Sermon: Tears and grief and resurrection

Easter 2C sermon 2016
Doubting Thomas

 

Grace and peace to you in the name of our risen Christ.  Amen.

How are you all doing?  I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a large part of this week recovering.  I love Holy Week, and man, do I love Easter, but if you commit to coming to all the services—which is part of what makes that week SO AMAZING—then I really hope you can also have an Easter Monday of vegging on the couch with some Cadbury Eggs.

I learned this lesson two years ago, when I was doing my internship year with a congregation in Florida.  I decided that I was going to introduce the congregation to the Easter Vigil, which they’d never done before.  And not only that, but I also decided to make it an overnight vigil for the youth.  Because nothing says “Happy Easter!” like sullen-eyed glares from teenagers and one hour of sleep that’s supposed to get you through four services.

The Vigil liturgy went incredibly well, and so did the overnight youth vigil, and even though I was starting to get that thin, hollow feeling that comes with pulling an all-nighter, I hit 6am feeling totally strong enough to get through the four morning services, starting at 6:30.

And then at 6:15 I checked my phone messages, and found a voicemail from my mom:

My older brother’s house had burned down the night before.  Everyone made it out OK, including the animals, but my brother was in the hospital for smoke inhalation and the house looked like it would be a total loss.

I called my mom and we talked for two minutes, during which I felt totally calm and collected.  There was no reason to freak out.  The important thing was that everyone was OK.  My mom and I said our “I love yous,” and we hung up.

And then I totally lost it.  The office was mercifully empty, so no one heard my crying, which wasn’t even the lady-like boo-hooing of a moderately distressed damsel, but was instead the heaving, gasping sobs of a visceral reaction.

The next four services were hard.  I can usually compartmentalize feelings when necessary, leaving them to be felt at a more convenient time, but something in me wasn’t having it during Easter Sunday.  Shouting “Alleluia!” and singing about how life has triumphed over death felt singularly at odds with the reality I knew my brother and his family were facing: they could have lost their lives, and they had lost absolutely everything else.  I was in Easter Sunday, but it felt like Good Friday: death had happened, grief was stretching its powerful wings, and no one could picture what the future would look like.

But it occurred to me later that that is a much more accurate experience of the first Easter than the one that I usually experienced in church.  According to the Bible, the first Easter was not a time of overwhelming joy for all people.  There was a lot of darkness, confusion, and fear.  On the morning of the resurrection, Mary shows up at the tomb weeping.  In Luke’s gospel, the disciples don’t believe the women who tell them that Jesus is risen.  People don’t recognize the resurrected Jesus even when he’s standing right in front of them.  And in today’s reading, the disciples are huddled in a locked room, afraid of the world outside until Jesus breaks in on them.  And Thomas?  Poor Thomas.  Thomas expresses the doubt that all of the disciples were feeling, and gets nailed for all posterity as “Doubting Thomas.”

The truth is that when we, here in the 21st century, look back at a moment in time that happened two thousand years ago, and with all the benefit of hindsight, we recognize it for what it is: the moment that God conquered sin, death, and the grave.  And so we rejoice, and we shout “Alleluia!” and you know what?  We should.

But the disciples who lived in that moment, who didn’t have that hindsight?  They experienced it differently.  They feared, and they doubted.

And the truth is: even here and now, even knowing what we know, it takes very, very little to move us from a place of sure and certain confidence in God’s victory over sin, death, and the grace, and into a place where we can feel all too clearly what the disciples felt.  It can happen in the space of a voicemail. I think about the fire a couple of years ago, and how strange it felt to shout “Alleluia!” in the face of that news. There’s plenty that we’re living through that interferes with unmitigated Easter joy, and that crap doesn’t have the decency to avoid scheduling itself on our day of celebration.

So here’s a question for us today: what do we do when we doubt?  What do we do when we’re in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death, and we do, in fact, fear evil?  Jesus tells us that the ones who can believe without seeing are indeed blessed, and boy, do I want to be one of those people, but the plain and simple truth is that I’m just not capable of faith like that all the time?

Does that make me a terrible Christian?

Does that mean that I’m not blessed?

There was Thomas, refusing to believe without seeing, insisting that even seeing wasn’t good enough, but he had to feel, too, he actually had to touch the wounds in Jesus’ side.

And what does Jesus do with that kind of questioning and doubt?

He shows up.

He says, “Here.”

He invites: “Do not doubt, but believe.”

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound to me like Thomas wasn’t blessed.  It sounds like he was very, very blessed.  He got to see Jesus.  He got to touch the wounds—which, can I just say, doesn’t sound like such a great thing, but is actually, when you think about it, a tremendous moment of forgiveness.

Thomas, like all of the other disciples, had been in that upper room on the night of Jesus’ arrest.  Just like the rest of the disciples, he had said, sworn, bragged even that he would never abandon Jesus.  But then he, just like the rest of the disciples, watched as their friend and their lord was beaten, tortured, humiliated, and executed.

Even though Thomas wasn’t physically there when Jesus appeared to the disciples in the locked room, he was in the same position they were in: fearful and grief-stricken and guilty as all get-out.

And in the midst of the disciples’ fear and their guilt and their grief­—Jesus shows up.

In the split-second of Jesus’ appearance, there were two ways it could go.

Jesus could show them his hands and his side, and say, “And where were you?”  He could say, “Remember all those parables about the wheat and the chaff?  Remember the bridesmaids who got locked out of the party? Remember the selfish servant who had everything taken away from him?   Remember how I smote the fig tree because it didn’t bear good fruit?  Well, I’m back, and my winnowing fork is in my hand.”

But he doesn’t.

Instead, he says, “Peace be with you.”

He looks at them, these disciples who abandoned him when he needed them most, and he shows them the wounds in his hands and his side, and he says again, “Peace be with you.”

And then he breathes the Holy Spirit onto them.  And he sends them out to the world to tell the good news.

There were two ways it could go.  Jesus made the choice that God always chooses:

Confronted with a choice between vengeance and mercy, Christ chose mercy.

Given the choice between giving the disciples what they deserved, and giving them what they needed, Jesus chose to give them what they needed.

And in making that choice, Jesus took the very things that were keeping the disciples from having faith, the very things that seemed too powerful for the good news to penetrate, and transformed them into conduits of faith. He took their guilt, and he gave forgiveness.  He took their doubt, and he gave them faith.  He took their grief, and gave them joy.

Every single thing that kept the disciples from coming to faith, Jesus used as a place to come to them.

It’s nowhere more clear than in Thomas’ story, where Jesus invites that poor, doubting disciple to stick his finger in the very wound for which he was guilty, and forges faith out of a wound that, before, was nothing but a reminder of failure, grief, and death.

And Jesus is still doing this with us, today, refusing to let our own failures, our own doubts, our own guilt, remain as they are. Instead, God keeps coming to us, coming to us, over and over again, in the places where we feel locked away from the world, and so deeply afraid of the power of death, transforming the powers and principalities into places where we meet Jesus, wounded hands stretched out, forgiving, loving, breathing on us, wishing us peace, and then, when we still don’t believe it, wishing us peace again.  Every time.  Every time.

Amen.

caravaggio_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomas
“The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” Caravaggio.
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