Finding Our Home: A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

This sermon, offered by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on April 23, 2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built on the readings assigned for the Second Sunday of Easter, year A in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

This sermon was preached without a text form the center aisle.  What follow is a transcript of the attached recording.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Please be seated.

I don’t know about you all but I feel a little sorry Thomas. We have a three-year lectionary cycle and so our readings for any given Sunday change every year on a three-year rotating basis, with the exception of just a few, and today being one of them. Every year on the Sunday after Easter, when we celebrate the feast of the resurrection, we trot Thomas out and let him say these difficult words.

Now, I don’t know if we can imagine what it was like for him in that moment but I’ve got an idea for a way that might get us close. So I want to try something, and it’s a little interactive so you’re going to have to participate…

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

But unless I see the mark of the the nails in his hand…

(faintly from the congregation)  But unless I see the mark of the nails… (laughter)

Ooooh! See! You guys were right there… You can imagine what that would be like! It would be really hard!

Thomas walks into the room where all of his friends, his companions for these past three years are gathered and they greet him with this joyous news, tell him about an event that he wasn’t a part of, and he doesn’t want to believe them. He asks to see some evidence; “Let me see the body, show me the flesh and blood, show me the wounds, and then I’ll believe what you’re telling me.

It’s really interesting how all of this moves forward. It would seem that Thomas doesn’t believe that this was the same person who hung on the cross, whom his friends have met, and who has been raised from the dead. He wants some factual evidence.

But sometime later when Jesus shows up for a second time, Thomas now present in the room, and Jesus offers him the factual evidence he’s required, Thomas doesn’t say “Oh wow! There are the wounds! It really is you! You’re the one! Wow! My friends were right and you’ve been raised from the dead!”

What he says instead is, My Lord and my God!”

That doesn’t sound like a response to factual evidence to me. It doesn’t sound like some switched has been flipped for him, some Christian apologetic has finally convinced him that this is all true. Something much deeper has happened in this moment. I think that in this moment Thomas has come to trust, to trust.

Ten years ago Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, wrote this book called Tokens of Trust and here’s how he opens chapter 1.

“A few years ago the British philosopher Onora O’Neill, argued in some broadcast lectures that our society was suffering from a crisis of trust…”

 

“It isn’t simply that we have become remarkably cynical in many of our attitudes, that we approach people in public life with unusual levels of suspicion, it’s also, more disturbingly, that we don’t feel the great institutions of our society are working for us. This means we are unhappy and mistrustful about our educational system, our healthcare service and police – let alone our representatives in government.”  (Tokens of Trust p. 3)

Ten years ago… suffering from a crisis in trust… maybe we can understand what’s going on in Thomas’s mind in this moment.

So we need to talk a little bit about the word “believe.” Thomas says unless I have this evidence I won’t believe. Jesus shows up and says, “See my wounds. Put your hands in them. Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas says, “My Lord and my God. I trust in you,” and Jesus credits him in that moment with belief.

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Have you trusted because you can see me?”

All throughout John’s Gospel the words believe and belief are relational words. They are verbs that have to do with trusting in… Not so much believing facts, not so much in believing in data and evidence, but coming to trust in someone in some thing.

Shortly after the introduction that I read to you from Rowan Williams’s book he’s talking about the fact that we, as a community, gather every Sunday and we say these words together

 “We believe in God the father Almighty…”

And he tweaks that word “believe” the same way that John would have us tweak it. Williams says

“It is the beginning of a series of statements about where I find in the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, where I find home.” (Tokens of Trust p. 6)

In a world and a culture where trust is a difficult thing, where we can’t believe, or we need to question the sources of information that we once relied on, where we’re not sure who’s telling us the truth and who is working to forward their own agenda, we need to have something in which we can trust, an Anchorage, solid ground, home.

And so what we do every week is come here together, to this place, and say, “We trust, we find our anchorage, solid ground, home it’s here in this place, and in this person Jesus of Nazareth, and in the God whom he made manifest and describes, whose behavior he exhibited here in this world, that we trust.

Jesus says to the disciples there in that upper room “Just as the father has sent me I now send you” and he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. And so having been shored up, having been rooted, having been given our ground where we live and move and have our being, Jesus sends us out in the world to invite others to come home, to hold tightly to what it is that we trust, and to share that with others.

Now just in case you started to roll your eyes a little bit in the last few minutes, we need to acknowledge Thomas’s presence in the midst of all this and our ability to relate to him. Because Thomas, and we don’t know how he’s been wounded or how he’s been shaped by his culture and his time, he’s often credited I think with being a scientist and needing some scientific evidence. Maybe that’s what’s going on here, but I think fundamentally what’s happening in him is an inability to trust. Sometimes life comes at us in ways it makes it difficult for us to trust. That’s why I’m so grateful for Thomas’s presence in this story. Jesus could have taken any route, any measure, to help us to find our way to recognize the importance and value of trust. John the gospeler or could have crafted his story differently and moved us to the same point, but if they had excised Thomas from the story then I think we would’ve all left here afraid at the possibility that life would somehow steal away from us, even for a fleeting moment, our ability to trust.

So Thomas stands here in our midst, Thomas with whom we’ve discovered we can in fact identify, and asks for what he needs. “I need Jesus to come back and to show me, to show me! I know you all say you’ve seen him but I need him to show me! And Thomas authorizes, empowers, gives us permission to say those same words.

So I’d like to tell you that in 30 seconds I’ve arranged to have Jesus come through the locked doors here, and stand in our midst, and offer us his wounds. That would be great but I don’t think it’s likely to happen.

What we do have however in this space, gathered together, are the wounds of people we love, people who have been hurt, people who have survived that hurt. We ourselves who bear our scars into this place and dare to stand up every Sunday and say we believe! We believe in a God who loves us beyond measure, who has proven to us that we will never be abandoned and never be alone, a God who has told us that we all have value, and are worthy of dignity and respect; a God who tells us that what God wants for us more than anything is life in his name.

Thomas took a great risk by standing up in the middle of that room and saying I won’t believe unless I get to see this list of things. I think we take a similar risk when we stand up together and say, “We believe, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite the pain that I have experienced, despite the pain that people I love are feeling right at this moment. We believe. We trust in the one who came to set us free, to allow us to walk in the light, and to give us life tinged with, suffused with, glowing with eternity.

Thanks be to God for Thomas who helps us to see. Thanks be to God for Jesus who comes back to us again and again. And thanks be to God for this community where we can wrestle and struggle find God in one another.

Amen.

 

Williams, Rowan. Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007. Print.

Sanctified Doubt: a Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on April 12, 2015, is built on the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

 

It’s so, so difficult… maybe even heartbreaking to walk into a group of people whom you love, who love you, with whom you have shared your life and your trials, your joys and your successes, and suddenly find yourself on the outside. Maybe it’s something as small as they all watch the same episode of Downton Abbey last night and you missed it and so you can’t be part of the conversation. Maybe you don’t even like Downton Abbey. But that conversation is happening and you can’t be a part of it. Maybe this is the moment when all of your friends have decided to talk about their partners and how wonderful life is as a couple and you are the only single person in the group. It’s as if you suddenly have no part in the conversation, no part in the community. Or maybe you’re the only childless couple in the group and this is the day that everybody decides to talk about the miracle of what’s in the baby’s diaper this week. You can’t participate. You are not part of that conversation. The more important the issues the harder it is to speak up. Maybe you’re the only social conservative and a room full of liberals and you find your self unable and unwilling to risk saying what you think and believe. So I think we have some sense of what life must of been like for a whole week for Thomas.

Thomas shows up there in that upper room with the rest of the disciples who have seen the risen Lord, they’ve seen Jesus, and he comes into the room and they’re excited the room is filled with energy. But you weren’t there and you don’t have that same experience. I think it was a tremendously courageous thing for Thomas to do, to give voice to his doubts. Well it was either courageous or he was from Madison. I’m not sure which it is. But Thomas did. He said that unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and the wound in his side, and touch those wounds, I won’t believe.

It must have cost him a lot to say that there in that group of people. I’m sure he was afraid he would alienate himself from them or that he wouldn’t be able to participate in the life of this group anymore. We don’t know how that time played out. What we do know is that it wasn’t until a week later that Jesus appears again in that upper room and presents himself to Thomas. So for a whole week Thomas is wrestling with his doubts and his concerns and his lack of participation in this conversation. It must have been excruciating.

I also wonder what it was like for the rest of the disciples. They were excited, they were on fire, the room was filled with energy… and here comes Thomas the buzz kill. Thomas comes into the room… can we still talk about this? Can we be as excited as we were? Is Thomas still a part of us? Do we even still want him around? It must’ve been in excruciating week.

And then Jesus does present himself once again, there in that upper room, to the disciples. I think it’s really important for us to recognize what his goal is, what he’s doing in that moment. When he walked into that space I wonder what was going on in Thomas’ head. Did he think “I was wrong!” Was he afraid? Was he concerned? Was he filled with joy?

Jesus didn’t come into that space and say, “Thomas, you doubter… get out of here! You have no place with us!” He didn’t say, “If you can’t understand this then you need to go…”   What he did was he showed up in that space to offer Thomas what he needed. He showed up to offer Thomas what he needed despite his doubts, despite his concerns, despite his struggle.

I wish we could re-create that moment when we need it here in this place. So often I talk with people who are in the midst of some crisis, who are having some terrible loss in their life, experiencing some tragedy… and they express their doubts, and their concerns, and their fears, and their struggles to me… and they do it with an apology. It’s as if there’s something wrong with struggling, as if there’s something wrong with doubting, as if there’s something wrong being human. Because to be human, to be flesh, is it to wrestle, to strive, to struggle with God, and with our faith, and with our belief. All through our Scriptures we read about people who struggle, and test God, and are tested by God and the relationship ebbs and flows back and forth and yet God does not abandon them. God uses them to bring about God’s purposes in the world.

I don’t think today’s story is a story about doubting Thomas. I think today’s story is a story about God, and how God acts in the world, how God interacts with us. And in this moment what God is doing is sanctifying, sanctifying Thomas’ doubt.

Thomas is there with his doubts and Jesus comes to him and offers him everything he needs but doesn’t ask anything of him; doesn’t demand that he assent to the truth of his resurrection. I think that’s the key thing for us to remember. Oftentimes I hear people ask, “What does God need, what does God require, what does God demand of me?” I think the only answer to that question is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

But the real way answer to that question though is to turn it, as Jesus would do if we asked him the question, and to say, “It’s not what God requires or wants from you that matters in this story. It’s what God wants for you.”

What does God want for us? God wants for us to have life and to have it abundantly, to be freed from the shame and self doubt and fear that binds us, keeps us isolated from one another, keeps us isolated from God, keeps us isolated and alienated from our very selves!

In this story we see God coming to us and saying, “Have what you need. Take from me what you will. And step into the light and live here with me.

I think it’s crucial for us to recognize that all of this happens in the context of this community that, we are imagining but to believe, was under some great stress for this week between Jesus’ appearance to the disciples and his coming again to meet with Thomas. I think that it’s a remarkable thing that Thomas is still there. After a whole week he still showing up in that upper room with the rest of the disciples. And it’s a remarkable thing that a week later the rest of the disciples are still welcoming him, at least on the surface. They’re letting him in. And so when Jesus comes to present himself to Thomas it’s not just Thomas’ doubts and fears that are being addressed. It’s the relationships that exist between everyone in the community, and this becomes a witness to the rest of the group. That to doubt is not a sin. To wrestle and struggle is not wrong. But to be together while you do it means everything.

So I don’t know if it was courageous of Thomas to give voice to his doubts and concerns or if he was just for Madison, but I know one thing for sure all the people in that room that night they were Episcopalians. Because that’s who we are. We are a people, we are a tradition, we are a group of Christians who recognize that to struggle and to wrestle with God, and with our faith, and what we believe is human, and important, and part of the relationship; that relationship that moves back and forth, that ebbs and flows, that is breathing, living, and dynamic. That’s who we are; a people bound together by the things that unite us, who are willing to set aside the differences that may divide us, because we know that what binds us and makes us one is far more important to who we are, to whom God is, and to who God is calling us to be.

When we gather here together I would be willing to bet that there are people in this room, in this community, there are people among us who struggle with some of the words of the creed, who struggle with other parts of the prayers. And yet we come together, and we say these things out loud in one another’s presence, and hope that they will shape and form us and make us one.

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard me tell this story before but it just fits so well… It’s an apocryphal story. I heard someone else tell it in the sermon so I don’t have names, and dates, and specific places…   It’s a story about a seminary professor whose family is killed in a tragic automobile accident. Daily Eucharist is required as part of this seminary’s life for all students faculty and staff. After a month this professor goes to the Dean and says, “I have to resign my post.” The Dean is shocked and asks why. The man says, “Because I can’t sit in the pew and say those prayers. I can’t be there in that place and proclaim my faith because it seems to have gone dry.” The Dean says to him, “That’s all right. You continue to teach your classes. And you continue to come to chapel. And we will say the prayers for you until you can say them again your self.”

As we make our way through this life we will all suffer loss. We will all experience tragedy. We will all encounter events that will call the deepest parts of who we are into question, and leave us wrestling, and struggling. What’s key, what’s more important than anything, is that we continue to come together, to hold one another up, and to allow ourselves to be held. Because when we gather together, here in this upper room, we can be sure that Jesus will appear and give us what we need to believe.

Look around you will find him in the faces of the people in the pews beside you, in front of you, and behind you. You’ll find him in the light streaming through these windows. You’ll find them here at this table as we gather with our hands outstretched to receive the sign and the symbol of his ongoing presence among us. You’ll find him offering his wounds, his love, his light, and his truth as we gather together as the body of Christ. This is not a story about a doubter. This is a story about a God who sanctifies our wrestling, our struggling, and our doubts and love every bit of it, as God loves us, and forms and shapes us, so that we can offer that same love to one another here in this place.

Thanks be to God!

Amen