Category: from the sublime to the profane

We Are All Thomas Now

The story of “doubting Thomas” is read from the Gospel of John on the first Sunday after Easter. Thomas’s struggle with belief seems even more fitting in the 21st Century than it did in the 1st. (Preached on April 22, 2017) 

We Are All Thomas Now

The Saints Peter, Paul, and Thomas walk into a bar. It is one of those nice hipster type bars in the afterlife where they serve only the good stuff. Various groups of the Apostles gather at watering holes like this one in order to reminisce, ponder their legacies, and contemplate their unending and overwhelmingly beatific futures.

Even though we don’t have evidence of what these three guys look like, there’s not one of us who wouldn’t know who was who. For example, the Apostle Paul, who is much, much quieter than you would think, is a small, raisin of a man, slightly humpbacked, with a bald head that is lumpy and scarred from all the beatings he took. His beard is dark and a little long. his calloused hands have fat knuckles because he always insisted upon doing manual labor to support himself. Peter gives him hard time for this. Every chance he gets he tells Paul that he didn’t have to work so hard because, as Paul himself said, he could have received money from his churches to support himself. Paul agrees but tells Peter that he wouldn’t understand which is meant as a gentle insult. Peter doesn’t get it.

Peter is bigger than Paul and he looks better fed. His hair and beard are curly and thick and almost blond. We don’t know why Peter is blondish but it seems to fit. He looks a little like an aged Beach Boy. He smiles a lot and he carries himself and the burdens of the afterlife very lightly. He is genuinely happy and enjoys talking about the old times. He even enjoys telling stories on himself. He’s clearly not embarrassed by the stories where he messes up, such as his walking on the water near death experience, and that one time that Jesus called him “Satan.” He gets a big kick out of that one. He tries to keep Paul grounded when Paul waxes too theological, using unnecessarily long words, and writing outlandishly long sentences. (See Ephesians 1) Peter pulls him back to earth and asks him to put his thought into short bursts and use acronyms: like J-O-Y. That would make a good 3 point sermon.

Paul did oblige Peter once by creating an acronym of the word J-U-S-T-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N, thus creating a 13 point sermon. Paul is ornery.

Then there is Thomas. You know how you do something once and nobody lets you forget it? That’s Thomas. Everyone in the afterlife, except the Lord himself, insists on remembering him as doubting Thomas. In the minds of his fellow disciples, he is the contrarian always arguing the opposite point of view. “Jesus is alive!” the disciples shout, “No he’s not” Thomas responds. Now, that happened 2000 years ago and Thomas really wishes the guys would just move on already. He wishes they would remember some of the good parts of his life.

I can imagine him saying, “Come on guys, I’m so much more than that. Yes, Jesus did invite me to touch his wounds so that I’d know that he was really alive. Yes, yes, yes. But, I saw the wounds, touched the wounds, and proclaimed, ‘My Lord and my God!!!”.  He continues, “Jesus and me—we’re good!”

“You guys never give me credit for my post doubting life. I planted churches in Syria and all the way to India and those churches are still running today. Do you guys have groups of churches named after you? Mine are called the MarThoma churches.” Peter asks Thomas if has heard of Roman Catholicism. Paul has a devilish grin and keeps pushing him for no other reason than he likes to see Thomas get exasperated. Paul even mocks him for writing the Gospel of Thomas and thus being responsible for the horrible Dan Brown novels. Paul laughs, and that really gets Thomas’s goat because he did not write it. Nor would he have.

But, Thomas keeps defending himself and his post doubting life: “Not only did I go to Syria and all the way to the Indian subcontinent, but there is even that rumor that I went to Paraguay!” (Funny side note, there is a legend that he did, in fact, go to Paraguay. Jesuit missionaries in the 1600’s heard stories from locals about Pai’ Thome praying for them and carrying a wooden cross on his back.)

Thomas, a little sullen and arrogant, looks at Paul and Peter and asks if they have ever been to the Americas? “I didn’t think so.”

This little drama about Thomas is a little fantasy based upon some stereotypes of Peter and Paul. In my opinion, the stereotype of Thomas is unfair. We call him Thomas the doubter, maybe we should call him Thomas the believer in the unbelievable?

Thomas the Doubter?

I love Thomas, for a lot of reasons, but mainly because he is so much like us. His encounter with Jesus, in John 20, seems to fit our times more than his own. It is easier for me, and I suspect many of you too, to identify with Thomas’s incredulity and demand for proof than we do with Peter’s boldness and Paul’s drive. I more readily identify with Thomas, because, unlike in his day, belief in God is no longer the norm in our world but the exception.

In fact, I feel bad for Thomas because he seems to be set up in the Gospel of John, as the disciple that needs fixing. He is Eyore, the sullen one, with all the questions, who drags his feet before believing that Jesus had come back to life. But, let’s hear his story again.

John 20:19-31

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I contend that Thomas is the most sympathetic character in the New Testament. He is called “Doubting Thomas” because he didn’t buy the story that Jesus had come back to life. But, who would? We should ask ourselves if we would believe such a thing at first blush.

His slowness to believe in the resurrection makes him the most accessible of all the Apostles. In spite of his gaffs, we rarely feel as bold as Peter. Not many of us have the theological and entrepreneurial drive of the Apostle Paul. But who cannot identify, at least a little bit, with Thomas? Even for non-Christians, who could be more sympathetic than a born skeptic?

Thomas and the “secular age”

Born at the wrong time, Thomas belongs to us. He is more a man of the 21st century than the 1st. Thomas acts like a person born in a secular age. I borrow this phrase from the philosopher Charles Taylor. By “secular age”, Taylor means that we live in a time that is marked by “contested belief” where faith, of any kind, and especially Christian faith, is no longer afforded the benefit of the doubt. Meaning and significance can be accounted for without any reference to the divine or the transcendent. Broader culture and the world seem to function just fine without God at all. In the secular age, God, and all of the attendant miracles, beliefs, and acts of worship, are not outlawed but deemed irrelevant.

Oasis and Elevationists

In a secular age, religion is a lifestyle choice. Sadly, this is true even of Christianity. Here are two examples. One example hit the Wichita Eagle this week.

A new non-profit organization has recently started meeting on Sunday mornings in Wichita. It is called Oasis: A Community Beyond Belief. It is a “religious” gathering for atheists. It looks and feels a lot like church but with no reference to God, no prayer, and no sacred music. Oasis is a “church” for atheists. Most of its attendees grew up in church but have since left the traditional Christian faith. It will be interesting to see how they develop and how long they last.

Another example is a new church recently formed in Denver, CO. Attenders at this church call themselves “Elevationists”. Have you heard of Elevation Worship? This has nothing to do with that. The “Elevationists” are a part of the International Church of Cannabis. This group has purchased a 100 year old Lutheran Church building, painted the ceilings in psychedelic colors and patterns, and you guessed it, (or some of you did), their opening service was on 4/20.

These two examples support Taylor’s thesis that things have really changed and that Christian faith, which was so much the norm in North America for 300 years, is now just one among a plethora of options which include new religions like these just mentioned, or traditional religions like Hindu, Buddhism, Islam. It also means that no religion is now the American default.

For example, have you heard of parents who, with their children’s best interests in mind, seek to raise them without religion, in order that they will have the freedom to choose the faith that is best for them as if it were a college or a career or a spouse. Religion is a consumer good in this arrangement because it has no bearing on any ultimate issues in the child’s life. (Note, you never hear parents say, I’m just going to let my child choose which language they want to speak so they can find the one that is right for them. )

In addition to these, this secular age is marked by the following:

1) Faith is contested and no-faith/skepticism is the default;

2) Christianity is just one option in the Amazon store of lifestyle options;

3) The secular age is not so much hostile toward religion, as indifferent;

4) The world is disenchanted, scientism rules the day when it comes to explaining life; there are no mysteries, only things we don’t yet understand

Jamie Smith, who wrote a book summarizing Taylor’s views, writing them more clearly than Taylor himself, describes this day and age with the following words:

. . . even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now. – How Not to Be Secular, pg. 4

We Are All Thomas Now

Smith is right. The secular age is simply the world in which we live and our faith in Christ is just as important and powerful as ever. Some of us may be tempted to resist the secular age, deny that it is there, or argue against it. All of these things may have their place. But, we are in it, whether we want to be or not. We are in it, even if we live in the Bible belt (whatever and wherever that was). We are in it, and we must do like Thomas, who responded to his doubts about Jesus resurrection. (Thomas lived in his own personal secular age.)

In this age, doubt doesn’t have to be an enemy of our faith, but at its best, it can be a companion of Christian Faith. Frederick Buechner describes doubt as:

The ants in the pants of faith. The keep it awake and moving.

Thomas had ants in his pants. Why did he go back to the disciples? Did he have some kind of secret hope that was holding hands with his doubt? What was his response to his faith?Response is the critical word.

Jesus’ Wounds and Humanity’s Doubts

Upon hearing that Jesus is raised from the dead, Thomas makes an important claim. He will not believe in the resurrection until he sees it. He goes even further by saying he must touch the wounds of Jesus before he will believe. Jesus is ready to oblige him.

Perhaps we are witnessing an allegory. Jesus, presenting himself and his wounds to Thomas, is an invitation to enter into the realm of other peoples’ pain. Thomas responded to his doubt by placing his hand in the wounds of Jesus.

Perhaps we can respond to our own doubt, living as we are in a secular age, by placing our hands on the wounds of others. Living within earshot of their pain. Offering solidarity, comfort where we can, prayer, and, of course, our presence.

Revisiting the Bar

Secretly, Paul appreciates Thomas’s doubt. Paul had to get knocked off his donkey before he would believe in Jesus. Peter doubted God’s work so deeply that he publicly, and emphatically, rejected Jesus. The disciples scattered.  Thomas did not shut off his brain, but, in the process proclaimed that Jesus was, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is credited in Scripture with making the first pronouncement of Jesus Christ as equal with God.

Thomas did not shut off his brain, but, in the process proclaimed that Jesus was, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is credited in Scripture with making the first pronouncement of Jesus Christ as equal with God.

In spite of his doubts, fears, and confusion Thomas returns. Out of love for his brothers and maybe a hope that what they think they saw in the risen Jesus is, in fact, what they really saw and he will see too.

So Peter and Paul, like big brothers, give Thomas a really hard time—always. But, they tease him because they love him and not so deep down, they admire the man who came back in spite of his unbelief.

Post-Script: Faith as feeling vs. Faith as allegiance

I have to come back to the question: Why did Thomas come back?

As we ask this question, ask yourself, why do you come back? Not just to church but to you the Christian faith at large? We are awash in religious options, even here in little old Wichita. The biggest religious option is to create your own. So why do you come back?

Christian faith is always more than what you think about God and it is always more than what you feel about God. Thomas’s faith was allegiance to God as he knew him in Jesus Christ. While it was hard for him to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, it was equally difficult for him to betray the allegiance he felt to Jesus.

Faith is not first what we believe, or what we feel but it is relational fidelity to the God of the universe.

We are all Thomas now, if we can live with that kind of commitment.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 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, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. – I Peter 1:3-9

Closing Prayer 

Our Lord and our God, we pray that you will catch us by surprise in the same way you surprised Thomas, who was overwhelmed by the joy of your resurrection. May we be so surprised by joy, that our commitment to you is undeterred by our unanswered questions. Amen

 

Advent Talk: Stump

 Our faith is filled with symbols. More symbols than we probably realize. Did you know that the Phoenix, as in Fawkes the Phoenix from Harry Potter, was a symbol embraced by many early Christians? While it predates Christianity, its symbolism of the resurrection seemed appropriate for that group of people following a Lord who had been killed and raised from the dead.

The pelican, oddly enough, was another symbol of the faith dating back to the middle ages. Pelicans, it was believed, were so caring and nurturing to their young that they would pierce their own skin to feed their children from their own blood. The symbolism is probably obvious, it points to Jesus shedding his blood and to the Lord’s Supper.

One last bird worthy of mention is the peacock. Prior to Christianity, there was a belief that the body of a peafowl would not decay after death. This led some of our earliest forebears to associate the peacock with the Tree of Life. It is not uncommon for these images to be found together in ancient catacomb paintings.

Let’s consider some non-avian symbols. The ichthus is a symbol that brings to mind Jesus’ call to be “fishers of men”. The letters are an anagram that spells “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. If you can’t remember the Greek word for fish just follow Seinfeld’s lead and call it the “Jesus fish.”

The anchor is referred to in Hebrews 6:19. Our hope in Christ, it says, is “an anchor of the soul”. I understand that it makes a great tattoo.

There are a variety of cross types, that primary symbol of Christianity that is always in danger of overuse. There is the T cross, probably the actual shape of the cross on which Jesus Christ was executed. But there is also the cross in the shape of an ‘X’, which just so happens to be another form used for crucifixion by the Romans. It is also the first letter in the word Christ.

There are papal crosses with two and three cross bars, there is the Russian Orthodox cross with two crossbars at the top and one crooked one at the bottom, there are the various equilateral crosses such as St. Andrew’s cross and the Jerusalem cross, and there is the ankh, an ancient Egyptian symbol which was taken over by the Coptic Christians of Egypt with a slight modification. There are budded crosses, there are crosses made of lilies, and there is St. Brigid’s cross which is woven out of reeds. There are as many cross designs as there are people to design them.

Of course, we know that the symbol of the cross is powerful, because it repels vampires. (Cue the groans.)

We’ve barely scratched the surface of the varied symbols used by Christians throughout the ages. We left out the rainbow, the shamrock, the triangle, the dolphin, the lamp, bread, milk, Moses, the lamb, the crown, ships and boats; not to mention, the letter symbols such as the Chi Rho, the IH, INS, and many others.

I would like to add an important Christian symbol to the mix. As far as I know it has not gained wide acceptance as a symbol of the faith, though it has a great Scriptural pedigree. It is also especially meaningful during the season of Advent.

The stump.

Now it may not look that good hanging from a necklace, it may not work as a church logo, it may also seem awfully mundane, but, its mundaneness is part of the point.

To explore the image of the stump we need to go to Isaiah, the great Advent preacher, readings from Isaiah 6 and 11.

Isaiah 6 is called the Great Throne Room Vision. The first eight verses are often the text at ordination ceremonies. For reasons that will become obvious the rest of the chapter, integral to the first 8 verses, is not always included in these ordinations.

6:1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

 “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots[a] on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

No wonder these words are read when someone is ordained into the ministry. Even one who didn’t believe in God would find this description is compelling. No matter what it looks like, these are words of commissioning. They are awesome.

But these words don’t stand alone. The chapter continues with God’s response to Isaiah’s “Here I am; send me!”

And he said, “Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.

13 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

What!

God’s response is not what we would have written. He says, go proclaim the message, and the people won’t hear it; keep proclaiming that message until there is nothing left but a field of burning stumps, a dead and lifeless waste. Take all that passion from God’s commissioning, from your unbelievable experience of the Holy, proclaim God’s word, and be ignored. Be ignored until the land is laid waste and the only sound is you, preaching the word to a field of lifeless stumps.

And, oh, by the way… that one lifeless, burned out, old stump, in a see of smoking burned out stumps, is going to be the source of life for all people, for all time. From that burned out stump comes the Messiah.

Isaiah: Advent Preacher

Let’s remind ourselves of who Isaiah was and what he was doing. For most of us, Isaiah is the name of a giant book in the Old Testament that we mine for nuggets of hope. We know there is something in the book about a virgin conceiving and bearing a child whose name will be called “Immanuel.”

We also know verses about “the lion laying down with the lamb” and “by his stripes we are healed” and “we all like sheep have gone astray.” Isaiah is popular in ways that we don’t even know. Handel’s Messiah has long passages from Isaiah at its heart and some of these verses that I’ve already mentioned, including this week’s reading, are famous, in part, because they are beautiful.

Isaiah was a prophet who lived to see extraordinary times. He had access to four different kings of Israel, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. He prophesied for decades and he warned Israel of the coming doom from the Assyrians and later from the Babylonians. He also prophesied against these enemies coming against Israel. His career was during dark but hopeful days.

From the coal cleansed mouth of Isaiah comes some of the bluntest, awful depictions of God’s wrath. At the same time, from Isaiah we hear some of the most beautiful, hope-filled words in all human language.

Stump, Pt. 1: God’s Glory and God’s Presence

Isaiah 6 describes God present to Isaiah in the Temple and a vision of what Jerusalem, the heart of Israel, will be like in days to come. How the great nation of promise will be wiped from the map. As devastating as that sounds, it will not be the end of Israel even though all of Israel will think that so.

We recognize God’s presence in the Temple. But a question for us is:

Israel asks, is God present in the burned out city? Is he less available in the field of stumps?

A second question for Israel, and indirectly for us, is: How is he present? How is God present in our field of stumps? 

Stump, Pt. 2: God’s Deliverance

Here is this week’s reading:

11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips, he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Isaiah grounds us in history. He first does this by mentioning Uzziah. The year the king died was the time that Isaiah experienced his vision. A vision more about stumps than six-winged angels, by the way.

He grounds his story in history a second time by talking about the stump of Jesse. Jesse is King David’s father and the family from which Jesus will be born. It is the royal lineage of the Kings of Israel and Judah, the lineage which culminates in the Messiah, the perfect Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth.

When all is lost. When the city is destroyed. When the people are displaced. When there is nothing but a barren, burning waste. God leaves hints of his presence: the holy seed is its stump.

For Israel, there is no return from exile without the stump. For the Christian, there is no resurrection without a tomb.

My hope is that you won’t look at a stump the same way again. I hope that every stump you see will jar your memory in order that you may see God’s subtle, sometimes hidden activity, in whatever circumstance you find yourself in. May a stump remind you that God is as present in the catastrophes of our lives and the disasters of our times as much as he was in the Temple with Isaiah.

Eugene Peterson notices the stump imagery too:

We know how that eventually turned out: in a word, Jesus. And so we joyfully and gratefully sing the praises of our holy Lord. We can never sing those praises loudly or joyfully enough, but while doing it we must not lose touch with that stump. For very often that stump and nothing but that stump will characterize and dominate our lives. Not for all of us, to be sure, but for many. Never, never forget that holy stump.

Right there, Peterson reminds us, that for many people, life is lived among the stumps instead of in the heart of the Temple. The rest of us may need to go into the field of stumps and do some heart work:

The world, the flesh, and the devil are all working full-time to fill our minds and emotions with pictures and longings for a so-called “more” life that is ignorant of the Holy, for abundant life that has nothing to do with God. This godless vision not only controls the public media and mass advertising as it propagates and glamorizes its lies; it has also infiltrated large parts of the church, interpreting the Christian life for us in ways that we are trained to avoid or be contemptuous of anything that doesn’t promise us gratification.

I want to counter these glamorous lies with Isaiah and his holy stump. Does it sound like an oxymoron? Holy … stump? But everything in Scripture and the gospel tells us that this is the truth, the reality of Jesus and our lives with and in Jesus. Holy. Life that issues out of death. Beauty that begins in ugliness. The same Holy, Holy, Holy that filled the temple is a holy seed in a field of stumps.

It is good for us to hear the Apostle Paul’s take on the stump too.

I Corinthians 1:18-31

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:[g]not many of you were wise by human standards,[h]not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one[i] might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in[j] the Lord.”

A stump, even a field of them, stand as symbols of the way God works. He’s not busting in the front door, demanding our respect, but instead coming to us from the roots of our lives, deep down in the dirt of our lives, making himself known.

This is Advent Talk. Finding our life growing out of a burned out stump. Finding life given back to us in the small, delicate, often fragile, Kingdom of God. Losing our lives only to find them in the small life of Jesus of Nazareth, a slender green shoot rising from a burned out stump.

– preached at the Wheatland Mission, December 2, 2016 

 

 

The Big, Short Sermon

Maybe you remember the old children’s books where you could “choose your own adventure” by choosing how the story would end. You don’t get to choose how this sermon ends but you can choose what to call it.

The title of this sermon is either:   a) The Big Short Sermon, b) the Big, Short Sermon, c) or the Too Big To Fail Sermon.

Put simply this sermon is too big to fail, or it’s not.

Some of you may know the name, Kareem Serageldin. Mr. Serageldin was an asset manager at Credit Suisse, an investment bank, during the 2008 housing crisis. Serageldin has the dubious distinction of being the only person criminally prosecuted for his actions related to the subprime mortgage crisis that led to what is now known as the “Great Recession”.

8 million people lost their jobs. 6 million people lost their homes. 3.3. trillion dollars in home equity was lost and another 6.9 trillion in shareholder wealth was erased. 6.9 trillion, is almost 7 thousand billion, right? The failure was huge and involved many, many people but only one person convicted of a crime. I don’t know if it’s right or not, but it doesn’t “seem” right, does it? Continue reading

Water from the Rock and Wonder Bread

“God’s name is not known, it is wondered at.”

“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.” – Gregory of Nyssa

I have been known to say to someone I am close to, that I think she/he uses the word beautiful too much. An iPhone can be cool, impressive, really, really functional, but I think to call it beautiful is pushing the envelope. A Kansas sunset is beautiful when examined through an iPhone application but does that make the app beautiful? Effective? Yes. Highly functional? Sure. But is it a thing of wonder? Is that app an object of beauty? Continue reading

Do All Things Happen For A Reason?

Does everything happen for a reason?

When we ask this question we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. If we say that everything does happen for a reason, that God is ordaining every good moment and every bad moment, we are left having to accept divine involvement in things that are so horrific that to attribute them to God’s wisdom is tantamount to taking the Lord’s name in vain, of misusing the name of God. To assert that God is the author of every rape, every murder and every act of abuse toward a child is to blame God for the work of the devil. God is not bound to a law higher than himself but it seems contrary to his character to rule such acts as the ones listed above as abominable and then to make those things happen for his higher purpose. If God commands us not to sin why would he break his own law?

On the other hand, if we say that there is no purpose behind difficult experiences we run a different kind of risk that leaves us feeling like the events of our life, whether they be good or bad, are random accidents and that God has nothing whatsoever to do with them. God doesn’t have to be the initiator of every experience we have in order to initiate some of them. In spite of this, however, we are confronted with a greater concern which is why did God allow something bad to happen to us, and what do we do with the memories of our past that are so painful? What do we do about fears of the future? Bad things may yet happen to us. How is God involved in our future if we say he isn’t involved in our past?

One “middle way” in this circumstance is to recognize that while God does not cause every thing that happens, and some things happen for no clear reason, God remains connected to us in the experience in such a way that he will redeem it. Rather than orchestrating every moment of our life, programming us like computer code, he is allowing our experiences, our stories to unfold, and through his omnicompetence he redeems every sadness, every injury, every loss no matter how great or devastating.

Does everything happen for a reason? No. Everything does not happen for a divine reason. Yet everything that does happen remains a thread of grace that God weaves in the fabric of a life of grace and redemption.