It’s Easter evening.
Mary Magdalene had, earlier that day, declared to the disciples: “I have seen the Lord!”
But they are cautious. They can’t be sure of Mary’s words. I think it’s less that they are suspicious of her and more that the news is too good to be true. But the real rub is that they do not also want to be crucified. They are known followers of Jesus, and it’s risky now to be associated with this criminal. They are afraid, so they stay behind locked doors. Not that locked doors are going to stop Roman soldiers or angry Jewish leaders, but that’s at least the story they tell themselves.
ELCA pastor Heidi Neumark in her brilliant book Breathing Spaces describes her 19 years of ministry at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx. Just as has happened in many cities, the neighborhood around Transfiguration Lutheran had transitioned from one socio economic status to another, from one ethnic and racial composition to another, from dealing with certain social problems to others in the years before and during Pastor Heidi’s time at Transfiguration, namely 1984 through 2003. Even a cursory Google search about the South Bronx will tell you a story of violent crime and rampant drug use in this New York borough during that era that has, now, incidentally once again changed. But Pastor Heidi opens her book with the story of her first Sunday at Transfiguration when she was startled to discover a practice of, apparently, several years. Once the few handfuls of faithful white Lutherans, who had traveled many miles to worship at their home congregation despite having moved away from the neighborhood, once they had all arrived for worship on Sunday morning, they quickly shut the doors of the church, locked and chained them. Only then did they begin worship. They were afraid of the neighborhood in which God had called them to be present.
On this second Sunday in Easter when we read the story of the disciples who had not already encountered the risen Christ, we hear a story of fear. And it’s understandable. There are reasons to be afraid in this life. We are wise to keep our eyes open, our backs watched, our heads up. Because our culture supports the use of violence, even teaches us that violence solves problems, because people have been terribly hurt by violence done to them and lash out at others as a result, it is reasonable for us to assume that violence will be part of our lives, and thus we are afraid. And not only are we afraid of violence, we fear illness and death, loneliness and scarcity, natural disasters and accidents. The world in which the disciples lived was as full of uncertainty and violence and death as ours is. Contrary to Bob Dylan’s wisdom, the times they aren’t really a-changin’ all that much. The disciples had first-hand experience of a leader and people who could put to death an innocent man. No wonder they were afraid. No wonder they locked the doors of the house where they met. No wonder they didn’t trust Mary’s words: I have seen the Lord.
But even when they lock their doors, Jesus comes and stands among them and says: Peace be with you. In fact, he says it twice: Peace be with you. Fear, uncertainty, anxiety, sadness, grief, yes, but…Peace be with you. And Jesus shows them the holes in his hands and side. These same disciples will go on to tell this story to their buddy Thomas who at first doesn’t believe them. Don’t be too hard on Thomas; everyone else had to see in order to believe. And why is skepticism bad anyway? Regardless, the disciples will go on to do the work Jesus sent them to do: to heal and preach, to baptize and teach, to establish the early church—stories we read in the book of Acts. Their ministry was never “safe.” If you think the gospels are violent, check out the book of Acts. There are shipwrecks and prison stays and stonings aplenty. The disciples locked the doors because they were afraid, not because it made them safe.
When Pastor Heidi came to Transfiguration Lutheran Church and saw their locked doors, she decided the first thing to do was to open the church doors every day, all day. Children from the neighborhood began to gather there at the doors of Transfiguration Lutheran, and soon, those doors were painted with vivid colors, maybe similarly to the murals on our own church walls. People from the neighborhood who had never stepped foot inside the church became members and leaders in the congregation. Transfiguration became a meeting place, a place where people organized themselves to make life better for their community, a place where everyone was welcome at the table and heard the story of Jesus. Transfiguration became a place of transfiguration in a neighborhood where there was still a lot of violence. But the people of Transfiguration were no longer afraid.
Maybe you’re waiting for me to say that Grace is similar to Transfiguration. I don’t think we are—at least not in this way. I think we are open, and I am grateful for that and proud of us as a community that, despite the real risk in our world and specifically in our neighborhood, we have not chained our doors shut. But I do wonder if we have chained our hearts shut. I wonder if we are open to each other, and I wonder if we are open to God. I wonder if we think we can only be open to certain people about certain things. I wonder if we think we can only be friends with people who are like us, however we define that. The reality is that it is a risk to open ourselves to people, both because those people may disappoint us or even hurt us. The other risk is that we might turn out to love people, and in loving people, we may never look at the world the same again. Befriending and loving people are real risks because being open means being vulnerable. Befriending and loving people are not “safe” activities, no matter who it is.
We have opened our building to all who need a space to be in the summer through heat respite. We love our partners and renters who share this space. We are eager to welcome in our neighbors for worship and Bible study. We want to be part of our community. More than any other church of which I have ever been a part, the people of Grace, you, are open. And because we are open, we are also ready to hear Jesus’ challenge, a challenge to be open to others not just in bricks and mortar but in friendship and love. This is our community, and while there are scary things about being in real relationships with people, this is also the place where we hear Jesus say: Peace be with you.
Like the disciples, we may be guarding ourselves, shutting and locking the doors of our hearts. But in order to go and do the ministry Jesus calls us to, it is not just about opening our literal doors but about opening ourselves to the possibility of real relationships one with another, allowing ourselves to risk being seen and known and loved by others. And of course, this is how we open ourselves to being seen and known and loved by God AND how we see and know and love God. And when we are scared, Jesus comes among us saying: