Please pray with me: Gracious God, reach into the hidden places in our souls, where fear and pain lurk, and love us until it heals. Amen
You have heard it said that this text is about Thomas and his doubts. That he is an example of what not to be, but I want to tell a story about God’s love for Thomas, a story about a love so powerful it can see into every crack and cranny where fear might hide. Every crevice where pain hides out, whispering those painful, anxious thoughts that cause us to withdraw on too many a fine day. I want to tell you a story about a god who is, in and of God’s very self, relational. A god who, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, is engaged in this wonderous dance, first one leading, then the other, as each celebrates the other. A god who reaches out to each and every one of us, swinging us up into God’s very arms, bringing us into this dance of love and joy. This is the god I want to speak of. Not the recriminating, you don’t have enough faith god, but the one who reaches for us even when we pull away. One who loves us in the depths of our misery and despair, in the midst of our anger and pain, in the midst of our fear and anxiety; a god who meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us there. This is the God we meet in Jesus Christ. This is the God I want to speak of today.
I want to meet this god through Thomas and his story. I want to join Thomas in his grief and his loss, in his exclusion and his pain. I want to hear Thomas from across the centuries speak to us. I imagine it would go something like this:
First it was the women, saying they had seen Jesus, had spoken with him, but really, we all know that could never happen. I understand their grief, their desire to believe that what had happened could be undone, could be erased, but that’s not the way life works. I felt for them, in their pain and grief, but that was all.
Then it was everyone else! Saying that Jesus had come to them, not as spirit or a ghost but as a living breathing man. They assured me it was real. But, that’s not the way life worked. It hadn’t worked that way when my childhood friend died, or my grandparents, or, well death happens, there had been others. Once dead, one stayed dead. What they were saying was silly, and a bit disturbing.
We had to get on with things. We couldn’t just pretend that death could be reversed! Hadn’t I said, if we go to Jerusalem, they will kill him, and if our teacher, our rabbi and prophet, set his face to Jerusalem, was resolute, then we ought to go with him expecting to die also! Hadn’t I said that? This is the way of the world! This is just the way things are! You can’t change the way things are.
But, I couldn’t let it alone. The thoughts played through my mind over and over. If only I’d been more faithful, more courageous, maybe he would have come to me, I mean, if it could happen. But I hadn’t. I hadn’t gone to the cross with him. I’d been so scared.
Somehow, and I could think of so many ways it might have been, somehow I had failed him. The others were all lit up by his presence! Oh but I could see it. I knew that look on their faces. I knew that feeling, how he could reach into your heart and soul and make everything all right again, but this time, I had been denied, and I both knew why and didn’t know why. I just kept thinking over and over of what I might have done wrong, but mostly, I just tried really hard not to think about it. Because that’s not the way life works.“
We’ve all been there haven’t we? Last to be picked for sports teams in elementary school. The one left dateless on prom night. The one without an invitation to the party. The one who is left wondering why they aren’t good enough, not loved, not chosen, not appreciated, not valued. Not loved.
And don’t we all know what it is to face a hard reality? And the frustration of people telling us to “just think positive” or sharing one miracle cure after another that they heard of on the internet?
Can we take hope from Thomas’ story? For who among us has not wondered, can I be loved? Who among us has not secretly thought, well if they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me. And if you haven’t, and bless you if you haven’t because it’s a wonderful and gracious thing to have such a wonderful sense of yourself, still we can empathize. We’ve seen this kind of pain all too often. It’s the pre-teen girl who posts a picture of herself online asking this anonymous community if she’s pretty enough to be loved. It’s the angry young man who bullies and threatens because the whole world feels unsafe and he’s sure no one could really want him, love him, as he is.
I want to share a story that touched my heart. It’s the story of an elementary school teacher who every Friday, would ask the kids in her class to write down who they want to sit with next week. Who they want to have on their teams in group projects and then for hours she would pour over these lists of who is most loved, most wanted, who is chosen, who is not. A friend asked her about this and this is what she said,
“I know it might be arrogant, but I feel like I’m preventing the next Columbine, the next school shooting. You see, I’m looking for the kids no one wants to sit with, the ones no one notices or befriends, the outsiders, the excluded, the unwanted. I just think, if I could help them find friends now, when they’re still little, if I could help them to see themselves as beloved and wanted and chosen. I don’t know if it makes any difference really, but after Columbine, I had to do something.”
There is such power in being seen, in being invited in, in being included, in being named and claimed as one of us.
This is evangelism, this is the bringing of a good word, of a life-transformative experience of love, and the really cool thing is, we get to do it. The cool thing and the scary thing, is that God has entrusted us with the love and care of God’s very beloved children-each other.
That moment when your name is called, and you know, you know that finally it’s really you. Not those times when you are first chosen or even chosen in the middle of choosing, but that one time when all the choosing was done and you were sure that you were forgotten. When all the invitations have been sent out, but none for you. When all the names have been called but not yours. When it seems like no one sees you anymore they are so busy celebrating their loves, their invitations, their moment of glory…and then, as if from nowhere, someone calls your name!
That moment. But Jesus wasn’t done yet. He wasn’t done reaching into the pit of despair and loss and grief that had been welling up in Thomas’ heart. Thomas the one who had been prepared to “go with Jesus to Jerusalem and die there with him.” Thomas who had never expected any moment of reprieve from the loss he had experienced. Thomas who was willing to bravely soldier on through all the pain and grief, but please, please, don’t expect me to believe in miracles. It’s just too hard, too unfathomable, too outrageous. That Thomas. But no, just no. Thomas was a realist. He faced life on life’s terms and he knew that once dead is always dead. So no. No to the outrageous hope which defied all reality, all experience. Jesus was never going to call his name again. Never embrace him again. Never laugh with him again. Never share a meal with him again. And Thomas bravely moved through this finality. He didn’t deny it, but what rational man would?
So yes, that moment. When all hope is lost and the crazy ramblings of a few people wasn’t going to change that.
It is that moment that Jesus steps into and calls Thomas’ name. It is that moment, when it feels right and natural to harden one’s heart, to just move on, to get on with life, because nothing can be done. It is into that hardness and determination to survive that Jesus invites Thomas into a softer, more vulnerable, intimate embrace than he had ever thought possible. Into the pain, the grief, the loss, the hardness, Jesus brings gentleness, intimacy, vulnerability. “Go on, touch my wounds. Come close and feel my breath, breathe in my scent, hear my voice, come close. Do not be unbelieving, but abide in me.” Do not let your fear harden your heart and make your life small and desparate, but become soft, take the risk and come close to me again.
Jesus comes bearing his wounds and his flesh for Thomas to touch and feel, but it is Thomas’ wounds which are healed. It is Thomas’ despair, grief, and loss which receive that breath of new life.
Thomas’ head must have whirled with confusion, with desire and fear all at once. To touch the beloved teacher, to feel the warmth of his skin and see the gentle laughter in his eyes? Was not Thomas’ heart burning within his chest? Was he not rocked almost to his knees? To be so loved, that even death could not touch nor diminish that love, that even a brutal, tortured death, could not prevent that love from stirring his heart back to life one more time!
Had not some part of Thomas, some hope, some faith, died on that cross with Jesus?
And was it not the certainty of that loss rather than doubt which closed Thomas heart? But the moment he hears his name, doubt is stirred, doubt questions, and hope bubbles up in his chest! And Thomas, who had so bravely declared that he would die with Jesus, is just brave enough to let that hope fully enter his heart, overwhelm his certainties, and open his fearful heart to wonder, mystery, and a love that is well beyond his or our understanding.
It’s in those places where we’ve hardened our hearts and we’ve given up hope, where we’ve accepted that this is just the way life is and it won’t get any better, it’s into those locked down, locked up places that Jesus speaks our name, calling us into a new future, a new potential, asking us to be vulnerable enough to hope again, to love again, to believe again. It’s in those raw and painful wounds that Jesus breathes new life. It’s into that joyless resignation that Jesus takes our hand and invites us to join the dance and in so doing to abide in him as he abides in the Father. We are swept up, carried away, like a child who is caught up in a loving parent’s arms.
Doubt is the open door through which Jesus enters. Doubt is the glorious openness to the unknown. It is the refusal to accept the common answers. It is both the refusal to deny death, grief, and loss and the willingness to transcend them.
It is my hope that when you are asked to doubt all that you have ever known, about how life is, about death and taxes, about broken hearts and not-good-enough, when you are invited to doubt that things really have to be this way, you too will doubt, will wonder, will question. That you too will be swept up in those loving arms giddy for a moment, laughing, surprised and delighted, and that you will allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be carried away, overcome by emotion, that you too will join Thomas in proclaiming, my lord, and my God!
It matters because the tomb is empty. This Easter uprising. There are different versions of the story in our scriptures. We have these different versions because it is not meant to be taken literally as if we could go back and video tape it. Something would be lost if we could. The resurrection will not be filmed. It will not be captured or made to fit in tidy boxes. It is something else, outside our paradigms, outside our understanding. It is new life, new hope, new possibilities, and so much more. It is the greening of the springtime and a remembrance that this too will end. It is the eternal call to life, to come out of the tombs, the shadows, the depressions, the lostness, the pain, the grief, come out and live again!
It is more than the knowledge that we are never alone. That Jesus has come into all depths, all darkness. That Jesus has gone up the chimneys, down into the mines, into the gas chamber, so that we might make it out. Making it out, simply surviving, is not enough. Such an answer is too small, too simple. We are called to so much more than simply survival. Survival is a task for those who live with pain, loss, degradation, poverty. Resurrection speaks a new word into our survival minds. It is a new way of being that goes way beyond simply surviving to thriving.
Being about God’s work is to be about bringing life where there is death, joy where there is sorrow, repair where there is injury, hope where there is despair, it is about bringing resurrection.
Resurrection happens. It’s that moment when your heart begins to heal from a massive rejection or loss and you begin to look at the future with hope instead of looking at the past with regret. It’s that moment when familiar patterns of abuse begin to show up in a new relationship and just when you’re tempted to say, “I guess it will always be this way,” something inside you begins to whisper, then shout, then demand, “NO” and things change. It is that moment when lost inside the darkness of depression, when some internal pain has riveted you, has fixed you permanently within its grasp, and some light begins to break in, finds a crack in the hardness, the seemingly impermeable shell, offering a slender chance and something in you grabs hold of it.
Our desire for death, for the finality of it, the letting go and the promise that you don’t need to feel anything anymore, is a reality recognized in some psychological theories. Something in us looks back and back and back like Lot’s wife, not wanting to move on, dissolving in despair and loss, weeping inconsolably, and turning bitter. There is a refusal to look to the future, to let go of what was and hope again. But I don’t want to be harsh with Lot’s wife. I suspect that her weeping and her bitterness came from a deep love of her home town, of the people, perhaps her gardens, her home, her friends. If her hometown had been inhospitable to strangers it had still been her home, her town, where she belonged and lived. It was hard to move on. It was hard to let go, to let the past die and keep on living.
It was hard for the disciples to witness the death of Jesus. Some couldn’t bear to watch and left. The crushing pain of irredeemable loss was hard to bear. It took time for the disciples to realize that Christ was still with them. That although he had surrendered to the laws of physical reality there was something deeper going on. They began to recognize that in a very real way, nothing could separate them from him, or him from them. That he had become a part of them, that he was and would always be with them, that not even death could come between them.
When we reduce the event of Easter to some mythic, magical event, dead man walking, we relieve ourselves of the need to be resurrection people. We turn the responsibility for healing, for loving, for transforming our lives over to God and then we wait for the magic. God asks us to be resurrection people, not passive recipients but to actually be the healing and loving and transforming in the world. We are not to wait passively for some magical event to come, but to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. The belief in a literal magic events leaves us waiting powerlessly, the belief in a poetic miraculous narrative invites us to participate, to be part of the process and to be changed by the process, not passive recipients but participants.
This month I have been reading, The Half Has Never Been Told, a story about the formation of the US on the backs and bodies of black men and women. My heart broke and continues to break as I read the vivid descriptions of the death and despair visited on all those people, as I read how they would sing themselves back to life, dare to hope again and again, dare to see themselves as so much more than what their abusers told them they were. That they were truly beloved children of God, holy and sacred people, cherished and loved.
It’s the image of men and women picking cotton under brutal conditions but nonetheless singing gently, over and over again, to a young girl, a new arrival in the cotton fields, who’s despair at having been sold away from her family, at being brutalized and having no hope of rescue, threatened to drown her under the hot sun. She was more dead than alive. Yet they sing to her, gently, persistently, calling her to come out of the tomb, day after day, until she too sings, a corpse pulled back to life. “Where are you Liza Jane?” they sang, “come back to us, come home Liza Jane.”
This is resurrection. This is new life. The first strangled bits of song to pass her lips, new life, hope, an inescapable freedom, being born again under the unseeing eye of the overseer. And it does not matter if this worldly power shows up as overseer, Roman centurion, ISIS, or SS guard, it is a power that breaks one. It is power over others and it is a power that does not see or recognize the subversive power of love, of Christ and resurrection.
Resurrection is not power over but that gentle, persistent thread of hope that refuses to give in to despair. This is not the walking dead resurrection, an insistence that the body still move and act, but a life fully lived, accepting the fullness of mortality and yes this means saying yes to death also. How many of us live a life half there? How many pull back in fear, in despair, in shock, at the horrors of life? Unwilling to say yes, this too, to all that comes, to all that might be, with a life fully lived.
Last week Humans of New York, a facebook page that in a truly gracious manner sees and recognizes all the incredible people of New York, featured a man who, after the death of his wife during childbirth, became stuck in the horror and fear that he would lose his daughter too. “I was unable to really be with her,” he said. “Every moment of my time with her I was afraid, afraid that I would lose her too and I missed a lot of moments that way.” That is, until he experienced a resurrection himself, till he moved past fear recognizing that his loss, his fear were keeping him from actually being with his daughter and he began to say “yes this too,” to the whole realm of possibility. Yes I may lose my daughter but right here, right now, I will be with her, and I will not allow my fear and my loss to stop that. Resurrection happens. It comes. We are a resurrection people.
If forgiveness releases us from the sting of the past, then resurrection releases us from the sting of the present, the fear of the future. We are released from the destructive power of pain and loss, of degradation and poverty, of isolation and anonymity. If forgiveness releases us from the evils we have done, resurrection releases us from the evils visited upon us through no fault of our own. We are given new hope, new life, that we might be able to continue, to live again. Resurrection looks to the future, to who we might be, to who we are called to be.
It is in recognition that some losses are too great to be compensated for that we turn to resurrection. There is no compensation that will make good some losses, only resurrection, only salvation can redeem these losses. God has promised to wipe every tear and we, as resurrection people, hold God to this promise, that all such loss will be redeemed, not compensated for, but redeemed, made good. This is the glory of resurrection, this is what it means to return to life, to live again, to be freed, not only from all that you have done, but from all that has happened to you.
Resurrection might also be a trembling, initial attempt to live again. Like Etty Hillesum singing on the train as it bore her to Auschwitz, knowing what was waiting at the end of the line. Surely there must have been tears along with the song. In opposition to all the powers of the world that told her she, and those like her, were nothing, she sang. Surely there must have been trembling now and then, but still Etty sang, still Etty dropped that last notecard from the train car as it pulled out, “We left singing” she wrote. Resurrection happens. But I suspect that it is not always the same. It is not always that bright burst of new life but sometimes a trembling, weak kneed step towards new life. It the insistence on being fully alive even through death and loss.
As resurrection people we are not asked to pay in religious dues through our prayers and attendance at church, in hopes of an afterlife reward but to live our lives fully right here, right now, allowing God to bring us back to life, right here, right now! To live as if all that we are and do matters, to live as if death, loss, and pain do not have the last word, because when we live as if it does, then our lives become small and timid, and we are not meant to be small and timid.
As a resurrection people we are asked to live fully by taking up our cross, by saying “Yes, this too,” to all the suffering, loss and pain, by singing to the lost souls, “Liza Jane, where are you?” by throwing those bold notes out the sides of the cargo car. We are most fully alive when we live for others, when we love greatly and without fear. When we love until it heals and we don’t stop until it does. We may step toward life with trembling and weak knees but we are called like Lazarus from the tomb to step forward, live more fully, be more alive, do not be afraid, do not withhold your heart. This is resurrection! To be called back to life when hope is impossible! To live anyway, to sing like Liza Jane in the fields or Etty in the cattle car. This is resurrection! To throw off the chains of trauma and pain and loss and live with joy in one’s heart anyway! In the midst of the world with all its difficulties and need, love and live fully, anyway, that we might be true children of the resurrection!
We are a resurrection people! Not the small and timid living in fear of loss and trauma but the radical, wild, unpredictable people of God! No wonder the powers of the world fear us. Those who are not afraid, who are known by their joy and their love, love which is not afraid!
This is the resurrection of our spirits and our hope. Easter invites us to let go of our fear and celebrate a love stronger than hate, a hope stronger than despair, a light stronger than darkness, a goodness stronger than evil.