Sunday, April 23, 2017

Believing Is Seeing

Scriptures:     Acts 2:14, 22-32                     Psalm 16
I Peter 1:3-9                          John 20:19-31

We’re once again in one of those seasons in which society’s calendar and the church calendar are a little out of sync.  For society, last Sunday was Easter…..and for the stores, the Easter season happened in the weeks leading up to Easter, providing opportunities to sell flowers and chocolate bunnies and peeps and such.  But for us in the church, Easter as a season will continue for several more weeks, until Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, which this year is on June 4.  For the stores, Easter is a season to make money, because every season is a season to make money.  But for the church, Easter is a season because the resurrection is just too big to try to squash into one Sunday.  Even on Easter day, the lectionary provides two options for Gospel readings – John, and one of the other gospels – and so last week, I preached on the reading from John’s gospel at the sunrise service and on the reading from Matthew’s gospel at the 10 a.m.  And then this week and in coming weeks, our readings will give us additional appearances of Jesus, and teachings of Jesus that help us get our minds around the resurrection.
Today’s Gospel reading picks up where last week’s reading left off.  Last week we heard about Mary seeing an empty tomb, a vision of angels, and finally the Risen Christ himself, who told her not to linger with him, but to go and tell the disciples that Jesus was risen and is alive.
Meanwhile, those disciples were huddling behind locked doors – we’re told, “for fear of the Jews”; we should understand this as for fear of the religious authorities, those who had arrested Jesus and might very well be looking to arrest his disciples as well.  And these disciples were not only fearful, but discouraged, depressed, devastated.  They had put all their hopes in Jesus, left behind all they had known, had followed him around over who knows how many miles of dusty roads.  They had seen him heal and heard him teach, and wherever Jesus went, lives were changed for the better.  And as they’d gotten closer to Jerusalem, Jesus had kept saying that he would be arrested and killed….but likely they just thought he was being dramatic.  And the stuff he’d kept saying about rising in on the third day….who knew what that meant.  All they knew was that everything they’d experienced with Jesus – all their hopes and dreams of driving out the Romans and leading Judea to independence, all their dreams of glory - had come crashing down around them.  The mood in that locked room must have been like a funeral – telling one another about their memories, a particular teaching or healing of Jesus that stuck with them.  And all with the question in the background, “Where do we go from here?”  Mary had come with some strange story about having seen Jesus in the garden, alive, but they didn’t know what to make of what she was saying.  Maybe Mary was having a case of the vapors……
They would have been dealing, not only with the death of Jesus, but with their own feelings of failure and guilt.  After all Jesus had done for them, where had they been when Jesus needed them?  Peter, James and John had fallen asleep when Jesus had asked them to stay awake with him in the garden.  After Jesus was arrested, the disciples scattered, and Peter denied even having known him. Fine friends they were.
And suddenly Jesus came and stood among them.  Jesus was alive! And Jesus showed them his hands and side to let them know it really was him.  As he was doing this, for just a moment, though, even amid their joy, they must have been worried about what Jesus would have to say to them.  “Hey there, Peter, James, and John, I hope I’m not keeping you awake now?  Hey there Peter, do you know me now?  You’re all crowding around me now, but where were you guys when the Romans were putting nails through my hands and a spear in my side?”  But instead, Jesus said, “Peace be with you.”  In that moment, peace was a word they really needed to hear.  Jesus repeated it a second time, “Peace be with you.”, just to be sure they knew that he came in peace, that for all their failures he wasn’t angry with them.
Jesus went on to say, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”  “Send them where?”, they might have thought.  Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.“  And really, this is John’s account of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.   Several weeks from now, we’ll read Luke’s story of Pentecost, Luke’s story of the coming of the Holy Spirit as record in the 2nd chapter of Acts – a rush of wind, tongues of fire – but in John’s gospel, Jesus bestows the Holy Spirit on them by breathing it into them.  Jesus goes on to tell them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  At that moment they were just grateful that Jesus had forgiven them.
But Thomas wasn’t with them.  When they other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord,” he didn’t believe them any more than the other disciples had believed Mary earlier.  “Unless I see him with my own eyes, nail holes and wound in his side and all, I will not believe.”
We’re told that a week later, they were back in the same house, behind the same locked doors, and this time Thomas was with them.  And they same thing happened; despite the locked doors, Jesus showed up and said, “Peace be with you.”  And then, just as he had shown the disciples his hands and side a week ago, Jesus did so for Thomas:  “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe.”   And, just as the other disciples had believed a week earlier, Thomas answered Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”  Jesus told Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”
Thomas always gets a bit of a bad rap – “doubting Thomas” and all that.  But really, Thomas just wanted what the other disciples experienced.  Mary had told the disciples that she had seen Jesus, but they didn’t believe until they saw Jesus themselves, nail holes and spear hole and all.  Thomas just wanted the same thing – and Jesus was gracious enough to come a second time, so that Thomas was not left behind.  But in those words, Jesus gave a blessing to all of those who would come to believe in Jesus, not by having Jesus pop up in their bedroom, but through the words of the disciples. It’s a blessing for all who would come to read John’s gospel and the other gospels, and come to believe – a blessing for us here at Emanuel.  For the first disciples, seeing was believing; for us, hearing is believing, and reading is believing.
For Thomas and the other disciples, seeing was believing.  But I’d also say that, for us, believing is seeing.  Let me say it again: believing is seeing.  Consider that before Jesus appeared to them, the disciples were huddling behind locked doors, as we read, for fear of the Jews – again, that is to say, the Jewish religious leaders.  Huddled behind locked doors, because of fear.  In that moment after Jesus had been crucified, they were looking for safety, nothing more.  But Jesus, with this message of truth and love, was not stopped by their closed doors.  And after their encounter with the Risen Christ, they were able to leave those locked doors, even though nothing had changed in terms of being threatened by the religious leaders.  And after Pentecost, they were able not only to leave their locked room, but to go out into all the world to preach good news. 
Believing is seeing.  What we see is often determined by what our beliefs allow us to see.  Our beliefs, our prejudices – we all have them, me too - our life experience, all form lenses through which we see the world.  If our beliefs are based on fear, we will see a scary world.  Our minds will interpret everything we see in ways that reinforce our fears.  And we will be stuck, just as stuck as those disciples huddling behind locked doors.  If, however, Jesus is the lens through whom we see the world – Jesus, who healed and taught, who cared for the poor and those on the margins, Jesus who, in Paul’s words, emptied himself, gave his life for us – we will see the world differently.  We will see needs and resources and opportunities to connect with others, opportunities to serve, to which others are oblivious.  What others see as “just the way the world is” we will see as brokenness and sin in need of transformation through Jesus.  Especially as we see Jesus’ death and resurrection, not just as a one-time event, but as the way life happens, as a pattern for our lives, we will see the world differently.  What others see as a dead-end – a death – we will see as an opportunity for God to act and to bring about new life, resurrection life.  What others see as defeat, we will see as an opportunity for God to bring about victory. 
“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”  May we continually come to believe in the power of the Risen Christ, and may that believe lead us to share that good news with a world desperate for good news.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Look! Go! Tell - Easter Sermon

Acts 10:34-43             Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
                                Colossians 3:1-4                               Matthew 28:1-10

Of course, it would be the women who would be visiting the tomb.  The disciples had, all but one, scattered, but Matthew tells us that the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and provided for his ministry followed Jesus through the horrific events of the past days – Jesus’ arrest, a religious trial held under cover of darkness on charges of blasphemy, a political trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate for treason against the emperor – with beatings and spittings aplenty along the way during both trials - Jesus’ condemnation to death, the walk to Golgotha, the crucifixion, and Jesus’ agonizing death on the cross.  The women were there when Jesus breathed his last, amid an earthquake and the veil of the temple tearing in two.  Matthew’s account of the crucifixion even includes, amid the earthquake and the tearing of the veil of the temple, a sort of zombie apocalypse moment in which we’re told that many bodies of the saints were raised and walked into Jerusalem and said howdy! – well, they didn’t actually say howdy, but we’re told that “they walked to the holy city and appeared to many”…since we’re told these were the saints, believers, I guess we can hope they’re more friendly than the zombies in the Walking Dead TV show.  These images of earthquakes and people rising from the grave were images that appeared in the Jewish apocalyptic thought of the day…and Matthew was writing to and for a predominantly Jewish community of converts to the way of Jesus - but to us 2,000 years later, Matthew’s images are unsettling to say the least.  The women were there when the soldiers who had crucified Jesus, in response to all they’d heard and seen, said, “Surely this was the Son of God!”  The women were there when Jesus was taken down from the cross, and the women were there when Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy sympathizer of Jesus, stepped forward to claim Jesus’ body and give it a proper Jewish burial in his own tomb.  I have to say, none of the 12 male disciples come out of the account of Jesus’ crucifixion looking very impressive.  It’s one of God’s miracles that these guys – these guys of all people– could pass the good news on to future generations. But the women were there – after all, since the guys had scattered, who else but the women would have been present to see, hear, and tell the story of the crucifixion and resurrection.

Following all this upheaval – and following the Sabbath day of rest that followed - it was two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who had come to the tomb with spices for anointing the body.  As they went, the women knew that, at the tomb, they would have some obstacles to deal with.  First of all, Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy sympathizer of Jesus who had provided the tomb, had rolled a large stone in front of the entrance, to keep the body safe from animals that might mutilate the body.   And then, Matthew’s gospel – and only Matthew’s gospel - tells us that, on request of the Temple religious leadership, Pilate had furnished guards to secure the tomb, lest Jesus’ followers take the body and make claims of resurrection.  Pilate’s guards were there for the purpose of keeping people out of the tomb – they certainly weren’t going to offer any help in rolling away the stone – good luck with that!

Matthew tells us that an angel of the Lord came from heaven to roll away the stone.  The angel hadn’t come quietly, either; we’re told that when the angel came, there was an earthquake.  The guards were completely freaked out; we’re told that they shook and became like dead men.  The women felt the earthquake as well, and I’m sure they were terrified as well, but they stayed their course.  So by the time the Marys got to the tomb, the stone was rolled away, the guards were unconscious….and the tomb was empty.   The angel begins by telling the women, “Do not be afraid!”  Those charged with guarding the tomb had been so overcome with fear that they fainted, but to the women the angel said, “Do not be afraid.”

The angel goes on:  “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.  Come, see the place where he lay.  The go quickly and tell his disciples:  “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.  This is my message for you.”  With fear and great joy, they began to do as the angel said and ran in to Jesus himself, who said “Greetings!”  The women came to Jesus, took hold of his feet – likely to be sure he wasn’t a ghost, as ghosts were supposed to sort of float along rather than walk - and yep, there were solid feet there, toenails and bunyons and all, along with some fresh, raw nail holes – and worshipped Jesus.  Jesus again said, “Do not be afraid” and instructed the two women to tell the guys to meet him in Galilee.  So it was that, not only in Matthew’s gospel but in all four gospels – it is the women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection, the first to look, go, and tell.

The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection – and particularly Matthew’s gospel – leave us with images that may have us scratching our heads.   With his apocalyptic images of earthquakes and dead saints coming out of their graves – images not included in the other Gospels - what is Matthew trying to tell us?

Many inside the church and many outside the church – think of Christianity in very individualistic, private terms – Jesus is something that makes us feel good inside.  Or, for nonbelievers, Jesus makes other people feel good inside – Jesus as a giver of warm fuzzies.  And I don’t want to minimize that at all.  The joy of salvation is very real, can I get an Amen? The joy of the Lord is very real.  The old hymn  “He lives” ends with these words

You ask me how I know He lives: He lives within my heart.

But what happens when we wake up on the wrong side of the bed and we’re having a bad hair day, and we’re fresh out of warm fuzzies?  Or if you’re like me and for whatever reason your emotional makeup just doesn’t allow for a lot of warm fuzzies.  What happens when you’re trying to listen to Jesus and nothing’s coming.  Does it mean that Jesus doesn’t live in my heart anymore, or maybe Jesus took a week off for vacation down the shore, and I’ll have to wait until Jesus gets back from the Wildwood and over the Ben Franklin bridge until I feel warm and fuzzy again? Or worse yet, did Jesus die within my heart?

I think part of what Matthew is doing is inviting us to think beyond our own individual emotional highs and lows, to think of Jesus in bigger terms.   The resurrection is about us, but it’s not only about us.  As Matthew tells the story, with his images of earthquakes, the death and resurrection of Jesus are literally earth-shaking events, events of cosmic importance.  And how could it be otherwise, when John’s gospel tells us, about Jesus, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” – that verse describes Jesus acting on a cosmic scale.  When Jesus dies, the veil of the Temple, the boundary line between the Divine Presence and the divinely created but humanly messed up world, is gone – and so God’s presence is available to all, Jewish high priest and Joe Schmoe from the Poconos alike.  The lines between the living and the dead are blurred, as departed saints come out of the ground and appear to their families, and even more so as those soldiers appointed to guard a dead body faint and become like dead bodies themselves, and the one being guarded rises to life.   Society’s boundary lines that put men in charge are blurred, as women are commissioned to become apostles to the apostles, the very first ones to carry the message.  Later, the lines between Jew and Gentile will become blurred, as Peter declared in our reading from Acts when he said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”   Slowly, over many centuries, the church would continue to learn and continues to relearn the lesson that God shows no partiality of nationality, of race, of gender, of sexual orientation, that across all these categories, all who reverence God and do what is right are acceptable.

You who have been here a while may remember that I visited Cuba several times some years back, with a United Church of Christ delegation.  We met a pastor, Rev Raul Suarez, who told us what it had been like at the time of the Cuban revolution.  Rev Suarez, a Baptist, had in his seminary training – which took place before Castro came to power - been taught along very individualistic, moralistic lines –  as the old saying went, “Don’t drink, smoke, or chew, or date girls who do.”  And then Fidel Castro came to power, and his whole world turned upside-down. Churches were shut down and pastors and religious leaders persecuted – though later in Fidel’s tenure, he became more open to communities of faith.  But in the early years, many churches shut down or went underground.  Many pastors left Cuba to head for the United States.  Rev Suarez stayed – but his seminary training, with its emphasis on avoiding personal indulgences, left him completely unprepared to be a pastor in a time of revolution.  He could avoid drinking, smoking, and chewing to his heart’s content, but the society all around him was still being shaken, and everything in society that he had formerly relied on, shaken and broken.  He had to grab on to God’s grace with both hands, and went through the spiritual ride of his life.  And on the other side of that upheaval, Rev Suarez found that his Jesus, his God, was much, much bigger than he had ever imagined – bigger than Castro, bigger than the revolution, bigger than the changes that were taking place all around him.   And I think this is what Matthew is trying to tell us with his description of earthquakes and dead saints appearing to the living: 

The bottom line of Easter is this: Do not be afraid.  Life is stronger than death.  Easter, not Good Friday, has the last word.  And this is to be our message, as we are to be Easter people in a Good Friday world, messengers of life in a world addicted to the ways of death.   God knows, in our world, with environmental degradation and economic injustice and political shenanigans, in our lives, with the passing of loved ones, with physical or mental illness, struggling or broken relationships, addiction, and despair, and all the day-to-day frustration life offers, there’s plenty to be afraid of.   Our problems can overwhelm us, if we let them.  But the message of the angels at the empty tomb is the message of Easter: “Don’t be afraid!  Don’t be afraid!  Despite all the injustice, pain, suffering and death of Good Friday, Jesus is not here in this tomb.  Jesus is alive, he’s ahead of you – and he’s inviting you and you and you and me and all of us to meet him there.  Indeed, that’s really a good picture of the mission of the church – to try to figure out where Jesus is and meet Jesus there.  What we think is the end, is only a new beginning.  .  Every resurrection begins with a crucifixion….but crucifixion is not the end. Indeed, as followers in the way of Jesus, crucifixion and resurrection are the pattern of our lives We must not try to put a period where God has placed a comma.

Jesus met the women in the garden, but he did not leave them there.  Jesus invited them and the other disciples to meet him in Galilee – Galilee, where Jesus’ ministry had started.  Matthew’s Gospel comes full circle, ending where it began, but with an entirely transformed cast of characters.  On a high mountain, perhaps the mountain of transfiguration, the disciples worshipped Jesus, though – as Matthew tells us – some doubted.   And that’s ok – nowhere does it say that Jesus told the doubters to leave the mountaintop.  Doubts are just mileage markers on the road of faith.  To those who tell me they have no faith, my standard response is “You may not believe in God, but God believes in you.  You are a beloved child of God – even though you may not believe it, never, never forget it.”

God gave the disciples a mission that is also our mission – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore – therefore, because I’ve been given authority, some of which I’m delegating to you – Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them – just as Jesus taught, as during the Sermon on the Mount – teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  And then comes that great promise, the promise that has sustained the church throughout 2000 years and has sustained us at Emanuel for over 150 of those years:  “Remember, I am with you always – always – no matter whether you’re feeling my presence or not – I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Jesus…with us always….always.  That’s the promise.  We have Jesus’ word.

We began our service today with the words “Alleluia! The Lord is risen!  He has risen indeed, alleluia!  The resurrection is not only about us, but it is about us – about Christ’s love for us, about our alleluias in response to Christ’s love, and about our mission of proclaiming the message, “Alleluia! The Lord is risen indeed!” to our neighbors – to look for the resurrection and to point out to our neighbors the signs of resurrection amid all the crosses of our broken world.  Now I invite you to help me finish my sermon, using the words with which we began the service.   “Alleluia, the Lord is risen!  He has risen indeed!  Alleluia!” Amen.