Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sunday's Sermon: Works and Heaven

Easter 5A: Preached @ St. Thomas' 4/20/08

Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” and then he says twice “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” These two utterances of Jesus basically sum up much of John’s Gospel: which revolves around the unity of God and Jesus. We are talking about the decisive revelation of God in the act of incarnation: the in-fleshing of God in human form. We are asked to believe Jesus when he says these things, yet even Thomas and Philip do not understand or believe: Thomas unsure of how to find Jesus when he goes away; and Philip wanting to be shown God the Father. These two, Thomas and Philip, have been with Jesus for three years and they still don’t understand.

We had Thomas doubting three weeks ago, wanting to put his fingers in Jesus’ hand wounds and his own hand in Jesus’ side wound: wanting to touch in order to believe. Thomas is joined this week in his difficulty in believing by Philip who just does not get this idea of Jesus being the Father and the Father being Jesus…And Jesus does not get angry or lose his patience at these doubts and requests. Jesus does not mock their doubt and their lack of understanding. Instead, Jesus responds, he explains as best he can. To Thomas’ question in regard to not knowing the way, Jesus replies that he is the way, he is the truth, that he is the life. To Phillip, Jesus reiterates that anyone who has seen him has seen God…. Jesus also gives Philip a different way to believe when he says “then believe me because of the works themselves.” Jesus continues by saying “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.”

When we think of “the works” of Jesus we many times think of miracles: healing the blind, making the lame walk or some other miracle of healing. We can also think of Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John where he turns water into wine. Jesus says “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do,” this can give hope to those of us who are wine lovers. Maybe we will be able to do things like that. But no, when we are out of merlot, we can wave our arms over a carafe of water all we want, eventually we will still have to go to the store and buy some more wine.

What are these works? What can those of us who believe or struggle to believe actually do? The works of God are many and varied. Jesus had his and we have ours. Once in a great while there is a healing that can only be described as a miracle, and everyone is taken aback by it. But, generally, healing and repair happen every day, and these too, are works of God that can aid in our belief.

Yet, there are other kinds of works that exhibit God’s hand in our world: where we act in certain ways that effectuate the kingdom’s happening now, here among us. In Logan County, Oklahoma last week, 74 year old Marland Thompson experienced just such an action. He was driving his pickup truck home, and went to cross the creek bed he had been crossing for 50 years without incident and his truck got swept away by flood waters.

Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee and a number of other states have been hit by very severe weather these past few weeks, with rising rivers and creeks causing severe flooding. Well, Marland just did not expect the waters of his creek to be so deep, nor the current to be so strong, but wash him down stream it did. His truck finally got snagged by some tree limbs and stopped swirling down the river. Marland climbed on top of his truck (not bad for a 74 year old!). He thought about trying to swim to the shoreline, but was talked out of it by two passing strangers, who insisted that he wait for help. Each of these two strangers tried to reach Marland but couldn’t get close enough to the truck without the current almost washing them downstream.

Both of these strangers waited on the shore, keeping Marland company while he sat on his pickup truck’s roof. Help finally came by way of some boats that made a life-line, so to speak, to reach Marland and his pickup, bringing him to safety and a continuation of life that could have been snatched away that day. A seemingly small act of kindness by two strangers helped save a life. A miracle? Probably not. A work of God talked about in today’s Gospel? Possibly.

A completely different kind of work that exhibits God’s hand in our world occurred right here in our Guild Room about a month ago. An ecumenical group of clergy came over from Northern Ireland to visit various parishes in the United States. The main focus of their mission was to explore how to appropriately respond to and deal with lesbian and gay people in their congregations. There were 22 of these folks in this ecumenical group of both clergy and non-clergy. Represented among them were an Anglican priest, a Roman Catholic priest, a Baptist minister, a Presbyterian minister, Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans, UCC, a gay man who said he was a former Roman Catholic, among others.

When the meeting was set up we had been told that two to four of the group would be coming to visit with us, while the others spread out to other churches and organizations. We were rather surprised when the entire delegation showed up at the meeting time. A smaller circle of chairs was quickly made into a rather large circle. For the next two hours we had an open and frank discussion that was quite remarkable to participate in. A number of surprising things that happened that day have stayed with me. One of those was the fact that the Anglican priest ended up not being an ally and did not participate in the discussion at all, but rather sat with his arms crossed, looking rather put out the entire time. The Baptist minister, who I first thought would be a cause for concern turned out to be the loveliest, loving and most caring man, who truly was looking for ways to be responsive to gay and lesbian couples who are part of his congregation back in Northern Ireland.

These people were here, at St. Thomas’, asking questions, being open to and actually doing God’s work in the world, both here and back in their own parishes. They were, most of them at least, truly attempting to find out how better to ask questions, to be open to God in the other, to find Christ in someone different then themselves. In doing this they are performing God’s work in the world today in a personal way

“I am in the Father and the Father is in me” is such a personal statement being made by Jesus. This is personal, meant to get under our skin, like someone we love can get under our skin, become a part of us. Thomas and Philip where trying to understand this, and by asking questions they were trying to let these ideas of Jesus become personal for them too.

By engaging these points we are making them personal, letting them get under our skin. God can be found in these questions…Not completely understanding the Gospel accounts we hear is okay and delving into their meaning is what we are called to do. Having doubts is a natural and important part of that exploration. Look at how Jesus replied to Thomas and Philip today. He lovingly told them it was okay: no one needs to be ashamed of having doubts. This questioning is part of letting it get under our skin, making it personal and is part of doing God’s work. Some of the examples of God’s work show the works of God can be immediate, having immediate results as shown by Marland, his pickup truck and the creek. As we know, many works are slow, like that of the visiting ecumenical group. Neither of these types of work are magic in any way, shape, manner or form. All of these works are profoundly holy in the way all the works of God are holy: they take what happens here on earth and, in our response, they show us heaven.

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