If you’ve known me for any length of time, then you know that long before I entered the ministry, I, along with a sizable network of extended friends and family, used to work on the operations crew of a professional women’s tennis tournament in beautiful Mahwah, N.J.. I started when I was 10 years old and worked my way up to Director of Operations by the time I was 20.
Now when you think about an event like that - something like the U.S. open or Wimbledon - you probably think about people like Rafael Nadal or Venus Williams playing tennis.
But when I think back to my work at an event like that, I think about much more glamorous things like dog food and shampoo, shaving cream and coffee, deliveries of 9000 lbs of hot dogs and dozens of pallets of Stonyfield Farm ice cream.
Because, you see, what really drives the wide world of sports is advertising. My job as the Director of Operations involved getting samples of everything from pasta to salad dressing into the hands of all the innocent spectators who thought they had come for nothing more than an afternoon of tennis.
We had around 120 sponsors at our tennis tournament, each of whom sent 50,000 free samples to be passed out over the course of the week. So a big part of our job was finding a safe way to store all of these samples. To that end, we utilized the bottom of a very large parking garage near the tennis courts as well as two full size refrigerated 18 wheel tractor trailers that we parked out back, behind said garage.
Well, the night before the tournament was to begin, during the first year I had the dubious honor of directing the whole affair, my cousin JR came racing up to me in a golf cart, skidded to a stop in front of me, and asked, “Sarah, where are the refrigerator trucks?”
And I said, “They are out back, behind the parking garage.”
And he said, “They’re not there.”
And I said, “What do you mean they’re not there.”
And he said, “They’re not there.”
“Show me,” I said.
I hopped in beside him on the golf cart and we drove all the way around the garage and there in front of us both was a completely empty field. Thousands of yogurt pops and capri suns just gone.
“They’re not there,” I said.
“That’s what I was trying to tell you, “ he said.
“Huh,” I said. “Let’s go get my dad.”
I said this, a) because my dad was the site manager and b) I don’t care how old you are, when something goes that completely, inexplicably wrong, it is really nice to have a parent to fall back on.
So we drove the golf cart over to where my dad was working on something tennis related, and I said, “Dad, where are the refrigerator trucks?”
And he said, “They’re out back, behind the garage.”
And I said, “They’re not there.”
And he said, “What do you mean they’re not there.”
And I said, “They’re not there.”
“Show me,” he said.
And he hopped in beside me and my cousin on the golf cart and we drove all the way around to the back of garage once again and there in front of us all was the field, still completely empty.
“They’re not there,” he said.
“That’s what we were trying to tell you,” we said.
And yet, even sitting there in front of nothing - and we were so shocked that we sat there for a good long time - it was still hard for us to believe.
“Huh,” he said.
“Yeah,” we replied.
Well, turns out the trailers were stolen by the mob. I kid you not. I told you this was in Jersey, right? But we got the trailers back because the whole mess was actually an elaborate sting operation orchestrated by the FBI. Yeah. I kid you even less. So, to make a long story short, everything turned out alright, but that’s not the point of my story.
The point of my story is that even though there was no one in the world I trusted more than my cousin JR, I still had to drive out to that field with him to see what had happened for myself.
I think JR needed to see the empty field again too, and it didn’t hurt him to see it for a third time. And my Dad… my Dad was the same way. We all had to see to believe. And even then, even after seeing the evidence for ourselves, it was still incredibly hard to believe that what we thought ought to be there was, in fact, not there at all.
People say that “seeing is believing,” but I don’t know that it’s that simple. Some things, once they are put in place, really ought to stay there. Things like: toupees, refrigerator trucks, and dead bodies. When we come to find that they are not where we left them, it can be really hard to come to terms with the reality of their disappearance.
So when it comes to the story of Easter, I have a lot of sympathy for the disciples. I understand why Mary needed to see the risen Jesus before she could wrap her mind around the reality of his resurrection.
She may have told the disciples what she saw with her own eyes, but I understand why they needed to see the risen Jesus before they could wrap their minds around the reality of his resurrection. And it didn’t hurt for them to see him again.
And don’t even get me started about poor Thomas, who we think of as “the doubter.” A far as I can see, he wasn’t any more doubting than anyone else.
They all needed to see the unbelievable in order to believe that it could possibly be true. And, like I said, I get it.
But bless our hearts - and please note that in vs. 29 that Jesus does - we don’t get to see. I can’t throw you in the Tardis and take you back in time to the upper room anymore than I can throw you in a golf cart - even one with a flux capacitor - and take you out back behind that parking garage in Mahwah, N.J..
So how can we be expected to believe?
And yet, you do believe, right? Maybe not in the resurrection - and that’s ok. It’s a big one to swallow - but you believe in my refrigerator trucks, right? As weird and wild as my story is, I hope you trust that I’m not making it up. I do have witnesses, if that matters, but somehow I don’t think it does.
I think you believe me because you trust me. And I think you trust me - and here is the interesting part - not because I am perfectly trustworthy, because I am not. I am as human and fallible and prone to exaggeration and self-protection as the rest of you.
But I think you trust me anyway, because we have lived in Christian community together, and when you live in Christian community together you build trust; not through perfection, but through forgiveness.
You trust me because you know that I am trying to be in good relationship with you. I trust you because I know you are trying to be in good relationship with me. Making a story like that up just to amuse or impress you would damage our relationship, and I don’t want to do that and you know I don’t want to do that.
So, on the whole, you are prone to give me the benefit of the doubt; knowing, even as you do, that my good intentions are not enough. Knowing full well that none of us get it right 100% of the time.
But precisely because this is a Christian community, precisely because we are, as we love to say at this time of year, an Easter people, we can keep trying, because we know that even when we fail there is enough grace in the system to allow for restoration.
Miraculously - and I don’t use that word lightly - there is room here to mess up and fess up, ask forgiveness and try again. That type of grace and forgiveness builds trust because it gives us room to be human, room to be real, room to be vulnerable. And we can trace that grace and forgiveness all the way back to our story for today.
I think it is fascinating to recall that the disciples didn’t trust the witness of Mary. Thomas didn’t trust the witness of the disciples. And yet Jesus - who should have been the least trusting of all of them after being betrayed, denied, abandoned, and crucified - Jesus came back willing to trust them all.
In spite of the disciples’ catastrophic failure to stand by him as friends, and in spite of the horrible violence done to him by the authorities, Jesus comes back full of nothing but unconditional love and forgiveness for everyone involved and then commissions the very people who failed him to carry that unconditional love and forgiveness out into the world.
“Peace be with you,” he says to them, even as he shows them his hands and side – “Shalom!” Literally: I am at peace with you. All is forgiven. Our relationship is whole. We’re ok.
Notice that Jesus doesn't demand an accounting or an apology, before he forgives them. He doesn’t make them grovel or wait for them to repent. He doesn’t let them know that all will be forgiven if they make amends or when they get their act together. He simply lets them know that all is forgiven already.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
Really think about just how badly they had screwed up and let that peace and forgiveness sink in for a moment. Because it’s pretty hard to believe, when you think about it. So hard to believe that he had to say it a second time; for as happy as the disciples were to see him, how could they possibly understand that they were forgiven…already?
How could they possibly understand that he had not and would not ever give up on them? How could they possibly understand after all they had done and failed to do that he still loved them and always would?
Well, the truth is, they didn’t understand. Not the first time, not the second time, and probably not the third time either. Jesus had to keep showing up right in front of their very eyes to say it over and over again. Peace. Shalom. I forgive you. It’s the theme running through all of his post-resurrection appearances. And it is at the heart of the message he commissions them to bring out into the world.
“As the Father has sent me (to forgive you), so I send you (out now to forgive).”
He breathes the Holy Spirit on to them and then says the most curious and powerful thing before he disappears: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
It’s such a strange line, but I think what Jesus is saying is simply:
Go! Go tell the world our relationship is restored.
Go! Go tell the world her sins are forgiven.
Go! Go tell everyone you meet that God loves them…already.
Tell them that if what I just endured on that cross was not enough to separate humanity from the love of God, then nothing - nothing in all creation - can separate any of you from the love of God.
Go and tell everyone, because if you don’t tell them, who will? If you don’t tell them, they’ll go on living as though their sins are retained simply because they don’t know any better. They’ll go on living as though God is angry at them, when the good news of the gospel is that God just loves…loves the whole world already and for always, no matter what.
It’s unbelievable, really. It makes no sense. One might even say that unconditional love and grace are a miracle.
I mean, anger, resentment, punishment, grudges - those things make sense. So much sense that once they are in place, you would expect them to stay right where they are, like dead bodies or refrigerator trucks. The idea that we could just up and make them disappear, that slates could be wiped clean, that we could allow one another to start fresh and try again?
That’s hard to wrap your mind around.
…until someone does it.
And then someone else does it too.
Until a whole community of people start doing it, showing the same unconditional love and grace to one another that God has already shown to them…to me… to you.
Some things you just have to see to believe.
Blessed are we because we have. And because we have, we do. Amen.