Ever wonder what it's like to be a bishop?

Join Bishop Fisher here as he reflects on the experience of leading the Episcopal branch of the "Jesus Movement" in Western Massachusetts.

Wear orange on June 2 because “we are human.”

Recently we celebrated Pentecost and many in our churches wore red. I was at The Church of the Nativity, Northborough that Sunday and they take this tradition seriously. I looked out at a sea of red. Red stands for the fire of the Holy Spirit and illustrates our prayer:

Come, O Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen

Now I invite you to wear another color that also proclaims God’s love and a desire to renew the face of the earth. The color is orange.

Hadiya Pendleton

Hadiya Pendleton

In 2013 Hadiya Pendleton – a majorette and high school student from the south side of Chicago – was shot and killed just a week after marching in President Obama’s second inaugural parade. Soon after this tragedy Hadiya’s childhood friends asked their classmates to commemorate Hadiya’s life – and the lives of hundreds claimed by Chicago gun violence each year – by wearing orange. Why orange? They said,

“Orange is used because hunters wear orange to warn other hunters not to shoot. By wearing orange, we are showing others that we are human and wish not to be gunned down.”

Numerous groups, including one I belong to – Bishops United Against Gun Violence – have declared June 2nd (Hadiya’s birthday) as Gun Violence Awareness Day. As a sign of solidarity “that we are human and wish not to be gunned down” are all invited to wear orange on that day. Clergy are invited to wear orange stoles on Sunday June 5th. Mine is being made now.

Gun violence is a public health crisis in our country. On average 91 Americans a day are killed due to gun violence. The stories and the statistics are staggering. Here are a few links to the facts.

Since Sandy Hook

Toddler Mortality from Gun Violence

Domestic violence

Polling

Comprehensive research website

Academic research in Preventive Medicine journal

Gun Violence Stats

And, because we are the people who wish to “renew the face of the earth,” we need to act on what we know. 5743341b83ae5Bishops United Against Gun Violence urges our cities, states and nation to adopt policies and pass legislation that will reduce the number of Americans killed and wounded by gunfire. These include common sense gun safety measures that already have the support of a majority of gun owners, such as:

  • handgun purchaser licensing
  • background checks on ALL gun purchasers
  • restrictions on gun ownership by domestic abusers
  • classification of gun trafficking as a federal crime
  • encouragement for the development of “smart gun” technology
  • federal funding of research into gun violence prevention strategies

And on June 2nd wear orange. Post your photo on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtags: #WearOrange and #Episcopal. Bear witness to the belief that our country can do better – much better – in addressing this public health crisis. Wear it because we are the Jesus Movement, because we are out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it.

+Doug

Daniel Berrigan: “I pray for his clarity.”

This April 9, 1982, file photo shows Daniel Berrigan marching with about 40 others outside of the Riverside Research Center in New York. The Roman Catholic priest and Vietnam war protester, Berrigan has died. He was 94. Michael Benigno, a spokesman for the Jesuits USA Northeast Province, says Berrigan died Saturday, April 30, 2016, at a Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University. (Photo: AP)

This April 9, 1982, file photo shows Daniel Berrigan marching with about 40 others outside of the Riverside Research Center in New York. 
(Photo: AP)

Dan Berrigan, who died last week, once said he was motivated by “outraged love.” His friend and fellow advocate of peacemaking and non-violence, Jim Forest reflects:

“Many people are driven by rage, which rarely does any good. But outraged love is mainly about love. Dan loved his church, his Jesuit community, and he loved America. But in all three zones there was something outrageous and Dan was never able to be silent or passive about our betrayals.”

I have long been inspired by Dan Berrigan. I was too young to understand what was going on when he was protesting the Vietnam War and was arrested for burning draft records (“Our apologies, good friend, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children…”). But when Dan and his brother Philip and Elizabeth McAllister expressed their “outraged love” at the nuclear arms race of the late 1970’s and 1980’s, I was feeling the same thing.

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CaptureThe strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) required a response. As a young priest I was arrested twice with the Berrigans while protesting at a “nuclear war think tank” in the heart of Manhattan. For me that meant being put in a paddy wagon, brought to the police station and released. Philip and Elizabeth, however, would go to jail many times as protesters of MAD.

I remember standing on a street corner before one of those protests. The Berrigan brothers and my seminary classmate Bill Schmidt were there. I was trying to look calm outwardly, but inwardly I was an anxious wreck. My anxiety was in sharp contrast to the peacefulness and the relaxed banter of the Berrigans.

Perhaps that demeanor came from Dan’s identification with the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet and perhaps Dan was as well – at first. But eventually Dan, like Jeremiah, realized he had no choice. God called. They had no expectation of success. Berrigan wrote often: You will speak and no one will hearken (Jeremiah 7:27). Faithfulness to our God of “the promise” demanded Dan’s commitment while bearing the “burden of awful events.”

Berrigan wrote that the God of Jeremiah begins with a “no.” See today I give you authority over nations and kingdoms, to uproot and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant (Jeremiah 1:10). For Dan that meant:

“no to our history of crime, war, bloodletting, greed, racism and injustice of every sort. A ‘no’ and then a ‘yes’ to God’s kingdom. A ‘yes’ to love and hope.”

I have been inspired by Dan’s willingness to engage the Church in the issues of our time. In protesting the war in Vietnam, he wrote “We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.” I might have been thinking of Dan when I urged the Diocese of Western Massachusetts to “double down on social justice” in my 2015 Convention Address.

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I pray for Dan’s clarity. I’m not sure if he ever met our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry but I am sure he would resonate with his passion for “the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it.” Dan would be clear about what the “nightmares” are and the changes that need to be made. I think my friends Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Jim Antal have that clarity about the nightmare of climate change. Other prophetic friends have it about other issues of justice. They inspire me.

As this great prophet and poet is laid to rest, I pray that he rise in glory. And, I pray that his spirit will never stop challenging me, and calling me to an “outraged love.”

+Doug

PS – A fuller description of the many dimensions of the fascinating life of Dan Berrigan can be found here.

Gathering of Leaders: An experience of the “aliveness of God”

 

Presentation1One of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggemann, often contrasts the anxiety, cynicism, greed and “deathliness” of society with the God of “aliveness”, hope, generosity and Resurrected Life that we know from the Scriptures. My experience at the Gathering of Leaders in Fairhope, Alabama from April 11-13 (my first one) was an experience of the “aliveness of God.” Started by Bishop Claude Payne of Texas, it is an “invitation only” gathering of young (under 40) clergy who have demonstrated leadership potential. Here is a little bit about the Gathering of Leaders from the organizational website:

 

Vision Statement

We envision the renewal of the dioceses and congregations of the Episcopal Church through transformational leaders dedicated to the missionary call of Christ and growing the Church in spiritual depth and in numbers as it effectively serves all sorts and conditions of people through the transforming power of Jesus Christ.

Mission Statement

The purpose of the Gathering of Leaders is to assist in the empowerment, support, and development of such leaders. To this end, the Gathering provides a place for leaders to come together without contentiousness and partisanship to share their love of Christ and of the Church, to empower each other through mutual encouragement, to deepen their skills as transformational leaders, to establish networks which will aid their ministries, and to clarify their understanding of God’s emerging vision for the renewed Episcopal Church.

 

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The energy of the group was evident everywhere and in everything. The presentations were made with joy and enthusiasm right from the first sentence. Liturgy was deeply prayerful. Dinner conversation and “networking time” were filled with stories about grace. As a bishop, this gathering gave me hope for the future of our Church as I witnessed the Christ-centered focus of these “youngish” clergy.

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The theme was By Whose Authority? Faithfully Exercising Authority in the Missionary Church. Our first presenter quickly and convincingly redefined “authority” as “followability.” The Gathering of Leaders crowd is so creative, we even invent our own words. For clergy leaders, authority comes from God, through the Church and through bishops, but that authority counts for little without the trust of the people and their willingness to follow a leader in a collaborative effort to embody the mission of Jesus – a mission of mercy, compassion and hope – in this world.

I am grateful for these clergy who “get it” in this era of the life of the Church. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, is so clear in telling us we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. We seek to change this world from the nightmare it is for so many into the Dream God has for it. From what I experienced at the Gathering of Leaders in Fairhope, Alabama, the Jesus Movement is rolling on.

+Doug

When we follow Jesus, stuff is going to happen.

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Sermon preached today at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Northampton, MA.

Throughout this holy Season of Easter one of the scripture lessons every Sunday is always from the Acts of the Apostles – the story of the earliest days of the Jesus Movement. In this sermon let’s look at the major themes of this book and see what it tells us about how to live as followers of Jesus now. That is a big job to do in one sermon. And if I had to get you out of here for a Red Sox game that starts at one pm, it would be impossible. But the Sox don’t play until 8 pm tonight, so we have some time.

It is interesting that this book is called The ACTS of the Apostles. Not the “ideas” of the Apostles. Not the “prayers” of the Apostles. No, it is the ACTS of the Apostles. When we follow Jesus, stuff is going to happen. My favorite theologian, Walter Bruggemann, writes:

“The whole book of Acts is about power from God that the world cannot shut down. In scene after scene, there is a hard meeting between the church and worldly authorities, because worldly authorities are regularly baffled by this new power and resentful of it.” At one point, in chapter 17, the followers of Jesus are accused of “turning the world upside down.”

Or as our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, says, this new world  “is really right side up.” They proclaimed the Resurrection of Jesus and therefore the old powers of death were no longer capable of defining reality. They attested that new power had been turned loose in the world that evoked new patterns of social practice and new waves of truth.

Those new patterns of social practice were oh so evident in the earliest days. Right after Pentecost that day when Peter and his friends baptized “around 3000 people” (we are not sure it was really 3000. Preachers tend to round up attendance figures to the next thousand. That is why when I am at a meeting later this afternoon and someone asks me how many people were at church at St. John’s today, I’ll say “a good crowd. About a thousand.”)  Here is the description of the church:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”

Sounds good, right? They even renamed one of the new members “Barnabas” which means “son of encouragement.” Wouldn’t you love to have a son or daughter of encouragement in your life? Someone saying “you can do this, you can do this, I believe in you.”

That was chapters two, three and four. In chapter five there is trouble in paradise. Remember how everyone shared their money so no one would be in need? A couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold some property and they kept some of the money for themselves. Peter found out about it and called them out. They were so ashamed they dropped dead on the spot. (Now I will admit that when I was a rector and there was a year when pledging was slow, I felt tempted to tell this story from Acts 5, but I resisted the temptation.)

Evidence that the church was never perfect, right from the beginning. More evidence. One time Paul was preaching to a community gathered on the second floor of a house. A boy was sitting on a window sill, fell asleep during the sermon and fell out the window to what seemed like his death. Paul ran out and brought him back to life. You see, the sermons were not always great. This has always been a flawed church.

What kept this “less than perfect” Jesus Movement going? In the next seven minutes I will offer you five dimensions of a Movement that changes the world – and maybe even you and me.

1. The Jesus Movement kept going because they built bridges instead of walls. Today’s story from Acts is a perfect example. Peter overcomes all his inhibitions and reaches out to Cornelius – someone not of his tribe. As my brother bishop, Rob Wright of Atlanta, puts it so well:

“God’s circle of love is enlarging. Too often we have painted our fear of others onto God. We’ve confused being closed to others with being faithful to God. But the Spirit gave Peter a vision of humanity without distinctions. A Spirit that defies death and opens tombs. A Spirit that whispers to us ‘who  are you to hinder God’?”

2. The Jesus Movement kept going because it was a “learning community.” Here’s an example. In chapter 12, Peter was arrested by King Herod. He was bound in chains and several guards watched over him. When they fell asleep, an angel came to Peter and set him free. Peter escaped the prison. The next day when Herod heard Peter got away, he ordered all the guards executed.

Go to chapter 16. This time Paul and Silas are arrested. I told you the early Christians were always in trouble with the government. This time the guards took extra precautions. Paul and Silas were placed in the “innermost cell” with their feet fastened in stocks. There was no angel this time, but an earthquake that broke open the chains and made the doors fly open. Paul and Silas could have easily escaped. But they didn’t. They stayed right there. When the guard came the next morning and saw the doors open, he took his sword out to kill himself, knowing that his boss would have him executed for letting the prisoners escape. Then he heard Paul’s voice “do not harm yourself. We are all here.” The jailer ran in, saw Paul and Silas, and realized they stayed to save his life. He was so moved by this act of compassion he said “sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And by that he meant really saved. What would it take to turn away from the world of cynicism and hate and toward a new world of hope and compassion? And then to show he wasn’t merely giving intellectual assent to this new way of living, the jailer “washed their wounds.” He joined their mission of mercy, compassion and hope.

You see, the Jesus Movement learned something from the arrest of Peter in chapter twelve to the arrest of Paul and Silas in chapter sixteen. God’s revelation is never finished.

3. The Jesus Movement is never a finished product.

4. The Jesus Movement continued because it was immersed in prayer. No, the Jesus Movement did not “simply” pray. They acted. They worked to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it, but those actions were always connected to their relationship with the Living God. True for them and true for us. My spiritual hero, Thomas Merton, wrote:

“If we dare to go to the deepest part of our souls, there we will be in immediate and direct contact with God.”

Let me give you a term you can toss around at a party sometime. “Supernatural existential.” It comes from the theologian Karl Rahner who says we are all created with an inbuilt capacity for God. Our existence (existential) that is open to the divine, the supernatural.

And lastly…

5. The Jesus Movement rolled on because the early church believed that what Jesus did can still be done now because the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ still lives among us. Jesus’ life was not a one-time event consigned to history books, but is repeated now and forever.

There are numerous examples in Acts but I will stay with just one because you might have something else to do before the game at 8 pm. In a story you heard in this church last week from Chapter Nine, a wonderful woman named Tabitha became ill and died. We know she was wonderful because we are told “she was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” Among her acts of charity was making clothes for poor widows – widows who in that time and culture might literally starve to death without the income only men could acquire. Peter is told of her death, and when he gets to her room, it is filled with widows crying. Peter prays and says, “Tabitha, get up!”- the same way he saw Jesus do that for a little girl a couple of years earlier. Tabitha comes back to life and it is witnessed by “saints and widows.”

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My go-to-theologian Walter Brueggemann says:

“The wonder is witnessed only by saints and widows. What a pair! The saints are those who did not flee from the smell of death. The widows are those who live every day in their vulnerability. The non-saints, the ones who fear death, were gone and did not see the miracle. The anti-widows, the ones who work death on the weak, were not there. It takes a certain kind of witness to see the newness. They stayed in the chamber of death and were there for the surprising gift of new life.”

I could go on well past 8 pm about what that says about issues of social justice, but instead let’s make it personal. Let’s spend the final three minutes of this sermon inviting the same Spirit that worked so powerfully in the life of Jesus of Nazareth 2000 years ago, the same Spirit that continued in the early years of the Jesus Movement, into our lives right here, right now. Let’s use this powerful story of Tabitha for our own lives. I invite you to sit as comfortably as you can in those wooden pews. If you want, you can close your eyes.

In the story, Tabitha has died. Is there a part of your soul that has died? A dream gone, a hope dashed. Or is there a situation in your life that feels like death? Get in touch with that situation, that feeling. The Tabitha in you.

But Tabitha is not alone. Some stay with her even though the situation is hopeless. They do it out of love. Each and every person here has done that sometime in your life. You stayed at someone’s bedside, you taught someone who seemed to resist learning, you supported friends who were going through a tough time. It was hard. But you did it. For a moment, get in touch with that dimension of yourself. The part of you that is faithful.

Now bring the faithful you, the saints and widows in the story, into contact with the Tabitha in you, the place, the situation, that feels dead.

And now Peter enters the room. Like Jesus, he is not afraid of death. He does not bring despair. He brings hope and life. He has power. For a moment, get in touch with the power of your soul. That supernatural existential. That place where you know God’s love, where you know God’s mercy, where you know God’s hope. The power is truly in you. It was given to you in your baptism. Stay with that power for a moment.

Now bring that power through the faithful crowd that surrounds Tabitha. Bring that power to the place in you that feels dead. And in your soul, hear the words, “get up. Be alive. Remember love is stronger than death and to that love you are returned.” Amen.

+Doug

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Sermon given this morning at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, East Longmeadow

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There are numerous advantages to being the child of a priest (commonly called PKs – priests’ kids or preachers’ kids). When everyone is too tired to cook on Sunday nights, you can always go to the Parish Hall and find out what is left over from coffee hour. And when a PK is little there is the great thrill of hearing a story about you used in the sermon. When my children were young, whenever I would use a story about one of them, the other two would say, “Hey, Daddy, use a story about me next time.” And then in God’s wisdom, as the children grow older their enthusiasm for being mentioned in the sermon matures into prayer. As in “Oh God, please not a story about me!”

Another advantage to being a PK, since Holy Week and Spring Break are often the same time, when your friends are on vacation you have the opportunity to go to church everyday. And if both your parents are priests and serving two different congregations, like Betsy and me, you get to go to two services on the really big days: Christmas Eve, Good Friday, Easter Sunday. One time at Easter, after they went to Grace Church, Millbrook with me, our children went to Betsy’s Church in the next town. When they came home they told me: “In her sermon mom asked why the Risen Jesus appeared to the disciples but did not come back and appear to Pontius Pilate. After all, he really needed to see Jesus. It was a good line, Dad. Everyone laughed. You should have used that line.”

It’s a few years later, following up on the wisdom of my wife and kids, I will explore that question. Why didn’t Jesus appear to Pilate or Caiaphas or Herod? And why when he did appear to the disciples, did they not listen to him? And why was Thomas (my favorite apostle) the one to truly understand what Resurrection is all about? We are going to do this in ten minutes. Are you ready?

There is a saying in Zen: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I think that explains why Jesus did not appear to Pilate or Caiaphas or Herod.

Jesus before Caiaphas

Think about Pilate. He was all about power. If the Risen Jesus had appeared to him, he probably would have called for the guards who did not secure the tomb as tightly as he ordered and had them executed. Jesus did not appear to Pilate because he would have no part in that. Or maybe it was because of that dream that Pilate’s wife had. Remember in Matthew’s Gospel, while Jesus is on trial, Pilate’s wife sends him a note saying “I had a dream about this man. Do not harm him. He is innocent.” If Jesus appeared to Pilate, he would have to go back to his wife and hear the ultimate “I told you so!”

No, Pilate was not ready to see Jesus. Nor was Caiaphas, the High Priest that year. Caiaphas was so obsessed with his way of worshipping God (the traditional Temple sacrifices) that he could not be open to God acting outside that system. Again a Zen quote might help us understand. In Zen we are told that religions point us toward God, like fingers point us to the moon. But instead of looking at the moon, we look at the fingers and argue about which finger is the best one. We argue about which religion is the best one. And we miss God. Caiaphas is so committed to his religious tradition as the only way, he can’t see God acting outside the system. Think of how often Christianity has been like Caiaphas.

And why didn’t the Risen Jesus appear to Herod? Remember at the trial “When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a very long time and was hoping to see him perform some miracle.” (Luke 23:8) Or as Herod sings with tremendous mockery in the play Jesus Christ Superstar “So if you are the Christ, You’re the great Jesus Christ, Prove to me that You’re no fool, Walk across my swimming pool.” No, if the Risen Jesus appeared to Herod, he would have thought it some magic trick.

No, they were not ready for the teacher to appear. And here’s the more shocking truth – neither were the disciples! When Jesus comes to them on that first Easter night, they are locked in the upper room for fear. Ok, we can understand that. They saw Jesus dead and buried on Friday, the female disciples had seen the empty tomb on Sunday morning, but the other disciples were not ready to believe yet. Easter Sunday night they are in the upper room and Thomas is not with them. Fear is all they know. But now in comes the Risen Jesus saying “peace.” Saying I forgive you for deserting me at the cross. Do not be afraid anymore. In John’s Gospel he empowers them with the Holy Spirit right then and tells them to go out and spread the good news. After these very explicit directions from Jesus, where are they a week later? Still in the upper room with locked doors. Still afraid. Theologian William Sloan Coffin says “Fear seeks safety, not truth.” They were still caught in their fear, so they sought safety.

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Thomas, however, did not seek safety. Why wasn’t Thomas there that first night? Here is my opinion. It’s not written down in a book of theology anywhere and might not be orthodox – so don’t tell the bishop! In addition to the apostles, Jesus had many, many followers. And many of them were poor or sick or grieving. Remember Jesus and the early church had a special ministry to widows – people who were poor because only men could earn money. Could it be that Thomas was not there on Easter night because he was out taking care of the widows and the poor and the sick? Jesus was dead but the mission continues.

This idea fits with the Thomas we know from other gospel stories. Remember when Jesus wants the disciples to go to Jerusalem with him? Jerusalem is where Jesus will face death. It is Thomas who says “We may as well go and die with him.” Thomas has no fear. And he has no illusions as to how things should be. He just follows Jesus and does his job.

Perhaps we could understand Thomas in contrast to another disciple, Philip. When Jesus preaching one of his last sermons, Philip interrupts him and says “Jesus, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” In other words, “show us the Creator of it all. Show us the one who gives us all the answers. Why do we suffer? Why do we die? Why is there evil in the world? Get us those answers and we will be satisfied.”

Four hundred years later, St. Augustine will be one of the greatest theological minds of all time. He is in the Theologian Hall of Fame. He understood God as Trinity and he was obsessed with the idea. He wrote seven books about the Trinity. And not little paperbacks – big, thick books. One time, when he was writing still another book about the Trinity, he was walking along the beach on the Mediterranean and saw a child running back and forth from the sea to a hole he had dug in the sand. He carried a bucket, filled the bucket with seawater, dumped it into the hole he had made and did this over and over and over again. Augustine asked him why he was doing that. The child replied, “I’m trying to put the sea into this hole.” Augustine responded, “You can’t do that. It won’t fit.” The child, who was an angel in disguise, said, “Neither can you put the Mystery of God into your mind. It won’t fit.”

Philip was like Augustine. Show us the Father and we will be satisfied. Thomas does not say that. Thomas says “show me the wounds and I will be satisfied.” Thomas knew Jesus was the one dedicated to those who hurt in this world. He knew Jesus brought to us the God of mercy, compassion and hope. Thomas refused to believe in an abstract God. He would only believe in a “real God” and so he exclaims “My Lord and My God.”

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For Philip, God is the explainer. For Thomas God is the source of all compassion. For Philip, life is demanding answers. For Thomas life is humble service. Of course the Risen Jesus would appear to Thomas and he would respond from his soul. The student was ready.

In today’s gospel, after this powerful scene in the upper room, the gospel writer John jumps away from the story and says Jesus did a whole lot of other things that are “not written in this book.” But these stories, and this story about Thomas and the fearful disciples, are here so YOU might believe. It’s not about them. It is about you and me.

What do we believe? Like Philip, are we waiting for all the answers? Are we demanding a God we can fit into our heads? Or, like Thomas, are we willing to join the Jesus Movement that wants to turn the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it?

Amen.

+Doug