Monday, June 16, 2014

Faithful and Doubting

From today’s Gospel: “When they saw Jesus, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

The new pastor of Riverside Church was announced this week—the Rev. Amy Butler, currently of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC. The Washington Post article about her call had a section that really struck me this week:

“A mother of three children ages 16, 17 and 20, Butler went through a painful divorce while at Calvary and wrote bluntly about her own challenges and doubts earlier in her tenure. Tension had risen so high at the church that Butler hired a professional coach to help.

The coach first asked her about her own relationship with God.

“The question hit hard and deep,” Butler wrote last January in her biweekly column for ABP News/Herald, an independent news service of the Associated Baptist Press. “I immediately responded: ‘I don’t think I believe in God anymore.’ ”

The coach replied: “Don’t ever say that again. You’re the pastor, and that kind of comment is not appropriate in church.”

“I heard his message loud and clear: Church should never be a place where you ask questions, and it should certainly never be a place where you wonder out loud if God even exists,” she wrote.

“After that, I fired him.”

I don’t know Pastor Butler yet, but I like her.

I find it really interesting at the end of Matthew’s Gospel that when the risen Jesus is standing right in front of them, some of the apostles still doubt. I mean—I have doubts. But I like to believe that if Jesus were physically present right in front of me, wounded hands and feet and side and all, that would put my doubts to rest.

Not so for the apostles, it seems. These are the people that Jesus is giving the Great Commission to—to make disciples of all nations, and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit—all of which requires faith. And evidently it requires doubt as well. The church those doubting apostles founded is a place where questions are welcome—or at least should be welcome, and doubts are expected—and not just doubts that you keep hidden in your heart, but doubts that you say out loud. I hope Epiphany is a place where you can bring your doubts and be in good company.

We usually think of Thomas as the “doubting” disciple... but in the Gospel of John, where Thomas’ story is recounted, the word “doubt” isn’t actually used in Greek, as it is in today’s gospel. The gospel of John uses the word “faithless.”—Jesus literally tells Thomas when he has demanded the proof of seeing the wounds in his hands and feet in order to believe, “Do not be faithless, but believe.” Usually it’s translated as “do not doubt, but believe” but the Greek is quite clear that Jesus is saying “Do not be faithless.”

There is a difference between having doubts and being faithless.

I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but I’m going to assume that every person here brings some doubts to church at least some of the time. I do, too. There are seasons of spiritual dryness in my life, where it feels like prayers just vanish, and I wonder how I will hold on to my faith. Anything from doubt that God exists, to if God does exist, why does God permit horrible things to happen, to doubts questioning the exclusivity of the Christian promise of salvation, and doubting the inherent goodness of creation described in the reading from Genesis today. Sometimes my doubts come from experiencing the failures of the human institution of the church—I can believe in God, but I’m not so sure I believe in the church. Certainly, on Trinity Sunday, doubting the mysterious paradox of a God who is three in one and one in three. We all have doubts.

But are we faithless? No. We have faith. And we have doubt. We’ve got it all!

Back to the gospel: When they see Jesus, all the disciples worship. Some doubt. Which tells me that worship is active; it is where we bring out doubts. We lay them at the altar along with all our other offerings—our money, our time, our faith, our pain, our joy….. The moment you walk in the door of this church, you’ve established some sort of faith. Maybe it’s curiosity—maybe it’s an inarticulate longing, maybe it’s something substantive and long-held and considered. Maybe it’s faith more in someone else who has faith—a parent, a friend, whose relationship with you is worth setting aside your personal skepticism. But we are not faithless when we walk in the door to worship.

And in worship, we encounter the stuff of our doubts—Bible passages, creeds, prayers, sacraments. There is no hiding from the causes of our doubts in worship.

Take the first reading today from Genesis. Some Christians say they “believe” in it—by which they mean that they believe it describes a literal historic occurrence. I don’t have doubts about the Genesis creation stories being factually accurate… I know they are not factual. And yet.. we worship with this story, and I would say I believe in it because of what I have learned and experienced. And by “believe” I think what I really mean is “love.” I love this first creation story in Genesis. It helps me understand who I am and who God is. Here is a smattering of why I love it, and how it helps me in my faith.

“In the beginning….” There was a beginning. Could be the Big Bang; could be some process we don’t yet know. But there was a time before the beginning.

The Hebrew creation story differs from many other Ancient Near Eastern creation stories in that creation is not born of conflict between competing gods. There is one God; the earth and its creatures are not the offshoot of violence, or pawns in a divine battle, but created solely out of the will and desire of the one God. It’s almost like God is enjoying creating—each day recognizing what has been created as good.

Only God “creates” in Genesis; human beings make, form, etc… but only God is ever used as the subject for the verb that means to create. This story helps keep me humble.

The first thing God creates is light… but where does the light come from? Neither sun nor moon is mentioned in the Genesis story; they were idolized by all the other cultures, who had their Sun god and their Moon god. The Hebrew God creates light first, but doesn’t give primacy to the heavenly bodies. And even when the sun and moon are created on day four, it’s the “great light” and the “lesser light”. The story of our God is always in dialogue with other traditions, responding to them, sometimes coming up with different answers, sometimes coming up with similar answers.

Each day, God contemplates what God has created. And each day God considers it good. But good doesn’t just mean good… it also has the connotation of “usefulness.” Light, dark, water, plants, animals, humans… what does it mean for us to be good in a useful way? To me, that gets at the heart of our interdependence. So many things in nature which we consider beautiful have practical applications—the bright colors of the flowers that attract the pollenating bees and insects, the dark, rich soil of the Midwest,

Humankind is made in God’s image—both male and female. The reflection of God has both male and female characteristics, no matter what our pronouns have indicated about God for so many centuries in the church.

We have dominion over the earth—responsibility for it. Where the earth is wounded, it is for us to offer healing.

And finally, on Trinity Sunday, I do love that this story has echoes of the Trinity. In the beginning, a wind from God sweeps over the waters; and the word for “wind” and for “Spirit” is the same. We have the creator God, and we have the Spirit. Then God speaks to create—and the Word is one way in which we know and identify Jesus. Creator God, Spirit, Word. The Trinity in the beginning, doing a dance of creation.

Is that something to doubt? Absolutely. But it’s also something to have faith in. I pray that this week we will each have a chance to be honest about our doubts, and also about our faith.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Ascensions of Sassy Jesus and Maya

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

So begins my favorite poem of blessed Maya Angelou, who died this week. We are observing Ascension Day today; the day that Jesus rises into heaven after rising from the dust of the grave. It was hard not to make the connection… Jesus has been beaten, crucified, scorned... and now he is rising above it all.

There are two collects, or prayers, for Ascension Day, and both wrestle with what to do theologically with this new distance between us and the ascended Jesus. The one we used today prays that as Jesus has risen to heaven, “so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell.” It’s about how even though we are physically on earth, spiritually we should rise up and join him. The other collect says, “Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.” We are on earth, Jesus has ascended, but don’t worry—he’s still down here dwelling with us. It’s two ways of approaching our faith—neither of them wrong—one way is to try to rise above the sin and violence and struggles of earth; the other is to remember to bring Jesus into that sin and violence and struggle. Which sounds more familiar to you? Hopefully we do both; I think I’m probably better at bringing Jesus into the muck than I am at rising above… Maya Angelou you just couldn’t hold down… as one friend said upon her death, “Usually, when someone dies we say “May she rest in peace and rise in glory,” but I bet she’s doing more rising than resting.”

The disciples aren’t so sure how to deal with this new distance either. They look up to heaven like they would like to rise but have no idea how to follow Jesus... and they no longer recognize his abiding presence with them on earth. The Ascension marks a turning point in Jesus’ followers. They have been his disciples, his students—but now they are being sent out on their own as apostles.

For many people, this is a season of graduations…. the Ascension is not exactly graduation from Jesus-school; but it is a commencement of a new phase in what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus says to the disciples—now apostles, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” and then he’s gone. You can almost hear them thinking, “Wait, we’re not ready yet.” But they are indeed witnesses. Think of what this group of men and women had seen and heard in the past 3 years:—they’d seen people healed by faith, they’d heard the sermon on the mount, heard “love your enemies,” and “do this in remembrance of me.” And now the person who led them, who corrected them when they were in error—which was most of the time--who taught them everything they know, is gone up into heaven, with some vague promise of a Holy Spirit for future guidance. And they are left as the witnesses, the ones to testify and tell the story and spread good news throughout the entire world. Blessed are the poor. I am the way, the truth and the life. Jesus has been raised from the dead. And they are going to be persecuted and shunned and know violence while they are witnessing—they must bring Jesus back down into those experiences and also rise above them.

We are apostles and disciples all at the same time. We are never finished learning, and are always sent out into the world to proclaim good news. Our knowledge, like that of those first apostles is incomplete; we, like them, would like to be able to ask just one more question, to have Jesus stay for just a few more minutes while we get some clarifications on our faith. But we’re not as unprepared as we think. We, through those first apostles, have witnessed what they witnessed—the healings, the sermon on the mount, the last supper, the resurrection. And we are witnesses of God’s action and love in our own time and place as well. We are witnesses of grace in our personal lives, witnesses of a Gospel and a church broken open to include all people, and witnesses of that promised Holy Spirit, the comforter that does not leave us lonely when Jesus ascends. We are witnesses that the One who was beaten and downtrodden and who rose like the dust of the streets of Jerusalem.

It seems like that should be enough to testify to God’s abiding presence on earth—even in the pain and the violence and the sin. It should be enough to testify that God’s heart is breaking in Santa Barbara over the deaths of young people; that God’s heart is gladdened at the release of a young soldier in Afghanistan. And it should be enough to carry our hearts and minds up with him as he rises with his pierced hands raised in blessing upon us.

“Still I Rise” is a poem I can hardly hear without hearing Maya Angelou’s voice—it is such a witness to who she is and was; her suffering and injustice and pain held in tension with her beauty and confidence and sassiness and joy. But what if we heard Jesus speaking through her words? “Sassy” isn’t usually the first word I think of when I think of Jesus… but his confidence in his identity when faced with a crowd or the powers that be was sassy. I want to worship a sassy Jesus. He would not give earthly powers the authority they thought they deserved… and they couldn’t stand it so they killed him. Since then, he has been misrepresented and misunderstood for centuries by the inheritors of those very same powers—but we are left to be his witnesses to the other truth. The truth that he could be absolutely broken by the powers of this world, and still rise because neither they nor death could hold him down.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.