Thomas who does not believe unless he touches.
Today I’m going to be preaching primarily on the Gospel from John – this famous story about “Doubting Thomas” – who is kind of a hero of mine. I’m going to focus on wounds – Jesus’ wounds and the wounds of our world – but also on what might heal those wounds: call it “balm” – as in the hymn “Balm of Gilead” – that heals the sin-sick soul. Before I start, I want to ask you to take the two small pieces of paper I’ve given you… I invite you to write on one piece the name of a WOUND that troubles you (it could be personal, local, global); and on the other write something that you find HEALING – some kind of “balm.” We’ll do something with those at the end of the sermon…
Sometimes the wounds of the world are almost unbearable. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can barely read the newspaper. We get the Sun Journal, and when David and I sit down to morning coffee we have a set routine: I start with the front page, and he takes the comics. Once he’s finished the crypto-quiz and Crankshaft it’s my turn to do the Jumble and read from Mark Trail to LuAnn. But first I have to deal with the front page. And it’s not easy. Over the past few years I find myself skimming headlines and often quite intentionally not continuing. The array of stories I’ve put on the altar today gives you a pretty good sense of why not… Prison abuse; domestic violence related to addiction; policies that undermine efforts to fight climate change. The list expands when you add in stories from the New York Times: asylum seekers living in appalling conditions on a Greek island; bail bondsmen extorting poor clients; Martin Luther King confronting us with the question “Where Do We Go From Here?” The bad news feels overwhelming. The extent of what I can do feels tiny. I desperately want to preserve some positivity about the world – even if it means putting on blinders – and so I skim, often turning to the editorial page to see if I can find someone I agree with, and then fold the paper for the recycling bin. Life goes on, and it’s tempting (TEMPTING!) to close my eyes and withdraw my hands.
In that case, I’m not Thomas. I’m actually worse than Thomas, refusing to touch – refusing to allow myself to be touched – by these raw wounds, refusing to consider that in touching them I might, after all, be touching Jesus.
In the first part of today’s Gospel – when Thomas still isn’t there – Jesus stands among the disciples and does three things: he shows them his hands; he grants them his peace, and then he breathes upon them his spirit. I’m struck by the sequence: maybe it’s like the Sun Journal – headlines first, then the comics. Wounds – peace – spirit. And then the fourth thing Jesus bids them do: go into the world and live forgiveness.
Last week Bill preached on the Easter story by reflecting on different modes of seeing: looking for something you’ve named, and want to find (like the mayonaisse) that keeps you from seeing at a deeper level. The disciples are looking for Jesus dead body can’t find him, but Mary – looking with different eyes – sees angels and then the risen Lord. Today’s story about Thomas is also a story about seeing, but links it to touching. It’s appallingly – but also wonderfully – bodily and visceral. Jesus doesn’t just offer Thomas the opportunity to touch his wounds, he orders him to do so.
It seems possible that there is a kind of evolutionary mechanism at work when we turn away from severe disfigurement and wounding. I say this not as a scientist who’s studied the matter, but as someone aware of my own physical reactions when I see certain kinds of images. Pictures of children with cleft palates, or – as I was looking for images for today’s bulletin – of a man whose nose and part of his cheek have been torn away in some horrible accident. It is physically difficult for me to look at these images. There are all sorts of versions of this in our wounded world, things we turn away from for reasons that may start with physiology, but which become ethical and spiritual. Jesus asks Thomas to overcome his skepticism, but perhaps also his physical repulsion. He doesn’t want us to turn away.
When I worked at the soup kitchen in New Haven, when I was in grad school, there was a woman named April who frequently came, pushing a shopping cart full of her life’s belongings. April had severely disfigured skin. Her face was covered with lesions and pustules. As I tried to think how to describe her face, I found myself remembering Jesus’ healing of lepers, and sure enough, April’s face looked pretty much like a leper’s. The reason I mention her here is because she was someone severely disfigured – and in a sense repulsive – whom I came to know and cherish. But cherishing her (and her wonderful sense of humor) meant you had to stay with her “wounds” long enough to get over your repulsion. In a sense, they became invisible. They were a part of who she was, but not in any way the most important part. April – along with the whole Christ Church soup kitchen – taught me something about looking and touching; about belief and forgiveness and peace.
I think it’s not accidental that I came to cherish April in a church soup kitchen. The reading from Acts today suggests one answer to the question of how we can touch Jesus wounds, and how those wounds can lead to something other than despair. “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which they possessed were their own, but they had everything in common… There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.” I overcame my repulsion at April within the context of a community of radical sharing. Maybe not quite as radical as the early Christians described in Acts, but still, a place where Peace was pronounced and the spirit of Christ was breathed into the world. Where whatever we had – soup, bread, time, listening – was shared for free. And it wasn’t only me touching April’s wounds. She was touching mine, and healing me.
Wounds need seeing. Wounds need touching. Wounds need healing. As I’ve thought this week about what I wanted to say today, I found myself thinking of the word SALVE – like the “balm in Gilead” that heals the sin-sick soul. Where do we find this balm?
We find it here, in the living body of Christ as we gather around this table for Eucharist, or to give voice to our sorrows, longings, and thanksgivings. Thank God for the broken bread, and for the voices of prayer.
We find it in the Salve that the women at the Center make – “Sophia’s Salve” – that is a physical manifestation of the healing that the center makes possible day after day in the lives of this community’s women. Thank God for the Center.
We find it in the Oasis of Music, and in the ability on Sunday mornings to make our own joyful noise, to use singing and swaying to release the anger and fear and frustration and hope that accummulates over the week. Thank God for music.
Can I find balm in the newspaper? What eyes (and heart) do I read with? Some years ago a book was published called Praying the News – and it’s an intriguing idea. The book description suggests that it involves lifting up concerns that you encounter in headlines and news stories. “Sometimes,” they write, “we may feel insignificant when faced with the problems of the world and wonder what we can possibly do to help. Intercessory pray is a concrete, direct way we can make a difference to those in psychological, physical, or spiritual need. Praying for others helps us to put our own troubles into perspective in order to consider the needs of others.”
This makes sense, but it’s also not enough for me. It’s a solitary and individual response to wounds that challenge me more viscerally. “[Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.’” If the wounds of our world are a wounded Jesus – wounds of poverty and violence, racism and exclusion, addiction and abuse – then Jesus is telling us to touch them, to establish contact, and to find in that contact a way to say, with Thomas: My Lord and My God. For me personally the only way I can possibly have the courage and compassion to do that is in your company, nourished around this table – in a community that echoes in some faint way the communities of the disciples and the early Christians.
In closing I want to ask you to come forward with the words you wrote on your pieces of paper – wounds and balm. We’ll put them on the altar, and then say together the prayer on your handout.