Peace Amid Fear

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached today, the Second Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was John 20:19-31.

I feel like I should be somewhere else today. And what’s pretty strange is that the place I feel I should be is St. Luke Lutheran Church, a little congregation in Archbald, which is near Scranton.

You see, every nine years, I preach at St. Luke. And I’m due this year. Nine years ago, when I was serving a church in Nescopeck, I was at St. Luke on the Second Sunday of Easter, as a pulpit exchange. And nine years before that, I preached there as a seminary student. It’s a strange little tradition, but it just feels like it’s time for me to go back to that little church. I’m not going to, though. But if I did, I know what I’d preach about. Every time I’ve preached there, I’ve talked about fear.

The first time I was there, in 1999, I said these words: The Y2K bug will not mean the end of the planet Earth. The mountains will not crumble; the ocean levels will not rise. But it just might mean the end of our society as we know it. Remember the Y2K bug? That problem with computers in the 90s that was supposed to cause a worldwide crash on New Years Day? I honestly preached, “it might mean the end of our society as we know it.” Silly as it seems now, many of us were honestly scared of that then.

The second time I preached there, in 2008, I said very similar words: This recession will not mean the end of the planet Earth. The mountains will not crumble; the ocean levels will not rise. But it just might mean the end of our society as we know it. Now, I will grant you, the recession of 2008 did have much more lasting effects that Y2K. But the end of our society? Hardly. But many of us were honestly scared of that then.

There was always something to be afraid of. And now, in 2017, I wouldn’t have any trouble finding something frightening to mention in a sermon at St. Luke.

But let’s look at today’s gospel. This story is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas.” But I think of it more as “Frightened Disciples.” Let’s look.

It was Easter evening. Mary Magdalene had just seen the risen Lord, and she told the disciples about it. And yet the same evening, they were scared, scared enough to keep the doors locked. They probably didn’t believe Mary. But despite the locks, Jesus came right to them. He came right into their midst, right into their fear, and said, “Peace be with you.” And they rejoiced – into their fear, he brought great joy.

But Thomas wasn’t there. So later on, the others told him about it. And just like the disciples didn’t believe Mary, Thomas didn’t believe them. But then a week later, the disciples were in the room again, behind locked doors again. Just a week after the disciples saw Jesus, they locked the doors for fear again.

So what did Jesus do? Did he say, “Oh, hello Thomas. Peace be with you,” and then turn to the other disciples and say, “What is wrong with the rest of you? I was just here last week! What part of ‘Christ is risen’ don’t you understand? What part of ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ don’t you understand?”

No. He didn’t do that. He simply came to them, again, and he said, “Peace be with you.” Just like the week before. Jesus had compassion for his frightened disciples. And it makes me wonder if this is what happened next:

A week later, they were again gathered in the room, and the doors were locked again, because they were scared, again. And Jesus came and stood before them and said, “Peace be with you.” And they rejoiced. And then a week after that, they were gathered in the room, and the doors were locked again, because they were scared, again. And Jesus came and stood before them and said, “Peace be with you.” And they rejoiced. And so on. Week after week, Sunday after Sunday. I wonder if they were scared every week, perhaps scared of the same thing, or perhaps of something new. Because it seems like people are always scared of something.

And then eventually they became us, in places like Archbald and Johnsonville. We keep gathering each week. And we keep locking the doors, because we are still scared. Now, we don’t literally lock the church doors as we worship, but perhaps even here we lock the doors of our hearts. Perhaps we gather here, and pretend we are not scared. We do not admit our fears. We do not talk about them. We put on a brave face so that the people around us don’t know how much of a mess we are inside.

Yet Jesus still comes. Not in person anymore. But he still comes in words of scripture. In moments of preaching. In bread and wine. In the waters of baptism. He still comes. And he still says to us, “Peace be with you.” And we still rejoice when we experience his presence.

I believe that many of us, probably most of us, perhaps all of us, are scared of something right now. It’s hard to talk about this, because often we don’t even want to admit we feel this way. So I won’t ask you to say your fears aloud, at least not today. But I do ask you to think about them. Brings those fears to mind. And I invite you to write them down. There are index cards on your pews. Write your fears there, right now. And then put them in the offering plate, or hand them to me after worship. And then I will talk about them next Sunday during the sermon. I am also toying with a way to publish them, without names. I think that it’s only by being honest about our fears that we can truly hear Jesus’ promise of peace.

So I invite you now to take a minute and write one or more fears on your index card.

[For those reading this sermon as a blog post, feel free to email me with your fears at pastorMJS@gmail.com.]

Thank you. I will have more to say about this next week. But for now, hear the words of Christ, as he comes into our midst, as he comes into our lives, as he comes into our fears: “Peace be with you.”

Breathe the Resurrection (Vigil of Easter)

I preached four times this weekend, during the “Great Three Days” worship service that lasts from Thursday evening through Sunday morning. In current Evangelical Lutheran liturgical understanding, this is one long service that begins with Maundy Thursday and ends with the Vigil of Easter.

Click here for Maundy Thursday.
Click here for Good Friday.
Click here for Holy Saturday (Healing Service).

This is my Great Vigil of Easter Sermon.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

One more time. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathing is a good thing. I encourage you to continue to breathe throughout this sermon.

Do not be afraid! The angel said to the women. Do not be afraid! But they were. Who wouldn’t be afraid? Their friend, their leader, their messiah, had died. They went to the tomb to do their loyal duty.

Who wouldn’t be afraid? Their whole world had changed. The future they envisioned was wiped away.

And then the earthquake. The angel. The guards shaking as though dead.

The angel tells them good news. He is not here! He has been raised! He’s on his way to Galilee! And they are still afraid. They left the tomb with fear and great joy.

And who wouldn’t be afraid? The unknown is one of the greatest sources of fear. And so much was unknown. Perhaps they had doubts about the angel’s trustworthiness. Or perhaps they knew that even with Christ raised, this was still an uncertain future. What did it mean that Jesus was alive? What did it mean for today? For tomorrow? For everything? Who wouldn’t be afraid?

Remember to breathe. Don’t forget to breathe out. Don’t hold your breath in for too long.

When we are afraid, what do we do? We cling to things. We hold on tightly to what we have. Fear leads us to believe that there is not enough, not enough money, not enough time, not enough anything. It’s human nature to do this. And we even do the same with our breath. When we are afraid, we gasp. We hold our breath, almost as though we’re scared there isn’t enough air. But there is. Breathe.

The women were afraid, but that’s not all they were. They left the tomb with fear and great joy. Two emotions that seem surprising together. But perhaps that’s what the resurrection does. The resurrection gives life, and life is unpredictable. Unexpected. Full of surprises. So of course there is fear. But Christ is alive. And whatever surprises life has, he will be there. And neither death nor suffering have the final word anymore. So there is room there for great joy as well.

Perhaps that’s what the resurrection does. Perhaps it takes fear, and transmutes it into great joy.

The good news of the resurrection is that Christ is alive. And that means we are alive. We are full of life. Through our baptism, we are connected to Christ. Christ now lives within us, in the hidden places just beyond our thoughts, just beyond our feelings. Christ is there.

And I wonder if, deep inside, he does something kind of like what our lungs do. When we breathe in air, our lungs perform an amazing exchange, taking in the oxygen we need, and expelling the carbon dioxide we don’t. Every breath, this takes place. Over and over again. Twenty-four hours a day.

I wonder if perhaps Christ also performs an exchange. Perhaps Christ is always working to change our fear into great joy. The fear is never completely gone. Just like our bodies are constantly making carbon dioxide that must be expelled, our human nature is always building up fear. But Christ works to change that into joy. Every moment of every day, as we breathe in, and breathe out, Christ is allowing us to let go of our fear, and to receive the hope, the grace, the life, that leads to great joy.

Are you still breathing? Breathe in. Breathe in the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Breathe in the good news through your ears, as you hear the words of scripture, the words of preaching, the lyrics and tunes of the hymns. Breathe in the good news through your mouth, as you taste the presence of Christ through his body and blood. Breathe in the good news through your nose, as you smell the flowers of spring, the new life returning to the world after a long winter. Breathe in the good news through your eyes, as you see the smiles and the hope of children, the new life in their eyes. Breathe in, and feel the good news filling your lungs, filling your veins, filling your heart. Feel Christ transform all your fear into great joy.

And breathe out. Don’t hold this breath. Don’t hold it in. Just like air, we have to let this breath out, in order that we can receive more. Breathe out this good news. Breathe out by sharing the good news with others. Breathe out by treating one another with love. Breathe out by welcoming the stranger. Breathe out by sharing generously. Breathe out by speaking out for justice. Breathe out by smiling. Breathe out by letting go of the fear, letting go of the worry, letting go of the need for control. Breathe out by trusting. Trusting that God has got it.

And then breathe in again. And then breathe out again.

Because Christ is risen. Come, see the place where he lay. (Breathe in.)

Then, go and tell his disciples that he is risen. (Breathe out.)

Let’s breathe again.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Amen.