Picking Up The Pieces
Virginia was 19 years old and pregnant when she went to live with her 15th set of foster parents. Her case file read like a textbook example of neglect, abuse and bureaucratic failure. She sat silently in a chair, hands neatly clasped, staring into her lap. The foster parents, whose three children were in school, had been appraised of Virginia's story and promised that this placement would be "temporary". (Temporary was the story of Virginia's life.)
Finally, the foster mother said, "Are you frightened, Virginia?"
"Kinda," she replied without looking up. Then, "I've been in lots of homes."
"Well," the sympathetic woman tried to reassure the bewildered young mother-to-be, "Let's hope this time turns out for the best."
Virginia's reply is one of those statements that sticks to your soul -- it was flat, without change of tone and without Virginia even looking up -- "Hurts too much to hope."
Can you imagine?
Thomas was not present when his friends, the other disciples saw Jesus -- Not an illusion, nor a phantom, but Jesus! Jesus with the wounds in his hands and side. The rather stiff phrase in our scripture reading, "...the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord," hardly communicates the depth of what it must have meant to see it all fulfilled. "I will see you again," Jesus had promised. And after the ugly scene on Friday here he was!
But Thomas was not present to experience the joy. All of us must deal with grief in our own particular way -- and that includes Thomas. He needed time to deal with his grief before he could join the others. The depth of his hurt was too deep. And this is exactly where our lives intersect the road Thomas had to travel. How do you pick up the pieces and go on when you lose someone who has become a basic assumption of your living? "Dad will always be there to lean on -- Won't he?" -- "I can always ask mom -- Can't I?"
Then it hits. "No... there are times when life hits you with such powerful disruption you wonder how you can ever pick up the pieces and go on! Times when it hurts too much to hope that things could be better. Thomas, the proverbial "seeing is believing" type fellow, had discovered something wonderful in Jesus Christ that had turned his life around. There is something wonderful about the story of Thomas. If Thomas could find a way out of his grief and hopelessness and go on, then I can too. Whatever led him out of the dark place of doubt and discouragement can become a guiding light for you and me.
We don't have a lot of knowledge about Thomas. As a matter of fact the Gospel of John is the only gospel to give us any data about the famous "Doubter" -- and that information is limited. On one occasion Thomas asked a question and on another made a seemingly "off the wall" suggestion. Yet these two tiny clues provide amazing insight into the inner life of Thomas. Let's take a quick look:
In the first incident, Lazarus has died and Jesus says to his disciples, "Lazarus has fallen asleep," and then states, "I am going to wake Lazarus up," The disciples don't get it. Lazarus will be okay if he's sleeping they say. "No... Lazarus is dead," Jesus explains.
Then comes this incredibly revealing comment from Thomas, "Let us also go," he says to his colleagues, "that we may die with him." In other words, if Jesus is going to go and join Lazarus in death, then Thomas is ready to go with him. While our knowledge of Thomas is limited, we do know this one thing. Thomas had so invested his life in Jesus that he was willing to follow him into death if that's what it took to be near him! Jesus had become the hub around which Thomas' life revolved. Whether he was a "Virginia" who had never found a home or a wanderer who had never found an aim... he loved Jesus.
The second incident takes place during the Upper Room Discourse when Jesus is attempting to pull things together for his followers in this last evening they will share together. If the disciples are beginning to finally understand that Jesus is going to die, they are not able to figure how they will go on. Jesus tries to reassure them -- remember the words?
Thomas asks the question most of them might have had in their minds but didn't express, "Well now -- actually Lord, we don't know where you're going. How can we know the way?"
Here is the second of two strong clues into Thomas' life that can help us understand the meaning of this morning's gospel lesson. Thomas is one of those "what you see is what you get" kind of guys. He isn't about to sit and pretend he understands when he doesn't. He is the kid you always wanted in your classroom who would risk asking all the things you wanted to ask, but you hesitated because you didn't want to appear to be ignorant -- or at least you wanted to go along with the assumption that you knew these things.
Jesus says, "You know [of course] the way to the place where I am going." Peter, James, John and the rest sit quietly or perhaps nod in assent -- "Sure, we know.... mmmhm... if you say so." Thomas asks. This is Thomas who loves Jesus and who basically says what is on his mind. [His question yields one of the most quoted portions of scripture in the gospels... "I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me."]
A drama of transformation occurs in our scripture and in the life of Thomas as he moves from grief and despair to hope and joy. There are four important lessons which translate directly into our lives and into principles the church / family of faith needs to embrace.
1. Permission to be ourselves... The disciples gathered, in part, to deal with their grief and experience of loss. Thomas, for whatever reason, could not work through his grief with the group. He had to have the freedom to be apart before he could be with them. That's important for you and me as individuals. We need to give ourselves permission to "do it our way" and not be pushed into "but, everybody does it this way."
One of the difficulties with the popularity of concepts like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' Stages of Grief is that some people begin to expect others to move in order from stage one to stage five. "Yup... Thomas' is definitely in denial right now ... we should expect his anger quite soon!"
As we need to give ourselves permission to deal with grief and pain in our own way, so also the family of faith needs to allow for differences in dealing with life's tough times.
2. Leave the door open for fellowship... We're not sure how it happened, but it is likely that one or another of the disciples said, "Hey, we've got to tell Thomas." In any case, they reached out to Thomas and Thomas was open to their contact. Even in the midst of pain and doubt, an open door to the friendship of others is the first step on the journey to recovery.
3. Expression / Acceptance of honest feeling... How many times has someone counseled you with something like, "You shouldn't feel that way... (or) think that way... (or) be that way?" When Thomas was told the really good news about Jesus, he said in effect, "It hurts too much to hope" His response must surely be the first time someone said, "Seeing is believing." (Our scripture will end with Jesus turning this into a wonderful principle of faith, "Believing is seeing!")
In a great example of true fellowship, Thomas is able to express -- and his friends are able to accept, honest emotion and authentic expression of doubt. It is absolutely crucial for our growth in faith to have freedom to express honest feeling and honest doubt. A basic principle here is: "We can not work through and bring faith to, any issue we can not share with our family of faith."
Acceptance like this has not been the strong suit of many churches, but it must become so! If you spend enough time with people over a long period of time -- in all kinds of difficulty, you will discover an important and powerful principle: "We hide from each other the things we have most in common!
Think about it. You are having difficulty in your marriage, but feel a sense of failure, so you hide the pain instead of reaching out for help. A young person is filled with a sense of being unacceptable, but instead of reaching out to a parent will reach out for an anesthetic (drug). You find yourself struggling at work, but feel that asking for help will show inadequacy. Perhaps most difficult for we pastors to hear is something like the remark of a young man who had been absent from church for some time. By coincidence, he happened to see his pastor at a department store one day and said, "I don't feel like I can come back to church until I get my act together!"
If there is just one thing we can gain from the experience of Thomas, let it be this...
4. Jesus accepts us where we are and gives us strength to get where we need to be! This is the key point of today's scripture. When Jesus finally appears for Thomas, (most likely when Thomas was ready to receive it) he doesn't scold, "Thomas you bonehead! How could you not believe in the resurrection? " Jesus knows Thomas for who he truly is and gives Thomas what he truly needs.
The result? Thomas finally sees Jesus for who he is -- Lord and Savior. But it could never have happened if Jesus had not met Thomas where he was. This gave Thomas strength to risk hope once again.
Have you ever had a time like Thomas? A time when disappointment was so intense you found it hard to hope? Or maybe you know someone who is struggling even now. Whether it be for you or for someone you are close to... how would you rate the four principles in this message as they apply to you or to your friend? The key to hope is realizing that no matter how difficult the way we must tread... Christ comes to us where we are.
May God give us the grace to be the kind of persons and the kind of fellowship where lives are transformed, and where broken spirits find the strength to hope again!
Just The Facts - Acts 5:27-32
You will catch your oldest "Boomers" and the generation just ahead of the boomers if you ask, "What phrase comes to mind when you think of Jack Webb, or the television program, "Dragnet"? ["Just the facts maam!"] No matter how distressed the person or how important their personal agenda, Sergeant Joe Friday was after the facts. Nothing could distract him from that goal.
Likewise, Peter stands before the Sanhedrin with one aim in mind -- the facts. Just the facts. 1) Jesus was sent by God, 2) He was rejected and executed by the religious authorities, 3) God, however raised him from the dead, 4) We who follow Jesus have no choice but to bear witness to "the facts".
Just as facts had consequences for the investigations of Sergeant Friday, so the facts of Christian faith bear extraordinary consequences for our lives!
The Promise of Praise ~ Psalm 118:14-29
[If you choose to do something with this text, next week's alternate suggestions will include "The Power of Praise" from the Revelation text]
This would work well as a bible study -- or as an alternative sermon to the gospel text. Begin the message or study with: "What is our task and what does God do in response?"
Our task: V. 17 - I will recount the deeds of the Lord (Give witness); V.24 We are to rejoice / be glad; V. 28, 29 We are to give thanks. When you combine this with Psalm 150 (alternate Psalm) it is clear that our task is to give thanks and praise to God.
God's Response: V.14 God is; strength, might and salvation (healing / wholeness) V.17 God gives life; V. 27 God gives light (understanding / knowledge); V.29 God's love is forever!
The amazing thing about this lesson is that God desires nothing but our thanks and praise and in return gives the gift of life, love and wholeness. "Be all you can be" is a great slogan, but it is not really the Army that can bring this to pass -- it is God and it is what God does for us when we simply -- "Praise His Holy Name"!
Conclude the sermon or bible study with a responsive reading of Psalm 150 and sing a hymn or chorus of praise.
A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 118)
Leader: God is our strength and salvation,
People: Therefore we will sing with great joy!
Leader: This is a day that the Lord has made,
People: Let us be glad and rejoice in it!
Leader: O give thanks to God for he is good,
People: His love will never end! Praise the name of God! Amen!
"You'll Never Believe This!"
Tell the children you are about to show them something they will find very hard to believe. [You will need a seed from a pine cone or an apple -- put the seed in an envelope and have this in your pocket] "I have a whole forest right here (pat) in my pocket! Do you believe me?" (They won't) Ask if they want to see the forest (or apple orchard. When you finally open up the envelope you can ask them if they see a forest. Explain how this one seed could produce a tree which would have at least 100 pine cones (apples). These 100 pine cones would have thousands of seeds and if they all grew into trees, there would then be millions of trees!
All from this tiny seed!
Relate this to the story of Thomas from the gospel. He could not believe that Jesus would still be alive after he died on the cross. He had to see it to believe it. Jesus explained to his disciples and to Thomas that he was still alive and that his love could live in them. And if they shared the love of Jesus with someone else and that person shared Jesus' love with another person, soon there would be thousands of people sharing Jesus' love. Just as there is a whole forest in one tiny seed, there is a whole world of love in just one heart if we share it with someone else.
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