Locked Down Hope
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All Rights Reserved
Second Sunday in Easter/A • April 19, 2020
Do you remember the story of the Three Pigs? It seems like a fable for this time. Three pigs go off to seek their fortune and build houses. Not long after, a hungry wolf comes by and blows down the house of the first and then the second. The pigs run to their brother who has built out of brick and hide, safe for the moment. When the wolf fails to blow down the house, he comes down the chimney but falls into a pot of boiling water the thoughtful third pig has placed in the fire. Three pigs locked down, scared of a wolf: it seems an appropriate image of where we are today, hoping that if the wolf does come down the chimney, scientists will have discovered a vaccine, a pot of boiling water, to stop the virus threatening us. It also mirror the situation of the disciples in the portion of John’s gospel we read today. Just like the pigs, just like us, they’re locked down, hoping the closed door can keep the danger outside.
I know you can imagine them but we’re in the same place these days. They’re afraid the same authorities who killed Jesus will come after them. With us, the fear is that somehow someone will cough or sneeze or simply breathe and an invisible enemy will invade us, sicken us. I don’t know about you but we have several friends who are sick. It gives all of us a lurking anxiety: “Am I next?” Like the disciples, we heard about the resurrection, but has it really changed us? They’ve heard the same report we did. A few women have come back raving about an experience at the tomb, claiming to have seen an angel, claiming to have seen Jesus alive. Clearly they don’t believe them. Do we?
So we should pay particular attention to this story today. John sets it in the evening. The disciples are locked in. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” [John 20:19b] That certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Then something amazing happens. Jesus appears to them, coming through the door as if wasn’t there. Locked doors can’t keep Jesus out. “He stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” [John 20:19c], the common, customary greeting, the “hey there”, the “sup”, the “hello” of his time. It’s as if he’s just been out on an errand, as if the terrible days of arrest and trial and crucifixion and tomb never happened. “Hiya”: I’m here. The disciples make sure it’s really him and then they rejoice.
I think, for me, that would have been enough. Would it for you? Think: you’re grieving and suddenly you don’t have to grieve. You’re crying and suddenly you don’t have to cry. You’re angry and suddenly you don’t have to be angry. I think for me, I would have been happy to just stay in that moment of recognition. I would have wanted to get out the leftovers from the funeral dinner, I would have wanted to just celebrate and stay there and stay happy and feel glorious and not ask too many questions. What about you?
But Jesus isn’t staying there. He never does. Last week we heard Matthew’s version of more or less the same story and if you listened to that you may remember the first thing he said to the women who found him alive after “Don’t be afraid” was go. It’s pretty much the same here; it always is with Jesus. He’s got a mission and it’s why he’s there. It’s why he gathered them; it’s why he calls us. So in the next moment, before there’s even time to serve, much less eat, any cake, he says,
As the Father has sent me, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit…if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. [John 20:21-23]
He’s handing out the Holy Spirit like peeps on Easter: just like that. You know, if it was us, we’d have a procedure, we’d have a form to fill out, we’d have a disclosure agreement to sign. Not Jesus: no one has to be interviewed by the Board of Deacons to get the Holy Spirit, no one has to agree to pledge or volunteer, just like that: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. And then: your mission is to forgive sins.
There’s a lot of talk right now about starting up the country. I think most of us are getting tired of being home, tired of the same walls, tired of the inconveniences of life. Of course, the people who are sick and the ones dying and the ones grieving aren’t tired of it. They’re too busy suffering to worry about the economy. Dr. Oz cheerfully said we could sacrifice two or three percent of our children to get back to making money. The lieutenant governor of Texas said we can sacrifice grandparents. I’ve done a lot of funerals over the years, I’m not sure any of those families who were crying thought it would be ok to sacrifice someone they loved. It’s wrong and it’s not the approach Christians take. We believe everyone is a child of God.
So we’re talking about starting up. But Jesus has something much more fundamental in mind: he’s talking about restarting our lives. That’s what forgiveness really means, it means recovering your life. Guilt and shame are like a terrible tomb in which we bury parts of ourselves and when we truly know ourselves forgiven, we come out of that grave like Lazarus. It’s the same for us when we forgive, because holding onto anger and resentment sucks up our energy, saps our lives, and when we forgive, we have that energy, we have that life again. Jesus comes to give life: this is one way he means to give it and we are the instruments he’s using. That’s what the part about “retaining the sins of any” really means; it means if we don’t do this, furtiveness doesn’t happen. What we do makes a difference. What he means for us to do is nurture joy by practicing forgiveness.
This time is a unique moment we’ve been given. Locked down, we have the space in our lives to listen. It’s hard to listen today. We’re so plugged into our mental to do lists, our devices, our contact inputs that we usually don’t have real quiet time. One writer said,
Noise is an inevitable aspect of civilization…Stores and restaurants pip in background music, the ceaseless rumble of traffic reverberates…Our cell phones regularly startle us with insistent bleeping and the prattle of television shoves our thoughts into oblivion.
[Rebeccas Burg, Sail With Me: Two People, Two Boars, One Adventure]
The lockdown time is offering a cure, if we will take it. Most of the errands that fill our lives are waiting. We’re no longer in the stores she mentions and the traffic is less.
Glennon Doyle talks about learning to listen. Going through a difficult time, a friend sent her a card that said, “Be still and know.” [Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God.” So after her kids went to school, she sat down on a towel in a closet and tried to be still. She says,
I checked my phone every few moments, planned my grocery lists and mentally redecorated my living room..” [Glenon Doyle, Untamed, p. 56]
But she kept at it: ten minutes a day. Eventually, she felt herself slip down into the silence.
Since the chaos stills in this deep, I could sense something that I was not able to sense on the surface. It was like that quiet chamber in Denmark…where people can actually hear and feel their own blood circulating. ..It was a knowing. [ibid]
She learned to listen and the listening helped her know herself as a child of God.
Are you listening? It doesn’t happen in a moment; it takes a little faith, it takes a little patience, it takes some courage to be quiet. But if we are quiet, when we are quiet, then truly we hear the spirit in the breeze of our soul. “Receive the Spirit,” Jesus says. He means you; he means me. What is the purpose? So that forgiveness can spread. It starts with us, it starts with forgiving ourselves. When we listen for God, what we will first hear is this: “Don’t be afraid.” I know this because it’s what every single angel says first thing. Every time God sends someone, that’s the message. When Jesus is raised, the first thing he says is, “Don’t be afraid.” We don’t have to be afraid because when we truly listen, we hear God loving us. We hear we are children of God.
So there’s a great hope for this time. We started out locked down because we were afraid, afraid of a virus, afraid a disease was going to overwhelm all our technology, all our noise, all our smarts. It still may. But there is hope in this locked down time, great hope. It is an opportunity to go into your closet and be still; it’s a chance to be silent and know. That’s the whole verse from the card Doyle’s friend sent: ““Be still, and know that I am God!”
When we hear God, when we know God, then we can hope. Then the lockdown is something we’re doing not in fear but as a gift, a way to help others. Then it’s passing on the hope and help of God. Yes, Lord, I’m willing to change how my life is lived because I know just as I’m a child of God, so are all the others. That’s locked down hope
I hope you will find a way to be silent this week. I hope you will find a way to see the hope beyond the fear. I hope you will be still and know and in the knowing, receive the spirit Jesus means to give, a spirit of love, a spirit of forgiveness.