Show Me

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a reflection on John 20:19-29 for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

I was surprised some years ago when I learned that during the first few centuries of the church, the most important season of the year was not the season of Advent, not the season of Lent. For the early church, the most important season of the year was the season of Easter—the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. This season, in the early church, the season we’re moving through right now, was set aside as a season of Joy. It was set aside precisely for the purpose of helping us receive and live into new life with the Risen Christ.

There is deep wisdom, I think, in the understanding that this new life is a process,–it’s not instantaneous — and that it takes time for us to let go of old habits, old ways of living that stand in the way of new life.  And so, the founders of the early church understood that these 50 days following the astonishing Easter resurrection, are a good time to start living, day by day, into the new life that God promises us. Unless, of course, like Jesus’ friends, you happen to be locked in a room, terrified. Afraid for your life.

This is exactly where we find our friends this morning. Their beloved teacher has been executed by a terrorist regime—a regime that very intentionally and publicly crucifies its enemies as a warning to anyone who might be planning disobedience of any kind.

So Jesus’ friends are hiding out  in a locked room, knowing that any moment now, someone down on the street could point to their window and identify them as followers of Jesus. Any moment now, there could be a knock on the door. And so, in the wake of the resurrection, in the wake of the first, great Easter — they don’t feel much like spreading the good news! Instead, they are locked in a room together, waiting for the other sandal to drop.

And it is into this room that Jesus suddenly appears, saying “Peace be with you.” Then he shows everybody his wounds. And they see. And believe that he’s really there.

Everybody, that is, except for Thomas, who has the bad luck to be absent on the day when his teacher appears. He’s down by the river doing his laundry or something.

So it is that Thomas does not get the benefit of seeing what the other disciples have already seen. When we meet Thomas this morning, he’s still terrified, traumatized. Most important, Thomas is still heartbroken. When we meet him this morning, Thomas is a guy who has been wounded, badly, by the loss of the friend he trusted and loved.

I’m willing to bet that Thomas isn’t the only one among us who has ever felt this way. I find it fascinating church tradition takes a guy like Thomas and blames him for having so little faith. Doubting Thomas, we call him. It’s particularly fascinating because if we look closely at the text, what we see is that Jesus himself doesn’t seem to blame Thomas at all. If Jesus blamed Thomas for his lack of faith, Jesus could have just left him to stew in his own disbelief—why bother showing up again, just for a guy who has no faith?

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus does. One week later, while the disciples are once again huddled in a locked room, Jesus appears yet again. As if he’s going out of his way to make sure that this time, Thomas will be there to see the wounds that the other disciples have already seen. As if it were the most natural thing in the world to need some evidence before we can believe. As if Jesus understands completely why Thomas—along with all the other disciples—cannot believe until his sees.

I’m pretty sure that Jesus does understand what Thomas needs, what we need, to see. Because Jesus, of all people, knows what it is to be wounded by the world. The Latin word for wound is vulnus, which is where we get our word vulnerable. Jesus, of all people, knows that to love always makes us vulnerable. Jesus, of all people, knows how terrifying it can be to love, to let your heart be vulnerable in this world.

Who better, then, to understand Thomas? Who better than the wounded Christ, the Christ of Compassion, to understand that it is Thomas’ own wounds, his own pain and disappointment, that make him afraid to believe again, afraid to believe in new life, in hope, in the possibility of joy.

“For those of you who can believe without seeing, Well, lucky you.” Jesus says. “You are blessed.” But for Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus shows up this morning to say, “Yes. I know how hard it is to believe, to trust again after you have been wounded.” To Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus says, “I know you need help to trust God again with your wounded heart. So, I will show you–I will show you!–exactly what you need to see.”

I suspect that there is something in every one of us that hesitates to reach out and claim the new life that God extends to us this season. There is a part of us—maybe our heart, maybe our soul–that has been wounded by life. Maybe even wounded by the church. And so, even in this season of new life and joy, we find ourselves still locked up in a room of fear, unable to trust in the possibility of new life. Like Thomas, we need some help, we need a reassuring sign—in order to be able to accept the offer of new life.

Lucky for us,Thomas, of all the disciples, has the courage to ask—the chutzpah, really!–to ask for the help he needs. No shame that he can’t believe. He simply asks to see. And it’s Thomas’ asking—his willingness to name what it is he needs —that seems to call Jesus in for a second visit.

And I wonder if the same might be true for us. In a minute, I’m going to stop talking and invite you to listen to any part of you that might be having some doubt this morning about all this new life business—any part of you that might, just like Thomas, be feeling a little afraid. Maybe it’s your heart. Maybe it’s your soul. A wounded inner child? I invite you to let that Thomas part of you finds its voice and ASK for whatever it might need in order to be willing to trust again…

And as you listen, I invite you to really honor what you hear by writing it down. There’s a piece of paper in your bulletin. And there should be a pencil or pen in the pew in front of you.  I invite you to write down whatever it is that your doubting, fearful heart needs to ask for this morning. You don’t have to share it with anyone; you don’t have to say it out loud. You can fold it right up and put it in your pocket. But I encourage you to listen to the voice of your own doubt this morning the way Jesus listens to Thomas. As if your very own doubt, just like Thomas’ doubt, is tender, and holy, and precious to God. Ask your own precious, vulnerable doubt what kind of a sign it needs. And then write down what you hear. I’ll give you a minute to listen, and write.

Whatever it is that you heard from your doubt this morning, I invite you to carry it with you this week. You might even want to look at it every now and then. And maybe, when you look at your own doubt, you might pray, as Thomas did, “Show me. God, show me the sign I need to see.” The sign you need to help you believe in the promise of new life that God is extending to you in this season of resurrection, this season of joy.

Above all, I invite you to be compassionate with your own doubting self. At least as compassionate as Jesus is with his beloved Thomas, the doubting one.

None of us gets through this life without being wounded. The world has its sharp, jagged edges, and they catch us, and we suffer, and we are afraid. Chances are that if we are truly going to receive new life in this season of Easter joy; if we are going to carry that new life into the world, then we’re going to need help, friends. We’re going to need each other.

If Thomas is any indication, God is ready, on a moment’s notice, to slip into the locked room of our fear and deliver to us that sign of hope, that sign of new life, if only we will ask.

And so we remember this morning, that the words, “Show me” are a complete and perfect prayer. And we give thanks to Thomas and all the faithful friends who teach us how to pray it. Thanks be to God.

 

I Took Them Up in My Arms

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A reflection on Hosea 11:1-4 and God the Mother 

Mother’s Day, 2019

I wonder if you can remember a moment when you happened to be in the right place at the right time to see a very small child, maybe only nine or ten months old, take his or her very first steps. Can you remember that moment? Maybe it was your own child, a niece or a nephew, maybe a grandchild. I wonder if there’s anything more thrilling, more remarkable, than an infant who is determined to walk; a child who is compelled by the very force of life itself to pull herself up on the edge of a coffee table and see if her own two legs will hold her. Maybe you were there at the moment when she let go of that table and took two, maybe three steps before she fell, laughing, into your waiting arms. I wonder if there is anything in the world more tender than the arms that catch a child as he takes a step and falls, takes another step and falls again.

When we witness this moment, when we are lucky enough to be right there for a child’s first steps, we know that something has changed forever. Not only for that newly walking baby. And not only for her parents, who have probably just raced off to Target to buy a baby gate for the top of the stairs: their lives have definitely changed forever. But they aren’t the only ones whose lives have changed. If you are there to witness those first steps, your life is different, too. Because when we catch that baby after his first, faltering steps, when we rejoice with that tiny girl after her first solo walk across the living room, the bonds of love are cemented between us. The shared experience of that much hope, that much love, joins our hearts and our souls in wild joy and in reverence for the milestone we’ve just shared. We’re linked forever. At least, that’s how it seems to work for us human beings.

For God, it seems that things don’t always turn out so well.

It was I, says God in our scripture reading this morning. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. (In this instance, the tribe of Ephraim stands for all of Israel.) I took them up in my arms, God says. But they did not know that I healed them.

I wonder if we can even begin to imagine the pain God is speaking about through the prophet Hosea this morning. It might be something like the pain we would feel if, as we watched that child take her first steps, we suddenly realized that when she grows up, she’s not even going to remember who we are.

I was to them, says God, Like those who lift infants to their cheeks. And still, God laments, they do not know me.

This is a heartbroken God we encounter this morning. A God who so gently, like the most tender parent, feeds and lifts and loves Her people, and yet remains invisible to them.

See if you can imagine the pain God speaks of here:  

I bent down to them and fed them, says God. And still they do not know me.

I bent down to them and fed them like a mother, says God, And still, they call me only “Lord,” only “Father,” only “Rock.”

This is not often what we think of when we picture God in our minds: a God whose heart is breaking because Her people have failed to see, have refused to recognize, God’s most tender love and care.

Instead, what we often imagine is a God who might accept our praise on Sunday mornings, but who certainly doesn’t need our understanding or our attention. Somehow, we  modern people, so independent, so technologically advanced, so able to manipulate our world and take care of ourselves in so many ways – we have created God in our own image. We have fashioning a God who is as self sufficient and independent as we imagine ourselves to be.

Not so, says the prophet Hosea. God is mother to us. God is even now bending all the way down to earth to feed us, the prophet cries. God is a mother whose heart is breaking because Her children do not recognize her for who she really is: the One who lifts each soul like a child to Her cheek and who longs for us to know Her in the fullness, in the mothering mercy, of Her love.

All through the long line of Hebrew prophets, all the way up to and including Jesus himself, what we see is a God who longs to be in intimate, loving relationship with all of creation, and with human creatures. And this morning, this Mother’s Day morning, the prophet Hosea reminds us that it is difficult to be in real relationship with anyone if we are determined to see only a small part of who they are. What I want to suggest is that the part of God we see, the side of God we are willing to recognize, has everything to do with how we treat one another and the other creatures with whom we share this world. The God we imagine—the image of God we offer to our children—has everything to do with the kind of world we leave our children and the kind of God they will find.

So I want to offer a mother’s day thank you, a mother’s day shout-out, to the prophet Hosea, who was writing in the middle of the 8th century BCE, which was a very, very dark time in his people’s history. A time when the Assyrian army was breathing down Israel’s neck, about to destroy the northern kingdom; a fearful time when any prophet could be forgiven for calling upon a vengeful, martial, punishing God. I want to give a shout-out to Hosea and to every prophet who has the courage, even in the most dangerous of times, to speak of the wholeness, and the tenderness of God. To offer us a God who is more loving, more merciful, more forgiving—and much more complete—than the judging, punishing, distant God we so often carry in our minds.

And I wonder this morning whether your own relationship with God might feel just a bit easier, maybe even more possible, if you knew for sure that ours is a mothering God. A God who even now is bending, kneeling, reaching, to gather you in. I think Mother’s Day might be the perfect day to give this God a try.

I wonder how we all might change—as a people, as a nation—if we knew for sure that God is mother to every single being. How might our criminal justice system change? How likely would we be to continue throwing errant 14-year-olds into juvenile hall if we knew that God loves those children more like a mother than like a punishing lord?

If we knew for sure that God is mother to every being, how likely would we be to continue incarcerating immigrant children and their families as they flee for their lives? It’s hard for me to imagine American corporations profiting from the incarceration of children and their families in a country whose people know, in their hearts, the tender mercy of a mothering God.

It’s hard to imagine the earth itself being plundered and poisoned for profit by a people who knows that God is even now lifting every leaf, every wing, every creature, to Her cheek with a mother’s tender love.

It was I, says God. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms, God says. But they did not know that I healed them.

What might it mean for you to know the God who is longing to heal us all? What might it mean to remember the God who even now is loving you into being moment by moment, breath by breath, Her own heart leaping with joy as you learn to trust the legs of your own life? What might it mean to remember the One whose arms are reaching, even now, to catch you, to forgive you, to offer you abundant life again and again?

This day, this Mother’s Day, may we hear the cry of the God who longs to be seen in Her wholeness. A God who is as merciful, as tender, as life-giving, as the people She created us to be. Amen.

 

Choose Your Own Adventure

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a reflection on Mark 16:1-8

Easter Sunday 2019

I brought a little book to share with you this morning, and I’m guessing that even from far away, some of you might be able to recognize it, just by its cover. If you have been a kid recently, or if you’ve been reading with kids recently, you may know this series, which is called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” This particular adventure is The Abominable Snowman, but there are lots of different books in this series: adventures in outer space, adventures under the sea, all kinds of adventures! These books have been popular for a long time, and I think it’s because they do two very unusual things. First, they are written in the second person, directly the reader. So that as you read along, you can imagine that this great adventure is happening not to a character in the book, but to you.

The second thing that makes these books unusual is that whenever something interesting happens in the story, the narrative suddenly comes to a complete stop. And that’s when you, the reader, have to choose what happens next. You come upon an abandoned well? You have to decide whether you want to stick your head in and see what’s down there, or walk right by. You meet a wolf on the road? You get to decide whether to run the other way, or sit down and offer it some of your lunch.

As you might imagine, the way the story turns out depends on what you decide to do at each juncture. This particular book promises 28 different possible endings, depending on what kind of choices you make all along the way.

Which is not unlike what happens in the gospel of Mark this morning. Very early in the morning, the women make their way to the tomb. And to their great surprise, they find that not only has the stone been rolled away, but the tomb is empty! And there before them sits a figure in a white robe, who tells them that Jesus has been raised: he’s already gone. And the women are overcome, speechless with terror and amazement. And that’s it! That’s all the gospel writer wrote.

Of course, if you are reading along in your Bible, you will see that there are two more endings after this one, a shorter one and a longer one. It’s not quite the 28 endings you can get with The Abominable Snowman, but still, two extras is pretty good! But because neither of these two additional endings appears in the earliest known manuscripts, scholars agree that these extra endings were added on during the 2nd and 3rd centuries by folks who perhaps weren’t so happy with the way the original story screeches to a halt at the first news of the resurrection: “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

We can probably understand why folks would want to elaborate a bit, because this ending isn’t all that satisfying — especially if you read it on Easter morning! After everything Jesus and his friends have been through; after watching Jesus feed the people bread and fish; after watching him heal the sick and invite everybody—every body—into the kingdom of God; after watching Jesus feed the people so much HOPE—so much hope for new life, so much hope for God’s justice to come on earth—this is how it all ends? With silence and fear? Really? Somebody who seems to be an angel sits in the tomb and says, “Guess what? Christ is Risen!” And do the disciples whip out their banners and shout Alleluia! No, they do not. In the gospel of Mark, the angel announces, Christ is Risen! And the disciples reply, No Way! Imagine if we did that on Easter morning! The minister says, Christ is Risen! And the congregation responds: No way!

It doesn’t quite have the same ring! So we can imagine why people felt the need to change the ending of this gospel. The author must have made a mistake, they said. The real ending must have gotten lost. The writer couldn’t possibly have meant to end the story here.

Unless, of course, the author of the gospel of Mark was a writer who knew a thing or two about how to tell a good story. A writer who knew how to get us to put ourselves into the story. What would you do? the gospel of Mark asks us this morning. The angel has spoken. You’ve seen the empty tomb. Now you have to decide. Which adventure will you choose?

The ending of this story, says the gospel of Mark, is up to us. By leaving the ending wide open, by leaving us staring at the empty tomb while the disciples run away, the gospel of Mark suggests that what happens next, what happens to the good news of the resurrection, what happens to the good news that God is offering us new life beyond every tomb we can imagine or invent—what we do with this news is entirely up to us.

And so, on this Easter morning, we stand with the disciples at a crossroad, facing a choice. A choice we always have to make at every crossroad: will we step into new life, or will we let fear keep us right where we are? Which is probably why the first thing the angel says this morning is: Do not be alarmed. Do not be afraid.

This is what angels in the Bible always say just before they tell us something impossibly good. Something we can hardly believe.It must be in the angel instruction manual. When an angel shows up and says, Do not be afraid, you can be sure he’s about to tell you something so great, so new, that it’s terrifying.

Terrifying enough to make us ordinary mortals want to run back to our old lives and hide, just like the disciples do this morning. This is human nature, friends, and angels seem to understand it very well. It is human nature to be afraid of stepping into the new life that God offers. Even an angel knows that a new thing, a brand-new way of living, can be scary to us humans, no matter how good that new life promises to be.

And so the gospel of Mark asks us to do some soul searching this morning. Will we choose to believe in the possibility of new life? In the possibility of resurrection? Or will we, too, run away and hide?

As far as we know, God will not choose for us. As far as we know, the Divine Presence is too gentle, too respectful of our free will to choose our adventure for us. This is the great paradox at the heart of our faith: the God of all creation is also the One who is humble enough to empty God’s self on the cross; humble enough to allow us to do what we will—with God, with our lives, with all life on earth. God will even allow us to continue to crucify one another, to continue to crucify the planet itself, if we insist. God will allow us, if we choose, to refuse the offer of new life when it does not match up with our old, comfortable ways of living. This is free will, friends, and it is a gift from God: choose your own adventure.

And yet, the angel makes it very clear this morning that while the choice is ultimately ours, God is still calling to us. The Lord is going on ahead of you, says the angel. Which is true, even now! God is always just a step ahead of us, trying to lure us along: inviting us, praying for us, to follow, if we dare. And I wonder if, even now, there might be an angel, an Easter angel, holding its breath for all of humanity, waiting to see which adventure we will choose for ourselves and for the world that God loves. Will we remain set in our ways, out of habit, out of fear? Or will we accept the invitation to new life?

And I wonder if there is part of you this morning that is longing to accept the invitation to new life? Can you feel the faint stirrings of hope? Can you feel a flutter of wings urging you to believe that new life is possible, even now? Urging you not to be afraid?

I wonder what kind of support might you need in order to say a holy yes to this offer of new life? Maybe a community of friends, companions for the journey? Maybe a community where it is safe, right here, to be vulnerable in our hope and in our fear? A community where it is safe enough to take a risk—the risk of hope, the risk of believing again in new life even though our hearts have been broken so many times before?

You know, and I know, that new life does not come without risk. We know that new life comes with sacrifice and sometimes painful change. New life requires that we let go of the old life we have come to know and love. New life requires that we sacrifice our old ways of living in order to heal and care for all life on this earth. New life requires the courage to build, even now, a world where no one goes hungry, where no one grows up in fear. Hope like that is a dangerous thing. Hope like that can break your heart. A heart that has already lost so much, and so many. A heart that has already been broken at the foot of the cross.

And yet, here we are, standing with the first disciples, staring at an empty tomb. This morning, we begin the adventure known as the season of Easter: the great 50 days of Easter—a whole season in which we are invited, if we dare, to listen for the stirrings of new life, to follow the Risen One who is going on ahead of us. No matter how long we’ve been hiding, no matter how long we’ve been hurting, no matter how long we’ve been afraid to hope—we are invited this morning not to run away but to stay, and to choose new life beyond anything we’ve known before.

That’s the invitation this morning: for us, and for the world. And so, on this beautiful day of resurrection, may we find the courage we need, may we look around this room and find the brave companions we need, to help us say a holy yes to God’s own adventure. May we choose this day the adventure of truly new and abundant life—for ourselves, for our children, and for this world that God so loves. Amen. And Alleluia.