Saturday, April 26, 2014

What Is the Question? (Easter 2A 27 April 2014)

Easter 2A
27 April 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus Text:  John 20.19-31
         On the 21st of December 1981 I was ordained to the priesthood after six months as a transitional deacon.  In The Episcopal Church the 21st of December is celebrated as the feast of Saint Thomas.  After all, it is the shortest day of the year and, in some cultures, rituals were held on this day to coax the sun to return and warm the earth in time for the spring planting.  It seems a fitting day to remember a saint who is sometimes called ‘doubting’ Thomas.
         I had been experiencing my own bout of doubt.  My position on the staff of the diocesan office was a temporary measure and the Bishop had been searching for a curacy.  Just before my ordination, the word came that I was to become the curate at Christ Church in Denver, one of the larger parishes with a congregation that included ‘high church’ Anglicans, Evangelicals who wanted the richness of Anglican liturgy and members of the so-called ‘charismatic’ movement.  One of the constant challenges for the Rector of Christ Church was maintaining a balance in the clergy staff and I was to represent the modern face of the ‘high church’ tradition.
         As it often happens in Anglican parishes, the newest member of the clergy staff, especially if he or she is younger than the other clergy, is given responsibility for the children and youth programmes.  So one of my first responsibilities was the preparation of a large group of teenagers for confirmation.
         Christ Church had a long history of lay involvement in the confirmation programme.  Married couples, young and old, were recruited to be small group leaders.  A detailed curriculum had been prepared with learning modules as well as question and answer sessions.  Most of the learning modules were based on the memorization of certain facts and teachings.
         I really liked the four couples who had volunteered to be mentors and I was looking forward to working with them and the young people.  But I hated, absolutely hated, the curriculum.  Now don’t get me wrong.  There is some value in learning about the church’s traditions and practices; confirmation is simply not the place for that kind of learning.  Confirmation, whether of younger or older people, is about exploring our faith and deciding how we are going to live that faith in the world.  In confirmation, those who were baptized as infants or young children make a commitment to live their lives as baptized members of the Christian community.  We choose to follow Christ and need to learn what following Christ really means for me and for the community in which I live and what following Christ costs in today’s society.
         I filed the curriculum away and drew up a new programme based on the promises of the Baptismal Covenant, those eight, now nine, affirmations and promises we make at baptisms and on those occasions when we all renew our commitment to following the way of Jesus of Nazareth.
         At my first session with the teenagers, I asked them what they thought it meant to say, ‘I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.’  All of these kids were product of North American education.  They knew more about science than I did at their age.  They were familiar with the theory of evolution and the ‘Big Bang’.  Half of the group came from single-parent families and of those families two-thirds were headed by the mother.  I was not interested in those days with a feminist critique of male-gendered language for God nor was I interested in participating in the tiresome debates about whether belief in evolution contradicts the witness of the Christian scriptures.  I simply wanted them to think about how God is and is not a father, to consider how our earthly fathers show and do not show us the loving face of our Creator, to ponder not how the universe came into existence but why it came into existence.
         The small group discussions were lively and the four couples thanked me for the opportunity to talk with the kids about something important and relevant.  There was no ‘fill in the blank’ answer sheets as in previous years; there was only adults and young people talking about their faith and about their uncertainties.  That night I sent the kids home with an assignment:  Have the same discussion with your parent or parents.
         A few days later the Rector called me into his office.  He had been overwhelmed by telephone calls and in-person conversations with several parents of the young people in the confirmation preparation programme.  ‘What kind of crazy curate have you hired?,’ was the theme of these conversations.  The parents wanted their kids to learn the answers about being an Anglican, about navigating the prayer book and such, not plague their parents with uncomfortable questions about one’s relationship with God!  Fortunately, the Rector supported me and the crisis was weathered.
         For far too long people, both religious and non-religious, have assumed that religious life is about answers rather than exploring the questions of our lives in the company of others.  Some of those others we can touch and see every day, while others we can only know through their experiences as recorded in the Christian scriptures, in the theologies and histories they wrote and in the stories of their own struggles to live in relationship with the Holy One of Israel who sent the Word into our midst and who continues to guide us through Holy Wisdom.
         What this fascination with ‘answers’ rather than a commitment to loving the questions that our relationship with God raises has accomplished can be quickly stated.  On the one hand, it has led to people leaving communities of faith when they begin to ask questions about the tradition.   Perhaps this is why so many young people leave the church, not just because they become more and more involved in various activities, but that we do not take their questions seriously and compassionately nor do we share with them our own questions and uncertainties.  I once suggested a replacement liturgy for confirmation; I called it the ‘Rite of Questioning’. 
         When a child turned twelve or thirteen, I suggested that we invite them forward during the eucharist for a very brief ceremony.  I would begin by telling them the story of Saint Thomas.  Then I would say, ‘You are now entering a time of your life when your job is to ask questions about everything, even God.  I ask you to make only one promise.  When you have a question about God or Jesus or the Spirit or the church or anything else about the Christian movement, I want you to promise that you will ask one of us first.  We promise to take your question seriously and to be honest when we do not have an answer or are unsure ourselves.  Will you promise to do this?’  No one has taken me up on this suggestion yet.
         On the other hand, our fascination with answers rather than questions has given rise to both conservative and liberal fundamentalisms.  Fundamentalists have answers for all the questions you or I may have about any aspect of our faith.  Since fundamentalists rapidly lose patience with people who have questions or doubts, they also contribute to the growing number of people I mentioned above who leave the community of faith when they realize they and their questions are not welcome.
         I love today’s story of Thomas; every time I hear it, I become more convinced that the role of the Christian community is to embrace those who have questions and those who have doubts.  In this story I see a model for our own times.  The apostolic community has just experienced the complete re-orientation of their world and their expectations.  Even first-century people knew that no one rises from the dead, yet here in their midst was Jesus, their teacher and, by his own words, their friend.  That experience was not ‘an answer’ but an invitation to live life in a new way, a way that would lead many of the early community to the farthest boundaries of the world as they knew it.
         Even Thomas could not stay away from this community, despite his not having shared their transformative experience on Easter.  And he was welcomed into their midst, with all his doubts, with all his questions.  Why?  Because even though the first witnesses to the resurrection had seen Jesus, they also had doubts and questions.  They also were uncertain as to what the future might mean for them.  But together, doubter and witnesses, they could face that future.  In prayer and study and conversation they could explore what the resurrection meant for them and for the world in which they lived.
         I hope that we are just such a community that welcomes the questioner and the doubter, a community that is willing to share our own uncertainties.  But let us also be a community that is committed to following the way of Jesus together, committed to the truth that God is not yet finished with us nor with our world, committed to living compassionately, generously, courageously even when we are uncertain as to what lies ahead.

         As the American expatriate author Gertrude Stein came to the end of her life, she asked her long-time companion, Alice B. Toklas, ‘What is the answer?’  When Toklas remained silent, Stein is said to have laughed and said, ‘In that case, what is the question?’  The life of faith is filled with questions and we are rewarded, from time to time, with insights that satisfy our longing for God and our longing for the coming of God’s promises.  But it is in the courage to question within the community of faith and to welcome the questioner and the doubter that the insights come.  Amen.

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