Sunday, August 14, 2022

Unraveled: Unraveling Doubt

It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”

Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”

But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”

After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” --John 20:19-29 (CEB)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Creator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit our Sustainer. Amen.

Where do I begin? I have to admit to you that, as I’ve been working and living through this past week, there are a lot of things I have felt called to preach today. This may be a longer sermon because of it. Let’s hope it makes some sense by the end.

I want to begin with this idea of how we respond when the unimaginable happens. Perhaps that unimaginable thing is happening to us personally. Perhaps it is something that happens to us collectively. I’m thinking today about the people of eastern Kentucky. 

If you’ve watched any of the videos of the flooding or the damage in the aftermath of the floods, or considered the loss of life, this was for our neighbors one of those “unimaginable” events. I’m one of two co-coordinators for disaster response in our synod. (I used to say I was a co-disaster response coordinator, but decided I needed to change that wording a bit.) 

Whenever a disaster hits, there are organizations, both in-state and from across the country, who begin to meet on Zoom to coordinate the volunteer response. These groups are called VOAD groups - Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Every state has a VOAD group. There’s a national group, too. So, when a disaster hits, all of the VOAD partners plus all of the state and county emergency management teams jump on daily calls to, first, understand the need and, then, to coordinate the response. Lutheran Disaster Response - our churchwide organization that works through the affected synod - is one of those partners. And because Lutheran Disaster Response operates primarily through synods, I am typically on those calls, too.

When the floods hit a week ago in the eastern part of the state, the VOAD organizations and EMS teams took to Zoom. We typically aren’t part of this initial crisis response, but work more longer term. Yet, it’s important to know the extent of the disaster, so we all jump on the calls

You can imagine what we heard. Stories shared that most of us, including the EMS teams, could never have imagined would have happened. The devastation, the loss of life, the grief and heartbreak caused by these floods where streams and rivers, in some cases, were 20 feet above “normal” flood stage.

As I sat and listened in this past Monday, there was one need that stood out to me. A young woman working for a housing development corporation in Owsley Co. - one of the poorest counties in Kentucky. This young woman, Cassie Hudson, made a plea for $50,000 cash. It’s not often that people just blurt out the need for cash on these calls. Usually requests are for volunteers and supplies. Not just cash. But, for Cassie - like for Thomas in our text today - there was a need to be direct. To be honest. To risk. To be vulnerable. To see the evidence. To find the hope.

Isn’t that what Thomas is doing in our text today? Wasn’t he just verbalizing what every other disciple had been thinking - at least before Jesus appeared to all of them (except for Thomas) as they waited in fear in the upper room that Easter evening? A locked room that didn’t stop Jesus from showing up. And who, when he did show up, spoke a word of peace to them. Twice. Peace be with you. Peace. As in shalom. Meaning wholeness. Belonging. Community. 

But, Thomas wasn’t there. He wasn’t there to receive this word of peace from Jesus, literally in the flesh. Have you ever wondered where Thomas was? Why he wasn’t there? I have to wonder if, so devastated by Jesus’ death - by the unimaginable - he might have self-isolated. Caught up in his own grief. Grief that had turned him into a doubter. A skeptic. A cynic. Even a truth-teller. “Unless I see…I won’t believe,” Thomas says, even after the other disciples have witnessed to him. Who believed only when they saw! Who, in that moment, experienced their own Pentecost, as Jesus breathed his Spirit on them and sent them out.

Then, for Thomas, Jesus shows up. Again. And offers him exactly what he asks for. Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. Touch me. See that I am real. And believe. No longer is Thomas the cynic. No longer does Thomas need to touch Jesus. To touch the wounds on his hands. Or on his side. Simply being in the presence of this resurrected Jesus has restored his hope. Restored his faith. Restored his joy.

We never read of Thomas again in scripture. It might be easy to imagine that he simply faded away. Except, he didn’t. Thomas would go on to found the early Church in India. To build communities of Jesus’ followers that exist today - St. Thomas Christians, they call themselves. One of whom is an ELCA pastor, who serves just down the road from us in Corydon.

Because, like the other apostles, Thomas took seriously the divine authority given him by Christ. The authority for his own mission that can only be understood in light of the mission of Christ. A mission of self-giving love. A mission evidenced and fulfilled by Jesus’ life and death. A mission to which each and everyone of us are called, under the authority of Christ through our baptism in the Holy Spirit. Just as Thomas and the rest of the disciples were called, then sent. Thomas. Truth-teller that he was.

So, who is the Thomas in our midst? What is the truth here that no one is naming? That no one is vulnerable enough to speak out loud? Something that we all see, but that no one will say? 

Perhaps, one of those truths is that church as we’ve known it is no more. Our numbers, like virtually every other church in this country, are unraveling. Drastically. Something that is not your fault, or mine. But, something that has been trending in our nation for well over 50 years. We just - lucky or not - happen to be living at the end of it. In the midst of this liminal time.

What will the future bring? What will happen to the church? I daresay, none of us know. But, here’s the thing. When that unimaginable thing happens, whatever it is - Christ will be there. Breaking through the closed doors of our building, the closed doors of our hearts, the closed doors of our minds, saying to us - as he said to Thomas… Put. Touch. See. Believe. You and I will not do this new thing. God will do this new thing. And, God in Christ through the Holy Spirit will then send us into mission. Whatever that mission will be.

What’s an example of that mission? A possibility? Here’s a real-life, honest-to-God example of a mission God sends us on - of what it means to invite others to put, to touch, to see, to believe.

I’d like to read from two emails I received this week from that young woman I mentioned at the outset - from Cassie Hudson, Executive Director of Partnership Housing in Boonesville, KY. 

On Tuesday, she wrote this: "I have 3 small homes to build and a couple small repairs to other homes. I have the contractor willing to build back all of these 3 homes at no cost for his labor, I'm just struggling so bad with money for building materials. Owsley County is the poorest county in KY, finding money is difficult and we just experienced a historical flood in March 2021 which I was very successful in getting everyone homed, homes rebuilt etc. and fully recovered by July 2021, merely 5 months after the flood. This flood happened in a different part of the county and our previous efforts went untouched and I'm so thankful to God for that. Any and all funds no matter the amount is appreciated but I'm needing at least $50,000. Funds are just not coming in like previously, I think its because there has been so many disasters throughout KY since March 2021."

Then, on Thursday, after receiving an email I sent letting her know that Lutheran Disaster Response, because of dollars we and so many others have given - that LDR through our Synod would fully fund her request, plus any additional funds she might need, here’s what she wrote: I am at lost for words.  I can never thank you and everyone involved with.  You have not only took such a worry off of me but you will be able to help these people who can never recover from such devastation.  I'm usually a person with a lot of faith and belief that everything will work out and line up but on Monday evening, my faith was being tested.  I had doubt, I was worried and didn't know how I would pay for the materials to build these homes, but I was building them as I had just dug footers and poured them on one of the homes.  On Tuesday, I threw my doubt out the window that morning and put it in the lords hands.  He placed me here with PH almost 10 years ago to learn housing and to help the people of Owsley County and everything I've accomplished has been because of him, so I knew he wasn't finished with me...and today I receive your email."

Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe! Believe that God is working in our midst. Believe that God will turn our cynicism to hope. Will move us from isolation to community. From disbelief to faith. From fear to joy. So that we might then be like Thomas, like Cassie. To throw our doubt to the wind. And with all the authority of Christ to invite others to put, touch, see, and believe. 

Let us pray: Lover of the poor, defender of the needy, sanctuary of the rejected: for those who suffer injustice today, for men and women who cannot provide food for their families, and for whole communities who fear today and have no hope for tomorrow, we offer the longings of our hearts in prayer. We seek for them, O God, the gifts that are dear to us: food for the table, drink for the soul, shelter in the night and open doors to welcome us in. Amen.

Preached August 7, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Pentecost 9
Readings: John 20:19-29; Psalm 16.

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