[[This past January, I gave a version of this parable at the Academy of Preachers in Atlanta, GA.]]
But one of the Twelve, Thomas, called Didymus, was not there when Jesus came to them. So then, the other disciples said to him, “We’ve seen the Master!”
But he said to them, “If I don’t see in his hands those nail wounds, if I can’t put my finger in them, and if I can’t put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
And after a week, again the disciples gathered together and Thomas was with them. The doors being shut, Jesus came and stood in the middle of them. He said, “Peace be with you!”
Then he said to Thomas, “Bring your finger here and see my hands. Place your hand in my side. Don’t disbelieve — believe!”
Thomas answered him, “Oh my Master and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me, you believe. Blessed are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
“I don’t believe in the resurrection. I know. I’ve been around here for a while, and it’s just kind of the expectation for people like me. I know, I know. It’s been a week. I know everyone was celebrating last week, there were songs, there may have been some dancing somewhere, I know everyone was happy. I know everyone was happy, but I didn’t see it. I don’t have that kind of hope, you know. I can’t just believe. I know you’ve got your arguments. I know they’re there, and I think they’re pretty convincing sometimes, but it’s just not enough. It’s just that after everything I’ve seen in my life, since I was born, all the war, all the hunger, all the suffering … It’s just — how can you look at all that suffering, all that pain, all that misery and say he got up? I just can’t believe it. What makes you think that we’re so special, that we know the Messiah, the Savior? What makes you think somebody from Nazareth of all places was so special? Didn’t Nathaniel say it right? ‘What good can come out of Nazareth?’ What makes you think some carpenter’s son who could pull off some neat tricks is the Savior of the world — that he got back up. They killed him, guys. They killed him. If he could save himself, surely he would have done it beforehand. I just can’t believe this story, it’s too much. Peter, I know what you say you saw. Mary, I know what you think you saw. John, I know there wasn’t anything there — but there are so many kinds of explanations! I don’t have that kind of hope. Don’t get me wrong, I think what he said was right, I think what he asked us to do was right, I think building this Kingdom is still our job … at least I still think that most days. But some days I don’t have that kind of faith. Not today, not now. Not after what we saw last week — they killed him. I just don’t have that kind of faith. If I don’t see in his hands those nail wounds … if I can’t put my finger in them … and if I can’t put my hand in his side … I will not believe.” Read the rest of this entry
[[Here’s the video of my sermon from the 2013 National Festival of Young Preachers! You can find the manuscript here. I’m running a bit behind on stuff right now, but more on our more controversial topic next week. Sorry for the delay!]]
This week, Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition published an article on their website entitled “When did idolatry become compatible with Christianity?” In his article he wonders when it became acceptable for Christians to “embrace and endorse homosexual behavior.” His answer is that there is no specific date, but it is part of a wider idolatrous movement in the church. He characterizes the issue like this:
At its root, the issue has more to do with idolatry than marriage, since same-sex marriage could not have advanced in America if believers had not exchanged the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for the God of faux-love, cultural acceptance, and open theism.
This idolatry, he says, takes two forms. The first is essentially libertarian. Some Christians believe that because we live in a pluralistic society, and we do not have anything but a religious objection to marriage equality, we can’t really say it should be illegal. Carter says to do so is to replace
Jesus’ commandment—”You shall love your neighbor as yourself”—with the guiding motto of the neopagan religion of Wicca, “Do what you will, so long as it harms none.”
The second form of idolatry is essentially just liberal theology he doesn’t care for. He says that they have “completely rejected the authority of Scripture and embraced the idol of open theism, a god who changes his mind over time.” He proceeds to use Rob Bell as a punching bag, which is becoming a pastime for Reformed theologians, I think.
He concludes that Christians who agree with him (as opposed to the idolatrous Christians who don’t) need to speak up. He concludes:
We fear that if we point out too clearly or forcefully that you can’t both serve God and endorse sin that they may leave our congregations. We seem more concerned with losing the volunteer for the Sunday morning nursery or the regular check in the offering plate than we do with the souls of those in open and unrepentant rebellion against God. We seem more worried about the judgment of the kids in the youth ministry than we do with the judgment of a wrathful and holy God. We are so troubled by the thought that same-sex advocates will fall away from the faith that we fail to see that they’ve already rejected the faith of historic, orthodox Christianity and replaced it with an idolatrous heresy—one that is as destructive and hateful as any that has come before.
I don’t need to tell you that I have problems with this article, but let me outline them.
[[So, being the good Christian I am, I woke up at 11:20 am this morning (how did that happen? I’d spent a long week in Chicago. I’ll tell you about it later.) and was unable to go to my church here in Birmingham for service. In lieu of being able to attend, I prayer the liturgy from Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove, and Okoro’s Common Prayer for Palm Sunday and read Pope Francis’ homily (it wasn’t my most Baptist Sunday, sorry). I wanted to share a bit from that sermon with you, though. The pope picked out three words that he wanted to talk about to the crowd. The firs two: Joy and Cross are excerpted here from the Vatican news services.]]
Jesus enters Jerusalem. The crowd of disciples accompanies him in festive mood, their garments are stretched out before him, there is talk of the miracles he has accomplished, and loud praises are heard: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk 19:38).
Crowds, celebrating, praise, blessing, peace: joy fills the air. Jesus has awakened great hopes, especially in the hearts of the simple, the humble, the poor, the forgotten, those who do not matter in the eyes of the world. He understands human sufferings, he has shown the face of God’s mercy, he has bent down to heal body and soul. Now he enters the Holy City! This is Jesus.This is the heart that looks on all of us, watching our illnesses, our sins. The love of Jesus is great. He enters Jerusalem with this love and watches all of us.
It is a beautiful scene, the light of the love of Jesus, that light of his heart, joy, celebration.
At the beginning of Mass, we repeated all this. We waved our palms, our olive branches, we sang “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Antiphon); we too welcomed Jesus; we too expressed our joy at accompanying him, at knowing him to be close, present in us and among us as a friend, a brother, and also as a King: that is, a shining beacon for our lives. Jesus is God, but he humbled himself to walk with us. He is our friend, our brother. Here, he enlightens us on the journey. And so today we welcome Him And here the first word that comes to mind is “joy!” Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement! Ours is not a joy that comes from having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus, from knowing that with him we are never alone, even at difficult moments, even when our life’s journey comes up against problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable, and there are so many of them! It is at this time that the enemy comes, the devil comes, often disguised as an angel who insidiously tells us his word. Do not listen to him! We follow Jesus!
We accompany, we follow Jesus, but above all we know that he accompanies us and carries us on his shoulders. This is our joy, this is the hope that we must bring to this world of ours. Let us bring the joy of the faith to everyone! Let us not be robbed of hope! Let us not be robbed of hope! The hope that Jesus gives us!
A second word: why does Jesus enter Jerusalem? Or better: how does Jesus enter Jerusalem? The crowds acclaim him as King. And he does not deny it, he does not tell them to be silent (cf. Lk 19:39-40). But what kind of a King is Jesus? Let us take a look at him: he is riding on a donkey, he is not accompanied by a court, he is not surrounded by an army as a symbol of power. He is received by humble people, simple folk, who sense that there is more to Jesus, who have the sense of faith that says, “This is the Savior.” Jesus does not enter the Holy City to receive the honours reserved to earthly kings, to the powerful, to rulers; he enters to be scourged, insulted and abused, as Isaiah foretold in the First Reading (cf. Is 50:6). He enters to receive a crown of thorns, a staff, a purple robe: his kingship becomes an object of derision. He enters to climb Calvary, carrying his burden of wood. And this brings us to the second word: Cross. Jesus enters Jerusalem in order to die on the Cross. And it is here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross! … Jesus takes it upon himself..why? Why the Cross? Jesus takes upon himself the evil, the filth, the sin of the world, including our own sin, and he cleanses it, he cleanses it with his blood, with the mercy and the love of God. Let us look around: how many wounds are inflicted upon humanity by evil! Wars, violence, economic conflicts that hit the weakest, greed for money, which no-one can bring with him. My grandmother would say to us children, no shroud has pockets! Greed for money, power, corruption, divisions, crimes against human life and against creation! And – each of us knows well – our personal sins: our failures in love and respect towards God, towards our neighbour and towards the whole of creation. Jesus on the Cross feels the whole weight of the evil, and with the force of God’s love he conquers it, he defeats it with his resurrection. This is the good that Christ brings to all of us from the Cross, his throne. Christ’s Cross embraced with love does not lead to sadness, but to joy! The joy of being saved and doing a little bit what he did that day of his death.
[[A brief prayer for both Pope Francis and our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church.]]
Our God, make Pope Francis an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let him so love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that our churches, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant all,
May not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
That every Christian might not so much seek
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
[[A few weeks ago, I gave this brief sermon on a retreat in which we were focusing on practicing Sabbath.]]
Do you remember the first time you got in a hammock? How old were you? How tall were you? Was it easy or was it hard? The first few times you got into a hammock seem to be a profound experience to me. There is a lot involved in your first hammock experience. Someone else has to set up the hammock for you or maybe they help you set it up. At least, perhaps, you had to adhere to some sort of instruction manual. Even if not, that hammock concept came about long before you got there and you had to figure it out. Hammocks look odd when you’re not using them. Even when you set it up right and take a look at it before you use it, it looks odd — it’s this stretched piece of cloth suspended between two poles, two trees, two somethings. It doesn’t look like it’s meant to hold much of anything. The label says 400 lbs, but you’re just not 400 lbs sure — Do you believe it, you know, just looking at the thing? Will it hold you up? Do you believe it? Do you trust it? It’s a risk thing, getting into a hammock for the first time — or even the first few times. Sometimes the thing just seems set up too high; it’s too lofty for what you want. People assure you that it’s supposed to look like that but you don’t quite buy it just yet.
So you try and get in. It’s perplexing. There’s this point where your butt is just not high enough to plop yourself in even when you’re standing on your toes — you have to make a little jump and now it’s got to hold you and all the momentum you’ve got. Or maybe you’ll try that upside down flip thing — now that’s a risk there. You know in that jump you might fall, it’s a risky commitment. You might get hurt in some unanticipated and unpleasant way — you could get hurt … but that’s OK. Otherwise, you’d never get in the hammock. So you’re in, but it’s weird. It’s not quite what you expect. It’s not sturdy — it’s rocking back and forth, to and fro, wavering in the breeze. You’re up with nothing but air between you and the hard unforgiving ground. Then, one of two things happens. Either you get to the point where you can settle in and you feel the rest and lean into gentle slumber or you’re restless in the motion, the unexpected instability that is only now apparent … but in either case, it will be over soon. It will be over soon and you’re not ready to get out yet — ’cause getting out is just as harrowing as getting in!
Getting back out requires effort and overcoming just a little bit of fear. It’s a risk too! It’s re-entry into normal life in an abrupt and often uncomfortable way. You’re just as likely to get hurt getting out as getting into a hammock. But whether you like it or not, whether you’re ready or not, your time in the hammock is going to end. But once it’s over, you can do it again. And every time it gets a little easier, a little more enjoyable, and a little more appealing. Bits of the fear, doubt, anxiety, and clumsy frustration never go away — the risk of messing up and getting hurt is always there, after all — but that’s OK. That’s part of using a hammock.
Now, I was at a conference over Jan-Term and I heard an author I like give a six minute speech on hunting with his dog. He’s a spiritual guy, and I’m certain there was some level of depth to his little parable, I’m sure he wasn’t wasting our time — but for the life of me, I still can’t figure out what he was talking about. So, in case you were wondering, I wasn’t talking about hammocks. I was talking about Sabbath.
Sabbath is like using a hammock, especially at first. You’re using something that’s been set up for you, a day built into the order of the kosmos, rest that is a necessary part of the nature of things. You don’t choose whether or not your body needs rest — it is only your choice how much rest and what kind of rest you give yourself. Sabbath may even seem too lofty a goal, a bar set a little too high for us unsaintly people here — and it looks odd, it looks weird. Sabbath is an affront to our modern sensibilities, our rhythms, our priorities.Sabbath requires risk — practicing Sabbath requires us to reorient our lives, it requires us to choose things at the expense of other things; it requires not just intellectual belief, but trust. It, like any serious practice or relationship requires a leap — it’s not something you just enter into. But it will hold you up, the label that says “holds up to 400 lbs” is a reliable one.
That doesn’t mean you won’t get hurt or trip up. An early attempt at Sabbath of mine resulted in a week knocked off kilter that was actually more stressful than restful. Barbara Brown Taylor says that even if done right, Sabbath can leave us sick in withdrawals from our productivity, business, and hurry — but in the end there is something more rewarding in it. While you’re in Sabbath, it’s not what you expect. It’s sometimes unstable, sometimes worrisome, but it’s worth it. But at some point you come out of it, and that transition can be abrupt and painful, but it’s good. And whether you like it or not, whether you’re ready or not, Sabbath ends … but the good news is that it’s coming around again.
Now, if you’re a really astute observer and listener, you’ll know that I’m not really talking about Sabbath either. Sabbath is a small representation of faith. Our faith did not begin and nor does it end with us. Our faith is risky, and we can get hurt. Our faith seems too lofty sometimes and when we’re in the swaying hammock of faith, it’s not always what we expect. There’s doubt, pain, and frustration — and that’s OK, it’s all part of faith. There are ups and downs and it all requires overcoming a little bit — or a lot — of fear. But the good news is that faith doesn’t depend on us. Faith exists apart from what we have faith in, and the God in whom we have faith, who created the Sabbath, and sustains all things in that hammock experience, that God is there, that God is here, God is good, and God will be with you. Amen.
[[In my class where we’re studying faith development, we were tasked either to bring an object, create a representation, or perform an action that represented “faith and the ultimate environment. This parable is about how faith works.]]
There once was a man striving to find the kingdom of heaven. He looked everywhere, considering everything, and asking every creature. He was more than a renaissance man — he approached every task along his quest with the aptitude of an expert.
When he considered the light, he did so as a genius physicist.
When he examined the waters, he did so as a hydrologist.
When he analyzed the land around him,
turning over every stone, he did so as a practiced geologist.
When he scrutinized the plants, he was a brilliant botanist.
When he asked the sea animals, he was a marine biologist;
when he interrogated the birds, an orithologist;
the wild animals, a zoologist;
the creeping things, an entomologist.
When it came to his fellow humans, he asked them as
a political scientist,
as everything, even as an ethnomusicologist.
He even studied literature, music, art, and feeling, but could not find the kingdom in any branch of
or revealing writing.
He sought the kingdom all over the world until he had collected a vast array of different disciplines, variant art forms, and singular emotions, each unique, contained, and separate banks of knowledge and feeling, all stored in specialized compartments of his head and heart.
Baffled that with all his disparate skill sets, areas of specialty, and endless talents, he could still not find the kingdom of heaven, he consigned to ask his friend the saint. She smiled as he recounted his story and paused for a moment in silence.
After a while, she said simply, “For all the knowledge and feeling of the earth, you lack the knowledge and feeling of heaven.”
“Where can I find the things of heaven?” he asked desperately.
She replied, “In everything at once.”
[[This is a column I wrote for the Samford Crimson that came out this past Monday. No online link yet, so I thought I’d post it.]]
In a surprise announcement last week, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would be resigning his office. The Bishop of Rome has not resigned since Gregory XII, but that was only because there were multiple popes at the time (don’t you hate it when that happens?). Speculation has been whirling around news agencies and the Vatican itself about whoever the new pope will be, but the College of Cardinals will not convene to elect this successor until March.
While there are numerous debates about who would make (or not make) a good pope, everyone seems to agree that there are several problems this new pope will face. There is, primarily, the matter of scandals in the Church. Both the issues with the Vatican Bank and the myriads of sex/abuse scandals among the clergy will continue to plague the Holy See. Christian presence is dwindling in multiple global regions, including the Middle East and Western Europe. Christian presence is booming in new areas of the world like Africa and Latin America, but with that shift comes a very different way of doing theology and looking at ministry. All of that says nothing of continuing questions about priest shortages, doubts about clerical celibacy, and calls for women’s ordination.
Roman Catholics are not alone in welcoming a new leader in 2013, however. Archbishop Justin Welby assumed the highest office of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the Church of England just a week before Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Numerous American denominations are facing shifts in leadership with regard to age, gender, and even theological or political persuasions. Christians of all stripes are at a point of significant change.
Furthermore, the issues that face the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church are issues that face all of these Christians, as well. Catholics are not alone in their crisis of clerical and institutional integrity. Protestants alike are often confronted with insidious financial or sex scandals. The shift of Christianity toward the global south affects all Christians, not just Catholics. It is going to create new theological and practical challenges for everyone. Questions of sexuality and gender regarding everything from women’s ordination to homosexuality will continue to be questions at the front and center for the Church’s new leadership and their congregations.
The Church (Catholic and otherwise) needs to recognize this new era and its old questions as ripe with possibility. For too long now, the Church has been dividing itself along pseudo-political lines, claiming that we have “liberal” and “conservative” Christians. Such a binary is unhelpful and prevents dialog. It is also frequently inaccurate or at least insufficient. With our new leaders and our changing congregations, Christians must seek to foster new understanding that we might work together to devise sustainable answers to the problems that face us all.
So, as some of us church history nerds are watching different colors of smoke coming out of the Vatican next month, take a moment and consider what you can do to bring up these issues in your local communities of faith. See what questions you can ask and what answers you can seek so that we can all start to build a better Church for a better world.