Easter 2, Homily for Celtic Service, Year B, 2014

Poor Thomas.

The disciples have been huddled together for a week, terrified after Jesus’ body has been missing from the tomb.  Thomas is out picking up some sandwiches or getting a breath a fresh air and misses Jesus’ visit to the disciples completely!

When he gets back they are all abuzz with their amazing encounter.  Thomas is skeptical.  Or maybe Thomas is just protecting his heart.  He is grieving Jesus, he misses his friend.  It sounds way too good to be true that Jesus could be alive.  He wants evidence.  He wants to put his hands in the holes that pierced his side.

And yet, when Jesus reappears, all of Thomas’ defenses fall away.  Once he encounters the living, resurrected Jesus, Thomas doesn’t need proof.  It is enough for Thomas to be in his Lord’s presence.  Encountering the living God eliminates all his skepticism.

We live in a skeptical age.  We live in an age where we just assume someone will eventually hack into our email or steal our credit card number.  We assume all celebrities will eventually disappoint us and we just wait for our heroes to fall.  We live in a culture that chews up half truth and scandal for breakfast every morning.

We arm ourselves with cynicism and sarcasm and dark humor, because we believe it protects us from our grief and fear.  We grieve the loss of the world’s innocence and we fear for our own well being and the well being of those we love.

Thomas’ good news, is our good news, too.  Jesus is resurrected.

The light defeats the dark.  Love wins.  No matter how hard the forces of darkness, death and despair try to attack us, ultimately Jesus’ light and love will defeat them.  Sometimes that light may seem like a tiny flicker in a pitch black dungeon, but by the end of time that flicker of light will illuminate all of creation.

And we get to help spread that light by living lives that are full of joy and hope and trust—the antidote to our skeptical age.

At Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton I met a lovely woman from India who was a Keralan Christian.  I had never heard of such a thing, but it turns out that when Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in Kerala, India in the 1480s to evangelize the local population, they found a thriving Christianity already present.  No one in the Roman Catholic world had any idea this Christian community existed.  What a moment of holy surprise for these priests to realize that Jesus had over 1000 years on them in Kerala!

The Keralan Christians trace their faith all the way back to a missionary disciple named Thomas.  Thomas’s moment of faith in the upper room transformed his entire life. Legend has it that our Thomas traveled thousands of miles during his life, joyfully sharing his faith in Jesus across the world.

May Thomas be our guide as we discover with delight, over and over again, the power of the real presence of Christ in our lives.  And like Thomas, may we share that delight with others.



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.

Easter 2, Year B, 2006

You’re working hard alongside your twin brother, minding your own business, when this incredibly dynamic man, Jesus, persuades you to leave your steady job to become a homeless wanderer.  You’re a practical person, so this bold decision is at once thrilling and terrifying.  You are also a grown man, and frankly, not entirely comfortable with your new role as a follower.

While you love Jesus and the other disciples, you have also been driven crazy by this itinerant life you are living.  Also, and you would never admit this to anyone, you’re a little jealous that you’re not one of Jesus’ favorites.  He’s always taking Peter and James and John aside and having some deep conversation.  And Jesus never laughs as hard as when Peter says something completely impetuous and borderline inappropriate. 

Whenever you have spoken up, Jesus has always used it as a “teachable moment”, which made you feel like an idiot.  For instance, this one time, after days of being yanked around from one town to the next, and listening to Jesus’s words of wisdom, which frankly, didn’t always make sense, this one time you ask Jesus HOW we’re supposed to follow you if you don’t even know where you’re going and Jesus turns your question around and starts talking about how he is the way and the truth and the life, but never actually answers your question.

So, in short, you’re tired and a little irritated, but you love Jesus and you can tell there is something really special about him.  You’re waiting to see what happens.  You follow him to Jerusalem and before you know it, he has been arrested and killed. 

So much for this great leader, this man so close to the Lord he called God “my father”.  You’re so sick of listening to Peter and the other disciples process this tragedy that you head out on your own for awhile.  You need quiet.  You need to get your head together.  What are you going to do now?  Can you get your old job back?  What is your mother-in-law going to say?

When you get back to the room where the disciples have been camped out, it is in total chaos.  The women are chirping away, the men are laughing and talking a mile a minute.  For a brief moment you wonder if they have gotten into the wine left over from Thursday night, but the glow about them isn’t one of drunkenness.  When you finally get one of them quieted down enough to talk with you, he starts babbling on about having seen Jesus right here in this room.  Today!  Three days after his death.

Your stomach clenches.  The last few days, heck the last few years have been so weird, so intense, and this latest twist makes your head spin.  Your friends must be so upset they are having mass hallucinations.  That’s the only logical explanation, right? 

You figure they just need a good dose of reality.  So you say those famous words, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  All you want is a little confirmation.  It is crazy to go around talking about some resurrected man if you don’t have any proof!  But still, there is something about the way Mary Magdalene clenches her jaw.  She just seems so sure.

Frankly, by about the third day of waiting around for this apparition of Jesus, the other disciples are starting to look at you nervously, as if perhaps they DID have some mass vision caused by wish fulfillment.  By the sixth day, your clenched stomach has softened into the dull ache of resignation.

On the seventh day, you are back in the house.  Frankly, you are considering whether to cut your losses and head home.  All of a sudden you feel a chill from the bottom of your spine to the back of your neck.  When you turn around, there he is.  In the flesh.  Well, kind of in the flesh.  There isn’t anything spectral about him, but he isn’t quite normal either.  He seems to be completely solid, but also. . .and you know this sounds crazy.  . .but it is as if the laws of nature do not apply to him.  When he comes in the house, for instance, he doesn’t open the door, he just. . .walks through it.  It is not as if he is making some kind of big showy statement, it is as if he just didn’t think about it.  Like those kind of human details are just minutiae.

And this time, Jesus does not turn to Peter, or John, or James, he turns right to YOU.  He looks at you with this mix of compassion and challenge and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 

But at this moment, you know you don’t need to touch his wounds, to verify your experience. 

At this moment every experience you have ever had with Jesus starts whirling around your mind.  You have to sit down because all those opaque words start becoming crystal clear.  Jesus isn’t just a way, Jesus is THE way, THE life, THE truth.  Jesus isn’t just a holy man, he is Holiness itself.  Jesus wasn’t being cute when he referred to the Lord as his Father, the Lord really is. . .his Father

You start to shake as you realize that you have spent the last couple of years in the presence of God, but suddenly you feel a hand on your shoulder.  When you look up, you are looking into Jesus’ eyes.  And yes, they are vast and hold all the mysteries of the universe, but they are also utterly tender and full of compassion and affection.  And when you realize the enormity of Jesus’ love for you, God’s love for you, Jesus seems to nod a little bit.  He pats you on the shoulder and goes on to greet Mary Magdalene and the other disciples. 

Suddenly you realize, this experience with Jesus was not just a three year gig.  You somehow understand that the rest of your life will be devoted to telling people about Jesus, explaining this extraordinary experience of meeting God face to face.  And the even more extraordinary fact of God’s utter love for the human race.