their friend needed to meet him.  We don’t get the whole story about this paralytic, but we do get a sense of the energy around him.  His friends were so committed to having him healed, they traveled to Capernaum, to the house where Jesus was staying.  Unfortunately, once they got there they could not get in the door, because so many people were crowding around Jesus, wanting healings. 

The paralytic’s friends were not to be denied.  They somehow climbed onto the roof, hauled the paralytic onto the roof, and began digging.  Rooves in towns like Capernaum were made of slats of wood, filled in with mud, rocks, and big flat leaves.  These friends tore through the outer layer, began shoveling mud and rocks out with their hands or small tools, and eventually broke through. 

I wonder if the people in side the house could hear the commotion they made.  Was it so crowded that Jesus could not hear what was going on?  Or, was Jesus amused by their efforts and simply waiting patiently for the paralytic’s arrival.

All we know is, when the friends finally broke through the roof and lowered their friend down in front of Jesus, everything stopped.  Whatever teaching or healing was going on was halted by this abrupt arrival of a man being lowered down on a pallet. 

Jesus took this opportunity, the faith of this man and his friends, to teach the crowd around him something new. 

The crowd had heard about Jesus’s ability to exorcise demons and to heal, but Jesus wanted to show them that he wasn’t just a miracle worker, he wasn’t just a showman, he was God. 

God says, I am doing a new thing.

Little did the friends of the paralytic know that their grit, their determination would be the background God would use to announce his presence on earth, and his intention to heal humanity, not just from physical infirmity, but from sin.

Now, after two thousand years hearing about how Jesus forgives us our sins, we start to take this information for granted and forgiveness loses some of the emotional power it once had. 

However, we must remember that when God came to earth in and through Jesus, the Jewish powers of the day were deeply into legalism -being a good Jew meant following all the rules, crossing all the Ts and dotting all the I’s.  Though in the past, God had tried to communicate that he was less interested in ritual sacrifice and ritual prayer than authentic worship and service to the poor and needy, the message had not gotten through to the people. 

The idea that a human being would claim to be able to forgive sins, was completely absurd-blasphemous even!  No human being could forgive sins.  Yet, here sits Jesus, calmly telling the paralytic that his sins are forgiven-and, by the way, that he can walk again. 

But really, when you think about it, the healing of the body and the forgiving of sin are more connected than one might think.  What is sin, but a kind of brokenness?  It makes perfect sense that the God who wants to heal us physically, also wants to heal our spirits.  Forgiveness is not just about divine, eternal consequences for our behavior.  Forgiveness is about restoring a right relationship with our creator and with our neighbor.

While humans are made in God’s image and have wonderful capacity to be creative and loving individuals, we also are fundamentally broken.  None of us loves perfectly, none of us is perfectly honest or good.  Despite the Jews of Jesus’ time having a list of 600 very specific rules to follow, no one seemed to be able to follow them all perfectly, no matter how hard they tried. 

In our culture today, we don’t’ have 600 religious laws, but we do have an image of perfection we try to follow subconsciously. Being competent, having the appearance of being “together” is incredibly important. 

But, what if God is doing a new thing?

This week, Chuck and I had the interesting experience of meeting with a local therapist who has a vision.  Over the years of his ministry, he has encountered individuals and couples who can admit their brokenness to him and to each other, but these same people continue to pretend to their friends and to their churches that everything about their life is together and perfect. 

This therapist believes that true healing occurs in community.  Therapy is a wonderful tool that can help people deepen relationships with each other, but this therapist would love his counseling sessions to be simply a beginning for his clients.  That like Henri Nouwen’s wounded healer, his clients could use their painful experiences and their experiences of forgiveness to propel them into community and into ministry.  This therapist envisions a ministry in which he counsels people in their church buildings, and that the community life of church and the private work of therapy ultimately partner together.

I think the image of the paralytic’s friend’s lowering him onto the mat is a wonderful example of this kind of community.  The paralytic was in a situation where his problem could not be hidden.  He obviously could not walk.  His friends did not hold back, ignoring his problem in order not to embarrass him.  No, they were engaged with him, and committed to his healing.  They were so committed they tore through a roof so he could see Jesus.

Now, I don’t know if this therapist’s ministry will be successful, but I know from personal experience that the combination of therapy and intentional community can be a powerful vehicle for the work of God.

From 1999 until 2002 I was part of a small group Bible study in Richmond.  About seven of us met weekly to study the bible and pray together.  In that way, we looked like any other bible study.  The difference was that four of us were in therapy, two were getting degrees in counseling and one was married to one of the counselors!  It was while I was in this group that I left the evangelical church to become an Episcopalian, experienced the death of my mother, and discerned a call to the priesthood.  Words cannot express the powerful ways God used this group as we each faced the brokenness in our lives and came together to support, challenge and pray for each other. This community held my brokenness tenderly, protecting and loving me, so I could grow into the person God wanted me to be.  We also had a ridiculous amount of fun together and became a true community, even outside of the Bible Study. 

At times the intimacy we achieved felt very risky, especially as my theological ideas were changing, but despite our theological differences, or perhaps because of them, we were able to each deepen our faith and learn about God.  For me, these six friends were my pallet carriers.  They brought me to Jesus, reminding me of his love and forgiveness for me over and over again.

Obviously therapy and small groups are not the only ways to live in deep community with one another.  However, we ARE called to be in deep community. Throughout history, God has called communities of faith, rather than individuals.  We gather together as a church every Sunday, because it is impossible for us to discern God’s call as individuals.  We need each other to fully realize our faith.  We need each other to carry each other when we cannot walk.  We need each other to express God’s forgiveness when we feel only guilt. 

So, maybe it’s God who needs US to do a new thing-to trust him and trust each other to live authentic lives in community.