On Pandemics and Tornadoes and Faith
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
April 19, 2020
(COVID Pandemic Week 6, East Brainerd Tornado – Easter Night, April 12, 2020)
John 20: 19-31 (CEB)
19It 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.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” 22Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
24Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25The 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.”
26After 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.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”
28Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
29Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
30Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. 31 But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
As we move deeper into 2020, I’m starting to feel like the further we go, the more I understand Thomas. At every other moment in my life that I’ve come to this text about Thomas, it’s kinda like Thomas is a joke. He’s the flunky who can’t manage a little faith that what Jesus has been telling them all along about resurrection and new life has actually happened.
And then one day, or one year, you get slammed by one thing after another, and all of a sudden, Thomas’ doubt makes a whole lot of sense. I mean, when your leader has been brutally crucified by your arch-enemy, who wouldn’t find it a little difficult to believe that suddenly he is alive once again! When you’ve been quarantined for four weeks, and then on Easter night, a tornado demolishes your home, who wouldn’t find it a little hard to proclaim faith and hope in the midst of that. No wonder Thomas needed a little something more…all of a sudden, here in 2020, after 40 trips around the sun, I get him. Thomas is not a joke, he was on the tail end of some serious trauma, and he didn’t want to be hurt or disappointed again. Suddenly, I understand that maybe somewhere, deep down inside, Thomas knew that he couldn’t muster the strength or courage to be let down anymore. So, he put a little condition on his belief, his faith. It wasn’t much, that condition, but it was enough to make me start wondering this week if what Thomas was really dealing with was not so much doubt as fear.
On Sunday night, from about 7 o’clock on, I knew there was a high chance of some really bad storms coming through our area. After getting Owen to bed, Mary Ellen, Ken, and I watched a movie in the basement of our home while Owen slept in his room upstairs, I was constantly checking the weather app on my phone. If we needed to get Owen down to the basement as well, I wanted to know. As we prepared for bed around 11:15, the situation was worsening, and I decided to turn on the local news just to check in. It’s a good thing I did. The TV hadn’t been on for more than five minutes before warning beeps drowned out the meteorologist’s voice. Ken grabbed Owen, and we all rushed downstairs to our basement bathroom. We laid out some pillows and tried to get Owen comfortable enough to stay asleep. We didn’t even close the door at first, even as the wind beat the house outside. I was fine until Owen started whimpering. I thought we had managed to keep him asleep. But then he cried out, “Can we close the door?”
That’s when I wasn’t okay anymore. Even though I tried to stay calm. We closed the door, and there we were. The four of us behind locked doors, scared to death. I’m not sure any of us doubted we would be okay, but you can bet we were afraid, terrified. I was trying to be light and funny. I was telling stories about storms I’ve been in that were really bad, but how every time, in the end we were all okay. But even as I did that, I knew this one was worse. Then Mary Ellen started talking about what a let down 2020 has been; how this was supposed to be a new decade, a better time, but so far it’d just been a huge disappointment. It was all enough to make us chuckle some, and pass the time perhaps a bit faster. But none of it was enough to take away the fear.
Even though none of us admitted it at the time, we were locked behind closed doors, for fear; we were afraid…And I found myself thinking, in that moment, and hundreds of time since, “Can’t we get a break, God? Can’t something good happen for once?” One morning this week, a few days after the storm, Ken said, “2020 has been such an awful year. In January my Mom died, in March the coronavirus struck, and in April we got tornadoes.” Sometimes we can’t really understand something until we’re living it ourselves. That’s what this year has been for many of us, I think, as we find ourselves living in the reality of constant stress, and heartache, and pain, and tragedy. Suddenly, I find that I have a much greater understanding of the deep difficulty and pain of living through one misfortune after another. And people all over the world are facing such realities all the time. Right now, it’s most everyone living in East Brainerd. I’m ready for 2020 to be over. I’m ready to be out of a mess for a while. I’m ready for some signs of hope instead of devastation.
The Scripture passage I read this morning from John’s gospel picks up on that first Easter day, but now is late in the day. The disciples are hiding out because they are afraid that what happened to Jesus is now going to happen to them. They are fearful, locked behind closed doors. Then, Jesus appears among them. “Peace be with you,” he says to them. And he shows them his hands and his side. Then he breathes on them, giving to them the Spirit of God. Thomas wasn’t there, and so what follows is that whole doubting Thomas episode that we talk so much about. But you know what I noticed this week as I studied this passage with new eyes. The other 10 disciples did see Jesus, they saw his wounds, and touched him, they received the Spirit, but they were still afraid. Because as John goes on, what we learn is that eight days later, the disciples were STILL locked behind closed doors. Are you all following me? Ten of Jesus’ disciples had seen the resurrected Jesus. They looked upon his nail marks and his scarred side. They had received the breath of Christ himself, the Holy Spirit. And they were still afraid, they were still locked behind closed doors. Why do we give Thomas such a hard time? I decided this week that I don’t really know.
I want to share with you what struck me about this passage as I read it in the midst of a global pandemic and in the aftermath of an EF-3 tornado that tore through our community and upended our lives, even the lives of some of our congregation. Here’s what I learned from Thomas, and the disciples, and Jesus this week: Fear is okay. Uncertainty and even doubt are okay. None of that means we don’t have faith. None of that means that Jesus won’t still come and stand among us. There is nothing wrong with longing for signs of hope and life in the midst of trauma and destruction. Jesus was patient with all of his disciples as he came among them twice and showed them his wounded body. He was gracious and generous as he breathed upon them the Holy Spirit. And even as they remained locked behind closed doors, fearful and uncertain, Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you.”
I said last week on Easter Sunday that even at the tomb, there are signs of life. I challenged us all to be on the lookout for those signs despite everything that is happening in the world right now. That night, our community was dealt another blow, and all around us this week, are signs of utter destruction; not signs of life and hope. In the meantime, we’ve been locked behind closed doors, we’ve experienced fear like we may never have experienced before. But still Jesus comes and stands among us. Still Jesus says to us, “Peace be with you.” Still Jesus breathes upon us his Spirit, from which we can draw strength. Even when I am feeling ragged and stressed, even when I’m afraid and uncertain, I still believe that Christ comes into our midst and brings us his peace. I still believe that those signs of hope and life are there before us. If it seems like nothing else can keep us going right now, let’s strive for that at least, to cling to Christ’s peace, and to search for signs of new life in him.
Let me offer to you a few signs that were shared with me this week:
First, my phone was blowing up Sunday night and Monday morning as many of you were checking on me. And I know you were doing the same for one another. I was so thankful for that connection.
When I talked to Brenda Fields this week, she spoke of her amazing family, which drove and then hiked out to her demolished Holly Hills home after the tornado on Sunday night to get her out and to a safe place.
Justin and Kelsey Shaver were thankful for a safe and quiet place to stay in the midst of a pandemic. Their apartment building was totally evacuated and then fenced off after the tornado heavily damaged it.
Even in the face of devastation, and destruction, and loss; even in the midst of fear, and doubt, and uncertainty, Christ still comes among us. Christ still offers peace; the peace we so desperately need. As we lean into the strength of God’s Spirit in these trying times, may we also seek the signs of Christ’s hope and life around us.
Peace be with you all, now more than ever.