I was fortunate to take some classes in Seminary with
Church Historian Martin Marty,
and he tells a story about a summer day when he was eight years old—
a day when one of those GRAND MIRACLES of childhood happened:
A watermelon truck overturned, right in front of his house!
The uninjured driver jumped out to watch …. hopelessly
as SCORES of neighborhood children from everywhere
RACED to the scene of that blessed event
and DOVE into the spilled cargo
for a sticky, sweet, tasty picnic on the pavement.
…Right in front of his house!
That was the GOOD news.
The BAD news was that Martin Marty…was OUT OF TOWN that day,
visiting his grandmother.
He missed it—he never saw the overturned truck,
never took part in the sticky, glorious feast.
…Alas, LIFE is like that sometimes: We are where the action ISN’T.
While the LUCKY ONES are there to catch the bouncing watermelons,
–we are MILES away—playing gin rummy with grandma.
Such is the story of Thomas.
It’s Easter evening, and JESUS, newly raised from the dead,
appears to the disciples who are hiding out, until the smoke clears.
And the text says: “Now Thomas, one of the twelve,
was NOT with them when Jesus came.”
The watermelon truck of Easter had overturned in Thomas’ neighborhood—
–and all the children of God
were feasting on the sweetness of Jesus, raised to life!
But Thomas was miles away—where the action WASN’T.
And when he got back in town, the OTHER disciples—
–their chins still sticky from the sweet nectar of God’s glory—
–the other disciples told him what had happened while he was away,
and Thomas would have none of it!
“I don’t believe it!” he said, “and what kind of credibility do YOU ALL have?”
“You who betrayed him,
“Unless I see it for myself, I will not believe.”
And…as it came to pass..
–eight days later, the watermelon truck turned over again.
And THIS TIME—Thomas was there to see it all,
and he cried: “My Lord and my God…”
Now, it is USUAL and EXPECTED, with this familiar text,
to focus on the DOUBTS of Thomas.
Thomas needed proof.
He was a “show-me” kind of guy.
And Jesus said—“blessed are those who DON’T see and who STILL believe.”
That’s the usual focus.
And doubters, like Thomas,
like you and like me—can leave feeling convicted, yet comforted.
After all, in the end, Jesus didn’t seem to mind much
that Thomas needed proof.
OR, with the focus placed squarely on the DOUBTING THOMAS,
we may make a turn and leave here feeling chastened
and downright depressed that SOMEWHERE in this world,
there ARE actually people who DO believe without seeing—
–and we’re just sorry we’re not among them!
But…I don’t think this is a passage about “Doubting Thomas” at all.
–This is not about DOUBT, period.
IN the context of John’s Gospel,
this text is about the gracious, faithful INITIATIVE of GOD!
Thomas doesn’t serve to show what faith is made of, OR, what it LACKS—
–Thomas is used by John to show AGAIN
the LENGTHS God will go to SHOW LOVE, GRACE and POWER.
…God will even send a CHILD into the world.
…God will even allow Jesus to be CRUCIFIED at the hands of the world.
…God will even raise this Jesus from the dead
—EVEN THEN—God does not stop!
God is CEASELESS in taking INITATIVE to reach out to every THOMAS,
including you, and me!
Do you see what happened?
When Jesus came to that locked room the FIRST time
to assure the scared, confused, timid disciples
that he who was CRUCIFIED was ALIVE again—
–he looked around and Thomas WASN’T there…
And that sets me to wondering…
WHAT IF, again, Thomas had NOT been there
in that room eight days later?
What if he was STILL ABSENT
when Jesus returned for the SECOND time?
How many times do you think Jesus would have returned for Thomas
before Jesus would have given up?
How about seventy?
How about Seventy times seven?
…There was once a woman, Jesus said, who lost a coin and she lit a lamp
and she swept and swept and swept—until she got tired?
NO—UNTIL she found that lost coin.
How many times would Jesus have overturned that watermelon truck
hoping that maybe THIS TIME Thomas would be there to see it?
If the message of the empty tomb means ANYTHING at all—
–it is that there is MORE GRACE in GOD
than there is DOUBT in US!
This means, I think, that the old truck
would have taken quite a beating
before Jesus was through with Thomas.
For there is seldom, IF EVER, a “NO” so definite
for God to take as a final answer.
There is NO door so locked that God cannot pick the lock.
There is NO HEART so dead that God cannot massage it back to life.
There is NO THOMAS so absent, that God will not continue to show up
UNTIL God finds Thomas at home!
But THEN, we say: “That’s NOT how my world works.”
But then I remember: “This is HOW EASTER works!”
“On my planet—you get what you pay for,
actions have consequences
and you EARN what you DESERVE.”
And, that may be how a life, a society,
a world of our own making makes its business.
But, what if: EASTER works like God’s watermelon truck.
So taken as most of us are with what can be proved,
with what can be documented,
with what can be quantified—
–that we have allowed Easter to devolve into
and trivial literalism.
We get tangled up in debates over “what happened” at Easter—
–that we missed the point of “WHO HAPPENED!”
That’s Thomas, of course: he wants empirical proof—proof about “IT”
When Jesus appears to him, however, Thomas appears to forget all about
actually placing his finger in the nail holes
and his hand in Jesus’ side.
Thomas wanted proof…what he gets is PRESENCE.
In that shift: from proof to presence—
–lies the power, the mystery, the miracle of EASTER
and the unstoppable LOVE of God!
But…where does all this leave us?
It seems almost beside the point to be worrying about proof,
or about who Jesus DIDN’T appear to,
or who got left out of our great
Easter watermelon truck!
I mean, this place was PACKED last Sunday for Easter.
Maybe this text is given to us—every year, the Sunday after Easter—
—to remind us that it’s relatively EASY to draw a crowd.
ANYBODY—can get a crowd—if you’re all ramped up to get a crowd.
You get a day of brunch and bonnets,
a day of family and festival,
a day of music and lilies and pageantry
—and we can draw a crowd.
But who’s NOT there—when all the crowd has gathered?
Who’s NOT there—when all the hallelujahs have been sung?
Who’s NOT here—when we can fill every pew with our crowd…?
…Maybe this is why this text is given to us?
THOMAS…may stand in for ALL the people
who aren’t there at Easter!
Who’s NOT here?
That’s something Jesus—ALWAYS kept an eye on.
In all the EASTER crowd—WHO is NOT there?
Some of our OLDEST…sitting in a nursing home,
hoping that this will be the week
they get a visit.
They can’t be here…
A young man in jail…possession and selling of drugs.
Crying and hurt and scared.
When he gets out, it would be good for him to get to a church,
to get his life straightened around.
Will we make space for him—if he manages to find his way here?
A 17-year old girl…rushed intimacy…and now she’s pregnant,
and she stays in her room—
–and nobody from her school will have anything to do with her.
Her parents are embarrassed,
her friends don’t know what to say,
and what would people at CHURCH say…if they saw her?
What does SHE need?
Does she need a sermon on living a life of joy and obedience? Really?
What does SHE need?
She’s not there…
Who is NOT there—in that Easter crowd?
The trembling woman…in a cold run-down shack,
praying about how to get the money to get the utilities back on.
You know who is NOT there?
A 50- year old man…who has worked hard all his life for sub-wages,
and who has nothing to show for it,
who gets up on Sunday morning and says simply—
“I have nothing to wear.”
He’s NOT there.
NEITHER is the 24 year old…who is hanging by a thread,
trying to overcome a MOUNTAIN of suspicion—
–AND the one time she walked into a church in the last five years…
…was told that God was judgmental and harsh and mean….
And she left.
She hasn’t been back—she’s NOT there.
…Men and women who have been told all their life
they are “different”—they don’t fit in—
–they are NOT there.
The church through the centuries has spent
Way too much time and energy —
–deciding who CAN’T be let in.
And we waste such precious gifts of God…
Do you know who else isn’t there?
…The children of the prosperous…whose parents constantly say:
“I want my children to have a better life than I did,
and I want them to have every opportunity that life offers!
I want the BEST for my children.
And you name it—my kids are in it, my kids are in it!
Oh well, NOT church.
That’s their choice.
They need a day…to catch their breath.
The people who are NOT there on Easter,
NOT present for our festive celebration—
are almost too numerous to count.
ALL these folk—along with those who feel put down, left out, passed over.
–Along with all for whom their PAIN is hidden, but very real.
–Along with all for whom FAITH is day-to-day,
hand-to-hand combat with God.
–Along with NEW generations of women and men, boys and girls,
struggling to find an authentic faith in Jesus—
–but for whom our institutional deck of cards is so STACKED,
that they NEVER catch a glimpse…
Increasingly, we have multiple generations
of spiritually hungry, institutionally suspicious people
who will NEVER come in the front door of ANY church.
Either WE go to THEM—geographically as well as spiritually—
–or we will never meet them.
They may NEVER be HERE (in this very room).
And I think that’s why the story of Thomas is such a GIFT to us,
on the second Sunday of Easter.
I think Thomas stands as a reminder to us—
–that a REAL church—a REAL church—
–doesn’t just count “what size crowd was it?”
A REAL church also says—“who is NOT here?”
I think Thomas reminds us that God is going to go EVERYWHERE
and do ANYTHING—
–to bring the joy and hope of Easter to EVERYBODY!
There is NO stopping God at Easter!
You need proof? Here are the nail holes.
You’re in pain and need to talk to God about it?
Well, you get NAIL holes—and NOT lilies on the second Sunday of Easter!
You aren’t here? God will find you in some locked room.
And God will knock,
God will huff and puff if need be,
God will pick the lock,
God will come to you ON YOUR TERMS—
Or, God will barge through the locked door—WHATEVER it takes!
You need a watermelon truck to overturn in your front yard?
That can be arranged…
God will do that for us, those there on Easter, in our doubt.
And God will go out looking for every soul NOT there,
when Christ appears on Easter
to comfort and reassure and to SEND OUT…
Early in the Gospel of Mark,
Jesus has come onto the scene and is making quite a SPLASH!
The crowds are flocking to him…
So, in the midst of this, he gets away to a deserted place, to pray.
Soon after, Peter finds him there,
and says: “Everyone is searching for you—
–we’ve got a BIG crowd for you!”
And Jesus said, “We’re going on to neighboring towns…
…for that’s what I came to do…”
And, that’s exactly what Jesus is saying through THOMAS: “Come on…”
There are many, many, many,
many, many, many, MANY others—
–who aren’t part of our CROWD—
–and that’s where Jesus is headed today—to THEM.
And that’s where we’re asked to go, too..
Are we ready to do that?
Are we ready to dislocate ourselves,
to do what JESUS does in reaching out to EVERYONE
ALL those whom GOD loves?
EASTER, you see, is always about who is NOT here.
And EASTER, always,
is about a God who is NOT going to stop…
…until everyone gets to SHARE that JOY…
…and everyone FEELS God’s GRACE!
Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen indeed!
Foundations for this sermon rooted in one preached by the Rev. Mark Ramsey at First United Church of Oak Park.