Show Me Jesus.

Today is April 15th.  It is two weeks since Easter morning.

But next year, on this same date, Easter will still be one week away. Easter, you see, is a moveable feast. It is tied to both the solar and lunar calendars, so its celebration can fall anywhere from March 22nd to April 25th. Sometimes Easter comes early. Sometimes Easter comes late.

And so it has been, from the very beginning.

For Mary Magdalene, Easter arrived early. It arrived on the morning of the third day, when she heard Jesus call her name outside the empty tomb.

But for most of the disciples, Easter didn’t come until later that evening, when Jesus appeared to them in the locked room where they were hiding.

And then, of course, there’s Thomas.

Today’s gospel reading tells us that Thomas wasn’t in the locked room with the other disciples. He wasn’t there, when Jesus appeared to them. Perhaps he was more fearful than the others, and so was avoiding their company altogether. Or perhaps he was less fearful than the others, and was braving the public streets. Or perhaps he just wanted to be alone in his grief. We don’t know; the scripture doesn’t tell us. All we know is, Thomas wasn’t there.

And so when the other disciples tell Thomas, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas finds it impossible to believe them.  He hasn’t had the experience the others have had. “Unless I see his hands,” he says, “unless I feel his wounds, I cannot believe.” And so for seven more days, Thomas continues to mourn, even as his friends rejoice. For seven more days, Thomas is left alone in his grief.

But then, on the following Sunday, Jesus comes again. And this time, he has come for Thomas.

“Reach here,” he says to Thomas. Reach here, and see my hands. Reach here with your hand, and touch my side. And do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

And Thomas, at last, is able to rejoice. Easter has finally come, for Thomas.

*  *  *

Some of the spiritual early risers among us may perhaps identify with Mary Magdalene, walking alone with Jesus in the garden, confident and reassured of his love, hearing the good news that none other has ever heard. Not me. I have always identified with Thomas – the patron saint of the late bloomers and the left behind.

I know most folks refer to him as “doubting Thomas” but this has always struck me as an unfair characterization. Nothing in John’s gospel suggests that Thomas was any more skeptical than the rest of the disciples. After all, Mary Magdalene saw Jesus early Easter morning, but John tells us the other disciples “rejoiced when they saw the Lord” that evening– not when Mary told them the good news, but when they saw Jesus for themselves.  Thomas was no different from the other disciples in this regard. If Thomas was slow to believe, it was for the simple reason, that he missed Jesus’ visit.

And imagine how that must have felt — to be the one left out of the miracle.

*  *  *

A few years ago I got a phone call from a friend whose mother had recently died of cancer. My friend had just turned thirty, and most of her peers had not yet experienced such a loss, and so she called me long distance, to talk about her grief.

I remember her saying, “I don’t even know how to think about my mother now. I can’t picture my mother because I don’t know where she is. I can’t imagine that her someplace else, like in heaven. It just feels like she’s gone.” And she went on to say, “You know, I’ve heard other people talk about how could feel their parent’s presence even after they died, or how their parent had come to them in their dreams, but that hasn’t happened to me. All I feel is her absence, and all those stories just make me feel more alone.”

Having lost my own Mom to cancer at about the same age, I understood how she felt. Soon after my Mom’s death, I remember receiving a letter from one of my Mom’s oldest and dearest friends – the kind of family friend you call “aunt” even though she’s not really your aunt. And in the letter, my Aunt Alice told me of an experience she had the night my Mom died. She said, she felt my as if my Mom’s spirit had come to her, saying a last goodbye.

I know that this experience comforted her, and I am sure she thought it would be a comfort to me as well, but all I remember thinking was, Why didn’t my Mom come to me? I’m her child, why didn’t she come to comfort me? Alice may have felt my Mom’s presence, but all I could feel was her absence.  I didn’t want hear about my Mom, I wanted to hear from my Mom. I didn’t want to be told; I wanted to be shown.

I sometimes imagine that this is how Thomas felt, when the disciples joyfully told him that Jesus had appeared to them. That they had seen the Lord, and that Thomas had missed it all. Guess Jesus didn’t have time to wait for you, Thomas.  Sorry you didn’t get to see him yourself, but we’ll tell you all about.

But Thomas didn’t want to be told; he wanted to be shown.

*  *  *

Some years ago, I met a man – let’s call him “Henry.” Henry has no job, and no address; when I met him, he had already been living on the streets for several years. And I do mean, on the streets; he refuses to stay in a shelter. Even among the city’s homeless population, he remains apart — an outsider among outsiders.

I did not learn all the details of Henry’s history, but he shared enough for me to understand some of the barriers that keep him from re-entering society; they are real, and they are formidable. Henry does not have an easy life. But one of the things that troubles him most is that he feels himself to be an outsider, even in church. He is still a regular church-goer, in spite of all the other changes in his life. And while his fellow congregants tolerate his presence in worship, they keep him at arm’s length.

I asked him once, if you could get your congregation to really listen to you, what would you want to say to them? Henry answered in six words:

“Why don’t you show me Jesus?”

*  *  *

Sometimes it isn’t enough to be told of Christ’s love. Sometimes, we need to be shown. The Church, after all, isn’t called to be Christ’s biographer, or press secretary, or PR firm. The church is called to be the body of Christ. To show up, and to say “Reach out, and take my hand.”

I know this is not easy to do. To open up our hands is to expose our own wounds. But this is precisely what Christ asks of us. For as our morning meditation* reminds us,

“Christ has no human body now upon the earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours… are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion has to look upon the world, and yours are the lips with which His love has to speak.”

 

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Thomas is still out there—in the pews, on the street—waiting for Christ’s touch. But here is the good news: It’s not too late.

Easter, you see, is a moveable feast.  It goes where it is needed.

 

 

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, April 15, 2018, for The First Church of Deerfield, MA

*Meditation: Rev. Mark Guy Pearse (1888), adapted by Sarah Eliza Rowntree (1892); sometimes apocryphally attributed to St. Teresa.

Image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio.

 

 

 

 

Easter Fools.

Happy—- April Fool’s Day.

It’s not every year that Easter falls on April Fool’s day, but there is always something a bit foolish about it.

For fool’s we must be, to believe this outlandish tale. Empty tombs? Resurrected bodies? Nonsense.

It sounds like an elaborate hoax. You can just imagine the hidden camera waiting near the tomb for the moment when Jesus whips off his gardener costume and reveals the prank at Mary Magdalene’s expense. You can imagine the other disciples emerging from their hiding places, saying “OMG Mary, you should have seen your face!”

Truth be told, as a kid I was never a big fan of April Fool’s Day. I didn’t like the idea of being set up. I didn’t like being tricked. I didn’t like people laughing at me.

Neither, apparently, did the men who followed Jesus. When the women returned from the tomb with tales of resurrection, they dismissed their witness as mere silliness. They weren’t going to fall for it. It was clearly too good to be true. Like those phone messages I get all the time telling me I’ve won a free vacation cruise. Who falls for that?

Fools, that’s who.

But which part, I wonder, did they find more unbelievable? That Jesus was now alive? Or that he had died in the first place? Was believing in a resurrected messiah any more ridiculous than believing in a crucified one? Fool me once…

In the catacombs of Rome, there is an ancient piece of graffiti that shows a young man worshipping a crucified, donkey headed figure. The Greek inscription says, “Alexamenos worships his God.” Whoever this Alexamenos was, his buddies clearly found his religion hysterical.

Well, they were right. If we think this story is anything other than ridiculous, we are probably missing the point. The apostle Paul admits as much:

We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to some, and foolishness to others, but to those whom God has called, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.

But notice that the foolishness Paul refers to here is not the resurrection, but the crucifixion. The stumbling block to faith in Christ was not the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, but rather the way that he died in the first place. What sort of messiah gets nailed to a cross?

The job of the messiah was to restore the nation, to vanquish its enemies, to free it from occupation. To make Israel great again. Getting executed was a pretty poor start to that project. Who follows a messiah like that?

Fools, that’s who.

To make things even more ridiculous, some of his followers had now begun to preach that Jesus himself was somehow God, in human form. The supreme creator of the universe, nailed to a cross. Who wants a God like that?

Fools, that’s who.

But really, the foolishness began even before the crucifixion. Jesus had been spouting foolishness from the moment he began to preach. “Blessed are the poor,” for example. That’s just silly. You start off saying blessed are the poor, and right away people expect a punchline – “How blessed are they Johnny?”

Then there was that nonsense about forgiving people not just seven times, but seventy times seven. Who does that? Or that nutty thing Jesus said about turning the other cheek. Only a fool would let down their guard, after they’ve been punched.

Yet, in every generation, in every nation, in every faith, there have been folks who believed this sort of foolishness. Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai. Saint Francis of Assisi took the blessedness of poverty so seriously that he once stripped naked in public and walked away without his clothing. Talk about embarrassing. That is the stuff of nightmares. But it is also the stuff of sainthood.

Every saint is a fool, one way or another.

Before I continue, I need to pause here a moment for lesson in basic logic. The proposition that “every saint is a fool” does not imply that the converse is true as well.

Not every fool is a saint.

The mere fact that you have appeared on America’s Funniest Home Videos does not qualify you for sainthood. There are as many varieties of foolishness there are human beings, and many of them have nothing to do with saintliness.

Jesus tells this story, of a foolish man who found himself with a surplus of grain. Rather than share it, he built himself a huge barn, so that he might story up a supply to last him all his days. No sooner was the project finished, than the man died in his sleep.

Lord, what fools these mortal be, Shakespeare wrote. Foolishness is our lot in life. It runs in the family. So maybe the only real question, then, is: What kind of fool do you want to be?

Many, many years ago, when I was going through a pretty severe crisis of faith, I sought guidance from my childhood pastor, John MacNab. John had baptized me as an infant and confirmed me as a teenager, and now as a young adult I was hoping that perhaps he could tell me something that could dispel the panic of uncertainty I was feeling.

I asked him bluntly, “What if it’s just not true?”

“What if what isn’t true?” he asked.

“God, Jesus, any of it,” I answered.

“Well,” he replied, “then it sure was a great story.”

I remember finding this a distinctly un-reassuring answer at the time. At the time, I suppose I was hoping for some sort of logical proof or conclusive evidence to secure my faith. But John was expressing what Martin Luther also taught: that faith is ultimately not about certainty, but about love. Perhaps John was a fool. But he was a holy fool.

If you look up the phrase gospel truth, you will find one of its definitions to be “unquestionable fact.” But I don’t buy that. Everything about the gospel is in fact highly questionable. Its claims are outrageous and ridiculous, and nothing can prove them otherwise. So what is the gospel truth?  The gospel truth is the truth that makes us free.

Free to be foolish, in the eyes of the world. Free to love your enemies. Free to respond to violence with peace. Free to walk the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, free to lay down your life, free to speak truth to power, free to embrace the outcast, free to befriend the sinner. Free to love, and do as you will.

Mary Magdalene could offer no proof, of her encounter with Jesus in the garden, and the rest of the disciples were unpersuaded. But she testified to what she knew: that Jesus had called her by name.  For Mary, that was the gospel truth.

This my friends is the gospel truth I share with you today: that God loves you, however foolish that may seem. And nothing can put an end to that.

Christ is risen.

Happy April Fool’s Day.

Easter Prayer (John 20:15)

You rise to walk among us, God,
not as an angel,
unsoiled and untouchable,
but as a gardener,
hands in the soil,
feet on the ground —
and we are amazed to find you
so down to earth.

Help us to bloom.

For we know what we are,
but what we shall be
is yet to appear.

Prune us where we need pruning,
so that we may bear sweeter fruit.

We pray today for those among us
who have lost all hope of spring –

we who have stopped believing
that the drought will end,
or the war will end,
or the pain will end,
or the injustice will end,
or the fever will break,
or the depression will lift,
or the demons will let us go,
or the stone will ever roll away.

Prove us wrong again,
as you did on Easter morning.

Gracious Gardener,
we are the flowers of your heart;
shine on us,
that we your people
may at last become
beautiful.

Eppur si Muove (or, the Gospel According to Galileo)

“Who will roll away the stone for us?” (Mark 16:1-8)

They were the witnesses, these women who came to the tomb on Easter morning. When the other disciples turned and fled, these were the ones who remained to the very end, to bear witness to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. How long would it be before those images stopped crowding out all the others? How long would it be, until they could think of Jesus and remember him in life, instead of in death?

Only a few days have passed.  These women are still in those first numb, surreal days of grief, when the heart struggles to absorb what the eyes have seen.  And so, as people do at such times, they take comfort in the rituals of mourning.  It makes them feel less alone. It gives them something to do. And so early on Sunday morning, they go together to the tomb. They are going to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They know that, after this, there will be nothing more they can do for him; but this morning, they are going to care for him, one last time.

But there is an obstacle to overcome. Who will roll away the stone for us? they ask. Who will clear away the barrier that seals Jesus in, and keeps us out? For it is very large.

As large as barrier between the dead and the living.

But they come to the tomb and find, to their surprise, that the task has already been accomplished.  Someone, or something, has already rolled away the stone. A mysterious stranger at the tomb tells them Jesus has gone on ahead of them, to Galilee. Not only has the stone rolled away; Jesus himself is on the move.

So, who did roll away the stone? How did it move? We don’t know. We never see it happen, have you noticed that?  It’s not a part of Mark’s gospel – or Matthew’s or John’s. All we know, is that the rock is there on Friday, and gone on Sunday, but no one sees it move. Luke speaks of an earthquake, and of angels, but no one else seems to remember that, so it seems likely that Luke is just guessing.

We just assume that it happened. But no one else was at the tomb when it happened.

Did it suddenly burst open, raising up dust and startling the birds? Or did it move so slowly and imperceptibly, that no one passing by noticed its motion? We don’t know. Did Jesus himself rise, and put his shoulder to the rock? Or was it moved by the hands of angels? Did those angels look just like us?

All we know is we arrive there on Easter morning, and the stone is already gone.  While we are still sleeping, still grieving, still despairing, God is already changing the landscape.

The gospel of Mark ends abruptly at this point. The other gospels tell how Mary saw Jesus in the garden, how Peter ran to the tomb, how Jesus appeared to the other apostles. But Mark tells us just this: that the women ran away and told no one, for they were afraid.

What were they afraid of? These were not easily frightened women. These were the ones who stayed the course, even when the men in Jesus’ company fled.  These were the ones who had faced the cross, and marked the tomb, and returned to honor the body of a man that the Roman authorities viewed as a dangerous subversive. They were not a timid crew. So what were they afraid of?

Were they afraid that no one would believe their witness? After all, they were women. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time a woman’s witness was discredited.

Or maybe they were afraid to believe it themselves. They had witnessed the shattering of their hopes, when the stone sealed the tomb. Maybe it was too much for them to absorb the shattering of their despair, when the stone rolled away.

And there, after all, something reassuring about immobility. The stones in our path are reliable landmarks. They tell us where we are. They define where we can go. They divide what’s on this side, from what’s on that side; what’s possible, from what’s not.  When the very stones start rolling away, when the earth itself begins to move, well, anything is possible. All hell can break loose. Literally, in this case.

Sixteen centuries after that first Easter, Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Church for daring to suggest that the earth moved around the sun, rather than the other way around. He was forced to recant on his knees, but there is a legend that as he rose to his feet afterward he whispered, “eppur si muove” – “nevertheless, it moves!”

Whether we know it or not, it moves. Whether we like it or not, it moves. The very thing that we thought was immobile, impassible, impervious to change — it moves.

It moves, and all those beliefs we thought were set in stone, move with it. All of our assumptions, about life and death, about victory and defeat, about power and weakness – they all begin to crumble.

After all, those who condemned and executed Jesus were confident in their belief that God was on their side of that stone. And those who mourned him believed that he was on the far side of the stone, and lost to them forever. Neither group considered that the stone itself might move.

Neither group suspected that God’s version of the story might end, not in death for some and life for others, not in triumph for some and defeat for others, but in reconciliation. The reunion of the condemning and the condemned.

I think many of us — maybe most of us, lately — live in a pre-resurrection world, a world of impenetrable barriers and insurmountable obstacles. We have all seen enough crucifixion lately to believe in Good Friday, and we know just how large the stones are that separate us from one another.

And so we find ourselves living in that time in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when the world seems permanently divided — between the winners and the losers, between the privileged and the poor, between the insider and the outcast. When find ourselves on the sunny side of the stone, it is still tempting to believe that God is on our side. And when we find ourselves in buried in darkness, we wonder if God has abandoned us forever.

But it was on that long bleak Saturday, on that day between Good Friday and Easter, that the rock began to move, and the world began to turn. And so it is today. Whether we know it or not – whether we believe it or not – even in the darkness, Love can still find the leverage to roll that stone away.

Just how that will happen, we may not be able to see right now. Perhaps God will send angels. Perhaps those angels, will look just like us.

But know this: that even now, God is at work to change the landscape.

Eppur si muove.

Alleluia.

 

Easter Sunday Sermon by Liza B. Knapp for the First Church of Deerfield, Massachusetts.

(photo: Wikimedia. One of the sliding rocks of Racetrack Playa. Read more about this wicked cool phenomenon here.)