Friday, April 10, 2015

“Faith for a Hipster City” - April 12, 2015

Text: John 20:19-29

A few weeks ago, a national study reported on the “Most Hipster Cities” in the United States.  While we often think of hipsters as an urban, big city demographic, many of the top 20 cities in this survey were smaller communities.  Does anybody know where Ames, Iowa landed?  Yeah, we are #2.  The second most hipster city in the country.

Well, I am sure this raises a few questions for you, and at the top of the list, maybe you are asking the question, “What is a hipster?”  Glad you asked.

The meaning has changed over the years.  There was a time when the term hipster had something to do with jazz afficianados who had a certain style and dressed in a certain way and called people “cats.”  I remember seeing a picture of Bob McCarley, probably from the late 60’s, with a goatee, thick black plastic frame glasses and an awesome hat.  He gave off a kind of hipster vibe.  There may be folks here who fit that style back then.  But then you went and got a leisure suit, and the era of hipsters was over.

But the term came back in more recent years.  One source defined hipsters as a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s who value counter-culture, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity and intelligence.  Basically, hipsters reject the choices of the cultural mainstream.  They ride single-speed bikes and they are in to good coffee, farmers markets, locally sourced food, and the like.     

The analysis by Find The Best.com, as reported by CBS News, looked for classic signs of hipster populations, including young people, education, cafes, and yoga studios.  With 45% of the population from ages 20-34, 62% of the population with a bachelor’s degree, and 7 cafes per 10,000 residents, Ames came in #2 in the country based on the hipster criteria.  Those things can be quantified, but I’m not sure that hipster attitude can be quantified, and this is where the analysis falls short.  If Ames is #2, then you know the study is flawed.

Here is one of the important things the study could not quantify: hipsters place a very high value on independent thinking and on a nonchalant, “don’t really care” vibe.

Now, turning to our scripture for today – and how is that for a nice segue? – if you were asked which of the disciples had the most hipster-like characteristics, it would be Thomas, hands-down.  I don’t know about his fashion sense or artistic leanings, but he was very much a non-conformist.  He was uninterested in following the crowd.  He was skeptical.  He was an independent thinker.  I’m not calling Thomas a hipster, and I understand there are plenty of negatives we could say about hipster culture; I’m just saying Thomas was the most hipster-like among the disciples. 

Thomas had shown these qualities all along.  Jesus had said, “I go and prepare a place for you… And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas was the one who spoke up and said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  He was unafraid to ask questions.

When Jesus was going to see Lazarus, who had died – on what was seen as a dangerous journey – Thomas was the one who spoke up and said, “Let’s all go, that we may die with him.”  He was unafraid, he was unconventional, he was independent-minded – one-of-a-kind.

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples were still unbelieving, even after Mary’s report that she had seen the Lord.  They were together behind locked doors.  Where was Thomas?  We don’t know.  He was elsewhere.  He was his own person.  Maybe he hid elsewhere or maybe he brushed off the fear and danger and went about doing what he did.  Maybe he went to a local cafĂ© and reminisced with friends about Jesus.

The point here is Thomas was never one to simply, unquestioningly follow the crowd.  He questioned things, he investigated things.  He didn’t necessarily take what he heard at face value; he wanted to find out for himself.  He didn’t let the opinions and sensibilities of others determine what he was going to believe or what he was going to do.

From time to time, we have a class for older children and youth considering baptism.  I read about another church having that kind of class, and the way they described it is that the class explored the question, “How do I be a Christian on purpose?” 

I really like that question.  How do we be Christians “on purpose?”  How do we make it real?

That is what Thomas was trying to do.  To be a Christian on purpose, you have to mean to follow Jesus.  You have to want to follow Jesus.  You have to consciously choose to follow Jesus.  It means that you have to be honest – honest about your doubts, your fears, your questions.  It means that rather than doing the easy thing, rather than just going along for the ride, you make a personal investment and do what you feel is the right thing.  Maybe the easy thing for Thomas would have been to not make waves, to keep his mouth shut, to go along with all the “Jesus is alive” business.  The others may have not wanted to hear about his doubts.  But that wasn’t Thomas. 

Fred Craddock tells this story:
I was out visiting in a home a few years ago where they'd adopted one of those dogs that had been a racer.  It was a big old greyhound lying there in the den.  One of the kids in the family - just a toddler - was pulling on its tail, and a little older kid had his head on the dog's stomach, sort of using it like a pillow.  The dog seemed to have a smile on his face, and looked real happy.  So I said to the dog, “Are you still racing at all?”

“No, no I don't race anymore,” he replied in a voice a lot lower than I thought would come from a greyhound.  I said, “Well, do you miss it - all the glitter and excitement of the track?”   He said, “No.  No, I don't miss it at all.”

“Well, what's the matter? Did you get too old to race?”  “No, I still had some race left in me.”  “Well, did you not win?” I asked.

He sort of snickered and said, “I won over a million dollars for my owner.”  “Then what was it? Bad treatment?”  “Oh no,” the greyhound answered, “They treated us royally when we were racing.”

“Well, what WAS it then?  Did you get crippled?”  He said, “No. No. No.”  “Then WHAT?”  I asked.

“I quit,” he said. “I just plain quit.”  I said, “Well why did you quit?”  

And he said, “I discovered that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit.  So I quit.”  He looked at me with such sad eyes and said, “All that running, running, running, and what I was chasing wasn’t even real!”

Thomas had had suspicions that what the other disciples were chasing was perhaps not real.  He had to know for himself.  If he were going to follow Jesus, it had to be real.

Now Thomas gets a bad rap.  He has gone down in history as “Doubting Thomas.”  But look at what happened.  Mary came running to the disciples and said, “I have seen the Lord.”  Nobody believed her.  They flat-out rejected her testimony.  But that night, they were gathered together when Jesus appeared to them.  They see for themselves, and then they believe.

So they say to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord.”  Guess what?  Thomas has his doubts about their “Jesus is alive” story.”  How was Thomas any different from any of the other disciples?  Like them, he had to see.  The only difference, I suppose, is that he was alone in his unbelief.  It was easy to raise doubts when everyone had doubts.  It is harder when you are the only one.

One thing that has always struck me is that despite the fact Jesus had already appeared to them, it doesn’t seem like things had changed for the disciples.  The next Sunday evening, a week after they had seen Jesus, the disciples are still in the same place, still huddled behind closed doors.  They were saying that Jesus was alive, but they weren’t exactly acting like it.  The experience of Christ did not turn them into unstoppable world changers, at least not right away.  You can’t blame Thomas for having questions.

But look at what Thomas does.  Despite his doubt, despite his unbelief, he remains a part of the community.  Thomas did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, but he keeps faithful to the community.  And it was in that community that Jesus appeared to Thomas.

To me, this is incredible hopeful.  In times of doubt or unbelief, the community can “carry us along,” so to speak.  There are those times when maybe others can believe for us until we are able to recognize the Lord again.

This speaks powerfully about the role and purpose of the church.  The Church is not a gathering of people who have it all figured out.  The Church is not a community for people who have their act together before entering.  And the Church does not have all the answers.  But the Church is a place to ask the questions, is a community of love and support, a place to stand while we learn and explore and discover and become.  The Church does not have all the answers, but helps us to connect with the One who ultimately is The Answer.

Even in his doubt, Thomas stayed connected to the community – which not only says something about Thomas, but it says something about the other disciples.  Those with doubts, those with questions, those who do not have the orthodox party-line view are to be welcomed into the community of faith.

George Hunter wrote a book several years back called The Celtic Way of Evangelism.  His thesis is this: In the Western church, we have by and large followed a Roman way of evangelism: propositional truths are put forward, one believes these truths, becomes a Christian, and then becomes a part of the church, the community of believers.  One is converted and then one becomes a part of the community of faith.

But this is in contrast to the Celtic way of evangelism.  Dating back to the time of St. Patrick, the Celtic way focuses on relationships.  One first becomes a part of the community, and then gradually, through fellowship and friendship one comes to know Christ.  This is the way the church grew and developed in Ireland, through small, caring communities, and Hunter offers it as a model for the modern church.

Bill Easum told a story of inviting a non-Christian drummer to take part in his church’s praise band.  After a year or so of playing in the band, he came to Easum and said, “I’m not sure what’s happened, but God had really become real, and Christ is real to me.  I can’t point to a single moment or anything, but my life is not the same.  I guess I’m a Christian.”   And indeed, he had become one.  The congregation, Easum said, had loved him into Christ.

Thomas did not believe, but he stayed with the fellowship of those who did.  Thomas did not believe, but he was nevertheless very much a part of the community.

What I like is that Jesus gives Thomas the answers he needs.  Thomas does not simply question for the sake of questioning.  This is not a refusal to follow Christ’s ways masking as doubt.  These are honest questions.  Thomas says up front what it would take to convince him: he must see Jesus’ hands and touch his side.  What would convince him were Jesus’ wounds, his scars.

For his part, Jesus does not shame Thomas or belittle him for having questions.  Nowhere does Jesus say that it is a sin to doubt.  Jesus comes to Thomas and gives him what he needs to believe.

I have to admit that I like Thomas.  I like the fact that he is honest with himself and honest with God.  I like the fact that he stays with the community, even when he isn’t sure.  I like the fact that he is his own person.  I like the fact that once he believes, he really believes, for him it is real, and it changes his life.  Of all people, it is Thomas who makes the highest confession of faith in Christ in the gospel of John – and in all of scripture: “My Lord and my God.”

Thomas, the disciple for hipsters, is a disciple for all of us.  He doesn’t blindly follow, but he honestly, courageously, faithfully follows.  In the way that he comes to know and believe for himself, he might even make a good patron saint for Baptists!  Thomas turns out to be a good model of one who authentically, genuinely, faithfully followed Christ.

Living involves doubts.  Living involves questions.  God is big enough for our doubts and questions, and God loves us enough to reach out to us in the midst of our doubts and questions.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  That would be us.  And in some ways, it may be easier for us than it was for Thomas.  Thomas knew Jesus in the flesh.  He understands Jesus’ humanity.  It was hard for him to make the leap to Jesus’ new condition, to know him as a resurrected savior.

We come at it in the other direction.  For us, the real wonder is God having hands and feet in the first place.  The real wonder is God allowing human beings to nail those hands and feet to the cross.  For us, it may be Jesus’ humanity that is more problematic.   

Some of us get faith in our minds, others feel it in their hearts.  For Thomas, it has to do with his senses.  He wants to see and touch, to know in the way that works best for him.  And Jesus honored the way that Thomas came at faith, showing him his wounds. 

Jesus came to Thomas – and Christ comes to us – in the midst of our doubts, honoring the way that each of us comes to faith and calling us to believe and follow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Give Up Death" - Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015


Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9, John 20:1-18

This past week, our dog Rudy and I went for a walk.  It was pretty brisk out but perfect for an early morning walk.  We turned a corner and I saw a small tree just starting to bloom – I think it was some kind of magnolia.  It was the first flowering tree that I had seen, and it made our walk even better.

Our crocuses bloomed the week before.  The lilies and daylilies at the back of the church are green and growing.  The grass is greening up.  There are signs of spring around.

In spring, we celebrate the renewal of life, and we often relate that to the new life we celebrate at Easter.  And that is fine, that’s great.  But there is a big difference.

You put a bulb in the ground, dead as it looks, and you expect a tulip to come up in the spring.  In the fall, leaves will turn brown and fall off a tree, and the tree may look lifeless, but nobody is surprised when spring rolls around and the tree starts to bud.  This is natural.  This is expected.  This is ordinary.

But there is nothing ordinary about Easter.  Jesus is crucified and buried and in the tomb for three days, and then is raised from the dead.  When you bury a person, you do not expect to see them again.  This is about as far from ordinary as you can get.

What is ordinary, what is typical, what is expected, is death.  Life is transitory.  We are finite beings and have our limits.  As far as our own personal experience, Good Friday is much more familiar to us than Easter Sunday.

St. Augustine said that our lives are like when a man is sick and near death, and friends look at him in his deathbed and say, “He is dying, he won’t get over this.”  Augustine says that the same could be said of us on the first day of our lives, as we lie in the crib, “She is dying, she won’t get over this.”

I know that this is not polite conversation on Easter morning, or any morning, really.  We want to ignore death, and if we do talk about it, we talk as though we can defeat it.  Flip on the TV and you will find advertisements for “age-defying” makeup.  Cosmetic surgery, botox, hair implants and the like are popular because they make us appear younger, as though we are winning the battle.

But you know, we can only do so much, and our efforts don’t really make us any younger.  We can try and hide aging, but it doesn’t stave off death.  When you are ill and go to the hospital, they don’t treat you with Grecian formula.

You might remember last fall daredevil Nik Wallenda walking on a high-wire between two skyscrapers on either side of the Chicago River.  There was much to-do and it was televised live.  (I didn’t watch - I don’t enjoy watching that sort of thing.)  It was billed as a “death-defying” feat.

There is this image of defying death, taking on death and winning that we find appealing.  In a sense, every time we wake up in the morning, every time we get in our car and drive to school or work or church, we are defying death.  And we can get away with it for awhile, but not indefinitely.  Evel Knievel used to perform death-defying feats on his motorcycle, but he could not defy death forever.  We all know how this story is going to end.

The disciples knew.  Jesus had been arrested and taken away, just after their Passover meal together on Thursday night.  He had been beaten, he had been mocked, he had been tried in a rush trial.  He had been sentenced to death as an enemy of the state, a traitor, an insurrectionist.  He had been crucified on a cross, dying an agonizing death.

Dan Brown's novel, The DaVinci Code, was a New York Times bestseller made into a blockbuster movie.  At the center of the story is the contention that for 2000 years, the Church has prevented the world from finding out that Jesus had been married to, and had children with, Mary Magdalene.

Well, this certainly would be a startling thing to discover.  What would it be like to do genealogy, get on ancestry.com and discover that you are a direct descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene?  But here is the thing about The DaVinci Code: it is based on the notion that if Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children, it would destroy the faith because it would prove that Jesus was human.

But isn’t that what we believe?  Isn’t that the claim of Christian faith?  That Jesus really was born, really lived on this earth, really and truly experienced what it is to be human: pain and joy and hurt and loss and laughter and temptation and uncertainty and anticipation and happiness and fear and foreboding.  And death.  He really did experience human life and he really did suffer and die.  If Jesus did not really live and really die as one of us, then Easter Sunday would have no real meaning.  Without a real death, there is no resurrection.  Without really living as a human being, there is no connection to us and no reason for Mary’s tears early that Sunday morning.

Filled with grief, Mary went to the place where Jesus was buried.  Like many of us, she went to the grave of her loved one to remember and to grieve.  The tomb was a small cave in the rock.  A great stone was rolled in front of the tomb to seal it.

Mary was not prepared for what she saw.  The stone had been moved.  It was almost more than she could bear.  Jesus had been beaten, humiliated, and finally crucified.  Mary could only watch helplessly.  And now, one last humiliation.  She was filled with fear and terror.

She ran to tell Peter and John.  Peter had not shown his face in public since Thursday.  He had denied Jesus and stayed far away from the cross.  But Mary did not know where else to go.  On hearing her report, Peter and John hurried back to the tomb.  John ran ahead.  He arrived and saw the stone moved away.  Then Peter caught up.  He went on inside.  He saw the linen burial wrappings rolled up.  Peter and John saw for themselves what Mary had reported, and then they went back home.

By now Mary was back at the tomb, but she stayed.  She wept.  Finally, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels.  They asked why she was weeping, and Mary told them.  Someone had taken away her Lord, she said.  Someone had stolen the body.  She turned around and saw a man she supposed to be the gardener.  She said, “If you have taken the body, tell me where you have laid him.”  But then Jesus spoke her name.  “Mary.”  And she knew.  She knew.  He was alive!  It was Jesus!

We have heard this so many times that it is hard to catch the joy of that moment.  It is not such a surprise anymore.  We know what is going to happen.  Year after year, like that tree beginning to flower in spring, Jesus comes out of that grave.  The story is so familiar that it loses its shock value.  We can’t feel the raw emotion, the incredible surge of amazement and joy and euphoria that Mary felt that morning.

On Thursday, a man who had been lost at sea for 66 days was found 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina.  Louis Jordan was sitting on the hull of his overturned boat.  He had somehow survived on rainwater, fish, and prayer.  He was spotted by a German container ship.  Search efforts had ended back on February 18.  You can imagine the great relief this man felt upon being rescued, and maybe even more, the incredible shock and joy of his family who found that he was alive.

It was an amazing story, but at least it seems in the realm of being possible.  If you have actually died and been buried for three days, nobody expects to see you again.

Tom Long (in Whispering the Lyrics) tells the story of Clint Tidwell, the pastor of a small-town church.    One of his blessings – and curses – is that the 80-year old owner and still active editor of the local newspaper is a member of his congregation.  The blessing part is that this veteran journalist considers Tidwell to be one of the finest preachers around, and wishing the whole town to benefit from his wisdom, he frequently publishes a summary of the Sunday sermon in the Monday newspaper.  The curse part is that this well-meaning editor is a bit on the eccentric side, and Tidwell is sometimes astonished to read the synopses of his sermons.  There is often an ocean of difference between what he said and what the editor heard.  This man owns the paper and nobody dares edit his columns, and so what shows up in the paper is often a source of embarrassment to Tidwell.

The pastor’s deepest amazement, however, came not when the editor misunderstood the Sunday sermon; it came when he understood it all too clearly.  Early on the Monday morning after Easter, Tidwell went out in his bathrobe and slippers to get the paper at the end of the driveway.  As he approached it, he could see the headline in “second coming” sized type.  What had happened?  Had war broken out?  As he got close enough to read the headline, he was startled to read the words, ‘Tidwell Claims Jesus Christ Rose From The Dead.’

Long wrote, “A red flush crept up Tidwell’s neck.  Yes, of course, he had claimed in yesterday’s sermon that Christ rose from the dead, but golly, was that headline news? … I mean, you’re supposed to say that on Easter, aren’t you, that Jesus rose from the dead, but that’s not like saying some person who died last week had risen from the grave, is it?”

I guess that’s the question for all of us.  Does Jesus’ resurrection mean anything to us, here, today?  Does it affect our lives, right here, right now?

The Good News of the gospel is that by raising Jesus from the dead, God showed that the power of God is greater than the power of death.  Death does not have the final word.  The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The Lord God will wipe away the tears from every face, and God will swallow up death forever.”  That is Good News, because we are surrounded by death.  Death doesn’t just come at the end of our lives, it comes little by little.  We die all kinds of deaths along the way.

We all know folks who are in the midst of hurt and pain and grief – and maybe right now, that person is you.  Heartbreak and disappointment, disillusionment and uncertainty, rejection and losses of all kinds is pretty much par for the course.  Without knowing it, we can begin to live under the cloud of death.  Rather than pursuing joy, we just try to avoid pain.  Rather than succeeding, we just try not to fail.   Instead of living, our focus, maybe even subconsciously, can be on simply not dying.

In Easter, we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of the resurrection of the dead by the power of God.  We celebrate life on the other side of death.  But we celebrate more than that.  We celebrate resurrection and new life that we experience right here and now – in this life.

A couple lost their adult son in an automobile accident.  They were a very close-knit family. The man’s parents and sister were overwhelmed with grief.  They lived in a Good Friday world for months: confused and angry, loving a person who no longer met them for Sunday worship and dinner once a week, and called every day between.  Shortly after the early December accident, the family was driving home from church in silence.

They all noticed it at the same time.  Someone had sawed off the cap of a lone pine tree that stood in a field near their house.  Clearly, someone had wanted a perfect Christmas tree without paying the local nursery, so they stole the top six feet of their neighbor’s tree.  The ruined tree hit a nerve with this family.  They were “tree people” to begin with, the kind of people who plant seedlings on Arbor Day and write polite notes to their congressmen to protest the destruction of rainforests.  But seeing that tree cut off just knocked the wind out of them.  It was a perfect symbol of their unbearable loss, and though they never talked about it, each of them took to taking the long way home in order to avoid facing this pine tree.

A couple seasons later, the three were on their way home from church again.  The mother missed the turnoff for their detour, and so as they turned the corner that would take them past the tree, an invisible shroud covered them, stirring up their grief.  But what they saw took their breath away.  The tree had healed.

When the father told this story, weeping, he made this motion with his hands, to illustrate: open hands, reaching to one another, until his fingertips touched.  The tree once again had a perfect, tapered crown.  And once again, it was a perfect symbol for the family.  For the first time since the accident, they felt hope in their hearts.  The mended tree held so much promise: the slow but sure restoration to life had begun.  They believed what they saw: every suffering, every life cut off short, would be healed.  Their grief wasn’t erased, but they were released to open their hearts to the hope and promise of resurrection.

Through the season of Lent, we have organized our worship around the theme of “Give It Up.”  And today, on Easter Sunday, our theme is “Give Up Death.”

I have to admit: to first hear it, “Give Up Death” doesn’t even make sense.  You can give up chocolate or red meat.  It may be difficult, but you can theoretically give up worrying or gossip or criticism.  But how do you give up death?  You can’t.  It is beyond our control.

We can’t stop death from happening.  But what we can give up is the hold that death so often has on us.  We can choose to live joyfully and abundantly.  We can choose to live boldly, generously, hopefully, in the light of God’s grace and goodness and with the promise of eternal life.  Or we can choose to live as people just going through the motions of life.  We can live small, cautious, miserly lives, living under the specter of death.

Maybe another way to put it is that we can spend our lives truly living, or we can spend our lives trying not to die.  And when you think of it in that way, “giving up death” – giving up the hold that death can have on us - makes perfect sense.

Jesus’ resurrection is an invitation to go all-in on life.   We can choose to live small, but the resurrection gives us the promise that God’s power and love is greater than anything this world can throw at us.  We can live in hope and in confidence that in the end, God will swallow up even death. 
Thanks be to God.  Alleluia!  Amen.