Sunday, April 28, 2019

Belief and the God Who Sees Us First

My children’s favorite part of the Book of Common Prayer - I know, it’s a strange way to start a sentence, on a lot of levels - but my children’s favorite part of the Book of Common Prayer is the chart for determining the date of Easter. From time to time I forget it’s there, but it is! - you can look it up later - there’s a table in the front or the back (I can never remember which) that lists the exact date of Easter Sunday for 189 years. I know that might seem like a trivial item to include in a prayer book but, trust me, before smartphones - this table, in its heyday, was a Godsend! Every Easter Sunday date for almost two centuries. Helpful, because Easter is based on lots of things and moving parts and so it moves around itself. The table is pretty extensive. In it are instructions for Leap Years and - of special interest to my kids - several cryptic mentions of The Golden Number, which is the secret weapon, apparently, for decoding each year’s date. I’m not making it up. It’s straight out of Harry Potter, but it’s there. And from this table, you can learn lots of fun things. For example, did you know Easter will only be as late as it was this year 5 more times over the next 70 years? Or that Easter can fall as late as April 25, but it only does so twice in the 189 years of the table - in 1943, which I just missed - and again in 2038, mark your calendars!

The table and its golden numbers are all kinds of weird, but they’re weird in a way that feels wonderfully right. It’s almost as if the unpredictability of Easter’s date mirrors the surprise of the resurrection itself, what with its determined refusal to be contained or controlled or predicted. So, just like the resurrection, Easter Day can be hard to see coming.

But if Easter Day is hard to predict, the Sunday that follows Easter Day each year is considerably easier. John’s gospel. Doubting Thomas. Like clockwork. Every year! What does this mean? I sometimes imagine that the predictability of the sequencing could go one of two ways:

On the one hand, the reliability of ol’ Thomas might help us reorient ourselves after the wandering and chocolate-deprived season of Lent, in which our world gets upended, by the end of which we’re worshiping together at weird times during the week, day and night, and equally upended by the celebration of an Easter whose timing may have surprised us. Thomas helps us get back on track.

On the other hand, the predictability of Thomas’ arrival might inadvertently dull our imaginations or lull us back to sleep. Like a family returning from a long road trip vacation. They’ve just seen far-off treasures of previously unimaginable beauty - the Redwoods of California! Niagara Falls! - but now, they’re almost back home. The last fifteen miles. They know these streets. The neighborhoods are familiar. Nothing new to see here. They say that’s when the accidents happen, when the streets, becoming recognized, grow ordinary, when the eyes stop believing in the possibility of new and unexpected beauty at every stop and turn along the road and instead assume it’s all been seen before, that’s when it happens, when the heart and mind default again to autopilot.

If not today, it’s some day, right? The gradual re-assimilation into The Way Things Have Always Been… It happens. How else to account for the disconnect between the astonishment and joy of Easter Sunday and the live possibility that other Sundays after it might become mundane?

But this year, I saw something in John’s gospel that got me thinking. This year I saw something strange along the sidewalk of a once familiar street. Something that made me doubt I know the doubt of Thomas as well as I thought I did.

What I saw was Thomas’ brother in doubt, Nathanael. Jesus appears to Thomas at the end of John’s gospel, but Nathanael’s story of doubt comes at the beginning, in the very first chapter. (In this way, Thomas and Nathanael are like two bookends of belief and unbelief in the gospel of John.) Where Thomas didn’t believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, Nathanael didn’t believe that anything good could come out of Nazareth, that is, that there was anything special about Jesus. Do you remember that story? Jesus calls Philip who goes to find his friend, Nathanael, and he says, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth.” That’s what sets up Nathanael’s one-liner. Can anything good come of Nazareth? It’s an edgy question, riding the always fine line between cynicism and prejudice. Nathanael’s cynicism is sometimes said to resonate with folks like you and me, we 21st century people for whom cynicism is often admired and frequently mistaken for wisdom, but Nathanael is also a reminder that cynicism predates our generation. As good as we are at cynicism, we didn’t invent it; we aren’t the first to be slow to believe; nor are we the first to have grown weary from always being sold the next, new thing; we aren’t the first to resent the hawkers of wares - the endless calls from solicitors brandishing unknown numbers - perpetually attempting to command our attention; we aren’t the first to discover the need for proof of trustworthiness before we get up from under the tree. And on a deeper level, along that same fault-line of trust, Nathanael’s reluctance reminds us that we are not the first to have been wounded, to have learned mistrust through betrayal and brokenhearted-ness, to have discovered the necessity of guarded hearts in a world that can be immeasurably exploitative and cruel.

I’ll believe it when I see it, Nathanael says.

And so we learn to be like him. And it’s almost like the Scripture, by including Nathanael’s account, honors our solidarity with Nathanael and makes space for our hidden wounds, too. It’s almost like the Scripture, busy telling the story of Nathanael and Jesus, nevertheless casts a thoughtful glance over its shoulder at us, communicating an understanding and compassionate heart toward us, we who sometimes share Nathanael’s circumstance.

Shortly after Nathanael pops off to Philip, Jesus finds Nathanael, and speaks to him. Jesus tells Nathanael he saw him under the tree, and that simple comment is what elicits Nathanael’s profession of faith, a profession not unlike the one Thomas gives this morning. Nathanael says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.” In reply Jesus asks Nathanael, ‘Do you believe just because I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’

So Nathanael, who had started with I’ll believe it when I see it, doesn’t believe when he sees so much as he believes when he is seen. While he was still unbelieving, amidst all of his fears and misgivings and hesitations, his doubts and living wounds, Jesus sees him, loves him, moves toward him, and Jesus’ seeing is the beginning of Nathanael’s belief, belief that will take Nathanael far beyond what he can see.

So by the time we come across Thomas today, Nathanael has prepared us to know better than to accept Thomas’ doubt as the most important thing about Thomas or this day that follows the resurrection we didn’t see coming. The most important thing about Thomas’ belief is that it comes - yes, as he sees Jesus - but most importantly - as he discovers himself as seen by Jesus. Loved by Jesus. Approached by Jesus. And not just for Thomas, right? For all of the disciples still locked behind closed doors. Hiding. Imitating the posture of Adam and Eve, after the snake. Out of sight. Found and forgiven by the Risen Jesus, whom they had abandoned. Seeing is believing, absolutely, but not the way we thought. As it turns out, the seeing that matters most belongs to God. God sees and loves first. God sees and loves you. This is the beginning of belief.

Two final thoughts, then. First, if the seeing that matters most belongs to God, we can begin to make sense of belief that does not make all things clear to us. That is, we can believe and still not pretend to know what comes next, and so maybe we can be reawakened to wonder and awe, because we believe in the one we follow, even into uncertainty. Or, if you prefer the words of the prayer book, “...out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” We do not know the way, but the one we follow sees us, knows us, loves us and has become the way for us. And so we can be present even to those people in whom it is impossible to imagine God’s presence, confident that we do not know the limits of God’s love, even for us and in ourselves. We are, all of us, seen, known, and unimaginably loved by God. Sometimes God allows us to remind one another of this, when we forget. We should pray for these opportunities, both within the circles of this faith community and outside of these walls.

Second, and finally, maybe this morning you, like me, can use the reminder that the bread and wine we are about to share are not thoughtlessly and/or generically made available by God for God’s people. “This is my body, given for you.” For you. You are seen, known, loved by the living God. Yes, even knowing that thing you messed up, the hurt you’ve inflicted, and the ways you’ve been hurt. Today. And always. That’s what it means to come to this table. It is, like Nathanael and Thomas, to discover ourselves seen and loved by Jesus.

Amen.

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