An emotional one to preach, for sure.
This is what the altar looked like this morning (come to think of it, it still looks like that – I just realized I left after confirmation with cleaning it up – oops). At the end of my sermon when I referenced coming up to light candles during the Music For Reflection, this is what I was talking about.
A close up of the fountain. I bought it specifically for this altar design, but am kind of excited to put in my office now. So soothing! Anyway – here’s the sermon!
The Sunday after Easter is such a letdown, isn’t it? There are no trumpets; there are no balloons; there are no confetti canons waiting to be set off. It is just a regular old service – no bells or whistles.
I would imagine that the disciples experienced a similar letdown in the week that followed the first Easter. The astonishment and bewilderment of seeing the risen Christ has somewhat faded – and, as we read in this morning’s scripture, has been replaced by doubt.
This morning’s Gospel passage is often referred to as the ‘Doubting Thomas’ story. Thomas – one of the twelve disciples – was not with the rest of the disciples when Jesus appeared to them and did not believe that the man they saw was Jesus. Thomas said, “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.” And so a week later Thomas was with the disciples when Jesus appeared again. And Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And then Thomas believed.
Poor Thomas – I think more often than not he gets pinned up as the example of what not to do. After all, he did not believe that Christ had risen until he saw proof. And he was not supposed to need proof – we are not supposed to need proof! I think post-Easter sermons have a tendency to go like this: Needing proof is bad → Belief is good → Thomas needed proof → Thomas is bad → Don’t be like Thomas → Believe → Amen.
But it’s not that simple; because, like Thomas, we are human beings. We need proof, we need to use our senses to know that things are real and we need closure to know that something good has come out of something tragic.
Most of you know that in the summer of 2010 I worked as a chaplain at Grady Memorial Hospital, a Level 1 Trauma Center in downtown Atlanta. I was on call one night when I received a page from the chaplain at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. There had been a boating accident on Lake Lanier and a 16-year-old girl was being flown to Grady with massive brain injuries.
I have told this story before; my life changed that night. I found it very difficult to find anything good out of the absolute tragedy that was unfolding for this family. Over the next few days a series of tests were done to see if there was any activity in the girl’s brain; there was not. At that point Life Link, which is a nonprofit organization that oversees organ donation in Georgia, Florida and Puerto Rico, came in to talk to the family. Without hesitation they made the decision to donate all of their daughter’s viable organs. The surgery happened on one of my days off so I was not able to see the family one last time. I read about the funeral a few days later in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, but that was the last I ever heard about them.
One of the things that I desperately struggled with in my role as a hospital chaplain was lack of closure. You meet people as their stories are tragically changing and then you never get to see how those stories continue on. I wrestled with that for months; in a sense I was no better than Thomas – I needed closure to know that something good came out of something tragic.
This past Thursday afternoon I was in Weymouth with my New Clergy Group. We all looked a little worn and ragged after a busy Easter season combined with a high pollen count. We started off our meeting by checking in with one another – we do this by each talking about how things are going with us and with our churches and then spend time in prayer for each person. At the end of our check in time each month I always feel extremely peaceful and this month was no exception. When we said our final “amen” I heard a noise outside. I turned around to look out the window and saw that it had started pouring. “Fall, rain, fall!” I said. “Wash that pollen away!”
Is it just me, or is there something very therapeutic about rain, especially in the spring season when the pollen count is high and everyone is miserable? In a very literal way this time of year, rain washes away the bad stuff so that we can feel better. As it falls I am always reminded of the waters of baptism; I think about the healing power of God’s grace that is poured over all of us and washes away our sins and imperfections. So as I watched the rain fall on Thursday I did feel better knowing the pollen was being washed away; but I also felt touched by God’s grace. And I felt an odd sense of peace – like the rain was trying to tell me something.
At that point we took a break and I looked at my phone. I had received a text message from a friend of mine who worked with me at Grady that summer and is now back completing a one-year residency. He told me that the girl’s mom was at Grady giving a testimony on Life Link. My heart skipped a beat; I hadn’t heard their name in so long. I asked how she was doing and he said, “[Her] voice hasn’t stopped shaking. They’ve been in contact with the people who have her organs. The girl who got her heart is a healthy 11 year old now.”
Two hours later I received another text message. “[She] wanted me to tell you hello. They remember you well and with thanks.”
I got in my car to drive home that afternoon and cried. Because as it turns out closure does not come when we want it to and or when we think that it should. Sometimes we have to wait; and while we wait we are strengthened by God’s creating love and healed by the grace that rains upon us. When closure did not come right away for me at the hospital I had to allow God into my life in a way I never had before, I had to create and utilize a support network and I had to find tangible ways to cope with my grief, my anger and my sadness. And I think in the end I grew over these past two year in ways that I would not have if I had gotten immediate closure.
Closure came – it just took time. And it took me letting go and letting it happen in that time.
Thursday’s rain healed far more than just my spring allergies.
Yes, is important to read the ‘Doubting Thomas’ story and be reminded of the fact that, “Needing proof is bad → Belief is good → Believe.” But I also think that it is important to read the ‘Doubting Thomas’ story and be reminded of the fact that sometimes it is okay to be like Thomas. It is okay to have doubts and to ask questions and to be frustrated when things do not work out the way we want them to. It is okay to seek closure. Because when we finally do get to that closure, we will have experienced this incredible journey along the way.
So there are no bells and whistles today. Just an empty cross – and an even emptier tomb – reminding us that God’s love and grace does triumph over tragedy.
During our ‘Music for Reflection’ this morning I invite you to come forward and light a candle on the altar for the things in your life that you are still waiting on closure for. Be strengthened by God’s love – and be healed by the grace that is poured upon you.
Without seeing proof we know that Christ is risen and that God is good. We are a people of the resurrection! Thanks be to God!