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Getting to the Heart of Our Stories

Dorothy Bass
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This sermon was preached on April 27, 2003 at the opening service of the annual meeting of the Associated Church Press.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "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."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "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."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.    (John 20: 19-31)

There they are, huddled together in a familiar place, a safe place, a place to which each has instinctively fled in the midst of terror and uncertainty. Violence and confusion swirl outside. But here, they hope, safety and comfort may be found. This is a place where they can sustain one another, a place in which to hide from a world so taken with death that not even their dear leader and friend has been spared. Each wants the support of the others; all hope to ride out the storm raging outside in the company of this community of the like-minded. But togetherness is not enough; they must also lock the doors to make sure no one else gets in. They are huddled together, the gospel says, "for fear."

"Smart move!", some might say. After all, "a fearful people is a prepared people." Violent and confusing events are indeed taking place outside. Be sure to stock up on duct tape. Fill your cupboards with enough jugs of clean water for yourself and your family, just in case. Keep a suspicious eye on your neighbors, especially those from certain parts of the world. And if you must go out, be careful. Put on your armor first; see to it that your family is strapped into the vehicle that will win if there is a collision.

"A fearful people is a prepared people"—this is what some top officials of our government say. And so today we are the ones who are huddling, clinging to those who are like us and locking the doors against those who are not. We huddle in groups shaped by family and friendship. We huddle as a nation, striking out lest anyone strike us first and disdaining the collaboration of other nations.

And often we huddle within our churches too, clinging to the like-minded in a familiar and supposedly safe space, behind locked doors. For fear.

But then into the room, through the locked door, comes the Risen One. He walks right into the middle of this fear. And he does so, amazingly, without condemnation or condescension, without the sarcastic dismissal of danger and anxiety that I have tried, unsuccessfully, to keep out of my own voice. He knows where to find these fearful ones, and he does not criticize their fear or mock their effort to support one another. But notice this: neither does he allow them to cling to their fear. He comes speaking Peace. He comes breathing Spirit. He comes to get them to unlock their doors and go outside, into the world.

The capacity to communicate in print and online and over the air is an amazingly powerful force within and among the peoples of the twenty-first century. Today communications shape individuals and families and churches and nations and the relations among them all. This extraordinary capacity can be a remarkable resource that unlocks doors and allows us to venture into new places . . . but it can also be used to reinforce separation, to encourage fearful huddling, to add deadbolts to doors that previously had simpler locks. Through e-mail and instant messaging, we can now huddle into like-minded groups across great distances—but we can also learn about and become close to those who are different from ourselves, more fully than previous generations could have imagined. Similarly, ever since television coverage of Viet Nam put a war into our living rooms, and especially since a group of hijackers brought terror onto the screens of our computers and televisions one September morning, professional communicators have made it impossible to ignore the violence and confusion outside and have kept us aware of all there is to dread—while, at the same time, professional communicators have also helped those who yearn for reconciliation to tap into the deep wisdom and help that religious traditions offer in this historical moment.

Your calling is to cover the tug-of-war between fearful huddling and expansive embrace and everything in between, to comprehend those who tug in this direction or that, and the tensions that emerge as they do. Your calling is to enhance communications within and among the huddlers, the embracers, and the many who are both by turns. This is tremendously important work, undertaken in the near presence of confusion, occasionally on the edge of violence, and almost always in the midst of fierce pressures—pressures on time, on budgets, on equanimity. For those who answer this calling, at least for those among you whom I know, safety and comfort are rarely attained.

Huddling with the like-minded must be quite tempting, even for those who have been drawn to a field that prizes the exchange of information and insights. (Is that what happens at a trade convention like this one?) But such huddling is an uncertain and unstable enterprise in this world, and especially in this season: for into the room, through the locked door, comes the Risen One. Speaking Peace. Breathing Spirit. Unlocking and opening doors. There is no place into which this One cannot go.

This has been a terrible year of news about religion. Many of my friends, who used to complain that religion got too little attention in the press, confessed that they were waking up each morning with the hope that the paper would bear no new disclosures. In stories about clergy sexual abuse and the failure of church hierarchies to punish and prevent it, the wounds that pierce the Body of Christ, the church, have been laid bare for all to see. The Catholic church got most of the unwanted attention, but wounds upon the bodies of many other churches have also come to light. Not all made the front page, but surely each of us here knows of similar wounds, similar violations, in our own churches. We also know of efforts to cover the wounds prematurely, to lock them away, out of public sight. For fear.

Other wounds inflicted by Christians upon other Christians have also been perpetrated and shamefully exposed to public view this year. Divisive struggles within a number of communions continue, some conducted with great bitterness and vicious acrimony. Deep discouragement grabs hold of denominational leaders forced, once again, to trim their staffs because the money to pay them has vanished—partly because of the economy, but also because of organized opposition to denominational leadership. In other communions, those seeking to fortify the walls between the church and the world also end up building walls within the church itself, as, in the name of purity or unity or truth, they try to evict or exclude others from office, from the sacraments, from ministry.

And war has left countless grievous wounds as well, upon all whom it has touched. It is reported that President Bush plans to declare victory in Iraq this week; but the prospect of more warfare, whether of the officially organized or of the intermittent, everyday kind that is so familiar in many parts of the world, continues to hang over the Middle East, including the land called holy by so many, though with little shared understanding of what that holiness is.

Your calling is to gaze upon all these wounds and countless others and then to go and tell others what you have seen. In the midst of this difficult and exhausting task, it is to you that the Risen One comes speaking Peace . . . and as he speaks—what wonder!—displaying the wounds on his own body. Only within the embrace of Christ’s peace can the disciples bear to look at his hands and side; and within the embrace of this same peace, you too are able to look. The disciples even begin to rejoice, as they understand that what was broken has been given back to them whole and new.

This is the heart of this story—the wounds and the joy, both together. And it’s the heart of the church’s stories and the world’s stories as well. You who are called to attend closely to all these stories are unlikely to escape from the painful task of gazing upon horrible wounds; but you are also privileged to be present with and to much joy, as that which has been broken becomes the source of new life. A new congregation flourishes in a once-abandoned building. A long and fruitful life is celebrated at the time of retirement or burial. New hymn texts and melodies arise when some of the older ones seem no longer to give voice to our praise. Young people emerge who are eager to take up the cost and joy of discipleship. How can this be? Only within the embrace of the strange peace of the Risen One is this possible.

Having spoken Peace, this same One breathes Spirit, so close to the disciples’ faces that they can’t help but inhale the moist, warm, holy air of God’s presence. The Risen One gives these exhausted, depleted, fearful women and men a second wind, a renewal of energy, a fresh blast of the life that Yahweh had breathed into their first parents at Creation. "Receive this," he says as he breathes upon them.

Those of us who follow the lectionary contemplate this passage from John’s gospel every year on the second Sunday of the Easter season. As the years circle around and we ourselves change over time, this story offers fresh gifts again and again. This year, I notice the fear and the wounds, yes—but I also notice the generosity of the Risen One, who does not condemn or criticize the haggard, fearful disciples for fleeing into the comforting familiarity of their little community. Instead, he greets them, gives them cause for joy, and breathes into them new life.

You do your work at the punishing pace and in the midst of the crushing demands of the information revolution. Do you bring to this place, to this convention, wounds that come from having too much work to do, too little money in your budget, and too few colleagues with whom to share projects and concerns? During this season of Easter . . . and during these days of professional renewal . . . I encourage you to inhale the new life this Risen One offers as it swirls between him and you and your colleagues—including even those who are likeminded. Breathe. Receive.

Along with this warm, moist, holy breath, this Holy Spirit, comes also a commission. "As the Father sent me, so send I 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." This amazing and mysterious commission has been interpreted in many ways across the centuries, as the power to forgive and retain sins has been claimed by some to the exclusion of others. However, there is a sense in which all have a share in this power. How we account for and interpret our own sins and those of others—how we tell our own stories and how we listen to and tell theirs—can open doors to forgiveness or lock us and others into the dark cells where we continue to cling to our sins. For professional communicators, who have such great power as story-shapers in this wired, literate culture, the possibilities of opening or closing doors depending on what you take to be the heart of a given story are immense. Write therefore with compassion, as well as with honesty. Remember the commandment not to bear false witness, and remember also Luther’s interpretation of its meaning: put the best construction on the deeds of your neighbor.

To get to the heart of a story, journalists frequently find one person whose experience illustrates its central themes. The author of John’s gospel is hardly a journalist; but even so, this is an author who definitely understands the power of the individual story. Again and again in this gospel, Jesus comes face to face with one who has been living in darkness and calls them into the light: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Mary Magdalene . . . and now Thomas. On Easter night, while most of the disciples huddled together behind locked doors, Thomas was absent. The ones who were there have told Thomas about their encounter with the Risen One, of course, but he just hasn’t been able to believe them. Actually, he does believe the part about the wounds—the wounds are what he remembers, what he insists on touching. The part he can’t get is the joy, the new life: the peace, and the breath, and the sending out into a way of forgiveness.

A week later, the disciples have gathered once again, and this time Thomas is there. The Risen One appears just as before. "Peace be with you," he says. For Thomas, this is enough; he who doubted falls down and cries out the truth about who this One is: "My Lord and my God." And then Thomas’s individual story is woven back into the story of the whole people of God, the story of those who will believe in future generations. Your story. My story. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Blessed are we.

Blessed are we, yes . . . though somehow it’s not always easy to accept this blessing. After all, aren’t we enlightened ones more comfortable with Doubting Thomas than with the Thomas who comes to believe? Perhaps the assumptions of the modern world view partly account for this difficulty in identifying with Believing Thomas. But I wonder whether something else, something worse, is a more important obstacle: our own fear. It crops up at that moment when we know that the Risen One can enter every one of our locked rooms, but before we have agreed to open the door and depart into the great outside. Will we be undone if we trust this word of Peace, if we inhale this holy Breath, if we set out into unknown territory carrying in our own hearts the power to forgive, or to retain, the sins of those whom we meet?

Thomas, according to tradition, is the apostle who headed east after the closed door of the disciples’ gathering place was flung open. As the apostle to Syria, Persia, and India, he must have crossed through what is now called the West Bank, and then trudged on through Jordan, and Iraq, and Afghanistan. History knows little of his journey, but we may be sure that he went unarmed, his only weapons those of the Spirit.

Women and men who have been greeted in peace by the Risen One have been leaving locked rooms and setting out on amazing journeys for two millennia. Today, the capacities for communication of which you are the stewards can both summon God’s people to remarkable adventures and play an important role in equipping them for their travels.

Breathe deeply.



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