Tunnel: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, April 16, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is John 20:19-31, when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, including Thomas.

Many of you know that I was born in Northern California, and for the most part we lived just north of San Francisco. Now, a curious quirk in that part of the world: when you grow up in any proximity to the Bay Area, you don’t refer to San Francisco by name, you just call it the city, and everyone else knows implicitly what you mean. Within a several hour radius, you can simply say “we’re going to the city,” and they will assume that you don’t mean Oakland or Berkeley, or San Jose, or Sacramento.

For northern Californians, for better or worse, there is only one city that is the city, and it’s the one you leave your heart in, as the old song goes—the one that glows like a beacon at the end of the world; the one that is draped in fog and flowers; the one that is complex, and layered, and broken, and is yet still beautiful; the one that looms large in the imagination of everyone who has been there and many who have not—it is only this one that needs no other name but is simply the city

And if you have never been to San Francisco before, let me tell you the absolute best way to see the city for the first time. You have to come by car, from the north, down through the towns and the vertiginous hillsides of Marin County, your view obscured by the terrain: steep, cypress-clad hills and winding roads. 

And as you go along, any notion of what lies ahead is completely hidden from sight, until suddenly you come upon an arched tunnel in the rock, long known as the Rainbow Tunnel. Drive through the dim passage, ever so briefly, and as you emerge on the other side, suddenly, all at once, everything is there before you: the blue of the bay; the shadowy mountains rising up from the sea, reaching toward heaven; the Golden Gate; and beyond it, the city—the luminous city, indeed glowing like a beacon at the end of the world. You’re never quite prepared for it. Every time as a kid that we drove through the tunnel, the shocking beauty of that view took my breath away. 

Now there are all sorts of unexpected views revealed to us as we journey through the world—both the literal ones waiting just over the next hillside, and the more figurative ones, too—those new insights and understandings that come upon us at certain points in our life and change us in profound ways. 

Sometimes we can go looking for such revelations, but just as often they come to us when we do not expect them, when we are deep in a tunnel of one sort or another, rushing ahead, our vision narrowed, and then suddenly, the world opens up and the the landscape is entirely new to us. It can be wonderful, and it can be terrifying; sometimes it can be both.

The season of Easter is just such a moment, when a new and astounding vision unfolds before us. Easter is when everything that seemed impossible, everything that seemed dead and gone, sealed away behind our certainties and our sorrow, is suddenly standing before us, more vivid and alive than we ever imagined, inviting us to reconsider how the world actually works.

Easter is when our tunnel vision falls away and suddenly we see things previously undreamt of: that death is not definitive, that love is more enduring than we ever dared to hope, and that God’s purpose is not simply to make our burdens bearable but to bear our burdens himself; not simply to preserve our lives but to give us his own life. It’s enough to take your breath away.

And it is understandable that, emerging from the long tunnel of our painful histories, we might not know what to do with such a vision. It is only natural that we would feel unprepared for its implications, its possibilities, its endless horizons. As Fr. T.J. said in  last week’s homily, resurrection is messy, because we are messy, and resurrection has come to find us here and now, just as we are: fearful, unsure, full of questions.

But don’t worry, we’re in good company, because you know who else was fearful and unsure, and full of questions? All of the first disciples! All of them—not just Thomas—needed some help in processing what it meant to see the risen Jesus standing in their midst. All of them had their breath taken away by the shock of it. 

And it was only in Jesus ministering to them—giving them his own Spirit-infused breath, showing them his wounds, offering them peace and blessing, commissioning them to go forth in his name—that they were able to begin to comprehend the landscape that awaited them on the other side of the dark, narrow tunnel of grief and fear in which they had found themselves. 

And Thomas, our dear friend Thomas, should actually be called “Believing Thomas,” not “Doubting Thomas,” for it is he who truly emerges first onto the other side of understanding; it is he who comprehends the fullness of the vision before him; it is he who realizes the significance of the risen body of Jesus that, though wounded, persists in life and love; it is Thomas who names what he sees, and who thereby gives voice to the Church’s dawning understanding of what the Resurrection is meant to show all of us: My Lord and my God

My Lord and my God, it is you! It is you, wounded like me! Wounded for me! It is you, complex, and layered and broken and yet still beautiful, and loving me, loving all of us, loving this whole earth for being the same! It is you, glowing like a beacon at the end of the world! It was always you. It will always be you, forgiving, peace-bearing, redeeming, blessing, waiting to reveal yourself, through the dark tunnel, just around the bend, a vision to take my breath away. Now I see. 

And it is this movement from not seeing to seeing that is, in truth, the heart of the message of this Gospel passage, rather than any dichotomy of doubt versus belief. Because the good news of the Resurrection is not about whether we can conquer doubt through the power of our faith; it is about the God who conquers death through the power of his love. It is about the God who comes to show us what that love looks like in this world and in the world to come. It is about the gift, the incomprehensible gift, of seeing something beautiful, hopeful, and true, even when we least expected it. Especially when we least expected it.

You might wonder, though, with all this talk of seeing, what to make of Jesus’ final statement here:

Blessed are the ones who have not seen and yet have come to believe,

It is tempting to read this as a sort of challenge, either to Thomas or to ourselves—as if we might be deemed more faithful, more favored, somehow, by God if we believe in the Resurrection without hard evidence. But I think this misses the point. 

Because this statement, like those in the Sermon on the Mount, is structured as a beatitude (blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, and so on…) And beatitudes are not challenges, but are God’s promises of comfort and sustenance to those who are struggling in the world as it is. The ones who have forgotten to hope for any glorious new visions.

Thus, blessed are the ones who have not seen is not a gold star for the especially committed believers, the ones who are blithely certain of their faith…

No, it is a word of comfort for the rest of us. It is a word of blessing to those who have not yet seen the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom and yet long for it. It is a word of promise to those who look at the world around them and see only death and injustice and callousness but refuse to give up on the practice of love and the search for truth. It is a word of encouragement to those who are deep in the tunnel, who are deep in the tomb, who are in the dark, but are searching for the light, who are persisting on the path, who are pursuing the vision, who are trusting that somewhere, someday, the City, the heavenly City, the City of God, the City of a Redeemed and Resurrection Creation, the City long promised and long sought, will be just around the bend, glowing like a beacon at the end of the world, and all of us, complex and layered and broken and beautiful will get there, and the gates will be open and the risen, wounded Christ will greet us and say Peace be with you and we will cry out in one voice:

My Lord and My God!

…and it’ll be enough to take your breath away.

What He Saw: A Sermon for Good Friday

I preached this sermon on Good Friday, April 7, 2023, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is the Passion Narrative according to John, in which Jesus, as he dies, says, “It is finished.

I was not there to witness it, but I was told that shortly before my great-grandma died, many years ago, she began speaking to her own mother, long since dead—speaking to her as though she was right there in the room with her. Not mumbling in her sleep, not in a delusional state, but clearly,  directly, as you might talk to anyone who has come to visit your bedside. She saw her mother’s face, and then, not too long afterwards, she died, and it was finished

I’ve heard many similar stories about other people since then, and while I don’t really know how to explain them, they seem to suggest that as our lives ebb, like a wave pulling away from the shore, a returning wave of something makes its presence known to us—something very real and very deep. Maybe we call it a memory…or maybe we call it divine presence…or maybe, like my great-grandma, we simply call out, mother. Whatever it is, whoever it is, there is a shared sense across many cultures and generations that in our final moments, we catch a glimpse of the people and the places we have known and loved. 

As they say, our life flashes before our eyes.

Just last year a medical paper was published documenting, for the very first time, how this is in fact true—how life does flash before your eyes in the end. Somewhat by chance, the brain waves of a dying man were captured by an advanced medical scanning device. The doctors noticed that in the moments both immediately before and after this person died, the portion of the brain that processes memory was activated. As his other brain waves ebbed, the gamma waves—the waves of memory and meaning—flowed. He was remembering—processing a vision, somehow—of someone or something familiar. Something lost that had come back to him in the end.

And I wonder what he saw, that unnamed man. Was it his mother’s face? Maybe the time he got lost as a child? Was it the way the sun sets over the water on a summer evening? The fragment of a half-forgotten song? The smell of baking bread or the taste of good wine? How his father used to smile at him? And I wonder, were they just memories, just impulses in the brain, or were they a response to something real, something, like my great-grandma’s mother, that was somehow truly present again in a way that no medical scanner could ever detect? Those are questions that science cannot answer, but that the heart ponders nonetheless. 

Because I like to think that, whatever it was that the dying man experienced, or whatever it was that my great-grandma saw as her life slipped away, that they were not just alone with their thoughts. I want to believe that their lives and their love came back to them at the very end, like a returning wave upon the shore, a presence, a promise that even though it is finished, it still all mattered. And that nothing was lost. Not really.

And if that is true, then I also can’t help but wonder what Jesus saw in his final moments on the Cross before he said, it is finished. He who felt so alone, he who was so abandoned, so undeserving of the ending he received. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? 

But if it’s true that our life flashes before our eyes, that love returns to us in the end to companion us into the darkness, I wonder what he saw as his breath ebbed away.

We know, of course, he saw his mother’s face, still alive, but deadened by grief.

And maybe, as he closed his eyes, maybe he saw the time he got lost as a child, when they found him in the Temple, when everything was new and possible. Or perhaps he saw the way the sun sets on the Sea of Galilee. Or maybe he remembered the fragment of a half-forgotten song heard long ago: my soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. Maybe he remembered the smell of bread in the Upper Room.The taste of good wine at that wedding in Cana. Or how his Father smiled at him in secret, in his heart, and from beyond the cold and distant stars.

Maybe it was all of this, the sum of a life, the fragmented pieces of himself gathering back in, returning on a wave, bearing witness to the ending, bearing the memory and the presence of love, bearing the unbearable weight of loneliness until…it was finished.

And although that would be beautiful and meaningful all on its own, and although I believe that Jesus’ own life and love came back to him in the end, I don’t think that’s all there was. I don’t think that’s all he saw as he hung there, his breath crushed under the weight of the world’s brokenness. 

I think we would miss something essential about who he is and what this day is about if Good Friday were the story of just another, single life flashing before someone’s dying eyes.

For the life of Jesus is the life of God, and the mind of Jesus is the mind of God, and the memory of Jesus is the memory of God, deeper and broader than any one returning wave. He holds the whole ocean of time and experience within himself. His life, his mind, his memory encompass everything, everyone, everywhere. 

And so it was not just his own private memories, his own personal life that flashed before his eyes in the end, but ALL of life. All that ever was, all that ever will be. He saw all of it as he died on the Cross. He saw all of you. He saw every part of you. And through eyes blurred with tears and blood and love, he saw, as he always had, in the very beginning, that it was good. Not perfect, but very, very good. 

He saw the time you got lost as a child and your parents found you. 

He saw the time you got lost and nobody came looking. 

He saw the way the sun sets over the lake you sat beside on a summer’s evening.

He saw the way the sun rose on the first day of the world. 

He saw how your mother sang to you when you were afraid. 

He saw the times you were too afraid to sing out loud. The poems you never wrote. The letters you never sent.

He saw every meal on every table. He saw every hungry belly.

He saw the consequential fruit trembling on the tree in Eden; and he saw the unnoticed wildflowers and weeds that grow on the side of the road. He saw the bouquets at every graveside, the names inscribed in stone.

He saw every creature, its life and its death, its peace and its agony, he saw every crack in the earth, every polluted river, every verdant forest, every wave of the infinite sea. 

He saw every battlefield, every bomb and bullet, every needless slaughter, and he saw how our brother’s blood cries out from the ground, seeking justice.

He saw every broken heart, every tearstained face, every lash of the whip, every dream deferred, every march for peace, every backroom deal, every sacrifice and every betrayal, every sleepless night, every tick of the clock. 

He saw all the times we failed, all the times we tried, all the times we made something beautiful, all the times we broke something beautiful. 

He saw all the times we broke.

He saw the worst of what we have done, and the best.

He saw all of it. 

All of life—all of life flashed before his eyes.

And then he said:

It is finished. 

He said, it is finished, now, my beloved child, bone of my aching bone, and flesh of my wounded flesh. Finished because now I see it all, with my own living, dying eyes, everything done and left undone. Now I comprehend your finitude, your fear, how alone you feel in the vastness of creation. I see, with my own eyes, the returning wave of memory and grief, all that was lost, all that was forgotten, all that was loved; all of it is returning to me now, and it is your face I see, your face I call out to, your face I will not forget as I enter into the darkness and whatever lies beyond it. 

It is finished, and I do not know where I am going, but now I see the pain and the beauty and the promise of this entire world and I hold it in my broken heart, in my fading breath, and so wherever I go now, I will carry you all with me. Nothing is lost. Not really.

So let us rest, now. It is finished. For I see, in the end, what was always the only important thing to see: that I love you, all that you are, all that you are not, with the ferocity and the depth and the power and the mystery of the endless ocean, and if I can, I will return it all to you, I will bring it all back to you, I will make it whole again, somehow, someday. 

For all of life—mine, and yours, and ours—has flashed before my eyes, and thus I have drawn all things to myself. 

It is finished.

And then the wave breaks on the shore.

And he is gone. 

And, for today, there is nothing else that can be said.