Monday, April 28, 2014

“What’s Doubt Got to Do with It?”

2 Easter, Year A
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez

“Doubting” Thomas gets a bad rap. It’s true. Throughout John’s Gospel, he's one of the most committed of the disciples. When the Jewish authorities are seeking to kill Jesus, before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Thomas silences all of the other disciples’ objections and says: “Let’s go back to Judea and die with him.” And in the Gospel reading we heard this morning, Thomas gives us the most complete confession of Jesus’ identity we find in the Fourth Gospel: “My Lord and my God.”

Did you remember these things about Thomas? Be honest. Most of us don’t. Most of us, myself included, immediately identify Thomas as “Doubting.” He is, in our minds, the only disciple who didn’t believe in the resurrection. But that’s not true.

Our Gospel opens with the statement: When it was evening on the day of Resurrection, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews. . . That’s hardly the confidence we associate with the disciples after the resurrection. It sounds a lot like doubt. The disciples have heard the news of the resurrection by this point. Mary Magdalene has come and told them that she saw Jesus in the Garden. Peter and John have run to the tomb and found it empty. But they are huddled inside a locked house, afraid.

They have good reason to be afraid. Their Lord and Master, Jesus, was just betrayed and handed over to the Romans, who executed him as an insurrectionist. And they had hoped that he might be the one to redeem Israel. They’re afraid that they might also be arrested, beaten, and crucified as coconspirators. They’re afraid that the Jewish high priests, whose authority came from Rome, might see them as a threat to that authority, just like they saw Jesus as a threat. They have heard the good news of the resurrection, they have seen the empty tomb, but they are still afraid. Maybe, what they’re most afraid of is that the resurrection actually happened. Because that would change everything.

But Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples. On the evening of the resurrection, he is the only disciple who is not cowering behind a locked door. And so he misses out on the revelation that the other disciples have of Jesus. Only after Jesus appears to them, only after Jesus shows them the holes in his hands and in his side, only after these things do the other disciples really believe that he is risen. And Thomas misses that. We talk about Thomas’ doubt like it’s a bad thing, we act like it’s unreasonable for him to demand proof of the resurrection, but all he is asking for is the same sign that the other disciples received.

We have this tendency to see doubt as the opposite of faith, as if people of faith, “Good Christians,” never doubt. Let me tell you, that's a lie. I have doubts. I go through those periods when my spiritual life seems so dry, so arid, that it seems as if God has abandoned me. Have you experienced that? Has there been a time in your life when it seemed like your doubts outnumbered your faith?

C. S. Lewis wrote a little book called The Screwtape Letters, which is the imagined correspondence between two demons who are trying to damn a man’s soul to hell. The elder demon, Screwtape, writing to his nephew, passes on the following advice: “The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it. [. . .] It may surprise you to learn that in [God’s] efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more often than the peaks; some of his special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.”[1]

Screwtape is right, when you sit down and read the lives of the saints, you find out that Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Thomas a Kempis, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Mother Teresa, and so many others, went through what John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul,” the time when God seemed to disappear and when doubts increased. What the saints invariably said, when they went through these times of doubt, was that doubt became the seed of faith.

That’s the case with Thomas, isn’t it? That doubt, that desire for confirmation, leads to his great confession of Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” Doubt blossoms into faith. Doubt deepens our faith; it does not destroy it. Apathy destroys faith. A smug confidence that we have figured out the mysteries of the spiritual life destroys faith. But doubt, good, clean, honest doubt, doubt can deepen our faith. Doubt can bring us from despair to hope, with Jesus’ help.

Before Jesus appeared to Thomas after the resurrection, Mark tells us that he encountered a man whose son was ill. This father asked Jesus to heal his son, if he was able. Jesus replies, “All things are able for one who believes.” The father then cries out, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

This is the truth that Thomas also reminds us of. Faith and doubt are always mingled in us. C.S. Lewis’ demon, Wormwood, warns his nephew: “It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that [the human soul] is growing into the sort of creature [God] wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please him best.”[2]

In the midst of our doubts, may we always pray: “I believe! Help my unbelief!” And may Jesus come to us in the mystery of bread and wine and coach us to say: “My Lord and my God.” Amen.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1950), 45.
[2] ibid., 47.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Practice Resurrection!

Easter Sunday
Matt 28:1-10

In the Name of the one who lived, died and rose again so that we might know forgiveness and everlasting life, our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Welcome and Happy Easter!  Such a beautiful church and a beautiful day.  It’s quite a gift when creation reflects the glory of the resurrection we celebrate on Easter Sunday.

In Matthew’s gospel all of creation reflects the divine events taking place over these three days.  They are just too big – too important – to not send aftershocks into the earth itself.

When Jesus is dying on the cross – darkness overshadows the whole land.  When Jesus cries out and breathes his last – the curtain of the temple, the very fabric of reality, is torn in two; the earth trembles and rocks shatter.

And three days later, when the women (and just the women) courageously make their way to Christ’s tomb in the eerie first light of dawn – an earthquake rumbles the ground under their feet as lightning strikes amidst an angel’s descent.

For just as the heavens and earth were filled with the glory of God when Christ broke into the world – the heavens and earth resound with the glory of God when Christ breaks free from the bonds of death!

Earlier this week I was talking to someone at a dinner party.  She was telling me about attending an Easter service at St. Thomas’ on 5th Avenue in New York City.  Amazing architecture – it’s enormous – world-famous boys choir.  If you like church buildings – it’s a must see.

Anyway she is there amidst the throngs, standing in her pew as this gospel is proclaimed.  And when the words – And suddenly there was a great earthquake – aloud – her heartbeat quickens as she literally feels the floor start to shake and tremble underneath her feet and she is like – What…is….happening?  And for the rest of the service she is wide-eyed with that feeling of – holy….moley – wondering – what is God trying to tell me!

Later that day while sharing this life-changing moment with someone – they casually inform her – well, I don’t think that was God exactly, because you know  – the 4, 5, and 6 subway runs directly underneath St. Thomas’ so what you thought was divine intervention was probably just the express train!

Was that a let down for her?  No.  Because, as she and I agreed - if I’m listening to holy scripture about an earthquake – and at that exact moment the earth under my feet starts shaking – I don’t care what the reason – you better believe I’m going to assign some significance to that occurrence and consider it more than just a coincidence.  That would get my attention.  The simultaneous reaction of creation is intended to do exactly that - get our attention.  

Because resurrection: the act of life conquering death; of light overcoming darkness; of love defeating hate; resurrection is the most important event of the Christian life!  The redemptive and restorative act of God which forever and eternally changed our relationship with God – and upon which our faith is built. 

Which is why it is also – the hardest act for so many to believe.  I would imagine loads of people – religious or not – would find at least some synchronicity in my friend who felt the ground shake when hearing a story about the same thing.  But ask people if they believe that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead – and many more people – Christians included – struggle to explain how we believe in something so unverifiable.  It’s beyond belief.

Why is that?  Well – I think we believe it more than we know.

Let’s change gears.  If I sing these three words – Let it go – what movie am I referring to?  Yes – “Frozen” – show of hands – who has seen it – ok if you’re worried about spoilers, they’re coming, so start tuning out - if you haven’t already.

I don’t know about you – but I loved that movie – couldn’t stop singing after I left – despite the pleas from my daughter to stop embarrassing her in the Hunt Valley parking lot.  Thanks to people like me and you – and millions more – this is the highest grossing animated movie of all time.  And like all of those types of movies there are princesses and princes – who we expect to save the day, and the girl, as they always do – with a kiss – prince to princess - of the romantic variety.

I’m not going through the whole thing – but in the end – in the climatic, culminating event when all of creation reflects the sturm und drang of the story – what happens?  As the heroine, Princess Anna struggles to stay alive, her heart literally freezing to death, she fights to make her way through the raging storm.  Trying to get to her ‘prince’ Kristoff for that kiss, that true love kiss which is supposed to save her from death.

But then she sees her sister, Elsa about to be killed by the evil villain. So what does she do? She changes course and instead of saving herself she sacrifices herself and throws herself in front of the fatal blow.  Her heart stops - it freezes.  She dies – it’s the end.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13)

No matter the story, the death part – the letting go part – saying goodbye – it always has to happen first.

And then we learn what “true love” really is.  It’s not the romantic kind.  True love – is sacrificial love.   Acting on behalf of another, giving of self on behalf of another – that is true love – and what does it lead to?  For Princess Anna?  Her sister?  The whole community? 


The world doesn’t disbelieve resurrection.  Quite the opposite.  We are a people desperately yearning to experience resurrection – so much so – that we have cooperatively spent $1.11 billion (and counting) to watch an animated version of it – and it’s certainly not the only one.  Turn on the TV – and watch a show with Resurrection for a title!  

And yes, it is hard to believe that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead – because you’re right – there will never be a definitive “C.S.I. Jerusalem” that’s going to be able to prove it beyond a shadow of doubt – so ask yourself this – why for over 2,000 years do we keep telling – and listening to the story? 

Or better yet, ask yourself this, when has someone sacrificed for me - bringing light to my darkness – when has someone brought new life into mine?

Ask yourself, when has the ground underneath my feet given way because unexpected news changed everything – but here I am – I made it through.

When have we seen the devastation – of an earthquake, a tornado, a hurricane – and then seen the hands and feet of those who sacrifice their money and energy to get to work rebuilding?

When did I see – the towers my parents worked in crash to the ground – and then in the weeks and months that followed watched throngs of people enter the city to feed and comfort and work alongside people – just like you and me – to do what – to bring new life.

In all those situations – yours, mine, ours – Jesus was right there when the earth and hearts were torn in two.  And then just like at the empty tomb – Jesus is out there, in front – calling us to get up – go! Join with God to show that out of death comes life.

Resurrection isn’t something we believe in or not.  Resurrection is something we practice, or not.  We read the gospel, and tell lots of other stories – animated and otherwise – to remind ourselves that resurrection is real.  It’s like faith – how can you explain it? We don’t need to explain it – we need to point to it.  To see it and participate in it and tell about it.  We need to practice resurrection – that is what fully connects us with meaningful living – here and now.

You have been raised with Christ – Alleluia!  That’s what we give thanks for today. So set your minds on things from above and use your hands and your heart – to be and bring “Alleluia” into those places that need resurrection!  Jesus is out there ahead of you – don’t be afraid – practice, practice, practice – not because we’ll ever be perfect – but because it will reveal to you everything that matters – the the alpha and omega – the beginning and the end of love and joy known fully through life in God through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

- The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Will the real blind person please stand up?

Lent 4, Year A; John 9:1-41
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

Is it just me, or does that saying of Jesus make you a little uneasy, too? All of our readings this morning are about light and darkness, about seeing and being blind. And they’ve been paired in the lectionary to lead us to ask ourselves a question this morning: Can I see? Well, can you? Now, maybe you don’t want to answer this question too soon, maybe you should take some time to really think about it, because, as Jesus tells us at the end of our Gospel reading, “I came… so that… who do see may become blind.” That makes me hesitate to answer that question: Can I see?

I know that not everyone is a baseball fan, but tomorrow is Major League Baseball’s opening day, so there was no way that baseball wasn’t going to make it into this sermon. So, if you’re not a baseball fan, please bear with me. The fact is, if the Gospels were about baseball, they wouldn’t be written from the perspective of the New York Yankees. No offense to those of you who are Yankees fans, but most fans of other teams love to hate the Yankees. The Yankees are the top dogs, the big, rich, powerful team, and the Gospel is the story about how God came and lived as a human being so that the last could be first and the first could be last. Still, the Gospel wouldn’t be written from the Orioles’ perspective either. I know that the O’s are beloved in Baltimore, and as a Rangers fan, I can certainly sympathize with loyal O’s fan, who have supported a team that had fourteen straight losing seaons. But the O’s aren’t at the bottom; they’re solidly in the middle of the pack. No, if the Gospel were about baseball, it would be written from the perspective of the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908, whose fans are the most long-suffering of them all. The Cubs are a team who know what it is to be on the bottom, and the Gospel is the story of how God sided with the people on the bottom.

But the reason why Jesus makes me nervous in this Gospel story is that you and I aren’t Cubs fans. If we keep extending our baseball metaphor, we citizens of the most powerful nation on earth, we nice, respectable Episcopalians, we’re the Yankees. There’s a prayer practice that I love called Ignatian meditation, where you imagine yourself as part of a Bible story. And generally, I find myself picking a “good” part: one of the disciples, or someone who gets healed by Jesus. I never pick a Pharisee. But the fact is, if I’m looking for myself in this story from John’s Gospel, I’m most like the Pharisees. I’m one of the religious insiders, and I’ve got the collar around my neck to prove it. All of us gathered here this morning probably have more in common with the Pharisees than the blind man, and this story doesn’t end all that well for the Pharisees, does it? Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

This Gospel story doesn’t sound like good news for us Pharisees at first, but it really is, I promise you. We just have to admit that we’re blind. And, luckily, our readings this morning remind us that we are. We don’t see as God sees. Jesus isn’t the king who we’d have picked out for ourselves. We’d have picked Eliab, like Samuel did. Once we get to the point of admitting that we’re blind, of admitting that we are powerless to save ourselves, the Gospel can become good news for us Pharisees, for us Yankees. Jesus can take us back to the beginning and teach us how to be Cubs fans.

There’s freedom in admitting our blindness. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says: “Every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.” Drawing lines is what Pharisees do. It’s what I do. But when I admit that I am blind, that I am incapable of drawing the lines that signify who God loves correctly, Jesus can heal my blindness by helping me draw a line that excludes no one, because no one is on the other side of God’s love: not even me.

The good news of this Gospel story is that it leads us to ask: Who is the real blind person in this story? Jesus gives each of us the answer: Me. And then he opens my eyes.