Low Sunday Sermon OTN

I did something today that I have never done before. I recycled a sermon I preached in 1996 on the same texts as today. Mitigating circumstances are:

  • It was delivered 15 years ago.
  • It was delivered to a different congregation.

Nearly every year the Vicar at St. John’s takes Low Sunday off and asks me to preach. Every year the Gospel is John 20:19-31—Doubting Thomas. Even before I started preaching at St. John’s, I preached on Doubting Thomas. In fact, I believe the first sermon I ever preached, at Integrity/New York in the early 1990’s, was on this Gospel text.

The first couple of times one preaches on a certain text, it’s fairly easy to get some inspiration. Once you’ve preached on it 10 times or more, it starts to get difficult to have that inspired moment. I had trouble yesterday; I wrote about 1-1/2 pages, and stopped. Then I looked through my old sermons and, abracadabra!

Please forgive me. If any other of you are preachers, tell me: do you recycle sermons occasionally?

For those who aren’t interested, I’ll put it behind a cut.

May 1, 2011 Second Sunday of Easter/Low Sunday
Sermon delivered at St. John the Evangelist, 10 AM.
First Reading: Acts 2:42-47; Ps. 118; Epistle: I Peter 1:3-9; Gospel: John 20:19-31 (Year A)

In the name of God, the one, the Undivided Trinity. AMEN.

In the early days of radio broadcasts in the United States, almost anyone could get a license from the government to transmit programs. There were lots of reputable broadcasters, but there were also a goodly number of shady or even out-and-out dishonest broadcasters as well.

One such station was popular in the American Midwest, which is known for its rock-solid faith in God and the Scriptures. It’s usually a simple faith: people in Minnesota or Iowa are often conservative Lutherans or Roman Catholics. The Lutherans often have a heavy black Bible on a stand in a place of honour in their sitting room. The Roman Catholics might have a picture of the Pope, or a small statue of Mary.

The simple and sincere faith of these people was often supported by religious broadcasts. Even today, religious broadcasting in the South and Midwest of America is a fast-growing industry. Evangelists pay the radio stations to broadcast their exhortations to people to accept the Lord Jesus as their Saviour, and, incidentally, to send in their contributions so that the wonderful radio ministry which saved their souls can continue.

The religious radio stations all operate on the basis of belief and trust: people’s belief that there really is a minister on the other end of that radio wave, a person who will help them towards heaven; people’s trust that the person who is trying his best to pray you into heaven has only your best interests at heart.

Sometimes that invisible belief is sorely challenged, however. In the early days of broadcasting, there was much money to be made, and lots of people who wanted to make it. A radio evangelist in the South bought time on a Mexican radio station which was powerful enough to cover most of the West and Central part of the country, and broadcast his show each and every Sunday night. His requests for donations brought in thousands of dollars.

One Sunday night, however, some listeners couldn’t believe their ears. The Radio Reverend was offering each listener his or her very own autographed picture of St. John the Baptist, for the paltry sum of a dollar. People shook their heads. Surely no one would be taken in by this holy shyster!

But the next week, the Radio Reverend thanked his listeners for the thousands of requests for these pictures. In the end, he sold many of these pictures and made a good deal of money.

Such is the power of belief that even an impossible fact becomes reality if enough people believe in it. Peter Pan and the White Queen of Alice Through the Looking Glass come to mind.

Let’s come forward to last weekend, the end of Holy Week. Each year, at Easter and Christmas, the major newspapers print stories which have a religious theme. I suspect that they even hold them until those holy seasons, so that their readership will look at them more carefully, almost as carefully as they look at the advertisements on each side.

One year, in the Times, the headline read Half of Britain still believes in the Resurrection.

I’m sure that we are all relieved to hear this! Fifty percent of the mighty British public believes in the Resurrection! However, the Times said that they STILL believe in the Resurrection. I suspect that at Christmas a comparable headline might read Half of Britain still believes in Santa Claus, or at election-time, Half of Britain still believes that Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister.

So people still believe in the Resurrection? Fairy stories! Claptrap! The Times implied it, so it must be so.

One of the great things about modern times is that it allows us the luxury of believing in things we cannot see. We believe that, at the other end of that radio wave, a broadcaster sits in a studio talking to us. We normally don’t see this, but the alternative, believing that little people live in the radio, is too silly to entertain for a minute.

We believe that matter is made up of atoms, and that atoms are made up of smaller particles, which are themselves made up of smaller entities. We can’t see atoms in the normal course of our existence, but we believe in them.

We even naively believe that when we flip the wall switch in our bedroom, the lights will go on. Sometimes they don’t, but most of the time they do, and confirm our belief in the electric utility, even more than their bills do.

Since we believe in so many unseen things in our daily lives, why did the Times say that fifty percent of us STILL believe in the Resurrection? Perhaps it should have printed the headline: Fifty percent of Britain does NOT believe in the Resurrection.

Our belief in unseen things is something we share with people of Christ’s time. They fervently believed in angels, even though they couldn’t see them, most of the time. Devils, too; evil spirits were all around our ancestors, and they knew it, even though they couldn’t be seen.

But, a dead man coming back to life? There was testimony from eyewitnesses, but those eyewitnesses themselves were dead, and those who knew the eyewitnesses were themselves dead. Who could now vouch for something that had happened before the oldest man then alive was born? Who would believe such a thing?

The Scriptures stood as the only testimony left that the Resurrection had happened. But even they were disbelieved by many; seeing it in black-and-white wasn’t enough for them.

For some people, nothing will ever be enough. The Times headline will never read: Everyone in Britain believes in the Resurrection. It’s not going to happen.

But we do believe. The story in today’s Gospel calls us blessed, because we have not seen and yet have believed. It’s a rich reward, this being blessed by God for believing in something we can’t see. Believing in unseen things, however, is something we do every time we turn on a radio or flip a light switch. In our mechanized and electrified world, we get lots of practice in belief.

It’s easy to believe in the Risen Christ then, even if we can’t see him, or feel the places where the nails attached him to the Cross, or put our hands in his side. Our prayer in this Eastertide should be not only that we continue to believe in these unseen realities, but also that others who already believe in some unseen realities come to share in our belief in the Greatest of Unseen Realities, the Resurrection of Christ.

But, if anyone tries to sell you an autographed picture of St. John the Baptist, don’t fall for it. There are some things which even someone who can believe in something they can’t see shouldn’t believe in. AMEN.

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