Show Me

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a reflection on John 20:19-29 for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

I was surprised some years ago when I learned that during the first few centuries of the church, the most important season of the year was not the season of Advent, not the season of Lent. For the early church, the most important season of the year was the season of Easter—the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. This season, in the early church, the season we’re moving through right now, was set aside as a season of Joy. It was set aside precisely for the purpose of helping us receive and live into new life with the Risen Christ.

There is deep wisdom, I think, in the understanding that this new life is a process,–it’s not instantaneous — and that it takes time for us to let go of old habits, old ways of living that stand in the way of new life.  And so, the founders of the early church understood that these 50 days following the astonishing Easter resurrection, are a good time to start living, day by day, into the new life that God promises us. Unless, of course, like Jesus’ friends, you happen to be locked in a room, terrified. Afraid for your life.

This is exactly where we find our friends this morning. Their beloved teacher has been executed by a terrorist regime—a regime that very intentionally and publicly crucifies its enemies as a warning to anyone who might be planning disobedience of any kind.

So Jesus’ friends are hiding out  in a locked room, knowing that any moment now, someone down on the street could point to their window and identify them as followers of Jesus. Any moment now, there could be a knock on the door. And so, in the wake of the resurrection, in the wake of the first, great Easter — they don’t feel much like spreading the good news! Instead, they are locked in a room together, waiting for the other sandal to drop.

And it is into this room that Jesus suddenly appears, saying “Peace be with you.” Then he shows everybody his wounds. And they see. And believe that he’s really there.

Everybody, that is, except for Thomas, who has the bad luck to be absent on the day when his teacher appears. He’s down by the river doing his laundry or something.

So it is that Thomas does not get the benefit of seeing what the other disciples have already seen. When we meet Thomas this morning, he’s still terrified, traumatized. Most important, Thomas is still heartbroken. When we meet him this morning, Thomas is a guy who has been wounded, badly, by the loss of the friend he trusted and loved.

I’m willing to bet that Thomas isn’t the only one among us who has ever felt this way. I find it fascinating church tradition takes a guy like Thomas and blames him for having so little faith. Doubting Thomas, we call him. It’s particularly fascinating because if we look closely at the text, what we see is that Jesus himself doesn’t seem to blame Thomas at all. If Jesus blamed Thomas for his lack of faith, Jesus could have just left him to stew in his own disbelief—why bother showing up again, just for a guy who has no faith?

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus does. One week later, while the disciples are once again huddled in a locked room, Jesus appears yet again. As if he’s going out of his way to make sure that this time, Thomas will be there to see the wounds that the other disciples have already seen. As if it were the most natural thing in the world to need some evidence before we can believe. As if Jesus understands completely why Thomas—along with all the other disciples—cannot believe until his sees.

I’m pretty sure that Jesus does understand what Thomas needs, what we need, to see. Because Jesus, of all people, knows what it is to be wounded by the world. The Latin word for wound is vulnus, which is where we get our word vulnerable. Jesus, of all people, knows that to love always makes us vulnerable. Jesus, of all people, knows how terrifying it can be to love, to let your heart be vulnerable in this world.

Who better, then, to understand Thomas? Who better than the wounded Christ, the Christ of Compassion, to understand that it is Thomas’ own wounds, his own pain and disappointment, that make him afraid to believe again, afraid to believe in new life, in hope, in the possibility of joy.

“For those of you who can believe without seeing, Well, lucky you.” Jesus says. “You are blessed.” But for Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus shows up this morning to say, “Yes. I know how hard it is to believe, to trust again after you have been wounded.” To Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus says, “I know you need help to trust God again with your wounded heart. So, I will show you–I will show you!–exactly what you need to see.”

I suspect that there is something in every one of us that hesitates to reach out and claim the new life that God extends to us this season. There is a part of us—maybe our heart, maybe our soul–that has been wounded by life. Maybe even wounded by the church. And so, even in this season of new life and joy, we find ourselves still locked up in a room of fear, unable to trust in the possibility of new life. Like Thomas, we need some help, we need a reassuring sign—in order to be able to accept the offer of new life.

Lucky for us,Thomas, of all the disciples, has the courage to ask—the chutzpah, really!–to ask for the help he needs. No shame that he can’t believe. He simply asks to see. And it’s Thomas’ asking—his willingness to name what it is he needs —that seems to call Jesus in for a second visit.

And I wonder if the same might be true for us. In a minute, I’m going to stop talking and invite you to listen to any part of you that might be having some doubt this morning about all this new life business—any part of you that might, just like Thomas, be feeling a little afraid. Maybe it’s your heart. Maybe it’s your soul. A wounded inner child? I invite you to let that Thomas part of you finds its voice and ASK for whatever it might need in order to be willing to trust again…

And as you listen, I invite you to really honor what you hear by writing it down. There’s a piece of paper in your bulletin. And there should be a pencil or pen in the pew in front of you.  I invite you to write down whatever it is that your doubting, fearful heart needs to ask for this morning. You don’t have to share it with anyone; you don’t have to say it out loud. You can fold it right up and put it in your pocket. But I encourage you to listen to the voice of your own doubt this morning the way Jesus listens to Thomas. As if your very own doubt, just like Thomas’ doubt, is tender, and holy, and precious to God. Ask your own precious, vulnerable doubt what kind of a sign it needs. And then write down what you hear. I’ll give you a minute to listen, and write.

Whatever it is that you heard from your doubt this morning, I invite you to carry it with you this week. You might even want to look at it every now and then. And maybe, when you look at your own doubt, you might pray, as Thomas did, “Show me. God, show me the sign I need to see.” The sign you need to help you believe in the promise of new life that God is extending to you in this season of resurrection, this season of joy.

Above all, I invite you to be compassionate with your own doubting self. At least as compassionate as Jesus is with his beloved Thomas, the doubting one.

None of us gets through this life without being wounded. The world has its sharp, jagged edges, and they catch us, and we suffer, and we are afraid. Chances are that if we are truly going to receive new life in this season of Easter joy; if we are going to carry that new life into the world, then we’re going to need help, friends. We’re going to need each other.

If Thomas is any indication, God is ready, on a moment’s notice, to slip into the locked room of our fear and deliver to us that sign of hope, that sign of new life, if only we will ask.

And so we remember this morning, that the words, “Show me” are a complete and perfect prayer. And we give thanks to Thomas and all the faithful friends who teach us how to pray it. Thanks be to God.

 

I Took Them Up in My Arms

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A reflection on Hosea 11:1-4 and God the Mother 

Mother’s Day, 2019

I wonder if you can remember a moment when you happened to be in the right place at the right time to see a very small child, maybe only nine or ten months old, take his or her very first steps. Can you remember that moment? Maybe it was your own child, a niece or a nephew, maybe a grandchild. I wonder if there’s anything more thrilling, more remarkable, than an infant who is determined to walk; a child who is compelled by the very force of life itself to pull herself up on the edge of a coffee table and see if her own two legs will hold her. Maybe you were there at the moment when she let go of that table and took two, maybe three steps before she fell, laughing, into your waiting arms. I wonder if there is anything in the world more tender than the arms that catch a child as he takes a step and falls, takes another step and falls again.

When we witness this moment, when we are lucky enough to be right there for a child’s first steps, we know that something has changed forever. Not only for that newly walking baby. And not only for her parents, who have probably just raced off to Target to buy a baby gate for the top of the stairs: their lives have definitely changed forever. But they aren’t the only ones whose lives have changed. If you are there to witness those first steps, your life is different, too. Because when we catch that baby after his first, faltering steps, when we rejoice with that tiny girl after her first solo walk across the living room, the bonds of love are cemented between us. The shared experience of that much hope, that much love, joins our hearts and our souls in wild joy and in reverence for the milestone we’ve just shared. We’re linked forever. At least, that’s how it seems to work for us human beings.

For God, it seems that things don’t always turn out so well.

It was I, says God in our scripture reading this morning. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. (In this instance, the tribe of Ephraim stands for all of Israel.) I took them up in my arms, God says. But they did not know that I healed them.

I wonder if we can even begin to imagine the pain God is speaking about through the prophet Hosea this morning. It might be something like the pain we would feel if, as we watched that child take her first steps, we suddenly realized that when she grows up, she’s not even going to remember who we are.

I was to them, says God, Like those who lift infants to their cheeks. And still, God laments, they do not know me.

This is a heartbroken God we encounter this morning. A God who so gently, like the most tender parent, feeds and lifts and loves Her people, and yet remains invisible to them.

See if you can imagine the pain God speaks of here:  

I bent down to them and fed them, says God. And still they do not know me.

I bent down to them and fed them like a mother, says God, And still, they call me only “Lord,” only “Father,” only “Rock.”

This is not often what we think of when we picture God in our minds: a God whose heart is breaking because Her people have failed to see, have refused to recognize, God’s most tender love and care.

Instead, what we often imagine is a God who might accept our praise on Sunday mornings, but who certainly doesn’t need our understanding or our attention. Somehow, we  modern people, so independent, so technologically advanced, so able to manipulate our world and take care of ourselves in so many ways – we have created God in our own image. We have fashioning a God who is as self sufficient and independent as we imagine ourselves to be.

Not so, says the prophet Hosea. God is mother to us. God is even now bending all the way down to earth to feed us, the prophet cries. God is a mother whose heart is breaking because Her children do not recognize her for who she really is: the One who lifts each soul like a child to Her cheek and who longs for us to know Her in the fullness, in the mothering mercy, of Her love.

All through the long line of Hebrew prophets, all the way up to and including Jesus himself, what we see is a God who longs to be in intimate, loving relationship with all of creation, and with human creatures. And this morning, this Mother’s Day morning, the prophet Hosea reminds us that it is difficult to be in real relationship with anyone if we are determined to see only a small part of who they are. What I want to suggest is that the part of God we see, the side of God we are willing to recognize, has everything to do with how we treat one another and the other creatures with whom we share this world. The God we imagine—the image of God we offer to our children—has everything to do with the kind of world we leave our children and the kind of God they will find.

So I want to offer a mother’s day thank you, a mother’s day shout-out, to the prophet Hosea, who was writing in the middle of the 8th century BCE, which was a very, very dark time in his people’s history. A time when the Assyrian army was breathing down Israel’s neck, about to destroy the northern kingdom; a fearful time when any prophet could be forgiven for calling upon a vengeful, martial, punishing God. I want to give a shout-out to Hosea and to every prophet who has the courage, even in the most dangerous of times, to speak of the wholeness, and the tenderness of God. To offer us a God who is more loving, more merciful, more forgiving—and much more complete—than the judging, punishing, distant God we so often carry in our minds.

And I wonder this morning whether your own relationship with God might feel just a bit easier, maybe even more possible, if you knew for sure that ours is a mothering God. A God who even now is bending, kneeling, reaching, to gather you in. I think Mother’s Day might be the perfect day to give this God a try.

I wonder how we all might change—as a people, as a nation—if we knew for sure that God is mother to every single being. How might our criminal justice system change? How likely would we be to continue throwing errant 14-year-olds into juvenile hall if we knew that God loves those children more like a mother than like a punishing lord?

If we knew for sure that God is mother to every being, how likely would we be to continue incarcerating immigrant children and their families as they flee for their lives? It’s hard for me to imagine American corporations profiting from the incarceration of children and their families in a country whose people know, in their hearts, the tender mercy of a mothering God.

It’s hard to imagine the earth itself being plundered and poisoned for profit by a people who knows that God is even now lifting every leaf, every wing, every creature, to Her cheek with a mother’s tender love.

It was I, says God. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms, God says. But they did not know that I healed them.

What might it mean for you to know the God who is longing to heal us all? What might it mean to remember the God who even now is loving you into being moment by moment, breath by breath, Her own heart leaping with joy as you learn to trust the legs of your own life? What might it mean to remember the One whose arms are reaching, even now, to catch you, to forgive you, to offer you abundant life again and again?

This day, this Mother’s Day, may we hear the cry of the God who longs to be seen in Her wholeness. A God who is as merciful, as tender, as life-giving, as the people She created us to be. Amen.