Easter for Doubters (or Leaders for a Rising Future), Old First Sermon 04.07.13

Easter for Doubters (or Leaders for a Rising Future), Old First Sermon 04.07.13

Revelation 1:4-8 and John 20:19-31

When I came up with the sermon title, I was only far enough along with the sermon to think of “Easter for Doubters.” Now finished, it could also be titled “Leaders for a Rising Future.”

If Peter, in the pre-Easter narrative of Jesus and his closest cadre, is not quite the villain disciple, he’s certainly the model of a follower who doesn’t get it.

Thomas rises to rival Peter for negative-role-model star of the post-resurrection stories.

Not quite a Judas,
still, it’s no compliment when someone accuses you of being a “doubting Thomas.”

Thomas has been treated quite negatively in much Christian memory and understanding.

But what was Thomas’ request? Didn’t he was absent the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples in the locked room, didn’t he just ask to see the risen Christ for himself? And hadn’t all the disciples, at least according to one retelling, disbelieved the women when they brought news of resurrection?

What was Thomas’ alleged fault, or his condemnation? Not believing until he encountered Jesus for himself? If you read carefully, the text never really condemns Thomas for his desire or expressing it.

In fact, Thomas just wants his own first-hand experience of the risen Christ. Rather than accepting the second-hand testimony of others, he wants his own encounter.

Richard Dawkins — not exactly the easiest commentator on Christianity — has pointed out:

“The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence (albeit the evidence that had already been shared with everyone else.)

…The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held to us as worthy of imitation.”

Remember what I said last Sunday, on Easter? “Had no one encountered the Risen One, I’m not sure we’d know about Easter.”

The resurrection, among other promises, means that Jesus can keep showing up.
That the presence of Christ is no longer limited by the usual conventions of our physical world and mortal lives…
No longer simply flesh and blood or limited by space and time…
the reality of God’s love can now enter locked rooms,
journey with followers without being recognized,
be experienced in both Galilee and Jerusalem or anywhere else,
even play with time itself,
appearing or vanishing in a moment of recognition,
coming and going and yet abiding with his followers always…
to the end of the age.

God raised Jesus so he could reach and touch and turn even us,
no matter where or when we were born.
God’s love at large.
Can’t be killed.
Nor can it be contained.”

Jesus’ grants Thomas’ wish.
Appears to him.
Indulges his desire and need for a first-hand experience of the risen Christ.

We often hear an accusing inflection in the closing words John’s story assigns to Jesus.
But maybe it is simply illustration that second-hand testimony should be sufficient
to initiate and to maintain faith. (I appreciated I didn’t hear that accusation in Wanda’s reading of Jesus’ words.)

“Have you believed because you have seen?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

We’re about to ordain Larry as an Elder who is also serving as our Moderator.

Establish a Pastoral Relations Ministry Team to help us attend to, support and strengthen the relationship between me as pastor and you as congregation.

Create a new Community Engagement Director so Suzanne can help keep us as a congregation focused on reaching out to new people and sharing God’s love further.

Bring Jackie back as an Elder.

Install Jonathan as Administration SLG Leader,
Griffin as Worship SLG Leader,
Megan as the Community Life SLG Leader,
Steve as Outreach SLG Leader, and
Laura as our Assistant Treasurer.

And ask God’s blessing over all those — just coming into leadership as well as those who are already serving — who have accepted God’s call through our requests to serve as leaders in this congregation this year. We’re promising to support their work.

And it occurs to me, Thomas, rather than a foil for the faithfulness of the other disciples,
rather than an object lesson in doubt,
…Thomas is actually a model for a strong, self-differentiated church leader.

He is self-confident enough to be his own person,
to know and articulate what he needs,
to resist being bullied by all the distractions and crises of others,
or the pressure of the majority, the dominant, the status quo.

Instead, he can say calmly — without accusing others who are different —
what he needs.
Even if that means he needs to stand alone, or
over against the rest and peer pressure.
Strong enough to withstand the narrative’s and the tradition’s disapproval.

Thomas is willing to take well-defined stands,
and hold on to — but not beat up others with — his convictions.

He has the emotional maturity to develop his own vision and faith clearly.
To walk his own way.
And in so doing to provide us a bigger picture and new understanding.
He brings to his role among the 11,
the maturity and sense of self to face and not be deterred
by the inevitable anxiety and cross-purposes that surface in human communities,
even ones dedicated to trying to be more godly.

You whose service this year, we finally are getting to acknowledge,
to give thanks for and
to pledge our support of…

In any type of community, more so in solidly institutional settings,
self-directed, imaginative, energetic, and creative leaders
will be consistently frustrated, even sabotaged
as often as supported and encouraged.
It’s the cross one has to bear as a leader.

Why?
Because communities and institutions are inherently conservative–
it’s how they preserve themselves,
retain their identity,
resist the forces that would change them.

But I promise you, we need you and your leadership.
Not caving in to the pressure and disruptions.
Not mistaking your goal for keeping peace at all costs or
making everyone comfortable.

At Old First, we talk about the 80/20 rule. We hope when you come to church
80% of what you encounter makes your feel at home,
that this is where you fit in and ought to be.

But expect 20% of what you bump into around here to ruffle or unsettle you.
Why? Because we are a diverse community, with so many different needs
that not everyone’s can be met all the time.

There’s inevitably some giving and taking that has to go on.
It’s what you give and give up to be a part of this community.

But more deeply, expect to be uncomfortable sometimes at church…
we come up with that arbitrary 20% figure…
because God’s got some prophetic challenges for us,
expectations that help us get from where we are to where we are to be.

Remember on Easter, I said, “If you want to find the risen Christ…
If you want to be near when Jesus passes by…
Look out in front of you. He’s gone ahead that we might continue to follow.”

Therefore, understand, leaders, that some of the leadership you will stand before us to promise this morning, some of it is about helping this community move ahead, even when it’d rather dig in its heels or even regress backwards.

But in the face of such resistance, mediate your own anxiety, because God wouldn’t lead you to this service and then fail to give you what you need, even if some complain you are demanding proof.
Take some risks.
Church should be less about everyone feeling comfortable,
and more about moving ahead.

Again, from last week’s Easter sermon:

“Following Jesus is a never-ending process…
He’s not going to take us back again to the way it was.
The only way out of darkness and death is moving ahead…
Nothing was ever the same for those who met the risen Christ.”

If you want to go looking for the Risen One, he’s out in front of us now…

Leaders, be yourself as completely, fully, faithfully as you can —
because your peculiarity maybe where this community finds its lessons,
even its blessings.
“It’s important to share with people the strange things that happen to you.”
When something unusual happens, don’t try to hide it.
It’s not something to cover up or deny.
Instead, ask yourself, “with whom am I to share this strange occurance?”

I’m not encouraging anyone to be disruptive.
But the church life doesn’t revolve around the axis of uninterrupted consensus.
And how are we going to follow Jesus if we insist on being “middlers”
who are completely incapable of taking well-defined and non-self-righteous stands.

Leaders, we need your backbones as well as your hands and hearts and minds.
The measure of our mission or faithfulness won’t be the absence of anxiety
or even conflict.
But the transformative engagement that happens through real differences and only comes of love.

Over this first week since Easter, I’ve been involved in conversations here and in the wider church about how this congregation and our denomination should move ahead.

And I promise, none of us yet knows the road ahead well enough.
Well, maybe Jesus can see where we’re going.
But the rest of us…
We’re going to have to just keep trying,
asking real, hard questions, even when they sound faithless,
and trying the results to see where God is leading us…

I couldn’t be more confident in a group of servants
with which to work and to count on…
to help this congregation see whatever it is we need in order to believe. Amen.