Sunrise services are not all that predictable . . . if you know what I mean. I remember the first sunrise Service at the church that I served. It was 6:30 in the morning. We had a torch lit as a symbol of the resurrection. From this torch, we lit the Christ candle that would be carried into this sanctuary. But, before that, there were some of us who were huddled around that torch, which smelled faintly of Citronella.
Now huddling around that torch was not necessarily because we wanted to feel especially close to the resurrection, but because we were hoping that the mosquitoes would be steering clear of that area too! Oh but the mosquitoes were present with us! One might have thought that we were at a Pentecostal service that Sunday morning at 6:30, with all of the hand waving that was happening before the start of the service. Personally, I’m glad that we went inside pretty quickly leaving most of the mosquitoes behind.
Sunrise services have an element of uncertainty about them in a way. When you are out there, outside, nature is with you. Now that is a wonderful thing, but it is unpredictable. And sometimes . . . we like for things to be certain, predictable in a way.
I had a friend back when I was growing up as a boy at Marie Church in Dublin. His name is Scott. Now Scott always had a bit of the devil in him I guess. Maybe we all do. Maybe that is just a way of saying that Scott could be mischievous at times. Scott was just that kind of kid. Well, and I was always a bit more straight-laced than that, good grades for the most part, not much of a problem in school. I was the kid that despite Scott and I calling each other friends, it was a whole lot of fun to catch me off guard with something. That is why I was convinced that Scott had done it.
You see it was a Sunrise Service at that little church just off Highway 441, north of Dublin. It was about 6:30 in the morning. It was cold. We always sat chairs out behind the church under a few pine trees at just the right angle so that as the sun was rising, you could see it over that wooden cross that sat just behind the preacher as he spoke. Maybe it was arranged that way so that you would be forced to focus your attention in that direction, instead of all of the other places that might grab you when you are sitting outside, on a cold metal chair, wrapping your arms around you, just trying to stay warm, while the birds were chirping all around you.
Well this whole scene was arranged so that it was like we had taken the church and plopped it outdoors under those trees. The rows of metal chairs had an aisle down the center. I sat on one side and there was Scott sitting on the other side. He looked a little sleepy, just like I did. But then as the preacher was preaching, I felt something on the top of my head.
Well, Scott was just the type that in the middle of church, some quiet time, would throw something at you just to see if you would laugh. I looked over at him across that aisle because I just knew that this was what he had done. I just knew that he had torn off a bit of paper or picked up a tiny piece of tree bark and had tossed it right onto the middle of the top of my head. I looked over at him and he was still sitting there, facing forward, looking sleepy. But this was just like Scott! He probably did it and then turned back around just to mess with me, just to make me wonder whether he had done it or not. Well I still felt that piece of paper or tree bark sitting there on the top of my head. So I reached up to my head . . . felt over to the center of the top of my head . . . and pulled down what had hit me there.
Let’s just say that what had hit me in the middle of the top of my head was not a piece of paper.
And it was not a piece of tree bark although it came from the direction of the tree. Yes, even before our country had started making precision guided weapons, some bird up in that pine tree above our heads must have had perfect aim, for that bird hit me right in the middle of the top of my head!
Although Scott got a real kick out of this scenario later, he had absolutely nothing to do with it. Even though I had been convinced that he did, Scott was truly sitting across the aisle from me as sleepy as he could be.
Sunrise services are unpredictable, uncertain. And I had thought that the one thing that was certain was that Scott was up to something, even when the evidence proved otherwise. But he wasn’t. But it is such a part of human nature for us to act in these ways. It is in Scott’s nature to be a bit mischievous. It is in my nature to jump to a conclusion before all the evidence is in.
It is in all of our natures to rely on our preconceived notions of how the world is supposed to work. We all have ideas about who we can trust and who we cannot. We all have notions of how to get things done, what is possible and what is NOT possible. It is not that these things are bad or wrong in and of themselves. I think sometimes we act as if they are though. In the gospel passage for this Sunday, John 20:19-31, you hear the word “doubt”. And when you read that you might feel shame for Thomas? Did you feel like scolding Thomas for not believing the disciples?
Well, maybe we shouldn’t. Because Thomas got the same experience as the rest of the disciples did. And why should he believe this ragtag bunch anyhow; read your Bible: the disciples were not necessarily this bunch of upstanding folks who always got it right. Most often they got it wrong. So here’s Thomas asking for evidence, expressing that he does not trust the testimony of the disciples, that he does not believe that Jesus was resurrected, that Thomas is not sure that God had fulfilled God’s promises once again. Thomas says very openly that he does not trust . . . Thomas shows that he is human. Thomas shows us that we are human.
I used to be scared to death when I was a child that somehow, if I “doubted”, whatever it was in my young mind that meant, that if I died in that instant, I would go straight to hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Somewhere I had gotten the message that this was very serious indeed.
And . . . in some ways it is a serious issue. Over and over we are told to believe, to trust, to have faith. And we should! But it is also true that sometimes it is in the places in our lives where we have doubt, where we do not trust, where we do not believe, that the risen Christ meets us.
When we hear this text we hear that doubt in such a negative way. We hear that “unfaithfulness” on Thomas’ part in such a terrible way. But we know that it is often in the places in our lives where we experience hurt, those places can be the place where God is asking us to grow. It may be in those places in our lives where we do not trust, we do not believe, we do not have faith, it may be in those very places that the risen Christ will meet us.
When we express our doubts, our fears, our struggles with God, this is a God who comes to us in those struggles. Please notice that Thomas did not start spouting the Apostles’ Creed either. Thomas did not immediately state, “You suffered under Pontius Pilate, were crucified, dead and buried, you were raised on the third day . . .” Thomas states the most honest, simple, but wonderful confession of his faith, “My Lord and My God!” Christ met Thomas in the very way he needed to be met. This is just as Christ meets us in the ways in which we need to be met as well, in our weakness, in our sorrow, in our lack of trust, and even in our doubting.