Philippians 2: Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
Please pray with me;
God who whispers truth and longing into the depths of our soul, call us into being,into becoming who you would have us be. Amen
There is an old Jewish legend that every blade of grass has an angel hovering over it saying, “grow, grow” and how much more then are the angels hovering around each one of us, calling us into being, calling us into new life, new ways of being, calling us to become more fully who God created us to be. This tender act of calling, of breathing us into existence like asking a tender sapling to grow through and break open the concrete paths, bringing new life to places where life has been paved over and shut down, this tender act is not force, is not a demand of the almighty, but a seduction.
God’s power is invocative, provocative, and evocative, seductive and educative, luring and alluring, because it is the power of a call, of a word/Word, of an affirmation or promise. It calls us into new beginnings, new ways of being, new creation.
This gentle God who whispers into the depths of our soul, breathing over us, softening hardened hearts, loosening lives grown stiff from anger and hatred, and misunderstanding, wound tight by retaliation and recrimination, this gentle God who breathes hope where things are hopeless. The gentle whisper which stirs us back to life when all we want is to die. The tug on our heart which suggests we make one more call to a distant friend, to a child in conflict, to a parent lost in confusion.
The God of new beginnings who stirs dreams and visions of new ways of being that insist you let go of all you have known, wander in the desert for God knows how long, so that something new might be birthed. But dream, the vision, is just so beautiful it pulls you out of your comfort zone and stirs longing in your heart, it takes you and crazy mad journeys the end of which we cannot see, but must only faithfully follow for God tugs at our hearts like a child pulling on a parent’s sleeve. Come and see, come and see, Not with force, but with incredible power. Power to gentle our hearts and stir courage in us when fear beckons.
For when we imagine a new way to be, a new way of living, we must let go of the old in order for it to occur. We must mourn what was, let go, and move on, and we are afraid of this. God has made us restless with longing, with courage, and left the future gaping wide open, ajar with expectation, calling us into being, into becoming.
This God of holy anarchy who pushes the tender sapling of new growth and new beginnings right through the rigid concrete certainties we have poured over the uneven ground, trying to instill some order, some decency on the unruly, fertile, and abundant earth and yet God disrupts all of this with a sacred confusion through which the shoots of justice grow ever upward becoming finally the tall spreading oak in whose shade we take refuges.
We long for certainty and security but are shaken by the power of truths so unnerving and unsettling that we are disoriented and find ourselves on our knees in deep surrender, a confession of love and longing wrung out of us, confessions that echo time and again, “oh God my God!” “God go with you” “if God wills,” “Oh God, why?” again and again we call out, knowing only that we long for God and struggling to accept that God longs for us just as fervently. There are so many ways the name of God springs to our lips, so many ways to lift our hearts to God, longing to feel the embrace of the divine, longing to feel the touch of love and be transformed, made new.
This longing is as palpable today as it ever was. Calling across webpages of singles sites, screaming from news stories reporting horrors, crying out from forgotten areas where famine steals the lives of those who have yet to live. The urgent longing of our souls calls us to be broken by all that is wrong with the world, the urgent loneliness, pain and loss, that we might be transformed into unrepentant lovers of humanity, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, binding the wounds of the injured, welcoming the lonely and heartbroken. We long for God just as God longs for us.
We come weeping up the path, prodigal children that we are, knowing we have betrayed our Creator, the loving and gentle one who has done us no wrong, and yet we have wandered and been distracted by all sorts of compulsions and fears. We come knowing that we cannot, of and through our own best efforts, stand tall and assert a righteous claim to the love and belonging we crave so much. So let us enter with the dogs that we might lie in the corner and steal some of the heat from the hearth, soaking in the love of God vicariously, or so we think, just let us slink in quietly and we will be no trouble. We will just curl into the corner, or as the psalmist says, we will hide in the fold of God’s tent. But we did not count on God’s longing for us, the weeping and unending days as God sat on the porch rocking, crying where is my child? Where is my child?
What we recall is only that we left saying, die old man and leave me my inheritance and we cannot forgive ourselves for this. We left saying, I have so many other things to do, places to go, people to see, and we had no time, no time. But as the longing for God began to burn within us we could not stay gone, could not stay away. Our hunger for God, very God, the loneliness that cuts more deep, that ferments and seasons us as few human or even divine ingredients can, as Hafiz said so many, many years ago, this loneliness, this hunger for God, burns away the dross in our soul, burns away all resistance until we can only return back up the path we scurried down not so long ago.
We are left hanging on by a prayer, where this prayer and all our best theology is only a wounded word, a cry to God, very God, to come and be present, to come and touch our hearts and souls, to stir us with desire and longing, to call us into being and becoming even more than we can imagine. Knowing that the very act of prayer is surrendering to a love and a desire for God which will break us, will tenderize our hearts, and leave us open as never before.
This unexpected kindness, this grace, this tender touch, upon our souls, will leave us shuddering in surrender, dropping to our knees, even at the mention of the name, for the power of God does not lay in coercion or force, god forbid, but the incredible undoing tenderness of a love so complete as to be beyond our comprehension, but somehow, not beyond our reception. Which ought to be impossible, but God desires it. Is it any wonder it rocks us to our knees?
This longing that pervades our world, that calls us into community, that calls us into connection with the Divine, is written on our hearts, planted there like the seed of a magnificent tree that will grow within us, shifting and changing all that we are. It’s carved into the DNA of our being and we can only pretend not to feel it for a little while now and then. Always it calls us back. Always it shapes and twists our being insisting on the interconnected nature of humanity and divinity. It calls us to see always the sacred image in those around us. It opens our eyes and says, hey look! That one, over there, is a beautiful child of God, and this one too! And while mostly we try to shield our hearts, when anything dramatic occurs it rips this shield away and we are broken open. We cannot pass a car wreck, not even a fender bender, without our hearts being pulled to the occupants of the car. We cannot listen to sirens passing without a tug and a fear. We cannot see someone cry without our hearts being pulled.
That hunger which God planted in our hearts will always lead us home. As birds migrating north follow an internal guide the longing for God draws us ever onward, ever home.
We pray and call on God, for no matter how profound our misery and longing for God, God’s love runs deeper, no matter how strong our sorrow, the name of God is stronger. We long for God in a longing to be made whole, and the cost of this wholeness is to be broken open to a love far greater than we can conceive or imagine.
Please pray with me: Gracious God, reach into the hidden places in our souls, where fear and pain lurk, and love us until it heals. Amen
You have heard it said that this text is about Thomas and his doubts. That he is an example of what not to be, but I want to tell a story about God’s love for Thomas, a story about a love so powerful it can see into every crack and cranny where fear might hide. Every crevice where pain hides out, whispering those painful, anxious thoughts that cause us to withdraw on too many a fine day. I want to tell you a story about a god who is, in and of God’s very self, relational. A god who, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, is engaged in this wonderous dance, first one leading, then the other, as each celebrates the other. A god who reaches out to each and every one of us, swinging us up into God’s very arms, bringing us into this dance of love and joy. This is the god I want to speak of. Not the recriminating, you don’t have enough faith god, but the one who reaches for us even when we pull away. One who loves us in the depths of our misery and despair, in the midst of our anger and pain, in the midst of our fear and anxiety; a god who meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us there. This is the God we meet in Jesus Christ. This is the God I want to speak of today.
I want to meet this god through Thomas and his story. I want to join Thomas in his grief and his loss, in his exclusion and his pain. I want to hear Thomas from across the centuries speak to us. I imagine it would go something like this:
First it was the women, saying they had seen Jesus, had spoken with him, but really, we all know that could never happen. I understand their grief, their desire to believe that what had happened could be undone, could be erased, but that’s not the way life works. I felt for them, in their pain and grief, but that was all.
Then it was everyone else! Saying that Jesus had come to them, not as spirit or a ghost but as a living breathing man. They assured me it was real. But, that’s not the way life worked. It hadn’t worked that way when my childhood friend died, or my grandparents, or, well death happens, there had been others. Once dead, one stayed dead. What they were saying was silly, and a bit disturbing.
We had to get on with things. We couldn’t just pretend that death could be reversed! Hadn’t I said, if we go to Jerusalem, they will kill him, and if our teacher, our rabbi and prophet, set his face to Jerusalem, was resolute, then we ought to go with him expecting to die also! Hadn’t I said that? This is the way of the world! This is just the way things are! You can’t change the way things are.
But, I couldn’t let it alone. The thoughts played through my mind over and over. If only I’d been more faithful, more courageous, maybe he would have come to me, I mean, if it could happen. But I hadn’t. I hadn’t gone to the cross with him. I’d been so scared.
Somehow, and I could think of so many ways it might have been, somehow I had failed him. The others were all lit up by his presence! Oh but I could see it. I knew that look on their faces. I knew that feeling, how he could reach into your heart and soul and make everything all right again, but this time, I had been denied, and I both knew why and didn’t know why. I just kept thinking over and over of what I might have done wrong, but mostly, I just tried really hard not to think about it. Because that’s not the way life works.“
We’ve all been there haven’t we? Last to be picked for sports teams in elementary school. The one left dateless on prom night. The one without an invitation to the party. The one who is left wondering why they aren’t good enough, not loved, not chosen, not appreciated, not valued. Not loved.
And don’t we all know what it is to face a hard reality? And the frustration of people telling us to “just think positive” or sharing one miracle cure after another that they heard of on the internet?
Can we take hope from Thomas’ story? For who among us has not wondered, can I be loved? Who among us has not secretly thought, well if they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me. And if you haven’t, and bless you if you haven’t because it’s a wonderful and gracious thing to have such a wonderful sense of yourself, still we can empathize. We’ve seen this kind of pain all too often. It’s the pre-teen girl who posts a picture of herself online asking this anonymous community if she’s pretty enough to be loved. It’s the angry young man who bullies and threatens because the whole world feels unsafe and he’s sure no one could really want him, love him, as he is.
I want to share a story that touched my heart. It’s the story of an elementary school teacher who every Friday, would ask the kids in her class to write down who they want to sit with next week. Who they want to have on their teams in group projects and then for hours she would pour over these lists of who is most loved, most wanted, who is chosen, who is not. A friend asked her about this and this is what she said,
“I know it might be arrogant, but I feel like I’m preventing the next Columbine, the next school shooting. You see, I’m looking for the kids no one wants to sit with, the ones no one notices or befriends, the outsiders, the excluded, the unwanted. I just think, if I could help them find friends now, when they’re still little, if I could help them to see themselves as beloved and wanted and chosen. I don’t know if it makes any difference really, but after Columbine, I had to do something.”
There is such power in being seen, in being invited in, in being included, in being named and claimed as one of us.
This is evangelism, this is the bringing of a good word, of a life-transformative experience of love, and the really cool thing is, we get to do it. The cool thing and the scary thing, is that God has entrusted us with the love and care of God’s very beloved children-each other.
That moment when your name is called, and you know, you know that finally it’s really you. Not those times when you are first chosen or even chosen in the middle of choosing, but that one time when all the choosing was done and you were sure that you were forgotten. When all the invitations have been sent out, but none for you. When all the names have been called but not yours. When it seems like no one sees you anymore they are so busy celebrating their loves, their invitations, their moment of glory…and then, as if from nowhere, someone calls your name!
That moment. But Jesus wasn’t done yet. He wasn’t done reaching into the pit of despair and loss and grief that had been welling up in Thomas’ heart. Thomas the one who had been prepared to “go with Jesus to Jerusalem and die there with him.” Thomas who had never expected any moment of reprieve from the loss he had experienced. Thomas who was willing to bravely soldier on through all the pain and grief, but please, please, don’t expect me to believe in miracles. It’s just too hard, too unfathomable, too outrageous. That Thomas. But no, just no. Thomas was a realist. He faced life on life’s terms and he knew that once dead is always dead. So no. No to the outrageous hope which defied all reality, all experience. Jesus was never going to call his name again. Never embrace him again. Never laugh with him again. Never share a meal with him again. And Thomas bravely moved through this finality. He didn’t deny it, but what rational man would?
So yes, that moment. When all hope is lost and the crazy ramblings of a few people wasn’t going to change that.
It is that moment that Jesus steps into and calls Thomas’ name. It is that moment, when it feels right and natural to harden one’s heart, to just move on, to get on with life, because nothing can be done. It is into that hardness and determination to survive that Jesus invites Thomas into a softer, more vulnerable, intimate embrace than he had ever thought possible. Into the pain, the grief, the loss, the hardness, Jesus brings gentleness, intimacy, vulnerability. “Go on, touch my wounds. Come close and feel my breath, breathe in my scent, hear my voice, come close. Do not be unbelieving, but abide in me.” Do not let your fear harden your heart and make your life small and desparate, but become soft, take the risk and come close to me again.
Jesus comes bearing his wounds and his flesh for Thomas to touch and feel, but it is Thomas’ wounds which are healed. It is Thomas’ despair, grief, and loss which receive that breath of new life.
Thomas’ head must have whirled with confusion, with desire and fear all at once. To touch the beloved teacher, to feel the warmth of his skin and see the gentle laughter in his eyes? Was not Thomas’ heart burning within his chest? Was he not rocked almost to his knees? To be so loved, that even death could not touch nor diminish that love, that even a brutal, tortured death, could not prevent that love from stirring his heart back to life one more time!
Had not some part of Thomas, some hope, some faith, died on that cross with Jesus?
And was it not the certainty of that loss rather than doubt which closed Thomas heart? But the moment he hears his name, doubt is stirred, doubt questions, and hope bubbles up in his chest! And Thomas, who had so bravely declared that he would die with Jesus, is just brave enough to let that hope fully enter his heart, overwhelm his certainties, and open his fearful heart to wonder, mystery, and a love that is well beyond his or our understanding.
It’s in those places where we’ve hardened our hearts and we’ve given up hope, where we’ve accepted that this is just the way life is and it won’t get any better, it’s into those locked down, locked up places that Jesus speaks our name, calling us into a new future, a new potential, asking us to be vulnerable enough to hope again, to love again, to believe again. It’s in those raw and painful wounds that Jesus breathes new life. It’s into that joyless resignation that Jesus takes our hand and invites us to join the dance and in so doing to abide in him as he abides in the Father. We are swept up, carried away, like a child who is caught up in a loving parent’s arms.
Doubt is the open door through which Jesus enters. Doubt is the glorious openness to the unknown. It is the refusal to accept the common answers. It is both the refusal to deny death, grief, and loss and the willingness to transcend them.
It is my hope that when you are asked to doubt all that you have ever known, about how life is, about death and taxes, about broken hearts and not-good-enough, when you are invited to doubt that things really have to be this way, you too will doubt, will wonder, will question. That you too will be swept up in those loving arms giddy for a moment, laughing, surprised and delighted, and that you will allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be carried away, overcome by emotion, that you too will join Thomas in proclaiming, my lord, and my God!