Sunday Sermon by the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister, Memorial Church, April 11, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and redeemer.
I have started to think about what the epilogue of this pandemic time might look like. Part of the difficulty of this time is there is no comfort of a clear narrative arc — a tidy beginning, middle, and end. There is no “Happily Ever After…” to neatly tie up this story.
My prayer for the coming months is each of us will be able to release some of the tension we have been carrying for the past year. Perhaps we will have a moment when the knot in the pit of our stomachs unravels, or we are surprised to find that weight in our shoulders lightens. We can begin to breathe a little more deeply, stand a bit taller as we grow a bit more hopeful about the future.
For some, it may be when they receive their vaccination. For others, it may be when they can return to work and their children can return to school. Or, when they can hug their family and feel their embrace. Or, when we no longer need to wear masks. Others may be left with a lingering trepidation. They have cancer, or their child has asthma. They will continue to worry about the possibility of getting sick or bringing the virus home to a loved one.
I suspect that these moments of release will be different for each of us — depending upon our circumstance, experience, and sense of self. And I suspect that our own paths will not be linear.
There may moments when we want to fling open the door and run into world, and other moments when we will want to lock the door and remain within the safety of our homes.
In our gospel lesson for today the disciples find themselves in a similarly complicated, murky, messy time. After seeing the empty tomb and hearing the news of Jesus’s resurrection. They have locked themselves in a room, fearful of what awaits them on the other side. It is here that Jesus comes to them. At first, they do not recognize him. It is not until Jesus reveals his wounds. He then bestows mercy onto them, and asks them to share his message of grace, love and peace with the world.
It is easy to dismiss the disciples for not recognizing Jesus at first. Yet how many of us have found ourselves disoriented and wandering at times during the past year. At moments we have not recognized ourselves, let alone those around us.
And hearing good news does not necessarily erase our fear, especially when we are filled with doubt and anxiety. So, it is not all too surprising that a week later that the disciples find themselves in the exact same place…hiding away together in the same house, behind the same shut door. So, Jesus comes again. This time Thomas is with the disciples. He missed their first encounter with Jesus and did not believe them. In other moments of the gospel story, Thomas has revealed to be a practical guy. So, his response sounds to their news sounds like the Thomas they know: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Can one blame him for needing some reassurance and certainty during this complicated, murky, messy time?
What I find surprising is not Thomas’s doubt, but the sharing of his doubt publicly. He is not afraid to display his vulnerability. And what’s more, the community of disciples do not rebuke him for doing so. Even in their own fearful state, they allow him to articulate his uncertainty without fear of mockery or retaliation.
So when Jesus comes again, bolstered by the community’s support and care Thomas accepts God’s presence in their midst. Jesus invites him to “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas exclaims ‘My Lord and my God!’ in recognition.
In addition to his vulnerability, Thomas reassures us faith doesn’t have to be straight forward. Writer Debie Thomas observes “Rarely does change happen all at once. Often it creeps along ever so slowly and gradually, comes in sideways and in fits and starts.
Anyone who has battled an addiction, stuck it out in a challenging relationship, or lived with a chronic illness knows conversion is a life-long process.” Thomas reveals that it is ok for us to take our time, it is ok for us to wander, it is ok to hope for more.
This is a story about God coming to us wherever and however we might be. So, how do we know if God arrives in our own lives? I believe John offer two clues if we have encountered God. First, Jesus says “Peace be with you” when the disciples react with fear and Thomas reacts with doubt upon their first meeting after the resurrection. When life feels unmoored, our bodies are shaky, our souls are weary, and our guards are up, Christ does not arrive with an argued defense or rationalized response. Rather he comes with a surprising proclamation of peace and touching love.
Second, after Jesus says, “Peace be with you” it is quickly followed by an invitation to see his inner most parts. That scriptures says that with the disciples “he showed them his hand and his side.” And a second time with Thomas, Jesus invited him to put his fingers through his wounds. There is hardly a breath between the comforting words of Jesus and the revealing of his wounds. The peace of Christ is tethered to the wounds of Christ.
Theologian Serene Jones shares this story affirms that “God comes in those moments when peace is offered, and in those moments when life’s most brutal violence is honestly acknowledged, and when in the midst of confronting this bracing honesty, we realize that we are not alone.”
Christ’s resurrected body is not unblemished, without any sign of what trauma it has endured. Christ’s healing does not mean that his body returns to its former state. Rather, Christ’s resurrected body wounded and healed reminds us that some pain, some trauma, will always stay with us. Our wounds are not pretty, and they certainly are not the whole story of who we are, but they are honest, and in that way, can be seen as holy.
The television show Ted Lasso has been a source of delight and comfort for me this past year. It is about an American football coach who ends up in London managing a Premier League soccer team. He makes this unlikely, possibly disastrous, decision in the midst of a painful and disorienting separation from his wife. As it happens, he is hired by a woman named Rebecca Welton who has just gone through her own public, messy, and demeaning divorce.
Her husband’s first and only true love is this soccer team. In a vindictive move, she assumes ownership of the team in the divorce settlement, and it becomes her singular objective to drive this team into the ground as a form of revenge against her husband. Her first strategic move is the hiring of Ted Lasso.
Rebecca plots a series of events meant to humiliate Ted, and thereby to ridicule the team —including tabloid photos, unwarranted team trades, and supposed character assassination exposes in the local paper. Each vengeful act fails.
Confronted with Rebecca the damage she has caused, and with the realization that it extends far beyond her ex-husband. She gathers the gumption to confess the whole thing to Ted.
Rebecca finds Ted in the team locker room and says “I lied to you. I hired you because I wanted this team to lose.”
She goes not to admit: “I wanted you to fail and I have sabotaged you at every chance I have had. I wanted to cause my ex-husband as much pain and suffering as he had caused me. I didn’t care who I used or who I hurt. Ted, I am so sorry.”
Ted replies with a simple: “I forgive you.” She is confused: “What? Why?” “Divorce is hard. If doesn’t matter if you are the one leaving or the one who got left. It makes folks do crazy things. I mean I am coaching soccer in London…”
Through this light-hearted series, and in this exchange in particular, a profound question is implied: What if we honestly revealed our brokenness and vulnerabilities to one another?
And we might add another, related question: What if we saw such occasions as an invitation to share God’s grace with one another?
The passing of the peace is one of our beloved liturgical traditions at MemChurch. This ritual goes back to biblical times. What might it look like if we took cues from Jesus in sharing the peace. “
Peace be with you and I am tired from staying up all night worrying.”
Peace be with you and I yelled at my child this morning.”
“Peace be with you and I am addicted to alcohol.”
“Peace be with you and I am all alone.”
The peace Jesus announces is not one to be left behind locked doors. God calls us to share it with the world. Yet, even if we are scared and fearful with the doors of our hearts locked trying to protect us from the pain and suffering of the world. God will still find us. “Peace be with you. I am here.”