Faith, The Final Frontier

John 20:19-31 (The Message)
Later on that day, the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he showed them his hands and side. The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: “Peace to you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you.” Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he said. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” But Thomas, sometimes called the Twin, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We saw the Master.” But he said, “Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won’t believe it.” Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.” Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.” Thomas said, “My Master! My God!” Jesus said, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.” Jesus provided far more God-revealing signs than are written down in this book. These are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life in the way he personally revealed it.

__________

“Space, the final frontier… These are the voyages of the starship…” I’m sorry… That’s the opening for something else, but it’s still relevant to what we are talking about today, which is faith. Faith in both things that we can see and cannot see. Maybe we don’t have a starship to chart undiscovered star systems, but I think it might be an appropriate metaphor for us as we navigate today’s passage from the Gospel According to John. 

But since I mentioned it, it was in 1966 that the first episode of Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry aired on televisions across America. Star Trek, which first began with the adventures of Captain Kirk and the starship Enterprise soon evolved out of the realm of science fiction… Over the years, it addressed issues that were relevant to its viewers, pushed the boundaries of what was and wasn’t acceptable to broadcast, and inspired generations to imagine what lies beyond our own solar system. While Gene Roddenberry had distanced himself from his Christian upbringing, his series would still occasionally ask questions about faith, “What does it mean when we can’t observe something or hold it in our hands?” “What does it look like to believe in the spiritual when it seems like everything can be explained  using the scientific method?” “ Is there still room for faith and a belief in things that aren’t able to be quantified or studied?”

Perhaps then faith really is the final frontier… There are no scans, no notes that can be made, and no way to hold hope in our hands. It’s a little disconcerting when you think about it. We trust in our senses… We put stock into the things that we can see, touch, smell, hear, and taste, but faith doesn’t lend itself to any of those and as a result faith has become shrouded in mystery, which makes it hard to talk about. I admit that as Presbyterians, we are not always great when it comes to talking about our faith. We’d much rather talk about sports, things that are going on in the community, friends, family, and dare I say even the tumultuous realm of politics, anything else, but faith.  So let’s try and demystify religion for the sake of exploring that final frontier. 

I think it would be helpful to take a look at what faith is not before we look at what faith is…  If faith is the final frontier, then that means we have to dive in and explore what faith is, taking in all of its complexities, faults, triumphs, joys, and sorrows. Because if we aren’t willing to confront the mysteries of faith, how can we hope to know not only ourselves but this God whom we profess to worship and serve each and every week? 

Well, for starters, faith isn’t a litmus test… There’s the tendency to view faith as being something that indicates whether or not someone is truly a follower of Christ, but let me tell you that we have no way of knowing what goes on deep within the human soul. If Thomas, a disciple a Jesus Christ, a witness to countless miracles and signs, still had questions and doubts where does that leave us? This is the whole point of the Easter story! It’s the reason why God came down to earth and took on human flesh because God wanted to know what it meant for us to live in a world that wrestled with both tremendous joy and unspeakable suffering. There is no definitive answer when we talk about having faith.  It’s something that is always changing. 

Whether we are new to the faith or have been going to church for decades, faith is something that does not lend itself to a clear-cut answer to whether or not someone is “in” or “out.” There is no decoder ring to determine who belongs and who doesn’t. We as Christians have tried this before, and each time we have failed miserably. You look back to periods in history such as the Spanish Inquisition, the fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, and the segregation of churches here in America. When you process these things, you begin to realize that all of our attempts to section off parts of the body of Christ have been futile. If we do not live with the hope that is found in the resurrection, then what are we doing? How can we possibly expect to understand ourselves in relationship to God better, if we exert so much energy into creating an exclusive club? 

So what else is not a part of faith… Well, faith isn’t an excuse to be ignorant of reality or the struggles in which we all encounter at some point or another… Maybe I’m not phrasing this in a way that really makes sense, so let me try and unpack it. We’ve all heard and used phrases like, “I’ll pray for you,” “I’m thinking of you,” “I’ll send you my thoughts and prayers.” They’re pretty common phrases that we use on a semi-regular basis, but there are some sayings that we probably shouldn’t use in certain situations depending on what is going on in somebody else’s life. While faith is a balm that can soothe both our body and soul, it doesn’t ask that we turn a blind eye to the fact that many things in life can’t be assigned a rational reason or purpose. 

I remember my time as a hospital chaplain and a family member told a patient, “If you have faith that God will heal you, then God will.” Really? Are you sure that we’re looking at the same person? They’re on their deathbed… How can you tell them that if they have faith, God will heal them? When we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death, both literally and figuratively, I don’t imagine that someone telling you to have faith would be much of a comfort. It wasn’t too long ago that we found Jesus hanging on a cross… That was real… There was real flesh, real blood, that was convicted of a crime that was not justified… On the cross, Christ looked down to find Mary weeping with a multitude of others… Jesus didn’t tell her to have faith that everything would be okay. Instead, we found a Jesus who cared about who would welcome her into their community once he was gone. Faith doesn’t give us a way to ignore these realities but asks us instead go around and seek out those who are hurting so that we can offer not only words but the physical sign of God’s presence as well. 

So we have a better understanding of the things that do not make up faith. So what fills in those gaps? What are the things that make up faith, and what is at the core of the belief that Jesus presents in this morning’s Scripture reading? Perhaps we’ll find that once again, Jesus breaks our expectations, our standards of ourselves and others, and comes to bring us into a deeper relationship that sustains and nurtures us, because we have a living a faith, a faith that calls us to action, to get up and go out from our pews into the world that God created, leaving behind our prejudices, fears, and hate.

Faith is a journey… Faith is something that should not remain static. It’s not a precious family heirloom that is meant to be shrouded in time-honored tradition and gathers dust and cobwebs. On the contrary, our faith should almost be like a quilt that is assembled by many different people. Some pieces make it unique, make it ours, but some parts demonstrate how our faith has been impacted by those whom we have met and by the events in our life. If my faith today was the same as it was 10 years ago, I should be concerned… Because that means that nothing has happened. Nothing has challenged me to ask where God is calling me amid everything else that is going on in my life. If our faith, if our identity as a church has not changed in the past 10 years, maybe we need to ask ourselves where God is truly leading us. We can’t just sit in “friendly territory,” at some point, we have to move into the unexplored realms of life and faith to continually discover what God is asking us to do. 

Faith is meant to root us in reality when the world is so chaotic… Sometimes we will falter, and that’s okay. Doubts, questions, they are an essential part of what it means to have a strong faith. Thomas often gets a hard time for having doubted that Jesus rose from the dead. There are some valid points to be made for why Thomas shouldn’t have doubted the others, but Thomas accurately reflects our lives in the here and now. We have doubts, we have questions, we wonder why there is so much death in the world, we question why evil actions are so prevalent, and we long for the days when our soul can find refuge from the darkness and chaos of the world. There may be reasons for us to critique, Thomas, but there are even more reasons why we should look towards Thomas as an example of what it means to have faith in an uncertain world. 

And do you know what the best part of all of this is? It’s that Jesus is there… Jesus is there offering an abundance of grace and forgiveness. Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas, Jesus doesn’t chastise him, because he knows what it is like to live with the tensions of having faith in the divine, the unseen, and the real-life problems that we encounter in our everyday lives. The story of Easter is not just a story, it’s a way of life… This Easter season, we are asked whether or not we will journey on with a faith that asks questions looks out for our neighbors and seeks to embody the love and grace of God. It means that we’ll change, we’ll grow, we won’t just stagnate in our relationship to God, clinging to traditions that are no longer relevant, but flourish as we continue on with faith that God will lead us, both in our own lives and in our various communities. Amen.

Palms, Praises, and People

Text: Mark 11:1-11
When they were nearing Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany on Mount Olives, he sent off two of the disciples with instructions: “Go to the village across from you. As soon as you enter, you’ll find a colt tethered, one that has never yet been ridden. Untie it and bring it. If anyone asks you, ‘What are you doing?’ say, ‘The Master needs him, and will return him right away.’” They went and found a colt tied to a door at the street corner and untied it. Some of those standing there said, “What are you doing untying that colt?” The disciples replied exactly as Jesus had instructed them, and the people let them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus, spread their coats on it, and he mounted it. The people gave him a wonderful welcome, some throwing their coats on the street, other spreading out rushes they had cut in the fields. Running ahead and following after, they were calling out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” He entered Jerusalem, then entered the Temple. He looked around, taking it all in. But by now it was late, so he went back to Bethany with the Twelve.

__________

The Son of God, the Messiah, the one who would restore Israel, the King of Kings, rode into Jerusalem on the back of a colt that had never been ridden. Can you imagine it? What must it have been like to stand there in the crowd as Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem? The people were so excited that some placed palm branches that they had cut from nearby fields while others took their cloaks and put them on the ground in front of Jesus, all while a significant number of others gathered to greet him. With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, it raises the question, “Why did they do that,” Why are we continuing to do it?”…

These questions are why I love the Gospel of Mark. There is an “earthiness” that brings the cosmic down to our own plane of existence. The people who appear in Mark’s narrative are not that much different than ourselves… They asked questions of one another and of God. And this God who they asked questions of turned the world upside down and continues to turn the world on its head. When the people in the city placed palm branches and their coats on the ground, I wonder if they really knew what they were getting themselves into. Each of them had their expectations and their own hopes for what they wanted Jesus to do, but Jesus never really seemed to fit into any of their boxes.

This morning as we wave our palm branches and sing songs of admiration and joy, do we know what we are getting ourselves into when we place our palm branches at the feet of Jesus? Are we willing to follow Christ, even if that means we are being led in a direction that goes against our preconceived notions of others, our biases, and our fears? Perhaps that is why we wave palm branches… Maybe that is why we come to offer what we have to God with the faith that what we offer will be used to transform the communities in which we live. But we better be ready, because if we are going to welcome Jesus into our presence, we should realize that things probably won’t go the way we want them to because Jesus rarely does what we expect of him.

When we welcome in this Messiah, this King of Kings, we welcome in the unknown, which can be quite a frightening thing. This unknown factor, this fear of where Jesus will lead us is not something new or strange. It’s a tale as old as time and a story that has been repeated throughout history. If we were to follow the crowd in their praise of Jesus, would we embrace the fact that Jesus challenges us to grow as individuals and as a community? This reminds me of a conversation I had recently:

Not too long ago, I was leading a confirmation retreat for youth and their mentors. Besides leading plenary sessions for youth, I also conducted a small group for the adults who had come with them. While I try not to have favorites, there was one older man named Denny, who quickly jumped to the top of the list. During a discussion about how the church can be a better neighbor to those in the community Denny chimed in, “You know I’m really tired of some of the things my church does… All they do is debate and complain about how the church should be decorated. They’re concerned about the flowers and the building, but not about the people around us. When I walk outside of church on Sunday, I see that there is so much more than we can and should be doing! Yet all people seem to ever talk about is keeping things the same!” 

I took the liberty of editing some of what Denny said for the sake of this being a church, but the sentiment is still the same. It asks the critical question, “Are you, are we, willing to follow Jesus if that means giving up things that are no longer part of God’s calling for us?” We know what is comfortable and we know what makes us feel safe… For the people in Jerusalem, this feeling of security was founded in their belief that Jesus would be an earthly liberator. With a sword in his hand, Jesus would free the people from their oppression and would restore the kingdom that they had yearned for centuries. For us, here and now, we often cling to what we know, to what is familiar, and we become uneasy thinking about what it means for us to become the community of faith for the second, third, and fourth generations to come.

Life isn’t easy… When you’re laying in bed late at night thinking about the troubles of the world, it feels like the last thing you want to worry about is the mission that is given to us by Jesus Christ. I mean some bills have to be paid, loved ones who are sick or dying, stress about employment, struggles with addiction, and relationships that are fracturing or just starting anew… At the end of the day when we are most vulnerable it isn’t too hard to wonder, “How in the world am I supposed to add one more thing? Discipleship? Stewardship? Fellowship? Jesus can’t expect me to do it all!” To some extent, that’s a fair question and a feeling that we have probably all experienced or will experience. Turning to our reading this morning, we find that the people in Mark’s Gospel wrestled with similar questions and feelings as well.

As the people followed Jesus through the city, they were shouting and calling out to Jesus, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in God’s name! Blessed the coming kingdom of our father, David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Hosanna… It’s a word that we have come to associate with praise, with jubilation, with celebration. But Hosanna is actually much more nuanced than that… It can also mean, “Save us now, we pray.” Save us from what? I would imagine that if the people found out what Jesus’ intent was they wouldn’t be so eager to follow him. The same might be right for us… When we’ve become so concerned about ourselves and our traditions, thinking about what lies beyond the walls we have erected for ourselves can sometimes seem like an impossible task, but that is what we are supposed to be doing if we decided to follow Christ.

Marching behind and in front of Jesus, the people believed that he would liberate them from their earthly oppressors. I think it might be fair to say that as Jesus rode into town, the people were hoping that this would be the moment that he would establish his earthly kingdom. But like I said before, Jesus isn’t about these things… Those gathered were following him for the wrong reasons. Jesus didn’t care about the Romans or their swords and collection of weapons. Jesus didn’t care about borders or nations, powers or principalities… Jesus would have probably preferred the people to march with him to demonstrate the therapeutic ability that only God can give. The healing potential that emphasizes empathy, love, and compassion, and therefore, brings about reconciliation beyond comprehension. The energy that calls us to cherish human life, instead of the things that extinguish the precious image of God that dwells inside each and every one of us.”

Jesus asks us if we will follow him on that path he has laid out for us… If we are really willing to place our palm branches and cloaks in front of Jesus, are we ready to beat our swords into plowshares? The weapons of our speech, our emotions, and material goods? Will we surrender our hostile attitudes for one another to recognize not Caesar’s reign, but the reign of Christ. The palm branches that we carry are much more than signs of our praise… They are a sign of our humanity, our purpose, and our desire to follow Christ, who continually surprises us and challenges us to grow.

I’m not sure how many people would be left in the crowd if they knew that is what Jesus was really asking them. I’m not sure how many of us would be left if we could look ahead and see where Jesus is leading us. Because our faith asks us to do more than think… Here in the Western hemisphere, we’ve done a lot of thinking… But maybe it’s time for a change, time for action, time to put those years of thinking about our faith into action. That way we can become the better community of faith God calls us to be, we can become the better neighbor, and we can become better stewards of this tremendous and beautifully created world and caretakers of one another. Perhaps then we will be able to lay down not only our palm branches but our pride and stubbornness as well.

We’re stubborn though, you can ask anyone in my family, and they would verify that I can be quite thick headed… In our resistance to change, in our fear of the unknown, we grasp to the things that give us a sense, a false sense, of security… Yet time and time again, we find that Jesus is there patiently waiting. And not only is Jesus waiting, but he is willing to accept that we will often go kicking and screaming and wait for us to return with open arms to put us back on the right path. This Palm Sunday isn’t just about celebrating Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. It sets the stage for a series of events that ends with Jesus hanging on the cross… There was no victory over the Romans, there was no re-establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, there was only death… But a death that radically changed the world as we know it, and continues to ask the hard questions, and pushes us into a direction where we are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

As we go into this Holy Week, let us continue to ask the questions that the people in Mark’s Gospel asked. Why do we follow Jesus? Why do we do the things that we do? Instead of leaving them on the ground, why don’t we pick up our palm branches and our cloaks and continue to follow Jesus? Who leads us on a forward march that asks us to leave behind the things that build walls, creates division, and silences life rather than nurtures it… Where is Jesus calling you to go? And are you, are well, willing to invest the energy and effort needed to be faithful to that calling? I don’t have the answers, so I can’t say what lies ahead… That’s why we do this thing called faith together… That’s why as a community of faith, we wave palm branches… It’s why we come together to offer our praise to God… It’s why we come together with one another, people who were created in the image of God. Amen.

A Christmas Miracle

Text: Galatians 4:4-7
My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying,  Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. 

_____

On Christmas morning as a child, my parents would make my sister, and I stay in our rooms as they set up for our families annual Christmas ritual. My mother would put on Christmas music, the "classics" as she would say,  and put some cinnamon rolls in the oven. And my father would make a cup of coffee and make sure that the video camera was ready to go to capture everything on tape. After all the necessary steps were taken, they would tell us that they were prepared, and my sister and I would come running out of our rooms to see what "Santa" had brought us for Christmas.

There was undoubtedly a sense of childlike curiosity and amazement… How could Santa possibly bring all these gifts to people in one night? It's still a question that I'm trying to understand today, so if you have the answer, please let me know… Maybe my math skills aren't high enough to comprehend all the theoretical physics for such a trip. Nevertheless, Christmas as a child was something that was filled with wonderment and awe. Of course, I still feel such things today, but nothing can compare when I think back to my sister's childhood experience with Christmas.

You see, when my sister was young, there was one Christmas where she didn't open any of her gifts… My mother told me that my sister would go on to play with the beautifully wrapped boxes for at least a week after Christmas had come and gone. She didn't grasp that there was something underneath the shiny paper, and there could be something better than what was on the outside. To her, the boxes wrapped in the colorful paper were the gifts, and she honestly enjoyed playing with them. So you can imagine her surprise when my parents finally had to show her that there was something underneath all that wrapping paper… It was indeed a Christmas miracle.

But coming back to the present for a moment, the gifts we have gotten for one another have been exchanged, crumpled wrapping paper and sparkling bows have been torn off in anticipation,  and as we come to this New Years Eve, many people think Christmas as something that has come and gone. So then why is it that we still often live our lives in a way that reflects an unopened Christmas present? We have received the greatest gift of all, the love and grace of God… But when we look around, we find that there aren't many people who are "wearing" or "showing off" this gift. It is tempting just to imagine what is inside, but that isn't enough. We have to unwrap this gift so that it can challenge us, shape us, push us to go outside our comfort zone in order to share it with all people, to let the shining light of this Christmas miracle speak the love, peace, joy, and hope that was meant for all times and all places.

Perhaps one day we can work towards re-obtaining such a sense of childlike excitement… But then time appears to be our greatest enemy, the adversary that prevents us from holding onto the innocence that we once possessed. The world that once looked inviting, charming, and wide open, turned out to be more oppressive than we thought. There were hurts, their pains, there were lost and shattered dreams that made it feel like there was nothing left. So then it becomes only natural to hold onto something that gives us hope, that provides us with strength, that provides the light for us during the darkest of days and provides anticipation for the coming glory of God. The critical thing to remember is that we can't keep it for ourselves…

Can we bring back a sense of childlike awe and wonder that empowers us to share this Christmas miracle with others? Are we able to find it within ourselves to bring this healing light to a world that needs light? Childlike doesn't mean powerless… Childlike doesn't mean we ignore opportunities to grow in our faith, but instead embrace opportunities that allow us to study the Word of God… Childlike, childlike means that we empty ourselves and take on a spirit of humility that allows God to work in us, to enables us to participate in this narrative of salvation that all started with the miraculous birth of Christ.

And so we find ways to rediscover this Christmas miracle in ways that are new and refreshing as Christ came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world, or as Paul states, "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." Christ was born under the law, to a woman who was deemed to be a lawbreaker by her those around her, yet it was by such means, by the power of Mary and Holy Spirit,  that God frees us from the shackles of sin and death in order that we may be called the children of God. And when we find ourselves in situations where the darkness surrounds us or where the struggles of life begin to overwhelm us, we can cry out to God saying, "Abba! Father!"

What does it mean for us to cry out to God? For the Reformer John Calvin, "crying" in this case is an expression of firmness and unwavering confidence." When we cry out to God, we do so remember the words of Paul in Romans, "For we have not received a spirit of bondage to falling back into fear, but a spirit of freedom to full confidence." Will we lift our voices with the multitudes of people around the world? Will we join with our sisters and brothers in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who face persecution for their faith, and will we lift our voices up to protect the rights of all people? Will we join with those who are oppressed? Will we summon the courage and strength to offer praise so that we are not held by a spirit of fear, fear of the "other," fear of the foreigner, fear of those who are not like us? Will we cry out as children of the living God, embracing the Spirit of light that we have carried with us throughout this season of Christmas? This is quite a challenge, I would say it should be on the top of the list of anyone who is in the practice of making a New Year's resolution…

We are children of a living God… We are sealed in the love and grace of a God who offers more than any earthly parent or guardian… We are not only held in such high regard but also trusted with the task to live out this grace and love in our daily lives so that all may bear witness to the Spirit of God that resides in each and every one of us. Dare we be faithful witnesses to this love and grace? Do we have what it takes to unwrap the divine gift we have received so that we may go out and help others discover the majesty that awaits them as well? It's a Christmas miracle that can journey with us into the new year as we go forth exploring ways that we can better connect with God and one other so that we can speak truth to power, find freedom in the midst of cell blocks and iron bars, and live boldly into the identities that have been given to us from God.

As the children of a living God, how will we carry this Spirit of Christmas throughout the rest of the year? As children of a living God will we continue to live as ones who are satisfied with wrapped gifts, not wanting them to be tarnished by the world? Or will we live as ones who bring the light of the greatest Christmas gift to all people, to those who live in darkness, to those who live under oppression, to those who face injustice, and to those who require a companion, a friend? It means that we have to take a risk… This Christmas miracle can't stay in a box forever… It has to come out, it has to be shared, and we are the ones who are meant to live it out in our lives, speak it boldly yet lovingly with our words, and go out and be with the ones Christ called us to care for… Christmas day may come once a year, but the Spirit of Christmas, the implications of this miraculous gift, are meant to be carried with us now and forever.

Let us pray… Holy God, Lord of this Christmas season and Lord of all times and all places. Renew in us a spirit of anticipation and hope. Kindle in us a fire that shines forth you love wherever we go. May we come to you with a sense of humility and eagerness so that we may go out proclaiming this Christmas miracle we have received. As we prepare ourselves for another year may your Spirit be our guide and may we strive to have our hearts be attuned to your will. Amen.