Sermon for Sunday, April 17, 2022 || Easter Sunday C || John 20:1-18
Good morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s on this glorious Easter Sunday. Today is our first Easter on-site here on Pearl Street since 2019, and I am overjoyed to see your faces. If there’s anyone here today who doesn’t know me, I’m Pastor Adam Thomas. Today is my ninth Easter as the rector of this wonderful church, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be than celebrating with you on this special feast of the Resurrection.
Today, I’d like to talk about peace. But first, a confession. I am a total, unabashed, and excitable nerd. Most of you know this about me. I know way too much about Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and several other properties that live in nerd space. My first book, which became Digital Disciple, originally had the working title “God’s Nerd.” I even co-host a podcast called The Podcast for Nerdy Christians. I say all this to prepare you for what I am about to say next.
When I created the world of Sularil in which to set my first ever Dungeons and Dragons game, one of the things I really wanted to do was create a language native to the world. The very first new word I created for my Elvish language was the word, “Peace” – “Fyara” in Elvish. I wanted “Peace” to be the word of greeting for the elves in my world, and so the first person would say, “Fyara” (Peace) and the other person would respond, “Fyarana” (Deeper peace).
I did this because the elves in my world are peaceful people. I wanted the first and last word on their lips to be a word of peace. Indeed, this word is also the first word on the lips of the Risen Christ when he encounters the disciples locked in the room on the night of the resurrection. “Peace be with you,” he says (or in the Elvish translation of the Gospel, “Fyara”). Three times in today’s reading, he offers them peace. Jesus offers this greeting of peace to his fearful disciples, and like so much else in John’s Gospel, even something as simple as this greeting has layers of meaning.
Today is the day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit empowering Jesus’ first followers to spread his loving, liberating, and life-giving message. If you were listening closely to the readings, you might have noticed we actually read two different versions of the sending of the Holy Spirit. In the first one from the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit spirals into the house like a rushing wind from heaven and anoints the disciples with tongues like fire. In this story, we sense the glorious upheaval in the lives of the disciples as these elemental forces – wind, fire – disrupt and invigorate them to embrace their new ministry as Jesus’ witnesses.
In the second story from the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to his disciples on the evening of the resurrection. They lean in close as he breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In this intimate story, Jesus delivers the Comforter, the enlivening companion the disciples need to be about their work.
Sermon for Sunday, April 21, 2019 || Easter Day C || JOHN 20:1-18
Here we are at long last: Easter Sunday, a long wait this year, two-thirds of the way through the month of April. But it could have been longer. April 25th is the latest Easter can be, but that hasn’t happened since 1943 and won’t happen again until 2038, which coincidentally is the year I’ll be eligible to retire. Unlike most holidays, which are fixed on a particular date or day of the month, the date of Easter (and the Jewish Passover) springs from something much grander – the motion of celestial bodies. We start with the vernal equinox, the day in March when the earth is tilted just so in relation to the sun to make day and night the same exact length. Then we find the next full moon, and the Sunday following is this day of Resurrection.
Sermon for Sunday, April 8, 2018 || Easter 2B || John 20:19-31
“Peace” is one of my favorite words. It has a bit of onomatopoeia to it – you know, a word that sounds likes its meaning, like “buzz” or “hiss.” When I say the word “peace” I become more peaceful. I take a deep breath and exhale on the first sound of the word, and the sibilant at the end takes the rest of my breath. “Peace.”
I imagine Jesus doing this with his fearful disciples in the upper room. Of course, he wasn’t speaking the English word “peace,” but he does breathe on them. If they’re anything like me, then their anxiety would have stolen their breath from their lungs. But Jesus gives it back to them when he twice says, “Peace be with you.” And then a third time when Thomas rejoins the group: “Peace be with you.”Continue reading “The Intention of Peace”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31
Near the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns to life. His adversary had executed him on that table in place of the boy Edmund. The witch thinks she has won a decisive victory, but Aslan knows of deeper magic than she. So the witch doesn’t expect the risen lion to appear at her castle while she’s off trying to conquer the land of Narnia. But that’s what happens. Aslan, the Christ-like figure of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, races to the witch’s home to free all those whom she had turned into statues. And do you know how he releases them from their captivity? He breathes on them.Continue reading “So I Send You”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 16, 2017 || Easter Day, Year A || John 20:1-18
On three occasions over the last couple years, I have left Home Depot laden with weather-treated boards and decking screws. I brought the materials home, lugged them to the backyard, and set about shaping them into rudimentary boxes. I’m not much of a carpenter, so “rudimentary” is actual quite a compliment. Thankfully, all these boxes have to do is sit in the sun and rain, full of soil and compost and manure.
You see, my wife Leah has become quite the gardener since we moved to Mystic. There was a single three foot by six foot box in the yard when we arrived, a remnant from a previous occupant. I built another the same size, and, let me tell you, the tomatoes Leah grew that first year were…mwah…delicioso! I put in a 4 x 8 bed last fall, which now has little stalks of garlic reaching through the soil. And a few weeks ago, I knocked together the last box, a long narrow one, 12 x 2, for peas. Needless to say, the surface area for gardening at the rectory has tripled in the last year, and I am looking forward to eating the results.Continue reading “Two Gardens”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2016 || Easter 2C || John 20:19-31
Both my first and last names come from the Bible. To be sure, a large portion of names used in the United States do, but many if not most of them do not share the dubious pedigree of mine. Every Hannah out there gets to claim as her namesake a woman of complete devotion to God. Every Matthew and Mark and Luke and John out there gets to share a name with a writer of the Gospel. But me? I get the guy who ate the fruit he wasn’t supposed to eat and then shifted the blame to his wife. And I get the Doubter – and that’s Doubter with a capital “D.”
And while I don’t have much energy to defend Adam’s poor decision-making, I do get a bit revved up whenever I hear someone label the disciple Thomas as “Doubting,” as if it’s his first name. As if he’s one of the seven dwarfs: “I know you’ve met Grumpy and Happy and Bashful, but have you met Doubting?” This really irks me – and not simply because Thomas and I share a name. No. Calling him the Doubter is not just unfair (why single him out?); calling him the doubter is actually a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. So let’s unpack Thomas a bit, and hopefully by the end of this sermon we will see that doubt is not an evil thing.
Once we move past the caricature of Thomas as the Doubter, we see a fuller picture of him form. He is one of the more visible disciples in the Gospel of John; indeed, after Peter, he is tied with Philip for most lines of dialogue. When we look at his interactions with Jesus as a whole, we discover a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions.
We see his deep faith in today’s lesson. When the other disciples find him, he sets this condition: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Then when he meets Jesus, he never actually follows through. He sees Jesus there in the flesh, and then makes the most startling claim of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep faith.
Earlier, about halfway through the story, Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is dying. The trouble is that Lazarus lives only about two miles from Jerusalem, and things are pretty hot for Jesus there. In fact, the immediate result of Jesus raising Lazarus was to confirm in the chief priest’s mind the necessity that Jesus be put to death. The disciples know how dangerous it is for Jesus to head towards Jerusalem. But it’s Thomas who persuades them, saying: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep convictions.
Soon after, Jesus is having that famous meal with his friends in the upper room. His arrest is imminent, but before they go out to Gethsemane, Jesus speaks many words of truth to his friends. We often quote some of these words at funerals: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling-places…You know they way to the place where I am going.” Here Thomas interrupts Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To this Jesus responds: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” A deep answer to a deep and desperate question. Yes, Thomas is a man of deep questions.
When you combine faith, convictions, and questions, do you know what often results? It’s the recipe for Doubt. Our faith gives us a reason to ask deep questions about God and life and what it all means. These deep questions do not have readily apparent or digestible answers; if they did, they wouldn’t be deep questions. Conviction gives us perseverance, which allows faith to exist within the sphere of uncertainty. This is actually where faith thrives. Certainty is the enemy of faith because it leads to stagnation, or worse, fundamentalism. Doubt, on the other hand, gives us the fuel to push on our beliefs, examine them, strengthen them.
And yet, our Gospel passage today seems to set doubt up as the enemy of belief, to put them on opposite sides of a dichotomy. After all, Jesus chastises Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.” Except that’s not what he says. Our English translation takes some liberties to get the word “doubt” out of the Greek word that’s on Jesus’ lips. Another translation reads like this: “No more disbelief. Believe!” (CEB). In English, when we add the prefixes “un–” or “dis–” to something, we give it the opposite meaning, right? Kind and Unkind. Belief and disbelief. That’s exactly what happens in Greek when you add the letter “a–” to the front of a word.* In today’s passage, Jesus says just such a pair of opposites. Belief and unbelief. Not belief and doubt.
So what he’s really saying to Thomas is this: “Don’t jettison your belief all in one go. I know you have deep questions, but you have deep conviction too. Your faith is still there in the midst of your doubts. But here I am. It’s really me.” And that’s when Thomas drops to his knees and proclaims: “My Lord and my God.”
We all have our doubts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been brushing my teeth or pumping gas and been stricken by a wave of doubt. What if this is all just a bunch of hokum? Even if there is a God, why would God care about lil’ ole me? And those are just the entry level doubts, the nagging ones that don’t really have a particular trigger. Bigger ones surface when we confront egregious disappointment or untimely death or heinous acts of evil like what took place in Pakistan on Easter Day.
But remember, doubt is not something to be feared. Doubt is not something to ward off at all costs. In fact, doing everything in your power never to doubt is the way to dangerous fundamentalism. Jesus never said not to doubt. He said simply: “Believe!” And belief in the Risen Christ – the One who overcame the power of death itself – can survive an onslaught of doubt. In the power of the resurrection, eternal life swallowed up death. In the same way, belief fueled by the enduring promises of God swallows doubt into itself. Just as death is part of life, doubt becomes a part of belief – the part that keeps it moving and growing and alive.
Thomas was a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions. He desired to follow Jesus no matter the cost; he wanted so fervently to know the way; and in the end he proclaimed Jesus for who he really is: “My Lord and my God.” I’m sure Thomas had his doubts. After all, he was off wandering on his own during those frightening days. I’m sure he was processing his confusion, wondering how it all went wrong. But in the midst of his confusion, his teetering belief, the Risen Christ comes and calls him back: “No more disbelief. Believe!”
When you are struggling with your own doubts – about God, about yourself – remember that doubt is a part of belief, not the opposite. And remember that you’re not alone in your doubts. Don’t be afraid to be like Thomas, who heads back to the upper room even though he hasn’t seen Jesus yet. Ask your deep question. Share your struggle with us. I guarantee you someone else will say, “Oh, me too.” And together, with God’s help, we will find deeper wells of faith and conviction, which will compel us to drop to our knees in front of the Risen Christ and proclaim: “My Lord and my God.”
* Some of these survive in English: atheism (NOT God), anaerobic exercise (NOT exercise that gets your heart pumping).
Sermon for Sunday, April 5, 2015 || Easter Sunday, Year B; John 20:1-18
Good morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s on this glorious Easter Sunday. This morning we walk with Mary Magdalene to the tomb and find it empty. And yet our emptiness doesn’t last for long because Jesus, the Risen Christ, stands there, shining before us, as the dew glistens on the early spring flowers blossoming in the garden.
But before we get to this beautiful encounter, I want to talk to you for a moment about my favorite comic strip. Calvin and Hobbes and I grew up together. Bill Watterson’s impeccable creation began its run about two months before my third birthday and ended just before I turned thirteen. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you I learned to read so I could consume Watterson’s genius. What attracted me to Calvin and Hobbes turns out to be the same element that makes our Christian faith so beautiful. The comic strip is all about the adventures of a young boy and his stuffed tiger. Yet while Calvin’s parents see only a stuffed tiger when they look at Hobbes, Calvin sees a living, breathing beast who might hug him or pounce on him depending on the tiger’s mood. For Calvin’s parents, the stuffed tiger is a “what.” It’s just another thing, a toy. But for Calvin, Hobbes is so much more than a “what.” Hobbes is a “who.”
In the same way, our Christian faith is based not on a “what,” but on a “who.” Yes, we have doctrine and catechism and creed, but none of those trappings matter if we forget the answer to the “who” question that undergirds them all. In the garden this morning, the Risen Christ asks Mary Magdalene this “who” question. Whom are you looking for? At first, Mary answers with a “what” response. She’s wondering what has happened to the body of her Lord. But when Jesus says her name, she recognizes him for who he is – he’s still Jesus, and yet he’s more somehow, as if the power of the resurrection made him a truer version of himself. I imagine Mary launching herself into his arms and their embrace lingering because she thought she had lost him – she had lost him – and yet here he is. You can try embracing a “what,” but only a “who” will embrace you back. The Risen Christ is the answer to this “who” question our faith asks.
Throughout the last two chapters of the Gospel according to John, Jesus appears to his friends five times. In each encounter, something could keep the disciples from recognizing the Risen Christ in their midst, but his presence dispels those barriers. The same barriers often stand in our way and keep us from embracing the Risen Christ in our midst. These barriers trick us into seeing just a stuffed tiger, so to speak, when Hobbes is standing there grinning with a pile of snowballs at the ready. I’d hazard to guess we’ve all known each of these barriers. But today, on this feast of the Resurrection, Jesus gives us the opportunity to answer his question anew and dispel those barriers once again. So whom are you looking for?
The second half of our Gospel reading this morning begins with tears. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” Her sorrow could be a barrier keeping her from seeing the Risen Christ. Indeed, when she sees him, she thinks he’s the gardener. She even accuses him of stealing her Lord’s body. She’s hurting, and not even a vision of angels staunches her pain. In moments of sorrow, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Responding with his name won’t necessarily make the sorrow go away. But it will help us notice his presence in our midst, suffering with us, and offering us strong arms to carry our burdens when they become too heavy to bear alone.
Later that evening, “The doors of the house where the disciples had met where locked for fear of the Jews.” The disciples have hidden themselves away because they’re afraid they will be next for the cross. The fear is so palpable that it hangs in the room like fog, silencing all attempts at conversation and isolating each man with his own dark thoughts. But a locked door and fog of fear cannot stop the Risen Christ from appearing in their midst. He dispels their terror with a word of peace. In moments of fear, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” As we breathe out his name, we breathe in this same peace, the peace that passes all understanding.
The next week, Thomas is with them. He wasn’t in the house the last time, so he still hasn’t seen the Risen Christ. “I need to see him and touch to know you are telling the truth,” he says to his friends. His doubt is understandable. How could he possibly believe a story so incredible without some shred of proof? And yet when the Risen Christ stands before him, he falls to his knees and utters the most resounding declaration of faith in the whole Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” And all without ever touching Jesus. In moments of doubt, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” And in those moments, even the smallest, most doubtful voice we can muster is enough when we say, “You, Lord.”
Some time later, seven of Jesus’ friends are out on the Sea of Tiberias fishing. Or should I say trying to fish. They’re out all night and they catch nothing. You can imagine their frustration mounting as the morning sun gilds the clouds. But then someone on the beach beckons to them and tells them to cast the net one more time. And the bulging net is so full they can’t haul it in. In moments of frustration, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Saying his name helps us reorient ourselves to what matters and let go of our frustration long enough to try again, this time with Jesus’ posture of abundance replacing our frustrating and shriveled posture of scarcity.
Once on the beach, with the fish grilling away on a charcoal fire, the Risen Christ takes Simon Peter aside. He knows Peter feels ashamed for the way he acted on that terrifying night when Jesus was arrested. Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus. So three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” With each affirmation – “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” – Jesus replaces Peter’s shame with a new sense of worth. And with this new sense of worth comes a mission: “Feed my sheep.” In moments of shame, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Shame has a way of making us feel unworthy to say his name. And so he asks again and again until we know that his concern for us makes us worthy to respond: “I’m looking for you, Lord.” And for him to say, “Well, you found me, and no amount of shame will ever make you unworthy of my love.”
Sorrow. Fear. Doubt. Frustration. Shame. These are just a few of the barriers that can keep us from being aware of the Risen Christ in our midst. But in each case, Jesus does not let those barriers keep him from coming near, embracing us, and never letting us go. Never letting anyone go. This is the power of the Resurrection: the barrier is temporary, but the embrace is eternal. The “who” at the center of our faith outlives and outshines all of the “what” that we clutter our lives with. So when you leave this church today, go out into the world with Jesus’ question to Mary on your lips: “Whom are you looking for?” Today, tomorrow, every day, and on into eternity, make this your answer: “You, Lord. I’m looking for you.” And here the Risen Christ say to your soul, “You found me. And you have been found.”
Sermon for Sunday, April 27, 2014 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31
Today we are going on a journey to the center of a word. This word happens to be one of the most misused words in the English language, and it happens to be an important word in our Gospel lesson today. This word is “believe.”
For several years now, I’ve tried to use the word “believe” only when talking about God. This is tricky because practitioners of modern English rarely treat the word with that kind of discretion. The word “believe” has become commonplace. How often have you heard a question like this: “Do you believe in [fill in the blank with a hot button issue of the day].” Somehow, the word “believe” has become synonymous with “think something is okay.” This watered down understanding is a far cry from how the word is used in our Gospel lesson today: “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 “belief” is synonymous with life and relationship with God, not with mere assent to a particular position. As we journey to the center of the word “believe,” let’s try to recapture an undiluted definition.
The best way to talk about the word “believe” is to tell a story. Here’s a version of one that I heard a priest friend of mine tell several years ago (and he heard it from someone, too, so there’s no telling to whom this story belongs).
A Bible scholar trekked deep into the heart of the Amazon River basin, and there he found an indigenous tribe that had barely had any contact with the outside world. Like any decent Bible scholar would do, he set about learning the language of the people in order to translate the Good Book into the local tongue. While staying in the village, he lived with a farmer and his wife. For months, the scholar worked and worked: he listened to the people talking, made notes, slowly built a lexicon, and then set to the task of translation. He spread his papers out over the rough wooden table in the kitchen of the hut and put pen to paper.
But soon he stopped. He was stuck. In all his study, he had never heard the villagers use a word that seemed to him synonymous with “belief,” which was, after all, an important word in the Bible. He put his pen down and sat there, just thinking and feeling sorry for himself. Just then, the farmer came in from the fields all hot and sticky from a hard day’s labor. He sat down in the chair opposite the scholar, leaned back on two legs, propped his feet on the table, and let out a grateful sigh. In halting words, the scholar asked the farmer what his word for “believe” was. The farmer didn’t understand. The scholar tried to explain using other words, and comprehension dawned on the farmer. “Do you see me sitting here,” he said in his own language. “I am leaning back in this chair after a hard day’s work. My feet are up. I am resting all my weight on these two legs.” And the scholar found his word.
So to believe in something is to rest all of your weight on that something. Think about the first time you ever went to the pool. The older kids who knew how to swim were doing cannonballs into the deep end and playing Marco Polo in the shallows. The teenage boys were staring at the lifeguard in her red one-piece and layers of tanning lotion. The adults were laying in reclining lawn chairs around the edge of the pool, far enough away to be out of the splash zone.
But you took no notice of any of this. You were too busy contemplated your next action. You were standing by the edge of the pool, your toes curled over the cement lip of the shallow end. You had your arms crossed in front of you and your knees bent in. Your teeth chattered – from either fear or cold, you couldn’t tell. And there was your Dad standing three feet from you. He was standing waist deep in the water like a titan, impervious to Poseidon’s attempts to plunge him under. And he was extending his arms out to you, beckoning you to jump. He would catch you, of course, he said. You would not drown. You would be safe. You would have fun once you got used to the water. All you needed to do was jump into his arms.
You had a choice to make. You could waddle back to the safety of the towels and the bag with your sister’s change of clothes in it. Or you could jump, believing with all your might that your Dad would catch you, that you could rest all of your weight in his embrace. That’s belief.
But recall, I mentioned that belief is a tricky concept. It’s tricky for several reasons. Here’s one. When you decided to jump into your Dad’s arms on your first visit to the pool, you took the leap because you believed what he said. He would catch you, no matter what. You could rest your weight in his arms. Equating this belief with belief in God is where everything gets tricky. Here’s the problem.
There is a chance, however slim, that your Dad would fail to catch you.
No matter how earnestly we believed in a parent’s omnipotence or a coach’s perfection or a teacher’s omniscience, those people turned out to be…well, people. They were all stricken with the gene for human fallibility. Of course, not being perfect didn’t make them bad people. It just made them people. When we equate our belief in humans with our belief in God, we often make the mistake of hedging our bets were God is concerned. We apply to God the expectations we have when we believe in other people, thus unwittingly reducing God’s power and glory to the levels that fit comfortably in a fallible human body.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not telling you to repel all human contact because those fallible humans are not to be trusted. Human beings are fundamentally good. We usually do the right thing. We usually live up to the trust others have in us. What I am saying is this: there is no “usually” with God. God always does the right thing. God always lives up to the trust we place in God, else God wouldn’t be God.
So when you speak of belief, remember that God is the One in whom you can always rest your weight. God is the One who never fails to keep a promise. Therefore, God is the one whom we can always believe. When we reserve the word “believe” for God alone, we can begin to recapture the majesty that the concept of belief has lost through overuse in unworthy situations.
If believing is about resting your weight on something, then belief means knowing and trusting the something that takes your weight. This is your foundation. Every foundation that is not God is not a foundation at all, but a structure built on God, who is the ultimate foundation. God is, so to speak, the ground upon which everything rests. Believing in God is all about not being content until you find that ground, that deepest foundational level, upon which to rest your weight.
In our Gospel lesson today, Thomas discovers this foundation when he sees the Risen Christ’s wounds and says, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’s journey has led him to rest his weight on the Risen Christ – to believe. The next time you use the word “believe,” ask yourself if the context surrounding that word is your foundation, something you can truly rest your weight on. If not, try a different word. We rest our weight on the One who is our foundation. For we believe in God.