Sunday, April 3, 2016

Easter 2, 2016: Faithful witnessing

Preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Burnsville, NC.
Lectionary: Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 118:14-29; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

En el nombre del Padre, y el Hijo, y el Espiritu Santo. Amen. Please be seated.

I’m Valori. I’m a friend of Beth’s. I’ve been in the diocese for 6.5 years… and I’m really glad to be here today with this branch of our family tree. I thank Beth for inviting me to worship at St. Thomas and preach today. I have some friends here at St. Thomas from Executive Council and the CRM trainings, but I don’t think we’ve ever shared Holy Eucharist, have we. Well, that’s about to change. Isn’t it lovely that I get to be here on the day the Gospel talks about St. Thomas, your patron saint?

I’ll begin talking about one of my favorite saints. As you may have noticed, I’m Latina. I’m half Spanish, and one of my favorite saints is Theresa of Avila, 16th century Spanish mystic. And I’ll begin with her prayer that I think is familiar to most of you:

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ's compassion to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless [people] now.”

St. Theresa’s prayer speaks to us about how we witness our faith. This kind of witness requires that we make ourselves sacrificially available to God; and that we be part of a faith community, because the faith community keeps us grounded and fed and sends us out to serve. Every Sunday we are sent out to serve.

In today’s story about doubting Thomas, who unfortunately is known as doubting Thomas, because he was faithful. In fact tradition tells us he was known to be very faithful , and even impetuous in his fervor.

The story of Thomas is important because through this shows Jesus demonstrated three very important lessons for us about our work as witnesses of the Good News:

1) that God accepts us where we are and leads us to where we need to be;
2) that there are many ways to come to faith and many ways to live faithfully;
3) that God is present in the gathered community.

Thomas was a believer but he couldn’t believe that his rabbi, who was dead, was now alive again and talking with folks. Who could believe that? Would you believe that if someone said it to you today. So, it’s not so much that he doubted but that it didn’t make any sense. How could it be?

Notice that Jesus didn’t get mad at Thomas for doubting. Instead, he came back and he invited Thomas to come into his presence and confront his doubt - to go fully into it – not to deny it or avoid it or be ashamed of it. Come close, Jesus said. Touch me. Be with me.

And no one kicked Thomas out of the disciples club for not believing right. They preserved their friendship with him, they invited him back, they kept him part of the community, and let God do the rest. The story of Thomas shows us that there are many ways to come to faith and many ways of being faithful and it’s that diversity that makes us such strong witnesses.

Whether or not we ever “see” Jesus will depend upon how accessible we make ourselves to God throughout our lives, in our whole journey of faith, and how God wishes to work in us. Some will know about Jesus from their earliest childhood – a deep abiding faith. You can witness it in children.

Others will have resurrection experiences, like Theresa of Avila who saw visions of Christ in his bodily form, or John Wesley whose heart was strangely warmed when he encountered the presence of Jesus in prayer – much like those disciples on the road to Damascus. Others will say they never experience the presence of God. They don’t “see” Jesus. To them, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

In writings discovered after her death, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, of my favorite saints, confessed living most of her life in a dark night – a state of feeling totally absent of the presence of God. She struggled to believe, yet never stopped serving because it’s what her faith demanded of her. And how well did she serve?!? Her service changed the world. It changed the way the world looked at the poor. She touched them. She drew close, just like Thomas did to Jesus.

In our Collect today, we asked God to help us “show forth in our lives what we profess in our faith.” So we must ask ourselves: what do we believe?... and do we truly believe what we profess in our faith? …and if we can’t believe it, do we live it?... at work, at school, at home, …in church?

There used to be a TV show hosted by John QuiƱones, called: “What would you do?” The show secretly filmed people witnessing such things as abuse, theft, fraud or cheating. The idea was, would this person intervene and make right the wrong being done, or would they sit there and ignore it?

People did both. What would we do? Hopefully, we’d show forth in our lives what we profess in our faith. Now, I think we all like to think we do the right thing. I don’t know… sometimes I think I would; sometimes I think I’d ignore it.

We have opportunities all the time. For example, what do we say when people ask us about the presidential election, or HB-2 (the bathroom law just passed by the General Assembly)? I’m not going to talk politics, but I am going to ask: Do we witness to our Baptismal Covenant in response?

What about – when we’re out in the world and we’re with someone who says they don’t believe in God. What do they learn about God by being with you… by watching you live your life? That’s a witness.

What is our witness when we are at a gathering of friends and one of them, who is a follower of Christ, spouts off insults and condemnations against someone because of how they look, or their race, or their gender, or their sexuality or sexual identity? How do we respond? What do we do?

Do we witness our faith when someone tells a dumb blonde joke, which perpetuates the degradation of women? Finally, what is our witness when we are afraid, or in doubt? How do witness the Good News when we’re worried about the transitions in our parish, The Episcopal Church, or the global Christian family?

I hope whenever we are challenged to show forth in our lives what we profess in our faith, we remember what Peter said to his listeners in Jerusalem: that we are witnesses of the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ. We are not the ones who do the redeeming work – God is. Our role is to be faithful - to gather in community, to pray, to listen, to be fed by Word and Sacrament, to act when we’re called to do so… and sometimes, to wait – to wait in faith while God is working things out in ways we can’t see or imagine.

As witnesses, we are not called to coerce or threaten or frighten or cajole anyone into believing or into coming to church. That wasn’t Jesus’ way and it isn’t ours.

We are called upon to be the presence of Christ in the world today – a presence that accepts people where they are. Remember, Jesus breathed his Holy Spirit onto these disciples, and it happens again at Pentecost to the larger church. Breath. Life. Jesus breathes his own spirit into us. This presence that we carry as temples of the Holy Spirit, this presence allows us to accept people where they are, and gently we place them in the presence of God – right here in this sanctuary, right here among this gathered community, and we let God guide them into all truth.

That’s why your priests and rectors keep reminding you to ‘Invite your friends to church.” I promise you, it’s not about the Average Sunday Attendance numbers. It’s about the reconciliation of the world to God. That’s in our catechism. That’s our ministry. Invite people to come into the presence of God on Sundays and whenever you gather as a community of faith.

Do you know why your priests and rectors keep telling you to invite your friends – and not just your friends – everybody you have conversation with who needs to be in the presence of God (which is everybody), because this is the calling of the membership, not the rector. You are the gathered community. Bring them into the presence of God so that we can be one family, one spirit.

We know whenever we worship together, or study the Bible together, whenever we eat and party together, that God is present among us. Jesus promised. God is present, not just being there, but transforming us, growing us and forming us into a body – the body of Christ in the world.

We are Christ’s hands in the world today – hands that reach out to catch someone who is falling,
even when that means sacrificing our own comfort for their sake.

We are Christ’s feet in the world today – feet that will go to those places where hope needs to be spoken and compassion needs to be given. Feet that will walk willingly into the darkness of someone’s nightmare, confident that we are bearers of the light of Christ.

We are the body of Christ in the world today, members of the communion of saints, members of one another.

So let us pray today, right now, that as we gather today to worship God and nourishment by Word and Sacrament, we will recognize and accept the grace God is offering us and allow God to make us one body, one spirit, a living sacrifice in Christ, for the glory of God and the welfare of God’s people. Thanks be to God. Amen.