Scripture: John 20:19-31
Excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke
We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.
How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
How does doubt or fear keep you from experiencing New Life? From living out of your deepest values; and following your truest intentions? Today’s scripture may in some ways be heartening to us. Not just because Jesus shows up to the disciples, but because he finds them hiding behind locked doors. How tempting is it for us when we feel unsettled or in doubt to hole up and lock our doors?
The crucifixion must have been the most devastating event of their lives. Jesus had publicly stood on the side of the poor and the oppressed, had openly criticized the powers and principalities of his day… And he was killed for it. We find the disciples, fearing for their own safety from the Jewish authorities. (Not the Jews writ large, right? We’re clear that this is not an indictment of all Jewish people, the disciples were also Jewish. They were afraid of the authorities of their day.) We find them hiding behind locked doors. And this seems completely reasonable, right?
The disciples most likely feel abandoned. ‘Where do we go from here, without Jesus?’ And the answer is a little terrifying. Because, first of all, Jesus shows up. He walks right through a locked door to stand in front of them. “Peace be with you,” he says.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’d be freaking out right about now. There’s a reason why divine messengers, whether they’re angels or Jesus himself, have to say things like “Don’t be afraid!” Jesus is slightly more calming, in his response of peace be with you. Then he shows them his wounds, and it’s not until they see those that they actually recognize him. And the disciples rejoiced! I can imagine them thinking, ‘He’s back! We’re going to be okay. He’ll tell us what to do.’
And then we come to Part Two of why this is terrifying. He goes on to say again, “Peace be with you.” And oh, by the way, you’re me now. It’s on you. Just as God sent me, so I’m sending you. You are responsible for carrying on what I started. This is them being commissioned and sent out into the world. No pressure!
This past Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. I can imagine those who worked alongside him having similar feelings of loss and a sense of trepidation about the future of the movement and the country. King stood up for the poor and the oppressed, and openly criticized the powers and principalities of his day… And he was killed for it. How tempting it is to retreat behind our locked doors in the face of these realities.
I want to share some of my reading about the events of 1968 Poor People’s Campaign from the website of the same name:
In the months before his assassination, King and hundreds of thousands of Americans were engaged in a “Poor People’s Campaign” offering a vision of justice that extended beyond civil rights laws and aimed more broadly at racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation.
Dr. King saw that poverty was not just another issue and that poor people were not a special interest group. He held up the potential of the poor to come together to transform the whole of society.
He knew that for the load of poverty to be lifted, the thinking and behavior of a critical mass of the American people would have to be changed. To accomplish this change of consciousness a “new and unsettling force” had to be formed.
In other words, the poor would have to organize to take action together around our immediate and basic needs. In doing, we could become a powerful social and political force capable of changing the terms of how poverty is understood and dispelling the myths and stereotypes that uphold the mass complacency and leave the root causes of poverty intact.
In his last Sunday sermon, he stated:
“There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution; that is a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation [for us today it’s particularly the influence of social media]; then there is a revolution of weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapon of warfare [we might add advanced biological and drone warfare]. Then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world.
We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses … We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.
We read one day: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists … We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that is signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.”
I’m sure you’re aware by now that all three Springhouse churches are part of the New Poor People’s campaign. 40 days of direct action from May 13-June 21st. There will be many opportunities to bring our faith and beliefs into action. And for some that is invigorating. But for others of us, we may be harboring some doubts.
Do we doubt our ability to show up? To have the fortitude to stand up for our deepest values? Maybe our faith in what we are about is strong, but we have doubts about how exactly to go about it. What is the “right” way to engage in social action or public discourse? Am I, personally being called to go march or make phone calls? Maybe someone else is better suited to that?
Does any of that resonate with you? It does for me. Because the prospect of being commissioned to be the one to go out into the world and shine a light on the darkness and call for deep and meaningful change, is daunting; and has potentially costly consequences.
This doubting, or maybe lack of confidence is a better way to say it, is pretty common for us as human beings. And it seems to cause us to have trouble seeing what’s in front of us.
Have you ever lost your keys? You run around, frantically looking everywhere. ‘Maybe I left them in my coat pocket? Are they upstairs? Did I forget and leave them in the door?!’ Only to realize they were sitting in plain sight on the counter the whole time. Our doubts and anxiety clouded our vision so much in that moment that we couldn’t see what was right in front of us. It’s sometimes hard for us to see with clarity, so it’s not that surprising that we might doubt. We’re looking in the wrong direction, or we don’t see something because we think we know what to expect, and when it’s something different, it confounds us. And in our more cynical moments, maybe we even expect to fail.
It’s early in the morning on Sunday. It’s cold. There is dew on the ground. And Mary Magdalene, carrying her supplies, slowly makes her way to the tomb where Jesus was laid. She shows up expecting to find Jesus, so she can prepare his body for burial. She is prepared for a body that has been dead for three days. She is ready for the smell. She is ready for the sight. What she’s not ready for is to find his body missing. Jumping into problem solving mode, she assumes someone has moved the body. ‘Where is he? Who has moved him? I’ll ask this man standing outside the tomb,’ mistaking him for the gardener. It is the furthest thing from her mind, that this could be Jesus.
She goes and tells the disciples about him, as Jesus told her to do, and they apparently don’t believe her, because they’re still hanging out in the house behind locked doors. Jesus comes in through those locked doors, and they don’t recognize him until he shows them his wounds. A little later Thomas comes back, and he doesn’t believe the disciples, just like they didn’t believe Mary. Jesus shows up again! Through locked doors again! And Thomas doesn’t recognize him, until Jesus shows him his wounds. It’s almost comical! And this isn’t about shaming Thomas, because that’s not what Jesus does. Jesus seeks the disciples out repeatedly and the first thing he says is “Peace be with you.”
The disciples don’t believe Mary. Thomas doesn’t believe the disciples. It seems perfectly reasonable, not to believe until we have proof. In an age of fake news and a seemingly never-ending barrage of propaganda, having some skepticism can be a skillful response.
But then the question becomes how do we trust what we can’t see? How do we trust that the kin-dom of God is even possible? That ending poverty or racism is even possible? How do we find the fortitude to keep doing this work? We don’t get Jesus walking through our locked doors and showing us his wounds. What we get is the story of it. We get the poor and oppressed all around us showing us their wounds, from gunshots in black bodies made by police, to women bravely sharing #MeToo stories, to the estimated 145 million people still living in poverty or economic insecurity in the richest country in the world. We see his wounds in them, and in our own woundedness.
We get a story where Jesus keeps showing up over and over again; offering the gift of his presence and his peace. And we get the responsibility of being called into that story to be the ones who show up again and again, offering our presence and our peace.
It’s important to remember that Jesus commissions the disciples together, as a group and as a community. And I think maybe that is part of the answer to our doubts. We are not in it alone, we go into this work together. It’s not all on me as an individual. When I’m tired or hurting there’s another person to step up. And I, in turn, can be there for someone else, when they need encouragement or a break. I might not have the answer, but it’s good bet there is someone in the community who does, if we are able to put aside what we expect and see it. Because it might not be who we expect. Maybe they are uneducated, or homeless. Maybe they were born in another country. Maybe they are a bunch of High School kids fed up with our inaction.
This story we receive is the story of a group of people learning to live into the reality or resurrection. The reality of what it means to be a community shaped by new life in the dying and rising of Christ, and the expectation-shattering reality that death and oppression don’t have the final word; that the arc of the moral universe really does bend toward justice. We have the chance to be that new and unsettling force for good in our time. We are the story now. May it be so.