“Give me a word.” This is what novices or spiritual seekers would ask of elders in the early monastic tradition. The “word” offered was most often a line of scripture; the goal was for the seeker/student to put the biblical word into practice in daily life. As we move from Lent into the Great Fifty Days of Easter, we will encounter Jesus in our Gospel texts each week and collectively ask to be given “a word” not just to ponder, but to practice in our lives. Words like “peace,” “abide,” “love,” “forgive,” “witness,” and even “eat” are worthy of sustained practice. Join us as, together, we seek to let the Word speak to us and through us.
So That You May Have Life
Will Ed Green—Sunday, April 11th, 2021—Foundry United Methodist Church
Good morning, friends. My name is Will Ed Green, and I serve as one of Foundry’s Associate Pastors and our Director of Discipleship. As we move into a time of reflecting on Scripture together we are so glad you’re with us. For those of you who are just tuning in, you’ll find links for fully engaging in our service in our Facebook and YouTube comments or on our website www.foundryumc.org. If you are in need ASL interpretation, we invite you to join us at www.foundryumc.org/asl.
So I want to begin this morning by talking about the “Apophthegmata Patrum,”—no, that wasn’t a sneeze, I said “apophtegmata patrum.” They are the recorded sayings of a group of monks and nuns known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers. They lived in caves, mud huts, and even holes they dug in the ground in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine; sometimes in small communities but, more often than not, alone. There, in the desert, with the busyness of life and the clutter of consumption cleared away, they embarked upon a bold endeavor: through prayer and contemplation, to live more humanely, to become—in modeling their life after Jesus—more human, and thus to become truly alive in the love of God.
The “Apophthegmata”are snippets of stories and parables—preserved from the their own self-reflection, or offered to their disciples and visitors, that often begin with the question: “Amma, Abba, give me a word.”
Their responses are not theological treatises or Christian self-help one-liners. They are plain and practical; unconcerned with right belief or theology and focused on matters of the heart. This simple wisdom cleaves performative spirituality and self-righteous theology from the practical matters of daily discipleship. And because of this, they force us to address the ways what we profess is actually transforming our hearts and lives. Something John Wesley might have called “personal holiness” or “sanctification.”
During these Great 50 Days—or the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost—our new sermon series invites us, like the Desert Mothers and Fathers, to focus our attention on the work of being and becoming alive. To receive in the fullness of its power the hope of the resurrection we proclaim. To embody, not just in right belief, but in the daily rhythms of our lives the freedom and abundance of life available when we live as those who believe that Jesus IS risen.
So now, as we turn to the words of the Living Word, Jesus, and ask of them as those who traveled to the desert so long ago: “Give us a word” let us pray:
Order our lives in your Word, O God, that everything we do may bear witness to your resurrection life. Order our words in YOUR word, O God, that everything we say may bring life into a worry-weary world desperately in need of hope. Breathe the anointing of your Holy Spirit upon all those in the sound of my voice, that in this sacred space we now share together we might be transformed by your Living Word, and in that transformation might take our place in kin-dom work to which you’ve called us. And now may the words of this preacher, faulty and fleeting though they may be, fade into the background of the Word which you would have us receive this day. Amen.
I want to begin this morning by acknowledging that is a sermon about Jesus’ body and our bodies and the way they experience and express trauma. There may be moments when previous experiences of your own trauma rise to conscious awareness, so pay attention to your body. If you find yourself feeling anxious step away or pause and take a break, please know that’s ok.
Today’s reading begins with the disciples in the throes of collective trauma. Their doors are barred in fear of what terror may yet occur. Just days before they witnessed their rabbi ruthlessly murdered, were denied by the disappearance of his body the familiar rhythms and rituals of mourning, and are certainly still trying to make sense of his promised resurrection in light of all these things.
Suddenly, a surprisingly fleshy Jesus—given the doors to this kiki are locked tight—appears in the midst of their uncertainty, fear, and doubt. Showing his wounds. Speaking of peace. Breathing upon them. And it’s the revelation of his resurrected and scarred body—the text tells us—through which they see and know him for who he is, finally able to rejoice.
But Thomas isn’t there to see the wounds and recognize the resurrection. And when told of what happened he insists that his belief will come only when he’s able to touch the wounds, feel the scars, and grasp hold of this body which held the trauma they’d all shared.
When Thomas arrives, we’re not told whether or not he actually digs his hand into Jesus’ wounds, but it’s clear he’s given the chance to. And in this moment of direct confrontation with embodied sorrow and suffering—not just Jesus’ own, but that of the community who loved him— Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and My God,” finally able to see through those wounds the full promise of God’s resurrection power.
John’s Gospel is the only one that makes the wounds of the resurrected Jesus central to the story, mixing the past pain and trauma of the crucifixion with the present rejoicing in and hope for resurrection. I find it fascinating that these encounters are precipitated by recognition of Jesus’ wounds. It’s not his miraculous appearance among them, not his face or voice, but his wounds that confirm his identity. John’s Jesus isn’t a face-tuned, blemish-less, social media ready Savior fresh off a few days of rejuvenating rest in the tomb, but one who bears the marks of the cross and yet lives.
Over the centuries we’ve conveniently made this a story about Thomas’s doubt. We love the image of one who must root around in the wounds of Jesus to achieve satisfaction—perhaps because we feel the need to excuse our own doubt or to satisfy ourselves with the thought that at least we’ve got more faith than THAT. But this reading also provides a convenient way to ignore the confronting an uncomfortable truth: resurrection doesn’t guarantee instantaneous healing. When the story is more about Thomas’ spiritual faults than wounds he insists on touching, we get to ignore that that resurrected Jesus still bears the marks of the tomb. The life he offers isn’t one in which our past trauma and sorrow is expunged. Instead, John’s resurrection body forces us to confront how they inform and are part of life. Healing cannot be separated from suffering. Resurrection cannot be separated from death.
Let me pause and be clear here: this is not a sermon about redemptive suffering. As a pastor I wholeheartedly reject the idea that suffering is a somehow necessary part of the way we grow in faith or love of God and one another. This is bad theology—no tea, no shade, Paul…but maybe a little. And it’s the root of so many excuses for the continued mass incarceration, torture, and violence perpetuated against our black and brown siblings, too often one which traps women in cycles of abuse and neglect in the name of “faithfulness,” and is regularly used against my queer siblings as they are subjected to theologies of self-loathing and the horrors of conversion therapy.
But willingness to erase Jesus’ wounds and focus solely on Thomas’s doubt is dangerous. The wounds, and the pain they embody, can’t be overlooked. Far too many people are taught a theology of comparative suffering, where ‘good Christians’ are taught to minimize their suffering—or the suffering of others— because clearly other people have it worse than “you.” We are taught that our doubt, disbelief, heartache and hurt are an expression of faithlessness in God, that these don’t get to exist in tandem with life in a post-Easter world.
Recent developments in psychobiology have given us a deeper understanding of how trauma impacts our brains and bodies. By trauma, I mean any experience which causes acute anxiety, fear, rage, or grief and that activates our desire to “fight or flee”. When this happens, a part of our brain, sometimes called the “lizard brain.” kicks into gear. This ancient, built-in defense mechanism is tied directly our primary life systems, and can activate them before we consciously pick up on a threat. All of us, I’m sure, can remember moments of acute distress when our heart was pounding out of our chest, our breathing shallow, our palms sweaty, or our stomachs churning.
Evolutionarily, these responses are meant to keep us alive until we can escape and process our experience. But what happens, when like the disciples, we encounter grief we can’t process or explain. A tomb left empty, holding more questions than answers. Night after night spent with the door tightly barred with no end to the threat in sight?
Significant or repeated experiences of trauma, as author Bessel van der Kolk writes in “The Body Keeps the Score,” alter our perception of reality. We get stuck in the lizard brains, constantly reacting to something which our conscious brain might otherwise recognize as innocuous or inane. Phrases like “Per my previous email” or “Can we talk?” can send us into fits of rage. News notifications or unexpected phone calls can leave us panicked and breathless.
Left unchecked, these trauma wounds impact nearly every aspect of our lives. We become stuck in cycles of self-sabotage; often in trying to prevent the threat of future trauma, inadvertently causing the very thing we fear. In real moments of panic or danger, we become unable to distinguish those who want to help from those trying to cause harm, leaving us isolated and suspicious.
These repeated trauma reactions build a new kind of knowledge in our bodies, changing the way we exist in and share space with others. Toxic anxiety—or prolonged periods of unabated anxiety—can kill us. Over time, our lizard brain’s over activation of our bodily systems can cause us to gain weight, makes hearts and arteries age abnormally, or our immune systems fail. We brains become so accustomed to our anxiety or the threat of trauma that we unconsciously create a world in which we constantly feel or create it because it’s the only way we know how to live. One study comparing patients with untreated or significant past trauma to those without it, found that the brains of persons with PTSD literally shut down areas which control and help us define our sense of self in proximity to others. In an effort to erase their experience of trauma, our brains adapt, shutting off the parts of our brain that help us know perceive the world around us and know ourselves outside of our anxiety or fear of future pain or grief.
It’s no wonder it took Jesus miraculously appearing in their midst and revealing his wounds, rather than the words of Mary who encountered him just before, to recognize him. And that was just three days later. Thomas spent another week—another week!—living in that terror and fear. Jesus wasn’t the only one wounded in the story. He was just the only one who’s wounds we see.
If you’ve ever read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, you might remember that goblins are sneaky, burrowing creatures who are terrified of light. Under the cover of darkness however, they leave their caves to wreak havoc and violence on unsuspecting victims, pillaging and plundering everything they can take. I have this image of our unnamed, un-healed trauma operating a little like these goblins. Our trauma goblins burrow just beneath the surface of our conscious awarenness and, hidden by our fear and shame about facing them, co-opt and corrupt our ability to distinguish between despair and hope, life and death, friend and foe. Left unchecked, they impact everyone around us. They change our ability to listen and respond to others. Our capacity to trust and show up authentically, to love and take worthwhile risks. They pillage the wealth of our relationships, our good intentions, and giftedness and in their wake often cause lasting harm to those we love..
But much like Tolkein’s goblins are terrified of light, of being seen, our trauma goblins lose their agency over us when exposed to the light of conscious awareness. Trauma therapists now understand that the long-term trauma can only be dealt with in our bodies. Employing a variety of mind-body techniques like deep breathing, massage, yoga, and meditation allows survivors of long-term trauma and toxic anxiety to begin to understand how their trauma impacts their bodies, and through their bodies to begin learning what it means to regain control of their lives. By addressing the often-unconscious ways our anxiety and trauma is manifested in our bodies, we’re able to break its control over us.
Perhaps this is why it took the wounded AND resurrected body of Christ to break the the coopting cycle of the disciples’ anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. Breathing new life and strength into bodies weary from trauma that never seems to end. Showing the wounds in all their pain and the promise that that there was yet life beyond them. And when that trauma misshaped and Mal-informed Thomas’s perception of himself and others, Jesus extended his hands, wounds and all, without reproach or shame, allowing Thomas to touch the source of his pain so that he might be free to live beyond its control.
In her book Resurrecting Wounds, Shelley Rambo writes:
“The truth of the resurrection conveyed through the symbols of [Jesus’] scars is that these textures (grief and joy, pain and pleasure) will always be present in life, often simultaneously. Interlaced with joy and pain, a life can be marked as holy even in all this ambiguity.”
Jesus shows us how gentle acknowledgment and awareness of our trauma helps us recognize that God is present both in suffering and healing, in doubt and belief; liberating us from the lie that our past trauma and present wounded-ness is all there is to our story. The wounded and resurrected savior bears witness to the real resurrection promise: not that we will always be ok, or skate past suffering in life through slights of hand like comparative suffering, not some glorified, resurrected future free of all our past trauma and grief, but the freedom to see written in our marks our past trauma leaves that while life guarantees suffering and loss, God guarantees life despite of and beyond it.
Social worker and author Resmaa Menakem notes in his book on racial trauma in America “My Grandmother’s Hands” that, “…we tend to think of healing as something binary: either we’re broken or we’re healed from that brokenness…but healing from trauma occurs [over a long time and] on a continuum.” If Thomas teaches us nothing else, he shows us that we do not need to be embarrassed or controlled our past traumas. His reach teaches us how to reject the temptations of comparative suffering, and gives us permission to be okay not being ok. To doubt. To be a hot mess express. His recognition and acclamation of the resurrection shows us that by naming our wounds they lose the power to define our experience of others and the world. In honoring our wounds, in refusing to defer or delay our recognition of trauma, we bring into focus a reality too often denied by binary models of healing: that we can be both hurt and healing, broken and being made whole, in the tomb and yet returning to life.In that way, his demand to confront the wounds, to run his fingers over the still-fresh scars of the cruxifixion isn’t an act of doubt. But an experience of his own resurrection. And while Thomas may, in fact, offer us a lesson on doubt, he’s also showing us what it means, in light of the resurrection, to be and become alive.
On my hands is a roadmap of my past only I can read. Here a deep scar, left when a frantic dash out the door pulled artwork off the wall that bit back. There an almost invisible pockmark from chicken pox long healed. Joints left crooked after broken bones, callouses left from picking up heavy things. They may not be pretty, but all those marks and scars on my hands remind me—in all their beauty and brokenness—despite it all I am still alive.
Pentecost will mark the 19th anniversary of the first time I ever preached and publicly acknowledged my call to ministry. It will also mark the beginning of a profound and painful internal struggle with my God-given identity as a gay man and the ordination process of a church which actively told me that identity was incompatible with Christian teaching. There’ve been plenty of wounds along the way. Having to leave my home and family behind in order to be ordained in the church I felt called to. Living in fear of what would happen if a picture of my partner and I got posted on the wrong account or parishioners encountered me holding hands on a first date. Hiding my identity from my colleagues for fear it might be used against me in a court of…well, church law.
Much like looking at my hands reminds me I'm still alive, every day I choose to name them, acknowledge, touch and know them reminds me that it’s ok that I am healed and still healing. I am broken and almost being made whole. And that I am, in the words of that old Charles Wesley hymn, despite it all, yet alive. The Abbas and Ammas of the desert often remark on the way has a funny way of entering in through the wounds we bear and slowly, imperceptibly, beginning the work of healing. And though I’m not sure I’ll ever stop fighting those old trauma goblins, God’s grace—new each day—gives me fresh hope that they don’t have to define what comes next.
I know I don’t need to enumerate for you all the ways that we are these days, individually and collectively holding and bearing witness to trauma. But I do know that it’s okay to hold doubt in one hand and hope in the other. That in the light of the resurrection your scars and wounds aren’t proof of your failure or lack of capacity or worthlessness. No, they are proof you’re a badass. You can do and survive hard things. You already survived the worst moments of your lives. No one else has ever done that. No one else could.
Best of all, I know that in the midst of all the trauma past, and all the trauma to come, we are accompanied by a Savior who’s love allows us the grace and space to know that—no matter how broken or wounded we may be—we are loved. And meets us in moments when they in all their death-dealing power threaten to overwhelm or overcome us with open arms, proclaiming peace and promising though our scars may remind us of where we’ve been, and what we’ve been through, they may inform but don’t have to dictate what comes next. I think that may be what it means to become in alive in God’s love. And, for now, at least for me, that’s resurrection enough.