Almost There

April 12, 2015

The First Parish ofWatertown

The Rev. Andrea Greenwood

Opening Words   from Walt Whitman, Camden Conversations

“I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole self, a chance to try over again .”


Reading            John 20:19-29
When it was evening on the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of being persecuted, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’   The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

Then he showed them his hands and his side.

Jesus said again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’

Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

So when he arrived, the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But Thomas did not believe them, and wished to see for himself.

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’

Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’

Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’

Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’


SERMON: Almost There

Long ago I learned that the name for this day, one week after Easter, is Low Sunday. I was taught that the name referred to church attendance, — that today is a traditional day for clergy to take off, and for regular attendees to stay home, after the high of last week. Sure enough, Mark is off today – although he is actually filling in for a Christian friend of ours who gets this Sunday, and this Sunday ONLY, off.   Charlyn, our music director, is gone, filling in at another church, too. Even Tracy is away this morning!   She is at Ferry Beach, with our teens. Guy and Lauren and I are your skeleton crew; a phrase with resonance in this week after the empty tomb. Back in the middle of the last century, there were a few ministers who had some fun with this tradition of empty churches, and got a little competition going, to see who could draw the biggest crowd on this day. All sorts of famous speakers were engaged to fill pulpits; great musicians invited to play, all to entice folks out of bed, away from the Sunday paper, and to church. This might also have been a way to stave off the other meaning for Low Sunday, which has to do with our spirits.

There was Easter, and the promise of new life, even when it seemed impossible – filled with joy and hope and new chances, we gathered to share the good news, and our amazement.  The choir was here, and extra flowers, and we might have thought everything was going to be better. All of the hard work and the pain are over, dispensed with; the cave is no longer a reminder of all that is dead, or the losses that haunt us, but is instead a symbol of eternal life. So the celebration can continue. But it didn’t. The holiday ended and we returned to our regular lives and find it is easy to doubt – ourselves, and the world. We knew that the Tsarnaev trial would go to the jury as soon as the holiday ended, and I was both hoping that this would somehow offer a shape to the story; give it some meaning that has eluded me; and also just praying it would all end. The testimony and evidence has me weary to the bone, but every morning I am compelled to read the newspaper columns anyway. And I remember our children, living through the sounds of all those bullets, and helicopters, and our streets jammed with police; and I think of the young people who went to school with Dhzokhar and considered him a friend. How do we know anything about the world any more? What experiences do we trust? What will help us move on? And yet, as Clarence Darrow once said, “just think of the tragedy of not teaching our children to doubt.”

Low Sunday matches my mood. Instead of a story about joy, Christian tradition this week has us read about the disciples being locked up, and afraid. Jesus has appeared to Mary in the garden, and she has most likely already told his followers that she has seen him; he is risen. But they remain frightened; hiding in a room and praying not to be found. They are terrified that the same people who killed their leader will take them, too. Then Jesus appears and tells them to be at peace. Fear not, he says. And then He breathes his spirit on to them, and invites them in to a shared ministry. He reminds them that they have the power to forgive or to hold on to sins. The choice is theirs.

But one disciple is not in that locked room; cowering. Thomas, for whatever reason, is not with the others, and when he returns to his friends a week later, they tell him that Jesus came; that he appeared to them, and brought the Holy Spirit with him; and that he charged them to go out into the world with the message of a living God. And Thomas said, “Maybe. But I am not really going to believe this unless I see it for myself.” For this, Thomas has been branded a doubter, a bad boy, and someone who lacks faith.

Last year it was me who filled in for our colleague in Chestnut Hill, Mark Caggiano, a former student minister here. The Chestnut Hill church uses a prayer book and follows a lectionary – that is, the Bible is divided into 156 sections, and over the course of three years, if you go to church every Sunday, you will hear the entire Bible. Mark Caggiano gets off on assigning these readings to me, and occasionally glories in it a little more than I think is proper in a clergyman. The reading this morning from the Gospel of John, which in Chestnut Hill came with a side of Leviticus, was one Mark (the other Mark) called serendipity, because he believes I am like Thomas. A doubter. Too rational, and in need of proof, when I should simply have faith. He thought if I really read it, I would be forced to rethink my beliefs.

Naturally, I continue to disappoint Mark C, which is why our Mark is over in Chestnut Hill today, and not me. This is the first year in a long time that I have not filled in for Caggiano. I told the Chestnut Hill congregation that Thomas is the hero of this story, AND that I think he exists because that really is the role that most of us would take, isn’t it? I am not going to change my whole life’s work based on what some folks who have been hanging out in an isolation room tell me without at least checking it out for myself first. This seems completely reasonable to me. And Thomas seems in many ways to be the brave one among the disciples. He was not in hiding after Jesus’s crucifixion. He was out in the world, eyes open. And, in fact, none of the other disciples was asked to do what Thomas had to. They had already seen. Why begrudge him the same experience?

It doesn’t take long for the issue to resolve itself. A week later, Jesus shows up again, and this time Thomas is there. Jesus invites Thomas to touch the wound in his side, and witness the holes in his hands, and Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” The text is not explicit about what that means – it is equally a cry of distress at what was done to someone he loves, and a recognition of who Jesus is to him. In my mind, it is not necessarily about Thomas feeling bad that he didn’t believe that Jesus had visited the disciples in their locked room. It is just the cry of someone who is seeing something completely startling. It is a cry that can unite everyone – doubt is something every single one of us can relate to, and talk about. Fast held beliefs can divide, but doubt allows us to talk to one another; to share.

But then Jesus insults Thomas in a backhanded way. He asks, “Do you believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen yet come to believe.” In other words, Jesus is not saying, “bless you, Thomas. I am glad you are with me now.” He is saying, “bless people who are not like you.” This seems a little unfair, given that none of the disciples believed without seeing. In fact, it was their seeing Jesus that prompted them to conclude he had been resurrected. When they saw the empty tomb, the first thought was not that Jesus was still alive; it was that thieves had stolen his body, to desecrate it. It was only when Jesus appeared to them on the road that the disciples believed he had triumphed over death. There would have been no Easter story without those who believed because they saw firsthand.

Why was Thomas set apart, and called a doubter, when what he was asking for was no different from what the other disciples had already received from Jesus? Could it be that his strength was being acknowledged? Doubt does not mean the absence of faith, it means asking a lot of questions, and not just accepting things without thinking long and hard first. People who don’t believe easily – people who have to be convinced, or need to see for themselves – are generally more committed and more invested than those who just go along. Thomas is going to be a man of deep conviction. So why does Jesus say “do you believe because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen, yet come to believe”?

Maybe this beatitude is completely appropriate for Low Sunday. It sets out the work of a shared ministry, and gives us an indication of how we are to recapture the spirit of Easter. Jesus is no longer going to be known firsthand. At the time the disciples hear this message from Jesus, there are very few people alive who knew him, and that number is only going to go down. Quite soon, Jesus will only be a memory, unless the disciples learn how to keep him alive in a new way. It is now their job to spread the word of the living God, and help people believe even if they cannot see for themselves. Thomas is set apart because he is the one who makes the task clear: These original followers must make Jesus real, and do as they have been instructed: Forgive sins, teach, preach and spread the word. They are to act in the world as Jesus did, and help everyone acclimate to the distance between themselves and their God in heaven, by learning to keeping the beliefs and principles alive in their hearts, and carrying out his mission in the world. All those people who never saw Jesus, who doubt his powers – your job is to bless them with faith. This is another reason why it is Low Sunday – we are humbled by the work before us. We must make believers of those who are distant in time and space from all that happened in Bethlehem of Judea centuries ago.

How relevant is this to people who are not explicitly Christian? It can be easy to be put off by phrases like “keeping Jesus alive” – at least, for me it is. I am not interested in telling people to believe in Jesus Christ. And yet I do think that there is something to be said for coming together as a community and keeping alive the mission Jesus was on, which was about reforming this planet. Making the earth itself reflect all the ideals we have about heaven – a place of justice and mercy and equality; a place of hope and joy and peace. On Thursday morning I found myself crying as I read about a man stopped for a broken taillight in South Carolina, and then shot in the back eight times by a police officer. Doubt was imperative, because the official story was quite different from the view of a camera that saw for itself. And then in yesterday’s paper I read how Boston police and the Suffolk County District Attorney decided to release video footage of a shooting here, because doubt coupled with history was causing distrust.   D.A. Conley said, it’s in everybody’s best interest to share information. “Our goal is to ensure we are one people, and one city.” This is the spirit I am after. I want to be part of a church community that helps people to live without fear and with justice.

Another name for this day is Quasi Modo Sunday, because the introit for the Catholic mass begins with those two words, and those of you who know your Victor Hugo may remember that the deformed infant was left at the cathedral on Low Sunday. The archdeacon named the foundling Quasimodo to commemorate the day, but it is also a name that signifies the boy himself. I can put my four years of Latin to use, and tell you that it translates as “almost the full measure” or “somewhat like the regular model.” The orphan’s spinal deformity was clear as a baby, and so was a giant wart that made it impossible for his right eye to open, and so Quasimodo is “almost like a full person,” not quite real. Because he is not a full person, he is looked upon as a monster; and though he rings the cathedral bells so everyone else can hear, the task makes him deaf. He cannot walk upright, he cannot quite see, he cannot hear, and is cared for by no one, but Quasimodo is kind and diligent, and only disobeys in service to a higher law. He may only be half-made, but he is pure. Of course, his name is only half the phrase– Quasi and modo are the first two words of a sentence which says that men need to be like newborn babies, craving milk that makes them grow. Without genuine nourishment, they will only be half-formed. We, too, have our cravings for sustenance and a life in the spirit, and if we follow those desires, we will grow and find salvation.

Victor Hugo’s story is set in medieval Paris, about twenty years after the printing press was invented, and it is full of tension about what it means to have words written in books instead of in our hearts or in our world. As Hugo wrote, the “printed word grows and rises in endless spirals, like smoke, and there is a medley of tongues.” It is an image that evokes the tower of Babel. We may not understand each other, or share the same story. The words become clouds, obscuring everything. Before the printing press, the Gospel story had to be owned in a different way; embodied, carried with us through our days. Every major event in Hugo’s story takes place in front of the doors of the stone cathedral. Will they open, or remain shut tight? Is the tomb empty, or is the body still there? How will you know?

Of course the body at Notre Dame was that of the abandoned baby, and though he may not be in the sanctuary, he is in the cathedral; in the bell tower. The story is written in the stones, and in Quasimodo, the incarnation of spiritual beauty. People don’t like him; he is not one of them, they don’t want to look at him, but it is his work that causes people to pause, and look up, and feel. He rings the bells and makes the music appear, It is because of him that they have access to a deeper life. It is because of him that they can think about injustice, and understand complex moral issues instead of just matters of obedience. It is because of him that we can doubt. Are we living as we should?

When my brother-in-law was dying, I spent long days with him, and he would sleep and wake and tell me his dreams. Often he was fishing off the big breakwater near his childhood home in Maine, which was right near my grandmother’s house, where I spent every summer and school vacation of my childhood, and where I still go whenever I can. The bell buoys would toll out their warnings, pointing out the stones under the surface of the sea. Sometimes when I am alone in the car, driving past the exit to my sister’s house, I will be overwhelmed by Tom’s presence, and when it fades from the passenger seat I feel both fuller and emptier at the same time. I recently came across a wonderful story of the theologian Frederick Buechner’s, in which he tells us about the death of his good friend, who one morning in his sixty-eighth year he simply didn’t wake up. Buechner says, this “was about as easy a way as he could possibly have done it. But it wasn’t easy for the people he left behind because it gave us no chance to say good-bye.”

He continues: “A couple of months later my wife and I were staying with his widow overnight, when I had a short dream about him. He was standing there in the dark guest room looking very much the way he always did, and I told him how much we missed him and how glad I was to see him again. Then I said, “Are you really there, Dudley?” I meant, was he there in fact-and-truth, or was I merely dreaming he was? His answer was that he was really there, and then I said, “Can you prove it?”

“Of course,” he said, and he plucked a strand of blue wool out of his sweater and tossed it to me, and I caught it between my index finger and my thumb, and the feel of it was so palpable and real that it woke me up. That’s all there was to the dream.

When I told that dream at breakfast the next morning. I had hardly finished when my wife said she had noticed the strand of wool on the carpet when she was getting dressed. I rushed upstairs to see, and there it was, a little tangle of navy blue wool.”

That is the end of the story. Who knows what this means? It was a dream. Carpets get threads on them. You certainly don’t have to invoke the supernatural to account for a piece of blue thread. But maybe Buechner’s friend really did come. He certainly came in a dream, and in his heart.

As Buechner wrote, “Dreams like that happen every day to somebody. They’re a dime a dozen, they may mean absolutely nothing. Or, dreams like that are momentary glimpses into a mystery of such depth, power and beauty that if we were to see it head on, in any way other than in glimpses, I suspect we would be annihilated. If I had to bet my life, and my children’s lives on one possibility or the other, which would I bet on? Which would you bet on?”

I like that Buechner talks about the impossibility of seeing truly not because of distance or doubt, but because the vision is so strong and powerful that it would blind us; knock us off our feet. We can’t see the universe all at once; we can only tolerate bits and pieces as we go; pieces that we can carry in our hearts and minds and that shape our souls; that invade our dreams and let us be at peace with our losses, and let us have wonder, too. The doubts we have are related to knowing we cannot see the whole picture; knowing there is always more to the story; that who we are today is not the same as who we will be tomorrow. Recently a parishioner here told me about this amazing experience with her daughter and an angel who rustled in one morning to reassure, and point the way towards happiness. Do you believe in such things? Does it matter if you believe if you are willing to experience whatever comes your way?

Flannery O’Conner once wrote, “I would like to be intelligently holy.” Isn’t that an affirmation of doubt as an essential part of faith?   Everybody wants to believe – if not religiously, then in their brand of politics, or their lifestyle choices. Belief is how we feel secure, certain. It is how we know we belong. Belief is what keeps us safely ourselves. Doubt, on the other hand, is how we change. It might transform us into something more than a follower. But it takes guts to face all the things we are unsure of. Can we look at the cross, and the tomb? Can we bear the emptiness, and feel the fullness of the life that was sacrificed? Can we bear to test ourselves?

If we are honest, some days, yes, we can; and other days we crumple at the thought. We need our faith to hold us up, and have no room for doubt. Some days our words and ideas will express one thing, and our lives will say quite another. This is why I go to church, Sunday after Sunday, high and low; because there never will be a definitive proof of a life beyond the one I am living. All the evidence is fragmentary, fragile, ambiguous. But the days we walk through, and the way we live – it speaks; becomes part of the testimony. May it be a message of something worthy.


Closing Words    a Buddhist blessing

May all beings everywhere

Plagued by sufferings of body and mind
Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy…
May no one be afraid or belittled,

With a mind weighed down by depression.

May the blind see forms,
And the deaf hear sounds.
May those whose bodies are worn with toil
Be restored and granted rest.


May the naked find clothing,
The hungry find food.
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.

May those weak with sorrow find joy, and
May the forlorn find hope,
May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed.
May the powerless find power
And may people think of benefiting each other.