Worship Pieces: Thomas and Psalm 1

At Peace, we are beginning a worship series on virtues as outlined in 2 Peter 1:3-11. Our call to worship comes from Psalm 1:

Blessed are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
Blessed are those whose delight is in the law of God,
who meditate on the holy council day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.

Blessed are those whose delight is in the law of God,
who meditate on the holy council day and night.

In all that they do, they prosper.

So let us meditate on the holy word; let us delight in worshiping our God.

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Many of you, I’m sure, are going with the lectionary reading from the Gospel of John, so I’ve posted the conclusion of my sermon about Thomas below. You can find the entire sermon here.

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Thanks to Thomas, we know what it looks like to abide with Jesus.

Thomas, we can assume, leaves behind whatever life he has grown accustomed to to traipse after this interesting yet itinerant rabbi. He watches Jesus heal. He listens to Jesus’ words that sound strange and yet true. He asks Jesus questions. He tries to understand what Jesus is up to. He offers to die with Jesus. But instead he watches helplessly as Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified. He keeps meeting with all the other disciples, worshiping and hoping and . . . he doesn’t really know what it is he’s doing. He just keeps doing it. And, finally, Thomas bears witness to the resurrected Christ. Thomas claims his eternal relationship with Jesus: “My Lord and my God.”

Believing as abiding.

When we understand belief as holding to specific doctrines, then doubt quickly becomes the enemy, the opposite of belief. But if belief is about abiding in relationship, then it makes sense that those with the most intense relationships will not only have–in our contemporary understanding of the terms–the most intense belief, but also the most intense doubt.

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

This passionate, committed disciple is not Doubting Thomas, but Abiding Thomas. And his relationship with Jesus can serve as a model for our discipleship today. Thomas shows us that whether at any moment we experience belief or doubt, there is a deeper anchoring–an abiding.

We are called, like Thomas, not to give assent to a specific set of propositions, but to root our lives in our relationship with Jesus Christ. To walk with Jesus. To listen to Jesus. To talk to Jesus. To be willing to sacrifice for Jesus. To abide in Jesus and claim for ourselves, “My Lord and my God.” Amen.



Advent Reflections: Zechariah

For the Monday prayer practices during Advent, I will be posting reflections on different characters from the Advent and Christmas stories. I pray a blessed and holy Advent for you all!

The reflection below is adapted from a sermon I preached a few years ago. The scripture reading is Luke 1:5-25.

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I’ve noticed that lots of preachers and Bible commentators are pretty hard on Zechariah for being afraid, and for doubting God, when Zechariah encounters the angel in the Temple. The best sermon title that I’ve seen is, “How not to talk to an angel.” Apparently, you are not supposed to look at the angel Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and say, “How can I be sure of this?” That’s the wrong response.

Still, I wonder if the way we generally read this story doesn’t sell Zechariah a bit short.

After Gabriel’s lengthy proclamation, the father-to-be responds, ”How will I know this is so?” The assumption is that Zechariah is questioning the fact that Elizabeth will become pregnant at such an advanced aged. But really, what kind of a stupid question would that be? “How will I know this is so?” You know if your wife becomes pregnant and bears you a son. It’s obvious.

Maybe Zechariah is not asking such a stupid question. Maybe Zechariah is questioning another part of Gabriel’s proclamation. Maybe he is questioning the part about the great works John will do. Maybe when he says, “I am an old man” it is not to say that he doubts that Elizabeth will be pregnant, but to say that he will not live to see the great deeds of his son. How will he know that his son will turn people to the Lord? How will he know that his son will prepare the way for the Messiah in the spirit and power of the great prophet Elijah? It is reasonable to assume that Zechariah will be dead by the time his son reaches puberty. How will he know the great works to come?

Many pastors who preach on this story end up by telling their listeners that they must not be afraid like Zechariah. They must not be doubters like Zechariah.

But I’m not going to tell you that.

People will tell you that Zechariah’s muteness was punishment for his doubt. But I’m not so sure. If Zechariah’s question, “How can I be sure of this?” is indeed about the distant rather than the immediate future, we can view his muteness as a grace.

Rather than punishment for doubt, perhaps the nine or ten months that Zechariah cannot speak is a gift from God; a sign that the prophecy about his son will indeed become true.

We could view these months of silence as a forced season of contemplation; a time when he, the priest, cannot speak the blessing and so must only receive it; a time when he cannot speak the words of God and so must only listen to them.

All preachers—all good church people—should have such a punishment.

I don’t think this story tells us that we should not be afraid or doubt. I think it tells us that God will surround our fear and our doubt with grace. With, perhaps, a time of silent waiting. Like these weeks of Advent leading up to the holy day of Christmas.

And I believe that if we enter into the silence—even if it is the silence of our own fear and doubt–we will be blessed by it.

Wednesday Worship Piece: Being Disciples

This Sunday will be our final Sunday in a series on Jesus’ disciples. I will preach on Luke 24:36-53–Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples. Plus we will share communion together this week.

Call to Worship

Leader: We come this morning to spend time on the path with other disciples.
Side 1: Others who are wondering.
Side 2: Others who are waiting.
Side 1: Others who are growing.
Side 2: Others who are giving.
Side 1: Others who are messing up.
Side 2: Others who are speaking up.
Side 1: Others who are stepping out.
Side 2: Others who are standing down.
Side 1: Others who are hungry
Side 2: Even as they reach out to feed others.
Leader: May our journey this morning be worship.
All: May the One we follow be praised!

Prayer of Confession & Assurance of Pardon

God, You have told us to trust in you with all of our hearts.
You have told us not to lean on our own understanding.
And so we try to trust,
but we get very nervous when we don’t understand.
We don’t understand what you mean by
“This bread is my body.”
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”

We don’t understand who will betray you
or why
or what that will mean for us.

We don’t understand how death is victory.
We don’t understand post-resurrection life–yours or ours.
We don’t understand why you ask us to stay here,
And we’re afraid we will somehow miss the power when it comes down from on high.


Assurance of Pardon

Jesus is gentle with our doubts. The Spirit offers us peace in the midst of our lack of understanding. The One who created us leads us step by step into deeper trust. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Weekly Worship Piece: Simon Peter

Our disciple of the week is Peter!  I love the Peter stories . . . maybe because I have a highly impulsive child who would totally step out of the boat, offer to build houses on the mountain, and make big promises with the best of intentions and the worst follow-through. So, here is our call to worship:

All you who love Jesus,
Join us in worship!
All you who believe,
Join us in worship!
All you who question,
Join us in worship!
All you who falter,
Join us in worship!
And may our worship move us forward together
as we seek to follow Jesus.

Religion Isn’t

This was my contribution to the Faith Forum column in the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper for Saturday, October 9, 2010.  I’m posting it here for the benefit of at least one person who missed it in the paper and wanted to read it. The prompt–“religion isn’t”–seemed random, but proved to be an interesting topic.

Religion isn’t just in your head. True, religion is based on a set of beliefs, but for truly religious people, those beliefs deeply influence actions. Your most deeply held beliefs will impact who you are and what you do.

Religion isn’t certainty of belief. Many–probably most–deeply religious people live with doubts.

Religion isn’t about you. Religion is actually an acknowledgement that the world does not revolve around you.

Religion isn’t meant to be convenient. Orthodox Jews might want to drive their car on Shabbat, but they don’t. Muslims might be in the middle of something when it is time for Salah, but they stop and pray anyway. The people at Peace Mennonite on any given Sunday could have slept in, but they got up and came to church. The commitments and practices of a religious life are engaged in for reasons other than immediate gratification.

Religion isn’t beyond critique. We should examine and question religious teachings. The fact that your pastor or imam or rabbi says something is right doesn’t necessarily make it right.

Religion isn’t a ticket to heaven. I do not claim to know much about heaven, but I feel confident in saying that St. Peter will not hand you a religious checklist before you get into the pearly gates. “O, gee, too bad. You worshipped on Friday nights–the correct day is Sunday. If you would please step through that door marked exit and just take those stairs down.”

Religion isn’t an excuse to act hateful. If you hate gay people, by all means carry a sign that says “I Hate Gay People.” Don’t blame your ignorant prejudices on God.

Religion isn’t something to kill for. Something to die for? In certain historical moments, yes. But never something to kill for.