Here is today’s sermon based on John 20:19-31:
Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to make many trips to the holy land … Memphis, Tennessee. Now, Memphis is a holy land for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their BBQ. Now, for those of us who are not Southerners, it is difficult to understand that BBQ is a holy thing. I will confess that for the most part, Northerners cannot grasp that concept – BBQ is just BBQ to us. To a true Southerner, it is something altogether different. In fact, it is part of what southerners call the southern trinity: BBQ, Basketball, and the Bible. Memphis, of course, is known for their BBQ, especially their ribs. As one of my seminary professors says, “Good ribs would make an angel weep.”
Now BBQ is not the only reason Memphis is considered to be holy land. The primary reason, of course, is that it is the home of Mr. Elvis Presley.
A few summers ago, I had the chance to visit Graceland – or Mecca to Elvis fans – with Lisa and Sophia, my parents, and my grandparents. I believe we were pilgrims in a holy land of sorts. I was not overly impressed by Graceland itself but what I found more interesting was the people who were coming to visit. There were literally people weeping at Elvis’ grave and he has been dead most of my life! I was in amazement at the reactions of people and that made the visit worthwhile. These people have literally elevated Elvis to a holy status thus making Graceland holy ground.
It doesn’t stop there. In fact, there have been studies on the parallels between Jesus and Elvis, most notably by the renowned theologian Adam Sandler. He explains:
- In Matthew 22:39, Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor” while Elvis said: “Don’t be cruel.” (RCA, 1956)
- Jesus is part of the Holy Trinity; Elvis’ first band was a trio.
- Jesus is the Lord’s shepherd; Elvis once dated Cybil Sheppard.
Given that kind of reverence, I believe that we as Jesus fans have a lot to learn from Elvis fans. Especially in terms of how we live out our faith….
As I said before, a few summers ago, we took time on our Memphis trip to visit the shrine of Graceland. There was the great welcome sign–a twenty-five foot high Elvis on a billboard saying “Welcome to the Kingdom!” And after the requisite photographs, we got in line for tickets. As we were waiting, I turned to one of the tour guides and asked, “So, how long did Elvis actually live here?” There was an audible gasp from the surrounding crowd. The guide looked at me with shock and whispered, “We don’t use the past tense here.” She then pointed at her t-shirt, which read: “Graceland, where Elvis LIVES.”
It didn’t matter that she had never actually seen Elvis or that technically Elvis stopped walking the earth nearly thirty-five years ago. It didn’t matter. She didn’t really care. Elvis fans don’t really care. Without any proof whatsoever, they believe he lives! Elvis lives, baby. The King lives.
It’s a shame we don’t all live our lives with that kind of faith. I’m afraid that most of us tend more towards the disciple Thomas than the tour guide and the fans at Graceland.
Our scripture today is the familiar story of Doubting Thomas. There we find the disciples locked up behind closed doors after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. And Jesus came and stood among them. When they saw him, the disciples rejoiced after a temporary moment of shock and fear. But Thomas was not there at the time. When the other disciples later told Thomas about it, he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger … in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas acted like those of us who do not believe that Elvis is alive and well.
A week later, when Thomas was with the disciples, Jesus appears again and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. When he put his hand in Jesus’ side–he knew and believed.
“My Lord and my God,” said Thomas.
Jesus then said to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
We’ve all heard this story before. More importantly, we’ve all lived it. We’ve all had times in our lives where we’ve doubted, where we have said to God, “Show me a sign! Give me some proof!” Maybe it was because we were in a place of unbearable pain, or a time we faced hardship with no answers, or a time when God seemed particularly silent. Or perhaps a time when we were waiting for the U.S. Army to send orders. We have all been at that point where, like Thomas, we yearned for a sign from God – some bit of proof.
And why not? We live in a world where “proof” trumps faith. We send robots with cameras to the farthest ends of the universe so we can know for sure what’s out there. We won’t believe an assertion until a complicated mathematical equation says it’s true. And anytime -and I do mean anytime- there is a wall bearing a sign that says “wet paint,” we will touch it just to be sure that it really is wet.
Poor Thomas has the become the scapegoat for the church which often says that doubt is wrong; or that it is somehow less than faithful to need a sign, or a touch, or a vision, or a personal encounter. We get the impression that we are not allowed to ask the hard questions without being labeled a cynic, or a skeptic, or a liberal. Since when are questions bad? Since when is it wrong to admit that we don’t understand everything? Since when is it wrong to ask God to clarify something? Read the account of Job, or many of the Psalms. Both are filled with uncertainties, complaints, and even questions of God. Even Jesus while hanging and dying on the cross cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Thomas is just one in a long line of faithful people who have raised their voices to ask the hard yet faithful questions.
If only we could have the faith of Elvis fans, a faith driven not by empirical proof or photographic evidence, but by the voice in our hearts. A faith that says it is okay to ask questions or to need a sign as long as you keep believing. Finding that kind of faith can change our lives. For when you believe something in your heart, you begin to act it in your life.
Look at Elvis fans. They not only believe he lives, they act like he lives. For example, they are constantly looking for Elvis. The Bible says seek and you find. Well, Elvis fans follow that to a tee. They are constantly looking for the King and looking for signs of the King. And, sometimes, they find him. There have been Elvis sightings all over the world–from a spa in Tokyo to a Burger King in Michigan. There was even a woman who claimed that she found the image of Elvis on her burrito at Taco Bell.
If only we’d put even 1% of that kind of energy towards looking for Jesus, we might actually find him too. Maybe we’d find him in the eyes of a little child or the downcast gaze of a homeless stranger. Maybe we’d find him in the face of an enemy or the tears of a loved one with whom we are fighting. If you believe he lives, you’ll act like he lives. You’ll look for signs of him and you’ll find him.
Another thing–Elvis fans believe he lives, so they look for others who believe as well, like through Elvis fan clubs. I heard a story on the Graceland tour about a woman who was in a fan club called “Taking Care of Business.” She had to have major surgery and afterwards received hundreds of cards and letters from “Elvis friends” all over the world. We Christians can learn something from this. Community is what gives us strength, support, and focus in times we most need it. Finding families of faith is what helps us keep our faith. I look around this community of believers at Mt. Denson and I see a community that loves and supports one another. I am glad to share at least a little time with you though I have to confess, I have had to run a few more miles to burn off some of the extra love you have been sharing with me. If you believe he lives, you’ll look for others who believe as well.
Here’s a third example, and probably the most important. Because they believe he lives, Elvis fans go out into in the world and share his message. They play Elvis’ music; they dress up as Elvis impersonators; they decorate their homes with Elvis memorabilia. One of my favorite things at the Graceland gift shop was an Elvis sprinkler. It was a 12 inch high plastic Elvis in a sequin jumpsuit, and as he watered your yard, he would swivel his hips. Whether through word or music, impersonators or lawn sprinklers, Elvis fans proudly proclaim the message of the King.
This provides an interesting contrast to the disciples. Before Jesus appeared in their midst, the book of John tells us that the disciples were in hiding behind locked doors. They weren’t looking for Jesus. They weren’t going around looking for other believers. They weren’t out in the world preaching the gospel. They weren’t proclaiming the message of the King. They were hidden in fear, locked away in shame because they didn’t believe he lived. They were scared, they were frightened, they were lost and they wanted nothing to do with Jesus now that Easter was over.
I’m afraid that many of us live a similar existence; a life with little or no faith in the risen Christ, our hearts locked up and closed away.
I read a story in the Commercial Appeal of Memphis about a young woman on the tour told a story about how she grew up listening to Elvis. Sadly, she lived through an abusive childhood, but she talked about how she used daydreams of Elvis as an escape. “He was my safe space,” she said, “my little corner of heaven.” Because she believed he lived, she honored him in her heart and that enabled her to find peace in the hardest of places.
If only we would open our hearts to Jesus in the same way. When we honor the risen Christ in our hearts, we have our own safe space, our own little corner of heaven in which to rest and to heal. I am reminded of Tusculum’s Passion Play in which we disciples celebrated Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the play. You see every time Jesus did a miracle, we would put our hands in the air and do our touchdown Jesus moment. It is easy to have faith in a setting like the play or in the church among fellow believers but what if we had our touchdown Jesus moment in public among strangers?
If you believe he lives–you’ll act like he lives. And Jesus’ message is certainly a message of action. Elvis apparently felt the same way. For Elvis said early in his career, “Music and religion are similar–because both should make you wanna move.”
The gospel is a living, vibrant force that should make us want to get out and move, move around in the world, move towards each other in love and compassion, move towards bringing in the kingdom.
I want a religion that makes me wanna move.
I want a Savior that makes me wanna put on a sequin jump suit and sing.
I want to believe in a Jesus that lives.
Don’t let the doubts and fears of life shake your belief. Don’t let your faith be driven by anything but the voice of your heart. Remember: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” For if we believe he lives, our lives will change. We will search for and find him; we will proclaim his message; we will honor his spirit with ours. We will live our lives full and complete in praise of him. Out of this life, others will see and wonder what it is that makes us wanna sing, wanna dance, and wanna praise.
Sometime this week, find a quiet moment, ask yourself, “Do you believe?” From the deepest parts of your heart, the answer will surely come: He lives. He lives, baby. The King lives.
Here is today’s worship bulletin.