Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Doubt Is Good for Faith

I saw this TED talk on YouTube a couple of months ago by Lesley Hazelton. ( /lesley_hazleton_the_doubt_essential_to_faith)
In her talk she makes the argument that doubt is essential to faith.
She tells a story about Muhammad, who she wrote a biography about.
After Muhammad went into a cave near Mecca in the year 610 the angel Gabriel appeared to him and gave him the Koran.
Now that is a miracle.
An angel of the Lord appears and tells you a sacred and holy text.
What do you think Muhammad would do?
You would think he would run down out of that mountain and start proclaiming to all who would hear the great and marvelous thing that had just been told to him.
But instead he only told his wife.
Muhammad at first believed that what had happened couldn’t have been real.
He believed that it was either a hallucination or a worse that he was possessed by and evil spirit.
He was overwhelmed not with conviction, but with doubt.
For Hazleton this is an important moment that all faith starts with doubt.
We are confronted this morning by what we usually refer to as the story of doubting Thomas.
And in the past we may have heard sermons about not being like Thomas, but believing in Jesus.
However, I want to encourage us to be more like Thomas.
I want to encourage us to doubt more, to question more, to wonder more.
Because I believe it is in the question, in the doubt, in the wonder that we find true faith.
We find a real living faith, a real living engagement with Jesus and in our spiritual lives.

Last week was Easter, and it was a wonderful glorious time here at Concordia.
The Church was packed, the choir sang wonderfully, and we ate a delicious breakfast together.
One could really feel the spirit.
But now it is this week of Easter.
It is at the end of a vacation week for kids in school.
The church is less packed this morning.
We are back at it.
And the question that I think we must wrestle with is what does it mean now?
What does it mean to have faith in the resurrected Lord this week?
Because I will admit for me it is easy on Easter morning to feel the excitement of Jesus being raised from the dead, but this week…I have questions.

And this is why Thomas should be our hero.
It was not enough for him merely to hear the tail from the other disciples.
He had to experience it himself.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the Mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
I think we all feel this way about our faith life that we need to experience it to believe it.
We need something that will tell us that what we are being told is not merely the fantasy of those around us.
More than this we need to question things so that we can grow in our beliefs.
When we are children and are being taught about things it is fine for us to have a faith were we are told something and we believe it.
But there comes a point in all of our lives when merely being told by others is not enough.
We have to explore it for ourselves.
We have to go through the process.
We have to ask difficult questions.
We have to develop our own relationship with Jesus.
We have to believe on our own in the resurrection.

My favorite thing about being a teacher is the questions.
I love to ask them, I love when people wrestle with them.
If you are ever in my confirmation class, or my Bible study, or my adult forum, you know that I don’t allow people to get away with easy answers.
I will ask the question, I will take the opposite point of view.
I do this because doubting is important, exploration is important in a life of faith.
I love it when kids in our congregation ask me questions about the sermon.
One it means that they are listening, but more importantly because they are engaged in the process of developing their own faith.
They are struggling with what it means to believe in Jesus Christ.
And all of that is good.
We all should be in some stage of questioning and wondering.
No matter what age we are we should be stretching ourselves to grow in faith.
Because here is the truth no one, but God, knows it all.
And if you think you know everything then I would say that there is something wrong.
Because being a “know it all” in religion makes you a fundamentalist.
And being a fundamentalist leads to all kinds of unchristian things.
It leads to hatred of people different than you.
It leads to disengagement in the world.
In the worse cases it leads to violence.

What is great about the Biblical story this morning is that Jesus comes back for Thomas.
He comes back a week later and makes another appearance just because Thomas needed him to.
Thomas needed more than the words of others, and Jesus gave it to him.
I believe deeply that Jesus does the same for all of us.
Jesus comes at us again and again, gives us what we need to hear or see.
Shows up in our locked rooms where we are huddled out of fear, out of hopelessness, out of anger, and comes in and offers us peace.

This is important for me to say, that Jesus is bigger than our doubts.
Jesus can handle our doubts.
Jesus can handle the questions we have, the struggles we have.
And that is good news, because we often have a lot of them.
I think the best thing our congregation can do is admit that we don’t know everything.
There are whole subjects that I don’t know for sure about.

For example, people will often ask me, “Is everyone going to heaven?”
My first response is, “I don’t know”.
I am not God.
And anyone who tells who they know for sure is lying.
They are lying to manipulate you by making you afraid.
Or worse they are lying to make themselves feel really special.
But here is the thing to have faith is to ask the question.
To have faith means to wonder about God and about us as God’s children.
It is to join with Thomas when he asks Jesus in another part of John’s Gospel, “But how will we know the way?”

Easter is not over.
It goes on because we are here this week needing/wanting another encounter with Jesus.
We want to touch his wounds.
We want to ask tons of questions.
We want to know more.
And the good news is that Jesus will show up.
And then we can with Thomas and all the other saints fall down and say, “My Lord and my God!”
We can believe because we have had an experience with the living God, and we can go back out and doubt and question some more.
And in that doubting and questioning grow so that even though we don’t see we might come to believe.

Monday, May 12, 2014

No More Silence, No More Violence

Tamar’s story is never heard. (For those who wish to read Tamar's story you can read it here:
We don’t read this story in worship.
We don’t study it in Bible study.
You can hear why this morning.
It is a hard story to hear.
It is about things that we don’t really want to hear about on Sunday morning.
We don’t want to hear about rape, and domestic violence.
But I think Tamar’s story must be heard.
It must be heard because it is a story in the Bible.
It is like Noah’s ark, David and Goliath, Moses parting the Red Sea, Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the Lion’s den, or any other beloved story we know from the Bible.
But this one is trickier isn’t it, because those stories seem to have discernible points.
We know why there is a story about David and Goliath, because God shows us true strength comes from faith.
What could possibly be the point of this Tamar’s story?

I find it odd that it is in the Bible at all.
But that is the real wonderful thing about the Bible is that it just doesn’t have nice stories where there is a rainbow at the end.
It contains difficult stories where the people are flawed, and they do bad things.
Amnon does a very bad thing, it is an unacceptable thing.
And that is what domestic violence is a bad thing.
It is sin.
In this case Amnon real sin is his need/desire to possess another person, to control someone else.
Domestic violence starts with someone trying to possess someone else, and then deciding to use violence as a way to control someone.
We simply cannot accept this in our community, in the Church, in the world.
We are talking about domestic violence today, because my hope is to speak out so that it is clear that this will not stand.
We will not and cannot allow this to happen.

And for too long I think the Church has been silent about it.
We have made this a private issue that happens in families.
But when 80% of people in prison have experienced some form of domestic violence or sexual assault then we have a problem that affects all of society, not just families.

I would like to talk for minute about families.
It is clear that Tamar’s family has some real problems.
As do all of our families.
But the act of violence within families destroys them.
This story ends with all those involved hating each other.
We might have some form of dysfunction in every family, but families are supposed to be the safe place for us to be loved.
Families are the place that we go to when we need shelter.
Domestic violence ruins that trust for all involved.
It ruins it for the victims like Tamar.
It ruins it for people that are witnesses like Absalom.
Or people that know about it like King David.
And yes it ruins it for perpetrators too.
Amnon has no more family either; his brother Absalom will kill him for what he did to Tamar.

Domestic violence ruins families.
But it does not only ruing someone else’s families, our families too.
I was thinking about daughter, and that time in her life when she will start dating.
I have tried hard to be a good role model of what a man should be.
I have tried to let her know that a real man treats woman with respect, and does not try to control others but loves them.
I have tried to tell her everyday that I love her so that she will find a partner who will treat her as good as her father does.
I want her to have a partner with someone who will love her as much as her father.
I can’t say that I am perfect on this matter, but I do try and it is always on my mind when I am dealing with my daughter.
But I know that there are people in the world who do not share my values.
I know that there are people in the world who think that men should be powerful and domineering.
I know that there are people in the world who think that violence or harsh words will solve problems.
This is why I am involved in this issue to make the world safer for my daughter to date.
To make the world safer for my daughter, if she does decide to marry to find someone who will love and respect her like she deserves.
That is why all of us should care about this issue, because it affects all our families when there is even one person in the world who think that it is ok to solve our problems with violence.

Amnon thought the way to get what he wanted was through lying and ultimately violence.
We can’t be silent about this and give the impression that this is true.
We have to drag this into the light.
Because what Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians is true that all bad things need to be exposed to the light.
Only then will the darkness go away.
Only when we talk about this issue, when we name it, when we believe those who have been victimized, will we begin to heal it and make this a better world to live.

In preparation for today I read a lot of stories by people who have survived acts of domestic violence.
Their tales are chilling.
It is true that what people do in the cover of darkness is to horrible to mention.
But we must force ourselves to talk about it.

I read a story about a woman named, Sandra Silvestre, she was married at age sixteen to a man ten years her senior.
Within the years she experienced many episodes of domestic violence.
But she didn’t know it!
She thought it was normal what was happening to her and her four children!
It wasn’t until she started working for Lutheran Health Care in Brooklyn NY.
While there she attended a conference about domestic violence at that conference for the first time she began to realize that what was happening to her was not normal.
It wasn’t until that conference that she even had a name of what was happening to her at home.
While at the conference she heard someone drag the issue into the light and give voice to her experience.
From that time on she began to make plans to change her life and leave her husband.
When he found out that she was planning on leaving he tied her up.
She managed to escape and leave.
And today she is starting again, and working to help other survivors of domestic violence.
What struck me about her story was that someone had to name it for her.
Someone had to drag what was being done in secret, in darkness, into the light.
That is what we are called to do.
To bring light into the darkness, to speak hope to the hopeless, to name evil for what it is.

The resurrection story is about these important things.
Jesus walks on the road with his followers who were sad because they thought he was dead.
Like Jesus, we can walk with those in darkness and bring light that exposes what is happening.
And that is why we need to hear Tamar’s story.
It is why we have to talk about things that are uncomfortable, and that we would rather not talk about it, because by bringing things into the light we slowly begin to change things.
We begin to give hope to people like Sandra.
We begin to tell people living with domestic violence that it does not have to be this way, because we believe them, and we want to change things.

We are in Easter time, the time of great hope that God has crushed the power of sin and darkness.
May we ever tell this Easter message.
May we not be afraid to speak to the powers of evil that want to kill us, and our communities.
May we be silent no more, but expose every act of darkness so that we can live in the light.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Resurrection People

At some point last year I preached a sermon on the parable of the mustard seed.
After that sermon, one of our members here at Concordia was nice enough to give me a mustard plant.
They wanted me to see how it grows into a big tree.
What I did was totally kill it.
Here it is now.
You can see that there is nothing left of the mustard plant.
This plant is not coming back.
This is where we start on Easter.
We start with the end of everything with death.
Truth is that it is impossible for a mustard seed to grow out of this plant here.
Or is it?

The women who went to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday expected to see well nothing.
They were expecting death.
They didn’t expect an angel, or an earthquake, or lighting, or an empty tomb, and they defiantly didn’t think they would see Jesus again.
They expected a tomb with a large rock rolled in front of it, and a dead body inside.
They expected death.
But God surprised them with something unexplainable and wonderful.

Perhaps we have over complicated things in the last 2,000 years.
We have insisted too much about what we think this story means.
Easter at first is simply a story.
It was not a theological idea- just an amazing unbelievable story.
The one who was dead is alive.
It was a story that from the very beginning was difficult to comprehend.
People don’t come back to life.
We know this because those of us who are here this morning and have experienced death know all too well of its finality.

But in Matthew’s telling of the story Jesus is alive.
He does come back to life.
And Jesus is no ghost, or spirit, but a real breathing person.
He is a real person that the women can touch.
It is important to Matthew that we know this was a real resurrection.
It was not imagined by the followers of Jesus.
They were not dreaming, or just hoping.
And that is what makes the story even more unbelievable.
It is amazing that Christianity has spread so far, and has lasted so long.
Maybe this should be our way of selling it to the world.
Christianity the unbelievable religion!
Christianity you will hardly believe it!

We have misrepresented Christianity in modern and post-modern times.
We have been trying to argue that it can be proven with scientific and/or historical data.
But the resurrection is a question of the mystery of faith.
It cannot be explained.
It can only be experienced and lived.
It is a story we share and tell to explain God, and how we understand what God is doing.

It seems popular on the internet these days to take these quizzes to find out about ourselves.
There are quizzes to find out which character from the television shows “friends” would you be?
What decade you are from?
Where in New England you should live?
If you are a music fan what rock band would you be?
What movies you like?
What type of color you represent?
I think what is behind these quizzes and their popularity is that we are looking for identity.
We want to know who we are and where we belong in the world.
For us Christians the Easter story is our identity.
If we want to know what type of people we are as Christians we are resurrection people.
The Resurrection story is not just about us but also about God.
What type of God do we worship?
And this story tells us that we have a God who breaks out of the normal rules of life.
We have a God who is more powerful than death.
I love the part in Matthew’s Gospel when the Angel rolls away the stone and then sits on it.
As if to say, “this stone is nothing.”
And to God death is nothing.
The story only makes any sense because of God.
Yes, in this life people don’t come back from the dead.
This mustard plant is dead.
But we believe the story because we believe that with God all things are possible.
With God we look at this mustard plant that I killed and think, “But maybe it is not dead.”
In fact what I am going to do today is go outside and scatter this dried up dead plant in the churches yard.
Who knows what will happen from there?

I would like you all to join me in this experiment.
This morning everyone should take home a bag with some dirt.
I have placed in all these bags a seed.
Take it home and scatter it or plant it somewhere in your yard, and then wait and see.
I don’t know what will happen, neither do you.
But think of it as an act of faith.
If it does bloom then have it be a reminder that God brings death out of life.
If it doesn’t remember that you planted it as an act of faith and it is that faith that sustains us when things seem lost and dead.
Think about all the dead things in your life that you want God to bring new life to, and then remember that God makes all things new.
Remember in the planting that we are resurrection people.
Who worship a resurrected God.

This resurrection story is our central story it defines us.
What it exactly means might be different for all of us.
However, the story remains.
We know its power for our lives.
In faith we believe it.
In hope we embrace it.

That is what we celebrate today.
We celebrate again this essential story of God’s victory over sin and death.
We gather together and sing Alleluia.
And we celebrate that we are resurrection people who believe that even the most dried up things can come back to life.
As resurrection people we now do as Jesus tells us live without fear, in constant hope.
Even through suffering, death, and burial- we are resurrection people.
And so we can look at this plant that I killed and still believe that God will make something miraculous and incomprehensible happen just as God can do in all of our lives.