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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sermon from July 3, 2011 + Thomas, Apostle

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen,
Texts: John 14:1-7; Judges 6:36-40

“Questioning Jesus”

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

This past week Minnesota’s governor was heckled and hissed at in his own office by members of the opposition party as he made remarks on the state of the budget.
Regardless of one’s views on why the state’s elected leaders could not come to agreement on a budget before shutting down essential services, it’s hard to miss that we’ve become a culture where respect for authority and office simply don’t exist anymore. Less than two years ago a member of the U. S. House of Representatives shouted “you lie” to the President of the United States during the president’s speech to Congress. Last week a respected journalist and commentator, and an editor of TIME magazine, was suspended by his cable channel superiors for using a vulgar expression on air to describe the president’s performance in a news conference.

Disrespect in politics isn’t a new thing. Longtime friends Thomas Jefferson and John Adams resorted to truly foul name calling and mudslinging as opponents in the presidential campaign of 1800, for one example. But it seems that until recently at least direct speech toward people in authority was kept respectful and polite, if speeches on the stump were not. It used to be felt that one’s office deserved a certain amount of deference and honor, even if one disagreed with the politics of the one holding the office.

What’s interesting is that it seems to me that speech toward God is still respectful and deferential among believers at any rate, almost to the point of reluctance to speak any concerns to or about God. I still find faithful Christians reluctant to criticize God or to challenge God or even to question God, even if they might have good reason to do so. Now, I’m not going to advocate we begin treating the Triune God with rudeness, vulgarity, and disrespect. But on this feast day of Thomas, Apostle, we find ourselves commemorating a disciple who modeled for us a fearless willingness to question, to ask what he needed to know. Thomas, like his friend Philip who often did the same, trusted Jesus enough – even though he considered him Lord and God – to challenge Jesus to explain himself, to help him believe. And given that Jesus always answered Thomas with kindness and grace, and with an answer no less, perhaps we might learn from Thomas to risk the same once in a while.

In truth, Thomas isn’t the first one in Scriptures to model this for us.

The Old Testament is full of witnesses who challenged God, questioned God, tested God. God’s greatest followers are some of the most prominent challengers.

Abraham, the father of the nation, went face-to-face with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, trying to urge God to put aside anger and wrath for the sake of the innocent.

Moses and God are like Abbott and Costello in the wilderness, bickering and criticizing each other, but mostly criticizing the people of Israel.

Job famously challenged God to a day in court after facing seemingly endless tragedy and suffering – he wants to know where God is in all this mess.

Jacob wrestles all night with someone – an angel, perhaps, but he thinks in the end it was God – and refuses to let go until God gives him a blessing.

Even Gideon today tests God – God’s promised to be with him as he leads the people of Israel against the Midianites, and Gideon just wants some reassurance that he’s not going to war without God’s help.

One Jewish writer I’ve read said that Jews feel as if it’s their right to talk back to God, to engage God this way. As he put it, Jews feel as if God’s the one who chose them, not the other way around. And since they got picked by God, they feel that gives them some freedom to question what God’s up to from time to time.

I realized recently that I likely learned this myself from a similar source. I played the character Tevye in our High School production of Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye talks to God throughout the entire play. He misquotes Scripture, and can be sanctimonious to others in his confidence about God’s ways.

But he talks to God like an old friend – sometimes complaining, other times thanking, sometimes just talking about the day. And what’s striking is that even when he’s complaining to God about something he thinks God hasn’t done well, he trusts in the relationship enough to continue living in faith. He says his piece, and then goes on with his life, trusting God will take care of all things.

And as I was thinking about Thomas this week, I realized that playing Tevye long ago had profoundly shaped how I prayed and how I thought about God. I didn’t recognize the connection to Tevye until now, but I’ve long felt comfortable enough with God to say my mind, to ask what I needed to ask. To trust in God’s love enough that I could say what I thought needed to be said, question what I thought needed to be questioned.

And I think I might have learned that from Tevye.

What changes with the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, is that it is clear Jesus intends to establish a relationship between God and the people of the world.

We see it even in today’s Gospel – Jesus says what John the evangelist has proclaimed since chapter 1 of the Gospel: to know Jesus is to know God the Father. So while the people of faith in the Old Testament in some cases learned to trust their relationship with God in spite of God’s power and might, Jesus now invites us all to do so. To pray, as he taught, to our Father in heaven for all that we need. To trust that we are so loved by God we can say what we need to say, pray with persistence, ask, seek, and knock, as Jesus encourages, and know we will be answered.

Still, it is believers like Thomas who show us this can be done. Today is classic – Jesus is talking about going away, and preparing a place, and says “you know the way to where I am going.” You have to believe that the other disciples were thinking what Thomas asked: “Lord, we don’t have any idea where you are going. How can we know the way?” Like his desire after the resurrection to physically see and embrace Jesus before believing Jesus is alive, Thomas here speaks again for all of us when we hear Jesus say things and we don’t get it. He’s the one in the class who quietly raises his hand and says, “I don’t understand.”

And in both cases, Jesus responds with promises that 2,000 years later are still precious to us. To his need to see and hold Jesus, Jesus says “Blessed are those who do not see me and still believe,” and so gives all of us who didn’t live in those days hope and confidence. And here Jesus says to Thomas: “You know the way because you know me. I am the way, the truth, and the life. I’m the way you need to the Father.” If Thomas doesn’t speak up, doesn’t ask, maybe we never get these two amazing promises.

Like Martha before him, who by questioning Jesus’ apparent carelessness with her brother’s illness elicited Jesus’ promise to all of us to be the Resurrection and the Life, Thomas shows that when we trust in this relationship Jesus has established with us, we can ask what we need to ask and receive answers.

Though with Martha and Thomas – and really all the disciples – we receive not necessarily “answers” as much as a person who is the Answer. Jesus offers himself to Martha as resurrection and life. He offers himself to Thomas as way and truth and life. He offers this relationship as the way to abundant, real life.

Even to disciples who are afraid to ask, he offers himself to be trusted. Just before today’s reading he’s told Peter that Peter will betray him before morning comes. But immediately after saying that he follows with our first verse today: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. Yes, Peter, it will be bad. But trust me. I will take care of this. I will take care of you.”

That’s the true gift of Jesus: we trust him to take care of all things.

And we can trust him enough to still love us, even when we don’t understand, even when we have to ask questions.

A dear friend of mine once spent 45 minutes on the phone with me after her mother died yelling at God, saying how angry she was, how much she thought God had screwed up. Near the end of the one-sided conversation she got quiet and said, “I don’t think I have any faith anymore.” I said, “well, if you’re someone who doesn’t believe in God, you’ve got a lot of anger and criticism for someone who doesn’t exist.”

“I don’t think you have a problem with faith,” I told her. “You believe in God just fine. You just think God messed up, and needs to be accountable for that. And I think God’s plenty big enough to handle your anger.”

And of course it was true. She had, and still has, strong faith. And she was and is in good company. Thomas would understand her. So would Martha, and Philip.

Because Jesus shows us that God’s love for us is so great God wants a relationship with us. We talk a lot about God’s love being stronger than death, able to bring us to life in the midst of death. And that is true.

But if Jesus is to be believed, God’s love is stronger than even our anger, our hatred, our confusion, our frustration with God. Believe in God, believe also in me, Jesus says. Say what you need to say. Do what you need to do. Even if you deny me, I will still love you.

If Jesus hopes for us to have a relationship with the Father through him, with the gift of the Spirit keeping us in that faith, then it is to be a relationship, with all the emotions, questions, trust, fears, and ups and downs all relationships have. And like Thomas, if we trust that relationship enough to ask what we need to ask, we might just be surprised by God’s answer.

It is good that here when we worship we remember the mystery of God, the transcendence of God.

And on a day like today when we use incense we’re even more aware of the otherness of God, who is awe-inspiring, and has made all things. This is well. This is good.

But here, as we greet each other who are named the body of Christ, as we share in real food, bread and wine, as we are filled by the Spirit, we are reminded of Thomas, who dared trust that Triune God with his questions and his fears, who showed us that this mysterious God has come to be with us truly.

We are reminded that God’s love for us is unbreakable, and can handle whatever we need to say or ask. And in Jesus’ response to Thomas we find our truth: he is our Way, and our Truth, and our Life. Through him, we find our way to God’s eternal love. And we find in him our Answer, the only one we ever needed.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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