Right Where We Are (Sunday Worship 4/11/10)

Right Where We Are

John 20: 19-31

One of the best things I ever did was spend three years in Appalachia after I graduated from college.  I worked for the Appalachia Service Project (asphome.org), a United Methodist non-profit housing organization that built new homes and provided home repair for low-income people.  I lived on the side of a mountain and when I opened the door to the volunteer center where I lived, I could see the mountains in Tennessee.  Cows lived up the mountain behind me and would moo through the woods.

Living and working at ASP helped me to see the world differently.  There were other young people like me living and working there, interested in social justice and the ways we could see God’s kingdom showing signs of life on earth here and now.  I think the first year I lived there I made $5000 plus room and board and health insurance.  I didn’t have a lot of money but most of what I needed was already covered.  Of course, there were so many people I met then who had much, much less.  That helped put my own needs and desires and paychecks into a broader perspective.

Part of what helped with my world view and perspective was also the motto of ASP:  “We accept people right where they are, just the way they are.”  This is hard to do.  Do you mean that I have to accept someone who is not working but asks for assistance on their home?  Do I have to agree with how someone lives his life in order to accept him?  Am I supposed to help as many people as I can without concern for who is “worthy”?  Does accepting where and how and who someone is now mean that I can’t want more for them?

We accept people right where they are, just the way they are.

I was reminded of this motto this week, reading our passage today from the book of John.  Though it’s been a whole week for us since Easter dawned, it’s only been a few hours for the disciples and we see that they have already succumbed to fear and locked themselves in a room together.  Today’s passage is the very next verse after the Easter morning text we read last week.  The last thing we heard then was that Mary Magdalene went and told the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20: 18).  And right away, next verse, here we are on the evening of that same day.  A whole week for us but just a few hours for the disciples.

Well, the good news hasn’t sunken in yet for them.  They are hiding, locked in, scared.  But the way John tells the story, that locked door might as well be an open window because in Jesus comes.  The doors and the locks and the fear do nothing to keep him out.  He appears right in the middle of all that and says, “Peace be with you” (v.19).

Then, before the disciples can say anything, he shows them where he is wounded in his hands and his side.  The disciples rejoice because they recognize that it is indeed Jesus right there with them again.

Then he does something a little strange.  He gives them his peace again and says that just as God sent him, he is sending all of them.  And then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (v.22).

Later on, when Thomas comes in and the excited disciples clamor to tell him what has happened – “We have seen the Lord” (v.24) – Thomas says, Hey, slow down here just a minute.  Do you expect me to believe that Jesus showed up here again in the flesh in the midst of all of you in a locked room? Then he adds that phrase we have come to remember him for:  Unless I see the marks myself and put my fingers in his wounds, I will not believe it (v. 25).

A week later – a week after Easter, just like it is for us today – what are the disciples up to?  Well, the gospel is having a hard time sinking in with these folks because even after Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit of God on them and commissioned them to go out in his name, here they are, shut up in the house again.  This time Thomas is there, too.  Jesus comes right in to where they are, past the doors and walls and fear, and says again, “Peace be with you” (v. 26).

He immediately turns to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe” (v.27).

My Lord and my God! (v. 28)  It pops out just like that.  Thomas can’t help himself.  Of course this is Jesus!

Notice that though touching Jesus is the one thing Thomas said he had to have in order to believe the good news, and though this one thing is exactly what Jesus walks right in and offers him, Thomas never touches Jesus in this story.  Thomas believes because Jesus freely offers him the one thing he has said he needs.  And even though he never reaches out to touch Jesus for himself, that offer alone is enough.

Notice also that Jesus does not scold Thomas for asking for what he needs.  Jesus doesn’t come in annoyed with only a half-hearted offer.  He comes right into the place of Thomas’ fear and deepest need – the place that is closed off and defiant and terrified – and graciously, generously offers Thomas what he said he needed.  Coming to meet him and offering this are enough.  That’s all it takes for Thomas to shout out with a solid confession of deep faith.

The good news is that God comes to us like this, too.  Right where we are – even and especially those places we have locked and closed off for fear, shame, confusion – and freely offers us what we need to believe – what we need to live!  Right where we are, just the way we are.

It’s interesting that Jesus just doesn’t stay in the Garden with Mary until the others come around.  He could have camped out there and waited for the news to spread and the people to come to him, as they so often did before his death and resurrection.  But he keeps making the rounds, going to where the people are, offering whatever they need in order to see and believe and live life abundantly.

We can learn something from this story.  It can be way too easy for church folks to stay in church and wait for other people to find us.  Even when our hearts and minds and doors are open, if we stay here together in our sanctuaries and Wesley Foundations just waiting to welcome people, we might as well be those scared disciples locked into a room on Easter night.

It’s easy to behave like that and it can be so much harder to go where we are sent, right out into the scary, messy, world to meet people we aren’t sure we can accept or even understand.  So the Spirit blows in.

Sara Miles is a writer and she directs the food pantry at her church in California.  Among other innovations, her church holds its food pantry in the sanctuary and puts the food out right on the altar table.  Describing their unique approach to the food pantry, she writes, “Our food pantry had everything we needed because we gave everything away:  we were invincible because we offered power and authority, just like food, to everyone.  It was one of those Jesus-freak paradoxes that could sound, on the face of it, ludicrous.  Whoever loses his life will save it; whoever is last will be first” (The Christian Century, 2/9/10, p. 24).  Miles and others from her congregation often travel to speak around the country and she admits to being puzzled when people try to explain away the success of her food pantry.  She says, “People insisted that St. Gregory’s liturgy was so unique and beautiful, our food pantry was so special, that they couldn’t possibly do anything like it themselves.  It was as if they wanted to explain away the possibility of their own power…Of course, they’d say, you can experiment as much as you like out there in California; we could never get away with that in the South.  Of course you must have a lot of creative folks in your congregations, not like our boring Midwestern grandmothers.  Of course you have a wonderful bishop, a lot of money, a better class of poor people, some mysterious kind of permission that allows you to be so cool and daring.  I wanted to cry.  What more permission do they need?…  ‘Receive the Holy Spirit isn’t enough?’” (p.25).

What more permission do we need?  The breath of the Holy Spirit is still warm on our skin.

One last story to send us on our way.  The poet Scott Cairns was speaking with his Orthodox friend, a monk.  The monk lived in a remote mountain community and found one day a visitor, someone “who had come to evangelize the Holy Mountain and who asked the father if Jesus Christ was ‘his personal savior.’  ‘No,’ the smiling monk said without hesitation, ‘I like to share him’” (The Christian Century, 4/6/10, p. 40).

If we believe what we celebrated last Sunday, here are our marching orders.  We are commissioned with the very breath of God, sent out to share Jesus, to live and proclaim the gospel.  What more permission do we need?  The risen Christ is not a personal Jesus for a locked room but the savior of the world for everyone we meet, right where they are.

Thanks be to God!

© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis