Unless I see…

We are living in most interesting, and terrifying, times.  Isn’t that the ancient curse — May you live in interesting times?

Recently, I placed on my Facebook page a post from my friend Ravi:

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be going to a bank with a mask on asking for money.”

To which another friend, Philip, who bills himself as having been a consumer of the State of California Department of Corrections’ services, replied: “Been there – done this before it was socially acceptable. How times have changed.” Yes indeed, how times have changed.

Indeed, times have changed.  One change I’ve noticed is that people, especially our young folks are demanding much more of our institutions.  The church for instance.

You remember that old song mocking easy religion?  “Plastic Jesus?”  “I don’t care if it rains or freezes long as I got my plastic Jesus glued to the dashboard of my car.”  It reminded me of our seminary’s spring show of tacky religious art.

This Sunday, in many churches, is what is known as Thomas Sunday.  Thomas wants to see Jesus before he will believe.  And how will he know that the one he gazes upon is the real McCoy?  By the wounds in his hands and feet.  By the gash in his side where he was pierced by a Roman spear.  He wants the real thing.  By his wounds – and that is exactly how he will know.

We will know the authentic representation of Christ – for the Church is the Body of Christ incarnate – when we see the wounds.  Authentic Christianity enters into the struggle, the heartache, of “the least of these.”  It bears the wounds, the worry, of the homeless, the incarcerated, the addicted and the defeated. 

If it’s only raffles and bingo, it’s something else.  But certainly not the body of Christ.  I love beautiful music and good liturgy as much as any Episcopalian, but all of it is offal and rubbish if doesn’t then lead into the streets and lanes, into the farmlands, into the villages and cities where God’s people are mightily suffering.

That is the question of the skeptic inside and  outside the community of faith.  How will I recognize the authentic Body of Christ in this time of COVID19?  Does the Church have anything at all to say?  

Saccharine sweetness of Easter lilies and scented candles is certainly not what I’ve been seeing lately on the evening 6:00 O’clock News.  What I’ve been seeing is my wounded Lord.  He is the face of thousands.  You know him.  His face is that of your neighbor, maybe a family member.  Mary Ellen, who always sits on the other side of the pew from you Sunday after Sunday.  It’s Fred, your insurance agent.  It’s Dorothy and Ramon who clean the office after you’ve left at five O’clock. All, whose lives have now been turned upside down.

On Holy Saturday I posted on my Facebook page a rendition of the Wounded Christ of the Coronavirus Ward. In this portrayal, his virus-ravaged body is being lowered from a gurney by doctors, nurses and paramedics.  Attached to his chest are still the leads of a heart monitor.  He wears a face mask and little else to hide his nakedness.  This modern Pieta is not a pleasant picture.  Not what you’d want for your living room décor.

One woman wrote back, not so much in disgust or indignation – but what seemed an honest question, “Why did you post this?”  I explained that as a follower of Jesus, I felt we need to be aware – I need to be aware –of the wounded humanity Christ serves yet today.  He took upon himself their exhaustion.  Their helplessness. Their sorrow. He bore it all.  And does today.

This portrayal of suffering is reminiscent of the sixteenth century Isenheim altar piece by Grunewald.  On it, Christ bears not only the agony of crucifixion but also the suppurating sores of the Black Plague which had killed almost one half of Europe’s population.  That work of art is the answer to Thomas’s demand to see.

The true and authentic sign of the Jesus Movement is those places where his followers are to be found.  Not sitting on comfortable pews, but on the streets passing out food.  In the hospital corridors with the sickest of the sick.  In the halls of Congress lobbying for more funding.   Christ’s followers will bear the exhaustion of spent ambulance drivers and nurses in their own psyches.  The faces of the dying will haunt nightly dreams after they’ve fallen exhausted into bed.  Christ’s followers will admit Our Lord’s pain into their being. 

Unless I see the wounds…  There is your answer, dear Thomas.  It is an answer to be found in devastated nursing homes and ICU wards.  It is to be found in our prisons where we warehouse so many whose only crime was the inability to afford a decent lawyer or to make bail.   

One of the questions in the baptismal covenant of my church is: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  This is now put-up-or-shut-up time.  There’s virtually something that each one of us is called do.  No plastic Jesus beckons, but the real McCoy. 

I can’t believe the text message I received the other day from a group called California Volunteers.  They were summoning retired nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists – anybody but anybody who might lend a hand to tend the sick.  Even an old, very old, Army Medic whose skills are now some fifty years out of date.  I responded that I was engaged in this effort in other ways – and I prayed that that was true.  But thanked the caller for thinking of me.  I so wish I had had the health and youth to have said yes.  My heart said yes.  But my mind told me that I would be more of a liability than help.  And my wife would have thought I was crazy.  She’d have me in the Memory Care Unit before I could hitch up my pants..

Our streets now throng with thousands upon thousands who bear the wounds of Christ. Fear and want distort their visage.  Can I be tested?  Where’s the money to pay the rent?  To buy food for my family?  I think I have symptoms, am I dying?  What will happen to my kids?  I’ve just finished three eighteen-hour shifts in a row.  How do I go on? 

Not all wounds are visible to the naked eye.  One of my trusted columnists, David Brooks, asked his readers how their mental health was holding up in this time of disease, job loss and isolation.  He asked them to send in anything they wanted to share with David’s readership.  Thousands of letters poured in bearing grievous testimony to the wounds of Christ in our land.

Hear the heartfelt anguish of one senior, a woman living in Fresno, California:

“I am normally a very positive person, outgoing, happy, energetic. Definitely a glass half-full. However, lately I cannot get through a day without tears, often sobs. I am terrified for myself and my family and everyone in the world. All the things I love to do, I’m now afraid to do. …”[1]

Here’s the letter from a college student at Pennsylvania State College.  At first this young man thought the quarantine would be a “lark.” He would be relieved of some onerous responsibilities.  But now it’s a gray, washed-out living hell:

“I’ve been gripped by a deep depression. My appetite is very low. I’m sleeping far too much to feel as lethargic as I do.”

“My future, which seemed so bright a few months ago as I anticipated graduating in May, now seems bleak and hopeless: How will I find a job with the economy tanking? How will I pay hundreds of dollars per month when my loan bills kick in during August?”[2]

These are no less the wounds of Christ, just because they can’t be seen.  I salute David Brooks for having the compassion to enter into these searing tales.  David is the sort of Christian I would aim to be.  Thomas, do you yet see our wounded Lord?

And each day, people of faith and no faith, behold the wounded Christ and join with others to apply salve to those wounds.

I think of the taxi cab drivers in one city who have volunteered to deliver thousands of meals to the shut in.  I think of that dedicated public servant who has gone far beyond any reasonable expectation, processing unemployment claims beyond quitting time.  Folks, he is not part of the “deep state.”  He is a dedicated public servant, one who ministers to the Christ of the destitute.  You’ve seen the lines at a San Antonio food bank that stretch beyond what the eye can see.  You’ve seen those volunteers laboring side by side with the National Guard to deliver boxes of groceries to families who never in their wildest dreams thought they’d have to ask for free food. 

I ask the skeptic in all of us – that doubting Thomas – might you, in a blind leap of faith, join these, your fellow Americans, on the distribution line?  At the homeless shelter?  Sewing face masks?  Christ awaits you.  Might now be the time to put aside your niggling hesitations and lend a hand?  We need you. The living Christ needs you.  You are his hands, his heart, his soul.

The blessing to be found is to be beyond measure.  It is to be counted as a smidgen of Life Eternal.  I guarantee it.  Oh, Thomas, see the imprint of the nails, the lance.  Touch. Feel.

Oh, and my friend Philip?

My friend Philip now has many years of long-term sobriety and is a credit to his church and to his community. He’s one of those positive people who daily makes a difference. Recovery is real!  As real as the ever lovin’ Grace of God.   Amen.

[1] David Brooks, “The Pandemic of Fear and Agony,” New York Times, April 9, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

Dear friends in Christ

April 19, 2020
 2 Easter

The Rev. John C. Forney
John 20:19-31 “Unless I See

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