May 2, 2021
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the religious authorities, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Fear changes us. It changes how we experience the world. When we are Afraid for our physical safety, unsure if we will have enough to eat, when we are worried that we might not be able to fully be ourselves, when we’re terrified that we might not be loved, or if we worry about being abandoned, how we make sense of the world around us changes. Working in Philadelphia, with folks who were experiencing the trauma of poverty, food, and housing insecurity, many of whom had experienced violence, I was trained in trauma informed care. As Atticus, the Mission Developer of North Ave. Mission so eloquently phrased it last week in Worship, being Trauma Informed is about shifting from asking why someone is doing something, to asking what happened to the person in front of us and creating an environment with experiences that run counter to their sense of dread. When I read our scripture reading from Today, I can’t help but see the Trauma Thomas and Jesus’ followers have been through. Through this lens, it’s not surprising that Thomas has difficulty believing Jesus’ Resurrection and appearance. What’s extraordinary to me is that Thomas knows what he needs to be able to internalize what they are telling him. I won’t be able to believe he’s back until I touch the wounds, he says. Given all he’s been through, he knows what will overcome the fear that has shaped him. Thomas has gotten a bad rap for thousands of years, because of Jesus’ line about the blessedness of those who don’t see and believe. This line might be a creative flourish of the writers of the Gospel of John, a way of reaching out to those hearing this text read after it was written, likely a hundred or two hundred years after Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection. But readings that marginalize Thomas for being honest about his difficulty believing overlook how Jesus chooses to interact with him. Jesus knows what Thomas has been through, and approaches, offering to his friend what he needs to trust that there is hope that overcomes the violence Jesus has endured. When I was in Philadelphia, I started to notice that something was changing. I wasn’t feeling safe in certain situations. My anxiety, which I have worked in therapy for years to adapt to, started to spike in unexpected places, especially the subway, movie theatres, and in worship. I assumed that I was just overwhelmed, from working at Broad Street, where I was constantly being vigilant, looking for situations where conflict or violence could emerge. I thought I’d get back to being able to relax when we moved to Baltimore, and for a few months, it did. But then I found myself becoming terrified at odd moments again. In my first year of serving here, I found that I was becoming hyper vigilant during worship, and that I felt deeply Afraid about the future finances of the church. I realize now that I was experiencing what is known as secondary trauma. Years of being with folks who were traumatized by poverty and violence had changed me, and it was hard for me to believe that I was safe. I felt like any little mistake I made could quickly lead to loosing this job. I was afraid for our future as a community. And violent attacks on houses of worship across the country led my body to be on high alert. I could hear that we were ok, but my body didn’t feel like it was true. Beloved, this past year we have been exposed to fears and dangers that will have lasting effects on many of us and those we care for and interact with. Even if we haven’t personally experienced the effects of COVID, it’s likely some of us will carry the scars of secondary trauma from the exposure to narratives of others. We might find it terrifying to be in certain spaces or situations, or find ourselves triggered by situations, where it feels like the entire world slows down, and our vision and hearing tunnel down to a perceived threat. This trauma could be around the pandemic, or fears of being abandoned, brought on by the isolation of this year. It could take the form of intrusive thoughts and flashbacks of grief that feel like too much. Some of us were deeply shaken by the election and the insurrection in January and might find ourselves afraid of our neighbors in new ways. What’s so frustrating about trauma is that our fear, our vigilance, often it helps us to stay safe; it’s a healthy response to intense situations, helping us to identify similar situations in the future so we can avoid them. But it can consume us and change what we believe in ways that can be distressing. We might begin to feel that God has abandoned us, or that people don’t care for us. When I moved to Baltimore, I found that my trauma from the past was out of control. It took a while to find a therapist who was helpful for me, along with a psychiatrist who identified a medication to treat my anxiety. My therapist, a retired Methodist pastor, made recordings for my phone with breathing exercises and guided meditations I could use when panic attacks started, and helped me to identify ways to remind my body that I was safe, that I was secure. It was a little disorienting as a trained therapist to be on the other side, receiving trauma informed care. I felt almost guilty for needing treatment. After all, I hadn’t experienced the trauma that was making me afraid. I almost felt like I didn’t have the right to need help. But when the medication worked, when I began to process what had made me so afraid, when the breathing exercises slowed down the feedback loop of fear, I realized just how much my body had been changed by bearing witness to the trauma of others. For many of us, we’re at a point where we might start experiencing some odd effects as we receive our COVID vaccines, or we return to school, as work begins to shift, as we come together with family and friends. Others of us, instead of being afraid about being around others again, might find that we have the opposite response; we want to hurry up and be with people again, and might find ourselves taking risks that make others uncomfortable. It is traumatic to be isolated, and our fear of being uncared for, can lead us to push to be together in ways that lead to conflict, almost testing folks love for us. Beloved, it is going to be hard regathering in person as a church, and as people who have bodies that have been through a terrifying experience. My prayer for us all is that we would approach one another with compassion and patience, keeping in mind that we’re all going to be a bit raw for a bit. You might find yourself feeling comfortable being with others and feel frustrated that others aren’t ready to join you. What feels safe to you for your kids, might not for others. As a church family, we are doing our best to keep informed about the latest science backed guidance. But even more deeply, we are going to keep in mind that some of us need to take extra precautions because of unique circumstances. As a community we never want to exclude folks because of their age or the age of children, never want to forget that many of us have health conditions that change what is safe for us and our families. We don’t want to put one another in a situation where we feel like we are being excluded from God. Jesus doesn’t exclude Thomas from the community because he missed his first appearance to the Disciples. Jesus comes back. He hears what Thomas needs to be able to believe he is loved, that God is at work bringing Love into the world in a new way. Jesus, after the Resurrection, is still wounded. The scars don’t disappear, even as they are overcome. We’re going to be the walking wounded for a bit, and I pray that we will choose to be patient with each other, so we can begin to trust that we can be safe in each other’s presence. And for those of us who are feeling the effects of isolation so deeply, and feel comfortable with the precautions available, we will have more Drive-In services, and Saturday events outdoors. If you don’t want to worship alone, I’d invite you to explore meeting up at one other household to log on for our Sunday services that are online. This might be a chance to deepen friendships and be together in unique ways. Jesus recognizes what Thomas has been through, and meets him where he is, providing what he needs. I hope we will choose to continue to model this kind of compassion during this weird time. We’re going to encounter folks in our lives who are going to have all kinds of experiences of anxiety in the weeks and months ahead. Be gentle friends. We are going through and been through a traumatic experience. It’s going to be hard when we are actually safe to feel that way in our bodies. It’s going to be hard to believe that our lives are being Resurrected. But thankfully we have the story of Thomas to remind us to ask for what we need to believe, and the example of Jesus’ compassion and care for his friend. May we do likewise.