A sermon preached on April 19, 2009 based upon John 20:19 – 29, and entitled “Why Church Matters.”
There is an unanswered question raised by the story Bob read for us. Why wasn’t Thomas in Church on that first night, the one when Jesus suddenly showed up and filled them all with God’s peace?
We don’t know why. We can speculate. Maybe Thomas felt like he didn’t need church. Maybe he just felt like sleeping in. Or maybe he was embarrassed — afraid that he’d cry like a baby in the presence of the others — and he just couldn’t handle it.
Who knows? In a certain sense, it doesn’t really matter why he missed church. He just did, that’s all. He wasn’t there when Jesus showed up.
Church is like that. You can’t predict what you’ll get when you come to worship.
There are Sundays when it can seem dry, empty, and you’re just going through the motions. Other times you show up, not expecting much, and you are surprised by a sense of the presence of God so thick you could cut it with a knife. It can be life changing.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could get it together every Sunday — you know, have the preaching so inspiring, the music so beautiful, the prayers so moving, the people so present and loving, that we could guarantee you’d get yourself a powerful experience of the presence of God every Sunday?
The thing is, though, that if we could guarantee the “experience of God” each Sunday, well, it wouldn’t be God, would it? It would be some kind of trick pony.
The wind blows where it will, said Jesus, you can’t see it, nor control it. So it is with the holy spirit. If you can control it, it wouldn’t be the holy spirit.
Nonetheless, there is something about the coming together of a community of people who are attempting, as best they can, to be open to Jesus, that is, as they say, priceless. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also.”
Most of us here this morning are familiar with the story of Tracy. Tracy’s a beloved member of our congregation who, this past Friday, at the age of 33, two years after her initial arrest, was finally sentenced for the crime of breaking the trust given to her as a teacher, having had inappropriate relationship with one of her students.
We are all, everyone of us, a mixture of virtue and vice, light and darkness, sin and grace, belief and unbelief. For some, the light is more obviously manifest, in others, the darkness.
For most of Tracy’s life, she was a person with an impeccable reputation. As a youth she did well in school, stayed away from trouble, did countless hours of community service. She became what she had always wanted to be: a teacher, serving two years in Kuwait, and then returning to work with underprivileged boys from Newark.
This past two years, however, it has been her weaknesses and flaws, rather than her strengths and virtues, that have been on display, and in such a public way as well. It has been very, very tough on her, to say the least.
I am convinced that if we really get it about Jesus, there is no way that any of us can stand in condemnation. We are all sinners, saved by grace, and that is more than just a slogan, it is the truth. Sometimes it takes a bit of living in this world to catch on to what it means. But it is all there in the Gospels if we are willing to hear it.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us that there is no real difference between a desire and a deed. On one level that seems ridiculous: of course there is a difference between my thinking I’d like to punch somebody in the face and actually punching that person in the face. Just ask the person with the face.
But on the level of our soul before God, there really isn’t any difference. Jesus said that if you feel lust, then you are capable, given the right — or should we say — “wrong” set of circumstances, of committing adultery, of breaking your trust.
Jesus said that if you feel rage in your heart, then you are quite capable, given an unfortunate turn of events, of committing murder.
The same sort of thing applies with fear. Everyone of the Gospels includes the story of how at the Last Supper Peter and the others tried to convince themselves and Jesus that whatever came down Jesus could trust them to stand by him. When Jesus was arrested, and the fear took over, they did indeed betray his trust. But Jesus had already known that about them.
So how are we to respond to this truth? Are we to dedicate ourselves to ridding ourselves of every little bit of lust, of rage, of fear, indeed of unbelief?
We can try, but it won’t work.
If you really get Jesus, I think this is where you come down: There but for the grace of God go I, which is why we can’t condemn anybody.
And so we pray daily, just as Jesus taught us, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We pray this because we know we are weak, and only a fool believes he can resist all temptation.
I am very proud of our congregation, and perhaps I should be careful about this, because pride is a set up for a fall. But I am proud, because I think our congregation gets it about the “There but for the grace of God go I” part.
So for those of you who weren’t in the courtroom on Friday, I want to give a wrap up. After two years of anguished waiting, during which Tracy went through the fires, she came, through the grace of God, to a place where she was ready to proceed on to the next step — her prison sentence. She was still prone to bouts of tears, but, there was also a peace in her — that same peace, I’m convinced that Jesus bestowed on his disciples when he appeared to them suddenly in that upper room where they were huddled together between locked doors, full of fear and self-contempt.
A big part of leading her to this place of peace was the love of her church family. Last Sunday — Easter — following our worship celebration, about sixty of us gathered briefly at the altar to pray for Tracy, to hug her, to tell her once more that we love her.
Friday morning, twenty five of us were able to take the time to make the trip to the Essex County Courthouse, where Tracy was to appear before the judge one last time to receive her sentence.
We arrived there knowing that the judge had the discretion to sentence Tracy from 5 to 7 years in prison, with a requirement that 85% of her time be served. The prosecutor wanted seven years. A couple of us were given the opportunity to address the judge to describe the confidence we had in Tracy’s goodness in spite of the crime she had committed, and to express our commitment to be there for Tracy as she begins to rebuild her life — to find a new way to offer her gifts in service.
At the end, when it came time for the sentencing, the Judge indicated that because of the serious nature of Tracy’s crime, she had intended to sentence Tracy to the full seven years, but as a result of what she had witnessed in the courtroom that morning, she had been moved to reduce the sentence to five years. Tracy was led from the courtroom in handcuffs, and despite the handcuffs, she seemed happy, realizing that the judge had just reduced her actual prison time by about 21 months.
“I love you, and thank you,” she said to all of us.
As I said before, the very worst of what Tracy is capable of has been on display publicly, a burden that the rest of us would ever want to have to go through. In the courtroom, we were able to lift up Tracy’s extraordinary gifts, as well as the great good she has accomplished in her life.
I want to finish by lifting up an aspect of Tracy which, in retrospect, does seem quite remarkable, and that is her realization from early on that it was really, really important to bind oneself to a faith community.
As a child, Tracy’s family wasn’t a church family. They would later become one for sure, but it was Tracy herself who took the lead in this. When she was 13, she came here for the first time by the invitation of a friend. She continued to come on her own. She became the youngest member of the choir, she joined the confirmation class, the youth group.
Eventually, her father Al and her brother Tim, impressed by what church meant to Tracy, followed her lead, and began attending, and before long, they were as fully connected to the church as Tracy was.
Most of the time, there is this falling away from church that happens with teenagers as they become independent; later they often return, though sometimes they don’t. None of this ever happened for Tracy, she seemed to understand on a very deep level that she needed to be connected to her faith community. For the next 20 years, Tracy was here in worship pretty much whenever it was physically possible. Through the years she continued to sing in the choir.
I’m sure there were plenty of times for Tracy during these past twenty years when she could have said, “This is boring. This isn’t doing anything for me.” She seemed to realize that what happens here in Church goes deeper than the fleeting experiences from week to week…
that you need to be connected for those times when Jesus does choose to show up… that you need to be connected to the church for those times when the world falls apart around you, and you find it so very hard to have faith yourself, so that there are these spiritual brothers and sisters who can, for a time, have faith for you.
Thomas missed church that first Sunday of the resurrection. Afterwards, he just couldn’t believe what the others told him about what had happened in church the past Sunday. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
It is striking that the others didn’t throw Thomas out of the church for not believing the way they did. They didn’t cast him out; they just loved him. And to his credit, Thomas got back in the habit of coming regularly to church.
And then one Sunday, to his great surprise, Jesus showed up.
Thomas had seen a lot of horrible stuff in this world — the worst of which was the sight of his friend Jesus getting nailed to a cross. He had thought that this horrible stuff had pretty much proved there was no God of love. To his great surprise, there was Jesus, suddenly standing before him, showing him the wounds on his body.
Lo and behold, God takes what is ugly and broken and makes something beautiful.
Lord I believe, help my unbelief.