4.22.2012

See What Love . . .


Preached on April 22, 2012
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Easter 3B: 1 John 3:1-7

My fondest memories of the Presbyterian Church of my childhood center on baptism.  I remember the pastor holding the newly baptized infant in his arms and walking down the center of the aisle of the church. As he walked he would say, “See what love the Father has for the child that we should be called children of God. And so we are.”[1]  In that moment, looking at this new creation, it was impossible not to believe those words.  It didn’t matter if the baby was crying or laughing, sleeping or drooling, it was so obvious that God loved that child.
A couple of days ago, I was blessed by the opportunity to hold in my arms the newest member of St. Mark’s – Samuel Wade Najem born on Wednesday, April 18th.  At 9 pounds, 8 ounces and 23 inches I could look into his face and hear those words again and again, “See what love the Father has for the child.”  God’s love poured out, God’s abundant grace shared with the world, shared with baby Samuel.
But as I drove home from the hospital, I began to wonder, “When do we lose that certainty?”  I know God’s love of Samuel is true. I know it is true of his brothers, David and Joseph, of Neena and Leela, of Patrick, of Addison, of Peyton, of every child gathered here this morning. 
At some point along our life’s journey, we are all taught and most of us learn that it is better to give than to receive. And while this adage has important practical implications and is, in many situations, very good advice, I wonder if in accepting it, we have lost sight of an ancillary truth: that those who do not experience what it is to be loved unconditionally, impair their own capacity for loving others completely.  In other words, our ability to give love and to give love to others out of an abundance of love becomes incapacitated by our rejection of or our inability to believe in God’s unconditional love for us.
As infants, it is easy to see the love a parent has for a child – the baby depends on the parents for everything. And, when that love is tragically absent, the family often becomes the focus of the news cycle as stories of neglect and abandonment garner attention.  But as we mature, our parents – as loving as they may be – are not God and are, therefore, not capable of perfect love. We experience times of disappointment and we begin to adapt, learning early on to make attempts at “earning” love.  What I’m trying to describe here is not some pathological condition but rather a way in which I’ve been exploring the challenge we face as adults to accept the fact -  the capital ‘T’ Truth - that God loves us unconditionally.
By the time most of us reach adulthood, we have come to learn what sorts of behaviors lead to positive reward.  Our culture adds to the lessons of childhood teaching us that we must work hard to get ahead – in other words, that hard work pays off – that we can earn approval from others – that we can earn love? And perhaps the passage from the first letter of John doesn’t help either. For immediately after reminding us of God's love for us, comes this:
“Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he [Jesus] was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.”[2]
Tempting as it may be to read into this that doing the right thing or things means God will love us – that is, that we can and must earn God’s love – what the author seems to be saying is actually the opposite: that those who fully accept God’s love – God’s abundant gift of grace - will no longer sin, God’s love will change them.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”[3] Accept the Good News.
But some of us, even those who dedicate our life-work to a journey of faithfulness, cannot feel God within us, and we feel frustrated. Does any of this ring true for you: You pray for hours each day and then continue to lash out at those around you; you seek out spiritual masters – in the form of therapists, self-help books, yogis, or nutritionists – and try to make that person into God; you develop a spiritual practice, a discipline, but stay at arm’s length from where that practice might lead you, remaining disconnected from the spirit within and around you. So what hope can we find? Where might we regain this capacity to accept God’s loving embrace?
The answer, I believe, lies in the children around us.  It is no mistake that Scripture is filled with images of God as parent and of God’s people as children.  We need to be like children in order to fully accept God’s loving embrace. Children understand – and more importantly, accept – love as part of the way things are and the way things ought to be. A list of quotes attributed to children has been floating around the internet for several years now. The sentiments they express are quite valuable to us grown-ups. Here is just a selection:
·        Rebecca (age 8): “When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands go arthritis too. That’s love.”
·        Billy (age 4): “When someone loves you, the way they way your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”
·        Karl (age 5): “Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.”
·        Danny (age 7): “Love is when my mummy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK.”
·        Emily (age 8): “Love is when you kiss all the time. Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together and you talk more.”
·        Bobby (age 7): “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”
·        Tommy (age 6): “Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other so well.”
·        Cindy (age 8): “During my piano recital, I was on a stage and I was scared. I looked at all the people watching me and saw my daddy waving and smiling. He was the only one doing that. I wasn’t scared anymore.”
·        Mary Ann (age 4): “Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day.”
·        Jessica (age 8): “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”[4]
For those of you who entered the sanctuary through the doors behind you, you walked past the baptismal font. Some of you may even have stopped and dipped your fingers into the bowl, reminding yourself of your baptism. The placement of the font at the entrance to the church serves as a reminder of the grace and love of God through Jesus Christ, reminds us that while we may come from a variety of places – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually – when we gather here to worship we do so as a part of Christ’s body.
I encourage you to walk past the font whenever you come to worship here – dip your fingers into the water, even splash around a bit if you’d like.  And when you do, remember your baptism and remember these words, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”[5]  We should say it a lot because, as Jessica reminds us, people forget.


[1] Paraphrase of 1 John 3:1.
[2] 1 John 3:4-7 (NRSV).
[3] 1 John 3:2a (NRSV).
[4] B.A. Robinson, Compiler, “Love as perceived by some children 4 to 8 years of age,” Religious Tolerance: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, (first published here,  February 2009), accessed online on April 21, 2012.
[5] 1 John 3:1 (NRSV).

4.15.2012

Nothing Can Stop Jesus



Since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution our world has become more and more invested in concrete, reliable facts. “Prove it to me!” has become an unspoken mantra in the modern world. Nearly a decade ago, scientists completed the Human Genome Project and it seemed as if there was no limit to what we could know and understand. Certainly, we had come much closer to a complete understanding of ourselves – and once we’ve completely understood ourselves, how long would it be before we completely understood our planet, and, for that matter, the entire universe!  Prove it – and it’s real!
It is not a huge leap to shift from this euphoric excitement about the power of scientific knowledge to its ancillary – our reticence to accept as real those things which we cannot see or which we cannot explain. So, for many of us, belief in God has become, on the one hand, a slightly embarrassing characteristic which we try not to share too openly with colleagues or classmates for fear that might find us quaint or uninformed or, on the other hand, a painful moment of realization when we first hear ourselves say, in one form or another, “dear God, help my unbelief!”  The expression “doubting Thomas” is, ironically, not perceived in our culture as a compliment; and yet, in light of our scientific worldview most of us find ourselves thrust into that very role. Show me the evidence! Let’s see some hard facts. In the absence of tangible evidence – a pie-chart or a graph, at the very least – how can I possibly be expected to believe?
Clergy are not exempt from this anxiety.  My own bookshelf reveals my ongoing consideration of the issue:  Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason; Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief; Michael Shermer’s How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God; A. N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral; and Loyal Rue’s Religion is not about God: How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature and What to Expect when they Fail. For an awful lot of us religious folk – people like you and like me – the doubt of Thomas which we heard about in this morning’s gospel seems very real indeed. And yet here we are.  In God’s Funeral, Wilson writes, it is “remarkable that the intelligent human mind, knowing all it knows about the arguments against God’s existence, should continue to practice religious observances; to be led, on some instinctual level, to punctuate the day with allah akhbar, with O God make speed to save us, with Glory be to the Father.” [1] And yet, here we are.

Here we are and the gospel for today tells the story of the disciples gathering in the evening “on that day” – the very same day in which they have discovered the empty tomb and heard of Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus – “and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Until they have seen the physical evidence – the very same mark of the nails in his hands and the hole in his side that Thomas later demands to see and touch – until then, the disciples do not believe. They did not believe when they saw the empty tomb. They did not believe when Mary reported what the Lord said to her. And they were afraid, as afraid as they were on the day Jesus was put to death. Here it is three days since Jesus’ crucifixion and the disciples have barricaded themselves in a room – they have locked the door “for fear of the Jews”! Their fear has paralyzed them and has closed their hearts to the truth. Each of them needed proof, some tangible evidence that Jesus was, in fact, raised from the dead. They needed to see him with their own eyes. And it is into this fear and this disbelief that Jesus comes to reassure them, to restore their faith, and to remind them of the work they have yet to do. Despite the locked door, Jesus entered the room, stood with his disciples, and greeted them: “Peace be with you.” Though the disciples were afraid and wanting to protect themselves, Jesus came in, passing through the locked door, breaking down the physical boundary. No boundaries – not even our doubts - can stop Jesus from being with us. Frederick Buechner writes that the story of Easter, unlike the story of Christmas,
“is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it – the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs – have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. It’s not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. It doesn’t have the ring of great drama. It has the ring of truth. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead , they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.

The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows all around us, the Eastertide.”[2]

I give thanks for the lack of skill in telling the story.  I give thanks for the confusion of that first Easter morning. I give thanks that the gospel writers didn’t sit down together and work out all the details to make sure there were no conflicting accounts.  I give thanks for the earthquake that Matthew adds to his account of that day – as if he understood that the story was too ridiculous to believe in the first place.  I give thanks for Thomas who dared utter what the rest of them must have been thinking, “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.” And I give thanks that this denying, betraying, deceitful and doubting group of disciples was deemed acceptable by Christ.  I give thanks because that gives me just enough hope, just enough faith to believe that you and I might also be acceptable through him, that Jesus will break down the barriers of our doubts and will restore us for the work we have yet to do.  “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”


[1] A. N. Wilson, God’s Funeral, (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 336.
[2] Frederick Buechner, “Easter,” Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary, (San Francisco: Harper, 1988), 45-6.

4.08.2012

Practice Resurrection


Sermon Preached Easter 2012
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Evanston

The resurrection of Jesus which we celebrate [on this holiest of nights] is a promise which begins to find its fulfillment in the here and now. The promise of the resurrection – as our Easter shouts of Alleluia proclaim – is that our new life in Christ has already begun! In the waters of baptism, “we are buried with Christ in his death” and “by it we share in his resurrection” – already, now, in this moment! This is not just a future hope, a future promise, but a new life today! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
In Nora Gallagher’s spiritual autobiography, Practicing Resurrection, she reflects on the meaning of resurrection:
“When I think about the resurrection now, I don’t only think about what happened to Jesus. I think about what happened to his disciples. Something happened to them, too . . . it was not only what they saw when they saw Jesus, or how they saw it, but what was set free in them.”[1]
She continues,
“If there is some kind of life after death, what if it’s not a life exclusively for the dead? What if it’s a life available to us all . . . something the living can participate in, too? . . . . What if the resurrection is not about the appearances of Jesus alone but also about what those appearances pointed to, what they asked? And it is finally what we do with [those appearances] that matters – make them into superstitions or use them as stepping stones to new life. We have to practice resurrection.”[2]
Practicing resurrection.  Many are familiar with the expression practice what you preach. By this, I suppose we are being encouraged to live lives of integrity and authenticity, to not engage in behaviors which are contrary to the Gospel we preach. And while we all fall short of this noble goal at least some of the time and still others among us fall short much of the time, we can all agree that it is, both in principle and in practice, a very good idea.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between believing in God and living life rooted in our belief in God. I’m struck by the relative ease with which we say the words “I believe” – so easy, in fact, that I wonder at times if the words have lost their legs. Just now, for example, we have renewed our baptismal vows. The baptismal covenant consists of eight questions. The first three are questions of belief: “Do you believe in God the Father?”, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?”, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” But, the remaining questions take on a completely different tone. They ask us about our intentions and about our actions: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Perhaps we could be more economical with our language if we simply asked, “Will you practice what you preach?” Or, “Will you practice that which you say you believe?”  Because in the renewal of baptismal vows, we are promising to give legs to our beliefs; we are promising to make our faith an action verb.
C. S. Lewis in one of his classics, Mere Christianity, says that “[t]he main thing we learn from a serious attempt to practice the Christian virtues. . .” [and, for the sake of argument, I would like to add “practicing resurrection” to that list of virtues?] – [t]he main thing we learn . . . is that we fail.” C. S. Lewis continues,
“If there was any idea that God had set us a sort of exam and that we might get good marks by deserving them, that has to be wiped out. If there was any idea of a sort of bargain – any idea that we could perform our side of the contract and thus put God in our debts so that it was up to Him, in mere justice, to perform His side – that has to be wiped out.”[3]
So, let’s retrace our steps. In the baptismal covenant we are asked to state our beliefs. We are then asked to express our willingness to let those beliefs guide our actions in certain ways – through the prayers, through acts of social justice, and so forth. And now, we read in C. S. Lewis – and, by the way, Paul says the same thing in Scripture –we cannot do the very things we intend to do. And so, despite knowing that it is a good thing to practice what we preach – or to practice what we believe - we all fall short of this noble goal at least some of the time and still others among us fall short much of the time.
And if it were not for the resurrection of Christ, my brothers and sisters, we should all leave here very depressed indeed because one can only fall short of the goal so many times before one must simply give up – exhausted, defeated, and alone. But this is not the final word, my friends. Because there is resurrection and it is here and it is now and it is through the resurrection that we can, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “turn to God and say, ‘You must do this. I can’t.’”[4] We can turn to God and say, “It is too much for me, I cannot do it anymore. I hand it to you.” And God can and God will and God does.
Christ offers his life that we might have life. And in offering his life, he regains his life through the resurrection. And the resurrection of Christ frees us all. Because of the resurrection we are “cleansed from sin and born again” to “continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.”
We are freed to practice resurrection - a resurrection that begins to find fulfillment in the here and now – a resurrection that proclaims our new life in Christ has already begun – already, now, in this moment! This is not a future hope, a future promise, but a new life today – a new life firmly rooted in our belief in God! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Practice resurrection . . . what will be set free in you this night/day?


[1] Nora Gallagher, Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace, (Knopf: New York, 2003), p. 206.
[2] Ibid., 207.
[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Simon & Schuster: New York, 1980), p. 126.
[4] Ibid., 129.

4.06.2012

Jesus: The Human Human

Sermon Preached on Good Friday, April 6, 2012


Many Wednesday nights I join a group of creative writers in Evanston.  I take part in the group because creative writing keeps my imagination sharp, providing me with fresh fuel for sermon-writing.  Last week, was no exception as one of the writers in the group, Sarah, told me about a book she’s reading. It is called The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us About Being Alive
and tells the story of its author’s, Brian Christian’s, experience with the Turing Test.  The Turing Test is named for Alan Turing, mathematician and philosopher, who first described the test in 1950 as a way to resolve the question, “can machines think?”[1]  In his paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Turing wrote:

“The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the 'imitation game.’ It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. . .
“In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The ideal arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms. Alternatively the question and answers can be repeated by an intermediary . . .
“We now ask the question, ‘What will happen when a machine takes the part of [the man] in this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, ‘Can machines think?’”
It would be another 40 years before computing and the field of artificial intelligence had matured significantly to meaningfully pit human against machine in a contest underwritten by Hugh Loebner and The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. Dr. Loebner has pledged $100,000 for the first computer whose responses are indistinguishable from a human’s.  Until such a computer wins the prize (in the 21 years that the contest has been held, no computer has been successful), a “runner-up” prize is awarded to the Most Human Computer in that year’s competition.[2]  And, here is where Brian Christian comes back into the picture because a prize is also given for the Most Human Human – the actual human participant who does the best job of convincing the judges that they are, in fact, human.  And it is this honor that Brian Christian set out to win in the 2009 competition and which he writes about in his book The Most Human Human.

While I’ve not yet had a chance to read Christian’s book, I have been following my writing group colleague, Sarah’s, progress through her blog posts.   On March 15th just 50 pages into the book herself, Sarah describes a particularly challenging day of not meeting goals she had set for herself and then concludes,

“So I guess that makes me a human human right?  Stumbling?  I hate that I broke promises to myself and yet I would be a robot if I didn't falter sometimes.”[3]

A day later, presumably further along in the book, Sarah writes:

“What I'm loving about the human human book is the discussion about what it means to be human.  The thinking continues to evolve.  Years past, it was thought the differentiating factor between humans and other sentient beings was our ability to use tools.  Then it was discovered many animals use tools . . . So back to the drawing board – ‘What is it,’ philosophers and scientists pondered, ‘that makes humans human?’” [4]

Sarah’s blog post continues:

“Until recently the conclusion was, our ability to reason, a left brain activity other animals don't possess.  We worship our left brains - makes sense because it's the verbal side of ourselves.  When we talk and refer to ‘I’, it's really just the left brain that's talking.  The right hemisphere, because it's mute, never gets to weigh in.  And because the right brain is mute and mysterious we don't understand it and as a result we are skeptical about its contribution.

“BUT [she continues]...just about everything we do with our left hemisphere can be replicated with a computer! Computers are actually much better than we are at logical reasoning.  Drat...that puts us back to the drawing board again!  It's not reasoning that makes us special.  The answer is, of course, the overlooked functions of the right brain - the poets within us.”[5]

Now, for those of you who are thinking, I should definitely read this book, I need to read an entry four days later:  “So the book, The Most Human Human, it's getting ponderous.  I'm not sure I can recommend it with the same enthusiasm I had last week.”[6]  On the other hand, she mentions it again just a couple of days ago, so I guess she hasn’t abandoned it yet.[7]

So, what does all of this have to do with Good Friday?  When Sarah first mentioned Christian’s book to me, I was already reflecting on the passion story and I began to wonder, was Jesus perhaps the first human human?  So much of our focus on Jesus is on his divinity, what it means that Jesus is the Son of God.  And, when we do consider his humanity, our discussions often get side-tracked, on the one hand, by a well-intentioned quest for the historical Jesus – those aspects of his life that can be historically verified – particularly by sources outside of Scripture or, on the other hand, by an assumption that Jesus was really some sort of uber-human, a God-like human.  This despite our weekly recitation of the Nicene Creed which asserts that Jesus was, in deed, fully human: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man” or as it is perhaps more emphatically stated in the Athanasius Creed, “Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.”  In neither creed are we to understand that Jesus was human-like or that Jesus was a God-like human, but a human – a human being like you and like me.

The Passion Story takes us into the heart of the humanity of Jesus.  We begin in the garden with the arrival of Judas.  To be betrayed by one we have nurtured and loved, is that not perhaps one of the most human of human experiences?  We move outside the courtyard of the high priest and listen as Peter denies knowing Jesus not once, not twice, but three times all while Jesus is being questioned inside.  To be denied by one we have nurtured and loved is that not a most human human experience? Jesus is flogged and mocked by the soldiers.  A human human experience.  An incited crowd screams out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and Jesus becomes victim to the mob – a human human experience.  Jesus walks from The Stone Pavement to The Place of the Skull, “carrying the cross by himself” – in some accounts, stumbling under the weight of this cruel instrument of torture – a human human experience. 

And what of the crucifixion itself?  Stephen Mansfield, writing for the Huffington Post this week, reminded his readers that “[t]he practice of impaling a man to watch him die hideously is not unique to some distant, barbaric time. It has unfortunately been an onoing part of the grisly, shameful side of human history.”[8] The practice was not an invention of the Roman Empire – though they have become most associated with it, most likely because of the story of Christ’s passion. The practice likely emerged among ancient tribes who were looking for a way to prolong the agony of death. During the Middle Ages, Christians began crucifying Jews and Islam took up the practice as well.  According to Mansfield’s article, “[a] Canadian soldier may have been crucified during World War I and many more died by this method in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein.  Tragically, crucifixions may still be taking place in Sudan. We know they were occurring just a few years ago.”[9] And, so the crucifixion too, an all too human human experience.
Good Friday, the day on which we are left to ponder, not the “perfect God” of the Athanasius Creed, but instead the “perfect man” – the human human Jesus.  It’s not a neat and tidy work. It is, in fact, a task most would choose to ignore or avoid.  Perhaps because it seems to demand too much of us, insisting that we stare into the face of human stumbling:  betrayal, denial, cruelty, pain, suffering, and ultimately, death.    
The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Brian Christian
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook



In an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Brian Christian suggested that what makes us most human is our ability to maintain perspective on “the world as it is” – filled with the harsh realities of betrayal, denial, cruelty, pain, suffering, and ultimately, death – alongside a perspective on another’s perspective of the world. [10]    For persons of faith, we are invited to hold our perspective on the present reality alongside the reality that the life, death, and ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus promise.  To use the words from Hebrews, which we heard tonight, our ability in the face of death, to “have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us” through his death and to “approach” with a true heart in full assurance of faith” and to “ hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”[11] This, my brothers and sisters, may be what it means to be human humans – have faith.


[1] Alan M. Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Mind, vol. 59, pp. 433-460.
[2] Information about the Loebner prize attained online April 4, 2012 from “Home Page of The Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence: The First Turing Test,” a website which is so unsophisticated as to leave one wondering whether the irony is intentional.  Incidentally, this year’s contest is scheduled for May 15th.  Also, it should be noted that  a 2008 entry named Elbot came very close to winning. You can “talk” to Elbot at this site.
[3] Sarah Britton, “Human, Human / Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater,” Living Well, March 15, 2012 accessed April 4, 2012. 
[4] Britton, “Monsanto Mischief/Outsource Your Left Brain,” Living Well, March 16, 2012 accessed on April 4, 2012.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Britton, “Treasured Possessions/Score One For The Humans!” Living Well, March 19, 2012 accessed on April 5, 2012.
[7] Britton, “Words with Friends/Swimming Upstream,” Living Well, April 2, 2012 accessed on April 5, 2012.
[8] Stephen Mansfield, “Truly Understanding the Agony of Crucifixion,”  The Blog of The Huffington Post, April 2, 2012 accessed on April 5, 2012.
[9] Ibid.
[10] “Brian Christian,” The Daily Show, March 12, 2011 accessed on April 5, 2012.

4.05.2012

The Faithfulness of Hope and Doubt

Sermon Preached on Maundy Thursday
at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Evanston




Bread, wine, water, community – all of them tangible symbols of the powerful presence of God. We can taste and smell the bread and the wine. We can see and hear one another as we gather. And we can feel the cool water as it is poured over our the naked flesh of our feet or hands. This community, this bread, this wine, this time set apart - signs of God’s presence with us. They are what the Eastern Church would refer to as kataphatic expressions of God. God revealed through the positive, the present, the sense-able. This focus on the positive, the tangible, has been an historical landmark of the Western Church. Whether or not you and I will ever understand how the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ makes little difference in our ability to share the bread and the wine together at this and every other celebration of the Eucharist. Because the bread and the wine are tangible, they are real. As the psalmist wrote, “Taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are they who trust in him!”[1]  We can taste and see the bread and the wine. And the context in which we share the bread and the wine – in companionship with one another – is a reminder that being a Christian means being in community. And eating the bread and drinking the wine together provide us with sensual connectors to the story of our salvation – the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, his violent death on a cross, and his miraculous resurrection – all to liberate us from the bondage of sin.
Our salvation history has some notable parallels to the Jewish story of salvation which Jews around the world commemorate with a Passover Seder. The Seder is an occasion for praise and thanksgiving for the Exodus – the deliverance from bondage under Pharaoh in Egypt.  And, tonight, we have intentionally drawn some parallels to the Seder in our service. We have already lit the Yom Tov – the holiday – candles. The candles are traditionally lit by the mother of the household as she recites the holiday prayer for light – “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Festival lights.”
In addition, because the Seder meal is understood as one of the primary means of passing on the story of salvation from parent to child, it is the youngest child’s privilege to ask the Mah Nishtanah – the four questions – of which we heard one tonight, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Another parallel will occur when we receive the offering of bread and wine. We will recite a traditional Jewish blessing or berekah over the bread and the wine to sanctify the holiday.
But here the parallels must end, because it is not the Jewish story of salvation that we remember on this Thursday in Holy Week. No, our Maundy Thursday rituals take a very different turn. For what we remember this night is not only our salvation, but also the last time Jesus was with his friends for their celebration of the Passover Seder, a night where they shared what would be their final meal together and where Jesus gave his friends one final commandment – the mandatum from which we get the word Maundy – the commandment to love one another “just as I have loved you.”
Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and afterwards said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” “Just as I have loved you.” Foot washing is an act of service. And, as teacher and Lord, Jesus should not have been washing the feet of his students, his disciples. But, like so many aspects of Jesus’ life, this is a counter-cultural action in which the unique nature of the community is demonstrated. For this community of disciples is to be based on collaboration rather than competition; on accountability, rather than blame; on compromise, rather than control; on truth-telling rather than concealment; on power with rather than power over, on love rather than fear.[2][2] The unique nature of this community is a high calling and one which we continue to live in to imperfectly. But that imperfection in no way negates Jesus’ intention for us.  And this focus on leading through loving service is the first thematic difference from the Passover Seder.
The second, and perhaps more significant difference, comes as we conclude our liturgy tonight. The Passover Seder concludes with the hope-filled shout, “Next year in Jerusalem!” - but, not so our liturgy. No, tonight, we will process from this room into the sanctuary, singing a haunting melody “Stay with me; remain here with me; watch and pray; watch and pray.” Arriving in the sanctuary, we will be still for a moment and then begin a slow and deliberate recitation of Psalm 22 as all adornment is stripped from the altar just as the body of Jesus, Christ’s temple, was stripped in preparation for the crucifixion. We will be left in silence, in darkness, in emptiness – and in the emptiness we may begin to realize that all tangible evidence of God with us, has been stripped away. Those powerful, kataphatic symbols of God among us – bread, wine, community – will be replaced by the equally powerful non-symbols of God’s absence – apophatic (the unknowable God). An absence that moves beyond words so that even our sense of community - typically established through conversation - will be stripped from us as we are invited to leave not as one body, but each of us, as separate from one another, when we feel ready, departing in silence.
Shortly after Mother Teresa’s death, you may recall that her diaries became public. Time Magazine captured our attention with its headline, “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa: Newly Published Letters Reveal a Beloved Icon’s Crisis of Faith.”[3] Here is an excerpt from her diary:
“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?[4]
Despite the sensationalistic headlines decrying her faith, the reality of Mother Teresa’s experience finds parallels in that of many Christians and, indeed, in much of Scripture. Rather than finding God in the bread, the wine, the community, many others have instead experienced God’s absence. Rose Marie Berger, a Catholic peace activist and poet, lists the many ways in which this absence has been expressed through the centuries, “the Vast Emptiness, the Dark Night, the Endless Expanse, the ‘Absent One,” and then Berger adds that, in fact, “There is no language to build a bridge of human relationship with this aspect of the Divine.”[5]  This approach to experiencing God through the negative – that is, of experiencing the un-God – is as much a part of our Christian heritage as is the positive approach to experiencing God.
In the Western church, we tend to focus more on the positive which is part of the reason, I believe, that many of us avoid these days of Holy Week. But our story of salvation, to be complete, must take us through the darkness – through the negative – in order to ultimately attain the positive. Tonight begins the Three Days – the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. These are not three separate worship services but are, in fact, all part of one service. There will be no dismissal at the conclusion of tonight’s liturgy or tomorrow’s. The dismissal is reserved for the conclusion of worship which is at the end of the Great Vigil on Saturday night. Those who participate in all three portions of the service will experience both God and un-God, knowing and not knowing and will have the unique opportunity to experience the fullness of our faithful response to God – a full faith that encompasses both hope and doubt.


[1] Psalm 34:8
[2] This list of contrasts comes from The Rt. Rev. Vincent W. Warner, “Values of Servant Leadership,” in Diocesan Profile: The Episcopal Church in Western Washington, Diocese of Olympia accessed on October 19, 2006 at http://www.blogger.ecww.org (link no longer active).
[3] Time Magazine, September 7, 2007
[4] Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light - The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta , Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed., (New York: The Mother Teresa Center, 2007), 187.
[5] Rose Marie Berger, “All Quiet on the God Front,” Sojourners (Vol. 37(3): March 2008), p. 19.