Imagining the Future

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

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To listen to an interview with Fr. Greg, click here.

When Greg Boyle was appointed as the pastor of the Dolores Mission in the late 1980s, he recognized that it would be a challenging call. The Mission is located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which at the time was the epicenter of more gang activity than anywhere else in the world. Fr. Boyle understood that much of his ministry would be devoted to addressing the proliferation of gang violence in his community.  At the beginning of his time at the Mission, Boyle attempted to make peace through diplomacy. He was Henry Kissinger on a ten speed bicycle, shuttling between the various gangs and negotiating terms. Boyle would draw up treaties that stipulated rules about things like shooting into each other’s houses. The various parties would sign, and hostilities would cease for a time. Though these truces initially felt like victories, Fr. Greg gradually realized that they were ultimately hollow. Negotiation and diplomacy assume that there is conflict: that the parties involved have opposing goals and that there is the potential for a mutually agreeable solution. But Fr. Greg soon recognized that while there is lots of violence among gangs, there is no conflict. Boyle realized that gang violence stems, not from conflict, but from “a lethal absence of hope,” from the reality that the kids in his community “can’t imagine a future for themselves.”

We see a similar absence of hope among the disciples in today’s reading from John’s gospel. John tells us that it is evening, that the darkness is approaching. The bright sunlight of Easter morning has dissipated, the triumph and joy have faded into memory, and the disciples are now waiting with apprehension in the gathering darkness. Indeed, John explicitly tells us that the former companions of Jesus have gathered in the uncertain twilight of that locked room because they are afraid: afraid of those who executed Jesus, yes, but also afraid of confronting the harsh reality of their own faithlessness. The disciples abandoned Jesus in his darkest hour and are now paralyzed by guilt. Having lost their Lord and Teacher, they are uncertain about what they are to do next; indeed, they are uncertain about who they are now or what they will become. The disciples are stuck in that room because they are unable to imagine a future for themselves.

For whatever reason, Thomas is not with the disciples in that locked room. Perhaps he is scrounging for food, perhaps he is plotting the disciples’ escape from Jerusalem, or perhaps he just can’t bear to be in the same room with those who remind him so viscerally of the one he abandoned. Apart from Peter, Thomas was the disciple whose renunciation of Jesus was the most thorough. Remember that when Jesus announced he was going to visit the tomb of Lazarus in spite of the potential danger, Thomas alone courageously affirmed, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Thomas understood the danger of Jesus’ mission long before the road to Golgotha, and he claimed that he would remain with Jesus until the very end. And yet, just like the other disciples, Thomas fled from the authorities, stayed away from the one he claimed he would die for, and left Jesus to walk the way of the cross alone. Perhaps Thomas stayed away from the disciples because because he couldn’t stand the sight of those who reminded him so poignantly of his infidelity. Perhaps Thomas left that locked room because he simply could not imagine a future for himself when he had failed so completely.

This perspective would have given powerful and predictable shape to Thomas’ reaction when he returned to that locked room. Thomas would have been wallowing in the pain of his guilt when the other disciples told him that they had seen the Lord. Jesus has been raised, they tell their friend, and he came to share share words of peace, reconciliation, hope, renewal, and love. Thomas refuses to believe it because he can’t comprehend the idea that Jesus would return to those who rejected him with anything other than words of retribution. Peace? There can be no peace for those who are so plagued by regret and shame. Hope? Hope is for people who can imagine a future. Thomas claims he won’t believe unless he sees the wounds that he and his companions had allowed to be inflicted; like most of us, he believes that there are some things that simply can’t be forgiven.

Immediately after Thomas demands to see the wounds of the crucified Lord, John sets a nearly identical scene. I say “nearly identical” because John tells us that this gathering takes place eight days later. Eight is the number of new creation: the signal that we are transcending the normal rhythm of the calendar, the promise that a new day is dawning, the implicit proclamation that the world has been given a new future. By setting this scene on the eighth day John indicates that the disciples are about to experience God in an entirely new way. thomassunday1ebayIndeed, when Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples breathing words of peace and renewal, Thomas recognizes the reality of the new creation when he exclaims, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas understood a fundamental truth: that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the complete manifestation of God’s very being. It is an affirmation of God’s deathless love, a pledge that all our past unfaithfulness has been forgiven, that our lives have been and will be renewed, and that our future has been redeemed. Notice that our participation in the renewal of creation is not about accomplishing particular tasks; it is about abiding in peace. When Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he does not commission the disciples to do anything. Rather, he invites the disciples into a place of love, a place where they can hope for a future that they could not previously imagine.

Jose is a young man from Fr. Greg’s parish who has been a gang member, a drug addict, and a prison inmate. When Jose was six, his mother said to him, “Why don’t you just kill yourself. You’re such a burden to me.” Jose’s mother beat him, to the point that he wore three T-shirts at a time in order to protect himself and hide the wounds his mother inflicted. Jose was ashamed of his wounds well into adulthood and he resisted every attempt well-meaning people made to help him. But when he met Greg Boyle, Jose met someone who was not ashamed of him and who didn’t prescribe a program to get him off the streets. In Greg Boyle, Jose met someone who loved him regardless of where he had been or what his mother had done to him. He began to turn his life around. Gradually, Jose realized that by recognizing his own wounds, he could help the wounded. For Jose, love made his wounds a source of redemption. For Jose, love allowed him to hope for the first time. For Jose, love empowered him to imagine the future.

 

One Hit Wonder

The other day, “Who Let the Dogs Out” was on the radio.

220px-Baha_Men_-_Dogs_singleFor those of you who don’t remember, “Who Let the Dogs Out” (click at your own risk) was a song written by a Trinidadian group called the Baha Men that made it to the United States as part of the soundtrack for Rugrats in Paris: The Movie.  It was probably the most popular song of the summer of 2000; in fact, it won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording in 2001.  On one hand, this is somewhat understandable.  The song is catchy, danceable, and insidiously easy to remember.  On the other hand, it’s hard to understand why anyone enjoyed the song in the first place.  It has the dubious distinction of being third on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 20 most annoying songs, and it is frequently cited as an example of the fact that quality and popularity are not always one and the same.

The Baha Men are also an example of a common phenomenon in popular music: the one hit wonder.  Though the Trinidadian group released several other singles, none achieved the ubiquity or acclaim of their magnum opus.  For better or worse, this means that the Baha Men will forever be defined by a song that repeatedly asks a rhetorical question about the provenance of dogs.  I imagine that being a one hit wonder has to be frustrating.  Instead of being trusted for your talent and potential, you are known for an isolated moment in your career.  Even if you go on to grow and change, people define you in terms of something you did in the past.

Holy Week begins tomorrow.  As such it is appropriate for us to take stock of our Lenten journeys.  And when it comes to Lent (and other things), I suspect that many of us think we might be one hit wonders.  We assume that what we have done in the past will forever shape our futures.  If we have had a Lent that was particularly fruitful, for instance, we tend to have two responses.  We either assume that this is the best we can do and say that we will try to have the same experience next year  or we believe that there’s no way we could possibly experience the same level of fulfillment and regard this as the high water mark in our spiritual development.  We must recognize, however, that we are called to grow in our relationship with God.  When St. Paul tells us that we are called to walk in newness of life, we are meant to walk in a particular direction.  We’re meant to be aware that we are moving toward a deeper and fuller relationship with the God who created and redeemed us.  I pray that this Lent has been a time of spiritual growth for you, but more importantly, I pray that you will continue to grow in your awareness of God’s love even as this season of renewal comes to a close.  Above all, I pray that you will remember that in God’s eyes, you will never be a one hit wonder.

Evacuation Day

Today is Evacuation Day.

240px-SiegeBostonFor those of you who didn’t grow up or haven’t spent any time in the Boston area, Evacuation Day commemorates the conclusion of the eleven-month Siege of Boston, when the British Army evacuated from Boston to Nova Scotia early in the Revolutionary War.  While it was George Washington’s first victory of the war and represented a morale boost to the beleaguered Continental Army, it wasn’t a terribly significant military victory.  Once the British had (easily) captured New York City, New England was almost completely cut off from the rest of the colonies, meaning that the rest of the war was mostly fought in the southern colonies.  So why does Boston close its schools and public offices to observe the anniversary of this relatively unimportant military victory?  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that it’s also St. Patrick’s Day.

dpt_takeIf you know anything about American cultural history, you know that being from Boston in the 19th and early 20th centuries was practically synonymous with being Irish.  By the late 1800s, people of Irish descent lived throughout the city, and Irish politicians had, in turn, come to dominate the local Boston political establishment.  So when seeking an opportunity to reward their constituents with a day off on St. Patrick’s Day, these pols combed the annals of Boston history to discover any event of significance that had taken place on March 17th.  Thus, in 1901, the people of Boston began celebrating Evacuation Day with a St. Patrick’s Day parade and other celebrations of Irish culture.

While there is an element of this story that is politics-as-usual, there is also something beautiful about it.  In some ways, it is the embodiment of the American ideal: an ethnic group becomes so immersed in American life that the line between “American culture” and “Irish culture” almost ceases to exist.  Individuals are shaped not only by what they have been, but also by what they are becoming.  Ideally, this is what the Christian life is supposed to look like.  We enter into the community of the Church shaped by our past experiences and  influenced by the people we have known.  As we grow into our life in Christ we embrace new opportunities and new experiences; we are shaped by our relationship with other members of Christ’s body and transformed by our relationship with Christ himself.  In the meantime, however, we’re not meant to lose our sense of ourselves.  We are still who we were before, but our humanity and our sense of being a part of God’s creation has been renewed by Christ and his Church.  The season of Lent is our opportunity to embrace this renewal, to be mindful of the reality that we are shaped not only by what we have been, but by what we are becoming.

Disaster

I’m pretty proud of my ability to make pizza.

Since seminary, I have been perfecting my technique, refining my dough recipe, determining the best topping combinations, and figuring out how to get through the entire evening without the smoke detector going off.  The result is that I am a fairly competent home pizza chef.  It is only after years of trial and error, however, that I have been able to get to this point.  Along the way, pizzas have lost all their toppings, failed to cook all the way through, and turned into bizarrely misshapen piles of dough.  Of course, I accompanied all of these disasters with ranting and raving, using, in the opinion of a good friend, “words and sentiment completely inappropriate for a priest of God’s church.”  But all of this failure eventually led to success.  I don’t claim to make anything like what you can get at Modern in New Haven, CT (go, if you’ve never been) or Lombardi’s in New York, but I can reliably put together a tasty pie.

So it was with confidence that I accepted our Curate’s invitation to prepare pizza for the youth group last Sunday.  Not only did I think it would be fun to hang out with the youth, I figured I would teach them a new skill in the process.  I arrived with everything prepared: my carefully chosen toppings were ready, the dough had risen and been kneaded the appropriate number of times, and I had a generous amount of mozzarella and parmesan ready to go.  Members of the youth group showed up and I demonstrated how to stretch the dough and arrange the toppings.  Everything was progressing nicely until I went to slide the pizza in the oven.  I had committed the ultimate rookie mistake and failed to sprinkle enough cornmeal on the pizza peel.  I watched in horror as toppings fell to the floor of the oven and the pizza dough collapsed into a unwieldy mess.  It was an old fashioned disaster.  But for whatever reason, I resisted the urge to utter the few choice words running through my head and instead said, “We can fix this.”  I retrieved the pizza dough from the oven, laid it out once again (with the appropriate amount of cornmeal), and invited the youth to replace the toppings that now lay woebegone on the oven floor.  We slid the restored pizza into the oven and, ten minutes later, enjoyed an imperfect yet tasty meal.

Pictured: Hope for Redemption
Pictured: Hope for Redemption

It occurs to me that the willingness to say, “I can fix this” is what repentance requires.  When I first started making pizza, the disaster of last Sunday night would have impelled me to abandon the entire operation and call Dominos.  But after years of trial and error, after years of realizing that everything can’t be perfect, after years of failing, I realized that there was hope for restoration.  We often get caught up in the notion that our failures have insurmountable power over us, that we cannot possibly fix what is wrong with us.  We get overwhelmed by our problems and imagine that there is no place or no way for us to turn.  Lent, however, is a time when we are reminded that each one of us has the potential for transformation, that each one of us can be restored, that each one of us can, with God’s help, be redeemed.  But first, we must say to ourselves, “I can fix this.”

Nonsense

We have arrived at the day for which we have been preparing for the last 40 days.  It is Easter Day, the day of Resurrection, the day when we remember and celebrate the fact that the women went to the tomb and found it empty.  And yet, despite the season of preparation, despite our disciplined efforts to make room for God in our lives, despite the fact that we have been looking forward to this celebration for weeks, we may still feel unready.  We may still feel unprepared for this celebration, because the Resurrection challenges our assumptions and transforms the way we look at the world.  Even as we celebrate the fact that Christ has been raised from the dead, we may have lingering doubts.  After all, people do not rise from the dead in our experience.  In spite of all our preparation, we may feel unready to proclaim that Christ is risen.

We are not the first people to have these doubts.  Luke’s gospel tells us that the women went to tomb early in the morning, only to find the stone rolled away and the body of Jesus gone.  After two men in dazzling clothes asked why they were looking for the living among the dead, the women rushed to tell the apostles, who dismissed it as “an idle tale.”  This word that Luke uses can also be translated as “foolishness” or “nonsense.”  For the apostles (and probably for the women who went to the tomb), the idea that someone could rise from the dead was ludicrous.  First-century Jews knew just as well as twenty-first century skeptics that people do not rise from the dead, that death is the end of the story, that talk of resurrection is nonsense.  The apostles had the same doubts that many of us have.  The tomb may had been empty, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ followers were ready to proclaim that Christ is risen.

emptytombNevertheless, even as the apostles dismissed the women’s story as nonsense, one of the apostles ran to the tomb to see if it was true.  I can only imagine what Peter’s inner monologue was like as he rushed to the place where Jesus had been buried: “This is so stupid.  Those women must have been seeing things.  Maybe the gardener was messing with their heads.  Anyway, there’s no way that Jesus’ body is gone.  There’s no way that he rose from the dead.  Things like that just don’t happen.”  Peter was among those who confidently dismissed the very idea of resurrection, and yet as he approached the tomb, doubts may have crept into his mind.  What if the tomb was empty?  What if he really had risen from the dead?  Luke’s gospel provides a wonderful detail: as Peter arrives at the tomb, he has to stoop to look inside.  As he approached the tomb, he had to slow down and pause at its entrance.  He had to take a deep breath and stoop to peer into the gloom, terrified of what he would (or wouldn’t) find.

Even in the midst of our doubts, even in the midst of our confident belief that the very idea of resurrection is nonsense, Easter challenges us to take a deep breath and stoop to peer inside the empty tomb.  We may look to satisfy our morbid curiosity, we may look to prove our skeptical neighbors wrong, we may look because we are desperately in need of God’s promise of new and abundant life.  Whatever our motivation, Easter challenges us to look for new life even in those places that have known only death and despair.  We may have our doubts, but Easter challenges us to look past our doubts and embrace the possibility of resurrection, the possibility of transformation, the possibility that this life can be renewed by the power of God who loves us.  When we stoop to peer inside the empty tomb and embrace the possibility of resurrection, we can proclaim to this world that God’s love and faithfulness have the power to transform a world that his enslaved to death and despair.  When we embrace the possibility of resurrection, we are given the opportunity to live resurrection lives of love and service to others.  Resurrection is more than an empty tomb; it is a promise that the world can be transformed, that the evil powers of this world are no match for the love of God, and that we have the ability to make this world a better place.  Even if we are afraid of what we will find when we peer inside the empty tomb, we are called to proclaim the resurrection by working for the transformation of the world.

Habemus Papam

urlFor the past two days, the eyes of the world have been watching a smokestack outside of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.  Many observers (including me) anticipated that we would be watching in vain for several days, that there would be significant wrangling as the cardinals struggled to elect a successor to the pope emeritus.  Instead, the conclave elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, an Italian-born bishop from Argentina, on the fifth ballot.  Bergoglio is the first pontiff from South America and the first Jesuit.  Though he is known for his conservative stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage, Cardinal Bergoglio has exhibited an incredible devotion to the poor and downtrodden.  Apart from his public work on behalf of the poor, Bergoglio has also eschewed much of the pomp traditionally associated with the Roman Catholic episcopacy: sources say that he insists on cooking his own meals and resides in a simple cell rather than the sumptuous episcopal apartments in Buenos Aires.  Perhaps his attitude toward the powerless is best embodied in his selection of a papal name: Francis, the first in this history of the papacy.  A friend of mine summarized the new pope’s election well: “He’s a humble bishop who took the name Francis.  This could be interesting.”

Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy merchant born in the twelfth century.  Though he spent the early part of his life reveling and vainly trying to attain military glory, he had an encounter with God that caused him to change the direction of his life.  While he was praying in the country chapel of San Damiano, Francis saw an icon of the crucified Christ say, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”  Though Francis initially took this to mean the building in which he sat, this charge to rebuild the Church eventually blossomed into a movement that transcended Francis and his hometown.  Though he has become known as “the guy who talked to animals,” Francis dedicated his life to living among and caring for the poor, and called the Church to do the same.  His love for animals, some of the most vulnerable creatures in this world, was symbolic of Jesus Christ’s call for us to care for “the least of these.”  A monastic order was eventually founded in his name to give a voice to the downtrodden, represent the needs of the world to the Church, and call the Church’s leadership to renewal.

While we can’t be sure that Francis I chose the friar from Assisi as his namesake, I hope that the new pope intended us to recall Francis’ message of renewal.  This is a challenging time for the Roman Catholic Church, but it is also a challenging time for the entire body of Christ.  We are all faced with questions about the truth and  relevancy of our proclamation of Christ crucified and risen.  We might be tempted to shrink back, to retreat into our church buildings out of a fear of being ostracized.  But I think we must remember that the Church serves an inescapably important purpose in this world.  Like Francis, the Church is called to give a voice to the downtrodden, to lift up those who have been bowed down by unjust and evil powers, and call the world to renewal.  During this season of Lent, I hope all of us can give thanks that the world’s most recognizable Christian leader has reminded Christians of their call to renewal.