Monday, April 24, 2017

The Way of Belief (John 20:19-31)

During my first year of college, an introductory course engaged students around questions of critical thinking. College takes your worldview and challenges your suppositions, convictions, and myopias alike. Other life experiences can do the same, a time when life challenges you to the extent you learn a new way of seeing things.

As part of this college course, we looked at an image of a young shepherd boy. Somehow, he has stumbled and fallen to the ground. As he picks himself up, he realizes that he has left his familiar meadow and the hillside full of sheep, discovering instead a strange and different world, a place where the unknown and fantastic lurks in a landscape of unknown planets and stars. The college instructor loved using this image as a teaching tool. The little shepherd has a choice now before him: does he crawl back to what he has known (the meadow and hills of a shepherd) or does he crawl forward into this strange and different world?

At the end of John's gospel, we encounter Thomas, crawling through the world in the valley of the shadow of death.  At first, he denies what has happened (i.e. Resurrection) and lists his pre-conditions for belief.  Yet when he beholds the cross-marked Risen Christ, Thomas decides to leap up and confess his faith that something new and different was happening.

“My Lord and my God!” is the resounding confession of the first Christian believers, the culmination of a theological narrative woven throughout the gospel by John, who tells us in the first chapter, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known."

Belief is seeing the world beyond the obvious, seeking to see God at work in the world even when we feel as if God is absent or we obsess about the signs we expect, even demand, to see if we are to believe. Belief asks us to engage a worldview that surprises us anew and sends us off on journeys previously unimagined. As Raymond Brown translates Jesus’ word to Thomas (and to us): “Do not persist in your disbelief, but become a believer”.

This month, a number of commemorative events took place to remember Dr. Martin Luther King's speech against the Vietnam War. During the period from 1967 to 1968, King challenged the Johnson administration’s ongoing war in Vietnam and the critical needs of the poor. King found the result of such prophetic vision resulted with immediate challenge from critics, ranging from the White House down to fellow religious and civil rights leaders. The advice was “stick with your field”.

King rebuffed the criticism,
Before I became a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. When my father and others put their hands on my head and ordained me to the Christian ministry, it was a commission. Something said to me that the fire of truth is shut up in my bones. When it burns me, I must tell it.

King’s social witness is part of that same Easter witness required of those who believe in Christ’s resurrection. The gospel is not just a mere set of beliefs or a collection of wise sayings and tales given by a first century Jew from backwater Nazareth. The gospel is about being a believer in Easter, not just when it is time to break out the Easter baskets and enjoy the beautiful lily on the mantle. The Easter story should be deep down in you, words that confess Christ as Lord and God. The struggle to believe is mighty, for you wrestle with the life of faith all along life’s journey. Yet, there is truth found in the resurrection that cannot be tamed, one that pushes us beyond the world as we know it, beyond a sense of inevitable fate.

Belief in Christ, rightfully understood, is one that dances with joy and burns deep down in our bones, knowing that there is a greater reality where God is made known.

Becoming a believer is what the Easter faith calls us to embrace. As John's gospel puts it at narrative's end, these things are written down so that you may come to believe. These words are offered to you so that you, who have never seen Christ as these disciples did, may believe and have life. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Easter is always upon us

http://savannahnow.com/slideshow/2012-02-22/savannahs-civil-rights-movement#slide-1
 
For the first time in awhile, I had the opportunity to preach on Easter Sunday with two congregations in the Adirondacks.  A piece of that sermon also made it into a blog post for Ethics Daily (www.ethicsdaily.com).  Here's the part that I shared via pulpit and blog over the last few days:
 
Years ago, I was in Savannah, Georgia, for yet another Baptist meeting. Spreadsheets, memorandums, and documents to read, meetings to sit through, and then, the dreaded conference hotel meal: “chicken ala something” for lunch or dinner (and occasionally breakfast). However, at this meeting, I felt an earthquake.
Toward the end of the meeting, our committees boarded chartered buses and toured the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum. Recounting the history of segregation and the crucible of birthing civil rights in Savannah, the museum displayed many historical reminders of the era before and after the mid-20th century. In the midst of these exhibits was a collage of various signs created by protestors during the 1950s and 1960s. One sign stopped me in my tracks. The sign said, “We sacrificed Easter”.
For years, the downtown Savannah stores practiced segregationist ways: no African Americans could sit at the food counter, yet the merchants still sold to the African American community, especially at Easter time, when the demand for “Easter best” clothes was high. Businesses made a bundle, but Jim Crow still ruled without question.

That is, until the black church leaders called for a boycott of stores at Easter. Soon, the businesses discovered that they faced either changing the rules or boarding up their stores from the loss of business. The witness of a group of disciples willing to speak truth to power made a lasting change possible in their town.
Again, I wonder what would happen if we stepped back from the overly familiar way of thinking of Easter (positively, the “fluffy fun” of Easter bonnets, baskets, and bunnies and negatively in many churches with the lament of “our pews are not as full as Easters long ago”). Instead, could we read this text and ask ourselves, “What does this story tell us we need to be seeing as we live out and share the gospel in this community?” Instead, could we let go and experience this text as a story powerful enough to shake the ground beneath our feet?
Easter is not just this one Sunday. Easter is the beginning and the end: the end of our world in its sinful and broken ways and the beginning of a gathering of disciples who do not fear but move forward in the confidence of a faith that summons us not to familiarity and indifference. Rather, we are told “go forth” as a community that can move forth, even though the earth be shaking, even though Caesar would rather have us not being the radical and contrary types that Jesus’ followers are called to be, and speak and live as if Easter is always upon us.
Alleluia! He is risen! Let the people say, “AMEN.”

Friday, April 7, 2017

Following Jesus, Despite the Crowds

When we gather the children with palm fronds (and pray they don’t start whacking each other over the head!), we engage in recreating the Palm procession of Jesus. It’s wonderful, euphoric and full of beaming congregants watching the familiar drama unfold.

Ironically, what appears cute and photogenic is really more along the lines of political street theatre. What type of grown-ups are we if we do not tell our kids that this waving of palm branches is being faithful to a king who is unlike no other king or ruler they will learn about in school?

If we do things right, we will raise our kids what it means to be a follower of Jesus, who was unafraid of empires and “powers that be”, speaking of God’s sovereign claim to the world.

As Holy Week unfolds, we tell a story of colliding worlds; as the differences are drawn between the Roman empire/Jerusalem’s political and religious elite and the Reign of God with its Servant King Jesus. The question for Christ’s follower looms: can we give a witness when our world collides with the one proclaimed by the gospel?

In the mid-20th century, the unthinkable happened. A woman named Grace Thomas ran for governor of Georgia. Not only breaking customs about women running for high office, Grace also ran on a desegregation platform. She finished dead last.

A few years later, she ran again in 1962. As the Civil Rights era was gaining momentum, her platform of racial tolerance was still unthinkable.

 On a campaign stop in Louisville, Georgia, she deliberately chose the town square for her remarks. The town square was once a slave market in times past.

Telling her story, the preacher Thomas Long recalls:

As she stood on the very spot where slaves had been auctioned, a hostile crowd of storekeepers and farmers gathered to hear what she would say. “The old has passed away,” she began, “and the new has come. This place represents all about our past over which we must repent. A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.”

The crowd stirred. “Are you a communist?” someone shouted at her.

Grace paused in midsentence. She said softly. “I am not.”

“Well, then,” continued the heckler, “where’d you get all those [blasted] ideas?”

Grace thought for a minute, and then she pointed to a steeple of a nearby church. “I got them over there,” she said, “in Sunday school.”

 (From Long's book Preaching From Memory to Hope, p. 19-20).

Hosanna...praise be....Hosanna....Lord, save us.....Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna.

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An oral history interview was conducted in 1979 with Grace Thomas. Listen to her reflections via this link: http://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ggdp/id/5330