He looked and saw not what was, but what could be.
How different would our story of “Doubting Thomas” be if that was what we could say about him? And about us--- because, let’s face it. We are ALL doubting Thomases.
But many of us only see what we want to see—it’s a defense mechanism, I guess. Some of us only see what affects us, in the short term, right now. And that’s a problem, and a danger, especially when that leads us into doing things that in the long run will hurt us. At least Thomas dropped his resistance to belief when presented with physical evidence of Jesus’s resurrection, and let’s face it, some among us aren’t even that flexible in today’s society.
But thank God, we have examples of people who, actually, like Jesus, call us to see beyond the short term, to see beyond the boundaries of our own concerns, to believe that change for the better is not only possible but begins with us, even in the humblest of actions and attitudes.
Jadav Payeng of India’ s Assam region is an example of someone who has the ability to see what ISN’T there, but could be. As a young man, Jadav, a member of the Mishing tribe and the son of a buffalo trader, lived near a sandbar island in the middle of the Brahmaputra River that had been separated by erosion from the mainland.
It was a desert so sandy and hot that snakes died there from the scorching heat. That’s when Jadav saw in those dead snakes a shared potential fate, and decided to do something about it. When he looked at the barren sandbar, he perceived a warning from the deforestation of his region—deforestation that he realized had led to the erosion that created his island, and threatened not just himself and his tribespeople and the animals upon which they depended but threatened everyone.
But further, when he looked at that sandbar, he perceived what it could be: a beautiful forest, a habitat for animals and humans that would help preserve his people’s way of life and help those downstream along the river.
And so, in 1979, he began planting trees on his barren island, inspired and taught by a visiting scientist who taught him in his youth about trees. Every day, for nearly 40 years, even when people derided him as crazy, he has arisen before dawn to be able to plant trees in addition to supporting his family, starting with bamboo trees and then expanding to larger varieties. The forest he has created that bears his nickname, Molai, now covers over 1300 acres, and he plans to plant 4,000 more acres.
What once was a barren, scorched landscape of sand now is home to monkeys, butterflies, birds, tigers, deer, and even a herd of elephants. The man who once was considered crazy is now respected and hailed as a conservationist and visionary and showered with honors(1), much as Wangari Maathai was for her reforestation work in the Green Belt Movement she founded in Kenya that won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
One person, seeing not what IS but what can be, is a force of incredible power.
Our gospel is a reminder to us about the human need to see for ourselves, and I think poor Thomas gets shamed unfairly. I’ve always found the story of Thomas to be comforting. If even one of the apostles refused to believe without seeing, then perhaps we all can be forgiven for our occasional doubts. Thomas is like one of us post-Enlightenment types. We are all like Thomas, if we are really honest with ourselves. We all want proof. The author of John knows this, and this story is meant to encourage Christians from John’s time until now: those who have not seen, but take the leap of faith anyway.
Let’s keep in mind that the action in this passage takes place still on Easter Sunday and the Sunday afterward. In the gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is the one who finds the empty tomb and then herself sees the risen Christ, whom at first she mistakes for a gardener-- perhaps like Jadav. She has already run back and told the apostles about what she had seen and experienced, and yet—notice, the apostles aren’t out looking for Jesus. Instead, they are hiding in a room with the doors shut tight, afraid that they are going to be arrested and thrown into prison—or worse—by the Jewish authorities. Could it be that Jesus’s missing corpse leads them to believe that the danger now is actually great for them?
But in choosing to act out of fear rather than love and hope, they lock themselves away from proclaiming the good news. Because they have not seen Jesus, they do not join Mary Magdalene in rejoicing. So let’s give poor Thomas a break, okay? He is no different than any of the other disciples—he’s just brave enough to say it out loud: unless I see for myself the marks on Jesus’s body from the cross and the spear, I won’t believe. No, not just that, I want to touch those wounds too.
The Resurrection story is a fantastic story—unbelievable, even. It’s no wonder people wanted and still want proof. Unfortunately, we live in a time when even proof is not enough for some people. That makes proclaiming faith in the risen Christ even harder. And when you add in that a large part of the Christian world keeps attempting to make God into a magical combination of Santa Claus and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—well, you can see the difficulty. We expect God to magically solve our own problems so we won’t have to.
But what happens when we humans, created in God’s own image with memory, reason, skill, choose to deny our own agency (and conveniently our own responsibility) in times of trouble or crisis—especially when those crises are CAUSED by us--rather than live into our call to use the gifts God has given us to act against evil, hopelessness, cruelty, deforestation, or other impending disasters? We help sow the seeds of real disbelief—not just doubt—in God’s existence before those who do not know anything of God but what we claim about God.
That’s another locked room, though. A locked room that will not protect us from the fears that we all struggle against—the fear of isolation, the fear of rejection, the fear of loss.
We have a different challenge from those apostles, living after Jesus’s ascension as we do. Our challenge is one of perception: to perceive the face of Christ and the imprint of God all around us, even in the faces of those who are vastly different from us.
What if we looked and saw not what IS, but what could be?
What if we looked and saw what is—and realized that we are empowered by our Creator with abundant gifts—including the gift of the Holy Spirit-- to act, and act with courage and love, when we see pain or suffering or wrongdoing?
What if we saw what COULD BE, and CAN be, if we look through the eyes of resurrection, with resurrection sight?
What if we took it seriously—that the risen Jesus is all around us, in the faces of our loved ones but even more in the face of the stranger, in the face of the person looking for acceptance and community, in the faces of children who are hungry although living in one of the richest countries in the world or who are trying to receive asylum there.
As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins noted, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” And he weeps and waits and mourns with us in ten thousand more, it sometimes seems—especially as we hear news yesterday of another attack on a synagogue. But our risen Savior knows our fears and our suffering, our joys and our triumphs because he is one of us still, waiting to be recognized, calling us to the discipleship we claim as members of his Body, the Church.
Jesus’s call to each of us who believe in him is one of Resurrection and the rejection of death and suffering as having the last word—but that is too often exactly how our world is organized. Jesus’s call to each of us IS to look and see what CAN BE. To perceive with those hearts we’ve been given, for the love of God, and the love of others.
When Jesus encounters us in the rooms in which we’ve locked ourselves out of fears, he offers his peace—a peace as broad and deep as the sky above us. But Jesus also calls us to act out of that peace in the name of justice and love-in-action. Our willingness to perceive beyond what just our eyes can see—to perceive with our hearts, to perceive with the light of hope to illumine what COULD be even when we can’t see clearly with our physical sight—is to me the story for all of us who have been and will continue to be in Thomas’s shoes at many points in our lives.
May we have the courage to unlock the doors that lock out the world out of fear. May we open the doors to those around us, in the name of the risen One whom we still experience as the love that animates our lives. May we proclaim our faith in the sure hope of the Resurrection, seeing what CAN BE, and can never die, through faith.
Preached at the 505 on April 27 and the 8:00 and 10:15 services at St. Martin's Episcopal Church Ellisville.
(1) Julie McCarthy, "A Lifetime of Planting Trees on a Remote River Island: Meet India's Forest Man," broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition, December 26, 2017, at https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/12/26/572421590/hed-take-his-own-life-before-killing-a-tree-meet-india-s-forest-man