The News from San Anselmo 2017

Lesson: John 20:19-34

Note: On the Sunday after Easter, we celebrate Holy Humor Sunday by presenting worship in radio show format, “A San Anselmo Home Companion” (our thanks to Garrison Keillor). The sermon or proclamation of the Word is this work of fiction, “The News from San Anselmo.”

It’s been a quiet week in our hometown of San Anselmo, nestled against the edge of the Marin hills.  We’re in the peak of Northern California’s version of the “Super-bloom.”  Poppies, lupine, Douglas iris, the exceedingly rare Tiburon Mariposa lily, and loads of ordinary but lush mustard cover the hills, still green because, wonder of wonders, it keeps on raining.  You won’t hear many folks in Marin complain, unless they have allergies.  Then they won’t stop complaining. Earlier this month, Jerry Brown proclaimed that the drought is over, but scientists say it’s too early to parade in our rain, so to speak.  It takes a long time to recover from the worst dry spell in 450 years. Just ask Zac Efron or Meg Ryan.

It isn’t just the wildflowers that are putting on a crazy show.  San Anselmo is in full bloom, too.  A walk through the neighborhood right now reminds me of walking past the fragrance counter at Macy’s: you’re bombarded with scents whether you like it or not.  Except instead of too much patchouli, we get wisteria, jasmine, Mexican sage.  These are the fragrances that wafted through the late afternoon air as Rachel walked Sparky, her aging black Lab, over to Bouick Field a couple of weeks ago.  She wasn’t listening to a podcast, as she usually did.  She needed a break from the juggernaut of the 24-hour news cycle.  She’d sworn off Facebook multiple times since the election but it was sort of like driving past a car wreck.  It’s hard not to look.

It was the week before Easter.  When she was growing up, Easter was part of the regular rhythm of spring.  Easter egg hunts, a chocolate bunny, and of course, Peeps.  Better candy than Halloween, plus you didn’t have to ring any doorbells to get it.  On the other hand, you did have to dress up, although Easter’s costume options are sadly limited.  When she was eight, Rachel’s parents did not go for her “dressing as Supergirl because Jesus is super, too” proposal, an injustice that still stung. Instead, she wore the hat and gloves that seemed to come out only for Easter, dutifully waiting in the closet the other 364 days.  A tip to parents: When choosing a frilly Easter dress for your daughter, picture it with chocolate and grass stains all over it, and with one sad, Michael Jackson glove, the other one having been lost.  Because that’s what it will look like, and if you’re lucky, after church, not before.

Her family wasn’t really into church, but going to church on Easter was part of the rhythm.  It was like the hat and gloves: they tried it on once a year and then forgot about it.  She was thinking about all this as she walked Sparky past the church on Kensington.  She was wary of church-goers.  She had an aunt who was an unintentional dead ringer for the Church Lady, and just as uptight.  She’d also had friends in college who joined a nondenominational-mega-internet-faith-healing-praise-circle-satellite-church; they got really weird for a while, then got back to normal after the third pastor in a row was fired for something scandalous and the church fell apart.  Then there were the Christians on TV – those “19 and counting” people with all the kids, Billy Graham, and Ned Flanders, Homer Simpson’s pious neighbor. Rachel did not want to give up her Sunday morning yoga class to spend time with a bunch of Ned Flanderses.

She wished she knew more about this church, though.  It’s right in the neighborhood.  With everything going on in the world, maybe some tradition, some connection to something grounding and comforting would be a good thing.  But – she had so many doubts.  She just didn’t think she could believe all that stuff.  It seemed as though religion was just another one of those things that turns out not to be true, like when your mother said, “Don’t eat that; it’ll stunt your growth,” or “Don’t worry; you’ll grow out of your acne.”

But she knew and respected several people who actually went to church.  Besides, this church had that Black Lives Matter banner and a rainbow flag, and something about climate change.  A few more signs, and this church would look like the bumper of a car from Fairfax.  Rachel wasn’t ready to embrace the “socks-with-sandals” look any more than she was ready to be Ned Flanders.  Still.  They seemed to care about what she cared about.

She called Terry, her church-going friend, and they met at Marin Coffee Roasters over a latte.  On the way, Rachel passed the sign showing the high water mark for 1982 and 2005. She’d lived in San Anselmo in 2005.  The country’s current political mess felt more dangerous than that, by far.

“Terry, I must be missing something.  I’m sort of … drawn to the idea of church.  You know, community, and a place where people care about the things I care about.  And right now, more than ever, I’m feeling a need to connect.  I’m just not sure I can stomach actual church.  All that believing.  Do you believe in all that stuff?”

“Well,” Terry said, “I believe the important parts.  I believe God loves me and everybody else.  I believe we belong to God, and we belong to each other.” Then she said, “You know Madeleine L’Engle?”

“Sure,” said Rachel.  “A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books when I was a kid.”

“Well,” said Terry, “she said something I’ll always remember.  Someone asked her if she believed without any doubts.  And she said, ‘I believe with all my doubts.’  There’s a Bible story about doubt.  On Easter evening, the disciples lock themselves in a room because they’re afraid. Suddenly Jesus is there.  The disciples must not recognize him, because he has to show them his wounded hands and side to convince them he’s really back.  A disciple named Thomas isn’t there when this happens, so later, when he hears about it secondhand, he refuses to believe until he can touch Christ’s wounded body.  Jesus shows up and invites Thomas to do just that; to touch him, to touch his wounds.  Now, it isn’t like the other disciples didn’t get firsthand verification, too. But from then on, Thomas is the one stuck with the label, ‘doubting.’ Doubting Thomas.  Kind of unfair, really; he’s just the one who said out loud what the rest of them were thinking. He’s the one who asked – like you’re asking, now. And Jesus thought it was okay. Jesus treated his questions as though they were, well, normal.”

Rachel looked out at Imagination Park across the street.  “What about Easter?  How do you explain that?”

“Here’s the thing,” said Terry.  “I heard about an English bishop who asked a group of ministers this question: ‘How would you respond if someone came to you on the street and said, “My bus leaves in two minutes.  Tell me about the resurrection in the time remaining”?’  The bishop said her response would be, ‘If you really want to hear about the resurrection, be prepared to miss your bus.’  But then the Archbishop of Canterbury scratched his beard for a moment, and said, ‘I think I’d have asked the man where he was going, then said that I’d accompany him on the journey.’”

Terry went on, “See, that’s why I go to church.  It’s a community on a journey.  Church people don’t have all the answers.  Not even the pastor has all the answers.  They don’t even think there necessarily are answers to all our questions but what they believe in is asking the questions. And love. They believe in love, and I think that’s what Jesus believed in.  I get it that resurrection is a pretty big miracle to wrap your head around.  But, yeah, the truth is, I’m a believer.  Not just because the Bible says so.  The Bible says a whole lot of things I don’t think are historical.  But I believe just like Thomas – because of my experience.  Jesus keeps showing up in my life, often unannounced, in situations where I least expect him.  He shows up in church, and outside of church, always transforming things – transforming me.  For me the question is not how I can believe but how can I not believe?”
“But I didn’t get there alone.  Believe me, when I first showed up at church, I was practically asking, ‘Shoes or no shoes?’  ‘Is there assigned seating?’  ‘Do you take Visa?’  ‘Can you validate my parking?’  And I’m still wondering where the barista is.  But now, it’s like singing.  You remember I sing, right?  Sometimes in choir, singers need to hold a note longer than they actually can.  So what you do is stagger when you take a breath so the sound appears uninterrupted.  Everyone gets to breathe, and the music stays strong and vibrant. Yesterday, I read an article that says everyone is suffering from “post-election stress disorder” or “protest fatigue” so that people will actually lose their will, their energy, to stand up for what they know is right.  Church is like music.  Take a breath.  The rest of the choir will sing. Rejoin so others can breathe.  Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time.  You don’t have to do it all, but you add your voice to the song.”

“Oh, and by the way, there’s not a single Ned Flanders at my church. I know that’s what you’re thinking – because I was afraid of that, too.  But if there were, we’d love him.”

Walking home, Rachel passed the “Go Public” signs on people’s lawns. She knew they were about schools, but they felt like a personal message; a message to her. Go public. Take a risk. Speak up. Show up. Sing out. Add your voice to the song.

On Easter Sunday, there was Rachel, going public right there on the chancel at First Presbyterian, singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” with Terry and the choir.

And that’s all the news from San Anselmo, where everyone is spiritual, a few people are religious, and the Presbyterians strive to be holy.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.



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