Close Encounters

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday of Easter + April 3, 2016

Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31


For the last month or so my guilty pleasure has been watching Fargo, the TV series, inspired by the Coen brothers film from the 1990s. In Season 2 there are constant — but not really connected or explained — references to alien life: What were those weird lights in the sky? Why is the young kid drawing flying saucers? Did the narrator just quote War of the Worlds?

(**mild spoiler alert for those who haven’t finished season 2 and care about the alien subplot line**)

In the last episodes there is a huge shoot-out at a motel: two warring Midwestern crime mobs face off in their last battle, and the police are caught in the middle. Suddenly, it appears: a giant flying saucer, hovering just a couple of hundred feet above the ground, shining beams of light down on the gunfire and fistfights. Everything comes to a halt as everyone stares up at this unbelievable sight. Then, just as suddenly, the spaceship disappears.

fargo

Photo Credit: Entertainment Weekly website

What I enjoyed most about this crazy scene was watching the characters react to their U.F.O. sighting. Peggy, a young woman who has never been fully hooked into reality, seems totally unfazed. She and her husband are making a run for it, and when he stops to stare at this thing in the sky, she just says: “It’s just a flying saucer, Ed. We gotta go!” When the saucer flies away, everyone goes back to the fight as if nothing had happened.[1]

A few days later, two of the most level-headed and competent characters in the show — a pair of police officers — talk about the UFO sighting. They’d both been eyewitnesses. Sheriff Larsson asks, “So…you gonna put that in your report, then?”

“What?” asks Officer Solverson, “‘Gunfight interrupted by spacecraft’?”

“Yeah…maybe leave that [as] subtext…”

Even though they both saw this giant flying saucer, neither of them finds the story believable…at least not believable enough for a police report.[2]

Jesus’s disciples witnessed something even more unbelievable than a flying saucer appearing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; they saw a living man appear after they had seen him die.

Of course there are many ways we can attempt to prove that Christ’s resurrection really happened: the authors of the gospels did it themselves, writing about how Roman soldiers had been guarding the tomb, so the disciples couldn’t have stolen the body (Matt. 27:62-66); how the stone had already been rolled away when the first of the Jesus-followers showed up at the tomb (Luke 24:1-12; in Matt. 28, they see an angel roll the stone); how the resurrected Christ ate fish with the disciples, so he couldn’t have been just a ghost (Luke 24:36-42). Christian apologists from today add that those people who saw the resurrected Christ probably weren’t hallucinating or lying, because the whole lot of them chose to face persecution and even martyrdom rather than renege on their story about the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.

But even with all those arguments, the resurrection is still unbelievable.

Officer Solverson could have written about the U.F.O. sighting in his report. He could have quoted multiple eyewitnesses. But still, I think he was wise to leave it out. No matter the proof, no one would have believed the report, because everybody knows flying saucers are a bunch of hooey.

And if “everybody knows” that, how much more does everybody know that dead bodies don’t come back to life. Even if we could prove it happened, it would still be unbelievable. We would find a way to doubt, because resurrection is just not how the world works.

So maybe we can understand why Thomas didn’t believe his friends’ report about receiving a visit from the resurrected Jesus. Sure, a whole group of his closest companions shared their eyewitness testimony. Sure, he had heard Jesus talk about dying and rising. Sure, he’d seen Lazarus raised from the dead with his own eyes (John 11). But still the resurrection was unbelievable. Maybe Thomas reasoned his way out of all the proof. Maybe his doubt was just a gut reaction. But in any case he was responding based on what he knew to be true of the world: death is death. People don’t come back.

Thomas didn’t believe otherwise until he’d experienced Jesus for himself, until he’d had a real close encounter, touched Jesus’s crucified body, heard Jesus speak to him. And then Thomas did more than admit that Jesus had been brought back to life. In that very moment Thomas made the most basic and yet most life-changing confession of the Christian faith. He looked at this man, crucified-and-resurrected, and exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”

So how do we react to the unbelievable story of Christ’s resurrection?

I would wager a guess that few — if any — of us react with faith because we heard a convincing argument. Even C. S. Lewis, that great logical mind, who did spend much time debating the reasonability of Christian belief, who heard arguments and argued back, who studied the faith so carefully before becoming a Christian, and who, as a Christian, wrote many a logical defense of the faith…even C.S. Lewis, in the end, described his coming to faith as an experience of encountering God; and his confession almost echoes that of Doubting Thomas. In his autobiography he wrote:

You must picture me in [my room], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In…1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.[3]

It reminds me of a conversation I had with some friends from Vanderbilt Divinity School shortly after we’d all graduated. We were all about to embark on very different religious careers: one pastor, one hospital chaplain, two prison ministers, one director of religious life at a college, one scholar. Some of us had grown up in mainline traditions; some Southern Baptist; some, secular households; I’m sure at least one of us had been raised by hippies. What we had in common — besides being a bunch of white women — was that we were all very intellectual and rather skeptical, and we’d come to divinity school ready to doubt and question and challenge, and not entirely sure whether we were going to hold on to our faith through that process — or whether we even wanted to. My friend Sarah asked us: So, do you still believe in God?

I expected a variety of answers, but we all shared one. And it wasn’t what you might expect from a bunch of Vanderbilt eggheads, e.g. “Well, I had my doubts, but that paper by Kathryn Tanner really convinced me.” No. The answer we all shared was: “I can’t explain why. I have a lot of doubts, and I’ve even tried to stop believing…but I just feel like God won’t let me go.” It was not a well-reasoned argument; it was the reluctant confession of a bunch of doubters who’d had an encounter with the holy.

The main message of Martin Luther’s reforms was that it is faith alone that saves us: faith that God loves us and forgives us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet even for Luther this faith was more than believing that message to be a fact; it was primarily the result of an encounter with God. In the Small Catechism, in the section on the Apostle’s Creed, Luther wrote:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…[4]

For Doubting Thomas, for C. S. Lewis, for Martin Luther, for many people I know personally, and for myself: believing in the God revealed in Jesus Christ is less about agreeing with certain statements, and more about encountering a God who won’t let us go — an encounter that drives us to exclaim “My Lord and my God!” sometimes even despite our doubt.

Jesus wouldn’t let Thomas get away with his doubt; instead, he appeared and said “Here I am. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.”

How does God encounter you? Maybe you have had a “mountaintop experience” that changed your heart in an instant. Maybe there is something going on in worship or in the stories of the Bible that moves you. Maybe you look back on a life spent going to church on Sunday mornings, and you just feel like that’s where you belong. Maybe you found something in the life of faith that had been missing: peace, joy, forgiveness, acceptance. Maybe you simply find yourself here this morning, or praying by yourself, or thinking about God, and can’t put your finger on why.

Another question is: how can we, as the Church, help others to encounter God? Surely God can and does work on God’s own to reach out to people. But the Church is referred to as “the Body of Christ” frequently enough in scripture that I have come to see it as more than a description or a metaphor, but as a calling, as a mission. As Jesus says in today’s gospel reading: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Living out our mission as the Church is less about convincing people of the things we believe, and more about offering an encounter with the Body of Christ. Doubting Thomas came to believe because he encountered the Body of Christ.  In that moment Christ’s body bore the marks of crucifixion and death: it was vulnerable; it had known suffering; it had sacrificed. Yet it was also invigorated with new life: a life that didn’t survive, but triumphed over death.

How can we — the Church — be that Body of Christ for those around us? How do we best offer what Jesus offered to Thomas: Touch Christ’s hands, see Christ’s body, experience both the sacrifice, and the new life?

Let us pray: Open our hearts to your presence moving around us and between us and within us, until your glory and compassion are revealed not only to us, but in us. In the name of Jesus, crucified and risen, we pray. Amen.[5]


Sources of Inspiration:

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, “#477 – Second Sunday of Easter,” Sermon Brainwave podcast, March 27, 2016. Available online.

[1] Fargo: Year 2, “The Castle,” Ep. 9, directed by Adam Arkin, written by Noah Hawley and Steve Blackman, FX, originally aired Dec. 7, 2015.

[2] Fargo: Year 2, “Palindrome,” Ep. 10, directed by Adam Arkin, written by Noah Hawley, FX, originally aired Dec. 15, 2015.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, (London: Harvest Books, 1966) pp. 228-229.

[4] Martin Luther, “Small Catechism,” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), Third Article to the Creed, 355-356.

[5] Adapted from an intercessory prayer provided by Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary resources for April 3, 2016 (2nd Sunday of Easter, Year C), available online at http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=134

Prisoners of Hope

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin TN + Advent 1 + November 29, 2015

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36


The dichotomy is irresolvable: knowledge of death and hope for life both have their claws in me. –Dorothee Soelle

Our Advent wreath stands right here before me, with that very first Advent candle burning brightly. Each of the candles in the wreath represents a different intention for our devotion during the season of Advent; each candle is a reminder of one of the gifts God promises to us, something to meditate on as we prepare our hearts and our lives for Christ to come into them, again and again. The first candle is for hope; the second for faith; the third for joy; and the last candle is for peace.

The candle we lit today is the hope candle, sometimes called the “Prophet’s Candle.” It reminds us that in the midst of all the dark, depressing, or just frustrating stuff of life, God gives us reason to hope. A devotion Pastor Lippard led for some groups here at church this week put it in even stronger words: we are prisoners of hope.

“Prisoners of Hope” comes from Zech. 9, in which God promises to send a king to restore Israel: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (v. 12).

That phrase stuck with me. Something about calling myself a “prisoner of hope” felt like it hit on something stronger and more true than simply saying “we are hopeful people” or even “we are the people who never lose hope.” I think it’s because a lot of the time I am not a hopeful person.

Well, no, that’s not exactly right. I’ll force myself to be more honest. I try not to be a hopeful person. I am a very hopeful person. Sometimes too hopeful.  And that terrifies me. So one of my most automatic defense mechanisms is to try and stop myself from hoping too much.

Because hoping is not passive or easy or safe. Sure, when I hear the word “hope”, the first images that pop into my head are always the cute, fluffy ones: someone daydreaming about the perfect career or the perfect love or the perfect afternoon and being filled with that warm, sunlit feeling that it will come to be. They go on about their day with a little bounce in their step, a little more patience, and a little more strength, because they have that hope lighting them up from the inside.

But that’s not how hope really works. Hope is so much more assertive, so much more demanding. Hope gives us a vision for the future. And then that vision gets inside of us; it becomes part of the way we imagine our lives; we start to make choices based on that hope we have for the future. We start to prepare for it. We make ourselves vulnerable to it.

And that’s what terrifies me. What if I put all this time and effort and emotional energy towards a hope that falls apart? What if that eight-year-old boy gets up early on a Saturday and reorganizes his tackle-box and digs up worms in the backyard, and then his dad can’t take him fishing after all? What if a woman turns down a leadership position on a big project at work so that she can focus on interviewing for a new, better job…and then doesn’t get the job? What if I spend time with these guys in jail, encouraging and mentoring and forming friendships, hoping that they start living better…and then I see them back in the jail again?

Hope makes so many decisions and sacrifices feel totally worth the risk, and it fills day-to-day life with a special energy; but crushed hopes make it all feel like a waste. When my hope is crushed, it makes me wonder what could have been, had I not pinned all my energy to that hope. Makes me question my ability to make good decisions. And crushed hope just plain hurts. That’s why I try to run from hope.

And yet I am a prisoner of hope. I can’t escape hoping. Not just because of my personality, but because of my faith. Christianity demands that we hope. Christianity demands that we hope, even when it’s hard to hope, even when it doesn’t make sense to hope, even when it’s dangerous to hope. In the face of overwhelming odds; when we are the weak little underdog; in the valley of the shadow of death, God demands that we hope.  God demands that we hope and that we act on that hope. That is a message I see over and over throughout the Bible, and it’s here in our readings today.

Our first reading comes from the book of Jeremiah, and the fact that Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet” ought to be a good reminder that his messages of hope come from a time when hope must have been nearly impossible. In fact, one of my Bibles introduces this book with the sentence, “The book of Jeremiah was written for people in the throes of suffering.”(1)

Jeremiah prophesied during one of the greatest historical tragedies of the Israelite people: the time when Babylon was taking over the nation of Judah, taking over the capital city, Jerusalem, taking over the government. He spoke the word of God in the midst of violent resistance and chaos as his country collapsed all around him, and as, eventually, its king, its leaders, and many of its people were taken away to exile in Babylon. God had promised to establish the Israelite people in their land, to protect them, to keep David’s decedents on the throne — but now all that seemed gone, destroyed. If ever there was a time that all hope was lost, this was it.

And yet in the middle of the book of Jeremiah are a few chapters that tell the people to keep hoping. Don’t give up on the promises of God. Don’t live your lives like the future you had been promised is gone. Don’t get used to the way things are. Live like you know that God will save you. God remains faithful to you. Stay faithful to your God.

The gospel reading also calls for hope in the midst of hopeless circumstances. At the time when Jesus gave this apocalyptic little speech, he had been in Jerusalem — the big city, the home of the Temple, the center of his religion — long enough to see what was going on there.

And this part of Jesus’s life reminds me of the time Martin Luther first visited Rome. The 2003 movie Luther starring Joseph Fiennes does a great job of portraying it. (Click here to watch the film scene.) The young idealistic monk makes a journey to the great holy city, takes a deep breath to prepare himself for the glorious enlightenment that awaits him there…and then finds himself surrounded by throngs of poor and needy people, sees clergy unabashedly taking part in prostitution, struggles to get away from those peddling things they claim to be holy relics, and, along with rushed crowds of others, pays the church so that he may do penance in behalf of souls in purgatory. When he gets home to Germany, he is disillusioned and angry: “Rome is a circus,” he says. “A running sewer.”

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, his experience was similar. But Jesus was not so idealistic; he was already weeping over the city as he approached, even referencing Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet” (Lk. 19:41-44; Jer. 6). Then he visited the Temple, saw how that holy place had become a place of profane buying and selling, and drove the people out (Lk. 19:45-46). He saw the priests and other religious leaders living richly while the poor widows who had nothing else to live on gave all they had to the Temple (Lk. 20:45-21:4). His disciples looked around and admired the huge, beautiful Temple, but Jesus said: No. It will all be torn down (Lk. 21:5-6). And then he went on to say the words we read earlier this morning: conflict and wars will continue; his followers will be persecuted; nature itself will show signs of suffering. Soon after this speech — in the very next chapter, in the book of Luke (22:39 and on) — Jesus is betrayed by a friend, handed over to the Temple authorities, then handed over to Rome, and then handed over to Death. Maybe Jesus sees all this coming, too (Lk. 18:31-34).

But, again, like in the book of Jeremiah: in the midst of all this betrayal of religion and faith, in the midst of the chaos as a city and culture are crashing down, and even in the midst of personal persecution, Jesus gave a message of hope. And he gave it as a command to his disciples: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

This is not easy hope. This is demanding hope. There will be violence and war, but stand up and raise your heads. Nature will fail, but stand up and raise your heads. You will be persecuted, but stand up and raise your heads. Be faithful. Keep pressing on. Live in the way of Jesus, for your redemption is drawing near.

Jesus’s faithful hope that God would redeem the world from this never-ending cycle of injustice and violence demanded that he live according to that hope. It demanded that he be arrested and crucified rather than give in to that cycle by becoming part of the violence or by being a passive observer to it. From his disciples that hope demanded hard work and travel and sacrifice and persecution and death.

And when these words were written in the Gospel of Luke, they were written for a people who knew what this hope demanded. Living some 50 years or so after Jesus had died, they had seen the Roman governors stomp on the faith and the customs of the Jewish people. They had seen the people of Israel revolt against Rome. They had seen Rome besiege Jerusalem, starving its people. They had seen the Temple go down. Maybe they had suffered themselves, and probably they faced persecution for their faith in Christ. This was no easy time to hope in a savior who had been crucified, who some claimed had been resurrected, but who was so slow to return and set things right.

And yet the Gospel of Luke encouraged those people to hope. To actively hope. It told them to stand up and raise their heads. It told them to live according to the teachings of Jesus even in those dangerous times: to care not only for themselves, but for the people who were most vulnerable to need and suffering. To dare to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. To be willing to sacrifice and to take risks. It told them to have faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. In short, the Gospel commanded them to commit daring acts of hope — hope that the Kingdom of God had indeed drawn near, and would one day come in full.

And the gospel continues to demand that we hope — and that we act on that hope.  So, in this first week of Advent, this season of preparing our hearts and our lives for the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of all God’s promises, I ask you to ask yourself: What does our Christian hope demand from us? What sort of world does God promise for us, and how do we act as if we believe that world is truly coming to be? How do we prepare the way for God’s kingdom?

Female Teen Hands Holding Burning Candle

Image from galleryhip.com


Dorothee Soelle is quoted in Deanna Thompson’s Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), pp. 139.

  1. O’Connor, Kathleen M., “Jeremiah: Introduction,”The Access Bible, ed. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 963.

Doubting (Logical, Loyal) Thomas

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday in Easter + April 12, 2015

Texts: Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Photograph by Andy Moxon, with thanks to A Concord Pastor

Today we tell the story of Doubting Thomas, the man who could not believe the good news that his teacher and Lord had risen from the dead. It seems like the resurrected Christ made a special appearance among his disciples just to say to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
But I also want to tell the bigger story of Thomas the Apostle – Doubting Thomas – who might also be called Thomas the Logical, or Thomas the Loyal, or maybe Thomas the Grieving.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are pretty quiet about this disciple of Jesus, but in the Gospel of John we get a few glimpses of his character. There is, of course, the famous story of Doubting Thomas. But before that, there’s the story of Jesus’s friend Lazarus.

Jesus and his disciples have just left the region of Judea, fleeing across the Jordan River after Jesus was nearly arrested and stoned to death. Then Jesus gets the news: your friend, Lazarus, is dead. Jesus plans to travel back to Judea, to the place where Lazarus is lying in his tomb.

His disciples are 100% AGAINST this idea. They say to him, “Rabbi, the Judeans were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?” When Jesus explains that his friend is dead and that he has a plan up his sleeve, it is Thomas who turns to the other disciples and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas the Logical knows the cost of following Jesus. Thomas the Loyal will follow his Lord to death. (John 11:1-16).

The second glimpse of Thomas comes later, during Jesus’s last supper with his disciples. Rather cryptically, Jesus is explaining to them that he is going away to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, so that later they might follow him. Thomas is the first to pipe up, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas the Logical wants to know the full plan. Thomas the Loyal is once again ready to follow Jesus anywhere. (John 14:1-6).

The last snippet is the familiar story of Doubting Thomas. Thomas missed out on Jesus’s first appearance to his disciples, and when he rejoins the group later and they’re rushing to explain to him, “Jesus is alive! We saw him! We saw him!” Thomas just isn’t buying it. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Doubting Thomas. But also Thomas the Logical, who needs that physical proof. And maybe Thomas the Loyal is still here too; maybe Thomas wants to make sure he isn’t following a false rumor instead of his true Lord.  And maybe he is also Thomas the Grieving: a man who has just lost his teacher, companion, and hope for the future; a man who is terrified of hoping lest he be hurt all over again.*

We can’t know the exact reason for Thomas’s doubt. But one thing I can say with some certainty is that this story is meant for us, for readers of the gospel who have not seen Christ with our own eyes or touched his wounds with our own hands. After Thomas comes to believe, Jesus goes into Aesop’s Fables mode and tells us the moral of the story: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Maybe we believers will never see and touch the risen Christ in this lifetime. But it is not because Jesus is hiding from us or because God has abandoned us. We are still blessed. We are blessed even without a personal visit from the Savior.
But, if you’re like me, you might be thinking now, “Yeah…but sometimes that’s just not enough.” It’s hard to believe in something we can’t see, hear, or touch. Or, we look around the world and see so many other faiths, all so certain of their truth, and wonder “Why believe in Jesus over all of these?” Or, we see all the tragedy in our world and wonder if there really could be a loving God. Sometimes it seems there are so many reasons to doubt and so few reasons to believe. And in those times we understand Thomas’s doubt. In those times we hear Thomas question the resurrection and think “Yeah! You tell them how hard it is to believe!”**

Still Doubting by John Granville Gregory with thanks to A Concord Pastor

And you know what? I believe that sometimes, when we’re stuck in that Doubting Thomas place, Christ still comes to us, to let us touch and see the power of God.

Think back to our very first reading for today, a reading from the book of Acts. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

It’s not flashy — but isn’t that miracle? Sharing anything can be hard for us humans, and sharing EVERYTHING sounds impossible. And yet here is a group of people willing to lay down their lives and their livelihoods for one another. That has got to be the power of God. That is the Body of Christ in the flesh right here with us.

When the Church is at its best, it lives out that kind of abundant giving, that total generosity. And that radical sharing shows us – and the world – Christ.

I experienced that myself in just these last few weeks. Word got around St. Andrew that I had moved into my own apartment. Almost before I’d signed a lease, I was being stopped in the hallway by people asking if I needed anything: a set of dishes? a couch? help moving? And I thought, “This really is the Body of Christ. I believe in God all over again.”

My friend Caleb told me the same story yesterday without even hearing mine. He was on his way from Virginia to Texas to start a new job. He had first left on Wednesday, but a few hours out his car broke down. When he got back to his hometown, he went right to work looking for a car, but he worried about how he would be able to afford one on such short notice. Word got out to his church. And the money came in. When Caleb finished the story, he said the same thing I did: “There’s that Body of Christ thing!”

It’s not seeing the body of a Jewish teacher from ancient Israel. It’s not putting our hands in the wounds on his body. But when the Church follows in the way of Jesus: the way of washing feet, of sharing just a few loaves and fishes to feed as many as possible, of laying down one’s life for another – when we act like that, it must inspire faith. Such generosity and sacrifice is so different from what we usually see and from what we expect that it must be God’s work.

We truly are the Body of Christ. We are the body sent to all the Doubting Thomases, within the Church and without, to show that God’s power is great, that Christ is risen and working in our midst, Alleluia, Alleluia.


*The idea of Thomas the Grieving came from a comment on “Commentary on John 20:19-31” by Lance Pape. Scott Major wrote: “…Thomas was likely wrestling with loss. I see this often as a chaplain. My brother wasn’t able to be there…present with God and his friends. Is this doubt…maybe, but it is definitely grief.” (April 7, 2015).

**Lance Pape also cheers on Thomas for being willing to voice doubt (see link, above.)

God’s Call, Like Gravity

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday After Epiphany + January 18, 2015

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the ordination of my friend Scott. I met Scott during my first hours at divinity school, and if I could take you back in time to that day, to tell Scott that in four years he would be wearing a stole and presiding over communion, I think his eyes would have popped out of his head. He had come to divinity school with a deep sense of call to ministry, but also with a deep distrust of all religious institutions and with a heavy load of cynicism. And that’s still pretty true of Scott: Actually, when we had coffee a few weeks ago and he told me about his ordination process, he still seemed totally shocked about where he is today. But he also felt in the very core of his being that he was exactly where God had called him to be.  And so he titled his service of ordination: “The Miracle in Nashville: The Bet Las Vegas Lost: The Ordination of Scott Jamieson.”

Our Bible readings for today tell other stories of miracles and lost bets — of God calling surprising people to surprising work. First, we heard the story of the young child Samuel, called by God (rather than the much more experienced priest Eli) in the middle of the night to challenge the rulers of his nation. Next we heard the story of the Christians in Corinth, who were surprised to hear that God’s call on their lives included claims on their bodies as well as their souls. And finally, we heard the story of Jesus calling two of his disciples: Philip, who seems to follow Christ immediately, and Nathanael, who needs to see a little proof that this Jesus guy isn’t just another weirdo from Nazareth. Three people and one group, each called to different tasks in very different ways.

Last weekend the Companions in Christ Sunday school class shared their own call stories with one another. And just as if we could ask Samuel, Nathanael, or Scott about their experience of God’s call, and each of those people would give a different story, so each person in the class had a unique story to tell. Some people could vividly remember a single experience that changed their life and faith in an everlasting way. Many, though, could not really name a single grand moment, but rather thought of their faith-life as a series of less dramatic — though no less significant — calls from God. Some emphasized the call we all receive through our baptism.

But even though we have all these examples of call stories, I don’t think we can set down a specific formula for figuring out when a person is being called by God. Each call story we know is a little different, and a little differently miraculous. The Bible doesn’t even seem to suggest that we can get to such a formula: after all, Samuel’s story is the most-clear cut of all of these calls stories — the little boy actually hears the voice of God calling his name, and runs to a priest for help — and even the priest can’t figure out what’s going on until God’s third try at calling Samuel.

A “call” — Christians tend to believe — is God’s doing. It has something supernatural about it. So maybe it makes sense for it to be confusing, ungraspable, outside of our ability to understand and control. Maybe it makes sense for it to be less like a memo from the boss and more like “the bet that Las Vegas lost” – an experience no one can really predict.

As I prepared this sermon, trying to figure out how exactly I can talk about this weird “call” experience that we all seem to share but which is so hard to pin down, I’ve been thinking of the feeling of a call like the feeling of gravity. As I understand it, Einstein described gravity like this: think of space as having substance and shape. Think of space as a trampoline. If you put a bowling ball on the trampoline, its weight pulls down the fabric. Then, if I roll a baseball onto the trampoline, it follows the fabric and rolls down to hang out with the bowling ball. The trampoline is space, and the bowling ball is a planet. When a smaller object, like the moon, feels that forceful pull that we call “gravity,” it is actually just following that curve made by the large object in space. (For a great video demo, click here.)

From TheConversation.com

OK, enough with the physics. But what I’m trying to say is that there are moments in life that seem to have the weight of planets. There are people, places, events, ideas that seem to so strongly shape my space that I start rolling towards them, almost as if I am being pulled towards them, or as if my life is moving towards them and I’m just following the curve. Joining the ELCA was like that for me: I had not been an official member of a church for at least a decade. I’d been going to Christ Lutheran for only a couple of months when Pastor Gordy mentioned that the congregation would soon be receiving new members. I knew I was going to tell her I wanted to join before I’d ever even thought about it. I felt a pull I could not bring myself to resist, like gravity. Maybe, I think, that pull was from God.

Tomorrow is a day set aside to remember one person who served as a planet for many people: Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a name, a voice, a message, that pulled others into his mission. His speeches moved people to action like the Earth moves us to touch the ground. But King always pointed beyond himself, to the source of his own sense of call. King always believed he had one real mission: he was called by God to preach the gospel. His civil rights campaigns for minorities and for the poor were to him one more way that he preached the gospel. And through King this gospel message moved others to join in the work of God in that time and place.

I think we all have the opportunity to be planets like Martin Luther King, Jr. — beings which shape the space around us so that people are drawn to God. After all, we are all members of the Body of Christ. We are members of the big church on earth, which is undoubtedly one of those places that God uses to call people to God. Most of us here today are members of St. Andrew or another Christian group, some specific organization that God uses to call people to God. And as individuals, too, we can be sources of that mysterious sense of call.

Now, I’m worried that some of you are thinking “Yes, there are sure are some people in this congregation who draw others to God!” Now I don’t know why you jumped to that thought: maybe you just really admire that person a few pews ahead of you. But I’m worried that you feel like your faith isn’t good enough, your gifts aren’t fit enough, your call isn’t strong enough.

So let’s take a minute to return to my friend Scott, whose ordination was “the bet that Las Vegas lost.” Or, better yet, to Martin Luther King, Jr., since you’ll be reminded of him a few times tomorrow and have to think about this. Did you know that he had serious doubts about God since he was 13 years old? And though he’d responded to an altar call at the young age of six, he later confessed that he was just a young kid following his older sister, and that he had no idea what was happening at his baptism. He spent his years in college and in seminary wrestling with his doubts about miracles and the truth of scripture and the divinity of Christ. And if he’s like all the other pastors I know, he never really stopped wrestling. But he also felt himself pulled with all the force of gravity in the direction of the gospel. And as he followed the shape the gospel made in his life, he shaped the lives of others in the gospel direction, too.

So, where are the “planets” in your life? What draws you toward itself, and through it, towards God? Some might feel that way about the bread and wine we are about to share. Or about a program you’re involved in, or an important person in your life, or a powerful moment from the past. Take just a moment now to think about those times you have felt God’s call on your life most clearly.

As we sing our next hymn together, remember that you are called – like Samuel, like the Corinthians, like Philip and Nathanael. You are called – somehow, someway – to shape the space around you as the gospel shapes you. Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.