Proper 5, Year C, 2006

 

Last week we heard about the faith of a Centurion. The Centurion, a soldier who was part of the Empire that ruled over the Jewish people, had such faith in Jesus that he sent out his friends to ask Jesus to heal his slave from afar. He had faith that Jesus did not even need to come to his house, but could heal the slave just by thinking about the slave.

The centurion’s faith is the faith of a confident guy. His is the faith of a CEO who is used to people following his orders. He sees in Jesus another man in command, someone able to do God’s work with power.

After healing the centurion’s slave, Jesus and the crowd that is following him walk toward a town called Nain. As he moves toward the city gates, Jesus sees a funeral procession. The members of the procession are not looking for Jesus, they just happen to be moving the body of the dead man outside of the city gates so he can be buried. This man has just died—in Jewish custom a body had to be buried within 24 hours—so the grief of the crowd is fresh.

No one is grieving more than the man’s mother. This man is her only son. Not only that, but this woman is widowed. With the death of her son, she has lost her family. Her world is forever changed. She is devastated.

She does not ask for Jesus’ help. She may have never even heard of Jesus. Her mind is fully absorbed in the moment.

Jesus, passing by the procession cannot keep walking. He is moved by compassion to help her.

Now, the author of the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus as feeling compassion pretty regularly. But Luke strips that phrase out of the stories he borrows from Mark. But here, in this story, a story that only appears in the Gospel of Luke, Luke chooses to describe Jesus having compassion. He wants us to understand the power of the emotional Jesus experiences seeing this woman’s grief. It literally moves him. He cannot help but to act.

This story does not stand in isolation. You may have noticed all the similarities between Jesus’ resurrection of this man, and Elijah’s resurrection of the widow’s son in 1st Kings. These stories are speaking to each other, and their conversation speaks to us.

Elijah prayed to God to resurrect the widow’s son. He threw himself on the son’s body. And God resurrected the son. Jesus needs to do none of that. He simply touches the stretcher the young man is lying on and tells him to rise. He is not asking God to bring the boy to life. He, being God, commands the boy to live.

Jesus, has all the power of God. And he uses this power of healing and of life, not just for confident Centurions, but for grieving women who don’t even know that asking Jesus for help is an option.

We so often think about healing stories as being about the faith of the recipient, but healing stories are about the power and the compassion of God. Jesus chooses to resurrect the widow’s son not because he has earned it or his mother has earned it, but because it is in the nature of God to feel compassion for human beings. It is in the nature of God to transform suffering into healing and death into life.

He restores the young man to life and restores the widow to the life she knew. He gives her back some of what has been taken away from her, even though she is completely passive. She doesn’t speak once in the story. She doesn’t move toward her son after he is resurrected. Jesus does everything for her in this story, even handing her son to her after he is resurrected.

We cannot all be the Centurion. Most of us don’t walk around in complete confidence of our authority and God’s authority. Whether it is a crisis in our own family, or a hurricane, or a political season, we often look around in shock and ask ourselves, “What is happening?” We are often too overwhelmed to act, or even to know how to ask God for help.

And yet, the God of compassion who was moved to restore sons to their mothers through Elijah and Jesus, moves towards all of us in compassion as well.

Jesus restores the life of one man in this story, but through his death and resurrection he restores the lives of all humanity. All the people we have mourned, all the people we will mourn, they will all be restored to us. New life will be breathed into each of us after we die. We will all be restored to God and to one another.

If we look for them, we can find moments of God breaking into our world and bringing little resurrections in the here and now. These little resurrections help us hold onto our faith as we await the great Resurrection.

Charlie has a book out from the library right now called Maybe Something Beautiful. It’s a whimsical story about a little girl who lives in a drab city, who hangs a picture on a wall and then meets a muralist. She and he begin to add color to the walls of the drab city and soon the whole neighborhood is painting with them. At the end of the book, you find out that this is a true story, and the illustrator is the muralist who helped create the Urban Art Trail in San Diego. The art helped heal and bring life to a city that needed it. A small resurrection.

These small resurrections can take many forms, the first laugh after a period of grief. A new friend after a difficult move. The first job when you are trying to start over.

The first time you hold hands after a difficult patch in a relationship.

Small resurrections are not spectacular. They are nothing to tweet about. But they are life sustaining. They remind us that there, somewhere, is order to the universe. They remind us that we are loved. They remind us that there is a big resurrection waiting for us.

Whether we are heroes of faith, or barely faithful, Jesus’ love and resurrection are for us. Whether we are confident or overwhelmed by life, Jesus’ love and resurrection are for us.

We follow a God whose is moved by our suffering, who longs not only to comfort us, but to transform our story. We follow a God who does this, not because we deserve it or even want it, but because it is in his nature.

May you be blessed this week by small resurrections that remind you of the great one waiting for you.

Amen.

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Easter, Year B, 2015

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are grieving.  They are expecting their Jesus, the one they loved, to be in a tomb.  They are going to anoint his body and prepare him for a proper burial.  They are coming because they love him.  They are coming to do right by him.

But Jesus is not there.

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The original ending of the Gospel of Mark does not give us the resurrection we expect. There is no resurrected body.  There are no alleluias. Jesus is just. . .gone.

Jesus is on the loose.

This is, and this should be, terrifying to the women who have come to anoint him.

When a person is nailed to a cross, and pierced with a spear, when his blood flows out of his body, he ought to die.  The rules of biology and logic demand death.

The women who loved Jesus expect death.

And Jesus experienced death.

But not for long.

From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark, God has been rewriting the rules.  At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens tear open, the Holy Spirit descends, and the Father’s voice booms over the crowd, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”

God the Father announces to the crowd, and to us, that everything about life as a human being is about to change.  God breaks into human history in a new way and reclaims us for his own.

Now, humans tried to control that holy in-breaking.  Some tried to control the in-breaking by ignoring Jesus.  Some tired to control the in-breaking by insisting Jesus follow the rules.   Some controlled the in-breaking by turning Jesus over to the authorities.

Those authorities helped control the situation even further by killing Jesus.

But when God decides to reclaim his people, not even death can stop him.

God the Father resurrects his Son, changing every rule.  Jesus is on the loose.

Thousands of years later, we haven’t learned this lesson.  We still think we can control God’s in-breaking in our lives.  We still think we can pin Jesus down.  We set aside one day a week to worship him.  We celebrate his birthday in December.  We give him a week in the spring to remember his death and resurrection.

But Jesus doesn’t do well in confined spaces.

Jesus is on the loose in your life.

Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, we were owned by sin and death.  They were our masters and we were forced to do their bidding.  But God defeated sin and death through Jesus’ resurrection and now we belong to God.

You may think you can control Jesus by setting aside Sunday to think about him and going back to your real life the rest of the week, but good luck with that.  The God who created the Universe is reclaiming you. The God who broke through the heavens, and became a human being is reclaiming you. The God who defeated sin and death is reclaiming you.

Jesus is at loose in your life when you brush your teeth in the morning.  Jesus is at loose in your life when you write your Facebook status or balance your checkbook.  Jesus is at loose in your life when you commute to work, when your boss gives you a dressing down, when you turn on your television at night.  There is no moment in your life that is apart from Jesus and his Father who raised him from the dead.

Think about that for a moment and now tell me that the ending of the Gospel of Mark doesn’t just about sum up your reaction.

Terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The idea of Jesus loose in our lives is terrifying.  At any moment he could ask us to reconcile with someone we loathe, give away the money that gives us security, humble ourselves when we want to advance.  How can we know this mysterious resurrected Jesus has our best interests at heart?

The author of the Gospel of Mark gives us a little clue about this mysterious resurrected Jesus to calm our anxiety.  The heavenly messenger at the empty tomb tells the women “. . .Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Why Galilee?

If you turn to the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, you’ll see that Jesus first arrives on the scene in Galilee.  Mark is pointing us back to the beginning of his Gospel.  The resurrected Jesus is the same Jesus that taught and healed and exorcised demons.  The Jesus that is on the loose in your lives is not some zombie, not some spiritual Santa Claus, spying on you in judgment. He is the Jesus who loved men, women, and children; brought wholeness out of brokenness; and spoke truth to power.  He is the Jesus who loved Peter, even through Peter’s betrayal.  He is the Jesus who loved us so much that he wanted to identify fully with our human experience and was willing to die, so that we might be united with God.

This is the Jesus who is on the loose, loving us, healing us and bringing us eternal life.

And for that we can heartily say,

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

Easter Vigil, Year B, 2012

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome are grieving.  They are expecting their Jesus, the one they loved, to be in a tomb.  They are going to anoint his body and prepare him for a proper burial.  They are coming because they love him.  They are coming to do right by him.

But Jesus is not there.

The Gospel of Mark does not give us the resurrection we expect.  Jesus is just. . .gone.  There is no celebration.  There are no alleluias.

Jesus is on the loose.

This is, and this should be, terrifying to the women who have come to anoint him.

When a person is nailed to a cross, and pierced with a spear, when his blood flows out of his body, he ought to die.  The rules of physics and biology and logic demand death.

The women who loved Jesus expect death.

And Jesus experienced death.

But not for long.

From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark, God has been rewriting the rules.  At Jesus’ baptism, the very heavens tear open, the Holy Spirit descends, and the Father’s voice booms over the crowd, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”

God the Father announces to the crowd, and to us, that everything about life as a human being is about to change.  God breaks into human history in a new way and reclaims us for his own.

Now, we tried to control that in-breaking.  We followed Jesus and listened to his stories, but as soon as Jesus got a little out of hand, as soon as Jesus began sharing his identity as the Son of God, we turned him over the authorities.

Those authorities helped us control the situation even further by killing Jesus.

But when God decides to reclaim his people, not even death can stop him.

So, Jesus is resurrected.  Jesus is on the loose.

The Gospel of Mark ends right there.

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The author leaves us in tension with this ending in which nothing is resolved.  Jesus is on the loose.  Mary and Mary and Salome are uncomfortable and so are we..

If you remember your Gospel of Mark, you’ll remember there is a long section that comes after this ending.  It’s marked in parentheses because scribes, uncomfortable with the original ending felt the need to tell the rest of the story.  They could not handle Jesus not wrapping up loose ends.  They wanted to pin Jesus down.  They wanted closure.

But there is no closure.

Jesus is on the loose.

We still try to pin Jesus down.  We set aside one day a week to worship him.  We celebrate his birthday in December.  We give him a week in the spring to remember his death and resurrection.  We say that his presence is kept in that tiny bronze box back there with the reserved sacrament.

But Jesus isn’t just in that box.  And Jesus doesn’t wait here in this church for you to come and worship him.

Jesus is on the loose.

Jesus is on the loose in your life.

Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, we were owned by sin and death.  They were our masters and we were forced to do their bidding.  But God defeated sin and death through Jesus’ resurrection and now we belong to God.

You may think you can control Jesus by setting aside Sunday to think about him and going back to your real life the rest of the week, but good luck with that.  The God who created the Universe is reclaiming you.  The God who saved Isaac is reclaiming you.  The God who parted the Red Sea is reclaiming you.  The God who enfleshed the dry bones is reclaiming you.  The God who broke through the heavens, and became a human being is reclaiming you. The God who defeated sin and death is reclaiming you.

Jesus is at loose in your life when you brush your teeth in the morning.  Jesus is at loose in your life when you write your Facebook status or balance your checkbook.  Jesus is at loose in your life when you commute to work, when your boss gives you a dressing down, when you turn on your television at night.  There is no moment in your life that is apart from Jesus and his Father who raised him from the dead.

Think about that for a moment and now tell me that the ending of the Gospel of Mark doesn’t just about sum up your reaction.

Terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The author of the Gospel of Mark gives us a little clue about this mysterious resurrected Jesus to calm our anxiety.  The heavenly messenger at the empty tomb tells the women,

. . .Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

Why Galilee?

If you turn to the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, you’ll see that Jesus first arrives on the scene in Galilee.  Mark is pointing us back to the beginning of his Gospel.  The resurrected Jesus is the same Jesus that taught and healed and exorcised demons.  The Jesus that is on the loose in your lives is not some zombie, not some spiritual Santa Claus, spying on you in judgment. He is the Jesus who loved men, women, and children; brought wholeness out of brokenness; and spoke truth to power.  He is the Jesus who loved Peter, even through Peter’s betrayal.  He is the Jesus who loved us so much that he wanted to identify fully with our human experience and was willing to die so we no longer have to.

This is the Jesus who is on the loose, loving us, healing us and bringing us eternal life.

And for that we can heartily say,

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

Easter 3, Year B, 2009

I love watching footage of Publisher’s Clearinghouse winners or housewives who get surprised by Oprah’s cameras.  We can watch an entire story playing out across their faces as they are told they have won a million dollars or are about to meet Tom Cruise.  At first they are embarrassed to be caught in their bathrobe.  Next, they are suspicious that they are being scammed.  Then they just stare blankly, usually with their mouths partially open, thinking.  Finally, the news sinks in and they start jumping up and down and screaming like crazy people.

Any life changing news, whether good or bad, takes a while to filter through the human brain.

We celebrate Easter for a full 50 days, representing the time that lapsed between Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. God gave the disciples a nice, long time to absorb the news of the resurrection before throwing the curveball of the Holy Spirit at them.

Our Gospel lesson today is from the Gospel of Luke.  You’ll remember from our time together at Easter that the Gospel of Mark does not contain any post-resurrection appearances, so the creators of the lectionary are borrowing from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Luke this year.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus makes two post-resurrection appearances.

First, Jesus appears to two disciples walking along a road to Emmaus.  They don’t recognize him at first, but he says a few elusive things and then breaks bread with them.  In the act of breaking bread, they suddenly realize who he is.

The second appearance-the one we read today-happens when all the disciples are gathered together, discussing the first appearance.

Jesus materializes suddenly, out of nowhere, and the disciples are-here’s that word again-terrified.

Jesus understands their fear, Jesus understands that it takes our small brains time to absorb new information.

Jesus’ response to their fear tells us so much about God and the kind of love and patience that God has for us.  Rather than getting down to the business at hand right away, Jesus gives them time to absorb the experience of being with the risen Jesus.  He invites the disciples to touch him.  He invites the disciples to view his wounds.  He invites the disciples into this intimate moment of connection to reaffirm their bonds and reassure them of his identity.

Throughout all the resurrection appearances, eating is a theme.  The resurrected Jesus almost always eats something within the stories where he appears to the Disciples.  This story is no different.  After giving the disciples a chance to touch his resurrected body, Jesus then eats a piece of fish in front of them.  Eating the fish not only proves that Jesus is no ghost, but must have evoked many memories for the disciples.  So many important moments in Jesus’ ministry happened around food.  When the disciples saw Jesus eat the fish, they must have remembered the final Passover meal together, and the time Jesus fed 5000 people with just fish and bread, and the meal during which Mary poured oil over Jesus head and feet.  The extraordinary resurrected Jesus chooses to do something extremely ordinary to help root his disciples in the reality of the present in a gentle, calming way.

Jesus does not delve into bible study or instruction until all those introductions are out of the way.  Only when the disciples have come to understand that he is, indeed, resurrected from the dead, does Jesus begin to teach them about the implications of his resurrection.  He helps them to understand that their mission is to go out and teach others about repentance and God’s forgiveness of sin.

The church year also gives us time to gently absorb the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  We have all of Lent to focus on repenting and then 50 days of Easter to focus on the fact that our sins are forgiven.

And even with these 50 days of Easter, I don’t know that the good news really ever fully sinks into our hearts and minds.

I wonder what would happen if each of us took the next few weeks of Easter to really think and pray about how the forgiveness of sins affects each of us.  The phrase “forgiveness of sins” has sort of a stern Catholic-school connotation.  We don’t easily jump up and down in joy over the image of a stern God solemnly wiping our slate clean while giving us a one eye-brow raised nod.

But the forgiveness of sins is not about a schoolteacher God judging us and reluctantly changing our grade from an F to an A.  The forgiveness of God is about the gift of an abundant, loving relationship with our Creator. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God forgives us of our sins. Because Jesus mediates between us and the Father, we can be in a close relationship with God. Jesus modeled this kind of intimate relationship that is now available to us through his relationship with his disciples.

Jesus’ relationship with his disciples was marked by breaking bread together, walking together, and teaching.  While Jesus occasionally rebuked or got frustrated with his disciples, his relationship to his disciples could not be characterized as stern or cold.  Jesus loved his disciples and his disciples loved him.  Jesus reaffirms this warm relationship with disciples by continuing to break bread with them after his resurrection.

Experiencing a relationship with God can sometimes feel abstract and frustrating.  God does not literally walk with us or break bread with us.  But, our relationship with God is just that-a relationship.  The relationship is dynamic and intimate, just like Jesus’ relationship to the disciples was dynamic and intimate.  We may not experience God in a palpable manner, as the disciples were able to do, but if we lead lives of prayer we do occasionally get a strong spiritual sense of God’s presence and a very powerful sense of God’s love for us.

Maybe this Eastertide, as we slowly absorb the reality of God’s powerful love for us, we’ll have a moment of insight about just how incredible this intimate relationship with the divine really is and we’ll start  jumping up and down and screaming like one of those Publisher’s Clearinghouse winners!

Even for us staid Episcopalians, that would be an appropriate response to the Good News of God’s love for us!

Amen.

Easter, Year B, 2009

Today is the most celebrated, exciting day of the Church year.  Easter represents the core of what makes Christianity unique.  The resurrection of Christ offers endless possibilities for our own redemption and our own new lives with God.  The resurrection is all about experiencing unbridled hope and joy where there was no room for either.

So, why then won’t Salome and the two Marys get on board with the program!?

In every other Gospel account of Jesus’ resurrection, the women who find the empty tomb are terrified, but they dutifully trot off to tell the male disciples the news.  In the original ending to Mark’s Gospel however, the women are so freaked out by everything that has happened that they run away and tell no one.

This ending of Mark is completely unsatisfying!  This ending is abrupt and unresolved.  We are left not with an image of a victorious, risen Lord, but with three shaken women, who cannot integrate this good news into their lives.

This ending reminds me of the ending of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film version of Beauty and the Beast.  At the very end, when the Beast morphs back into the prince he had been before his curse, instead of looking thrilled, Beauty looks disappointed.  Cocteau refuses to deliver us the neatly wrapped up ending we want.  David Chase did the same thing when he ended The Sopranos so abruptly, in the middle of a scene.

While neither the ending of Beauty and the Beast nor The Sopranos was completely satisfying, in retrospect, both are considered pretty brilliant, poetic endings.

Real life does not deliver neat endings, wrapped up with a satisfying bow.  Real life is complicated and messy.  Real life does not have endings the way a piece of literature does.

So, I would argue that this ending of The Gospel of Mark is a brilliant piece of writing that acknowledges the messiness of real life and intentionally leaves us in tension.

By leaving us in tension, Mark drives two points home.  First, Easter Sunday cannot be celebrated independently from Good Friday.  Second, God does not need humans to get their ducks in a row before he acts.  The resurrection happened whether the women at the tomb were ready or not.

Easter Sunday is a wonderful, celebratory day, but it cannot happen without Judas’ treachery, the insecurity of Pilate, and the murderous crowds.  The resurrection cannot happen without Jesus’ painful death, and Jesus’ abandonment by all of his closest male friends.  The Good News does not come without the terrible news of the death of God and the abandonment of hope.  The resurrection is redemptive, yes, but not even the resurrection cannot erase the horror that came before.

And this is like life, too, isn’t it?

People have rich second marriages after the death of a loved spouse or a difficult divorce.  Some go on to have children after miscarriages or still births.  There are those who start a new, exciting job after being suddenly laid off from a previous one.

Our lives go on after painful events, but we don’t ever forget those tragedies.  We don’t forget the way grief shaped us.  We don’t forget the people who are no longer with us or who might have been.  We don’t forget feelings of rejection and shame.

Instead of ignoring the past, we integrate the past into who we are.  We are not thankful for bad experiences, but we do acknowledge how they shaped us and made us more complicated, sometimes better, people.

Those painful experiences help us treasure the good in life even more-help us to feel in our guts how lucky we are to be loved, to be safe, to be employed, to have friends.

In the same way Mark’s Gospel, by not prettying up the resurrection, helps us to feel the power of the resurrection in our guts.  Jesus was dead.  Dead, dead.  He was not sleeping.  He was not impatiently waiting in the tomb to jump out and surprise everyone.  Jesus had died.  And so, when Salome and the Marys find the empty tomb, of course they are terrified.  Dead people are supposed to stay dead.  As much as I miss my mother, who died nine years ago, if I suddenly visited her grave and found it was empty, I would be completely unsettled and afraid.  The women who come to minister to Jesus’ body will one day see Jesus’ resurrected body and be comforted and amazed and astonished, but for now they are just scared.  So they run.

And this leads me to my second point-Jesus does not need the women to have an enthused reaction.  He does not need Peter to stay loyal to him.  Jesus does not need to have all of his disciples sitting vigil for him.  God does all the work of the resurrection.  The resurrection is for the redemption of humanity, but God does not need humanity to make the resurrection happen.

Jesus’ resurrection happens despite the fear of the people who had been close to him. In the same way, God takes initiative with us.  God pursues us, loves us, forgives us even when we are afraid, freaked out, and incompetent.

There are those who truly believe that in order to be a Christian you have to meet a long list of requirements-including holding very specific theological and political beliefs.  But, I guarantee you that Mary, Mary and Salome had no deep theological understanding of the empty tomb. I also guarantee you that Jesus did not hold their reaction against them!

Jesus’ resurrection is good news for all of us.  Jesus’ resurrection is for us when we are filled with faith and when we are filled with doubt.  Jesus’ resurrection is for us when we are able to live how we want to live and when we disappoint others and ourselves.  Jesus’ resurrection is for when we are feeling blessed and when we are feeling forsaken.

Jesus’ resurrection and the new life it offers us is all about God’s overwhelming, powerful, all encompassing love for us, not about how good or deserving we are.  Jesus tells us that the entire motivation behind God becoming incarnate in Jesus is that love.  God wanted to find a way to be in full relationship with us. Since we are unable to live a perfect life, he chose to do all the work for us, to become like one of us, die like one of us, but then break the power of death over us, so that we might be in relationship with God forever.

And whether this news makes us shout for joy or makes us want to run away in fear, God still loves us and invites us to relationship with him.  And that is Good News.

Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Seventh Sunday in Easter, Year A, 2008

Matt and I got our dog Henry from the Augusta SPCA in December.  He was a pitiful little thing when we got him, very sick and very shaken by whatever had happened to him.  He’s fairly healthy now, and very sweet and more or less adjusted, despite a tendency to eat dirty Kleenex and dead frogs.  Despite his good health, I just hate leaving him when we go out of town.  I am never sure how he is going to react when we go.  When we left at Christmas, even with a dog sitter present, he tore up the Christmas tree and a piece of baseboard.  When we left on our last trip in April, he ate a healthy portion of a new book Matt had bought.  When we leave the dog, I am concerned about him on many levels.  First, what if he harms himself? Secondly, what if he destroys our house?  and finally, what if who ever is watching him never speaks to us again?

Leaving loved ones is hard.  While it is stressful to leave a dog behind, it can be heartbreaking to leave people behind, especially if you know you will not see them again.  Letting go is hard.

This is exactly where we find Jesus in our Gospel reading today.

Our Gospel reading takes place during the last supper.  Jesus has just made a long speech to his disciples and now he is offering a prayer on their behalf.  He knows he only has days to live and that during his death, and before his resurrection, he will not be able to contact his disciples in any way.  He will not be able to reassure them, to explain what is happening.  He will not be able to inspire them with his words or calm them with his presence.  And so, Jesus does the only thing he can do.  He prays to his Father.

Jesus prays that he would be glorified.  We think of glory in terms of praise and adulation, but that is not what Jesus means.  When Jesus asks to be glorified, he asks to be restored to the state he was before he was human.  After all, in the beginning of the Gospel of John, John reminds us that Jesus was the Word who was with God before the creation of the world.  Jesus’ prayer jolts us into remembering that Jesus was not just a really, really nice person, he was GOD incarnate.

Jesus does not want to be glorified back to his old self for his own benefit.  He wants to be glorified so his followers can experience eternal life.  And again, Jesus describes eternal life as something different from what we might expect.  We think of eternal life as something linear.  We think eternal life means having an infinite number of days before us, stretched out into the future.  However, Jesus does not describe eternal life in that way.  Jesus describes eternal life as knowing God.  What Jesus wants for his followers in his absence is for them to have a deep, knowing, loving relationship with his Father.

In the second part of the prayer, Jesus describes this beautiful and reciprocal relationship he has with the Father.  Among other things, he says, “the word that you gave to me, I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you.”  Jesus sees himself here as an intermediary between his Father and the people that his father loves.  This prayer reveals an intimacy about the way Jesus and the Father communicate, and what is even more astonishing-that they want to invite us, their followers, into their intimacy.

Saying goodbye to those you love is never easy.  Jesus was not worried about his followers chewing on old Kleenexes or wrecking a house because of their anxiety.  He was probably worried about Peter’s faith-and whether he would be up to the task of leading the Church.  Jesus was probably troubled because he knew that Judas’s act of betrayal would destroy Judas as much as it would destroy Jesus.  Jesus probably grieved the thought of his beloved community being splintered into pieces after they had all gotten to know each other so well.  Maybe he was afraid some of his followers would lose their faith in him and be deeply disappointed.

What Jesus wanted for his followers after his death was for them to be enveloped in the love of his Father.  He wanted his death and resurrection to unite his followers and for them to experience God’s love in a new way.  But even Jesus could not control what happened to his friends.  Even Jesus had to let go and turn to God and offer his loved ones to God.

So, who do we think we are to hold onto people, to control people, to protect people when even Jesus knew it was not his role!  We all have someone in our lives who we just wished made better decisions.  We all have a child who is too distant from us, or a friend who keeps dating horrible people, or a boss we can see making stupid decisions for our company, or a spouse who can’t seem to learn to pick up his socks, or a loved one that struggles with addiction.  Of course we are called to care for them, but we must not forget that ultimately we have no power over them.  Ultimately, the welfare of another person is not in our control and the best thing we can do, is to follow Jesus’ example and turn our loved ones over to God.

Remember, God wants to invite each of us into a loving, reciprocal relationship with the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  God longs to know and be known to each of us and everyone we love.  It is in that loving relationship where we experience forgiveness, healing and all the things that make us better people.  When we pray for our loved ones who are struggling, we hand them over to the One who made them and loves them even more than we do.  When we pray we are reminded that we are not alone, but we are in relationship with a God who has been in our position, who has loved a group of people and been afraid of what would happen if he were not there to lead them.

This very Jesus, after being incarnate, after being enfleshed, died, became glorified and resumed his pre-embodied state of being all so we could know God better, so that we could freely pray and beseech God and feel God’s presence without the help of any intermediaries.  This is a God we can trust with our loved ones, even my dog Henry.  This is a God who will help us let go.

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.