Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
When I was in elementary school, I did not go to church regularly. My sisters and I occasionally went to Sunday worship with my grandfather. We nearly always went for Vacation Bible School in the summer. And, sometimes we'd make it to Easter, primarily because there was an egg hunt after church. But, that's really it. I spent most Sunday mornings watching reruns of Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow or reading Hardy Boys books. That being said, I still grew up pretty saturated by Christian ideas and Christian scripture. I am from the South, a region that continues to be one of the most consistently religious areas of the country. Nearly all of my extended family and neighbors were active Christians. My great-grandmother was deeply religious and wanted to make sure that I had a good foundation in Christianity, regardless of whether or not I attended worship regularly. She sang hymns while she pushed me in the swing in her front yard. She made sure that a children's Bible was among the books I could read at her house. She also taught me some Bible verses. While Psalm 23 wasn't the very first passage she taught me, it was one of the ones that she made sure I knew.
My great grandmother wasn't the only reason I knew this passage. I felt like Psalm 23 was all over the place. It seemed like this scripture was on the back of every funeral bulletin. It was printed on little cards that sat next to the cash register in bookstores. It was occasionally printed on the back windshield of pick up trucks that roared passed us on jacked up tires. As far as I could tell, most people, even people like me who didn't attend church regularly, knew this passage. And, many of them claimed that it was their favorite passage in the whole Bible. I must admit if you don't know much else in the Bible, this passage does seem like a good one to know.
In seminary, one of the authors I read argued that most people attend church to find comfort and relief from their life outside of church. If that is true, it makes sense that people would find a passage like this one to be very important to them. That's why this passage makes it's way into funeral services and memorials on pick-up truck windows. Many people read it and remember times when they were in need of support. When they read Psalm 23, they learn about a God who is there, even in the worst times, to bring comfort and support. People who need help may see that even though they may feel as though they are in the shadow of death, in the end, goodness and mercy will follow them and they will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This Psalm seems to have a happy ending, and Lord knows that we need a happy ending, especially in weeks like this. As we remember acts of terrorism in Oklahoma City, see images of natural disasters all across the country of Nepal, and as we hear songs of protest roll across the streets of Baltimore, the valley of the shadow of death seems very real. We need the comfort and protection of God's rod and staff.
The thing is, this scripture may be so familiar to us, even those of us who don't really know any other Bible verses, that we can stop paying attention to what it says. When we read it, we can primarily remember what it has meant to us in the past, and can forget that these words may have a new or different meaning for us today. While researching my sermon this week, I came upon the work of Joel LeMon. He encourages us to remember a few things that might help bring new life into a scripture that many of us know so well. He points out that this passage is a passage about a journey, not a passage about one stop. While the narrator speaks of being able to lie down in green pastures, that is only a sign of respite, not a sign that the narrator lives there. The shepherd who watches over the sheep does so on the move.
As I have noted in other sermons, sheep are necessarily the habit of walking in orderly lines towards a destination. They tend to roam all over the place. They can be hard to keep track of. If you need to move sheep from one place to another, you need someone to guide them. This shepherd guides the sheep by leading them to paths of righteousness. LeMon notes that these paths don't seem to be hacked out of the wilderness. The words in Hebrew indicate that these paths are well-worn tracks. They are full of ruts from carts that have traveled this path many times before you. To move with God is, in some ways, to find the groove that your forbears have made for you, and make the most of this groove to make your own journey easier. There is something communal about the tracks. Your community clears the path for you and you clear the path for those who will follow you.You would do well to help keep them clear.
One of the things that is difficult about being a sheep is that a lot of other animals want to eat you. When Jesus talked about being a shepherd, he spoke of sheep being attacked by wolves. When the Psalmist spoke of being a sheep as a metaphor for life, the psalmist also noted that the journey is often dangerous. Death often seems close. But, God, the shepherd, offers protection and safety. The end of the Psalm describes a scene of great comfort. The narrator is given a place at the table, even as the enemies, the ones who would devour her, watch in hunger. The narrator is blessed by God, and given abundant drink. In verse 6, a powerful statement of future hope in God, is often translated as "Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." It may have a more powerful meaning. The word that is translated follow is more often translated as pursue. Follow sounds passive. Pursue sounds active, dangerous even, like something enemies do. But, in these verses, the enemies don't do the pursuing. God does. You will no longer be chased by ones who will devour you. Instead, only goodness and mercy shall chase you down. You will not be devoured by evil. Instead, you will be enveloped by good.
As I said earlier, many of us read the last verse as a happy ending: I will live in God's house forever. We read the story as though we are working through a journey with a definite end. We are simply working our way from point A, our lives, to point B, God's house, where we can stop. LeMon suggests another reading of that last verse. He argues that a better translation of the Hebrew doesn't leave us with the house of the Lord as an endpoint where you stop, but, instead, maintains the idea of movement and journey. This word that gets translated as "dwell" maybe better translated as "return." He suggests the translation, "I will continually return to Yahweh's presence my whole life long." Like sheep who continually move between winter and summer pastures, our life is marked less by movement towards a single destination where we stop, and more by our return to the places where we most closely feel the presence of God. We can seek God down deep in the protected valleys of winter and up high on the windy, green slopes of summer. God is present in the journey, not simply as the destination.
The shepherd watches over the sheep during the whole journey, in the valley and in the green pastures. Goodness and mercy will pursue you in place of the wolves who would once devour you. The shepherd will lead you in paths that have been cleared long before you got there, and you will help keep them clear for the people who follow. As a sheep, your life journey will take you through many high and low places, but you will continually return to God's presence through your whole life. Now, that is quite a different interpretation than what I have usually heard of this scripture. It is a much more active, engaging view of God than I usually think of when I remember these words. When I hear this interpretation, I can more clearly understand why Jesus would find the image of the shepherd compelling enough to use it to describe his own ministry. This sheep and shepherd's journey through the ups and downs of life, ever seeking God's presence, sounds much more like my own life than does the one-way trip to God's table that I usually hear about. It sounds more like Jesus' life, too.
Jesus adds some things to the description of a good shepherd that we would do well to remember. Scholar Karoline Lewis compiled this list of things a good shepherd does in the book of John. A good shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name. In the book of John, Jesus did this when he called out the names of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene, first when he healed Lazarus, and second, when he showed Mary that he had risen. A good shepherd makes sure the sheep are safe, as Jesus did in John when he left his disciples safe in the garden and gave himself up to the authorities, rather than ask the disciples to hide him away. A good shepherd finds his sheep when they are lost, as Jesus found the blind man whom he healed in the scripture just before our reading today and as he found each one of his disciples as they began their ministry together. A good shepherd is willing to risk his life for the safety of his sheep, as Jesus risked the cross in order to bring about a reign of love and justice for God's people. And, a good shepherd will return to the sheep, to bring new ones in the fold, and to show them how to return to God's presence, just as Jesus did through his Resurrection and ministry. He showed his followers the possibility of abundant, new life and invited them on the journey to find return the world to God's presence. We, too, are continually invited to travel on this journey, through the ruts and grooves of our forbears, under the shadow of death, alongside water and pastures that will sustain us. We, too, are invited to continually return to God's presence our whole lives long, and invite some new friends to join us.
In her commentary this week, Karoline Lewis asks "What is good about a shepherd?" Both Jesus and the Psalmist give us some rich answers to that question. I think most of these responses boil down to one simple idea: The shepherd never leaves the sheep alone. All through the journey, in dark valleys, with wolves bearing down, the shepherd never leaves. When the sheep get lost, the shepherd travels to find them. When the sheep need a path, the shepherd is present to show the way. When the sheep are hungry, the shepherd provides abundant sustenance. The sheep are never alone. The shepherd is always present. May we all continue to seek God's presence in all our days, and may we all feel Christ's presence through the Holy Spirit, as we go along our sheeply way.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Joel LeMon's commentary on Psalm 23: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372
Karoline Lewis, "What's so Good about a Shepherd?":
Then Their Eyes Were Opened: Luke 23:13-29
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
I have been thinking about two things most of the week: Baking bread and marking anniversaries. As those of you who have seen this week's Newsy Note have read, this has been a week full of major anniversaries. Here is a short list of the things we could remember this week. One hundred and fifty years ago this week, President Lincoln was shot and killed. One hundred and twenty years ago, Thomas Edison first showed his moving pictures in public. We could also remember that in 1903, Dr. Plotz discovered a vaccine against typhoid and in 1912, the Titanic sank. In 1935, the worst sandstorm in US history hit the Midwest. In 1981, the first space shuttle, Columbia 1, made her return trip back to earth. We are commemorating the 1 year anniversary of more than 200 teenage girls being kidnapped from their school in Chibok, Nigeria and the two year anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing. This week we remember Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The uprising date is the date on which many Jews take time remember those killed in the Holocaust. In a few days, Armenians around the world will gather to remember the Armenian Genocide of World War I. With all of these significant anniversaries, I have felt a great weight this week. Some of these anniversaries are quite joyful. Most of them were not. It seems important to me that these next few weeks are so filled with history. While every day holds countless anniversaries, it is striking that so many internationally significant events fell during these particular few days.
Part of me wonders if I have been so struck by these anniversaries because they have fallen not only close to one another but also close to Easter, one of the most important anniversaries on the Christian calendar. As we work to both commemorate and continue to live out Jesus' Resurrection, maybe I'm just paying more attention to other big events that people may be commemorating around this time. As a Christian pastor, Holy Week and Easter are deeply important times for me, commemorations of events both cruel and joyful. This weeks, as I heard stories of assassinations and kidnappings, of bombings and natural disasters, of astronauts, and doctors, and inventors who made the world a more knowledgeable, more healthy, and more fun place, I have also remembered, the cruelty of the cross, the mourning of the tomb, and the joy of the Resurrection. These big anniversaries remind me of how death and resurrection are all around, all the time. Resurrection isn't just an Easter thing. It's an everyday thing.
The thing is, though, life isn't all big anniversaries. Even though each day may be an anniversary of something, most of us don't have many big anniversaries that we mark each day. Sure, weddings and family birthdays come up regularly, but most of my days are simply regular days, filled with regular things. Feeding the cats. Walking the dog. Brushing my teeth. Checking my email. Chatting with friends. Eating my lunch. Each of this little, daily activities isn't usually any kind of commemoration of any big event. They are just what I do. These events, while necessary for daily life and the well-being of our household, are hardly things I pay much attention to. My everyday grooming and eating habits hardly merit much commemoration. Isn't it funny how Jesus took a simple, everyday act like breaking bread and eating with friends, and turned it into a commemoration? He turned it into an anniversary celebration, and his friends weren't even expecting it. They just thought they were eating dinner.
Luke's story of the Resurrection is similar to John's and Mark's in at least one way. The author of Luke also stated that it was women followers of Jesus who were the first to find the tomb empty. Like the women in Mark, an angelic visitor, well, this time two, visits them and tells that Jesus has risen. Unlike Mark, they immediately run and tell their friends. Like John, Peter comes back to investigate, though without the disciple whom Jesus loved, a figure who is absent from Luke. Last week, we heard the story of Thomas, who insisted upon the same evidence that everyone else had before he would believe in the Resurrection. In Luke, it's not just Thomas who demands more evidence. It's all of the disciples. When the women tell them what they heard and saw, nobody believed them. In the English translation, it says that the disciples believed the women to be telling an idle tale. The original Greek is much stronger. It says that the disciples thought the women were telling them garbage, bull hockey. Even after Peter saw the death shroud empty, it is not clear from the story if he believed the women.
Much like John's version of the Resurrection, the disciples needed to see something more in order to believe. To be fair, most of us would. Here's how Luke tells us they go their proof. Two disciples were walking on the way to a place called Emmaus. They were talking about everything that had happened. They were probably complaining about the weird story that the women had told them. This guy started walking with them and asked what was going on. In what is probably the sweetest sentence in all of Luke, the author tells us that they "stood still, looking sad" and then asked the stranger how he could have managed to not know everything that has gone on over the last several days. They must have been the kind of sad that can't help but tell someone what is going on, even if it is someone they don't know and don't recognize. It was not a sadness that they could keep to themselves. So, they told the stranger everything. I wonder if they were surprised when he began to talk about the Son of Man or when he began to interpret Scripture with them, trying to help them make sense of this murder in the course of Jewish history. It seems like what he said helped them, because, as we heard at the beginning of our reading today, when they came to the point when they could have parted ways with him, they didn't. They invited him to stay.
It is interesting to me that they don't come to know who Jesus is when he is teaching them. The interpretations he offered must have been compelling, or they would have let him keep walking. But, the scripture doesn't say that they knew him because he seemed smart like Jesus. The story says they knew him when he broke the bread and blessed it and shared it with them. Maybe he had a particular way of doing it. Like maybe he had a particular way that he moved his wrist when he tore the bread. Or, maybe the blessing he offered was the same one he always offered when they ate together. Or maybe it was the simple act of sharing what was there, and making sure every had something that was enough to jog their memory. As he shared the bread, suddenly they knew. The text reads "their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight." And, they talked to each other and said out loud what they had been feeling during their whole walk. Their hearts burned when he spoke. They wondered if something special was happening. They knew something special was happening when he broke bread with them.
Luckily, when they told the rest of the disciples, Jesus appeared with them and offered up his hand and feet to prove that he was indeed real. But, even seeing his wounds didn't quite convince them that he was alive. The author of Luke tells us that even in their joy, they were disbelieving and still wondering. Unlike in John, seeing wasn't believing. Hearing wasn't even believing. No, in Luke, eating was believing. This time, rather than share bread with them, he asked if they had anything to eat and they offered him fish. He ate it. And, he taught them some more. And they believed. Food, yet again, is the key to helping them understand who he is.
I read an article this week that argued that being able to share food together is one of the key activities of human community. There is that old saying that you are what you eat. Well, you are what you eat, and how you eat, and with whom you eat. Eating a core activity for survival. Sharing food is a core activity of community. Being able to eat food indicates that you are alive and healthy, and being about to share food means that community matters to you and you want to develop a relationship. Ghost's don't eat lunch and they don't share. But, Jesus at lunch and he shared his dinner. And, he left a legacy of ways that these oh so common acts can become more than thoughtless actions. Eating and sharing can become commemorations of the Resurrection. Holy Communion is a kind of anniversary celebration. It reminds us of New Life every time we take it. And, this is why I've been thinking about baking bread all week.
Now, I am a terrible baker. I once made Tasha some cookies that were so terrible that we threw them in a river. Thankfully, Debbie had a bread-maker that I could borrow. Even though this is not a week that we typically have communion, it seemed important to talk about communion together. Jesus did not leave his followers a whole host of rituals to follow if he should die. We Protestants really think he only left us two, Baptism and Communion. I think it is telling that these two rituals are related to things we do everyday, clean ourselves and eat. Something so common is adapted, changed, and made holy. It becomes a commemoration. It becomes a sign of the Resurrection. Each time we share the bread and the cup, we remember the Resurrection. Each time we serve our neighbors, be in the ones in the pew right next to us or the ones who visit the food pantry down the road, we remember the Resurrection. Each time we recognize that the food we eat and the food we share connect us to one another, we remember the Resurrection. And, when we make sure that our habits of eating are sustainable, we are remembering the Resurrection. Eating together, be it Holy Communion or dinner at home on a Tuesday night, doesn't have to be a thoughtless act that we do just to survive. It can be a sign of the Resurrection.
Next time we take Communion, we'll use the loaf the kids made here today (and a gluten-free alternative). When we share that meal together, I hope you'll think about a few things. How can we make sure that all God's children have a chance to serve God's people as these kids have helped serve today? How can our eating habits better reflect our values as followers of Christ? Are the workers who pick the food treated fairly? Do the animals we eat have a life of dignity? Do we offer to help do the dishes after we make a meal together? And, lastly, how does this act of Communion, this sharing of bread and cup with the people who sit next to me each week, help me see Jesus? When the disciples saw the breaking of the bread, they saw Jesus. I pray that eating together can be just as eye-opening experience for the rest of us.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Karoline Lewis, "Resurrection Witnesses": https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3587
David Lose, "Easter 3 B: Resurrection Doubts":
Nancy Rockwell, "Scared Sick": http://biteintheapple.com/scared-sick/
Theresa Brown, "Love, Death, and Spaghettie":
Tim Arango, "A Century After Armenian Genocide, Turkey's Denial Only Deepens": http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/17/world/europe/turkeys-century-of-denial-about-an-armenian-genocide.html?_r=0
On This Day in History: http://www.historyorb.com/
"Revisiting the Night Abraham Lincoln Was Shot 150 Years Ago":
Ofeibia Quist-Arcton, "Hundreds of Nigerian Girls Still Missing A Year After Kidnapping":
Thomas Gets a Bad Rap: John 20: 19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Here we are on the second Sunday in Easter, still learning what the Resurrection means for the followers of Jesus. Easter Sunday itself can be so big. Do you remember all the stuff we did last week? We moved flowers all over the place. There were balloons and extra musicians and twice as many kids as usual. Easter is such a raucous celebration. It can be tempting to stop at the Resurrection part of the story because it is so much fun to live in that moment where our Alleluias fly high like the balloons the kids found last week. Sometimes it can be hard to show up the next Sunday, after the balloons have fallen to the ground and all the eggs have been collected, and know what to do with all this Good News that we heard. Yes, Christ is Risen. But, now what?
Our Scripture today shows us what can happen once we move from the empty tomb back into the world. Do we follow the directions we received from the Divine? Do we even tell anybody? Today's reading from the Gospel of John shows us that tricky space between hearing about the Risen Christ and actually believing in the resurrection. Last week, we heard Mark's version of how the first witnesses to the resurrection responded. Today, we hear John's version about how the next ten witnesses responded. Central to the story is the response of Thomas, the one who usually is called the Doubter. But, I think Thomas gets a bad rap. After how horrible the last week has been, why wouldn't he have questions? Who among us wouldn't question someone who showed up saying they were a beloved, but dead, relative. Thomas was not being hard-headed. He was being realistic, especially after everything that had happened. A little doubt makes sense in times such as these.
As we may recall, in Mark’s version of the resurrection that we heard last week, the women were so shocked and afraid that they told no one. And, while we may point out that eventually they must have told someone, the official first response of record was fear, not joy. To be fair, I imagine that a resurrection is probably more than a little terrifying. Now, the Gospel of John tells the Resurrection story a little differently. John's version of the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene traveled to Jesus’ tomb alone and found it empty. She ran back to find her friends, Simon Peter and the unnamed disciple who Jesus loved. They verified that his body was indeed gone, but then, they received no angelic vision of reassurance. They simply left, and returned to their homes.
But, Mary… Mary couldn’t leave. Not yet. As she wept at the tomb that should have been filled with Jesus' body, she discovered that she was not alone. In this version, rather than seeing a random angelic visitor, Jesus himself appeared to her and she rejoiced. And she ran to tell the other disciples what she had seen and what Jesus had said to her. What is important in this version of the story is that for Mary, seeing was believing. When she saw Jesus, she believed and quickly carried this news to her friends. That is where we begin our reading today, shortly after Mary has told them that she saw Jesus. But, as we read today, they don’t appear to be all that swayed by her revelation. After all, they were pretty afraid. They were hidden and had locked the door to keep away the people they thought would be coming after them. And yet, as they huddled together, not knowing what their next steps should be, the Gospel of John tell us that Jesus slides in past all the barriers they created to keep themselves safe. And, he offers them peace.
Now, if you are someone who doesn't think people of faith shouldn't need physical proof of the resurrection, his next action might surprise you. He doesn't fuss at his followers for not believing Mary. Instead, he holds out his torn hands and offers his scarred side as proof of who he is. And, just like Mary, when the disciples see Jesus and his wounds, they believe. It is only when they see his wounds that they rejoice. He then offers them a second great gift. He commissions them to bring about the Reign of God. Mirroring the lovely imagery of the creation story in Genesis 2, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on them, enlivening their frightened hearts. Surely, this, too is a bit of resurrection for those petrified people. Maybe breathing is believing, too.
Thomas, though, missed the whole thing. Who knows where he was. When he returns to their place of sanctuary, he doesn’t believe them. He states, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hands in his side, I will not believe.” With these few words, Thomas became known as a doubter and a counter-example of faith of generations of Christians. Poor misunderstood Thomas. Now, not one other person in the whole story believed without seeing. Why does Thomas get called a doubter? Why should he be expected to need any less confirmation than anybody else? Despite of how we often think of him, Thomas is not a pitiful coward too afraid to truly follow Christ. Thomas has been portrayed as being a brave follower of Jesus elsewhere in the book of John. For example, when Lazarus died, it was Thomas who said they should travel to help him, even if it was dangerous. To characterize him as anything other than faithful, simply because he wanted the same proof everyone else got, seems unfair. He, like the disciples before him, needed a little more assurance than the excited words that his compatriots could offer. He needed some evidence that his hope wasn't unfounded. There was too much at stake to go without it.
The next scene in the Gospel truly is a scene of grace. Once again, Jesus slides past all their defenses and enters the room. Once again, he offers the ones who love him a reason to trust that they can go on without him. And, he gives Thomas proof. He offers up his wounds, saying, “Here. See this. Feel this wound here. This is real. I am here." Many translations of this passage have Jesus telling Thomas "Do not doubt." While this is close to the meaning in Greek, a better translation would be "Do not be empty of faith." And, it is this emptiness that Jesus refills in the simple act of showing his wounds to the one who needed to see them. In showing his wounds, Jesus, yet again, brought new life to one who needed it. Once again, we have a bit of Resurrection.
Jesus’ next few words to Thomas are often considered a rebuke. He said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” See, I don't think these are actually a rebuke. Up to this point, everyone who we know who believes in the Resurrection has actually seen it. First Mary Magdalene, then the 10 disciples, then Thomas. Seeing seems to be a prerequisite to believing. It doesn't make sense to me that Jesus would critique Thomas for needing the same proof everyone else did. I think these words are better understood as a challenge. After all, Mary, Thomas, and the 10, had Jesus' risen body to help them believe. That is very solid proof that that which they believe is real. But, no one who believes after them would have that same level of evidence. Jesus' actual body would only be around for so long. What are the rest of the believers to do when they need proof... when they need their faith refilled? If you can't see Christ's body and feel Christ's wound, how can you believe? Seeing is believing. If you can't see, how can you believe?
I think one part of this story is particularly important for answering these questions about Christ's body. Remember the part when Jesus first slid in through the locked door and found the disciples? The second thing he did when he saw them was breathe the Holy Spirit onto them. Now, where else have we heard that language of breathing God's spirit into creation? That's right. The creation stories in Genesis. Scholars remind us that this is a very similar scene to the first descriptions of creation where God took a lump of mud and loved it and breathed life into it, creating humanity. What if Thomas' story is best understood not as a critique of doubt but as the creation of a body...the Body of Christ... the church and all those who seek to follow Jesus. Just as God once breathed life into clay, Jesus breathed new life into his disciples. When he revived them, they went forth and found new followers of Christ. Had these 11 not been so filled with the Spirit that it pushed out their fear... had they not been willing to leave their homes and continue Christ's work, we would not be here. What this story teaches us is that while we may not have Jesus’ own body here in front of us, we most certainly have the Body of Christ and we are still blessed by the proof their faith offered.
What if we, the modern day followers of Christ, are all the body Christ has left in this world? I believe that we are now being called on to offer the world the same grace Christ once offered Thomas. We are being called to offer our bodies and ourselves, our wounds and our great joys, as proof of the Resurrection. I bet if you look, you will see the body of Christ all over the place in this church. It is in the grief that you are so willing to offer up and share with one another during prayer. It is in the grace that you show visitors and those in need who come through these doors. It is in your willingness to share your stories of how you came to faith and came to this faith community. It is in the trips abroad you take so that you can stand in solidarity with the oppressed. I bet it’s even in our church council meetings where everyone is working together to discern just what will be the church’s next steps into the world. I suspect that even though we don’t have Jesus’ actual body right here with us, we can feel the Body of Christ whenever we worship and serve together. Jesus' breathed new life into his disciples and we have inherited that new life from them, just as surely as I inherited my father's brown eyes and my mother's poor vision. We can continue to embody the Resurrection today. The question for this second Sunday in Easter is Christ is risen... how are we going to prove it?
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
Fred. B. Craddock, “The Softer Side of Pentecost, “ The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 66-70.
Lance Pape's commentary on John 20, 19-31: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2407
Gail R. O'Day. “John,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press,
David E. Leininger, “Laugh, Thomas, Laugh!” Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit (Lima, OH: CSS
Publishing Company, Inc., 2008), 130-133.
Elisabeth Johnson's Commentary on John 20: 19-31: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1991.
Thomas, B. Slater's Commentary on John 20: 19-31: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2058.
Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015: Letting Loose the Alleluias, Mark 16:1-8
Letting Loose the Alleluias: Mark 16:1-8
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
There's a tricky thing about preaching. Well, something tricky for me about preaching. As we've gone through this whole season of Lent, I just assumed I'd preach on the Resurrection story from Mark. Mark is the primary Gospel for this lectionary year. And, I like Mark, am intrigued by the mystery and unexpectedness of the storytelling. That extends to the Resurrection story. I tend to like how open-ended it is and how, like the rest of the Gospel, the author of Mark resists giving too many neat and tidy answers to questions. And, then, the last two weeks happened. In the last two weeks, there's been flooding at my friends' homes in Kentucky and probably in some of our basements here in Maine. I've heard on the news that there is a terrible drought in California and the whole state could run out of water in the next 10 years. They've had to impose strict water restrictions for the first time in a very long time. Then, just a couple days ago, one hundred and forty seven college students were murdered in Kenya. I was still reeling from the news that a pilot killed 150 people who were in his care the week before. Also this week, I caught a cold and one of our cats had a health crisis. Then, someone broke into our church, busted our office door, and stole a projector out of my closet.
It has been a pretty messy week. I, for one, could probably use a neat and tidy story today. After a messy weak like this, I could use a straightforward win for the good guys. Too bad I picked Mark's resurrection story to preach on. Too bad this author doesn't seem too concerned with the kind of good news I'm pretty sure I need to hear today. He's not at all interested in telling a neat and tidy story. To be fair, there is very little about death and resurrection that is neat and tidy. Such a violent end necessarily leaves people with loose ends. And, trust me... there are a couple really big loose ends in our gospel story today.
You might be able to forgive those of us who've been around church for a while looking for a very uplifting and exciting Resurrection story. Maybe you're like me and when you think of the Resurrection, you remember stories about angels bringing good tiding of great joy... wait, that's Christmas. No, these angels talk to the women and tell them to tell Peter that Jesus has Risen. Then, Peter tells everybody else and they are less afraid. And, then I think of Jesus showing up at the place where the disciples were hiding out and letting Thomas feel his wounds to prove that it was really him. See, even the doubters get a little help. I also remember the story where he appears to some of his buddies while they walk down a country road and share a meal together. I also remember that Jesus gave his friends a job, so they wouldn't feel useless without him. He told them that they should make disciples of all nations. Then, he goes up to heaven. That seems like a pretty happy ending. Jesus is in heaven and his disciples are left with a job to do. That's the kind of ending I think I needed today.
Yeah, well, that's not the ending as Mark tells it. According to the author of Mark, the eleven remaining disciples have run off. Jesus was killed by the empire, with the blessing of his enemies in his own religious community. He doesn't even have a tomb of his own to be buried in. Thank goodness that Joseph is willing to give Jesus' family his. At least the women stayed with Jesus as he died. He didn't die completely forsaken. And, at least they were not so afraid that they left his body untended. Despite the danger and great mourning, they still felt called to ritually prepare his corpse for death. At least there's that. He did not die alone. Come on Mark. I need a little more joy than that after this week.
The next part of the story seems promising. There's a young man in white, a sign that he is probably an angel. The first thing he says is "Do not be alarmed." We could also translate this is "Do not be afraid." We know from Christmas that an angel saying "do not be afraid" is a good thing. It is a sign of reassurance. I totally need to be reassured, so I am now listening to this angel really hard and waiting for the good news that he is about to bring. And, I must admit, it's pretty great news. Jesus has been raised. He is no longer in the tomb. Wonderful! Alleluia. A resurrection! That is exactly what I need to hear. Then, the angel tells the women to go tell Peter and the others that Jesus will meet them back in Galilee, where his ministry got it's start. The angel tells the women that they will see Jesus again. What fantastic news! This is news that they never would have expected. So, what do they do? Tell everybody, right? Wrong. They freak and don't tell anybody. And, that's where this resurrection reading ends. We, the readers, never see Jesus again. And, the women, the first ones to hear that he is risen, are too afraid to tell someone else. No appearance of Jesus and freaked out followers too scared to tell anybody what they saw. That hardly sounds like a Resurrection to me.
I will say that it makes me feel a little better that I am apparently not the only one who has questions about this resurrection story. Apparently some ancient Christian scribes were a little unsatisfied with this ending. Scholars tell us that if we look at the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark, verse 8, which is the last verse in our reading today, is where the whole Gospel ends. But, starting sometime around the second century, the readers seem to get increasingly nervous about this ending. So, they added a little more. First, somebody added a part where the women stopped being scared and told Peter like they were supposed to. And, then another scribe, maybe having read the more peppy resurrection stories of Matthew, Luke, and John, figured it would be good to add a little more to the story. They thought it would probably help to have a resurrected Jesus show up again like he does elsewhere, so they added him in Mark. They also added him appearing to his buddies out on a walk, and added a part where Jesus appeared to the 11 remaining disciples. My favorite addition from to the end of Mark is by far the strangest thing I could imagine adding. Somewhere along the line, somebody decided that what the resurrection really needs is more miracles. So they added that true followers of Jesus will be able to carry dangerous snakes around and drink poison. They'll be able to perform more run-of-the-mill miracles like healing the sick just by laying hands on them, too. Poison-drinking, snake-handling, and faith-healing! Now that sounds way more like a victorious resurrection in the face of death than three terrified women running out of a tomb. That's how you tell a story about Resurrection!
As one who comes from a long line of loud-mouthed story-tellers, I can't really blame the scribes who added these new endings to the Gospel story. I understand this impulse to improve on a story by adding more exciting bits. What could be more exciting than snake-handling and poison-drinking? I also understand the impulse to try to finish the story on an up-note. People, myself included, seem to like stories with a tidy, happy ending. After such a grueling and tragedy-filled week, both in the story and in real life, don't many of us hope that something good will happen once these women set out for the tomb? After such a weighty week, I don't necessarily want to be reminded that sometimes even good news can be too scary to share. I don't really want to be reminded of how terrifying encounters with the Divine can be. I don't want to think about failure to share the good news of God's action in the world. What I want is the rain clouds to shift from central Kentucky to California's central basin. What I want is our projector to be returned with a note that says "We're sorry. We're getting clean. We wanted to bring this back." What I want is for my stuffy nose to clear up and my cat to feel better and for 300 families to not have lost their loved ones to meaningless and cruel violence. What I want is a happy ending. And, the oldest ending of the Gospel of Mark doesn't seem all that happy.
Back in seminary, we spent some time comparing the resurrection stories in the Gospels. As I worked on my sermon this week, something one of my professors said came back to me. When we looked at this very same passage and saw that the women were so afraid that they said nothing to anyone, she said, "Well, they must have told someone. Or else we wouldn't be reading it." The Gospel of Mark is the oldest gospel. It was probably written 30 -40 years after Jesus died. If the women were the only witnesses to the Resurrection and they didn't tell anybody, how did the author of Mark know about it in order to write it down? If they didn't tell anybody, how did Paul know about the Resurrection to write about it in his letters to the Corinthians, letters that he wrote about 20 years after Jesus died? If the women were so scared that they never told anybody, how are you and I sitting here, smelling spring flowers, wearing our Sunday best, and singing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today"? They must have told someone. Or else we wouldn't be reading about it today.
What this tells me is that even on our worst weeks, when tragedy has struck, when we feel terrible, when our trust has been betrayed, and we are afraid, even on these weeks where we cannot bring ourselves to speak of the Resurrection that we have seen, there is still hope that we can bear witness to New Life on another week. We can still tell the story of what we've seen on another week, a week that's not so raw. A week that's not so scary. A week that doesn't hurt so much. What this story tells me is that the Good News is still the Good News, even if we're too scared to tell it right off. Even if we need to take some time to share what we've seen. Even if we're scared no one will believe us, the Good News is still the Good News, and the Resurrection is still the Resurrection. What this story tells me is that we still have chance to speak of God's work in our lives and in our world, even if we are too much in awe to speak of it today. Maybe we can tell our Resurrection story tomorrow. Or, maybe it will be the next day. In the meantime, the angel is still right there in the tomb, reassuring us. Do not be afraid. Jesus has been raised. You will see him again. You just have to go back to that first place you saw him. He is going ahead of you. But, don't worry. You'll see him again, just like he told you. When we're less afraid, we'll tell the story of the Resurrection, too. We'll let our alleluias loose, too. If those women could do it, we can too.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Fred Craddock, "He is Not Here: Mark 16:1-8": http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2701
Karoline Lewis, "Resurrection Matters": http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3574
Paul S. Berge's commentary on Mark 16:1-8: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1313
Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Moment #010: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2249
Pheme Perkins, "Mark" in The New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.