John 20: 19-31
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 23, 2017 – Bright Sunday
Earlier this week a friend posted a quote from his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: “Achieving genuine happiness may require bringing about a transformation in your outlook, your way of thinking, and this is not a simple matter.” It never is simple, but these days, it ain’t easy either. I don’t know about you, but lately my funny bone has been in the dog house about as much as not. Don’t get me wrong—I still get a good chuckle from a funny movie or joke or a cartoon. But unlike the crew at Saturday Night Live or satirists like John Oliver or Samantha Bee, I’m having difficulty responding to this world of ours with a sense of humor or lightheartedness. Perhaps I have been considering all the facts a bit too much, taking them a bit too seriously, to the point I have allowed them to steal my joy.
It’s not unlike our friend Thomas, who, year after year in the lectionary, misses the resurrection party and refuses to join in the Easter laugh. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” In other words, unless I have proof that Jesus lives, that Love wins, and death doesn’t have the last word, then I will not be happy, I will not laugh. Until Jesus brings back all his toys, I am not going out to play. Until Smashing Pumpkins get back together, I’m never listening to one of their albums again. Well, maybe not that last one.
I can understand Thomas and his grief. It was bad enough, horrible in fact, to lose a friend and teacher to the most gruesome execution method ever devised, and to have that friend—a brother, really—betrayed by one of their own. It was bad enough having to hide for fear of the same thing happening to him and the other disciples. But to risk believing the impossible seemed like the worst joke of all.
It’s hard enough hearing a cancer diagnosis or living with a chronic illness or losing a job or going through a divorce or a broken friendship or suffering the loss of a close relative or friend or feeling powerless in the face of addiction or loving someone through any of these. It’s even harder when we hear news of a pod of sperm whales dying on a German beach, their bellies stuffed with plastics, and we don’t know what more we can do. It’s even harder when we hear news of North Korean missiles and U.S. naval ships in the western Pacific, complicated by egos and high tension and miscommunications, and we are powerless to do anything. It’s even harder when many folks are on edge and aren’t interested in listening to one another or having open dialogue or just being patient with one another.
And yet this is the crucial intersection of faith and life, when we’re not sure what’s going to happen next, in fact, maybe it’s looking kinda scary some days, and we’re invited to be joyful anyway, even smart-allecky, engage in wise-acreage, practice tomfoolery. Faith doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed a happy ending, as some would have us believe, but that we can be joyful despite the outlook, despite the all-too-frequent bleakness of life, despite our fears of what could happen.
People are funny. We are funny. The Church is funny. We have this amazing empowering story that literally changed the world, and yet there are days, weeks, months, years we don’t allow that same story to change our lives. Or change the Church. It’s a story about risking it all and coming out on the other side, yet the Church is often risk-averse. It’s a story about being vulnerable and thus becoming wholehearted and resilient, and yet often the last thing we ourselves want or the Church wants is to be vulnerable.
Author Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, wrote, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
Thomas had the courage to be vulnerable with his community, with the other disciples who were in a different place on their faith journey than he was. The rest of the disciples declared “We have seen the Lord!” What is implicit in Thomas’ response is, “Well, I haven’t, and I’m feeling left out.”
We can have the courage to be vulnerable when we realize that we belong to the Church, to God, to the universe, and to each other. No. Matter. What. We belong, whether we believe or doubt or don’t believe at all. We belong, even if we betray Jesus, even if we miss the resurrection party and refuse to join in the Easter laugh. We belong even when we demand signs and evidence and guarantees, when we want to control all the variables, all the unknowns. We belong not because of anything we’ve done but because of God’s grace. And if God language is not your thing, let’s remember that we belong because of covenant—the covenant of being human together.
To be happy, to be joyful, to laugh in the face of our fears, after having considered all the facts, is to be vulnerable, wholehearted, and resilient. People are funny. We are funny. The Church is funny. We are the original ship of fools. Fools for Christ. Suckers for Jesus. Thanks be to God.