Easter Sunday has a reputation among pastors. For those who care about numbers, Easter Sunday has the highest attendance all year. This Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter, has a reputation too; it is known as “low” Sunday because attendance is so abysmal (present company excepted of course.) The exhaustion from excessive Alleluia-ing and the extroverted joy from last week is just too much. A lot of people need to take this Sunday off (including pastors.)
Various remedies have been tried to excite and attract people to church on this Sunday. While I haven’t noticed this problem all that much here, some years ago the worship committee heard about one idea that sounded fun to try anyway, Holy Humor Sunday. You know, bring laughter into the holy space, into the quiet, reverent atmosphere of worship. Only trouble was, it felt a bit stilted, trying to find spiritual things to make each other laugh. We discovered that we already laugh a lot together in this holy hour. Why try to force bad religious jokes on each other when we already know the sacredness of laughter?
So being the traditional Mennonite church that we are, instead of humor today we turn back to the bible and a very serious topic.
We are back with Jesus’ friends and disciples who are still scared to death of what has happened. They witnessed the horrific killing of their teacher/friend. And when Mary went to the tomb to check on him, his body was gone. Peter and another disciple verify that disappearance.
It is still that same Sunday that Mary went to the tomb. But now they have locked themselves away because if this kind of violence could happen to their beloved Jesus, killed and then disappeared, just imagine what might be in store for them. Here they feel protected from the long arm of the religious authorities and, they hope, the empire.
They ruminate. They reminisce.
Suddenly Jesus, their own Jesus, is there among them. He appears out of nowhere. The door is locked; you better believe they had checked and rechecked it. And yet, here he is, in their midst greeting them, “Peace be with you.” There can be no doubt that it is him; and now they see his healed wounds.
He senses their shock, understands their fear. To calm, and to remind them, he breathes on them, just as God breathed into the first human creature. This breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit, is given with instructions to forgive. After all Jesus has been through, after all they have been through, they are to forgive? But here it is, almost an abbreviated Lord’s Prayer – “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven, if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” – On earth as it is in heaven.
But not all of the important Twelve are present that first night. Thomas, nicknamed “Didymus, – the Twin,” now known as the doubter, was not there for that momentous event. Thomas hears the story, several times, from those who were there that first night but he just can’t believe it. He insists that in order to believe he must see, he must touch the wounds of Jesus himself as the others had done that first evening in the locked room.
The gospel writer doesn’t tell us what happens in the intervening week but the next Sunday the disciples are meeting again in the room, again behind locked doors. And again, into this gathering Jesus appears with his message, “Peace be with you.” This time Thomas is there to see for himself and Jesus invites Thomas to touch the wounds. This profound experience causes Thomas to make a confession of faith: “My Savior and My God!”
Jesus tells Thomas, “You became a believer because you saw me.” Thomas, the patron saint of doubters, now believes. But Jesus goes on. “Blessed are those who have not seen – and yet have believed.”
Here is a blessing for those who don’t get to see. The community for whom this gospel was written – 60 years after the resurrection – they didn’t see the risen body. And we who read the story across centuries and cultures, we do not see the risen body. Yet Jesus gives us all a blessing. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
We say seeing is believing, it seems to have worked for Thomas. But we don’t always want to believe what we see. Even if we see and believe, what do we do with that information?
(Here is the serious topic I promised.) April is Child Abuse Prevention month. Many of you know that a group in the congregation has been working on, and off – for 7 years, on a safe congregation policy. This is something that congregations across Mennonite Church USA , and in other traditions as well, are encouraged to create and implement. This is partly in response to the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church though we recognize that abuses of power can happen anywhere when power is unchecked. Here at Hyattsville Mennonite, we want to keep children and other vulnerable people safe from abuse. We also want to continue working and worshipping together in an atmosphere of trust and love.
Seeing may be believing but when it comes to abusive behavior it doesn’t always mean action will be taken. I think of the newly released videos of the Rutgers basketball coach yelling at the players, ridiculing them and throwing balls at them. Plenty of people saw this happening, people saw it on video. They may have believed but what action did they take? Not much action for about 6 months, until the tapes were released for many more people to see.
When power is allowed to go unchecked abuse can happen all too easily. We do not want to believe what we see, we do not want to believe that someone we trust could act violently or inappropriately.
Sometimes in cases of abuse, we don’t know what to believe. We can become like the scared disciples in that locked room, huddling together, eyes closed to keep out what we have seen. Some of the disciples had seen that empty tomb but they did not know what to believe, they did not know how to understand.
Maybe one of the reasons it has taken us so long to hammer out this safe congregation policy is because it feels scary. One of the worries that has been voiced about implementing a program like this is that we will no longer trust each other. What if we don’t believe what we see? What if we begin to see things that are not there? What if innocent actions are misinterpreted?
I do not want to discount this fear; it would seem self-serving since in many cases it is the pastor who is the abuser, the pastor who is the one that uses power inappropriately in abusive ways. When I stop to think about why we are writing this policy it makes me shudder. It is because of people in my role. I reassure myself that in this congregation, we have the kind of shared power between numerous people, the kind of shared trust that almost makes a policy like this unnecessary.
Yet we have expended a lot of time and energy researching and writing a policy for our congregation. It is important for us to have a common understanding about safety. And it is important for people new to the congregation to have a way to learn about that common understanding.
While we like to think of ourselves as a close-knit, committed community, we also describe ourselves as a transient community. People move to the DC area, worship with us for a while and then are called elsewhere. One part of our safe congregation policy requires that adults regularly participate in the congregation for 6 months before they volunteer with the children, as a teacher or nursery worker. We do not want this to impede people sharing their gifts in the congregation but we balance this with the desire for everyone to feel like this is a safe place, so that we can believe what we see.
Those who have been working on the writing and research for the Safe Congregation policy are breathing a sigh of relief. We think the writing part is over. But in some ways our work has just begun. We will continue to put time and energy into this policy as we enter a period of training for adults, and children. We are committed to this because we want all of us to believe what we see. We want a loving hug to be just a loving hug, in public.
Jesus came into that locked room with his followers; he came into a room that they thought no one could enter. And yet there he was, in their midst, breathing peace upon them. He came into that place where they were scared and did not know what to believe and breathed new energy, new creation into them. And he gently sent them out of their locked room of fear to spread that peace and forgiveness.
As we begin trainings and implementation of the Safe Congregation policy in the next few months, let us remember to look for the risen Christ among us, the Christ who gives us peace, who does not want us to live in fear but wants us to live with new understanding and new life.
Gathered together, we are the body of Christ. Let us breathe a message of peace, so that fear does not predominate. Let it be that forgiveness and love unlock the door and send us out into the world to spread that peace.