Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Tag: Faith

Peace which passes understanding

Collect: O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 3:12-19, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36-48

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

“Peace be with you.” Jesus’ first greeting to the disciples after his resurrection is the same greeting we’ll share with one another in a few moments. But for many, it’s one of the most painful ironies and even shortfalls of the Christian faith. How can peace be so closely associated with the central mysteries of our faith, when the world we live in is anything but peaceful? When our own lives are anything but peaceful?

I’ve been enjoying these “Coffee & Conversation” gatherings very much, but one of the more challenging themes that’s come up is how difficult it is to own our Christian identities in public spaces. Part of the reason for that is the way other Christians — and if we’re honest we ourselves — have sometimes pursued peace at the cost of global and personal well being. And part of the reason for that is that a lot of us just aren’t sure we’re very good Christians in the first place. Our lives are full of chaos and confusion, competing loyalties, and feelings in tensions with one another. We do not feel the peace that Christ gives, and we do not hear it in the Christian voices which dominate the public square.

A woman came up to me recently who said, “You know I only really felt peace once. I don’t understand why it was then and not otherwise, my life was in shambles at the time and I was making a mess of things: my marriage was on the line, along with my job and my relationships with my relatives. One Sunday I was in church singing some random hymn, a little distracted because I was going over it all in my head again for the umpteenth time. And then suddenly I felt this peace arrive, so profoundly and so unmistakably present that it was almost tangible. I stopped my anxious catalogue and I spent the rest of the hymn transfixed; somehow I knew I was going to be okay, that I was being held in a way I didn’t know possible. I’ve never felt that way before or since but it’s a moment I return to sometimes when I’m feeling down. Why can’t there be more of that kind of peace in the world? And why did it happen when my life was such a mess?”

The only thing I could think of to say was that perhaps she needed it just then. God knows we need the peace Jesus gives all the time, but more than ever when we’re in trouble. Still that kind of profound feeling is a gift, an exception, not the rule. What is this peace that passes understanding, if it appears so rarely in a person’s life? And what is it worth if it makes Christians so reluctant to own the faith which promises such peace?

Part of the problem I think comes from misunderstanding the very beginning, this moment in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus says, peace be with you. Yes he gives them his peace, but it’s more than a comfort blanket or a placebo. Remember, it might only have been Judas who betrayed him, and Peter alone who denied him, but they all forsook him and fled when he was taken away in the Garden. When Jesus says, peace be with you, it’s a moment of forgiveness, of reconciliation, when the deeds and events which broke their fellowship are forgiven and their unity restored. Jesus’ gift, “Peace be with you” is fundamentally a moment of reconciliation. We who wish we had more of that peace ourselves could do worse than to set about reconciling with one other, forgiving both the great wrongs and little slights we’ve suffered, without expecting anything in return.

But there’s also an element of humor here, or at least I think so. “Peace be with you.” Jesus is risen from the dead, and he takes his disciples by surprise where they’re gathered in a locked upper room. “Peace be with you,” he says. It’s sort of formal and a little stilted, but then what else is he supposed to say? Imagine Jesus making his way from the tomb to the upper room, trying to figure out just what he’s going to say to these people, like the hapless bachelor practicing his charm in front of the mirror in a romantic comedy. “Peace be with you.” It’s a variation on the angelic greeting, “Fear Not,” Because the strangeness of the scenario would be too much for them to bear otherwise. He even escalates the whole scenario by insisting he eat with them right then and there, just to prove he’s not a ghost.

There’s humor here, no mistaking it. And the humor breaks the power of the intense seriousness which had prevailed among them from the moment of his arrest through the ensuing days. It puts them at ease, and they can be themselves again, together. On top of forgiving them, Jesus’ peace and particularly his humor restores them to themselves, breaking the power of anxiety and calling them to participate in the joy of his resurrected life.

As anyone who has struggled with depression can tell you, there can be something marvelous and healing about just being part of a group where everyone is laughing and having a good time, sharing old memories and making new ones; something restorative about simply feeling a part of things, a part of life again, with people who understand you and can tease you good-naturedly. The humor of Jesus’ peace accomplishes this for his disciples.

But this element of humor is more than simple lightheartedness. It reveals a deeper confidence about the world and all the crazy going on outside. For the resurrected Jesus and his disciples to laugh together despite all the challenges they face and the systemic injustice of the world they live in, injustice which condemned Jesus to death among other things, is to suggest that their confidence goes deeper than all the crazy surrounding them.

Jesus has come through death itself, and none of its minions no matter how great can have any power over him any longer, and no power over those with whom he shares his peace. They laugh and rejoice, and all the crazy is revealed to be powerless.

But what about the crazy that still besets us, and the sabotage and subterfuge that Christians continue to work against one another? What about the complete apathy and downright antipathy the rest of the world shows to people of faith? What about the mother who just watched her daughter, a twenty-year-old university athlete, fall twenty feet from the climbing wall to break both legs and now face the possibility she’ll never walk again? What is Jesus’ peace in the face of all this?

We tend to think of it as a fragile thing, small and easily broken; this is partly why we receive it as such a precious gift. But the Peace of Christ is not a small thing subtly given and easily lost. It is not a fragile vase for us to dust and polish, keep safe in a cabinet and protect from thieves. It is stronger than the pillars of the earth, and larger, more spacious than the whole created order. The Peace of Christ is that love in which we live and move and have our being, which has swallowed up death and hell and destroyed them forever. That peace continues to break into our world today like it did that first Easter Day in the Upper Room, making windows onto that larger reality which contains us more than we contain it; which keeps us more than we can keep it; that larger peace which holds us and sustains us in every uncertainty and injury, and is not threatened or diminished by them.

From now on, wherever we find death and hell we can be sure that peace is nearby: above, below, and all around. Christ’s Peace is large enough for us and all our misery, gentle enough to be kind with our confusion and fear long-suffering enough to bear all our anger and resentment and scorn. We have only to be still, to look up, to be aware that this peace is everywhere, and all that’s left for us is to notice, and to bear witness.

Nothing will make it easier for us to be faithful in the midst of challenge and pain. Nothing will make it easier for us to face challenge and pain period, faith or no faith. But if we find we lack peace, let’s take it as a cue to look up, out of our own limited range of vision, and behold Jesus offering forgiveness, humor, confidence, and an invitation further into his resurrected life.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Belief and Doubt

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Acts 4:32-35, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

One of the most endemic aspects of working with young people today is how seriously they take the question of belief. For better or for worse, my sense is that young Christians in ages past had fewer hang-ups about the specific tenets of the faith, and more about what it meant their life would look like.

Speaking at least from my own experience, younger generations today are more prepared than ever to relocate, to reorganize their economic priorities, to adopt new hobbies and habits, to create new community, all for the sake of the things they believe in. But belief itself is hard won; trust is hard earned and easily lost; loyalty is fiercely given but never blindly. Gone are the days when religious communities could sustain periods of stagnancy or scandal so long as they continued in the ancient steps and patterns; gone are the days when evangelism was merely a matter of convincing people how wonderful Christian life is.

For better or for worse, belief matters more than it ever has. First principles and vision are essential to articulate and to own for anyone considering first steps into the life of faith. Get those right, and life will follow.

In this context, our Gospel today is a perfect place to begin, especially because it invites us to consider just what “Doubting Thomas” actually doubted. We always get this Gospel on the second week of Easter. We’ve left the scene of the tomb, and we’re back up in the upper room with the disciples. Evidently the place they had kept the Passover with Jesus the night before he died had become a refuge to them in their grief and their confusion.

By this Sunday, all but Thomas have seen the risen Lord, and their sanctuary of grief has become the center of their rejoicing. They’ve told Thomas what happened, but he seems to doubt it. “Unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, and touch the spear wound in his side, I will not believe.” It’s the sort of statement that has made scientists all around the world love Thomas: here’s an empiricist, right in the gospels, a man after their own hearts! Without solid evidence, he won’t believe the good news his friends tell him. If you ask the scientists, it’s pretty obvious what it is that Thomas doubted: nothing less than the truth of the resurrection, and nothing less than Jesus present in the flesh would convince him otherwise.

But scientists aren’t the only ones with insight into Thomas’s strong reaction to the other disciples’ good news. Psychologists love Thomas too, because he’s such an early example of someone clearly in the stages of grief, specifically denial. Psychologists might respond to the empiricists, Thomas isn’t doubting the fact of the resurrection or the truth of it, rather he’s simply in denial. Remember Thomas was one of those disciples at the Last Supper most insistent about his devotion to Jesus, most willing to go to prison with him and even die with him. There’s a great deal of affection in Thomas for Jesus, and his reluctance to believe the good news might not be so much a rational thing as an emotional thing, having found it hard enough to come to terms with Jesus’ death, let alone the resurrection. It’s all happening so fast, and for someone who feels as deeply as Thomas does, the testimony of others is simply too much for him to process, he needs to see it for himself. If you ask the psychologists, it’s pretty obvious that Thomas doubts not the truth of the resurrection, but his own emotional capacity to bear yet more news, more rumors, more words about this person whom he loves.

But Psychologists don’t exhaust the possible explanations either. If you ask theologians what’s going on here, they’ll give you some variation on what biblical scholars might offer as well. In the context of John’s Gospel, eyewitness reporting composes an important theme: John says repeatedly that his Gospel is reliable because he was an eyewitness to the events he recounts; Jesus is condemned before Caiaphas because the council hears for itself Jesus’ own testimony, which, claiming to be the son of God, makes him a blasphemer in their eyes. Thomas is a perfect case-in-point of what John is trying to accomplish with us his readers. Thomas was a skeptic, and a staunch one, but whose position was immediately reversed upon seeing with his own eyes: the moment he sees Jesus alive and risen from the dead, he falls to his knees and exclaims, “My Lord and my God” — making one of the strongest proclamations of faith in the whole Gospel of John. St. John hopes that you and I, reading an eyewitness Gospel, might respond likewise, and recognize in Jesus the Son of God and Lord of all. If you ask theologians and biblical scholars, they might say that Thomas’ skepticism isn’t about Thomas at all, but about you and me, and the way we choose to respond both to the messaging and to the content of the faith.

No doubt there are more possible readings that these three, and multiple interpretations of just what it was that Thomas doubted, and what the message might be for you and me. Which reading is the correct one, and which interpretation? And what does it have to say about belief in a world like ours?

First of all, there is no single, exhaustive, “correct” reading: each of them and all the others add what they have to add, filling in the picture of Thomas the disciple, and the tensions and challenges of responding to that first Easter. But second of all, Thomas suggests to us that belief is personal — by which I don’t mean individual, but Personal, with a capital P — based in an encounter with Jesus Christ himself, not with words or reports about Jesus, or raw assertions about faith and morals. Thomas’s experience suggests that there is no substitute for face to face interaction with God.

For you and me, that possibility seems a little remote, but probably not more remote than for Thomas, having been present at Jesus’ death and burial. To us Thomas counsels patience: whatever else the risen Jesus might have to say to him, one thing I love is Jesus’ kind, even humorous tone. Jesus affirms Thomas’ very human reaction, and does not scold or punish, but invites further inquiry and deeper experience.

Jesus makes the same invitation to you and me, every day. You and I don’t have an upper room to go to, but we do have church, and we do have the various disciplines of prayer and mercy that Jesus both taught and lived. We cannot force belief, we cannot force an encounter with Jesus; but we can certainly put ourselves in situations where we know Jesus is likely to be: in prayer, in worship, in learning, with the poor, in the act of forgiveness, and caring for one another.

For me one of the most encouraging aspects of the “Doubting Thomas” episode is that, no matter what Thomas thought of his fellow disciples’ and their news that Jesus had risen from the dead, it did not change the way the risen Jesus interacted with him. Finally he appeared to Thomas as well, and spoke to him directly, by name. His skepticism did not finally leave him left out or left behind.

I once knew an old priest who loved to quip, “You might not believe in Jesus, but Jesus believes in you!” Not the way I might choose to put it, but the point is, for Christians, the object of our belief is out there, not only knowable, but personal; not facts in a vacuum, but a Person, continually making himself known to each of us and to all. The degree to which we believe, and the nature of the beliefs we hold, depend first and foremost on our encounter, on our relationship with Jesus, in which we are invited further and deeper into the mystery of his resurrection.

Whatever we might find difficult or even possible to believe; however left behind we may feel when it comes to other disciples, other Christians, may we too find ourselves there with Jesus in the upper room, and declare with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Why?

This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 8, 2017, at CSMSG. This year every week seems to bring with it some new disaster, some new crisis of faith, and this week especially with the news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. In this context it’s all the more natural to ask “Why?” especially of God – but one of the perennial troubles is that God is not always forthcoming with an answer. This sermon is an attempt to point the way towards a specifically Christian response to the matters at hand, as well as to the larger question of faith and suffering.

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who live the and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

I’ll never forget, in the first weeks of being ordained a deacon (I wasn’t a priest yet) I went to the hospital with my father to see my grandmother. She had just undergone a complicated procedure for pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis which had taken her — and all of us — completely by surprise. Most of my dad’s four siblings were in Grandma’s room with us, and we were all talking quietly while she slept off the residue of the anesthesia. One of them asked me point blank, knowing I’d just been ordained, “So all right Blake, now tell us why this happened.” I confess I was at a total loss for words. I’m sure I mumbled something unsatisfying, and the conversation carried on.

Or another case, years before: a friend of mine committed suicide after graduating from college, after suffering through depression and various family issues for years. In his last email to me before jumping in front of a train, he said the one thing that troubled him the most, was “Why anything at all?” Not just, “Why is there bad in the world?” or, “Why is there good?” but, “Why is there anything at all?” He’d grown up a person of faith, but something about that particular moment in his life prevented him from seeing any reason at all behind any of the things he was facing. There was no satisfactory answer I could give.

The last time I preached, Houston was in the middle of historic flooding after Hurricane Harvey. In the few weeks since, Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria have both hit, and we’ve just had yet another record-setting public shooting, this time in Las Vegas. “Why” is still the question on my mind, and I’m sure it’s an important question for many of you too — whether about these specific incidents or something else you might be facing. Are there any answers to be had from Christian faith? And if none are finally satisfying, why should we bother in the first place?

This is where the parables in the Gospel, and actually the whole Gospel itself, really begins to shift us out of our comfortable patterns of thought. In today’s parable about the vineyard and the wicked tenants, Jesus is telling a parable about himself, among other things. He is the son in the parable, who willingly goes to the tenants, and gets killed by them. Why on earth is this the way it works? We don’t know, though we’ve spent the last two thousand years coming up with one theory after another about why it has to be this way. The son gets killed by the tenants in the Gospel parable. The Son of God gets killed by those he comes to save in the Gospel. Why does it have to be this way?

You may know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian in the Second World War, who refused to collaborate with the Nazi state and found himself in a prison camp, where he was executed mere days before the Allies liberated it. In the letters he wrote from prion, he observed that asking why was always the wrong question, because it revealed two flawed assumptions. First, asking why is the wrong question because it assumes that knowledge will always fix things; and second, because it assumes the chief function of God is to satisfy our curiosity. The problem with this first is that knowledge simply doesn’t always fix things; more often than not it creates further problems of its own. And second of all, if God exists merely to satisfy our curiosity, then God can be dethroned in our hearts by anything that offers a more enticing or convincing explanation. This is the heart of all the so-called “Science and Religion” debates. If God exists to offer explanations, and if science offers a more detailed account of how atoms work (or whatever), what reason is there for holding the doctrine of creation?

But this is not what God is for, this is not what doctrine is about. God is not here just to offer explanations for thorny questions, questions about either the nature of reality or the painful experience of suffering. Jesus did not take on human flesh in order to answer our questions or to give us a satisfying “Why.” Instead, he came to cast a vision, and to live it out to its end: a vision where the Son of God shows up in our world not as the enforcer of some kind of divine fairness, or the all-knowing oracle who untangles all knots — in our parable today the son does not successfully demand anything out of those tenants, or convincingly explain to them their error. No. The Christian vision is where God himself shows up and gets murdered; where Jesus shows up in the world he made, and reveals himself not the enforcer but the victim; the Victim whose offering of himself on the cross breaks the whole economy of death and bridges the chasm between heaven and earth. For Jesus there is no answer to suffering, except to suffer it himself, and in so doing establish the victory of life over death, out of which victory he brings healing to the nations and to your heart and mine.

This is the paradox, the mystery at the heart of Christian belief: that in suffering, in loss, in pain, injustice, and unfairness, somehow God is present and heaven is near: not as the solution to a problem, not as the explanation, not as the cause, but as the victim, whose death breaks the power of death forever, and whose life is the source, the pattern, and the guarantor of all human flourishing and joy.

No, Christian faith does not answer any questions. It does however question us: do we really want to embrace the vision which Jesus casts? Do we really want to live in a world where the Son of God is the victim and not the cavalry; the suffering servant and not the righteous landowner? Do we really want to live in a world where the last are first, and I might not get what I have coming to me after all? Do we really want to live in a world where justice and righteousness and even law itself do not avail but only mercy, weakness, and love? Do we really want to live in a world where the meek inherit the earth, and where the rest of us will have to be content with a backseat when it comes to the priorities of God?

Make no mistake, this is not a satisfying answer, logically or rhetorically. And yet it is the answer which God offers, both in today’s parable and in the Cross. If the Cross is an answer at all, it is the answer to a question no one is asking. It doesn’t answer our “Why?” to Harvey or Irma or Maria. It doesn’t explain Stephen Paddock, pancreatic cancer, depression, suicide, or Bonhoeffer’s Nazi captors. But the God who is last, who puts himself into the breach and suffers the consequences he neither asked for nor deserved — this God is our God, whom we worship here this morning and whose table we will approach in a few moments.

No this is not a satisfying answer. But somehow I think we intuit that it might be the correct answer. We are always moved to see the photos of people shielding one another from bullets with their own bodies. We sense something deeply right about this, even while we know the cost is too much to pay; and it helps with sketching out the only response the Gospel offers. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is never to fight fire with fire; never to come up with reasons why it must have been the will of God; never finally even to pass or repeal legislation. If there is a Christian response to these sorts of things, it is to step into the breach with our own lives after the pattern of our Lord — and find, when the darkness closes in, that a Light shines there which the darkness cannot comprehend. In this way Heaven continually breaks into our world from within, not standing offering explanation or escape from without.

This is the only way the Gospel could be Good News to my grandmother. At that point there was no stopping the cancer. It could only be what it was, while the rest of us could only sit and watch in dismay. There was nothing anyone could do to fix it. Yet in her own quiet way, even as she slept in that hospital room, she gave the answer I could not offer. In her graceful dying, concerned only for the well-being of her family, she bore witness to Christ himself on the cross giving Mary and John into each other’s care; and, finding Jesus there in the midst of her dying, there is no question that he himself carried her home.

So, if you find the vision compelling and you really do want to be a part of the Christian response to the suffering in our world — don’t try to explain it, or offer some kind of half-baked solution that only makes yourself feel better and does no justice either to those who are suffering or to the God who claims them for his own. Rather, if you want to offer a specifically Christian response, put yourself in the way of heaven; put your own life into the breach. Let heaven break into the world, into your heart, from within; not reserving it to judgement or escape from without. Go where life is most threatened, most vulnerable, in the world and in your own soul. There, say with Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” And find: that, embracing the God who is last and least, the victim of all earthly powers, his strength will transfigure your weakness, his death will transfigure your life into his own eternal love.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Amen.