Wholeness (and Holes)

Context is everything. Last week our gospel reading was one of the most famous texts of the Easter season. We hear it every year on the second Sunday of Easter, from the Gospel of John, the story of Thomas refusing to believe in the resurrection until he puts his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands and until he puts his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side. A beautiful story and, in the end, Thomas gets his wish – a wonderfully intimate image, preached on excellently last week by Rev. Tessa.

So, when we hear Luke’s version of the story – as we just have – Jesus holds his hands out to the disciples, he hops on one foot and wiggles the other one around in the air for them, and in our mind’s eye we see those same open wounds that were described to us last week. But that’s not the way Luke is telling it, is it?

 It’s like John’s gospel is answering the question, “How do we know this is the resurrected Jesus and not some Jesus impersonator?” Well, John says, they saw the wounds of the crucifixion, even touched them. But Luke’s gospel is answering a slightly different question: “How do we know this is the resurrected, bodily, flesh-and-bone Jesus and not Jesus’ ghost or some other purely spiritual apparition?”

 Jesus actually gets upset with the disciples when they’re afraid of him because they think he’s a ghost. I dunno. If you’re gonna be all sensitive about people thinking you’re a ghost, maybe stop acting like a ghost, and use the front door like everybody else. Jesus realizes his mistake, I think, and tries to make up for it. He eats a fish. Ghosts can’t do that. And he tells the disciples to touch him. No ectoplasm here – real flesh and blood.

Notice that Luke makes no mention of marks, wounds, or scars of any kind, but he does mention Jesus showing his hands and feet to the disciples twice – but there’s no description of them or their appearance – here or anywhere else in Luke’s gospel.

So, let me ask all of you: Beloved, taking Luke’s story on its own, when Jesus asks you to look at his hands and his feet, to touch his hands and his feet, what do you see there? What do you feel?

There’s something there, isn’t there? Do you feel it? What is that?

Luke has decided not to overwhelm our senses with a graphic medical description of open wounds. Still, there’s something there. Jesus isn’t showing the disciples his elbow, or his belly button, or the back of his knees, or some other safe part. Jesus is showing them parts which we know, after what he’s been through, must be vulnerable. And the way Luke tells it, he’s showing us a sort of blank canvas – not four physical wounds on one physical man, but a journey to the place of our own vulnerability.

Let me tell what I see and feel in Jesus’ hands and feet:

When I was fourteen I broke my back because of a bone disease that weakened one of my vertebrae. It was a life-changing, life-threatening injury. I was brought to Boston Children’s Hospital and the doctors there said that my spine was the most severely broken spine they had ever seen that belonged to someone who wasn’t yet paralyzed – yet. I remember the light flickering on behind the x-ray of my back and looking inside of myself to that precarious, twisted mess of bone and nerves.

And when I take Luke’s invitation to look at Jesus’ hands and feet, I see that x-ray flickering on. And when I touch Jesus’ hands and feet, I feel the fear I felt in the most vulnerable moment of my life to date: lying on the operating table, waiting to be anesthetized, remembering the words of the surgeons to my parents and me: “…every major surgery carries the risk of death, you need to be prepared for that… with a surgery like this there is, of course, a chance that when you wake up you could be paralyzed from the chest down…”

Beloved, what do you see there in Jesus’ hands and feet? What do you feel?

I can imagine that many of us, myself included, would not be so eager to show off our vulnerable places as Jesus is – to hold out our tender places and to say, “Here I Am.” We’re not always too fond of vulnerability. We certainly don’t want to be poked there. Vulnerability does not always feel like a resurrection starting place. Sometimes it just feels like a crucifixion ending place.

Brené Brown is a researcher and author who has studied and written about vulnerability for almost two decades and shown us all just how uncomfortable we are with it. Her 2010 TEDxHouston talk about struggling with vulnerability has been watched (between YouTube and the TED website) more than 40 million times. And her book on the topic, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, is a New York Times bestseller. 

Brown was researching human connection and as she asked people about their experiences of connection to one another she found that when you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak. When you ask people about belonging, they'll tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they tell are about disconnection.

This led Brown to begin to research shame – to discover what separates those who struggle most with shame from those who struggle least with it. And she found that the people who struggle least with shame are those who have the strongest sense that they are worthy of love, connection, and joy.

Brown became interested in these folks. How do they find such a strong sense of worthiness and wholeness? Is it from a sense of perfection and strength? Does it come from planning for and controlling everything? Does it come from constant successes? No. What she found was that the folks with the strongest sense of worth and wholeness were the folks who had most deeply embraced the discomfort of their own vulnerability. They understood their vulnerable places, incorporated them into their stories of themselves, did not feel ashamed about them, and they were courageous in revealing their vulnerabilities to others and in taking emotional risks that would lead them to be vulnerable again.

Brown realized that she was not one of these people who were courageously vulnerable – who were willing to stick out their hands and their feet as a part of their true identity – and that this had led to a lot of pain and struggle in her own life. So, she began a journey to learn how to be more vulnerable and to see her vulnerability not as something shameful but as something authentic and powerful – the resurrection starting place of resilience, creativity, hope, love, joy, and connection to others

One of things I love most about being a pastor is getting to hear people’s faith stories – the story of the journey of their life. I’ve heard deep, powerful tellings of these personal stories from – I would guess – more than a hundred people. And I have never, ever heard a faith story that began and ended with perfection. Our stories frequently start with struggle and trouble and the wounds we are working to make whole. Sometimes, there is great pain, stories of almost unbearable betrayal, injustice, cruelty, selfishness, sin, and even what I can find no other word for than evil.

And, sometimes, at the same time, there’s something else. It’s not that the crucifixion was good for us, that the suffering was “supposed” to teach us something, that “God had a plan” and sent you pain. But on the other side of encountering vulnerability, we are more able to face the reality of the crucified places in our lives and bodies without being overpowered by them, without being ashamed of them, without having to numb away all of our emotions – that is what is good for us.

When I tell my faith story, I begin back there watching that x-ray flicker to life, lying on the operating table shivering and afraid, praying to God to get me out of this one. Returning again and again to that most vulnerable moment, really being with it, incorporating it into my understanding of who I am, struggling with my mortality and my pain is the beginning of the story of my call to ministry. It’s why I’m with all of you here today. It’s why I’m a pastor. If I had been unable to tell that story, to incorporate that story and it’s many lessons into my life, I wouldn’t have been able to live through that vulnerability into this vulnerable wholeness, I wouldn’t have been able to live into my calling as a Christian and a pastor.

Speaking of vulnerability and things that make us uncomfortable – it’s the first Sunday in our Stewardship Season! Many of us, maybe even most of us, feel a certain sense of woundedness and shame about our money and our finances. Can I get an AMEN on that?

As a pastor, I’ve heard stories of receiving these monetary wounds in many different ways: Some people grew up with not enough money. And some people grew up with too much money. Some people were raised without ever hearing about money from their family. And some people were raised hearing too much about their family’s financial situation. Some people can’t control their spending. And some people hoard needlessly. Some people are crushed by debt. And others can’t get the credit they need. Some people feel talking about money is in poor taste – especially in church. And some people feel like they almost never ever hear any Good News about their money – especially in their church. Some people are embarrassed that their gift might reveal their poverty. And others are embarrassed that their gift might reveal their wealth. Almost no one likes being asked for money. And almost no one gives without first, in some way, being asked.

This is the emotional minefield of Stewardship Season. But don’t worry, Beloved. We can do this. Of course, it is OK to talk about money. Money is a fact. It’s a number. It’s flesh and bone, in a sense. And money can only go from being a specter that haunts us, to becoming a reality that empowers us, if we’re able to acknowledge to one another that money is a place of vulnerability for most of us. And when we give, sometimes it hurts, not because we’re giving too much or giving more than we can afford or budget for, but simply because it’s a place of woundedness and despair that hasn’t quite made it to Resurrected Wholeness, to spiritual strength, yet in our lives. YET.

As we begin to discern together, what our giving is going to be over the next year, let’s acknowledge this vulnerability. But let’s not be put off by it. Let’s enter this Stewardship Season knowing that we have here an opportunity to positively transform our relationship (as individuals and as a church) to our money and our giving. Let’s promise one another that whatever we decide to give to one another, we’re not going to give painfully from a wound. Instead, let’s give what we can give courageously from a heart that refuses to be defined by shame, by scarcity, or by anxiety.

Please, understand that I am not preaching the prosperity gospel to you. This is not a get rich quick scheme. This is not, if you give a hundred you’re gonna get two hundred, if you give a thousand, you’re gonna get ten thousand. This is simply about taking spiritual control over how we feel about our money – however much we have to give – and taking physical control over how we use our money – however much we have to give.

Let’s accept that our giving is a part of our story – a part of who we are. It’s a part of the way we connect positively to other people and to our church. It’s a part of the way we learn to lead and heal with the power of our finances, rather than being controlled and hurt by the menace of our finances. Now, obviously, we all have different financial realities we have to deal with. Some of us will be able to afford to courageously pledge thousands of dollars – my God, thank you! And some of us will be able to afford to courageously pledge $100, $10, $1 – my God, thank you!

You do not need to WIN the Stewardship Season, nor do you need to feel like you’re being beaten by it. As Brené Brown said in her book Daring Greatly, “Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.”

As we continue to tell our stories to one another in the “Here I Am” season of Easter, as we continue to ask the questions “Who are we as a church? Who are our neighbors? What are we called to do?” in this season of transition, and as we begin to discern the gifts we will offer to one another this Stewardship Season, let’s hold out our hands and our feet and be all in together.