Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sermon: "Seeing Is Believing"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
The Congregational Church of Amherst, United Church of Christ
April 12, 2015 – Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

“Seeing Is Believing”

On the evening of February 26, 2015, the power of the internet and social media was on full display when the world became captivated by a picture of a dress.

A woman in Scotland, who was soon to be married, posted a picture on her Facebook page of a dress her mother was considering wearing to the wedding.   Her mother had sent three pictures of three different dresses and had asked her which one she liked best. 
The bride-to-be showed the photos to her fiancĂ©e and pointed to a dress with horizontal stripes, saying, “I like this white and gold dress the best.” 
He proceeded to look at her like she was crazy.
“What are you talking about?” he said,
“That dress is not white and gold, it’s blue and black.”
They were looking at the same dress, but each saw a completely different color.
The couple wondered, “How can this be?”

To their further amazement, when they posted the picture of the dress on Facebook to get their friend’s opinion on the matter, the image went viral, and within hours millions of people all over the world had shared the photo and were arguing over the color of this dress.
The majority of people said the dress was white and gold – about 68% according to one unscientific poll.
But 32% of people looking at the same photo said the color of the dress was blue and black. 

Detailed analysis ensued, with some claiming that it was internet trickery and the dress color changed over time, some suggested that the color one saw depended on the lighting in the room or the angle of one’s computer screen, and a surprising number of people suggested that those who saw one color over the other were simply “delusional” and needed their eyes and their head examined.
But few could explain how two people looking at the same photo, in the same lighting, at the same angle, with neither of them being color blind, could see two entirely different colored dresses.

When the image popped up in my Facebook feed that night I showed it my wife, Stephanie.
Without telling her the backstory, I asked her, “What color is this dress?
She looked at me like I was crazy, and she said, “It’s blue and black”
I said, “Really? It’s obviously white and gold.”

The official explanation offered by neuroscientists is that the lighting in the photo itself combined with the way our brains process light and color created an optical illusion that led some of us to see one color over another.  
This fluke of lighting forced our brains to choose which end of the color spectrum to emphasize and which to discount – either the darker black and blue side or the lighter white and gold side. The lighting caused both color combinations to be present in the photo, but our brains chose to see only one of them.

Now, this whole discussion about this dress may seem frivolous to some, but the reason why this image captivated the attention of so many is because it offered startling proof that we human beings are capable of seeing the world in very different ways – not just ideologically, or philosophically, or politically, but literally.

And in this case, the realization that we can’t trust our own eyes is unsettling.
This became evident when the woman who took the photo of the infamous dress – the bride’s mother - came forward and said the dress was in reality blue and black. 
She had seen it in person, after all.
Yet, people all over the world continued to insist that she was obviously mistaken as they scoured the internet hoping to find proof that a blue and black version of this dress did not exist – it had to be white and gold.

The woman’s eyewitness account was not good enough.
People had to see it for themselves to believe.

Thomas insisted on seeing for himself.
The talk of Jesus resurrection was too much for him to believe without proof.
I always say that poor Thomas got a bad rap.
He is forever known as Doubting Thomas simply because he wanted to see with his own eyes what the other disciples had already seen with theirs.

We don’t talk about Doubting Matthew or Doubting Mark, even though they had locked themselves in a room along with the other disciples out of fear for their lives.
According to John’s gospel, on that same day, just hours before, Mary Magdalene had come running to the disciples out of breath and with joy in her eyes telling them that she had seen Jesus alive in the garden outside the empty tomb.   
Yet they chose not to believe.

If they had believed they would have been out in the street with Mary telling everyone within earshot about the miraculous resurrection of their messiah
 …instead they were hiding in fear.
They didn’t believe until Jesus walked through the door and they saw him with their own eyes.
Poor Thomas had the misfortune of not being there for the first viewing.
So Jesus came back a week later to make sure that he saw and believed as well.

For Thomas, perhaps it was about more than seeing proof of the resurrection.
When the other disciples told him they had seen Jesus standing before them in the flesh, Thomas said, “I need to see his hands.  I need to see the marks the nails left behind. I need to see that it’s really him.”

Perhaps Thomas wanted to see more than the holes in Jesus’ flesh.
Maybe he just wanted to see the hands of the friend and teacher he loved.

The hands that waved him over when it was time to gather and listen.
The hands that held him up when he was struggling under the weight of a worry or fear.
The hands that broke the bread and poured the wine they shared at the table.
The hands that washed his feet on the last night they were together.
The hands of the carpenter who had set down his tools and turned to shepherding the lost and the lowly as a servant to all.

I imagine that Thomas needed to see those familiar hands, complete with all the marks and scars and calluses that would let him know that this truly was his beloved teacher and friend.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor shares the story of a dear friend of hers who was walking around with an open wound after his father died suddenly,
until he finally found closure in his father’s hands.
Her friend had rushed to the hospital only to be told that his father had died of a heart attack and the body had already been taken away.
He could not believe that his father was truly gone, and he lamented that he did not get the chance to say goodbye.
It was only when he saw his father’s body at the funeral home, and he took his father’s hands in his own, that acceptance began to set in. 
The man’s father was an auto mechanic, and his hands held a lifetime of scars and grease stains that would never be washed away. 
Taylor tells us her friend turned his father’s hands over in his own and upon seeing the calluses and motor oil stains, he smiled and said, “It’s him. They tried to clean him up, but look, they couldn’t. It’s my daddy. It’s really him.” 1

I imagine that Thomas wanted to do the same.
He wanted to hold Jesus’ hands in his own.
To see not just the wounds he suffered on the day he died, but also the familiar nicks and scars acquired from years of hard work – the marks that Thomas had come to know.

He needed to see to believe.   Because otherwise it would never seem real.
Would any of us admit to not wanting the same when we’ve lost someone we love?

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.”
But he wasn’t talking about the disciples – the friends who knew and loved him in his lifetime. None of them had believed without seeing.
I don’t think Jesus expected them to; otherwise the empty tomb would have been enough.

There would have been no need for Jesus to appear in the garden where Mary was weeping,
in the locked room where the disciples were shaking in fear,
on the beach where the fishermen had gathered to share a grief filled meal,
or on the road to Emmaus where many were leaving in despair.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing”
he was talking about those who would come later.
Those who would hear this story of the resurrected messiah but who would never know Jesus in his lifetime, nor carry real grief in their hearts after experiencing his death.

Jesus was blessing the church with his words. He was blessing us.
For we have no choice but to believe without seeing.
We only know the Easter story from the other side.
We know the hope and new life that can come after death and despair.
But for many of us the resurrection can only be understood metaphorically, to think of it literally is beyond our capacity of believing without seeing.

We tell ourselves that it should be enough to see Jesus alive and working in the world around us through the people who walk in his footsteps.
We shouldn’t need to see his hands to know that he lives on in our hearts.

But, like the disciples, we do need to know that it is human to doubt.
Seeing is believing but we can’t always believe what we see.
Those of us who looked at a blue and black dress and insisted it was white and gold can attest to that.

The good news is that Jesus always meets us where we are in our doubt.
He doesn’t judge. He doesn’t scold.
And no matter how many times he comes to us and finds us huddled in a room with the door shut, keeping ourselves and the gospel locked away, he continues to say, “Peace be with you” - and then show us his hands
As if to say, here are my wounds, here are my scars, here are the hands that will always be resting on your shoulders, and nudging you to go out into the world and overcome your fear.

Thomas is not scorned for his doubt, rather he is lifted up for his humanness.
Thomas is every disciple and Thomas is us.
Which is why it is important that we hear his story at least once a year.

I sometimes wish we read this passage on Easter Sunday.
Because as much as we need to hear this story here on the Sunday after Easter, the folks who come only on Easter and Christmas need to hear it even more.
The folks who hear the stories of Jesus’ birth and resurrection and leave thinking that the church does not change from year to year.
Because they hear these miraculous stories and they may feel they have no relevance to their every day 21st century lives.

But they miss what happens next in the story.
They miss the stories that come after Christmas that focus on the nitty-gritty every day lives of the disciples and the example that Jesus set with his ministry,
and they miss the stories that come after Easter, where the disciples confront their doubts and try to make sense of the resurrection and live out the gospel in a post-Jesus world.

But if folks aren’t coming here to hear the gospel as often as they should, perhaps part of our work to overcome our post-resurrection doubt and fear involves taking the gospel to them.

We’re called to step out of the locked room and live our lives out in the world following the ways of Christ as much as we can – Being radically inclusive with our hospitality, with our compassion, with our forgiveness, with our love.

To live as if we’ve witnessed the resurrection ourselves.
And to extend Christ’s hands into a world that is in desperate need of seeing and believing.


1 “Hands and Feet”, Home By Another Way, Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications (January 25, 1997)

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter Sunrise Sermon: "An Idle Tale"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 5, 2015 – Easter Sunrise
Luke 24:1-12

“An Idle Tale”

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who were with them. 
According to the gospel of Luke, these are the first witnesses to the miracle of the Resurrection.  Luke tells us that these five or six or possibly seven or more women were the first to see the empty tomb on that first Easter morning.

Not all the gospel writers agree about this.
As many of you may know we have four different gospel accounts of this miraculous story.

The gospel of Mark tells us that there were just three women who saw the empty tomb on Easter Morning - Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and a woman named Salome.

The gospel of Matthew tells us that there were just two women at the tomb – Mary Magdalene and a woman only identified as the other Mary.

Finally, the gospel of John tells us that there was only one woman present there that first Easter morning – Mary Magdalene – she came to the tomb alone to anoint Jesus’ body and discovered that the stone had been rolled away.

What is amazing about these four different gospel accounts of that first Easter morning is not that there were seven women, or three, or two, or only one.

The amazing thing is that in every one of these accounts, the most miraculous and faith-inspiring event in all of Christian history – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – hinges on the testimony, the eyewitness accounts, of women.

In our time, we may not think that this detail is significant,
but in the time that these particular women lived it was very significant.

In a culture and age where women often could not testify in court because their testimony was considered unreliable,
in a religious tradition that recognized the authority of only its male members,
in sacred scriptures that tell the story of the people of God by mentioning 956 men by name, and only 188 women….
here, in the Easter story, women have been trusted to carry the greatest news of all time – the tomb is empty – Christ has risen indeed.

Men do make an appearance in the story in all four gospels.
They peer into the tomb, they scratch their head in amazement, they accuse the women of telling idle tales, and they return to their homes not believing and not understanding what they have seen.

But it is the women who are told to run to Galilee, to run to tell the disciples, to run and tell everyone what they have seen.
In a post-Jesus world, these women become the first Christian evangelists.
The first preachers of the gospel.
The first to tell the world the GOOD NEWS,
that Jesus has risen from the grave - and Death has not won.

Standing here in 21st century New England, we may shrug our shoulders and say, “So what?”
It may not matter to us who was the first to find the empty tomb.
Dwelling on this detail of the story may not make it any less true - or any more true - for any of us.

Wrapping our head around this ancient story of a resurrected Christ – and believing it to be TRUE – with a capital T - may be difficult enough without nitpicking over who was the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty.

But this detail does make a difference.

These women, who had little power and little status in their communities.
These women, who were often overlooked and lived their lives in the background.
These women, who were rarely given a voice in the public forum and who were thought to be telling “idle tales” when they did speak.

These women represented those whom Christ had come to set free.
The marginalized, the powerless, the voiceless – of all genders, of all nationalities, of all races, languages, and religions.

In his life, and in his teachings, Jesus talked a lot about this NEW kingdom – this NEW world – that God was creating through him.
He talked about pulling down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. 
Not to liberate just those on the bottom of the pile in an imbalanced system, but to liberate those on top as well. 
Because those of us who are ruled by a desire for more power, more money, more resources, are not free.
Fear is our master.
Fear of not having enough. Fear of losing all that we have.
Fear that causes us to question whether everyone is as deserving or worthy of receiving what God has given to us all. 

When Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor and the meek" for they shall inherit this NEW kingdom of God, he was not saying that the rich and the powerful are evil, rather he was saying that we all are equally as likely to be entrapped by the fear that causes us to build these systems of power in the first place.

The empty tomb – the first sign of Jesus’ resurrection – was evidence that God was doing something NEW in the world.

Death did not win.  
Those with the most power, resources, and might, did not win.
Those who were threatened by Jesus’ teachings about God’s unconditional love and unlimited mercy did not win.
The tomb was empty.
Jesus did not die.  
Love conquered fear.
And those set free would be the first to tell the world.

The fact that these eyewitness accounts of women even made it into the Bible – in all four gospels no less – is often lifted up as evidence that these stories of the Resurrection are true.

Because if you lived in 1st century Palestine and were going to make up a story about a resurrected Messiah that you wanted others to believe to be true wouldn’t you make your first eyewitness someone worthy of trust in your time – someone with power, and authority, and influence?

Who would believe the idle tales of women?

And yet here we stand on this Easter morning, some 2000 years later.
None of us was there to see the empty tomb ourselves.
We did not encounter the risen Christ in the garden.
And it’s likely that few of us put much faith in relics like the Shroud of Turin or an ancient nail in a piece of wood that has been offered as proof of Jesus’ execution and resurrection.
But something about this story has brought each of here this morning.

We pulled ourselves out of bed before the sun came up, and came out here to stand on this still frozen green….because there is something about this story that resonates with us.

Perhaps it’s the hope of finding the unexpected. The hope of the resurrection.
Because something inside of is dying or has died…and we’re desperate to hear that something new will grow in its place.

Perhaps we’re here because we’re grieving. Because we’ve lost someone we love…someone we can’t replace…. and before our heart breaks wide open we need to hear a story about grief bursting into joy.

Perhaps we’re here because we’ve had enough of death in general.
Because we’ve stood next to too many tombs and lost too many people to cancer, to illness, to addiction, to heartbreakingly random accidents that defy all explanation… but since Jesus lived again, maybe, just maybe death is not the absolute ending that we fear it to be.

Or perhaps we’re just weighed down with the heaviness of this world.
We’ve grown weary of hearing about children dying in wars, students being shot on college campuses, people killing each other over money, power, resources, race, and religion.
Yet if Jesus found the strength in his dying breath to say, “Father forgive them,” maybe we can find that strength as well.

Perhaps we’re here because we’re looking for hope.
The hope that God has something new planned for this world.
The hope that God has something new planned for us.  

The women who gathered at Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter morning experienced firsthand the new thing that God was doing in the world.
And now these women have become an integral part of the Easter story.
People the world over, throughout the ages have heard their testimony and believed.

Every Easter, we become these women.
Peering into the tomb.
Looking for a reason to go on.
And finding something surprising and new to give us hope.

Christ has risen, indeed.
Alleluia, and Amen!