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 café 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.

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