Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sermon: "Touching Thomas"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 7, 2013
John 20:19-31

“Touching Thomas”

When I was about 5-years old, and too young to venture very far from the front yard of our home, I would listen with wonder to the stories my older siblings would tell about the amazing places they would visit in our suburban neighborhood, just beyond the perimeter that I was allowed to explore.
One of those places was called “The Island”
Nearly every day during the summer my siblings and their friends would get on their bikes and take off down the street. When I’d ask them where they were going they’d say, “We’re riding down to The Island.”

My mind would fill with images of swaying palm trees and sandy white beaches, and being a fan of Gilligan’s Island I imagined that the Professor and the Skipper would be there as well.
I so wanted to go there with the older kids and see it for myself, but they’d always tell me that I was too young to go that far.
Each afternoon when they returned from The Island I’d ask them if they found any coconuts or caught any fish, and I’d wonder how they managed to ride across the water without getting their bikes soaking wet.

One day my brother Brian finally relented to my pleading and agreed to take me with him on their daily trip down to The Island.  
Brian had one of those big, wire baskets that held newspapers on the front of his bike, and that’s where I sat as we sailed down the street and beyond the parental boundaries that had hemmed me in.

But to my surprise, after only a few minutes of riding, we arrived at The Island.
There in the middle of the cul-de-sac at the end of our street was a large oblong patch of grass, surrounded by a curb, and with clump of trees growing in the center.
It was a traffic island, a turn around circle for cars.

Of course the other kids thought it was hysterical that I had expected to find an actual island with palm trees and sandy beaches.   
I felt silly and embarrassed for believing the amazing story they had told me.

“Don’t worry,” my brother reassured me, “when you’re older we’ll take you on a real adventure. Down by the baseball field, on the edge of the woods there’s an old storage shed. But,” he added, “even us older kids are afraid to go inside, especially after dark.”
At this point I was skeptical.  I asked him, “Why would anyone be afraid of a stupid storage shed by a baseball field?”
“Because,” he said with a wink, “it’s full of bats!”
To which I replied, “Really?? Let’s go now!”

I’m guessing many of you could tell similar stories of having been duped into believing something that was not true or turned out to be much different than what you expected.

As children we may fall victim to tall tales and practical jokes, but as adults the sting of falling for falsehoods is much more painful, as it takes hold in our relationships, our business dealings, and our political, religious, and ideological convictions.
It feels especially hurtful when we discover that something we’ve invested a significant amount of our time, money, energy, and passion in turns out not to true, or based upon false information.  

In this technological age we might think we’ve become pretty savvy to those who try to pull the wool over our eyes.

Having access to the Internet is both a boon and a curse in this regard.
With a few clicks we can check on the reliability of a car we’re thinking of buying, examine the business practices of the contractor we’ve hired, and fact check everything from election campaign speeches to suspicious emails sent by scam artists phishing for our passwords.

The internet helps us to be more savvy consumers, but as we know, the internet is also a breeding ground for misinformation and false claims –
on news blogs, social media sites, and in chat rooms - where stories spread like wildfire, and the frequency of repetition leads some to believe that they must be true.
Moreover, just as in television and print media, the line between factual news and biased opinion has blurred beyond recognition, and we’re left wondering how much of what we hear and see is true and how much of it is tainted by the prejudices, ignorance, and fears of another.

It’s so hard to wade into the world today without holding to some level of skepticism and doubt.
We can only imagine what it must have been like in Jesus’ time, when the only way you had to verify if something were true was to ask your neighbors, and to hope that they would not lead you astray.

It’s fitting that every year on the Sunday after Easter we hear the story of doubting Thomas.
Just one week after hearing the amazing story of a man named Jesus, who came back to life after being crucified, we hear the story of a man named Thomas who doubts that such a thing is even possible.

“Show me the proof,” Thomas said.

For us, hearing the story of the Resurrection followed immediately by the story of doubting Thomas gives us the space to examine our own struggles with belief.
And we need that space.

Every Sunday we step in here from a world that bombards us with competing ideologies and conflicting truths, to hear the story of a man who claimed that HE was the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Every Sunday we step in here from a world where many gods are lifted up for us to idolize – money, power, fame, materialism – and we come together to worship the one God who calls us to set all those other gods aside.

Every Sunday we step in here from a world that is beset with fear, suffering, violence, and oppression, and we’re encouraged to place our trust in the building of a Kingdom yet to come, where love, peace, and equality for all will reign.

I don’t know about you, but if we didn’t come in here every Sunday carrying some doubt about the resurrection and its ability to change us and our world for the better, I’d question our connection with reality.

Our faith would become rigid and joyless if we didn’t have doubt inspiring us to imagine new ways of encountering the divine.
Christian author Philip Yancy writes, “Doubt is the skeleton in the closet of faith, and I know no better way to treat a skeleton than to bring it into the open and expose it for what it is: not something to hide or fear, but a hard structure on which living tissue may grow."

Thomas may express a reluctance to believe his friend’s accounts of the resurrection, but Jesus does not chastise him for his doubt.
Jesus appears a second time to give Thomas what the other disciples had already experienced - the sight of the risen Christ in the flesh.
And he offers a blessing for those who would come after – the church –
those of us who have no option but to believe without having seen.

The reality is that none of the disciples had believed on faith alone.
They sat huddled in a locked room, convinced that Jesus was dead and buried, despite having been told by the women that the tomb was found empty.
If they had truly believed without seeing, they would have been out shouting it in the streets rather than hiding behind a locked door in fear for their lives.

But Jesus walks through the locked door and meets them in their fear.
And he greets them by saying, “Peace be with you.”

He does not scold them for ignoring the significance of the empty tomb,
he doesn’t admonish them for hiding themselves away rather than spreading the good news of the resurrection….and he never asks them, “Why?”
“Why did you run when I needed you most?”
“Why did you abandon me and lose faith in the one moment that you had to prove yourself as true disciples?”

Jesus doesn’t return to his disciples to render judgment.
He doesn’t come to place blame.
He doesn’t come seeking revenge.
He doesn’t appear in the Temple or the Roman court before those who had him killed in a defiant show of “I told you so.”

Instead he comes to his friends, those who loved him most, with the greeting, “Peace, be with you.”

Jesus gave them what they needed.
Love…reassurance….and the Spirit of God that he breathed out upon them, to strengthen and inspire them for the task that lay before them –
the building of the church. 

He met his disciples right where they were, in the locked room, fears and doubts and all.
And because Thomas wasn’t there the first time, he came back a week later and did it all over again.

Perhaps Thomas didn’t need to touch Jesus as much as he needed to be touched by Jesus.
He needed to know that he was not forgotten.
He needed Jesus to reach out to him and include him amongst those he had called to carry on his name.
And that’s what Jesus did.
He reached out to Thomas in Spirit, just as he reaches out to us.

The only difference is, we can’t see Jesus.
At least not in the way that his disciples saw him.

But we can see Jesus in so many other ways.
In the faces and actions of those who give so much of themselves in the name of love.
In the difficult choices that we make to include everyone at the table, even if it means facing our fear that there will be less to go around.
We see Jesus in as many ways as there are people seeking to see him.
Even though sometimes the way in which others see Jesus is difficult for us to believe.

There was a story in yesterday’s news about a woman who claimed to see the image of a cross and a crown imbedded in the side of a Pepperidge Farm Goldfish cracker.
To her it was the image of Jesus, and a message from God, as this was something she’d never seen on a Goldfish cracker before despite her habit of consuming between two and three pounds of them every week.
One commenter on the story remarked,
“Maybe God's message to her was to cut back on the Goldfish.”
Another said more seriously: “When a defect on a Cracker is a significant affirmation of your faith, perhaps something is wrong with your faith.”

Perhaps it would be a better use of our time to see Jesus at work in the world then imprinted on the side of a cracker, or in a grilled cheese sandwich, or in the dirt stain on the side of a house.
But if the people who see these images need to see them, because their life has knocked them on their back and their faith is circling the drain, then who are we to judge what is a true experience of the risen Christ and what is not?

I believe Jesus appears to us when and where we need to see him.
In the face of a stranger seeking help, in the embrace of a loved one in need of comfort, and in the hard-to-believe, head-shaking, stories of chance encounters, miraculous healings, answered prayers, and bizarre sightings of the stereotypically long-haired bearded Jesus in the most irreverent of places.

If that’s what it takes to help us to get out of bed in the morning and put one foot in front of the other when we’d rather stay under the covers and cry….
If that’s what it takes to get us to set aside a distraction, an addiction, or an obsession, and go out and help others to do the same…

If that’s what it takes to get us to shift our eyes off the false gods in our life – money, power, and materialism – and set our eyes on what our faith requires of us – to love mercy, to act justly, and to walk humbly with our God…

Then I say bring on the fish tales.
Bring on the crazy stories of resurrected messiahs and hope born anew.
Bring on the far-fetched yarns that cause us to roll our eyes in disbelief and insist that we must see it with our own eyes to believe it….
and then we believe it anyway.
Because we know there’s more to Truth than believability.

Jesus was a gifted storyteller, and he wasn’t beyond stretching the truth and our imaginations with tales of magical mustard seeds, prodigal sons, and good Samaritans - to get our attention and to get us to cock our heads in bemusement.

I suspect Jesus knew that these were the stories we’d remember and want to take apart to find their truth, and once we did we couldn’t help but retell the story to our friends and all who are willing to listen.

Thomas will always have a home in our Christian story because his story is our story.

Blessed are those who seek to be touched by Christ.
Blessed are those who open their hearts to the promise of new life.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,
   not in spite of their doubts, but because of them.

Peace be with you…
…and Amen.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Sermon: "Planting Jesus" - Easter Surnise

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
March 31, 2013 – Easter Sunrise Service
Luke 24:1-12

“Planting Jesus”

Easter is a challenge.

I saw a commercial on TV this week where a woman with three very active children running around in the background smiles into the camera with a look of exasperation on her face and says, “Easter is a challenge!”

She was not talking about her struggle to believe in the risen Christ.
The commercial was for JC Penny.
She was talking about the difficulty of finding Easter outfits for her kids.

I can see why Easter is presented as a challenge in this regard –
It’s the one remaining holiday that emphasizes getting dressed up in your Sunday best to attend church or to visit family, and new outfits can be costly when you have growing kids.
Thankfully, JC Penny is there to meet the challenge of Easter.

But for many of us Easter is a challenge.
Because when we hear the stories of our Christian tradition,
we sometimes don’t know what to do with the resurrection.

We get that Easter is about celebrating the miraculous event of Jesus being raised from the dead in defiance of those who wished to silence him once and for all. 

We get that Easter is rife with symbolism and metaphors about our own ability to rise from the ashes, to be reborn into a new way of living, and to find hope in the midst of despair.

We get that here in New England, Easter aptly coincides with the season of Spring, where flashes of green pushing up from the earth is a sign that winter has loosened its deathly grip on our world.

We get that Easter can have many layers of meaning, but when we hear the stories of the resurrection retold on Easter morning a good many of us may still find ourselves shaking our heads.

The word that the writer of the gospel of Luke uses is ‘perplexed”
The women came to the tomb, saw the stone rolled away, saw that Jesus’ body was gone, and they were perplexed.

Perplexed is a good word to use here.
It means confused and baffled.

And just like those women who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb 2,000 years ago, we too may be confused and baffled by what it all means.

Some of us may struggle with what we BELIEVE about the resurrection – whether we think the story of Jesus rising from the dead is literally true – but I suggest that we set that aside.

The Resurrection is not something we can prove or disprove,
and many of us have grown weary of religion that is preoccupied with BELIEF- especially when it dictates what we should and should not believe to be considered a faithful Christian.

I propose that what we find perplexing about the resurrection is not so much what to BELIEVE about it, but rather what to DO about it.

Whether we believe the resurrection is literally or metaphorically true is irrelevant if we walk away from Easter Sunday without feeling changed by our experience of it.

When you hear the story of that first Easter morning and imagine yourself standing along side the women gazing into the empty tomb… what do you see?

Do you see the promise of the risen Christ who conquered sin and death so that we might be redeemed?

Do you see where Jesus’ broken body was laid and hear a call to enact change in a world where redemptive violence is our default position in a misguided quest for justice and peace?

Do you see the potential for new life and new possibilities that takes root when we let go of what we once held near and dear and allow it to wither and die - our distractions, our addictions, our convictions - whatever keeps us from loving others as fully as God calls us to do?

There’s a lot we can see when we look inside that empty tomb.

But sometimes it takes more than just peering inside to be changed by the Easter resurrection experience.
We have to embrace what we see and act in the world as if what we’ve seen is our new reality.
It’s not enough to just look into the tomb and walk away, we need to walk inside, take a good look around, and then turn around and see what the world looks like from the inside looking out.

Might we imagine what Jesus must have seen when the stone was rolled back on Easter morning?

Did he see a world that was crying out for the new life that he had to offer?

Did he see a world that was aching for a more hopeful response to oppression, injustice, and scarcity?

Did he see a world where we would experience the empty tomb and be moved to become his disciples thus ensuring that his message of God’s unconditional love would take root and continue to grow in his absence?

This is what is so amazing about the tomb in which Jesus was laid to rest – to those who placed him there it was just a barren rock cavern.
And when they rolled the stone into place sealing the entrance they thought they were burying him forever.

But they weren’t burying Jesus that day,
 they were planting him.

On Easter morning he pushed through the rock walls and reached out to the rising sun. 
He sprang up green and fresh and took root in every heart that dared to open wide enough to receive him.

We are the fruit of the Resurrection.

When we gaze into that tomb and see Jesus alive and working in the world we allow that seed to grow in our heart.

And out of that seed grows love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and grace...
     for a world that is in desperate need of them all.

As we leave here today may we remember to carry that seed of resurrection with us.
To nurture it and sustain it.
And to scatter it wherever we go.

The challenge of Easter is to keep Jesus alive in the world.
To step out of the tomb and to feel changed in a radically new way.

Christ has risen, indeed!

Alleluia and Amen.