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Three Reports in the News on May 26, 2020

Christian Cooper. George Floyd. Archie Williams.

 

The news on the day after Memorial Day included three incidents that are troubling and indicative of the deep strains of racism in the United States today. The news reports about them are numerous, so I will not repeat the details. You can easily find those detailed reports about all three.

 

Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper are not related. She is white and he is black. Both happened to be in Central Park, New York City, at the same time on Memorial Day. They were in a section for birdwatching. Dogs must be leashed. Mr. Cooper, a veteran birdwatcher, asked Ms. Cooper to leash her unleashed dog. Next thing, she is on her phone calling 911, reporting that an African-American man is threatening her. Calls like this, with racial overtones, happen frequently.

 

George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, MN, the same day. Floyd was unarmed. A white police officer, backed up by several more white officers, hand-cuffed Floyd, held him on the pavement, and pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for over five minutes, until Floyd was dead. The mayor of Minneapolis announced the next day that four police officers were fired. A video of what happened is available. It is graphic.

 

Archie Williams, a black man, was on “America’s Got Talent,” a TV talent hunt that runs in the late spring and summer and gets high ratings. He has a very good voice, but it is his story that is compelling. He served over 36 years in a prison in Louisiana for a crime he didn’t commit. A white woman had been violently raped. Law and order demanded that someone be convicted and imprisoned. A young, black man would be ideal. Though there was no evidence that Williams committed the crime, and though he had witnesses about where he was at the time of the crime, he was found guilty. After nearly four decades in a prison known as the bloodiest in the country, The Innocence Project finally got him justice. How Williams was received on “America’s Got Talent” was moving. People, including the judges, were wiping tears from their eyes. But it is not a feel good moment when one realizes that this man had 36 years of his life taken from him, and many more innocent blacks languish in our prisons every day, perhaps wondering if The Innocence Project or The Equal Justice Initiative will be able to free them before they die.

 

What do these stories have in common? They show how black men are seen as threats. Whether there is a reason or not, black men are seen as threatening to whites in America. What do these stories have in common? These things happen all the time in America. And when a patriotic black American named Colin Kaepernick jeopardizes his career as an NFL quarterback to call attention to our racial sins, he is vilified and blacklisted. Even the President of the United States criticizes him in public. These things happen in America all the time.

 

There is trouble in America today. Our four centuries of racism are not over. My heart is heavy for my native land. My heart is heavy for the millions of Americans with black and brown skin, for the immigrant, for the alien, for the native peoples, for all the others among us. My heart is heavy for America.

 

 

The Payroll Protection Program and Churches

Along with thousands of small businesses across the country, churches (when I say churches, I am also including other non-Christian religious bodies) have felt the economic impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic. In response to how small businesses have had to furlough or lay off employees, the federal government has provided millions of dollars to help small businesses keep paying employees. The Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program is also available to churches. This troubles me.

 

The Christian Century, May 20, 2020, quotes from a Washington Post article of April 24, 2020, noting that many congregations, feeling the financial pinch of not meeting, have applied for PPP loans and a percentage of them have received them.

 

These are generally understood as loans, to be paid back in better times to come, but under certain conditions these can become grants, with no need to pay back. I am a retired pastor, so this is not affecting me directly, but I am troubled at the possibility of the government helping out churches in the short term, the midterm, or the long term. I am not an expert on these matters, but I did take a look at the SBA website, which tells about PPP loans and the terms by which they are forgiven.

 

I don’t think churches should accept such loans or grants. Our country has, from its beginnings, refused to have any state sanctioned religion. There has been a time-honored wall of separation between state and church. While the church is free to influence the civil government, the government is not free to influence the practice of religious faith. This has served the United States well for over two centuries. Not having a state sanctioned religion has been to the benefit of all religions. Our taxes should not help churches. The government grants churches tax-free status, recognizing the unique nature and role of established religion in a free society. Churches, in turn, do much good for society, well beyond their own memberships. For a few examples, they run food pantries, house 12-step groups, and provide day care centers, not exclusively for their own people, but for all people. For churches to keep their tax-free status, they shouldn’t accept government money to get through this challenging time.

 

As a pastor of one congregation for 38 years, I knew firsthand the struggles of meeting budgets. Churches cannot levy taxes on their members. They are totally dependent on the voluntary giving of their congregations—and the faithfulness of God. To receive financial help from the civil government compromises their freedom. It sends the wrong message to the people in the congregations, whose faithful giving alone should support the churches. If churches receive government help, no matter how great the COVID-19 cost, those churches may become beholden to the government. And the administration in power, be it Republican or Democrat, might well use this governmental largesse to curry political favor come election time.

 

I am all for the government helping small businesses survive this pandemic. I want all the money allocated for small businesses to go to small businesses. Churches are not, in their essence, businesses.

 

These are some of my thoughts. What do you think?

I Like Thomas–I Need Thomas

[This sermon was given for the Community of the Savior in Rochester NY on May10, 2020, the fifth Sunday of Easter.]

 

Does Jesus have the right people on this bus? Has he selected the right stuff for these first 12 seats? I’m not sure. Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great” writes about how leaders get the right people on the bus. Did Jesus get the right people on this discipleship bus for its initial run? People like Judas? Like Thomas? Should Jesus have hired one of those head-hunting firms that thoroughly vet the candidates?

 

Can we name the first 12? I’ll give you help. Here are six: Peter, James, John, Matthew, Judas, Thomas. Can you name the other six? Not so easy, is it? What kind of grade would we give Jesus for selecting these 12? Sometimes I think I could have done better.

 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke give lists of the 12. It’s interesting that all three begin and end the same way. They begin with Peter. You might guess what name is last on each list (Yes, Judas). In the middle of the pack is Thomas. Any middle children out there? Claim Thomas as your patron saint. You could do worse. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.

 

When Thomas speaks it is always memorable. In John 11, Jesus takes his 12 to Bethany, where Lazarus has died. Jesus says that they must go to where Lazarus is buried. Thomas said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” Open the tomb and move over, Lazarus. Friends are coming in to join you. Ah, Thomas: so loyal he is ready to die for Jesus, or perhaps with Jesus. And we can’t forget that Thomas pops up the second Sunday of Easter every year, needing to see and inspect the wounds of the risen Lord for himself. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.

 

More and more I like Thomas. I do not find him a doubter, but one who is endlessly curious and doggedly loyal. When everyone in the room is wondering what Jesus is meaning, it is Thomas who breaks the silence and blurts out the question. In the evening vespers service last Thursday, we prayed for “courage to be bold disciples.” Thomas fits the bill. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.

 

That is what happens in today’s gospel passage. In John 14, Jesus is on his way to Calvary, to his death. This takes place on Maundy Thursday. His teachings reflect that. He is carrying a burden; he is on a mission. Some of his teachings are not easy to understand. When he talks about his impending death, the disciples often go into denial. I think we are with them. Most people find it difficult to talk about death. This COVID-19 season has us facing the reality of death. Approaching 80,000 Americans have died from this insidious virus in about two months. Globally, the number is four times that.

 

Jesus senses their trouble and shares this flash of insight: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” He sees beyond and speaks comfort and hope. He is on a journey with a destination in sight. Impending suffering can serve to clarify things.

 

Maybe Jesus is assuming too much of them when he says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” I am confident that Thomas is not the only one wondering what Jesus is meaning. But it is Thomas who speaks. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” My paraphrase would be something like this. “Jesus, what are you talking about? Do you have a GPS we don’t know about? What way?” I like Thomas. I need Thomas.

 

Jesus jumps at the opportunity to respond, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The lead word is way, which also translates as road or path. In my faith tradition, John 14:6 has usually been used to exclude people. It has been written on big signs and held aloft in stadiums at sporting events, hoping the camera will scan it and stop on it. That will make the sign holder feel like a good witness. The message seems to be, if you believe in Jesus as I do, you’re in; if you don’t you’re out. It has been used to say to all other faith systems, you’re dead wrong. John 14:6; end of discussion. That is a misreading. Jesus isn’t saying who is right and who is wrong, or who is in and who is out. He is saying who he is. A 14th century commentator on this passage wrote, “He himself is the way, and in addition he is the lodging on the way, and he is its destination.” (p. 352, IVP NT Commentary on John, by Rodney A. Whitacre) That resonates with me. In my words, Jesus is saying that he is the road, the path, the way to God’s truth and life. And that he is not some GPS system or road map, but our living guide. And on the journey of following him, he is not only the path, he is also our rest stops on the way, our roadside inns and sheltered lean-tos. And at the culmination of this journey, he will greet and welcome us: he is our road, our truth, and our life. I find Jesus’ words here inclusive rather than exclusive. He uniquely reveals God to us, the God who loves us and longs to welcome us. This is a relational journey, not a spatial one, and Jesus is at the heart of it.

 

We can thank Thomas for getting Jesus to say what he and we need to hear. Thomas was ever curious and willing to question. Don’t throw stock religious answers at Thomas; he will see right through them. I love that Jesus never once upbraided or silenced Thomas. Jesus loves this Thomas with his curiosity and bold discipleship. I like Thomas. I need Thomas.

 

One year ago this week Rachel Held Evans died, not yet 40 years old. She was so much like Thomas: curious, questioning, seeking. Not accepting pious, party line answers. Like Rachel Held Evans, I was raised in a stream of Christianity in which questions were not welcomed. Thomas was an embarrassment. No one said that, but it was so because he dared ask questions. Evans wrote: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” (Rachel Held Evans, “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.”) At Christ’s table there is always a seat for Thomas—and for you and me. Who of us merits a seat on the discipleship bus? Who of us earned our way?

 

A poem written by Matt Chandler (published in “Relevant” magazine) speaks for me.

“What made me love Christ wasn’t that all of a sudden I started figuring out how to do life.

What made me love Christ is that when I was at my worst, when I was at my lowest point,

when I absolutely could not clean myself up and there was nothing anybody could do with me, right at that moment, Christ said, ‘I’ll take that one. That’s the one I want.’”

 

Here we are this morning on this discipleship bus, that same bus with Thomas on it. Are we the right people to be on this bus? You bet. God loves to have people like Thomas and you and me on this bus. Jesus, you are the way, the road, the path to God’s truth and abundant life. Lead on, Lord Jesus.

 

 

 

Jogging in America

I jog most every morning, shortly after I awake. It is a prayer exercise for me. I don’t wear ear buds and listen to books or music or workout stuff. While I am an extrovert, this is quiet time for me. In this COVID-19 season, I avoid getting near any other person, though I don’t see many out in the early morning. I don’t love jogging, but I like the solitude it offers me—and I keep thinking it is making me a little healthier, physically and spiritually. I like the discipline of a prayer jog before breakfast.

 

When I go jogging, I don’t think for a moment that I will possibly become a target. I am a white male, an old white male. The neighborhoods in which I jog are majority white. People seeing me jogging aren’t filled with fear, at least not in the way they might be if they see a young, black male jogging. I do not raise suspicions by jogging.

 

The United States has learned in the last few days about a young, black man named Aumaud Arbery. He was shot to death while jogging two and a half months ago in southeastern Georgia. Maybe that made the local news for a day in that area, but it didn’t go further. For 74 days, no one was arrested. Now two white men, a father and son, have been arrested. Several law officials recused themselves from the case, because one of the alleged murderers is a former police officer in that department. And his son, the other alleged murderer, has worked with adult children of other law enforcement officials. It kind of feels like the system is taking care of its own.

 

No arrests were made for 74 days. Then a video went viral and caught the attention of the nation. Rather suddenly, Georgia law enforcement arrested two men. Why, after 74 days? If that video hadn’t become public, do we think any arrests would ever have been made? After all, Arbery was a young, black man. That day, February 23, 2020, he was unarmed and jogging at midday. In broad daylight. Not bothering anyone. He was guilty of being a young, black man jogging, presumably where white people lived. How dare he. Is it coincidence that after 74 days of no arrests, a whistle-blowing video clip is made public and the law seems to know whom to arrest right away?

 

When I go jogging, I don’t even think my life is in danger. If I go for a short drive and forget to bring my ID, I don’t even think I’ll get in trouble. I am a white male in a country in which it is safer to be a white male. The justice system favors white people over black people or other people of color. The justice system favors the wealthy over the poor. A wealthy, guilty person generally gets a better break from the law than a poor, innocent person. I don’t need to pull out the statistic in this brief reflection. They are everywhere evident. Look how capital punishment is meted out. Look how prison sentences are determined. Look at a nation that finally elects a brilliant black man to its highest office, a man of integrity, and then millions of its people question his citizenship. Look at a nation that needed a bloody five-year uncivil war to deal with its longstanding institution of the slavery of black people for economic purposes. And when that war finally ended, a century of Jim Crow laws and public lynchings of black people began. Our lofty ideal of justice being blind is not our reality.

 

I am a child of this nation and its terrible legacy of racism. Growing up in Los Angeles, my parents followed the pattern called “white flight.” (I say it with shame. My parents were wonderful, loving people, but this reality was unmistakable.) When people of color, mainly blacks, moved into our neighborhood, we moved out. Because property values would fall, of course. And the schools would decline. I am a child of white privilege. My path in American life has been easier than it is for blacks and other people of color. There is no arguing this; it is so.

 

I saw a video message from Pastor Bryan Wilkerson of Grace Chapel, Lexington MA, earlier today. He too is a jogger and a white male. He too is now jogging with Aumaud Arbery on his heart. He quoted from Isaiah 59:14-16:

So justice is driven back,
    and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets,
    honesty cannot enter.
Truth is nowhere to be found,
    and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

The Lord looked and was displeased
    that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
    he was appalled that there was no one to intervene….

 

This morning when I went jogging, it was with a deep awareness that my life is not on the line when I go jogging, because I am a white person. And it was with heaviness of heart at the death of Aumaud Arbery. Will there be no one to intervene?

Swinging Jesus

[This message was delivered in virtual fashion for Gates Presbyterian Church on May 3, 2020, the fourth Sunday of Easter. Hence, you will note my play on gates and Gates. This can also be viewed on the Gates Presbyterian channel on YouTube.]

 

I like gates. And I love Gates. I mean, I like gates and I love Gates Presbyterian Church. In John 10, Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd. But he also identifies himself as the gate. That has me thinking about gates. I like gates, except not always. I have trouble with the idea of gated communities.

 

I don’t like about the concept of gated communities when it means wealthy people live inside and they don’t want the wrong people to enter. We don’t want thieves and robbers getting into our homes. I certainly don’t want my home to be robbed. But I am concerned when gates are used to enforce class divisions. That has happened too many times: gates have been used to keep black people out of all-white communities and to keep the rich from having to see the poor. Those gates trouble me.

 

Perhaps no community is more gated than a jail or prison. I have visited people in jails many times. It is always sobering when I stand in front of an iron gate and wait for it to open. An officer presses a button and there is a buzz of electric current. I walk through the iron gate and hear it close with a loud thud behind me. I am aware that I am inside a gate that doesn’t swing to let natural movement in and out. When my visit is finished, I walk back to that gate and stand again waiting for it to open. I hear that buzz opening the iron gate and I walk through it and hear it close loudly behind me. I like gates that swing both ways, letting animals and people go in and out. And I love Gates Presbyterian Church, a community with a swinging gate, letting us go in and out, finding rest and recreation, nourishment and nurture, community and communion.

 

Ask most people that have read John 10 how Jesus identifies himself there and they will say “the good shepherd.” That is correct, but there is more. Before Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, he calls himself the gate. Five times the word gate is used in these ten verses. There is movement from a literal wooden gate to a human gate. Jesus begins by describing the use of the gate: it lets the sheep go in and out. Inside the sheep pen they rest and are relatively safe. They leave the sheepfold, through the gate, to find pasture, to graze, to exercise, to eat and drink. I like gates. And I love Gates Presbyterian Church.

 

Sheep need gated pens, because sheep are vulnerable. They are not stupid animals, as too many sermons have suggested, but they are not endowed with much to defend themselves. Unattended sheep are easy prey for wolves, wild dogs, and any hungry predators. That’s why they need skilled shepherds. Psalm 23 reminds us that the Lord is our shepherd; with his rod and staff he protects and comforts us. This despicable COVID virus has reminded us that we are vulnerable. I am told that due to my age, I am in a vulnerable population. I am—and so are you, whatever your age. The human race is a vulnerable population. Always we are a vulnerable population. But COVID-19 has reminded us in a new way. We are vulnerable. Like sheep. Especially sheep without a good shepherd.

 

Understanding Jesus as our good shepherd is fairly easy. Countless stained glass windows and paintings have etched that image on our souls. But when have we seen a stained glass window or painting of Jesus as the gate? He says “I am the gate…” twice in this passage. There is something here, something we must not overlook. An actual shepherd in the Middle East was explaining his work to some tourists. The shepherd was not a Christian and not familiar with this passage. When he showed them the sheepfold, they noticed that there was an opening, but no gate. One tourist asked the shepherd, “where is the gate?” He answered, “I am the gate. When the sheep are in the fold at end of day, I lay myself down across that opening. My body keeps the sheep in and the wolves out. I know the way of the wolves and the sheep trust me.” That is precisely what Jesus is saying. He is not only the shepherd, but he is also the gate of the sheepfold. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

 

Those two actions of coming in and going out are essential to the health of the sheep. And they are essential for our spiritual health. On Sunday mornings we come in and are reminded of who we are and who our shepherd is. Then we go out to serve our shepherd in everyday life. We are honoring that this morning even in this virtual way. Here on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we are reminded that the risen Jesus is our good shepherd and we are the sheep of his pen.

 

This is a liminal time. We hear the word subliminal, but rarely the word liminal. A liminal time is an in-between time, a transitional time. We are between what was and what is coming. Hence it can be scary for some and exiting for others and both for some of us. It is pregnant with the sense of emerging opportunity. Our word liminal comes from a Latin word that means threshold. And what is a threshold, but an opening, a doorway, a gateway. Yes, a gateway.

 

Some have used the phrase “new normal” for this liminal time. When this plague ends, we will find a new normal. But it won’t mean leaving everything behind. It won’t mean throwing out the baby with the bath water. We will leave some of the old behind, but not all. We will be more careful about washing our hands. But we will have learned things, like social technology, that we will continue to use to serve more people in new ways. I look forward to shaping a new normal. Liminal time is opportune time. God is always doing new things. For followers of Jesus, a new normal is never set. Jesus brings us abundant life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundant life is not static and old; it is fresh and new and getting better.

 

Jesus is our shepherd and Jesus is our gate. That will not change. The church is not a building, but as people—that will not change. The nature of life in the sheepfold—that will not change. Acts 2:42 describes that life, what Jesus promises as abundant life. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and community, to the breaking of bread and the prayer.” I am struck by the second and third of the Acts 2:42 distinctives: the community and the breaking of bread. Or we could say, the community and the communion. Our need to quarantine and honor social distancing has put a strain on how we do community and communion, but it hasn’t stopped them. And it can’t stop them.

 

William Willimon tells of a glimpse of community and communion inside prison gates. It was several decades ago in South Africa, when apartheid, the separation of blacks and whites, was the law of the land. A black Methodist pastor was arrested for no reason, except his skin color, and detained in prison without charges or trial. A white Methodist pastor visited him. He brought a small communion kit. The white guard led him to the cell and opened the gate and then closed it. He watched from the other side of the gate as the two, one white and one black, began to break bread together. Then the white pastor looked at the white guard, representing the apartheid government, and spoke to him. “We are Christians and we believe Jesus invites all to his table for communion. Would you join us?” The pastor offered the bread and the cup through the iron bars. Hesitating for a moment, the guard then accepted the gifts and communed with them. Then they held hands and invited him to join them. He did, through the iron bars. They prayed for peace and justice in their country. Three South Africans, two white and one black, one committed to uphold racial separation and two committed to break down the wall of racism, experienced a taste of Jesus breaking down a harsh wall and opening a gate of community. A swinging gate.

 

I like gates that swing. And I love Gates Presbyterian Church. Gates, let’s keep that gate swinging. Jesus is our good shepherd and Jesus is our gate to abundant living. Our swinging gate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Had Hoped . . . We Have This Hope

[This message was given, in virtual form, for Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester, on the third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2020.]

 

“But we had hoped….” Those four little words say so much. But we had hoped that this novel coronavirus would be done by now. But we had hoped that we would be back in our sanctuaries on Easter Sunday. But we had hoped that everything would be better by April 26. My first grandson is graduating from college in one week in Boston—and there will be no commencement ceremony, no trip to one of my favorite cities for a festive occasion. “But we had hoped….” My second grandson is in his final semester at Gates-Chili High School and has not been on campus in over a month. He rehearsed hours and hours for the spring musical, “Les Miserables,” and it has already been postponed once and soon it may be cancelled. We still hope there will be a commencement for his class in late June. “But we had hoped….” I have a new granddaughter born nine weeks ago in this country. But her parents are living in Cambodia for several years for their work. They had planned to return two days ago. My daughter works for the Peace Corps, and the State Department is not letting her, her husband, and their new child return there for the time being. They wait in hope. “But we had hoped….”

 

These two disciples, one named Cleopas and one unnamed, are dealing with hope lost. They are followers of Jesus and know full well what happened in Jerusalem on a dark Friday, for them just two days ago. They are on a long walk, when a third person comes alongside and walks with them. He discerns that they are discouraged and asks them, “What’s going on with you?” Cleopas answers that they have just had their hopes devastated. The stranger, of course, is not a stranger at all, but they don’t know that yet. Jesus, as he so often does, uses questions to draw them out. “What happened? What are you talking about?”

 

Then Cleopas says it: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.” Their world was in devastation and disarray, perhaps a bit like ours is now. For the women that went to the tomb early Sunday morning, for the men huddled in hiding, hope was lost. For these two disciples walking to a village named Emmaus seven miles away, hope is lost. They had tasted sweet hope; now there is a bitter aftertaste. Might as well go on a long walk; anything to get away from Jerusalem, city where hopes are dashed and prophets killed.

 

The risen Lord keeps showing up in such unexpected places. Remember when at the end of the Super Bowl, the most valuable player, still on the field, would be asked, “Now that you’ve won the Super Bowl, where are you going?” The answer: “I’m going to Disney World.” (Doesn’t that sound good right now?) Just hours ago Jesus walked out of a grave. “Hey, Jesus, now that you are risen from the dead where are you going?” “I’m going to Emmaus. Then I guess I will go back to Jerusalem. There I will enter a locked room and announce my presence to some fear-filled disciples. Then I might take a trip back to Galilee.” Note where he doesn’t go. He doesn’t go the Temple, the center of religious life in Israel. He doesn’t go to Pilate’s courtroom, where justice wasn’t done. He doesn’t go to Rome to show the emperor that he is risen and he alone is Lord. He doesn’t go to Athens to meet with the great philosophers. No. He goes to ordinary places. Like a village named Emmaus, which is mentioned in the entire Bible once. This shouldn’t surprise us at all. From his birth in little Bethlehem, to his childhood in backwater Nazareth, he has always been honoring the ordinary. He loves to be with ordinary people in ordinary places, revealing extraordinary glimpses of God with us. Here it is a walk with two hope-dashed disciples.

 

I’m a physically active extroverted person, so doing shelter in place isn’t easy for me. It is required for now and I am honoring it. But most days I get out of my house for a pre-breakfast jog, in which I don’t get close to anyone. Later in the day, I often visit local parks, wearing gloves and a mask and avoiding close contact with anyone. As I jog or walk, I try to notice little glories of nature: early wildflowers. Geese. Ducks. A swan. Blossoms and blooms. Babbling brooks. I pray that I will attentive to all that surrounds me—and that I will be seeing Jesus all around me. In nature. In other persons. And I pray for whatever and whomever comes to mind. I think I do my best praying when I am moving. I like that Easter day had Jesus moving. Walking. Visiting old friends.

 

It makes me happy that Jesus on his resurrection day goes for a long walk. It is interesting that these two disciples don’t recognize him. But neither did Mary Magdalene when Jesus spoke directly to her next to an empty tomb. I don’t know exactly what it means when scripture says, “Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Theologically, I know that God must open the eyes of our understanding. Still, it mystifies me that they don’t recognize Jesus, walking and talking with them. I think there are two kinds of seeing. One is merely at the physical level: eyesight. The other is at a deeper level. Heart-sight. Soul-sight. Perceptive sight. These two disciples clearly see a stranger walking with them. But at a deeper level, they do not perceive who that stranger is. After all, they had hoped—and what happened in Jerusalem dashed their hope.

 

Hope is powerful. I believe in hope. 1 Corinthians 13 ends with these words: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three.” Hope is crucial for living. Without hope, life is empty and stale. In the movie “Shawshank Redemption,” there is memorable scene when one prisoner says to another, “Hope is a dangerous thing.” Yes, hope is dangerous. It can leave us discouraged at times. Like those two disciples. But I wouldn’t choose to live without hope. Whatever discouragement we may experience, it won’t last. Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5: “… but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Hebrews 6:19 says, “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul….”

 

 

Hospitals in the metro New York area that have been dealing with COVID-19 patients have started playing hope-filled music, streaming through the corridors and rooms. Staff and patients hear songs like, “Here Comes the Sun,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Can’t Stop Believin’,” “Lean on Me,” “Eye of the Tiger,” “Beautiful Day,” and “Rise Up.” They draw hope to keep them going through trying times. That just gets me singing about my hope: “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.” It keeps me singing, “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide, strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine with ten thousand beside. Great is they faithfulness.”

Hope is not the same as optimism. I like optimism. I always think my team is going to win. I always think I will get final Jeopardy right. But my teams don’t always win. And I don’t always get final Jeopardy right. Hope is so much more than sunny optimism. “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul….” Our hope is not wishful thinking. It is not all happy thoughts and positive words. It is hope anchored in Jesus and his resurrection. This hope takes us through suffering and discouragement.

 

They had hoped…. And their hope is realized. They arrive at Emmaus. Something both ordinary and extraordinary happens. Listen to Luke telling it: When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’” That sounds like Holy Communion to me. Jesus has instituted the supper just three full days before, on the Thursday we call Maundy. And here he is, having come through the most extreme suffering, the most excruciating death, and on the day of his rising he is breaking bread with friends and opening their eyes to hope realized.

“But we had hoped….” Their hope was rightly placed. Jesus was walking with them, even when they didn’t know it was he. Jesus is walking with us, even when they don’t think he is. He is always Emmanuel, God with us. The risen Lord is always walking with us. “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul….”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doubter, Questioner, Believing Disciple

[This sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2020, was delivered in an empty, save for five people, sanctuary at the First Presbyterian Church, Pittsford NY. I can also be watched on their YouTube channel. It was also delivered virtually for the Gates Presbyterian Church. The text is John 20:19-31.]

 

“I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus.” I could have said that. You could have too. I believe that. But it was said just a few weeks ago by Bishop Gerald Glenn, who until eight days ago was pastor of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield, VA. He said

that he would keep preaching “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.” I guess he didn’t think of the third option: that he would be dead on Easter Sunday. He died from COVID-19. He defied common wisdom and scientific thinking in the name of his faith. It didn’t work out too well.

 

Faith is not stupidity. Faith is not anti-science. Faith is not irrational and unreasonable. Faith is not wishful thinking. Faith is not blind. True faith is rational and reasonable. To believe that the universe, in all its immensity, complexity, and vast, cold glory, is just a random outcome, seems to me unbelievable. Dr. Francis Collins is the 16th Director of the National Institutes of Health, a prestigious role requiring a brilliant, scientific mind. He holds both an M. D. and a Ph.D. In his younger days he was an atheist. Now he is a follower of Jesus. In his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins wrote that scientific discoveries were an “opportunity to worship.” Faith is not stupidity. Faith is not anti-science. Faith is not irrational, unreasonable, wishful, or blind. But it does require more than empirical evidence, more than scientific methodology.

 

True faith, biblical faith, always demands a leap. It requires believing what we cannot see or prove. Hebrews 12:1-6 describes faith in these words: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible……. And without faith it is impossible to please God….” How does Thomas measure up by that definition?

 

First, we must ask, where is Thomas on Easter day? Jesus appears to the original 12, except Judas is gone, so it is 11. Now Thomas is missing, so it is 10. Where is Thomas? Is he self-quarantining for fear of catching something? Like a virus he can’t understand? We have no clue, but he missed something momentous. Jesus not only appears to the other disciples; he shows them is wounded hands and side. He breathes the holy breath of God, the Holy Spirit, on them. He shares his spiritual authority with them.

 

When the 10 finally catch up with Thomas, they tell him all this—and he will not believe it. “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.” They have no answer, except maybe, “You shoulda been there, Thomas. Where in the world were you?”

 

A week later, same place, and Thomas is present. The doors are shut tight. Jesus appears again. Does he just waltz through a wall? There he is. He looks right at Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” That last phrase needs some unpacking. Literally, Jesus says, “Stop not believing but believe.” This is not the word for doubt in New Testament Greek. This word means “not believing.” “The Message” paraphrase is the most accurate rendering I have found: “Then he focused his attention on Thomas. ‘Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.’” What will Thomas do?

 

The lectionary that we use for scripture readings does something unusual this second Sunday of Easter. The lectionary has scriptures for every Sunday on a three-year rotation. On Easter in one year we might read Matthew, in another Mark, in another Luke or John. But for the second Sunday of Easter, this Sunday, it is the same passage every year. It seems the team that produced the lectionary was fixated on not letting us forget Thomas in this moment with the risen Lord. I am glad. With you, I need this passage every year. With you, I need Thomas in my Easter faith, because I, too, sometimes struggle with belief. And not only Thomas, you, and I, but the early disciples struggled to believe this. Listen to these reports from Easter in the four gospel accounts of Easter morning:

  • In Matthew 28:17, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
  • In Mark 16:8, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
  • In Luke 24:10-11, “…the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” 
  • In John 20:15, Mary Magdalene thinks Jesus is the cemetery gardener.

 

I like Thomas. And my faith needs Thomas. I expect many of you are with me in this admission: I struggle with the ways of the God in whom I place my faith. My faith struggles when I see racism continuing to raise its ugly head in our nation and in our world. My faith struggles when I see people mocking and bullying other people. My faith struggles when fear and hatred seem so strong. My faith struggles when I see friends journeying with catastrophic diseases. My faith in our God is deep and strong—and it has plenty of questions and struggles.

 

In this time of global pandemic, I appreciate what New Testament scholar N. T. Wright wrote in Time magazine last week. He said that we people of faith don’t need to try to explain what we cannot understand. He said we need to reclaim the biblical custom of lamenting the evils we can’t explain. The Psalms are peppered with prayers of lament. A book in the Bible is named Lamentations. Thomas would agree. I agree. I lament COVID-19 and the illness and death it has brought. I lament students stuck at home when they should be in school, in athletic pursuits, and doing spring musicals and concerts. I lament that small businesses, and my favorite local restaurants, are struggling to survive. Thomas would agree.

 

I am often with that father of a desperately sick child that approached Jesus on his child’s behalf and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) “Unbelief” there is the same word Jesus speaks to Thomas. Not doubt, but not yet believing.

 

I like Thomas. He is a flesh-and-blood guy. His spirituality is not other-worldly and ethereal. It is real and earthly. Which means that it is, in the truest sense, heavenly. Isn’t that what Jesus is all about, God among us in flesh and blood? John Updike’s Easter poem, “Seven Stanzas for Easter” opens this way: “Make no mistake: if he rose at all, It was as his body;…”

 

So, when Thomas demands his own scientific expedition, his body of proof, Jesus isn’t the least bit troubled. Jesus never rebukes him. Jesus never chastises him. Jesus never upbraids him. Jesus takes the action right to him. “…Thomas, ‘Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.’” And Thomas does.

 

Jesus responds to Thomas in a way we often miss, with a question: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus responds to Thomas the questioner with a question? “Have you believed because you have seen me?” That leads to a blessing given us, us modern-day children of St. Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Thomas is a second Sunday of Easter believer. Aren’t we glad that Jesus accepts second Sunday believers, like Thomas—and like so many of us?

 

There is but one more thing to say, precisely what Thomas says to the risen Lord: “My Lord and my God!” Faith in the risen Lord doesn’t mean we get all the answers we want when we want them. Precisely the opposite; it means that we live by faith. Real, honest, willing-to-ask-the-hard questions faith. Our God loves to see such faith. Jesus can handle our struggles with believing. Today, with Thomas, I cry out, “My Lord and my God!” Will you join me right now, wherever you are listening to this. Say it with me right now: “My Lord and my God!”