Easter 2B, April 12, 2015

April 13, 2015

Aching for Life
John 20:19-31

(Prior to preaching this sermon, the Chairperson of our Staff Parish Relations Committee, Carol Kennedy, announced that QQUMC will be receiving a new pastor following Annual Conference this summer, and that I will be moving to a new appointment at that time. At the moment, I’m unaware of where my next appointment will be, but I anticipate learning of my new assignment soon)

20:19 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.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 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.” 26 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.” 27 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.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 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.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 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.

Knowing that Carol would be making this significant announcement this morning, I knew I would want to say a few words about this new development. And the first thing I want you to know is how good it has been for me to be the pastor of this church. It has been a really rich and enriching experience for me. I have felt really well matched for this church, and I feel good about what we’ve done together over the past 6 years. I’m grateful for the freedom and support I’ve experienced here. I like to think I’ve done some good work and I don’t have any significant regrets about anything I’ve done. I feel really good about what has gone on since I’ve been here.

But I do have one regret – which is that we haven’t grown in a significant manner. We haven’t hit the numbers that this church needs, and that troubles me. I don’t like the fact that we aren’t able to pay all of our obligations, and that’s largely what has brought about the upcoming change. But before you think we’re somehow getting punished by upper management, you need to know that I’m the one who has largely brought attention to this situation. I’m probably more unsatisfied with the way things are than they are at headquarters, but I’m also more conscious of the way things are than they are, and I’m the one who feels like something needs to change.

In all honesty I’m really sad to be leaving, but I also have a clear sense of it being time for me to move. I care about what happens here, but I think it’s time for me to pass the baton. I like to think it’s the Holy Spirit that has prompted this move, but it’s never easy to judge those things. I know that change is anxiety producing. Believe me – I can tell you a lot about that. I am currently very suspended. I have no idea where I will be appointed, and when I am not in a panic about that I recognize that change provides opportunity for growth, and I pray that will be the case for us all.

What I also know is that this is not a tragic circumstance. I’m reminded of a story my dentist told me one day while I was being held captive in his chair with sharp instruments in my mouth. He’s a fellow United Methodist here in town, and his church was experiencing some staff turnover a couple of years ago which resulted in some significant membership turmoil. There were people leaving the church because of what was going on, and my dentist said it was the subject of constant conversation in their Sunday School class.

He said that as they gathered one Sunday morning someone brought up the subject, and they started talking about what a tragedy it was that so many people were leaving the church, but there was a firefighter in the class who had heard about all he wanted to hear on the subject and he brought some perspective to the situation. He said something to the effect that they were experiencing some misfortune, but that it wasn’t a tragedy. He said he knew what tragedy looks like because he saw it regularly, and church turmoil doesn’t rise to the threshold of tragedy. My dentist said that really put things in perspective for him, and it sort of does the same for me.

This is a significant change, it’s sort of scary, but it’s not a toxic waste spill. In fact it might be that we’re all getting a load of spiritual compost. That’s about all I know to say about this. I can’t say for sure that the Holy Spirit has prompted these changes, but the Holy Spirit is certainly on hand to help us navigate the new landscape, and I think we can all take comfort and assurance from that.

And speaking of the Holy Spirit – what I want to think about now is what’s going on in this story about Jesus appearing to the disciples as they had assembled in their anxiety behind closed doors. This story contains some elements that are unique to the Gospel of John, and it’s a rich story. I think it’s a story that contains some characters that we can understand. In fact, the notion of people gathering with anxiety behind locked doors is an altogether familiar circumstance to most of us. We may not have found ourselves cowered down in fear of arrest and torturous death, but I dare say there are some fearful intruders we all hope to avoid. There’s a knock on the door we don’t want to hear, a doctor’s report we don’t want to read, or a call we don’t want to get.

There are many life-stealing situations that we all face, and there’s a lot of unmet yearning for life-giving opportunities. The disciples faced a very specific life-threatening situation, but it’s not unusual to find ourselves cowered down in unsettling situations, and I love this image of the risen Christ being able to penetrate the barriers we’ve erected in hope of staying safe. Barriers provide some cover, but life doesn’t happen behind barriers – life happens when we come out from behind the barriers. Barriers can be useful, but they don’t give us what we really need.

The disciples were as good as dead as they gathered together behind that locked door. They were still breathing, but they weren’t really alive – not until Jesus came in and infected them with the Holy Spirit. It was then that they truly came to life and were empowered to embrace whatever the world would fling toward them. They were touched by the life-giving spirit of Jesus Christ and that changed everything for them.

There’s this beautiful story that I of course heard on NPR. It was a compressed story that came from a podcast called, Invisibilia, and it was about this man named Martin Pistorious, who was stricken with cryptococcal meningitis when he was about 12 years old and it caused him to lose his entire ability to function. It was sort of a gradual loss, but over the course of a few months he went from being totally functional to being totally dysfunctional. He couldn’t do anything, and the doctors told his parents to take him home and keep him comfortable until he died.

But he didn’t die, and he remained in that state of total unresponsiveness for more than 12 years. He was totally unconscious for the first few years, but his mind slowly began to wake up and he became totally aware of what was going on about 4 years in to the situation. He was totally awake, but he was completely unable to communicate his situation to anyone.

And that went on for years. He was in that state for about 8 years before his family began to recognize some intentional movements on his part, but even then the doctors told them that he had the mind of an infant. With encouragement from a kind-hearted nurse they got a second opinion on the state of his mind, and that is when he began to reconnect with the world. He still can’t talk, but he communicates with a voice activated computer, and he is totally reconnected with life.

The really interesting thing is to hear him talk about where his mind went during those years of disconnection. He said there was a period of time when he totally disassociated himself from his thoughts, and he did that because he had terrible thoughts. He was tormented by his thoughts. He would think about how alone and worthless he was, and in order to deal with that he said he became detached from his thoughts. That was the barrier he erected to protect himself, but at some point he began to reengage with the world in his mind.

He was in an adult day-care center where they thought he had the mind of an infant, so they put him in a room where they played perpetual Barney reruns, and he developed this deep dislike of Barney, and he learned to tell time by watching the movement of the shadows across the room, and he learned to predict when his father would come get him away from Barney.

He went from seeing his mind as his tormentor to seeing it as his only functional tool, and he used his mind all day to resist the bad things that were happening to him, to enjoy the small blessings of the day, to imagine, and to analyze what was going on. He came back to life in his mind, and amazingly he reconnected with his family and friends. Eventually he became a website designer, and at age 33 he got married.

It’s truly a story of a person who went from death to life, and while there is no mention of his faith journey in this story, what I heard him talk about is how much he ached to be reconnected to life, and in a rather miraculous manner he did.

Jesus didn’t step in the room, turn off the Barney reruns, and restore him to life in an instant, but Jesus comes to us all in different ways. Thomas certainly had a unique encounter with the living Christ, and while there are a number of ways to interpret what that episode is all about, what stands out to me is not how much doubt Thomas had but how much desire he had for the resurrection to be real.

It’s a good thing to be filled with desire for life to be meaningful. We shouldn’t be content to have adequate barriers erected to keep us relatively secure. It’s a good thing to have some appetite for life and not to settle for those things that just keep us alive and sedated. Jesus Christ didn’t go to the cross in order for us to enjoy HD TV. I’m not saying there isn’t some fine programming and equipment out there, but Jesus wants us to know what it is to truly be alive. And Jesus has shared his breath with us so that we will get out from behind our safe and predictable walls and find some life.

I take great comfort in this story of Jesus coming to his disciples because I believe Jesus is trying to break in to all of our lives. In fact we can’t create enough barriers to keep him out.

And thanks be to God for that!


2 Responses to “Easter 2B, April 12, 2015”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    Wish that we had been there for all six years with you !!

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