Apr 28

How we see Jesus – a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter

Scripture texts: John 20: 19-29 & 1 Peter 1:3-9

“I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing in my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for. Hush, child. Hush now, and I will tell it to you.

Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear tenor voice: ‘Rags!’ Ah, the air was foul… and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.

‘Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!’

‘Now this is a wonder,’ I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?

I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Soon the ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.

The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.

‘Give me your rag,’ he said gently. ‘and I’ll give you another.’

He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.

Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then he began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.

‘This is a wonder,’ I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.

‘Rags! Rags! New Rags for old!’

In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.

Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.

‘Give me your rag,’ he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, ‘and I’ll give you mine.’

The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood — his own!

‘Rags! Rags! I take old rags!’ cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.

The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.

‘Are you going to work?’ he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head. The Ragman pressed him: ‘Do you have a job?’

‘Are you crazy?’ sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket — flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.

‘So,’ said the Ragman. ‘Give me your jacket, and I’ll give you mine.’

So much quiet authority in his voice!

The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman — and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on, he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.

‘Go to work,’ he said.

After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.

And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider’s legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.

I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.

The little old Ragman — he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And I wanted to help him in what he did… but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an old army blanket. And he died.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

That is the first part of the short story called “The Ragman,” written by Walter Wangerin, which was the basis for our children’s Easter celebration and service at Intermountain in 2013. We talked about how our images of Jesus are often all wrong—too pretty, too “gussied up”—and that the real Jesus would have been a little rougher around the edges… still loving and kind, but with a strength behind his words of care and compassion. A little like Wangerin’s Ragman.

Today’s scripture readings allow us a glimpse into the mindset of the disciples and church after Jesus’ death and resurrection. What a curious, exciting, and frightening time for Jesus’ followers! How do you center your life around a God you can’t see, touch, or interact with? For Gentile Christians coming out of idol worship, this absent God without a figure to bow before was a whole new experience. For the Jews, the suggestion that the transcendent and invisible God could have possibly been a peasant Galilean that was subjected to torture and death on a cross… well, even if he DID rise again, that was a hurdle many couldn’t leap over intellectually or spiritually.

So, here we are in the shadow of Easter… seven days removed, and wondering how we emotionally and spiritually move on from it. Our situation is not that different than those huddled together on that first Easter night…

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Huddled together Easter Sunday night… Peter and John had been to the tomb and seen the grave was empty, but had left to go back to this hideaway. So there they are, not believing the story of the women who had seen the risen Lord, hiding behind lock and key with the other followers of Christ. Out of nowhere, Jesus appears. But not all are present… someone is missing.

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later (just as we have gathered a week later!) his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Something about this exchange must have stuck with Peter, because those words that Jesus spoke to Thomas and the disciples… well, a message like this appears in our reading from Peter’s first letter:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and have yet believed…” Jesus said. Peter writes, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

This morning I have provided a few slides from the kids at Intermountain… pictures they drew when I asked them: “What does Jesus look like to you? How do YOU see Jesus?” I am wondering how you picture Jesus… how do you see him? What thoughts or images do you have in your mind’s eye?

Maybe that’s too hard a place to start… what about a favorite aunt, uncle or grandparent that has passed away? Close your eyes for a moment… How do you picture that special person? Do you see them in a certain outfit? Wearing their hair a certain way? Or maybe it was the way they smiled?

I am guessing there is more to it than just an image. When we remember someone well, we recall all sorts of things… sounds, smells, tastes or certain foods or dishes, exploits both real and imagined. Ah, yes, the stories we tell about a person after they have gone on… this has a great deal to do with our image of that person.

Sometimes, even before someone passes on, those who share a special place in our lives also share the honor of our joyfully telling stories about them. Telling a story about a person is a way of honoring them, of recognizing their place in our lives, a way of fixing their place in the network and web of communal life. Many cultures with strong oral traditions can speak to the power of story.

For instance, in Hawaii, the native Hawaiians have a practice called “talking story.” When discussing an issue, making a decision, or trying to relate to one another, often they will “talk story” with one another… it is another way of processing what is important, has been important, and will continue to be important for them. They “talk story” to preserve a sense of identity, community, and shared history. Talking story shapes culture.

Think about all this for a moment…

As a child of God, a sister or brother of Jesus by faith… how does The Story inform your identity, build community, and preserve your common history. How does story telling build your culture? Personally, are you in the practice of telling stories about who Jesus is to you?

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe…”

I know you believe! You believe… and Jesus is very real to you… you have a story to tell. But, I wonder how well we “talk story” about the One who is our most important relationship.

I am not even referring to giving a testimony… that word can be too loaded for what I want to consider today. But, I would like you to consider getting in the practice as a family, as a church, as friends together to find yourself saying things like…

“Wow… I just have to tell on Jesus today… he did something amazing for me! I was in such a cranky mood this morning.. well, you remember, don’t you, honey? (Don’t answer that!) Well, as I am driving to work, I am stopped by some kids walking their bikes across the crosswalk, and one of the cutest little guys just turned to me and smiled. That little boy was Jesus to me in that moment. I needed to get out of my cranky pants and into my thankful pants, so to speak. That moment did it for me. Isn’t Jesus incredible that way?”

Jesus is alive… Jesus is ALIVE. Amen? So, if we have our eyes open, we’ll see him everywhere.

Why is this so important? Well, I think that as we start to see Jesus more and more around us, others will start to see more and more of Jesus in us! And, if we are captured by the story of Jesus working in and through us, I think it will revolutionize the way we share the Good News. People can argue against your reasoning, and they can object to the methods used to present the gospel, but they can’t refute your story. You have stories… thousands of them. Some of them are even about Jesus… [ha ha]. Stories told well capture the imaginations of people, they capture their hearts. Your story of Jesus’ life-giving presence can tear them from their idols and engage them in their own story.

But, we have to do it. And, we should do it as well as we can. Be sincere and transparent. Be creative. Use color and humor and laughter and tears. AND… here’s a thought… Let Jesus be the hero in the story of your life. I think that would be hard for those you are witnessing to to resist.

I’d like to conclude today by finishing the short story I read at the beginning of our time together… the Ragman. As I read, consider the power of this story, because it part of all our stories. Jesus is alive, and he has worked a miracle in each and every one of us. We have stories to tell. Let’s start telling them!

(conclude with “The Ragman”)

“Oh how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope — because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.

I did not know — how could I know? — that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night too.

But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.

Light — pure, hard, demanding light — slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow or age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.

Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: ‘Dress me.’

He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!”

Let us pray…

“Jesus, help us to be your church unleashed. You have breathed on us the breath of God. We have received the power of the Spirit and have been renewed by your presence in our hearts and minds. We are lacking nothing. All the pieces of the world’s greatest story are all there… prepared for the telling… in and through us. You have taken our sin-soaked rags and clothed us in your righteousness. Easter isn’t over… it’s just beginning! Thank you and praise you, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! In your powerful name we pray… Amen!”