Monday, April 22, 2013

Encountering Resurrection

This is the sermon I preached to the generous Deer Creek Charge United Methodist Churches upon my return from an UMCOR Volunteers in Mission Trip to Haiti. I am still processing the trip. Much of what jumped out at me immediately following the trip was our shameful misunderstanding of Haitian history and our own complicity with the country's poverty; so, though it may seem strange that I talked so much about Haitian history in my sermon, that is where I was.

Scripture: John 20:19-31 (NRSV)
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “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.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Thomas Reflecting1
This next reading comes from the Wild Goose Worship Group, a group seeking to renew worship, make it more participatory. We are reading their interpretation of Thomas' story this morning to help us hear it with new ears. Here now these words:
I expected him to scold me not--- as you may think---
for doubting.
We had all doubted, at different times, and he was never angry.

Indeed, he doubted himself, sometimes,
or if he didn't, he certainly understood how it felt,
for he would sing Psalms of doubt with great fervor.
Doubt wasn't an enemy to him.
He could stand us doubting.
It was indifference he couldn't stand: indifference and apathy.

I expected him to scold me
perhaps for making conditions. I did do that and I won't deny it.
“If only I see this and do that...then I'll believe.”
What a fool, thinking I could make conditions with God,
but he didn't take me to task.

He say that I was happy because I had seen
and he said they were also happy who believed without making conditions,
without saying “if only” or “unless.”

I expected him to scold me
because I wasn't there when he came.

The others were present, I was absent. It wasn't their fault of his fault, it was mine.
I had--- for whatever reason--- decided that it was all finished.
He came back to say it was all beginning.

I expected him to scold me.
But he didn't.
He gave me his hand and, more than that,
he gave me his peace.
Sermon: Encountering Resurrection
We are continuing our Easter journey this morning as we read the first and second appearance in the Gospel of John to the disciples. May our continuation of the Easter journey in worship help us to remember the difficulties and the joys of resurrection as we face a violent and chaotic world this morning. So let us pray together:
Patient teacher, you know the doubt and fear,
the indifference, the conditions,
all the baggage we bring with us this morning.
We give thanks that in spite of all we carry, you come beside us,
again and again making yourself known to us.
We ask that you make yourself known to us this morning as well,
that we may feel your peace upon us
and your presence beside us. Amen.

Thomas often gets a bad rap, I think. There was this Episcopal Church meme going around on Facebook that had a picture of Jesus and Thomas together with the caption: Doubt for one little minute and they never let you forget it. We focus so much on what we read as Jesus' gentle scolding: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

This is certainly an important message for those of us who are living so long after the historical Jesus. Two thousand years after his resurrection, we still believe, and so John's words are comforting for us, remind us that we are blessed. And yet, I think we miss the point if we see this story as a pat on the back for those of us who believe, for those of us who never doubt (if such a person exists).

If we think this story is a condemnation of doubt, we miss that the most powerful part of this story is not a scolding but an encounter with a wounded but victorious Christ. This is why we read the Wild Goose Worship Group's retelling of the story from Thomas' eyes. I wanted to draw us away from doubt and draw us to encounter, draw us to a Christ who gave Thomas not only his scarred hand but also his peace.

The story begins not with Thomas, but with Jesus' first appearance to the Twelve according to the Gospel of John. The story begins with locked doors and fear. The disciples had heard Mary Magdalene's testimony, and some had seen the empty tomb for themselves, and yet they still lived surrounded by fear and uncertainty, probably the way many people in Boston feel now. Yes, the two young men allegedly responsible for the bombing are no longer on the streets, but how gingerly Bostonians must walk, how mistrustful they must be waiting, waiting for more terror.

These disciples were also waiting for more terror. And, though we don't know what was going on inside Thomas' head, and the Gospel of John gives us no clues, we wonder if he was just trying to wash his hands of it all, as the reflection we read this morning suggested. If he had decided he was finished with his part in the Jesus story, finished with the terror, and too overcome by the confusion of the empty tomb to feel the joy in it. He is exhausted. And so when the disciples bring him the good news of Jesus' presence among them, he says that he is tired of the confusion of words. He says, “Show me.”

Episcopal priest Anne Howard, who I quote often, writes that in “seeking Easter,” seeking the resurrection, “we turn, seeking not proof but truth, not facts but encounter, [and so] we turn to one another and say 'Show me.'”2 She suggests that Thomas is not necessarily doubting his friends. He is simply searching for a way that the good news can reach through his fog of confusion and fear and stir up truth within him. He doesn't want facts and figures, he wants to feel Jesus for himself, and so he says to his friends, “Don't just tell me, show me. Help me feel the resurrection myself.”

I feel a lot like Doubting Thomas, seeking to encounter the risen Christ myself, to see the pain and the scars and to still feel the vividness of victory. This is what draws me to mission, I think, what draws me to places of immense suffering like Bosnia, like South Africa, and like Haiti. I first used the Doubting Thomas metaphor for myself when talking of placing my hands in the holes where shells had ripped through buildings in Bosnia. Here I was encountering a risen Christ who had experienced immense pain and not only survived but whose love was beginning to heal the pain.

And I felt this in Haiti too. Haiti is a country born of a revolution in 1804 in which slaves rose up and ejected their white French masters. This was a colony that made more money for France than all of France's other colonial holding combined--- and Haiti is only the size of Maryland, you know. Slaves harvested sugar cane, which even now is absolutely brutal labor, so they did not have a long life expectancy. They were also completely cut off from access to a common language for fear they would revolt (remember that most of the slaves came from West Africa where many different languages were spoken), and they birthed their own language, Haitian Kreyol, which is a combination of French and West African languages.

So against all odds, the former slaves succeeded and became free, but then they were faced with the fear and exclusion of the United States, and eventually a horrible deal with the French that they had to pay reparations to the French in order to get any trade with anyone. The wealthy French colony slowly became impoverished in its freedom. The United States invaded Haiti in 1915 and occupied it for almost twenty years, and continued to firmly grasp the country afterwards, which perhaps wouldn't be a problem except that the US continued to serve the military and economic elite and so the majority of Haitians were further impoverished and terrorized. They lived under the horrific dictatorships of Papa Doc Duvalier and his son Baby Doc for almost thirty years, and suffered more military governments until they finally elected a president, the first democratically elected president in their history (and elected by almost 70 percent of the vote) in 1991. He was then overthrown in a bloody military coup seven months later. And so even after democracy was restored in late years, the government was so weak and unable to deliver basic services that when the earthquake struck on January 12, 2010, the country just crumbled.

Now you may be wondering what this history lesson has to do with Thomas, but I want to give you a picture of the history of the suffering. I want to show you the pain, the wounds, show you how deep the suffering goes. I want you to place your hands in the marks in the hands and side of this country as Thomas did Jesus.

But the “Haitian people have long been resilient in the face of tribulation,” as many who are familiar with Haiti point out. Dr. Paul Farmer, a renowned public health expert who has spent much of his career in Haiti tells the story that one night after the earthquake a man grabbed his arm and said: “Haiti is finished.” It was the final blow in a long history of pain, the man thought. But two young Haitian doctors were working with Dr. Farmer and overheard. “No,” they said. “Haiti will never be finished.”3

Thomas had--- for whatever reason--- decided that it was all finished. Jesus came back to say it was all beginning.

This is what I saw in Haiti: a beginning. There were ten of us in our group, five who had been to Haiti before and five newbies, and the ones who had been before continually marveled at how much had changed--- a brand new airport, so much cleared rubble that I had to look for signs of the earthquake. Tent cities still existed, though we saw many colorful neighborhood building projects underway.

People remained concerned about the quality of schools, and you could see just in the sizes of the kids that there is still a huge problem with malnutrition. But we could see hope, and that perhaps the first part of encountering the risen Christ: hope. It brings, most importantly perhaps, renewed vision, invigorated imagination. Encountering Christ reminds us that life does not have to go back to the way it used to be.

Our task as a team was to help build a church. A school run by the church had recently been rebuilt, and so now the church was being rebuilt alongside of it. Often when you work construction on mission trips, you end up mostly on bucket brigades: passing buckets filled with sand or stone or cement back and forth for hours. And remember that this is going on in the hot Caribbean sun. It is very glamorous work, you know. And we were terrifically slow at getting anything done. But that didn't matter so much because we don't do mission to get the work done. We do mission to encounter Christ in one another, to show Christ to one another.

And that's what we did. The Haitians are beautiful people who were so welcoming and took such good care of us, who laughed at us when in our heat-addled state we would start dancing on the work site or singing songs about snow. Who said, when I asked them how they were or how they slept, that they were well thanks be to God, constantly giving praise to God. I saw the country being rebuilt brick by brick, student by student. I encountered the risen Christ in their smiles, in their patience.

It is not because I doubt the resurrection, but because I want to feel it so physically that I identify with Thomas. When in my own pain and fear, I just don't have the imagination to see the resurrection, I ask for someone to show me, to put my hands in Jesus' wounds to know he understands the pain I have experienced and he still stands before me full of new life. Jesus knows the pain the Haitians have experienced, a pain that has deep historical roots. And he comes beside them to bring them his peace and the courage to rebuild again.

Of course encountering the risen Christ is not just something that happens on international missions. I think for me, that is where I find Christ most vividly because our consumer culture, our comfortable culture kind of numbs me to experiencing Christ here sometimes. But this is what we are all to do as Christians: to seek encounters with Christ, to show one another vividly where Christ is alive. We are to do this not just on a formal mission trip but in every moment. And it is so crucial to do so as we are faced with violence all around us in our culture today, as we are faced with the uncertainty and terror of our present age that we saw in Boston last week. But the resurrected Christ is there, in the midst of it all. Do we have the courage to help one another encounter him?

Let us pray:
Risen One, we give you thanks for all the ways you meet us,
and we ask for your presence with us now.
Teach us to be your peaceful presence in the world and
give us the strength to work with one another to encounter you
wherever we are. Amen.

1Wild Goose Worship Group, “Thomas reflecting: Easter script 2,” Stages on the Way: Worship Resources for Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, Iona Community, (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2000) 208-209.
2Anne Howard, “Show Me,” A Word in Time, 1 April 2013, The Beatitudes Society,
3Paul Farmer, Haiti after the earthquake, eds. Abbey Gardner and Cassia Van Der Hoof Holstein, (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2011) 110.

Educate yourself more about Haiti! An important book to read, especially for people interested in mission work, was Jonathan M. Katz's The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Shannon, so I happened upon your blog because I followed you on twitter and I followed you on twitter because I definitely thought you were a different Shannon that I knew. Surprise, you're not the Shannon that I thought you were. But strangely enough, after checking out your blog, it seems like you're a Shannon that I probably should know. I'm an artist living in Haiti and managing a nonprofit here. I've lived in Haiti for 6 years and originally came down as a UMVIM way back when. I actually know quite a few Drew people because they've come down to my area in Haiti on different mission trips and I've been involved in their projects and have become very good friends with some of them. So, when I saw your blog to find out that you are a United Methodist pastor, Drew University grad, who has been to Haiti, I was very surprised since following you on Twitter was essentially a mistake. Small world. So, because of all of that, I thought I'd open up a conversation with you anyway because from what I've read of your writing here, you seem like someone I'd have quite a bit of respect for. And that means a lot. It's not common for me to find white Christians involved in Haiti that I like much. I have a blog that's pretty critical of missions and the international aid community in general here based on my experience. And reading your writings didn't make me roll my eyes or regret being Methodist so that's saying something. Anyway, kudos on the blog and the work you do. If you'd like to continue the conversation with me you can contact me at I hope to hear from you soon. Peace!