Sunday, April 15, 2007

Today's sermon

Here's my attempt to tell my New Orleans story and stick to my gospel text. Yikes. Well I tried following Eugene Lowry's Homiletical Plot method (you'll see my plot points on the sermon). Dunno if it worked, but I definitely got 'em pissed off. I hope the gospel hope got through too!

Seeing and Believing

(Problem) Our gospel text today begins with a rather important missed appointment. The resurrected Jesus shows up to greet the disciples – this is not something you’d want to miss! But poor Thomas isn’t there – perhaps he is out buying groceries, or seeing to his family, or even looking for Jesus, hoping for a face-to-face encounter such as Mary had had that morning. And so Thomas misses Jesus’ big entrance (through the locked doors and everything!), and when he gets back, his friends tell him the unbelievable tale. It’s not all that surprising that he didn’t believe them. Even if he’d wanted to, he was a practical person. He needed proof: touchable, visible proof.

Often we find it hard to believe in God because we can’t see him. We don’t quite trust something that our senses don’t perceive. When others tell us stories of dramatic spiritual encounters, we usually listen politely, but often do not take it very seriously, or perhaps feel some jealously. We are skeptical. Moreover, we are unaware of or apathetic about whatever we haven’t seen for ourselves. In this information age, with so much news swirling around us, we’ve become rather lazy about seeking out what is truly important and instead rely on the media to tell us what to see – and therefore, what to believe.

Unfortunately, the media has stopped reporting on what I witnessed in New Orleans last week – they’ve moved on to more pressing matters like who is Anna Nicole Smith’s baby daddy. The story of the Gulf Coast is depressing and grinding, a non-stop, difficult road to recovery that doesn’t fit into sound bites and splashy headlines. But do you remember how bad it was when Hurricane Katrina hit? People spent hours – sometimes days – on their roofs, calling for help. The county that I visited, St. Bernard Parish, had been 100% destroyed: every last home uninhabitable, every last business out of business. There was water up to the Wal-Mart sign, it covered the Taco Bell. And their levee didn’t breach – a 33-foot wall of water went right over it! A million gallons of oil spilled into their residential neighborhood, the largest such spill in history. We all watched in horror as these things happened 19 months ago. But how much have we seen since? You might assume, as I did, that because it’s not in the news it’s no longer a story worth reporting. The rebuilding must be going well. You may even wonder why I needed to go. Like Thomas, you and I have simply not seen what’s been going on – and so we have trouble believing it.

(Itch) Thomas wanted the same experience the other disciples had – to see the risen Jesus! We often wish we could see our Lord – if God were only visible, we could prove his existence to others. It’s hard to believe in a God we can’t see or hear or taste or touch. He seems so far away. Sometimes I wonder if I’m praying into thin air. I wonder if we’ve all been duped. It’s so hard to believe in something we can’t see.

The devastation of Katrina has continued unfixed in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast because it has been forgotten. We do not see, and we do not know. I had no idea what I would see. I had no idea how bad it is. You hear New Orleans is “open for business,” but that is a brave face put on so that badly needed tourists will return.

Here is the reality: Less than half the people who lived there have moved back. I saw thousands of homes sitting empty, most stripped down to the studs. I saw people broken and sick from 19 months of living on handouts in moldy FEMA trailers. I didn’t see a vegetable for a week. I learned that the government is waiting on insurance companies to pay out, and insurance companies are waiting on the government, so no one has gotten any financial relief. I saw a Domino’s pizza running out of a trailer. I saw less than half a county back in business – one shop or store would be open, then dozens shuttered, on the same block. And the neighborhoods were still disaster areas – debris and trash everywhere, roofs sitting in backyards, no street signs, no street lights, empty slabs where proud homes once stood. And in every person’s eyes, the glazed, distant look of one who is suffering from post-traumatic stress.

(Turn) In our story, Thomas is lucky. Jesus appears so that Thomas can see him, touch him, and believe. We can’t see Jesus this side of heaven. But he understands our predicament, and he proclaims a blessing on us. We haven’t seen, and yet we believe, and Jesus says we are “blessed” for it. Those who see believe for good reason! But those who don’t see believe out of faith, and that is a blessed thing.

I must admit I am more like Thomas than the blessed ones who don’t need to see. I had to see New Orleans for myself to realize how bad things are there. I simply was not aware, I couldn’t care to the extent that I needed to, because I hadn’t seen. But you have the opportunity to not see and yet believe.

(Gospel) The good news in all this is at the end of our gospel passage: “these are written so that you may come to believe…and that through believing you may have life.” We are not without a witness to the work of Jesus – we have the Bible, we have the Church’s tradition and liturgy, we have the saints and martyrs and great teachers of history, and we have the Spirit testifying in our hearts and our community.

Believing without seeing for ourselves requires a measure of trust – you must trust me that I am not lying when I tell you stories of what I have seen. You must trust that the photos I have brought to show you were not created with special effects but are genuinely what I witnessed. If you trust me, you will believe what I tell you.

And the same holds true for our Lord. If we trust the witnesses Jesus has given us – the Holy Spirit, the writers of Scripture, the communities who formed our worship rituals, and the Church universal – then we will believe, without seeing. We will believe because we trust in God’s work in the world and especially in the household of faith, as Paul calls us. By believing in these witnesses that our good Savior has provided, we find the true life that comes by living in God’s story. I don’t mean after-death life – I mean we live the best possible life now, because we live as Jesus did, and Jesus showed us how to truly live. And he showed us what happens when death tries to take away a person with this life. It doesn’t stick. Death has lost its sting. Earlier in John’s gospel, when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (11:25b-26) This is the good news of Easter! Amen? {note: I got a good AMEN!}

(Forward) So now we are left, as was Thomas, with a choice. Do we believe? Thomas had to see and touch Christ’s body. We can see and touch this community around us, which is the body of Christ. If this community is Christ’s body, then when this community touches us, we will have no choice but to cry, “My Lord and My God!” We can know our Lord Jesus in the gathering of God’s people, in the breaking of the bread, in the peace we pass to one another, in the fellowship of the Spirit.

And as far as New Orleans goes, I hope that you will trust my report, and that God will inspire your participation with me in helping our sisters and brothers there. Our calling may be to pray for them; it may be to send supplies or funds; or it may be to send a group to help in person. It could certainly be to vote and make our voices heard in support of the people in our country who are suffering, and to challenge the use of federal funds. There are many ways God may wish us to move forward. God may simply want to use this experience I’ve had so far away to remind us of the poor who are among us in our own city, the many thousands who are homeless and hurt, sick and in prison, hungry and lonely.

However we move forward, we can trust that the entire situation – our lives here and those that I encountered last week – are in God’s hand. In the end, we trust God – the God who sent his Son to show us the way to true life, and to offer us the hope of resurrection. Our calling is to live the true life that Jesus offers – and to let that life radiate out to those who are dying all around us. For even in the worst destruction and death, we can trust in the hope of God’s resurrection promise. We can because we are God’s people – and we don’t need to see…only believe.

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