John 20:19-31 “Locked Away in Fear”

TreeoflifeebayIt is too easy to pick on Thomas who forever has the word “doubting” attached to his name.  I prefer to think of him as a skeptic, and there are many moments in church history the church could have used his questions and skepticism.  I wish there had been a doubting Thomas around to say to the Spanish Inquisition, “I don’t think torturing people into doctrinal conformity is a good idea.”  Lest we forget, Thomas was handpicked by Jesus to be one of the 12 for good reason, and it is not like the rest of the disciples were ultra-faithful through Holy Week.


What most draws my attention in this week’s Gospel lesson is precisely what the other disciples are doing.  In response to seeing an empty tomb, and hearing from Mary Magdalene that she had encountered the Risen Christ and spoken with him, they had gathered together and locked the doors of their meeting room in fear.  Who can blame them?  They had been through a horrific trauma, and they were living with a reality they could not comprehend and it frightened them.  In the face of harsh reality, locking the door and hiding in fear makes sense.


Living in fear is a reality for today’s church. Across the country churches are locking doors.    Every year over 4000 churches in America shut their doors for good.  The greatest spiritual shift in the past decade has been a great movement to “none-of the above.”  Each year 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity.  They leave feeling disillusioned, hurt and neglected. Christians are living in fear that they are aging, irrelevant and dying out. This is perplexing to us who are inside the doors.  Church still works for us.  We find love, hope and belonging in church.  Why don’t more people want to be with us?  How will we get young people involved?  (By young we mean anyone under 50.  I have been the new young pastor now for 25 years of my career.)


This morning I want to make the case that church and the Gospel is more relevant than we imagine, and if we can figure out how to get past our fear of the great changes in the world, we might just be able to live into the resurrection and have new life.  We can get stuck in being grieving churches mourning our very real losses.  Like Mary Magdalene weeping outside the tomb of Jesus, her eyes are so filled with tears she cannot see Jesus when he appears to her.   Our challenge is much like the disciples faced.  How do we see the Risen Christ to stand among us, so he can breath the Holy Spirit on us?  How can the breath of God fill us with new life so we can face the world with courage and hope, so that others may feel locked out from God can experience the love and community we treasure?


The big challenge we face today is change itself.  The speed of change overwhelms us, we don’t understand it, so we feel locked into the past and irrelevant.  It is a natural response to pull in and try to create a comfort zone.  For example, grocery store chains do market research on how to stock their shelves to get people to buy more stuff.  One chain found that jam and jelly sales were down, and discovered the problem was too many choices.  On camera, they saw people look at the 17 kinds of jelly-grape, blueberry, strawberry, apricot, orange marmalade, plus varieties that are sugar free, organic, glutton free, or combinations like strawberry kiwi-and after a moment people just moved on without buying any jam.  It was too much.  They cut the choices down to 6 and people started buying jam again.  We can’t handle all the choices change brings. This is why rapid change is linked to the great rise in depression.


We are not immune from this in church.  The blueprint of what it meant to be church in the 20 th century is losing relevance.  It was a clear map that worked well, detailing how to do worship, what music to sing, how committees are organized, the Stewardship campaigns done, The problem is the world this map served is changing quickly and it is hard to keep up.  This map was based on a world where people felt a duty to be in church, the greatest generation that lived through the Depression and World War II had a common experience of that unified most of the nation, they had more volunteer time to give, the middle class was rising and more prosperous, the two parent heterosexual family was the norm and there were three TV networks everyone watched for information.  It was a great map in some ways, but now we live in a GPS world.  Many people don’t know how to read a map and won’t look at it.  Instead they are finding their destination on Google.


The GPS world has not yet figured itself out, the paradigm is in process.  It you enter my address, 124 Moser Street, into Google maps, it will tell you that no such place exists.  If you drive to my house, the screen will show you that you are driving cross-country where no roads exist, but if you look up you will see there are streets, a neighborhood and I live at 124 Moser Street, even though it is not yet on Google maps.  (Somehow the Northampton Tax Assessor had no problems finding where I live without using Google maps.)  Don’t be hard on yourselves if change is hard, because even Google, one of the world’s largest and innovative companies, cannot keep up with the world they are creating.  Did you hear that Amazon wants to start delivering products by drone within an hour or two of your order.  Google and Facebook recently bought research companies that design solar powered drone freighters to move mass goods in a carbon free future.  Grocery stores thought they had trouble with jam; soon ice fisherman in Minnesota will order beer from Amazon, or just have the Taco Copter stop by.  Will babies born in the next generation ask, “What’s a grocery store?”  This may sound like progress, but I won’t believe it until 124 Moser Street is on Google maps.  My tacos will end up in the dog park.


While I’m fascinated with the possibilities, here is what annoys me.  Can’t we figure out better things to do with our technology than delivering crappy food to our front door or taking pictures our ourselves to share on Facebook, telling the world, “Hey, I’m eating a hamburger?”  Gail Collins wrote a great article about this in the NY Times on Thursday:


The way people see the future can define their present. A century or so ago, when Americans were trying to imagine the year 2000, the talk was about ending social ills. The best-selling novel “Looking Backward” told the story of a man who fell asleep and woke up in a world where crime, unemployment and mental illness had virtually vanished, where college was free, and laundry was cheap and people ate their stupendously delicious meals in communal dining rooms. It sold millions of copies and spawned both progressive movements and a long line of novels with heroes who fell asleep and woke up at the next millennium.

And what about our visions of the future now? Imagining things 50 years in the future, our novelists and scriptwriters generally see things getting worse — civilizations crash, zombies arrive, the environment implodes.


This is where the church needs to step in.  How can we step into the gap between the fear of Apocalypse and the hope for Taco Copters, and proclaim a hopeful vision for humanity?  How will we share the joy we experienced last week at Easter with the world?  I conclude with what theologian Brian McLaren has to say about Easter:

What might happen if every Easter we celebrated the resurrection not merely as the resuscitation of a single corpse nearly two millennia ago, but more – as the ongoing resurrection of all humanity through Christ? Easter could be the annual affirmation of our ongoing resurrection from violence to peace, from fear to faith, from hostility to love, from a culture of consumption to a culture of stewardship and generosity . . . and in all these ways and more, from death to life. What if our celebration of Easter was so radical in its meaning that it tempted tyrants and dictators everywhere to make it illegal, because it represents the ultimate scandal: an annual call for creative and peaceful insurrection against all status quos based on fear, hostility, exclusion, and violence? …. What if Easter was about our ongoing resurrection “in Christ” – in a new humanity marked by a strong-benevolent identity as Christ-embodying peacemakers, enemy lovers, offense forgivers, boundary crossers, and movement builders? ….How might the world be changed because of it?


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