Saturday, April 26, 2014

Doors



Here's my homily for tomorrow. The Gospel is the story of Doubting Thomas, John 20:19-31. I used the driving story in another homily, quite a few years ago.  It remains one of the strangest things that's ever happened to me, and no one has ever been able to come up with a strictly rational, Euclidean explanation for it. "Oh, honey, you just didn't know where you were going," my mother said, but I've hardly ever been more acutely aware of where I was going. Gary chalks it up to ESP, but that's not especially rational or Euclidean either.  Of course the story raises more questions than it answers -- if God can reach down to redirect a Honda, why can't God keep a forty-three-year old mother from dying? -- but in my experience, anything resembling a miracle always does.  There's a reason why the definition of theology is "asking questions about God."

*

As I’m sure most of you know, the Episcopal Church uses the Revised Common Lectionary, a set of readings designed, in a three-year cycle, to lead us through the high points of Scripture. On most Sundays, the lessons vary depending on whether we’re in Year A, Year B, or Year C. But some readings remain constant, as unchanging as the sequence of the seasons.  Most of these readings coincide with major events. On Maundy Thursday, we always hear about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. On Pentecost, we always hear about the rushing winds and tongues of flame. And on the Sunday after Easter, we always hear about Doubting Thomas.

But wait. The Sunday after Easter isn’t a major event. It’s low Sunday. The drama of Holy Week is over; the Lord is risen.  A lot of people, exhausted from the marathon leading up to Easter, don’t even come to church on low Sunday. Why does the Sunday after the resurrection merit its own, unchanging reading? Why do we hear about Doubting Thomas every single year?

I suspect there’s a message here. As surely as Christmas follows Advent, as surely as Easter follows Good Friday, doubt follows resurrection. Even two thousand years ago, no one could quite believe what had happened. At a distance of several millenia, this miracle can all too easily seem like a tall tale. Like Thomas himself, none of us were there the first time the Lord reappeared. Like Thomas, we’re already followers of Jesus, but we still yearn for proof.

Two thousand years after the first Easter, we live in a society obsessed with proof: with scientific evidence, with facts and statistics. A lot of the non-believers I know -- people I love, my friends and family -- approach faith as if it’s a geometry problem. They demand logical proof of God’s existence. They insist that the Christian story is impossible in a  world so full of fear, so wracked with war and wounds. Surely, they say, no loving God would permit such things.

Today’s Gospel story is about fear. Jesus’ followers are so afraid of persecution that they’ve locked themselves indoors. The risen Lord strolls through that locked door, but not as a triumphal figure. He proves himself to Thomas not with a glowing halo, but with his wounds.

People who don’t believe in God often use fear and wounds to prove that God cannot exist. People who do believe in God often find themselves, when they or those they love are wounded and afraid, seeking proof that God really does exist. In this story, God uses fear and wounds as proof that God exists. “Here I am,” Christ says. “I will find you when you are most afraid, in the person of someone who has been deeply hurt.”

Some of you may have seen the recent news story about St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina. The church recently installed a public sculpture of a vagrant sleeping on a bench under a blanket. In this affluent neighborhood, the lifelike statue was alarming enough to prompt a woman driving by to call the police. The vagrant’s hands and face are hidden by the blanket. Only the wounds on his uncovered feet reveal his identity.

The woman who called the cops probably went home and locked her doors. And some local residents find the statue, called “Jesus the Homeless,” demeaning to God. But David Buck, the rector of St. Alban’s, calls the sculpture a wake-up call for his wealthy congregation. Jesus was homeless; Christian faith expresses itself as care for the marginalized. The statue, says Buck, is a good lesson for people used to religious art where Jesus is “enthroned in finery.”

The woman driving past might not have recognized this Jesus, but Thomas did. Do we?

Here is my own story about doubt and fear and wounds. Sixteen years ago -- very early in my conversion, when I still doubted the existence of God -- I dropped my husband off at the dentist for a root canal. Ordinarily, I’d have gone to my office at UNR to work until I had to pick him up, but I’d had an awful week and was in an awful mood. Work was the last place I wanted to be. So instead of driving north on McCarran to get to UNR, I drove south, to Barnes & Noble.

At least, I tried. After a mile or so, I hit a detour that led me into a maze of side streets. I followed the detour until I realized that I wasn’t going south anymore. Mount Rose was no longer on my right. It was on my left, and Peavine was ahead of me. I was going north. So I turned, got the car pointed south again – Mount Rose on my right – and kept driving. A few minutes later, I realized that the mountain had moved. It was again to my left. I was going north.

I did a u-turn. A u-turn meant that I was going in the opposite direction: south. But by the time I got to a set of on-ramps for 395, I’d realized that I was, once again, driving north.

Fine. I’d get on the highway. I’d get on 395 South, and I’d go to Barnes & Noble. Except that somehow, I took the wrong ramp.  I was on 395 North.
 
At that point I took a deep breath and said, to the God I wasn’t at all sure I believed in, “All right!  I’ll go to the office, but I’m not talking to anyone, and I’m not doing any work!”  I want to stress that I was not enjoying this process. I was terrified by my inability to steer my own car. I was terrified by my impression that a giant hand was reaching out of the sky and rerouting my Honda Accord like a child’s matchbox toy. What was going on? Was I losing my mind?

I got to UNR. I stalked into my office. I slammed the door, sat down at my computer, and started playing solitaire. No more than two minutes after I’d gotten there, someone knocked on my door. I ripped it open, ready to scream, “Who are you, and what do you want?”

It was one of my students. He was crying.  His forty-three year old mother had died very unexpectedly the night before, and he needed someone to talk to.

My doubt dissolved that day.

When we’re afraid, we lock ourselves in. But Jesus calls us to open our doors to people who are hurting, who are wounded. That’s how we let God in. And if God, being God, gets in anyway, through all our locks and deadbolts, it’s still important for us to open the door freely. That kind of welcome makes us more like the God we follow: the God who welcomes all, who embraces all, who has promised that anyone who knocks will find the door opened.

I’ve mentioned that many of the people I love are non-believers. Two of those people are my parents. My father, deeply wounded by church when he was a child, spent the rest of his life railing furiously against God. My mother simply dismissed faith as irrelevant and ridiculous. Both of them were utterly baffled -- and, I think, embarrassed -- when I started attending church.

Both lived well into their eighties. The day my father died, in March of 2009, he kept raising his hand and twisting a doorknob, trying to open an invisible door. I thought that was interesting, and I told the story to my mother, who had been divorced from him for many years. She died thirteen months after he did, on April 11, 2010. Easter was the last time she came downstairs to eat dinner with the rest of the family. She died the next Sunday: Doubting Thomas Sunday.

The day before my mother died, she slid in and out of consciousness. But at one point, she lifted her head and stared at a spot in the air in front of her. Then she raised her hand and knocked on a door my sister and I couldn’t see.

What was behind the doors my non-believing parents were so eager to open? I don’t know, and I won’t know until I go through my own. But I believe that they found themselves welcomed into the presence of Christ. I believe that they are now healed and whole, dwelling in the mansions of the loving God who embraces all of us: the fearful and the wounded, those who doubt, and those who do not -- cannot -- believe until at last they meet the risen Lord face to face.

Amen.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Journeys to Resurrection


I delivered this homily as a guest preacher at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno.  Lutheran homilies are somewhat longer than Episcopal ones, as you'll see; I recycled two previous sermons I'd given in my home parish.  The family story I tell is one nearly all of my friends already know (and one my mother gave me permission to tell).

Here are the readings for Lent 5; both Episcopal and Lutheran churches use the Revised Common Lectionary.

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“How could God let this happen?”

We hear this question all the time: after shootings, after tragic car accidents and plane crashes, after typhoons and mudslides and earthquakes. During the seven years I volunteered as a lay hospital chaplain, I heard it often. It is the agonized cry of faith in the face of tragedy, and it’s at the heart of this morning’s Gospel.

The raising of Lazarus is a dress rehearsal for Holy Week.  Eleven verses before the beginning of this passage, the religious establishment of Judea threatens to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for claiming to be God.  After Jesus escapes that threat, he learns that his beloved friend Lazarus is dying. So Jesus — knowing that a return to Judea will seal his death sentence — decides to go back, but only after he’s dawdled a few days, to make sure that Lazarus will be dead before he gets there. An ordinary healing won’t be enough this time. The stakes have been raised; the chips are down. Jesus is about to perform nothing less than a resurrection.

As a dress rehearsal for Holy Week, this story contains many familiar elements: an all-powerful God refusing, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, to prevent the death of a beloved; weeping women; a tomb sealed by a stone; and, finally, the death-shattering miracle of resurrection. The biggest difference is that Lazarus dies of natural causes, not by execution.

Or does he? If Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death and refuses to do so, isn’t it somehow his fault? Mary and Martha think so: both of them say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Some of the mourners agree: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” How could God let this happen?

Jesus has earlier told his disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” But belief isn’t the main issue here. Mary and Martha, the other mourners, and the disciples already believe in Jesus. The issue is anger. If we believe in God, if we know that God can act to prevent suffering and forestall untimely death, we may become more angry at these things than non-believers would. People who don’t believe in God don’t wonder where God is in the middle of earthquakes and famines and tidal waves. They don’t rage at God when their loved ones die too soon or after too much pain. They don’t demand, “How could God let this happen?” For non-believers, such events constitute compelling -- indeed, crushing -- proof that there is no God.

But those of us who do believe, who have seen God working in our lives and those of our families, are left struggling for reasons, railing at God. “We knowyou can fix this. We’ve seen you do it before. So where were you this time? If you really love us as much as you say you do, how can you just sit there, cooling your heels, while our brother’s body is growing cold in his tomb? How could you let this happen?”

Jesus wept. This is, famously, the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus weeps when he sees Mary and the mourners weeping. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” the Gospel says.   I always want to ask, “What did you expect, Jesus? Did you think the people who loved Lazarus wouldn't weep at his death? Did you think they’d tell each other, ‘Oh, don’t worry, Jesus will show up one of these days, when he gets around to it, so let’s have a party?’”

Any way you look at it, the situation stinks, just like Lazarus’ body stinks after four days in a hot Middle-Eastern tomb. And yet, having finally shown up, Jesus does indeed make everything right.  He calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and he instructs Lazarus’ family and friends to unbind the burial cloths, to help Lazarus readjust to his new life. Any mourners who didn’t believe in Jesus before that little demonstration certainly believe in him afterwards.

Their belief is about to be tested yet again. The dress rehearsal is over. Holy Week is almost here.  This time, even Jesus will cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Once again, there will be weeping women and a tomb sealed by a stone, a tomb from which God impossibly, miraculously, will call forth new life.

The story of Lazarus offers us at least three lessons. The first is that there are no shortcuts to resurrection, even for those who believe. The most steadfast faith will not protect us against grief and doubt and bitter trials. The most serene acceptance of God’s will cannot shield us from feeling, at times, as if God has abandoned us. All of that is human and holy. It is human and holy to get angry when we feel forsaken; it is human and holy to question God, to rail at God, to weep at God’s apparent absence. It is human and holy to mourn our dead. God weeps with us, and when the time comes, God will tell us how to unbind what has been resurrected. God will show us what we need to do to make that new life possible.

The second lesson is that resurrection is a process, even for those who believe.  Look at this morning’s reading from Ezekiel, the famous Valley of Dry Bones. This is a resurrection story, too, but it happens in stages. Going from bones to rebirth isn’t like going zero to sixty. First you need breath; then you need muscle, sinews, skin. It’s like peeling an onion, but in reverse. Resurrection happens from the inside out, and it takes time.

That is why, every year, we make the long slow journey through Lent, walking through those forty days just as Jesus walked through the desert, just as he walked back into Judea to Lazarus’ tomb. We make such journeys at other times, too: whenever we have suffered grief or betrayal, whenever we feel abandoned by God or other people, whenever we gag at the stench of death in a place where we had prayed for rebirth. Rebirth can still happen. God’s time is not ours. Even as we weep and pray – our souls waiting for God more than watchmen for the morning – God journeys towards us, step by step, bringing resurrection.

But God needs our help. The third lesson of the Lazarus story is that resurrection is a community project. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus tells the onlookers. Those who have been resurrected need to be helped by their neighbors and welcomed back into community. They need to be loved. They need to know that they matter.

My family’s resurrection story began on a winter day in 1964, when I was three years old. My sister, who was twelve, remembers watching our mother being wheeled out of the house on a gurney. She had been a chronic drinker for twenty years. My father had put her in fancy private psychiatric hospitals. They hadn’t helped. Several times she’d tried AA. It hadn’t helped. In 1964, residential treatment centers didn’t exist yet. Employee Assistance Programs were still in the future. AA and the psych wards were the only games in town.

And so my father, in despair, decided to send my mother to the state mental hospital, which wasn’t fancy at all.  He didn’t think she’d ever get better, and neither did anyone else. Everyone thought she was dying. My sister, watching the gurney roll out of the house to the waiting ambulance, told herself that Mom was already dead. I’m sure she wept.

At the state hospital, the doctors said my mother’s case was hopeless. One recommended a lobotomy, a procedure that wasn’t banned until 1967.  My father said no to the lobotomy, but he still planned to have my mother locked inside that building for the rest of her life.

Inside the hospital, my mother got hungry one night. Recovering alcoholics from the community had brought an AA meeting to the hospital, and Mom knew from her past AA experiences that there would be cookies there. She decided to go.

This time, it took. No one believed it; I don’t know if she believed it herself. But she kept going to meetings, and one evening a few weeks later, a visiting AA member sat down and talked to her. He learned that she was terrified of being committed for life, of never seeing her daughters again. He learned that no one in her family thought she would ever get better. They believed she was already dead.

The visitor went home and wrote a letter to my father. In an act that was even braver in 1964 than it would be now, he identified himself both as a prominent local businessman and as a recovering alcoholic. He told my father that he had been in a hospital like the one where my mother was. He told my father that sometimes it takes many attempts to get sober. And he asked my father to give Mom another chance, if only so that she could see her children.

“Unbind her, and let her go.”

My father agreed.  This time, it worked. Five months later, the visitor wrote a second letter.   This one, addressed to my mother, compliments her on her continued sobriety, on her new job, and on her joy at spending time with her daughters. The woman everyone expected to die when she was thirty-eight lived to be eighty-four. This past January 25 would have been her fiftieth anniversary of sobriety.

My mother’s drinking tested the strength and patience of everyone in the family. None of them were believers, but if they had been, I’m sure they would have said, “How could God let this happen?” Mom was brilliant and beautiful. It must have been agonizing to watch her killing herself.

And yet even at her lowest, when everyone who loved her had lost hope, good news was coming. The visitor was going about his own life: eating breakfast, going to work, getting ready to go to the state mental hospital. Even when my mother was locked up, trapped in a place where no movement seemed possible, she was already on a journey towards resurrection.

Her resurrection was a process. Her sobriety involved a lot of meetings and a lot of time on the phone with her sponsor. Because my father had divorced her, she had to find housing and get a job. To earn custody of her daughters, she had to stay well and keep functioning. Her vow of sobriety wasn’t enough: she had to put sinew and skin on those bones.

And her resurrection was a community project. My father and her doctors had to agree to release her. Her father and brother lent a great deal of practical and emotional support. Her AA friends were a constant blessing and source of strength, and my sister and I were her inspiration.  When she died, I inherited the bracelet she always wore to AA meetings.  It’s a gold chain with two charms:  her AA 90-day pin, and a locket with pictures of me and my sister.

As people who believe in God, we are called to be patient with God, but we are also called to help release the resurrected from their winding sheets. We are Christ’s hands in the world. Because resurrection does not happen in an instant, we need to be faithful to the victims of violence and the survivors of disaster, to recovering addicts and alcoholics, to the lost and lonely, and to all who grieve. When we hear people demanding, “How could God let this happen?” our job is to go to them, to weep with them, and then to help them recognize and nurture the new life that God will call forth from their despair.

And if there are times on these journeys when our own belief is tested, that is part of the process, too. Resurrection is coming. It will arrive in God’s good time. Our doubt will become delight, and our pain will become praise, and belief will be reborn from the tomb of tears.

Amen.