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Easter 2B      
April 7, 2024      
Grace Lutheran Church  
Lakeland, FL                            

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 113
I John 1:1 – 2:2  
John 20:19-31

He is risen!
He is risen, indeed!

I speak to you in the name God who is Father and + Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Among the myriad of my all-time favorite Bible stories is the one of Elijah running away into the wilderness, the woman with the hemorrhage who was healed, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple to Anna and Simeon. Yep, each is my favorite.

And today, I add another – today’s gospel reading of the story of Thomas. And, while I am not going to preach on that story today, permit me to say just a couple of things about it and about Thomas. First, he gets a bum rap. He only asked for what the other disciples had already received – seeing Jesus with their own eyes. Second, in this time of change and grief and uncertainty, the followers of Jesus were hanging out together. Never underestimate the importance of being together when things are difficult. Third, what Thomas asked for, Jesus provided freely and kindly and gracefully. Fourth, doubts are not bad and if you have them, bring them to church.

OK, that’s what I’ve got on the gospel reading today. 

Now, the text for our reflection today is this from one of my “favorite” books in the Bible – Paul’s letter to the Philippians – chapter 3:15 – press on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

My dear ones, beloved saints and souls of Grace. 

Grace and peace to you from God and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to God for you and for your witness to the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus, a witness that has been present in this community for well over one hundred years, through times of plenty and times of need, times of agreement and consensus and times that may not have been as smooth sailing. I give thanks for what God has done, is doing and will continue to do in your midst and through your hands and hearts.

 I rejoice in your long time faithfulness to Word and Sacrament and can only imagine the thousands, literally the thousands, who have been touched because of this faithfulness. This is made possible because of those on whose shoulders you stand. Those who have gone before us. Those whose faithfulness has modeled life as followers of Jesus. You may not know their names, though some of you will, but your presence here today is a living testimony to their faithfulness. And I give thanks to God for this. For what God has done.

But of course, God has worked not only in the past. The last several years have been rich and surprising and gratifying in so many ways, haven’t they. I was just getting settled into a new home and a new office tending a new flock when every single thing went upside down. It was after service on March 15, 2020, that leaders of the congregation met and concluded that in the interest of safety we would discontinue in-person activities for the foreseeable future. And we had to craft a new way forward. 

By the grace of God, the heart of this community of faith only enlarged during this time. Our generosity toward the community agencies we partner with increased. The phone calls among us all just to check in and see how we were doing multiplied. Our Bible studies changed format. And we even tried online fellowship hours. 

And, our vocabulary increased – we learned what it meant to livestream – not a great fishing spot; zoom – not a race car speed; social distance –not an emotional space but a physical one.

In the same way that God was persistently present with his beloved ones when they went into exile away from all that was most familiar, so God was present with us. God brought us through that time and then to the other side, when things were re-shaped, some old things affirmed and others – well, not, new things tried.  I rather think this was a watershed time and because we are a community of faith, centered around Word and Sacrament, around love of God and sharing that love with each other, our community and the world, we adjusted and carried on led by God and centered in God’s grace.

And in that carrying on, we did more than maintain a status quo while crossing our fingers. We added in a weekly mid-day service. We expanded our online presence and capabilities. We welcomed visitors and received new members. Babies were baptized. Mourning families were comforted. The sick were loved and cared for. All of this centered around Word and Sacrament and the love of God in our midst.

And not only this – corners were cleaned, critters removed, tidying tidied. Music expanded, worship enhanced. All by this community of faith. All by y’all, all of us together.

In recent months, I have been the grateful recipient of some of the best that this community of faith has to offer. In a time unlike any other in my life, a time of sickness and more medical appointments than I’ve had in the previous many years, a time of fatigue and incapacity, you all cared for me. You stepped up when I couldn’t to help do what was needed because we are a community of faith. You are the church. And I am grateful beyond words.

What God has done and what God is doing. But those aren’t the only parts of the equation. There is also that which God will continue to do.

My prayer for you is that you will earnestly consider what that is, what God is calling you to, what new things may emerge.  I promise it will not be a return to what has been in years past, it will not be that which is easy to do, it will not be that which settles for life and grief outside the tomb. Because – He is risen – He is risen indeed. Alleluia.  

Hear these words from St. Paul to the Philippians:  press on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Press on. Be alert to God’s call. Test the spirits. Step forward. Press on.

I don’t know all that Grace will face in the days and months and years ahead. 

I don’t know all the thousands of people who will be touched by your faithfulness. Perhaps as many as there are stars in the sky – as God promised to Abraham.

I don’t know the challenges you will face. 

But I do know this, centered around Word and Sacrament, focused on the love of God in Christ Jesus, letting the love that is ours because God first loved us, letting that love permeate and infuse all that you do, you will shine like stars.

There you have it – what God has done, is doing and will continue to do.

So, permit me these final words before we pray. It has been one of the deepest privileges of my life to be in your midst, to serve you as your pastor. To anguish over the words of the sermon late into Saturday night. To wonder and puzzle and shake my head from time to time. To walk in the peace of the memorial garden. To fuss over the failures of the copy machine. To arrange lilies on Holy Saturday. To drive around the parking garage at Lakeland Hospital looking for a parking place hoping to get there before their last breath. To laugh at sound problems – because I hadn’t turned my mic on. To have one more brownie during Fellowship Time. To look in the eyes of those receiving the Body of Christ. To sit in the quiet of this holy place in the midst of a busy week.

To rejoice at the many graces of God. 

I am grateful to you and to God.

And so would you please pray with me. 

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Press on my beloveds. Press on. You with God’s help, Jesus’ faithfulness, and the Spirit’s guidance – y’all got this!

Thanks be to God.