Close Encounters: Thomas

Part 3 in a series I’m doing called “Close Encounters with the Risen Christ.”  I’ve had some help and guidance from the book, Encountering the Risen Christ, by Mark Bradford.

John 20:24-29

24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”  But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Words for reflection: “Anything worth believing is also worth doubting.” -Brad Watson, Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection

A man was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence of his guilt, but no corpse.  When the time came for the defense to give a closing statement, the lawyer, knowing that his client would probably be convicted, tried to stump the jury. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all,” as he looked at his watch. “Within one minute, the person presumed dead will walk into this courtroom.” As he turned to the courtroom door, the jurors, looking stunned and confused, looked on eagerly, awaiting the entrance of a so-called dead person.

A minute passed, and nothing happened. Finally, the lawyer confessed, “Well, actually, I made up the previous statement, but you all looked as if someone was going to walk through the door.  I therefore say to you that there is reasonable doubt as to whether anyone was murdered, and insist that you come back with a verdict of not guilty.”

The jury, still looking stunned and confused, left to make their decision.  A few minutes later, they returned with a verdict: guilty.  The lawyer, surprised, asked, “But how?  You must have had some doubt because I saw all of you stare at the door.”  The jury foreman replied, “Oh, we looked….but your client did not!”  (Mark Bradford, Encountering the Risen Christ)

Doubt, or lack of it, can be very revealing- it certainly was in the case of Thomas! Poor Thomas! He has gone down in history as possibly the 2nd worst disciple (behind Judas), and he’s most well known as Doubting Thomas, the one who needed to see the Risen Christ in order to believe that he had actually appeared to the disciples. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), he is simply mentioned as being one of the 12 disciples. But in John’s gospel, we get a little bit more about who he is.  When Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died, Thomas’ loyalty comes through when he says,“Let us go, too, that we may die with him.”

And later, Jesus explains to his disciples that they should not worry, because Jesus goes to prepare a place for them, and says that they know the way place he is going. Thomas, however, speaks up and says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  In his childlike way, Thomas asks questions that a child would ask, but that an adult might be afraid to ask. I admire him because he’s not embarrassed, but just comes out with it.  Thomas is the guy who doesn’t always “get things” the first time, but is unafraid to question or challenge what he hears or sees. We are not always great with people like this in the church…but Jesus’ grace and patience show us a different way.

I remember in my previous appointment, I was teaching a class on the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, which for some, are surprising and very challenging on certain topics. I had one person in the class who I was convinced thought that his job was the question or challenge every single thing that I said.  It took all the patience I had to try to explain or answer his questions in a way that would appease him, or at least get a point across.  At one point, I finally had to realize that out of every person in the class, he was at least the one who dared ask tough questions and be interested enough in the material to challenge it and assess it for himself! At least he showed up to class to see for himself what was being discussed and was able to immerse himself in the conversation rather than hearing about it from someone else outside of class.

So we have to admire Thomas, and feel a bit sorry for him that he wasn’t with the group of disciples when they first encountered the Risen Christ. Imagine how that week in between the two appearances must have been for Thomas- he would have put up with everyone talking about it and saying “you should have been there!” Because he wasn’t there, he is isolated from the group, and feeling left out.

So when Jesus appears again and Thomas is there, Jesus shows kindness and grace to him in the midst of his doubt.  The Risen Christ meets Thomas exactly where he is in his skepticism. He doesn’t condemn or judge him. Instead, Jesus invites Thomas to see and feel the evidence for himself- his pierced hands, his side, the top of his head.  Interestingly enough, our text doesn’t say that Thomas actually touched Jesus.  I think we assume that he did, but perhaps the sight of Jesus alone was enough for Thomas’ doubts to be removed, and Thomas experiences “the benefit of the doubt.”  We shouldn’t ignore the fact that the disciple who doubted Jesus the most also gave him the highest praise and confession of faith found in the gospels by proclaiming him as, “My Lord and my God!”  Perhaps, Thomas accepted more quickly than anyone else what the resurrection would mean about who Jesus is, and he needed some extra time to wrestle with it. According to tradition, Thomas was the first disciple to leave Jerusalem, and he didn’t waste any time doing so. The other disciples remained in the upper room for quite some time, but Thomas, after encountering the Risen Christ for himself, was ready to go and tell others about him.  (Bradford)

That’s the evidence of a true encounter- that we are called to do something about it! Tradition also states that Thomas traveled further than any of the disciples, going all the way to the tip of India, where he gave his life for Christ as a martyr. Thomas sure went a long way with his “doubt.” If that’s the case, then I think we could all use some! Was he the second worst disciple? I don’t think so!

Thomas is actually one of my favorite disciples, and the reason that we chose Thomas as Xavier’s middle name.  He should be best known not for his doubting, but his curiosity.  He wasn’t satisfied with the run of the mill answer, or by things he had just heard. He wanted to experience and believe in the Risen Christ for himself.  He wanted to get the answers for himself. He wanted more- a richer experience and explanation, and to dig deeper.

I would even challenge the idea that he was doubting Jesus, and say that instead, he was longing for Jesus.

He had a deep longing for what Jesus had said to be true. Thomas wanted it so much that maybe he couldn’t bear to open himself up to the possibility without assurance that it was real. He was longing for Jesus enough to ask the questions in the first place. And Jesus honored his curiosity with the invitation to reach out and feel his hands and side.

It’s unfortunate that a lot of the time in the world of faith, that doubt is viewed in a negative way. Christians especially are made to feel guilty if they express doubt or question their faith, the teaching of the church, or teachings about the Bible. Overall, the church has sent a message that doubts are not welcome, when really, the church should be a place where we encounter the Risen Christ as someone who receives our doubts and questions with grace.

We also live in a society where knowledge, facts, and evidential proof have the final say on complicated matters.  The church has a hard time fitting into this type of society because it seeks answers to some very difficult questions without concrete answers. Faith asks very different questions of us than science does!

There hasn’t been much space provided in our world today for doubt or suspicion. The church should proudly be that safe space where people bring their questions, doubts, and skepticism about life, faith, and beliefs.

We also have to get out of the trap that sometimes it’s easier to just be told the answers instead of wrestling with doubt or seeking answers for ourselves.  This is a dangerous way to live out our faith. We should always be seeking answers, asking questions in community, and being honest about when we struggle with our faith.

If we never doubt or ask questions, then we will never grow. If we never get uncomfortable with our faith, then we will be stuck in the same old pattern and will never move forward in our relationship with God. So much of the church today has been tamed. We don’t allow enough room for those scary questions or doubts about our faith.  Mike Yaconelli, a writer, theologian, and co-founder of Youth Specialties, speaks this hard-to-hear truth that we have embraced the wrong understanding of faith. “Faith has been reduced to a comfortable system of beliefs about God instead of an uncomfortable encounter with God.” When was the last time your faith in God made you feel uncomfortable?

When was the last time you asked a tough question about life or faith? Where are you settling for simplicity rather than journeying through the complexity?  Where are we too passive?   Living off of what others have to say and settling for second hand encounters rather than longing for a passionate encounter with the Risen Christ for ourselves?

I get the feeling I’m not alone when I say that I question my faith in God as an itinerant pastor every time I get a call for a move. That’s really when I have to sit with the complexity of life, the vocation I have chosen, and the faith I have that God calls me into this complicated and difficult lifestyle. There have been times when I have asked Corey if my faith in God is strong enough to go where I am sent and trust that God will meet me there in the midst of it all. Even as a pastor, I have my moments of doubt about my faith in God.  I am challenged most often when I look at the brokenness of the world and wonder where God is in the midst of it all, or if God is there at all. I wrestle with writings in scripture that contradict themselves, portray God as violent, and wonder about these strange laws that no longer apply to us today, and wonder why, 2,000 years later, many still see them as absolute truth. There are times I question if all that we do in the church or as pastors is all for nothing.

And then I remember Thomas and how his doubts actually turned his heart outward to a strong life of faith. His encounter with the Risen Christ and the way that Jesus received him gave him the strength in the midst of his doubt to carry out the mission of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and perhaps the first to go out and tell the world about him.

Doubt is not wrong! In fact, it is biblical, and not something to shy away from. Just think of all of the biblical figures who experience doubt-Job, when he was tested, King David laments over and over again about God and asks where and how God is present. John the Baptist, from prison, sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if he is really the one to come or should John expect someone else. Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane had his doubts about the path before him,asking God that if possible, to remove the cup of suffering from him.

Doubt is not just biblical, but beneficial and necessary. I wouldn’t be standing here before you today if I had never doubted my faith. Because of my doubts, I sought answers for myself about God and Jesus and this whole Christianity thing. If it were not for my doubts, I would have never found my faith.

Thomas was not afraid to share his doubts about the resurrection. In fact, he denied the resurrection by saying that unless he sees for himself, he wouldn’t believe. The challenge of believing in the resurrection is not just about getting our beliefs, arguments, or words right, but it’s about getting our lives right as well. We must be people who practice a resurrected lifestyle led by the power of love, grace, forgiveness, justice, and holiness- and we must do this even in the midst of our doubts, by digging in, asking the questions, and not waiting until we are 100% certain in order to move forward in our relationship with God.  God is there in the midst of our questions, our fears, our doubts. God meets us where we are and invites us to observe his hands, his side, to reach out and touch for ourselves, that we might believe. And when we are bold enough to proclaim in the midst of our doubts, “My Lord and my God!” or even, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” may we press on to live lives as those who have affirmed the resurrection out there in the world.

Peter Rollins, a writer and theologian, was once asked at a conference if he denied the resurrection. Let’s see what his response is.

So may we, like Thomas, not be afraid to voice our doubts, ask our questions, and confess that at times, we too deny the resurrection. But let us also go forth to proclaim and affirm it in the world out there that needs to have an encounter with the Risen Christ for themselves.  May we, with childlike curiosity, let our doubts lead us along the path to faith. And may we find God in each step along the way, that we will join Thomas in proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”  Amen.

 

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Lessons from Maternity Leave

I’ve been on maternity leave since Dec. 21 when Xavier decided to make his appearance 3 weeks early!  I feel like I have learned a whole new way of life since then, and I have learned more about myself, parenthood, and life than I ever thought possible in such a short amount of time.  Here are some lessons that I will take away:

  1. Being a new parent is NOT for the faint of heart. Corey and I have had some very difficult conversations, moments, and tear-filled times.  We’ve been more frustrated than I’ve ever known us to be, more confused, and more challenged than ever before.  It’s very hard when you want so badly to fix something, like a crying baby, but coming to the realization that babies sometimes just cry for no reason, and the only thing to do is wait it out and find things that soothe him in the meantime.
  2. Being a parent will break your heart.  The other day I was attempting to clip my son’s tiny fingernails when all the sudden I realized that he was bleeding a little bit from his finger- I had missed his finger nail!  He started screaming, and I started crying and apologizing profusely.  Of course, 3 minutes later, it was as if nothing had happened to him.  Of course, the next day or so I had to overcome my fear and successfully clipped them, with all fingers accounted for…  Then, Corey and I took him to get his 2 month shots this past week, and I didn’t think that we were going to make it out of there with a dry eye between the 3 of us.  I can’t imagine how we are going to handle the many things that will surely cause our child pain in this life.  We will have to toughen up I suppose.  Being a parent will do that.  But I’m sure it never gets any easier.
  3.  Being a new parent is isolating.  There have been times when Corey and I have talked about feeling guilty for not being better friends to our friends who have had new babies.  I definitely feel like I need to write a letter of apology to every friend who has had a baby and tell them how sorry I am for not being there for them or offering to bring food, my presence, or simply a listening ear or phone call.  Some people think that new parents need time and space from other people. For me, this was certainly not the case.  I found myself wanting more people to check in, wanting more people to come over, and more people to just ask how we were doing and who expected an honest response.  We need our friends now more than ever.  There have been some very lonely days.
  4. Being a new parent is at the same time joyful and mournful.  There are times that we have mourned the way that things used to be- when we could just pick up and go anywhere and do anything on any given day.  There are times when we miss sleeping in and being able to eat dinner together at the same time and place.  It’s very hard to let go of the way life used to be.  But there are also times when I look at our baby and I’m filled with joy and wonder at the fact that we created him and he is part of our world.  He’s starting to smile at us now, too, and that certainly helps!
  5. Breastfeeding is HARD.  No one tells you how hard it is.  My goal is 6 months.  It HAS gotten easier, but I HAVE wanted to give up on multiple occasion.  I didn’t believe anyone who told me that it would get easier, and to be honest, I didn’t want to believe them, but here we are still going strong.  And I’m tired.  So very tired.  (But thanks to breastfeeding, I’m only a few pounds away from my pre-pregnancy weight!  That’s motivation for you!)
  6. I actually DO have maternal instincts.   I honestly never imagined that I would know instinctively what to do with a baby.  I was terrified about the strangest things, like how will I know when or how to pick him up?  How will I carry him?  How will I know when it’s time to change his diaper?  How do I change a diaper, by the way?  How will I give my baby a bath?  How will I know when he’s sleepy?  Hungry?  Will I break him?  Drop him?  What do I do with my hands?  🙂  Once he came into the picture, I didn’t so much ponder these questions.  Instead, I somehow knew what to do.  And if I didn’t, I learned quickly.  I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new side to myself- a (gasp!) maternal side.
  7. Maternity leave is wonderful, but being a working mom is where it’s at (for me)  Being on maternity leave has taught me important lessons about being a mom, but it has also confirmed that I am meant to be more than just “mom.”  I’m ready to go back to my work as a minister, back to my congregation, back to the life of writing sermons, caring for people, mentoring, and being a part of the connectional system.  I look forward to seeing colleagues and having a life outside of my home.  As much as I love my little boy, I need to remind myself that I am many things.  “Mom” is now a huge part of who I am, but it’s not the only part.
  8. We will eventually need time to work on our marriage.  Having a baby changes everything!  Corey and I have been ships passing in the night between feedings, diaper changes, and taking care of baby.  At some point, hopefully soon, we will need to set aside time to reconnect and remind each other that before baby, it was just the two of us.  We will need to have normal conversations, good food at the same table, and time to be more than “mommy and daddy.”
  9. I’ve learned a new kind of love.  Maternity leave has given me time to focus on my child and to begin to understand the kind of love between parents and children.  It’s a painful, yet beautiful kind of love.  You really know what it means to love something so much that it hurts.  Yet at times I will say that with this love comes a bit of resentment, guilt, and constantly wondering if I am enough, if I’m doing enough, if I’m capable enough for this journey of motherhood.  But in the end, it all comes back to love.  It is a powerful thing.  Never underestimate it.
  10. I’m thankful: thankful for the gift of maternity leave, thankful for the gift of this time, thankful for the support we have received from family and friends, thankful for a supportive husband, thankful for a healthy baby, thankful for good medical care, thankful for a warm and safe home in which to care for a child, thankful for the gift of life and love.  We have so much to be thankful for.1927754_10101177501194987_6770053540581399007_n
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Dear Xavier, I want to introduce you…

I included this letter that I wrote to my son as my “pastor pondering” in this month’s church newsletter.  I wanted to share it with you as well, my dear readers!

Dear Xavier,

I can’t believe that you are already over 2 months old! Time has really flown by.   I feel like Daddy and I are finally getting the hang of this parenting thing, but we know that things change so quickly, and there will always be more that you will teach us. I want to take a moment to welcome you officially into the world and introduce you to a wonderful place called the church. More importantly, I want to introduce you to God, who loves you unconditionally and without reservation. God loves you so much even though you are too young to be aware of God yet. That’s such an amazing thing about God, isn’t it? And then there’s the church. Church is a place where people who love God get together, sing songs, hear stories about God, and love one another. They also learn lessons about how to love other people, even when it might be hard to love them. We live in such a complicated world where sometimes people are hard to love. But God doesn’t want us to give up on loving them, just as God does not give up on loving each of us.

God shows his love to us through a person named Jesus. The church teaches that God, through Jesus, came to earth as a human being to show us and teach us how to love God and to love each other. Jesus teaches us that the world can be a hard place to live. People can be mean. People can try to tell you that they are better than you. People can hurt you or betray you. But Jesus shows us that we are to be strong in this world even though it can be scary. Jesus shows us that we are to be nice to the people who have a hard time in this world or who are different. Jesus teaches us that all are loved, no matter who they are. Jesus shows us what it means to forgive and to be forgiven when we make mistakes.

When Daddy and I found out that you were going to be coming into the world, we learned a new kind of love. I remember riding in the car with Daddy one day when you were in my tummy, and I told him how strange it was how much I loved you already. This reminded me of how vast and how strange love can be, and it reminded me that God is love and shows us how to love. So I want you to know how much Daddy and I love you, and I want you to know how much God loves you. The church is a place where you can come to learn more about God and to grow in your faith. Daddy and I hope that even though I am a pastor and you will come to church often when you are little, that one day you will make the choice to follow Jesus for yourself and you will choose to make the church community a safe place to call home.  I also pray that you will find the church to be a loving and inviting place where you are welcomed with open arms, no matter who you grow up to become. We hope that the promises and celebrations of God’s love that will be made at your baptism in a few months will follow you throughout your life, and that you will know the kind of love that God shows to us.

Welcome to our world, little Xavier. While it can be big, scary, and unkind, it is also a beautiful, wondrous, and loving place. We will do our best to show you the beauty and sacredness of life and love, and to share the story of God with you. You are now part of the story. How awesome that is!

Love, Mommy

 

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Time

I feel like over all, I was well-prepared for the changes that having a baby would bring- the sleepless nights, the feelings of both joy and frustration, the thoughts of “what did I get myself into?” and the concept that everything in life would change.  I was not, however, prepared for my concept of time to change drastically.  Time is such a strange thing- and I am convinced that when a baby comes into the picture, time simply goes out the window.  Right now I live between feedings, naps, diaper changes, play time, and a tiny window where I can do something for myself- sometimes an hour, if I’m lucky.  I never realized how much time I used to have…that I no longer hold in my possession.

This morning I had every intention of getting up like I have been, at 6:00, feeding the baby, trying to get ready myself, and heading to church (an hour away) to see a friend of mine preach.  When I woke up at 7:00 instead, wondering why the baby hadn’t woken up to nurse yet, I realized that we would not be making it to church that morning, and since Corey needed to sleep after being up most of the night, I would probably not make it to my own congregation for worship either.  Then, between morning baby routines, lunch, making dinner for tonight, and taking care of the dog, I had only an hour or less to either: A) shower, B) work out, or C) nap in order for Corey to be able to go to an event he had planned to attend.  Showering was the wise choice! Never did I imagine I would have to make these choices.  Once again, time had escaped me.  Or rather, time went toward taking care of our child, which obviously is the most important thing right now.

But here is something that a lot of new parents will not say out loud: this transition and realization about time is VERY hard.  I speak honestly when I say that this very realization has brought me to tears several times during the past few weeks.  I realize that there will be days like this where I will not get to do something for myself.  There have been days that start before the sunrise and I’ll look at the clock hours later (which feels like minutes!), the sun is going down, and I have no idea where the day has gone.  Time is really nothing at all.  And this is the most challenge realization of all: that your time is no longer yours.  Or has it ever been?  And if it is ours, time is perhaps the most profound gift that we can give away, whether it is given to our child, spouse, friends, vocation, or even to ourselves.

And so I’m learning to appreciate and value time more and realize that it is so fleeting.  Most of the time, it goes very fast, and sometimes it goes slowly.  I’m learning that time is out of my control, yet it is also mine to give, and for others to receive (for better or for worse).  I will certainly keep this in mind as I return to the life of a pastor when my maternity leave is over.  Time management will take on a whole new meaning for me.  I used to be so great at managing my time…and now I have a lot of learning to do.

 

 

 

PS…How did I find time to write this post, you may ask?  I found a few minutes while the baby is in the carrier on my chest…multitasking at its finest!

 

 

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Parenting: A New Adventure!

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On December 21, 2015, Corey and I welcomed our son, Xavier Thomas, into the world!  He was 3 weeks early, but strong and healthy.  If you have been following my pregnancy journey, you will remember that I was having some signs of early labor starting at 32 weeks and was put on partial bedrest.  I had a few monitoring sessions, steroid injections (for baby’s lungs), and then I had high blood pressure for the last 2 weeks of my pregnancy, which added more concern to the mix.

So, on December 20th, I sang in the cantata at church (sitting down of course!) and then went back home to resume my position on the couch.  Meanwhile, Corey went to see the new Star Wars movie that afternoon.  When he returned home, I told him that I had been having some cramps, but I wasn’t too concerned since that tends to happen late in pregnancy.  However, by 11:00 that night, they were stronger and coming at intervals…so I waited them out until 2:00 am when I decided to call the doctor on call who wasn’t too concerned unless they were 5-7 minutes apart.  Then, I managed to fall asleep until 8:15 that morning!  But when I woke up, I realized that I was probably going into labor and called the doctor’s office.  We packed up our car, hospital bags and car seat in tow, and drove the hour to the hospital.  Along the way, I knew without a doubt that I was having contractions.  When I was examined by the nurse practitioner, her response was, “I’m surprised that you’re not in more pain than what you’re telling me because you are dilated 5 cm and I can see hair!”  So…off we went to labor and delivery to prepare to have our baby!  I had to laugh at the fact that they were wheeling me down the hall in this huge wheelchair with one of those waterproof pads under me because they were worried that my water was going to break!  My mom arrived a short while later.  I received an epidural (woo hoo!) and spent that part of labor watching Christmas Vacation and Sex and the City DVDs.  Finally, around 8:00 pm, I started to push…and this lasted for over 3 hours (ouch!!!) until finally, little man made his appearance at 11:33 pm!  Corey, my mom, and my dad were there with me the whole time, coaching me and encouraging me every step of the way.  I couldn’t have done it without them!

The whole thing was and is so surreal.  This whole bringing new life into the world thing is simultaneously the most challenging and beautiful thing there is.  So is parenting, as I have discovered over the course of these 2 weeks.  Being a new mom/parent has its share of ups and downs, frustrations, exhaustion, and times of feeling inadequate, yet there are many beautiful moments, laughter, cute baby sounds and faces, and moments of sheer happiness mixed in between.  There are TONS of diapers, late nights, odd hours, and lots of Netflix. I have been more emotional than I have ever been, and tears (both happy and frustrated ones!) have been a normal part of every day life over these past few weeks since our son has entered our life.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this new mom thing is easy or all sunshine and roses.  But do listen to those who tell you that it gets easier and it gets better.  And love is what keeps you going.

Corey has been an amazing father and husband to Xavier and to me.  I couldn’t ask for a better partner in all of this.  I don’t know what I would do without him!  My parents have also been a huge support, as well as my sister (all the way in CA!)  We also have appreciated the support from my congregation in the form of meals, cards, thoughtful emails, and phone calls.  I also have some great friends who have called to check in on us and have offered a listening ear.

Welcome to our world, little Xavier.  We love you!

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Songs of Christmas: Simeon’s Song

Luke 2:25-35:

A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law.  Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said,  “Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation.  You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.  It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”  His father and mother were amazed by what was said about him. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”

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Painting in my home of Jesus presented in the Temple

“Simeon was looking at a baby no more than 6 weeks old.  He was also looking at eternity.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, Simeon saw it all.  The cross.  The grave.  The resurrection.  Yet another confession of faith, spoken three decades before the start of Christ’s earthly ministry.”  

-Liz Curtis Higgs, The Women of Christmas

I’m not usually a fan of scary movies, but one of my favorites is the Sixth Sense.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a troubled little boy who has a dark secret: he can see and talk to dead people who walk around in his life like normal people.  They do not know they are dead, but they all seem to want something from him.  He is befriended by a child psychiatrist who sets out to help him.  Together, they try to come up with ways for the little boy to deal with this problem that has taken over his life.  I won’t ruin the ending for you if you haven’t seen it already, but it is definitely one of those shocking twist endings that you won’t forget.  It’s one of those movies where once you find out how it ends, you want to go back and look for the clues that you may have missed before, that if you had noticed them, you may have seen it coming.

Movies (or stories) like that are usually the best kind.  They keep you in suspense, and you don’t know what will happen next.  I’m one of those people that even if I have a guess, I would still be upset if someone ruined it for me- I want to see for myself how it’s going to end.  Sometimes I wonder, if I knew the end of the story, would I still want to watch it unfold?  Maybe, maybe not.  Or if I know that a movie has a sad or violent ending, would I still want to watch it?  Usually, but I have to be in the right mood or at least prepare myself for a story that doesn’t have a happily ever after.

Most of us, in our human way, do not want to know if something bad is coming, or we shy away from challenges if we see them coming our way.  If we know something will be difficult, we tend to look for an easier way forward.  When Mary and Joseph meet this mysterious man, Simeon, in the temple, he lays it all out there for them, and doesn’t give them a lot of choice in the way their story will unfold.  In a way, he gives away the ending of their story, and leaves them to decide how they will face the rest of their lives, knowing that with Jesus, their son, it will not be easy.

Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to do what is required of them by the law, which was to present their son, offer sacrifices to God, and for Mary to participate in a ritual cleansing after giving birth.  They acted and were treated like any other Jewish family with a newborn child.  According to the law of Leviticus, Mary would have been considered unclean for 7 days after childbirth, and then in a state of blood purification for 33 days.  Jesus would have been circumcised and given his name on the eighth day.  Mary was then not to touch anything holy or enter a sacred area until her purification was complete.  If a woman gave birth to a girl, her purification time was twice as long!  (That doesn’t quite seem fair!)  When her time was complete, Mary was to bring a sacrifice: a one year old lamb as a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a purification offering to the priest at the entrance of the Holy of Holies in the temple.  If a woman could not afford a sheep, she could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for the burnt offering and one for the purification offering.  We are told that Mary brought two doves or pigeons.  Just think of it: she could not afford a sacrificial lamb, yet in her arms she carried the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.  Mary was humble, but she was not ashamed.  She brought what she could.  God asks for no more than that (Higgs, Women of Christmas, 149).

As Mary and Jesus waited in the Court of Women, Joseph would have delivered her sacrifice to the priest.  Mary was a small town girl, a poor woman with an infant child, and probably not used to the crowds of the holy temple courts in Jerusalem.  She might have gone unnoticed as Joseph rejoined his family.  Maybe they breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that they could return home to Galilee and go on with their lives.  But there was one man in the temple that day had who had waited a lifetime to meet Jesus, and this was his time.

We are not told too much about Simeon- not his tribe, his background, positon, or family status.  We do know that he is righteous, devout, waiting for the restoration of Israel, and that the Holy Spirit rested upon him.  He was in tune with God’s voice and presence in his life, and he eagerly awaited the time when God would send peace and light into the world.  Jesus looked like any other child, yet the Spirit opened Simeon’s eyes and heart to see Jesus for who he was: the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed.  It was by the power of the Spirit that Simeon knew this child and was able to speak with truth, blessing, joy, and hopeful hesitation over the challenging message he shared with Mary and Joseph.

He took Jesus in his arms as he shared his song and praise to God for the gift before him.  Simeon proclaims that because of this child, his eyes have beheld salvation not just for some, but for all, for this child will be a light to both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews).  Because he has now seen this child, Simeon will go live in peace for the rest of his days, knowing that his purpose has been fulfilled.  He then blessed the child and his parents and turned to Mary with words that no mother would really want to hear: that her child will be the cause of the falling and rising of many, and will be a sign that generates opposition and conflict.  Because of Jesus, the true thoughts of many will be revealed.  And finally, he tells her that a sword will pierce her innermost being as well.

One of my favorite Jewish traditions is the Hebrew naming and blessing of a new child.  During a worship service, the new parents bring the child forward to be blessed by the Rabbi and given a Hebrew name.  It is a way of welcoming the child into the Jewish community and to receive a blessing from God for his or her lifetime.  This ritual is somewhat similar to our sacrament of baptism, but has a somewhat different meaning and does not include water.  The child is given their Hebrew name, which will be used to call the child to the Torah for his or her bar or bat mitzvah later in life, and gives a significant meaning to the family’s involvement in the Jewish faith.  This is always a joyful and happy moment in the life of the Jewish community, and cause for celebration.

Simeon’s blessing for Jesus, however, was not meant to be necessarily uplifting or happy.  In his song, Simeon summed up the story of Jesus: his life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  And none of it was going to be easy.  How must have Mary felt upon hearing these words?  And what did it mean that a sword will pierce her innermost being?  She was the mother of Jesus, after all.  She had already overcome a mysterious conception and birth, and now faces a challenging world as a new mother, unsure of what the future would hold for her child.  And now this message that she will be deeply affected by the opposition and challenges that Jesus will face in his lifetime.

The sword that would pierce her being could mean many things.  It could be seen as the struggle that Mary might face in accepting the teachings of Jesus, his ministry, and the form it will take.  The sword could mean her impending grief over the cross and the death that Jesus would suffer.  It could mean that the whole of Jesus’ life would pierce her soul to the point that she would never be the same again.  That’s what it means to be a parent, isn’t it?  To love someone so much that you would do anything for them, yet knowing that at some point you have to let them go to become who they were meant to be, no matter how painful it might be for you?

But Mary knew that Jesus came from God, and really belonged to God from the beginning.  However, it still did not make it easy for her to hear these words- that the life and ministry of her son would pierce her soul and the souls of many who would either love him, oppose him, or even put him to death.  Just as Mary was the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ coming birth and his true identity, Simeon’s song is used to make Mary the first person to hear the not so good news of the opposition that Jesus’ teachings will evoke and of the divisions it will inspire among the people.

I might be showing my age here, but I did not learn until recently that Alberta King, the mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., was also assassinated 6 years after the death of her son as she played the organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Alberta King

The 23 year old African American man who shot and killed her said he did it because he believed that all Christians were his enemies and that black ministers were a menace to black people.  We learned all about Martin Luther King, Jr., his teachings, his courage, his bravery, and his death in school.  But we never heard a word about his mother who helped raise him and teach him the values that he preached and used to lead a revolution for civil rights in our country.  Alberta worked hard to instill self-respect and respect for others in her children.  Martin once wrote of her that she “was behind the scenes setting forth those motherly cares, the lack of which leaves a missing link in life.”  She was a source of strength for many after the assassination of her son and faced fresh tragedy the year following Martin’s death when her youngest son, Alfred, drowned in his pool.

Talk about a family who faced one tragedy upon another, yet had such a significant impact on the progression of justice and civil rights in the United States.  I couldn’t help but wonder what Alberta must have been feeling as she watched her son preach such a strong and divisive message at the time, putting his life and safety on the line again and again.  He suffered beatings, jail time, strong opposition, and eventually, death.  As she watched Martin grow up, did she know how it would end?  Did she see things in him that helped her prepare for the tough road ahead?  Did she know that her son was the one to lead a revolution for change and give hope to millions of people?  I don’t know too much about Alberta, but it seems to me that she had the courage and strength to raise up a son who was not afraid to go out and change the world, even in the face of opposition, violence, and the threat of harm- all in the name of justice and mercy for all persons in the name of Jesus, regardless of the color of their skin.

Alberta King had a difficult and tragic life that came to a tragic end.  In many ways, she reminds me of Mary, who knew early on that her son would set out to change the world, but it would not be easy.  And she would be the one to offer strength and support along the way, while having the faith to stand by and let Jesus go out and minister to a broken world.  This is what Simeon’s blessing and song tells Mary and can teach us today.  That in the unfolding story of Jesus, there is hope, salvation, and peace, yet there is also a challenge to stand up to the brokenness and divisiveness in the world.  Simeon tells Mary in his difficult words that she must not be afraid of what Jesus will teach, preach, and do for the world.  It is difficult, but it is necessary in order for the world to change.  Change only happens when passion, courage, and sacrifice are the driving forces.  With Simeon’s help, Mary began to prepare for this and to understand it in light of her infant son.

We will all be faced with swords in our own lives that will pierce our souls.  Whether it is a difficult diagnosis, a job loss, the death of a loved one, addiction, disease, heartache, or the beginning a new journey where we know that it will not be easy.  Advent reminds us that having faith isn’t about having all of the right answers or living a perfect life without challenges, flaws, or mistakes.  It’s about remembering that God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness to show us a better way.  Simeon blessed the child Jesus and spoke truths to his parents that were difficult to hear.  In the same way, God blesses us, speaks a word of peace, and whispers that this life is not always going to be easy, and yet there is hope and salvation there for the taking.  We must have faith and believe in it, even when divisions surround us and life does not unfold the way that we expect or want.

Simeon, upon taking Jesus in his arms, knew he was holding the hope and salvation for all people, and he had been waiting for this moment his entire life.  Woody Allen once said, “I’m not afraid of death.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  Well, Simeon was about there, and he faced death without fear.  He’d prepared for this moment and was now ready to leave this world as he looked upon the face of his Savior.  Simeon felt God’s perfect peace in this moment, knowing that the world was in good hands.  My question is, do we have faith that the world in fact, is in good hands?  If not, how can we offer God’s blessing upon this broken world and find the courage to love, to change, and to transform it?  And how can we face head on the swords that pierce our own souls?  With God’s help, may it be so.  And may God grant us grace and courage to face the world out there unafraid, that we may find the faith of Mary, the peace of Simeon, and the transforming love of Jesus Christ during this holy season.  Amen.

 

 

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Songs of Christmas: Zechariah’s Song

Luke 1:67-80

John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, “Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people.  He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.  He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us.  He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.  He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear,  in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live.  You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.  You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins.  Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.”  The child grew up, becoming strong in character. He was in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.

“Zechariah’s song is all about something that he and Elizabeth could never do for themselves.  These are not the stories of our journey towards God.  They are the shocking stories of God coming down to do for us and through us that which we could never do for ourselves.”

James Harnish, When God Comes Down

Zechariah had waited his entire career as a priest to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and provide an incense offering for the people.  It was finally his turn.  When a priest like Zechariah offered incense, he stood just outside the Veil, behind which was the Holy of Holies where it was believed that the very presence of God was manifest.  Only the high priest was able to get closer to the revealed presence of God, and that was only once a year on the Day of Atonement.  Jewish tradition described a priest who gets to offer the incense as “rich and holy” for the rest of his life.[1]  When he poured the incense on the hot coals, he watched the smoke rise from them, symbolizing the prayers of the people of Israel.  What he got was a startling visit from the angel Gabriel with a life changing announcement- that he and his wife, Elizabeth, will have a son named John despite their old age, despite the fact that he and Elizabeth were not able to have children.  John will be a delight to his parents and to many people, and will bring many back to the Lord.  He will go forth to prepare the way and make paths straight, showing people the way of repentance, salvation, and peace.  Upon hearing this news, Zechariah stumbled out of the temple unable to speak. Elizabeth became pregnant, just as Gabriel had said.  We don’t hear another word from Zechariah until the day John is born and he is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy with his song.

This song, spoken or sung by Zechariah was meant for his son, but also for the people who would listen and receive a word of hope.  Its lyrics take us behind the scenes into the heart of a man on the eve of the Incarnation, when God would come down to earth.  Zechariah’s song is affirmation of the hope and joy to come- that his son, John, which means “the Lord is gracious,” will be the forerunner of the Savior of the world, and the dawn of a new world.  In Zechariah’s song, we hear his vision for John- that he will tell people of forgiveness of sin, he will share the joy of the dawn of heaven breaking upon God’s people, and giving light to those who sit in the darkness.  And finally, he will guide all on the path of peace.  After not speaking for 9 long months, Zechariah chose words that spoke right to the heart of a people in need of these things- of forgiveness, compassion, hope, light, and peace- words that we still need to hear today.

Have you ever had a time in your life when you knew you were standing on the brink of something big?  Maybe you had felt it coming for a while, or you get a feeling that something is on the horizon, but you don’t know what quite yet.  Or perhaps you know it’s time for something in your life to change, but you are waiting for a sign or the right things to fall into place.  From the moment that Zechariah set foot in the temple and met the angel Gabriel, he knew that he stood on the brink of something big- not just a miraculous child, but also at the brink of welcoming a Savior into the world.  He had front row seats to God’s biggest event, about to unfold before him.  He and Elizabeth were the ones chosen to be the forerunners for a new world, a new people, a new kingdom.

This past week, Corey and I were reflecting on the day that we met outside the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta.  It was the 2nd day of seminary orientation.  We became fast friends, and starting dating about a year and a half later.  It’s been quite a journey.  We were reflecting back on the moment we met as we were acknowledging that we are now standing on the brink of our next new adventure of having a baby- and it will probably be the biggest adventure yet.  I know it is coming, and it’s hard to fully accept and embrace all that I am feeling, and I’m taking it with a lot of faith.  It’s like many new, big, and important things in our lives that we await with anticipation, hesitation, worries, and perhaps some fears.   Perhaps you are standing on the brink of something big or are anticipating something to happen.  Maybe it’s a new job, or a medical procedure, or you are awaiting to hear some kind of news about yourself or a family member.  Maybe you are holding your breath along with the rest of the world and waiting with worry to see what tragedy will unfold in the world next.  Perhaps we are all waiting for some kind of emptiness in our lives to be filled with joy and hope.

Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story invites us to feel the spiritual emptiness and longing that they faced in their inability to have children.  But God came down to them into the midst of their emptiness, setting them on the edge of a new life in the form of a child who would prepare the way for Jesus.  Zechariah’s song, then, is about something that God has done that Zechariah and Elizabeth never could have done for themselves.  Not unlike the people surrounding Zechariah and Elizabeth, we too are people who are sitting in the darkness and need guidance on the path to peace.

Many of us turned on our TVs or computers this past Wednesday to see the news of yet another mass shooting in our country, this time in San Bernadino, CA where 3 suspects, armed with assault rifles, shot and killed 14 people and wounded at least 14 others at a community center.  News quickly spread throughout the country as we watched in horror as these events unfolded throughout the day.  There was actually another mass shooting on the same day in Savannah, GA that was not reported as widely where a man opened fire on 3 men and 1 woman.  This all coming after the massacre at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood last week, and a few weeks ago a man turned himself in for shooting 17 people at a playground in New Orleans.

An online article was going around over the weekend that caught my attention with this headline: “There have been 334 days and 351 mass shootings so far this year.”  Let that sink in for a moment.  The BBC news network, while reporting on the latest mass shooting in the United States, titled their report, “Just another day in the United States of America: another day of gun fire, panic, and fear.”  Once again, many people, including politicians with the world as their stage, requested nothing but prayers from the American people.

The front page of the New York Daily News on Thursday was this:

god isn't fixing this

This wasn’t an attack on God or religious belief, but a bold statement to say that we as American people, especially those in power, need to do something about a country gone out of control with guns, violence, our justice system, and perhaps anger and mental illness.  Prayer is meant to be put into action.  If we just pray and say words, then we are doing nothing.  We are fixing nothing.  We continue to propel cycles of violence with no end in sight.  We are a tired people.  We have become a hopeless people.  We have lost our way.

On the other hand, if we were to argue against this headline, we might say that God has already “fixed this” by showing us the ways to live in peace, to love one another, and to value the humanity of each person (Bishop Coyner).  We just have to put those tools into action as we live out our lives on the pathways to peace.  Zechariah’s song reminds us of this “fix” that God provides through repentance, peace, and paving the way for Jesus.

Zechariah’s song for his son, who would become John the Baptist, the man who would preach repentance and forgiveness of sin, is just as relevant to us today as it was on the day Zechariah made his song known to those who would listen.  He awaits the day that these things will come to pass, where God will pour out his compassion upon those who walk in the dark, where people will repent of their sins and return to the Lord, where humanity longs to be guided on the path to peace.  We, as those who are receivers of this compassion and mercy, must preach shared responsibility, that prayers alone are not enough- that we must change our hearts and minds into actions and to know that we always must begin again by seeing new ways that God is coming into the world and being a part of bringing God into the midst of our broken and violent world.

I don’t own a gun.  I have never shot a bullet or been to a gun range.  I have never picked up a weapon against another human being.  But I am still part of a violent culture.  I still want God to come and set things right because we have surely lost our way.  But we can no more cause God to come down to be among us than we can make the sun rise in the morning…but we can train our eyes to see the light when it comes (Harnish, When God Comes Down, 11).  We can be a part of making the light known as we reflect it to others.

Zechariah knew that this was his task- to prepare the world for his son that would pave the way for the light…for the path to peace.  John the Baptist, after all, preached a gospel of repentance and God’s mercy to those who would listen.  He was the first to remind people that we are all sinners in need of a saving God- one that comes among us, full of grace and truth.  Zechariah proclaims to his listeners that his son will remind people that there is no longer “us” and “them,” but “we.”  Today, we still need to be reminded and to pray that we discover our “we-ness.”  Once we do that, only then will we learn not to kill each other, diminish each other, and separate each other.  We need to learn to see human beings again.  Only then will this song ring true in our world again- only then will God’s dawn of heaven break upon us and give light to this dark world, and guide us on the path of peace.

Some of you may recall a story of a young Muslim man who was attacked shortly after 9/11 by a Texan man who was claiming revenge for the attacks.  Just days after 9/11, 31 year old Mark Stroman went on a shooting spree in the Dallas area, killing two South Asian immigrants and shooting Rais Bhuiyan in the face at close range, blinding him in one eye.  When Stroman was arrested, he boastfully called himself the “Arab Slayer.”  But as Stroman sat on death row awaiting execution, he had an unlikely champion trying to save his life: Bhuiyan, the very man who spent years recovering from a gunshot wound to the eye and face.  When asked why he was trying to spare his attacker’s life, Bhuiyan, a Muslim who immigrated to the US from Bangladesh said, “I’ve had many years to grow spiritually.  I’m trying to do my best not to allow the loss of another human life.  I’ll knock on every door possible.”[2]  He sprang into action, knocking on doors, collecting signatures, working with the Texas Board of Pardons, and setting up a website called “World Without Hate.”  Among his supporters were several relatives of the victims who were killed by Stroman.

Despite Bhuiyan’s best efforts, Stroman was executed by the state of Texas on July 20, 2011.  But Bhuiyan serves as an example of mercy and forgiveness, and a champion for seeing humanity in the other, as hard and difficult as it may have been to overcome the bitterness and hatred that may have welled up inside of him, and could have been fuel for anger and revenge, and more violence.  His faith in God guided him to seek humanity and life in the life of another, and he found the mercy and compassion the gifts that Zechariah proclaims from God.  Not just for some, but for all of humanity and for the life of the world.  And all of this at the dawn of the birth of a child who will pave the way for people to come face to face with a Savior.

So on this second Sunday of Advent, as we continue to prepare our lives for the coming of Jesus into our midst once again, may we hear words of hope in Zechariah’s song.  May we hear a challenge to put our words, prayers, and faith into action in the world that God might be glorified as we pave the way for this presence in our midst.  And may we be willing to be guided on the path to peace.  May we also be reminded that Advent begins with the awareness that we cannot fully save ourselves.  None of us can give birth to the life, love, joy, and peace that God intends for us by our own human power.  We are not in this alone.  So we keep our eyes, hearts, and ears open to the ways in which God calls us out of his great compassion and mercy to live and work among us, and stirs our hearts to heal the world.  As we are reminded of these lyrics to Zechariah’s song, may it be so:

“Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.”

Amen.

 

[1] http://www.lifeway.com/Article/sermon-christmas-zecharaiah-song-benedictus-luke-1

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/43241014/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/victim-hate-crime-now-fights-his-attackers-life/#.VmBgzHarTIU

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