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Still on camp…

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We’re at a little past the halfway point in camp. Some great friends and great kids…

Of course, I’ve had little time to read the books I brought along, though I did manage to finish Harry Potter 7 before any of the campers spoiled the ending. There must be over 250 copies on camp! And I am leading the Protestant worship services on camp. Mike, an amazing worship musician, plays, and the scenery is God-filled. Tonight we moved out to the porch, overlooking the lake and the mountain beyond.

I hate missing the UCC General Synod and the Sig Ep Conclave, but these camp days are filled with such grace that I wouldn’t trade them away.

Blessings and Love,
Gary

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Where I’ve Been…

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You might have noticed that posts have become infrequent in the last couple of weeks. The reason? End of Term- papers and exams! So the best I can offer is a glimpse at what I’m doing.

New Testament- we had a group project, a take home final, and an exegesis paper. I wrote my exegesis on the Greeks at the door in John 12:20, arguing that Jesus does reply, that the parable of the grain that must die to be fruitful is both an announcement of the Passion and a theology of mission.

Thessalonians- my exegesis was on my assigned passage, 1 Thess. 5:1-11. My thesis? That Paul intentionally takes up and plays with the eschatological language of the dominical, Jewish, and Roman traditions, but that in doing so he is first and foremost a pastor caring for his mission church. Oh, and I am going to bomb tomorrow when I have an oral exam of reading and translating a passage of from the authentic Pauline corpus.

Constructive Theology- final paper on what does prayer mean in a constructive theology that has rejected anthropomorphic and anthrocentric understandings of God, and that believes that what Marilyn McCord Adams describes as the “metaphysical size gap” between us and God makes the idea that we pay God honor absurd. I am especially interested in the pastoral application of progressive theology!

Buddhist Meditation Techniques- final exam Monday and final paper- on Therevada meditation practices and aesthetics.

And then it is all over and if I manage to pass it all I’m 2/3 of the way there!

Blessings to you all!

Gary

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The Real Mother’s Day

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Dan reminded us in his sermon this morning that the US version of Mother’s Day was not about buying cards and flowers, in fact, it wasn’t really about mothers at all. It was a day of mothers, a day when they stood up against war. Initiated in the years after the US Civil War, we can best honor it by re-reading founder Julia Ward Howe’s original proclamation:

Mother’s Day Proclamation – 1870
by Julia Ward Howe

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God –
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

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Sunday Sermon- May 6

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The following sermon was delivered to Melrose Highlands Congregational Church. The reading was Acts 11:1-18.

My room is chaos. Stacks of mail and academic papers. Text books and library books. Shoes and clothes everywhere. The life of a seminarian can be chaotic, and I am afraid my life “runneth” over much like the piles that “cascadeth” over and off of my desk at times. I’m not happy about the chaos. I like things neat and organized and categorized, and by the way, could you put a label on that? The one area I feel I cannot allow into chaos is the kitchen. I’ve had food poisoning several times, and I’m a stickler for food safety. Which is fine if you live alone. But I don’t.

This year I chose to live in the Divinity School dorm, the last year the Div School will have a dorm. As an undergrad I lived in a fraternity house, but never in a dormitory, so now, in my mid-40’s, I’ve decided to see what dorm life is all about. And as a resident in a grad student dorm, I share a kitchen with a dozen other women and men from around the country and around the world. And I must confess, it drives me crazy. People don’t clean up after themselves, at least not in the same ways I would. And they eat food from other parts of the world that smells funny.

So I know how Peter felt. You want me to eat what? God, nothing personal, but this is a joke, right?

This was a critical moment in the history of our faith, this moment when Peter changed the dietary laws. The community of Jesus followers was evolving from a sect among many competing sects of pre-Rabbinic Judaism into an evangelical religion that welcomed all people, even the Gentiles as they are known in the scriptures, those who ate funny things and didn’t follow the same standards of cleanliness. And from their perspective, well, that’s pretty much us.

The four gospels, and here we have to include Acts since Luke-Acts was written as a single work, but had to be divided into two scrolls due to the limits of the technology of the time, these four gospels have very different understandings of the Law, that is the broad set of laws and codes we think of when we think of the Hebrew Scriptures, of the world of the “old” covenant. The author of Matthew seems to be all for the Law, although he records Jesus as extending the Law, including not just external practice but also internal and spiritual considerations. The author of John, on the other hand, seems to construct those who advocate the Law as the enemy, as advocates of what our own Protestant tradition condemns as “works righteousness.”

It’s all a bit more complicated than that, the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had a tremendous impact on the formation of both Judaism as we know it today and our own Christian tradition. But it’s pretty clear that something happened in that early history, something involving Peter and Paul, that allowed the Jesus community to rapidly expand from its roots as a rural Jewish sect into an urban movement that crossed lines of ethnicity, gender, and class.

Luke records that Peter enters what the New Revised Standard Version translates as a “trance,” though the Greek actually reads “ecstasy.” And in that ecstasy, a voice instructs Peter to eat animals traditionally considered unclean, inappropriate for Temple sacrifice. We don’t know who is speaking to Peter, the text simply doesn’t say. And it takes three times for Peter to get it. Peter is a bit thick-headed at times, and three seems to be his magic number, three denials, three proclamations of love, each followed by an instruction to care for the flock, three instructions to eat. And so the most prominent of that group of women and men we call the disciples changed all of the rules, threw out much of the Mosaic Law, and opened the door to new believers.

But where did that ancient Law come from to begin with? I could bore you with theories, reconstructions, deconstructions. I could talk about the need to maintain markers of identity in a world with immigrants and conquerors, with external threats, in-groups and out groups. But I’m going to jump to the punch line. From my point of view, humans made most of those rules up.

Now the Neo-Pharisees, those contemporary Christians who approach the Scriptures with selective literalism, don’t agree with me. These are the people who oppose same-sex marriage, who have reduced Christianity to an obsession with homosexuality and abortion, who have constructed God as a gun-toting American capitalist. These Neo-Pharisees believe the rules came directly from God, over 600 of them, but they select which ones to take literally, and which ones to call metaphor. They believe that one of the reasons for these rules was to test the fidelity of the ancient Israelites. For the ancients and for the Neo-Pharisees, God was and still is a really really powerful human, one who like humans needs his or her ego stroked, who needs to test the faith of his or her followers. That his or her construction sounds awkward, but gender is part of humanness, and if we are going to try to fit God into human’s own image, we are going to fall into this gender trap. This God is petty and punitive, and it is not my God.

I have been very lucky this year to study with the constructive theologian Gordon Kaufman. Kaufman writes about the concept of God as a person in these words:

“Personhood is finite […] since a personal subject is determined by things outside of itself and becomes conscious of itself only in relation to other finite objects. To transfer the anthropomorphic category of personhood (an individual’s self-conscious self) to God goes against the infinitude of the divine.”

These musings, this mornings ramblings that started with my chaotic room and landed on Peter’s modification of the Law, all fall into a category theologians call the Doctrine of God. This is the realm of the omni’s. God is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal. It leads into problems like predestination, will you take single or double predestination? The more we try to attach human predicates to God, the bigger trouble we get ourselves into.

This is all a big fancy way of saying that I don’t think God cares whether I mix the fibers in my clothes, doesn’t care whether I put pepperoni on my pizza, and doesn’t care who I love. God, to be God, must be beyond these petty cares. And while we are at it, let’s stop blaming God when we do really really bad things, when we humans are at our worst. God the really big cop/judge in the sky might have needed to intervene as the Nazis raged through Europe. That God might dive into the seismic rift and stop the earthquake like a cosmic Superman. But the God I see every day, the God of our on-going creation, the God that lives in this community, in thousands, millions of other communities that try to live Jesus in this world, that God just doesn’t seem to work that way. God is mystery and amazing, but God isn’t a big white man with a rule book and a gavel.

This is all a bit awkward. Our tradition is built around notions of God’s conditional election of one people, an election that was later extended through Christ. This religious trajectory leads us to those who condemn others and picket at funerals, to Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps, to the self-righteous Neo-Pharisees who can’t wait for the Apocalypse, when they will be rewarded for obeying the rules, and the rest of us will be cast into eternal damnation.

But even in the religious trajectory of rules and judgment, there has always been a stream of thought that said, nope, we’ve got it all wrong, it isn’t about laws and its not just about us. God is bigger than that. It is about justice and love and peace.

This is the stream in which we find prophets like Micah, who says: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Okay, so we stumble on the concept of telling and requirement, but as progressives, we’re okay with the humbly part. In fact, the Neo-Pharisees could be a little more humbly and we’d be happy.

2nd Isaiah speaks for God when he writes “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

And yet we humans make rules and claim to know God’s will. We are terrified of things we can’t understand and can’t control, so we build little boxes to put them in. We make rules and categories, and we insist that science will figure it all out. We humans have always made rules. And we’ve made idols to explain the things that wouldn’t fit in our little cognitive boxes. In some ways, we humans have made God in our own image, we project our own desires and plans onto God, claiming divine endorsement for our human thoughts and schemes.

We have to be careful with God-talk. Very careful. It is so easy to fall off into idolatry, to worship a God we’ve invented! Even we progressives are at risk of constructing an idol, though ours might look more like a combination of Mother Jones and Gandhi. And if this was where things ended, where this sermon ended, we’d be in big trouble. We’d have no reason to consider God, God would be irrelevant to our lives. There’d be nothing to grab onto, just this beyond things that was scary and difficult. But it doesn’t end there.

God is unknowable. We are finite, we are like the ancient parable of the blind man and the elephant, trying to describe what he could not see, could not reach. And every time we encounter God, we perceive and conceive as humans, as finite beings. Divine revelation always gets remembered and recorded through the imperfect instrument of humans. And that’s okay! We are humans, and we are finite, and we are amazing miracles every moment. We are the inexplicable mystery of life and consciousness, we are love and we are transcendence. We are making it up, but we are doing it with humility and with love.

And then there is Jesus. Dashboard Jesus, Buddy Christ. Why can we depict Jesus in these ways? Because Jesus is an eruption of God-ness in the world. Because despite what Marilyn McCord Adams calls the metaphysical size gap between humans and God, Jesus is the bridge. Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the gospels is one of breaking the rules. Even in Matthew! Again and again Jesus seems to be saying, “Oh, silly humans. It’s not about rules and exclusion. It’s about radical love, radical selflessness. It’s about grabbing this amazing life by the horns and riding it for all its worth. It is about embracing life and letting life embrace you back!”

Kaufman describes it this way:
“The radicality of Jesus’ preaching and teaching (as we find it in the New Testament) simply cannot be lived out in any legalistic way […] it should also be clear that the radicality of Jesus’ demands may startle our minds into fresh thinking about how we humans need to reorder our lives and our world.”

There is the challenge before us. We progressives wrap ourselves in a blanket of tolerance and allow others to dominate the conversation, to recklessly claim divine endorsement, to claim America as the nation of the new new covenant. The idolatrous God-talk of the Neo-Pharisees is used to justify the destruction of other humans, of the very ability of the planet to sustain life. We need to sharpen our skills, screw up our courage, and take on those who claim to speak for God. We are the United Church of Christ. We are the church of God become human. Our God is not a petty and punitive dictator. Our God is the amazing radical love and service in Christ. We are a church that must preach the good news and denounce the idols. We must be one part Isaiah, one part Ezekiel.

Oh, I’ll still complain when I get home today that the stove top wasn’t wiped off, that the whole floor smells of fish. But even as I do it I’ll know that what really matters is Jesus. The Jesus who couldn’t color in the lines. The Jesus who was creativity and love incarnate. The Jesus who is with us when we gather around the table in the dorm kitchen and break bread together and discuss our sermons and our papers and our hopes and dreams. I hope that in the coming week I can embrace Jesus, that I can walk humbly with my God, that I can do justice. That’s all I can ask for. I hope that this week presents you with a thousand little miracles of life and love. And that’s enough to prevent us from placing God in a box full of rules.

I’d like to close with the finals words of a poem by one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

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Great Thoughts

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“A culture of self-deception can be useful. For example,the U.S. recently deployed a missle-defense system that doesn’t work as a deterrent against Iranian missles that don’t exist. In this age of asymmetrical warfare, it’s a welcome change.”
-Ed Spivey Jr. in the May 2007 issue of Sojourners

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Apocalyptic- A Problem in Process

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I have recently been thinking through one model of how we respond when our belief system no longer coheres with the world around us, with our experiences. This is the ground of constructive theology.

A great example is the shifting “doctrine of God” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Layers of text show us a shifting understanding of YHWH. God begins as the warrior/tribal god of the Moses people that leads them out of Egypt and assists them in conquering the Canaanites. By the time of the Babylonian Exile, God has been reconceived as the Creator, the God of all nations. Faced with repeated defeat, the Israeli cultus could either abandon its god as weak, or change its understanding of God. The “doctrine of God” continued to change. It was transformed by Hellenism, by neo-Platonism, by the Enlightenment.

This theological trajectory represents one strategy for the crisis of incoherence. The other strategy is the prophetic call, the requirement that we change our experience in the world to bring it in line with our theology. We might think of the Civil Rights movement (and its predecessor, the Abolitionist movement) as one example of this strategy.

The final strategy is apocalyptic. I have been working this out in a number of papers, but the basic idea is that when the tension between experience and theology has become so great as to cause cognitive dissonance, and neither of the above listed strategies will resolve the crisis, reality (experience) is marginalized. Since one can assume that certain events in the real world are not responsive to prophetic demands (earthquakes, military defeat, plague), this is primarily an issue when theology has become too rigid.

The period after the Exile, especially the Hellenistic age, is a great example of this move. In the rise of apocalyptic thought, exemplified in the Book of Daniel, we see an abandonment of “real world” strategies. The “world” is understood as imperfect or corrupt, and our theology only need cohere with an “ideal world” as imagined by the apocalyptic author.

The resulting theology may well serve as a anesthetic, but it cannot motivate a people to be involved in the world, except where so doing will bring about the eschaton, the manifesting of the ideal world. And this is almost always seen as a crisis event, bloodshed and destruction.

Those who hold an apocalyptic theology in today’s world have no reason to work for peace, for ecologic sustainability. For them, actions that accelerate the crisis are good. They are among the elect, they need not be worried.

Today’s world is in crisis. Since the bombs first dropped on Japan, we have rapidly moved towards the destruction of humankind and all life on earth. Scientists tell us that this generation of children will live to see the oceans die. The “Left Behind”crowd must be rejoicing in the destruction and injustice so evident in human action.

Progressive Christians must renounce apocalyptic theologies as inadequate guides for living in the world. Like many important scholars, theologians, and clergy persons of the past, going all the way back to the Patristic period, we must question the canonicity of apocalyptic texts in Scripture. Martin Luther had his doubts, so can we. The Revelation of John and the Book of Daniel, both fictions, have little place in our pulpits. And when they are used it must be done with extreme care.

Apocalyptic as a theological strategy is dangerous. I am still trying to understand how this relates to other forms of eschatological thought, to Jesus’ own pronouncements of the kingdom. Surely Jesus’ call for social justice represents a theological model of eschatology that does not accelerate crisis!

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Billings Sermon

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This morning I will be competing for the Billings Preaching Prize, a competition limited to 2nd and 3rd year M.Div. students here at Harvard Divinity. You have a total of 10 minutes for your reading and holimly. I’ve adapted a homily from my work at the hospital. The competition usually takes place in the Divinity Hall chapel, from the pulpit where Emerson delivered his famous “Divinity School Address.” Unfortunately, emergency repairs have closed the chapel, so we will be in our other chapel, Andover. Here are the reading and the sermon:

Luke 5:1-8 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

As a second career seminarian, you might think I came to my call late in life. And it is true that the decision was made in the days after the 9/11 attacks, in days when every breath carried the odor of destruction and death. But it was not a late call that brought me to divinity school. In fact, I knew I was called to ministry as a 12 year old. And over the next 25-plus years I flirted with a vocation in ordained ministry on several occasions. I always ran away, realizing that I was a wreck, unworthy, unable to serve the community of Christ. I realized that I was a sinner.

Simon Peter was a sinner too. We tend to make Peter into a very two-dimensional character, he can be a bit thick at times, and that whole “you will deny me,” who can forget that? Peter can proclaim Jesus the Messiah one moment, and be called “Satan” the next. I am convinced that Peter’s name, and remember that Peter is his nickname and means “rock”, is based on how hard his head is and how dim he can seem. A friend of mine used to use the expression about as smart as a box of rocks, and it fits. But Peter is part of the pastoral care team!

Peter the pastor heals and preaches and brings the presence of God with him. When Jesus is dealing with major issues, he brings that pastoral care team with him onto the mountain to pray. You can name them, Mary and Peter, and John, and even Judas. They are all on the pastoral care team that is Jesus’ teaching, preaching and healing ministry. They are pastoral care interns learning from the greatest teacher ever. And every one of those men and women walking around Galilee and down to Jerusalem had one thing in common. They were all sinners.

We forget Peter’s response to the call narrative in Luke’s gospel because the next line is so rich in meaning. Jesus tells Peter that he will make him a “fisher of humans.” That text we all know. But how many of us remembered what Peter said first? “Dude, go away, I am a sinner.”
Today, we are called to be ministers to one another, to pastor one another. We form pastoral care teams and we train one another in skills like listening and praying. We live as church. But for some of us, being a pastor comes far easier than being pastored.

What happens when someone tries to pastor you? You may be tempted to say, “Go away.” Because you are tired? Maybe. Because you don’t believe? Could be. Because you are not worthy? Not a chance. Because that pastor is a sinner too. And that pastor is loved by God, like you. And there is nothing you can do to get away from that love. Oh, you might try to drown it out. You might send the pastor back out the door. You might ignore the pastor next to you in the pew. But like Peter with his head hard as stone, God is going to ignore your protests and love you anyways, just as Jesus ignored Peter’s request, “Go away, for I am a sinner.”

They say there are few guarantees in life. I don’t agree. Here are my guarantees for today. Today, I guarantee I will say something that I shouldn’t, that I won’t mean, that will sound different than I intended. Today I will hurt someone’s feelings. Today I will fail to hear and to see what someone so much wants me to hear and to see. Here are my maybe’s for today: Today I might know that I have failed, have fallen short. I might see my mistakes. I might get a chance to apologize.

And there is a guarantee that isn’t mine, a guarantee made by Paul in his letter to the Romans. Nothing can separate me from the love of God.

I choose today to be in this community, to be fully present, even as the sinner that I am, even with the guarantee that I will fail. Like Peter, like you, I have chosen to get up and follow. What else can I do?

In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Razor’s Edge” there is a defrocked priest who explains to the protagonist Durrell why he is running: “It is not punishment I would have to face, for I could easily face execution or imprisonment. It is love and forgiveness which I must face, and which I cannot endure. […] God is the one who relentlessly pursues me and whom I forever flee.” And you know what: that priest is right. God’s forgiveness knows no limit. The only limit is our courage to accept that love, from God and from one another.

Today be open to the presence of God in one another, even in our mistakes and imperfections. I am a sinner and will be when I come to minister to you today. You will be a sinner when you minister to me. And yet we choose to love one another as God loves us, without condition, without hesitation, without giving up. May it always be so. Amen.

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Sermon on Doubting Thomas

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Delivered 4/15/07 at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational

You might have noticed that the title of this sermon is a nod to William Shakespeare’s Henry V. In it, Henry refers to his warriors as a “happy few” and a “band of brothers.” I had no idea when I chose this title that it would apply to those coming out to worship this morning, that it would take courage to brave the monsoon! So good morning, and welcome to this band of courageous brothers and sisters.

The standard sermon for today’s lectionary, and especially for the story of Doubting Thomas, goes something like this: Poor Thomas, he just didn’t have enough faith. It’s a good thing we have enough faith. Yeah us! Or maybe, I know you’re having a hard time believing the teachings of the church in light of the real world, but don’t be a doubting Thomas. This is not going to be that standard sermon. If that’s what you are looking for this morning, you might still be able to catch the service at another local church. But if you want to hear why this story finds its way into the gospel and what it can tell us about living as Christians today, hang around.
Now, let’s imagine for a moment that I’m an author, and the Gospel of John is in manuscript form, and here I am sitting before my editor waiting to hear the magic words. No, not Pulitzer, though those are pretty magic as well. I’m talking the ultimate magic words: cash advance. But instead what I hear is: “Let’s talk about the motivation of Thomas in the final chapter. I’m not sure you’ve made your case. The man has seen Lazarus raised from the dead, the storm stilled, walking on water, miracle after miracle. Why doesn’t he believe now? It’s just not plausible.”
We probably all feel a bit like my fictional editor. Just because something happened while I was out getting the milk and bread doesn’t mean I don’t believe it. Judas Didymus Thomas is believed by many to be the brother of Jesus, and has been with these folks, these women and men traveling with and learning from Jesus, for several years. They’ve been through some amazing times together. And they’ve seen miracles, they’ve seen death defeated. So why doubt now?
To understand this text it helps to think a little bit about what was going on among the followers of Jesus when this text was written. Early Christians didn’t know what to believe. Even his immediate circle of followers wasn’t sure what to make of Jesus. Christianity was moving towards orthodoxy, right belief, which really just means majority belief or belief of the guys that have the biggest swords or the friends with the biggest swords. The authors and authorizers of the Gospels were deeply involved in this struggle to understand the Christ event. Jesus mattered, they knew that, but he always seemed to be just beyond their understanding.
One area of conflict after the first generation of apostles had died, after the immediate witnesses were gone, was how were they to understand the resurrection? Was the resurrection bodily, with flesh and blood? Or was it a resurrection of spirit. This was a question not just about Jesus, but a question about what it meant to be human. Belief in a bodily resurrection was widespread among the Judeans after the Babylonian Exile, but wasn’t part of the Greco-Roman system of belief, so there was a bit of a cultural mismatch as the gospel of Jesus spread beyond its Judean roots. This gospel story affirms the physicality of the resurrection, flesh and blood, stuff you could touch. One hint of the counter-argument can be seen in the story of the appearance on the road to Emmaus.
Another struggle was between those who would come to define orthodox Christian belief and those who adopted a viewpoint we could loosely call Gnostic. We don’t need to spend much time on what that meant, it should suffice to say that the apostles most associated with the heterodox Gnostics were Mary Magdalene and Judas Didymus Thomas. Yes, the female apostle who is written out of any leadership role in the Jesus community, and by the time of Gregory the Great has been conflated with the woman taken in adultery, has been re-cast as prostitute, and our poor bumbling doubting Thomas. Our text is about confirming that Jesus was resurrected in the body, and it is about deciding whose understanding of the Christ event is correct. That is not to say that these events did not happen. But it helps us to see the humans involved in the gospel story, in the creation of the gospels, in the decisions about which stories were written down and which were not.
So what are we supposed to do with the story of Doubting Thomas? If this text is about doctrinal struggles, what can a Christian today learn from it? Well, we can all admit that Thomas comes off looking like a knucklehead. But they all look like knuckleheads. Let’s start with Simon Peter. In the Lucan version of his call, we always skip to the line where Jesus says “I’ll make you a fisher of humans.” We ignore Peter’s first response. “Dude, I’m unrighteous. Go away.” I suspect Peter gets nicknamed Rock not because he is “the Rock of the Church” but because he is about as smart as a box of rocks. Who can forget the denials? Of course, he gets it right sometimes too. But don’t we all.
Then there are James and John, so rowdy that they get nicknamed the Sons of Thunder. I like to think of them as the biblical Bash Brothers. If you’re the right age to know the Mighty Ducks movies, you know what I’m talking about. “Dude, let us be your top two guys?” they ask Jesus. And Jesus’ response? “Dudes, you so do not know what you are asking.”
These guys don’t know what’s going on, don’t know what to believe, the gospels writers tell us that Jesus isn’t even trying to make it clear, because it will become clear on resurrection morning. The preaching and teaching and miracle, the feast in the Upper Room and the murder on the tree, it will be clear. The Holy Spirit will comfort them and inspire them and they will change the world. But they’ll still be a bunch of knuckleheads! Even after the resurrection. After he has assumed a leadership role in the early church, Peter still blunders at Antioch. “Unclean food? What unclean food?” They don’t know what to believe, what to do, how to act. But they do know this. Jesus changes everything!
They tried to explain Jesus in terms of his own Judean religion. Davidic messiah, except he didn’t create an independent Israel. Suffering Servant, but what does that mean exactly? Son of Man, more confusing than Suffering Servant! They took up a term of the Roman Empire, Son of God, which seemed to fit nicely and matched Jesus’ own description of his relationship with God. It had the added benefit of suggesting there was another kingdom that had the final say, something more powerful than the brutal fist of Rome. They used all of these titles and more trying to describe who Jesus was, what he did, what he meant. And in the midst of this confusion and this grasping for meaning, they did an amazing thing. They built a new world.
I have no doubt that the mixture of sheer terror and overwhelming hope of that one weekend in Jerusalem stayed with the apostles, women and men, for the rest of their lives. The confusion, the shock. But they took their evangelion, literally the good proclamation, and they went out there and said this: Jesus changes everything.
And here we are two millennia later. The name Jesus is controlled by the neo-Pharisees, selective literalists who have the audacity to speak for God and who claim to have the “fundamentals” right. They’ve reduced Jesus to death insurance, to an excuse for self-righteousness, to a nationalistic warrior. We sit back so ashamed of what has been done in the name of Jesus, that we are afraid to speak it in public. Jesus has been co-opted by Empire, by the individualism of the Enlightenment, by the thinly disguised selfishness of our economic system. And here we sit, barely speaking, ashamed. You don’t have to be a theologian or a biblical scholar to see what is at stake. You don’t even have to be certain. You can be a knucklehead and spread the good news!
When I get up in the morning, a week and three snooze-buttons behind schedule, I can do so knowing this. God is good. Jesus changes everything. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth, when asked to summarize his thirteen-volume “Church Dogmatics,” thought for a moment and responded “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Even a knucklehead can get that! Do you know that Jesus loves you? That God is good? Does knowing Jesus change your life? Because if this is a church, if this is about the evangelion, then we must be the ones to proclaim it. Jesus lives! Reclaim the name. When others preach hatred and division in the name of Christ, confront them, tell them they are worshipping idols of their own creation. If progressives are silent then Christianity will die a slow irrelevant death.
The Church of Christ is about more than homeless shelters, recycling and war protests. Those things are important, they are part of the great commandment, love God above all things and love your neighbor as you love yourself. But there are two “greats” that Jesus gave us. The Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Go forth and make disciples of all nations. Telling people about Jesus is essential to Christian identity, is important to our own living of Christ in the world. That band of knuckleheads, a few dozen women and men, changed the world. And the world today wants Jesus, a real authentic mysterious Jesus, not the manufactured buddy Jesus / judging Jesus of the tyrant God found in the public media. Easter Jesus is always just beyond our grasp, and that’s okay.
The public media is busy deconstructing Jesus. The DaVince Code, the Jesus Family tomb, the Gospel of Judas, any attack on Christianity and Christian belief is okay. But there is a world between the media attack on all Christian belief and the neo-Pharisees, that world is us. We are members of a progressive Christianity stretching back two thousand years. We recognize that Christianity has changed, has always changed in response to the dynamic mysterious creativity which is life on this miracle planet. And Christianity must continue to change. We must act, before the reckless greed and hate-filled beliefs so dominant in our culture destroy our planet, and its ability to sustain life. Before the theology that makes humans demi-gods, tyrants over the planet, free to do as we want, kills us.
I’m not asking us to do something easy. I was telling you the truth when I said I wake up knowing God is good and Jesus changes everything. That doesn’t mean I know anything else! I’m pretty clear in my identity. Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to meet you. I’m a knucklehead. If I claim to know what Jesus is about, what God is about, if I claim to know how we should live, how am I different than the religious political extremists on the right? Is the choice between silence and lies? When the divine is always just beyond our grasp, what can we do?
This is where faith comes in. This is where belief in things unseen really matters. I believe that if we prayerfully engage the world, if we bring sacrament and Scripture and love with us into the world, we can change it. We can be the leaven in the loaf, not because we can do it on our own, but because Christ is with us when we are gathered in his name, because the good news is the tree and the empty tomb, because Easter is joyful hope, stunned confusion, it is fear and love , it is life in our amazing God.
We must reach back to that original Easter morning, and tell the world! Change the world. Proclaim the good news. Christ is risen indeed. Jesus changes everything. If Peter with his head of stone, if the Bash Brothers and Thomas and Mary Magdalene, if they could go out and preach, so can we. They didn’t know what they were doing either. They lived in that Easter moment. So can we. So must we. Welcome my knuckleheaded sisters and brothers. Welcome to the joy of life in Christ! Proclaim the name! Jesus the Christ, our salvation. Amen.

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Great Thoughts

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Categories: Main Blog

I’ve read several blogs that contain a “Quote of the Day.” I could never keep that up! But it might be nice to share some of the great works I am lucky enough to read as part of my education. So here is the first in a series of “Great Thoughts”:

“A God who gives easy divine approval to our projects, and is the means for legitimating and even sanctifying what we already are and believe, places on us too little tension to draw us out of ourselves, out of our fixed habits and attitudes and ideas.”

-Gordon D. Kaufman from In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (1993)

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