The New Creation: Seeing and Believing

May 5th, 2018

The New Creation: Seeing and Believing
John 20:24-29
May 6, 2018

So, my gift to our confirmands this morning is a brief sermon!

The gift that you all have given to Tracy this year is that you have been an amazing class. I know this because every Sunday when Tracy came home from teaching confirmation I would ask, “How was class?” And all year long, the answer was very similar: “These kids are amazing. They’re fun. They’re thoughtful. They listen. Really, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a better class.”

Now, I would love to tell you that this is the case, year in and year out. If I did, I’d be lying. Having taught confirmation for years myself, I remember the years when it was as if there was a giant cartoon balloon over the class’s heads that read, “We really don’t want to be here.” I remember when I was excited because we had ten minutes of really good discussion. Understand, almost all of those kids grew into themselves and into their faith over time. It was just like they were in the right place but at the wrong time.

I’ve had plenty of adults who have said to me that they wish that they could take confirmation now. They say that they would be so much more ready to listen and engage and ask their questions. I think what those adults have come to see is that there really are these core human questions that we all confront about life and death and meaning and purpose and forgiveness and mercy and justice and love. It may or may not be the right time and the right place to deal with those questions right here and right now but sooner or later, we all will. And—here’s the kicker—when we do, we will probe those questions with more depth and insight if we partner with a whole history of folks who have asked about such things than we will if we ask those questions on our own.

This, I think, is the gift that Tracy has given to each of you. I have a friend who was thrown out of confirmation when he was a kid because he asked too many questions. What he was supposed to do was memorize the answers and—apparently—keep his mouth shut. The confirmation experience that you have been offered is an entirely different model. What Tracy has done is introduced you to some of the questions: Who is God? Who was Jesus? What is the Holy Spirit? What is the Bible? Then, she has offered you some insight into what others have thought. However, in Tracy’s signature moment (and, to me, the signature moment of our church) she turns to you and asks, “What do you think?” She doesn’t make you memorize someone else’s statement of faith, she invites you (ok….requires you…) to write your own.

The truth is that you have had wonderful Sunday School teachers in this church who have essentially done the same thing with you all along: cared about you, invited you to hear the stories of our faith, and then respected you enough to ask, “What do you think?” No one has ever told you that you are just a kid and should be seen and not heard and should keep your thoughts to yourself. That is this church’s gift to you.

Here’s the thing, though: as human beings, we spend our whole lives asking those questions. At one particular moment, some things make sense to us and we feel like we have some working answers. (For me, for as long as I can remember, this has been the connection between how amazing nature is—the smells, the sights, the sounds, the creatures—and God.) Then, things happen that challenge what we were sure we had figured out. (There is a flood or a terrible earthquake or someone we know gets terribly sick.) We change. What we believe changes. Perhaps most importantly, the questions that we ask because they are grounded in the urgency of what is happening, right here and now, change.

God is patient enough and big enough and loving enough that we get to ask whatever we want to ask, for however long we need to struggle. God understands us well enough to know that asking questions is what we do when we actually care. Our ancestors in faith went out of their way to preserve the words of the people who asked the questions: the prophets, the poets, the overlooked and the ignored. Wherever we are, whatever is going on for us, we are invited to join the conversation.

In about a month, we will be on work trip, trying together to make a difference in someone’s life. The conversations won’t be theoretical. We will be sweating in the Missouri heat, trying to build decks, figuring out how to work together, pondering the poverty of that particular corner of the world. I promise that the experience will be powerful. It won’t just be the lives of the people whom we are trying to help that will be changed. It will be the kind of week that leaves us shaking our heads and thinking to ourselves, “God was in there somewhere…”

Part of what we will do is struggle to tell the story of what happened to each other. We will be on two different work sites. On each of those sites, there will be subgroups working on different tasks. We will have different moments that we share with the local folks. We won’t see and experience the same things. In short, we will have to learn how to listen to one another and value each other’s experiences and maybe even learn from one another how to listen and watch for God’s presence. We might learn in “real time” from one another what it means to see and believe.

I’ll give you an example that already happened for me on our first visit in early April. We pulled up to one of our work sites for the first time and the man who was there saw us and walked the other direction: “What’s that about?” I learned later that he’s a veteran and likely—I think—to have some post-traumatic stress issues that make it hard around strangers. We did connect. I saw his mobile home—pretty rough, lacking even running water. And yet, when he insisted that we come inside, what I saw was a tough place to live but a place that was clean. Then, I turned around and on the wall behind me were four simple words: “Faith, Hope and Love.” I thought we were in the wrong place. Then, I saw that and I thought, “God, how long have you been waiting for us to arrive?”

That’s the thing about discovering God’s presence. Things almost never add up as we think they will. Last week, I told the story of how the disciples were hiding after Jesus died. They found a room and closed the widows and locked the doors. Most people would have thought they were trying not to get arrested themselves. I think what they were doing was at least as much about hiding from the risen Jesus who was rumored to be around. They had been terrible friends. They ran for their lives instead of being there for him. And yet, when Jesus shows up, he doesn’t tell them what a bunch of losers they were. He offers them peace and forgiveness. He reminds them that they can forgive, too.

The only problem is that Thomas wasn’t with them. He wasn’t in the room when this happened. He didn’t get to see for himself. He didn’t get to experience it. So, instead of being thrilled for the other disciples, he lays out his expectations: “I’m not believing anything until I get to experience this for myself, until I see his wounds and poke my hands in them.” And before we judge Thomas, we all ought to be honest and say that this is how most of us feel when we hear about someone else’s mountain top, mystical, crazy and powerful experience—that we’ll buy in when it happens to us.

In our text today, the risen Jesus does show up and basically says to Thomas, “Brother, do what you need to do!” Here’s the thing, though. It’s the showing up—it’s the experience of God’s presence—that matters, not all the expectations. Thomas doesn’t need proof. Thomas needs presence. When Christ is present and Thomas feels that presence, he believes.

Here’s the thing: Thomas is one of a very few people who get to stand in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. The Bible tells us that just happened for a few weeks. Then, we received the Spirit, which helps us to believe by feeling that presence, without having to see it for ourselves. What happens is that in the midst of an otherwise average day, something happens which—if we are paying attention—makes us feel like something deeper just took place.

We figure out how to work together, even though it’s really hot and the flies are kind of tough and we’re getting tired.

We feel like we are in the middle of nowhere but we look behind us and written on that wall are some pretty powerful words.

We walk through our day feeling treated like “just a kid” until some grown up shocks us and asks, “What do you think?” and they really mean it. Or, they hand us a power tool and show us how to use it.

We help someone whom there was almost no chance that we would ever even meet and they end up being our friends. We wonder to ourselves, “What if this helping and caring is what God created us to do? What if we just caught a glimpse of God?”

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