Beyond Our Fear

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[A sermon preached on John 20:19-31 for Presbyterian Women’s Sunday on the Second Sunday of Easter at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church.]

We were up bright and early on Easter morning. The cinnamon rolls were ready to go, our Easter baskets were waiting to be opened, and I even had hopes of snagging a chocolate bunny before making my way to worship. Easter is the most joyous day of our Christian calendar; it’s a celebratory season following the introspection and repentance of Lent. Triumphant hymns, jubilant alleluias, and traditional Easter lilies set the stage for a vibrant worship service. Families, all decked out in their Sunday best, fill our pews with faces old and new, and the congregation becomes a lively sea of seersucker and soft pastels. Sure, folks may have satisfied their sweet tooths by the time the prelude begins, but somehow, we know that the energy descending upon us is more than just a sugar buzz. Jesus is risen! Hope casts out despair, and love claims victory over death itself! Easter is grace upon grace.

So, imagine my dismay, when I walk out to my car early that Sunday morning, to find my tire flat as a pancake. “Today of all days,” I thought to myself as a I sighed and looked up the number for AAA. The outer rim had been pierced by a nail, appropriately enough, and I found myself stranded on the busiest liturgical holiday of the year. Things weren’t off to a great start, and as the worry and dread began to build in the pit of my stomach, I realized those feelings were uncomfortably familiar to me.

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Lately, my tires weren’t the only ones feeling a little deflated. As I watched news coverage of the latest school shootings, I worried for the safety of my community even as familiar feelings of shock and numbness quickly took hold. Remembering back to Columbine and Newtown and Virginia Tech, I lamented that not enough has changed in the wake of such tragedies, and my sadness quickly gave way to cynicism that we might ever find a way forward. And yet, even in the midst of great despair, hope seemed to rise from the rubble. Students raised their voices. Our youth created a movement. Hundreds of thousands of people in DC as well as other cities came together to March for Our Lives, looking on as traumatized children turned their pain into action, into change.

It reminded me of other student-led protests during the Vietnam War era and the Civil Rights Movement. These were dark periods of our history, moments when hope seemed far off and justice looked like a lost cause. As we remembered the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination this past week, I found it hard to stomach the juxtaposition of his dream-filled legacy and the unrelenting pattern of police shootings of unarmed black men in our communities. The violence we inflict on people of color remains the same even as it grows more subtle and nebulous, hiding behind plausible deniability, the myth of colorblindness, and thinly-veiled law and order rhetoric. Even as we celebrated how far we’ve come, we still realized how far this country still has to go to achieve true racial justice and reconciliation.

And on this Presbyterian women’s Sunday, as I survey the landscape of the challenges we face as justice-seeking disciples in this day and age, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the #metoo movement and the pervasive culture of sexualized violence in this country. As news reports rolled in with stunning regularity – Harvey Winestein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Larry Nassar, and so many others – it seemed like none of our most powerful cultural icons could claim a clean conscience. By exposing these abuses of power and knocking these men off the pedestals our culture erected in their honor, a small group of courageous women inspired a movement. In the wake of this reckoning, we logged in to our social media platforms only to see a flood of women disclosing their own experiences of harassment and abuse. Many of us couldn’t help but wonder if anyone was untouched by the effects of this type of violence. Even as I despaired over the prevalence of such experiences, I also found hope at the growing awareness of these issues. There seemed to be little glimmers of light breaking through the darkness. Yes, the tire may be flat, but at least AAA is on their way.

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Maybe like me, you’ve watched some of these developments unfold, and you’ve felt similarly deflated lately. Opening a newspaper or turning on the television often feels like an exercise in re-traumatization. Whether it’s gun violence, racialized violence, or sexual violence, we live in the midst of traumatized communities. These are all different iterations of the same violence that cost Dr. King his life, the same violence that crucified our God. How could we not feel like the air is continually being let out of us?

I imagine that’s probably how the disciples felt as they gathered together in the immediate aftermath of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Our Gospel reading this morning tells us that they were shut up tight behind closed, locked doors, because they were fearful for their lives. We see this same sort of reaction in Mark’s Gospel when he tells us that the first witnesses to the resurrection “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). In both of these accounts, the trauma to which Jesus’ followers had born witness threatened to overwhelm their capacity to cope, let alone their ability to fulfill the Great Commission.

Theologian Serene Jones paints us a detailed picture of the disciples’ fearful gathering, suggesting we might “imagine that [the disciples] are talking rather frantically, talking fast and at times confusedly. A barely suppressed hysteria registers in their voices: their leader has just been tortured and executed, and they are trying to make sense of it . . . In the process they are probably replaying the scene of the crucifixion again and again. As they recall – [perhaps fuzzily] – the violent events that happened just days before, they seem to be stuck in a playback loop, having lost both their hope and their future” (Jones, Trauma and Grace, 38). “These disciples,” Jones writes, “these disoriented witnesses to a devastating event, are trauma survivors” just like survivors of school shootings or sexual violence or police brutality. “Even though [the disciples] were not themselves tortured and nailed to a cross, they bear in their speech and in their bodies the reality of the horror that unfolded before them and forever pulled their lives into its drama. (Jones, Trauma and Grace, 39).

It’s no wonder that their fear is palpable as they gather together. Sure, there had been resurrection sightings, a stone rolled away to reveal an empty tomb, but could they really trust their own eyes in the midst of such grief? What if it had just been wishful thinking? Their minds playing tricks on them? And what if Rome came after them next? Yet, it’s into their shocked disbelief that Jesus speaks the words “Peace be with you.” As Serene Jones points out, “Notice that it is Jesus who comes to them. The disciples in their pain and fear, do not have to figure out how to reach him. He simply appears, full-bodied and present. Here, then, is God coming to us, even in this moment of violence as we babble in fear. This coming of God into the place of disordering violence is crucial to our understanding of the events around us; as [disciples], could it be that our call is primarily to announce God’s already-enacted advent, the diving coming? If so, then we need to remember that as we seek to minister in a world too full of violence, we do not need to make God appear, for God is here already. Our task is to proclaim God’s [risen, wounded] presence” (Jones, Trauma and Grace, 39).

Now, I say God’s risen, wounded presence, in particular, because that’s exactly what it took for these disciples to move beyond their fear. I’ve always felt particularly bad for Thomas in this narrative because we’re quick to dub him “Doubting Thomas.” It seems like he gets an unfair appraisal compared to the others. I wonder if it might be more appropriate to think of him as “Traumatized Thomas.” I mean, how could we reasonably expect him to believe after the horrors he’d witnessed? All the other disciples had gotten to see the risen Christ, noting wounds in his hands and side, before they could recognize him and rejoice. They found healing and hope through restored connection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus called our Helper, Comforter, and Advocate. Jesus had given them the tools they needed to re-integrate their experience of trauma and embrace the gift of the resurrection. Thomas just happened to be out of the room, and so unlike the rest, he remained stuck in the narrative of fear and violence. Of course, he stood in need of healing, of course he found himself experiencing a crisis of faith, of course he must have felt like all the air had been let out of him!

It isn’t until he examines the wounds caused by this trauma, until he draws in closer and reaches out his hands to place his fingers in the brokenness, that he can start to heal. The God that he recognizes in the risen Christ is a wounded healer, one who uses his own deepest brokenness as a source of healing for others. In these appearances, Christ demonstrates for Thomas, and for all of us who seek to be disciples, that the work of ministry requires all of who we are, even the broken, tender places in us.

That’s what I saw when I looked on as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took the microphone and women all cross the country tweeted out #me too and churches and other groups began hosting conversations focused on dismantling institutional racism. I saw students leading from their wounds when they spoke out despite tears streaming down their faces. I saw women leading from their wounds when they were vulnerable enough to speak hard truths in service to change. I saw my presbytery leading from its wounds when we decided to read Growing Up White together in our churches, as we sought to become more aware of our own complicity in injustice.

I also see us leading from our wounds here, at BPC, in so many different ways, but particularly on this Presbyterian Women’s Sunday through our 2018 Birthday Offering. One of the causes that Mary tells me our PW feel especially passionate about is our support of The Dwelling Place, a shelter that provides for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of women and their children following their escape from a violent partner.

As we celebrate our risen Lord this Easter season, we give thanks that resurrection doesn’t mean ignoring the wounded places in ourselves and our communities. It doesn’t mean sweeping those things under our shiny, white paraments or drowning out our songs of lament with half-hearted alleluias. Resurrection means looking a little deeper at the brokenness that tugs at our heart strings and finding a way to offer the peace of Christ into those situations. It means showing up with a lug wrench and some elbow grease and getting to work on that flat, lifeless tire.

Resurrection isn’t just a one-time event; it’s the daily spiritual practice of bringing healing to our hurting world. Only then can our Hosannas hold meaning. Only then can our alleluias resound through our communities. Only then is Christ alive in and through us. Only then do we experience the miracle that is Easter. Alleluia, Amen.

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