Congratulations to Jaz Buchanan, who won the Massachusetts Bible Society Scripture Reading Prize, hosted by the Office of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School. We've posted her sermon, and will link to her reading when it is available.
Holding Faith Together
Billings Sermon Competition
Wednesday, April 7, 2021
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 11 verses 2 -11:
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah[a] was doing, he sent word by his[b] disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[c] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus Praises John the Baptist
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone[d] dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet?[e] Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
The Good News of Jesus Christ; Thanks be to God!
When I read this passage, I am often a bit perplexed by John’s question. In the Christian tradition, John is famously known as John the Baptist. He is the forerunner of Jesus, he spoke about Jesus in public and began baptisms that would prepare people for Jesus’s ministry.
But today, John is in prison. Locked up for who knows how much longer.. He sits there, spending most of his time just waiting to see what Jesus will do next. As he waits, he decides to send his disciples to go ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” After everything he did to prepare for Jesus’s arrival, he questions, he doubts who Jesus is.
But then I remember, earlier in Matthew, we witness John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. John knows who Jesus is. After all, he baptized him.
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to John and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
I mean, John, you were there, what else do you need? The heavens literally opened up before your eyes!
This leads me to believe that John’s question is not all about doubt.
Because I also see a flickering of hope, a flickering of faith. Perhaps John’s question is not whether or not is Jesus the Messiah, but what does being the Messiah mean?
Will Jesus free him from captivity? Will Jesus overthrow the Roman empire? Will Jesus end this booming oppression John and many first century Jewish people lived under?
In our gospel reading today, we see John hold both doubt and faith. Faith in who Jesus is, and doubt in what Jesus can and will do.
I admit that I, like John, have experienced both doubt and faith – especially here at HDS. Times when I felt – yes, this is where I am supposed to be, after enjoying writing a paper or reading a good book, or experiencing a deep theological conversation with friends.
And then there were times when I asked myself – what the heck did I just read? I think all those words are new to me.. as I totally googled the meaning of each word one by one.
Then there were also more ground breaking moments… like when I entered school affiliated with one denomination and now find myself graduating pursuing ordination in another.
In Fall of 2019, I really struggled to find a field education placement. It was like sitting with a puzzle and you just have one piece left but you cannot seem to make it fit. No matter how you rotate it, you are just jamming that piece in.
Here I was sitting with doubt. Doubt in who I was, what was I doing, was I really ready to leave a denomination that had brought me here to begin with? Was it God who was leading me? Or was I just not working hard enough to make something work?
My advisor talked on the phone with me for 45 minutes. Laura had about 10 meetings with me. Friends met with me at Rock Café.
Of course, at the time, I did not know how my life would unfold. I did not know I would find an amazing field education placement at United Parish in Brookline that would change my relationship to parish ministry.
I was still feeling doubt, but I learned something about faith that changed my life.
I remembered what a pastor once told me that it is okay and actually quite normal to not feel a full heart of faith – for a moment or even a long period of time.
And when I say faith, I do not mean just faith in my Christian context, but I also mean a faith in a better world, faith in an end to poverty, faith in an end to police brutality, faith in our purpose as human beings in this life.
I learned that the beautiful thing about faith is that when we do not have it, someone else in the world does.
The community I found here had faith in me when I did not have faith in myself.
When we experience a loss of faith it does mean that is disappeared – it just means we are not necessarily the ones holding on to it right now in this moment.
And after a year like this one, with duel pandemics – COVID-19 and systemic racism – holding on to faith all the time was hard, if not impossible.
Last March, when we entered a lockdown I held my breath each morning my wife went to work at the hospital. No PPE. Just the same surgical mask day in and day out. I was not alone. Friends of mine sent their loved ones to work in grocery stores and other essential jobs…
Some of us lost loved ones to COVID-19. Some of us lost loved ones during this pandemic and have still not had an opportunity to grieve in person with family and friends.
We have lost time. A year + of time.
Some of us by the time we graduate in May will have spent almost all of our time online if we are MTS or almost half of our time online if we are MDiv. That grief is real.
I joked with a friend recently how our MDIV class of 2021 has been slowly nudged off campus. Year 1 was great – in person, in our HDS buildings. Year 2 – we were relocated for construction. Year 2 1/2 and Year 3 – just totally online. At least, the Spirit moved us off campus gently and gradually.
In those moments that were particularly hard, I felt this community holding on to faith for me.
I literally made it to one Tuesday morning Eucharist service this semester and yet, every time I see an email from Heather Wakefield, it is like reading a prayer. Whether or not I make it at 9am to sign on to Zoom, I feel held.
Over this past year, each of us held faith for one another at different times. Offering glimmers of hope with a word of encouragement, with a – now is not the time to be productive and write your best paper.
All the ^^^ arrows in Zoom chats that show support to the previous comment made. The Amens, the yesses, the snaps, the enthusiastic nods – reminding you that you are incredibly valuable and what you have to say matters – even if there is self-doubt and self-questioning…the people around you in those little Zoom boxes, have faith in you.
Life does not require us to be hopeful and full of faith all the time. In fact, I think the point is to let our more genuine human sides shine through, like John the Baptist modeled. For some of us right here, right now, a heart full of faith is genuine. For some of us, it is not. And for some of us, our hearts may feel empty. All of these experiences are real. And they are all okay.
In those hard moments … be as gentle as you can with yourself… and may you find some comfort in knowing someone out there, and most definitely here in this community, is holding on to faith for you. Someone believes in you and believes a better world is possible. Amen.