We declare … what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes… concerning the word of life … so that you also may have fellowship … with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.
We don’t know much about Thomas – in fact John is the only Evangelist to mention him. But, from John we learn that after Lazarus had died, and Jesus decided to travel deep into enemy territory … it was Thomas who boldly says to the other, more reluctant Disciples: “Let us go, too – and die with Jesus.” When Christ tells the Disciples at the Last Supper that they know where He is going, it is Thomas who interrupts with: “No, Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” What emerges from these stories is that Thomas is perhaps rather literal, but he is also fearless, and libel to say things no one else would dare say. He’s not afraid to ask questions, and not inclined to blindly follow the whim of the crowd. He has integrity; he is a natural leader, and he could be counted on to do the right thing … to say “Yes” to God …but only after he was convinced that it was the right thing.
It makes sense, then, that John’s ears were especially peaked by this story of Thomas and Jesus. John’s is the latest of the Gospels, written nearly 70 years after Jesus’ resurrection… so long that many of the actual witnesses were dying off. John’s problem was the church’s ongoing problem: how to encourage people in the faith, when Jesus was no longer around to be seen or touched. This Gospel was written (as John himself says) “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.”
Thus, John’s is not essentially a biography of Jesus; it is (beginning to end) John’s evidence to prove that Jesus is God’s Son - documented by one who witnessed it all first hand. Blunt, literal, pragmatic Thomas highlights the essential choice of faith that we - 21 centuries later - must also decide – just as John’s second-generation Christians had to decide: will we believe that the One who Thomas declared to be “My Lord, and My Lord” will be our Lord and our God… sight unseen!
Down through the ages, first in whispers and wonder in the darkened homes of the underground, persecuted early church… then in cloistered monastic communities and the grandest of cathedrals … all experienced the power of this Story: that when the Living Lord touches any life – whether it be the Disciples, Thomas, or you and me… He breathes His Holy Spirit power-of-resurrection afresh … just as He did over those gathered together on Easter evening. But, unless we are the guardian proclaimers of His Truth– as the Living Redeemer of all Creation – the Truth dies with us. The church is – and always has been – just one generation away from extinction.
That is why your own story… is part of His own Story… And … it is no longer yours alone, but becomes part of The story of “Yes, Lord”… from one generation to another.
To that end, on this my last Sunday with you as your priest, I offer you part of my own quite Thomas-like story. This is Jesus’ story – in my Life; I contributed nothing … except to say “Yes” … even if perhaps reluctantly. Mine is yet one more story of God’s miraculous Grace and resurrection … here in your presence, in our time, in this special place.
While I’m technically a life-long Episcopalian, I am by no means a lifelong believer. As the child of a severely wounded WWII hero, I watched my paralyzed father and selfless mother deal with his horrible physical pain, and her depleted emotional pain… daily. I came to see Pain as the 5th member of our little family, and I was pretty hostile – even frightened of - a “Good God” who would allow such truly virtuous people to suffer so intensely and for so many years. Even as a small child, then, I wrestled with rather adult faith issues, and I soon decided that, if there was a God, he wasn’t very “good” and was, at best, a cosmic watchmaker who had set the universe in motion, and then sat back to see what happened.
It took a lot for God to get my attention. And even then, I was no easy convert. By the time I was deep into the responsibilities of family and motherhood, everything in my world blew up! Parenting, marriage, finances … all of it was in real jeopardy – mostly because none of those things were ever meant to carry the full weight of a human soul. I felt as if my very life and soul were floating, untethered in a cruel, ruthless world.
At 3AM on yet another sleepless night, looking for anything to fill the long, dark hours, I decided I’d try the Bible, the single copy of which was a Confirmation bible (from 20+ years earlier) that was still wrapped in cellophane inside its original box. It had never even been opened. I’d tried everything else, I thought; I might as well try God.
Sitting on the sofa in our living room, holding that never-opened Bible, I spoke to the ceiling: “OK, God, if you’re there, I need you.” Distractedly, I began cracking open the gold edging around the Bible pages (by flipping it back and forth between my hands.) “I have no idea how to talk to you,” I said to the ceiling. “I guess I need to pray… but I don’t know how to pray… so if you’re there God, you’ll have to show me how to do that too.”
The Bible lay open on my knees, at whatever page my flipping and cracking had left it. When I looked down, my eyes literally fell on the words: “Pray then in this way…” and with that I actually heard Jesus say … to me, for me, through me … directly to God: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” I heard Christ’s voice, warm, forgiving, strong and intimate, praying his prayer … as if eternity and the cosmos were right there in that room. And then he was gone.
I wanted that indescribable moment to go on forever. If I had died right there on that sofa, I knew all would be well; I knew Jesus had reached down from all time and space, and had not only shown me how to pray, but had prayed his prayer in my stead to his (our) own Father. I fell to my knees, tears streaming down my face, and all I could say was: “Thank you … Thank you … My Lord and My God!”
It would take many years of healing, intentional Christian seeking and maturation (through Bible study, therapy, church involvement and most of all through the tender, healing love and care of Christian friends and family) for me to move beyond myself and to ask God how I could glorify him in my life. I truly longed for some way to physically thank him… to express my “Yes, Lord” in my life. For many months my prayers included the simple plea: “Lord, show me how you want me to serve you.”
A word of warning: Do not pray such a prayer casually, because God will take you up on the offer! I had no idea, at the time, what I was saying!
On a morning in the Spring of 2001, as I prayed what I had always prayed: “Lord, show me how you want me to serve you,” suddenly, I saw myself in a white alb standing at the top of a church’s chancel steps, and I wasn’t exacting sure what I was doing, but whatever it was scared me so much that my prayer stopped mid-sentence. I was horrified in part because, at the time, I thought no women should be ordained… much less this woman! I did not want to say “Yes” to heresy! Yet, on some level, I was also terrified that, if this really was from God, my entire life was about to change!
Shaking all over, I literally wanted to run away. But, where does one run from God?
So, I did the next best thing; I confessed! I confessed presumption and pride. I confessed my ego taking over my devotion. I confessed arrogance, over-reaching … you name it! I confessed things I don’t think I ever did, just to cleanse myself of this vision that would not go away!
Weeks later, exhausted now from this new reason to lose sleep, I gave up. I so feared my own imagining of his Call, that I had to see if it was of me or of God… and I remember that prayer exactly: “OK, God, if this is really from you, you’re going have to prove it to me! You’re going to have to show me a seminary somewhere nearby because I have 4 children to raise and I can’t pack up for Wisconsin or somewhere for the next 3-4 years. And…you’ll have to get me into that seminary (and I haven’t been in academia for 20+ years) … and I know I’ll have to pass Greek, so you’ll have to get me into a Greek class in my 1st semester because I don’t want to waste my money if I can’t pass Greek, and it’s already May, so if you want me to do this now, you’ll have to arrange it all by the time classes begin in September.” I was brazenly breathless …to get away from this recurring message!
The …next …day, standing in line at Crispers, I overheard two strangers several folks ahead of me in line, talking about … a seminary in Orlando. I turned on my heels, and dashed out of the restaurant. Then, two days later, I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in awhile, and asked what her children were up to, and she tells me that her son was attending a different Orlando seminary: Asbury Seminary, from which I ultimately received my MDiv. Not one, but two, and it won’t surprise you that I was accepted into Asbury, took the single last spot available in the Fall semester Greek class – and I passed … with an A. And that alone was a true miracle!
There are many other similar moments I could leave you with, but I share these two chapters of my story because I think I have more than a little in common with poor old Thomas. It was – still is - hard for me to believe the wonder of what God has done in my life. All I ever did was to say: “Yes.” Yet, I know that many of you have your own amazing moments with God that are equally astounding, equally real. I urge you to share those stories with others – especially in these next months of your search, for your God-stories are present-day encounters with the risen Lord, and are Christ’s tools in your life, in the life of this church, and in the redemption of the world. So tell your stories and let the Lord use them afresh … to spread His present-day strength, encouragement, wonder and mission.
As I look back over my life with Jesus and you, my Good Shepherd family, there are two things I will both miss the most, and commend to you most strongly on your personal and corporate journey ahead. The first is the joy of praying together; the second is the joy of sharing the Lord’s Supper at the altar rail. Both are at the center of every Christian journey.
As we have prayed, you have privileged me to enter the most profound burdens and joys of your hearts, and I will never forget the intimate love and union I’ve shared with so many of you in prayer. Communal prayer is the fabric of Christ’s family; it is the taproot of every Christian journey. I encourage you to pray – not just here in this place – but together as husbands and wives, as parents with children, as trusted friends. Nothing is so intimate and transporting as praying together, for Jesus is always at work in the midst of such moments.
Similarly, I will dearly miss offering you communion. It is an indescribable blessing to serve as a physical conduit of Christ’s preseence by placing the communion wafer in your hands. In the mysterious faith arc (between you and Christ) that transpires at these rails, I have seen fear relieved, hope restored, grief released and joy overflowing… all placed with his love, in the palm of your hand. This is a privilege beyond measure, and again, I thank you for allowing me that blessing.
My heart and love and prayers are with you, my dear family of Good Shepherd, and I am most grateful to you for the immeasurable love, patience, and grace-filled care you have shown me all these years. You have truly been the arms of Christ to me, and I pray His deepest blessing on each of you in the exciting next chapters ahead.
My parting very personal prayer for each of you is that you too might tell your stories, for it not just encouraging to hear, but is the future of Christ’s church in the world. And, I pray, that – no matter what lies ahead, you always say “Yes” to “Our Lord and Our God.” He is faithful, He will lead you, and He will never leave you!
Thanks … Thanks be to Our Lord and Our God! AMEN