The Recipe for Doubt

Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2016 || Easter 2C || John 20:19-31

recipefordoubtBoth my first and last names come from the Bible. To be sure, a large portion of names used in the United States do, but many if not most of them do not share the dubious pedigree of mine. Every Hannah out there gets to claim as her namesake a woman of complete devotion to God. Every Matthew and Mark and Luke and John out there gets to share a name with a writer of the Gospel. But me? I get the guy who ate the fruit he wasn’t supposed to eat and then shifted the blame to his wife. And I get the Doubter – and that’s Doubter with a capital “D.”

And while I don’t have much energy to defend Adam’s poor decision-making, I do get a bit revved up whenever I hear someone label the disciple Thomas as “Doubting,” as if it’s his first name. As if he’s one of the seven dwarfs: “I know you’ve met Grumpy and Happy and Bashful, but have you met Doubting?” This really irks me – and not simply because Thomas and I share a name. No. Calling him the Doubter is not just unfair (why single him out?); calling him the doubter is actually a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. So let’s unpack Thomas a bit, and hopefully by the end of this sermon we will see that doubt is not an evil thing.

Once we move past the caricature of Thomas as the Doubter, we see a fuller picture of him form. He is one of the more visible disciples in the Gospel of John; indeed, after Peter, he is tied with Philip for most lines of dialogue. When we look at his interactions with Jesus as a whole, we discover a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions.

We see his deep faith in today’s lesson. When the other disciples find him, he sets this condition: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Then when he meets Jesus, he never actually follows through. He sees Jesus there in the flesh, and then makes the most startling claim of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep faith.

Earlier, about halfway through the story, Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is dying. The trouble is that Lazarus lives only about two miles from Jerusalem, and things are pretty hot for Jesus there. In fact, the immediate result of Jesus raising Lazarus was to confirm in the chief priest’s mind the necessity that Jesus be put to death. The disciples know how dangerous it is for Jesus to head towards Jerusalem. But it’s Thomas who persuades them, saying: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep convictions.

Soon after, Jesus is having that famous meal with his friends in the upper room. His arrest is imminent, but before they go out to Gethsemane, Jesus speaks many words of truth to his friends. We often quote some of these words at funerals: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling-places…You know they way to the place where I am going.” Here Thomas interrupts Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To this Jesus responds: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” A deep answer to a deep and desperate question. Yes, Thomas is a man of deep questions.

When you combine faith, convictions, and questions, do you know what often results? It’s the recipe for Doubt. Our faith gives us a reason to ask deep questions about God and life and what it all means. These deep questions do not have readily apparent or digestible answers; if they did, they wouldn’t be deep questions. Conviction gives us perseverance, which allows faith to exist within the sphere of uncertainty. This is actually where faith thrives. Certainty is the enemy of faith because it leads to stagnation, or worse, fundamentalism. Doubt, on the other hand, gives us the fuel to push on our beliefs, examine them, strengthen them.

And yet, our Gospel passage today seems to set doubt up as the enemy of belief, to put them on opposite sides of a dichotomy. After all, Jesus chastises Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.” Except that’s not what he says. Our English translation takes some liberties to get the word “doubt” out of the Greek word that’s on Jesus’ lips. Another translation reads like this: “No more disbelief. Believe!” (CEB). In English, when we add the prefixes “un–” or “dis–” to something, we give it the opposite meaning, right? Kind and Unkind. Belief and disbelief. That’s exactly what happens in Greek when you add the letter “a–” to the front of a word.* In today’s passage, Jesus says just such a pair of opposites. Belief and unbelief. Not belief and doubt.

So what he’s really saying to Thomas is this: “Don’t jettison your belief all in one go. I know you have deep questions, but you have deep conviction too. Your faith is still there in the midst of your doubts. But here I am. It’s really me.” And that’s when Thomas drops to his knees and proclaims: “My Lord and my God.”

We all have our doubts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been brushing my teeth or pumping gas and been stricken by a wave of doubt. What if this is all just a bunch of hokum? Even if there is a God, why would God care about lil’ ole me? And those are just the entry level doubts, the nagging ones that don’t really have a particular trigger. Bigger ones surface when we confront egregious disappointment or untimely death or heinous acts of evil like what took place in Pakistan on Easter Day.

But remember, doubt is not something to be feared. Doubt is not something to ward off at all costs. In fact, doing everything in your power never to doubt is the way to dangerous fundamentalism. Jesus never said not to doubt. He said simply: “Believe!” And belief in the Risen Christ – the One who overcame the power of death itself – can survive an onslaught of doubt. In the power of the resurrection, eternal life swallowed up death. In the same way, belief fueled by the enduring promises of God swallows doubt into itself. Just as death is part of life, doubt becomes a part of belief – the part that keeps it moving and growing and alive.

Thomas was a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions. He desired to follow Jesus no matter the cost; he wanted so fervently to know the way; and in the end he proclaimed Jesus for who he really is: “My Lord and my God.” I’m sure Thomas had his doubts. After all, he was off wandering on his own during those frightening days. I’m sure he was processing his confusion, wondering how it all went wrong. But in the midst of his confusion, his teetering belief, the Risen Christ comes and calls him back: “No more disbelief. Believe!”

When you are struggling with your own doubts – about God, about yourself – remember that doubt is a part of belief, not the opposite. And remember that you’re not alone in your doubts. Don’t be afraid to be like Thomas, who heads back to the upper room even though he hasn’t seen Jesus yet. Ask your deep question. Share your struggle with us. I guarantee you someone else will say, “Oh, me too.” And together, with God’s help, we will find deeper wells of faith and conviction, which will compel us to drop to our knees in front of the Risen Christ and proclaim: “My Lord and my God.”

* Some of these survive in English: atheism (NOT God), anaerobic exercise (NOT exercise that gets your heart pumping).

Resting All My Weight

Sermon for Sunday, April 27, 2014 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31

WinslowHomerFarmerToday we are going on a journey to the center of a word. This word happens to be one of the most misused words in the English language, and it happens to be an important word in our Gospel lesson today. This word is “believe.”

For several years now, I’ve tried to use the word “believe” only when talking about God. This is tricky because practitioners of modern English rarely treat the word with that kind of discretion. The word “believe” has become commonplace. How often have you heard a question like this: “Do you believe in [fill in the blank with a hot button issue of the day].” Somehow, the word “believe” has become synonymous with “think something is okay.” This watered down understanding is a far cry from how the word is used in our Gospel lesson today: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Here “belief” is synonymous with life and relationship with God, not with mere assent to a particular position. As we journey to the center of the word “believe,” let’s try to recapture an undiluted definition.

The best way to talk about the word “believe” is to tell a story. Here’s a version of one that I heard a priest friend of mine tell several years ago (and he heard it from someone, too, so there’s no telling to whom this story belongs).

A Bible scholar trekked deep into the heart of the Amazon River basin, and there he found an indigenous tribe that had barely had any contact with the outside world. Like any decent Bible scholar would do, he set about learning the language of the people in order to translate the Good Book into the local tongue. While staying in the village, he lived with a farmer and his wife. For months, the scholar worked and worked: he listened to the people talking, made notes, slowly built a lexicon, and then set to the task of translation. He spread his papers out over the rough wooden table in the kitchen of the hut and put pen to paper.

But soon he stopped. He was stuck. In all his study, he had never heard the villagers use a word that seemed to him synonymous with “belief,” which was, after all, an important word in the Bible. He put his pen down and sat there, just thinking and feeling sorry for himself. Just then, the farmer came in from the fields all hot and sticky from a hard day’s labor. He sat down in the chair opposite the scholar, leaned back on two legs, propped his feet on the table, and let out a grateful sigh. In halting words, the scholar asked the farmer what his word for “believe” was. The farmer didn’t understand. The scholar tried to explain using other words, and comprehension dawned on the farmer. “Do you see me sitting here,” he said in his own language. “I am leaning back in this chair after a hard day’s work. My feet are up. I am resting all my weight on these two legs.” And the scholar found his word.

So to believe in something is to rest all of your weight on that something. Think about the first time you ever went to the pool. The older kids who knew how to swim were doing cannonballs into the deep end and playing Marco Polo in the shallows. The teenage boys were staring at the lifeguard in her red one-piece and layers of tanning lotion. The adults were laying in reclining lawn chairs around the edge of the pool, far enough away to be out of the splash zone.

But you took no notice of any of this. You were too busy contemplated your next action. You were standing by the edge of the pool, your toes curled over the cement lip of the shallow end. You had your arms crossed in front of you and your knees bent in. Your teeth chattered – from either fear or cold, you couldn’t tell. And there was your Dad standing three feet from you. He was standing waist deep in the water like a titan, impervious to Poseidon’s attempts to plunge him under. And he was extending his arms out to you, beckoning you to jump. He would catch you, of course, he said. You would not drown. You would be safe. You would have fun once you got used to the water. All you needed to do was jump into his arms.

You had a choice to make. You could waddle back to the safety of the towels and the bag with your sister’s change of clothes in it. Or you could jump, believing with all your might that your Dad would catch you, that you could rest all of your weight in his embrace. That’s belief.

But recall, I mentioned that belief is a tricky concept. It’s tricky for several reasons. Here’s one. When you decided to jump into your Dad’s arms on your first visit to the pool, you took the leap because you believed what he said. He would catch you, no matter what. You could rest your weight in his arms. Equating this belief with belief in God is where everything gets tricky. Here’s the problem.

There is a chance, however slim, that your Dad would fail to catch you.

No matter how earnestly we believed in a parent’s omnipotence or a coach’s perfection or a teacher’s omniscience, those people turned out to be…well, people. They were all stricken with the gene for human fallibility. Of course, not being perfect didn’t make them bad people. It just made them people. When we equate our belief in humans with our belief in God, we often make the mistake of hedging our bets were God is concerned. We apply to God the expectations we have when we believe in other people, thus unwittingly reducing God’s power and glory to the levels that fit comfortably in a fallible human body.

Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not telling you to repel all human contact because those fallible humans are not to be trusted. Human beings are fundamentally good. We usually do the right thing. We usually live up to the trust others have in us. What I am saying is this: there is no “usually” with God. God always does the right thing. God always lives up to the trust we place in God, else God wouldn’t be God.

So when you speak of belief, remember that God is the One in whom you can always rest your weight. God is the One who never fails to keep a promise. Therefore, God is the one whom we can always believe. When we reserve the word “believe” for God alone, we can begin to recapture the majesty that the concept of belief has lost through overuse in unworthy situations.

If believing is about resting your weight on something, then belief means knowing and trusting the something that takes your weight. This is your foundation. Every foundation that is not God is not a foundation at all, but a structure built on God, who is the ultimate foundation. God is, so to speak, the ground upon which everything rests. Believing in God is all about not being content until you find that ground, that deepest foundational level, upon which to rest your weight.

In our Gospel lesson today, Thomas discovers this foundation when he sees the Risen Christ’s wounds and says, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas’s journey has led him to rest his weight on the Risen Christ – to believe. The next time you use the word “believe,” ask yourself if the context surrounding that word is your foundation, something you can truly rest your weight on. If not, try a different word. We rest our weight on the One who is our foundation. For we believe in God.

*Art: Detail from “For to be a Farmer’s Boy” by Winslow Homer (1887).

Harmony

Ecce Quam Bonum! These three Latin words are carved in moss-covered stones and lintels of doorways across the campus of my alma mater, the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Ecce Quam Bonum! “Behold, how good!” These words begin Psalm 133, and they speak of the desire for joyful, harmonious fellowship with our brothers and sisters: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!”

The lectionary for the Second Sunday of Easter joins this psalm with three readings, each of which speaks of community and fellowship. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a happily-ever-after picture of the apostles and their companions, in which the “whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32). In the First Letter of John, the writer says, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1:3). In the Gospel, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples as a group, grants them peace, and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. Thomas is not with the disciples at the time, so as a group they seek him out and tell him the good news. A week later, when Thomas has returned to the fellowship, Jesus once again appears, and Thomas believes.

At church this Sunday, we are baptizing a beautiful newborn, and I can’t think of better lessons to accompany the joyous occasion. The sacrament of Baptism celebrates the inward movement of God in a person’s life by outwardly welcoming that person into God’s family the Church. Hmm… I know that definition sounds incredibly boring and academic, so let me try again, this time with a musical metaphor.

The music of God plays in each one of our hearts. Sometimes the music is soft, a half-whispered lullaby, barely discernible over the din of the world. Sometimes the notes crescendo to a deafening fortissimo that knocks us, weeping, to our knees. Most often, the music sounds as the percussive TUB-thp of our hearts — a rhythm that, if you listen closely, beats in time with the rest of the performing forces of creation.

orchestraEach one of us has the music of God resounding within, but the symphony is incomplete until we have found each other, until we have joined together in fellowship as the orchestra of God. In Greek, this fellowship is called koinonia, but I’ve always thought that “fellowship” is a rather limp translation. For the sake of our metaphor, let’s translate koinonia as “harmony,” which lands much closer to the descriptive intent of the Greek word. Musical harmony is the collection of notes that adds structure, color, tone, depth, and meaning to the main tune. This tune, called the “melody” is the music of God within us. The combination of our own unique passions, trials, joys, griefs, and loves creates the harmony of the music of God.

In the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we welcome another violin or French horn or bassoon into the orchestra. We await eagerly the subtle changes in timbre that the new life will bring. Together, we play the koinonia, the harmony, of the music of God to a world so accustomed only to noise and clatter. The movements of our symphony resonate with the movement of God in this world. This is the sacrament of Holy Baptism: new sound, new harmony, new resonance in the symphony of the music of God.

Behold how good and pleasant it is when brethren live and sing and make music together in unity.