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Sermon, April 24, 2022 – Easter II

Believing is Seeing

Happy Easter!

          Today we encounter two resurrection appearances that are often combined into a single incident.  The first appearance occurs on the evening of Easter day.  The disciples are huddled together in fear of the Roman and religious authorities – after all, their leader was executed for sedition and they’re probably next.  Jesus appears greeting them with “Shalom” and shows them the marks of his crucifixion.  He then breaths on them inviting them to “receive the Holy Spirit.”  Jesus then gives his disciples, and us, the authority to declare sins forgiven.

          The second appearance takes place a week later.  The difference is that Thomas, who was absent the week before, is now present.  Jesus invites him to touch him and leave his doubts for faith and belief.  He tells us that faith in Jesus is possible even without physically seeing him.

          The Apostle Thomas was a realist; and when his fellow disciples excitedly told him that they had seen Jesus alive, he was skeptical. He demanded to see the marks of the crucifixion before he would believe their testimony. His story still speaks to us today in our doubts and fears.

          A famous early 17th-century painting by Caravaggio, entitled “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” shows Jesus grasping Thomas’ wrist and guiding Thomas’ index finger into the gaping spear wound in his side. The bared torso of Jesus is bathed in light against a dark background. Thomas leans forward intently, his brow furrowed in concentration, as he peers at the mark of the wound. Two other men hover closely over the shoulder of Thomas and observe as well.

          The Gospel text does not indicate whether Thomas actually touched the wounds of Jesus; but the appearance of the Lord was enough for Thomas to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

          Khalil Gibran, in Jesus, the Son of Man: His Words and His Deeds as Told and Recorded by Those Who Knew Him (N. Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), imagines Thomas agonizing over the words his grandfather had taught him: “Let us observe the truth, but only when the truth is made manifest to us.”

          Always looking for evidence of the truth had made Thomas a slave to doubt. “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother,” Gibran concludes.

          Only when Thomas saw for himself did he believe in the truth of the Risen Lord, for “doubt will not know truth till his wounds are healed and restored.” Gibran depicts the disciple released from the legacy of doubt in his past, saying: “Then indeed I believed, and after that I was rid of my yesterdays. … The dead in me buried their dead; and the living shall live for the Anointed King, for Him who was the Son of Man.”

          According to tradition, Thomas was called to spread the word of the Risen Lord to the people of India. And so, the Gibran projection of Thomas’ response continues: “I shall go. And from this day to my last day, at dawn and at eventide, I shall see my Lord rising in majesty and I shall hear Him speak.”

          But here is a truth with which we must come to terms today. The church of the resurrected Jesus Christ is founded on a complete reversal of this doctrine. Now, it is “believing is seeing,” and not the other way around.

          Jesus tells Thomas that those who find a way to trust in him without the privilege of seeing him — these ones are blessed. Let’s think about this promise of Jesus. He is suggesting that believing in another person actually creates a form of sight. We know that newlyweds experience this all the time. A couple would never take the plunge and get married if they elected to wait around to see everything about their mate before they were willing to believe in this other. No, they trust all kinds of tomorrows for which they cannot begin to see the details, much less the shape.

          Believing in another actually creates a form of sight or perception. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” Jesus says to Thomas.

          Like Thomas, we too seek affirmation of the reality of the Risen Christ; and often our doubts can keep us from recognizing this pivotal truth. But there comes a moment, whether through a period of gradual discernment or because of a sudden life-changing event, when we too find we can exclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

Happy Easter! Amen.

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Sermon, April 17, 2022 – Easter Sunday

“Christ is risen, alleluia! He is risen indeed, alleluia!”

          Happy Easter!

          Today, we begin a fifty-day celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – the Queen of Feasts.  Seven short weeks that will carry us from an empty tomb to the rushing mighty wind of Pentecost.  This is the heart of our life together as Christians.  It is what gives meaning to everything we do.  The Church’s life, its work, its mission, and its proclamation is wrapped up in this one event.

          Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tells us,

                     “Easter comes out ringing in terms that we all hear if we seek to hear it, that the soul of man is immortal. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have fit testimony that this earthly life is not the end, that death is just something of a turn in the road, that life moves down a continual moving river, and that death is just a little turn in the river, that this earthly life is merely an embryonic prelude to a new awakening, that death is not a period which ends this great sentence of life but a comma that punctuates it to loftier significance. That is what it says. That is the meaning of Easter. That is the question that Easter answers — that death is not the end.”[i]

          The word of our Lord’s Resurrection is always a new word for us and to us. Wherever we are in our own story, we need the liberating pronouncement of forgiveness and resurrection again and again. The ancient word that Jesus has been raised from the dead is something we need to hear anew. The darkness of Good Friday, and the silence at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, indicate to us a beginning, a space that is dedicated to be filled with the light of Christ. We look to the Paschal Candle as the beacon that both draws us and sends us on our way rejoicing.

          The Resurrection of Jesus introduces a new day, a new creation, a turn in the story — but the remembrance of all that has brought us to this place is still with us. As we adjust to the glorious flow of God’s acts, we realize that we still live in two worlds, and that there are many around us to whom the story has not yet been revealed in its fullness.

          In this morning’s Psalm we sing, “On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24).  Our faith teaches us that on this day, the power of death was finally and eternally conquered.  This means that we can stand next to an open grave ready to receive our loved one’s remains and not go stark raving mad.  It also means that we can look our own mortality in the eye and not give in to hopelessness and despair.

          This is the Good News we proclaim.  The resurrection is the driving force behind the Church’s life and work.

          There is always work to be done, good news to be shared, again and again. The Church today proclaims the new — that is also our legacy—and seeks for yet more fruitful ways to integrate this “ending” into the life of a world that desperately seeks resolution.

          “You broke the reign of death, O Lord, and you have made life shine forth again, alleluia!”

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[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon, “Questions That Easter Answers,” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama (4/21/1957).

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Sermon, April 3, 2022 – Lent V

Seeking What We Already Have

            Our Lenten journey this Sunday picks up the story of Jesus at a dinner party at the home of Martha and Mary in Bethany – a village just a few miles southeast of Jerusalem (this will become Jesus’ home base during Holy Week).  Their brother, Lazarus (whom Jesus had just raised from the dead), is also there.  John points out that things are rapidly coming to a head and events are about to turn ugly.

          In John’s Gospel, the passage immediately preceding today’s reading we learn of the developing plot against Jesus by the religious authorities in Jerusalem.  They are alarmed by Jesus’ growing popularity, which would certainly draw unwelcome attention from the Romans.  Just for good measure, Lazarus is included in this conspiracy in order to silence all of Jesus’ adherents and other members of his fan club.  So, today, the clock is ticking, and Jesus has just six days to live.

          In today’s Gospel, Mary is seen taking a container of oil of nard (oil extracted from a balsam tree), breaking it, and anointing Jesus’ feet with the expensive perfume. Afterwards, John reports that she wiped his feet with her hair.

          Anointing another with oil has always had deep spiritual significance: sometimes it is enacted at the coronation of a monarch. In the Jewish world, it was a symbolic action announcing that the person anointed was especially favored by God. In the Old Testament, prophets anointed future kings. Samuel so designated the future King David. When Mary anointed Jesus, she may have been signifying that he was a king, the Messiah. Mark’s gospel hinted at this in pointing out that what she had done would always be remembered (Mk. 14:3-9). Judas, who would become Jesus’ betrayer, objected to what he saw as a waste of money. He reasoned that the money should rightly be given to those in need — and in his rational determination, he had a point.

          Judas was particularly aware of the uses of money, as the organizer of the group who traveled with Jesus, and who took charge of the money they carried with them. Perhaps he was the one who paid for food and lodging in funds drawn from the contributions of their wealthy supporters. In a bitter aside written long after Jesus’ death, the writer of John’s Gospel suggests that Judas was not honest in this task (13:10-11).

          But here Jesus defends Mary’s apparent extravagance. He must have known he was in great danger, and that the journey he was on would end in a terrible death. Being fully human, he certainly perceived the likely consequences of his outrageous actions among the people. And he had many enemies who surely would bring him down if they were able.

          Mary also perceived the danger that Jesus was in, and maybe she sensed that he faced a tragic future. She offered her gift as a comfort and reassurance to him, and perhaps as something more. She believed he was the Messiah and applying the nard ahead of that revelation granted her participation in its truth. We view here a gift from the heart of Mary that may have defied rational justification. But it clearly had Jesus’ blessing.

          We too seek Jesus’ approval and assurance that there is a way —beyond reason — that leads to eternal life. It is at the heart level that we come to accept his sacrifice for us and kneel, as Mary did, before him in gratefulness.

          So it is for us some 2,000 years later; we find ourselves kneeling at the foot of the cross – where the ground is level for all of us, begging for mercy and discovering to our astonishment that what for which we are asking has already been granted; moreover, it has been ours before we could ask or imagine.  Such is grace – how much more do we find ourselves at Jesus’s feet asking for what has already been given to us.

          Let us bless the Lord.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.