St. Luke’s UMC
May 17, 2020
Never the Same…Hopefully
He Who Gets the Last Laugh
I want to open with another preacher joke. I shared one a few weeks ago, but here’s a fresh one. When I started out in ministry in North Carolina, there was a county at the far end of our conference that was known to be a rough place. It was known to be fairly racist and communities were set in their ways. The Methodist Church in the county seat town was known for chewing up preachers. Every few years pastors would beg to be moved from there.
Well, one annual conference when the appointments were read, the bishop called this one pastor’s name and then the name of the church in this town. That was he was being sent. The man slumped in his chair with a depressed look. People walked past him and just patter his shoulder in sympathy. He would tell the story that he had a dream that night in which Jesus met him. He poured out his soul to Jesus saying, “Lord, I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to take this appointment, but if you’ll go with me, I’ll do it.” He said Jesus put his hand on his shoulder and whispered in his ear, “I’ll go with you…as far as the county line.”
Once again it’s one of those jokes I think preachers find the funniest, because most preachers can relate to some assignment they’ve had that they didn’t want to take. Some challenge they didn’t want to face. And the idea that Jesus would say, “I’ll go with you…but only so far,” is funny, because we know deep down it is a joke. It’s a joke to think there is anything we could face that Jesus doesn’t face with us. That’s a joke, because Jesus is with us wherever and Jesus always gets the last laugh. Just ask Thomas.
Thomas was the last disciple to come to faith in the Resurrected Jesus. He thought the joke was on him. Jesus was crucified and buried. It felt like Jesus went only so far and no more. Then came news on Easter morning that his tomb was empty. It felt like a bad joke. But then Thomas learned from the disciples that Jesus appeared to them that evening. Thomas wasn’t with them. Now it’s starting to feel like everyone is laughing again except Thomas. And so he spoke words that forever branded him as a doubter. He said, “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.”
If those words were a sign that Thomas had lost his faith in a crisis he wouldn’t be the first to do so and certainly not the last. Crises have a way of stripping down and revealing what we depend on for support and anything that isn’t truly dependable needs replacing.
Recently we renovated our kitchen. We started one month before the pandemic hit. If we had known that every restaurant would have to shut down while we were without a kitchen, I don’t know that we would have gone ahead. But, alas, we are on the other side of it now. Yet in the process we discovered some interesting things. We stripped the walls down and found termites had at some point destroyed the wall joists.(pic) We had to put in new supports. Then we found that the floor was sagging because a downstairs beam had at some point been cut. As the house settled, the floor was beginning to sag even though we didn’t notice it! (pic) We had to put in new support posts. We would have never known this had things not been torn apart.
It might sound foolish to say but sometimes getting torn apart is the best thing that ever happens to us because that’s how we find out if we have settled for things that aren’t dependable.
Maybe that’s the greatest thing that has happened in this pandemic, it has caused people to evaluate their spiritual support. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of how during a time of comfort we become dependent on our comforts. We worship. We pray. But deep down, without realizing it, our real sense of security gets propped up by other things. Temporary things. Things that give peace for a while but not forever. And when those things get threatened it feels like the floor falls in, and we go scrambling in search of more lasting support.
Several months ago nearly every pastor in the country was asking the same question: how do we get more people to come to church? Church attendance and involvement was at an all-time low in our nation’s history. But in the last two months most churches are experiencing a revival. The Pew Center for Research came out with a report a couple weeks ago saying how a majority of Americans say this pandemic has strengthened their faith. Like a lot of churches, here at St. Luke’s we have had record attendance in worship at a time when our doors have been closed. Closed doors have led to spiritual breakthrough.
That is what the disciples experienced. We heard this part of the story last week. They were behind locked doors because of fear. The disciples were on lockdown. But notice two important things that happened. First Jesus appeared to them, even though the doors were locked, and he showed them his scars. Now think about that contrast. Jesus supernaturally is able to walk through closed doors, but he does so with a crucified body. Jesus’ crucifixion is where the disciples’ fear started. In other words Jesus’ wounds are the passageway out of fear.
So the next thing to notice is that Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What was the point of that? Look at this verse in Romans “When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!” (Msg)
Whoa! The power that brought Jesus back from the dead is in you! You have that same power through the Holy Spirit. Whoa! Don’t you want that power? I imagine most of us say yes, I want the power Jesus had, especially the power to walk through closed doors. I want Jesus power to resurrect. I want his power to overcome my enemies. I think most of us would say, “Yes, I’ll take that power!”
I’m watching the ESPN documentary on Michael Jordan called The Last Dance which concludes tonight. I found a comment from Magic Johnson interesting. I believe it was from the second or third episode. Johnson was talking about how competitive Michael Jordan was, not just on the basketball court, but playing golf or cards. He said, “Michael didn’t just want to beat you. He wanted to put his foot on your neck and stomp you.” Well, when it comes to having that ability to overcome our enemies I imagine a lot of us want to be like Mike. We want that power. And if that is what Jesus offers, then sure, sign us up. We want the power of his miracles, but do we want his crucified body? We want the power, but do we want the path? You see, with Jesus you can’t separate them. With Jesus you can’t say, “I want your power. I want the ability to control my world and get what I want, but I don’t want to suffer. I don’t pain. I don’t sacrifice.” No, with Jesus they go together. He offers a power that gets us through pain. He offers a peace that doesn’t mean the absence of turmoil. He offers strength that comes out of weakness.
Last week I received an email from Sandy McClure in our church and she gave me permission to share it today. She shared how 5 years ago her 44 year old daughter was diagnosed with Acute Myloid Leukemia, and the battle she faced. And she faced it bravely and has come through. She writes:
Now, it is a bit mind-boggling to realize, at the end of this month, it will be 5 years. Thinking back on this time, and reflecting on our current situation, I feel very strongly that if we can only stay the course in our approach to this pandemic, following the guidelines of professionals, caring for each other, then someday it will seem like a moment in time, however difficult this time is.
Then she added this:
While some days the new is difficult to even imagine, there are moments when God reminds us that He is truly with us. The 23rd Psalm has always been special to me. I used to recite it as a child, but had not thought of it in years. I spent two weeks recently in self isolation, one night when I was feeling a bit down, I happened to open a drawer and saw a green piece of paper with St. Luke’s UMC on one side and the 23rd Psalm on the other. I had not noticed it there before. I read the words and came to the part that says, “…though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Whatever was going on that day I don’t remember. But I know it felt like those words described what so many are experiencing right now. Yet, these words made all the difference for me in that moment. I found myself smiling inside, and the sadness ending. The Lord truly is our Shepherd and I felt his presence.
That’s the nature of the power Jesus offered the disciples. No wonder the disciples were quick to tell Thomas when they saw him, “We have seen the Lord.” Notice they didn’t say, “We have seen Jesus.” They used a title of authority. We have seen the Lord, they said in essence “We have found new dependability. We have new support.”
But Thomas didn’t have that. He wasn’t there. He shrugged and made his despondent statement about what it would take for him to believe, but watch this. A week later they were together again AND THOMAS WAS WITH THEM! He didn’t let his lack of faith keep him away. He didn’t let his doubt turn him away from fellowship.
And that night Jesus showed up again. He appeared to them once more. And he turned to Thomas and invited him to put his finger in the nail prints and his hand in Jesus’ side. But Thomas declared, “My Lord and My God.” It’s the strongest faith statement in the Gospel. It came from someone who needed proof and we aren’t even sure whether Thomas did what he said he would need to do to believe—touch Jesus’ wounds. In fact, because it doesn’t say he did we are led to believe he didn’t! He had an encounter with Jesus in that moment that convinced him Jesus had not abandoned him. That was enough to keep him going.
Thomas had to have his own experience. It wasn’t enough to be around others who had experiences with Christ. Thomas had to have his own. But understand, that experience came because he stayed in company with others who believed. He didn’t allow his despondency to say, “I’m not coming back. I don’t believe what you believe.” No, he returned and discovered that Christ had never left him.
That’s the importance of spiritual props. They help you connect with God. That’s what we’ve tried to do during this time at St. Luke’s—offer some practices that strengthen our support:
Pastor’s Book Study online at 10am Wednesdays
Saturday zooms for children
Weekly messages to parents…
Understand its not the doing of these things that changes us. It’s how they help us connect with God in a way that lets us know we are not alone. God is with us. That’s what gives us hope. That’s what keeps us going.
If we experience nothing else in this pandemic that would be the most important lesson to take away. Too often we are quick to turn to God when life gets turned upside down. We saw that when 911 happened. Following that terrible day churches were packed…for a while. But as life got back to normal the need for God decreased. What a shame if that happened during this time. What a shame if all we do is go back to normal. Because what we need is something to believe in no matter what normal looks like.
Perhaps for some people the old normal looked like…
--Maybe before life was so chaotic we didn’t even have time to say prayers with our children at night.
--Maybe we were so busy we didn’t have time to pray ourselves.
--Maybe we stayed on the go so much that going to church was hit and miss at best.
--Maybe time to invest in a spiritual class or group was one of those, “one day when I have the time” kind of commitment.
Let’s not rush back to that. What we have been trying to do in the church is offer some new props to keep us supported, ways to stay connected to God and grow in our faith.
What we have tried to do is offer things to help prop up our faith.
*Story about Andrew Dollard
Thomas went on to travel to India. In fact there is a hole Christian denomination that traces its roots to Thomas’ ministry there. Thomas died and was buried in India. A legend about his going to India begins with Thomas feeling Jesus call him to go there, but doesn’t want to accept. He has a dream and one night Jesus comes to him and he says to Jesus, “Please Lord, I don’t want to go. Let me go anywhere else. But he goes, and he finds that Jesus was with him all the time. And the way people experienced Jesus through Thomas is what brought them to Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t stop at the county line.