Doubt is Not Just for Thomas

That was the title of my sermon this week. The sermon text is John 20:19-31. My sermon had nothing to do with doubt it was about forgiveness. It’s what you get for listening to the Spirit…I guess.

I was already to preach this week about Thomas…you know “doubting Thomas”. I think that guy gets a bum wrap sometimes. I believe that faith and doubt are inseparable and have said so on many occasions. I think that it is unrealistic to think that you or I will be 100% certain about our faith 100% of the time. I know I have doubts; my guess is you have doubts, Mother Theresa had doubts, Martin Luther had doubts, even Jesus had doubts. This week I doubted that the Holy Spirit was with me, doubted that it would move me to find the message in this text that God was calling me to share, the message that I needed to hear.

Then I sat down with a group of people and we talked about this passage. I didn’t realize that I needed to hear a message of forgiveness and be reminded that for the author of the Gospel of John forgiveness of sins was at the heart of the community of believers. I found this quote from a retired pastor, theologian and author, Lamar Williamson, Jr., who I have had the pleasure of breaking bread with on many occasions.

“The context in the Fourth Gospel is the Johanine understanding of the church: a community of believers in Jesus, bound together only by his command to love and serve one another. This word of the risen Lord in the present text can therefore be read as descriptive: if members of the community forgive one another their sins, those sins are forgiven and the community is living from and in the Spirit of Jesus; but if members of the community harbor grudges and resentment toward other members who have sinned against them, then those sins remain to spoil the bond of unity, and the Spirit of Jesus is no longer resident in the community…the forgiveness of sins in John is an essential component of life in a community whose life breath is the Holy Spirit of Jesus, alive and well in and among its members.”

The forgiveness of sins is an essential component of life in community whose life breath is the Holy Spirit of Jesus, alive and well in and among its members.

That’s sounds good enough.

If members of the community harbor grudges and resentment toward other members who have sinned against them, then those sins remain to spoil the bond of unity, and the Spirit of Jesus is no longer resident in the community.

That makes me uncomfortable, I certainly don’t want to think about something that I do contributing to the Spirit of Jesus no longer residing in the community. Jeesh…that’s a tough pill to swallow.

For John, however, it’s not about a remarkable music ministry, young people who are engaged, or even fabulous preaching; it’s about the words of Jesus “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Well that sounds easy enough…right?  I wish!

I certainly struggle with my own “grudges” and “resentments”. This week 29 West Virginia miners were killed in an explosion at the Upper Branch mine in Raleigh County, WV. The worst coal mining disaster in 40 years. I didn’t know any of the miners or their families, however they are still part of my family. As my father used to repeat to me “Nobody messes with my family.” Right now today I hold a lot of anger towards Massey Energy, the coal company that owns the mine, and specifically Don Blankenship, its CEO. You may have never heard of Don Blankenship before this week, but I can assure you that I have and I have held my anger towards him and his continued business practices for years. I won’t go into all the details <if you like to know more we can get coffee, you might want to block out a significant amount of time> needless to say I’m angry and I have been for a while. I’m really not sure if I’m ready to let go of my anger towards Mr. Blankenship, I’m sure he doesn’t care what I think. How to I balance justice and forgiveness? Certainly there should be consequences for his actions; do I need to be the one to ensure those consequences happen? How can I forgive this man for the things that I believe he is responsible for when families, my family is still grieving the loss of their loved ones from what seems to be a preventable tragedy.

I don’t know the answer to those questions and I’m sure there are NO easy answers, what I do know is that Jesus says, “Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.” I am called to model the example of Jesus to forgive in the face of those that appear to be unforgivable. That is hard stuff. Who am I to tell YOU to forgive, I don’t know your pain, I don’t know the hurt that you have been through. The thing I do know is that “if you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The paraphrase of the bible called “The Message” puts it another way, “if you retain the sins of any what are you going to do with them?”

Steven has talked about one of his favorite writers, Anne Lamott, who happens to be one of my favorites as well, says in her book “Traveling Mercies”, “not forgiving others is like eating rat poison and expecting the rat to die.”

The other day I was twittering with a pastor friend of mine about this passage and he said, “forgiveness says, “I’m not going to allow you to push my buttons any longer. You have no claim over who I am.” While retention of sins says, “I give you power over me, to burden me with expectations and perceptions that are not who God is creating me to be.”

I certainly allow Don Blankenship to push my buttons and because I do I allow him to hinder me from living as God created me.

There are certainly stories that are more powerful than mine, stories that challenge us more deeply. One such story I read in the book that we studied as a Lenten group. I believe it shows the courage it takes to forgive and the power to heal that act can have on a person and a community.

[Hole  in Our Gospel Story pg. 158]

Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, unfortunately it also can be extremely difficult.

Forgiveness is an individual process. I wish I had the answers that would make the pain go away…I don’t…all I can say with certainty is that God is with you, God is with us and we will need to walk together with one each other as we try and navigate the waters of what it means to live from and in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

As we welcome these new young people into our community we welcome them into our questions, we welcome them into our doubts, we welcome them into our faith, we welcome them into a community that attempts everyday to live from and in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  We pray that they will help us model what it means to be a community of believers that do not hold grudges but forgives the sins of any.

I pray that I have the strength, I pray that you have the strength, I pray that we have the strength to do the difficult work that Christ calls us to knowing that he will continue to meet us, like Thomas, where we are, he will continue to respond to us before we speak, he will continue to stand with us, to prop us up, to walk with us away from the things that hold claim on us and hinder our ability to live into all that God has called us to be and towards the power of the unconditional love and compassion modeled by Jesus the Christ.

May it be so.




Maundy Thursday

Here is the text of the sermon I preached on Maundy Thursday. The scripture was John 13: 1-17, 31b-35.

Let’s set the scene here…Jesus is sitting with the disciples, the one’s he called, his closest friends. It’s been a long week for all of them. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, cleansed the temple of moneychangers, preached, healed, taught, the disciples had doubts, the people of Jerusalem had gone from praise and worship to fear and anger. Jesus knew his time had come. He took a moment and gathered is confidants, his trusted friends, his support system one more time.

In the midst of dinner, Jesus takes off his robe and washes the feet of his much protesting disciples. This story is not an unfamiliar one, especially around this time of the year. We are reminded to be servants rather than be served, we are reminded that we aren’t always in control; we are reminded that we must sometimes move out of our comfort zone. We are reminded to follow the example of Jesus.

Honestly…That’s not the example I want to follow, the example I want to follow goes something like this…they have a nice dinner and Jesus stands up and starts to wash the feet of the disciples, Peter protests and when Jesus says “not all of you are clean” he grabs Judas by the collar, throws him to the floor, smacks him a couple of times, and throws him down the stairs…or something like that. Ok…maybe smacking him and throwing him down the stairs would be a little overboard, but Jesus could at least expose Judas for what he is, make him feel guilty, and maybe Judas would even agree that he was wrong to betray Jesus. He could say to Judas what my grandfather would always say to me, “STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT!” Then everyone could feel like they were right and the “bad guy” changed his heart or at least the disciples could bask in their own moral superiority. Jesus knows that he will be betrayed and by whom. Why wouldn’t he expose his betrayer, show him the treatment he deserved?

Once again, God, Jesus goes against what is expected, God who could have chosen any form to make God’s presence known on earth, instead of something super powerful and awesome…like a dragon, or even a conquering king, came as an vulnerable infant. Jesus who could have stormed the gates of Jerusalem with his power entered the city on a donkey, Christ who could have withered the man who was to send him the cross like the fig tree, instead washed his feet.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

That’s a pretty difficult example to follow. If you knew someone was going to betray you, turn their back on you, be dishonest towards you, would you let them? I don’t think I would or could. I’d call them out, or be passive aggressive towards them, or maybe even do it to them before they could do it to me…you know like a preemptive strike. I certainly wouldn’t welcome them into my home, certainly would serve them as an equal. That’s what Jesus is doing here.

The more I think about this the more it makes me crazy. Why doesn’t Jesus just fix it, fix Judas, fix the situation. It would be so easy…he’s Almighty God Incarnate can’t he just make it right. That would be justice right? He has the power to fix it so he should right?

This always bring me back to that statement…just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

When I started thinking about this story two stories came to mind, one that I heard and one that I lived.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. became a figurehead in the civil right movement he began to get a lot of death threats. Because of those death threats he had an armed security detail around him at all times. This seemed like a pretty reasonable response to death threats. He had to protect himself and his family; no one would fault this non-violent leader for caring for his own safety…right? It was what he COULD do to protect himself.

One day, King and his security detail were in a house in Alabama talking about their plans for the next phase of the civil rights campaign when all of a sudden there was a noise outside, a loud crash. All the members of the security detail ran outside guns drawn. In the yard, a little girl playing with several guns now pointed at her ready to fire. From that day forward Martin Luther King, Jr. would not allow guns around him, even as those closest to him protested. He recognized that while his enemies would certainly have guns and would be willing to use them, the risk of harm to one of his friends was too great. He knew that he could have armed guards but decided that he shouldn’t.

I believe that King’s ministry, his witness was made significantly more meaningful be his unwillingness to resort to violence even in the face of violence. He was willing to die for what he believed in, too live the life the way he was called even when all those around him thought he should live differently.

When I was about 15, and living in Dallas, Texas my parents and I were driving to church on Sunday morning when we passed a grocery store parking lot, the same parking lot we passed every Sunday and most other days of the week, but this day was different. Today there was an old car sitting with the hood open. There was a women sitting with some kids near the rear of the car and a man standing with his head under the hood. There appeared to be car parts all around the car and a cardboard sign that said, “Trying to get to Oklahoma.” My dad glanced over and pulled into the parking lot. I remember saying, and I’m not sure why I said it, but I said, “Dad this is a scam!” My dad drove up to the man handed him a $20 and said blessings.

I was so mad. It was a scam I knew and I told my dad so, until finally he said. “Greg, I felt like those people needed the money, and whatever they do with it is between them and God. I know I did the right thing.” I think I probably said something intelligent like, “whatever dad!”

A few weeks later, we were driving home from church and decided to stop off at a restaurant for lunch in a different part of town. As we were leaving the restaurant I spotted them. The same car, the same woman, the same kids, the same sign, the same car parts, different parking lot; I looked at my dad and said, “See I told you! It was a scam!” My dad didn’t get angry, he didn’t whip the car around to yell at those people or demand they give him his money back, He calmly said, “Greg, I felt like those people needed the money, and whatever they do with it is between them and God. I know I did the right thing.” I didn’t get it at the time, and that story has stuck with me. My dad could have gone back to those people demanding an explanation, instead my dad continued to respond in the way he felt called.

I probably would have thought my dad was cool for telling that guy off, or standing up for himself. Instead I KNOW that I respect my dad because he responded the way he felt called even with his teenage son in the back of the car pestering him about how wrong he was and knowing that on some level he had been deceived.

It takes a lot to stand by your convictions when you know that means you will have to give up some power, to give up control, to risk your reputation. I believe that’s what Christ is calling us to do when he says, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Steven said last Sunday, that Jesus chose the power of love over the love of power. In our society that’s hard. It means loving people who hurt you, it means loving people who are unlovable, it means giving up opportunities in order for others to have them, it means thinking about things you SHOULD do as opposed to things you COULD do.

I wish it was simple as me or Steven, or Jesus telling us in plain English the things we should do, but it’s not that simple. We are constantly met with opportunities, questions, situations that challenge us to respond to love one another the way Christ loved us.

When Jesus left the upper room his disciples fell asleep, betrayed him, denied him, they ran in fear because they knew the COULD hide from what they had been called to do and yet Jesus still loved them. When we share this feast, when we go out into the world I want you to remember that God continues to love us in ways that defy logic, God continues to speak to us through God’s word, through God’s people, through God’s creation. God continues to help us understand the difference between what we could do and what we should do.

God will always love you, just as you are, no strings attached.