Show Me a Sign

Grieving Thomas by Lauren Wright Pittman

a reflection on John 20:19-29 for the season of our grief

All summer long, we have been exploring, in worship, what it means to be “unravelled” by the circumstances of our lives. When I chose this theme, I was thinking, of course, of the ways in which our lives and plans have been unravelled by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Little did I know that before summer was out, we would be facing a wildfire season that is devastating our own communities, as well as communities all along the west coast, beyond even our most dire imaginings. 

This is a season in which our own lives, the life of the earth and all her creatures, as well as many of our assumptions about our own nation and the world, seem to be unravelling all at once. And so today, we turn to our friend Thomas, who, in the wake of Jesus’ death, has had his heart shattered and seen his hopes and dreams go up in smoke.

It’s important to remember that when we meet the disciples 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. This is the reason that 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, the police—an armed and dangerous state police force—might come knocking on their door. And so it is that we find them locked in a room together: confused, terrified, and unravelled by grief.

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. Of all Jesus’ closest friends, it is Thomas who does not get the benefit of seeing what the other disciples have already seen. When we meet Thomas today, he’s still terrified and traumatized. Most important, Thomas is still heartbroken. When we meet him this morning, Thomas is a guy who has been badly wounded by the loss of the friend he trusted and loved, and by the loss of a dream he cherished. The dream of a better life for himself and for the people he loves.

I have to admit that I find it perplexing that church tradition takes a guy like Thomas and blames him for having so little faith. “Doubting Thomas,” the church calls him. Imagine seeing a man whose life and dreams have been unravelled by the violent execution of his friend and teacher, and blaming that very man for doubting the possibility of new life. It would be like blaming someone who has just lost their home to a raging fire for being afraid to rebuild and trust in life again. 

I find it strange indeed that the church has done exactly this with Thomas. It’s strange because if we look closely at the text, what we see is that Jesus himself doesn’t seem to blame Thomas at all. After 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. It’s 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 in resurrection and new life. 

I’m pretty sure that Jesus does understand what Thomas, along with the rest of us, needs to see. Because Jesus, of all people, knows what it feels like to have our hopes and dreams and lives be unravelled by tragedy.  Jesus, whose own ministry of healing and peace was destroyed by a police state determined to cling to its power. 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, and in the possibility of joy. 

For those of you who can believe without seeing, well, lucky you, Jesus says. You are blessed. But to Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus says: I know it’s hard. I know how hard it is to believe, to trust again after you have been wounded. After your dreams have gone up in flames. To Thomas and the rest of us, Jesus says, I know you need help to trust God again with your wounded heart and your unravelled life. So, I will show I will show youexactly what you need to see.

I suspect that many of us are hesitant this season to even imagine the possibility of new life in the midst of a global pandemic; in the midst of catastrophic climate change and devastating weather; in the midst of the systemic racism and violence against black and brown bodies that screams daily across the headlines. In the midst of fierce wildfires that are raging all across the western states. Beloved, our own trusting souls, our own expansive hearts, have been wounded and unravelled by the traumatic events of this year. And so, even as summer slips into autumn, we too may find ourselves locked in our homes to escape both the virus and the smoke-filled air. We may find ourselves locked in by our own fears, unable to imagine, let alone trust, the possibility of new life for ourselves and for the world. Just like Thomas, we need some help!  We need a visible and reassuring sign that it is safe—and sane—to accept God’s offer of new life even now.

Lucky for us,Thomas, of all the disciples, has the courage to ask for the help he needs. Thomas asks to see for himself. And it is Thomas’ asking—his willingness to name what it is he needs—that seems to call Jesus in for a second visit.

It is often said in the church that the Good News of Jesus Christ is always both: always good and always new. And I wonder if perhaps, like Thomas, there is some part of you that is skeptical about God’s promise of new life. A part of you that might, just like Thomas, be feeling a little afraid. Maybe it’s your grieving heart. Maybe it’s your exhausted soul. I invite you to take a moment now and let that Thomas part of you find its voice. Here in the silence, just listen for the part of you that is wounded, skeptical, and afraid. Just listen and allow this part of you to ask for whatever it might need in order to be willing to trust again. 

Whatever it is that you heard from your doubt this day, 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  even now, in this long season of our collective unravelling. 

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. 

Because none of us gets through this life without being wounded. The world has its sharp, jagged edges; the world has its novel viruses and its ancient injustices. These catch us, friends. And when they do, we suffer, and we are afraid. And yet, even as we unravel and reweave the sacred threads of our lives, we are called — we are always called, by the Christ of God — to carry new life into the world. If our friend 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 a sign of hope, a sign of new life, if only we will ask.

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

From Compassion to Justice

a reflection on Exodus 1:22; 2:1-10 by Rev. Yael Lachman

Sunday, September 6th, 2020

An Imperfect Ally, painting by Lisle Gwynn Garrity

Today, we are invited to step once again into a familiar story. A beloved Sunday school story in which Moses’ mother, whose name is Yocheved, is so desperate to save her infant son that she puts him in a basket and floats him down the Nile. I wonder if we might take a moment and just see if we can even imagine this mother’s pain, this mother’s sorrow, as she releases that basket into the current, not knowing what will befall her child. As you picture this scene in your mind’s eye, maybe you can just glimpse the baby’s sister, Miriam, as she hides in the reeds, keeping watch. Maybe you can hear the sound of footsteps as Pharaoh’s daughter arrives with her attendants to bathe. Maybe you can hear the whisper of the river grasses in the morning breeze, the lap of waters upon the shore as the princess sees that basket and rescues the infant Moses from the waters of the Nile. If you hang around on the riverbank for a while, you will see Yocheved again as she arrives to reclaim her child. Perhaps you notice the way she struggles to hide her emotion as she receives her infant and carries him home, leaving Pharaoh’s daughter to her bath and to her thoughts. Thoughts, perhaps, about how, in a few months, she is going to have to explain the arrival of a newly weaned Hebrew child in the royal household. 

This week, as I have lived with this familiar story, a surprising thing began to happen. I noticed that in my imagination, another woman arrived to join Pharaoh’s daughter on the riverbank. This time, it was a modern woman by the name of Warsan Shire, whose words we hear in today’s prayer of confession: “No one puts their children in a boat,” she says, “unless the water is safer than the land.”

Warsan Shire is a Somali-British poet and writer who was born in Kenya to refugee Somali parents. She is a woman who knows first hand what kind of terror and suffering convinces a mother to do whatever it takes — from crossing a treacherous border to putting an infant in a deathtrap of a boat — in order to give that child the hope of new life. In my mind this week, Warsan Shire appears beside the river Nile to genuinely thank the Egyptian princess for her act of compassion. In my mind, Warsan Shire thanks Pharaoh’s daughter for showing mercy to the infant she finds among the reeds.

But I am here to tell you that while the imaginary riverside conversation begins with this expression of thanks, it does not end there. Because Warsan Shire knows, as we ourselves know, that while pulling a baby out of a river is a necessary act of mercy, it is not justice. Justice does not begin until we are willing to eradicate the horrific conditions, and to dismantle the systems of oppression, that cause desperate mothers to put their children in the river in the first place. 

In a familiar modern parable (attributed to the medical sociologist Irving Zola) some people are standing on a riverbank when they are surprised to see a crying, struggling baby floating down the river. Someone immediately dives in to rescue the child, of course. But as soon as that child is safe on shore, another child comes floating down the river. Then another…and another! Suddenly, the good folks on the riverbank are jumping in to save the babies as fast as they come downstream. Finally, one person begins to walk away from the group.  “Where are you going?” the rescuers shout. “We need everyone’s help to save these drowning babies!” To which the other replies: “I’m going upstream to stop whoever is throwing babies into that river.”

It is often said that church folks are very good at pulling babies out of the river, but that churches tend not to walk upstream to stop the injustices that cause those babies to be drowning in the first place. I’m going to leave it to you to make your own determination about the truth of this observation. Take a look around. My guess is that you will see churches of every persuasion feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and visiting folks in prison — as indeed we are called to do. I also suspect that you will not find many churches who are organizing to dismantle the underlying social, political, and economic systems that keep people hungry, and homeless, and incarcerated. All over the world, and right here at home, the church has a reputation for pulling babies out of the river without walking upstream to stop whoever is putting them there in the first place.

As Pharaoh’s daughter knows, to pull a baby out of the river is a necessary act of mercy. As Warsan Shire knows, to dismantle systems of social and political oppression is the work of justice. 

What does the Lord require of us? You know the answer, because we sing it every time we gather. The Lord requires us to seek justice, friends. The Lord also requires us to love mercy, for sure. But not without justice. 

And so there they stand, these two women of Africa — two women with huge and compassionate hearts are standing on the bank of the Nile and inviting us into their very interesting conversation. A conversation across the centuries about what it takes for us humans to get from mercy to justice. A conversation that may very well determine the course of our collective lives on this planet. A conversation that will determine the well being of the most vulnerable, human and otherwise, for centuries to come.   

And I believe we know what we are called to do at a moment such as this. We know because our sacred stories show us, again and again, that ours is a God who breaks into history on the side of justice for the most vulnerable; a God who, yes, asks us to jump into the river…but who also expects us to walk upstream and put a stop to the madness. Even when that work is really, really hard. 

This is why we read these ancient stories, friends: because they embody for us the story of our own human lives, and the story of our life with God. Moses’ rescue from the Nile is not the end of God’s story. On the contrary, this act of mercy is only the beginning of God’s plan for social and economic justice. A divine plan in which one woman’s act of mercy saves a child who grows up to be called by God to completely disrupt the slave economy of Egypt. When God calls to Moses out of that burning bush, God is using that now-grown child as the vehicle by which God breaks into history to dismantle a corrupt and cruel socioeconomic system: a system that was using up human beings and throwing them away; a system that was killing infants in order to protect the power and privilege of the political and social elite.

Friends, this is a radical act of social justice. When Moses answers God’s call, Moses becomes an agent not only of mercy but of justice and freedom. There on the riverbank, Warsan Shire stands beside the Pharaoh’s daughter and asks her — just as she asks us — if we are willing to do the same. 

What a difficult conversation these two women are having in my mind. The princess who has just completed a beautiful act of great mercy and compassion. “Isn’t that enough?” the princess asks. And in my imagination, the Somali-British woman who was born to terrorized refugee parents replies that no, it is not enough. We must also walk upstream. We must offer not only mercy, but also the justice that God intends for all children, and for all creation.

These conversations are never easy, are they? It is scary, and sometimes dangerous, to work for real justice. The kind of justice that demands the dismantling of privilege and power. It is much easier to side with Pharaoh’s daughter; to offer compassionate charity and leave it at that. But the God of Moses does not stop there. The God of Moses will not stop calling us until the captives go free and the whole crumbling pyramid of privilege and oppression comes tumbling down.

Beloved, there is beautiful mercy on the shore of the river. And there is also a path — a thorny path — that leads upstream to real justice. The choice before us is whether to stay on the shore or to take that thorny path. And I believe that every individual, as well as every congregation and every nation, must make this choice, either with intention or by default. This election season in particular, I am praying that we will take the time to make a conscious choice between mercy alone or mercy combined with the systemic change required by justice. Will we settle for offering charity? Or will we dismantle our unjust political economy and build a new social order devoted to the common good?

I don’t know how this conversation will play out on our riverside trails and around our dinner tables and in town hall meetings this season. But I am praying that we, along with the worldwide Church, will remember that God calls us from every holy corner of this burning planet; that God calls us not only to love mercy but to seek real justice as well.

May we find the courage to walk upriver together and to do the difficult, disruptive work that justice demands of us. May we find true and brave new friends for the work ahead. Amen.