And so we meet again. Last week this place was packed out with people, just brimming with bonnets and brass players, and here we are again, back for more. More tales of the resurrection, more facets to this fabulous story, more details of the disciples’ doings on Easter Day. This week, we meet again in this place to hear, as we do every year, the story of Easter and the disciple Thomas.
And because we do hear this Gospel every year on this Sunday, we’re all pretty familiar with the story. It’s Easter evening, and the disciples are hiding, huddled together in the same room, terrified that the next crosses will be for them. Suddenly, Jesus appears among them. He shows them his wounds, offers them peace, and heads off again into the ether, destination unknown. But Thomas missed it. He was out, somewhere, and when he returns and hears his friends’ wild tale, he is unconvinced. Let him show me the marks of the nails in his hands and the gouge in his side, and then I’ll believe that this man we saw killed is dead no longer.
And Jesus, apparently, hears him. Because a week later he comes back, appearing to the group just as he did before. Only this time, Thomas is there. He meets the risen Lord for the first time and is completely converted. He sees and believes; he exclaims, my Lord and my God! The doubter finally comes around – he’s in the right place at the right time, and he becomes the first to name Jesus as Lord and true God. And there you have the story.
But there is a question we encounter every time we hear this story, a question that remains unanswered, that nags at our hearts and minds. And that question is this: where did Thomas go? When Jesus appeared the first time, where was he? All the rest of the disciples were clinging to each other in fear in the darkness, trying not to imagine the feel of the nails in their own wrists, and Thomas was, what…just out? Running an errand? Visiting a friend? Stretching his legs, getting a bit of fresh air – what? Where did Thomas go?
Well, today, my friends, that question will be answered. Because I can tell you that on that first Easter Evening, Thomas wasn’t there because he had gone to catch Sunday night baseball on ESPN. It’s true. Thomas was out at his favorite Jerusalem sports bar, watching the Sunday night game. And why not? He’d had a rough weekend – the roughest – and he needed something to take his mind off of, well, everything. He’d been in the room with his brothers. He’d listened to them whine and worry, he’d smelled the fear that was pouring out of them like sweat. It reeked, and it freaked Thomas out, and so he thought to himself, where could I be other than this. And the only thought that popped into his sleep-deprived and fear-addled mind was the image of a beautiful, green, pristine baseball diamond. The sound of the announcers’ voices, overly-chummy and confident. The triumphant blare of the Sunday night baseball theme song, the surety of it, the ordinariness of it. He could see the shots of the pitchers warming up in the bullpen, the overhead views of the diamond, and suddenly he wanted all of it. The commentators, the replays, even the commercials sounded great to Thomas just then. And so he got up without a word and walked in the dark down the winding staircase, leaving his fellow disciples behind without a word. He stepped into the street, muttering to himself: Let us go to the bar in Jerusalem, that we may die with him. And so he, alone, went.
At the bar, it was quiet. It wasn’t a great matchup that night – the Phillies playing someone who was likely going to kick their butts – and with it’s being Passover, lots of people had chosen to stay home. After all, unleavened bar food is no great shakes. Thomas found a stool in the back corner, where he could see the screen…and the door, just in case. He ordered a pint and cautiously looked around as the barkeep rinsed the glass and pulled the tap. There were only a couple of other people there, most nursing their beers with eyes on the game, one digging through the bar mix for the salted peanuts. The bartender walked over, slapped down a cardboard coaster, set down his beer, smiled, and walked back to the other side of the bar to assume the classic bartender position of polishing a glass while watching the TV.
Thomas kept his eyes on the game, too. A sip from his beer now and then, but what he really wanted was the distraction. Strike one, ball two, popup, inning over. Just keep rolling out the pitches, just keep swinging that bat, just keep running those commercials. Just keep those thoughts from swirling around in his head. Just keep that grief and fear tamped down. Just keep playing, and let that keep him.
He wasn’t even sure who was winning when the man who had been digging for the peanuts looked up and grimaced.
"Another rough night for the Phils," he said to Thomas. Thomas grunted back, an assent without an encouragement for more conversation.
The man didn’t take the hint. "It’s brutal," he said. "Every year it’s something. No starters, no closers; young bats, old bats." He sighed. "You a Phillies fan?" he asked.
Thomas took a sip. "Not really – I just love the game."
"Yeah," the man said. "But I love the Phils, too, even though they break my heart. I guess that’s just being a fan. I keep showing up and watching. And praying." The man laughed. "And someday, they’ll win. It might take nineteen hundred and thirty odd years, but they’ll win."
"Mm," Thomas said again.
"It’s not easy," the man continued, offering Thomas a handful of peanuts. Thomas shook his head. The man popped them in his mouth and continued. "There are some years when I’ve just had enough. I think, this is it – they’re really dead now. There’s no way they can come back from this. No trade, no amazing up-and-comer, no miracle coaching switch is going to help them next year. They’ll be as dead in spring training as they are right now, and they’ll just keep dying, all season long." Thomas took another sip and kept his eyes on the game. The man sat up. "But then every year, I find myself back here, waiting and watching and – oh, I dunno – caring. Every year I find myself filled with…well…hope, wouldn’t you say?"
Thomas glanced over. He saw the man, still now, looking over at him with a twinkle in his eye. But Thomas wasn’t interested in twinkling eyes and philosophical barflies. "I suppose so," he said, directing his gaze back at the TV.
He felt the man lean in a little bit. "No, that’s it," the man said. "That’s what it is. It’s hope. It’s a little hope, but it’s hope. When it looks like there is no life in this team, and I’m still waiting and watching, that’s hope. It’s maybe even belief."
Thomas nodded absently. Watched the game. The man grew quiet and eventually disappeared. And when the last batter grounded out to the third baseman, Thomas went home. He walked up the staircase and into a whirlwind. His friends, all talking at the same time, telling this wild story. How could they be surprised that he wasn’t as excited as they were? At worst, his friends had gone mad, and at best, he had missed something miraculous. Of course he was tetchy. And so he blurted out the first thing he could think of.
"I’ll believe it when I see it," he said, knowing how much that made him sound like a six year old.
By the next Sunday, tempers had calmed down, and they were all together and mostly friendly. The room felt less stifling tonight, but again Thomas found his thoughts drifting to the ball field, the green green grass and the sweet sound of the crack of the bat on the ball. But this night, he decided to stay. Why not? I stay and I watch and I wait and… suddenly the voice of that man in the bar drifted into his mind… "and that’s hope." I suppose he was right. That is hope, that is the sign of belief that something good is coming, that something new can happen, that even if things look completely dead, there’s always a chance for new life.
And just at that moment, a breath of wind fluttered over his hair. He looked up and saw a man standing in the middle of the room. Where had he come from? The man looked over at him, and Thomas’s heart jumped as he found himself looking into a pair of eyes with a very, very familiar twinkle. Jesus smiled and the twinkle brightened. He came over to Thomas and leaned in so that only he could hear.
"I would have told you last week," Jesus said to him.
"But I couldn’t have heard it," Thomas interrupted.
Jesus smiled and leaned in. "But don’t you know that I am always there with you, that I will always find you? Wherever you go, wherever you flee to, wherever you find yourself, I am there, with you, to the end of the age. Have faith, my friend. Have hope. Look for new beginnings, new life, a new world. Do not doubt…"
"But believe," Thomas replied, grinning like a kid with a new glove on opening day. He reached out and grasped Jesus’ arm. "So happy to meet you again, for the first time. My Lord and my God."
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
23 April 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia