Sunday, May 22, 2011

Homily: The Fifth Sunday of Easter [May 22, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

There are times when the religious news abroad in the culture seems like something made up by the staff of The Onion or The Daily Show, and this week we’ve had several bizarre messages from the sacred front. First, of course, we had the predictions of judgment day and the rapture, scheduled for 6 p.m. local time—that’s funny in itself—on Saturday, May 21. A radio preacher named Harold Camping did the biblical math, and he figured that if you date creation 13,023 years ago and the flood an exact 7,000 years ago (both, of course, at 6 p.m. local time) then our destruction by fire will take place on October 21, and with five months for rapture and tribulation, that means 6 p.m. last night. I thought seriously about not writing a sermon for today—those raptured wouldn’t need to hear one, those left behind wouldn’t want to—but I decided to go ahead anyway. Unlike Mr. Camping and his followers, I was not sure that I would be one of the ones taken aloft. In fact, such presumptuous assurance of salvation strikes me as evidence that one might be left behind.
So that’s the first bit of news. Then came a second: the story that some canny entrepreneurs have jumped into the rapture business with post-Judgment Day services. One company is called “You’ve Been Left Behind,” and it is prepared to send letters to your nonbelieving friends after you’ve been taken up. Another, Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, offers to care for Fluffy and Fido after you’ve gone up into the sky to be with Jesus. There have been stories about people leaving their jobs, quitting medical school, and spending their life savings. I wonder if they continued to floss.
And then just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the American Roman Catholic Bishops announced the results of their study about the causes of sexual abuse among clergy. They blamed it not on anything inherent in the life of the church but on the permissive culture of the 1960s. That’s right. Woodstock made them do it. That’s a good excuse for misbehaving American priests, but what made all those Irish clerics misbehave. Riverdance?
Now why, you might ask, do I find all this so bizarre? Well, I guess I find it weird because the only other explanations would be less charitable. I find the Judgment Day story odd because it’s yet another case of Fundamentalists doing a lot of complicated Bible math with prophecies while ceasing to attend to what Jesus himself says in Luke 21: ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!”* and, “The time is near!”* Do not go after them.’ [Luke 21.8] The problem with Fundamentalists is that, like all of us, they read the Bible selectively. Unlike the rest of us, they’ve convinced themselves that they don’t. They’re prisoners of an ideology.
And then there’s this Roman Catholic thing. Both recent Popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have bound themselves up with an ideology, too. They want to blame all the problems in their church on American culture—specifically on what they think of as American decadence. Now I’m as much a critic of our culture as anybody, but to suggest that people in power abuse those without it because they wore too many love beads or danced the Frug is just ridiculous. I can’t think that even they believe it. People abuse other people because of the power dynamic within their system—be it a family, a church, a school, a business, or a nation. The clerical elite of the Roman Catholic Church has exercised power unchecked by lay authority for eighteen hundred years. That’s why they abuse children. Blaming it on Woodstock is the theological equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” Whether it’s in the Vatican, on Wall Street, or in Washington, when people are in such denial about their own ethical responsibility you have to laugh if only so that you won’t weep.
So if two prominent wings of Christianity—the Fundamentalists and the Catholics—are leading with their delusions and their foibles this week, where are the rest of us to turn? Today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, we gather in the ongoing celebration of the resurrection that began on Easter Day. If we believe that Christianity proclaims something profoundly true about life, how do we connect with that and not find ourselves being led astray by those who play numerological games or pass the ethical buck?
This morning’s Gospel [John 14.1-14] is one we commonly read at funeral services. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” It’s a Gospel of comfort, and we read it this morning because, as the logic of the Easter season works itself out, Jesus is preparing his companions for life without him in the world. After his resurrection, Jesus stays with his companions for 40 days. But then, at Ascension, he departs for good, and the community waits for the Spirit to come on the fiftieth day, Pentecost. So this morning, as he prepares his friends for his absence, Jesus begins by saying, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” He continues,
“In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going."
Then Thomas, always the skunk at the picnic, breaks the mood by saying, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus replies with these famous words:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. “

Let’s look at the second part of that sentence first: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” This phrase has been used by exclusivistic Christians throughout history to bolster the claims of their own enterprise. If you’re a Catholic, that means that there is no salvation outside the church. If you’re a certain kind of Evangelical, it means that you cannot be saved unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior. Neither of those claims is supported by this saying of Jesus, though. In the framework of John’s Gospel, Jesus is not talking about other religions or nonbelievers. He’s talking about his relationship with God, the One he calls his Father. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me, “he says. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life not as a divine secret handshake that excludes everybody else. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life because he and God are one—and if they are one, then the way we understand God is to keep our eyes on Jesus.
What he is saying here is that if you want to know God, look at Jesus. God is not some abstract vengeful being in the sky. God is like Jesus—loving, forgiving, compassionate, hospitable. The way to truth and life is through Jesus—not in a way that excludes those who don’t know him but in a way that takes on his way of being toward others and the world. To twist Jesus’s words as a way of condemning unbelievers to hell, or unraptured people to the tribulation of being left behind is totally to betray everything he actually stood for. As a character in Woody Allen’s movie, Hannah and Her Sisters says, “If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up.” It’s not only other traditions that would make Jesus queasy; some of our own smug Episcopalian behavior might also make him nauseous. Imagine how Jesus must feel hearing all the words that preachers put into his mouth. How would you feel being so persistently represented by people wanting to justify themselves?
What must give enormous pain to Jesus and to God is the way we all continue to project onto Jesus our own fears, ideologies, prejudices, and judgments. That’s true even for us more moderate Christians. We make Jesus exquisitely tasteful. It seems we cannot look at Jesus without making him into someone who will bolster our own political, cultural point of view. This morning he says to us, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” How do we take that in and make that real in a fashion that gives us not a club to beat someone else up with but will serve as an internal source of joy, peace, and power?
I have a friend and seminary classmate, Steven Charleston, who is a bishop, like me a former seminary dean, and now serves the Cathedral in Oklahoma City. Steven is a deeply thoughtful and prayerful person, and he recently posted this on his Facebook page. Steven is a Native American and a Christian, and he has done a lot of work with Native Americans who have suffered abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries and school teachers in the United States and Canada. And yet he continues to love and serve the church. Someone asked him why he stayed with Jesus. Here is what he said in reply:
I've stayed with Jesus all these years because Jesus has stayed with me. Beneath the intellectual trimmings and poetic sentiment is the core of earthy experience. Jesus didn't dump me even when I deserved dumping. God's love saw me through the kind of hurts you don't forget. Plain talk for plain faith. Simple truth for honest hearts. God's love is real. Prayer works. Faith heals. I can't say it better than that. [Steven Charleston, Facebook, May 16, 2011]

I’m not sure I can say it better than that, either. “God’s love is real. Prayer works. Faith heals.” We can’t let the way people—others, and even we ourselves—misuse or misrepresent Jesus get in the way of letting him into our lives and hearts. When the church of whatever variety—the Family Radio Network, the Roman Catholic Church, Christ Church Cranbrook—lets you down, do not confuse the church’s bad behavior with Jesus. Jesus has entrusted us with his reputation, and sometimes (perhaps most of the time) we get it wrong. But still Jesus stays with us and loves us into something new. Here’s another thing Steven says:

God bless the church, our traveling tribe, our motley crew, caravan of the conflicted and courageous, stumbling toward paradise, the hurt and hopeful, wounded healers, singing along the way. Life within her tents is never easy, but life without her would be a darkness, beyond our imagining. Bless the church, dear God, your quarreling brood, your stubborn flock, your love living for love, your dream of what might be. [Steven Charleston, Facebook, May 19, 2011]

We persistently get it wrong, but the presence of Jesus among us helps us get it right. We justify ourselves and cast blame on others in ways that are laughable, but Jesus stays with us and leads us on a pilgrimage toward oneness with God, each other, and the world. Jesus gathers us now, together, around his table to laugh with him and each other and ourselves about how we so consistently get it wrong. And then he calls us to get up, go out, and serve and love each other and the world. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Stay with him and he will stay with you. I can’t say it any better than that. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Address: Cranbrook Kingswood Baccalaureate [May 15, 2011]

It is both a wonderful and weird experience for me to be the Baccalaureate speaker today. It’s wonderful because I have a long and deep relationship with Cranbrook and Kingswood. In the late 1970s and early 1980s (a time when even your parents were children) I served as both a priest on the parish staff here and as the chaplain across the street at the schools. It is weird because this is the second time I have been the Baccalaureate speaker. My first foray into this venture was on May 20, 1979. I thought of dusting that speech off for reuse today, but it had too many references to disco lyrics.

When I think about my time as chaplain and teacher at Cranbrook in the 1970s, my mind goes back to a student named Kurt, a 13th year boy (what the English call “gap year” and we used to call PG year) at Cranbrook. He was a superior athlete but had some challenges as a student. He had a big heart but always seemed to get in his own way. He was in my Religion class. In those days I used to run around the Cranbrook track after school, and Kurt came up to me as I was running one day, and because I was his teacher he clearly wanted to get on my good side. He said, “Mr. Hall, I’ll bet all that running you do keeps you looking younger.” “Gee, thanks, Kurt.” “Yeah,” he said, “Anyone can tell from your face that you’re 40, but your body only looks 35.” I was 28 at the time.

When I left Cranbrook in 1981 I returned to California, and after graduate school and teaching at UCLA I was for several years on the faculty at an independent school in Los Angeles, Oakwood School. I taught 11th grade American Literature there, and the day I gave my first test in my first year there I was surprised to see a girl named Carly reach into her purse and pull out a large crystal that she then put on her desk. I asked her why she did that. She replied that she had been out late the night before and hadn’t had time to study. So, because she had a New Age belief in the power of crystals, she was going to trust in the harmonic convergence to lead her to superior test performance.

Because I’m both a priest and a teacher, people always ask me about the separation of church and state, specifically if I believe in prayer in schools, I reply: believe it? I’ve seen it! I see prayer in school before every test, every performance, and every competition. Those prayers may be addressed to God, to Jesus, to Buddha, to Allah, even to a rock; but they’re still prayers. And here’s the strange thing. They seem to work Both Kurt and Carly got A’s in my classes. And I’m a hard grader. Maybe there’s more to this crystal thing and sucking up than I realized.

Some of you may be familiar with the work of the writer Anne Lamott , author most famously of a book on writing called Bird by Bird. She begins her new novel, Imperfect Birds, with this provocative line: "There are so many evils that pull on our children.” Imperfect Birds is set in the affluent California suburb of Marin County, and it tells the story of a high school girl protagonist named Rosie and her descent into a morass of self-destructive behavior. Perhaps the biggest problem faced by the novel’s central family is the way they collude with each other not to see what they don’t want to see. The parents are in denial about the problems faced by their children. The children read back to the parents a false, idealized version of what the parents what to believe about themselves. It is a perfect feedback loop of false appearance and despair.

I recently heard Anne Lamott interviewed about this novel. Here is what she said:

I always wanted to write about my life as a competitive tennis player. I played tennis in tournaments in Northern California. When I had been a kid I was under so much pressure to do well that I cheated for a whole summer. I cheated in tournaments, which is odd because I’m such a nice person. I’m a black belt co-dependent, I want to help everyone, but I was cheating these little girls and taking points that weren’t mine. I had always wanted to write about kids who have too much pressure on them and how it pushes them into shadow parts of themselves that maybe scar them. I felt it scarred me. [Studio 360, NPR, April 29, 2011]

Anne Lamott’s own experience as a competitive athlete trying to grow up in a culture of pressure and denial led to her writing a book about a girl who tries to cope with similar challenges. There are so many evils that pull on our children: family dysfunction, the pressure to succeed at any cost, the constantly increasing demands of school life, the temptations of sex, drugs, alcohol, the college admissions process. Being a teenager has always been a challenge. These days it’s an obstacle course.

We’re gathered today as a senior class and families and teachers and staff celebrating the real accomplishments of an extraordinary group of young women and men. You are coming to the end of one phase of your educational journey and preparing to start another. As we come together today to bless and celebrate you, I’m curious about the pressures you’re under, how they shape you, how they scar you, how they make you stronger. Sigmund Freud said that life is lived under conditions of stress. Though we all fantasize about a stress-free existence, such a life is not really possible. Life even on a desert island would be stressful. Imagine trying to feed and shelter and clothe yourself with nothing but coconuts. Even Gilligan had to put up with the Skipper and Mr. and Mrs. Howell—though he did have Ginger and Mary Anne as compensations. (Ask your parents to explain Gilligan's Island to you.)

So stress is a given. Responded to creatively, it can help us become creative, productive, engaged, generous, compassionate people. Responded to fearfully, it can drive us into shadow parts of ourselves, turning to sex, or drugs, or alcohol, or hateful narratives about others to ease the pain we experience. As you think about moving from high school to college, you will be moving from one kind of stress to another. The question is: how are you going to handle that stress? Are you going to let it shape you creatively, or will you let it drive you into the shadow parts of yourself?

As you consider that question, I ask you to think with me about two aspects of your education here and to see them as resources for working with life’s stresses creatively. I invite you to think about how this school has shaped your mind. And I invite you to think about how this school has nourished your heart.

There’s so much mental activity in schoolwork that it seems natural to think about how learning has shaped your mind. Just think of all those hours you have spent reading, writing, memorizing paradigms, theorems, and tables. A large part of education, though, involves taking into oneself the strategies that the people before us have adopted for coping with a stressful world. We are not the first people on the planet to confront what seem like intractable problems—war, disease, injustice, oppression on the social level, and frustration, competition, failure, loneliness on the personal level. In your elementary and secondary years, your schools have engaged in what we in the Christian tradition call “formation” and philosophers like Aristotle called “habituation”. Over time an attitude, a set of habits, some values, some strategies—all these have shaped and formed themselves within you and habituated your mind to be able to size up whatever challenge you face and respond effectively to it. So as you think about the stresses and challenges you have faced as elementary and middle and upper school students, I hope you can begin to see how they have equipped you to address the stresses and challenges of college and beyond. Whether you know it or not, you really are mentally ready to engage the world. You’ve seen and internalized how others have done it. You are ready now to do it yourselves.

It is also true—though less obviously clear on the surface—that your time at Cranbrook has shaped your heart. It has shaped it in some overt and covert ways. Overtly, you have built important relationships over time here—some of those with your classmates, some with your teachers, some even with your siblings and parents. The death of Wills Barnett earlier this year made evident how deeply students and teachers and administrators and staff care about each other in a place like this. As heartbreaking as Wills’ death was, it demonstrated the depth of connection that has helped make you who you are.

But I believe that your hearts have been shaped in other ways, and this gets back to the classroom, the performance space, the playing field. Because by engaging the central aspects of human endeavor, you’ve also had the chance to discover and love the things people do that make us distinctively human: the elegance of a mathematical equation, the sound and rhythm of a line of poetry, the symmetry of an athletic gesture or the inner logic of a game, the joy of artistic creation and performance, the discovery of scientific evidence, the beauty of a conjugation or declension in a foreign language. We cope with the stress of life not only mentally but emotionally. And one of the great ways of engaging life is to turn our work into play. The great secret of education is that the world is deeply beautiful. The discovery of that beauty opens up not only our heads but our hearts. It enables us to love the world, each other, and ourselves.

I am a Christian, and I know that there are people in the school community from all of the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions. We read today from the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Lotus Sutra. One holy text we did not hear from is the Qur’an. Few members of my own tradition know that the Jewish patriarchs and Jesus appear in Islam’s holy book. As I thought about what I would say to you today, I remembered a Jesus story that is not in the Bible but is in the Qur’an. Here it is. Jesus said:

“I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord. In that I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah’s leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken (raise) the dead, by Allah’s leave; And I declare to you what ye eat and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if you did believe; (Holy Qur’an 3:49-51).

The Qur’an’s Jesus makes a clay bird and breathes life into it. When you come to think of it, that’s what all of the world’s nourishing structures—our families, our religious communities, and yes, our schools—that’s what they do for us. We do not invent ourselves. We are all the products of countless gifts and gestures of love and compassion and guidance and forgiveness.

I began with Anne Lamott’s birds and have come full circle to Jesus’s bird. So let me leave you with one more avian image. Anne Lamott got her title, Imperfect Birds, from a line by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi: “Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird.” Your education will have been meaningless if it did not open your heart. Because what every world religious tradition agrees on is this: the way through life, the joyous, peaceful, powerful way through life, is by way of the open heart. We’re all imperfect birds, and together we make of life the best we can. As life’s stresses come your way, you will be tempted to close in on yourself and go it alone, seeing others as your adversaries rather than your allies. The whole point of the enterprise that you celebrate today has been to open you another way, the way of the heart, as the key to abundant living. Know and accept yourself as precious and unique. Know and accept that about others, even your parents. Forgive, heal, and bless. Take on and respond to the pain and injustice of the world. All we have to offer each other are the imperfect nests we imperfectly make. There is joy and beauty and hope in that knowledge. With an open mind and an open heart, go forth to love, serve, and change the world. Congratulations and blessings to the class of 2011 and their families.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Homily: The Second Sunday of Easter [May 1, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

Today is the Second Sunday of Easter, and it is the day we always read John’s Gospel account of Thomas, the apostle who refuses to believe, as he says, “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.” As one who has been going to church regularly for the past 40 plus years, I have never much liked the sermons I’ve heard on this day. There are two entirely contradictory and unsatisfactory Thomas sermons. I know this because, at various times over the years, I have delivered both.

The first Thomas sermon is the one that essentially beats him up for not having been there. He is the guy who missed the meeting and now wants you to give him a private executive summary of the key takeaways and deliverables. The argument goes: sorry, Thomas: you snooze, you lose. Thomas sermon one attacks him as someone whose refusal to believe seems stubbornly willful, especially since he’s the guy who wasn’t there. The call is to suck it up and deal with what the other apostles tell you. This sermon is favored among the people who call themselves traditionalists.

The second Thomas sermon does not attack Thomas. On the contrary, it exalts him as the patron saint of existential doubt. If the first sermon treats Thomas as an absentee loser, the second turns him into a philosophical hero who demands proof—kind of a first century Christopher Hitchens. He’s lauded as an empiricist before his time, an enlightened, humanistic guy who stands for all those who cannot believe some of the harder things Christianity asks us to swallow: the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the resurrection itself. The call here is to admit that most of the stuff we’re asked to accept on faith goes against rationality, science, and modern best practices. This sermon is favored among the people who think of themselves as progressives.

Now by sketching these two types of Thomas sermons I am not really trying to minimize either point of view. I know Christian people who cheerfully affirm every article of the Nicene, Apostles’, and Athanasian Creeds. I also know Christian people who have to cross their fingers 2/3 of the times they open their mouths in church. Some people accept the Christian creedal program entire, as a seamless garment of Bible, history, theology, worship, and ethics. Others need to test extra-rational proclamation by an appeal to empirical evidence and scientific laws. On any given Sunday, the pews are filled in thirds: 1/3 by people who have no questions, 1/3 by people who have nothing but questions, and 1/3 by others who are on a continuum somewhere between those first two positions.

My problem with Thomas sermons, though, is that they usually ask us to make a false choice. I don’t think it’s quite fair to castigate Thomas merely because he doesn’t trust the testimony of his friends. And, try as I might, I don’t admire him all that much for making such a big deal of it, either. There is, of course, a lot to admire about St.Thomas: tradition says that he went eventually to India where he established the Mar Thoma Church, one of the great, ongoing, Syriac Christian traditions that flourishes to this day. So he was a passionately committed Christian witness and evangelist. We fail to see his greatness as a saint who took Jesus’s words, “I send you” seriously when we turn him into the poster child for our own limited, partisan ideological agenda.

So let me tell you what I do think of Thomas. This week I heard an interview with the exiled Libyan novelist Hisham Matar on National Public Radio. When asked why Libyan writers had been rounded up, tortured, executed, and disappeared by Gaddafi, here is what Hisham Matar said:

Dictatorship by its essence is interested in one narrative, [an] intolerant narrative, and writers are interested in a multiplicity of narratives and conflicting empathies and what it would be like to be the other, to imagine what the other is thinking and feeling. And that sort of completely unsettles the dictatorial project. [Hisham Matar, on Morning Edition, NPR 4/28/11]

A mature, open community can live with multiple narratives. This is true for nations and it is true for faiths. Notice that there are, in our Bible, four versions of the Jesus story—one each by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These four versions differ greatly in the factual details they present of Jesus’s life and ministry. Over the centuries, some Christians have made a case for settling on one Gospel or making a harmony of them to smooth out the differences, but the church has consistently maintained a preference for keeping all four, despite the discrepancies. We feel we get a truer picture of Jesus by seeing him from four disparate viewpoints than by narrowing our vision down to one.

In this way, the church has shown considerable flexibility and health. At our best moments, we Christians have exhibited considerable openness and breadth in ordering our common life. But all systems—even church systems—are subject to the kind of institutional hardening that we also see in totalitarian states. At its least healthy moments, the Christian community (and any religious community, for that matter) can find itself hijacked by one party that wants to declare its understanding of the tradition to be the one, timeless, incontrovertible truth. We see that in some Protestant (Fundamentalist) and Catholic (Papal-centric) expressions of Christianity. When we’re in that kind of reactive mode, we lose the ability to live creatively with multiple narratives and insist, in Matar’s words, on one, intolerant, narrative. And we do our best to label those who don’t buy our version of the truth as “heretics” or, more recently, “revisionists”.

Seen in this light, Thomas’s Easter night recalcitrance ceases to look like either heroism or stubbornness. It seems to me that Thomas is arguing less for scientific rationalism and more for the freedom of his own mind. His ten apostolic friends who had been in the locked room with Jesus on Easter night insist that Thomas accept their version of things as, well, “Gospel”. He is asked to believe something simply on authority, because the majority tells him to. He refuses. And in refusing he makes a case for something else.

For me, what Thomas makes the case for is God’s call to us to trust our own experience of life and to ground our faith in that. The other ten apostles are asking him to believe what they believe simply because they say so. In refusing to believe until he has a ground for his own faith, Thomas is telling us something radically new: he’s telling us that we people have, within ourselves, the grace, the discernment, the agency to reflect theologically on life and to tell our own truth about what God is doing. When an ecclesiastical bureaucratic hierarchy or a fundamentalistic sect tell you that they already have it all worked out and you do not need to trouble yourself with the details, they are essentially telling you that your role in this process is to be passive. But when Thomas announces that he will build his faith on what he himself knows, he is claiming his own authority, his own agency. Thomas refuses to be a mere consumer of religion. Thomas insists on being an agent, a partner, a voice in his own spiritual life.

Last Friday many of us watched the royal wedding of William and Catherine. It was a day to feel great about being an Anglican, seeing a particular strand of our liturgical tradition at its stately best. A few days before the wedding, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams issued a statement about the royal marriage, and in it he said two interesting things. First, he said, “There’s a mystery, a delight at the heart of human beings, and it’s possible to spend a lifetime and more exploring just that.” Christianity is an invitation into mystery, and in today’s Gospel, the risen Jesus offers not only a miracle of new life, but an invitation to explore the mysterious depth of life. In reaching literally into Jesus, Thomas ventured to explore that mystery. He was ready, perhaps as none of his fellow apostles were, for a journey into the heart of what it means to be in relationship with God and others.

The second thing Rowan Williams said was this:

A marriage is good news because it says something so deep about our humanity. And it tells us that we can have grounds for hope: that there are still people around who want to spend their lives with each other, who want to make this great act of generous commitment to one another.

In other words: in witnessing a marriage, we witness two people promising to spend their lives getting to know each other and to tie their own fulfillment to each others’ fulfillment. Marriage, then, is an act of openness to divine and human mystery. It is an act of generosity of commitment. And it is an occasion for hope that the world can actually be the way we see it in the coming together of two people before the altar. Mystery, openness, generosity, hope: these are what Jesus offered his companions when he appeared to them on Easter night. His resurrection was neither a magic trick or a litmus test; it was an invitation into mystery. Jesus’s words to his companions were simple words: "Peace be with you." "Receive the Holy Spirit.” “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He offered them not only a fact but an adventure, the opportunity to go more deeply into mystery, openness, generosity, and hope. One of his companions, Thomas, was not there for the first appearance, but at the second he took Jesus up on his offer and it transformed his life.

God did not raise Jesus so that some people who think one way about it could use their certainty to browbeat others who think about it differently. God raised Jesus so that you and I and God’s world could give ourselves over to mystery, openness, generosity, and hope. The way to a fulfilled and creative spiritual life is not to memorize by rote every doctrinal point in the catechism. The way to a fulfilled and creative spiritual life is to claim your true identity, as Thomas did, as someone to whom Jesus offers a relationship and a journey.

Jesus wants you to love him not because of what somebody else told you to think about him. Jesus wants you to love him out of your own delving into the depth of God as you see that depth lived out in Jesus and as you experience it in your own life. On this Second Sunday of Easter, Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit. As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends you. Learn not just to tolerate but to exult in the multiplicity of narratives that are working themselves out in the pews and in the world all around you. Don’t take any of this on even my (or my priestly colleagues’) say so. And don’t reject it because some blowhard thinker tells you not to believe in the kind of vengeful God that I don’t believe in, either. Learn, know, and live it for yourself. The story you tell, the song you sing, should be your story and your song and not somebody else’s. Thomas knew that. He acted on his knowledge and became a witness to Jesus and his resurrection. You can know and do that, too. Amen.