Still Rising

 This is the sermon I preached on, April 23, 2017, the Sunday after Easter, at First Church Simsbury. I revisit the story of “Doubting” Thomas. Someone said that this sermon deepened their understanding of the Easter sermon Rev. Kev and I preached together last week. You might read them together.

John 20:19-31

I confess I groaned when I first saw that this Sunday’s reading was the one from the gospel of John about the disciple popularly known as Doubting Thomas. I groaned, in part, because I have preached so many times on this passage that I doubted, no pun intended, whether I had anything new to say. But also, because I have come to feel that Thomas has gotten a bum rap as a doubter, and I grow weary of having to come to his defense every year.

But the more Thomas and I spent time together this week, the more I felt compelled to again enter into his story together. So, here we go.

Let’s rewind to Easter morning. Peter and another disciple, the one who Jesus loved, see the empty tomb but have not yet laid eyes on Jesus. Mary then sees, touches, and speaks to Jesus outside the tomb and, we are told, tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

That’s where this morning’s story picks up. It is now evening of that same day, and we find the disciples locked in a room, afraid of those who crucified Jesus. If these are the same disciples Mary reported to, they haven’t believed that Jesus has risen from the dead. They have not had a personal encounter with Jesus following the resurrection. Until now.

Jesus appears to these disciples and shows them the nail marks in his hands and the wound from the soldier’s spear in his side. This confirms for them that this is in fact Jesus.

He then breathes on them, further confirming that Jesus is alive. This breath of the Holy Spirit empowers and equips these disciples to go forth into the world to forgive sins, to share the life changing grace of God.

We now encounter Thomas. He was not with the other disciples in the locked room who saw Jesus with their own eyes. As Mary first told them, they now tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas says, in effect, I need to have the same experience that you have had; I need to see the marks in his hands and the wound in his side just as you did. Then I will believe too.

Indeed, a week later, Jesus again appears to the disciples. This time Thomas is with them and Jesus invites him, not just to see, but to touch his wounds, saying “Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas touches, experiences for himself, and affirms Jesus’ divine authority, saying “My Lord and my God!” Note that there is no record that the other disciples make such a proclamation of faith following their encounter with Jesus. Even Mary does not make such a bold affirmation.

Jesus then says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe.” History has understood this as a rebuke of Thomas as a doubter, but I think this is where he gets a bum rap. Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubt. He goes out of his way to provide Thomas with an experience of the power of God, so that Thomas might carry that message to others. Rather than criticizing Thomas, Jesus’ words are a blessing upon those who follow Thomas, who come to believe without having personally experienced the power of God to bring forth new life from death.

So, that’s the rescue mission I feel obligated to launch on behalf of Thomas every year at this time.

And here are some of my new observations upon this text so framed.

In two separate sermons in the past month I have shared the view of Bible scholar Karoline Lewis that resurrection is not so much something to be believed, but something to be experienced. Mary, the disciples in the locked room, and Thomas all had first-hand experiences of resurrection. Their belief followed from their experience.

But there is more than that to these stories. Mary has an experience of the resurrected Jesus, believes and tells the disciples. The disciples have their own experience, believe and tell Thomas. Thomas has his own experience and believes.

An experience of resurrection can be communicated in such a way that others may then experience it for themselves. Resurrection is reproducible.

This ability to communicate and reproduce an experience are cornerstones of the scientific method.

We live in a time where that which is directly observable and reproducible, in fact science itself, is under attack by some. New words have been introduced to the lexicon, fake news and alternative facts. We watch a video that shows a politician saying something, then the politician says “I never said that.” A picture captures an event as it unfolds, and someone insists that the event never happened. The conclusion of years of scientific research are dismissed based on something someone read on the internet. Yesterday, Earth Day, thousands of people in Washington, D.C. and around the world participated in a March for Science. Frankly, it seems incredible to me that anyone should need to stand up for science.

Now, let me be clear. I am not saying that resurrection can be proved by science. But I am saying that individual experiences of resurrection can be shared and are reproducible. Jesus tells Mary, go tell the disciples what you experienced. Jesus tells the disciples, I empower and equip you to go forth in my name and share the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Those of you who were here last Sunday know that Rev. Kev and I preached that an experience of resurrection is any experience in which we first encounter a dead end in our life, undergo a crushing loss, make a mistake that seems irredeemable, or fall into despair or depression, only to encounter God’s grace, a second chance, new life. This is what I mean when I talk about an experience of resurrection.

I can’t imagine I am alone in saying that I have made mistakes in my life, betrayed and hurt those I love. In those times, I was convinced that this was the end, the end of a relationship, the end of a good life. I saw no way out. But beyond all hope and reason, the stone was rolled away from the tomb, a way was made where there had been no way. This is a resurrection experience, and it is reproducible. It is reproducible, not just by telling others about it, but by becoming, and being, and living resurrection as God’s new creation.

I am Thomas, believing in Jesus after seeing and experiencing resurrection for myself. Jesus says, blessed are those who have not seen but come to believe. Jesus no longer walks the earth to inspire such faith. But we do. We are, therefore, required to do more than tell of our experience, but like Jesus we are called to show our wounds and share our stories of redemption. We become as Christ, wounded and risen, that others might share in an experience of resurrection.

If you are a widow or widower who has been restored to a full and happy life after losing your spouse, then foster redemptive relationships with those who still mourn. Let them see resurrection in you. If you are gay or lesbian and have found joy and wholeness following a childhood of condemnation, then model that freedom for those who still doubt that they are loved by God. If you have betrayed ones you loved but confessed, made amends, and found forgiveness, share this hope with others, not just with your words, but by committing yourself to walk side-by-side with those who are trapped in despair. If you have overcome an abusive childhood to raise happy children who know they are loved, reach out to extend that love beyond your family to other hurting children.

Belief in resurrection follows an experience of resurrection. Mary to the disciples. The disciples to Thomas. Thomas forward into history to us. If you have experienced resurrection, tell it, live it, be it. If you are still waiting to experience resurrection in your life. Believe. New life awaits.

 

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Come Out… of the Tomb

This is the sermon that I preached with my partner in ministry, Rev. Kevin Weikel, at First Church Simsbury on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017. Rev. Kev begins, then I pick it up half way through, and we finish together.

Matthew 28:1-10

Kevin:

First Church Music Director extraordinaire Mark Mercier was joking with Pastor George and I last week about outdated church words, especially the words that are most prevalent this time of year.  For example, last week was Palm Sunday and we shouted, “Hosanna,” but have you ever used that word in your daily life?  “Hosanna” literally means, “God save us.”  I’m sure there have been times you’ve watched the news and thought, “God help us,” but I doubt you’ve ever shouted “Hosanna.”

Today, Easter Sunday, the word is less outdated than complicated.

“Resurrection.”

Like “Hosanna,” It is not a word we use very much outside of these four walls, but even more importantly, what does it even mean?

To fully understand the word resurrection, it might be helpful to think back again, just for a moment, to what happened last week.  Jesus rode that humble donkey into Jerusalem as the people shouted, here’s that word, “Hosanna, God save us!”  That donkey was symbolic we recall.  Leaders going off to war rode horses; leaders coming in peace rode donkeys.  And the people believed that God, through the love and peace that Jesus preached, taught, and embodied, would save them from the corrupt, uncompassionate, and war hungry Roman empire.

In the days after Palm Sunday, in the week we just experienced we call Holy Week, the hope the people felt as they waved those palm branches on Palm Sunday turned to hopelessness rather quickly.  Fear and sadness took over as, after Jesus had ruffled the feathers of the Roman Empire so that they could take no more, he was taken away, tried, and led to the cross to die.

As we saw on the faces of the actors and actresses in our skits who played the role of the women who came to the tomb to pay their respects to Jesus, they were experience deep grief.  Their Jesus, in whom they had placed so much hope, had died.  He was gone, and so were his message and his movement.

As we also witnessed, however, these women were shocked when they arrived at the tomb to find the stone that had covered the opening of the tomb had been rolled away and Jesus was not there.  He had come out.  He was resurrected.  And we too experience resurrection every time we come out of a dark place in our lives to renewed life, to find that God has made a way where previously there seemed to be no way.

When have you come out of a tomb, out of a dark place and into the light, and experienced resurrection?  When you finally felt you had your strength back after a serious injury?  When you found that one person who seems to completely understand the grief you’ve been experiencing?  After you admitted you made a mistake, and apologized for it?  When you shared with a cherished friend or family member that you are gay, and they affirmed you?  When you got up the courage to go to a soup kitchen and returned with a heart so big you thought it might burst?

Yvonne Josephson is a nurse at High Point Regional Hospital in High Point, North Carolina.  Yvonne and her husband got married, and like all newly married couples, believed they were going to share many wonderful years together.  Soon after Yvonne and her husband were married, however, he got sick with a chronic illness and, even though they both loved kids, they felt they had to make the hard decision not to have children.  And then one day her husband died suddenly.

Yvonne was obviously devastated.  She felt lonely and hopeless.  She was in a dark place, a tomb you could call it.

But then one day Eppi, a Sudanese refugee who was a student at the University of North Carolina, stopped by the hospital where Yvonne was working because Eppi needed some guidance on the senior paper she was doing on strokes.  Yvonne volunteered to help.

As Yvonne and Eppi spent time together, they became fast friends.  Yvonne became somewhat of a mentor to Eppi and told her that if she ever needed anything to give her a call.

The following Monday Yvonne got a call from child protective services, Eppi needed a home.  Initially it was going to be a temporary situation but that’s not the way it worked out.

Over time, Eppi started calling Yvonne her American Mom, and Yvonne started calling Eppi her Godchild, because she believed God had worked things out for her.

Eppi says, “Yvonne needed a daughter, I needed a mom, and we met and connected.  And now I can’t imagine my life without her.  I call her every minute, whenever I run into problems or need someone to talk to.”

Eventually, Eppi met someone, got married, and had a baby.  Through Eppi, Yvonne became a grandmother.  Eppi says, “Yvonne loves the baby so much, whenever she sees her she just takes her and says ‘I miss my baby.’  It has been great for my daughter to have a grandmother because I didn’t have one.”

Eppi says Yvonne is her role model, and she wants to be as good as a mother to her daughter as Yvonne has been to her.  Through Eppi, Yvonne found her way out of the tomb and experienced resurrection, renewed life.

You see, resurrection is happening all around us, all the time.  God is always making a way for us to come out of the tombs of our lives to experience light and love, even sometimes when we thought it was not possible.

George:

I’m going to begin with a rather adult topic, so I am going to try to speak about it simply so children present might follow along.

About thirty-five years ago, before many of you were born, a dangerous new disease appeared in the United States called AIDS. AIDS made people very, very sick, and at first almost everyone who caught AIDS would die from it. In the beginning it only infected a small number of people, but over the next twenty years about half-a-million people would die from AIDS in America. Scientists figured out that people caught AIDS from infected blood and other body fluids. Though anyone can catch AIDS, in these first twenty years it was mostly gay men who caught it, mostly gay men who got sick and died of AIDS.

A gay man is a man who loves other men, who wants to be in a relationship with another man, maybe marry another man. Thirty-five years ago, when AIDS first came to America, many people thought there was something wrong with being gay. There isn’t, but that’s what many people thought. Back then, many gay men kept the fact that they liked other men a secret because they were afraid of being criticized, bullied, or hurt. If a gay man loved another man, they might meet secretly so no one would find out they loved each other.

Not only was this very sad, (if you love someone you would want everyone to know, right?), but keeping secrets also made it harder to help gay men protect themselves from getting AIDS, or get them medical treatment if they caught this disease. Even when a gay man started getting sick he might not tell his family he was gay because he was afraid of being rejected by them.

Keeping a secret about being gay is sometimes called “being in the closet.” Kids, think about hiding in a closet in your house during a game of hide and seek. Some gay men didn’t want anyone to find out they were gay so they hid who they really were “in the closet.”

When a gay man decided to let people know that he loves, and wants to be in relationships with other men, this is called “coming out of the closet,” or just “coming out.”

Even though gay men with AIDS were afraid to “come out” they quickly learned that if they stayed “in the closet” they couldn’t get the medicine that could save their life. Staying “in the closet” led to death; the closet became a tomb. “Coming out” led to a new and better life.

From 1995 – 1998 I led an organization called Pacificare that helped people who were living with AIDS. We trained volunteers to be companions or “buddies” to someone with AIDS. When I worked there I got to know many, many remarkable gay men. I will never forget one man in particular, named Valentine Cosmo.

Valentine was both a client of and volunteer for Pacificare. I remember very clearly the first time I heard him speak at a volunteer training; he introduced himself to a class of prospective “buddies” by saying, “I lived my whole life by a river in Africa called “Da Nile.” Get it? The Nile. Denial. He went on to explain to this group of strangers that he had been in denial about his identity as a gay man. This denial had led to unsafe behavior that brought about his infection with the HIV virus. His pathway to new life began when he came out as gay and started speaking openly about his illness.

Valentine was a beautiful, extraordinary human being. In time he would come to write a regular column called “From the Heart” for the Pacificare newsletter. When I first asked him to share a monthly reflection he refused; he would later confess his fear, “that I didn’t have anything inside myself that anyone would want to read.” But he eventually agreed and penned lovely, personal, poignant reflections about life and love, and in his last column wrote, “I have loved writing for the newsletter more than any fear I had.”

The name Valentine, of course, brings love to mind. But as I prepared this sermon I realized that his last name, Cosmo, evokes the infinite expanse of the universe. Valentine Cosmo, Cosmic Love! When I left Pacificare to respond to a call to ministry at Central Union Church, Valentine presented me with this Teddy Bear that he had made; to me, it represents a love that has been set free from the tomb.

Bible scholar Karoline Lewis writes that resurrection is not so much something to be believed but something to be experienced. By confronting his fear and coming out, out of the closet, out of the tomb, to live and love fully as God created him, Valentine entered into and shared that universal love of God.

I had coffee with our church member, the good Reverend Stoddard Williams, on Thursday, and he told the story of visiting a tomb in Jerusalem called Gordon’s Calvary that is said to be very much like the tomb that Jesus was laid in. Set in a cliff face, one must stoop to enter this small, cold, damp, dark hollow. Todd describes the frightening chill of death that lingered in that place, and the thrill of turning around to see the sunlit garden that awaited just outside the tomb.

George:           So, brothers and sisters, this is Christ’s invitation to each and all of you.

Kevin:             Face your fears.

George:           Then turn around.

Kevin:             Come out.

George:           With Jesus as our guide,

Kevin:             and Yvonne and Valentine as our examples,

George:           come out of those dark places that entomb you

Kevin:             to live and love as God created you,

George:           and enter into that universal love of God.

 

 

New Moon: Vampires, Werewolves and Resurrection

I’m not sure if this will work or not, but here is the connection I am exploring.  I believe that there are universal yearnings, cosmic questions that work themselves out in our lives.  My perspective here is informed by Joseph Campbell’s work on myth.  The world’s great religious traditions evolved to give expression to these yearnings and questions, but too often become dull and legalistic over time.  When this happens, we look elsewhere for our answers, to psychology, to pop culture, or to literature.

Many of our yearnings and questions emerge out of our powerlessness and accompanying fear.  One question might be, “Can we claim power out of our powerlessness?  Can we leave fear, hurt, and suffering behind to become something new?  Can we find freedom from those things that threaten and enslave us?”   Another question follows from our fear of our ultimate powerlessness, death.  “Do we have to die?  Why can’t we live forever?”

These two questions seem to be given expression in the Twilight series of books and movies by werewolves and vampires.  Werewolves transform into something powerful in response to vulnerability and suffering.  Vampires live forever.

Christ responds to these questions through resurrection.  So, why Christ instead of werewolves and vampires?

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 3:14 am  Comments (2)  
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