Sermon Archives

Sunday, April 23, 2017
Easter 2 (Year A)
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
Living the Questions

Loving and gracious God, teach us to be patient toward all that is unsolved in our hearts and to love the questions themselves. Teach us to live the questions now and help us trust that someday we will live into the answers that we need. Amen.[1]

About mid-way in the program year, after Christmas break, as we regathered for confirmation class, the adult leaders wanted to check in with the youth. We wanted to learn about their hopes for the remainder of the class and questions that they had about their faith.

At first there was mostly silence, and then slowly the youth began to share their thoughts.

One confirmand said that they hoped that by the end of the class, they would have a better idea of what they actually believe and think. Then the pace of the conversation picked up and questions began to rush forth. As the questions kept coming, I said to myself, “I hope they don’t think that we’re going to be able to answer these questions in confirmation class… and I really hope they don’t think that I have answers to these questions - even for myself!”

There were many questions – big questions – like “why should I believe in an omnipotent God in the face of limited proof?”; “what qualifies as ‘believing’ – how is belief different than having moral values or hope?”; “how can I reconcile faith and science?”; “how can I believe in God or have faith when I don’t know if God exists? How can I know?” or “why is faith arguable – it seems like it shouldn’t be – is it real or not?”

These are profound questions. Questions that might take us more than the journey of a lifetime to glimpse the answers.

One of the underlying themes that we heard was a wondering about how to really know that God is there, and about the tools to develop that knowledge when valued ways of knowing like the scientific method probably won’t get us there.

These are not only abstract questions for the quiet and contained setting of a classroom. They are real and living questions that raise their hands against the backdrop of the loud clatter of tragedy and heartbreak.

On Tuesday this past week, Ethan McComas, a Grosse Pointe South high school senior took his life. And in the aftermath of this tragedy, the community has been left reeling, opening the floodgates to feelings of shock, disbelief, numbness, grief, sadness, confusion, guilt, anxiety, even anger. For some it brings back waves of grief from coping with other losses; for others there is the spectre of seeing their own children. Suicide is a complex behaviour caused by many factors and is rarely the result of a single event or problem.[2]

And perhaps because of this complexity it gives rise to lots of questions. Questions about Ethan, his family and friends, the school, this community, our society and God. Questions like: why? What demons was he battling with that led him to that decision? What could we have done differently? Whose responsibility is this? Where is God? Where is God for someone who didn’t believe in God? All these questions are attempts to make sense of something so difficult to comprehend or accept.

The complexity of the factors that lead to completed suicide and the resulting range of emotions and challenging questions often give rise to complicated grief, especially for those closest to the loved one that died. Complicated grief occurs when the feelings of loss don’t improve over time and cause significant and functional impairment.[3]

On the website for the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University, there is an interview of a therapist that specializes in working with patients who have lost loved ones to suicide. In the video, she talks about the therapy she does with patients and describes the unique characteristics that she sees, particularly issues of guilt and anger which bind her patients and stunt healing. She observes that patients also carry lots of unresolved questions. She describes an exercise called ‘imaginal conversation’ during which she guides the patient through a conversation with the loved one to communicate their feelings and questions, and invites the patient to hear the response from the person that died. This creates an opportunity for beginning a process of resolution to underlying questions and feelings, providing release and a hard-won sense of peace.

Today the Gospel invites us into a community in a state of grief. The movement had scattered and the disciples are barricaded behind closed doors, isolated in their fear and pain. And this is where the disciples have their first direct encounter with the risen Jesus. Perhaps their fear was not only of the religious authorities that they were hiding from, but was also fear of seeing Jesus - since his arrest, trial and crucifixion when they had abandoned and betrayed him.

His first words to them, were not words of recrimination or disappointment, but the kind and gentle words: “Peace be with you.”

In that place of doubt and fear, the first words that he says are: peace be with you – you the lost, you the doubters, you the broken-hearted. To verify his identity, he showed them his wounds and then breathed into the disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit as a sign of his promise to be with them always.

The word for ‘breathed’ in this passage is the same word used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, to describe the moment that God breathes life into Adam, and Ezekiel’s description of God breathing life into the valley of dry bones.[4]

But Thomas was out and about and when he comes in, the disciples excitedly tell him what they had witnessed. Thomas doesn’t believe them and tells them exactly what he needs in order to believe: he needs to see and touch Jesus’ wounds for himself. Thomas didn’t believe the disciples and their encounter. Were the disciples living in a way that was any different than if they hadn’t encountered the risen Christ? Eight days later, they were behind closed doors, still unsure what they were to do and to be without Jesus.

The second time Jesus mysteriously appears among them despite the locked doors, Jesus greets them again: “Peace be with you.” He appears to them with his resurrected body, a body that can be touched and seen and heard, but a body that continues to carry the wounds of his suffering.

A reminder that Good Friday is with us even in the glory and joy of the resurrection. For Thomas, Jesus’ wounds are a key part of Jesus’ identity; those wounds confirm to Thomas that this is Jesus, his Lord and God. Even as Jesus breathes new life into the disciples, an expression of his love for them, it seems like they hadn’t moved that far away from the cross. Which reflects our journey – a movement back and forth between cross and resurrection, between death and life, between despair and hope.

Doubt and questions offer a pathway to faith. It is a tricky and risky pathway, with no certain outcome, but it is a journey that Jesus blesses and encourages us to venture out on. When we doubt, we probe, we question, we seek, we learn what we need and what we think we need but don’t.

Many scholars think that this passage was the original end of the Fourth Gospel.[5] If that’s true, Thomas punctuates this Gospel, set in a time of mourning and loss, with his journey from doubt to his bold confession of faith.

In a time of loss, what do we as a Good Friday and Easter community have to offer one another and the larger community? What do we as disciples of a human, wounded and risen Lord have to offer?

This story tells us that Jesus’ wounds are an integral part of who Jesus is. Good Friday captures Jesus’ experience of his own isolation, suffering and death and tells us that God is with us always – in our moments of isolation, suffering and death. God had empathy and compassion for Ethan’s suffering and sense of despair, and God grieves with us as we mourn his loss and empathize with those struggling with depression. Although many unresolved questions remain, the great story that we are called to carry, share and live, tells us that God knows what it means to have a broken heart.

Our faith also tells us that we are called to be in community; we are one body. All those within and outside these walls are one body. When one part of the body hurts, the rest of the body feels pain. God calls us to be with one another, to share our gifts with one another, to take care of one another. Thomas was courageous and asked for what he needed so that it could be engaged, which supported him on the journey from doubt to faith.

May we not close ourselves behind locked doors, and turn in on ourselves, but instead have the honesty to share what we feel. May we have the courage to ask for what we need, and may we be a source of healing and support for one another. May God gives us the grace to hear God’s kind words to us: Peace be with you.

[1] Adapted from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letter to a Young Poet, p. 27.