Here is the sermon I preached at Cathedral of Hope -- Oklahoma City on April 3. Greg requested that I go ahead and post it. Since I'll be preaching pretty much every Sunday, I'll have too many sermons to post on this site. I don't know if they'll be posted on the church's website. If they aren't, then I'm going to create a separate site for my sermons and link it from my blog.
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope, Oklahoma City
3 April 2005
“Doubting Thomas,” we call him. He wants to see, to touch. Unless he can do those things he will not believe. The witness of the other disciples is not sufficient for him. Can’t you picture the scene when Jesus returns to visit the disciples? “Peace be with you,” he says. Then he turns immediately to Thomas. I imagine Thomas standing there full of amazement, awe, and wonder. Jesus then invites him to touch his wounds, to see his hands, to believe. The story does not indicate that Thomas touched Jesus, rather it tells us that he cried out in worship “My Lord and my God!” Thomas the doubter now proclaims words of praise.
Alongside this familiar story, let us lay the poem by Czeslaw Milosz. He is a Nobel prize-winning Polish poet who died just last year. I think Milosz is one of the great poets of the twentieth century and of all centuries really. Being Polish he experienced firsthand so many of the horrors of the century – the Nazis, the war, the Holocaust, Soviet communism, and the Cold War. His poetry speaks to us out of this horror, trying to give voice to the human being.
And so we read this “Lecture V” of the “Six Lectures in Verse.” He begins with our triumphant Easter Sunday litany “Christ has risen.” But instead of following it with the familiar “Christ has risen indeed!”, Milosz says “Whoever believes that/Should not behave as we do.” He reflects upon the impotence of Christianity that “muddles on” going through the routines of the year, singing the hymns, “echoing the word,” giving thanks, but doing little. Milosz charges that we are unsure of the ancient “unhygenic” stories. We respond to the big issues with silence and lack courage. After this indictment he concludes:
And so, after the great wars, undecided,
With almost good will but not quite,
We plod on with hope. And now let everyone
Confess to himself. “Has he risen?” “I don’t know.”
Two texts. The familiar doubts of Thomas who needs to see and to touch. And this judgement from our own time. From one who has seen and been touched by much. Can Christ be risen if the world is like this? Can Christ be risen if the church is like this?
The Resurrection has taken on increased importance for me in recent years. It initially arose out of pastoral tasks. Three years ago I had to preach my first Easter sermon, when I realized that I wasn’t sure what I thought about the resurrection. After years of philosophical education, I’m trained to be critical of texts, to ask lots of questions. We philosophers are schooled at being doubting Thomases. At the time I was a minister in Fayetteville, Arkansas at Rolling Hills Baptist Church. When I’m thinking hard about something, I usually get up and pace around. So, I had done that and was pacing around the church building and ended up going outside. Our building there sat in the middle of a broad area of green space. When I went outside I was looking out over the lawns and trees. That’s when I heard a bird singing. Suddenly, for some reason, I felt God speaking to me in that moment in the song of that bird.
You see, a bird lives a relatively short life and throughout that life it struggles to survive, find food, avoid predators. Yet, birds find the time to sing. They prove that existence is not merely bare necessity, that there is time in life for beauty and for joy. I concluded that that’s part of what the resurrection tells us. Life is not simply birth, growth, decay, and death. There is time to sing, time for beauty and joy.
Two days after pondering the resurrection I had to do the funeral for my great-aunt Dorothy. Dorothy had lived and died an old maid, but she was remembered fondly by her siblings, nieces, and nephews. She was remembered as a woman who laughed and who cared for others. She and my great-uncle Dillard had this garden in the backyard. Generations of my family remember that garden fondly. All of us as kids pictured it the same way – it was a huge yard with a gigantic garden with so many flowers and a great stone pathway that reminded us of a castle. We could all play for hours in this magical space. But, as adults we all realized that the yard was small, that the stone pathway was only a few feet in length.
I still think that there is something to that backyard. For decades kids experienced it exactly the same way. And we all love to share our stories of the magic of that garden. When I preached that funeral sermon three years ago I connected Aunt Dorothy’s garden to our sense of resurrection. There in her garden we played. There we felt safe, secure, loved, and free.
In the years since having to write that Easter Sunday sermon and preach my Aunt’s funeral, my reflections on resurrection have stemmed from the theologians I read who have influenced me. Baptist theologian James McClendon taught me to view the resurrection as central to our Christian story and way of life. But it was the writing of German theologian Jurgen Moltmann that really affected me the most deeply.
Last summer I was down emotionally, close to the lowest I’ve ever been, not quite, but close. At the end of June I went to Birmingham, Alabama for the annual General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. One thing I do there every year is buy a big bunch of books and then go back to the hotel room and peruse them, reading introductions, skimming contents, etc. One book I bought was Jurgen Moltmann’s In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope. I had not read any Moltmann before, so I was anticipating that this little book would give me a good introduction to his thought. Sitting on my hotel bed I began reading the introduction, and I pretty much didn’t put the book down until I had finished it two days later. I didn’t attend any workshops or breakout sessions during the conference; I spent almost the entire time reading that book. It’s message about resurrection was what I needed in that moment.
The theme of the book is that the central tenet of the Christian faith is that with every end there is a new beginning. Ours is a faith of hope, a faith that looks to the future. Moltmann claims that this hope, this faith, that new beginnings rest upon the resurrection. Part of the introduction that captured my attention was this paragraph:
No one is perfect, and few people succeed in achieving an unbroken continuity in their lives. Again and again we come up against limits, and experience the failure of our plans for life, the fragmentary nature of our good beginnings and, not least, the guilt which makes life impossible for us. The essential thing in experiences of life like this is the new beginning. If a child falls over it is no bad thing, because it then learns to get up again. Christian faith is faith in the resurrection, and the resurrection is literally just that: rising up again. It gives us the strength to get up, and the creative freedom to begin something once more in the midst of our on-going history, something fresh. 'Incipit vita nova' -- a new life begins. That is the truly revolutionary power of hope. It is revolutionary because it is innovative. . . . 'Christians are the eternal beginners', wrote Franz Rosenzweig. And that is the best thing that can ever be said about believers, lovers and the hopeful.
What is Thomas doubting?
Is he unable to imagine this new beginning? If Jesus is raised, then something radically different and new has occurred. It is not, then, true as Ecclesiastes says that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Instead then it must be true that
life defeats death
that beauty overcomes ugliness
grief is turned to joy
oppression gives way freedom
community surrounds loneliness
that those who struggle to get by find time to play, to sing, and to dance
and, hope does triumph over despair.
This new beginning really is too much for Thomas to imagine. He is called to believe something so contrary to the way-the-world-is, so contrary to common sense that he can’t do it only on the testimony of these others. He must see for himself.
Maybe this is what Milosz is also getting at. The church he criticizes knows the old stories, but isn’t sure what it thinks about them. And is even less sure about what to do about them. After the wars and atrocities they’ve seen, maybe they just can’t bring themselves really to believe it. And MUCH more importantly, they can’t bring themselves to live it. They lack the courage to live differently. They lack the courage to live for beauty, joy, peace, community, etc., etc. And so when asked if Jesus is risen, if they are honest, then they must answer “I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you people look more resurrected?” Bishop Will Willimon asks. He writes:
The most eloquent testimony to the reality of the resurrection is not an empty tomb or a well-orchestrated pageant on Easter Sunday but rather a group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history.
So often the church does give us cause to doubt. How many times have you heard someone say they left the church because “folk don’t practice what they preach?” Or how often have those outside the church looked at Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and wondered what Christianity is really about? How often do you wonder why Christians don’t live with the courage of their convictions? Or how many times have we been hurt and broken by those who claim the same faith we do? The actions of those who claim Christ often give us pause.
So Thomas has his doubts. And Milosz asks his questions. I’m sure they are doubts and questions that most of us have entertained on occasion and maybe revisit now and then. We get in those places of suffering or grief or despair and just can’t see the newness. Yet, it also seems to be true that those who have suffered have some special insight into resurrection. You hear it in the music. Think of African-American spirituals or the old gospel hymns of poor whites. The songs are filled with images of resurrection, of the coming kingdom, of new life when all is set right:
I’ve got a home in glory land that outshines the sun.
Do Lord, O Do Lord, O do remember me.
Way beyond the blue.
Some glad morning, when this life is o’er
I’ll fly away.
To that home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.
One of these mornings,
One of these mornings
I’m gonna lay down my cross
And get my crown.
There is a land that is fairer than day,
and by faith we can see it afar.
In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.
Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.
I am bound for the promised land.
I’m bound for the promised land.
Oh who will come and go with me?
This little light of mine,
I’m goin’ to let it shine.
Everywhere I go,
I’m goin’ to let it shine.
Let it shine till Jesus comes,
I’m goin’ to let it shine.
Those Christians who have suffered at the hands of systemic evil – slavery, racism, and poverty – have left us a music filled with hope for a better day. So many of them only had fleeting glimpses of resurrection while they were in this life. Maybe as they gathered with sisters and brothers on a Sunday morning and sang these songs with power, they received a glimpse. I received the following in an e-mail this week:
The slaves could sing because they knew the world could do no worse than to make them slaves. That is the witness of all the oppressed. The world can do no worse to us . . . and God still loves us. We will still reach the other side.
All who have gone through suffering can give insight into resurrection. But I think we have something special to say. We who are gay and lesbian have gone through an experience that our heterosexual sisters and brothers haven’t gone through. We have an extra rite of passage, an extra step in life’s journey. You see we have experienced our Good Fridays’. Some of us have lain in the tomb for decades. But, at some point we have grabbed hold of a new life. We have claimed a new hope.
And what a journey it was. Despite anxiety. Despite fear. Despite a path that seemed fraught with danger on every side. Despite a world full of many that would rob us of our dignity and break us. We came out. Despite all don’t you also remember the excitement, the joy, the new sense of self-awareness, the new confidence. The timid early steps give way to pride. And suddenly we find ourselves at the dawn of a new day, entering new life.
You who are family and friends. You too had your days of doubt. You too were filled with anxiety, fear, and grief. You had to make sense of this new thing. But you grasped that it was new life. You witnessed these journeys and blessed them and celebrated them. So I say to you that this too is your story.
These stories, our stories, are stories of resurrection.
Willimon said that the best witness to the doubting Thomas’ is “a group of people.” “A group of people whose life together is so radically different, so completely changed from the way the world builds a community, that there can be no explanation other than that something decisive has happened in history.”
It takes a group of people with courage. A group of people that unlike those criticized by Czeslaw Milosz don’t respond in silence and inactivity. It is a group who knows that we have nothing to fear from crucifixion. And crucifixion will come. If you live for peace, freedom, love, and hope in this world you will encounter the same forces that Jesus encountered. What is needed is a group that doesn’t have to fear at all because it has glimpsed the power of resurrection.
Dare I say that we can be that group of people? Dare I say that we already are that group of people? I think we are because we begin with one simple claim – that absolutely everyone is welcome at this table. I think we begin where Jesus began. The multitudes will not be sent home hungry. No, they will experience extravagant grace, radical inclusion, and relentless compassion.
When someone asks, “Has he risen?” may the life we live together be the answer that says “Yes!”