By Rev. Sally Harris
United Church of Canada
April 27, 2003
Text: John 20:19-29
O Life-giving God,
Unlock our hearts
…that we may feel the presence of the Christ.
Unclench our hands
…that we may reach out to each other.
Open our mouths
…that we may drink in the delight of life.
Unclog our ears
…that we may hear your agony in our inhumanity.
Open our eyes
…that we may see the Christ in all of our life together. Amen
It is our first response to fear, change, the unknown
It is our first response to that which is other than ourselves.
Shut the door, lock the door, close the window, lock the window,
Seal the tomb with a great stone…
find the duct tape…
buy a mask…
…fearing arrest, hide
identify the dissenter by color, creed, sexual orientation, arrest, terrorize,
For fear of being terrorized…
…for fear of the difference
Seal the tomb…
Lock the door…
Buy a gun…
The story of Thomas is the one we read every Sunday after Easter…
it is the world we now live in.
A remarkable speech for our embattled times was made by Susan Sontag, a long time activist and author for human rights. Her keynote speech was for the presentation of the Oscar Romero Award to the Israeli soldiers’ movement that states: “there’s a limit to what we are willing to do, whether as citizens or as soldiers.” It is an Israeli peace group that has taken on the task of supporting soldiers who refuse assignments of a repressive or aggressive nature. Sontag considers in sober and moving terms what it means to resist, to refuse your service to your own state, to oppose the mainstream opinions of your own society, and while it is directed at the situation in Israel today, it is no less applicable to the story of Thomas or this our celebration of being an affirming congregation. She begins by saying:
Let’s start with risk. The risk of being punished. The risk of being isolated. The risk of being injured or killed. The risk of being scorned. For all of us, it is hard to break ranks; to incur the disapproval, the censure, the violence of an offended majority with a different idea of loyalty. We shelter under banner-words like justice, peace, reconciliation that enroll us in new, if much smaller and relatively powerless communities of the like-minded. To fall out of step with one’s tribe; to step beyond one’s tribe into a world that is larger mentally but smaller numerically – if alienation or dissidence is not your habitual or gratifying posture, this is a complex, difficult process. It is hard to defy the wisdom of the tribe: the wisdom that values the lives of members of the tribe above all others. It will always be unpopular – it will always be deemed unpatriotic (and I add it will sometimes be deemed unchristian) – to say that the lives of the members of the other tribe are as valuable as one’s own.
It is easier to give one’s allegiance to those we know, to those we see, to those with whom we are embedded, to those with whom we share – as we may – a community of fear. Let’s not underestimate the force of what we oppose. Let’s not underestimate the retaliation that may be visited on those who dare to dissent from the brutalities and repressions thought justified by the fears of the majority.
Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example – for courage is as contagious as fear.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors were locked for fear…
Eight days later, the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut…
While Jesus was with them, his disciples showed fortitude and flexibility. They didn’t quite get it, but they were willing to try. When Jesus departed, however, fear took over. Except for a handful who ventured to the tomb, most disciples went into hiding. They locked the doors. When Jesus breached those doors, Thomas’ instinct was to lock another door.
That is the way it went. When the Spirit freed them on Pentecost, they found other doors to lock. The Jerusalem branch wanted to lock down The Way as a subset of Judaism. The Corinthians tried to lock out all but the charismatic. Paul wrestled with this locking-down tendency but had his own version of it.
In time, bishops locked down the New Testament, as if no further authoritative word could ever be spoken. Church councils locked down doctrine, as if everything worth knowing were already known. Women were locked out, and hierarchical orders of ministry were locked in place. Ways of loving and being together were also locked down – only a man and a woman could love and be committed to each other and raise a family.
The Christian movement has changed course countless times, thanks to power shifts and new knowledge. But the changes hardly ever entail abandoning locks altogether; they just substitute one locked door for another. Witness the rigidity of Protestant Reformers, as they threw off Rome’s shackles but immediately imposed their own. The power of fear is overwhelming. Fear of the manifest enemy, fear of the unknown, fear of movement, fear of change, fear of scarcity, fear of failure, fear of strangers, fear of success, fear of confrontation, fear of death. In our fears, we lock one door after another. [source: Tom Ehrich]
Six years ago Trinity unlocked the door of fear of the homosexual – fear of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people. It didn’t necessarily take away the fear or the need to keep reminding people of looking at love and life in diversity – in a rainbow of colors rather than in black and white. Becoming an affirming congregation didn’t take away the fear but it did take away the lock on the door that said we wouldn’t talk about it. In 1997 we were the 6th congregation across the nation to take that step in the United Church. Today there are now 22 and counting. An increase yes but in a church that has 3,677 congregations the number willing to undertake the kind of process Trinity did 6 years ago is very few.
But Sally, you may say, it is not an issue here and to talk about it excludes other people. No it doesn’t. To affirm a minority in the midst of a majority is not to exclude the majority. It is to stand on the margins with those who are marginalized and same-gender relationships remain marginalized in the wider church, in our society and in the world. We forget that though we are all one in Christ here when we walk out of those doors the barriers are established pretty quickly. There are very few places where those of us who are different from the majority in our loving, in our color, in our ability, in our beliefs can feel safe, unlocking our hearts. It is important that as an affirming community we hold before us and witness to the different reality we claim. The reality where all are accepted, where peace is sought and justice is expected and where God becomes as small as a piece of bread and we taste the wonder of eternity. And that reality needs to be named often here and out there.
Yes our faith should say to us, “Fear not.” That is the intrusion of the gospel for that is what Jesus said. Being gay or lesbian, male or female, Iranian or Aboriginal, educated or uneducated should not matter. But unfortunately the leading door-lockers have been the religious themselves. What the frightened disciples did after the crucifixion became an inflexible way of life, which as a church we have sought to dignify by calling it “tradition,” and “God’s will.” And so we come here to remind ourselves to unlock the doors of our traditions, our beliefs, our fears and allow the Christ to breach our locked doors bidding us to affirm each other again.
And it all begins with the peace of Christ, the breath of the spirit…
and the intrusion of the gospel – ‘Be Not Afraid’
…where we dare to say to one another
I see your pain and want to banish it
with the wave of a star,
but have no star.
I see your tears and want to dry them
with the hem of an angel’s gown,
but have no angel.
I see your heart fallen to the ground and want to return it
wrapped in cloths woven of rainbow,
but have no rainbow.
God is the One
who has stars, and angels and rainbows,
and I am the one
God sends to sit beside you
until the stars come out
and the angels dry your tears
and your heart is back in place,