Is Your Mind Too Small?

April 23, 2017 – 2nd Sunday of Easter
John 20.19-31

Preliminary Remarks: The gospel reading this morning is from John’s gospel. I like John’s gospel a lot because there’s so much depth and breadth to the writing and to the mysteries and wonders it points to.

But there are also distinct difficulties in preaching from John’s gospel. One of them is the language of “the Jews.” We hear it in this passage so I want to unpack it just a bit before I read the gospel.

Jesus, his disciples, and almost all members of the earliest Christian community were Jews. It’s only sometime after the death of Jesus that the Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah began to have a separate identity from those who didn’t. For the writer of John’s gospel “the Jews” primarily referred to those who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah, and particularly the religious leaders who did not see Jesus in this way. As one commentary puts it, “The conflict that develops between the Jews and Jesus and his disciples was an intramural Jewish conflict, as Catholic/Protestant conflict at the time of the Reformation was not the persecution of one religion by another but an intramural Christian conflict.”[1]

Unfortunately, John’s gospel has been used over the centuries to support anti-Semitic racism because of his repeated, negative reference to “the Jews.” But this is a misuse of the gospel. So as we often do in reading John’s gospel, I’ll use “religious leaders” instead of “the Jews” directing our attention to the theological dispute in John’s gospel rather than a racial or ethnic dispute.

Read John 20.19-31

For whatever reason, Thomas is not with the other disciples on the evening of the resurrection. The other disciples are together and afraid. The religious authorities colluded with the Roman Empire to destroy Jesus.[2] So it’s not unrealistic for the followers of Jesus to think they would also be in the crosshairs. In this setting, Jesus appears and shows the disciples his hands and his side—and seeing his wounds, they know that it is Jesus. It’s not some ghost. Not some unembodied spirit. This Risen One has the wounds of the One who was crucified. So the disciples, except for Thomas, see Jesus’ wounds and believe it is Jesus but when Thomas asks for the same experience, he is often criticized, unfairly I think, as a doubter.

As a side note, the nails, blood, and spear thrust of the crucifixion are all unique to John’s gospel. While John has the highest Christology (meaning we experience the divinity of Jesus more in John’s gospel than the humanity), John is also the most insistent that Jesus is also truly human. The first chapter of John’s gospel says, the Word [true God] became flesh [true human].[3] Now the gospel ends with that same mysterious combination—Jesus is both raised from the dead and physically wounded—both God and human.

A week later, Thomas is with the disciples and Jesus appears again. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his side and hands and in response Thomas makes a profession of faith.

The criticism of Thomas as a doubter is often picked up again when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Instead of a criticism of Thomas, I think this is Jesus turning to us—breaking the fourth wall, as they say in the theatre—to address those of us listening to this story in the generations that follow. Because none of us will have seen Jesus in the flesh but that does not mean we cannot come to believe.

This sermon has its roots in the hymn that Phillip suggested to follow the sermon. The hymn is specifically about Thomas and his encounter with the risen Jesus.

Hymn writer Tom Troeger wrote these words in the second stanza.

“The vision of [Thomas’s] skeptic mind
was keen enough to make him blind
to any unexpected act
too large for his small world of fact.”[4]

While Thomas often gets a raw deal as a doubter in many interpretations of John’s story, this hymn text got me thinking of the multitude of ways we fail to see what falls outside of our expectations and our conclusions.

The other day I was looking for a book. I was quite sure where I had last put it on the shelf but I couldn’t find it. I knew I was looking for a book with a white cover and spine and maroon lettering. I looked through all my bookshelves twice and still could not find it. Later in the day I looked one more time for the book I couldn’t find. This time, instead of scanning for what I remembered the spine of the book looked like, I slowly read each book title on the shelf where I thought I had put the book. And, what do you know? I found it. While I was convinced I was looking for a book with a white cover and maroon lettering, it turned out it was a maroon cover with white lettering.

Now that’s a small example of the way we see what we expect to see and we don’t see something new. But it happens in large ways too.

Jesus says to Thomas, “Touch. See. Believe.”[5] Jesus does not condemn Thomas’s inability to see. He offers Thomas what he needs.

Faith needs an open, curious, expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised. Faith gets narrow-minded when our minds are small. When we think what is true has to be protected and guarded because somehow it is fragile or subject to damage.

John Calvin said, “All truth is God’s truth.” Which I take to mean there is no reach of our minds, in our search for what is true, that can take us outside of the realm of God. There is no discovery that can somehow threaten God. There are discoveries that can unsettle our minds about God. There are discoveries that can upend what we thought was true. But there is no truth that would, by definition, take us away from God.

Which is why, on this weekend of The March for Science, that has happened around the world in 600 cities on six continents, it feels like a good time to affirm that science and religion can be friends. One can be a follower of Jesus and a scientist without having to check your heart and mind at the door of the church or at the door to your classroom or office.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said this week, “one of the great things about science is that it is an entire exercise in finding what is true.”[6] Which could also be said of religion. We want to know what is true.

Just like faith, science needs an open, curious, expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised. Because we don’t know all there is to know. And, likely, we will never know all there is to know. Science, too, gets narrow-minded when our minds are small.

A number of you know my undergraduate degree was in Biology with an emphasis in nutrition and anatomy and physiology. But I delayed my chemistry sequences in order to take classes in the School of Religion…which is part of the reason why I’m here instead of teaching biology or giving talks as a Forest Ranger.

When I studied anatomy and physiology I was constantly amazed at the wonder of our bodies and how they work. For me, that all the systems of our bodies function as they do leads me to give praise to God for this amazing creation. And I can also marvel at the evolutionary changes that have happened as single-cell organisms over billions of years have become us. That too speaks to me of an amazing wonder in creation.

And as a person of faith I read the creation story in Genesis and hear the theological questions it asks about the nature of God and the nature of creation and of human beings. I can read that without needing to compress those questions into a scientific explanation that the universe was created in six days. Religion asks questions like, “What is the nature of God?” and “What is the purpose of human beings?” while science asks questions like, “Where did people come from?” and “How was our galaxy created?”

As a person of faith and as a scientist I marvel at the engineering feat of how the two new bridges were built across the Ohio River and give thanks to God for the intellectual knowledge and the technological capacity and physical labor that go into building a bridge.

As a person of faith and as a scientist my heart can be broken by the reality of cancer and know that researchers are working every day, using their God-given gifts, to understand how cancer changes normal cells into abnormal cells so scientists can develop new treatments and cures.

Often what we think we know is, in truth, a small world of facts (or, these days, so-called “alternative facts”—also known as half-truths and lies). Even in 2017, with all that we know about the world, there is still so much to be curious about, to be surprised by, things that we miss when we get stuck in a small world of facts—whether those are religious facts or scientific facts.

So may we, scientists and Christians alike, in service to God and to humanity, cultivate an open, curious expectant mind and the capacity to be surprised so that together we may discover what is true.

 

 

 

[1] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 287.

[2] E. Elizabeth Johnson, “John 20:19-23 – Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Gospels, John, Volume 2, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 320.

[3] Boring and Craddock, 358.

[4] Thomas H. Troeger, “These Things Did Thomas Count as Real,” in Glory to God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #256.

[5] Martin B. Copenhever, “John 20:19-31 – Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 396.

[6] https://www.facebook.com/neildegrassetyson/, April 19, 2017 post, accessed April 22, 2017.

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Do Not Be Afraid

April 16, 2017 – Easter Sunday
Matthew 28.1-10

Easter Sunday is a strange day. On the fact of it, it is a glorious day of celebration. There are beautiful decorations, the music is wondrous, our spirits are lifted up. Here in Kentucky we are far enough south, and climate change is moving our growing zones northward, to make seeing the evidence of spring all around us a usual part of our experience on Easter. At Central we have a delicious breakfast feast and we welcome family, friends and neighbors. So many signs around us point toward a magnificent day.

At the same time, the story whose message we celebrate, is set in a graveyard. The story in Matthew’s gospel takes place in a cemetery.

The location of our story is a place of death. Of endings. Of sadness. Of emptiness. Of hopes dashed against the rocks.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did not get up that morning and say, “Let’s go see what’s happened at the tomb. It’s such a glorious day to be alive.”

I imagine the two Marys went to the tomb that morning simply to be there—in the manner of the Jewish tradition of shiva—the seven days after a person’s death during which time friends and family sit together, acknowledging their grief, remembering the life of the one who has died—being present with the memories and the loss and with one another.

I suspect that’s what the two Marys were doing that morning when they decided to go back to the tomb. They wanted time together to remember their teacher, their friend. The One in whom they thought their lives—the lives of their people and the world—might really be different.

It’s really hard for us to hear this story and put ourselves in their place—because we have heard the ending—and we know what’s coming next.

But for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sitting there in the cemetery, it is over. Death has had the last word. There is nothing more.

* * *

And is this not also where many of us sit—even on Easter morning?

– A friend wrote this week to ask for prayer for two teenage friends driving home from spring break—they were in a car wreck and the father, who was driving, was killed.

– Other friends and friends of friends have been diagnosed with cancer.

– Two friends who have experienced multiple miscarriages now grieve two stillborn babies.

– Friends whose mothers, whose fathers, whose spouses have died.

– We have seen the faces of Syrian children who have been gassed.

– We have heard about the murder of 45 Coptic Christians in Egypt in church on Palm Sunday.

– We have read the news of the US bombing in Syria and Afghanistan.

– We are experiencing the legacy of white supremacy that continues to dehumanize all of us.

And, we, too, wonder if the last word doesn’t indeed belong to death.

* * *

Back at the 1st century tomb, the ground began to tremble and shake. If you’ve ever been in an earthquake, it is quite a frightening experience. There is no place to go to get away from it. All you can do is wait for it to be over—and pray you are still able to stand up when it’s through.

Then an angel descended from heaven and rolled back the stone that was blocking the entrance to the tomb.

In the Bible, when an angel arrives, people tremble and shake. They wonder what terrifying event will happen next. And the first words out of the mouths of angels are: “Do not be afraid.”

From our vantage point, if we were Mary Magdalene or the other Mary, knowing what we know now, we might yell, “Yippee!! He’s done it! I knew it! I knew it!” and give high-fives all around.

But for the two Marys, this is a very disorientating experience. That Jesus should be raised from the dead was not what they were expecting at all.

The angel sends them back to Galilee and they leave the cemetery quickly, running to tell the disciples, filled with fear and great joy.

Fear and great joy.

Isn’t that also how many of us live? Maybe it’s the reality of human existence to live with both fear and great joy.

The news of the resurrection doesn’t mean everything is solved; that all suffering is eliminated. We live on this side of the resurrection, but we also know that death still deals us a hand we don’t want. We know that people we love still leave us. Addictions still wrestle us to the ground. Cancer still mutates our once healthy cells. We lose our jobs. We can’t pay our bills. Depression follows us around like a stray dog. We are falsely accused. We suffer the consequences of someone else’s actions.

We know the world is not yet completely transformed by the resurrecting power of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

And what is this resurrection? Sometimes we confuse it with being a belief in “life after death.” We mix it up with the idea of the immortality of the soul which is a theory about human nature that says there is something within us that cannot die. But resurrection is not about human nature. Resurrection affirms something about the nature of God—who acts even for those who are dead. Jesus did not raise himself. God did it. “He has been raised” the angel says to the women at the tomb. Christian hope is in the resurrection, not in immortality. It is hope in God not in ourselves.

The first line of the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church says, “In life and in death we belong to God.” The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the church in Rome, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

What exactly does that mean about what happens to us after we die? We don’t know for sure. There are lots of ideas that come from the Bible and from Christian tradition and cultural speculation. No matter what the details turn out to be, what we can trust is that even in death we are not separated from God—and we don’t have to be afraid.

* * *

As the two Marys leave the cemetery caught up in fear and great joy, Jesus met them and he too, says, “Do not be afraid.” The root meaning of that Greek word that we translate as “met” means more than they just ran into each other on the road. It means Jesus “joins and accompanies them.”[1] He is with them in that place of fear and great joy and he promises that he will be with them and the other disciples in Galilee—when they all return to their homes and their work and the ordinariness of their lives.

If resurrection is a trustworthy promise about death, it is also a trustworthy promise about life: that nothing in life and nothing in death can separate us from the love of God. Resurrection then is also a promise that we are not alone. We are joined and accompanied by the risen Christ in the places of fear, in the places of great joy and also in the ordinary places of our lives.

The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of death but it has changed the reality of death. The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of suffering but it has changed the reality of suffering. The resurrection has not yet erased the reality of injustice but it has changed the reality of injustice.

Death and suffering and injustice are not the last word. As we often sing in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

[God’s] goodness is stronger than evil;
[God’s] love is stronger than hate;
light is stronger than darkness;
life is stronger than death.[2]

Do not be afraid.

*  * * * *

[1] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 102.

[2] Desmond Tutu, “Goodness is Stronger Than Evil,” in Glory to God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #750.

Unbind Them

April 2, 2017 – 5th Sunday in Lent
John 11.1-45

I want to tell you a story that my friend, Jane Larsen-Wigger, who is the pastor at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church told me this week—and said I could share with you.

For about 15 years now the Crescent Hill congregation has had a connection with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of farm workers in Florida who have been at the center of the Fair Food campaign. Early on in their struggle for fair working conditions, they zeroed in on Taco Bell and YUM! Brands—which brought them to Louisville on quite a few occasions. The rallying cry then was “a penny a pound!”—that’s how much they were asking for: one penny a pound more for the tomatoes that were picked in the field. YUM! Brands was the first major corporation to make that concession and committed to only buying tomatoes from farms that would pay one penny a pound more than had been the going wage for tomato picking.

Over the years the Coalition—and the Fair Food campaign—has gotten a dozen more corporations to sign on. Next on their list is Wendy’s which is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. So, a group of farm workers were through Louisville last week on their way to Columbus, and as Crescent Hill has done many times over the years, they prepared breakfast for the farm workers.

After breakfast, Lucas—one of the long-time leaders of the group—talked to the Crescent Hill folks to catch them up on the progress toward justice that has happened over the last 15 years. Speaking in Spanish, with someone translating into English, Lucas thanked the Crescent Hill members for their hospitality over the years—pointing out the place in their Fellowship hall where he had slept on a couple of occasions! He reminded them of the rallying call of a “Penny a Pound”—and how that victory is still secure. But that’s not all. He told them tomatoes don’t have to be heaped over the tops of the buckets any more—just even with the top of the bucket is enough. And there is now shade available in the fields—shade—so people can get a break from the hot Florida sun. And they are allowed such breaks—workers no longer have to worry about being fired for taking a five-minute break during the work day. And, to make sure the workers know their rights, groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers hold sessions informing the workers of how they can be expected to be treated. And representatives of the corporation are present and hear this reminder too. When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was formed many tomato pickers worked in conditions akin to modern slavery. Lucas said that it used to be he was told by a shift boss to find him so many hands for the next day. Now he is instructed to find so many employees.  Jane said that Lucas had been telling the group at Crescent Hill all of this in Spanish, and at this point he stopped and said in English, to make sure everyone heard what all of this progress means, he proclaimed: “We are now human beings.”

Of course, people who pick tomatoes have always been human beings but they have not always been treated as human beings. And when you’re not treated like a human being it erodes your sense of yourself as a human being. A penny more a pound, shade, breaks during the work day, being referred to as employees, experiencing the accountability of their employers to treat them in these seemingly small, yet enormously significant ways that has set them free. “We are now human beings.”

There are many communities of people in our country who have not been treated as human beings. We have been thinking particularly this Lent about African Americans who were lynched in what James Cone refers to as the lynching era between about 1880 and 1940. During that time “white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women.”[1] Lynchings were public events in which newspapers announced “the place, date and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims.”[2] White women, men and children attended the lynchings. Postcards were made and sold of “black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera.”[3]

To torture, lynch and burn another human being, one must deny the humanity of the other. James Cone writes that African Americans “affirmed their humanity and fought back against dehumanization” on “Friday and Saturday nights at juke joints and at churches on Sunday mornings and evening week nights…Both black religion and the blues offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.”[4]

Part of the question we are asking this Lent and through our New Beginnings projects is: How can we be part of repairing the damage that has been done to our sisters and brothers throughout our country’s history? The legacy of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, white flight, redlining, mass incarceration, the lack of public support for public education all continue to dehumanize and diminish communities of people of color, especially poor communities of people of color.

This story of Jesus and Lazarus fascinates me. There is so much that could be said about it. What I want to notice with you this morning is the end of the story. Jesus calls Lazarus back to life with a loud shout. The one who had been dead comes out of the tomb. But he comes out like a mummy—he’s still wrapped up and bound by the fabric in which his dead body had been wrapped as part of the preparation for burial. And Jesus says to those gathered around the tomb, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

It is Jesus who brings Lazarus back to life but his full restoration and his freedom and his capacity to become a human being again requires the rest of the community. In John’s gospel, being brought to life and being set free is happening in a literal, physical way. I keep thinking about this metaphorically: that this is our work too as a community—to unbind people and let them go.

And there are literal, physical ways in which we can be part of this work of unbinding and setting free. Reading with elementary age children who need the support of caring adults to be able to read at grade level and be successful in school and in life. Befriending people in our neighborhood who need the support and friendship of others and in whose lives we learn more about our own. Supporting first generation college students who encounter numerous challenges to being successful in school simply because they are the first in their family to go to college. And for those of us who are white, continuing to do our work to understand our complicity and to do our part to dismantle systemic racism.

And I suspect that when we are part of a community that is unbinding and setting others free, we will find that as others are set free, our own humanity is restored and we, too, are unbound and set free.

Lucas said, “We are now human beings.” I think those who employ tomato pickers and those who buy the tomatoes are also more human now because they no longer treat other human beings as less than human.

* * * * *

[1] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 31.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 12.