Monday, April 13, 2015

Courageous Thomas

I had old friends who loved adventure travel, and saved up for a long trip to the Galapagos Islands in September 2001. On September 11, they were snorkeling and birdwatching 600 miles from the nearest newspaper, TV, or phone. It took days before they heard what had happened here, and they missed the trauma of it all. They had no unending replays on TV, no personal fear of attack, and when they got home, they said they were absolutely baffled, because the world had changed, and they intellectually knew why, but they hadn’t changed in the same way as every other person they knew. The resurrection was just as important a moment for those who encountered the risen Jesus as September 11 was for us. And in his own way, Thomas has missed the experience of resurrection rather like my friends missed 9/11.

And his name has been punished throughout history for it. “Doubting Thomas,” he is called, known more for his doubts than his faith, and unfairly cast as a symbol of faithlessness. After all, the other apostles all saw Jesus in the flesh before they came to belief; and the reason they are all hiding in an upper room the night of the resurrection is that they didn’t fully believe Mary Magdalene’s proclamation that she had seen the risen Jesus and so were still afraid. Thomas gets a bad rap.

And so does doubt. The Greek word translated “doubt” in today’s gospel, is apistis, which really means “without faith.” At least in English, there is a lot of difference between having doubts and being without faith. I have faith. And I have doubts. Faithful people have doubts, and if they don’t, then they aren’t faithful. Faith is specifically a belief in something that is unsee-able and unproveable. If you have doubts about your faith—you are welcome here. If you have no doubts at all, this may not be the church for you. People who do not have doubts about their faith can turn into people like the Westboro Baptist “church” who picket soldiers funerals and –this weekend—Virginia theological Seminary for caring about all of God’s children and not just those that the Westboro folks consider pure.

Thomas does come to faith on a different timeline than his fellow apostles. We worry so much about missing out. About letting opportunity pass us by. But God doesn’t worry about those things. Jesus comes back the next week and gives Thomas what he needs to believe. We can pass up opportunity after opportunity to meet God, and there will always be another opportunity. God is far more patient than we are.

When we baptize babies, it’s always an opportunity to think about what we—their parents and godparents, their family friends, and their church community—desire for their life of faith. We are all taking vows today to support Charlie Urquhart and Charlie Davis in their life of faith. What of today’s gospel story do we want them to have? It’s pretty obvious, but I would be so pleased if both of them turned out to have a faith like Thomas.

This is the third of three times that Thomas speaks up in the Gospel of John; in chapter 11, he is the one who says to the disciples that they should go with Jesus to Bethany, where Lazarus has died, even if it means that they will die with him. He seems to have faith then. And courage. He recognizes that following Jesus and being a disciple is costly, and he is ready to lead others on that path.

In John 14, When Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house, and tells the disciples that they know the way to the place where he is going, it is Thomas who asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas is asking a question that is probably on the minds of all the disciples. He wants to believe—he wants to understand. And he has the courage to ask the question. He’s not “doubting Thomas.” He’s “Courageous Thomas.” How many times in our lives have we hesitated to ask a question out of a fear that it will show our ignorance… and have regretted it? Thomas asks, rather than regrets.

And then we get to today’s passage, and Thomas’s proclamation of “My Lord, and my God.” Thomas comes to faith late, but he was still sent, led by the Holy Spirit, and he went farther than any of the other apostles. The myth of Thomas is that he went to India; I always thought that was just a myth until I went to India. There’s good evidence that Thomas actually made it there; or at least someone did in the first century, because there have been Christians in India since then. Some forms of Christianity in India are the type we might normally think of; colonizing Europeans bringing the Gospel to the “natives”. But other churches are indigenous. Thomas may very well have arrived, as the legends say, in 52 AD, when all of my ancestors in Germany and England were still worshipping trees. Thomas founded a church that lasted as a witness to the resurrection, to his claim of “My Lord and my God.”

So that would be a good faith for the Charlies. But there is a lifetime ahead of them to discover it. Thomas’s call to us is one of patience. We may not be on the same timeline as those around us in our faith. Sometimes we lead; sometimes we follow. Sometimes we demand proof, and sometimes we realize that we didn’t need it. But always praying with our collect today: “Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith.” Our lives display our faith. Thomas’s faith was on display in his life. May our lives proclaim that same faith.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"Miss, why are you crying?"

“Miss—why are you crying?” It was late on a Friday night last fall, and I had been out with friends and heard bad news. Now, alone in the backseat of the taxi, I was sobbing unexpectedly. The taxi driver didn’t ignore me. “Miss—why are you crying?” I admit I had a moment of vanity… “He called me ‘miss’ instead of ‘ma’am’”. But I was grateful for the comfort. It sounds a lot like the angels and Jesus today speaking to Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” I told him why I was crying, and he further showed his compassion, in the only way he could, by handing me a paper towel to mop up my tears. And he got me home safely. It was one of those wonderful New York City moments, where you become intimate with a stranger in an instant, a stranger who I’m sure was from a different country and a different faith than I, and yet who blessed me by his capacity for compassion and caregiving.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary Magdalene’s response to the questions posited by Jesus and the angels about why she is crying is interesting. She doesn’t say she’s crying because her rabbi has been killed. Those tears have already been shed. The reality that he has been executed has sunk in. She is weeping because on top of all that, his body has been stolen. She had a ministry, a final act of love in caring for his body and properly anointing it and wrapping it for burial, and giving him the dignity that was stolen from him on the cross. And that has been stolen away. And that is why she is weeping. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Mary is in a dark place of grief and confusion. The gospel passage begins, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” In the Gospel of John, when the author writes it is dark, it has nothing to do with the position of the sun. Darkness in John’s gospel is cosmic, spiritual, moral, and intellectual. It is dark because Mary Magdalene, Peter, the beloved disciple, and the entire world do not yet know that Jesus has been raised from the dead. But it will not be dark for long—as John’s gospel proclaims in the first chapter, “the light shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it.” Light will triumph today.

But first, as is so often true in the world, there is confusion and a lot of running around, too and from the tomb. Both male disciples are still in darkness as they leave the tomb. It’s not until Mary has stayed at the tomb, waiting, kneeling and weeping that the light dawns. Jesus says, “Mary!” And then she knows—she knows who this is, it’s not a gardener, it’s Jesus and she exclaims, “Rabbouni! Teacher!” and she must fall to the ground and grab his feet, the hem of his robe, and her tears of grief are turned to tears of joy.

The light dawns for those who are weeping and grieving in faith. The light dawns for those who are tenacious in their suffering, and do not give up and go home and settle for the way things are. Mary knows that she has a calling to care for Jesus’ body, and she will not rest until she has convinced someone—whether an angel, a gardener, or anyone else—that they must direct her to where her Lord is laying. And by following her calling, she discovers an even greater calling. Mary Magdalene is known as the “Apostle to the apostles,” the apostolorum apostola; the first person to carry the news of the resurrection and share that light with another person.

May we all have that tenacity in our passion for caring for the dead. Mary cannot change the reality that Jesus has been unjustly executed. But she can return some measure of dignity to his body. Peter and the beloved disciple do not share that call, and so they go home still in darkness, perplexed and not feeling like they can do anything. They are hopeless and helpless.

It is easy to feel hopeless and helpless because of the darkness of the world. The last few months one source of darkness for me is the recognition that the world has begun persecuting Christians again in the last year in a way that feels new to me. Christians in Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria, and now Kenya are being martyred for their faith. Our liberal Protestantism may make us hesitant to stand up too strongly in opposition out of a fear of being perceived as anti-Islamic. But it is not against Islam to say that murdering anyone for their faith is wrong; it is not against Islam to say that when Christians are being displaced by the thousands, Christians who live in places of privilege and safety should pay attention and speak up.

But how do you do that? How do you show the compassion of asking, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and listen to the pain and offer solace and comfort constructively, while still being faithful to the Prince of Peace, and not responding out of hatred? It’s tricky. The response of the Gospel to suffering and injustice is that Jesus does not rise unscathed, unscarred. Open wounds mark his hands and feet and side—as John’s gospel will make very clean in the story of his interaction with Thomas next week. Jesus bears the marks of suffering on his very body and still, still rises to bring us with him. How then do we show our faith in the one who was crucified?

If we just go home after seeing unjust killing; if we turn off the news, click on the next article, and move on about our days unchanged; If we do not wait at the tomb and demand dignity and compassion for the victims, then we remove ourselves from the opportunity of meeting Jesus and having our tears turn to joy and laughter. And this is true not just for the martyrdom of Christians—it is true for all unjust deaths, many of which are far closer to us geographically than Libya or Kenya. We are called as Christians to follow in Mary Magdalene’s footsteps and bear witness; to wait at the tomb and weep and be present so that we can greet the risen Lord when he comes and proclaim that at death life is changed, not ended.

Shortly after the execution of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya back in February, an artist named Tony Rezk wrote an icon of the martyrs that was stunning. It is in the style of a traditional Orthodox icon, and the 21 men, in orange robes, kneeling on the sand, are being greeted by in heaven by Jesus and two angels who are giving them crowns and shouting “Axios!” the Greek word for “Worthy”. The image, and its wide sharing as a way of remembering the lives lost and gathering support to stop such violence in the future, reminds me of Mary Magdalene’s presence outside the tomb. The dignity and honor that was not afforded those men in life was being offered in death. Each name is listed on the back of the icon, that we may say their names and chant “Axios” for each one in our prayer.

Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya wrote a letter to his church and the world after the attack this week in Garissa, ending with this sentence:

“We will not be intimidated because we know and trust in the power of the cross, God’s power to forgive our sins, to turn death into the gate of glory and to make us his children for ever.”

In the face of so much bad news, in the face of so much violence and war and persecution and injustice and darkness, how can we possibly laugh or sing or celebrate? We laugh, we shout “Alleluia” today along with Christians all over the world, in places of power and in places of persecution, precisely because of what Archbishop Wabukala writes: we all trust in God’s power to turn death into the gate of glory, and make us his children for ever. We are God’s children, as Jesus says to Mary, “I am going to my father and your father, my God and your God.” Our father, our God, knows each of us by name, and calls us by that name that we may turn and face him and say “Rabbouni”, teacher; and in response, when we make that turn, the heavens will proclaim “Axios,” worthy. Amen.