Senseless

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Like many of you, I woke up on Monday morning to the news that 59 people had been murdered and hundreds injured by a gunman in Las Vegas last Sunday night. Like many of you, I was horrified and grief-stricken; I found myself weeping in my car as I listened to reports about the massacre. As troubled as I was by the news itself, I was just as dismayed by the way people reacted to the tragedy. It wasn’t that anyone said anything particularly offensive or insensitive; it was that the reaction was so predictable. On Monday night, the late night comedy hosts “got real” in their opening monologues. By Tuesday, some politicians were insisting that it was not the time to discuss gun control while others were insisting that it was. On Wednesday, news outlets posted the article they always publish when mass shootings occur. By Thursday, conspiracy theories began to circulate. Even the reaction of the church felt like it was following a grim routine. At Redeemer, we tolled the bells, just as we did after the Pulse nightclub, just as we did after Sandy Hook. It was as if everyone had been assigned a role in some grotesque drama designed to help us make sense of the fact that 59 more people were dead.

In some ways, this isn’t all that surprising. After all, we often turn to familiar narratives to comfort us when we are grieving. We look for ways to distract ourselves from the pain we feel when we realize what human beings are capable of doing to one another. We try to make sense of these tragedies, even though we know in our hearts that they are senseless.

Paul certainly understood this impulse to make sense of the world. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul explains that he once found meaning by positioning himself within the story and traditions of Israel. By his own account, Paul was completely devoted to the Jewish tradition. He asserts that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” It might be tempting to gloss over these verses as just another list in Paul’s letters, but that fails to recognize the value Paul placed on these identity markers. They represented his pedigree: the fact that he came from the right family and did everything that was expected of him. More importantly, these defining characteristics helped Paul know exactly who he was and what God expected him to do. If Paul wanted to understand his place in the world, all he had to do was consider his identity as an Israelite. Paul’s birth allowed him to tap into a heritage and a shared narrative that gave his life meaning. Paul was “confident in the flesh” because his religious identity helped him to make sense of the world.

For this reason, it is nothing short of remarkable that Paul goes on to write, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” It’s not as though Paul was looking for a change when he became an apostle. Paul didn’t hit rock bottom before his conversion. He was an influential man who understood his place in the world better than most. And yet, Paul regards this identity as something to be cast aside. In fact, he describes that which he once held most dear a term that, literally translated, means “dung.” Paul is not demeaning his tradition of origin; he is simply demonstrating that his experience of Christ has completely overshadowed what he once prized. Paul’s “confidence in the flesh” is replaced by a confidence that “Christ Jesus has made him his own.” This kind of transformation demanded a great deal of philosophical courage. Paul’s conversion obliged him to abandon a tradition that helped him make sense of the world and embrace a worldview in which things were far less certain. Such a radical shift would have required something earth shattering, a fundamental reordering of the world as Paul knew it.

Ultimately, it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ that caused Paul to reevaluate the way he understood the world. For Paul, the resurrection is not an isolated incident. It is not just some miraculous event that proves how special Jesus was. Rather, the resurrection represents a fundamental shift in the ordering of things. Paul reasons that if the power of death has been nullified for even one individual, it must, by necessity, be nullified for everyone. The normal pattern has been disrupted: death is no longer the end of the story. The implications of this are profound. It means that life, once destined to end, now has a meaning that transcends every narrative we use to explain the world. The resurrection, in other words, invites us to adopt an entirely new perspective on reality. It challenges us to recognize with Paul that the world has been fundamentally transformed by Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.

In times like these, we often ask our faith to help us make sense of the world. We ask “why?” and expect Scripture or the Church to provide a clear answer and a clear path forward. The Christian faith, however, is not prescriptive. The Bible is much less concerned with how we act than it is with God’s action in the world. Moreover, our faith cannot make sense of that which is fundamentally senseless. In fact, our desire to find a reason for this tragedy prevents us from truly wrestling with the reality of what happened. What the Christian faith does provide in times like these is something much more valuable: an opportunity to reevaluate our perspective. Rather than helping us make sense of the world, our faith challenges us to look at the world differently. It asks us to adopt an attitude shaped by the resurrection. This can be a terrifying prospect, because it requires us to critically examine and sometimes abandon that which we hold most dear: whether it is the narratives that give us comfort when tragedy strikes or our inviolable assumptions about security and personal freedom. Nothing can be off the table when we adopt a perspective shaped by the resurrection, because nothing is unaffected by God’s undoing of death.

The only way we can adopt this perspective is if we share Paul’s confidence that “Christ Jesus has made us his own.” The only way we can honestly face a senseless and uncertain world is if we put our trust in the Providence of God. In our darkest moments, the gospel calls us to remember this fundamental truth of our faith: no matter what happens, we belong to God.

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Whether We Live, or Whether We Die

Sermon on Romans 14:1-12 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.” So begins The Sneetches, Dr. Seuss’s 1961 book about creatures who looked identical, apart from the presence of small green stars on their bellies. As Dr. Seuss explains, “those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small you might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all. But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches would brag, ‘We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.’” It’s a familiar story, one that really gets going when a fly-by-night huckster named Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town with two machines: one that will affix stars to Sneetch bellies and another that will remove them, both for a small fee. As Dr. Seuss observes, “from then on, as you can probably guess, things really got into a horrible mess.” The Sneetches paid to have stars affixed and stars removed until they ran out of money and, more importantly, had no idea who was originally a Plain-Belly Sneetch or a Star-Belly Sneetch. Dr. Seuss’s point is clear: while the differences between us may seem significant, they are ultimately inconsequential.

This is a lesson that most of us tend to learn at a young age, which is not all that surprising, since Dr. Seuss wrote children’s books. At the same time, there are ways that this message can feel naive when we consider the complexity of our world. Certainly, the superficial differences between us are less important than we tend to think. Though I am a Red Sox fan, I don’t actually think that Yankee fans are bad people. But sometimes there are fundamental questions of identity that can be very difficult to disregard. Occasionally, the values espoused by various individuals are irreconcilably opposed to one another. For instance, is it really possible for us to say that the difference between a white supremacist and someone who believes in racial equality is inconsequential? While the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not is ultimately trivial, there do seem to be differences between us that are important to acknowledge.

At first glance, the disputes in the church in Rome that Paul addresses in this morning’s epistle reading do not seem to be of any consequence. When Paul describes the differences among members of the community, they seem as insignificant as the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not: “some believe in eating anything, while [some] eat only vegetables” and “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” The way that Paul frames these arguments makes them seem like a matter of mere personal preference. His advice seems to bear out this assumption. Paul essentially counsels that we should not judge how other people practice their faith. Whatever you decide to do, he says, do it in honor of the Lord. Otherwise, live and let live. After all, these differences aren’t all that important in the end.

While the questions of what we eat and which holidays we observe may not seem controversial to us, they were actually fundamental questions of identity in the first century. Those who ate only vegetables did so in order to avoid meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Idolatry, the human tendency to worship something in God’s place, is the chief sin in the Hebrew Bible, the one from which all other sins stem. So one can understand the desire of devout Jews to scrupulously avoid eating meat if there was even a small chance been used in the worship of something that was not God. In the meantime, those who ate anything weren’t entirely sure it was worth even considering the dangers of idolatry. What one eats, in other words, was far from a casual issue in a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles. Moreover, the church in Rome was full of people who were accustomed to defining themselves in terms of what they did as members of their community: the Jewish community, for instance, could be defined as those people who kept kosher and observed holidays like Passover. If there weren’t any standard community rituals, how could the community define itself? In other words, when Paul instructs the Roman church not to let their differences be a source of division, he is challenging some of their most deeply and dearly held beliefs.

Significantly, Paul does not challenge these beliefs in the name of mere tolerance. Though it may seem like his argument boils down to “can’t we all just get along,” his appeal to unity is rooted in something much deeper than any fortune cookie wisdom. “We do not live to ourselves,” he writes, “and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Paul finds radical unity in our mortal nature: the fact that, no matter who we are or what group we belong to, we are all going to die someday. As consequential as our differences may be, all of them are overshadowed by our mortality. But Paul doesn’t leave us with this grim observation. Paul insists that this mortal nature we all share has been radically transformed through Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, Paul reasoned that it couldn’t have been significant for just one person or even one group people; it had to have been a defining event for the whole of humanity, and indeed, the whole of creation. And in light of the world-altering magnitude of the resurrection, questions of group identity, once so pivotal, now feel parochial and unimportant. The resurrection puts the differences between us into an entirely new perspective. It invites us to consider our identity not in terms of which group we belong to, but in terms of the fact that we belong to God. Indeed, there is nothing and no one that exists apart from the parameters of “whether we live or whether we die.” We are Lord’s no matter who we are or what happens to us.

It would be nice if we could pretend that the issues surrounding divisions in our society don’t really matter, that we could live in harmony with our neighbors if everyone just stopped being angry for a moment. Most of us would agree that this is naive: the issues that divide us are anything but superficial. Besides, as Arthur Brooks pointed out a few months ago,“the real problem in [our society] today is not anger, it’s contempt.” He went on to define contempt as “the conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.” I find this diagnosis compelling, mostly because contempt has been the root cause of most of human history’s intractable divisions. We cannot defeat contempt by shouting down our opponents or even by making a more persuasive argument. As Paul implies, the only way to overcome contempt, the only way to acknowledge the worthiness of our opponents, is to recognize that we share something fundamental with those whose positions infuriate us. We must recognize that the Lord has laid claim to everyone who lives and everyone who dies. This is ultimately what loving our enemies is about: it is acknowledging the Christ died for them as much as he died for us. We are the ones who have to make this recognition. We are the ones who have to step out courageously and announce that even the differences that are fundamental fade away when we remember that we all belong to God.

Coming to Terms with Loss

Sermon on Isaiah 55:10-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. You can listen to this sermon here.

Artwork by Jon Muth

A few weeks ago, on the morning of her third birthday party, my eldest daughter asked me to push her in the swing under the back deck at my in-laws’ house. As she swung back and forth, she asked me to sing a song to her, so I chose one of her favorites: Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Before too long, I began to weep. While this is not all that surprising to anyone who knows me well, it usually takes a little more to make me cry. For some reason, this moment was particularly powerful. It might have been the beautiful way she sang along. It might have been the fact that my little girl is growing up. But I suspect that my emotions actually came from a deeper place. When you get right down to it, “Puff, the Magic Dragon” is not just a whimsical children’s song, and it’s certainly not an allegory for drug use, as some have speculated. Ultimately, this song about a boy and his dragon is a profound meditation on loss. Now, I can already imagine some of your objections: “Come on David: not everything is a ‘profound meditation on something.’ Sometimes a song is just a song.” A close examination of the lyrics, however, reveals that there is something deeper happening in the land of Honalee. While the first verses describe Puff and Jackie Paper traveling on a boat with billowed sail and frolicking in the autumn mists, the final verses paint a darker picture: “A dragon lives forever, but not so little girls and boys. Painted wings and giants’ rings make way for other toys. One grey night it happened: Jackie Paper came no more, and Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar…Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave; so Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.” That’s the end of the song. Though the chorus repeats one more time, it’s in the past tense: “Puff, the Magic Dragon lived by the sea.” This whimsical children’s song reveals a stark truth about the human experience: eventually, we will lose everything we have in this life. In the end, there is nothing that will remain.

The easiest way to deal with this realization is simply to deny it. Case in point: when I was a kid, I had a children’s album recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary (it was called Peter, Paul, and Mommy, which I thought was pretty clever at the time). When the folk trio performed “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” they tried to negate any of the song’s unhappy implications by shouting “present tense” during the final chorus. Those listening to this amended version of the song were meant to assume that Puff’s grief over Jackie Paper is momentary. I’ll admit, this approach has an appealing quality. After all, why would we dwell on loss if it’s just going to depress us? Of course, if we simply deny the reality of loss, a time will come when we will be utterly devastated by it: we’ll sustain a life-altering injury, get fired from our dream job, or deal with the death of someone we love. A priest I know once presided at the funeral of a man whose thirty year old grandson wailed, “What am I going to do now” as his grandfather was buried. Though we can’t know what was happening in this young man’s head, I suspect that he had simply denied the reality of loss for his entire life, only to be forced to confront it in the most dramatic way imaginable.

If we choose not to deny the reality of loss, we are faced with a stark choice, one that leads to two utterly distinct ways of experiencing the world. On one hand, recognizing that we will lose everything we have in this life can lead us to ignore the possibility of transcendence, to focus exclusively on the present moment. After all, if nothing will remain, why should we be preoccupied with what will come after us? Obviously, this way of thinking is inherently selfish, but it also has a seductive logic. If I subscribe to this worldview, my life has a clear purpose: to do whatever it takes to satisfy my desires. I don’t have to worry about discerning my vocation or trying to make something of myself; I don’t have to worry about speaking the truth or being honorable; I don’t even have to worry about being faithful to those who depend on me; everything can be subordinated to my immediate needs, because nothing is going to last anyway. It’s the same logic that led the Epicureans to say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” But this approach, if taken to its logical extreme, leads inexorably to nihilism. If everything in life is only useful for satisfying our immediate desires, then nothing actually matters, nothing has value, nothing is worth anything. In this worldview, everything we do is ultimately for naught, a condition that forces us into despair.

On the other hand is the vision of life offered by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was no stranger to loss. He wrote to a people in exile, a people who had been removed from their homeland and isolated from everything they held dear. If anyone had reason to despair, it would have been Isaiah and his people. Yet, time and again, Isaiah refuses to give in to despair and offers his people comfort. We see the reason for the prophet’s confidence in this morning’s reading, when Isaiah gives his people this word from the Lord: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Even in the face of devastating loss, Isaiah trusted that God would keep God’s promises, that God’s word would not return to him empty. This is an astonishing statement, because it so precisely opposes a nihilistic worldview: since God’s word will not return to him empty, everything matters. God neither creates nor redeems in vain. There is nothing and no one that can legitimately be dismissed; our lives have value, even though we know that they will come to an end someday.

Nothing embodies this more clearly than the resurrection. In the resurrection, Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh, was vindicated even after he suffered the loss of everything. In the resurrection, Jesus Christ embodied Isaiah’s prophecy. When we are faced with the reality of of loss, we have two distinct options: we can either give into despair and live as though nothing in our life matters, or we can share in Christ’s victory over death and trust that, in the end, God’s word will not return to him empty.

The Tyranny of Being “Fine”

Newcomers to this country are often surprised by how frequently Americans ask each other, “How are you?” In most other countries, such inquiries would be considered an invasion of privacy, or at the very least irrelevant to the imagesconversation. Of course, newcomers are even more surprised to learn that this query is largely perfunctory. Indeed, there is only one “correct” response to this question. No matter what is happening in our lives, there is a collective cultural expectation that we will respond, “Fine” when someone asks us how we are. We are instructed and encouraged in this behavior from an early age. Even my 21 month old somehow knows to say “Good” when I ask her how she slept. While it may seem that there is nothing wrong with this, there is something troubling about this tendency. Our collective assumption that the only thing to say is “fine” when someone asks us how we are eventually convinces us that the only way to be is “fine.” When we force ourselves to be “fine,” we lose something elemental about the human experience.

What we lose is the opportunity to grieve. Sometimes being “fine” is not an option; sometimes, when we are faced with loss and uncertainty, grief is the only appropriate response. Yet, when we assume that “fine” is our baseline, grief becomes abnormal, something we need to dispense with as efficiently as possible. We end up thinking of grief as a process, something we can “do the right way.” We cannot, however, approach grief as a problem to be solved; it is something we must experience as a fundamental aspect of who we are. Indeed, grief is a centrally important part of our lives because loss is central to our lives. Part of mystery of being human is that we have the capacity to love even what we know we will lose. Grief permits us to recognize this paradox, because it allows us to trust that even what we have lost belongs to God. The ability to grieve is part crucial component of the Christian life. The Book of Common Prayer, for instance, notes that rite for the Burial of the Dead “finds all meaning in the resurrection,” which is God’s pledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. At the same time, the prayer book notes that human grief is not unchristian: that the deep sorrow we experience when we lose someone is animated by the love we have for one another in Christ.

There are times when we are not “fine.” There are times that we experience that deep pain of loss that is a fundamental part of the human experience. It is in these times that we need to summon the grace to grieve, to admit that we are not fine, and to trust that even what we have lost belongs to God.

Disruption

Sermon on John 21:1-19 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Warren_G_Harding-Harris_&_EwingThe presidential campaign of 1920 introduced a new word into the American lexicon. After years of political turmoil at home and abroad, Warren G. Harding promised that his presidency would signal a “return to normalcy” in the United States. No longer would Americans have to worry about world wars and Leagues of Nations; instead, they could return to what they knew before the world fell apart. Americans responded enthusiastically to this neologism: Harding earned 60 percent of the popular vote and 404 votes in the Electoral College. For a time, it seemed that Harding’s pledge came to fruition. The Roaring Twenties were a time of economic growth and relative domestic tranquility. Though the twenties failed to roar for farmers and racial minorities, many people assumed that Harding’s promised “return to normalcy” was a permanent state of affairs.

Before long, however, it became clear that this was an illusion. By the end of the decade, the stock market had crashed, touching off the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. Meanwhile, military dictators took power in Europe and Asia, setting the world on an inexorable path toward yet another global war. In some ways, it was actually the world’s haste to get back to normal that precipitated these crises. In the end, our collective desire to return to normalcy became part of the endless cycle of violence and retribution that has characterized all human history.

Returning to normalcy is what seems to motivate Peter and the other disciples in our gospel reading today. After years of following a charismatic and unpredictable teacher, the disciples returned to what they knew before they met Jesus. They returned their easy lives as fishermen. This is not to say that the life of a fisherman was easy in the first century: it was backbreaking, difficult work in which the line between starvation and subsistence was incredibly thin. The ease of this life could be found in its predictability. There was something familiar, almost comforting about the drudgery of mending nets, the stench of decaying fish, and the disappointment of a night without a catch. Peter and the other disciples understood how to deal with these challenges. As fishermen, they would not have to wrestle with the question of God’s purpose for them. They could live the rest of their lives governed by a predictable and timeworn routine.

Jesus disrupts this familiarity when he calls out to the disciples from the shores of Tiberias. Though they are initially excited, they become quiet when Jesus invites Peter and the other disciples to join him for breakfast by a charcoal fire. John implies that Peter and the other disciples eat their bread and fish in silence. Of course, there’s probably very little small talk to be made with someone who has been raised from the dead. There might be a deeper reason for this silence. Peter in particular may have been silent because the last time he saw a charcoal fire, he was in the courtyard of the high priest, the place where he denied Jesus three times. Peter had returned to his life as a fisherman to escape his rejection of Jesus, only to have Jesus return, reminding Peter of his faithlessness.

When Jesus finally disrupts the silence, he does it in the most revealing way possible. Fully aware of Peter’s guilt, Jesus turns to him and asks pointedly, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Jesus doesn’t call Peter by his nickname; Jesus uses the name Peter’s mother gave him. Three times Jesus asks this question and three times Peter responds. The implication seems clear: Peter erases his triple denial with a triple confession of love. While this may seem obvious to us, Peter doesn’t seem to get it. John tells us that he was hurt, that he was grieved by the repetition of Jesus’ question. On one hand, this may be a classic example of Peter’s thick-headedness: perhaps he just forgot what happened on that fateful night before Jesus died. On the other hand, we human beings have an extraordinary capacity to remember the times we failed. How often do we worry about how our relationship with someone has changed because of something we have said or done? Peter does not feel hurt because he has forgotten his failure; Peter grieves because he is apprehensive He is waiting for the other shoe to drop, he is anticipating a torrent of vengeance and righteous indignation from man he had so recently scorned. Peter wants to get these questions about love out of the way so that he can receive the judgment he so richly deserves. What Peter fails to understand, what we fail to understand is that the Resurrection is the judgment of God. What we fail to understand that the resurrection is the fullest expression of God’s love. In a way, the questions that Jesus asks Peter are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether Peter loves Jesus or not; what matters is that Jesus loves Peter. I don’t mean for that to sound glib, because it is of ultimate importance. Jesus loves Peter and all of us with a fullness that transcends all of our expectations. We would expect Jesus to punish Peter for rejecting him. We would at least expect him to require some extraordinary act of penitence. In the resurrection, however, God disrupts our assumptions about repentance and divine punishment and announces that even our rejection of God can be redeemed. In the resurrection, God liberates us from the endless cycle of vengeance and retribution and offers in its place a love that restores and renews all things.

Shepherd-and-SheepThis resurrection appearance is not just about Peter’s restoration. In his anxiety, Peter failed to recognize the true purpose of Jesus’ questions, which was to call Peter to a new vocation. Peter’s vocation changes in the other gospels, but only in its direction and emphasis.“You’re a fisherman? Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says at the beginning of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John’s gospel, however, Jesus invites Peter into an entirely new vocation: “If you love me, take care of my flock.” In light of the resurrection, Jesus instructs Peter to shift his vocation from that of a hunter to that of a shepherd, from one whose work depends on violence to one whose work is shaped by love. What difference does the resurrection make to us? How will this redemptive and restorative love change our vocation?

Our world once again seems to be falling apart. Between war, terrorism, economic disaster, and climate change, hardly a day goes by without reminders of how fragile life is. In the face of these calamities, it would be tempting to proclaim that we would like to go back to the way things were before everything fell apart. But that is not the gospel. The gospel calls us to come to terms with the realities of our fallen world. Indeed, the Church’s vocation is not to call for a “return to normalcy.” Our vocation is to proclaim the endless cycle of death has been marvelously disrupted by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are called to lift our hearts above shame, guilt, and resentment and embrace the resurrection love that Jesus shows Peter, a love that reorders and renews all things.

Honesty

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

FuneralI have been to a lot of funerals. Even before it was part of my job, attending funerals was a regular part of my routine. I have been to so many funerals, in fact, that I have become something of a connoisseur. While I would never want to say that there is any such thing as a “bad funeral,” there are certainly characteristics that make some funerals less meaningful than others. In particular, a funeral is less than successful when it is dishonest. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is when a funeral fails to acknowledge that someone has died. I have been a few “celebrations of life” in which no one mentioned that person being celebrated had died. It was as if they were in the other room. As a result, the congregation was deprived of the opportunity to deal with that fundamental human dilemma of mortality. There is also a more subtle way this lack of honesty is expressed, and it often takes place during the eulogies. As we all know, there tends to be an informal process of canonization that takes place as people are eulogized at their funerals. The deceased is described in glowing terms: he was the kindest, most generous, hardest working, funniest, most devoted, most patriotic person who ever walked the earth. The few flaws he had were humanizing traits that made him all the more lovable. It goes without saying that these plaudits can sometimes ring hollow. This is especially true when the circumstances of someone’s death are painful, when there is a sense that everyone is ignoring the elephant in the room. Of course, no one wants to dwell on the negative, and besides, there’s no reason to speak ill of the dead. We can choose to remember the good about a person without dwelling on their flaws. Nevertheless, this dishonesty can be deeply problematic. When we ignore very human failings of someone who has died, we deny something fundamental about our humanity. Indeed, when we choose to remember only what we want to remember about a person, we limit our understanding of God’ power to redeem all our days.

Today, as we do every second Sunday of Easter, we heard the timeworn story of Thomas and his doubt. This story is so familiar that we can almost rehearse it in our sleep. Jesus comes among the disciples (except for Thomas) after his Resurrection, wishing them peace and breathing the Holy Spirit upon them. Thomas returns after Jesus departs, and the other disciples excitedly tell him that they have seen the Lord. Thomas refuses to believe it. About a week later, Jesus returns, but this time Thomas is there. Jesus invites Thomas to place his fingers in his wounds, and Thomas falls down in worship, saying “My Lord and my God.” It seems like a very simple formula: Jesus appears among the disciples, Thomas doubts that he appeared and demands proof; Jesus appears again, and Thomas believes. Thomas seems to be the hero of a skeptical age, a proto-agnostic who refuses to believe in the supernatural unless he is offered definitive proof. It would seem Thomas’ role in the gospel is to offer us concrete proof that Jesus was raised from the dead.

This interpretation, however, fails to acknowledge Thomas’ state of mind after the resurrection. Thomas makes an earlier appearance in John’s gospel when Jesus announces his intention to visit the tomb of Lazarus. The other disciples, full of trepidation, remind Jesus that this would be unwise, since the Judeans were just trying to kill him. But Thomas affirmed, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Thomas alone understood the danger of Jesus’ mission long before the road to Golgotha. Yet, just like the other disciples, Thomas vanishes when Jesus is brought before the authorities. Apart from Peter, Thomas is the only disciple who abandoned Jesus in spite of explicitly promising he would not. He was complicit in inflicting the wounds Jesus suffered on Calvary. Though we can only guess at what Thomas was feeling after the crucifixion, we can almost guarantee that he was a broken man, shattered by guilt over his infidelity.

All the disciples would have been experiencing some level of this guilt as they gathered in that locked room. They were paralyzed by fear and deeply aware that they had very recently abandoned their Lord and Teacher, the one who had called them friends. Yet John tells us that when the risen Christ appears in the midst of his friends, he addresses them, not with recrimination, but with words of peace. By way of illustration, he shows them his hands and his side. The wounds inflicted by the soldiers on Good Friday are part of Jesus’ resurrection reality. Christ’s dazzling resurrection body still bear the tokens of his passion. This is because the peace that Jesus proclaims is intimately connected to his wounds. Jesus does not use his wounds to condemn his disciples. He does not point to his hands and say “You did this to me!” Instead, he holds up his hands as if to say that God’s peace transcends even crucifixion, even the worst violence the world can inflict.

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasThomas seems to implicitly understand this relationship between Jesus’ wounds and the peace he offers. Thomas doesn’t simply demand to see Jesus. He does not say “Unless I see Jesus in this room, I will not believe.” Instead, Thomas claims that he cannot believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead unless he puts his fingers in the wounds of Jesus’ hands and places his hand in Jesus’ pierced side. Thomas needs to see the wounds he was complicit in inflicting. In a way, Thomas does not doubt the resurrection; Thomas doubts that his faithlessness can be redeemed. It is only when Thomas sees the wounds of Jesus, when he traces the scars of his own infidelity, that he experiences the peace God offers in the resurrection, a peace that reorders and renews all things. The resurrected body of Jesus reveals something unexpected, yet elemental: God redeems everything about us, not just the parts we would like to have remembered at our funeral. In the resurrection, God redeems even our brokenness, even our wounds, even our deepest infidelity. The resurrection means that there is nothing in our lives that is outside God’s domain, that there is nothing we cannot bring before God, that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed.

The Disciple Abides

Sermon on John 15:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In 1998, Joel and Ethan Coen introduced us to the Dude, the main character in a movie called The Big Lebowski. I won’t summarize the whole movie for you (it’s really worth watching), but I will tell you that it follows the Dude as he gets caught up in an escalating series of predicaments in imageswhich he is used by various powerful people for their nefarious purposes. It is an homage to the film noir genre, but unlike those films, in which the protagonist tends to get so caught up in the spiral of events that he ends up in a ditch somewhere, the Dude is unperturbed and ultimately unaffected by the drama that surrounds him. Indeed, the Dude seems to practice the Zen art of detachment; nothing seems to bother him all that much. This works out well for him; by the end of the movie, in spite of everything that happens to him, the Dude is back where he started. He summarizes his resilience with a memorable phrase: “the Dude abides.”

“Abide” is one of those words that tends to show up only in very specific contexts. Even though it just means “stay” or “remain,” we tend not to use it in everyday conversation. It shows up in hymnody all the time: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,” “O come with us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” And as a result of its frequent appearance in hymns, “abide” has become something of an explicitly religious word. Perhaps this is why we don’t use “abide” regularly; it is reserved for loftier purposes. But I wonder if there is a deeper reason that abide is not part of the modern lexicon. “Abide” shares a root with “abode”; if we say that we abide somewhere, we imply that we are making that place our home. “Abide” implies permanence, contentment, a sense that we are not going anywhere for a while. Is there anything that is more at odds with our contemporary preoccupation with progress than a sense of permanence? Our culture insists that we shouldn’t stay in any one place for too long, that should move out of the starter home as soon as it’s financially feasible, that we should always be on the lookout for new job opportunities, that we should always be thinking about what comes next. This impatience for what comes next is motivated by a profound anxiety that there is much more to do, much more to strive for before we can achieve peace and contentment. In this anxious cultural context, the worst thing we can possibly do is abide.

This kind of anxiety is nothing new. When Jesus gathers with his friends prior to his crucifixion, the disciples are riddled with apprehension, uncertain about what will happen next. This morning’s gospel reading comes from a section of John in which everything the disciples say betrays their trepidation: “Are you going to wash my feet?”, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?”, “Lord, just show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” It’s no wonder that the disciples are anxious. After all, Jesus has predicted his execution; the disciples know that it is only a matter of time before the authorities come to arrest him. It is in the midst of this swirling anxiety that Jesus offers these startlingly simple words of assurance: “As the Father has loved me, so I love you; abide in my love.” These words are surprising because they do very little to alleviate the anxiety of the disciples; indeed, Jesus doesn’t even address their concern about what will happen next. Rather than engaging their concerns about the future, Jesus challenges the disciples to embrace the present.

This would have been countercultural for the disciples even if they weren’t worried about Jesus’ impending Passion. Much of the first century Jewish experience was about waiting for what comes next. There are two pivotal stories from the Hebrew Bible that gave shape to the way the Jewish people understood the world. One was the Exodus, the story of how God liberated God’s people from slavery and led them to the Promised Land. imagesThe other was the exile, the fact that God’s people were removed from the place God promised and forced to live in a strange land. The centrality of the exile meant that the Jewish worldview was one of yearning and expectation. This continued into the first century because even though the Jewish people lived in the land promised to them by God, they did not posses it; it was a territory of the Roman Empire. The centrality of both Exodus and exile meant much of the first-century Jewish experience was about looking to the future: the future when God would expel the foreign occupiers from the promised land, the future when the Messiah would rule with justice and equity, the future when God’s people would be free to live in peace.

So when Jesus tells his disciples to abide in his love, he challenges this worldview. And by telling his disciples to abide, Jesus taps into another deep tradition from the Hebrew Bible, one affirmed by the psalmist when he calls us to make “the Lord our refuge and the Most High our habitation.” Jesus taps into God’s promise that we will abide with God regardless of what happens to us. The story told in the Bible is the story of a God who abides with his people even when they have been cut off from everything they know. The Exodus, therefore, is not a story about a circuitous journey to the Promised Land; it is a story about a God who remains with his people as they fail and falter their way through the desert. The exile is not a story of mere deportation, it is the story of how God’s faithfulness endured even though God’s people had been removed from the promised land. Moreover, the incarnation is the embodiment of the reality that God abides among us, and the resurrection the affirmation that not even death can disrupt God’s abiding presence. Jesus challenges the disciples to recognize that God is with them even in the midst of their anxiety and uncertainty. Jesus challenges the disciples to abide in the knowledge that God’s love endures even the most difficult circumstances of their lives. Jesus challenges the disciples and challenges all of us to get out of the endless cycle of striving, to buck the culture of “what’s next,” and recognize that we have a home in God.

For many of us, the very idea of abiding is frightening. We think that if we stay in one place, the world will pass us by. We assume that in order to abide, we have to adopt the the Dude’s perspective, detached and disengaged from the world. But Jesus does not tell his disciples to abide in blissful ignorance; he tells them to abide in his love. Abiding is not just about remaining in one place oblivious to the realities of life; it is about being in a mutual, dynamic relationship with the one who created and redeemed us. We enter this relationship through worship, through the practice of sabbath. The practice of sabbath, the discipline of staying put, allows us to understand that God sustains creation even when we take a break. The discipline of sabbath allows us to understand that the time we have is a gift from God. At its best, our worship is about providing a space in which we can put away anxiety and abide in God’s love.