Monday, April 30, 2012

I Am the Good Shepherd

April 29, 2012/Fourth Sunday of Eastertide
John 10:11-18

            Phoebe’s first professional baby photograph was taken was taken with a lamb.  No, I’m not kidding – a lamb.  There was a photography studio in Albany, New York called the Country Studio.  Every spring they would adopt lambs to use in pictures with kids.  It was an incredible experience walking into that studio at that time of year.  Lambs were everywhere.  It was a big farmhouse, and I remember coming in and seeing one lamb at the top of the stairs and another being fed a bottle.  There were still more lambs wandering around the main waiting area, as well as in the backyard. 
When I made the appointment to have Phoebe’s picture taken, I knew about the studio using lambs.  As Phoebe was only three months old, I didn’t really expect them to use one with her.  But in the photographer came with a little lamb and put Phoebe and the lamb into this white cradle together.  I remember calling my mom that night and telling her about Phoebe getting her picture taken with a lamb.  My mother didn’t believe me.  She thought it was a stuffed animal, but this lamb was very real and very cute.
Lambs are cute.  Like any baby – animal, person or otherwise – there is something sweet and endearing about them. 
But like any baby – animal, person or otherwise – they grow up.  And lambs, as we all know, grow up to be sheep.  And sheep, while I have nothing against them personally, aren’t as cute.  They’re certainly practical animals.  Functional.  Useful.  But cute? 
Cute or not, the last thing I’d want to be called is a sheep.  The way our culture understands it, being a sheep means being a conformist, following the other sheep no matter what they’re doing or where they’re going.  Being a sheep means having little or no imagination.  If we believe what our culture tells us, if you’re a sheep you must lack a mind of your own; you’re unable or unwilling to think for yourself. 
Being a sheep is being a follower – only.  Leadership doesn’t fall upon the sheep. True leaders seem to be the exact opposite of the sheep.  The leaders in this world are the dynamic, exciting, free thinking people who break away from the flock, from the other sheep and stand alone.  Or at least stand out and far away from the crowd.
Now with this image of sheep in mind, I find it very unlikely that any of us would want to claim that we’re just one of the flock.  Who wants to be a sheep?  It’s much more interesting and beneficial and attractive to be one of the leaders.
I imagine this is why there are very few seminars and training events on how to be a good sheep, but there is an abundance of workshops and classes on developing your leadership potential; on becoming effective, dynamic leaders.
It would be surprising, to say the least, to run across a seminar called “Join the Pack: Tapping in to the Follower in You.”
Being a sheep is generally not the popular choice for most folks.  Sheep is not something we’re often told to strive for.  But in this passage from John, these “I am” statements of Jesus gives us a very different view of sheep.  The sheep are the ones who follow Jesus, the good shepherd.  The sheep are the ones who hear his voice.  The sheep are the ones who listen to his voice.  Jesus tells us that indeed we are the sheep. His sheep.  He is our good shepherd.
Jesus is our loving shepherd.  In fact the understanding of Jesus as the good and loving shepherd is one of Christianity’s most enduring and beloved images of him.     When I was growing up, I saw a lot of pictures of Jesus in Sunday school and church.  But one I remember in particular is that of Jesus as the good shepherd, gently carrying a lamb across his shoulders, bringing it safely back to the fold.
Being a sheep in this context means being a follower, not of the crowd, but of Jesus the good shepherd.  “Good” as it is found in these verses can also be translated as “Ideal” or “Model.”  Jesus is the ideal shepherd.  He is the model we are to emulate.
In the church we often call our leaders shepherds.  As a pastor I could be referred to as a shepherd and you the congregation could be referred to as a flock.  The church officers, the elected leaders of the church, could also be considered shepherds.
Even the term “pastor” stems from these sheep and shepherd images.  Think about a pastoral scene where sheep graze and the shepherd watches carefully over them.  Then think about a pastor and congregation where the pastor gives pastoral care to her parishioners.
We may be called shepherds, but this passage is a striking reminder that there is only one good shepherd.  We, Christians, are all sheep.  One commentator I read said the best Christian leaders could hope to become would be Sheep Dogs rather than Shepherds.  The sheep dogs help the shepherd; assist the shepherd with the flock.  But they are not the shepherd.
Most importantly what I think this passage is trying to emphasize is that all of us, leaders, congregation, pastors, parishioners, we are all sheep seeking to follow Jesus who is the good shepherd, our good shepherd.
And when I call us sheep, I don’t mean in the sense that I described earlier.  Being a Christian doesn’t mean that we blindly follow the crowd around us wherever they go.    Being the sheep under the care of the good shepherd doesn’t mean that we are folks, huddled fearfully together, unimaginative, conforming flocks of people without minds or thoughts of our own. 
Instead we are sheep who hear our shepherds’ voice.  It is a different voice from the other voices constantly clamoring for our attention.  We hear the good shepherd’s voice and we follow him.  We are sheep who need the care and protection of our shepherd.  And he is a shepherd who cares for and loves his sheep so much that he is willing to lay down his life for his flock.
This passage gives us a sense of identity as sheep, as the flock who follow Jesus.  But we understand our identity, who we are as Christians, as followers, only as we begin to understand who Jesus is to us.  He is our good shepherd.  He knows us and we know him, just as he knows the Father and the Father knows him.  Jesus’ relationship with us, the care, concern and protection he shows us and the loving ways in which he knows us is a reflection of the relationship Jesus has with the Father.  The love and care we are shown is a mirror image of the love and care between Father and Son.  It is because of and out of this love relationship with the Father that Jesus lays down his life for his sheep.  Jesus lays down his life freely, as a fulfillment of the relationship with the Father.
And if we had read the verses before these, we would also have read Jesus saying that he is the gate.  Whoever enters through him will find pasture and be saved.
Jesus is not only the Good Shepherd who watches over us, he is the way we become his sheep in the first place.  Jesus is the way, the gate.  It is only through him that we join the flock.  And the flock is large.  Jesus tells those around him that there are sheep who do not belong to this fold.  But that he will bring them also and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
I used to think that the words “flock” and “fold” were interchangeable, but they’re not.  A fold was a separated walled enclosure where shepherds would drive their sheep to at night for safekeeping.
But the flock could be large, with no size limitations or boundaries.  A flock could be scattered over several pastures.
The flock that Jesus calls together then, is as diverse as the sheep within it.  It is far reaching and includes flocks from many folds.  In this context the fold of Israel was no longer the only fold.
The care and protection that Jesus gives to his flock is the care we hear expressed in the 23rd Psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.  The Lord provides for my daily wants and needs. 
He maketh me lie down in green pastures.  He leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul.  Through Jesus, the gate and the shepherd, we enter into lush meadows.  Our good shepherd revives us with living waters, he strengthens us and gives our weary spirits rest.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Our shepherd is our guide and our companion as we seek to be good followers.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.  We have nothing to fear.  Even death has lost its hold on us.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.  We have nothing to fear even though our enemies and foes may surround us.  We sit at the table of the Lord, our wounds are healed, we have life abundantly.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Through Christ we are saved by God’s grace.  Through Christ, our lives overflow with God’s mercy and forgiveness.  With God’s never ending love and compassion.
Are we sheep?  Yes.  But not in the sense of blind, unthinking followers with no purpose or vision.  We are followers of the one who gives us purpose, who gives us vision.  We listen to the voice of the One who leads us along the path of “truth and life.”  So if someone ever asks us, “What are ya, a sheep?”  Let our answer be, “Yes!  Yes I am!  And let me tell you about our good shepherd.”  Amen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

We Remain

            “We have a framed hair wreath in one of the other bedrooms upstairs.” 
            These words were spoken to my friend Ellen and me by the innkeeper of a lovely Bed and Breakfast in Jenks, Oklahoma just this past March. 
            “We have a framed hair wreath in one of the other bedrooms upstairs.”
            If you’re saying to yourself, “What the heck is a hair wreath?” you’re not alone.  I was thinking that very question when the nice innkeeper uttered that particular phrase.  What the heck is a hair wreath? 
            Before I give you an answer, let me tell you a little bit about my friend Ellen.   
Ellen and me with my mouth open.  Big surprise!
             Ellen and I have been friends for approximately 21 years now.  We met in our Hebrew summer language course our first year of seminary in Richmond, Virginia.  Summer language school is a seven week intensive course in either Hebrew or Greek.  Both languages are required for potential Presbyterian pastors.  And at my seminary the seven week course was like boot camp for ministers. 
            You know how when you’re thrown in with a group of strangers in an intense setting such as a trip or a course, and you bond really fast, thinking that those bonds will last forever but once the course is done they don’t?  I felt that way after those seven weeks.  Yet I’ve lost touch with just about everybody else from that first summer when I ate, drank and slept Hebrew, but not with Ellen.  We remain.
            Our friendship has seen marriages, children, moves, job successes, job failures, life successes, life failures, disappointments, heartaches and celebrations.  We’ve lived nearby and we’ve lived far away, but still we remain.
            One of the ways Ellen and I keep our friendship going is by planning girls’ weekends.  They don’t happen as often as we like, but whenever possible we seek out a place approximately halfway between our respective domiciles and hang out for a couple of nights at a B and B.  Basically, give El and me a hearty breakfast, antiques and an innkeeper who knows the best places to shop and we’re in, people! 
            So back to where we began – the hair wreath.  A hair wreath is what it sounds like.  It is a wreath made up of braided hair from many women in a family.  Women would often keep a small porcelain container on their dressers.  It was covered but the cover had a hole in the middle.  As women would brush their hair, they would place the loose hair into the container to be saved.  Ellen remembered her grandmother having just such a thing sitting on her nightstand when Ellen was growing up.  I don’t know if anyone in my family tree did this, but I found it fascinating (and, if I’m honest, a little weird) that this was such a prevalent practice.  But weird or not, the hair wreath was beautiful.  
The infamous hair wreath
          As we looked more closely you could see the different shades of hair woven together.  There were various hues of brunette, blonde and gray.  I closed my eyes and imagined the different generations of women all collecting their hair, and the time and love that went into braiding that hair into this kind of creation.  It was both art and memorial.  It was a testament to each woman – unique, individual, beautiful, yet all woven into a larger whole. 
            Ellen and I aren’t in the same family.  We don’t share DNA.  Our hair color does not match.  Our temperaments are different.  She is calm, cool and collected, and I’m … not.  But still as our friendship grows and changes and weathers and deepens, we’re weaving our memories together as surely as those women wove their hair. 
We remain.
Ellen, the author, and Ellen's lovely daughter, Shelby

Sunday, April 22, 2012

We Are Witnesses

Luke 24:36b-48
April 22, 2012

            If I ever have the opportunity to write a dissertation on the Harry Potter series and Charlotte’s Web I will.  Why?  Because I think the Potter series and E.B. White’s classic story are two of the best examples of the power of friendship, sacrifice, and a willingness to put the greater good above the individual needs. 
            I’ve been in love with the story of Charlotte and Wilbur since I was a kid.  And even though I was an adult when Harry Potter came along, I felt the same deep bond reading that series as I did when I read Charlotte’s Web. 
            So I love these books!  I love them!  I love them!  I’ve read a lot of good books in my life, but I think these are some of the best.  If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend that you do.  I know that everyone has different taste, but trust me on this, you must read these books.  I’m telling you reading these books changed my life.  They changed the way I look at life, the way I approach friendship.  They changed the way I approach love. 
            I know that my just encouraging you to read these books may not be enough to sell you on them.  You have to read them.  You have to experience them for yourself to really understand how amazing they are.  You have to jump into them and be changed by them.  I can’t make them real for you.  But I can point the way.  I can tell you about my own experience.  Maybe that will make you think about reading them for yourself.
            You’re probably wondering how these books tie in to our scripture passages today, aren’t you?  Fair question.  These books actually have nothing to do with what our passage from Luke is about – not really.  It’s true that I think they’re great books.  It’s also true that I’ve learned many invaluable lessons from them.  Really, though, these books don’t have anything to do with our scripture passages today, particularly the one from Luke which I’m focusing on.  I’m sure I could find connections, but that wasn’t my point.
            What I did, hopefully, in telling you about the books that I love was witness to them.  I told you what it meant to me to read them and encouraged you to read them too.  I witnessed. 
            Witnessing to those books was incredibly easy for me because I feel so passionately about them.  Because I feel so passionately about them, it was easy to talk about them.  It wasn’t anxiety producing or stressful.  I didn’t feel embarrassed or self-conscious.  I just wanted to share something that I love.  I witnessed.
            At the end of our passage from Luke, Jesus declares to the disciples that they are witnesses of these things.  What are the things that he refers to?  Jesus is referring to himself.  This is a post resurrection appearance.  Our story follows on the heels of probably the best known of Luke’s accounts of post resurrection appearances – the story of Jesus on the road to Emmaus.  There two disciples are making their way from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus.  Jesus joins them on the road but they don’t recognize them.  The disciples have been speaking about everything that’s happened.  The crucifixion of Jesus.  The women’s supposedly idle tale that the tomb was empty and the message from the angels that Jesus was indeed risen.  When Jesus asks them what they’ve been talking about, they look sad and relate all this to them.  Then he begins to interpret the scriptures for them in light of what they’ve seen and heard. 
            They encourage him to stay with them.  And when he breaks bread with them, their eyes are opened and they recognize him.  Immediately upon recognition he vanishes from their sight.  So they hightail it back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples.  And while they’re sharing with the disciples what they’ve just seen and heard and witnessed, Jesus appears in their midst. 
            Now they all witness the resurrected Christ.  But even with everything they’ve heard and what they now see, they are still terrified.  They think it’s a ghost.  Jesus dismisses that idea.  Look at me, he tells them.  Touch my hands and feet.  Does a ghost have flesh and bones?  And while he tells them this, he shows them his hands and feet.  He gives them proof that he was indeed crucified, dead, buried and now he’s raised again – not just as a spirit, but as a real physical being. 
            Even as he shows them all this they still have doubts.  Luke writes that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.”
            Jesus is not just a spirit before them.  He has flesh and bones and hunger.  They are overjoyed, but still disbelieving.  They don’t trust their senses.  Then Jesus did what he did for the other disciples on the road to Emmaus.  He opens their minds to understand the scriptures.  It seems that an open, enlightened mind is the final, necessary ingredient to belief.  When he finishes interpreting the scriptures in light of all that has happened, with his physical presence before them, the complete and unequivocal proof that what he told them before his death has come true, he declares to them all, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” 
            You are witnesses of these things.  That’s not just a statement of fact, is it?  There is an implied imperative here as well.  You are witnesses of these things and therefore you must witness.  Starting in Jerusalem, this story has to be told.  God’s word of repentance and forgiveness must be preached.  And as witnesses of these things, it starts with you. 
            As it is commonly believed that the author of Luke is also the author of Acts, this sets the stage for what comes next in Acts; how the disciples who didn’t get it become the apostles who finally do. 
            But in this moment, Jesus tells them that they are witnesses of these things.  And as we understand that the stories we read in scripture continue to have meaning for us, we also hear the imperative in these words as well.
            No, we were not witnesses to the bodily resurrected Christ as the disciples were.  But I suspect that the reason we’re here today is because in some form or fashion, we have witnessed Christ’s presence in our lives.  In some way or another we’ve experienced Christ.  We’ve been changed by Christ.  Our hearts, our minds have been opened to understand scriptures in a new light.
We are witnesses of these things.  So we better get out there and start witnessing.
            How many of you are thinking, “That’s great Amy.  You first.”
            We are witnesses of these things.  And the implication is that as witnesses we should be telling people about it.  That’s what the disciples/apostles did.  They received the power of the Holy Spirit and they told people.  They found their courage to preach and teach.  They even spoke in languages they’d never heard before.  They trusted that the words would come and they did.  It wasn’t perfect, I get that.  But they still did it.  That must mean that we can too.  So let’s get out there.  Let’s go.  Let’s get witnessing. 
            Still no stampede to the door?  Are you waiting for me to take the lead? 
            I have been taught how to stand up here and interpret and tell stories.  I’ve read a lot of books.  I have some knowledge, a little bit of authority.  But when it comes to witnessing, I still think of the same old stereotypes of the person on a busy corner with a sandwich board proclaiming we better repent cause the end of the world is near.  That shows my age, actually, because the sandwich board today would be a post on social media or a worldwide text message.  But the stereotype remains. And I’m not comfortable with it.  I’m not so good at witnessing.  It’s much easier for me to share my passion for Harry Potter and Charlotte’s Web and movies that I love and social injustices that I decry than witness to the power of Christ in my life. 
            I worry that if I tell about the times that I’ve known without a doubt that the presence of Christ was with me, that I’ll be laughed at or scorned.  Someone will think I’m trying to change them or make them think exactly like me.  It’s more comfortable to talk about books I love than it is to talk about my faith.  Who really wants to leave their comfort zone?  Really? 
            But we are called to be witnesses of these things.  It seems to me that being a witness to the resurrected Christ takes practice just like any other skill.  So let’s try some practicing.
            Many of you have heard my story of faith.  I grew up in the Southern Baptist church, left the Southern Baptist church, pushed God and church and religion and faith away for many years, moved to Richmond, Virginia for a job, found the Presbyterians, went back to church, the rest is history and here I am in front of you.
            But I lost the job that brought me to Richmond.  And I was running out of the little money that I had.  I had rent to pay and bills and a car.  I was looking for a job, temping at offices, babysitting, borrowing money from my parents, whatever I could to make ends meet.  But those ends weren’t quite meeting.  In fact there was a significant gap and it was growing.
            I was angry and scared and depressed.  I was angry.  I was so angry one day that I just blew up.  Not at a friend or a neighbor or a relative.  I blew up at God.  I threw a temper tantrum at God.  I yelled.  I pounded my fists.  I told God I didn’t get it.  What was going on?  I’d been doing all the right things.  I’d gone back to church.  I was trying to live a life that had meaning.  I was embracing faith once more.  But now that I was doing all of that it seemed like everything else was falling to pieces around me.  I felt betrayed.  And I was mad. 
            So I yelled and raged and threw myself on my bed and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.  And then I just lay there for a while in silence, spent of any emotions, at least for the time being.  The silence started to work on me.  It was like the quiet that comes after a storm.  I calmed down.  I took deep breaths.  And then I realized that the silence wasn’t empty.  It was filled.  It was filled with God. There’s no other way for me to put it.  It was filled with God.  I wasn’t alone.  I was being held.  Not by some ghostly presence, but by the very real living presence of Christ.  All of my anger and pain had been heard and taken from me.  I was held and loved and cared for.  There were no answers in that silence.  I heard no words.  I didn’t know what would happen next.  I still had no idea how to pay my bills or find a new job, etc.  But I wasn’t alone and I was loved.  It was enough.
            I am a witness of these things.  So are you.  May all of us be empowered by the presence of the risen Christ to share what we have witnessed, to share the good news of God in Christ Jesus.  We are witnesses of these things.  Alleluia!  Amen.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

No Doubt

John 20:19-31
April 15, 2012/Second Sunday in Eastertide

            In the last few days I’ve discovered a blog site called PostSecret.  It was created by a man named Frank Warren.  In 2004 Warren decided to do what seemed to be a crazy experiment.  He walked around Washington, DC and handed people blank, self-addressed, stamped postcards.  He asked the people who took them to share a secret.  It could be any secret they chose.  Just write it down on the postcard and send it to him. 
            In the weeks to come he began to receive postcards, some bought, even more homemade, from people all over the world sharing their secrets.  But the curious thing is that Frank Warren doesn’t just collect these secrets.  He posts them on PostSecret.  In a video I watched of him giving a brief talk and introduction about PostSecret he showed a variety of the postcards that people have sent to him since he first began this project.
            Some are funny.  Someone created a postcard out of part of a Starbucks cup with the secret, “I give decaf to people who are rude to me.” 
            Some are poignant.  A picture of a sleeping baby with the words, “Dear Birthmother, I have good parents.  I’ve found love.  I’m happy.”
            Or the secret that was written on the back of a sealed envelope, “Inside this envelope are the ripped up pieces of a suicide note I wrote but didn’t use.  I can’t believe how happy I am.  (now).”
            Some secrets are salacious.  Some are scandalous.  A memorable one is a compilation of faces of male celebrities.  The secret?  “One of these men is the father of my son.  He pays me a lot of money to keep this a secret.” 
            And some are ominous and disturbing.  One postcard shows a drawing of the twin towers burning.  The secret teller writes, “Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.” 
            It seems that telling secrets to a complete stranger is a cathartic experience.  Our secrets express our frailties, our fears and the commonalities of our human experience.  Commonalities that are too easily forgotten if we don’t look beneath the surface to the secrets.
            The reason I speak of secrets this morning is because I think this story about Thomas expresses a secret many of us of the Christian faith have but are too scared to admit.  What’s our secret?  We have doubts. 
            Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe none of you have any doubts about your faith.  Or if you do, maybe you’re perfectly willing to admit that.  But I know in my own experience that it can be distressing, to say the least, to admit to ourselves that our faith isn’t just lacking in strength but can feel almost non-existent, much less share that with anyone else.  I suspect that doubt about our faith is one of our biggest secrets as Christians; at least it’s one that may bother us the most.
            The traditional interpretation of this passage from John’s gospel has served to reinforce the shame of that secret.  Thomas, aka “Doubting Thomas,” seems to be rebuked by Jesus for lack of faith, for doubting the resurrection, for doubting everything that Jesus had told them. 
            “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the mark of the nails and my hand on his side, I will not believe.”
            Thomas was absent when Jesus made his appearance to the disciples.  They were gathered together behind locked doors out of fear, when suddenly Jesus was there, standing among them.
            The first words he spoke to them were a greeting of peace.  “Peace be with you.”  Then Jesus showed the disciples his hands and his side.  And they rejoiced at seeing the Lord.  Then again Jesus greets them with his words of peace, and he proceeds to commission them for ministry.
            “As my father has sent me, so I send you.”  As he says this, he breathes on them, covering them with the Holy Spirit.  He also gives them authority to forgive or retain sins.  They are commissioned and empowered to spread the word.
            But Thomas was not there to witness this dramatic event.  Thomas the Twin, or Doubting Thomas.
            Doubting Thomas – this name probably sums up the way most of us have heard this story over the years.  When I was a child, the last thing any of us wanted to be told in our Sunday School classes was that we were acting or sounding like a Doubting Thomas.  It wasn’t good to be like Thomas.  Thomas doubted.  He was skeptical and demanded tangible, physical proof that Jesus was really resurrected before he would believe it.  Doubting Thomas was not a flattering or complimentary nickname to be given.  Hence, why I think it becomes a shameful secret for so many of us to admit our doubts.
            But what about the others?  Jesus also appeared to them and showed them his hands and his side.  Mary Magdalene announced to them, quite forcefully, that she had seen the Lord.  But the disciples didn’t trust her word any more than Thomas trusted theirs.  The disciples were staying in a locked room for fear of the Jews.  The Jews in this context are the powers and the authorities that conspired to put Jesus to death.
            The sudden presence of Jesus among them surely must have shocked and frightened them.  Mary Magdalene’s report of seeing the Lord, speaking with the Lord, and even trying to embrace him had not lessened the disciples’ fear at his crucifixion.  It had not lessened their lack of belief.
            It is only when Jesus appears to them and shows his hands and his side that they believe and rejoice. They too needed proof that Jesus was really alive.  Just like Thomas.
            But Thomas put into words what he required for faith.  As one commentator said, he set out the conditions for his faith.  He needed to see the marks of the nails on Jesus’ hands.  He needed to touch them and to touch the place where the sword pierced Jesus’ side.
            So a week later Jesus comes again to the disciples, to Thomas.  He gives Thomas what he asked for.  He gives Thomas permission to go ahead, touch him, place his hands on the marks left by the nails, touch him.  See firsthand the proof of the resurrection.  Thomas says, “Show me.”  And Jesus says, “Here I am.”  Jesus offers himself completely to Thomas.
            And it is here that the misconceptions about Thomas happen.  Doubting Thomas.  Whenever I’ve heard this story read and interpreted, it’s most often seen as a story about doubt, about cynicism.  Thomas is the cynical, skeptical doubter.  Yet it seems to me that this text is not so much about doubt as it is about faith.  It’s not about cynicism and skepticism as it is about believing.
            Most of the translations of the Bible we have at our disposal, including the NRSV, the one I use, translate Jesus as saying, “doubt.”  Do not doubt.  But the Greek word for doubt is not used in this story at all.  The more literal translation for the verb apistos is “unbelieving.”  Jesus tells Thomas, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
            Do not be unbelieving, but believing. 
            Now maybe to make a distinction between doubt and unbelieving is like talking about two sides of the same coin, but making that distinction takes us in very different directions.
            Do not be unbelieving, but believing.  Go from being without faith to having faith.  Not having faith isn’t the same as being cynical about faith, is it?  It’s not quite the same thing as doubt.
            Jesus offered to Thomas exactly what he asked for.  He told him to touch the marks of the nails on his hands and to put his hand on Jesus side.  Jesus offered himself as motivation, as a sign for Thomas to believe, to have faith, to go from unbelieving to believing.
            The text doesn’t say specifically that Thomas took Jesus up on his offer, but we do know that when Jesus offers himself as proof and motivation for faith, Thomas utters one of the most profound confessions of faith in the gospel.  “My Lord and my God.”  Thomas is not exclaiming here.  He is confessing.  He is confessing his faith.  My Lord and my God.
            When we examine the interaction between Jesus and Thomas in this light, then the next words of Jesus sound different as well.  “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe.”
            Is Jesus trying to shame or scold Thomas?  That’s what many of us have had drummed into us.  That’s why expressing our doubts or our unbelief has become such a shameful secret.  Or was Jesus confirming what had just happened?  And in his confirmation, he opened the door to faith for generations of believers yet to come.
            I don’t believe that Jesus was scolding Thomas for wanting to see Jesus with his own two eyes, for wanting proof of the resurrection.  Instead Jesus offered hope to Thomas and to a whole world of others through Thomas.  What this passage promises all of us is that our faith is not disadvantaged because we were not firsthand witnesses to Jesus and his ministry, his life, his death and his resurrection.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
            Jesus gave Thomas and the other disciples a sign.  A sign that points beyond itself to the full glory of God achieved through Jesus. 
            So what are our signs?  We could certainly point to the sign of God’s grace that we receive in the sacraments.  Sharing in the Lord’s Supper today is one sort of sign.  But it’s been my own experience that I see signs of God’s love in past events.  Whenever I’m doubting, whenever I’m convinced that I don’t have the strength of belief to take one more step, I look back over my life.  I review the different ways that God has upheld me. I remember how God has been present in my life, even when – especially when – I was least aware of that presence.  My doubts, my fears, my unbelief may seem overwhelming in this moment, but when I can step back and see this moment in light of all those other moments, I find some reassurance of God.  Reassurance of God.  I trust God in memory.  Isn’t that what scripture is for us?  Trusting God in memory?  The scripture narrative is the collective memory of all the saints.  We trust God in memory.
            Jesus told the disciples to remember him in the bread and the cup.  And when they remember, they find the strength and the courage and the faith to continue on.  So may we do the same.  May we continue on, knowing that sometimes we doubt, we falter and lose our way.  But we trust God in memory, believing, in spite of our doubts, that if we can see God’s handprint on the past, surely that handprint marks our future as well.  No doubt.  Amen.