Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What the world needs now (A sermon from John 14:15-21 and Acts 17:22-31)

It’s a refrain we all know: “What the world needs now / Is love sweet love / It’s the only thing / there’s just too little of.” It’s not the only thing there is too little of, but it’s the most important thing there is too little of. I think all of us would agree that we could stand for some more love – of the kind that is healthy, honest, redemptive, restorative, and transformative.

In John 13 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In his book, If the Church were Christian, Philip Gulley tells about accepting a call to be the pastor of a Quaker meeting in Indianapolis when he was beginning his ministry. The small congregation was deeply loving and compassionate, primarily due to Lyman and Harriet Combs, who had helped to start the congregation years before. Both were retired from their secular vocations when Gulley came as pastor.

Lyman volunteered almost daily at a homeless shelter, and Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported people to appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so with such transparent joy and good humor that to be in her presence was a healing and redemptive experience. And over the years the fellowship took on their demeanor. The church was incredibly generous and because of its close proximity to several resources for the homeless, was often visited by mentally ill persons, all of whom were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home in their church.

As gracious as the people were it frustrated Gulley that for the most part they seemed to be indifferent when it came to reaching more people in their community. On one occasion, frustrated that they weren’t gaining new people, Gulley asked Harriet why that was. She said, “Well, I guess that was never our goal. Gulley responded, “Then why are we here?” Harriet smiled and said, “To love.” That’s why we are here: To love.

Other things are important. I don’t think we should downplay the importance or need to incorporate new people into the life of our congregation. But it is true that everything else takes a back seat to the primary objective, which is: To love.

And that’s because love is the essence and core of who God is and what God is about. “So,” says John, “we have known and believe [that is, we trust in and are committed to] the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 3:16-17).To abide in love is to abide in God, because love is the essence of who God is. Wherever love is God is, and that’s true whether people realize it or not. When a person expresses love to someone else, even though that person may not consciously connect the love he or she feels and expresses with God, nevertheless, it is God within them who is loving through them. Healthy religion will always help us connect love with God. Richard Rohr likes to say that transformative religion is about falling in love with God. There have been times in dialogue with others I have asked: Is the God you believe in a God you can love with all your heart? If not, then maybe it’s time reimagine God.

In our Gospel text Jesus tells them that when he leaves the Father will send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth whose primary work is to convince us that we belong and that we are loved with an eternal love. In the passage Jesus says, “On that day [any day really, any day God’s love is revealed to us] you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Then he says, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” What this text is saying is that “We all belong. We all belong to God and to one another. And the Spirit of Truth will help us to see this, to know this, to claim this, and to experience this oneness and belonging.”

Maybe the greatest need for some folks who have been hurt and broken by life is to know first of all that they are loved. Michael Yaconelli shares a story about a lady we will call Margaret who lived with the memory of one soul scaring day in the one room schoolhouse she attended as a child. From the first day Margaret came to class, she and Ms. Garner, didn’t get along. Her teacher was unusually bitter and harsh towards her and the animosity between them grew until one day it spilled over into an experience that altered Margaret’s life from then on. Ms. Garner spurned Margaret for being late for class one morning and Margaret made some spiteful comment.  The teacher made Margaret come to the front and face the class as she told the class what a bad girl Margaret was. “So we must teach her a lesson,” said Ms. Garner.  She said to the class: “I want each of you to come to the front of the room, take a piece of chalk, and write something bad about Margaret on the blackboard. Maybe this will help Margaret become a better person.” 

Margaret stood frozen and one by one, the students came to the blackboard and wrote things like, “Margaret is stupid,” “Margaret is ugly,” “Margaret is selfish,” and on and on it went.  Twenty-five sentences that became indelibly written on Margaret’s soul. Forty years later, slumped in the chair in the psychologist’s office, Margaret is still living in the shadow of that nightmarish experience. With the help of a caring psychologist, a loving church family, and a growing relationship with God, Margaret is healing and is ready to move on. Her psychologist is also her spiritual director and is helping Margaret find resources in her faith. She tells Margaret that it is necessary to go back and relive this tragic experience one more time. She trusts her counselor, so she does; she can hardly bear it. Then her counselor tells Margaret to imagine another person in the room. He’s walking to the blackboard and he erases everyone of those ugly sentences the students wrote. She says to Margaret, “Now, he’s turning and looking at you. See his eyes. Look at his eyes.  They are full of compassion. It is Jesus. And now he is writing on the blackboard, new sentences—“Margaret is loved”; “Margaret is beautiful”; “Margaret is kind”; “Margaret is a child of God.”

You know sisters and brothers, maybe the greatest thing we can do for someone else is help that person discover how loved and valued he or she really is. And we do that, not be preaching at them, but by showing them through our words and deeds, through our caring and helping, through our encouragement and support that they are loved. We love them and thus reflect God’s love. This is why the passage that I quoted earlier in First John concludes by saying, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars.” Why is that so? Because we all belong. We are one family and one people in God. And if we are not loving others then we are not loving God. We may claim to love God. We may be very religious. We may participate in numerous religious activities. But if we are not loving others we are not loving God no matter how religious we appear to be.

This passage begins with Jesus saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (10:15) The passage ends with Jesus saying, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (10:21). Jesus clearly equates the experience of divine love with keeping his commandments. And what are his commandments? The premier commandment which is the foundational commandment, the well-spring from which all other commandments arise is the new commandment he gives to his followers: That we love one another as Jesus has loved us (13:34). All Jesus’ other commandments are expressions of this one essential and central commandment.

In John 13 Jesus picks up a water bowl and towel and washes the feet of the disciples, then he commands “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). He commands them and us to serve one another in simplicity and humility. This command to serve in humility is simply an expression of the foundational command to love others the way Christ has loved us. We experience divine love – the love of God and Jesus, by loving others the way God loves us.

There are no exclusions or exceptions in terms of who we are to love. We don’t get to pick and choose. We don’t get to carefully define our group and the people we will love. We don’t get to condemn or exclude or marginalize the folks who don’t see life or God the way we do. In fact, since we all belong we should be looking for some common ground where we can work together to effect positive change.

In Acts 17 Paul speaks to the philosophers in Athens of the God they worship in ignorance. Paul found among their objects of veneration an alter with the inscription: “To an unknown god.” Paul starts here and then proclaims to them the Christ, who Paul believed and we believe is the definitive expression and revelation of who God is like. Even though they had not heard of Jesus, Paul calls them “God’s offspring” and  proclaims that the God of Jesus is the Spirit who pervades and sustains our lives. He says that “in him [the God we all belong to] we live and move and have our existence.” In other words, to use the language of John’s Gospel, we are in God and God is in us, even though we may not consciously be aware of it like the philosophers in Athens.

This is why we must love one another no matter what. Because we are one family, one people; we all belong to one another. We are all God’s offspring. We are all God’s daughters and sons. We all are alive due to our connection to God – physically as well as spiritually. We are physically alive because God is in us and we are in God. The divine Spirit gives us life and breath; the Divine Spirit animates and gives life to the human spirit. This truth is conveyed in the creation story where God breathes into the human creature and the human creature becomes a living being created in the image of God. We live in God and God lives in us. The challenge we face is to live out this reality in ways where we experience and express our oneness and belonging to one another and to God.

What if we allowed these truths to inform the way we treat one another? What if we actually allowed them to guide our civic policies and responsibilities? What if we took seriously Jesus’ commandments to love others in the way we form immigration policy or our tax system. What if we allowed them to guide the way we operate our criminal justice system? What if they informed the way we go about caring for and empowering the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable in our society? What if we allowed these commandments to sustain all our relationships and guide the way we treat one another – at home, at work, in the church, and in all the groups and organizations we are part of.

We don’t like thinking about this because it’s so challenging? Loving others is hard work. Think of how Jesus loved and responded to the ones who orchestrated his death. He bore their hatred and animosity without returning it. Forgiving those who have offended or hurt us is also at the heart of diving love, and that can be a real struggle and challenge.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the horrendous genocide  there. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.” Now the very fact that she is able to recognize this and acknowledge her struggle says quite a bit about this young woman doesn’t it?

What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she was caught up in a world of hate and depression.

Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengeance’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness.” I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young lady had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace. Even though she had experienced such hate and terror, she decided to love. And I would bet that to the degree she is able to love, she will have some peace of mind and heart.
Are we willing to take that first step? Are we ready to acknowledge that while we are special to God we are “no more special to God” than anyone else. We are all God’s offspring. We all live and move and have our existence in God. If we are to actually live as one family, someone has to say, “I forgive.” No more hate. No more killing. No more vengeance. Let’s learn to live in peace.”

What the world needs now is for you and me, and everyone else to love one another the way God loves each of us. And by following Jesus we learn how to do that. This is why we invite people to be disciples of Jesus. It’s not because there is no other way one can know God or they are going to hell if they don’t. It’s because we have come to know God’s love through our relationship with and discipleship to the Christ. It’s because we have learned from Jesus and continue to learn from the living Christ how to love one another with the love of God.

Our good God, may we learn from Jesus and from one another how to allow your love to flow through us – what we might be healed and changed by your love and that your love flowing through us might heal and change others. Amen.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Way of Love (A sermon from John 14:1-14)

Our passage begins with Jesus telling the disciples to not be troubled. That is much easier said than done. In fact, three times in John’s Gospel the writer tells us that Jesus was troubled. He was troubled over the death of Lazarus. He was troubled at least on one occasion when he contemplated his own death. And he was troubled when he realized that his own disciples would desert him in his final hour. So, let’s not assume then that being troubled is somehow a lack of faith or a sign of spiritual immaturity. I doubt if any of us are willing to say that Jesus lacked faith or spiritual maturity and yet clearly he was troubled on occasion. Being troubled is a common human experience. The challenge for us is not to allow those disturbing feelings and alarming emotions to rule our hearts and wills and lead us into despondency or despair.

We can understand why the disciples would be troubled. Jesus just told them that he is going away. Toward the end of chapter 13 Jesus says to the disciples that he will be with them just a little longer. He tells them that he is leaving them and where he is going they will not be able to follow. They had left everything to follow Jesus. They had put their trust in Jesus. And now he says he is leaving them. Wouldn’t you be troubled?

He is calling them to continue to trust in God and to trust in him. Because even though he is going away, he will still be with them – only in a very different way. We often read Jesus’ promise here to be a promise of Jesus coming to one at the time of death and that is certainly a legitimate way to read it. But it’s not the only way to read it and probably is not the primary way we should read it. Sayings in John often have multiple meanings. Certainly it is a legitimate reading of this passage to apply this to Jesus’ coming to a loved one in death. But’s it’s also a promise of Jesus’ coming to the living who are troubled and filled with grief. Throughout this Upper Room teaching of Jesus in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of sending the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who will be Christ to them.

This passage is saying that nothing is going to sever the relationship we have with the Christ, even though it is a spiritual relationship. It’s a relationship rooted in trust. We can be assured that when a loved one dies, that loved one is safe, that our loved one is in a welcoming place. And we can be assured that we are too. Right now, regardless of the circumstances of our lives.

The lack of understanding on the part of the disciples leads to Thomas’ question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responds by saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If you were here last week you will remember that I referenced this passage in talking about the text where Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” I mentioned the Jewish rabbi who said he believed this passage about Jesus being the way and truth and the life. When he was asked how a Jewish rabbi could believe this he said, “Because I believe Jesus is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father but through love.” It’s not Jesus exclusively, it’s Jesus inclusively  – it’s what his life represents, the virtues he incarnated, the values he embodied, the love he expressed

In John 13, just after Jesus tells the disciples he is going away and they would not be able to go with him he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” We might ask, “How is this new?” In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus references the command to love in the Torah and says that the whole law and prophets are fulfilled in the love commands of loving God and loving neighbor as oneself. The command to love was at the heart of the law and the prophets. So how is the command to love a new commandment? Well Jesus says next, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples. If you love one another” (13:34-35).  It’s new in the sense that we are instructed to love like Jesus. Jesus becomes for us the definitive revelation of God’s love.

You see, sisters and brothers, it’s all about love. Everything else is secondary. Anything that usurps the place of love in our lives – be it our religion, our politics, our social life, anything – is a false god. Our beliefs about God and our beliefs about Jesus can become a false god. Anything that keeps us from loving the way Jesus loved becomes a false god – because God is love.

Ann Howard who at one time was the director of the “The Beatitude Society” recalls how these words from John 14 bothered her when she was a child. When she was about 10 years old a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of the U.S. Several families hosted them, and her family hosted one of the Russians, a friendly man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday. She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled Ann. She asked her mother about it. As a ten year old girl she says to her mother, “Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus. He doesn’t even believe in God. I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?” Her mother replied, “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”

That’s good but I would say that a little bit differently today. I would say, “It’s not a club. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we love.” By this, says Jesus, others will know you are my disciples – by your love for one another. This is why Paul said, “Now abide these three, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

When Jesus says, “Trust in God, trust also in me” what he is saying is, “Trust in the love of God that I have shown you. You don’t need to be afraid. You don’t need to be insecure. You don’t need to be overly anxious. Because God’s love will never let you go. In God’s house everyone has a place. There are many rooms. Everyone is welcome.”

I wish I had heard that when I was ten years old. (And by the way, I don’t blame anyone for that. My parents taught me what they had been taught. So did my religious instructors. No one encouraged them to explore or question. In fact, questioning what one was taught was looked down upon. So I don’t blame anyone. But I so wish more Christians knew this and would teach this to their children and grandchildren).

Next up in the story is Philip who says, “Show us the Father and that will be enough.” Philip’s lack of understanding and blindness is reflective and expressive of our own blindness and lack of understanding. Jesus says, “I have already shown you, Philip. Can’t you see? Open your eyes. Open your heart. I have shown you the nature of God. I have revealed to you what God is like. If you have taken notice of how I have loved you and loved the world then you would know how God loves you and how God so loves the world. You would know that nothing can separate you from God’s love and my love.” I so wish more people could understand that – especially Christians, because so few Christians today understand that.

Jesus says I am in the Father and the Father is in me. I am in God and God is in me. And that’s true for all of us. As Jesus teaches throughout the Upper Room discourse here in John’s Gospel: We are in God and God is in us. When we allow the Divine Love that filled Jesus to fill our hearts and lives then we like Jesus just know that we dwell in God and God dwells in us. And you don’t need a Bible verse or a preacher like me to tell you – you just know. It’s like what the old hymn says, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” God is in you and you are in God – just like Jesus.

So Jesus calls his disciples to trust in the God of love as they face the challenges of life. He also calls them to participate with him in his works of love. Being in relationship brings responsibility. This passage says that those who trust Jesus will also engage in the works of love that Jesus did. Jesus even promises that those who trust in and participate in his works of love will do “greater works” because he is going to the Father.

In John’s theology Jesus’ physical departure means his spiritual presence. It means the Spirit of Christ will be at work in the world and in their lives, and the Spirit of Christ, the Cosmic Christ doesn’t have human limitations. It is through the power of the Spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of Love, that his disciples multiply his works.

Think of the works he did. He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he liberated the oppressed, he welcomed the outcasts, he stood with the marginalized, he challenged the status quo, he confronted the untruth of the religious and social establishment, he served all people – the religious and irreligious, the poor and the wealthy, women, men and children, and in perhaps his greatest work of all, he bore the sins and the wrath of the powers that be without returning that wrath. These are the works of love we are called to multiply in the world. They will be “greater” not in quality, but in quantity, as many of Jesus’ followers do the works he did. So knowing God, knowing Christ carries with it the assignment of making God known. Abiding in Christ means doing what Jesus did. Living in communion with Christ means engaging in the works of love that Jesus engaged in.

Now, I’m not sure it’s possible to do such works or at least to sustain such works over time unless we nurture an inner spiritual life – a life of communion and connection with the Source of life.  I find in my own experience that a life of contemplation, a life of prayer is necessary to continue in the way of love and to sustain works of love. This is why, I think, this passage ends with a call to prayer. Prayer is what sustains our participation in works of love.

Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name. . . . If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” The invitation to ask anything in his name has to be understood in the context of engaging in these greater works of love. It’s not anything, it’s anything that pertains to the works of love. That’s the context here. Christ’s love will motivate us, empower us, sustain us, and strengthen us in doing the works of love if we open our lives to receive God’s love, if we nurture a life of communion with the God of love so that God’s love can flow through us.

John Philip Newell tells about getting to know a Roman Catholic priest in Portsmouth, England when he was serving the Anglican Diocese there. Father David was passionate about peacemaking and the work of justice. For many years he had given himself to the poorest and powerless of Portsmouth. He was a renowned and popular figure throughout the city. In fact, he was so well liked in the community that despite his openly gay relationship with his Buddhist partner and his unorthodox views and ways the bishop was reluctant to rein him in.

Father David invited Dr. Newell and his wife Ali to lead a series on spirituality in the church. Father David suggested that he and Ali come one Sunday morning to get to know the community before beginning the series. The Sunday they attended was the World Day of Prayer for Peace. Father David gave a passionate sermon on nonviolence. Then as they do each Sunday they moved into the celebration of communion.

The little children had been running around during the sermon, free to come and go from their families, but when the service of Holy Communion got underway the little children were now pulled back into the pews by their parents to sit attentively. Dr. Newell and his wife hadn’t noticed this soon enough. So there little one, age three, was still clattering along the wooden bench next to them with his hard-heeled shoes on.   Suddenly, a woman on the far side of the church shouted out, “Would someone keep that child quiet!” Father David did not realize who was being referred to but he stopped the liturgy of communion to speak publicly to the woman. He said, “Claudia, if that is how you feel leave.” Claudia replied, “But Father, I couldn’t hear the words of the liturgy.”

Turning a little red with frustration, Father David said, “We have been building a community here that is inclusive of every person and every age. So Claudia, if that is how you feel, leave.” This was real drama in the midst of the formal liturgy, but the congregation, observed Newell, didn’t look worried. It was a family fight.

Claudia spoke a third time and this time Father David now bright red in the face, slammed his hands down on the altar and headed straight for Claudia. Seeing fire in his eyes, Father David’s Buddhist partner jumped up and tried to stop him from proceeding down the aisle. Claudia, as Dr. Newell later discovered, had been one of Father David’s earliest and staunchest supporters. When Father David reached Claudia, with real puzzlement in his voice he said, “Claudia, what are you saying?”

Claudia left in tears, followed be a few members of the congregation who went out to console her. Then Father David returned to the altar. This is what he said, “I cannot proceed until I ask forgiveness. I do not apologize for defending the place of children, but I do apologize for my violence of heart. I was wrong. I ask God’s forgiveness and I will seek Claudia’s forgiveness.” He then proceeded with the celebration of Communion. And before the end of the liturgy Claudia was back in her seat to receive the bread and wine from the hands of Father David. The family fight was over.

Dr. Newell writes, “There are angels of light and angels of darkness in us all. One moment we may be preaching nonviolence as the only true energy for real transformation in our world. The next moment we may be consumed by violence of heart.” And it’s true. We all battle these demons. Each one of us is a kind of living paradox. And in a few instances, even Jesus was. This is part of being human.

If we are going to share in the works of love, if we are going to multiply the works of Jesus in the world, I believe we will need to sustain an inner life, we will need to nurture a life of communion with God, so that we like Father David are quick to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness.

When the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of love is allowed to fill our lives, when our relationship with and experience of Diving Love is cultivated through a life of prayer then we are humbled by our failures, we are open to confession and correction, we are ready to give and receive forgiveness, and we refuse to allow the ego to rule our lives.  

To do the works of Christ is to engage in works of love. To live in communion with God, to live in communion with Christ is to be motivated, inspired, sustained, and empowered by God’s love. The way of God, the way of Christ, the way of the Spirit is the way of love. Let’s commit ourselves anew to this way of love as we celebrate communion together. 

Entering into Life (A sermon from John 10:1-18)

I little introduction to the reading today. It doesn’t take a seminary or religious degree to notice that the way Jesus teaches in the Synoptics – Mark, Luke, and Matthew – is very different than the way Jesus teaches in John. The style, language, vocabulary, imagery, and structure is very different. The consensus of mainline biblical scholarship is that the Synoptics give us a more reliable historical picture of how Jesus actually taught. The discourses of Jesus in John, they say, are more reflective of the interpretations and understandings of John’s church. In other words, these discourses in John by Jesus are most likely expositions of short sayings of Jesus by the author of this Gospel and the community from which it came and to whom it was written. That doesn’t mean these discourses in John are any less important or meaningful than the teachings in the Synoptic Gospels; it just means these are not the actual words of the historical Jesus. They are meditations, expositions, and proclamations by John’s church as John’s community sought wisdom and guidance and inspiration from the living Christ. Many of the teachings of John’s Gospel expound the same themes as the Synoptic Gospels – they just go about it in very different way.

In the reading today the lectionary has it ending at 10:10, which doesn’t quite make sense to me, so I extended it through 10:18. What we have, it seems, are two discourses combined around the imagery of shepherding. In 10:1-3a the imagery of Jesus as the gate is introduced, which is developed in more detail in 10:7-10. In 10:3b-6 the imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is present, which is developed in more detail in 10:11-18. So let’s read the text. . . . . 

The text begins with Jesus as the gate, so let’s start there. Jesus is the gate through which we enter into life. Life here is God’s life, often called eternal life in this Gospel. Here it is simply called life which enables those who receive it to live more fully and abundantly.  

What does John mean by life or eternal life? John is not specifically talking about the afterlife or life in heaven, though certainly whatever life after this life involves that is  included. Eternal life is eternal. But that is not the focus. In this Gospel eternal life is as much a present reality as a future reality.

And another thing, it’s important not to import modern views of what makes life complete or full or meaningful into the abundant life or fullness of life this passage is talking about. This writer is clearly not talking about material prosperity, vocational success or fulfillment, physical health, and certainly not the American dream. The life or eternal life John’s Gospel is talking about is God’s life. Eternal is emphasized not because it’s forever. Obviously it is forever or it wouldn’t be eternal. But the point here is that the life we share in is the life of the Eternal One. Eternal life is God’s life. To possess life or eternal life is to experience and share in God’s life, God’s world, God’s will. In John’s Gospel the symbolic meaning of eternal life is very similar, not quite the same, but similar to the meaning of “kingdom of God” that is employed so frequently in the other Gospels.

So what does it mean to share God’s life? And what does it mean to enter into God’s life through the gate that is Jesus? In verse 7 Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” In verse 9 he says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out [of the sheepfold] and find pasture.” The sheep go in and out of the gate to rest and find pasture – to experience fullness of life as a sheep. What John is saying here is that we experience fullness of life in God, we experience God’s kind of life, we share in God’s will and God’s work in the world by entering through the gate of Jesus. And this is how we are saved – that is, this is how we are healed, this is how we are restored, this is how we are made whole, this is how we are liberated and set free from our little self with all its fears, worries, insecurities, and negativity. We enter into this salvation, we enter into the experience of God’s life through the gate.

Now what does that mean? How do we enter through the gate of Jesus and is that the only way one can enter into this life? An American rabbi was once asked what he thought about the words in John 14:6 where John’s Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The rabbi said, “Oh, I agree with these words.” The one who asked that question was a bit taken back by the reply. He asked, “But how can you as a rabbi believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” This gracious and wise rabbi said, “Because I believe that Jesus’ way is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father but through love.” I agree with the rabbi.

In the prologue of John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus as the Word made flesh is full of grace and truth. The way to God, the way we enter into the life and will of God is by trusting in and being faithful to the grace and truth that Jesus embodied. Which is just another way of saying we enter through love. Just think about this for a minute. Do you think God really cares that much about what we believe with our brains about Jesus? Or do you think God cares more about how we live like Jesus? How we express the grace and truth of Jesus? How we love like Jesus? What we believe about Jesus is important to the degree that it inspires us to actually live like Jesus.

Author, poet, scholar, and spiritual guide John Philip Newell will sometimes share stories about his son Cameron who has some special needs. He says there is little pretense with his son, Cameron. He speaks with an honest, open heart. One morning at breakfast the conversation turned toward the wisdom of Jesus. Cameron said to his father very candidly, “No offense to Jesus, Dad, but I don’t think about him very much.” Philip told his son that this was the greatness of Jesus, namely, that Jesus did not think about himself very much and Jesus would not be offended at all. Philip says that Jesus showed us that we truly find ourselves and discover who we are in God by letting go of our ego and loving the other as ourself. Philip said to Cameron that if Jesus had thought about himself all that much we would have forgotten Jesus long ago. He told his son this, “It is a good think to think about Jesus, but not because Jesus needs us to be thinking about him. It is because Jesus shows us the way of love.”

God doesn’t need us to believe certain things – doctrines – about Jesus. Of course we all do. I’m sure we all do. We have beliefs about Jesus, and many Christians don’t agree. And that’s okay. We don’t have to agree, because that is not the important thing. What God wants out of our lives is for us to live like Jesus, for us to love like Jesus, for us to express the grace and live out the truth like Jesus.

You know sisters and brothers, I so wish I could help more Christians see that all our beliefs about God are like fingers pointing at the moon. I so wish I could help more Christians who have turned their belief system into an idol realize that even when our beliefs are right what we believe about God only captures a little fraction of what God is really like and who God really is. God is always so much more.

Jesus is the gate because Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love. Jesus is the gate because Jesus shows us how to serve and love one another. Jesus shows us how to live in the truth of who we really are in God and how to speak truth and live truth in the midst of a bunch of falsehood. (And the falsehood is widespread. It pervades our culture. It dominates our political and economic systems.) Jesus shows us how to forgive and express grace and thus he shows us how to live in a healthy and redemptive relationship with God and one another.

I think this more inclusive interpretation is suggested in our passage when Jesus says, “I have other sheep not of this fold (I read that to mean, Christian fold). I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Jesus speaks the language of love and when one is truly listening and responding to the voice of love, that one is entering through the gate of Jesus, whether he or she knows it or not. In the epistle of First John the writer says that God is love and wherever love is God is.  

To have faith in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the way of love embodied by Jesus, and this is the way that leads to truth and life, this is the gate that leads to fullness of life in God.

Jesus is also the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The power of life that enabled Jesus be the good shepherd who gave his life for the sheep, is the power we share in as Jesus’ disciples. We too are called to be good shepherds. We are called to be gates and we are called to be good shepherds like Jesus. The Psalmist speaks of God as the shepherd who leads us into fullness of life. Isaiah (40:11) speaks of God as a God who feeds his flock like a shepherd and gathers his lambs in his arms and carries them in his bosom. Shepherding is about caring for those who are vulnerable. It’s about tending to those who need direction and hope and have lost their way.

Now, the passage here that speaks of the love and care of the good shepherd for the sheep also speaks of false shepherds who use the sheep for their own selfish ends and hired hands who flee at the first sign of danger and leave the sheep at risk. Here’s what Ezekiel says in his indictment against the false shepherd in Israel in Ezekiel 34: “Ah, you shepherds have been feeding yourselves. You eat the fat, you cloth yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you ruled them.”

This is a reminder that not all religion is healthy and healing. Not all expressions of Christianity are redemptive and transformative. Healthy religion, healthy Christianity nurtures us in the skill of shepherding – of caring for one another – and empowers us to be self-giving and self-sacrificing in equipping and empowering others, rather than self-serving and self-indulging. There are many folks who will not walk into a church community because they have had such negative experiences with Christians.

Philip Gulley tells about having lunch one day with a man in his community who identified himself as an agnostic. Philip had walked into the local diner but there were no tables and so just as he turned to leave this man invited Philip to join him, so he did. The man had a reputation in the community of being outspoken, but also being capable of much kindness. In the course of their conversation he told Philip that he didn’t believe in God and then he asked Philip, “Would I be welcome in your church?” Philip assured him he would be welcome. Then he asked, “Would I have to eventually believe in God in order to stay there?” Philip admitted that there might be a few people who would try to get him to believe in God and maybe a few who would get upset if he didn’t. But Philip assured him as the pastor that he would be welcome to stay there. Philip told his new friend that he cares about beliefs to the extent that our beliefs make us more loving persons. (And I agree. I like to talk about healthy beliefs and unhealthy beliefs, rather than correct or incorrect beliefs. Do our beliefs make us more loving persons?) Philip told his new friend that he preferred a congregation of kind atheists to a congregation of hateful Christians. (Really, when you think about it, the expression hateful Christians should be an oxymoron.) Well, they talked some more and when they finished their meal and were about to leave he said to Philip, “You know pastor, I love the theory of the church. It’s the practice of it that leaves me cold.”

Well, I can understand that can’t you? And even the most caring of churches are not perfect. None of us who aspire to be gates and good shepherds like Jesus are without fault or sin are we? We will not love or care for others perfectly.

The passage that Lisa read earlier in the book of Acts gives us a glimpse of a really caring, gracious, generous, and healthy community. They even pooled their resources so they could care for the poor and vulnerable in their midst. I know we are not going to love that much. We are not going to care that much. We are not going to be that counter-cultural. Let’s be honest. We are never going to model the church depicted in Acts 2 are we? You know that and I know that. The Acts passage presents an ideal portrait of community/church that we will never attain.  But, certainly there are ways we can encourage, care for, tend to, and empower one another, so that we can give others a taste and a glimpse of what a loving Christian community is like. No, we are not perfect and we will falter and fail, but if we walk in the love of Jesus we can present to our world a picture (though be it an imperfect picture) of what a loving Christian community can be.

I suspect there are any number of people out there who feel lonely and lost in this materialistic and consumeristic society of ours. They may just be fed up and frustrated enough that they are ready and looking for someone to guide them into a good and gracious and flourishing life that liberates them from their little selves and helps them find meaning and connection to a larger purpose and story. Maybe you could be or maybe I could be a gate. Maybe you or I could be a good shepherd that leads someone into the experience of God’s love and help them to find a greater purpose and meaning.

Our good God, help us to be more loving and caring like Jesus. Help us to be good shepherds that are willing to give of ourselves to encourage and empower others. Help us to enter more fully into your life – the life of love expressed in Jesus – so that we might be able to lead others through this gate that leads to life. elpHAmen. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Recognizing Jesus (A sermon from Luke 24:13-35)

I am struck by the comment by the storywriter that as the two disciples were discussing the things that had happened with regard to Jesus, “Jesus himself came near and went with them, but,” says Luke, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” We get off track, I think, if we start speculating about Jesus’ appearance or whether this was a vision or something else.

The point being made, it seems to me, is that Jesus is not with them in the same way he was with them prior to his death. Jesus is now the living Christ, the cosmic Christ and what we now experience is the Spirit of Christ, not the human Jesus. But what does this mean – this inability to recognize Jesus? What’s the point?

These two disciples on the road to Emmaus represent all disciples, they represent you and me. There is great irony when the two disciples say to Jesus who is walking with them, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” Of course, they are the ones who do not know, who do not recognize that the stranger they are talking to is Jesus.

How often we go through life, we have daily conversations, we carry out our daily responsibilities, go through our daily routine, and do not recognize that the Christ is with us, accompanying us on the journey – and we are never alone.

The human Jesus, the historical Jesus of Nazareth was limited and finite like all of us. The living Christ, the Spirit of Christ is not. It has been some time, I think, since I told the story of the teacher who was trying to teach her kindergarten class on the first real warm day of spring. All the children were distracted. So this teacher in the late afternoon about an hour before dismissal decided to just scrap the lesson plan. She gathered all the kids in a circle on a mat in the center of the room. She asked each one to stand and tell the others what he or she wanted to be as a grown up. One said a police officer, another a sports player, another a nurse. One said, “I want to be a teacher like you Miss Smith.” When she got to the shyest little boy in the class, she was surprised when he stood right up and said, “When I grow up I want to be a lion tamer. I went to get in a cage with lions and make them sit on balls and jump through hoops and do what I want them to do.” Just then, he noticed all the boys and girls staring at him somewhat amazed. He paused and then said rather shyly, “Of course, I will have my mommy with me.” Well, Christ is with us, wherever we are, whatever we do, Christ is with us, though we do not always recognize his presence. Whenever we face lions – of our own choosing or those we meet randomly on the journey, we can be assured the Christ is with us.

So what can we do to help us recognize Christ’s presence? One thing we can do is read and reflect on the story of Jesus. In Luke’s story the stranger who is the Christ unlocks their sacred texts for them. Luke says, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” The key to a healthy and constructive use of sacred scripture is the story of Jesus. The story of Jesus is the story that takes precedence over all stories. It’s the filter through which we read the rest of scripture. Not all scripture has equal authority and usefulness. For disciples of Jesus no story has as much authority and inspiration as the story of Jesus. (I wonder why some Christians who have an extremely exalted view of Jesus, who have a high and lofty Christology are so willing to appeal to other scripture texts first and allow those scripture texts to take precedence over the texts that tell us about the life and teachings of Jesus. Could it be that they have an agenda? Of course, we all have an agenda, only some Christians are not willing to admit it.)

Minister and writer John Ortburg tells about a family friend who wanted nothing to do with religion in general and Christianity in particular. Her teenage daughter, however, began hanging with a Christian friend who invited her to her church. She started attending and liked going. This upset her mother who didn’t want her daughter to have anything to do with Christianity. One night this was all weighing on the mother’s mind and for whatever reason she felt like she should at least read some of the Bible. She knew she had one in the house somewhere. So she got up, found the Bible, opened it not knowing where to start. She had never read it before. She decided to start in the new part. So she began with Matthew. By the time she had read the first three Gospels and was somewhere in the Gospel of John, she told Rev. Ortberg that she found herself “falling in love with Jesus.” That’s how she described it – falling in love with Jesus. I think that’s great, because that’s what heathy religion does for us – it leads us into the kind of experiences where we are drawn more deeply into the love of God.

In Jesus we meet a nonviolent God. In Jesus we meet a God who cares about all people and especially is drawn to help the poor and disadvantaged, the powerless and marginalized, the excluded and condemned. Jesus always seems to be on the side of those who are left out or thrown out. Toward the beginning of the Jesus story in Luke when Jesus presents himself to the people in Nazareth his hometown and speaks in the synagogue, he defines his ministry in terms of Isaiah 61 as a ministry of bringing good news to the poor, giving sight to the blind, releasing the captives, setting the oppressed free, and proclaiming the day of liberation. The Jesus story – the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the story that determines how we read and interpret all the other stories in our sacred writings. So, if we want to recognize Jesus, then it makes sense that we would read, reflect on, talk about, and get to know rather intimately the texts that reveal Jesus to us – that show us what he was about, what his priorities were, the values he embodied and so forth.

Whenever the love of Jesus, the compassion of Jesus, the justice of Jesus is present, the living Christ is at work whether we know it or not. In the judgment parable of Matthew 25 those that are welcomed into the kingdom are welcomed because they served the Christ, but they did not know it was the Christ. They say, “When did we ever serve Christ?” The divine response is that when you visited the sick, gave food to the hungry, cared for the outcasts, you did it to Christ.

So, in these stories about Jesus and the teachings of Jesus we discover what the living Christ is about. And one of the most common and significant things that Jesus does over and over again is that he shares meals with people, which has great spiritual and moral significance. 

Luke says that the two disciples urged the stranger to share a meal with them. Luke says, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” In the sharing of the meal there eyes were opened. That is significant. The language here is a direct allusion to the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples before his death. In Luke 22:19 Luke says, “Then he took a loaf, and when he had given thanks [that is, blessed it], he broke it and gave it to them . . .” Same pattern: Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave. The same pattern shows us when Jesus feeds the multitude earlier in Luke’s narrative. In Luke 9 Jesus gathers the multitude into groups and has them sit in the field. The field is the table. Luke says that Jesus took the loaves and fish and blessed them, and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people. There’s some wonderfully rich symbolism and meaning in the words that are repeated in these stories: He takes, he blesses, he breaks, and he gives.

All these meals are reflective of the meals he shares with tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, Pharisees, and anyone who would come. All are bidden to come. In Luke 14 instructions are given to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to the table. In one of the meal stories in Luke 14 those responsible for inviting the guests to the dinner are told to “go out into the roads and lanes and compel people to come it.” The welcome and hospitality of the table is extended to all, especially those who were not accustomed to receiving invitations to dinner banquets. And as you well know, it was Jesus’ table acceptance and inclusion of those labeled “unworthy” by the religious establishment that got him into so much trouble with the religious authorities who used the table as a means of separating the righteous from the sinners and determining who was “in” or “out.”

In the movie Antwone Fisher the story opens with Antwone, and African-American young man, who is serving in the Navy, asleep on his bunk. He is dreaming that he is a little boy standing outside a huge barn. As he approaches, the doors open and a man reaches out his hand to escort him to a wonderful feast. Those present at the banquet span history, and Antwone is the guest of honor. His mother sets before him a big plate of pancakes. Just as he is about to plunge into the pancakes he wakes up.

Antwone was born in prison. His father was killed before he was born and he was placed in an orphanage until his mother could come get him. His mother never came. He lived a painful childhood. His foster mother beat him and verbally abused him; the daughter in the home sexually molested him when he was six. Because of his volatile temper, landing him in one fight after another, he is sent by Naval authorities to the naval psychiatrist, Dr. Davenport, played by Denzel Washington. 

The story moves back and forth from the present to his childhood as Dr. Davenport helps him confront his painful past. Antwone finally decides to follow the Doctor’s advice to look for his family. His girlfriend accompanies him. He locates an aunt who helps him find his mother. A relative introduces him. His mother tears up and withdraws. She says nothing; there is little expression.

Antwone talks about how he used to dream of her and wonder if she missed him. His mother is not able to respond. When he finishes speaking, he bends over and kisses her on the cheek. Still, no response. He gets up, leaves, and after he is gone we see tears well up in his mother’s eyes as she folds her head into her hands. Her life is so broken she cannot, at least at this moment, accept his offer of love and forgiveness.

When he gets back to his aunt’s house he discovers a house full of relatives, full of family. A man greets him with a smile and identifies himself as his Uncle Horeb. Another says, “I’m your cousin Jeanette.” Another says, “I’m your Aunt Anna.” His discovers family and belonging. And then he is led to some doors that open up into the dining room. Two small boys open the doors and there is a table set with all kinds of food—even pancakes.

The matriarch of the family reaches out her hands and takes his hands into hers. And as she prepares herself to speak, she takes one hand and puts it on Antwone’s face and then the other. With grace filled eyes she says, “Welcome.” Then the feast begins.

A beautiful story that begins and ends around the symbolism of the meal. The meal is a symbol of acceptance, of inclusion and belonging. It’s an expression of life shared with others. It’s a demonstration of grace and forgiveness. All are welcome at the table. His mother would have been welcome at the table had she chose to come.

There are religious people today very much like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day who were enraged with Jesus for eating with all sorts of people. They wanted to only let certain people in. They wanted to determine who was worthy. Jesus broke through all of that just as he broke the bread.

Sisters and brothers, it’s not hard to recognize the presence of Christ. Just look for grace given and received. Just look for blessings broken and distributed to all around. Just look for forgiveness and hospitality shared with all. And when you see it, in a shared meal around a table at home or in the shared bread and cup of Holy Communion or in the shared meal at a soup kitchen or wherever grace and welcome and acceptance is given and others are blessed, there my sisters and  brothers you will find the Christ.

Our good God, as we walk our road to our own Emmaus wherever that may be let us be aware that the Christ goes with us, that we are not alone. May we realize that all that Jesus was – what he taught, how he lived, the love and compassion he embodied, the works of healing and liberation he engaged it, all of it – was not lost when he was put to death by the powers that be. You honored him and vindicated who he was and what he was about, what he did, and how he lived and died. Help us to know that whenever we see the love and forgiveness and grace of Jesus embodied by others we are seeing the Christ in our midst. That whenever we see compassion extended to the poor and help given to the vulnerable and the disenfranchised empowered may we recognize in our hearts that we are seeing the living Christ, the Spirit of Christ at work among us. Open our eyes, O Lord, that we might see the Christ in all the meals we share together and in all blessings given and received. Amen

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Encountering Christ (a sermon from John 20:19-29)

I love the story of the little girl who woke up during a thunderstorm and was afraid. After a bright flash of lightning and loud roar of thunder she threw off the covers and scampered into her parents room. Her mother awoke as she came through the door and immediately asked her what was wrong. She told her mother that she was afraid. Her mother said, “You don’t have to be afraid, sweetie, God is with you.” Very astutely her daughter responded, “I know, mom, but I want someone with skin on her face.”

That’s what we get in John’s Gospel. Interpreters have described John’s Gospel in various ways. It’s been called a spiritual Gospel and a mystical Gospel, but the description I like best is Incarnational Gospel. Incarnation is perhaps the most dominant theme beginning in the prologue with the Word becoming flesh. In John, Jesus is presented as being at one with God; God’s unique Son who is completely obedient to God’s cause and will. As such Jesus incarnates, embodies in flesh and blood, manifests visibly through his life, through his words and deeds, what God is like. 

The figure who really stands out in our text today is Thomas, sometimes called doubting Thomas. We tend to use that phrase negatively do we not? Do you want to be known as a doubting Thomas? No one wants to be a doubting Thomas. And yet Thomas in his doubt meets the living Christ and is led by Christ through his doubt to give us the most highly exalted Christological confession in the Gospel. He exclaims of Christ, “My Lord and my God.” What is important about this confession that we need to understand is this: Thomas is not making a confession of some particular belief about Jesus. He is rather expressing his trust in and commitment to Jesus.

Faith as doctrine, faith as belief in propositional statements comes later. The creeds come later. Some historians argue that the primary purpose and function of the first creeds was to give cohesion and unity to the Roman Empire. Undoubtedly this was behind Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the official religion of Rome. The formulation of the creeds was a convenient way to keep Christians from fighting and squabbling over doctrine. They helped to solidify the empire. Once the creed was set, any deviation was called heresy, and we all know what happened to heretics don’t we. It was politically motivated. Of course, a unity based on coerced uniformity is a false unity. But practically it worked to unify the Holy Roman Empire.

In the days before Constantine, in the days when this Gospel was written, to proclaim Jesus as Lord was a very dangerous and subversive proclamation. Both “Lord” and “God” were titles attributed to the Roman emperor. “Son of God,” and as “God manifest” were also titles given the emperor. We know this from public inscriptions on buildings and coins that have been unearthed by archeologists. When the early followers of Jesus confessed Jesus as Lord they were saying in essence: Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is Lord. They were declaring their primary allegiance to Jesus, that is, to the virtues he embodied and the values he lived by. They were declaring that their first loyalty and commitment was to God’s kingdom, not Rome – the kingdom that Jesus embodied and proclaimed. What would it mean for us to say that our first commitment is to the kingdom of God – not America, not civil religion, not political party, but the kingdom of God?

Our doubts need not keep us from God. Christ meets us where we are – doubts and all. If our doubts lead us to real God experience, to authentic spiritual experience that helps us to become more loving, compassionate, courageous persons and communities, then our doubts may be our salvation. 

When I pastored in Maryland, I had a member who worked as a police chief at the capital. I was invited to give a prayer at the installation of some new officers, and while there my friend was able to arrange a visit with the Senate chaplain, Lloyd Ogilvie. I asked him: What do you think is the greatest spiritual need in our country? He said, without much hesitation: For religious people to know God.

What he meant, of course, was to know God in relationship, to have authentic God experience. If all we have are beliefs handed down to us, which we have accepted without effort or struggle, without questions or doubts, then all we really have is a second-hand faith. Some might say a second hand faith is better than no faith. I’m not so sure. A second-hand faith can serve as a substitute for and an immunization against any real God experience, any real encounter with divine grace, truth, and love.

Religious people without any real God experience have information about God, but they don’t really know God. Religious people without genuine God experience can be terribly mean and vicious, ready to inflict pain and retribution, in order to protect their particular definition of God or their particular version of faith. Rather than being transformed by divine love through real God experience, religious faith becomes simply a way to show one-upmanship, to control and divide the world between “us” and “them.” For religious people who have never been changed by divine compassion and love, religion may be nothing more than a way to promote themselves and their group.  Religious faith becomes a source of pride and condemnation of others. If our doubts can lead us to genuine encounter with the living Christ like Thomas had, then I say bring on the doubts.

In the movie, Doubt, at a Catholic elementary school Sister Aloysius becomes convinced that Father Flynn is having an inappropriate relationship with a student in the school. The younger Sister James was the one who originally suspected something, but later her fears dissipated and she came to the conclusion that Father Flynn was just concerned about the boy, who was the only African-American in the school. Sister Aloysius, however, went after Father Flynn with a passion. She was able to get Father Flynn to resign by telling him that she called a nun in his previous parish and had found out about his prior history of infringements. She lied; she really didn’t do it, but somehow she convinced herself that lying here was okay. Sister James is out of town when Father Flynn resigns. When she returns Sister Aloysius tells her that the Bishop made Father Flynn pastor of the Saint Jerome church and school, basically giving him a promotion. She tells Sister James that she told the Bishop, but the Bishop didn’t believe her.

Here is part of the conversation between between the two sisters: Sister James says, “Father Flynn is gone / Yes,” says Sister Aloysius. / “So you did it, you got him out.” / Yes. / Donald Miller is heart broken (that was the boy Father Flynn spent time with) / Sister Aloysius says, “That can’t be helped. It’s just till June” / Sister James says, “I didn’t think Father Flynn did anything wrong.” / “No. He convinced you?” / “Yes, he did.”
Sister James asks, “Did you ever prove it?” / “To whom?” responds Sister Aloysius / “Anyone but yourself.” / “No.” / “But you were sure?” / “Yes.” / Sister James says, “I wish I could be like you.” / “Why?” / “Because I can’t sleep anymore.” / “Maybe we are not suppose to sleep so well.”

After Sister Aloysius admits to Sister James that she lied to force Father Flynn’s resignation we see a side of Sister Aloysius that we haven’t seen before. There is pause in the conversation. She begins to break down. She says, “Oh, Sister James.” Sister James draws close, “What is it, Sister?” Sister Aloysius says, “I have doubts.” And she begins to weep.

Some would see the ending of that story as a tragedy. I see it as a break in the darkness, a ray of light, a ray of hope. Until this moment Sister Aloysius had shown no misgivings, no struggle, no doubt. She was zealous and even arrogant in her certitude. I suspect much like Paul or Saul of Tarsus before his encounter with the living Christ. She justified her lie to get Father Flynn to resign. But here, finally, in her confession to Sister James, Sister Aloysius expresses doubt and in doing so she expresses some humility. I see this as hopeful because her admission of doubt to Sister James might just be the first step toward her redemption.

When Jesus says to Thomas in our Gospel story, “Do not doubt,” or a better translation would be, “Stop doubting,” Jesus is really saying, “Don’t let your doubts keep you from trusting in me and living for the kingdom of God.” Our doubts can lead us to real change. Our doubts can be the path that leads to personal and communal growth, healing, and redemption.

After Thomas’ confession Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” I do not read that as some kind of indictment against Thomas because he doubted. I read it as an affirmation that all are blessed, that all are capable of experiencing God’s love and grace no matter what their history or experience. To “see” is to experience. We have diverse experiences in life and not all of us have the same opportunities and advantages. That is how life works. God does not micromanage the world, so this is not about God blessing some and not others. Life can be very unfair. But whatever our experience, whatever our history or place in the world God is always wooing, drawing, inviting us into relationship – to claim our belonging in God’s family and to take an active role in our becoming the person God has called us to be.

Christ meets us where we are, doubts and all, to lead us to a better place. That’s the first thing. Now, the second thing is that the better place where Christ wants to lead us is a place he knows all about. Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And when he says to the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit” he is assuring them that the Spirit that empowered him will also empower them. They will be able to love the way he loved. They will be able to serve the way he served. They will have the moral resolve and courage and compassion that he had, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. He is telling them and us that the Spirit that filled him can fill us and lead us to larger place – out of our little, ego driven selves into a greater love and compassion. The Spirit prompts us to let go of our little selves, so that we can participate in a larger story and a bigger love and a greater purpose.

And at the heart of this greater story and love is the giving and receiving of forgiveness.
It’s interesting that forgiveness is highlighted in the sending out of Jesus’ followers to be agents of God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What does this mean? Jesus is telling us that the privilege and responsibility of forgiveness, the gift and obligation of forgiveness resides with us. It does not reside in the Temple liturgy of sacrifice or with religious leaders who would like to use it as a means of control and management to determine who is “in” or “out.” It rests with us. It is given to all. And of all people, disciples of Jesus must be practitioners of forgiveness and dispensers of grace. And if that is not a priority, then we have no right to claim to be followers of Jesus.

As we live out the grace of God through giving and receiving forgiveness in our families and communities we reflect who God is and what God is like, and we point the way toward God’s ideal beloved community. Forgiveness may be the most important work we do. Living a life of grace and compassion is far more important than confessing a belief in a creed or squabbling over doctrine. We don’t touch the heart of God by professing belief in some doctrine. We touch the heart of God when we love the way God loves.

Paul says that we are saved by grace – not just grace received, but grace dispensed, grace extended others through acceptance and forgiveness. Our practice of forgiveness is as essential for our own salvation as it is for the salvation of others. Forgiveness is the grace of God flowing in us and through us that brings healing to our relationships and to our own souls.

Jean Vanier says: “To forgive is to break down the walls of hostility that separate us, and to bring each other out the anguish of loneliness, fear, and chaos into communion and oneness.” It’s no wonder Jesus spoke of the giving and receiving of forgiveness in the model prayer as a central part of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s central to God’s will and vision for the world.

So then, the living Christ meets us where we are – with all our doubts and struggles. He shows us how our doubts are not bad things, but an important part of the process of becoming persons who incarnate God’s grace and truth like Jesus. The living Christ calls us to be his agents and ambassadors of grace in the world – dispensing blessings, working for peace and justice, and practicing forgiveness.

Our good God, let us not be fearful of admitting our questions and doubts. Give us the will to face them and the faith to trust in your love most of all. Let us be open to your Spirit that we might embody your grace and forgiveness and help bring about your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.