Grieving in Community

In light of the tragedy that hit my prairie community on Friday evening, I rewrote the sermon I had prepared for this Second Sunday of Easter. Because hockey is such a bonding sport for both players and fans, our entire city – no, our entire province is affected. Because hockey is Canada’s national sport, our entire country is affected. Because the hockey players on that bus came from various parts of the prairie provinces loved ones near and far are drowning in grief.

As Heather Persson wrote in yesterday’s Star Phoenix, so many Saskatchewan kids spend countless hours on a bus headed to hockey games. So many moms and dads put their kids on the road and say a quiet prayer that they will stay safe while out of their care. So many know the pleasure and sense of community found at a Junior A hockey game.

It’s been a harrowing day and a half. The Easter joy we felt last Sunday has made way for shock, grief and disbelief once again, not unlike what the disciples felt when their hero, Jesus, was murdered in the most horrible way possible. And from every wailing heart spring that agonizing question: where is God in all this??

I feel a new bond with Thomas in today’s Gospel. Thomas loved his Lord. I’m realizing now more than before that it was most likely grief, heart-wrenching grief, that caused Thomas’ doubt. Don’t you find that in times like this, we want to scream: God where are you?! Why?!

Besides this painful doubt that springs from hurting hearts, there is no shortage of doubt on other levels of life: institutional doubt, personal doubt, political doubt, spiritual doubt. The world is afflicted with serious doubt and insecurity. Old certainties are melting away like snow in spring except here in SK – waiting for the spring thaw in April is trying, creating doubt about the reliability of the seasons!). Something new may be waiting in the wings, but that new thing can be real hard to spot at times.  Especially when losing so many young and promising lives through a freak accident, doubt can become a tsunami flooding our hearts and minds. And so as a culture and as a church, and now as a grieving hockey-nation, we truly live in doubt-filled, in-between times.

Now doubt in and of itself is not bad. And God does not consider doubting a serious offense. In fact, growing in faith often passes through doubt. And that is what Thomas illustrates well in today’s Gospel account from John. Each of us lives a delicate dance between faith and doubt. That is a normal part of maturing as people of God. Our Confirmation candidates have critical questions sometimes (right?) And that is a good thing, because without a curiosity to find answers  there can be no understanding, no insight, no wisdom.

As much as today’s Gospel features beloved Thomas, it also features, in concert with the other Scripture lessons, the role of the faith community. Answers to critical questions and doubts are powerfully shaped by our encounters, conversations and experiences with others, both inside and outside the church.
Sometimes we move away from faith communities because of the ways our questions and doubts are handled. Sometimes we are drawn into faith communities because of the ways our questions and doubts are handled. Our modern western culture regards religion as a highly individualized and private experience.

But Jesus’s culture was communal. Jesus addressed God as “our” father, our heavenly parent, when he prayed his favourite prayer. Jesus formed a community of disciples who shared all things in common with him. We are not saved in isolation, i.e. outside of a community; we are saved together. Today we are so shaped by western individualism that it can be really hard to fully understand the communal call of discipleship Jesus calls us to.

But rallying around the families who’ve lost loved ones in this horrible bus crash from last Friday is a powerful illustration of being “saved” as a community. This national and international rallying in compassion and love reminds me of how the disciples huddled together as a community to share their grief and fear. People flooded to the arena set up as a crisis centre just to “be together,” just to share the tension of waiting for news, just to hug and cry. There is powerful bonding in love that happens when we gather to share grief, fear and pain. There is powerful healing that can happen when we touch and kiss each other’s wounds with compassion and care: “Put your finger here and see my hands,” said Jesus to Thomas. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

On both occasions that Jesus appeared (without and with Thomas)the first thing he did was to breathe … peace—he exuded peace. Jesus’ breathing of peace upon fearful hearts calmed the disciples. The grief and fear of the gathered disciples was transformed – the Easter effect. New life came in the encounter with the risen Christ.

Except for one – Thomas missed the whole experience. He stayed drowning in his grief, fear and doubt. Thomas clearly missed something very important! I think it rather odd, in fact, that Jesus waited a whole week to appear again. I mean, he knew Thomas was grieving and doubting. So why didn’t Jesus just appear to him privately to convince Thomas that his beloved Lord had risen? But he didn’t; Jesus waited until the community was gathered again.

From its very beginnings, Christian faith and discipleship was lived in community—like the church described in Acts today, a faith family sharing their possessions in common. There’s a standing joke that says living a Christian life would be easier were it not for other people! But the notion of a “solo Christian” is decidedly unbiblical. While a relationship with God is a personal decision, it is not private. God calls us into community with other believers in order to remain healthy, accountable and fruitful. This communal dimension is evident in the passage from Acts, but also in the First Letter from John which begins as follows:

WE declare what was from the beginning, what WE have heard, 
what WE have seen with OUR eyes,
what WE have looked at and touched with OUR hands,
concerning the word of life — this life was revealed,
and WE have seen it and testify to it.
WE declare to you what WE have seen and heard
so that you also may have fellowship with us;
We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

It is in relationship with others that the proverbial rubber hits the road. God works in us through the way we live together. And God often uses others, those charming and irritating others, to prune us and inspire us, to teach us and comfort us. Times of tragedy reveal crystal clear how much we need each other in both good times and in bad.

And when we are not present on Sunday, our primary gathering time in and around Jesus and with each other, we miss something very important. When we are not present at Sunday worship, there is a painful absence.  We need all of us present in body and spirit. We feel one another’s absence acutely especially in times like this, but we need each other all the time as we grow to share our lives in Christ.

Living in relationship with other Christians, greatly helps our own understandings and experiences of God in Jesus. Living with each other in Christian community also holds us together when life makes us fall apart. We are saved in Christ Jesus, yes, but we are saved as one Body. Together we hold each other accountable, and together we hold each other in grief.

For the sake of the integrity of the Gospel, for the sake of providing a safe place to ask questions and to share grief, doubts and fears, we have to reclaim our communal existence. Together therefore we are one body, brothers and sisters in Christ. As Christians, we belong to each other in a spiritual family. In Baptism we are given to one another, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. Let us create space for doubt and for faith. Let us together shoulder burdens and share joys. Let us wrestle honestly with questions and seek answers. It is in community that Christian living can come into full bloom. And when that happens, especially in the midst of tragedies, such as the one we are living through right now, our Easter joy can truly be complete.

We pray, O risen Jesus, keep showing up in our lives through the compassion, love and support we give one another. We promise, O risen Jesus, that we will keep showing up in each other’s lives as your Body on earth, the Church. Amen

Homily preached for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018
Acts 4:32—35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2; John 20:19—31

News stories about the tragedy can be found on the CBC website.

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