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wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Third Sunday of Easter

April 14, 2024

Acts 3:12-19

1 John 3:1-7

Luke 24:36b-48

Chances are, like me, you did something this week you should apologize for. (Hopefully, you already have.) The longer you live and the older you get, the more you realize that truly saying sorry takes a particular, deliberate approach – much more than the quick “Say you’re sorry,” that we teach our kids when they are little. There’s an art to the fulsome apology. Maybe you’ve seen the list online: never use the word “but,” listen to the person you have wronged, allow space and time for forgiveness, and move forward together in healing.

“If only he would say he was sorry, it would fix everything.” How many times has someone said this to me in the midst of a broken relationship? Just this week, I sat with a man I know whose longtime friendship has ended – or at least been interrupted – because one party to the conflict will not own up to their wrongdoing. But the one who feels harm is never looking for only two words: “I’m sorry.” What they really want is to be heard and seen, to know that the harm has been truly acknowledged, that the regret is real, that this reflection has brought learning.

That is not easy. To begin with, to apologize to someone you have wronged and travel along that path, takes vulnerability, self-awareness, and courage, especially since the ending isn’t clear. How tragic it is that saying sorry, which requires such strength, is so often seen as weakness.

This is one of those sin-heavy Sundays, a word, as most of you know, I tend to avoid. That’s because it usually gets used to point fingers, and to level blame, or to shut the doors of the church to one kind of person or another.

But our three readings this morning take us on a journey of sorts about our wrongdoings, how to process them, how to repent them and move on.

In the first reading, we hear Peter reminding the people what happened to Jesus and telling them that they have been offered forgiveness. But they have to take a step in that healing process: they have to acknowledge their mistake, and admit what they did wrong. “Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,” Peter says.

In the second lesson, we are asked to consider what constitutes a sin, and what constitutes a righteous act. “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” And then we are cautioned: 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as He is righteous.”

And when we come to the third step in this morning’s reading, having been told about our failings and impossible responsibilities, we receive the comforting embrace at the end of the road: Jesus comes to the disciples, eats with them, and reassures them. What’s more, he urges them forward yet again, telling them to spread the news of the gospel, a message of repentance and forgiveness.

Wrestling with what’s right and what’s wrong, and when and where, and that the answers might be different depending on the timing and context of the question is the challenge of the moral life, the Christian life as followers of the gospel. We often imagine - or perhaps we just hope - that truly moral people reach a place where every deed they perform is righteous, where they always do their best, and their conscience never wavers with a doubt. Of course this is not true.

The truly moral life is one wise enough to see the constant exchange between repenting our mistakes and forgiving others. When we don’t see what we have done wrong, we become more likely to repeat our mistake; if we pass by someone in need of our help, and we never consider it again, we aren’t likely to stop for someone the next time it happens. We would, in fact, just keep walking by, on our own steady course. Instead, Jesus calls us to live life in stops and starts. We stop to repent. We move forward forgiven and forgiving. Again and again. We cannot vow to do the right thing, if we never admit when we are wrong.

This is why the gospel puts such a high value on repentance. It requires us to think, to pause, to reflect, to have a conversation with God. If you are admitting your part in an argument, you don’t just say sorry and shrug. Repentance requires an examination of what caused the fight - what was really behind it, what steps led to it, and why it escalated.

Repentance is the path to wisdom. If we see a bully - adult or child - and we do nothing, repenting, even after the fact, it’s too easy to say: I will step in the next time. Most likely, if that is as deep as you go, you will not, in fact, step in next time. Repenting is a process of thought and an examination of action: “Why didn’t I step in?” we need to ask. “What circumstances deterred me? Was it the people watching? Was it the nature of the bullying? Was I worried about myself?”

Finding those answers is what moves us forward - it makes us conscious of the things to watch out for, the pitfalls to be mindful of. It gives us the courage to do something different the next time. Perhaps we realize that the other witnesses felt the same as we did; or that the cost to ourselves was really very small; or that even if there is a cost - like detention or anger from the bully - we could handle it.

So you have repented - you have answered those questions. Why should forgiveness come next? How many times do we beat ourselves up about our own mistakes: why didn’t I do something? Why did I do that certain thing? Why didn’t I stay quiet? Why didn’t I speak up? If we have thoughtfully repented, we find it is easier to move on to forgiveness - the kind that Jesus speaks of, in which we are then motivated to try again.

The art of saying sorry is the practicing of faith. Because we are not perfect. Repentance gives us pause, prompts a state of reflection. It leads to forgiveness, for ourselves and for others. It allows us to begin again. Repentance isn’t the posture of the sinner. It is the habit of the faithful.

That is why it comes as a deliberate two-step in the gospel: Repent and Forgive. Only then do we begin to acquire the wisdom to be righteous - a journey that never reaches its destination. But surely along the way, we become more accepting of ourselves and others, more likely to learn from our mistakes, and less likely to walk on by those who are in need.


wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Easter Sunday

March 31, 2024

Acts 4:32-35

1 John 1:1 - 2:2

John 20:19-31

It seems as if we are all doubting Thomases these days. Or we live in a world of them. What really happened in Baltimore when the ship collided with the bridge? Was that really Kate Middleton breaking the news that she has cancer? Did Name a Person really say this, or was it a faked video? What is even real anymore? Unless I see it with my own eyes, can I believe anything?

But the truth is, a healthy amount of doubt is good for us, and better, perhaps for our relationships. I remember once reading a study about what makes a good therapist. The conclusion was all the usual things: empathy, warmth, listening skills. But one key component was that they were willing to exist with doubt - the doubt that they had everything figured out. They were more likely to doubt they were doing a good job, more likely to wonder whether they were helping. The doubting therapist asked more questions, was more cautious about jumping to conclusions, more patient about allowing the answers to reveal themselves. Those questions led to clearer answers. The patient opened them up to new approaches. Their clients got better more often because of it.

That’s not just the kind of person we might want as a therapist. It’s also the kind we’d want as friend, or parent. Likely, it’s who we’d like to be ourselves. By this definition, doubt sounds a lot like wisdom.

Every year, around this time, I come to Thomas’s defense.  Thomas is the disciple who didn’t meet up with Jesus on the road, who is only now hearing the news of the resurrection and is skeptical about all that happened. When Jesus appears again before the disciples, Thomas wants proof that it all went down as everyone is saying. He wants to touch the wounds on Jesus’s hands. For this he gets the gears from Jesus. “Gee, Thomas,” Jesus says, “glad I won you over. Blessed are all those people who believe in me without insisting on the same proof.”

And so, the English language acquired the phrase, ‘doubting Thomas,” which refers to someone who continues to question even when the facts are laid out before them. That isn’t fair to Thomas – who, once presented with the facts, did indeed come to believe. But we might also ask: What’s wrong with being a doubting Thomas?  Shouldn’t we always leave room for questions however comprehensive the facts seem? After all, as history teaches so well, the facts are often fragile in and of themselves.

Let’s assess what Jesus is saying. He doesn’t actually condemn Thomas; he responds to his request by giving him the test Thomas asks for. And what is he really saying about those other people – who believe without the same evidence – which, I guess, would be us? Are we to presume that those people who came to believe without meeting Jesus never had doubt, never had questions? That’s not logical. Our beliefs are shaped by inquiry, by doubt, by filling in the gaps. Otherwise, they are just thoughts that have been spoon-fed to us. Jesus is acknowledging, however, that believing in an idea is harder when you didn’t experience it yourself. It requires more reflection and introspection. It asks us to look inside ourselves to see what defines us. In this respect the disciples had it easy: they knew Jesus, they had heard him speak, they could build belief on memory. They did not have to rely on someone else’s version of the events, as we do. That we might doubt is not a sin; indeed, it is a strength. Faith is not meant to be lukewarm; it is not a shrug; it is a stance we take in life. And what supports that has to be the hard work of questions.

But let’s go back to those doubting therapists. Yes, they questioned their ability to help their clients. But they didn’t give up on therapy. They used those doubts to improve their approaches, to hone their skills, and to listen more closely. And they began to feel more deeply the pain their clients were feeling, and to see more clearly what they needed. Doubt made them better.

In the same way, doubt improves our relationship with God. I meet plenty of people who want to boast about how their faith is a rock – over time, I have come to see, that too often, it is cement hardened around their feet. Those people tend to be resistant to change, to seeing a larger reality. They don’t like diversity because that makes life complicated; they would rather God was one way – their way. Many others have come to me, often in quiet, and spoken of their doubts: is there a God? Does any of it matter? Why am I here? Those people have taught me many lessons, and I have watched their journeys, carrying their doubt with them to find their truthful view of the world. I don’t think those people ever stop doubting. Doubt doesn’t have an easy answer. What I see happening is that they become more comfortable with their doubt, they even find comfort in not knowing, for certain, the answer. Some questions we ask our entire lives. Some beliefs we hold to like life rafts on an open ocean. Some truths change over time.

That’s the journey we are on with doubting Thomas. We want proof when we can have it, and the faith to go on when we can’t. Thomas went from the room a faithful disciple, and he maintained that belief even when the memory of the wounds of Jesus had faded. We can imagine, that since life is complicated, he encountered, as we do, many other times when his faith in the gospel was tested. He worked through that doubt – as we also should, as we must,

Where does that fit in the conspiracy-fueled, questioning world of today? I guess we have to decide what doubts we want to explore, which questions are worth our time. If we are distracted over here, what are we failing to see over there? I like a good pop culture story as much as anyone - there’s refuge in that. But we can’t stay there: we have to be like Thomas and wrestle with our doubt that truly matters. Be wary of when doubt becomes a tool for the kind of world we don’t want.  

In the end, the questions we have are our own work to do – ideally with God. We can discuss them in community together, we can read in the search for answers, we can pore over the gospel, but it is reflection, and internal conversation – that is prayer – that has always brought me to peace with my doubts. That’s what has taught me to see them as components of faith, not destroyers of belief.

Blind faith, after all, only leads us to stumble as soon as life throws something into our path. The questioning faith of those with eyes wide open to the world allows us to prepare for what lies ahead.


wild flowers inside old work boots, we are called to put ourselves in the shoes of others

Sermon by Rev. Joel Crouse

Easter Sunday

March 31, 2024

Acts 10:34-43

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Mark 16:1-8

Christ is Risen!

Doesn’t it feel good to say that at last? It has, after all, been a long, weary Lenten season. Grey, wet days. The days seem too short to get everything done. The sun, on those days when it appeared at all, was cold and dull in the sky.

But now – now we can feel the change coming. The days last longer, the colour is coming back to the lawn, the trees are coming back to life. The other morning, I watched a red cardinal and two sparrows playing what looked like tag in my neighbor’s maple tree. Why, BBQ season seems just around the corner! Easter could not arrive at a better time. We are done with bad news: bring out the colored eggs and the lilies. The time for somber thought is over; God wants us to have a party.

But hold on. Have we forgotten something? Have we skipped over a certain chapter of the story? It seems we might have jumped right from grief to joy in an instant – as if we leave Jesus on the cross and turn around, instantly to find him safe again in Heaven. It’s understandable, really. After all, it is bad enough that we have to endure Good Friday, and all the shame that comes from that day. It’s a relief to get to the salvation of Easter. So we rush through that one scene in the middle: we skip over the dark tomb, the place of death where the stone is rolled back, and the women find emptiness. We are relieved when the angel stops them only for a moment and then sends them off again, to spread the Good News. Now that is the part of the story we want to hear. Alleluia! Jesus is Risen!

But…force yourself to look again. Push away the flowers growing by the entrance. Shade your eyes from the sun, bright above your head. Peer inside, past the rolled-away rock, into the shadow: What do you see in the tomb?

If Good Friday is the day when we did nothing – when we allowed, with willful blindness and human weakness, Jesus to suffer on the cross, then Easter – Easter is the day when we must do something. Easter is the moment in every day when we choose to do something for the good of God. We cannot get to that choice by skipping over the part that makes us nervous. In every difficult act, and every hard decision, there is a moment when we must look inside the tomb and decide what we see there. It is the turning point upon which the Easter story hinges. What do you see in the tomb?

The Marys who arrived at its door, who discovered the stone rolled away, panicked when they found it empty. And who could blame them? They must have thought the body of Jesus, already desecrated on the cross, had been stolen. But they paused, and looked deeper at the scene again, because first impressions - first perceptions - do not always tell the whole story. And if ever any place needed a moment of contemplation it was this one. In pausing, they gave the angel the chance to appear, and to explain to them what had happened. They must have looked inside that empty tomb again, considering what the angel told them in clear contradiction of the laws of the world, and they chose to hear what God was saying. It was not in the rising sun of that morning that they learned the truth of the resurrection: it was by looking deep inside the tomb.

So, what do we see there? The tomb, of course, is an analogy for the choices we make – that quiet space before we decide to go left or right. Before we choose to work at a marriage or let it unravel, to forgive or never forget, to go out of our way for someone else or step over the hardship in our path and walk on. We are a society that has become obsessed with happiness – we poll ourselves about it, we calculate the economics of it, we rank which countries have more of it. Every time we do it, we get the same answer. The happiest people are the ones who give the most to charity, no matter what their bank accounts say. The happiest countries are the ones who do the best job of looking after their most needy citizens – even if it means higher taxes for everyone else. Those people and those countries do not skip to the Easter Bunny – they look into the tomb, and they look long and hard. They see the homeless, and the beaten, and the poor, and the broken. They see the shadows in themselves. When humanity so often stumbles into the crime of willful blindness, they choose to face what is wrong, and they decide to do something.

Many times, throughout the Bible, God has spoken through an angelic messenger. But on Easter Sunday, before we hear the angel, God takes us to the tomb. This is no accident. God wants us to look inside and decide what we will choose to see in the shadows. I cannot tell you what that is. It is different for each one of us. And different for us depending on the day and time in our lives. But that moment before the tomb is when we decide whether to hang back with those who did nothing on Good Friday, or to join in doing something on Easter Sunday. And that moment spent peering into the shadow of the tomb doesn’t happen only today: it is how the resurrection speaks to us every day of our lives if we pause long enough to hear the angel.

God understood us better than we understand ourselves. We cannot be happy if we do not come clean with the sadness that exists around us, or inside us – otherwise how can we know what happiness is?

Perhaps, in the shadow of the tomb, you will see how one part of your life is ending. You will recognize the true cost of a careless mistake. You will see where your failure to act led someone to be hurt. That is hard – surely as painful as it must have been for the women who found the broken body of the Messiah gone, unable even to give him a proper burial. But pause for a moment. Look more deeply into the shadow. And Listen. The resurrection of Easter teaches us that there is more to hear: in every ending there is the promise, always, of a new beginning. In that careless mistake there is the opportunity for reparation. In our failure to act, there is the chance to do better the next time. But we get there only if we are brave enough to see what waits for us in the tomb.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Be joyful when you speak those words and know that God guides us from the tomb to forgiveness and love. A place to start over. But don’t miss the true moment of the resurrection. Don’t rush off too quickly. Understand that God has given you a chance to look without fear and doubt inside the tomb – to see the joy that may be hidden in shadow - and to know that you will have the strength to face whatever answer awaits you there. That is the true secret of happiness at Easter.


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