|Today’s scripture readings:
1 John 1:1-2:2
Tell me if this has happened to you: You get an email that pushes all your buttons and makes you furious, so you forward it to a trusted friend with some snarky remarks about the person who sent it, only to realize that rather than hitting the “forward” button, you hit “reply.” The nasty email that you never intended for the original sender to see is now waiting in their inbox. Can you relate?
Brené Brown, a researcher who studies shame and vulnerability, tells of a time this happened to her. Someone had emailed, asking her to speak at an event he was organizing. Brené Brown has had a huge following ever since she gave a TED Talk that became the most popular video on their website, and now she is constantly invited to speak about her research. She declined this particular invitation because it conflicted with a family birthday. The man responded with an email that Brown says was mean-spirited and full of personal attacks. So she forwarded the email to her husband with a few choice remarks saying just exactly what she thought of this guy and his dumb invitation, including some words that would be inappropriate to repeat in a sermon. She says as soon as she sent the message she realized she had hit “reply.” Within minutes, the man had replied again, basically saying, “Aha! I knew it! You area horrible person.” Inside Brené Brown’s body, what she calls a shame storm was brewing. Her heart was racing, her mouth became dry, time slowed down, she saw tunnel vision, and voices in her head shouted, “How could you be so stupid?!”
As an expert in shame and vulnerability, Brené Brown has thought a lot about how to handle these kinds of situations. Her advice is counter-intuitive: You need to share the experience with someone else. You need to tell the story of what happened. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” But it’s important to share the story with the right person. You need to avoid talking to someone who will pile on shame by gasping and confirming how horrified you should be, or someone who will scold you by saying something like, “What were you thinking?!” You don’t want to share it with someone who’s going to feel sorry for you, or someone who will try to convince you you’re exaggerating or it wasn’t that bad. When you are in the midst of a shame storm, you need to talk with someone who will respond with empathy and let you know you’re not alone.
So Brené Brown called her husband. He listened to her story and responded by being a little vulnerable himself, sharing about a time when he had a similar experience. He had never sent an email like the one that got Brené into this mess, but he did know what it’s like to find himself caught in a shame storm and spiraling downward. She says her shame dissipated the minute she realized she wasn’t alone. That’s the key. In a situation like this, you need to share your story with someone who will look you in the eye and say, “You’re not alone. I’ve been there, too, and I’m telling you this is not the end of the story.”
“I’ve been there, and I’m telling you this is not the end of the story.” I think that’s the kind of assurance Thomas is looking for when he asks to see Jesus’ wounds. He needs proof that despite everything Jesus has been through, it is not the end of the story.
The gospel lesson today is one we read every year on the Sunday after Easter. Two days after Jesus’ crucifixion, sometime in the evening, the disciples are huddled together behind locked doors. They’re afraid, and they’ve hidden themselves away. For whatever reason, Thomas isn’t with the rest of the disciples. Suddenly Jesus is standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he says. He shows them his wounds and their fear melts away. He breathes on them, filling them with the Holy Spirit, and commissions them to bring his message into the world. Sometime after Jesus has left, Thomas returns. The other disciples tell Thomas they’ve seen the Lord, but Thomas isn’t convinced. Unless he sees and touches the wounds in his hands, he won’t believe it. Eight days later, Jesus appears among them again. This time, Thomas is there. Jesus greets them all and then he turns to Thomas. “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Do not doubt, but believe!” Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas gets a bad rap. He will forever be remembered as “Doubting Thomas.” But the truth is, there are a lot of doubters in the story. Jesus’ first resurrection appearance is to Mary at the tomb on Easter morning. She runs off to tell the disciples that she has seen the risen Lord, but they don’t believe her. In the very next scene, we find the disciples locked away in a room, anxious and afraid. They need to have their own encounter with Jesus before they will believe Mary’s report. It’s only when Jesus appears to them and shows them his wounds that they believe.
So it’s not just Thomas who doubts. It’s all of the disciples. They all need to see those wounds. Every last one of them needs the assurance that the Jesus who stands among them is the same one who confronted the powers in Jerusalem with a message of radical love and ended up being sent to the cross; they need to know that the one who stands before them is the Jesus who was abandoned and rejected, shamed and humiliated, and ultimately executed by the authorities. The disciples have to be convinced that this Jesus really is the one who experienced the very worst the world has to offer, and yet now stands among them, as if to say, “It’s horrible. I’ve been there. You’re not alone, and I’m telling you it is not the end of the story.” Because if that’s true, it means shame and humiliation and abandonment and rejection aren’t the end of the story for us, either. It means no matter what tries to do us in, there is hope for the future.
Once a year Gloria Dei’s Hope in Recovery team hosts a “Recovery Sunday.” It’s a day when we make it a point to talk about issues of addiction and recovery, recognizing that part of our mission to be a healing, caring, and welcoming community is supporting people who struggle with addiction, celebrating those who are in recovery, and offering resources to individuals and families impacted by addiction. So often our society has treated addicts as criminals, which has meant that those who struggle with drugs or alcohol are forced into the shadows in order to avoid getting caught. When we refuse to talk about addiction or heap shame on those burdened by it, we add to the stigma and reinforce barriers to treatment.
One of our Hope in Recovery members told me recently that what he has found in a 12-step group that he doesn’t get anywhere else is honesty and vulnerability. It’s a place where people who struggle with addiction can share their stories of shame and humiliation, of stumbling and falling, trusting that others in the group will respond with empathy and understanding, not by piling on more shame. It’s a place where others can look him in the eye and say, “Come here. Look at me. Put your fingers in my side and let me show you my wounds. See? You’re not alone. I’ve been there, and I’m telling you this isn’t the end of the story.”
That’s the assurance Jesus offered Thomas and the other disciples, and it’s the assurance we hear today: that our brokenness is not the end of the story. I love the way theologian Serene Jones puts it: When God comes and stands among us, we “recognize God’s presence in those moments when peace is offered, in those moments when life’s most brutal violence is honestly acknowledged, and when, in the midst of this bracing honesty, we realize that we are not alone but have, in fact, been always, already found.” We know God is near when we give voice to our shame and humiliation, our brokenness and despair, and hear the reply, “You’re not alone. Look at my wounds. I’ve been there, and I’m telling you it’s not the end of the story.” It is not the end of the story.
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Avery, 2012).
Brené Brown, “Finding Shelter in a Shame Storm (and Avoiding the Flying Debris),” March 21, 2013, accessed April 7, 2018, http://www.oprah.com/spirit/brene-brown-how-to-conquer-shame-friends-who-matter.
Serene Jones, “John 20:19-31: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
D. Cameron Murchison, “John 20:19-31: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
The featured image for this post, “The Risen Lord appears to St Thomas & the apostles,” is copyright (c) 2007 Lawrence OP and made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.