Third Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2013
Raleigh Moravian Church

The Risk of Birth 

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L’Engle

 

After hearing Madeline L’Engle’s poem one of the strangest things about today’s Scriptures is the tense in which it is spoken. Today we heard Katherine read Mary’s song, the song that wells up in Mary upon a meeting with her cousin Elizabeth. But these words are not a prophecy. They aren’t a hopeful word about the future. Instead, Mary speaks to something that has already happened, an action that is complete.

In the beginning we can see how that makes sense. Yes, God has put Mary in a place of honor. She will be remembered for generations. This is evident even today as we remember Mary and her bold “yes” to God. But from here the song stops being so personal. The scope of Mary’s praise widens. God’s has shown strength with his arm, she explains. He has scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted the lowly. There is more. The rich have been sent away without a dime in their pockets while the hungry feast at the banquet.

Actions completed. The words of someone who has seen God set the world right. We have to wonder, is Mary speaking ironically? Or has her joy blinded her to the reality around her? It can be hard for us to see what Mary sees, both is her day as is our own. Mary, born into utter poverty, about to give birth in the cold, stone walls of a barn. She has escaped the anxiety of stares and whispers about the pregnancy by hiding out with her cousin Elizabeth in a neighboring town. She will soon be an unwed, teenage mother, stigmatized by her people.

Her world reflects the harshness of her particular situation. Mary lives in a country under the fist of foreign occupiers. Her people are taxed and humiliated. Revolutionaries who dare to defy the ruling power are crucified, conspicuously left at busiest intersections. They are a warning to others who would consider standing up to the might of Rome.

So it is in our day. War and rumors of war. Potential genocide in the Central African Republic. Typhoons destroying entire villages. The one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting. Polio reemerging in Syria and Somalia.

This is no time for a child to be born.

And yet, Mary sings. Instead of irony or expectation, this song is a moment of clarity about the reign of God, one sandwiched between humiliation, pain, stigma, and occupation. In it Mary names the impossible possibility. God is about to enter into the riskiness of this particular human life overshadowed by sickness, poverty and political oppression, and God will redeem everything through it.

Madeline L’Engel’s poem, The Risk of Birth, beautifully captures this sentiment. I’ve read her poem in tandem with Mary’s Song throughout the week. Both L’Engle and Luke see birth as a metaphor for what is happening to the cosmos as Immanuel, God with us, breaks onto the scene. Mary’s song is reminiscent of a song sung by another mother, Hannah in the book of first Samuel. It also has parallels to the song sung by Zechariah upon the birth of his son, John.

Yet, I have found myself drawn to stories of a different way of welcoming children as I wrestle through Mary’s insistence at God’s already fulfilled promise, in spite of it all. There is something brave and wild about this woman saying these things at this time in the world, a joyful hope that has drawn me to friends and writers who wait to welcome children through adoption. These friends have helped me hear a different kind of longing and different kind of hope in Mary’s Song.

This last Monday when I received an email from my friend Rachel updating me on the status of her domestic adoption. She wrote, “We’ve said yes to three babies in the last two weeks – each with very different, and potentially complicated circumstances. Two are due in December, one in February. There are three possible ethnicities, none of which are the same as our own. So we are praying and waiting and trying to see the waiting as essential, instead of an obstacle.”

She continued saying, “I am currently teaching the history of Judaism to my 7th graders (what a task) and there are so many rich lessons there about the keeping of promises – it has been a timely reminder.”

My friend Rachel helps me see what Mary sees. She sees that God’s redemption is pieced together out of uncertainty, the vulnerability of opening her life up to a child that may not be able to be her’s, in the waiting that has no specific date in mind. Yet it is rooted in a promised hope that is so real it is as if it has already happened. Her hope is being lived forward, instead of backwards. And like Mary, Rachel reminds me that God surprises us in the unknown. Like Mary she sees that God is making something out of all of this, rather than in spite of it.

This week I also read Susan Smartt Cook’s account of waiting for the arrival of her nephew. Contemplating this Advent season she writes about her sister’s adoption “my sister is adopting a little boy from Uganda and I will join her for the journey across the ocean to meet a new nephew and bring him to his new home. There are no Braxton Hicks this time, no back pain, cramps, or leaking fluid to signal a slow and steady start. There’s just a cold, quiet phone. She turns up the ringer, goes to bed, and wakes up hoping for the call. The watched pot never boiling, she stokes the flame of her hope for a child not yet her own. She waits with agony and disbelief that these wheels will grind into motion, the court date will be set, and the final stretch of the journey will begin. She waits with grace and patience, recognizing the cry of the orphan reverberating in her own heart. Compassion wells up within, and her heart expands.”[i]

I wonder if this Advent season it would help us hear Mary’s Song in different way if we put ourselves in the shoes of Rachel and Susan. With them we wait, sometimes anxiously, sometimes in anger, sometimes patiently for God to make himself present in the brokenness and pain of our world. But we are always shocked into action by his appearance, always caught off guard when he finally comes. The phone rings in the middle of the night. The angels appear to the shepherds and to Mary without warning. We are standing there with our arms open, without a crib or diapers or a car seat, only with fully formed love and hope to guide us. Like Mary, we receive a child already named, a child that comes from another. God’s Son. Jesus, the Redeemer.

Even in the waiting, in the gritty disappointment of our every day, what Mary’s Song tells us is that history shifted from the moment the angel appeared to her. Everything did change. But that shift doesn’t look like a revolution as we know it. It doesn’t look like a victory. It looks like an impoverished, pregnant teenager. It looks like a family waiting for a phone call from a social worker. It looks like paperwork and home studies and the hard work of waiting. That’s how it is here at the beginning and that’s how it will end. His kingdom will be made up of beggars, prostitutes, outlaws, and children. The King of Eternity takes away the sins of the world by taking that sin upon himself. Justice will come through the injustice of the cross. The revolution he initiates comes out of death, not out of the sword. God loses in order to redeem. And so do we.

No, This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a nova lighting the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn–
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

The youth at our church have shown a lot of interest in the release of the new movie version of Orson Scott Card’s book, Ender’s Game. I’ve been looking for resources on things we could do with this movie with our youth group. And since I didn’t find much, I am writing up my own resource after seeing the movie yesterday. Hopefully it can spark some ideas for others.

Let me preface by saying that I haven’t read the book. Therefore, I don’t have a dog in the movie vs. book fight. And I’m not here to quibble over the differences. There are also certainly going to be some spoilers in this post, so if you’re looking for a surprise ending, read no further. I also don’t want to comment on the horrible human being Card seems to be. And with that…

I found Ender’s Game could be divided into two lessons: one a Biblical lesson and the other some interesting theological discussion. Today I’ll look at the biblical parallel that mainly plays out in the first part of the movie.

David
Even at the description of Ender’s Game I had a fairly good sense that Ender followed a lot of the same patterns as the biblical character of David who we read about in First and Second Samuel. Ender is the last child, the child who really isn’t supposed to be much. He’s not physically imposing, but there’s something different about him. He has a gift and a calling. That sounds a lot like David of Scripture (see 1 Sam 16).

There are also some interesting parallels between Bonzo and king Saul. There could be some good discussion that comes up around appearance, power, and leadership, contrasting the styles of the two. There is also a Jonathan-figure, Petra, the only true friend Ender manages to hold onto. This would be a good way to talk about kinship, friends, and those who support us in faith.

I think youth leaders could also find some material in discussing the complicated relationship between calling in the future and who we are now. Many of our youth see themselves as “future people.” All this is practice for “something else” (we reenforce this in the church by calling them “the future of the church”). One of the things we need to teach youth is that their journey as Christians, as people involved in the justice and mercy of world, begins now, not in the future. There is important stuff in Ender’s Game about being made up of the sum of the things we live everyday. A great lesson on formation and discipleship, as well as living fully in the present.

Another important part of the David/Ender story is the flawed hero. Ender isn’t perfect. He has an ambivalent but calculating attitude towards violence. He has trouble with authority. He messes up. He’s in transition throughout the movie. That’s just like David. And it’s just like each of us. Many of our youth think being a Christian is like being a superhero. It means having it all together. But the Christian life isn’t about that – it’s about grace. It’s about being forgiven, continuing to walk even when the path is unclear, and finding others to walk that path with you. This is a good place to begin a discussion about doubt, and how doubt doesn’t have to paralyze us but can help us bring new questions and parts of ourselves and God into the light. Bringing this into the flawed life of David is an easy connection.

And, finally, the two characters (Cornel Graff and Major Anderson) are helpful for a discussion of different experiences and understandings regarding the character of God in our lives and in Scripture. I think it’s great to acknowledge to youth the complexity of the character of God, particularly as God relates to the person of David, and to Ender. How would they characterize each? How do they see this working out in Ender’s life? In David’s? Which “God” do they experience more often in their lives? Do they think one is a more accurate picture of God or is God something like both?

The NYTimes recently published an article about the revived process of accountability in the Mennonite church between our now-deceased, famed theologian, John Howard Yoder, and the victims of his sexual abuse. I’m not an expert on Yoder, and, like most people, I too am realizing that there is much I didn’t know about the extent of Yoder’s sexual coercion – both its content and its reach.

But I have been surprised by the number of people who were unaware this was part of Yoder’s past. I started reading Yoder in graduate school mere weeks before a lecture in an ethics class required to be taken by all students in which I was informed of his misdeeds, the four-year accountability process that ensued, and the results of reconciliation just before his death. It has been distressing to know the extent of abuse was greater than previously thought. It is distressing that so many victims have not been able to heal. Our failures as a church, of the process, are distressing and frightening. Yet, to call this a “cover up,” or to infer that somehow the church turned a blind eye is disingenuous. The truth is this – we failed.

The way I experience this failure is not as a victim or an insider to the process but as a reader and learner, someone whose theology and practice have been formed by reading Yoder over the past decade. I have never known what to do with Yoder the abuser and Yoder the theologian. I cannot reconcile the two. And throughout my time reading him I have always been told to section off the man, that we all have shortcomings. I’ve been told that we would have no theologians left to read if we judged them by the measure of their own theology.

It’s true that there is something difficult for me about certain theologians. I don’t give much pause for the broken marriages left behind by Cornel West, the multiple affairs of Paul Tillich, or Augustine’s common-law wife and son, whom he abandoned at the urging of his mother.

There are other writers, Barth and Yoder in particular, whose relationships with women are haunting. These women are always around the edges, in the margins, standing in the footnotes.

It is, perhaps, more common knowledge that Barth had a 35 year relationship with a woman named Charlotte von Kirschbaum, a woman who sacrificed her life for Barth. Because of the love she shared with the married Barth she endured social stigma and was ostracized by the church. Often considered the co-writer of Dogmatics, she put her own theology under Barth’s submission because she believed in his work.

As much as I am pained by Lollo’s story she is not the one who haunts my reading of Barth. Instead, my ear is tuned to Nelly Barth, the faithful wife, who endured the humiliation of her husband moving his emotional and spiritual mistress into her home. I often think of her, with so little education, arranged in marriage to a man who carried the picture of another woman in his wallet his whole life, 32 and already the mother of five. What choice did she have but to stay, to endure, to make the best of this life she had been dealt with this powerful man whose gifts were so obvious to her? It is in Nelly’s voice that I read Barth.

Of course this is a very different situation than the coercive sexual advances of a powerful theologian over his unwilling female victims, victims like Carolyn Heggen. Yet, these women share the experience of being shuttled to the background, of being told that we must ignore them in spirit as we solider on to real stuff of these men’s lives.

I want to believe there is a better way to encounter the writings of these men, encounters that are not dismissive or that simply throw our hands in the air. It may be that allowing these women to rise up on to the pages as we read them is the place we can start. For the Mennonite church this will quite literally mean hearing the voices of women who were abused by Yoder. For Barth all that we may have is Nelly’s ghost, reminding us that she is always there.

For background see Emily Timbol’s well-written and thoughtful piece on the Christianity Today blog, her.meneutics.

As a pastor, and a mother of two, I’ve witnessed Emily Timbol’s story over and over again. The second-class citizenship handed to women without children on Mother’s Day. The thick silence that settles over infertility and pregnancy loss. The priority of family church activities that often leaves adults without children out in the cold. As I read her recent post in her.meneutics I recognized my own culpability.

But I also noticed repetition of the phrase “desire to reproduce,” used three times in her short essay. I found the frequency of this phrase interesting because I wouldn’t characterize my decision to have children as a “desire to reproduce.” That phrase calls up images of anxious populating, a desperate attempt to control history through the production of little Christians.

That may be the narrative Timbol hears most often, but it is not my story. In Anabaptism children are considered beloved and central, but at baptism they declare their own decision to be a follower of Christ. They aren’t a possession that we control.

For Mennonites, like all Christians, children belong to God and to the community. And this is where I’d like to offer a different perspective to Timbol’s. I recognize her giftedness and wholeness without children. But I disagree with her that children “are a blessing God gives to some people, not all.”

I’m guessing children have been a blessing to Timbol just as friends without children have found a blessing in my little ones. I have seen this happen in remarkable ways throughout the life of my children. Isak and Arianna, content for now to be without children, faithfully organized meals for our family after our son was born. Nate, 23-years old and recently married, takes his turn caring for our children during nursery time. And Meghan, content in her singleness, is entering her second year as my daughter’s Sunday school teacher. Each of them, in their own way, has made our children their blessing.

But the biblical injunction to welcome children, so central to Jesus’ ministry, doesn’t end with those without biological or adopted children. Welcome is a challenge for people like me, as well. As we approach the question of our children’s education I am reminded that truly welcoming other people’s children may mean the decision to send ours to an under-achieving public school. Welcoming children means the phrase “I’ve already done my tour” should never escape my lips when I am asked to teach Sunday school as an older adult.

Most importantly, welcoming children means reminding mine that their identity isn’t found in whether or not they have children or not, but in the ways that they answers Jesus’ call to excel in justice and mercy towards the poorest in our world, including children. It also means that those of us who parent children through birth or adoption find ways to open our lives and our families to those who do not parent full-time.

What I hear throughout Timbol’s post are the ways the church has sectioned off parenting into those with and those without. This has clearly caused a lot of hurt and pain for Timbol and those who are told they are incomplete without engaging in a particular kind of parenting. But I hope that we can all see Jesus as challenging us in new ways to “welcome little children,” and that the call on each of our lives to welcome the vulnerable would be a central part of Christian identity.

We had our 18 weeks anatomy scan today. I went in with more trepidation than usual after our last baby showed Choroid Plexus Cysts in his brain. While it turned out we were part of the vast majority for whom CPCs are not an indicator of a chromosomal difference, the experience was sobering.

When we found out about Wick’s CPCs I wanted to know everything. I wanted answers about exactly what was happening in his little body, what this would mean for our family. I wanted to know if we would be facing The Great Sorrow. It was frightening and out of control. After the smoke had finally cleared at our Level II ultrasound, and the CPCs had dissipated, I was able to remember that we weren’t out of the fire. Because with children you never know what you’re going to get. You get what your given for the time being. That’s all.

Baby #3′s ultrasound told us some things. The baby’s body, by all appearances is sound. The heartbeat is strong, we saw the usual facial features, kidneys, stomach, legs, and arms – all complete. The physical markers for chromosomal difference were not present. We didn’t find out the sex. And I have marginal placenta previa, which the midwife expects to resolve, but could mean I end up having a scheduled C-section. Boo.

The rest is waiting out there for us, and we’re praying for the grace to walk through it together.

 

 

My first-born turned five today and all I am is grateful. She has been my pines, my silvery stream, the “wild thing that sees and is not seen.” So much joy; so much sorrow. And all I have today is the snap of thankfulness for it all.

Around Us

by Marvin Bell

We need some pines to assuage the darkness
when it blankets the mind,
we need a silvery stream that banks as smoothly
as a plane's wing, and a worn bed of 
needles to pad the rumble that fills the mind,
and a blur or two of a wild thing
that sees and is not seen. We need these things
between appointments, after work,
and, if we keep them, then someone someday,
lying down after a walk
and supper, with the fire hole wet down,
the whole night sky set at a particular
time, without numbers or hours, will cause
a little sound of thanks--a zipper or a snap--
to close round the moment and the thought
of whatever good we did.

In this season of life I find that we are in a constant battle with our four-year old for obedience and goodwill. We find her willing to give a very short supply of both and this has left us weary parents. In the midst of these long days, when everything is a struggle for control, when every request is met with defiance, when nothing seems to be working, I find myself penning this prayer in my heart:

God of Israel, Father of those who wandered from home, of outlaws and the landless,

Look with mercy on your daughter, T.

Use her strong spirit to do good work in your vineyard. Take her questions, her defiance, her distrust of authority and shape this into a character that refuses to stand idly by as others suffer.

Give her the Spirit of Abraham, so willing to wander far from home at the call of your voice. Giver her the the Spirit of Rahab who obeyed God while defying her nation. Give her the Spirit of Mary who took on public shame and mockery in order to bring our broken world  the fullness of Yourself in Jesus Christ.

Help her to become a woman who asks good and difficult questions about her world, and then channel these questions into the actions of justice, mercy, and hope.

Lord, like Abraham, Rahab, and Mary before her, help T also to discern when those who stand in authority over her act in wisdom and care. Help her to accept the guidance and counsel of wise elders, thoughtful friends, trusted teachers, and loving parents.

Guide us, too, Father, in parenting T. Give us the discernment to know how to show her the path that leads to righteousness, all the time resisting the temptation to dominate and control.

God, who holds the nations and governments in your hands, who controls the stars, moon, and sun, even in your majesty you have looked down with grace upon our little one. It is in the confidence of this great love, already poured out to us in the gift of her life, that we pray.

Amen.

ImageThat sweet blonde person you see in the picture to the left is my daughter, and she’s sitting on my shoulders.

For a couple weeks she and I have participated in an action organized by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP to protest recent political changes going on in our state. I have gone as a private citizen, and a person of faith, but I also went as a pastor. Even though I didn’t look like one, with no stole or collar, there were people there from other churches whom I recognized. I knew that someone from my parish might see me in a picture or on the nightly news.

And that is why I thought it might help to take a minute to think through why it is that my daughter and I participated in Moral Monday, and why we will continue to participate.

First, though, reasons that don’t motivate me.

1) Because I am a Democrat. One of the tricky parts about Moral Monday is that a lot of causes are covered in these protests. It can start to feel like an anti-GOP rally. In truth, this political response does come on the heels of massive overhauls from our now Republican-led legislature. I do tend to vote for the Democratic party, but I am not so committed to the party that I would spend every Monday driving to downtown Raleigh.

2) Because I agree with everything being protested. On Monday I heard a woman stand up and talk about the evil of charter schools. I can actually see both sides of the charter school debate. There are other protests I’m not on board with. I’m for a legal restriction on most abortions. But despite the NARAL folks being out in force there are reasons we do show up.

We participate because:

1) We believe our faith compels us to action on behalf of the poor and vulnerable. You may not find a specific call to political action on behalf of those at risk. You may find yourself in a direct service role, serving as a foster parent, offering free clinic services, giving away funds. But everyone is called to work for justice and peace who is a Christian. One of the ways I want to do that is by providing a prophetic voice within our political system. As a clergy person I feel a particular call to be present at Moral Monday.

2) I want my daughter to see what democracy looks like. I want her (and all our children) to know that we are responsible for one another. I want her to know that power does not belong only to elected leaders. As we walked into the legislative building and she was feeling nervous I remember one of the legal advocates saying over and over again, “don’t be afraid. This is our house.”

3) Specific agenda items. While some may find a need to faithfully respond to charter schools or women’s health, I am compelled to respond to the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. This is a piece of legislation that allows for capital trials to be reexamined on the basis of racial bias. Since 1998 there have been several death penalty convictions that have been converted into life imprisonment sentences because racism was unequivocally found to be at work in the conviction. It would be working against my conscience to sit by while racism continues to send prisoners to death.

Last week the Racial Justice Act was repealed. I wept in my car when I heard the news. Later that day I listened to reports from The Innocence Project about men and women falsely imprisoned and the fight to free them from jail. Repealing the act was wrong and I refuse to be silent.

We’re participating in Moral Monday because we know that Jesus loves the poor. We are told by Jesus that if we want to see him we need to look in prisons. We will find him with the naked, and the hungry (Matthew 25:36). Our family will continue to be present with our friends and neighbors at Moral Monday.

I have to tell you, this was a hard preaching week for me. For one, today’s psalm is a difficult one. Someone once describes Psalm 23 as “burdensome in its familiarity.” I think that’s true. It’s the comfort of this psalm, what it has meant to many of us personally, that also makes it hard to see with new eyes.

I was also distracted this week by the news. The Boston marathon bombings. The fertilizer plant explosion. Poisoned letters. It’s been hard for me to focus. I keep getting pulled into news reports on the internet and the radio. These events have brought up an eerie memory for me from the summers I spent in the Middle East. This was years ago, almost a decade ago, during a time of unrest and violence. I can still feel in my bones this sense of the unease that filtered into every day, normal activity. A bus stop would be evacuated in a panic when a child accidentally forgot to pick up her backpack off the bench. Light skinned and dark skinned strangers eyed each other with suspicion in the street. You would say a quick but earnest prayer ever time you got on a bus.

This week I felt a familiar wave of nausea as I watched on television bombs exploding on a street I walked down countless times as a college student. Many of us felt the fear that comes from normal, familiar places becoming war zones. I know this is a week when many people turned to Psalm 23 for comfort. I was one of those people. But it also happened to be the week when the Psalm many of us know so well came up in the lectionary. So I read it this week like I never have before. And while it was comforting I was reminded of the need to reorient my expectations for that comfort. I was reminded that God never promises us that we will be safe. What God does promise is that he will be there with us.

I wanted to try and open up this psalm to you by giving three different translations. The first is likely the familiar version, or the one close to it. It’s comes from the New Revised Standard Version. The second was a contemporary translation called The Message. And the third is the Wycliffe Bible, the first translation of the Bible into English. This last version appeared throughout the 14th century.

One psalm; three translations. And as we move between them I think one thing we see emerge is that this psalm doesn’t hold up idealistic notions about God’s care. It doesn’t point us to naïve hopefulness. This is a psalm that comes out of experience – deep, gut-wrenching experience. The psalmist contrasts two phases of life here. The first are those incredible images of green pastures and calm waters. God has caused this sheep to find a place of rest.

But that’s not all. Life happens. The death shadow, or in Hebrew the tsalmavet, comes bearing down. “Shadow of death.” It’s probably one of those words we have heard so many times that we pass over it. But if we look at how it is used in the rest of the Old Testament we’ll see that there is physical and psychological horror in this word. The place we most often find the “shadow of death” is in the book of Job. For Job the shadow of death is the thick cloud of darkness that hovers over him as he loses everything – his health, sons and daughters, livelihood, and friends. He compares this darkness to the kind of places where miners go, places that have never seen the sun. This is the darkness of zombie-like murderers who go out searching to kill the weak and the poor. “In the dark they dig through houses; by day they shut themselves up; they do not know the light,” we read. Twice Job uses this word to describe his wish that he had never been born. This is the horror of non-existence.    

Trust in God by the writer of Psalm 23 is the trust of someone who has been through the worst that life has to offer. And what I love about this psalm is that the hope we find in God does not come in the disappearance of the tsalmavet, that dark hovering cloud, the deepness of the mines. No, Psalm 23 puts us, and God, right there in the middle of it. The reason we can go on is that God is there, a God with a rod and staff. Now, I know the words rod and staff are used in these translations because these are the images denote royalty throughout the history of Israel. But there is a part of me that wanted to see the words “club and crook.” That’s the image we should conjure up – God with a club who beats back the wolves, lions, and bears who try to attack the sheep. And the staff is there to prod the sheep back onto the right road, to keep them from going over a cliff, or wandering out into places where he can’t protect them.

In other words, the shepherd is involved. He’s right there in the thick of it, in the middle of the hostility and blood and the pain. He’s there when enemies are all around. He is there when the sheep is about to faint from hunger and thirst. And somehow he manages to pull together this meal, not just a few scraps but as the Message translation reads, a six-course feast.

And while I like that picture of a more physical, more involved Jesus, I also know that those words – rod and staff – are important. So much of the beauty of this psalm is that God is with us and for us an individuals, that God cares about us in our uniqueness. But this is also a psalm about a community gathered for thousands of years. There are hints at Israel’s redemption all over this psalm. That meal and cup? That’s a reference to the Passover. That word “goodness,” the goodness that chases after us? That’s the word used specifically to talk about God’s covenant with God’s people. And of course, as you can guess, you never get one sheep at a time, you get a flock. The psalm consistently points back to the memory of God’s salvation in liberating the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt. Everything about this psalm calls to mind this incredible story that God is written onto the people of Israel, and upon us as those grafted into Israel.

Community gathering with God as we manage to make a way in places of distress. That’s what the church is. And that’s where we find abundant life. Psalm 23 reminds us that our enemies, those things we fear, are NOT going to be blasted out of the way. No, “this kind of abundant life doesn’t mean that God wants to give us a lot of money. Or that we can have all our desires fulfilled. Abundant life is about people, it’s about a community, it’s about you serving one another, finding God’s life as you give your life. It’s about turning Easter into a verb, making hope into a verb, something we do through God’s enlivening presence.”

I had a first hand encounter with this kind of abundant life when Nancy Thorne and I visited Donna Herring at Mayview, the care facility where she is staying. For those of you who don’t know her, Donna is a pillar of this church community and now she is living with dementia. Seeing Donna and her daughter I know that it is a horrific experience to slowly lose pieces of yourself or your loved one over time. Dementia is an enemy. And that, I think it why this visit with Donna has helped me better to read Psalm 23. Dementia is a shadow of death, a closing in of darkness. Yet, for Donna it is also clearly a place where God is present. God is with Donna, in the thick of it, and she told me that God keep showing up. Right now it’s as if Donna’s life is written down in this book. She opens up pages at random and reads aloud. I heard all sorts of stories from Donna – stories from childhood, her experiences with Native Americans, recent memories of a child at church asking what she could to help Donna, memories of her grandparents, memories of friends from her old apartment. All of this faithfulness, all these people coming together, all these people showing up to be with Donna. A life’s worth of God’s faithfulness.

At one point Donna broke from her stories to watch a hawk that was building a nest in a tree near the place where we sat outside. Her face was filled with surprise and wonder. “Oh, look at that!” she said. Then she turned to me. “God has been in my heart, in my life for so long that now I can see so many blessings all around me. It’s amazing to me how every day there are more and more.”

As I thought about my visit with Donna I kept remembering this quote from Fredrick Buechner that I’ve heard a lot of people mention this week, and for good reason. It is a kind of Psalm 23 in its own rite. It’s from his book Wishful Thinking. And I leave you with it this morning:

“Grace is something you can never get but only be given. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life….Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”

Amen.

Second Sunday of Easter
Melissa Florer-Bixler

Have you heard about the “nones”? No, not those nuns. I’m talking about the box that could be selected on the latest Pew Research poll on religion in America. Along with the expected categories like Buddhist, Protestant Christian, and Hindu, there was a choice titled “none.”

What the Pew researchers discovered is that the people who checked the “none” box are on a dramatic rise. In 1950 just two percent of respondents claimed no religious affiliation. In 2010 that number had jumped to 16%. By 2012 that number rose again, this time to around 20%. Based on these results around 46 million Americans claim no religious affiliation.

The greatest number of people who consider themselves “nones” are under 30. In fact, 1/3 of all men and women under the age of 30 claimed no religious preference. The number is even more dramatic if you focus on youth after high school. Around 70% of youth will leave the church after they graduate. A decade later, when they have their own children, only half of these young people will return.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re slowly morphing into a country of atheists and agnostics. While the 20% includes those with confused or no belief in God, it also comprises those who consider themselves spiritual but don’t adhere to or have left an institutional religion. These people say that they pray regularly, almost every day. But not only are they disconnected from religious community – a vast number aren’t even seeking it. They continue to call themselves Christians, but they don’t affiliate with a church body. They have been lost to church participation.

As you can imagine, this news has garnered a wide variety of responses. Some mourned over these statistics, calling this the death of Christianity in the West. They point their fingers at the increasingly secular culture, and the influence of video games, television, and music. Others just shrugged. So what? Who cares if people are dropping out of religious communities? As long as people are leading good, moral lives. Others rejoiced at this news. In these numbers they see the end of cultural Christianity, with a renewed hope that personal, invested faith will push out superstitious tradition.

For me this hit a little closer to home. As I went through the research again, reading through the articles, blogs, and statistics I thought about the young people in this congregation. I saw their faces. I thought about their questions, their honest doubts, their struggles with the Gospel. I thought about all the things that pull their hearts and heads in a hundred different directions. I thought about the world they are entering, the job market, the expectations placed on them, the fears they carry with them. And all of this brought me back to today’s Gospel lesson, to the story of Thomas.

Poor Thomas. It just so happened that he was the one who was gone when the risen Jesus finally showed up. Jesus appears, showing his hands and his feet and his side to the other disciples. The disciples tell Thomas all about it. But instead of believing the testimony of the others, Thomas has to see Jesus, too. So Jesus finally appears to him and after truculently lifting his shirt to show the wound in his side, Jesus rebukes Thomas, saying, “Stop doubting and believe.”

Isn’t that so often the story we have heard of Thomas? Some of us may hear in this story a rebuke of our inability to believe. Despite the Enlightenment, despite the scientific evidence, despite rationality, despite it all we are expected to believe that a body actually, really and truly came back to life. And we’re supposed to believe without questions, without doubts.

The research tells us that this is how so many of our young people experience church. The Barna Group recently published a book called You Lost Me that looks at the reasons youth are leaving the church. The number one cause they identify is that young people think we as the church are out of touch with the real world. The young people surveyed described the church as stifling, risk-averse, and fear-based. Another reason cited is the shallowness of worship, and the lack of connection felt to God during the service. Young people interviewed by Barna also said the church appeared to them as antagonistic towards science, simplistic and judgmental on sexual issues, and unfriendly towards those who doubt.

And perhaps in our traditional reading of the Thomas story that is what we hear. The judgment of doubt. The refusal to allow for questions. A disconnect from the reality. But if we read Thomas’ story this way we I think we have forgotten the character of the Jesus who stands before the disciples in the upper room. We have forgotten that this is the same Jesus who embraces those who are far off, the Gentiles, prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans. We have forgotten the Jesus who again and again patiently works through the rash, thoughtless comments of those closest to him.

It is this Jesus who encounters the Beloved Disciple, Simon Peter, Mary Magdalene, and the disciples at the tomb and then in the upper room. If we remember the character of this Jesus perhaps we can greet the story of Thomas with new eyes. No, Thomas does not require any more than the other disciples. None were asked to believe on testimony alone. None were asked or expected to believe without seeing first. The Jesus who comes to Thomas does so full of grace. He gives to Thomas exactly what the other have been given, exactly what he needs – a real and personal encounter with his body.

So, for the Gospel of John, seeing Jesus is the first step towards a lived faith. As you look at how each person in the Gospel of John comes to believe Jesus has risen the one thing they have in common is that they saw something. John 20 and 21 a version of the word “to see” is used ten different times. The first person in the Gospel of John, the first person to get to the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene sees that Jesus has been removed. Next, the unnamed Disciple Whom Jesus Loved and the Apostle Peter both see the linen cloths. After these two run off Mary is left alone, weeping, that is until she sees the angels and then sees Jesus. Not long after the rest of the disciples also see Jesus, now in the flesh among them. Everyone has now seen Jesus, or evidence of Jesus’ resurrection at the empty tomb, everyone except Thomas.

Of course, the next part is written for us, for those of us who don’t have the physical Jesus in front of us, those of us who cannot put our hands in his wounds. “Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now, technically you and I both have to fall within this category of blessedness that John describes. We’re living 2000 plus years after Jesus. Jesus has ascended to the Father. But if I am truthful, I will have to exempt myself from this group. Because I have seen Jesus. I wouldn’t be a Christian today if I had not, if I did not see Jesus on a regular basis.

I saw Jesus on Maundy Thursday in a picture in the NYTimes. This photo showed Pope Francis in a break with papal tradition, washing and kissing the feet of a Muslim woman at a juvenile detention center. I saw Jesus when a group of pastors from Durham begged on the median between traffic lanes. They were protesting an anti-panhandling ordinance approved by the City Council. I saw Jesus when people gathered around Noelani Puryear after we announced her surgery and people wept, and prayed, and held her. I saw Jesus on Easter morning when I looked into the faces of those who had lost loved ones this past year, and I said with them, for them, and to them, “for us, for us the lamb was slain.”

I have seen the risen Jesus. And I bet some of you see the risen Jesus, too. For some he is in the thick silence between our Taize chants. For some Jesus is present in laughter and conversation when we gathered over soup dinner at Advent. For some Christ is there at the breaking of bread in Communion. And for others you have met Christ in acts of service, or when you have received help at a most desperate hour.

There is a grace to this diversity, a grace we witness in today’s Scripture. Because we also find in the Gospel that Jesus meets each person in John 20 and 21 in the way they need to be met. There isn’t uniformity to this encounter. While each person sees Jesus, there is more to the story. Mary sees Jesus, but her belief doesn’t ignite until she hears him say her name. For the disciples Jesus must breathe the Holy Spirit upon them. And for Thomas the faith to journey with the risen Jesus, even though it will lead to death, this faith is found in touching Jesus’ wounds.

I wish I knew the answer to the question of the “nones.” And I don’t wish for these answers simply because my job depends on people showing up for church (although that is indeed the case). I want to know the answer because I don’t think that God destined us for the loneliness of spiritual individualism. I want to know because my encounters with the risen Jesus have changed me. You at Raleigh Moravian have changed me. I want to know the answer because I don’t think church is about showing up every once in a while on Sunday, but that it’s an adventure, that it’s about participating in changing the world into a place where justice, mercy, and grace abound.

I also want to know because creating a god in your own image isn’t going to bring life. For as much as Jesus meets Thomas with everything he needs Jesus also demands something of his apostle. He demands the response of a faithful life. “Here, you have what you need,” Jesus says. “Now that you have it do not doubt but believe.” And that is going to mean giving up on the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect church. As Lilian Daniel’s reminds us, “The church is something you enter at your own risk. Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition far older than you. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.”

While I don’t have the answers on my own, I think that we can live into them together. I think we’ll find them in older people investing in younger people, in younger people sharing their needs and ideas with older people. We will find out by showing Jesus to one another, in the variety of ways that each of us needs to encounter the risen Lord. We don’t need to be afraid, to hole up in the bunker of religion, because we have seen that an encounter with Jesus is what changes people, what sets people free from loneliness, shame, and hate.

As we think about Thomas today, as we remember the Jesus who graciously, openly met each of his followers according to their own need, but also changed them, let us remember that that it will only be in one another that we now encounter the risen Lord. Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic conveys this message of the body of Christ, the church, so beautifully. Today I want to close with her words as the hope and the challenge of Easter stretches out before us.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

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