Be Astonished

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John 20: 19-31

It’s no wonder our gospel reading today begins with the disciples locked in a room together hiding for fear of the outside world. Their friend was dead, an execution they themselves witnessed, and they were suddenly left very alone. Everything they had put their trust and hope in had vanished, and they were petrified. Were they next? Guilty by association? Surely they weren’t expecting their friend and leader to be tried and convicted, sentenced to death when all along they followed him and believed he was there to fix the bad, heal the broken, and inspire change. What now were they supposed to do? Jesus didn’t give leave them a guide book for ministry 101. Instead, the disciples were left very afraid and very confused, locked away, fearful for their lives, wondering how to go on.

We are blessed with the knowledge of an empty tomb and the risen Christ. But the beginning of our gospel reading today does not reflect hallelujahs or shouts of joy – not just yet. Instead, we sense fear and concern, anxiety and numbness as the disciples wonder how it is that Jesus is dead and missing from the tomb. When we look at our reading from Acts, we sense a very different kind of emotions. The disciples here are bold and confident, sure of their faith and eager to proclaim the message of the resurrection, even when danger surrounds them. It almost seems as if they are different people than those we witness hidden in the locked room in John’s gospel. If we keep reading John’s account of Jesus’ appearing before the disciples, we know that the disciples don’t just move from being terrified to being confident without something happening in between. They stood in the presence of the divine and were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Astonishment! Hope was renewed.

And now – we are in the second week of Easter, the psalmist praising God – Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! The tomb is empty, and death could not defeat the greatest good ever known. It’s the time of year for rebirth, new life, and warmth. Spring surrounds us, and we have a bounce in our step. The world is in bloom. Thankfully we don’t have to live in the darkness and harsh weather of winter all year. And thankfully the disciples didn’t remain in the locked room forever. When face to face with the living dead, they rejoiced. How fortunate for them to be in that room when the miracle of their risen friend appeared before them. How unfortunate for Thomas, who was not with them at the time of the appearing. No, he was away. And when he returned, he refused to believe. He was so defeated and swathed in sadness and grief that he could not believe such a tall tale, even though, I’m sure, somewhere deep inside of him, he wanted nothing more than to have faith in such a wonderful story.

A Saturday morning a few weeks ago, I sat in my reading chair with a cup of coffee next to me and I pulled a book of poetry off the shelf. It had been a long time since I read poetry, but a stirring inside moved me to find something by Mary Oliver, the Provincetown poet. I read slowly and breathed deeply. I should have known inspiration and imagination would strike me, and I was amazed and grateful for her honest words on the pages. What was interesting about the book I chose, out of all the others, was that this one in particular evoked very strong emotions for Oliver. This collection of poems were written and collaborated after the death of her longtime partner of over forty years. The loss of someone so dear, someone so close and cherished – how to go on living in the midst of such sorrow. How to keep on creating beauty in the midst of such heartbreak. How to have hope in the midst of despair. She does these things!

I keep coming back over and over to the first poem in this book, called Messenger. She begins by saying her work is loving the world. She then continues, “let me keep my mind on what matters…which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished… which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here, which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart, and these body clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug up clam, telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever” (Thirst, pg. 1: 2006). This poems says it so beautifully – how we are to be in the world, messengers of the good news, bringing light to the darkness, even in the midst of our own personal struggles and sorrow. What matters? Letting ourselves be astonished. Everything we need, we already have – gratitude, minds, hearts, and a mouth.

Letting ourselves be astonished. This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We just read about the disciples’ amazement over the figure of the risen Christ in their midst. They’re reaction could have been one of skepticism, eye brows cocked, taking a step back from Jesus, arms folded across their chests, demanding an answer for the mysterious intrusion into the locked room. They could have asked for details – how is it possible that you, O Lord, are alive? Where did you go? How did you come back? How is it that you can walk through doors? What was it like being dead? Luke didn’t mention any such reactions from the disciples, but instead they let the mystery surround them. They combined that mystery with what Jesus had already taught them during his ministry, and they firmly believed that his resurrection meant he was indeed the Messiah. No, in that moment, they let themselves be astonished. Now, Thomas found himself in a similar situation a week later, when Jesus appeared before him as well. In that moment, he didn’t demand anything from Christ. Instead, he too allowed himself to be astonished.

Growing up, the only thing I really knew about Thomas was his supposed failure. His doubting. The words of a simple children’s song run through my head, don’t be a doubting Thomas, trust fully on God’s promise, why worry, when you can pray. But, Thomas was so much more than the disciple who doubted Jesus’ resurrection. Earlier in John, it’s evident that Thomas was willing to follow Jesus even to death when he said to the other disciples, rallying them to move along, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas did not hesitate. He had hope when Jesus was alive. He watched him perform miracles, transform peoples’ lives, cause excitement, find followers, and speak of future promises, even things that were beyond his understanding at that time. Thomas gave his life to following this message bearer of good news, peace, and love. When that person died, a part of Thomas died as well. He was losing hope, unsure of anything while darkness covered the world. Just when his pain was going to be too much for him to bear, his hope was renewed, face to face with the living Christ, his beloved friend and trusted leader. He knew in that moment that his life was worth something, he meant something. He held onto hope, and he believed he could make a difference, as long as the message of the good news always was being lived out.

In his book, Hope on a Tightrope, Cornell West describes hope as a “messy struggle” through which the “real work” needs to be done (pg. 6: 2008). Often hope is seen as simply something better in the future, but that’s not where hope ends, that’s where it begins. It starts with being astonished – wonder and amazement. We need to let ourselves be moved and take the time to sit and listen. From astonishment comes imagination – for something better, for love, for justice, for equality, for Christ. A
ction follows. But how does this become real unless there are those willing to do the hard work, to dig deep and trudge knee high in the mud? We learn from the disciples in Acts that living out hope isn’t easy. How often were they persecuted. Disbelief surrounded them, yet they never stopped being the messengers of the miracle they had witnessed. They never stopped living out the hope they saw in Jesus’ life on earth. They recognized that hope meant living out the truth, in very real and very difficult ways.

West’s metaphor of hope being on a tightrope is interesting, isn’t it? A balancing act, slowly stepping across, one foot in front of the other, afraid to fall, to have to start all over again. When will we ever reach the other side? But hope is on a tightrope. It must go slowly, cautiously, anxiously, and eagerly. We fall into despair when we slip, but we get back up, like Thomas. We start over again. Again and again and again. Because it’s not always easy, and living out the truth is rarely effortless. We do not always live in the Easter moment, trumpets blaring, drums pounding, the scent of lilies surrounding us, the joyful song and speech of love eternal and redemption. No, we too often find ourselves caught in between, like the disciples and like Thomas, where it’s difficult to see beyond the dismal and dreary days towards the evidence of hope, of life anew, of the living Christ. Sometimes it’s not enough to simply hear a story. If we know the good news, we must be living it out, in order for others to not simply hear the story of Jesus’ resurrection, but also to see, to witness what hope actually looks like in the flesh.

But, the hope filled aren’t always joy filled. Just as the psalmist often wrote mournful and sorrowful lines about his despair, we too sink into the turmoil of the world around us. We aren’t always clanging the cymbal, dancing with praise, or letting out shouts of delight. We are human. Just as the human Jesus wept for his dear friend Lazarus, we too often find ourselves weeping. Just as the human Jesus felt anger at the people’s corruption of the temple, we too rise up out of anger because of the things beyond our control. Just as the human Jesus cried out to God in humble prayer in the garden, we too go alone to the quiet, dark places seeking out answers and crying out to God, overwhelmed and out of breath. Just as Thomas doubted the possibility of a miracle, we too doubt the possibility of change in the world around us.

Once a year I invite the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students I work with to join me in a night of storytelling in order to share our personal journeys, our joys, and our hardships. It’s a time for truth telling and sharing, based on trust and acceptance. I always preface the event by stating anyone can share as much or as little as wanted, and, for confidentiality’s sake, nothing leaves that room after we all go our separate ways. Most students are nervous and awkward at first, unsure of what to say or how to start. I step in and begin with a story from my undergraduate years, one to which they can relate and connect. There isn’t a better start to a new academic year than in this way, in my opinion. Honesty, community, laughter, tears – knowing that you aren’t alone on campus. Knowing that somebody is there for you, and all you have to do is ask. Knowing that others have gone through some of the same life experiences as you, and there are safe places to turn towards.

I often leave these meetings full of awe. I am astonished – over and over again by the struggles some of these students have gone through and continue to wrestle with. And, I am amazed at the joy often expressed in the midst of these struggles. It’s inspiring. The creativity and passion expressed through simple words reminds me of Mary Oliver, who also has been able to continually create and inspire in the midst of struggle. When I reflect on my time with these students in this setting, I see the hope dwelling up inside of them as they continue to listen and share. If they’re not alone and others share the same vision, inspiration strikes. Hope is renewed. Like Thomas, they realize they can make a difference, and that their lives have meaning.

Thomas just needed something a little more. He needed more than a story from his friends. He needed an encounter with the living Christ. He needed hope. If we truly are made in God’s image, and if we truly are called to be bearers of the good news, we must imitate Christ. We must. The disciples in Acts were filled with renewed hope, upon seeing the risen Christ and feeling the spirit move during Pentecost. They were no longer locked in the room full of despair and frozen with fear. They experienced the resurrection first hand. They had work to do, even to their deaths. Christ’s message of hope and love would not fade. They were called to be messengers. To breathe shouts of joy, and to continue the struggle of hope.

Be astonished, friends. Move from the fear and frustration, the numbness and sorrow towards amazement of what is and what more could be. Only when we allow ourselves to be astonished may we begin to envision something more for ourselves and our world, only then will we begin to be hopeful people, and only then will our imaginations push us to show that same hope to others. Take the time to see and hear, watch and listen. Let the simple things amaze you – the spider delicately hanging from a single strand, swaying in the breeze – the beauty of the pink blossoms along Commonwealth Avenue – the kindness expressed by students from Hugs Don’t Hate offering free hugs outside of Marsh Plaza. And also, be amazed at the things you never expected, that often seem preposterous, and let yourselves be astonished. Take the time to be moved. Only then will we invite imagination to be at work inside of us, our hope being renewed and worked out together. The biblical hope requires imagination to be at work, envisioning what could be – between human beings, nations, churches, and it requires us to live that out – the truth we know of these future promises. We are called to live out the good news – to live out the truth and inspire others along the way. Work your way across the tightrope wholeheartedly and zealously, and pick one another back up, after a fall. Help one another move from fear, like the disciples, to confidence, joy, and hope. With minds, hearts, and mouths tell the simple message of what you know to be true and alive. Be messengers, full of truth, full of mercy, full of hope, full of astonishment. Amen.

~ Liz Douglass,
Chapel Associate for LGBTQ Ministry

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