April 28, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

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Sermon: Sweet Mystery of Life

Years ago I was the proud part owner of a newspaper in New Jersey. My official title was publisher, but in fact the partners in the paper did everything and anything that was required to scrape together enough money to put out the next issue. I worked part time at the Reformed Church in beautiful Bushkill, Pennsylvania, and for a while took on a second part time job cleaning the floors of an old fashioned Sears store in Newton, New Jersey.

Our cleaning crew was organized by a fellow who had been a school teacher, but now ran a health food store where the main source of income was massive quantities of freeze dried food that he marketed to the Mormon community so they would be ready for the days of disaster and tribulation that were surely coming in these end times.

Most of the men on the crew were school teachers and one memory that sticks vividly in my mind is the sound of the song “Sweet Mystery of Life, At Last I’ve Found You,” being sung above the bedlam of the floor buffers by one of the crew members who had two master’s degrees in education and somehow could not find the joy in working this one extra part time job to help put his daughter through college.

Ah! sweet mystery of life, at last I've found thee;

Ah! I know at last the secret of it all;

All the longing, striving, seeking, waiting, yearning,

The burning hopes, the joys and idle tears that fall!

Of course Russ - the man who handled his cleaning machine like a Venetian Gondolier singing his way through the aisles of Sears - Russ changed the words a little; he sang, “Ah! Sweet misery of life, at last I’ve found thee; Ah! I know at last the sadness of it all!”

I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like working up close with an optimist!

As much as I might sympathize with the dilemma Russ faced, as much as we may be challenged with difficulty and trouble, it does us little good to let the bitter overpower the sweet or allow the misery to overpower the mystery, a mystery whose secrets are somehow revealed in the Gospel of the one who was crucified, buried, raised up in power, and now pours our on all who believe a life giving spirit of holiness and hope.

I’ve been reading a very interesting book called Parable of the Tribes by Andrew Bard Schmookler. It is a book that asks big questions: Why has civilization developed the way it has? Why has the course of human history been so tormented? Why have the enormous changes over the last ten millennia not been better designed to meet human needs? Why is the world so beset by alienation, tyranny, and destruction?

One point of view answers all these questions with a single word - sin. To some the story of the fall of Adam is the parable that reveals the mystery of human suffering.

But Schmookler is working on a different parable, a parable that locates the problem in our circumstances, not in our nature. But he does not mean our individual circumstances. He is dealing with the circumstances of our species, the evolutionary circumstances of civilization, and he encourages the reader to take the really big view of history and understand that we are at the dawn of this sweet mystery of life, not approaching the disaster and tribulation of its ending.

Schmookler wants us to look at cosmology, at the immense length of time and expanse of space it took for a lifeless universe to bring forth life. He writes: Human beings, being born into life, have always tended to regard death as the big mystery. But in an overwhelmingly lifeless universe, the dead is the given and the life we take for granted is the deep mystery.

If we take science seriously, we understand that it has taken the birth and death of stars and galaxies over immense periods of time and vast expanses of space just to bring forth the basic elements that are the building blocks of life. The combining of these elements to bring forth the life giving properties of something like water, old H2O, is miraculous in its own right. But then, as the just emerging cutting edge of an ancient story, then comes life - a recent event, a new thing under the sun, a deep mystery which our consciousness - an even more recent miracle - which our consciousness does not yet comprehend.

Life from lifelessness, life from death - this is the mystery of creation and of resurrection - as something new and unexpected arises from the combination in just the right measure and just the right circumstances of those elements that are old and familiar.

We don’t do it here, but in some traditional observances, this bringing forth of life out of lifelessness is given a key role in the ritual retelling of the Easter story - in the vigil of the faithful waiting in the silence and darkness of Holy Saturday night for the dawn of Easter Day. In the dead of night, under the canopy of space outside the church the priest and ministers gather and strike flint against stone, sending forth sparks to light a new and blazing fire.

In a passage describing this ritual Thomas Merton writes: The first voice that speaks in the silent night is the cold flint. Out of the flint springs fire. The fire, making no sound, is the most eloquent preacher on this night… That sparks should spring from cold rock reminds us that the strength of the life of God is always deeply buried in the substance of all things. The light that leaps out of darkness, the fire that comes from stone, symbolizes Christ conquest of death. The fire that springs from the stone speaks of his reality springing from the alienated coldness of our hearts, of our souls that have forgotten themselves, that have been exiled from God and have lost their way in death. But there is nothing lost that God cannot find again. Nothing dead that cannot live again in the presence of God’s Spirit. No heart so dark, so hopeless, that it cannot be enlightened and brought back to itself, warmed back to the life of charity.

This is a little bit of a different picture of how the Holy Spirit comes to be - like the spark flies from the rock and flint, here the spirit flows from the heart of the believer. It is the right combination of elements already present - in just the right measure and just the right circumstances - that reveals a miraculous potential that was mysteriously hidden and now is revealed.

For Thomas, if you recall our Gospel lesson this morning, for Thomas the Spirit flows from his heart when Christ confronts him with his wounds: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Life from lifelessness, hope from hopelessness, these are the miracles of creation and resurrection that lift us up from misery and let us sing a song of mystery and love. We are not at the end of the story here - it is just beginning and God is making all things new. In the big picture we are just steps outside the garden; the women have just arrived and proclaimed in our midst that he is not lying dead in the tomb, but he is risen and he goes before us to Galilee. The joy of Easter day is fresh in our hearts and from that joy springs life and hope and peace. “Peace be with you,” he says; “Do not doubt but believe.” 
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