All of us here today have suffered sickness, have had troubles and tragedies, and perhaps have even faced despair and the death of a loved one. There isn’t one person here in this church who hasn’t experienced loneliness, felt overwhelmed, or at times felt hopeless and full of doubt.
We all wish we could face everything that life throws at us with courage and faith, but sometimes as Peter’s letter put it in today’s reading “You may have to suffer the distress of many trials.” We find ourselves experiencing a terrible “dark night of the soul,” and even when friends and family surround us with love we can feel lost and all alone.”
Just last week we celebrated Christ’s rising from the dead, and now this Sunday, just a week later, we hear how the disciples were huddled in a locked room terrified, with Thomas saying he wouldn’t believe unless he could “probe the nail prints in his hands and put his hand into his side.” Just a few verses earlier Mary Magdalene had already told the disciples that she had seen and spoken with Jesus. So like us, in spite of what they had heard and what we say we believe; they were fearful.
Martin Luther King, Jr. in his collections of sermons called “The Strength to Love” tells of a time in his life when he was also terrified after receiving a very threatening phone call in the middle of the night:
“I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers, I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.
Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.”
Okay, you’re saying, that’s Martin Luther King, Jr., practically a saint of both nonviolence and faith. But I stand here as one offering of a glimmer of hope about where God is when we are terrified. God is as near as our whispered prayer. So, in the Gospel today, Jesus didn’t get angry with the disciples for hiding in the locked room—he simply breathed the Holy Spirit on them, and they were able to go forth.
I pray for each of us when we are terrified, and yes, there will be days or nights of terror for each of us in our lives, that we will be able to whisper a prayer for help, and feel the breath of the Spirit.
But what about the kind of hopelessness we feel so often in our lives—money troubles, lives too busy, mean-spirited politics, so much sickness and dreariness.
In my work with the homeless we have had some success stories, but more often than not, we journey with people who struggle ferociously with mental illness, substance use, and grinding poverty and sometimes their stories don’t end well. I am amazed though at the resiliency and courage of so many of the men and women I have met over the years, however, and I wanted to tell you a story about one man I will call “Sam.”
We met Sam living in an abandoned parking garage. Sam’s parents had died, and then just as he had to move out of a group home at 18, he began to develop schizophrenia. We met Sam after he had begun to live in this filthy parking garage many years later. He wore multiple toques and ragged coats, and his face was so covered in grime it was impossible to see his skin. When we would come near he would swear and scream at us, but gradually we found we could leave a sandwich, or a cigarette and later some KFC near him and walk away. He slowly stopped yelling at us. We tried to get him to hospital after we found him under a frozen sleeping bag, but that was only a solution for a couple of days. We worked with him for several years and brought more food, clothes, and gradually he got to know a wonderful psychiatrist we brought with us, and started taking medication, but it was the following his lead, following his choices as best we could that started making the difference. We got him a bike and he started taking library books out while still living in that parking garage, but one day he told us he was ready to leave the garage and get some kind of an apartment. Last Christmas he came to our holiday party and I danced with him—he was in a clean set of clothes, smiling shyly, and proudly telling me some of the things he now cooks for himself. Sam to me is an inspiration of hope. And though I work at a secular agency I believe that Sam’s journey is a journey of Love and a journey of God giving us the faith to keep hope alive as we walked with Sam, and continue to walk with Sam.
What would have happened if the small group of us didn’t have such crazy hope and faith in the face of such hopelessness. I pray for each of us when confronted by the dead end of hopelessness, that we will see the glimmer of God’s shimmering hope.
I am sure all of us can relate to Thomas’ struggle to believe what Mary Magdalene and the disciples had already told him. How many of us, even when we’ve taught our children about God, have been going to church for years, and on paper are Christians—how many of us feel a sense of peace and calm and shining faith when everything in our life is going wrong and our troubles feel like they are about to choke us. How many of us haven’t thought, “Where is God?” and “Why is God letting this happen to me when I try to be a good person?” and finally, “God, why aren’t you taking this suffering away from me?” How many of us, in our heart of hearts, when we have been drowning in death, divorce, poverty or near poverty, have even wondered whether we are actually all alone in the universe with our suffering, and that there is no God?
Almost three years ago, I sat beside my Dad on his deathbed. At this point his lung cancer had spread and we were just trying to manage his pain. He could no longer speak. His eyes were a bit glazed over as he looked at me, and then gradually he started to look intently up at the corner of the ceiling in his hospice room. His eyes widened and his arms, which he could barely lift, started rising toward the vision. His face was enraptured with joy for a full 5 seconds or so, I was so moved I just wept by his side. Gradually the light left his face and his arms lowered. I asked him, “Dad, what did you see?” and he looked at me but he couldn’t speak. The next morning, the nurses told me that even though he couldn’t even sit up in bed, he had managed somehow to climb over the bed railing, and they found him kneeling at the side of his bed. It took four nurses to hoist him back into bed.
Now, if my Dad had been a religious man, this would still have been moving, but my Dad struggled with doubt all his life. He felt uncomfortable going up to communion at their church they started attending late in life, because he felt it was hypocritical as he was so unsure about God. I have no doubt that whatever my Dad saw that day, just a few days before he died, was miraculous, and it brings tears to my eyes just to ponder this. But like all of us, the cares of the day often crowd that memory out of my heart and mind. I offer this glimmer of hope to you today, on this Sunday after Easter, on this May Day of International Workers Day, on this ancient “first day of summer” as May 1st used to be known, on this day we remember the disciples’ terror and hopelessness, and Thomas’ doubt, that Christ truly has risen in spite of our fears, our hopelessness and our doubt.
I would like to end with the words of a hymn written in 1928 by John M.C. Crum that are dear to me:
“Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain.
Wheat that in the dark earth, many days has lain.
Love lives again, that with the dead has been.
Love is come again, like wheat arising green.
In the grave they laid him, Love by hatred slain,
Thinking that he would never wake again.
Laid in the earth, like grain that sleeps unseen,
Love is come again, like wheat arising green.
Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain.
Raised from the dead, my living Lord is seen.
Love is come again like wheat arising green.
When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
Your touch can call us back to life again,
Field of our hearts that dead and bare have been,
Love is come again like wheat arising green.”