Sermon 4-3-2016

April 3, 2016

John 20:19-31

In just a couple of months it will be the fiftieth anniversary of a somewhat painful moment in my life.  If you’d let me take you back there—back to June the 9th, 1966—I’m nine years old—at Met Stadium—the old ballpark where the Mall of America now sits…  The Twins are playing Kansas City—it’s the bottom of the 7th—the Jumbo Coke I’d had four innings ago now staking a claim on me—meaning it’s off to the Men and Little Boy’s Room.  So I leave my seat—reluctantly—afraid I’ll miss something important.  Of course, little did I know…

I’m not sure if you’ve ever had one of those sinking feelings—where you hear the crowd coming to life without you, but you don’t know why?  What was happening (without me) was that five Twins batters—Zoilo Versalles, Rich Rollins, Don Mincher, Harmon Killebrew, and our own, beloved Tony Oliva—all hit home runs—in the same inning—a Major League record that has now stood for fifty years.   And I missed it—in the bathroom instead of watching the game, I missed all five of them.

Now, as sad as that was, imagine with me the next day—word having spread through my neighborhood that I’d been at the game—everybody coming up to me: “Oh, my goodness–five homers in an inning!  And to think you were there!  It must have been incredible!”  “Yes,” I replied (over and over again), “it was incredible…”

You and I aren’t told just why Thomas missed his big moment that day, two thousand years ago—the moment when Jesus, in all his resurrection glory first appeared to his disciples…  We don’t know what came up that kept him from being there, but he missed it.  He missed it…  “Thomas,” John’s Gospel tells us, “one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  So the other disciples had to tell him, and Thomas wasn’t buying it: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in there, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Now my guess–when we come right down to it—is that most of us aren’t all that different from Thomas, here…  See, the truth about usmost of us, anyway—is that we want explanations for what we don’t understand—we want proof, right?  In fact, it’s how we’ve been taught to trust most anything in our culture—by disproving, doubting, demanding evidence—something called the scientific method—tells us that the only way to find truth is by seeking error, and anybody who doesn’t play by those rules is considered hopelessly naïve

Meanwhile, contrast that way of thinking with the kind of religious institutions some of us grew up with, right?—institutions that taught us that craving proof and explanation is what?–unacceptable—our doubt evidence of a lack of faith.  (Does that sound familiar to any of you?)  It’s that thing where, somewhere along the line we were warned of the danger of too much thinking—told we’re better off suppressing our questions—suppressing them in the name of faith.  In fact, at its most extreme, we were told that questioning the institution of the church was synonymous with attacking God himself—almost like God is fragile—has easily hurt feelings—kind of like Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street—feels all hurt and sad when people don’t believe he exists!  And that’s where some of us find ourselves—caught between an approach to life that insists on doubting and disproving and explaining on the one hand, and a place where we aren’t even allowed to ask questions on the other.  No wonder we’re confused!

Well, there’s something I find so significant, here, in Thomas’ story—the story that earned him his nickname—Doubting Thomas.  See, what I find so significant is that Jesus never chastised Thomas for his doubt—never belittled him—never told him his questions showed a lack of faith—never tried to silence him or make him go away…   No, that’s not the Jesus we find on the pages of Scripture.  Rather, what we do have is a Jesus who is not afraid, or offended, or intimidated by our questions.  Instead, we have a Jesus who–whenever questions were asked of him—asked from a sincere and honest heart, that is—no matter how difficult the questions were—he welcomed them.  Which leaves me wondering—wondering if the reason Jesus isn’t offended by our questions is because he asked some hard ones himself—even questions like, “My God, my God, why did you bail on me?”  Jesus can handle your questions—any question.  “Ask and it will be given to you,” he said, “seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.  For whoever asks receives, and whoever seeks finds, and whoever knocks, it will be opened.”  But here’s the deal: you have to ask…

Now, having said all that, I also need to acknowledge a dark side of doubt, this morning.  That’s because there is a dark side…  As legitimate as our questions and doubts are—as legitimate as Thomas’ were—the dark side of doubt is that it can become an excuse for never committing our lives to anyone or anything.  It’s what a friend of mine—Dan Taylor—in a book he wrote—what he calls “the great filibuster of the mind”—that thing where we become content to just sit around and talk about faith and commitment without ever having to take the risk of faith and commitment.  Since we can never really be sure, well, we never have to commit, right?  It’s that “paralysis of analysis” thing—the luxury of the skeptic who’s never had to take a stand.  And Jesus wants something better than that for us—he wants belief for us—just like he wanted belief for Thomas—because he understands that doubt so easily keeps us from relationship—and he understands what a lonely place that is!

See, there’s something I am coming more and more to believe in my journey of faith—it’s that I’m only able to move beyond my doubts when I can begin to see a purpose for those doubts.  It’s been my coming to understand that where there is doubt, faith has a reason to exist!  I mean, if everything always added up all the time, if everything just made sense and all the pieces fit together and we didn’t have any conflicts with each other or ­­­experiences of brokenness, then why would we need any faith?  But that ain’t how life is—it is not how life in this fallen world is…

I was so appreciative of the message we received from our Bishop this week, Bishop Bruce Ough—one we’ve printed on our bulletin, this morning—words acknowledging the deep wounded-ness in our city exposed by the decision not to prosecute the police officers involved in the shooting of Jamar Clark—acknowledging that, tragically, Jamar’s death cannot be reversed, and the grief and anger experienced by so many cannot be assuaged.  And he goes on to talk about justice—that “justice is about restoration–about putting things back the way God intended–about restoring the Beloved Community—the community that will be restored when segregation by poverty and race no longer exists, when the lines between Northside neighborhoods and suburban enclaves are erased.  The Beloved Community will be restored when police forces represent the demographic make-up of their communities.  The Beloved Community will be restored when entrenched institutional racism is stamped out and we, together, affirm that every life matters.  The Beloved Community will be restored when all children have access to equal, quality education.  The Beloved Community will be restored when the death of one black man, or any one of God’s children, becomes the burden of responsibility and grief for all of us.”  And I’m grateful for those words—written by someone whose heart breaks over the things that break God’s heart…

Beginning to move through life as it is–by trying to see the hard stuff around us through the eyes of faith—that doesn’t mean our doubts are suddenly, magically replaced with absolute certainty.  We still find our hearts broken by the suffering around us (or in us…).  We still have questions that go unanswered.  We still get messed up when we lose somebody we love.  But faith keeps that suffering in its place.  Doubt may make its claims on us (sometimes even daily), and those claims are to be respected, but they do not determine the character of our lives.  In fact, insisting on having all our questions answered before we ever commit to acting in the world is a form of cowardice—makes us spectators in this dying world.  And when we begin to understand that, then our doubt can serve a purpose…

So I know I’m biased about this, but I happen to believe the church of Jesus Christ is the very best place for us to move through our experience of doubt.  It was true for Thomas and it’s true for us.  It’s because sometimes the hard things life throws at us so overwhelm us that we simply can’t keep up a belief in God’s love or concern for us—for the people around us.  And I hope you know this, but the Bible is full of people who went through that kind of suffering!  And maybe your suffering has led you to despair, or maybe to even rage against God; and if that’s you deal–maybe today, maybe right now—then my prayer is that the church will be the church for you—that you’ll find people who can believe for you when you can’t find the belief for yourself—that you would find, here at Park Avenue, a community of believers who won’t insist on something from you that you don’t have right now—but who will do what we can to lighten the burden in your life—just as others have done for us—just as you will one day do for somebody else–even if you can’t imagine that right now…  That’s the church of Jesus at its best, because it’s one thing to miss seeing home runs that set a record, but it is quite another to miss seeing the truth of the resurrection—the truth that in Jesus, death has lost its sting—that it is no longer the last word about us.  And that’s what I believe God wanted me to tell you, this morning—he wants you to know what he told Thomas 2,000 years ago—without belittling your questions, and with knowing how impossible faith can seem sometimes—God wants you to know that you don’t have to go through life at arm’s length from a relationship with him—your questions, your doubts, don’t have to keep you from faith—rather, they can be the very reason and occasion for faith in your life.  That’s the Gospel according to Thomas—his Easter message for us this morning.  Amen?  (Even if you can only whisper it—amen?)