Dorothy Richard, Diane Lukins, Kathy Markgraf, Ryan Beck, and Olivia Avery share their experience of being engaged in the mission of YPM
I was really struck by the word ‘disciple’ in today’s reading. I’m not usually one given to doing word studies but this time I did. I looked over all the Greek and every instance in Matthew’s gospel where he used it and it seems to me that if we were to use a modern day term we would talk about students. This is a common and easily understood word so why do even our most modern translations continue the use of the word disciple? Now, most of you know that I’m engaged in trying to gentle and train to saddle a mustang and nothing seems more like the ancient arguments about whose disciple you are than trainers arguing about which method they follow. Some are disciples of Clinton Anderson, others Buck Brannaman, some follow Parelli or Lyons. But there is something beyond which horse trainer we are students of, or disciples of, and that is the love of the horse and the desire to shape and form a willing, working partner out of a scared, feisty, thousand pound animal.
Now, I’ve heard some critics say that today’s Christians are more followers of Paul than of Jesus and I’ve heard more arguments about wanting to institutionalize and mandate the laws of Moses than the way of Christ and so it behooves us (see what I did there?) to consider what undergirds our worship, our study, our discipleship. If the formation of a willing, happy partner undergirds all horse training, what undergirds our discipleship? What are we to create students of? And this brings us to Christ and the way of Christ and what it means to follow that path. What are we to be students of?
Our job is to love radically. To refuse to give up on people. to love the unlovable. To forgive. To accept. To create spaces of belonging where people can experience grace directly.
We ought to be strange and different. We are not of this world. We are supposed to be odd and weird. If we are just like the rest of the world, why would anyone bother to come in? Someone once said that, to all those outside the church it’s like a football huddle, we know something important is going on in there, but all we can see is their backsides. If we speak the Word of truth we have been given, we will be speaking against the dominant world paradigm. We will be living from a different place, and this will be apparent.
The world will tell you that all is hopeless and you ought to live in fear, you ought to dehumanize your enemies, you ought to competing fiercely for every little thing. But this is not what God tells us. The world will tell you, you are not good enough as you are, that you must change, shape, form yourself into something better, achieve, compete, win. But this is not what God tells us.
We are the opposing voice to the dominant paradigm. We are the ones inviting people to see that God and all that is good is stronger and more enduring than any evil the world can come up with.
We are not called to force the gospel, an ideology, or correct theology on anyone, but to love them, to love them with an unworldly, crazy love, without any prerequisite. When we hear people say, “those people aren’t even human” or “those people are evil,” or “those people don’t count,” we are called to be that opposing voice, that loving voice which says, “they, and you, are a beloved child of God, and nothing can change that.”
We are not called to make students of all nations because we have the right answers or the best worship, the most correct way of doing and being Christian, we are called only because we have decided to follow Jesus. We are welcomed with all our doubts intact and invited into a relationship with mystery and awe, with wonder and amazement. Love that is real, loves before any assurance, it does not demand that one conform or surrender their minds. Some doubted, some hesitated, and that’s okay. We are not called to enforce a particular theology or correct idea, we are called to love and let this love be a radical, life changing witness to all God has done. As Anne Lamott reminds us, the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty, it is rigidity, it is to lay hold of an ideology with such firmness that you forsake God in pursuit of being right and correct.
Last week we asked how we can possibly sit still with all that God has done and is doing! I hope that when you come to church you leave bothered and inspired, troubled and motivated, full of courage and without fear. Jesus said, You will do greater things than I, and perhaps he said that because he was working with 12 disciples and he left them with a legacy that changed the world! With an incredible story to tell, with the Holy Spirit running through their veins! If only 12 can change the world, what do you suppose 24 might do, or 48, or 96? If we attend closely to where the Spirit is leading us, if we allow the Holy Spirit, that life-giving breath of God, to live and breathe in us…what can’t we do? So yes, leave here disturbed and shaken because we have so much to do and we are so very capable of doing it! Each moment can be that moment when we launch into a spirit-guided, spirit-driven, radical life of witness and love! And that ought to disturb you a little.
Years ago I met a pastor whose congregation had confronted him. They thought he was going too far, too out there, too radical and so they confronted him. “How far do you intend to take this?” they asked. He held up the bible and said, “No farther than this.” Placated they left, feeling assured that he would stay within the bounds of good order and decency. He laughed as he recalled this, picked up the bible on his desk, and said, “Haven’t they ever read this?”
So yes, maybe we ought to be a little disturbed by this call to go and make disciples, go and to make students of God, students of love, mercy and justice. Go and turn people’s lives upside down, giving them a new rule by which to order their lives, a rule of mercy, grace and love, a rule of restoration and not retribution. It offends our sense of justice, there is no eye for an eye, no balancing of the scales, all debts are wiped clean. It is scandalous grace! So go, and make people students of this! Students of forgiveness, students of mercy, students of service, students of love.
Is it any wonder that we resist the urgings of the Holy Spirit when it wants to turn our lives this upside down? Yet if we live this way, if we really live this way, all of our neighbors will know. There will be no inward focused huddle, backsides to the world, seeking only our own good! The whole world will know what we are doing, will see it! because we will be living lives of active mission.
These days it seems like one can hardly look at the daily news without one more horror story and it can be tempting to give in to the idea that evil and hatred are too powerful to oppose, but we must not. A friend of mine, the Reverend Dr. Steven Koski, wrote this week that, “we are in the midst of a daily onslaught of violence, tragedy, hate, discord, injustice and pain. What will be our reply? There is a temptation to allow fear, despair and division to lay claim to our hearts… Now, more than ever, we need to lean into love.” Now more than ever we need to study love, mercy and grace. Now more than ever we need to be devout students of the way of Jesus.
We are called to be students of love, to love radically. To refuse to give up on people. to love the unlovable. To forgive. To accept. To create spaces of belonging where people can experience grace directly.
Scripture tells us that we can have lots and lots of wonderful things, but if don’t have love, we have missed the mark, we have stumbled and lost our way. We are not called to go and make students of great philosophy, ideology, or even theology, we are not called to maintain big, beautiful church buildings. We are called to make students of Jesus’ way, the way of mercy, love, and grace, the way of healing and feeding, the way of inclusion, the way of love. We are called not to our own salvation and healing, but for the salvation and healing of the whole world.
So it is fitting and wonderful synchoncity that the great commission was on the lectionary the day that we get to bless and send a mission to New Orleans.
Reader 1, It was a marvelous time. A time of wonders and confusion. We never knew what was coming. I mean, Jesus had died. Some of us were there and we saw it. But then he came to us. It was crazy! Can you imagine? We had seen him die and then he was here, alive again with us!
He ate with us. He talked and laughed with us. We didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed like the end of the world to some, to others it was a new beginning. For forty days he was with us, eating, talking, laughing, just like he always had done.
Reader 2-But then he was taken up, in this cloud. It blew us away, watching him rise. His last words to us were to wait, to stay in Jerusalem and wait. So we did.
Reader 3-We waited and we waited. We decided that Judas had to be replaced; that we needed to have twelve disciples, just like when he was here. We missed Jesus the moment he was gone and to be honest we just wanted things to be the same again. The way it had been, so we cast lots and chose Matthias to take Judas’ place. And we waited some more.
Sermon —have you ever wanted to catch hold of a moment in time, to keep it the way it was? To stop time in its tracks and not let a thing be changed? Or maybe the future seemed too frightening to go it alone. So you did what you could to preserve things just the way they were, you waited for rescue and you hoped that somehow those golden days would return, that things would be all right again.
When trauma happens, when crisis changes everything it’s OK to pull back from the world, to take a moment, to breathe deep and recenter yourself. This is a good thing. But it can be tempting to stay there, to not move on. Jesus’ last words were to wait, to take some time and just be, just be together.
Imagine the shift these people had been through, the trauma they had witnessed, the powerlessness they must have felt and the incredible surprise that somehow in the midst of that it was OK. It was OK because Jesus was still with them. For forty days he was with them and then he left promising to send an advocate, a helper in his place. If ever a group of people needed to take a moment to figure things out it was these people. How confusing it must have been to be waiting in Jerusalem for this breath of God, this holy wind to come and to, well to do what? They really didn’t know. They had been told to wait and so they did.Confused, astonished, inspired and still confused they waited. And while they waited they hung on to what little they could, those things that made them feel normal, made things make sense as much as possible. It’s what we do as people isn’t it? To try and maintain normality in the midst of transition. But this time of waiting can’t be all we are here for. This time of waiting comes to an end.
Reader 4-We were careful not to make waves. I mean things had settled down a bit after Jesus’ death but we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. What good would it do if we were all killed?
Reader 2-We met often in the upper room. Careful not to be seen as we gathered. We talked about what we had seen when he was here; we talked about what he had said. We talked and talked but mostly we just waited.
Reader 1,That’s where we were on Pentecost. The city was filled with visitors who had come to celebrate the giving of the law on Sinai. There was so much to do, so much going on in the city, it was a festival! I love festivals!!
Reader 3,So here we were in the house, listening to James talk. It was early in the day, the heat hadn’t yet penetrated the shadows.
Reader 4, Suddenly there was this sound like a rushing wind, like a hurricane. It was terrifying! People were screaming and ducking for cover.
It was like fire! I swear there was fire though nothing burned! Fire, lighting up each person, lighting us all up! We were filled with the Holy Spirit! It filled the whole building!
Reader 1, This had to be it! The thing we were waiting for!! There was no more waiting, it was time! We were overflowing with words, with love, with freedom, with joy, we couldn’t contain it!
Reader 3—I never felt so alive and we couldn’t sit still! We ran out into the streets and just started telling everyone about this wonderful thing!
Reader 2, and the words we were speaking! Who knew I could talk like this!
Reader 4—they all heard us! We were so full of joy, I wanted to sing and dance and oh man it was crazy! I couldn’t keep quiet I told everyone and then, and then I realized I wasn’t speaking my own language! But everyone I spoke to, they heard me as if my words were meant just for them!
Reader 1—I grabbed this one man and just gave him a hug! I told him God loved him and had accepted him as if he were God’s very own child! He stared at me and then laughed.
Reader 3 people were coming from everywhere, a huge crowd gathered and they were shocked and surprised because each one of them heard us speaking in their own native language. This wasn’t coming from us!!
Sermon — no it wasn’t coming from them. It was something new, something unexpected. God calls us into new places, into new situations that we cannot anticipate. We are called and sent. This was the birth of the church. It was “ecclesia” the calling out of the church out from the private sector into the world, out from individual salvation to expression of God’s love for the whole world. God had come to reconcile the world to God’s self, not a select few. God had come. It was not that we had to work our way up to God. God had come. How could these people sit still? How can we? The unanticipated grace and love of God is still so hard to grasp to accept. It not only calls us but sends us, sends us out into the world. Just as the disciples found themselves in the street contrary to the best advice of friends and strangers, so we are called to and sent.
Here in this moment of Pentecost, fearing death and persecution, these people were so overcome by grace that they lived, if even for a moment, from that place of knowing, of knowing that God has come and everything will be OK. They rushed into the streets and they shouted and they sang and they spread the news!
And they did it in a personal and individual way. Each person was met exactly where they were. Spoken to in such a way that they might hear and understand. How do we do that today? Do we not allow for diversity in the spoken word? Some need dialogue and need to enter into the conversation, others need to be taught with authority, still others “hear” best through music or art. Even today we speak many languages. We speak the language of youth and restlessness, we speak the language of age and new revelation, we speak the language of solidarity and tradition. We speak many languages! And in each language we seek to be faithful. In each manifestation we seek only to manifest God.
And how can we sit still how can we keep from singing and dancing and proclaiming when there is such deep need in the world? Church is born anew each time we find ourselves driven out by the Spirit to the other. We may rest,briefly, hiding behind our walls, seeking security and certainty, some reprieve from the crazy chaos of the world but church is expressed when we are so filled with joy, filled with grace and love that we cannot help but reach out to those in need. When we find ourselves so excited by the change and the transformation that is going on within us that we are driven by the Spirit to invite others along for the ride. “Come and see what God has done!” If there is any mission of the church it is not to get our theology correct, as if we might grasp and contain God within our concepts, it is not to fill our pews that this organization might continue, it is to spread the word of God that everyone might know, might experience and perceive God’s gracious gift. God did not call us to sustain ourselves, nor to attain some great intellectual insight, but to love one another, to be the light of Christ in the world, to all people.
Reader 4—the crowd around us began to be filled with laughter, some excited by what was happening, others in disbelief. Some wondered aloud if we were followers of the dead Jew Jesus and if we too would soon be dead being as bold as we were.
Reader—1 some began to say we were drunk. If only they knew! We were drunk on something, but not wine, no! We were filled with the Holy Spirit. We were consumed with God!
Reader 2—Peter, he came out and talked to them. He told them we weren’t drunk, that it was God working in us, that something awesome and amazing had happened.
Reader 3—some believed and they too accepted the Holy Spirit, a whole lot of them in fact. We just told them what God had done and it changed their lives too!
Sermon—We told them what had happened and it changed their lives. Changed their lives. Can you imagine? Can you believe? We have a Word that changes peoples’ lives. A Word that invites them to live from a different place. A transformative Word. We like to put that off on other people, some people, the mother Theresa’s amongst us, they might have a Word but me? Who am I to change people’s lives? Who am I to invite people into a new way a being. To invite them into that transformative moment when the divine impacts them, changes them forever.
Who are we not to? We are Church, called and sent. Filled with the Holy Spirit, consumed with God, freed to new life. Yes, sometimes we wait, we anticipate, we hold our breath and re-center ourselves. We take deep breathes and replenish ourselves, but then we breathe out too. As we have received so we give. It is in the giving that we become Christ’s body in the world. It is in the giving that we become Church.
What we are called to is counter-cultural. It is to step outside the norm, the expectations for how life is. It is to understand that we only have what we give away. It is in attempting to own or contain the truth, capital T truth, that we lose it. We become Church as we participate in the self-giving action of Christ. Yes we do withdraw into ourselves at times, we find our foundation in prayer and contemplation, in scripture and study, but we don’t stay there. We participate in the respiration of the Spirit, breathing in the nurturing, loving, life-giving, Spirit and breathing out the Word, the missional, evangelical, sending and calling Word. The Word that says “come to me, all who are weary,” The Word that says, “I would gather you as a mother hen gathers her chicks,” The Word that says, “I stand at the door and knock.”
Today is the birthday of the church. Not as those who have a unique and special experience, or the right understanding, not as those who withdraw from the world seeking only their own salvation, but as those who are sent as carriers of God’s love to embrace the world. Those who are sent as messengers of the good news, God has come. God has come and embraced us, even in our darkest and meanest moments, God has come that we might know God. And nothing will ever be the same again. God has come. And we are forever changed.
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!