Seek the heart faith

This is my sermon from April 19, 2020, The Second Sunday of Easter. The lectionary may be found here.

My friend, Sue, of blessed memory, preached one sermon in her whole life.  I will not forget that sermon, even though it was probably 20 years ago. She said something that changed things for me.  She talked about how she had journeyed from a “head faith” to a “heart faith.”  Sue was born and raised in the Episcopal Church.  She spent a lot of time in the church. She went to Sunday School and Episcopal Church camp.  She was a member of Daughters of the King.  She did all those things good Episcopal girls and young women did. She and her husband were raising their children in the Church, which is where I met her. They were faithful. She lived her faith with a heart that you could almost see beating in her chest.  That is how I had known her – as the woman with faith so visible to the world. 

In her sermon, when Sue talked about her journey from a head faith to a heart faith, she talked about the real difference between having faith in what you have been taught and have no reason to doubt because people you love and trust tell you that it’s true and having the adult experience of this kind of maturation in her faith in which she was able to say, as Thomas said in this Gospel, “My Lord and my God.”  She had had a number of experiences in her life, some the write-home-to-mama types of experiences and some the kind you think back later and say, “Huh!  I guess that was a God moment.”  She had had those experiences in her life when she could move from a belief based on what she had been taught, what she read, and what she heard in sermons to a trust in God because she’d had some experiences of God up close and personal. 

I was thinking about her earlier this week when I was praying with today’s Gospel because we have Thomas, who is out, not with the disciples when Jesus comes back to them the first time after Easter Day.  The next time he sees them, they say, “Look! We’ve seen him.  He’s back!”  Thomas doesn’t say to them, “I don’t believe you.”  What Thomas says is, “I need to see him.  I need to experience this for myself.”  And Jesus, being Jesus, gives him that opportunity. 

Thomas gets a bad rap.  In today’s Gospel he’s called “The Twin”, though in other contexts he’s called “Doubting Thomas”, as if having the need to experience Jesus at work in one’s own life is a sign of a lack of faith.  My friends, it’s not.  Having questions, having doubts, speaks, in fact, to a trust in the relationship with God that transcends this I-believe-because-somebody-told-me-I-have-to-believe-and- this-is-what-I-have-to-believe-and-how-I-have-to-believe. Thomas’ vulnerability, his honesty in say, “I need this.  I need Jesus to be present to me in the same way that Jesus was present to the rest of you a few days ago”, is a sign that Thomas has a willingness, a desire, a longing for the kind of transformative relationship that Jesus offers us.

What’s really interesting to me about this Gospel is that we hear “those who believe”, because that’s the way it was translated for us.  But if you go back to the original Greek, the word is pistos, and pistos means “trust”.  It’s an active trust.  It’s the trust that develops because something has happened in a relationship.  So Thomas is saying, “Jesus, help me to trust.  Help me to know you so that my faith can be a heart faith, a lived faith, not a faith I carry and claim because somebody else told me I should, told me it was true.”

This is one of the most faithful ways to be a follower of Jesus, to seek the opportunities in one’s own life to know Jesus invites each of us to know him.  Sure, Jesus extends the invitation to all of us, but it’s not like the shepherd ringing the bell to call of the nameless sheep to come home.  Jesus invites each of us uniquely, personally, individually to relationship, the kind of relationship where we don’t have to take it on the word of somebody else. We don’t have to take it on a blind trust,  if you will, but the kind of trust that says, “help me understand”, “help me to know you”, “help me to hold up my half of this relationship you are inviting me into.”  This is the kind of invitation that is extended to each of us all of the time. And, yet, it is not expected by anybody – and I’ll go out on a limb and say Jesus himself – that we always have the same level of trust that we develop at any given time in all of our life. 

One of the greatest gifts my friend gave me when she preached was that she talked about how at specifics time in her life she experiences and knew Jesus better, more intimately than she ever had before, and then sometime later she looked back with longing for those times when she knew Jesus more intimately than she ever had before.  Jesus would be present to her in a new way, and she invite him to be with her through the next wave of doubt and of question so he could bring her back to the place where she would say, “Wow! Jesus, I know you more intimately than I ever have before!”  This kind of lived faith, this kind of trusting relationship in which we feel safe to say, “God, I believe. Help my unbelief”, which is also in the Gospels, is the kind of faith, is the kind of relationship that Thomas models for us in today’s Gospel. 

As we continue this Easter celebration through Eastertide, the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, I invite you to think about Thomas.  And, if it helps you, to use the image my dear friend gave to me as such a gift and blessing some 20 years ago. It is okay to have the head faith, the faith that you carry because it is about the things you have been told or have been taught. But what Jesus really, truly desires for us and with us is a heart faith, the kind of faith we seek to see in God’s world in all that we do, with and in all we encounter, including the everyday places.

The not-so-empty tomb

This is my 2020 Easter sermon. We heard the Gospel of John 20:1-18.

Easter is the most sacred of days, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ – a day that changed the world like no other before, nor since.  Although we in the church revel in the return of the “Alleluias,” the Gospel story of the resurrection is quite different.  The story as told in John’s Gospel starts as one of emptiness, disbelief, and tears.  It is a story of not immediately seeing what is happening, who is right there in front of you.  It is a story that unfolds slowly, deliberately, rather than with the heightened energy and excitement that seems to surround other stories – Christmas, for instance, with its heralding star, angels proclaiming the news, and magi with gifts.  It is a story of expectation and longing.  Then it becomes the story of the promise fulfilled.

The theologian, Frederick Buechner writes:

The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.

He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching it till they find his face.

 (http://frederickbuechner.com/content/easter)

In today’s Gospel,  Mary Magdalene rises early and quietly returns to the tomb to pay her respects to her beloved friend and teacher.  It is easy to believe she expected to be alone with Jesus, in a time of quiet sorrow that the hopes she shared with so many others for a different kind of life, a life that had been summarily taken from them with Jesus’ execution.  Imagine how she must have felt, to have even this ritual of mourning taken from her.  Imagine her disbelief that anyone would have taken his body.  Imagine her longing to be able to be with Jesus, even for just one more day.  She runs to Peter and the Beloved Disciple to share her grief and disbelief.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple cannot believe it either.  They have to see for themselves, so they accompany Mary Magdalene back to the tomb.  When they see that what she told them is true, they turn and walk away.  They believe it is over, that there is nothing left to expect.  They return to their homes, leaving Mary Magdalene there, alone at the empty tomb.

But wait!  The tomb isn’t empty.  There are angels but not the loudly, joyfully proclaiming angels who heralded Jesus’ birth.  These angels are sitting quietly, as if waiting for Mary to notice them, waiting for her to make the first move.    When she looks in, they ask her a question, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She answers them and then turns away to leave.  And then she has the experience of meeting the risen Christ face-to-face We might wonder how it is she did not recognize the man she dearly loved and respected, the man she knew could change the world.  How could she mistake Jesus for the gardener?  Wouldn’t it, shouldn’t it, have been obvious to her who he was?

Imagine Mary Magdalene, there with Jesus through his ministry, his crucifixion, and now at the empty tomb, without the benefit of the 2000+ years of history and experience we have today.  She is there at the empty tomb with no other plausible explanation for what happened to the body of the man she saw die than that the authorities moved it or someone, for some reason, stole it.  It is little wonder, really, that she mistook Jesus for a gardener.  She does not know what to think, what to believe, but as much as she longs for it she does not expect to ever see Jesus again.

Mary Magdalene’s experience of the risen Christ is as true an experience as can possibly be.  Jesus does not push his way into our lives.  He does not insist we recognize him.  Jesus invites us into relationship.  He invites us to open our hearts and our minds to him.  Jesus gently holds the full promise of forgiveness and redemption, of eternal life, which is our Easter joy.  He literally died on the cross so that we might come to know him in this way, yet he does not insist that we accept this gift.  Jesus desires that we seek to see his face in the times and places, circumstances and people in which we’d least expect to see it, even, as happened to Mary Magdalene, at the empty tomb.

Jesus is everything we’d expect from the incarnate God and so completely unlike our expectations.  Jesus comes to us in our brokenness, our emptiness, and invites us to believe, even in the face of the impossible.  Jesus is there to answer our deepest yearnings, the most intimate longings of our hearts.  Jesus continues to be present to us in the most intimate and the most public of ways to save us from ourselves and all the brokenness of this world.  Jesus is here for us wherever it is, however it is, we long to find him, even in the times that seems unlikely or impossible.  That is the promise of Easter, the promise we as Easter people long to receive.

The empty tomb is not really empty. It is full of the love of God for all people.  It is full of the promise from God to all people.  It is full of the life given for and to us. It is full of the Easter message that with God, all things are possible.

The edge of a maybe

There is a poem I love, “I Tremble on the Edge of a Maybe” by Ted Loder”

O God of beginnings,
as your Spirit moved
      over the face of the deep
            on the first day of creaton,
move with me now
       in my time of beginnings,
             when the air is rain-washed,
                    the bloom is on the bush,
                           and the world seems fresh
                                 and full of possibilities,
                                       and I feel ready and full.

I tremble on the edge of a maybe,
      a first time,
               a new thing,
                      a tentative start,
and the wonder of it lays its finger on my lips.

In silence, Lord,
I share now my eagerness
        and my uneasiness
               about this something different
                      I would be or do;
and I listen for your leading
       to help me separate the light
              from the darkness
                     in the change I seek to shape
                             and which is shaping me.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this poem as I go about doing the usual things that need to be done even in the midst of all the changes and restrictions in place because of the corona virus/Covid-19, while trying to figure out how to do things that have never had to be done before. For what feels like forever but has, in reality, been only a couple of months, at least some part of my day has been spent thinking about what it means to life as we know it here in this small Episcopal parish in northern New Jersey. You see, the parish I serve has a large preschool and many of the families are Chinese. The virus broke out in Wuhan during the time we were in recess and a number of families were on holiday in China, including two in Wuhan. Since the news broke, this virus has been real, it’s been up close and personal.

The past several weeks, with the onset of social distancing and the seemingly ever changing onslaught of news and governmental directives, not to mention directives from our bishop, it feels increasingly as if we are living in a giant paradox. We – the Church- are the place people come to for so many reasons in times like this and, in this particular time, they cannot physically come. Our preschool is closed. The 12-step groups we host can no longer meet. We cannot visit to provide pastoral care. Our offices are all but closed, open only to a skeleton crew that is almost never in the building at the same time and, if they are, it is with many feet between them. Our hearts break that we cannot gather for worship and fellowship on Sunday mornings. And still we are called to be the Church, the “life-giving sanctuary, where love begets love” (as this parish has been described).

We’ve been challenged to step so far beyond our comfort zones that at times it feels as if we will be forever lost. We are developing a love-hate relationship with the technology that is even more present in our lives than ever before. Even as we struggle to figure it out and find ourselves frustrated when we can’t get Zoom to connect to Facebook Live or the wifi signal lacks the stability to support consistent audio, we are grateful that it exists and enables us to be together in some way.

We are a faith-filled and Spirit-guided people with an abiding trust in God’s love and a joyful reliance on the promise that God is always present with us, that God’s wildly wonderful Spirit works in and through us at all times and in all things. And yet, as seems to be true of everybody we know, we have been anxious and afraid. We worry that we will get ill or that someone we love will get ill. We worry that we will have to say goodbye in this life to people we love and that we won’t even be able to gather together for their funerals. We worry about money and jobs and being able to buy the food we like and the toilet paper we need.

We worry and we question and we seek to experience the presence of God in all of this. We rant and we rave and we wonder if this means we are not the faithful people we think we are. We remind ourselves that the best relationships are those in which we can be truly ourselves, completely honest about how we are feeling, and then we feel better that our relationship with God has this kind of intimacy.

We live for the day we can gather together in the usual ways even as we wonder if there isn’t something about this new way of being Church that we might want to hold onto for a while. Maybe we want to stream our Sunday service even after we don’t have to, so that some of the people who joined us in the time will continue to bless our community? Maybe we will continue to check in with each other more often just because we can and we know how good it feels to have that connection? Maybe we’ll continue to pray together online at least one or twice a week? Maybe we’ll grow the personal spiritual practices so many of us have begun, rather than shed them as soon as we can gather in-person for worship and have returned to our pre-corona lives?

Maybe we’ll ask God to help us to understand how it is this time of pandemic has shaped us in ways that we need but would otherwise not have thought to discover. Maybe…