Sermon: John 20.19-31 – Sunday April 19th, 2020
“What the darkness reveals”
I remember when I was a little boy – maybe 5 or 6 years old, my parents would go out on Saturday night leaving me and my brother and one of our older cousins in charge of babysitting us at our house. And in retrospect, I can say that it was kinda funny how we would always end up watching really scary, age-inappropriate horror movies on T.V., once the grownups of course departed. To this day, I still don’t know what it is about scary movies by the way: how they simultaneously attract us and repulse us by the revelations of their darkness and their mysteries and their thrills… But if you can believe it, I remember watching at that age films like The Exorcist, and The Amityville Horror, and The Shining, and again, although I can laugh about it now, I can honestly remember when the movie was over, my babysitting cousin would look over at me tell me: “okay Jeff, off to bed now; go on…” and I would leave the den and wander down the hallway to the bottom of a flight of stairs looking up into total darkness. And I don’t know why, maybe it was just in old homes like ours, but for some reason the lightswitch that illuminated both the staircase and the upper floor was located oddly enough only at the top of the stairs and not at the bottom, and so I would be scared to death to walk up the stairs by myself as I was imagining all kinds of supernatural boogeymen resembling Vincent Price and Christopher Lee were just waiting to lung out at me. In order to avoid the darkness, I would usually make up some excuse and often call my brother to help me go find some supposed book in his bedroom that I would like to read a little before going to bed, and he would escort me up the stairs because there was just no way that I ever going to learn how to walk in the dark alone and be comfortable doing it.
Now you know, I’m an older man now and of course I’m not scared of the dark anymore but you know when I think about things today – things I’m either not too proud of that I’ve done in my life or things I’m embarrassed about, or about some of the doubts I occasionally still have about my capabilities, or just some of the things I’m kinda scared of like catching COVID-19 and having it turn fatal on me and causing me to die alone – I got to admit these things remind me of that scared little 5 year old looking up into a cloud of darkness and the unknown at the top of the stairs and not wanting to have anything to do with it and to want to make up some excuse to avoid dealing with that fear or anxiety.
But you know when I think about it, our culture in general has a very low tolerance dealing with dark matters and unpleasant things – not only like darkness when we are younger, but when we grow up with other things like painful feelings, or questions of doubt or self-worth, or other mental health issues that many of us live with or keep hidden in our closets. I mean after all, ours is a society that has largely mastered the dark and all things that go bump in the night. You take just our cities for example – which are full of lights at all hours of the day and evening, and even in our homes, in the middle of the nights we are surrounded by artificial nightlights and the dim glow given off alarm clocks or computers recharging, so we never have to worry about stumbling in the dark…
But you see, in the lives of many, our very real inability to deal with the darkness or other serious doubts or problems in our lives and the dark emotions that often accompany them end up worsening our problems and causing us to turn to all sorts of artificial lights to dispel that darkness -“including, but not limited to things like drugs, alcohol, shopping, [overeating,] shallow sex, or hours spent in front of our glowing television sets and computer screens…” (Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, 78)
In fact, medical experts in Canada are now warning us that the next big thing to hit us during this pandemic will be a massive wave of mental health issues arising in part from being trapped inside our houses, and being confronted by our deepest anxieties we live with. One of my biggest concerns that has been on my mind this week is: well, what will be our response? How will we cope with the darkness? We will even want to learn to try to confront it, or sit in it or try to walk in it?
Now, one of the things that stood out for me in our gospel for this morning was that on the evening of the first day of the week, it was in the darkness, that we encounter Jesus’ remaining disciples, all huddling together nervously and anxiously inside a house with the doors locked -for fears of reprisals from the powers that be for being connected with Jesus. They had just witnessed after all days ago Jesus beaten and whipped and crucified on a cross. They had seen their greatest hopes that Jesus was the one; that he was the Messiah dashed to the ground, and they were terrified that they would be next.
It’s not hard to imagine the scene: sweat dripping off their faces; only a low fire going in order not to arouse any unwanted attention; shadows flickering off their faces as anxious eyes watched the door praying that it would not open, while hoping that every approaching set of footsteps heard nearby would pass them by. And all their doubts about whom Jesus had really been would not leave them. Jesus had died, he did not start the revolution that they and all of Israel had hoped for. And I mean, who knows, maybe the disciple Thomas feeling like a lot of us now, had had enough of being cooped up inside. Maybe you could say he was tired of socially isolating, or maybe he thought holing up with the rest of a bunch of fugitives was not such a good idea if indeed some outside power was coming after them, but for whatever reason, Thomas needed to leave, and this time, he had no choice but to step out into the darkness, and be alone and go for one of those long, deep soulsearching walks that I suspect sooner or later all of us have taken -what the 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross referred to as “The Dark Night of the Soul…” where everything happening in our lives no longer makes sense, or all our thoughts and answers and creedal confessions we have said to ourselves about God and about who God is just doesn’t seem to comfort us the right way anymore, especially if we’re told that God is light, and when we look all around us all we see and all we feel is dark… Well where is God in all this darkness? In the middle of our night? Where is God in the middle of this pandemic? Because it’s right here, right now where we’re tempted most especially to feel only God’s absence and it’s normal for us right now to be feeling confused, and full of doubts about what’s going happen next, because for a lot of us, let’s admit it -we are feeling anxious, or scared, maybe on edge, as for some of us our OCD is going through the roof. Or for others, we haven’t got the promised financial assistance from the government we’ve been waiting for, or we’re wondering about what’s going to happen to my job; or where will we be or our children or grandchildren be in the next few months…
And yet it’s here in the darkness our gospel tells us, Jesus comes to his disciples, lifting up his hands and showing to them the wounds and scars in them and in his side, and knowing what’s on their minds, Jesus says: “Peace be with you…[And] As the Father has sent me, so I send you…” Peace be with you… And once Jesus is done saying that, Jesus breathes on them, imparting to them what he told them on the night of the Last Supper that he would give them -the gift and grace of God’s Holy Spirit; of God’s great comforter, and after doing so, it was no long after our gospel tells us that the disciples fear was turned around into joy.
But not for all of them, at least not yet. Because in our gospel while all this wonder was occurring, our brother, Thomas (whose name in Greek, means Twin by the way, our twin, you might say) was out having his long walk in the dark, sorting things out. Maybe not coming up with many answers, like a lot of us right now, maybe feeling tempted right now this was his chance to get out of Dodge and run away from his problems. But who knows, maybe the thought of abandoning his brothers hiding out in that locked room; or maybe the faith that Jesus had shared with him about loving and trusting in God and loving his neighbour with not only all of his mind, but also with all of his heart stirred something in him, but whatever it was, something made him go back and when he got back, imagine his surprise! Imagine his surprise when the other disciples said to him: “We have seen the Lord.”
At first, Thomas couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had seen enough of Jesus on the Cross to know that nobody walks away from that. It was a story too good to be true and he told them that unless he could, like them, see those same scars and stick his hand in Jesus’ side, that there was no way he was going to believe their story.
But then only a short week later, Jesus would come to him too and somehow Jesus knew too what his doubts were, what his problems were, and he invited Thomas to place his finger in his side, where he had been pierced by the spear, and then somehow in that mysterious encounter something clicked for Thomas – for him to make the connection in both his mind and heart and to declare: “My Lord and My God!”
Because the one standing before him, the one that he had seen upon the Cross in all its messiness and pain and confusion, was now with him and was somehow more real and tangible and believable to him than ever just a distant God defined by neat and tidy religious definitions could ever be. Because in this scarred and resurrected Jesus standing before him, Thomas was seeing the God who had walked in the darkness of all that human reality could throw at him on his behalf, and in now approaching him and showing him the proof of his scars, was shoving aside all that could ever separate him from God again. Because in Jesus Christ, Thomas was seeing the God whose compassion knows no bounds by choosing to be the one who would be identified with all our pain and with all our darkness and with all our doubts so that we know his peace. (Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness, 83)
My brothers and sisters, during these unusual times, it is very understandable for us to be experiencing doubts and to feel anxious and/or lonely, as after all, we are humans, and humans are made to be social and to be with each other. And during these times, loneliness can be a very real thing and problem.
But it is my prayer that you may realize that whenever you are in this darkness, you are never alone in it, as Christ comes to us, just as he came to his disciples long ago in their place of darkness and in their place of anxieties and fears and extends to us his peace -his peace which passes all understanding especially during hardships. Hardships that we can’t control any more like the going down of the day and the rising of night.
And while it remains true that the peace of Christ does pass all understanding; because in fact there never have been any easy answers to our faith, or to explain what is happening to us right now in our world, still God extends to us the power of his holy spirit; his holy comfort that sends us out just as Jesus was sent by God to care and pray for each other in a way that we may become balm for each other’s lonely souls and pain and doubts.
And the reality is, this pandemic will not last forever. One day we will be back together. You know it’s funny, all those years ago when I was a child and I would just stare up the stairways into that great darkness, slowly I learned as I got older, that if I would just learn to sit in that darkness for awhile, gradually my eyes would adjust to the darkness and slowly I would be able to see in the darkness enough to slowly make my way up the stairs again, or at the very worst, I could always call my faithful brother, who was never far away from me. So during these times, may you know you are never far away from anyone and that often if we learn to just sit in the darkness long enough, gradually we too will have our perspective changed by it and be able to make our way again in it, in spite of it, because in Jesus we have seen a light, a light that is the way, the truth, and the life, a light that the darkness encountered, and could not overcome. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.