Sunday, April 27, 2014

Darkness, Doubt, Failure, and Death
(And Other Things We Thought Would Keep God From Loving Us)

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Turn and tell a friend, ‘He’s still risen!’ For reals. Turn and be an encouragement to a sister, a brother. Hear it from someone else. “He’s still risen.” Amen! It’s good to be together and worship the risen Lord.

It was the simple observation of a student, Amy, at Compline, on the third night of our Spring Break trip to Austin; with quiet amazement, she noted that the Taizé service we had just shared with the Episcopal community of the University of Texas had been filled with songs of alarming honesty, even doubt and darkness. Just quickly, let me share two of the lyrics Amy probably had in mind: 

Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away, that never dies away.

Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us. Let not my doubt or my darkness speak to me. Lord, Jesus Christ, you light shines within us. Let my heart always welcome your love.

How amazing, she said, that the songs we sang spoke of darkness and doubt and the fire of God - the presence of God - all in one breath. 

That honesty was echoed by Brother Emmanuel - one of the brothers of Taizé - in conversation with our community following the service. Brother Emmanuel did not shy away from, but put real flesh and blood on, particular challenges of the life of faith, talking openly with us about things like belonging, passion and sexuality (even as a celibate brother), the existence of suffering, desire for God, and fears of rejection, especially the fear of each one of us - born of experience - that we might, in the end, be found unworthy of love.

Amy said she was both surprised and encouraged by the evening. She marveled at the possibility of a prayer not afraid of the darkness - prayer in which darkness and light were acknowledged as sometimes occupying the same space. Light unafraid of naming the darkness. Christ unafraid of naming the darkness. In our debriefing over Compline that evening, it was observed that one way to describe the Christian life is that we are learning to sing songs in which we dare God to find us and love us.

I do not think St. Thomas wrote or was the first to record the song on daring God to find us. But he’s certainly the artist most remembered for the song, reviving an old favorite for new generations of ears to hear. Think with me here. Think Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You. Likewise, Aretha Franklin’s rescuing of the Otis Redding original that may not have scored the RESPECT it had coming, until she made it her own. On a personal note, I shudder to imagine my own childhood without They Might Be Giants and their epic rendition of Istanbul (Not Constantinople), originally recorded by The Four Lads. Who? Exactly.

No, Thomas didn’t write the song on daring God to find us, but he sang it with a boldness we’d never heard before - a bold desire that could only be satiated by the risen Christ himself: "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.” Daring God to find him. And then, from the heart of darkness and bitter loss, in the midst of his grief and deep disappointment, against all odds and all signs to the contrary, God does find him. The risen Christ finds and loves Thomas. And, so, a few verses later, Thomas adds with equal boldness, “My Lord, and my God.” 

We are learning to sing songs together in which we dare God to find us and love us, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Like Thomas, we are learning to trust God to surprise us.

The best part of Thomas’ story is that his story is not unique. Thomas’ life is a parable for humanity - for every of us and all of us together - a microcosm of Easter, a microcosm of God coming to Israel and the rest of humanity exactly in our darkness. Not understanding. Not comprehending. Not knowing. Not ready. Just like when the risen Christ came to Paul, then Saul, and overwhelmed Paul’s certainty about himself and his God on the road to Damascus. Just like when the risen Jesus stood before Peter and healed the wounds of Peter’s denial with the charge that meant forgiveness: “Feed my lambs.” Just like, last Sunday, when Mary stood at the grave and, overwhelmed by her grief, looked Jesus in the face, and supposed him to be the gardner. She did not recognize him, and yet he came to her.

Each of these, in their turn, followed the footsteps of their forbearers in unbelief: Sarah, who laughed at the promise of a child; Abraham, who lost his nerve and went off script a time or two, for fear that God might not deliver, might hang Abraham and his wife out to dry. Moses, who doubted his ability to do what God was calling Moses to do. Zechariah who doubted that his future could bear a child, a sign, capable of announcing the salvation of God. On and on. It should go without saying, then, that Jesus’ disciples weren’t unique in their doubts. Least of all Thomas. But neither were they unique in their experience of the miracle of faith: the God they dared to find them found them. The God they dared to love them loved them. Called them. Surprised them. Even sent them, in God’s time, to sing God’s song of unexpected love for others.

So we find Peter this morning. The denier. The coward. The “I don’t know the man” goat of Good Friday. God hadn’t failed Peter; Peter had failed Peter. And having failed or disappointed oneself can be the hardest kind of doubt to overcome. 

But disappointment and darkness were not, it turns out, Peter’s to overcome alone. The risen Christ appears to Peter and the others. And then to Thomas. Nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not even themselves. This is the love we discover in Christ. So Peter this morning is standing, addressing the multitude, proclaiming of the One he’d forsaken, of the One he had doubted, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” Two chapters later, Peter will add that he can’t keep from speaking about what he’s seen. 

Only when Jesus shows up does the Church discover we have something to say. But when Jesus shows up, we can’t help but speak. To say something. To share what we’ve seen. So St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth: “…we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Did you hear it? There it is again: light shining out of darkness. Hope where reasonable people have given up hope. Reasonable people like you and me and Thomas, who know that the dead stay reasonably dead. Except when they don’t. “My Lord and my God,” Thomas cried.

As it turns out, doubt isn’t the worst thing in the world, because doubt names the razor’s edge of our imagination for what is possible. When Jesus extends his hands and shows Thomas his wounds, he’s also extending an invitation to a new imagination for what is possible. He’s inviting Thomas to step forward into a new imagination for the possible.

So we, like Thomas, find our imaginations renewed. Gathered by the risen Christ, we confess we don’t know what’s next. This much we know: Christ is risen. The God we dared to find us found us. The God we dared to love us loves us. Calls us. Even sends us, in God’s time, to sing God’s song of unexpected love for others. We are learning, together, to sing songs in which we dare God to find us and love us. And the miracle of faith is, God does.

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine:  Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.  Amen.

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