Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Second Sunday of Easter, Year A

The Call of Faith

Readings: Acts 2:14a & 22-32, Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Easter is a call to faith, the Christian response to the Easter event, faith that believes even though it cannot see. That is what Peter boldly proclaims to all in Jerusalem who will listen. "Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy."

But do we? Let’s face it! It is easy for Peter and the other disciples to believe. After all, they were witnesses to the risen Lord! They talked to him. He appeared to them offering them peace. He sent them out filled with the Holy Spirit. He gave them power to forgive. How could they not believe?

And there is Thomas! He could not take their word for it. He wanted proof. "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

Aren't we like that? I know I am. I want proof positive. I want to see for myself. For most of us, seeing is believing. We rationalize. We question. We want to know the outcome before we commit ourselves.

There is something more in Thomas's story that has always intrigued me. It is a seemingly trivial fact that John chooses to include. He tells us that Thomas is a twin. Do you ever wonder why he put that in? Why was it important enough to add? Was it to make the story more interesting? I truly doubt that, although twins are interesting characters. I remember a set of twins that I once taught. They were a real challenge. That whole year I never learned to tell them apart. I was never quite sure when I called one of their names just who actually answered. And being Jane and Joan it probably wouldn't have mattered much. They kept the class guessing about what they would get into next. They knew without saying a word what the other was thinking. They were bright and fun. To have twins must be both a double joy and a double challenge. But that doesn't explain why John told us that Thomas was a twin.

He also didn’t tell us whose twin Thomas was. We can read in Scripture about James and John being brothers. Whose twin was Thomas? Could it have been Mary Magdalene, or perhaps even Judas? Nothing even begins to explain why he made a point of telling us that Thomas was a twin.

That is, unless you read between the lines. Who is Thomas’s twin? The answer is evidently meant to be “us”. We are Thomas’s twins. Like Thomas we all experience times of fear and doubt, pessimism and trust, belief and unbelief. And that is a difficult place to be, because we don’t like to live with ambiguity. We want a sense of certainty.

We see it in the priorities of society. Billions of dollars are spent every year developing new technologies. Meanwhile millions of people starve to death. We worry less about improving our present existence than about the unknown, those things which are just beyond our reach. We want to know.

When it comes to God we are even more anxious to know with a sense of certainty. We want signs, wonders, miracles. We want to prove the existence of God. Is God really out there looking after things? Is the world in good hands? Is everything going to turn out all right after all? Are the good going to be rewarded and the bad punished? Is there something to look forward to when our earthly life is completed?

There are uncertainties in life as well. How can we be certain that we are really loved? Is there meaning to life? What legacy will we leave behind us? We want certainty about who we are and what we have accomplished. That makes us Thomas’s twin. He just wanted to be certain. He wanted tangible proof. He didn’t want to be told. He wanted to see for himself. He wanted to see the mark of the nails in Jesus’ hands. He wanted to put his finger in the mark of the nails. He wanted to put his hand in Jesus’ side. Only then could he be certain that there would be no disappointments, no false hopes.
Let’s read between the lines again. When Jesus came to the Upper Room to see the disciples, Thomas wasn’t there. Whatever good reason he may have had, he missed out on what the rest of the community shared. He missed the encounter with the risen Christ. He missed the words of peace. He missed the outpouring of love and concern and blessing. He missed the pep talk that sent the others out carrying the message of forgiveness.

Many good people have the mistaken notion that they don’t need the community of faith. They think they can make it on their own. “What purpose does church serve?” they ask. “I can live a Christian life on my own terms. I can be good. I don’t need the church. After all, it’s filled with a bunch of hypocrites who just want my money.”

Others think that once you become a Christian, once you accept faith, all the doubts simply disappear. They think that with faith all our rational faculties cease to be used. We simply park our brains at the door. We accept the Church’s teaching and follow blindly.
That will never be enough. For doubts come. In fact, I am skeptical of anyone who says they have no doubts. I fear they may be fanatical in their faith. Doubts come to all of us.

Doubts come to us when we look at all the terrible things that are going on in the world. What kind of God allows the terrible suffering that comes about because of war, or famine, or terrorist acts? What kind of God allows disasters to strike innocent people?

Doubts come most of all when we face difficulties and hardships in our lives. We question the very existence of God. Why am I sick? Why did my child die? Why can’t I find a job? Why did my spouse walk out on me? Why is God letting this happen to me? I am faithful. I believe. Why? What use is faith if bad things still happen? Where are you God when I need you? If that is the basis of our relationship with God, then doubts will simply overwhelm us. We will lose hope. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; hopelessness is!

I had this very conversation this past week with a close friend. She is a faithful Christian, raised in the Roman Catholic Church and active in her parish. Lately any number of things have caused her to question her faith – the death of a close mutual friend, another friend’s struggle with a debilitating disease, her son’s continuing struggle with depression, her own chronic pain. “I went to all the services during Holy Week and Easter,” she said to me, “but somehow I am just left with emptiness. I know it is wrong. I need to have faith, but …”

That is where Thomas’s story comes in. It continues to be so reassuring. It says to me that it is reasonable to have doubts. It is understandable. It is human. Everyone has doubts about their relationships at one time or another. There is not a husband or wife who has not at some time had doubts about their relationship. There are no two friends who have not at some time in their relationship wondered whether it would last. And there is not a believer who has not experienced Christ as absent from their lives at some time or another. We have all had times when it was difficult to believe.

Thomas challenges us to persevere when we have doubts. He got to the place where we must get. Like him we must cry out, “My Lord and my God!” It may sound more like a question than a statement. Never mind. Persevere in the faith. Witness to how God is working in your life and in the lives of others. Deepen your commitment to God day by day. Commit yourself to the work of the Church.

And most of all, watch for the signs of resurrection around you. We need moments of evidence, moments of feeling God’s presence. Such moments are given so that our faith can survive the periods of seeming absence of God, the times when we do not see, yet believe.

Where is the risen Lord to be seen?
• In the bursts of colour as spring returns
• In the face of the stranger who smiles as we pass by one another
• In the voice of a friend who calls just to say hello
• In the laughter of children
• In a moment of joining hands with another person in the exchange of the peace
• In bread broken and wine poured
• In looking into another’s eyes and seeing Christ

The gospel is about us after all. It tells us that Thomas was a twin. It leaves us with the tantalizing question, “Who is Thomas’s twin? And there is only one possible answer. I! I am Thomas’s twin. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Palm / Passion Sunday, Year A

Forsaken By God

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

The drama of Passion Sunday takes us on a journey from the glory of the triumphal procession into Jerusalem with its waving palms and shouts of ‘Hosanna’, to the agony of Jesus’ death on the cross. What haunts me most throughout the drama begins in the garden. Jesus is facing an imminent and horrifying death. He prays fervently to God, “My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me.” But the cup does not pass from him. Perhaps more bitter to swallow, he asks his friends to stay awake with him as he prays, but they fall asleep during his time of need. One of them even betrays him, gives him over to the authorities. He stands before the chief priest and elders, then Pilate, on his own, his disciples having abandoned him. That sense of abandonment is culminated for me in the cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

In part it haunts me because I have heard those words on my own lips. I have experienced that sense of abandonment. I have felt times when God seemed far away, remote, even absent. If we are honest, we have all experienced it. “Where are you, God? Why have you run out on me? Why have you left me in the lurch?”

Haven’t we all screamed that question into the cold, grey skies in the face of seemingly insurmountable crosses that have come into our lives? The loss of a job, a nasty divorce, the death of a loved one. So many hurts in life cause us to feel unloved, abandoned. Yet I never really fathomed that Jesus on the cross felt that sense of complete and utter dereliction, that sense of the absence of God. Karl Bart says that Jesus “goes into the far country.” He goes to that place we all go when we are so overburdened with sin and sorrow and despair that we can no longer feel God’s loving presence.

To hear that sense of dereliction from the cross cuts me to the core, because in it I recognize that it is my sin, my sorrow, my despair, not his, that causes Jesus to hit rock bottom. He goes into that far country, and what he encounters there he encounters for me. He is looking into the mirror of his own existence, and seeing there the blackest of images. He has “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” says Paul. And that is what is reflected in those empty words from the cross.

Holy Week is a journey to the cross. It calls us to convey in some way the truth of the cross. The cross is an event. An event needs to be experienced. The people of Jesus' time had experienced the reality of the roman manner of execution. They understood the horror of crucifixion. They knew of its brutality. They related with complete empathy to the death of Jesus.

But how can we possibly put it into words that our 21st Century minds can fathom. We cannot know in the same way. We tend to turn it into some kind of theological statement. The problem with that is that it somehow takes away from the event. How are we to convey the meaning of the cross in our own lives? We say that we will "bear the cross", but we have no concept of what that really means.

Through the ages the event of the cross has been depicted through the language of symbol, through story, through music, through art. Such images have presented varied and often idealized images of the cross.

I think of the images of cross which have been meaningful to me at different times of my life. The first is from my childhood. In my father’s study was a crucifix, perhaps five feet high, a beautiful carving from Oberammergau. I must have spent much time looking at the figure on the cross, because I remember it vividly. It was a very human form, with an Aramaic face, graphically portrayed. To stand beneath it and look up at it when I was so small, and it was so large, was overwhelming. I remember the look of anguish on the face, the crown of thorns, the taut and rigid body. Such depictions of the cross are not unusual. They provide us with a strong sense of the humanity of Jesus. Such a portrayal illuminates the words of the prophet Isaiah speaking of the suffering servant. "I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting."

Compare that to the Christus Rex, the reigning Christ, which dominated the sanctuary of a very modern church to which I once belonged. There is a smaller version of it in the chapel here at St. Mark’s. It presented a startlingly different image of Christ crucified. The figure seemed almost suspended in mid air. Christ was not so much hanging on the cross as lifted from it. A much gentler figure, Jesus was dressed in chasuble and wearing a golden crown. The muted shades had an aesthetic beauty but there was nothing of the human in its impact. The effect was ethereal rather than graphic. Such a portrayal is closer to the image the writer of Hebrews conveys. Christ the Great High Priest, a human offering of perfect obedience to God's will. Through Christ, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God offers the perfect sacrifice on our behalf.

In my last church hangs an empty cross. The ‘Empty Cross’ recognizes that Holy Week does not end with Jesus on the cross for Good Friday is not the end of the story. Jesus died and was buried, and on the third day he rose again. The cross is empty because Christ is risen.

Yet the resurrection follows the crucifixion; it in no way erases it. The empty cross to me denies the humanity of Christ. Do we not consider ourselves “crucified with Christ”? Are we not called to take up our cross and follow Jesus? The good news is that Christ goes with us, even as he went before us, fully tasting humanity in a body like yours and mine.

Somehow I think our image of cross needs to do more than any of those images can do. It needs to more radically help us to experience the event of the cross. The cross allows God to participate in the human condition. It allows God to suffer with us. To experience what we as humans experience. It brings God into solidarity with God's own creation. But if we have lost touch with that experience, we in turn need to participate in the event.

A story which to me expressed better than anything I have read, the mystery of God's participatory act of solidarity with human suffering, is by a Japanese writer, Shusaku Endo, in his novel, "Silence". His work is a protest against the triumphalism of the message of the Jesuit missionaries who brought their form of Christianity to Japan in the sixteenth Century. The story is about a young Portuguese Jesuit priest, Rodrigues. He has a genuine devotion to Christ. He spends hours in prayer and meditation, contemplating, imitating Christ, convicted of his need to be willing to suffer, even to die for Christ's sake.

During an uprising against the Christians, Rodrigues finds himself in great difficulty. He is taken prisoner and is asked to renounce his faith. At first, he refuses; he hopes to emulate Christ, hoping even for the martyrdom that he believes will bring him into the very presence of God. Instead of that, he is imprisoned. From his cell, he hears the cries of Japanese Christians who have already recanted their faith, but who are still being tortured. Rodrigues is told, until he renounces his faith, they will continue to be tortured. It horrifies him. His captors ask him once more to apostatize. They offer him a crucifix. All he needs to do is to trample on the image of Christ on the cross, simply to grind it with his toe.

The image presented to him does not resemble in any way the face that he has come to adore and emulate. Still he cannot bring himself to step on it until he hears the voice of Christ speaking to him: "Trample, it is for this that I have come." Suddenly he understands the message of the cross. His image of Christ is transformed. He experiences the event in a whole new way. He tramples on the crucifix to alleviate the sufferings of others.

Our view of the cross needs to enable us to participate in the event, to understand God's participation in our human condition. The cross allowed Jesus to suffer with humanity. It allowed God access to our human condition. The cross was a sign of humiliation, pain and suffering, a sign of failure. But to the Christian it is a transforming experience that allows us to see ourselves in God.

One further image of cross I would like to leave with you. It is a cross, which was on loan to Trinity College one Lent when I was a student there. It now hangs in the Church of the Incarnation in Willowdale. It is a large, rough wooden cross. The figure of Jesus is made from broken pieces of mirror. Roughly cut, they are placed much as one would place the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It has caused more than the usual amount of disagreement over whether or not it is art. It seems that people either like it immensely, or find it deeply disturbing. I find it a powerful symbol. I see my own image reflected in the brokenness of Christ. It reminds me that Christ suffered with me. It helps me to understand the cry of dereliction and abandonment from the cross. It reminds me that God's power is able to transform even the most terrible suffering. It reminds me that God is with us. In that encounter with the crucified God I learn that the sharing of suffering is the beginning of its transformation to wholeness and joy.

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A

Come and See Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42 Invitations come in many shapes and sizes. They ...