Guiding Stars

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My 2017 started with preaching! I delivered this sermon on 1/1/17 to the Shenandoah United Methodist Charge (Fields UMC and Christ UMC) at the 9:30 AM and 11 AM services respectively, where I also serve as secretary.

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Epiphanies are manifestations, striking appearances which appear to us quietly or crash into us in the midst of ordinary life. They are minor and necessary disturbances.

That’s why today is known as “Epiphany Sunday,” because we remember the striking appearance of the star which led the wise men to Jesus. This is the day we remember how the foreigners, not the Jews of Jesus’ time, discovered the epiphany of the word of God made flesh.

Today is also the first day of this new year, 2017. The last year has been, for many, tumultuous and exhausting, filled with loss and pain. This day, we hope to begin a new year with clean slates and hearts full of hope. No matter what the previous year was like, we hope each new year will be better than the last.

So on the same day, we celebrate both the joy of a group of outsiders finding Jesus and the beginning of a new year after one of much division and fear. We are both celebrating and searching for Epiphany.

This is very much like my own faith journey. I have encountered beautiful manifestations of Christ and sought his presence simultaneously.

I grew up in a Pentecostal church and had the love and support of my small group, youth pastor, and best friend. Together, they helped me find God in ways I didn’t expect. In many ways, they were the stars that guided me at this point in my faith journey. One of the ways they significantly directed me was in my decision to attend an event called Winterfest when I was 15.

Winterfest was the ultimate Pentecostal revival and unofficial initiation for the high school members of my youth group. I remember seeing videos from the previous Winterfests, showcasing fun days spent at Pigeon Forge adventure park and passionate nights being “slain in the Spirit.” Despite my initial discomfort with such public displays of spiritual affection, my curiosity got the better of me, and I signed up my freshman year.

The weekend culminated in an intense sermon given by a fiery pastor, his powerful message amplified by four JumboTron screens. I knew the man had set the stage for a true Pentecostal conversion and felt the passionate emotions rising within me. 

But the Pentecostal switch didn’t flip in me. Despite the passion and conviction I felt, the “real” experience wasn’t happening. I was on the outside looking in at this ecstatic group as the Spirit rained down on them, thinking God had abandoned me.

I was lonely in this crowded arena, so I sulked away to an emptier part of the stadium and made my own solo efforts of prayer, petition, and grumbling to God. I begged for the love and presence of God that supposedly never failed, left, or gave up on me.

Eventually I did find myself on my knees and crying, but instead of tears of spiritual ecstasy, mine were tears of abandonment and loneliness.

In my desperation, my high school small group gathered around me. I felt their hands upon me, heard their whispered prayers of encouragement and love, just as I had during our weekly meetings. I found myself surrounded by the ones who knew my own insecurities and crushing anxieties. When I opened my eyes and saw them around me, I heard the words that began to heal my wounds: You are not alone. I am here. I will always be here.

These were the words of God, who I so desperately wanted to meet but feared. And he quietly met me where I was in my stadium section, surrounded by a group of people who loved me.

This experience of epiphany first brought me to God. This epiphany manifested in a quiet moment made so powerful by God’s love, and my small group friends helped make it happen.

I experienced another, but more drawn out and, on the surface, less joyful epiphany during my senior year at Bridgewater College.

I was taking a Senior Seminar class during Fall Semester, and our topic was Clashes of Culture. To me, it seemed as if this class was tailor made to rip the rug of my faith from under my feet, turning everything which I held dear as the bedrock of my life into out-dated rags fit for no one.

I had so many questions that I was afraid to ask, not because I thought they would be brushed aside, but because I feared cookie-cutter answers and Band-Aids over wounds that needed further medical treatment, maybe even some surgery. I feared asking questions because I feared being treated like a project, and I didn’t want people to pray that I would have more faith to overcome my doubt so I could conform once again to their proper mold.

The mold that had given me life and purpose left me feeling claustrophobic and fake. I knew if I stayed within this mold, if my questions remained in the dark of my fear and never saw the light of my confession, my faith would die.

Then I found a counselor at school named Randy. He wasn’t threatened by my questions, and he prayed with me at the end of each session. I remember talking to him about my doubts, and we started talking about Thomas, the disciple. I had always thought Thomas was a bad example for “good Christian people,” and I worried because I found myself relating a lot to him, but Randy challenged that notion. To Randy, Thomas didn’t doubt because he cared too little about Jesus and the Gospel; he doubted because he cared so much. He doubted because he took Jesus’ life, message, and death seriously, and if people were going around saying that Jesus was back, Thomas wanted to make sure Jesus’ message remained true and didn’t become another myth or tall tale. Thomas cared SO much, not so little, about the implications of Jesus’ return that he knew better than to take them lightly, and he expressed the importance of his faith in Jesus in doubting.

In acknowledging my doubts, I fond life. I refused to let my faith die. It became alive and less stagnant, a living, breathing organism instead of a frigid set of rules and beliefs.

So as I started wrestling with my questions, I realized I was finding God in service to others. I found God in the children who came to the mentoring program I coordinated, the ones deemed “at-risk,” who came from families where English wasn’t the first language or from single-parent or low income families. I met refugees and homeless people and shared stories with them. I went to seminary and befriended professors and students alike who had steadfast faith and still asked a lot of honest questions. I found out God loved all of these people, and God gave me a calling to be their pastor.

At Winterfest, God told me, “You are not alone. I am here. I will always be here.” During my crisis and the troubled times within it, God told me “They are not alone. I am with them. I will always be with them.”

Both of my Epiphany moments taught me about Emmanuel, God with us, and both have been significant to my faith journey. In one, God reminded me of God’s presence with and love for me, and in the other, God reminded me of God’s presence with and love for others, especially the ones I feared and disliked. In one, God began my salvation journey, and in another, God began calling me to ministry, both of which continue to unfold. The two are not exclusive. 

So as we begin a new year, and as we remember the Epiphany, of the wise men finally finding Jesus and giving him their gifts to commemorate his status as once and future king of Creation, how will we take on new chances to serve and worship God?

This year, let us ask ourselves, as we should each year: What gifts will I bring to God? How will I do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God each day? In what areas is God calling me to grow in awareness of God’s presence? How will I become more aware of epiphanies every day and keep my heart open to God’s daily revelations?\

As is the case with my story, all epiphanies are powerful, but not all of them are pleasant. They can be gentle, and they can be tough. They can lift us up, and they can humble us. They can comfort us, and they can challenge the things we hold most dear and certain.

But they are always there, and God is always revealing them to us. How will we become more aware of them this year, by God’s grace?

We are Judas

I prepared and shared this sermon at Eastern Mennonite Seminary chapel on 3/12/2015 for my preaching class. Please let me know what you think!

Judas1Judas. I rarely hear people talk about him, much less preach about him. After all these years, he remains the disciple turned away from the group, no halo around his head, the eternally condemned outcast.

In the film Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas is portrayed as a disciple who fears how far Jesus is going with his mission. He wants change, but he doesn’t want change the way Jesus is doing it. Overturning tables in the temple, telling off the authorities, speaking vaguely in parables, proclaiming God’s kingdom in an occupied land where Caesar was lord. He knows the consequences of Jesus’ words and ministry. He knows there is a cross involved. And he is scared.

In Terrence McNally’s passion play Corpus Christi, Judas is Jesus’ (or Joshua’s) high school sweetheart. In this play, Judas is a suave, self-confident man who follows Joshua as a disciple but wants more romantically than Joshua is able to give. This jealousy leads to Judas’ betrayal, which causes him great remorse in the end.

In both portrayals, Judas wants something that Jesus won’t grant him. Jesus refuses to conform to Judas’ standards, and as a result, Judas takes matters into his own hands.

But what does the biblical text say about Judas?

It says he was a disciple of Jesus, a man who literally walked, ate, and preached with Jesus and the 11 other disciples. As a disciple, he witnessed firsthand Jesus’ miracles and heard his teachings. Judas accepted Jesus’ good news and was willing to follow him and bring God’s kingdom to earth. He was good with money. Maybe a little too good. Whatever his intentions may have been, he wanted to give something to the poor.

The text also says he repented. This part of the story tends to be ignored. And yet, he goes to the priests and begs them to make him right with God, which is what priests are supposed to do. Yet like so many other authorities, they deemed him incurable, and they turned him away. And then, Judas hangs himself because no one will help make him right with God. Even as the curtain of the temple tears in half, Judas dies because he cannot bring himself to see the opening. In his eyes, he is not forgiven or reconciled, not with himself, not with the priests, not with God.

Judas followed Jesus more intimately and closely than any human alive on earth today, and he still, for whatever reason or intention, turned him in. And when he couldn’t find reconciliation, he took his own life.

judasI understand why this is a story we are uncomfortable facing. If one of Jesus’ own disciples can betray him, what hope do we have? I believe as a result of this fear, the Church has taken Judas’ story and applied it to those outside of the Church. Instead of applying his character to faithful disciples in the Church today, the Church has imposed Judas’ nature onto those deemed enemies, those “outside” looking in. There have been many names for them: Jew, Muslim, conservative, liberal, heretic, black, indigenous, LGBT, and so forth. I see how the Church has identified “the Other” we face with Judas to scapegoat them without feeling too guilty for their actions.

But we, the Church, need to talk about Judas as if he were one of us, because he was and is one of us. As the body of Christ shaped by these stories, we cannot deny Judas’ story any more than we can deny the stories of the other disciples. We cannot deny his story or condemn him, because to do so would be to deny a crucial part of our stories as disciples of Jesus today. And we cannot identify outsiders as Judas to condemn them, because then we will fail in our mission as the body of Christ for all of the “outsiders.” If we cannot see ourselves in Judas’ story, then we are lying to ourselves. To deny or condemn Judas’ story is to deny and condemn the Church, and we cannot be willing to do that. And to only identify the “Other” as Judas is to become the hypocrites about which Jesus ardently warned.

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We are Judas because he was a disciple of Jesus. We are Judas because he loved, listened to, and learned from Jesus. We are Judas, because he played a crucial role in bringing about the beginning of the Church.

Because it was Judas’ damnable actions that resulted in the tearing of the veil that separated God from humanity.

We are Judas, because we are capable of tearing veils, even when we are at our worst. We can rip seams with the best or worst of intentions. We can make tears even though we are not perfect. We can make open sanctuaries despite our own failures.

Yet we are also Judas when we turn our backs on the least of these, because Jesus identified most with the marginalized, not the powerful. We are Judas when we turn our backs on each other, because Jesus says we are his body alive on earth. We are Judas when we refuse to forgive ourselves and hang by our own nooses of shame, bitterness, and guilt.

Is there any good news in this?

Yes. There is.

The good news is that Judas was a human. Maybe the most human. More like us than we’re willing to admit. And Jesus came to bring forgiveness to all humans, no matter how far we stray from the message, no matter how many times we sell Jesus out in the name of our good intentions, no matter how many times we put up walls against each other instead of bridges to each other. There is good news in the fact that Judas helped bring about the tearing of the veils that keep us separated from God.

I believe Archbishop Desmond Tutu has it right on two big things related to this story: “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.” and “Without forgiveness, there’s no future.” Only God could use someone like Judas, a man who cruelly didn’t receive reconciliation in his own life, to bring about the reconciliation of the world. And God can use his story to remind us of how cruel we can be to those we deem “incurable.”

As the Church, we are called to learn from our stories, and Judas’ story has something to say to those who turn away those who seek God. Judas, as have many others, learned the hard way how a lack of forgiveness can cruelly cut a life short. We have seen how we hang ourselves from our own nooses, and we have seen others hanged by the nooses of the religious authorities who deem them incurable. We have seen people within the Church cut their lives short, because they have been taught that something about themselves, whether it’s their sexuality, their questions, their illnesses, or something else that makes them “an outsider,” are not acceptable in the Body. They went to the priests seeking reconciliation and love, and they were met with a cold shoulder and a cord of rope.

I have hope in Judas’ forgiveness and Jesus’ love for him, because I have to have hope in the forgiveness and love God has given to me. I have hope that Jesus yearns for those to feel his embrace when others have said that they are untouchable. I have hope that Jesus would not have scapegoated Judas and instead would have held him like a brother as Judas let the tears fall. I have hope in Judas, because I have received those embraces when I felt untouchable, and I have hope in Judas, because I believe in the reality of the torn veil, even when I can’t always see it.

We must accept that if one of us is unforgiven, we are all unforgiven. If one of us is an outcast, we are all outcasts. We are a united body, and what affects one of us affects all of us. What hurts one of us hurts all of us. What heals one of us heals all of us. Judas was part of the body. If he cannot be forgiven, none of us can be forgiven.

But the curtain has been torn in two. There is forgiveness. For Judas. For me. For you. For the Church. For all of the times we have turned our back on Jesus because he didn’t conform to our standards. For all the times we turned our back on the least of these because they didn’t conform to the Church’s standards. For all the times we have turned our backs on each other because we didn’t conform to each others’ standards. There is forgiveness for all of us in all things and for all people.

The veil is torn. There is forgiveness, and it is radically unfair. Thanks be to God.

My Life as a Doubting Thomas

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubting_Thomas

In one of my first chapels as a seminary student, we discussed how people are dissatisfied with the Church because they no longer find life within it. For some people, Church has become synonymous with dead traditions, lifeless worship, and a series of mundane services.

As a former Pentecostal, I can never say that I ever thought my faith community was “dead.” In fact, I thought we were so alive, everyone else was “dead” in comparison. I thought the same of my first college community, which, though it boasted a non-denominational label, acted more Pentecostal than my home church, complete with healings, tongues, and charismatic, worship-song fueled services that lasted almost two hours.

I never thought of my communities as lacking life. On the contrary, they were chock full of energy, charisma, excitement, passion, dreams, and drive. The most traditional things we did were communion and baptism, and aside from The Sinner’s Prayer, we didn’t have weekly prayers. While we mostly sang contemporary music, any hymns included on Sunday services were sang with a lot more excitement (and a lot more repeated verses for extra effect) and passion than those ‘other churches.’

Everything was exciting. Everything was on fire. Everything was alive.

So why did I leave?

I left because of Thomas.

Let me explain…

I was taking a Senior Seminar class during Fall Semester of my Senior year at Bridgewater, and our topic of the semester was Clashes of Culture. We read books by atheist authors who argued that Christianity was preventing America from advancing culturally, technologically, and intellectually compared to the rest of the world, which was more secular. We debated reading the Bible literally as opposed to metaphorically or in a historical-critical way.

To me, it seemed as if this class was tailor made to completely rip from under my feet the rug that had been my faith, turning everything which I held dear and cherished as the bedrock of my life into worthless, illegitimate, out-dated rags fit for no one.

I had so many questions that I was afraid to ask, not because I thought they would be brushed aside, but because I feared cookie-cutter answers and Band-Aids over wounds that needed further medical treatment, maybe even some surgery. I feared asking questions because I feared being treated like a project. I feared asking questions because I didn’t want people to pray that I would have more faith to overcome my doubt so I could conform once again to their proper mold.

Suddenly, the mold that had given me life and purpose left me feeling claustrophobic and fake. I knew if I stayed within this mold, if my questions remained in the dark of my fear and never saw the light of my confession, I would die on the inside.

I knew if I couldn’t ask why there were more sermon series on sexual purity than simplifying our lives, why we donated gobs of money to pay for unnecessary church renovations instead of feeding the hungry, or why God would send countless people to hell because they didn’t believe the “right” things, my faith would have shriveled up within me. The church that had brought me so much life and made other communities pale in comparison would kill my soul if I couldn’t get my greatest fears and questions out.

This was around the time two things happen: I became a big fan of Jesus’ disciple Thomas, and I started going to RISE.

In churches I’ve been to that have mentioned Thomas in any number of their services, Thomas is not portrayed as a role model. In fact, he is portrayed as quite the opposite. When I have heard Thomas’ story spoken of by pastors, he has been portrayed as someone whose example we would be better off not following. Yes, they have told me, you will at times be like Thomas and doubt God and Jesus and all sorts of matters related to the Christian faith, but when you find yourself in those times, try to get out of them as soon as possible.

Don’t sit in doubt. Don’t wrestle with doubt. Don’t try to understand what or why you doubt. Just get out of it. If doubt is a desert of slavery, unquestioning faith is the oasis of the Promised Land. Pray it away. Have more faith. Do anything to just get over it. Doubt is inevitable to the Christian, I was told, but it was also not good to go through. As I interpreted it, it was as bad a sin as any other.

And that’s how I found RISE. I had met Amanda the previous year, soon after RISE had launched, when she came to speak at BC Chapel. As I was finally beginning to question whether or not women really could be leaders when the rest of the Church was saying “No,” I went to Amanda immediately after the service to arrange a meeting with her to further discuss the topic of women in church leadership. We had an excellent conversation, and I could tell from that one meeting that she was someone to whom I could be open about my own struggles and questions. With this meeting in mind, I went to RISE, where they were beginning a series about the Rob Bell book Sex God. I remember Amanda talking about sexuality and spirituality, how we can use both to either acknowledge the sacred humanity in one another or defile and degrade it.

But most of all I remember the band getting back on stage to play the final songs and thinking to myself, “I really need to think about this.”

I’ve been to services that are convicting and have brought up many good points that affected my outlook on life, for better or worse. But I had never heard a message that was so relevant to who I was and how I lived that I needed time to process the implications of the message in my life. It was at this moment that I knew I had found a faith community in which I could grow and learn to be me for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

So back to Thomas, the doubter with the bad rep. I think most people give Thomas a hard time because he’s human like us, and also because they believe he doubted out of apathy, because he couldn’t be bothered with what Jesus’ resurrection would do to his life. But now, I disagree with this assessment. I had a counselor named Randy during this rough period of my life, and we were discussing my doubt when Thomas came up.

And for the first time in my life, someone explained to me how wonderful an example Thomas can be to us.

To Randy, Thomas didn’t doubt because he cared too little about Jesus and the Gospel; he doubted because he cared so much. He doubted because he took Jesus’ life, message, and death seriously, and if people were going around saying that Jesus was back, Thomas wanted to make sure Jesus’ message remained intact and didn’t become another myth or tall tale. Thomas cared SO much, not so little, about the implications of Jesus’ return that he knew better than to take them lightly, and he expresses the importance of his faith in Jesus in doubting.

When I looked at Thomas’ story through this light, I realized that my story was similar. I didn’t start being real with my doubts because my faith wasn’t important; I took my doubts and questions seriously because my faith is the bedrock of my life. Like Thomas, I care too much about my questions and what they mean for my faith to simply discredit them and push them under the rug or let them fester and become infected. In tending to my doubts, I allow God and my community to wash away the things that have become artificial and lifeless to let life-giving Truth rush through my veins. In sitting with my questions, I sit with God, my community, and the cloud of witnesses who have gone before me, from Job to Pope Francis, and have sat with God in the pain and fear of doubt until God shines his light on them.

In acknowledging my doubts, I find life. I refuse to let my faith die. It becomes more alive and less stagnant, a living, breathing organism instead of a frigid set of rules and beliefs.

I also identify with Thomas because of his need to touch and see Christ’s physical body. I wonder if so many young people are leaving the church because they no longer see the body of Christ in action. People ask if God is dead. They know Christians by words and beliefs, but not actions and deeds. People hear a lot about Jesus, but they don’t see him moving or doing much. This is not to discredit words (I myself am a huge fan of them). This is simply to remind us that the Church is a body, Christ’s body, and if we’re not being a whole body but just a head or a mouth, people won’t understand what we mean when we say that Christ is risen and alive and in us.

RISE became the body of Christ to me in my doubt. I saw Jesus’ body in the tears of a girl at mentoring sharing the story of her cousin’s deportation. I saw Jesus’ body in Amanda sitting across from me at Mr. J’s bagels as she said, “Me, too” when I told her of my struggles and doubts. I saw Jesus’ body when a young woman in our congregation began to cry while administering communion. I saw Jesus’ body in the thirteen year old boy who was part of a youth group mission week at RISE as he became best friends with a lady named Hope at a retirement community. I see Jesus’ body each Friday night in the midst of the holy chaos that is Sister2Sister, in the connections and bonds the mentors make with our girls, and in how our girls teach us so much about life, love, and the Kingdom of God.

I think this is what I love so much about Communion. It is in Communion that we are reminded of Jesus breaking his body and shedding his blood to meet us in our own brokenness and hurt. Communion is God meeting us exactly where we are, and it is where God begins to heal us. When I saw my friend crying as she gave Communion, I realized how appropriately emotional she was being. Communion was always practiced so solemnly, so quietly, something very uncharacteristic of my otherwise loud and flashy religious upbringing. Before we took communion, we were reminded to check our hearts and see that we were right before God so we could take communion in good conscience and not make God mad. I understand the importance of not viewing communion as another one of those traditions that can become lifeless and meaningless if we simply go through the motions of it. I also understand that there are times when taking communion should be solemn.

But it is also emotional, joyful, hopeful, and inspiring, and I no longer believe that I have to have myself all put together to partake of it. This is further proof that in Jesus and the body of Christ, God meets us where we are. And we as the body of Christ are to meet people where they are, like Jesus met Thomas in his caring doubt and gave him physical evidence of what Thomas loved the most.

Jesus meets us in our doubt. As the Church, we must also meet the world in all of its doubt and brokenness. There are too many lives at stake if we allow the questions to go unanswered. In a way, it really is a matter of life or death. As the Church, what will we choose to do?