Sensing Christ in the Midst of Doubt

The Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

It has been one week since Easter Sunday.  One week since children held delightfully decorated eggs in their hands, felt their weight, touched their smooth shells, and cracked some open for a sugar high only Christmas and Easter can duplicate.  It has been one week since we sang in joyful alleluias: voices soaring, bells pealing, trumpet and organ resounding.  It has been one week since that delicious lunch, or brunch, or dinner with a scrumptious glazed ham, or delectable roast chicken, or as many syrup covered pancakes as you could lay your hands on.  It has been one week since the guests were in town and smells faintly wafting through the house of your grandmother’s citrus perfume, or your grand-baby’s lavender lotion, or your father’s full flavored pipe tobacco.  It has been one week since we witnessed that beautiful celebratory scene unfold, that holy day to beat out all holy days—Easter Sunday.

Yet our scripture readings for today do not seem to allude to such a momentous occasion.  Today we are not met with continued celebration, with, “Alleluia Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed alleluia!” But instead we are met with the struggles of the early Church.

For example, in Acts the apostles are professing their faith in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.  Yet as we read in the verses before and after this particular passage, the apostles are not only met with insults and frustration, but with numerous imprisonments and death threats.  Then in our reading from Revelation, written a generation or even two after the Easter event, these seven churches in Asia are being encouraged that Christ will indeed come again, that their suffering, their persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire will one day be alleviated.  And in our Gospel story today, probably a story and a character with which we are very familiar, the budding Church is faced with new struggles.  This Gospel narrative is directed at an audience that has not physically witnessed the resurrection.  These early Christians have not seen Christ with their own eyes, have not heard his voice, have not touched the wounds in his side, hands and feet.  This is why we are told in the Scripture, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”  All of the apostles and original disciples are dead and gone.  The witnesses of the resurrection are no longer present.  All that remains are their stories.  And those Christians that are left are called to have faith in an event that they did not see, taste, touch, hear or smell.

The apostle Thomas becomes a stand in figure for all of those in the early church who had to wrestle with their faith. Believing in a risen Christ others had seen, but they had not. A risen Christ who had once walked upon this earth, but had not walked among them.  A risen Christ who defies the natural world by overcoming the chains of death and living again.  The early Church struggled to find a balance between doubt and belief.

But friends, let us be honest today.  Let us own up to the reality of our own journeys of faith.  Even in the midst of the celebration of Easter, even in the midst of the joy, in the midst of the alleluias: doubt is real.  Disbelief is real.  Questions of faith are real.  And these questions arise in the Easter season just as much as any other season in the church year.  Just because Jesus Christ is Risen, does not mean these questions go away, pushed to the back of a dark and empty tomb.  We all, at some point during our relationship with God, experience doubt.

This doubt can take on many shapes and forms.  It can be outright disbelief in God, or a reluctance to speak the words of the Nicene Creed.  It can be a split second of uncertainty as to God’s Divine purpose for your life, or the skepticism of whether or not Jesus Christ did rise again from the dead.  It can be a mistrust of the Church,  or a fear that the Gospel might actually change us for the better.  All of these are moments, instances, of doubt.  And we all, no matter where we currently stand on our faith journeys, have fallen on this spectrum of disbelief at one point in time or another.  The name “Thomas” from our Gospel narrative, could just as easily be replaced with Sarah, or Chris, or Janet, or Alex, or Mary, or Tom, or you.  Doubt is not something new to Christianity, post the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.  And the words of today’s Gospel, “Blessed are you who believe and yet have not seen,” are just as true to us in the 21st century, as they were for the early church of the 1st century.

Even two thousand years ago believers demanded scientific evidence.  All of our post-resurrection narratives, all of the post-Easter encounters with the Risen Christ, centered around empirical verification.  It is about seeing and touching Jesus.  In all of these narrative, this man that they thought was dead is somehow now with the disciples in flesh and blood, eating and drinking, talking and listening, physically present in the world.  Mary Magdalene does not know her teacher is present in the Garden on Easter Sunday, until he calls her by name.  Then all of a sudden she can see him.  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus can not recognize Christ as they encounter him on their journey, until they sit down and break bread together.  Then they see this supposed stranger for who he really is.  And Thomas does not believe until he sees Christ enter that locked room, with fresh wounds from where the nails entered Jesus’ hands and feet.  For the apostles witnessing the resurrection, journeying towards faith in the Risen Lord, was a sensory experience.  Amidst their own doubt and disbelief, they wanted to see, touch, taste, smell and hear that their friend and teacher was alive.

Our own journeys are also sensory experiences.  We ourselves want to physically witness the resurrection. And although we are encouraged, “Blessed are those who have not seen,
And yet have come to believe,” we want to empirically probe our faith, to see, touch, taste, smell and hear our God.  And friends, this is exactly what we do in Christian community.  In the midst of our doubt and disbelief, we encounter the Risen Christ with one another.  Knowing that no matter how much uncertainty plays a part, we are lifting each other up.  We are strengthened in our faith and we come to know God through participating in our community and invoking all of our senses.

We hear the story of the resurrection told over and over again b listening to the faith journeys of our friends, by reading the words of Scripture aloud in this sanctuary every Sunday, by hearing the cries of those suffering and responding to their call.  We taste the resurrection in the breaking of the bread, our Eucharistic feast, in sipping a cup of tea with a fellow parishioner who is struggling, in scarfing down soup and stew in a group of young adults meeting and talking about their faith, no matter the pressure placed upon them on their campuses.  We smell the resurrection as we sniff the beautiful Easter lilies when we approach the chancel steps, as the aromas of burgers and hot dogs diffuses throughout the annual Pentecost picnic, as chrism oil lingers on the head of an infant, long after the baptismal blessing.  We touch the resurrection in a bear hug given at the peace, or chopping potatoes and beets during a youth retreat to Heifer Farm, or the newlywed kiss as two are given to one another in holy matrimony.  And friends, we do see the resurrection as well, even if we do not see a thirty-three year old middle Eastern Man who bears the marks of torture standing before us.  However,  we see the Risen Christ in the world around us: in the faces of both friends and strangers, in the rising of the sun every morning after the darkest of nights, in the renewal of the earth every spring after unexpected winter storm has blown through (frozen streams trickling to life, bulbs blossoming and blooming, a new energy reverberating throughout all of creation).

This is what we do with our doubt.  When we, like Thomas, cannot fathom that Christ is Risen we meet that doubt, that disbelief head on when we engage it with all of our senses. Testing it.  Probing it. Using our own incarnated humanness to meet the incarnated divine.  All I have to do is look around this church and I know that the Risen Lord is here.  Can you see him too?

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The Good News in Good Friday

A sermon preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts, on the occasion of Good Friday.

 

 

(sung)

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

O–o–o–o

Sometimes it causes me to tremble,

Tremble,

Tremble,

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

 

(spoken)

Were you there?

Would I have been there?

If I really reflect

On whether or not I would have been at the foot of the cross,

I don’t know if I can honestly say yes.

I don’t know if I could stand listening to the wails,

Stand seeing the crumpled body of my friend upon the cross,

I don’t know if I could stand smelling the rancid mixture

Of his blood and his sweat.

I don’t know if I could have stood there wondering,

“Why?”

I don’t know if in that moment,

That crucifixion,

Whether I could admit I was his disciple.

Perhaps I would deny my Lord just as Peter had.

 

But thankfully,

Today we see the crucifixion through John’s eyes,

Who tradition names as the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross,

The one whom Jesus loved,

A follower of Christ who has been at his friend’s side

Since the beginning of his ministry.

 

John has seen the healings,

And heard Christ’s teachings.

He has witnessed the walking on water

And the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

He has heard the heartbeat of God,

Sitting on the left side of Jesus,

Leaning into his teacher,

As Jesus gives his disciples a command

And foreshadows his own death at their last meal together.

John’s are the eyes

Through which we do not only stare at that old rugged cross,

But perhaps also

The eyes through which we begin to understand its meaning for us.

 

As John stands there,

Looking up at his friend,

Wondering why this had to happen,

Believing that the crucifixion was the end,

Not knowing any other reality,

Would he have stood there trembling?

Trembling in confusion?

Trembling in fear?

Trembling in grief?

 

Or would he have stood there,

Trying to make sense of it all,

Replaying Jesus’ words over in his head?

Finally realizing what he had been alluding to this whole time.

 

“Those who love their life lose it,

And those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Or perhaps the words at their last meal together,

Jesus said,

“I give you a new commandment,

That you love one another.

Just as I have loved you,

You also should love one another.”

And Christ urged the disciples further,

“If you keep my commandments,

You will abide in my love.”

 

As John stands at the foot of the cross,

He replays these words over and over,

Not fully understanding what they mean

But knowing they mean something,

Important.

Knowing that all he has lived for,

The truth which he seeks

Hangs in the balance of Jesus’ words,

Hangs in the balance of one word:

 

Love.

So simple.

Yet so difficult.

 

For the love of which Christ speaks in this Gospel account,

Commanded at the Last Supper,

Is so radical,

Is so liberating,

Is so limitless,

That it was a love

Enacted in his death on the cross.

 

The Good news in Good Friday

Is this sacrificial love of God

That John,

The beloved disciple,

Witnesses while staring up at his friend and savior

From the foot of the cross.

All of that love of which Christ has been speaking

Throughout John’s Gospel is fulfilled in this one event.

This event that is the culmination of the incarnation of God on earth.

This event that is the realization,

That Emmanuel,

God with us,

Is not about Christ’s birth in a manger,

But about his death upon a cross.

This event that is the understanding,

That God is love.

Because Jesus is human,

Because he can and will die,

He can reveal the fullness of God’s love in ways never before possible,

He can reveal God’s love in human experience.

And in his death,

Jesus gave up what we, as humans love most —

Life —

And forever redefining what true love is.

 

This Good Friday event,

This brutality,

This bloodshed,

This execution,

This crucifixion,

Is the climax of John’s Gospel.

Is the culmination of God’s purpose on this earth.

Is the fulfillment of Christ’s mission and ministry.

 

In his final words,

“It is finished,”

Jesus does not direct us forward.

He does not leave us searching for love in the future,

But he claims love for us in the present.

The realization of God’s love has been completed,

Now,

Today,

Good Friday —

Not three days from now.

It will not be finished,

But it is finished

God’s love for us is fully realized

In the event of Christ’s crucifixion.

 

Yet,

What does Jesus’ death mean for our lives?

If we put ourselves back in John’s shoes,

Not only do we find that God loves us,

But if we think back on last night’s Gospel reading,

Sitting on Christ’s left at the Last Supper,

Listening to the final heartbeats of God,

We discover what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

We discover the command,

To love one another

Just as Christ has loved us.

To love one another

With the same love that Christ has demonstrated for us

Upon the cross.

 

Love is not simply an emotion.

It is action.

It is not some abstract comment,

But is lived out in our daily lives as disciples of Christ

And was brought to its fullest in the crucifixion.

 

Love is so tangible,

So real,

That it fills every fiber of our being.

And it resonates throughout all of creation.

 

God’s love enacted through Christ

Is so powerful,

So radical

So limitless,

So endless,

And so freeing,

That as we stand at the foot of the cross with John,

We do not tremble out of fear,

Or confusion,

Or grief,

But today we tremble knowing

That God loved us so much,

That he gave his only son for us.

 

We tremble because

Through this selfless act of Christ,

We come to know the God of love more fully.

 

We tremble because

The Good news on Good Friday,

Is that God is love.
AMEN.

 

I am Sarah

A Sermon on Genesis 21:9-19 for Prophetic Preaching class

When I left Alabama at age 18, to begin my undergraduate career in Massachusetts, I was ready to cast of the chains of patriarchy. I was determined to denounce my sexist southern society. I was empowered to live into the woman that God was calling me to be. No longer would my voice be silenced. No longer would my vocation be ignored. No longer would my future be determined by my gender.

At Mount Holyoke College — the first women’s college in the country and my own college of choice — I was evolving into an ardent feminist. And to seal the deal, to continue in the transformation that had already begun, I chose my first class in my religion major, entitled: “Sarah, Hagar, and their Muslim, Christian and Jewish descendants.” After years of feeling silenced as a woman in religion class at both Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic schools, we were finally talking about women! And when paper-writing time came around, we students were encouraged by our Professor — Jane Crosthwaite — to identify with one of the female characters in this tragic narrative of two opposing women revolving around three men.[1]

It didn’t take me more than a split second to decide with whom I would identify — Sarah — my namesake. A woman who was deemed less in her society’s eyes, just because she could not bear a son. A woman who was deemed less in her husband’s eyes, to the point that he denied his relationship with her and basically handed her over to the Pharaoh of Egypt. A woman who was deemed less in the Biblical author’s eyes, for God’s only words to Sarah in the whole Genesis narrative are ones of reprimanding her laughter. Yes, I could identify with Sarah: a woman who had been oppressed by the patriarchal system of the ancient Near East, or perhaps 21st century America. Yes, I could identify with Sarah.

But why did I not identify with Hagar? Perhaps, it is because as a white woman with a dual identity of both the oppressed and the oppressor, I am Sarah. I am a woman whose white privilege destroys the opportunities of my sisters’, who are women of color. I am Sarah. And now, as I reexamine this Biblical text over seven years later, I am almost ashamed to identify with my namesake. For Sarah, a child of God, the matriarch of two faith traditions, is not a heroine in the Genesis account.

Instead of Sarah recognizing that she and Hagar have both been victimized due to their gender, she provokes the tension in this Biblical narrative. Sarah re-victimizes Hagar due to her race and social class. Hagar, a woman of color who has experienced use and abuse by her oppressors, is now rejected by the very person in the narrative who should understand how it feels to be used and abused herself. Sarah achieves this lack of empathy by dehumanizing Hagar. She refers to Hagar not by name, and not even as her maid, but as a slave woman.[2] And throughout the entirety of the scene, Sarah never once speaks directly to Hagar. Instead the absence of dialogue further separates the two women.[3] There is an unspoken divide. For Sarah, Hagar was solely an instrument, raped by Abraham to build Sarah up.[4] For Sarah, Hagar was never a woman, never a human. For Sarah, Hagar was a means to an end, someone who could be tossed a side once the power was back in Sarah’s hands after bearing her own son to Abraham.

White women today should be aware that we indeed are Sarah in this narrative. Although we have been oppressed by the system, we are also oppressors in the system. When the tables are turned, and the power for once is in our hands, we throw women of color out into the desert to fend for themselves. We are blind to the privilege afforded us by being born white, while focusing solely on our disadvantage by being born women.

Yet in this I am not saying the fight for women’s equality is over! Women still make 77 cents to every dollar a man makes.[5] Women still only hold 18% of the seats in the United States Congress.[6] And 1 in 6 women are victims of sexual violence[7] — just like Sarah and Hagar.

Yet women of color are even more greatly affected. Women of color make up 36.3% of the nation’s female population and approximately 18% of the entire U.S. population.[8]  Yet black women and Latina women only make 70 cents and 61 cents, respectively, to every dollar that a man makes.[9]  Of the approximately 90 women currently serving in the U.S. Congress, only 27% are women of color.  And they are completely absent in the Senate altogether.[10]  In regards to sexual violence, Black women, Latina women, and Native American women are all more likely to experience sexual assault than their white female counterparts.[11] The experiences of white women in this country do not represent the lives of all women in the U.S.

In reality, many women of color are simply trying to survive in a society that has staked both race and gender against them. For example, Black and Latina women see an unemployment rate of 13.3% and 11.4% respectively, compared to a national average of 7.3%.[12] Women of color also make up 53.2% of uninsured women, with Latinas having the highest uninsured rate of all other racial and ethnic groups.[13] And also, due to disparities in reproductive health, women of color are more likely to experience unintended pregnancy — Latina women at double the rate of white women, and black women at three times the rate of white women. Because of unequal pay and high unemployment rates among women of color, many of these women are unable to pay the high costs of contraception. [14]

Like Hagar, many women of color are exiles in our U.S. American society. They have been thrown out into the desert, carrying the weight of their families on their shoulders, with little to no resources for survival. And yet, God hears her cry. Although God has seemed to side with Sarah and Abraham for the majority of the narrative, God brings salvation to Hagar in the desert. God calls Hagar by name and opens her eyes to the resources that will save both herself and her son. God’s saving grace is not confined to God’s supposed chosen people.[15] Instead God’s grace is beyond benefiting solely Sarah and is extended to benefiting Hagar as well. Both women will be mothers of nations.

And yet, although God promises these women much, in reality both women are isolated in the desert setting of Genesis. They are both in the hands of the power structures that be. And in our own contemporary society, both white women and women of color have been victims of injustice, have seen oppression first hand.

Therefore, It is our call as women and as disciples of Christ to learn from this Biblical witness and to fight for the equality of all women — not just white women. It is time that we realize as women, “that the enrichment of one does not require the impoverishment of another; the uplifting of one does not require the degradation of another;” that in order to survive we must finally recognize our shared sisterhood.[16] And we must realize that liberation does not only come from God but from human initiative as well. White women and women of color must fight together in the struggle to end gender inequality in this country — by petitioning state legislation that has made it more difficult for women to gain access to sexual health care, specifically contraception; by volunteering at women and children’s shelters that provide support for victims of violence; by educating ourselves, speaking out, and debunking the myth that women of color are welfare queens taking advantage of government support.

Instead of being each other’s own worst enemy, it is time for women to stop hurting other women. It is time for us to realize our shared sisterhood, our commonality in being women.[17] It is time for us to recognize that we have all been exiled into the desert by our American system. And it is time for us to all learn to identify with Hagar. For somewhere in our lives, her story speaks to ours. For Hagar is: “the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless women, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service of others.”[18]

Hagar’s story is unfortunately the story of so many women in this country. And it is now our call as women, as sisters in Christ, to tell her story and to not let her cry go unheard.

 

AMEN

 

 

[1] Trible, Phyllis, Texts of terror: Literary-feminist readings of biblical narratives, Vol. 13, (Fortress Press:Philadephia, 1984), 27-28.

[2] Ibid, 21.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Ibid, 11.

[5] http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/10/why-are-women-paid-less/263776/#

[6] http://money.cnn.com/2013/10/24/news/economy/gender-equality/

[7] http://www.sarsonline.org/resources-stats/reports-laws-statics

[8] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2012/07/17/11923/the-state-of-women-of-color-in-the-united-states/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] http://endsexualviolence.org/where-we-stand/racism-and-rape

[12] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/report/2012/07/17/11923/the-state-of-women-of-color-in-the-united-states/[13]

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Fretheim, Terence E, “The book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible 1 (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1994).

[16] Hayes, Diana L., Hagar’s daughters: Womanist ways of being in the world, (Paulist Press: New York, 1995), 49.

[17] Ibid, 8.

[18] Trible, Texts of Terror, 28.

 

Feast Day of St. Luke the Evangelist

2 Timothy 4:5–12

Luke 10:1–12

Dedicated to my beloved friends at Berkeley Divinity School.

Only six short weeks ago,

Across quite a large pond,

I sat reciting morning prayer,

In a familiar place,

With familiar faces,

And familiar accents.

That Friday morning before my departure to an unknown land,

As I sat in St. Luke’s chapel,

The worship space for the Episcopal students at Yale,

Tears slowly began to well up in my eyes.

And I doubted the decision I had made to leave my beloved community for a time.

Amongst my closest friends,

Amongst those who understood my vocation,

I felt as though,

For once in my life,

I finally fit in.

At Yale Divinity School I feel safe,

I feel known,

I feel loved.

Yet in a pair, two Yalies departed their homeland

Perhaps both with a good deal of trepidation.

And were once again outsiders instead of insiders.

We were both called to leave the safety of our seminary environment.

And I do not think it a coincidence that I have been pushed out of the nest,

Away from the community dedicated to St. Luke.

For at the heart of St. Luke’s Gospel is a challenge.

A challenge that may be the most difficult for us to hear

Of all the four Gospels.

St. Matthew offers us rules by which to abide,

I got to say, not too difficult for this Type A personality.

St. Mark offers us a narrative that is short, sweet and to the point,

Making it ideal for those of us with shorter attention spans.

And St. John offers us the christological depth

That any ordinand would crave.

But Luke is different.

Luke’s social justice emphasis

Provokes us in a way the other four Gospels writers do not.

He first dramatically draws us into his narrative

with the poetry of the Magnificat,

The Nunc Dimitis,

And the Benedictus,

Creating an ascetic space in his Greek prose,

Perhaps his is the best written of the four Gospels.

But early on Luke asks us to turn our world view upside down,

To leave our work at home left undone,

To hate our fathers and mothers,

To take no purse, bag, or sandals along on the journey.

At the heart of Luke’s Gospel

And at the heart of today’s passage

Is a mission–charge,

The call to “Go!”

To step outside of the safe and known

Into the dangerous and unknown.

And Christianity’s lack of comfort with Luke’s message

is perhaps never more prevalent than today.

When the small groups of the first year life and service class

Gathered together last Friday,

We collaborated on the characteristics of Anglicanism.

Characteristics such as sacramental theology,

The Book of Common Prayer,

Richard Hooker’s three–legged stool

Of Scripture,

Tradition,

and Reason,

But not a single group spoke the words of

Mission

Or evangelism.

Why are these words so frightening to us?

Today we celebrate the life of an evangelist

The life of St. Luke.

But taken outside of the Gospel writers’ context,

Evangelism and mission become infused with negative connotation,

Become words representing colonialism,

Ethnocentrism,

Perhaps for some,

Fundamentalism.

And we think to ourselves

We don’t want to be one of THOSE Christians.

But today with St. Luke’s example and the words from the second letter to Timothy,

We are called to be something quite outside our comfort zones,

We ourselves are called to be evangelists.

In Luke’s narrative account,

Unlike the other three Gospels,

The mission–charge by Jesus to go and proclaim the good news

Is not limited to the twelve,

But is extended to the seventy,

It is extended to us.

We are commissioned.

We are appointed.

We are called to “GO!”

We are called out into the harvest,

To cure the sick who are there

And say to them:

The kingdom of God has come near to you.

To be disciples of Christ,

We cannot have one without the other.

Although we may prefer reconciliation over proclamation.

We cannot have healing without preaching,

Or word without deed.

We should not fear our own utterance of mission or evangelism,

For when we both proclaim God’s love

And show God’s compassion concretely,

The word takes on a dimension it otherwise might lack.

To be an evangelist,

Is to both proclaim and enact God’s love in the world around us.

This is our calling as future ordained ministers.

Will we walk in the footsteps of St. Luke?

Embracing the unknown,

The discomfort that is mission?

Will we recognize that the haste in spreading the love of God,

Is just as serious and necessary now as it was two thousand years ago?

Will we realize that being a disciple of Christ means stepping outside our comfort zone?

And eventually leaving the safety and love of our seminary community for a world that may seem quite foreign to us.

Whether that be Jerusalem or Cambridge,

Judea or East Anglia,

Samaria or Slough,

Or even to the ends of the earth.

Will we reclaim St. Luke’s challenge to us as disciples of Christ

And be the evangelists not of the first century,

But of the twenty–first century?

Amen.