Sunday, April 15, 2012

"The Kind of Certainty We Cannot Have"

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 15, 2012

Year B: The Second Sunday of Easter
(Acts 4: 32-35)
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

“The Kind of Certainty We Cannot Have”

Maybe because I was away for a year, but Easter Day here at Grace Church felt even more powerful and more awesome than usual.

The church itself looked so spectacular – at least one longtime parishioner said she thought it had never looked more beautiful.

There were the usual crowds – parishioners we see pretty much every week, parishioners we see once in a while, people we see once or twice a year and people we’ve never seen before and may never see again. Yet, all were here because they – we - knew this was the place to be on Easter.

They – and we – know this is the place where we are sure to meet the Risen Christ through the words of Scripture. This is the place where we are sure to meet the Risen Christ through our gorgeous music. This is the place where we meet the Risen Christ through our warm welcome and fellowship. This is the place where we meet the Risen Christ in the breaking of the bread – when we take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.

And this is the place where we can confidently proclaim:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord has risen indeed! Alleluia!

So, I don’t know about you, but last week when I left here, although exhausted, I basically floated out of this place, still riding on a wave of alleluias.

And then it was back out in the world… where nothing much had changed.

I know some of you were on vacation, but over the course of the week wasn’t it pretty much back to normal? Romney and Obama were back at it. We turned our attention back to Sanford, Florida, and the tragic story of a neighborhood watch that ended in bloodshed and death, ambiguous economic statistics were released, and North Korea launched – very briefly - a rocket.

For better or worse, most of our lives returned to their normal rhythms.

Here in church we had wonderfully joyous Easter celebrations but out in the world everything seemed unchanged – about as joyful, or joyless, as ever.

For me, and maybe for you, it didn’t take long for that Easter confidence to fade back into doubt – doubt that what we had experienced in church was real, doubt that what we had celebrated in church makes any difference in the world.

The Church is well aware of this post-Easter slump and that’s one of the reasons that every year on the Sunday following Easter we hear the story of our old friend, the doubting Apostle Thomas.

In the Gospel of John we’re told that Thomas had missed the first appearance of the Risen Christ to his disciples.

We’re not told why he was absent and I always wonder about that. In my imagination I see Thomas out in the wilderness somewhere yelling up at the sky, angry at God for allowing Jesus to die so horribly, angry at Jesus for not saving himself, and angry – and ashamed - at himself for not staying with his Lord in his greatest moment of need.

Maybe he was angry at God, at Jesus, and at himself for having been fooled. Obviously, Jesus wasn’t who he thought he was, who he said he was. After all, what kind of messiah, what kind of Son of God dies a shameful death on the cross?

Maybe Thomas remembered bitterly the joyful entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, with the crowds singing hosanna to the king as he entered his capital city.

What difference had any of it made?

Well, of course Thomas earns his reputation as a doubter when the other disciples tell him the amazingly good news that Jesus is risen.

But, Thomas doesn’t buy it. He famously says, “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.”

Obviously, Thomas is meant to be a stand-in for us who no longer see Jesus in the flesh, who often have a lot of doubts, who sometimes wonder if our faith is just a delusion, a dream, a made-up story, who question if what we experience here makes any difference out there in the world.

But, the most important point about the Thomas story is not that he doubts. That just puts him in the same boat with all of the rest of us.

The most important point about the Thomas story is that, despite his doubt, he persists. He is willing to go with the disciples, somehow holding on to the hope that they’re telling the truth, holding on the hope that he’ll meet the Risen Christ.

Despite his doubts, Thomas persists.

In a recent issue of The Christian Century magazine there’s an interview with Ruth Burrows, an English Carmelite nun and spiritual writer. What she said about faith and doubt really jumped out at me. Listen to this:

“Many people think they have no faith because they feel they haven’t. They do not realize that they must make a choice to believe, to take the risk of believing, of committing themselves and setting themselves to live out the commitment. Never mind that they continue to feel that they do not believe. Under cover of being ‘authentic’ we can spend our lives waiting for the kind of certainty we cannot have.”

Thomas didn’t have certainty. He was filled with doubts and yet he was willing to take the risk of going back with the disciples to the house.

And, there, Thomas recognizes the wounds of Jesus and meets the Risen Christ.

Faith is a gift from God, but we have to make a choice to believe, not waiting for a certainty that we’ll never have.

And we make that choice to believe each time we come here. Each time we bring a child to be baptized. Each time we stand and say the creed. Each time we stretch out our hands and take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.

And we make a choice to believe, not waiting for a certainty we’ll never have, each time we go out into the world, striving to love our neighbors as ourselves, each time we strive for justice and peace, each time we strive to respect the dignity of every human being.

And, sure enough, when we make a choice to believe, not waiting for the certainty we’ll never have, like Thomas long ago we’re likely to recognize the wounds of Jesus and meet the Risen Christ.

A quick story: At our healing service on Wednesday we heard the wonderful story of the Risen Christ appearing to the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

In my homily I talked about how we meet the Risen Christ when we welcome the stranger.

I mentioned two poor people I had gotten to know during my year in Florida. One was a homeless man named Jesse who lived on a bench outside our chapel. He drank way too much and, frankly, when I first met him I had thought he’d be a nuisance. I was nervous when he started coming into the chapel, afraid that he might disrupt our services by saying or doing something inappropriate or just by smelling bad.

Instead, Jesse turned out to be the most beautiful and most profound pray-er I’ve ever met. He offered prayers unselfconsciously from the depths of his heart and the depths of his soul.

Getting to know him and having the chance to pray with him was one of the great gifts of my year in Florida.

In Jesse’s woundedness I met the Risen Christ.

Anyway, immediately after the service on Wednesday, I walked into the parish office and Kirk said there was a gentleman in the hallway who wanted to see me.

No, it wasn’t Jesse. It was another wounded man with a weather-beaten face. He told me his name was Ernesto. I had never met him, but Lauren tells me he’s been here before. We had a great conversation. He told me that he worked in a Butterball factory in Arkansas and over the past nine days he had hitchhiked here on his way to the immigration office in Newark. He told me he needed a little help so he could complete the last leg of his journey.

I wanted to laugh out loud at the timing. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, “That’s God for you!”

Like Thomas long ago, I was given the choice to believe, not waiting for a certainty I’ll never have.

And so, just for a moment, in the woundedness of exhausted but joyful Ernesto I recognized the wounds of Jesus and met the Risen Christ.

So, today it’s the Second Sunday of Easter, for better or worse, we’ve gotten pretty much back to normal, and the world is as joyful – or as joyless – as ever.

Like Thomas we have our doubts – and always will.

Like Thomas, despite our doubts, we’re here - we persist.

Like Thomas, we’re given the choice to believe, not waiting for a certainty we’ll never have.

And, like Thomas, we’re given the chance both here in church and out in the world to recognize the wounds of Jesus and to meet the Risen Christ.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!