Sermon for 5 Easter 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

At the end of this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus says something which, if we were to really think about it, is rather hard to swallow:

Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.

We’ve heard this a hundred times, and if we approach it uncritically (as we are so often wont to do) it’s a very comforting thought.

If, however, we were to pause a moment and consider this promise for what it seems to suggest, I think we’d quickly become troubled, because the fact is, it doesn’t seem to ring true with our experience. To put it more bluntly, it might seem to us that either Jesus is lying or he is powerless to keep his promise.

Most of us are taught from a young age how to pray. We are instructed to address God the Father and to pray “in Jesus’ name”. If it’s all about mechanics—about using the correct words—then, indeed, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel must be false. But the words “in Jesus’ name” do not constitute a magic formula, the unthinking repetition of which ensures that we get whatever we want. We may pray “in Jesus’ name” to win the lottery but, (perhaps it’s just my own lack of faith) it rarely seems to happen. That’s a bad example, because I’ve never purchased a lottery ticket, so let’s take a different example. We may make less overtly selfish prayers, tack “in Jesus’ name. Amen.” to the end of it, and still not see the prayer answered. We can pray for world peace or an end to hunger or for a loved one’s recovery from illness or for an enemy to have a change of heart (prayers I know I’ve made and which do not require the purchase of a lottery ticket to prove my good will in praying for it), and too often be left disappointed.

We’ve all heard the rather easy explanation that “God answers prayers, but sometimes it’s with a ‘no’” but look back at what Jesus promises: if you ask anything in my name, I will do it. He doesn’t say he’ll provide an answer one way or the other, but that he will answer our prayers by giving us what we ask.

So, how do we approach this genuine theological problem. We must, I contend, stand firm on the assertion that Jesus is not a liar, nor is God powerless to keep His promise. The answer, I think, comes from a more fulsome understanding of what it means to pray “in Jesus’ name” in the first place.

We know that these words are not a magic formula. There is, of course, nothing wrong with structuring our prayers the way we do, but perhaps praying “in Jesus’ name” is partly positive and partly normative. That is to say, first of all, that we do express a reality when we pray “in Jesus’ name”. We are, as baptized Christians, the body of Christ, and when we pray “in Jesus’ name” we affirm that reality. But at the same time, we can never as individuals honestly affirm that our will is perfectly conformed to our Lord’s, that we are fully capable of standing in the place of him who died for us and rose again, and so when we pray “in Jesus’ name” we are also referring to an ideal to which we strive but will never reach in this life.

That being the case, we may not be praying “in Jesus’ name” in a very important sense just because we tack a few extra words onto the end of our prayers. We may not fully know the will of God, and the intentions with which we pray may not perfectly conform to God’s intentions.

All of this can be discouraging, but it is not meant to suggest that all our prayers are in vain. What it does mean is that there is an extra task each of us has when we are praying. We don’t just ask for stuff we want or favors we want God to bestow on others, but for our wills to be conformed to Christ’s, that we may know how to pray aright, to, as one collect in the prayerbook puts it “ask only what accords with thy will”.

When we pray without considering this necessary element of prayer, we run the risk of taking the name of Jesus in vain. Far worse than letting some swear slip is the pride which makes us think that we can use the blessed name of Jesus for selfish gain, not considering how great a privilege and a responsibility it is that we are permitted to pray in Jesus’ name to begin with.

Sometimes Christ’s will is that our prayers slowly make us more and more like him until they bear fruit in what we had asked for in the beginning. The best example of this I can think of, particularly on Mother’s Day, is that of Saint Monica, Augustine’s mother, whose prayers for her son’s conversion took years to come to fruition but which, in the meantime, made Monica herself a more loving and patient mother, a more Christ-like mother.

In the final analysis, it all goes back to trust: trust that God’s will is to save his people, to bring them to the Father’s house in which there are many rooms. When we trust that God’s will is for the good, it becomes more natural for us to conform our will to his and to accept what we experience as setbacks or unanswered prayers as mysterious means for God’s plan to unfold. When we have faith that God will set all things to rights for his people, we can begin to pray more fervently and to see how he graciously answers us. There will always be disappointments, there will always be prayers which seem unanswered, but, as in every relationship, a foundation of trust will help us to maintain our hope that even in our own darkness God’s light can shine and will ultimately illuminate all our experiences, showing us how God was working his purposes out all along.

Let us pray.
Almighty God, unto whom our needs are known before we ask: Help us to ask only what accords with thy will; and those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask, grant us for the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon for 3 Easter 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Most of us, I suspect remember the story, and have heard a number of reflections on its significance over the years. What has begun to fascinate me only recently about the story, though, is the disciples’ lack of recognition up to the point of the meal they shared in Emmaus. We so often call the events we just heard about as “the road to Emmaus”, but we forget that the moment that made all the difference for Cleopas and the other disciple didn’t take place on the road at all, but at the dinner table.

So what about that long walk they all took together? Our risen Lord was engaging in a ministry that defined his earthly life just as much as breaking bread with his disciples; he was teaching the meaning of scripture, how the Law and the Prophets pointed to the coming reign of the Messiah. Later, the disciples would acknowledge that they felt their hearts “burning within” them during this conversation, yet the moment of recognition didn’t come until that more intimate act at dinner.

Perhaps the disciples’ delayed discovery surprises us, but it shouldn’t. We are exposed to compelling arguments and weighty evidence of some truth or another all the time, but without some kind of personal experience, the truth sometimes doesn’t sink in. We can hear facts and figures about poverty and injustice, but our hearts are rarely moved if we don’t see it. We live in a society in which a large proportion of people can hear compelling arguments about some scientific or medical proposition, but refuse to believe the validity of said arguments until they see it first hand (even if the proposition at hand doesn’t lend itself to that kind of scrutiny). So, I’m not suggesting that our difficulty in accepting truths on the basis of persuasive evidence is a good thing, but rather that it’s a reality of our condition. We are now—as post-modern people—more skeptical creatures than we’ve ever been (with regard to science and religion and politics and every other human endeavor), and that’s neither an altogether bad nor an altogether good thing.

That being the reality, we can learn a great deal from the disciples’ delayed recognition. If, as I would contend, we are even more prone to withhold judgment than people in Jesus’ day, that effects how we go about evangelism.
Now, there is a word we Episcopalians can be uncomfortable with—evangelism—and I think our discomfort is of precisely the same nature which causes others to be uncomfortable with the propagation of very different kinds of truth. Our discomfort may well stem from the very same post-modern rejection with absolute truth and the (to my mind) completely incoherent claim that what might be true for one need not be true for another.

If we truly believe that Christ is risen, we believe something stronger than the claim that “for me Christ is risen, but perhaps not to somebody who rejects my meta-narrative”. We believe Christ is risen. We’re making a claim which believe to be as true as “gravity exists” or “the earth orbits round the sun”. We’re not just using code language to point to some personal feeling. We’re making a claim about the truth of a fact, a fact which is not cotenable with every other religious claim everyone else in the world may make. So important is this truth, so potentially life-changing and world-changing is this truth, that we should find it to be a truth whose universal acceptance would be a positive thing.

Our discomfort with this suggestion cripples our witness. A friend of mine once said that Episcopalian evangelism is like building the most beautiful, well-appointed boat ever constructed, taking it out into the middle of the ocean, and waiting for the fish to jump in. Needless to say, you’ll not catch many fish that way, but sadly I think the analogy rings truer than we’d like to admit.

But, considering the fact that the people we live among are more like those disciples on the road than we might have thought—considering the fact that we now have a couple generations of people who might not have read Heidegger or Derrida or Foucault, but who nonetheless share their rejection of modern logic and argumentation—our approach must be different, and Jesus is once again the model.

We’ll not convince many people that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” by setting forth propositional arguments. We may, however, help others see the risen Christ when we break bread with them. The good news of the Resurrection is not limited to what it means for us who have been baptized on the last day. The Resurrection also means that we’ve already been risen with Christ, and we, the Church, constitute his earthly body. So, when we nurture the kinds of intimate relationships with others that are manifested most powerfully in Christ’s breaking of the bread, we open a window of insight into the Christ of whom we are a part. We permit those who do not yet believe to have the opportunity for the same recognition experienced by the disciples.

Our earthly relationships are ideally reflections of the primary relationship God has with us. This is why the marriage rite makes clear that the love shared between husband and wife is a sign of the love “betwixt” Christ and his Church. This is why parents are so intimately involved in the rite of Baptism (why, for example, I insist on having parents and godparents hold the child during the baptism rather than doing it myself: it’s not, contrary to some speculation, because I’m afraid of dropping an infant, but because parents and godparents will ideally serve as more important models of Christian love than some chap in funny dresses).

You see, our domestic community (that is, our household) as well as our ecclesial community (that is, our parish church) are primarily contexts in which we humans in very human ways try to reflect the love of God. In all events, we learn from this morning’s Gospel that the most compelling evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is not to be found in any scientific inquiry, but rather in the love we show and are shown. May we be brought to daily conversion, to slowly turning ourselves back toward God when we experience the love His people show toward us, and may we break bread with others in the hopes that they, too, will catch a glimpse of the risen Christ.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for 2 Easter 2017

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“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.” So says Blessed Thomas, and for it the popular imagination has turned him into a cliché: “Doubting Thomas”. He has come to epitomize incredulity, and I, at least, have heard sermons which attempt to cast the Apostle as a saint for our own day; the patron saint of modernity and scientism and skepticism.
But is this a fair reading of Thomas? I don’t think so. Such a reading seems to imply one of two equally unfortunate and diametrically opposed conclusions. Either it demonizes the doubter or it unequivocally affirms the doubt. We end up responding to ourselves or to others when doubt arises by saying either “O Doubting Thomas, how couldst thou betray thy Lord” or “God accepts your doubt, so don’t feel obliged to do anything about it.” Jesus didn’t say either of these.

So, let us put ourselves in Blessed Thomas’ shoes for a moment. Why would he not have believed his fellows and gone off rejoicing with them? Perhaps he feared they had fallen victim to magical thinking, to creating an unhealthy fantasy by which they intended to cope with the death of the one whom they loved and called Rabbi and Lord. Maybe he felt that he needed to be the realist of the group, the one to stay above fantasizing so that he could help his brethren come to terms with reality and get on with the lives they had put on hold for three years.

Or, perhaps, he was not prepared to hope. We know that the Beloved Disciple was at the foot of the cross, and it is reasonable to believe that the other Apostles would have seen their Lord’s gruesome death. In the face of such evil and desolation one loses hope. The loss of hope, however, is not entirely passive. We may choose not to hope. We may choose not to hope because experience has shown us that our hopes don’t always get fulfilled. “Don’t get your hopes up!” we tell ourselves and others, because we are so afraid of having our hopes dashed.

T.S. Eliot, after his conversion, wrote an extended poem called “Ash Wednesday”, and its opening lines (which I think I’ve included in a sermon or newsletter article or something before) capture the deadening effect of choosing to lose hope:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive towards such things
(Why should an agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

When we are bereft of hope, we cease to mourn and to strive. We cease to mourn because acknowledging our grief presupposes that things could have been different and can become better. We keep ourselves from imagining a scenario in which God has put the world to rights because we’d rather not be disappointed again. Thus, stoicism is a very subtle form of hopelessness. We cease to strive, also, because we don’t want to get our hopes up. We cease to ask ourselves how it is we are to live as children of the Light, as sons and daughters of the Most High. We become complacent, but at least we’re not in danger of being disappointed.

If my hunch is right, and this is Thomas’ situation, it adds some depth to his response to the other disciples. “I will not believe” discloses not simple skepticism, but an inability to hope for fear of disappointment. He might as well have said, “Don’t bother me with such optimism! I’m already in a pit of despair, but you may well dig it deeper!”

This brings us to that evening one week after the Resurrection. The disciples, this time Thomas among their number, are once again in the house. Jesus appears and, as I already mentioned, His response to Thomas was not what the popular imagination would assume. Jesus says neither “shame on you for not believing” nor “well done, good and faithful scientist, for demanding empirical verification.” No, Jesus’ words to Thomas were quite different. “Put your finger here,” He said, “and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” To this, Thomas responds with the fullest confession of Jesus’ identity and mission in John’s Gospel, and arguably in any Gospel: “My Lord, and My God”, he says. It is nothing less than a fulsome experience of the Risen Lord which makes Thomas finally “get it”. But when he figures it out, his response is spot on.

This is good news for all of us, because we all go through periods in which faith and hope are lacking. What we learn from Thomas’ experience of the Risen Christ is that Jesus may come to us when we least expect Him. God may make Himself known to us even in the pit of despair, pulling us out into a new life, renewed to do His Will in the world. There is good evidence to suggest that Thomas himself went on to evangelize India. In fact, when Western explorers found their way back to the subcontinent after the Middle Ages, they found a vibrant church there, claiming Thomas as their own. We know from today’s reading from Acts that Peter—who himself had been frightened and hopeless and huddled in a locked room—went on to preach to a great multitude in Jerusalem about his experience of the Risen Lord. What we didn’t hear in this morning’s reading, because the lectionary ended a few verses too early, is that about three-thousand people were so moved by Peter’s account that they were baptized that day. Thomas and Peter both show us that when we have experienced Christ dispelling our doubts and fears, we have a task before us, to go out and “proclaim in word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Jesus tells those men, just pulled out of their own doubt and fear, “As the Father has sent me so I send you.”

But, we may protest, we have not had the benefit of seeing Jesus’ nail-scarred hands ourselves. Jesus said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” but how are we to do great things for the sake of the Kingdom when even Jesus’ closest friends, the disciples, needed proof of His resurrection? This is a fair question, and the most sufficient response I know of is that of John Henry Newman. Newman said that he believed in the existence of God more than even his own existence, but if he were asked to point to a specific experience or piece of evidence he could not.

My guess is that some of us here have had really rather grand religious experiences. These are to be treasured and acknowledged as God-given. I suspect, however, that most of us fit more in Newman’s category. We may not have put our fingers in Jesus’ hand or our hands in His side, but we still have confidence in the Resurrection of our Lord and a robust sense of hope for our own Resurrection. This confidence is something built up gradually by the practice of holy habits. Through daily prayer and bible study, regular church attendance, acts of charity and loving-kindness that we show to others or that others show to us, and a number of other seemingly small acts; we gain more and more experience of God. He reveals Himself imperceptibly to us, but a lifetime of accumulated devotion adds up. For we who are struggling with faith and hope (as most of us do to some degree or another at some point in our lives) this is very good news. It gives us something to do, a way to pattern our lives so that slowly we too may come to believe and say along with Blessed Thomas, “My Lord, and My God”.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.