Grace Church Brooklyn Heights
Second Sunday of Easter
April 15, 2012
One summer Thursday afternoon, it was either in 1967 or 68, my grandmother gathered the four friends who regularly came to her house to play cards on that day every week. They were serious card players so there was never much conversation once the games began. There was always a pause during which a light snack was served: ham, and celery, tea, and whatnot. That was the first time I heard that word as child: whatnot. It covered anything else that might be there in addition to the usual.
This particular gathering was going to be anything but usual. Following their break for sustenance the game resumed and the next hand was dealt. The five earnest women around the table began in silence to look over the hand they had been dealt and to assess their strategy for the next several minutes.
Just then Lillian, one of the regulars, without uttering a sound collapsed forward, her head hitting the table and her cards gently released from her hands. The other women rose, surrounded her, spoke her name, and sought to rouse her. There was no response. My grandmother got on the phone, cleared off the party-line, and died that era’s version of 911: 0.
Within minutes the fire department had arrived, come in, assessed the situation and determined that Lillian was dead. There and then, in the middle of the usual Thursday afternoon cardgame at McGinty’s, her earthly life had suddenly come to an end. Her body was prepared and covered on a gurney, and removed from the house.
Warning: this is where the story gets weird and Irish, like something from James Joyce or Flannery O’Connor. But I know this part is true, because I had been alerted at our house on the next street by sirens and lights and all that excitement. I arrived at my grandparents’ house as the ladies resumed their places at table, now with one open seat, picked up their cards, hesitated and paused. And Nana said, “Would one of you mind playing Lillian’s hand? That way we won’t have to deal again.”
For me this story, which I have never been able to forget, provides an invitation to a vital reflection about seeing truly, recognizing what is really there – and what isn’t. According to the 20th chapter of John’s Gospel, the apostle Thomas was on the road when Jesus came through locked doors to visit the ones he loved and bring living gifts of peace and forgiveness on the evening of Easter Sunday. When Thomas arrived back, let in carefully through those same doors, he was unable to recognize, to sense, to see the gifts of mercy and peace which the risen Jesus had left in his wake. Thomas saw only the absence he had seen when he went out: the absence of Jesus, their friend and teacher and center. If there was a new look in the eyes of his compatriots, a new vigor in their voices as they told him what had occurred in his absence, it was all lost on Thomas. He couldn’t see what was there in front of him. For him, it just wasn’t there.
Scripture calls Thomas, the Twin, among the apostles. Over the centuries, folks have speculated where his twin might have been, about why that person – male or female – doesn’t register at all on the rolls of those who moved through the land with Jesus, or at least interacted with him during his ministry. The most helpful response to that question that I have ever heard – and you may have heard this as well – is that if I want to find Thomas’ twin, I need to find a mirror. You and I are the twins of Thomas. Many times over our lifetimes. We are his twins in that we see only what we see, and the ‘more’ that often gleams around us in God’s world is lost on us. I fail to see the Christ alive in the ex-convict, struggling to rebuild a life with difficulty, who comes to see me. I fail to see the hope that burns in the eyes of the homeless man who is determined to find a way to a place of his own, somehow. I fail to see the love that unites a family in financial struggle, or to see the faith that knits them even more closely together as they move through uncertain times. I fail to see the fullness of what a community like this at Grace means not only to those who gather here in prayer, but what it means in real terms to children in Honduras, homeowners in upstate New York and New Orleans, to hungry families in Park Slope, or to hundreds of members of 12-step groups who have met here over the decades.
A week later – today – Thomas was present. For him this was anything but a ‘low’ Sunday. This was a Sunday of personal revelation in the midst of the beloved community, a Sunday of seeing, clearly, what (who) was there already: the Christ, alive and life-giving. Just as importantly, Thomas was able to see what was not there. Where the hands and feet of Jesus had been whole, there now were holes. Where his side had been intact, there was the track of the spear that had entered there. Even risen from the dead, even transformed into the new and lasting life that we cannot begin to comprehend, Jesus’ wounds remained, and remain to this moment. So Thomas saw emptiness and scars where there had been fullness and wholeness. This recognition of what was not there, what was gone, was as important in bringing him to know in whose presence he stood as anything he saw present and recognized again.
That moment moved Thomas into that sub-group of humanity who are able to say together into the world the first words of the first letter of John as a statement not of faith, but of lived experience: “We declare to you 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 . . . .”
And we, Thomas’ twins, we can have that same experience in faith, in our own lifetimes. We can begin to see in a new way, to recognize both what is really here, and what really is not – and the importance of each. We can begin, in this season of life and light, to begin to see anew in our lives what my grandmother called ‘whatnot’ as she served a little snack to her guests each week. Whatnot could be an extra meat, something sweet, something unexpected, an old favorite, or something never tasted before. But whatnot, seemingly incidental, could become the most important part of the afternoon together. The day Lillian died at that dining room table, everything changed. Yes, someone could play the hand she left behind, but beyond that was her absence, a new configuration of that group of friends, and the looming reality that they eventually would gather no more. My grandmother and her friends were forcibly invited that summer afternoon to appreciate what and who they saw around them, and who they no longer saw. They were invited to see in new fashion their own need and desire and dream for resurrection life. They were invited as Thomas was on this Sunday, and as we are today, to see Jesus still present and living among us, and empowering us to become a new humanity, belonging to one another, caring for one another, really seeing one another and the wounds we all carry.
John P. McGinty