April 19, 2020, remotely for COVID-19

Second Sunday of Easter 

Faith or Fear

 

GOSPEL

When it was evening on the day of Resurrection, 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 nameJohn 20:19-31

SERMON

 

The story of doubting Thomas is always told on the first Sunday after Easter, because as fascinating as the Easter story is, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, it is hard to believe.

 

This gospel story speaks to the struggle that we each engage when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus.  It shines a light on the conflict within every one of us, as we face the potentially life transforming proclamation that the Lord is risen.  That the One who was put to death on a cross by the power of hate, was raised to life by the power of love – that the Lord is risen, that He is risen, indeed. Alleluia.  

 

Yes, we all want to believe that life and love conquer all – even death. Sometimes, we are even tempted to live and to love as if this were true.  

 

At times, we dare to give into the temptation to actually live that free of all those cares and fears that drag us down and make our living and our loving: 

smaller than God ever intended; 

smaller than grace makes possible; 

smaller than the larger life that God imagines for us and would have us live.  

 

But in those moments in which we dare to own our freedom, do we not quake and quiver with life’s sheer vibrancy?  The last story on the CBS evening news is always an uplifting report of someone among us who has chosen to live a larger life. 

 

However, there lives that doubt in each of us that the Good News embodied in the Risen One might not be true: that hate and not love is the final word; that death and not life is the final word.  And where there is more doubt than faith, there is fear, and, at times even paralyzing fear.

 

This fear can play havoc with the robustness of any response we make. 

This fear can make us hesitant rather than forthright in our response.  

This fear can cause us to hedge our bets rather than bet the farm.  

This fear can cause is to turn inward, rather than open us up to the breadth and depth and intensity of a God-fueled and God-driven life. 

This fear can stop us dead in our tracks.  

 

And so when it comes to living life with the radical freedom that faith in eternal life can and would make possible – where do I hang?   Do I find myself clutching and grasping or trusting and letting go? 

 

This conundrum is especially important for each of us to address, struggle with and resolve in a crisis such as the one through which the world is now passing. Will fear or faith prevail in the posture we assume and the actions that we engage in response to Covid-19?  

 

And just to be clear I am not talking about faith in a self-serving, divisive, pathological, narcissist who would claim absolute authority and categorically deny any responsibility whatsoever.  I am talking about faith in a Christ who, in fact, has complete authority and gave Himself fully, even to death on a cross.  

 

Yes, when the occupant of the White House removes the protective shield around himself, when he spends a few weeks tending the sick and the dying at Elmhurst Hospital, then an only then, will he be in a credible position to direct a dismantling of the quarantine.   

 

Again to be clear – fear is not necessarily to be confused with foolishness, nor must faith express itself as stupidity.   

 

Fear is wise when it motivates us to take appropriate measures to insure our safety and the safety of others, such as those measures that support timely social distancing.  And to keep those strictures in place until testing is available to all.  

 

Faith descends to stupidity when, in defiance of science, it supports mass gatherings to give the good Lord and opportunity to effect a miracle.   

 

However, fear that expresses itself in taking care of only number one and obviates any possibility of our showing up in any way, possibly even at some personal risk, for the well-being of and service to others, is a sad dead end.  

 

Gratefully those on the front lines have not allowed themselves to be so paralyzed, as to be rendered useless.  And if I might once again raise the issue a needed response closer to home, for those who are neither elderly nor live with compromising medical issues, if you can and do food shop for yourself, you certainly can shop and deliver for another.  You can speak with Margot Jepson for more information about this.   

 

The Easter story was hard to believe then and is hard to believe now.  Thomas may be remembered as the icon of doubt, but he was not alone in the struggle between faith and doubt, between belief and unbelief, between faith and fear.  He too sought safety in that locked room where the others were hiding in fear.  

 

The only one in the Easter story who did not question what she saw, nor question the truth of her experience, was Mary Magdalene.  When the Risen Lord spoke her name with love, her anxious and frightened heart melted and she immediately surrendered to the reality and mystery of His living presence. She became fearless.  

 

Immediately, at his command, she ran to tell Peter and the others.  Can we not see her racing from the garden, sprinting up the road to the gates of Jerusalem, dashing through the streets and charging into the upper room of the house where the disciples were hiding?  Out of breath she cries out in joyous excitement –“I have seen the Lord.” 

 

The task, of those who wrote the scriptures and the task of those who preach the scriptures, remains constant: that those who listen to the Word proclaimed and hear the Word preached might either come to believe for the first time, or might find their faith strengthened and believe that much more deeply, such that any residue of fear is undermined. 

 

My sisters and brothers, I say to you this morning, I too have seen Lord.  I have beheld his glorious presence many times over in the course of my life and ministry.  And I know that you too have seen the Lord.   

 

But the proclaimed, preached and experienced Lord is always up against doors and hearts that are, or too easily would be, locked shut again and again by fear. Gracefully, as the post resurrection stories remind us, locked doors are no barriers to the Risen Lord.  He penetrates our barriers and stands in the room with us.  And as he stands in that space with us, if we would seize the opportunity, no matter how frightened we may be, we will hear him speaking our name with the same love with which he addressed Mary.  

 

The Divine Stranger is always here standing before us. Yes, Stranger, because it is the ordinary experience not to recognize him – is it not?  One of the recurring themes of all the post resurrection stories is that they did not recognize him.  Mary thought he was the gardener.  The disciples thought he was a ghost. The two who met him in the road to Emmaus only recognized the stranger when He broke the bread. Peter and Andrew and John did not recognize that the Stranger on the shore cooking them breakfast was Jesus. 

 

Thomas was clear about what he needed to believe that the Stranger was the Risen Jesus. He needed put his finger into the nail wounds and his hand into the pierced side of Jesus.   Even today, the Risen Lord stands in our midst inviting us to touch his wounds if that is what we need to do in order to believe.  

 

Today his wounds are to the found in the bodies of the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and all the strangers who live among us.  It takes wanting and a desire to believe to approach those wounds. But the touching of those wounds will, I assure you, ignite or possibly reignite the flame of faith.

 

What do we require?  What de we require to respond with more than lip service?  What do we need to respond in a way that moves us out of our comfort zone?  What do we need to respond to the change being invited, with faith rather then fear?  What do we require to stand in the presence of the risen Lord and with the same passion as Thomas – cry out, “My Lord and My God”.  What is required to live the grace prayed for in the opening collect ……”to show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith”?

                                                                                                                                              It takes faith to live into the radical nature of the response that is being invited. It is radical because it is simply not the way of the world in which we live.  

In the community of those who were the first witnesses to the resurrection we are told that there was not a needy person among them because they shared all that they had.  Do we have the faith to work toward the later becoming the norm rather than settling for the status quo, which in these days has revealed itself, beyond denial, to be morally bankrupt?   

Forbes recently reported that a tax break imbedded in the coronavirus relief legislation, at the insistence of the party of the right, insures that 82% of the funding is going to those who make in excess of 1 million dollars a year? 

Our history of structural racism, our persistent will to blame and shame the poor for their condition, and a sustained inhumane immigration policy have left the most vulnerable, all the more, at the mercy of Covid-19.  

Again, the party of the right resists any actions that would insure as complete a head count as possible in the 2020 census, and they continue to support various strategies for voter suppression.   If you cannot Shop and Deliver you certainly can volunteer to makes those phone calls and write those postcards that could serve to make a difference.  For more information about these actions speak with Mary Vandezande.

To show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith is to make daily choices, in our personal and communal lives, in the direction of the Gospel ideal and to take those chances and make those decisions that are born of living as if God’s love and eternal life do in fact, and will in fact, conquer all.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna                                                                                                                April 19, 2020