Reflection for April 27, 2014

Acts 2:14a,22-32, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31





     It’s tempting today to wonder why we are not reading from the Hebrew Scriptures following Easter. I like this coming series on the book of Acts, and we will be working with it through this Easter season as our first reading. And it is tempting to focus on this early sermon of Peter. It shows how the early church preached about Easter. But I lament the loss of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures in which so much wisdom is embedded. The second reading is also interesting. I Peter indicates how the first generation or two of Christians came to see Easter as the beginning of a general resurrection. That’s important too.


     But today let’s simply focus on the figure of Thomas in the gospel of John. Thomas is known as the doubting disciple, and that may a good name for him. But upon closer examination, in the figure of Thomas, we see a pathway into faith. We actually see how minds are changed. We see how faith develops or evolves or the process of faith formation in the human heart and in our own hearts. Let’s look first at this mind changing process of faith formation in the story of Thomas, and then let’s think about why this is so important.


     When we look at the story, we notice first that Thomas is absent. Then he is resistant to the story. Then he overstates his skepticism. Some time passes. He remains connected to the group. He experiences Jesus. He has a conversation. He embraces his own faith.   Let me say those things again. Thomas is absent. Then he is resistant to the story. Then he overstates his skepticism. Some time passes. He remains connected to the group. He experiences Jesus. He has a conversation. He embraces his own faith. Let’s think about how this describes mind changing or faith formation as it evolves or emerges in the lives of people.


     Thomas is absent. Although he is known as the doubting Thomas, all of this is really caused by his absence.  Absence ,whether we are talking about church attendance or committee meetings, or being emotionally available to the ones we love, is a challenge. It causes problems. When we are absent, then difficulties arise.


     However, we might want to notice how absence or separation of some sort is the initial step in the journey of faith. A child must be separate from the parent in order to have a faith of one’s own. Indeed, that may be what adolescent rebellion is about. Separation is difficult, but sometimes it is the first step into something new.


     He is resistant to the story.  Thomas does not believe what he hears. He doubts. This doubt is also the heart working on something. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it us one of the initial steps in the forming of a new faith. A child must question all of the beliefs of one’s childhood in the development of her own beliefs. The doubts of a teenager are the first steps taken into adulthood.


     Then Thomas overstates his skepticism. Now as we move through the faith construction process, I often hear people overstate their cases. I’ll never do this. I could not possibly believe that. Over my dead body. But notice that Thomas really doesn’t put his hand into the side of Jesus. He is actually going to be satisfied with far less than that. He’s overstated his position.


     But this is how the human mind works. We set up strong positions which in the end are probably not the best, nor the final way things will be. But the strength of those positions helps us to clarify what is happening in often murky situations. The child who boldly declares that he will never clean his room in a thousand years, may discover himself organizing his space the next day in order to find his lost iphone. Actually the overstatement is important. It is our mind at work, formulating what may be significant, making sense of things, and foreshadowing what may come.


     Some time passes. It’s exactly one a week in this story. The disciples are beginning to gather regularly on Sundays. This is an example of early weekly Christian worship. And we could talk about that. But notice simply that in the process of faith formation, some time passes. It takes time to grow. Not forever. But it does take time. The disciples apparently do not try to argue with Thomas on Monday or Tuesday, or even Thursday. Some time passes. That would be too soon. But the matter will come up at the next meeting.


     Thomas remains connected to the group. He shows up for next Sunday evening’s meeting. Through the struggling first steps of the formation of faith, continued contact is important. He is not rejected by the group because he is not believing. He seems to be accepted just as he is. And in that acceptance he continues to stay connected. As a teenager struggles to find herself, she needs to stay connected, even if she is burdened with what she considers the worst parents in the world.


     He experiences Jesus. Thomas experiences something. He is exposed to Jesus, we might say. He encounters the risen one. He discovers things for himself. He has his own insight. These experiences are critical for faith formation. A young adult grows when he realizes that life may be different than he thought, that there is more to the world than just what we know.


     Thomas has a conversation. He talks with Jesus. Following the experience, the conversation is critical and sufficient. He does not need to place a hand into a side. Conversation is the opportunity to interpret experience. It is the key component of accompaniment or being with someone in transition. Conversation matters. We need to talk with each other to find our way. Children need to talk with adults about all sorts of things as they shape their faith.


     Finally he embraces his own faith. At the end of the story, Thomas believes. It is his own faith, based on his own experience, informed by others, taking into account the matters at hand, listening to the tradition. But it is his own faith. And this is what every parent wants for a child: the embracing of one’s own faith that is informed by others, taking into account the matters at hand, and listening to the tradition.


     Thomas is absent. Then he is resistant to the story. Then he overstates his skepticism. Some time passes. He remains connected to the group. He experiences Jesus. He has a conversation. He embraces his own faith. 




     Now let’s talk about why this is so important. Life is filled with what we like to call transitions. Growing up is a transition. But we all go through times of transition as we say, times of change. Actually each of those transitions is the movement of the spirit of God in our lives. Another phrase for transition might be God at work: forming our faith in a new, deeper, profound way.


     Growing into adulthood is a transition. But so is learning to live with a disease we are facing. So is the loss of a friend or someone significant in our lives. Separation and divorce are transitions. So is retirement. So is a move to a new place, starting a new job, or transferring to a new school. So is preparing for one’s death. So is starting kindergarten. The list goes on and on, and in all of these transitions, we are like Thomas, experiencing the growth of faith, forming a new life, pretty much as it is outlined in a couple of paragraphs in John 20.


     As we go through life sometimes we need separation. We become resistant to what people tell us. We overstate things as we clarify what needs to be done. Some time passes. We somehow stay connected with important people and groups. We experience God in new ways. We have a conversation or two. And then we embrace our own faithful realities.



     Now the writer of John puts this fundamental human process in the aftermath of Easter. The placement of this text into the Easter story is a reminder that this process of faith formation is how resurrection wells up in our hearts, how new life comes, how new hope is born. For what happens to us as faith is formed is that we are being born anew, cracking open the egg shell that protected us for so long, but is now too small for where we currently are in life. For what happens to us as faith is formed is that hope and joy and courage are opening us to all of the new possibilities God has in mind for us. In the resurrection of Jesus we begin to sense that God is bringing us fresh possibilities for even those separations, doubts, and overstatements that may  be the signs of an emerging hope.


Palm Sunday Reflection, April 13, 2014


     When I was a small child, Palm Sunday was a special event. It came in the spring as the Iowa snow melted. People also began to thaw. The sun warmed us all, and the rains would bring that time when the earth turned from brown to green. In that congregation, confirmation took place on Palm Sunday. It seemed fitting each spring to focuson youth in the spring of life. And the confirmation, the warming sun, and the palms seemed each year were a dress rehearsal of sorts for Easter coming the next week. In my earliest recollections, this day was a time for warming to the spring of earth and the spring of life. And there is no better way to look at this morning than that: this is a time when we warm to the growing hope of life’s spring.  


     Gradually through the arduous efforts of all the adults in the congregation, I began to acquire some knowledge about what Palm Sunday was supposed to be about. I learned about Jesus. I learned about Palm branches, donkeys and coats on the road. I learned that Jesus, this wonderful person, actually had enemies. I learned that you could be loved one day and crucified the next. I learned that this was the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life. I learned about the Lord’s Supper, the money changers in the temple, and betrayal, and some garden whose name I could not pronounce, the horrible Romans, and this gruesome crucifixion. All of that started with the waving of Palms. And there is no better way to look at this morning than that: this is the beginning of the last week of the life of Jesus, who loved and lived, suffered and died, all compressed into a few holy days.


      For awhile in those childhood years, I began to sense something called guilt and sin, and how this story was connected to that. I apparently was a sinner. Some days I actually felt that way. Most of the time I did not. But since I was something of a sinner, I also needed a Savior. Jesus was that Savior I learned. So this day began that story of forgiveness. And there is no better way to look at this morning than that: this day initiates that great process of reconciliation and forgiveness that through struggle and pain brings renewal.


      Eventually, though, actually by the time I was in junior high, I had pretty much moved beyond the sin thing. I grew up in Iowa. Most of the people there aren’t evil: just boring. Yes, folks did things that were wrong. But according to the calculus of my rural middle school mind, the rectification of that would not require something like Palm Sunday, Good Friday and the like. It would be as if God had a cow caught in a fence, and so he tore down all the fences and built a ten foot concrete wall around the entire farm to solve the problem. It would have been better just to take the occasional cow out of the fence, and keep life simple. Still, there is no better way to look at this morning than that: God as a farmer who in care for the flock does what is needed, big or small, to keep us well. If that requires building a wall of concrete around a metaphysical farm, so be it.


      Then for awhile, perhaps in high school, I got really caught up in the ritual of this day and the week that follows. I learned when to walk, stand and sit. We actually received palm branches to wave in church. There was Holy Communion, something rarely received. A shout of Hosanna to a king in a place I was supposed to be quiet. And youth were processing in and out. All that passed for high church liturgy in Iowa, and I loved it. Even the most reserved old Germans discretely waved a branch.  And there is no better way to look at this morning than that: a royal processional leading to a passionate vision for what a king was and did, a participation of all in the rituals that remind us of the life and death of Jesus.


      They make you study to become a pastor, and so I did, leaving my childhood behind. And in all the books I learned that what I had taken to be a springtime ritual, a faint Iowa reenactment of something that happened long ago in Jerusalem, was actually a cosmic drama, the struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. That this was about much more than Iowa springs, or childhood guilt, or the joys of youth, or the details of Holy Week, or the liturgical rhythm and shape of life. This was the story that imparted the cosmic struggle for the fate of all creation. It had profound theological significance. And there is no better way to look at this morning than that: the necessarily violent events that begin the movement of the universe back to the sacred goodness undergirding all life.


     But what I studied and learned changed over the years. Gradually I became less focused on the cosmic drama and more focused on the political realities of this story of a Jesus who challenged the religious authorities of his day in this procession with its political overtones. I learned more about offering hope and renewal in hearts, and villages, and communities based on love, compassion, justice and peace. And there is no better way to look at this day than that: the story of God’s hope for peace and justice as the eternal goodness of God breaks into this world, transforming people, homes, villages, communities, systems and cultures with hope and love.


     Until the last few years, when I’ve begun to sense how much this day, this story of Palm Sunday, is really an entrance, a threshold, a beginning, a start. Jesus enters Jerusalem. Palm Sunday begins this holy week of life and death and new life. It begins the renewal. It begins the movement through struggle, through pain, into new possibilities. And this story from this beginning to end reminds us that God walks with us through it all.


     This is the threshold of new hope. This is a day we remember that God enters our lives, our world, our hearts. Especially I think in the work of shelters and emergency relief, we know how important these entrances, these beginnings, these fresh starts are for all people in the stories of life: your lives and the lives of others. The new beginnings, taking that first step, the entrance all call for great human courage. God’s entrance gives us that courage. As people make a new start and boldly go on, God walks with us through the valleys of the shadows into new light. And there is no better way to look at this day than that: the beginning of a new possibility for you and for me and for life together, the entrance of the sacred one into our lives, the fresh start needed by at least a few people here facing the challenges of this week whether we call it holy or not.


      For this is Palm Sunday. And it is time to warm ourselves to the springtime of life, to remember the story of Jesus, to be reconciled to God and each other, to do the rituals and liturgies that reconnect us to life and death and new life, to sense the cosmic drama and its implications for this world, and to see this day as a day of beginning for everyone here. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God.