DEAREST FRESHNESS DEEP DOWN

St. George's church on a foggy, Eastertide morning
St. George’s church and churchyard, morning, 10 April 2015

Even though it was early, and will be even earlier next year, Easter Day was at least bright and sunny this year.  It was almost a reprieve from the endless winter that was 2015 and, well, this current cold front which has come through this week and which is still hanging on, in the form of cold and fog, as I sit and write this morning.  Early Easter’s aren’t particularly welcome for kids and families — bundling up in thermal fleece for an egg hunt is never fun, and everyone wants a nice family picture outside.  Nor are early Easter’s lovely for altar guilds and flower guilds.  Just last night, in fact, the head of our altar guild told me that next year we’ll have to forego some of the prettier, flowering plants we normally get since it’ll be a late-March celebration. Bummer.

And yet there’s also something about an early Easter that, I think, tells the Christian story more profoundly than a Sunday in later April when everything is blooming and in full color.  Just this morning, driving back to the rectory from an early morning call, I noticed it, you know, in the way that fog kind of sets everything in highlight or contrast.

Outside, even now, there are these shoots of green, shots of color, somewhat daring, somewhat risky.  Patches of green grass set against, pretty much, a brown-ish field.  Daffodils and jonquils, of course, are the heartier (gardeners would say) or riskier (I might add) perennials, shooting out before it’s safe, before it’s warm, before it’s right and ready.  But all around it’s still brown and gray, cold and chilly.  Warmth is coming, for sure, even later today.  Spring is already here and, we trust, having been given a pretty good Easter-day foretaste, it won’t disappoint.  But, still, it’s gray, brown, chilly.

Gerard Manley Hopkins journal
A page from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ journal, 30 June 1864

I was recalling one of my favorites, the great Catholic, indeed Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, to whom I turned upon returning to the office because he says these things so much better than I could or anyone has, for that matter.  “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” he begins the poem of the same phrase.  “Charged,” he says; charged! For this reason, then, because the world is literally charged with God’s grandeur “…nature is never spent,” Hopkins affirms; “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”  But that freshness, that dearest freshness is underneath, not immediately or always perceptible.  Not to the naked eye nor, for that matter, to the trained eye.  Not only is it “down” there, it’s “deep down.”  Deep down, for we still live in a world that is, at times, shrouded as in a cloud, a fog, a kind of darkness.  Easter isn’t a declaration so much as it is a revelation.  It isn’t an awareness so much as it is an invitation.

Easter is its own kind of beginning, but it’s also its own kind of end.  It’s the central truth of Christianity, resurrection, and yet that’s the most remarkable thing about it – and one, I’m afraid, which too many Christians, themselves, overlook and get patently wrong: that the foundational tenet of our life in God has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with what we know or believe or feel or can see, readily and straightaway with our eyes, no matter how trained or gifted or skilled we may be in searching.  Our life in God, made new in Christ, has everything to do with what we hope in, what we place our faith in, what we cannot see but still trust, nevertheless.  Just like we trust that warmer days and more colorful landscapes are coming, even though we cannot see them and even though it feels, on mornings such as this, that this year’s eternal winter isn’t going away.Fog and daffodils, 2

What Easter brings to an end is a religion based on creedal comfort and doctrinal assurance.  Easter ends dogmatic certainty.  Easter ends the reign of belief statements, memorizing things in order to get right with God, doing certain things to ensure your place in heaven.  Easter ends all of that.  Because we’re talking, now, about the beginning of faith.  And one cannot enter into faith, a real and living faith in God through Christ, until one has put to end the desire to know, to believe, to understand.  As we’ll meet this Sunday in Thomas – unfortunately, throughout history, called ‘the Doubter’ —  one of the biggest things standing in the way of true, living faith in God through Christ is a fruitless obsession with belief.  What Thomas learned, leading him to echo the greatest affirmation of faith in all of scripture, is what we must also learn, day after day after day: that faith and doubt are not at all set against each other, but what is at tension with faith, ironically, is a constant obsession with belief, for faith’s opposite is nothing more than certainty.  I’ll say it again: the opposite of faith is certainty.

For only when you perceive without seeing, when you hope without knowing, when you trust without proof is faith begun, much like on a chilly April morning, even just a few days after we’ve proclaimed the truest thing, and yet the hardest thing, we know to say: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

GOD’S GRANDEUR

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;         5
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;         10
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

THE TWIN OF GOD

In addition to being a schoolteacher, my dad was also a carpenter, and is a very gifted one at that. In the afternoon, he’d come home from work – having served all of his nearly 35 years teaching in one school district in a town just outside of Chicago – change clothes and head out, again, to replace a kitchen floor or hang cabinets or do other handy-man jobs.

In the summers, sometimes, I would go out for the day with my dad. Sometimes I’d be called on to do something; mostly, I was just there, taking it in, as children do so well.

The shapes and the names, let alone the functions of the tools were fascinating to me, and sometimes my dad would send me out to get one in particular: the terms, ‘crescent wrench’ or ‘mitre saw,’ sounded to my childhood mind like code words I could decipher. One summer day, I must’ve grown restless and wandered out to the station wagon and began to play with some of the tools, making up a game and passing time with that boundless creativity children muster. He was inside, I was outside. He was in his world, I was in mine. Later that afternoon, my dad asked me to go to the car and get something. I didn’t know which tool he was talking about, and I suppose that showed on my face. “Crowbar,” my dad repeated, “it looks like a heavy little cane. It’s the one you were playing with earlier by the station wagon.”

He had seen me playing. At once, I felt both ashamed and loved; ashamed for having been playing what must’ve seemed a silly game; loved because I was seen, recognized, the distance between our worlds not being a distance at all, not for my dad, at least.

 

 

All four gospel authors in our New Testament tell us that one of Jesus’ disciples was named Thomas. He’s there in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but as one of the supportive cast, no brighter than, say, Thaddeus or Bartholomew. But Thomas comes out of the shadows and into the limelight in the fourth gospel.

When, in John’s gospel, we first meet Thomas, back when Lazarus was about to be raised in chapter 11, the evangelist tells us that Thomas was called the Twin. In fact, he says it again in this morning’s gospel lesson as well as the next chapter. Most often when, in John’s gospel, Thomas is named it’s “Thomas, called the Twin.” It’s strange to continually offer up a nickname, alongside someone’s other name, and as any good reader – let alone a reader of the bible – knows, if something seems odd or a word is chosen regularly, it’s got to mean something.   Twin, in Greek, is didymus, as any study bible will tell you, but what they don’t tell you is that Thomas, the name itself, might not be his actual first name. In fact, toma is Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his friends, meaning “twin.” “Thomas, called the Twin” is really just saying “Twin, called the Twin,” just in two different languages. It’s likely the apostle’s first name wasn’t Thomas, after all, and it’s likely that his real name is, well, not named.

Lest you think I’m offering mere speculation, I’ll say, first, there is a point and, second, I’m not alone.   My friend and former Divinity School classmate (and, now, professor at Harvard Divinity School), Charlie Stang, recently wrote a fascinating piece about this, pointing out that: “A number of texts from the second and third centuries speak of an apostle by the name of Judas Thomas Didymus. Judas, of course, is not only the name of Jesus’s betrayer, but also one of his four brothers (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55). The Gospel of John refers to a ‘Judas, who is not the Iscariot’ (14:22), and in one of the Syriac translations of the Gospel of John, this ‘Judas’ becomes ‘Judas Thomas.’ One interpretive possibility then, seized upon by some early Christian traditions, is that the apostle called ‘twin’ in the Gospel of John is none other than Jesus’s own twin brother, Judas. The most famous single text from the Nag Hammadi library discovered in Egypt in 1945 is a collection of sayings ‘which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.’”

Set aside, for a moment please, any fears that just jumped into your brain about Jesus’ birth and whether there was another boy born that night – something I’m not suggesting – and wonder, instead, with me about what it means to be a twin.

What would it be like to be a twin? What would it be like spiritually, emotionally, cognitively? So like the other you’re nearly indistinguishable but, yet, you are different, you are unique, you are your own person, too. I am not a twin, but I know this feeling, in part, when I look at my own daughter, Carter, who is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, who is so like me and, yet, so unlike me; so close and intimately known and, yet, so remarkable, fascinating and strange. Or take the context of your marriage, if that’s the case for you, for there is, as theologian Benjamin Myers writes, “no one more mysterious than a spouse – not because they are distant and unfamiliar, but because they are so near and so well known.”[1] Isn’t it true that the longer you stare at something, the longer you think about that thing, a spouse, a child, a twin, a tool – crowbar – the more it becomes both known and strange; at once, recognizable and unfamiliar?

What is it, then, that bridges the division, that harmonizes the discord between that which we think we know and yet that which seems so distant, even strange?

Just as when I was as a boy, playing near my father’s station wagon, thinking he was in his adult world of work and duty and I was in my own, what dissolved that distance was love – my dad’s love for me, such love that, from time to time, at least, he stopped what he was doing and peered out a window, wanting to know where I was, see what I was doing and, maybe, when he saw me playing a silly game, watched just a while longer. (Just the other day, in fact, I was putting away clothes in Carter’s bedroom, upstairs, and she and our dog, Phoebe, were playing in the rectory front yard – Carter would throw a ball, Phoebe would get it and run away; Carter would get another ball, throw it, Phoebe chasing after that one and dropping the first ball which Carter would pick up and throw, again. I watched them do this, back and forth, all the while the child talking to the dog as she does one of her best friends. I watched them do this for a long time and, honestly, I could’ve watched them play like that all afternoon, a girl and her dog simply enraptured in play and happiness.) That which reaches across what seems, to us, a mysterious distance is love, always love.

 

 

In part, we know this. We hear in scripture’s story that we are loved, that we are knit by God’s design and animated by God’s breath.

The hard part is living it. Because we also know that we are not God and, sometimes, we’re pretty far from it. Sometimes, we fear, we’re downright wretched and not at all worthy; other times, we’re not so bad, just muddling around down here. We are in our own world. God is in God’s. From time to time, we’ll throw up a prayer and hope for something but we understand when we don’t get what we want; that’s just the distance between God and us, and so go the explanations, etc. etc.

The love I’m talking about is not the feeling we try to generate nor is it the zeal we attempt to muster for God. What I’m talking about is the only love that can truly be called ‘love,’ that profound, shattering, unconditional, no-strings-attached love that only comes, first, from God. It’s the love of One who knows us as his own twin, the love of One who is, as St. Augustine put it, “more inward to me than my innermost self,”[2] the love of One who is always, already crossing the mysterious divide between creation and Creator. Long before we can ask or imagine and not because we deserve it, God always, already loves and is in love with God’s creation.

I fear we’ve missed that message all these years hearing about old doubting Thomas, so in closing let me suggest a different spin on this story.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio (c. 1601-02)

Look, again, at the gospel story (vv.27-28), just after Jesus tells Thomas to touch him but before Thomas makes his declaration of faith. Question: did Thomas actually touch Jesus? You might say “yes,” and you’d be in good company. Most artistic depictions show Thomas touching Jesus, some downright gory paintings show him actually sticking his finger in Jesus’ side, but my friend Charlie Stang suggests, on the basis of the words of the text itself, that that did not happen. That Thomas did not touch Jesus. That Jesus merely invited him to do so.

The story is actually better, richer if Thomas did not.  For then Thomas’ great declaration – “My Lord and my God!” – would be not because he knew Jesus but because, first, Jesus knew him; because Jesus knew what Thomas was hiding; because Jesus said to Thomas what Thomas said in secret the week before. What bridged the distance, for Thomas, was not his ability but Jesus’ love; not our action but God’s, first.

We are all, in a sense, Jesus’ twin. We are all made of the same stuff, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, created of the earth and endowed with God’s spirit. We, too, are capable of living a life that will be a blessing to this world. It’s just that we, like Thomas, like Mary Magdalene last week, we who are alive are surrounded by death. We breathe it in, ingest it even when we do not wish to as our daily bread. It’s we who, somedays, turn life from a gift to a series of obstacles to overcome or a to-do list to check off.

It’s then that our Divine Twin comes to us. God, the lover of souls, comes to us. The One who was dead and came to life stares in the face of we who are alive but shrouded in death, and He loves us, first, loving us as none can and none will ever again, giving us the capacity for yet one more day to try and mimic the same.

 

 

———-

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Easter (Year A) at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, Maryland, a Sunday in which we swapped pulpits between St. George’s, Valley Lee; Trinity Church, St. Mary’s City and Ascension.

 

[1] Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: T & T Clark International, 2012), p. 4

[2] Augustine, Confessions 3.6.11

NOT BECAUSE, BUT WHEN YOU’VE LET GO

When we’re first introduced to Thomas in the Gospel of John, Jesus is preparing to go to Bethany, the suburb of Jerusalem where his close friends Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived.  Lazarus has died and Jesus is preparing to go, in his words, “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(11:4)  Most of the disciples urge Jesus to stay put, to avoid Jerusalem, to let the tensions cool down.  Otherwise, they fear what will happen, and they’re pretty sure it’ll involve death.  But Thomas speaks up, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”(11:16)  Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless, and strong, at least strong-willed.  Where the others are timid and scared, Thomas is undaunted.

Fast forward a few chapters, to the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, and you’ll meet Jesus in the middle of a long farewell speech to his followers and friends.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says.  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”  (The New Revised Standard Version gives the more accurate translation – “dwelling places” – but many of us like the King James’ Version of at least this one verse a lot better:  “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”)  “And you know the place to where I am going,” Jesus goes on, explaining that he’s going to prepare a place for us and that he’ll lead us there, in time.

This sounds wonderfully reassuring to our ears, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus’ disciples back then.  They didn’t want him to die.  They didn’t want the movement to end.  They expected to help him bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.  Like students in a classroom, they were probably very confused, even more worried now that he was telling them to not worry.  But no one speaks up, that is, no one except Thomas.  Thomas states the obvious, “Lord, we do not know where you are going,” he says, bluntly. “How can we know the way?”(14:5)  Thomas is unafraid to speak his mind, bold and unassuming.

And then this chapter, John 20, a famous story which has ever since made ‘Thomas’ synonymous with ‘doubt.’  Thomas tells his friends that he doesn’t believe they’ve seen the Lord, and that he won’t believe until he can see it himself, until he can put his own finger in Jesus’ scars.

Why would Thomas believe?  The other ten didn’t believe, themselves, until Jesus showed up in their midst, and even then they didn’t recognize him.  It wasn’t until he showed them his pierced side and the marks of the nails in his hands that they recognized him, and believed it was, in fact, their now-Risen Lord. Thomas wasn’t there, so why would he believe?

We’ve gotten so carried away with this one snapshot of Thomas that we forget the larger picture.  He’s everything leadership consultants tell us to be.  Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless and strong.  He’s a natural-born leader and a good one, at that.  Thomas has everything we’re told we need to have if we want to succeed or win friends or influence people, or everything we wish we had within.

And yet we keep calling him Doubting Thomas, focusing on that one episode – an episode that’s perfectly, ordinarily human, I might add.

Every year, I suppose, we are supposed to say something profound about doubt.  If that’s what you’re expecting, I have to disappoint.  I have nothing profound or lasting or moving to say about doubt, except for what I consider a basic, shameless truth: Doubt is.  It’s there and it’ll always be there.  It’s part of a faith life. I’ve got plenty of doubts and I’m sure you do, too.  Doubt will always rub up against belief, and belief will always challenge doubt, and those two – doubting and believing – will be for ever locked into a wrestling match in all things in life.  (And let me add that I’m also glad to be part of a tradition in which I can say this, openly.  In my reading this week, I came across a sermon preached by an evangelical pastor who said what I just did – doubt happens and I, too, have doubts – but he included a footnote in which he explained those apparently off-the-cuff remarks and stated that, after the sermon, an elder of the church pulled him aside and said something like, “Now, Pastor, you can go around saying such things…”)  Sometimes, though, the honest truth is the best one, at least the best at which to begin.  Doubt and belief are powerful forces, and they’ll continue in you.

But the longer we keep talking about doubt, either excusing it or making it sound poignant or challenging it, the more we miss the point.  This story isn’t about doubting or believing. It’s about faith, and that’s another order of things, entirely.

Let me explain by way of a story.

You don’t go to divinity school or seminary unless you’re serious about training for the ministry or you’re really interested in having all your presumptions and assumptions and faith-claims laid out naked before others and questioned and challenged.  For me, I’m glad I studied in a ministry program in an academic divinity school because I feel I got the best of both worlds – serious preparation for ministry in an ecumenical context as well as a chance to be interrogated by and rub against the challenges of a great secular university, a chance to not let my faith statements rest, simply, on pietistic niceties or baseless claims of belief, a chance to both re-ground and challenge belief in order to develop something more, something I’d call faith.  But some people don’t like to have their belief system tested.  Some people are quite happy with having faith be, for them, a series of statements of what they believe.  After my first year, and after many first years in seminaries and divinity schools, a number of students dropped out.  After a long program, some students are so changed from who they were when they first enrolled, as well. Seminary or divinity school is not a hard thing to do, by and large – you have to learn languages and read books and write and talk a lot – but the hardships are on the inside, and for some that’s truly hard.

A book that was something of a required initial read for anyone entering the University of Chicago Divinity School is Martin Gardner’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm.  Published in 1973 and set at that divinity school in the late 1930’s, the novel features the transformation of the fictional Peter Fromm, a young, believing, Christian evangelist wanna-be from the oil fields of Oklahoma who ventures into that great secular university’s divinity school to take on the heart of liberal theology, itself – all of which is the first step in Peter’s life’s campaign to win the hearts of America for Jesus Christ.  Peter is bright but naïve, intelligent but with an agenda driven by evangelical theology, gifted but unrooted.  The story, overall, is about his transformation, but it’s also about a man’s breakdown and faith’s remodeling.

Early in the book, while he’s still a good believer, there’s a passage that’s long spoken to me, especially as relates to Thomas in our New Testament. It’s a scene from a chapter in which Peter’s dating a Catholic girl named Angelina.

“…Peter lingered for a moment to peer through the gate’s iron grillwork at the large stone statue of Saint Thomas that stands in front of the church’s entrance.  It was dusk and the Saint’s face was in deep purple shadow.  A powdery snow was clinging to his head and shoulders and to the arm outstretched as if to touch the wounds of Christ.

‘I am his brother,’ Peter said in low tones.

‘What do you mean?’  Angelina had never read the Gospels.  If someone had asked her who Saint Thomas was, she would not have known how to answer.

‘He refused to believe the Lord had risen from the dead,’ said Peter.  ‘He refused to believe until he could put his finger in the nail prints or rest his hand on the wound made by the soldier’s spear.’

‘Did he ever do it?’

‘No, when he saw Jesus he believed.  That was when Christ said to him, ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed.  Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’’ Peter’s voice had a curious ring.  ‘It was the last of the beatitudes.’

Puzzled and a little more frightened, she studied the statue more carefully through the softly falling flakes.  ‘Why are you like him?’

‘Because,’ Peter answered desolately, his words blowing clouds of whiteness into the freezing air, ‘I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.’”

“I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas,” Peter says.  At times throughout life I could’ve and probably wanted to say the same.  I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.  I’m not sure I believe he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe even after his friends told him they’d seen the Risen Lord.  It seems so strange, so unpredictable, so odd that someone with such boldness and courage and inner strength, someone exactly like Thomas, couldn’t, wouldn’t believe.  It seems, to us, that the trick to doing something or becoming something is to will it, to want it, to make space in your life for it.  Want to lose weight?  Do it, then.  Want to acquire a new skill?  Get to it.  Want to be a better believer, a more faithful Christian?  What are you waiting for?  Start praying more frequently, attending more regularly, resisting more forcefully.

But what if it’s not at all up to us?  What if the big things in life, the stuff that really matters, isn’t in our power or control at all?

I suspect that’s the case.  And I fear that the longer we keep pretending that things might be in our power, that the secret to faith, for instance, has something to do with doubt or belief, the further we get from the truth.   For the truth of the matter is that the story of faith is not about our searching for God, our yearning and our hoping and our desires, as good and well-founded as they may be.  Even if the desire to please God, as Thomas Merton once famously prayed, may in fact be pleasing to God, it’s not entirely satisfactory to our Creator.  The story of theology and, in particular, our faith is not at all about our searching for God.  It’s about God searching for us.

I’d like to say that we need to let go of worrying about belief and thinking about doubt but that, in itself, is still on you, that still requires your initiative.  I’d like to tell you to practice letting go, to practice as an Easter celebration no longer trying to be a better person or a more faithful Christian.  Practice ending practices.

But the truth is that we can’t do this, not entirely on our own.

Caravaggio’s (1570 – 1610) famous “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” features the Apostle’s right forefinger nearly halfway into Jesus’ side!

What we’re talking about is simply being in front of God, naked and vulnerable and you.

After all, I believe, that’s the real story of Thomas.  Even though so many artistic depictions of this scene have, over the centuries, featured Thomas actually touching Jesus’ wounds, I don’t see that happening, not in the text at least.  True, Thomas said that he wouldn’t believe until he touched the marks, but nowhere does it say he actually did it once Jesus appeared.  No, when Thomas stopped searching and fretting and doubting and believing and God found him, after all, just as when God finds you, all of that other stuff dissolves and drifts away, and you and I are left face to face with the One who knows us more intimately than we, even, know ourselves.  It’s in those rare and beautiful moments, then, that we, like Thomas, find ourselves having dropped everything we were once concerned with and, together, utter in our hearts the greatest confession of faith made in the pages of the New Testament, “My Lord and my God!”

………………..

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland