Sermon: “Prove It” (John 20: 19-29)

Saint_Thomas

I saw a photograph this week that someone had snapped in the course of her travels—it was a huge Walgreen’s sign that read “Easter…50% Off.”

I guess that’s better than “Easter’s Over: Going Out of Business.”

But it seems hard to deny that the world seems to take Easter at a little bit of a discount.

Just compare it to Christmas.

Christmas manages to be more of a season…more of a culmination. The world goes quiet in that week after Christmas in ways that seem reverently hushed.

People have always said things like, “’Tis pity that Christmas comes but once a year.”

For whatever reason, joyous as it is, Easter is not like that.

The fact is, even for many in the clergy, there are years when it just seems to come and go, like an Easter Bunny hopping from one side of the stage to the other.

So maybe that sign that said “Easter 50% Off” is just telling it like it is.

II.

 And if that’s what we’re doing…if we’re telling it like it is…maybe it makes sense that the Sunday after Easter is the day when the Church reads the story of “Doubting Thomas.”

There used to be a show on MTV that began with the words, “This is the true story of of seven strangers… picked to live in a house…work together and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real….”

In that spirit, there is this sense that the politeness of Easter is no longer required…that now we can all be real.

It’s too bad that for many people, “being real” seems to mean “sleeping in.”

Because if Easter represents faith at its most triumphant, the Sunday after Easter represents faith, maybe at its most honest.

And I would argue that we need that faithful, real-world, here and now honesty as much as we need that hope-filled Easter Morning glimpse into God’s glorious future for Creation.

In fact, if it were up to me, The Sunday after Easter, Doubting Thomas Sunday, would be as much a part of the story as Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

Because it’s more important than many of us ever give it credit for.

Because without it, so many of those who need Easter the most can miss the Easter message entirely.

Because, remember, church….remember: so many people join us for Easter Sunday and they think that actually, we have forgotten…that we who are inside have forgotten what it feels like to be on the outside of the church and looking in.

They think we have forgotten what it is to live, not quite sure about what you believe.

And not quite sure how to get your life together.

And not quite sure if other people can tell that, some days, you’re hanging on by your fingernails, just hoping to get through.

Those pilgrims come, and they think we’ve gotten it mostly figured out. That each day is Easter Sunday, and that we’re all just here to say thanks be to God.

They think we’ve probably forgotten life on the outside looking in.

If that’s your situation, and you come to a church on Easter, it can be so easy to leave that Easter service, convinced that everyone else in the sanctuary was born singing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and that you’d better keep your own searching reeeal quiet, because the only people who ought to be calling themselves Christian are the ones who have already found Jesus, and not the ones who are looking for him.

And so we read the story of Doubting Thomas today, in order to name that the searching matters, and to name that the searching continues, and we read the story in order to name that the answers are not simple for any of us.

III.

The story itself is not long to tell.

On the evening of the first Easter, the disciples have retreated back to their hiding place—that room where they had been holed up for days, waiting for Passover to end and for the Romans to march back out of town, leaving the coast clear.

And the story goes that Jesus comes to them there, ghost enough to pass through a locked door, but human enough to touch, and wounded enough to prove that he is the one and only Jesus.

He is among them again. It is truly him. In spirit and in flesh. Somehow—who knows how?—only God knows how—but there he is.

The story does not tell us what they said to one another after he left again. It doesn’t tell us how they wrapped their heads around it.

Instead, it tells us only that one of their number, Thomas, was not there when it happened.

And when Thomas arrives, he is unprepared to accept their testimony about this new, strange appearance of Jesus among his friends, and he says, “Unless I see in his hands the print of his nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v.25).

“I can’t know Jesus like this second-hand,” he says. “I’d love to believe it. But I need to see it for myself. I need to know it in my own way. Prove it.”

I love him for that.

I love him for listening to his own heart and his own head, and for trusting the prompting of his own soul to tell him when he had found what he was searching for.

Some would say that’s disrespectful, or even faithless, but I don’t think so.

In my book, he’s one of the strongest disciples that the Church has ever known—the conscience of them all.

He won’t go along to get along; he doesn’t know how to win friends and influence people; he won’t let some other piper call the tune.

He has no patience for believing someone else’s beliefs, or kneeling before someone else’s truth—even among his friends.

And so he pushes back.

To me, that makes Thomas the patron saint of all seekers.

To me, he is a friend to all those who find easy answers to deep questions unacceptable.

To me, what matters is not that Thomas refuses to accept the truth, but that he refuses to accept even a beautiful truth…even a truth that sounds great…he refuses to accept even a truth that he wants to believe in more than anything, until God reaches out to claim him with that truth.

He will only stand up for what he knows.

I love him for that. And so does Jesus.

Clearly, there is a place for him among the disciples, and in the Kingdom of God.

IV.

The Church throughout its history has told people of all kinds – people of all backgrounds and classes and races and genders that there is a place for them in God’s heart, and in God’s church.

God doesn’t expect us to have all the answers, or to imagine that we’ve finished our growth into who it is He needs us to become.

I believe God wants us to seek, and to keep on seeking all our days.

We cannot expect all the answers to line up before us—part of this journey that we’re on means that seeking knowledge, and seeking to serve God always pushes toward the horizon, taking us further into the unknown.

But our world is forever growing. And our hearts are forever expanding.

And in time, with God’s help, we come to understand that we must push beyond the world we know, and beyond the facts we can hold in our hands, and journey on into the places where only faith and trust can direct us.

Today’s Scripture reminds us that without doubt, there is no seeking. And seeking is precious to God.

Without seeking, Easter is a story that simply comes and goes.

But for those who seek, for those who push, for those willing to undertake the journey, it is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that is to come.

It was for Thomas.

May it be so for you and for me.

Newsletter: What if I didn’t believe?

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Every year between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, an Episcopal priest I know uses his prayer time for a particular spiritual discipline: he tries to imagine an atheist version of himself.

That is, he tries to consider just how his life would be different if he didn’t believe in God.

So: there are some obvious things, of course. He would be in a different line of work. He would dress differently. He would be doing a very different kind of writing—maybe not doing much writing at all. His Sunday mornings would probably involve tai-chi and the crossword puzzle on a more regular basis.

But those are a handful of superficial things.

The deeper question, of course, is what he might be inclined to believe in, instead.

Without a sense of living under the sight of God, and a hope to live in a way that is pleasing to God, whose looking would he be most aware of? Whom would he be hoping to please?

What larger story about the world and how it works would he use to explain his daily experience?

Because, religious or not, everybody has some larger story they lean on. Over time, our lives come to be shaped by that story in important ways—and we come to understand what’s important and what isn’t, who’s important and who isn’t, and to live our lives accordingly.

Maybe it means something wifty, like “never date a Scorpio” because the truth is in the stars. Or analytically precise, like using cost/benefit analysis for every decision, because the truth is in the numbers. Or wondering what everyone’s therapist would say about why they are acting the way that they are, because the truth is in mind’s unconscious.

More ominously, those larger stories also teach us to see other people in particular ways, too—they determine whom we notice and what we notice about them. Sadly, so often that turns out to be less than who they are in their full complexity, not to mention beauty.

We can’t help but gravitate toward some approaches more than others. Yet each one has its blind spots.

For my friend, imagining himself as an atheist is a little bit like visiting a city, far from home, and recognizing that you could see yourself living there—that you like the weather there, that its scale and pace appeal to you, that its people seem like your kind of people—and yet, despite all that, knowing that it isn’t your home.

And yet, it shows you a lot about what your home is and is not.

Easter is a glimpse of our true home, and of what faith in its fullness promises to be.

But the light of Easter also reveals the places where God’s work in us is not yet complete, where our blind spots remain, where we remain too easily taken in by other ways of seeing the world—and even where our limited understanding of faith may distort more than it reveals.

Easter is not the joyful conclusion to the story, but the joyful beginning of a new and grander story for each one of us.

May you have a sense of God’s deep love and abiding peace as you set out on the journey.
See you in church,

Newsletter: Easter and New Life

emptytomb

Dear Friends of Second Church,

“And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen.”
Mark 16:2

Whenever I get up just before dawn, I think of the women on that first Easter, rising to play their role in what seemed like the end of the story.

Many people forget the surprising detail that, in Mark’s telling, the women are greeted at the tomb by an angel, and that they don’t react with wonder and joy: in fact, they run away terrified and tell no one what they have seen.

I love them for that. It’s so human. And if we’re honest, we know that when new life beckons us, we don’t always respond at first with wonder and joy, either.

God’s purposes can have a way of over-ruling a lot more than we expect or hope, and sometimes it takes a while to adjust to God’s new reality for us, even when it’s grace-filled.

The women at the tomb that morning were only the first to experience something that Christians have had to learn time and time again.

If you think about it, Easter should be a lot to adjust to.

And not just that first one, way back when: every Easter ought to take something out of us, because it was on this day more than any other that God reached down to put something into us: a new heart, a new destiny, a new life in Christ that meant a new life of love and service we would be expected to grow into. Living into that takes everything we have to give and more.

But it gives us more than we could ever ask or imagine.

I still have a lot of growing to do. And yet, every year on Easter, I am reminded of the joy I find along the way, and my gratitude for finding the new things God is asking me to become a part of, and to help as best I can.

Wherever you will be this Sunday, I hope you will find your heart warmed by the presence of those you love, and lifted by the vision of the God who makes all things new.

Happy Easter,

Newsletter: “The strange gift of vulnerability”

guyeyepain

Dear Friends of Second Church,

On Monday, I had to be in the city for a short medical procedure on my right eye. It went fine—I was in, I was out, I was on the subway and back in a comfortable chair in no time.

But after an hour or so, I started to feel some discomfort—not pain, exactly, just that “this doesn’t feel like I remember it felt the last time” sort of feeling—and I began to wonder if this was one of those things you just wait through, as we do so much of the time, or if this was something I was supposed to be tending to right away.

I thought about calling the doctor to check. Or calling Liz to see what she thought I should do. I wondered if I should call someone to drive me home rather than taking the train. And it was then that my discomfort really began, because I realized, all of a sudden, that I couldn’t call anyone at all. I had left my cell phone back in Greenwich.

I also realized that: my parents were in New York City; my in-laws were in New York City; the doctor I had seen that morning was in New York City; half of my friends from college were in New York City; many from our congregation were at work in New York City. If you ever need help in New York City, call me: I can get someone there in ten minutes. Or, actually, that’s something I can do… if I have my phone.

Well, I decided to wait the situation through for a while. But as I did, I had a new sense of my own vulnerability.

Of course, we all deal with the unexpected on a regular basis—that’s what life is. However, what makes us vulnerable is when our strategies for dealing with the unexpected break down—when the cell phone isn’t in its customary place, when the phone number you need isn’t one you remember, when the people you rely on for help cannot be contacted.

Or maybe it’s when the parents you’ve always called for advice, or a little support, are no longer available to offer it. Or when your health takes a turn, and things you once did easily and without any thought now require tremendous care and concentration. Vulnerability comes in many forms.

What do we do when we encounter it? Are the things we rely on truly seeing us through, or are they just propping us up?

My time of vulnerability did not last long—after resolutely/foolishly getting myself home on the train, I was back in the world of the familiar, and well on the mend by dinnertime. But what if that hadn’t been an option?

It’s worth thinking about this week because so much of the story leading up to Easter Sunday is about the courage and faith of Jesus, even in the face of his own vulnerability. In no small part, the story of Easter is God’s affirmation that he remains with us in our most vulnerable moments, for he knows first hand what it is to see strategies break down, and to see the way forward plunge into confusion.

But most of all, it is to affirm that confusion never has the final word.

To walk the way of Easter is to believe in the power of forces we cannot quite see, and to trust in answers we may not entirely understand, remembering that it is often when our own familiar solutions run out that God’s most miraculous and unexpected solutions emerge. Christians affirm that “new life” does not simply mean “more life” — it means a life that is transformed, led in different ways and lived on different terms than the life that was before. For us, that can only mean a life that is grounded in love of God and neighbor—which is the only truly solid ground there is.

Even so, many hear that affirmation and are essentially unmoved. But for those who believe, and for those who have found in their own vulnerability a path they might never have known otherwise, they are nothing less than words of life.

May God grant you and those you love words of life to sustain and guide you this Easter, and always.
See you in church

Newsletter: “Don’t Miss Out”

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Two Thanksgivings ago, Liz and I hosted a large group of my family, including pretty much the whole California contingent, for several days of dinners, guitar recitals, political discussions, and an outing to “Frozen” (which had just come out).

As I think I’ve mentioned before, for the occasion, we ordered a special, “artisanal” turkey…designed to taste like turkeys did way back when. I remember liking it…though what looms larger in my memory is the elaborate dry-ice packaging in which it arrived on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Taking it out of the styrofoam was like being in a Harry Potter movie—a turkey coming out of a box, like some sort of magically-conjured delicacy, complete with mysterious, wispy smoke, emerging from the cauldron. Trust me, once you’ve had that experience, the taste of the turkey itself is just sort of an additional feature.

I’m thinking of it today because, as you might imagine, the artisanal turkey people have been contacting me a lot lately. They are extremely concerned that I haven’t yet placed my order for an Easter/Passover lamb—time is running out! Orders are flying in! Even now, the dry ice is being prepared! Don’t miss out!

Sometimes, it seems as if we have a very strange notion of what’s authentic, these days. We hate the very idea that we might be missing out on something deeper, truer, or more real, somehow—and in spiritual terms, that longing is important to listen to. The church has always thought so: St. Augustine has famous prayer in which he writes, “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Clearly, there is no doubt that our longings, understood at their deepest, point to many of the questions that faith hopes to answer.

But when it comes to the answer to our longing, we seem to end up focusing on the externals all too easily.

Consider: is that longing answered by what’s on the table–an artisanal lamb or a turkey–or by the act of gathering with those we love? Is it about the magic of artful presentation, or the unmatched napkin because an extra guest has been squeezed in? Is the point of preparing old recipes really about showing that we got them just right, or is it about remembering the hands that once prepared them so devotedly?

I’m not so worried over missing out on the authentic taste of artisanal lamb. By contrast, being too harried to enjoy three generations around the table together worries me exceedingly. Forgetting that Easter may be Easter, but kids are still kids, and they love us but still want to go watch t.v. before everyone has finished—I’m thinking about that. And especially: losing touch with the day as the celebration of God’s utterly selfless love for his imperfect, searching, distracted, impatient people? I need to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What is the recipe for an “authentic” Easter?

While it is still a few weeks away, I think that’s something we all need to think about. Time is running out. Don’t miss it!
See you in church,

Max

Sermon: “Good Housekeeping” (John 2:18-25)

If you read all four gospels carefully, you begin to see that they tell the story of Jesus in similar, but distinct ways. 

Some stories appear in one gospel but not another.  And we’re not just talking minor things: the gospel of Mark does not even include much of a resurrection story.  In Mark, the women go to the tomb of Jesus, see it’s empty, and run away terrified. The end. 

But this morning’s story about turning over the tables of the money changers in the Temple occurs in all four gospels. 

Clearly, this was an important story for the early church–a story that told them something very important about Jesus. 

Most of them connect it closely to the final week of Jesus’ life.  In fact, most suggest that his angry denunciation of the moneychangers in the Temple is the very first thing Jesus does after arriving in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday–his first stop on his last journey. 

And that has the ring of truth, of course.  Because if it’s true, then no wonder…no wonder that the Temple authorities and the Romans would have been looking for a way to arrest and silence him.  Such public displays of defiance were not to be tolerated, particularly at Passover, when the city was full of pilgrims, and the underlying theme of the religious holiday itself was about God’s liberation from cruel, foreign oppression. 

It didn’t take a genius to see that when the Jewish people were celebrating liberation from slavery in Egypt, they were dreaming of liberation from Rome. 

So you can see why, in the eyes of the Romans, some rabble-rousing preacher from Galilee was trouble–and that if he started to win over the crowd, maybe even big trouble.  

According to the brutal hand of Roman imperial justice, no wonder that the hands that flipped over the tables in the temple were nailed to the cross just five days later.  

It makes a great deal of sense to tell the story in that way. 

So it’s interesting to note that John’s gospel, which is the one we’ve heard this morning, puts the story in a very different place. 

According to John, the scene of Jesus and the moneychangers in the Temple occurs at the very beginning–in Chapter 2 of the story, just after Jesus performs his first miracle, changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana. 

To hear John tell it, it’s almost as if Jesus catches a late ride back to a friend’s house, then is up early again the next morning for a quick trip into the city, where he does this peculiar, and seemingly out-of-the-blue thing at the Temple.

As John describes it, It’s a full two years before the arrest and death of Jesus. 

And maybe part of the point was simply that the handwriting was always on the wall…that what was to come should have been obvious for anyone who was paying attention. 

But I am just struck by the idea that the first two acts of public ministry Jesus performs are a joyful miracle at a wedding and an angry demonstration at the heart of the capital.

Because I get the joy.  I suspect most of us do.  When the churches fill at Christmas and Easter, it’s because people are so hungry for it. 

They’re right to come looking for it in the churches all over the world.

The je ne sais quoi of Christian joy that people experience in our great festival services is impossible to explain, yet impossible to deny.

Those who come may not believe a word of what we say. They may not know the tunes of what may be the most familiar hymns we sing all year.  But even if it’s only for an hour twice a year, they do come, and they feel…something…even if they can’t quite say what it is. 

Maybe they believe, or maybe they don’t…but they most certainly believe that we believe, because they feel the joy of those occasions so deeply, and if you only come now and again, it must seem as if that’s what it’s like if you really believe: that for those who believe, every day is like Easter Sunday, or Christmas…except maybe there’s better parking. 

And so they come and they go, perhaps resolving that once they’ve learned to feel the way that we all so clearly do, each and every day, then they can come back on some other kind of day and apply for membership. 

A place that is clearly such a haven for saints could not possibly serve as a hospital for sinners…or guide post for seekers. 

And that’s why the mission of the Church is more than just teaching people to look upward to heaven, with folded hands and mysterious, Mona Lisa smiles on our faces.

It isn’t just about looking up.  It’s also about looking around. 

And it’s not just about cultivating joy and serenity.  It’s also about living out a passionate engagement with the world, and a deep honesty about the challenges of being alive, even for we who believe.   

That can run to extremes of its own, of course. 

Imagine the person who came to church only on the Sunday after Easter, when we typically tell the story of doubting Thomas, or on the Sunday when we tell the story of the man who comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, I believe. Forgive my unbelief.” 

Or if they came only on those days when Scripture offers marching orders to go out and fix things in the name of God. Any student of history can tell you that the line between righteousness and self-righteousness can be dangerously hard to draw.

That’s why I think John tells this story so early in his gospel, and glues it next to the story about the wedding at Cana. It’s because he wants us to understand that Jesus is about them both. 

Joy is wonderful but can be a little passive; anger can be consuming but, wow, it gets things moving. 

And so Christians are called to look upward, and we are called to look around, too, and the life we are invited to pursue as faithful people is a life in which those two things remain in tension. 

Looking around this morning, I have little doubt that, God willing and the creek don’t rise, I will see you on Easter.  And next Christmas.  

But why are you here today? 

I think you’re here because you are trying to live into the tension presented by John: as Christians, we are on the lookout for water into wine miracles, but we also know that Jesus calls us to overturn some tables. Christianity lived fully is about celebrating God’s unexpected work in our lives–and also going out and doing some of the tough work ourselves. And that in fact, in doing that work, we are doing God’s work. Even if we get into some trouble with the Roman authorities. 

It isn’t inherently noble to be forever joyful, any more than it is inherently more noble to live perpetually on the edge of righteous outrage.

We need to seek the fullness of faith–and that is a well-balanced diet.

Throughout the pulpits of America this morning, I’m absolutely sure that there are any number of preachers with sermons titled “Spring Cleaning.” 

As I think about it, I think I’ve preached that sermon before, myself. 

It’s a natural connection to make, because the story of Jesus and the moneylenders is all about that kind of starting fresh, about reestablishing the right order of things, about putting away what needs putting away and making space for what is needed now. 

But to me, John is making a deeper point about what it is to engage in “good housekeeping.” 

And he’s suggesting that it’s a lot more nuanced than some sort of “out with the old; in with the new” kind of approach.

Because Jesus is inviting us to something deeper.  

To the person who runs and runs and runs, he asks is standing still a luxury you just can’t afford, or an emptiness you just can’t acknowledge?

To the person who feels cruelly misunderstood, he asks what it might be about others in their own situations that needs understanding. 

To the person who thinks heaven is the goal of a spiritual life, he asks what it might be to work for the Kingdom of God breaking forth in our midst.

To the speechifiers, he asks what it might be to listen.

To the righteous, he asks what it might be to befriend the imperfect, and to learn to love them for who they are already, and not for who it is you hope that they will learn to become. 

To the brokenhearted, he asks if there are joys in life that might yet be found, and claimed, and a life rebuilt around them. 

To the joyful, he asks if we know and love the world around us enough to let it break our hearts from time to time.  

This morning, Jesus models a faith that turns the tables on each one of us. 

He invites us to seek out that undiscovered country in our faith, and in our lives, confident in his purposes, and knowing that it may be especially there that he waits to be found. 

Amen.

Newsletter: “The Loser Edit”

Yesterday’s Times had a thoughtful column called “The Loser Edit,” by the novelist Colson Whitehead. (You can read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/08/magazine/the-loser-edit-that-awaits-us-all.html?_r=0)

Just briefly, a “loser edit” is a particularly merciless expression from reality television, referring to how those shows take hours and hours and hours of footage and edit and condense them into coherent story lines, fit for an hour long program, with people playing particular characters—heroes and villains, golden boys and golden girls or chumps, brains or brawn, etc.

As Whitehead puts it, “if you have ever watched a reality TV show and said, ‘He’s going home tonight,’ you know what the ‘loser edit’ is.”

It can be a rather willful process, of course—a person might just as well be presented as a kind, considerate hero, or a lovable, harmless schlub, as a dark, selfish snake. It all depends on who does the editing, and what the story seems to require.

This has me thinking about Lent.

Some people push back against the self-reflection and conscious self-denial of a penitential season. At one extreme, some grew up in religious households where “pride” was a particularly grievous label that covered a multitude of situations, some sinful and some perhaps not. They grew familiar with a God was, above all, a Righteous Judge who saw all things, for whom squirming seemed almost more important than redemption.

Sad to say, Lent can remind them of that time, and of trying to live in the light of what seemed like a grace-less God, in painful ways that are long in healing, even many years later.

But they are not the only ones who struggle with Lent.

Many are put off by it, because Lent seems like a season when the Church asks us to construct our own “loser edit” about ourselves — to retell the story of our own lives in terms of our every moment of weakness or selfishness, our every moment of hesitation before doing the right thing, our every angry and impatient word, our every extra helping of bacon or snuck cigarette.

Life is hard enough without dwelling on the negative—how can seeing our story as the saga of our unfolding flaws help anything at all?

Let’s be clear: I’m quite sure that it cannot.

And yet, how often is it that we create the time and space to think deeply about our lives? What kind of story do our lives seem to tell? How often do we step back from the living of our days, and seek to trace the coherent story lines, the slow unfolding of who it is we have become, or the likely destination toward which we’re tending?

On any given day, each one of us is, of course, any number of characters: a kind, considerate hero; a lovable, harmless schlub; and even a dark, selfish snake. But in time, the story emerges, and the plot becomes clear.

In Lent, we are reminded that God is the ultimate author of our story, and that the story of his love for all that he has made is the grand narrative within which our little stories find their place.

The disciplines of the season are not meant to punish us, or to show us the “loser edit” of our lives. They are meant to invite us into a sense of that larger story, and to live our lives more fully as a part of it.
See you in church,