“Wounded and Risen”

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Wounded and Risen

Preached by Rev. Shane Montoya on April 8, 2018 at Edwards Church Framingham, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Assassination

Scripture: Psalm 133, John 20: 19-31

I saw a comic recently on Facebook that featured three men in ancient clothing talking to one another. One of them says to the other two, “All I’m saying is we don’t refer to Peter as “Denying Peter”, or Mark as “Ran away Naked Mark”. Why should I get stuck with this title?”

To which one of the other men in the cartoon responds, “I see your point, Thomas, but really, it’s time to move on.”

This is true church: it’s time to move on from Doubting Thomas.

This is partly because of the simple fact, The word “Doubt” doesn’t actually appear in the original Greek text of our Gospel reading.

This is especially pertinent to us, because when we modern folks think of doubt, we think of intellectual arguments, of skepticism and testing done by scientists in labs.

This is not what this passage is about.

Thomas wasn’t having a theological debate about the nature of the trinity or the ontological implications of the physical resurrection. We know this because the word that we translate as believe or faith in the New Testament, “pistis”, is not about intellectual agreement, but about trust and faithfulness.

It’s the trust that children have for their parents, an utter dependence on God’s grace and mercy. So Thomas was doubting doctrine. No, Thomas was full of despair. Despair that his friend and teacher had abandoned him and only him, that he would not share in the bounty of grace which God had promised him and his community.

Thomas, though, Thomas didn’t abandon his fellow disciples in his hour of despair, nor did they abandon him. Instead, even though he was in the midnight of his soul, he still gathered with his people. I think that’s quite notable.

And if there is one thing we do know about our God, it is that God keeps promises. Jesus, seeing Thomas’s despair, does the work he said he would do as the Good Shepherd, following after the one who was alone and in pain even when the 99 had been seen to.

Thus, Jesus makes a special visit, just for old Thomas, who is the depths of his despair. Thomas sees Christ, and, after feelings with his hands Christ’s wounds, proclaims “My Lord and My God!” He is not suddenly convinced of the Nicene Creed through an academic paper. No, what happened to Thomas was that he encountered his Lord and his God both wounded and risen, fully human and fully divine. In doing so, his despair is turned into trust and faithfulness. His love and trust in and for Jesus Christ is restored.

This isn’t in the bible, but history tells us that Thomas would go on to start the Christian church in India, a community of millions that has survived persecution, from local rulers and from Europeans, and isolation.

So I don’t try to use Thomas as a foil so much anymore. Sometimes, I wish that I could be as faithful as Thomas, making the leap of faith to preach the gospel in a distant land. Me, I just made the arduous journey from Natick to Framingham.

Indeed, in considering Thomas’s behavior, throughout this whole episode, I find him to be something of a hero.

Sometimes I wish that we would “doubt” as well as Thomas did. For, if in seeing with our own eyes the wounded and risen Christ, in his full humanity and full divinity, that we would be faithful and trusting as Thomas was, I would consider that a faith well lived.

But for me at least, this begs the question:

What if we “doubted” our neighbors, our fellow humans the same way?

50 Years ago this past Wednesday, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

It shocked and horrified our nation; some of us in this room remember that day. The country convulsed with what some historians have called the deepest civil unrest in this country since the Civil War.

It was the tragic end of a life that was dedicated to the liberation of his people from the bondage of Jim Crow, a vision of equality that many, did not want to hear.

He did it by making racism a moral crisis in this country.

He knew that White Folks in this country, even, and especially well meaning and good hearted folks in the Northeast and West, were not truly aware of the full scope or implications of the murderous regime of terror that African Americans lived under in the Jim Crow South.

There were stories, and news reports, sure. There were the horrific scenes of violence over the integration of the school systems in Little Rock, Arkansas and other towns and cities in the South.

And, of course, MLK also knew that White Americans were a people who were very good at turning away from what was going on “over there.” After all, if it was so bad, why didn’t they just leave? I’m sure it wasn’t really that bad, they said. “If they followed the law, this wouldn’t happen.” “The truth must be somewhere in the middle.”

So MLK decided to force the issue, setting out to destroy even the perception or possibility of moral ambiguity about conditions in the South.

He felt, no, he knew that if the wider public knew the full extent of the brutality of life in the Jim Crow South, even under “moderate” leaders, then folks would become so shocked and horrified that they would demand change.

Dr. King believed that when White America saw the wounded, and especially the risen nature of African Americans, in the American South, enduring with solidarity, and dignity, that Whites would finally see them as fully human.

And for a historical moment, an all too brief historical moment, the strategy worked. Americans were awaken from a moral slumber during the freedom summer, and watched with shock and horror as black and white protestors were savagely beaten by racial segregationist city and state governments.

For a moment, White Americans looked at wounded and risen African Americans and believed them.  Collectively, we said, “My God, what has happened here?”

This sparked the passing of the Voting Rights Acts and Civil Rights Act of 1964, which were truly massive accomplishments, but did not eliminate the many differences and disparities, especially economic, that African Americans lived with.

Indeed, in the years after these bills were passed, public sentiment started to turn against MLK and the cause of Black freedom within the United States. This was partly because of deliberate efforts of the United States government to stir dissension; this is not a conspiracy theory- it’s well documented that the FBI wanted to discredit MLK and other African American Civil Rights leaders. The FBI even sent an anonymous letter to MLK, encouraging him to commit suicide.

Part of it was also because of his early campaigning against the war in Vietnam, which was still popular at the time. Images of burned out villages were just starting to appear on American televisions, but the widespread opposition to the war that would galvanize the country in the late 1960s had not yet appeared. In1966, MLK had a disapproval rating of almost 63%.

By the time he was killed in Memphis 50 years ago, White politicians as prominent as Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, would say on the day of MLK’s funeral, “that his death was ‘a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order and people started choosing which laws they’d break.’”

This, in effect, blamed MLK for his own assassination, equating murder with civil disobedience.

It would be nice if I could say that after MLK’s death, things got better for African Americans, but in many cases, they did not. Trends in the United States, including the closure of factories, stagnation of wages, the HIV epidemic, and the rise of prisons as places for private profit impacted African Americans disproportionately.

No longer were we saying, “My God, what has happened here?”, and worked to better the lives of African Americans and others who were suffering.  Instead, we began to say, “I don’t believe you.”

If only we had trusted, and believed.

If only now we would trust, and believe.

If only like Thomas the truster, Thomas who did not abandon his community, even in the midst of his despair, we would believe.

We would believe the poets and artists and activists who are opening their wounds to us, to see and touch their wounded ness and their risen ness, and to proclaim, “My God, what has happened here?”

We would believe and surround with the strength and hope of community those who were struggling with depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses, not trying to fix them but simply being present with them.

We would believe that new life is possible and sometimes probable for those whom society has written off.

We would believe that our God is not just a transcendent God worthy of our praise and majesty from a distance, but one who would appear to someone he called friend not in the form of an majestic angel,  but as his friend whose wounds were still visible and who would invite him to touch them.

And if that is our God, what does that say about who we should be in the course of our love? Our God who is glorious and vulnerable, fleshy and fantastic? Is that not what love is?, to be vulnerable to one another and then to believe each other’s pain?

Believe the Good News, Friends, believe that Christ is risen and wounded, and that we can be too.