Inherit the Wind

(sermon 4/23/17)

inherit the wind
Spencer Tracy, Frederic March, and Harry Morgan in the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind”

 

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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In 1955, two playwrights wrote a play called “Inherit the Wind.” It would become a hit on Broadway, and in 1960 it was also turned into a movie. The story is a memorable one, and apparently a timeless one, too – it was remade as a movie made for TV in 1988, and again for theaters in 1997. It’s become a favorite of regional and community theater, and even returned to Broadway as recently as 2007, more than 50 years after its first run. If you know the story, you know that it’s a dramatized version of the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” that took place in Dayton Tennessee in 1925, when local high school science teacher John Scopes taught his students the theory of evolution, which was against a recently passed state law. It was a landmark case that was really the high-water mark in society’s debate between modern science and education, and specifically evolution; and Christian Fundamentalism and biblical literalism, including the belief that God created the earth and the entire cosmos in six literal days some 6,000 years ago. We’re living too close to the Creation Museum and the recreated Noah’s Ark to think that there aren’t still people who hold onto that Fundamentalist belief, but after the Scopes trial, our society and most of our churches turned more and more toward accepting this scientific reality and more modern ways of understanding scripture.

As good as the story of the play and movie is on that surface level, though, the playwrights made clear from the beginning that their real point wasn’t really the Scopes trial at all. Rather, it was intended to be a parable, a criticism of the nightmare of McCarthyism that the country had been enduring for the previous handful of years, which had been destroying people’s lives simply on the basis that their thoughts and beliefs weren’t consistent with the mainstream, majority viewpoint. The story line was meant to be a statement that we should all have the right to freedom of conscience, the right to our own beliefs and living them out even if they’re unpopular. The story makes the point that to do so can unfortunately come at personal cost, as it did with John Scopes, or Bert Cates, his fictional counterpart in the movie. In fact, the story’s title, “Inherit the Wind,” is actually part of a quote from the Book of Proverbs that’s mentioned in the story – that those who trouble their own households will “inherit the wind.” In other words, people who stir things up or go against the grain within their own group are likely to receive nothing for it – or may even receive personal chaos, opposition, even destruction.

I think there’s a connection between that and today’s gospel text. Surely, this is the “Doubting Thomas” passage, but there are several other important things going on in here too. One of those things is Jesus’ breathing on the disciples and telling them to receive the Holy Spirit, having it dwell within them. We’re all probably familiar with the story in the Book of Acts, where the disciples receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but in John’s gospel, we get this earlier and less earth-shaking version of it. In the Greek language, there’s a word “pneuma” – it’s part of our language too, in the word “pneumatic” and similar words, having something to do with air or wind. This Greek word has several meanings, including air, wind, breath, and spirit. This is what Jesus was telling the disciples to receive. So yes, it may be a little corny to say so, but in a real way, in this event the disciples were “inheriting the wind.”

I think there’s a deeper connection between the play’s story line and this gospel story than just that play on words, though. We believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within us. It’s that divine presence, that divine spark, that we sense when we’re aware of God’s real presence in our lives. It’s that presence of God within us that in other parts of the gospels, Jesus calls the Advocate – who gives us comfort when we need it the most, and challenge when we get too comfortable.

It’s that breath, that wind, that Spirit that Jesus gave those disciples, and by extension to us as well, that causes us to step up and take bold, courageous stands for the kingdom of God. To stand for equality in our world, whether over race, gender, religion, economic status, or anything else. It’s that Spirit that causes us to work or justice for all as a matter of the kingdom of God, as a matter of our faith, which Jesus said boils down to love of God and love of others as we love ourselves, and because as Dr. King said, justice is really nothing more than love in action. It’s that Spirit that leads us to work against bigotry and ignorance and fear of any kind in this world because our faith is one of peace, and these things always inevitably lead to violence.

And sometimes, when the Spirit leads us in those directions, they’re going to go against the grain of some people around us – whether in society in general, or even within the church itself. Sometimes, just as happened to the evolution-teaching John Scopes, when we have to stand up for what’s right, we’ll be “troubling our own house,” and as a result, we’ll “inherit the wind” in that negative way, in the form of pushback and opposition.

Sometimes, that wind of opposition can make us want to give in, give up, go with the flow. Don’t take the tough stands; don’t make the tough choices. It really can be tempting. But friends, we can’t give in to that temptation. We have to step up, to stand up, to speak truth to power and truth to lies, because if we don’t do it, who will?

All of us can feel like it would be easier to not follow where that Spirit is leading, that it would be easier to not make waves. Are there situations in your own life that are like that? It’s true, *sometimes* having received that Spirit can cause us difficulty, challenge, tough choices. But despite the fact that it will *sometimes* cause that, remember that it will *always* mean that no matter where we go, no matter what we do, no matter what approval or opposition we encounter, God will *always* be traveling the journey with us, always comforting, always encouraging, always challenging, and always strengthening us to do the right thing – we’ll never be facing the wind alone.

Thanks be to God.

Expanded Reality (sermon 4/3/16 – Easter 2C)

sphere-plane

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.   – John 20:19-31

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There was a book published in England in the 1880s called “Flatland.” It was a social and cultural commentary of life in the Victorian Era, told in an allegorical style. In more recent times, the same story was updated, with the allegorical setting more resembling contemporary American culture, and made into a feature-length animated film in 2007. In either version of the story, the action took place in a world that exists in only two dimensions. Everything and everyone in this world existed in only length and width; there was third dimension, no height, no depth – hence the world’s name, Flatland. The residents of Flatland can’t even imagine the existence of a third dimension. In fact, an important part of the plot line is that anyone who does suggest that there might be more than just two dimensions is considered a subversive. It might be hard for us to imagine how they could exist in only two dimensions, but in the story, the people seemed to get along just fine – that is, until they get a visitor. A sphere – a fully three-dimensional sphere, from another world, a world with three dimensions, drops into Flatland for a visit. But given the physical constraints of Flatland, the people can’t quite comprehend the sphere. As it first breaks into the less-than-razor-thin plane of Flatland, the sphere appears to just be a dot, a point, that appears out of nowhere. Then, as the sphere continued to pass through that plane, it seemed to become a small circle that mysteriously grew for no apparent reason, getting bigger, and bigger, and then smaller and then back into a dot, until just as mysteriously as it first appeared, it vanished again, disappearing into thin air.

Except, of course, it really hadn’t. The sphere never changed at all, and even after it passed completely through Flatland, even though it was less than a millimeter away from them, the Flatlanders couldn’t perceive that the sphere was actually still right there beside them.

A number of people have suggested that maybe something like this is going on in the accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, including today’s gospel text. Ever since Einstein published his Theory of Relativity, we’ve known through mathematics and physics that the universe does actually exist in more dimensions than just the three that our own senses perceive. And if we believe in a transcendent God, then God exists within and transcends all of these different dimensions. So for the resurrected, divine, now multi-dimensional Jesus to visit with the disciples, stepping back into just these three dimensions, it might just have looked like he appeared from out of nowhere. It would have looked like he just walked through the wall, or the locked door, or just magically materialized in the middle of the room, like the sphere visiting Flatland. I think that’s fascinating.

Something else that fascinates me about this particular story is the very fact that Thomas wasn’t there with the rest of the disciples, cowering behind locked doors in fear. Based on what little we know about Thomas from other scriptural references, I think he was just very strong-willed. When Jesus was making his final trip into Jerusalem, people were warning him not to go, that he’d be killed there, but still Jesus kept going on – and Thomas determined that he’d go along with him, he may as well die in Jerusalem with Jesus. So now, after the crucifixion, he wasn’t going to let fear consume him either. He was going to continue living his life, boldly, and whatever else may happen will happen. And then, when the others told him that they’d seen Jesus, his distrust of them certainly wasn’t distrust in Jesus. He’d seen the crucifixion. He’d seen the death in Jesus’ eyes. If he were going to accept that Jesus had risen from the dead, he was going to need more than just the ranting of a roomful of terrified people experiencing shock, whether they were his friends or not.

Of course, the truth is that Thomas is really a lot like us. We’d have undoubtedly reacted the same way. Contrary to the bad rap that Thomas has sometimes gotten over the years, let’s face it, his response to what the other disciples were claiming was perfectly logical and reasonable.

And that leads me to another thing that fascinates me about this story. When Thomas said he needed more data, more evidence, to accept that Jesus had risen, far from scolding or refusing him, Jesus gladly returned and gave it to him. “Here I am – see me; touch me.” Through his actions, Jesus was drawing Thomas into a larger view of God and the universe, into an expanded reality of life. He was allowing Thomas to catch a glimpse of, and marvel in, that expanded reality that isn’t based on superstition or tradition or ignorance, but rather, on increased knowledge and understanding.

Thomas’ desire for more knowledge, the desire that Jesus honored, is the exact same desire, the same curiosity, that drove people to develop quantum physics, and the Hubble Telescope, and the Large Hadron Collider. After all, when we do search for, and find, deeper understanding about the workings of the universe, at its smallest or largest scale, aren’t we, in essence catching a better glimpse of the face of God? Maybe we aren’t touching God, as Thomas did, but I think we’re doing something pretty close to it. God is honoring our desire for deeper understanding, and self-revealing through it – it’s God saying “Here I am – see me; touch me.”

Beyond what I see as God’s validation, God’s honoring of our continual search for more knowledge and understanding in this story, I think there’s an even more important thing going on; something more immediate and personal. If it’s really true that God exists in that multidimensional, all-dimensional way we’d mentioned earlier, sort of like the sphere in Flatland, then we have great reason for hope. If that’s true, then it means that whenever we’re going through our most difficult of times – maybe we’re facing problems at work or financial insecurity; we don’t know what to do about a child’s struggles with addiction; or we’re battling addiction ourselves; or we’re trying to help aging parents in ill health; we’re locked in a dead-end relationship that’s unraveled and we don’t know what to do and we don’t see any way out – whenever we’re going through these things, and we feel alone and isolated and it’s hard to feel God’s presence in any of it, we can take hope and have strength knowing that despite our immediate perceptions, we aren’t really going through it alone at all. We never were. God has always been, will always be, right within our very midst, right here… less than a millimeter away. The One who created us, and loves us, and accepts us; the One who walks with us and gives us the strength to navigate those difficulties, is now and always will be there for us, with us. We can have this great hope and confidence in our lives because we know and we trust in a God who would walk through walls for us – and that’s flat-out amazing.

Thanks be to God.