Liberated and Sent
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
April 11, 2021 Second Sunday of Easter
James 1:16-27; John 20:19-31
You can read or download the scriptures here: 4-11-21 Service Readings
Call to Worship:
Welcome to the United Church of Strafford, Vermont, celebrating the Second Sunday of Easter. We will hear the rest of the Easter story in John that Deadra read last week, and today is the joyful part.
Deadra explained that the followers of Jesus were in deep grief from the public torture and execution of their beloved teacher who had been so full of compassion, kindness and unconditional love. Their trauma only deepened at the discovery of the empty tomb, which they assumed was another act of violence against the body of Jesus. Finally, it took the terrifying twist of becoming a ghost story when Mary Magdalene reported seeing him.
Today we will hear how the followers of Jesus gathered that night behind locked doors, uncertain what it all meant and afraid that the authorities would arrest and crucify them as well.
It wasn’t until Jesus came through those locked doors that Easter joy finally dawned in the darkness of their anguish, and with that joy came inner peace, spiritual power and the mission of the church. This is John’s version of the Pentecost story, which really is the completion and fulfillment of Easter. It is not ultimately about what happens to Jesus, it is about what happens to us and to the world through us.
The miracle of resurrection happens whenever we overcome any inner or outer obstacle and become what James calls “doers of the word.” The word is the essential truth of what God created us to do. The word is love. Easter joy dawns again each time that love is freed to flow into the world through doers of the word.
Let us worship together and open ourselves to that power and joy…
the sermon begins below
Liberated and Sent
Here is another resurrection story that is like scripture to me. Dorothy was a 96 year-old retired school teacher and a former Deacon in the first church I served. She was blind and deaf, in constant pain and confined to a nursing home bed. She longed to join her husband in heaven and didn’t understand why she was still alive.
Dorothy asked me one day, “What is the most important word in the English language?” She didn’t wait for my answer. She shouted, “Compassion!” She told me she tried to offer compassion and lovingkindness to every nursing home care provider and helper. She was locked in a room of infirmity, but faithfulness still set her free to be the loving teacher and Deacon Christ sent her to be.
We need to imagine ourselves in John’s Gospel story of Easter evening, because that is its purpose, to make us identify with those first followers of Jesus and recognize that the same drama is playing out in our lives. Their story is our story.
Like them, we have heard about the empty tomb. We have heard the accounts of his resurrection. We want to believe and yet we feel uncertain what it really means.
Meanwhile, we find ourselves behind locked doors—doors of anxiety or depression, fear or grief, trauma or illness, self-doubt or over-busyness, apathy or disability. We have gifts to share, but we can get blocked by inner or outer obstacles that seem both legitimate and impassable.
One popular way of reading the resurrection story is to say, “At least I’ll get freed from this locked room at death, since I believe Jesus died and rose from the dead to save me.”
But that is not where the story invites us to go. It is not the plot that Jesus has in mind for us. Dorothy believed in heaven and was eager to get there, but she knew there was more to the story.
Jesus does not wait for you to die, he comes into the room where you are trapped. The Nazi death camp survivor, Corrie Ten Boom, said that no matter how far we go into a pit of suffering or despair, we find Jesus waiting there to help us through it.
Jesus comes through the locked door and embraces us with tremendous compassion and love, no matter how much of a mess we are, no matter how far we have strayed. Remember that Peter was in that room, who had denied Jesus three times. Jesus comforts us the way a mother holds a crying child who has fallen off the chair while trying to reach the forbidden cookie jar. He says, “Peace,” and we feel the forgiveness, healing and hope that make for peace.
Jesus reminds us of his own suffering and death, and how he rose again, assuring us that we can fall and get up, too. He gives us triumphant joy as well as peace.
And then he liberates us, fills us with the Spirit and sends us into the world to wage a revolution of love. Have you ever felt that joy? The joy of returning to life after sickness, the joy of overcoming an addiction, the joy of overcoming stage fright and using your gift to give others joy?
We do not need to believe every word of the Bible, but if we want to break free of our locked rooms we do need to believe that a higher power wants to liberate us and send us out filled with the Spirit to do the works of love that are our joy to do.
The passage we heard in James is not in the lectionary for today, but it is helpful to put it together with the story in John.
It, too, is about liberation from what holds us back. It, too, is about being filled with the Spirit and sent out into the world to do works of love and joy.
James makes clearer what our part of the Easter story is meant to be: to “be doers of the word.”
We need to understand what that word is, though. The Greek word in the Bible is logos, and in Eastern Orthodox tradition it means the true essence of all things. When Chinese Orthodox Christians translate James, they use the word Tao for “word,” meaning the sacred way that flows through all nature. Be doers of the Tao.
James says that God “gave us birth by the word of truth,” and God is described as “the Father of lights.” Our true word, our essence, the Tao within us, is given by the creator of the stars, the Spirit that has flowed through everything from the Big Bang to this evolving moment.
James says that every act of generous giving and every perfect gift comes down to us from that Spirit of the universe, and we are its “first fruits,” we are manifestations of that Spirit.
In other words, our selfish, violent, exploitive human ego is not what we are created to be. James says we need to welcome with meekness the true word in us. That is the key to the locked door and all the joy beyond it.
The Tao is the law of nature observed by ancient sages. James talks about the perfect law of liberty and says that those who follow it are blessed in their doing. Jesus brings his followers liberation from the agenda of our self-concern that blocks the gifts that God gave us to serve others.
James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled in relation to God” is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
To be a doer of the word is to be liberated and sent out into the world to act with compassion and lovingkindness toward the most vulnerable and hurting and oppressed, and not let the selfishness of the ego defile our love and rob us of that joy.
To be a doer of the word is to see the orphan children at the border, to see the tens of millions of refugees of climate and poverty and war who are seeking a place to live in peace, or to see the struggling people in our families and communities, and to care for them.
To be a doer of the word is to find within ourselves the gifts we have to contribute and do that work for the sake of love and life and light.
We can be doers of the word every moment of our lives. The Spirit of Jesus meets us wherever we are to liberate us and send us out. Even a blind and deaf woman confined to her bed in a nursing home can bring wisdom, compassion and kindness to the people around her.
This is the joy that Easter releases into the world.
Let us pray in silence, going into the dark room of our hearts, waiting for Jesus to come to us there with compassion and peace and a calling for us to fulfill…