Sunday, April 19, 2009

My brother, Thomas

ACTS 4:32-35; PSALM 133; 1 JOHN 1:1- 2:2; JOHN 20:19-31

Where was Thomas when Jesus appeared in the upper room that first night? When everyone else is locked in for fear of being associated with Jesus and, thus, receiving the same treatment He did, Thomas is out and about. Why would that be?

We get a little glimpse of the character of Thomas earlier in John, when word comes to Jesus that Lazarus is dying. Some of the other disciples are concerned that heading back toward Jerusalem will mean certain and sudden death for Jesus. Jesus slows his own walk, so that Lazarus might be raised for the glory of God. However the other disciples hope to dissuade him from the plan all together. Another dramatic healing within close proximity to the holy city is just too dangerous.

Finally, it would seem, Thomas gets tired of the hemming and hawing of the others and realizes Jesus is going to do what he’s going to do. Thomas turns to the others and says, “Let us also go [meaning to Jerusalem], that we may die with him.” Thomas gets it. This life with Jesus means putting everything else behind him and so he has. Where Jesus leads, he follows.

In John 14, as Jesus promises to prepare a place for his followers, a place where they can meet him, practical Thomas asks, “We don’t know where you are going. So how can we know the way?” Jesus answers, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Philip asks for the disciples to be shown the Father, but Thomas is quiet now. If Jesus says he’s the way, then he’s the way.

He’s not Peter, always offering a quick, blurted response- “Lord, let us build booths and stay here”, “Lord, you will never wash my feet”, “Lord, I will never deny you, deny you, deny you.” Thomas isn’t James and John, the sons of Zebedee. We don’t see him ask about seating arrangements in heaven. He isn’t Judas or Simon the Zealot, confused about the role of the Messiah and refusing to accept that this carpenter is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

From the little we see of him, Thomas has taken up the yoke and started down the road with Jesus, wherever it leads. So, why isn’t he in the upper room? Maybe because he doesn’t think the mission is over. For Thomas, perhaps fear must take a backseat to all that Jesus commanded. Maybe he’s out laying hands on people. Perhaps he’s in the synagogue, praying and discussing Isaiah with other men. He could have journeyed out to the tomb and might be running his hands over the rock rolled away, wondering just how it happened.

Somewhere, when someone came to the upper room and said Jesus was no longer in the tomb- Thomas apparently stood up, dusted off his sackcloth and ashes and decided there was work still to be done and he left the room and his fellow disciples.

When he returns, maybe with some food for the evening meal, and they all are clamoring to tell him that Jesus appeared among them- he’s a little skeptical. You can imagine Peter and James and John, people whose reluctance has frustrated Thomas in the past, going on and on about Jesus coming through the wall, about the experience of receiving the Spirit, of seeing Christ again. Thomas can’t take it, “Enough. Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in their mark and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And there Thomas sealed his fate in the life of the church to come. Oh, Thomas, doubting Thomas, how could you not believe in what the others had spoken to you? But Thomas, faithful Thomas, knew the Jesus whom he was still following. He didn’t say, “I will never believe that” or “You’re lying” or “I think we should switch to weaker wine”. If Jesus came once, he would come again and Thomas would wait for that encounter.

And so it happened. This time, Thomas is there and Jesus comes into the closed room and extends his peace to his frazzled disciples. He immediately looks at Thomas and extends his hands, saying- “Do not be unbelieving, but believe.” And then Thomas gives the most profound profession of faith in the gospels. This is not Peter’s recognition of the Messiah, God’s anointed one. This is not Mary Magdalene’s recognition of her rabbouni, her teacher. This is not the cry of the soldier for a healer or the call of the centurion identifying the Son of God. This is the deep-rooted cry of Jesus’ most practical follower, recognizing not only his Lord, but his God.

Only Thomas, with his questions, his stubbornness and his willingness to follow without totally knowing the way, can see the two natures of Jesus the Christ, risen from the dead and apparent before him. His cry is the cry of the church from that moment on, from that upper room to this open room and in all times and places.

Thomas is called the “Twin”, but no mention is made of his sibling. Sometimes, it is we who are considered his twin, Thomas’ other half. We are with him in the gospel and he is asking the questions in our minds. Will we die with Christ? How can we know the way? Did he really appear to so many? Our brother in faith and in questioning draws the answers we need to live in faith. And the answers we need to live with our questions.

Jesus extends to Thomas what Thomas needs to believe. So also do God the Holy Spirit give us the gift of faith, but also opens us to see Jesus’ hands, body and blood and blessing extending to us as well. It might not have been right when Thomas asked for it, but he received what he needed in order to believe.

In the meantime, it would appear that he kept doing what Jesus had called him to do. He didn’t sit and wait until he fully understood. He did not refuse to ask anything, hoping someone else would clarify or ask the questions that seemed stupid or outrageous.

So, we, Thomas’ faith brothers and sister, can do no less. We are called to wrestle with difficult questions, with painful realities, with the real presence and sometimes felt absence of our risen Savior. We want to reach out and touch Jesus or at least to feel Him touching us. However, we keep going. You keep going. I keep going. The church keeps going. And we believe. We believe when we have not seen, we obey when we don’t understand, we persist when we don’t feel like it, we thank God before we receive and we keep trusting when we don’t receive.

This is the life to which we are called through the risen Christ. This is the life that Thomas led and offers as an example. We take our convictions and our questions, both of which make up our faith, the hope of things unseen, and we live the life to which we have been called- service to God and to our neighbors.

And we keep our eyes open for signs of God’s gracious presence and love. For we know signs were given to Thomas and the other disciples and to so many who have preceded us into glory, signs that are not written down anywhere. But we have the Spirit and God’s Holy Word so that, with or without signs, we may come to believe that Jesus is our Lord and our God and that through believing we may have life, abundant life, in His name.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday Five- Time Out Edition

The Friday Five prompts come from here.

Holy Week is almost upon us, I suspect that ordained or not, other revgal/pals calendars look a bit like mine, FULL, FULL, FULL........

Jesus was great at teaching us to take time out, even in that last week, right up to Maundy Thursday he withdrew, John's gospel tells us he hid! He hid not because he was afraid, but because he knew that he needed physical, mental and spiritual strength to get through...

So faced with a busy week:

1. What restores you physically?

I do love a nap. It's not just the pregnancy talking. In college, I got very good at the twenty-minute power snooze. I don't even have to have a bed or a couch. I can lay flat on the floor in a slightly darkened room and be asleep. 10 years later, I hardly ever need an alarm clock for that kind of nap. I wake myself up almost 18 minutes from when I fell asleep. I usually set a little buzzer, just in case, but I typically wake up in time to turn it off, get up, brush my hair and teeth, put my earrings back in and go back to work. Ta-da!

I have also come to love swimming in the past few weeks. After my few short laps, I stretch in the shallow end of the pool. The weightlessness gives me a little recharge. After I wash the chlorine off, I feel ready to take on the world, but I usually go home and make dinner.

2. What strengthens you emotionally/ mentally?

A good solid devotional time, complete with devotional reading, journaling and deep prayer, makes me feel refreshed and recharged in a way nothing else can. That may sound like one of those things a pastor is "supposed" to say, but it's true. Like anything else that's good for you, though, it takes time to do that. As essential as that practice is, I don't do it as often as I should (daily). I do parts of it, but the complete routine offers the most consolation and connection from and with the Holy Spirit.

3. What encourages you spiritually?

Reading the works of other spiritual thinkers- from the Gospel writers to contemporary writers. There is something deep and stirring about the feel of words in my mind, rolling around, provoking other thoughts, stirring up faithfulness and spiritual comraderie- even for someone long since gone to their eternal reward.

4. Share a favourite poem or piece of music from the coming week.

These aren't quite the words in my hymnal, but this is one of my favorite hymns. This text is taken from here. The hymn tune can be heard in the same place, not a very resounding version- nevertheless...

Now let the vault of Heav’n resound
In praise of love that doth abound,
“Christ hath triumphed, alleluia!”
Sing, choirs of angels, loud and clear,
Repeat their song of glory here,
“Christ hath triumphed, Christ hath triumphed!”
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Eternal is the gift He brings,
Wherefore our heart with rapture sings,
“Christ hath triumphed, Jesus liveth!”
Now doth He come and give us life,
Now doth His presence still all strife
Through His triumph; Jesus reigneth!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

O fill us, Lord, with dauntless love;
Set heart and will on things above
That we conquer through Thy triumph,
Grant grace sufficient for life’s day
That by our life we ever say,
“Christ hath triumphed, and He liveth!”
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Adoring praises now we bring
And with the heavenly bless├Ęd sing,
“Christ hath triumphed, Alleluia!”
Be to the Father, and our Lord,
To Spirit blest, most holy God,
Thine the glory, never ending!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

5.There may be many services for you to attend/ lead over the next week, which one are you most looking forward to and why? If there aren't do you have a favorite day in Holy week if so which one is it?

It is difficult to say which Holy Week service is my favorite. The moving nature of all the services and the anticipation of Easter Sunday makes them all special. However, if I had to choose one- it would probably be Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from earlier Latin and Old English phrases for "mandate", which in context comes from "commandment"- as in, "This is my commandment..."

The institution of the Lord's Supper and the washing of the feet aren't my favorite parts because they are still meaningful in the church today or because they reflect our life together. To me, Maundy Thursday is a clear representation (and set-up for Easter Sunday) regarding the physical nature of our salvation. Here we see that what God will do through Jesus the Christ isn't merely for souls- some nebulous part of our existence, but for our whole being- body, mind and spirit. In as much as we love God with all these parts, so to God loves all these parts and loved them first (!!)- enough to save them.

The physical elements of Maundy Thursday- the nourishment and cleansing that are instituted by Christ and commanded or encouraged of us- stir up in me gratitude for the God who made, preserves, loves and saves my whole being. The Three Days point to that in a variety of ways and it is these three days that not only save us from ourselves, but save us from the rest of the church year that can easily turn dualistic (body versus soul).

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Time Out

Yesterday, I had to put my dog in time-out (in the backyard) and myself in time-out (under the covers of my bed). When I came home from work, I discovered that he had amused himself during the day by chewing on a photo album that holds (held?) recipes and a box of dust masks. The scraps were strewn all over the living room.

This isn't the first time something like this has happened, but, for me yesterday, it was a final straw in my currently tenuous grip on emotional control. I put Ivan outside and then while he howled at the door, I went upstairs and howled into a pillow.

In my theological tradition, I understand (spiritually and intellectually) that God is in control. Yet each day that I manage to do what I need to do without breaking down about my husband's imminent deployment or being pregnant or any number of other things that are well beyond anything that I can change or alter- each day I *handle* these things, I feel like I have myself under control.

Well, my scrappy dog pushed me over the edge. If I don't really have a handle on 68-pounds of Labrador Retriever, then why have I deluded myself into thinking that I have a handle on anything?

It is often said that preachers sometimes need to hear their message the most and a message that God is in control is what I need to hear the most right now.

And that is the message at the heart of Holy Week (next week) and all the services I'm currently planning. As events, the story leading to the empty tombs seems very much like a careening tale of political intrigue, treason and punishment. Yet, we as believers, (I as a believer), are called to see God's control in the situation, to recognize through faith that was happened to Jesus was bigger than Caiaphas, Barabbas, Pilate, Caesar, you or me.

It was and is the work of God, the in-breaking of God's kingdom into history and the promise of the kingdom to come. But more, we look at all those people (Judas, Peter, Ananias, Mary of Magdala) and we know that they weren't in charge. Why do we think that we are?

Ivan will always be a rascally dog. I will love him for it and he'll probably get more time-outs. The deployment is what it is and will be what it will be. I cannot do nothing about that. And I'm entering the world of parenting, where you realize your sphere of influence is crucial, but doesn't quite have the circumference for which you might hope (or that you think you have).

I'm not letting go and letting God because I don't "let" God do anything. What I'm hoping and praying for is that God will "let" me see His hand at work in my life, feel His presence and assure me with the comforting truth that I am not in control.

Lent 4 sermon (March 22)

NUMBERS 21:4-9; PSALM 107: 1-3, 17-22; 1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-25; JOHN 3:14-21

How many of you have heard of Eric Liddell before? How many of you have seen the movie Chariots of Fire? Some of the life of Eric Liddell is portrayed in that movie as the runner who would not race on Sundays and had to change events in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.

Liddell was born in China where his Scottish parents were missionaries through the London Missionary Society. When Eric was six, he and his older brother were sent back to Scotland to be educated. They were both very athletic, but Eric could run and run. He was rumored to be Olympic worthy, but very few people from Scotland or Britain in general won Olympic running events.

Liddell was also famous for something else, during his younger years in Scotland. When he was a university student, he could draw enormous crowds who came to here him preach. He was a dynamic and powerful speaker who talked about the importance of the life of faith and of serving God.

In the film Chariots of Fire, Liddell is depicted as practicing for the 100-meter race and finding out only days before that the Olympic-qualifying heats would be held on a Sunday. Because of his strong belief in the Sabbath, Liddell refused to run on a Sunday.

In reality, Liddell found out months ahead of leaving for Paris about the Sunday trials and began practicing for the 400- meter race. In that race in the Olympics, Liddell did win a gold medal and set a new world record. He won a bronze in another race as well.

In the next few years, he won or helped win several other national titles for Britain and set other records. Yet Liddell felt other pulls on his heart and he heeded them.

Liddell returned to Northern China where he served as a missionary, like his parents, from 1925 to 1943. Liddell's first job as a missionary was as a teacher at an Anglo-Chinese College (grades 1-12) for wealthy Chinese students. It was believed that by teaching the children of the wealthy that they themselves would later become influential figures in China and promote Christian values. He used his athletic experience to train the boys in a number of different sports.

In 1941 life in China was becoming so dangerous that the British Government advised British nationals to leave. Liddell’s wife and children left, but Liddell accepted a new position at a rural mission station, which gave service to the poor. Meanwhile, the Chinese and the Japanese were at war. When the fighting reached the rural areas, the Japanese took over the mission station. In 1943, Liddell was interned at an internment camp. Liddell became a leader at the camp and helped get it organized. Eric kept himself busy by helping the elderly, teaching at the camp school Bible classes, arranging games and also by teaching the children science. The children knew him as Uncle Eric.

In his last letter to his wife, written on the day he died, he talks about suffering a nervous breakdown in the camp due to overwork, but in actuality he was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, to which being overworked and malnourished probably hastened his demise. He died on February 1945,

What does this the story of Eric Liddell have to do with anything? Well, it has to do with everything. One of Liddell’s most famous quotes was, “I believe that God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. When I run it is in His pleasure.”

When I run, I feel God’s pleasure. As we enter the sunnier spring, we all tip our faces up and feel the sun, God’s creative pleasure, shining on us. The ever-so-slightly warmer air gives us a bouncier step. The ability to leave our house and not worry about leaving lights on frees up some of our worries.

These are all small, delicious pleasures. It is true they enrich our lives, but they are not the stuff of life. Our texts today call us to feel God’s pleasure, to be in God’s pleasure, in a way that brings healing, wholeness and light. Moses lifts up the serpent, so that the Israelites won’t die from the snakebites they brought on themselves. Instead of basking in God’s pleasure to release them from slavery and provide for them in the desert, they wanted to complain about being sick of the food and the sand and the never-ending wilderness. Moses follows God’s instructions and lifts up the snake, so that the Israelites might continue to live and know God’s pleasure at providing for them in the wilderness and saving them from the Egyptians and from themselves.

John’s passage offers the same message. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus under the cover of night and talks to him about why God would send his Son into the world. Because God first loved the world, so God gave the only Son. God acts first so that the world might know his pleasure. Too often we think that we have to move, that we have to accept, that we have act for God to act toward us. Here we see God’s first actions toward us so that we might believe in something beyond ourselves.

That we can look to Jesus lifted up on the cross, a light shining into the darkness, and know God’s pleasure. That in believing in the message of the cross, we come to know God’s wisdom and God’s joy in bringing us to Himself. Believing in the cross does not mean there are no struggles with faith, that each day is light and joy. But it does mean that the darkness cannot completely overcome us, that the world and its foolishness does not have the power to separate us from the love of God.

Many people now look at the story of Eric Liddell and say he’d never make it today as a serious athlete because he was not as dedicated as he needed to be. But I think those people miss the point completely. Liddell was very famous for his unorthodox running style, head thrown back and arms flailing behind him. Through his life, he did everything in this headlong way- from racing to serving God. He ran in faith that he would be where God needed him to be and in the end, God’s dedication, through the cross, brought Eric Liddell to where Eric needed to be.

We are called through God’s word to run in the same way, even those of us who don’t actually run. We are called to abandon what the world considers good form and to throw ourselves into God’s pleasure. In our leisure time, in our vocation, in our families, with our friends, through good works to all our neighbors…

God so loved the world. God so loved you. That He sent the only Son. He sent part of Himself into the world. That everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.

Believe in what God has done for you and in what God is doing through you, for you and in you. Believe. And may the Spirit open your heart so that you can feel His pleasure.

Lent 3 sermon (March 15)

EXODUS 20:1-17; PSALM 19; 1 CORINTHIANS 18-25; JOHN 2:13-22

When my husband, Rob, went to Iraq in the first time, in 2007, I felt very overwhelmed in the weeks leading up to the deployment. I felt upset all the time and I felt frustrated by how depressed and upset I was. I could not change the situation, but it also seemed that I could not even change how I felt about it either. Nor I could I accept that I would stay in this bottom-dwelling darkness for the entire six and a half months.

I felt that my every waking moment was either spent in grief or in being frustrated at grieving. I literally felt consumed by all of this. Then one day, driving through around New York City, (don’t ask) I had an epiphany. My grief had become an idol for me. I wasn’t spending time even thinking about Rob or my schoolwork or even the actualities of deployment, but the majority of my energy, the place where my heart was hung was on the actual horribleness of how I felt.

I realize many of you may be thinking, “Well, of course, Pastor Julia is so Lutheran that in the middle of a horrible time, she WOULD think about the catechism.” But that’s not my point. In the midst of truly difficult and painful time, I had no perspective and I felt like I didn’t even have a toehold to gain any perspective.

The realization that grief was taking my focus from everything, including why I was actually grieving- that I missed my husband, sharply refocused my emotions and my spirit. When I began to feel the rising tide of grief washing over me and there wasn’t space to give in to it, I would sing to myself, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”

During the deployment, I still had terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days, but they were fewer and far between. And they lost their power to pull me completely under, to distract me from living, which is what Rob wanted me to do and, even more importantly, what God wants me to do.

When we hear the story of the cleansing of the temple, we think of Jesus, aflame with righteous anger, overturning tables, yelling and cracking a whip like Indiana Jones. The moneychangers scatter and the worshippers stare in fear, horror and amazement. It is important to remember that the moneychangers weren’t technically doing anything wrong, but the business that had developed around the ideas of perfect sacrifice and exacting worship standards had completely diminished the true purpose of the temple.

And having lost sight of the true purpose of the temple, is it any wonder that people weren’t able to tell the true Messiah when he walked among them? Even in today’s gospel reading, the disciples finally understand the meaning of Jesus’ words about his body after his resurrection.

In the fury of the temple cleansing, we miss the little verse that describes what the disciples were thinking while the events were happening. His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Zeal for your house will consume me.

Part of the plain reading of this text is in understanding we are called to be discerning about how God’s house is used, meaning this building and space. That what happens here should ultimately give glory to the One who made the whole world and to His power.

But zealousness for God’s house also involves the person of Jesus and what Jesus did and continues to do on our behalf. Just as Jesus spoke of the temple of his body, the housing of God’s spirit, that was broken for the world, so the Bible speaks of our own bodies, our selves as temples for God’s Spirit- a dwelling place that God shapes and uses for the coming of the kingdom. Zeal for our bodies as temples for God is supposed to consume us as well.

The commandments help us to understand this idea. That God wants to use us, and indeed will do so, but our response has a certain shape for our relationship with God and our relationship with other people. When we look at the list, we can be easily overwhelmed by the truth that we will not be able to fulfill this.

We get angry. We kill with words and actions. We do not build up our spouses or other relationships. We get annoyed with our neighbor. We want what our neighbor has. We work all the time with no Sabbath. We have idols of our own making. Even as we begin to think of any of these things, we can feel the pull of quicksand at our feet of clay and at our lukewarm hearts.

This is how the cross saves us, by overcoming our despair with zeal. Not just by lifting us from the tide of believing that we can do good in and of ourselves, but also by the cross’s overwhelming power that says death is not the end. Not the death of the soul that comes from realizing we cannot fulfill the law. Not the death of the body that comes to us all. Our proclamation of Christ crucified says it’s not over until God says it’s over.

This is God making foolish the wisdom of the world. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ says for all those who received the gift of faith, come here, rest here, believe in this when all else fails.

And in the cycle of faith, we rest in God’s promises until we are energized and stirred once again, until the zeal for God’s house and zeal for who God has called us to be gives us the strength to move. Though we may be in Lent, we are still Easter people, resurrection people. The Spirit is ever cleansing our hearts, God’s own temple, overturning the idols of our minds and spirits, increasing our faith and renewing our zeal. We are called again and again to the path of discipleship, whether we’re able to run, walk, crawl or creep the race that has been set before us.

Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, which may be true for discipleship. But I believe he, his mother, his disciples and all the saints who have gone before us would agree, life itself is hard and can be painful.

And that is why God died on Calvary, for our cleansing, the cleansing of the temple of ourselves and of the world. That the why for the resurrection. That is the reason we have the cross. That is why God gives us faith. In this life, our hope can be built on nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness. All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.