Thursday, March 27, 2008

Thomas in Community

I was privileged in 2002 to watch part of the satellite downlink of the Trinity Institute, held at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. One of the two addresses that I heard was by Parker Palmer. In the question and answer period following his address, Palmer spoke of the need for community and identified two kinds of false communities that are present in our society.

They are death-dealing counterfeits of the life-giving community that God wants us to experience.

The first false community is the kind in which everyone has to think alike, to adopt the party-line or they're out. We saw this in the Soviet Union with its Gulags for dissidents and we can see it in some Christian communities where members are required to adopt a particular interpretation of the Christian faith.

The second false community is the kind where you can believe anything you want because no one is really paying attention to you or taking you seriously. If you want to struggle with your doubts and fears, don't bother to do it in this kind of community, because no one really cares.

When Thomas came back to the community of the disciples on the Sunday following the Resurrection, he didn't find a false community that demanded that he accept Simon Peter's or anyone else's understanding of what had happened on Good Friday and Easter. Nor did he find a false community that didn't care if he had doubts. He found instead a community of unconditional love that accepted him as he was - doubts and all - and provided him a place where he could struggle with those doubts and come to faith.

Jesus had formed a community of unconditional love around himself in the months before his death by reaching out to all sorts of folks, even those who were unacceptable in the eyes of the religious establishment. When he breathed on his disciples on Easter, inviting them to receive the Holy Spirit, he gave them the power to create the same kind of community of unconditional love. And that's what they did, and it was that community that Thomas found when he met with the disciples a week later.

We are called to be a community of unconditional love, to welcome all sorts of people with all of their doubts and uncertainties and to provide a space where together we can come to deeper faith.

Are we willing to be that kind of community?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Senator and the Pastor

I have been angry the past few days about the controversy over some of the sermons of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., the former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, the church to which Senator Barack Obama and his family belong. As a preacher I would be angry if reporters and talk-show hosts were expecting members of my congregation to defend or denounce everything I have ever said in a sermon - especially if what I had said was taken out of context as a sound-bite. But I am also angry because I value the tradition of prophetic preaching, a tradition which has flourished more in African-American churches than in predominately white churches.

I hope, however, that some good comes out of the controversy. First, that Senator Obama affirms the tradition of prophetic preaching while being clear about where he stands on the issues that Dr. Wright addressed in his preaching. Second, that Christians of all political persuasions rise up in defense of the freedom of the pulpit. I suspect that no attack, however vicious, would stop Dr. Wright from preaching, but I worry that more timid souls among us preachers will look at the current media frenzy and decide to play it safe, preaching "Peace, peace, when there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14)

Thursday, March 6, 2008


Within a little more than a week it will be Holy Week and on Palm Sunday we will be invited to “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby” God has “given us life and immortality….” Those mighty acts are, of course, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not just one or the other, but both of them together.

At the core of the Gospel is the proclamation of a crucified and risen Savior, Jesus, who was most certainly dead but is now alive forevermore. But as we ponder the passion, as we think about what it means for us to have faith in, to put our trust in, and to follow our Lord and Savior, we need to take care that we do not forget what kind of person was crucified on Good Friday.

The Gospel according to Matthew, the one from which most of our Gospel readings are taken this year, provides us with some significant reminders of what kind of person Jesus is and why he got on the wrong side of the civil and religious authorities. Matthew tells us that immediately after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus “drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple and…overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves” (21:12), an action which may be seen as a dramatic retelling of a statement that Jesus had made earlier, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (9:13) A few chapters later, Matthew gives us one of the most challenging teachings of Jesus. In the Parable of the Last Judgment, we are challenged with Jesus’ statement that what we have failed to do for the least of his brothers and sisters we have failed to do for him. (25:31-46)

Jesus challenged – and challenges – religious and social complacency, the very idea that we are doing just fine. Our own worship can just easily fall into empty formalism as did the worship of the temple. And the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters are still hungry and naked and homeless, not only in what we call the Third World, but also here in our own country. Jesus constantly challenges us to move beyond words to action, to translate our faith into service of others. Jesus does not – and for this I am very thankful – expect us to serve all of the least of his sisters and brothers, but he does call us to serve those we can, to give ourselves in service of others, just as he did.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Between Two Trees

We have taken a break at our Sunday morning adult class and are watching four videos that we will be using to introduce the Episcopal Church to visitors. The first video, "Trees," uses an intriguing metaphor for the Christian life - we live between two trees, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2 and 3 and the tree of life in Revelation 22.

The first chapters of Genesis tell the story of humankind's rivalry with God and with one another. Adam and Eve want something that God has and eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to wrest that knowledge from God. That rivalry becomes fratricidal in the next generation as Cain wants what Abel has - God's favor - and murders his brother to wrest from him God's favor. Human history at its worst is the playing out of this fratricidal rivalry. We desire what others have and, far more often than we would want to admit, we allow those desires to rule us. Some of us manage to get that which we desire, and not always without violence. Others simply allow the desire to become an obsession. In the Fourth Gospel, we are given a picture of Jesus who is no one's rival.

In John 5:19, Jesus describes his relationship with the Father in terms in which there is no hint of rivalry: "Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise." Jesus invites us to enjoy the same kind of relationship with him and with the Father. In John 5:20, Jesus says, "The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished." These words are echoed in John 14:12: "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father."

In Christ we are freed to live without rivalry, with God or with anyone else, freed to love as Jesus lived, doing what we see the Father and Jesus doing. In Christ we are freed to lay down our lives for one another in unconditional love.