Monday, June 27, 2011

Sermon: Five Stages of Resurrection

John 20:19-31
Second Sunday of Easter, May 1 2011

Last summer, while working as a chaplain at a hospital, I received a page about a pastoral emergency. A patient had come in the night before for a routine hip replacement, and gone into surgery early in the morning. Her surgery went perfectly. But while she was under anesthesia, her sister died suddenly and unexpectedly. The patient, Gina, woke up in the recovery room to find her children crying. Not long after, she sent her children away to start making her sister’s funeral arrangements, and not long after that, her nurse paged me because she was distressed and agitated.

I sat with Gina several times during her time in the hospital, but I remember that first day most clearly. I sat with her for nearly an hour, mostly just listening as she said over and over, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this is happening. This isn’t happening. I just can’t believe it. It’s not happening. I don’t believe it. I won’t believe it. I can’t believe it’s true.”

In the book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the idea that there are five stages of grief. She divided the emotional experience of terminal illness into five phases: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kubler-Ross only studied the terminally ill for her research, but these stages of grief ring so true that they are now used to understand all kinds of experiences of loss: the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship. Every person is unique, and every grieving process is different, so people can go through those five stages in a different order, or skip some stages, or move back and forth between different stages, but those stages offer a good framework for thinking about how we grieve. And that day when I sat with Gina as she expressed her disbelief over and over and over again, I got my first clear picture of what it means to be in the “denial” stage of grieving.

In our Gospel text for today, I hear Gina’s words ringing back, but in a very different way: “I cannot believe it.” It was not that Gina thought her children were lying to her. It was not that she had assessed the evidence and decided that her sister was actually alive. It was that she had gotten a piece of news so huge, so unexpected, so life-changing, that she could not wrap her mind around it. She knew that it was true, but she couldn’t quite believe it. And so I thought about Gina and those five stages of grief as I imagined what it might be like to go through the emotional journey that Thomas goes through in our Gospel lesson for today.

At the beginning of the reading, it is the night of the day when Mary Magdalene saw the Risen Christ, but none of the disciples have seen him yet – they have only seen the empty tomb. And all of the disciples except for Thomas are gathered together in a locked house, afraid that the same religious authorities who orchestrated Jesus’ execution will turn against them. (By the way, the text says that they have locked themselves in “for fear of the Jews,” but all of the disciples are Jewish themselves.)

Jesus appears among them, and actually shows them his hands and side before vanishing. When the disciples tell Thomas what they have seen, he says this: “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my fingers in the marks, and put my hand in the wound on his side, I will not believe.” Ick.

On one hand, that statement is just so viscerally gross that it just sounds wrong. “I will not believe it unless I put my finger in the nail holes.” On the other hand, this just sounds so human to me – the human need to see it for ourselves is one of the reasons that, when someone dies, we display their body at a wake. The human need to see it for ourselves is the reason that my hospital patients were always getting scolded by the nurses for peeping under their bandages to look at their wounds and stitches. When I hear Thomas saying, “I won’t believe it unless I see it and touch it,” I’m not sure I hear faithlessness. I hear someone trying to wrap his mind around the incomprehensible. I hear denial. Perhaps those stages of grief could help us understand how the disciples, and how we, respond to the good news of resurrection.

Of course, the stages Thomas goes through as he wrestles with the resurrection and what it means don’t line up perfectly with the five stages of grief, but I think there’s something there, something about how we deal with huge, life-changing, world-transforming moments. The five stages of grief teach us that bad news is hard to come to terms with; it is hard to wrap our minds around; it is hard to accept and understand and integrate into our lives. Moving forward from a huge loss or change is not instantaneous – it is a process.

A couple of years ago, shortly after I first studied the five stages of grief, I had a kitchen accident, in which I cut off the very last little bit of the end of my thumb. It was not a huge tragedy. But it did hurt a lot, and it was scary, and I went to the emergency room to get it looked at. The doctor told me that it would heal, but it was unlikely that the nerves would regrow, so I probably would not ever have sensation in the end of my thumb again. And I thought, “I don’t believe that.” And then I thought, “wait a minute, Emily, that’s denial.” Over the next several days, I noticed myself going through those five stages of grief. “I can’t believe I did that! What sort of stupid idiot am I?” – anger. “If I’m really careful from now on and practice better knife safety, maybe my thumb will be fine” – bargaining. I knew exactly what they were, but even though I recognized them, I couldn’t jump straight to acceptance.

It can be like that to deal with good news, as well – a friend of mine who is awaiting the birth of a baby this summer spoke of the emotional process of comprehending the pregnancy – the process that started with hearing the good news, but didn’t end until they saw tiny hands on the ultrasound image. Even when the news is good and joyful – news of new life, news of hope, news of transformation, we cannot always accept it right away.

Thomas could not jump straight to acceptance, either. Jesus had promised the resurrection. The disciples had told him of the resurrection. But it would take time for Thomas to wrap his mind around the resurrection. The scripture reading today says that a week passed between the day the other disciples saw the risen Christ and told Thomas about it, and the day when Jesus appeared to Thomas, showing his hands and inviting Thomas to inspect his wounds. I wonder what that week was like for Thomas? I imagine he spent a lot of time wrestling and praying, as glimmers of hope began to overtake the despair of having watched his friend and teacher die.

And maybe it’s like that for us, sometimes, too. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the good news that God’s love is stronger than death. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the good news that hope can conquer fear. On Easter, we greet the Risen Christ with trumpets and lilies and feasting. We greet each other with the words “Christ is risen!” and reply with the words, “Christ is risen indeed!” But after the lilies have wilted and the trumpet players have gone home, we sometimes find ourselves asking, “Really?” “Is he?” We might find ourselves saying, “I think it might be true, but I can’t quite understand it.” We might find ourselves asking, with Thomas, “How can I know? What can you show me?”

Lots of churches and sermons and Sunday school lessons condemn those kinds of questions – and condemn anyone who admits to asking them. But Jesus doesn’t condemn them. In fact, in today’s reading, he answers them: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for being doubtful; instead he meets Thomas in the middle of his doubt and invites him to faith.

The good news of the resurrection is not just for people who have their theological ducks in a row. It’s not just for people who have moved past fear and denial and doubt. It’s not just for people with both feet firmly planted in hope and rejoicing. The good news is for you and me, even when we can’t quite believe it, don’t quite understand it, can’t quite accept it – especially then. When we are trapped behind the locked doors of fear, lost in the depths of despair, wrestling with doubt and disbelief, that is a moment when we can encounter the Risen Christ for ourselves, as we move, for the first time or the thousandth, from death to life, from despair to hope, from fear to trust. That is a moment when we experience resurrection in our own lives.

When we are doubtful, when we are uncertain, when we cannot quite accept or comprehend the good news of resurrection, we are not condemned – like Thomas, we are invited. We are invited to the communion table to taste and see that God is good. We are invited to gather with one another in loving community to hear the stories and sing the songs that proclaim hope and love and peace and justice. We are invited to go out into the world to love and serve our brothers and sisters. We are invited to meet the risen Christ.

Thanks be to God.

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