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Sunday, April 23, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The vision of his skeptic mind
was keen enough to make him blind
to any unexpected act
too large for his small world of fact. . . .
May we, O God, by grace believe
and thus the risen Christ receive,
whose raw, imprinted palms reached out
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.
Thomas H. Troeger, “These Things Did Thomas Count as Real”
I won’t ever forget that day. It was one of those days of ministry that stays with you forever. But I was still caught off guard when I realized this past Holy Week it was Phoebe’s birthday. Phoebe, by the way, was not her actual name. She would have been twelve years old this year. It is just about impossible for me to believe. Time has moved quickly for me, but even though we are no longer in touch, my guess is that time has not moved nearly as quickly for her parents.
I had been trying to do what I always do on Friday afternoons: write a sermon. But then I received one of those phone calls, one of those “get to the hospital now” phone calls. No time to tie up loose ends. No time to go home and put on the clergy collar. No time to really think about what you might encounter. The phone rang. I picked up. My church member said, “They took my baby to the ER. Please come.” So I went.
And when all was said and done and Phoebe had been disconnected from all the machines, we just sat there in the private family waiting room next to the ER. It was getting late in the afternoon. The room was hot and stuffy, normal weather for a Texas August. Phoebe’s parents were trying their best to keep it together and to fill out all the paperwork necessary for the medical examiner. Age: 4 months. Sex: Female. Date of birth: April 2005. The rest of us—the big sister, the grandparent, a few friends, the hospital chaplain, and me—we all just sat in a state of heavy shock. Sweet, lovely baby Phoebe had died, and we had no answers.
Nothing about her death made any sense. I had just baptized her eight weeks before, having very recently become the family’s pastor. That Friday had been her first day in day care while her parents got back to a normal daily routine. Everything was the way it was supposed to be, until it wasn’t. And suddenly, on a hot August afternoon, we all found ourselves gathered in fear and disbelief behind the closed door of the family waiting room. Even though it was stuffy, no one went to open the door. It was almost like we thought if we could keep the door shut and stay huddled in there together, then we could avoid the reality of her death for a while longer. We knew that tactic of avoidance was not going to work for very long, but we were going to try it for as long as we could.
As we sat there, gathered in our fear and disbelief behind the shut door, we were all silent. No one knew what to say. No platitudes fit in that room. No “it was her time.” No “God needed another angel.” No “it must be God’s will.” Nothing. For it was not her time, and God did not need her as an angel, and the God in whom we trusted would never will the death of a child. We all sat there in silence, because there was nothing to say. Her death made no sense. At some point, her mom or her dad simply cried softly. And I got up to stand behind them, to put my hands on their shoulders, but I still had no words.
What do you say? “I know”? Could I really say “I know how it hurts”? I could not say that. I had no idea what that felt like. I would leave the hospital that day to go home and to rock my then fifteen-month-old son to sleep that night. I had no idea the pain her parents were feeling. And yet, as their pastor, I wanted to know. I wanted to understand that kind of hurt so that I could really be with them in that space of brokenness and sharp pain and unrelenting grief. I was their sister in Christ. I was their new pastor. I had just put the baptismal water on their baby’s head. I wanted to know. But I could not, and pretending that I could would have only caused more pain.
My friend, the Reverend Meg Peery McLaughlin, puts it this way: It is a conundrum, I think. For when we pour out a painful story—a testimony of truth and torment, we don’t want someone to say, “I know. I know exactly what that feels like,” because it’s my hurt, my story. Unique. Singular. No one else can really know what it feels like. Maybe you know what it feels like to lose a spouse, but you don’t know what it feels like to lose my spouse. Maybe you know what it feels like to look for a job, but you don’t know what it means for me, for my family, for my finances, for my ego. Maybe you know about cancer because you had a mastectomy, but you don’t know my weariness and worry, you don’t know my hot flashes and headaches. You don’t know (Meg Peery McLaughlin, Paper from The Well, May 2009).
Yet the conundrum comes, because, at the same time, whenever we are in the place of such brokenness and sharp pain and unrelenting grief, we desperately want someone to know. We do want someone to put his or her arm around us and say, “I know,” for it feels like too much to bear if we are the only person who has ever experienced that kind of broken-heartedness (Meg Peery McLaughlin). We need someone to know. We need someone to say, “I have had that same feeling. I have been in that same space of numb shock. I have locked myself in fear and disbelief behind a closed door, trying to avoid the reality of the pain. I know what it is to hurt like that,” for that hurt would give them the credentials to listen, and we would not feel so alone.
Perhaps that was what was happening with those disciples, including Thomas. They, in their grief and disbelief and fear, were behind locked doors as that first Easter day started to turn to dusk. Perhaps the air in the upper room might have been stuffy and hot. I doubt they were talking about very much. They had no words. How do you speak of such disappointment? How do you speak of such grief and heartache? Not only had their friend been publicly killed, in disgrace and humiliation, but he had also been who they thought was the One. He was supposed to have been the Messiah. The Savior. God’s Son. He was supposed to have been their hope. The fulfillment of God’s promise. A herald of God’s reign.
But within the span of one week, all of it had crashed down around them and they were left in an upper room, full of grief and disbelief and fear, hiding behind locked doors in a last-ditch attempt to avoid the reality that it was all over. And for whatever reason, Thomas decided to leave the room. Sometime after he left, a strange thing happened. In the middle of what felt to be that God-forsaken place, in the middle of the disciples’ brokenness and sharp pain and unrelenting grief, John’s Gospel reports that the risen Jesus came, stood among them, and wished them peace.
Then he did something for which we can be forever grateful. He showed them his wounds. He showed them his hands and his side. We wonder why—not only why did Jesus think they needed to see his wounds (the disciples had not asked) but also why he still had them in the first place. Biblical scholar Richard Hays writes, “Isn’t it curious that God could raise Jesus from the dead but didn’t heal the nail wounds in his hands? Was this an oversight? Surely not. The power of death is conquered, but the wounds remain” (Richard Hays, “Fingering the Evidence,” Christian Century, 1 April 1992).
Why? Why did our risen Christ still bear the marks of his wounds? I believe it was because God knew those wounds would serve as God’s credentials for us. Those wounds would be Jesus’ “I know” for us, for by still bearing the marks of his wounds, our risen Christ showed those first disciples, reminds us, that the God in whom we trust truly understands, indeed knows firsthand, what it is like to be us—what it feels like to be born into this world completely vulnerable and dependent on others; what it feels like to have to grow up, to take on responsibility, to be an adult with all the stress and pressure that comes with it.
The God in whom we trust truly understands, knows firsthand, what it feels like to have your heart broken by betrayal, to be angry about injustice, to deeply soak up the warmth of love. And as we proclaimed all Holy Week and Easter, the God in whom we trust truly understands, knows firsthand what it feels like to hurt, to suffer, to feel abandoned, and to die. As William Temple said, “The wounds of Christ are his credentials to the suffering race of humanity” (Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus, p. 138). They are our signs that Jesus, God with us, knows.
That must be at least some of what the disciples concluded too, because as soon as they saw those wounds on their risen Savior, they rejoiced, received his peace, and breathed in his Spirit, making them ready to be his body in the world. Honestly, that is all Thomas wanted too. For whatever reason, he had not been with them that day, and so he struggled to trust their experience of their still wounded yet risen Jesus.
But thank God Thomas was brave enough to say out loud how he felt. “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.” In other words, unless I see his credentials that he really is the same Jesus who was born, who lived, who suffered, who was crucified, who was dead and buried, unless I see those credentials, I will not buy the proposition that God was actually with us, one of us. Unless I can touch and see that Jesus really knows, then I cannot believe that nothing separates us from God’s love.
Thank God Thomas was brave enough to give it words, for God responded to Thomas’s courage. A week later, John reports Thomas finds himself standing before the Risen Christ. In that moment Jesus does not rebuke him. Jesus does not admonish him. Jesus does not shame him. They do not talk theology. They do not have a question-and-answer time. Instead, Jesus the risen Christ shows him the wounds.
It is almost as if Jesus points to his hands and says, “Thomas, I know.” Then he points to his side and says, “Thomas, I know.” Thomas looks at his risen Lord still bearing his wounds, and then he knows and he cannot stop himself from making a very personal profession of faith, proclaiming “My Lord and my God.” Thomas looks at Jesus’ wounds, the risen Christ’s credentials, and knows there will never be a time when his pain or the pain of another or the pain of creation will ever stand alone again. Thomas looks and knows there will never be a time when hurt or grief or powerlessness or pain or death will have the last word again. For God in Jesus knows.
Therefore, as a people who follow this still-wounded yet risen Christ; as a people who, for generation upon generation, have been breathed-upon, formed, and sent to be Christ’s living body in this world—while we cannot and should not claim to fully know the suffering or the pain of another, we, like those first disciples, are given the courage and the command to stand with another as church in that suffering or pain. We are given the courage and the command to sit behind those locked doors, in those hot and stuffy rooms, in the middle of brokenness and unrelenting grief, not as those with an answer or an easy platitude but simply as those committed to being a presence, a sibling in Christ, a living, breathing reminder that God is present in that place too, and despite evidence or feelings to the contrary, they are not alone and never will be. We are given the courage and the command to let folks know, to remind each other, to remember for ourselves that God in Christ knows.
That is what happened with Phoebe’s family on the day of her memorial service. As I said earlier, her family had only been members for a few months and had not been able to get to know many people since they had a new baby in the house. So they did not know who, if anyone, from their new church would show up for a memorial service, but with courage and a deep sense of commitment, that congregation showed up in full force. The place was packed. As Phoebe’s mom, dad, and big sister came into the sanctuary, they saw pews filled with people they did not know yet, but people who were determined to have their backs, to be church for them, and to love them through the wilderness of their grief, which they did for years following. As that little family filed into their pew down front, by that congregation’s willingness to be present in that tough space, those church members proclaimed, “We cannot know your hurt. But God can. And God does. God knows.”
And God in Christ has the credentials, the wounds, to prove it. God knows. We are not alone, not even in our woundedness. Thanks be to God. Amen.