glory of god

glory of god

Monday, April 16, 2012

On Faith, Doubt, Baptism, and the Titanic: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

You may know, or you may be able to imagine, that one of the hardest things for preachers is coming up with something new and interesting to say on big holy days like Christmas and Easter, since of course there's always lots of pressure and the basic gist is always the same. And one of the next hardest is coming up with something new and interesting to say on the Second Sunday of Easter—when each year we hear again the story of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples as they are locked away. I’m not positive, but I am thinking that this may be the only Sunday of the year when we have the same gospel reading no matter what.

And as it happens, this gospel passage is a relatively well-known one, especially for its portrayal of the apostle Thomas, often called “Doubting Thomas” because he—at first—found the idea of the resurrection too far fetched to believe in. Thomas, it seems, wasn’t around when Jesus appeared to the other disciples on Easter Day, and so when they told him their fantastic story, he wanted some kind of proof before he could believe. He wanted to see this resurrected Jesus for himself. In that, he’s probably not too different from many of us, who likewise find things that are hard to believe, well, hard to believe.

But you know, as we discovered last week in our Easter morning reading, the women who discovered the empty tomb had the very same trouble. In fact, they ran away from the tomb and the angel’s message of the resurrection because, as the gospel says, they were terrified. They couldn’t believe either, at least not right away. Even Mary Magdalene, who went back to the tomb, had trouble believing in the resurrection story, until she met with the risen Christ, whom she didn't recognize at first and took to be the gardener.

So, that Thomas would have the same troubles, the same questions, the same doubts, should not be too surprising. For most of us, if we are honest, it is much easier to believe in things that verifiable--things that we can see, or touch, or hold. And a lot of the time, we may find that faith and doubt sort of overlap in our lives. Some days it’s easier to believe things, and then other days, it’s a lot harder.

As many of you know, today marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. And even a century later this dramatic, horrific event holds a place in our collective memory and imagination, even if none of us can remember it firsthand. Certainly that’s true for me. The Titanic struck the iceberg in the late hours of April 14 and sank at about 2:20 a.m. on April 15. They say that the night was so dark, and the waters so still that it was only 30 seconds after the iceberg was sighted that it struck. There was no possible way for a ship that large to out-maneuver it.

The Titanic was, of course, a mighty ship, in fact it was the mightiest ship—the largest moveable man-made object on earth at its time, and was so advanced that it was thought to be “practically” unsinkable. Apparently its builders never made that claim for it, but the press did, upon learning of its various safety features. Some even boasted: “God himself couldn’t sink this ship.” Unfortunately, as we know, those safety features didn’t include sufficient life-boats for all of the passengers. In part that’s because the legal regulations were outdated and didn’t require them, in part because the owners didn’t want to clutter up the decks and detract from the ship’s majestic views for the first class passengers, but also in part because the ship’s engineers believed that even if there were a calamity, the ship could float for some time so that passengers could be rescued. Lifeboats were really intended to be used to ferry passengers from one vessel to another, rather than hold passengers as the mighty ship broke apart and sank to the depths of the sea. The thought that it would sink as it did was never even imagined.

I have devoured information about the Titanic this week. I get like that sometimes—a topic will consume me. I told myself I wasn’t going to talk about this morning, but it has been so much on my mind, that I didn’t think how I could avoid it. And perhaps it has been on yours, too. If, this week, you turn on the History channel, or Discovery channel, or even PBS you’ll find any number of documentaries offering new theories on why things turned out as disastrously as they did. Scientists have suggested that the iron rivets used were of poor quality, so that rather than the iceberg slashing a massive gash in the ship, the tops of the rivets simply gave out under pressure. For all of the ship’s advances, they relied on some old technology in terms of how it was built, and it seems that there was at that time a shortage of the best quality iron. There are also suggestions that it was going too fast. It certainly didn’t heed the serious warnings of other ships in the area, which likewise found significant ice. Perhaps the captain and crew also believed that the ship was unsinkable. Whatever the reason, only 710 people were saved out of total of 2,224--just 32%. Over 1500 died. Most didn’t drown, but froze to death, as the salt water was only 28 degrees.

It is this kind of tragedy, on such an epic scale, as well as many of the personal and family struggles that we each have to face in life, that can make faith hard sometimes, especially faith in the promise of the resurrection. Why, we wonder, would God, if God even exists, allow such things to happen? What can be the meaning or purpose in such great losses? In the days and weeks after the Titanic disaster many preachers in the U. S. and across the world suggested that the catastrophe was a sign of God’s punishment over human arrogance, pride, and greed—as if we believed that we somehow had the power, the technology, the wealth—to harness or defeat nature. Some preachers today using that same kind of language suggest that various natural disasters (like hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis) are evidence of God’s anger over whatever the preacher doesn’t like in contemporary society.

Certainly, there’s something to be said for the reminder that human greed and arrogance can and often does end in horrendous consequences. But I would never go so far as to say that it is somehow God’s punishment. Because I don’t believe that God would seek to punish over 1500 people for the greed and arrogance of some. In fact, as you heard me say on Palm Sunday, I don’t even think that God desired the death of one person, Jesus himself. Because I don’t believe that God desires the death of anyone. Rather, God desires life. God always desires, God always works for, and God always creates, life.

That’s what the resurrection is all about. And that’s what faith in the resurrection is all about. It is the belief that even in the midst of death, even in the midst of suffering, God is somehow, in someway, bringing life again. Easter doesn’t erase what happened before—even in the case of Jesus the marks of the crucifixion were there—in fact, Jesus told Thomas to inspect the marks of the nails, so that he could see that it really was him. The resurrection doesn’t rewind the clock or pretend that the horror of Good Friday was an illusion. It was real. But it wasn’t the end of the story.

And more than anything, that’s what we, too, are asked to believe when we profess our faith in resurrection. It can be hard sometimes. It can be hard a lot of the time, when we read stories of tragedies, or when we experience them ourselves. But sometimes, often even, it is just at those moments, when it’s hardest to believe, that God breaks in, that faith breaks in, just as Jesus broke into the disciples’ locked room. Easter is God’s way of reminding us that there’s nothing that the world can dole out, however fearful, however horrific, that God can’t transform into something better. It doesn’t make it go away, or pretend that it didn’t happen—as I said, the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion are still there, the crumpled wreck of the Titanic with evidence of its thousands of passengers is still at the bottom of the ocean—but God takes it and is able in some mysterious, incomprehensible way to bring new life.

And it’s that new life, that promise that we celebrate today as we baptize Jacob. By baptizing him, what we are really doing is telling him that his life is, in fact, in God’s hands, and that he is marked with the cross as Christ’s own forever. There’s nothing that the world can do to change that. He will forever and always belong to God. The promise of new life, the promise of the resurrection will shine out from his heart and soul. And time and again, God will work through him to bring new life to the world. That’s God’s promise for him, for us, for the whole world. It’s a promise that was fulfilled that first Easter 2,000 years ago when Jesus appeared to the disciples in their locked room, and it’s a promise fulfilled each and every time new life and new hope conquers fear, death, and despair.

To return to the Titanic anniversary for just a moment, we find in that story epic, almost incomprehensible tragedy. But we also find simultaneous glimpses of faith and new life, as passengers gave up their seats on lifeboats for others, as wives refused to leave their husbands, as musicians played the hymns even as the water rose, and as the crew worked in the depths of the ship shoveling coal to keep the lights on and keep it afloat until the very last possible moment, all to ensure that as many people as possible would live, even as the crew knew they wouldn't. Those are real life stories of faith and of hope. They are stories of resurrection, of new life, of Easter.

Sometimes, we may find ourselves doubting how it is all possible. Sometimes we may have trouble wrapping our minds around this illogical faith of ours. We may wonder if it all really is a dream or a fairy tale. But I think that’s because too often for Christians the resurrection is something to believe in because the Bible and the creeds tell us to, but not the life-transforming event that it was for Jesus’ disciples. Ultimately, our Easter faith not really about an intellectual belief, but rather, it is our simple, faithful, trust in the promises of God—a trust that no matter what we may see happening around us, God is always finding a way to bring new life, abundant life, resurrection life.

Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; put out your hand and place it in my side; do not doubt, but believe.”

May we share in that belief, may we share in that trust, may we experience that Easter life, today and always. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell

Monday, April 9, 2012

On Angels, the Empty Tomb, and Being Afraid: A Sermon for Easter Day

It is wonderful to share this Easter celebration of new life with you. It is wonderful to see you all, to be surrounded by beautiful flowers, Easter hats and dresses, to sing such grand music, and to have our hearts filled with joy and hope. And if there are young children in your home, I suspect that there was even more joy and hope this morning as kids tore into Easter treats—jelly beans, marshmallow peeps, and chocolate bunnies.

I always liked getting chocolate bunnies in my Easter baskets, but I don’t think I ever ate them that much, usually just the ears. My mom used to complain all the time that she would find these poor earless bunnies that had turned that chalky shade of white wrapped up in my sock drawer months and months after Easter, often next to equally sad headless chocolate Santas. I could never commit to a whole bunny (or a whole Santa). I liked smaller treats like peanut butter cups, malted milk balls, and my favorite—Russell Stover coconut chocolate nests, with jellybeans for eggs. The Easter bunny usually only brought one per kid in my house and one year my brother Andy stole mine out of my basket, and let’s just say it wasn’t very Eastery around the afterward. But then, I often stole peanut butter cups out of his Christmas stocking--and truth be told, I still do!

But you know, there’s a lot more that Christmas and Easter have in common, besides candy treats, happy kids, full churches and beautiful music. (Not to mention the stress of cleaning the house and having company over for a big dinner). There’s also long ago stories of miracles, stories of things that are hard to believe, stories of people who are amazed, and also stories of angels--angels who appear unexpectedly, who break into ordinary human life and say, “Do not be afraid.”

That’s really how this morning’s Easter gospel begins, too. “Do not be afraid,” the angel says to the women at the tomb. Probably a lot easier said than done, considering all that they had seen and experienced. Remember, these are the same women who had stayed with Jesus in his darkest hours, when the other disciples had fled and were in hiding, locked away in a room somewhere. But these women, they had witnessed it all. They were there. And there’s really no way to pretty up what happened on the Friday we call “Good.” It was humanity at our very, very worst.

And after his life was gone, these faithful, steadfast women had Jesus’ body taken down from the cross and they quickly found a place to bury him before sundown, before the Passover Sabbath began. They couldn’t complete their work of caring for him then because there wasn’t time. It had to wait until after the Sabbath rest. That’s why they were there so early on Sunday morning-- it was their first chance to go back and finish their work of caring for Jesus. I imagine that the intervening time was dreadful, as they replayed in their minds everything that had happened, over and over again. No doubt there were nightmares, if they got any sleep at all.

And after all that, the angel has the nerve to tell them not to be afraid. And not only that, but that the Jesus they seek is not even there where they had left him, but is risen. Risen. It’s unimaginable. They had seen all of it. They knew that Jesus was dead. If they knew anything, they knew that. And so, Mark’s gospel tells us, they were filled with fear. The angel’s message was too far fetched, and they ran off terrified. In the original, earliest version of this gospel, it just ended that way. With the women terrified. Now, that’s not a very satisfactory conclusion to a story—the empty tomb, the angel, and the women running away. It’s dramatic to be sure, but it doesn’t exactly fill you with Easter hope. So, later on, a new ending was added by another author, to try to complete the story, to tie up the loose ends. But it wasn’t there at first. At first, the women were just terrified.

I think that’s because the women at the tomb didn’t understand the angel’s message: “Do not be afraid.” They didn’t have any context for it. If Mary, Jesus’ mother, had been there, she probably would have understood, she would have remembered. Because, of course, when the angel appeared to her many years before he said the same thing: “Do not be afraid Mary, for I bring you good tidings of great joy.” The angels back then said the same thing to the shepherds in the fields, too. It seems that whenever angels appear with good news, of something miraculous and wonderful, but very hard to believe, they preface it with “Do not be afraid.”

We don’t quite know what the women did next. Mark’s gospel says they didn’t tell anyone, while other gospels say that they found Jesus’ male disciples—the ones who had locked themselves away, like Peter and who likewise had a hard time believing in the angel’s message. But maybe, maybe, they also found Jesus’ mother and told her what they had seen and heard. And if they did, I suspect that she would have shared what happened to her some 30 years before, how the angel had appeared and told her, too, not to be afraid. Maybe she encouraged these friends of Jesus to believe in the impossible, as she had learned to do. In John’s version of Easter story we read that Mary Magdalene went back and found Jesus there in the garden; although, she didn’t recognize him at first. She wanted to believe the angel’s message, but she was still afraid and it didn’t make sense.

There’s a lot in life that can be fearsome. There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense. But the good news of Easter, the reason we are here together on this beautiful spring morning, is the promise that whatever happens in life, we do not have to be afraid. We do not have to worry. And we do not have to run away, terrified. Because we remember, we believe, we know that on that first Easter morning so very long ago God broke into our fear. God changed the way things work. God brought new life and joy where once there was death and despair.

That’s what Easter is all about, much more than earless chocolate bunnies, coconut bird nests, colored eggs, and jellybeans, as special as those treats are. Easter is about turning the rules of the world inside out and upside down. It’s about taking what’s broken and making it whole again. It’s about new life, abundant life, resurrection life. The women who went to the tomb early on Sunday morning weren’t expecting that. But perhaps they should have, since Jesus’ whole life, from the very beginning, was about breaking rules, and seeing things differently, and doing things differently. Why should the end be any different?

They weren’t quite yet ready to hear this good news, to have their world turned inside out and upside down once more. But perhaps we are. Perhaps we are ready. Maybe that's why Mark’s gospel concludes in the dramatic, if unexpected way that it does. Not because the women running away is the end of the Jesus story. Not because Mark the Evangelist didn’t believe in the joy of resurrection. It most certainly is not the end. And he most certainly did believe.

But I think it may be written that way because the end of story hasn't been written yet. The good news continues. It continues with us as the evangelists, with us sharing and believing in the power of the resurrection. It is our story to tell today, as much as it was theirs 2,000 years ago. Because we know that when an angel appears and says, “Do not be afraid,” it means that something amazing, something unusual, something world-altering is about to happen. We know that it always means that good news, great news even, is coming.

And so, the Easter story continues with us, with us taking on the starring roles in the great drama of faith that began so long ago. It continues with us sharing the good news, the great joy, for all the people—that Christ is alive, that sin and death have no lasting power over us; and that new life, abundant life, resurrection life, God’s life, will always win out in the end. That’s why we are here this morning. That’s the message of Easter. That’s our story to tell, this beautiful spring day, and always.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. Happy Easter.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell