Easter 2: “In Which Grace Startles You and Makes You Jump a Little”

Preached at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, South Hadley, Massachusetts
on the occasion of the baptism of Arietta, our new little sister in Christ
April 3, 2016

John 20:19-31

I had a dream the other night that I woke up and found several of you standing on the church lawn by our sign. You were grilling. Now, I know, you’re not responsible for anything that the dream versions of you do. I, in turn, am not responsible for anything that dream Anna does. I also wonder if I had this dream because all of us are so longing for spring to get here in all its fullness.

Anyhow, you were grilling on the front lawn by the sign. It seemed strange to me to grill out on a Friday morning, but I decided to go with it. I put on jeans and wandered outside, where I convinced Bob Valenti that we didn’t need to change the church sign, because it’s still Easter. And Bob nodded and said, “Oh yeah, that makes sense. Here, have a hotdog, pastor.” It was actually a really fun dream, despite the startling beginning.

God, community, grace, and the church surprise me all the time. Even in my dreams. One of the things I love most about parish life is its tendency to surprise me. My clergy friends and I have a saying: “The Holy Spirit is clearly out of its mind,” or some variation. You never know what people will do, how God will act, or seemingly little things, like how babies will behave at their baptisms. [Acknowledge baptismal family]

And today, in our Gospel text, it’s Jesus who does something unexpected. He comes barging in through the doors of a locked room — twice. The first time for looks, the second time, I’m convinced, just to startle Thomas In my version of the story, Jesus giggles a little bit when he sees Thomas’s face. And then he offers peace. Both times he appears, no matter how suddenly, always offers peace. Even to Thomas.

Oh, Thomas. Doubting Thomas.

When I was growing up in a conservative evangelical church, doubt was our enemy. “Doubting Thomas” was a lesson for all of us – that we have to believe rather than doubt. Don’t be like Thomas. Don’t be a Doubting Anna.

So of course, I developed an affection for Thomas. I’m a “do not push this button” kind of person, after all. To me, Thomas was just like all of us. I am a Doubting Anna sometimes. We have a word for people who have no doubts and believe anything. We call them naiive.

So when Thomas hears all of his friends telling him that the impossible has happened – that Jesus, who is supposed to be dead, who they knew had been executed on a cross – when they said that he has appeared to them alive, Thomas responds exactly as I would have — as most of us would have.

Really…?

It’s possible he even felt angry. What kind of a cruel joke is this?

But he doesn’t have much of a reaction. I think Thomas was an understated, semi-sarcastic kind of guy (other textual proof of this available in another sermon). He doesn’t react much – he simply does what we all do when someone asserts that the impossible has happened. He says he needs proof. If this is a joke, he must have thought to himself, it’s a really unfunny one.

All throughout my childhood, people told about close encounters that they’d had with God. They talked about feeling close to God. There were even stories they told where they felt that they’d seen proof. Everyone seemed to have a story about this. Some of you might have stories like this.

I wanted that. I wanted really badly to find God in church, to have such an encounter with God in worship. If you can’t find God in worship, after all, where is God to be found?

Those of us who grew up in an evangelical tradition probably remember invitation time, when everyone is given a chance to accept Jesus, or come back to God, whatever the case may be. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, it’s a time when anyone can come forward to make a commitment to Jesus. It involves the congregation singing a hymn while the pastor stands expectantly waiting for someone to come forward. Sometimes, if things got really serious, the pastor would ask everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes while the pianist continued to play. And all I learned from that as a child was that it’s impolite to look at someone while they’re having a heart to heart with Jesus.

The point is, if you wanted an encounter with Jesus, you could come forward during this time. This is where you were supposed to meet God: up front, in front of everyone, with the pastor. So I came forward. I came forward a few times. But I never felt what others seemed to feel. And I thought I was the only one. Everyone else seemed to have it more together than me, to mean things more than I did. I still had nagging doubt. And doubt, I had been told, was the enemy.

But over the years, I’ve learned that the Holy Spirit truly is out of its mind, and that it rarely appears when expected. I’ve learned to see grace in more than an emotional moment at an altar. I’ve found grace in hospital rooms at 3AM after a pager interrupts my sleep. I’ve found grace in out-of-the-blue phone calls from former parishioners just when I was struggling with my pastoral exhaustion. And I’ve found grace in getting a sudden phone call from one Paul Sinnott from the synod office in the middle of October, in the middle of all my anxiety about the future, telling me that he’s got a congregational profile from South Hadley, Massachusetts, that he wants me to read. I never found the resurrected Jesus where I was “supposed to.” Other people have always seemed to me to have more faith, a closer relationship with Jesus, and a more pulled together life than me. So I never found Jesus where he was supposed to be – but he’s always seemed to barge right in, even though locked doors, and find me.

I guess that’s why Thomas is a kindred spirit to a lot of us. He didn’t find Jesus where he was supposed to. But Jesus barged in unexpectedly and found him. When he did, Jesus didn’t chastise Thomas for his doubt. He offers peace and he offers himself to Thomas – his hands, his side. And Thomas, like all of us from time to time, unexpectedly finds grace.

When parents and sponsors make promises at baptism, they can seem daunting. Some wonder if they’re supposed to feel or act a certain way. In the same way, the promises that we will make as a congregation can seem daunting. During Ari’s baptism today, we will affirm the words of the creeds and make promises to help raise her in the Christian faith. So that she’ll grow up lighting Advent wreaths and sniffing Easter lilies and living through the story of Jesus so that someday, just like us, she might come to understand God’s surprising, unexpected, in-breaking grace for herself. We know that we are imperfect people. We often question our own ability to keep any promises, but especially big ones, like at baptism. We imagine that everyone else means these words more than we do, has more faith than we do, is more pulled together than we are.

But the good news, beloved people, is the biggest promise made today is God’s — God calls Ari beloved, one of Christ’s own flock. A flock that we’re all a part of. Today, in celebration of God’s promise, and what God has already done, we welcome Arietta to our little flock and promise to take care of her, introduce her to Jesus, and help her understand how truly beloved of God she is. To help her look for God’s presence in unexpected places. As we talked about on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we’re promising to tell her about the promise that God has already made to her — that we — her parents, her sponsors, and all of us — we love her, and God loves her, and there’s nothing she can do about it.

Beloved, even in our doubt, even when we don’t feel like we are enough, and that everybody has more faith than us, God barges in through locked doors and offers us himself.   Nadia Bolz-Weber says it perfectly: “The fact of the matter is this: when Jesus encountered Thomas, Jesus didn’t label him doubting Thomas. He didn’t judge him. Jesus came to Thomas just as he was, doubts and all, and offered him peace.”

Christ comes to us, doubts and all, surprises us with grace, and offers us himself: in bread. In wine. In water. In peace.

Ari, Geoff, Jessica, Jen and LeRoy: as Ari grows, I pray that both you and she are continually surprised by grace: whether by every day love and hugs, joyful times, Christmases and Easters, or even occasional dreams of church picnics on your lawn. Know that we are your family and we are walking with you to fulfill the promises that we make today, so that Ari may grow up knowing that we all love her, and God loves her, and there’s not a thing in the world that she can do about it. Amen.

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