A Sermon by the Reverend Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
April 27, 2014
I think that a lot of us worry about how much religious doubt we have – doubt about the basics of the faith, doubts about the divinity of Christ, doubts about the afterlife, doubts about other religions and the fact that so many people in the world believe things about God other than those taught by Christianity.
And we not only doubt; we feel guilty about doubting.
We hear some Christian denominations say that doubt is, basically, a mortal sin. I grew up in one of them where I learned that only faith in Jesus was the ticket to heaven, this based on an isolated verse or two of Scripture, by the way. For a long time, I tried to will myself to believe that Jesus died for my sins, but then I wondered if I believed enough. How much belief would get me into heaven? How much doubt would keep me out? And would God know if I was faking?
Our lesson today tells us that we worry about our doubts a lot more than God does. Our lessons today show us, not only the validity of doubt, but that there are ways of managing it within the context of a faithful life, while keeping our spiritual and intellectual integrity. And the disciple Thomas is our guide.
He should be called Honest Thomas instead of Doubting Thomas. He had missed the appearance of Jesus to the other Disciples on the evening of the Resurrection, and couldn’t just take the word of these ten. He wants his own physical proof, sensory proof; he wants to see the mark of the nails in the hands and touch the wounded side of Christ. Thomas is all of us who know that the Resurrection of Jesus defies logic and experience and we need more.
Thomas had always been the one who called Jesus on vague comments and asked for specifics. When Jesus tells the disciples that he goes to prepare a place for them and adds,”And you know the way to the place where I am going, Thomas is right there: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Thomas was known as the Twin and in many ways he is our twin, a hard-hearted realist who wants specifics and evidence to enable belief.
And Jesus provides it.
A week later, the disciples are again gathered and Thomas is there. Jesus goes right to him and tells him to look at his hands and touch his side. He does not reprimand Thomas; he gives him what he needs.
I expect the other disciples gather around Jesus as this happens, their own curiosity driving them. Curiosity is a defining feature of our humanity and we don’t have to apologize for it. In fact, speaking about a book called The Universe Within, Philip Yancey concludes, “Artificial intelligence researchers doubt whether they can build a similar restlessness or curiosity into a computer. They can program a computer to seek new avenues and new problems but because of its program, not because it wants to. Yancey goes on, “The challenges facing computer programmers may shed light on the choices God faced in creating human beings. Presumably, God could have designed a human brain more like a computer, leaving out any neurological restlessness. Animals seem content living out the singular goals of survival without the need to reflect on themselves or grasp for more. Yet when God created a being in God’s own image, God built in restlessness, along with curiosity and desire, in full awareness they could lead the human to choose the wrong path.”
Our God-given curiosity can be a driver of doubt. Or a driver of faith. But we’re not called to punish ourselves for it.
In fact, God doesn’t seem to have much interest in compelling belief. If he had, Jesus would have appeared to Pilate or Herod.
Countless theologians conclude that doubt is an element of faith and that, during the course of our lives, the pendulum will naturally swing between the extremes of complete faith and troubling doubt. This is problematic for those who say that it is only by faith we are “saved.”
The Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor, just named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, says in her new book on darkness: “If you are in the dark, it does not mean that you have failed and that you have taken some terrible misstep. For many years, I thought my questions and my doubt and my sense of God’s absence were all signs of my lack of faith, but now I know this is the way the life of the spirit goes.”
So how do we manage our doubt, not let it take over our lives and our hearts?
First I think we acknowledge the seductiveness of concrete evidence, but also the limits of “proof.” You can’t really prove much that really matters: friendship, love, loyalty, kindness, hope. You can only live them, experience them. So we are called to act faithfully even while doubting. Even to fake it until we make it, and then repeat the process again—to live, being as faithful as we can, to the truth that keeps beckoning us.
Several years ago, when we were planning to build the St. John’s Clinic in Kayoro, doubts abounded. By the way, we were doing this, not because we thought there should be a clinic there but because this is what the people of the village had told us through our representatives. Yet, we worried, “Would we be wasting our money?” “What if the Ugandans didn’t take care of the facility?” “What if there was corruption?” “What if the clinic couldn’t run itself after the trial period?”
These were all legitimate questions. But we concluded that, no matter how the details turned out, we would do this One Good Thing in the hurting world. We embraced faithful action.
So we set our doubts aside, raised the unbelievable sum of $100,000 in nine months, and the process started, thanks to the inspired work of our partner agency, Give Us Wings and its amazing leader, Mary Steiner, and all of us here who contributed $5 or $5,000, those who sewed dresses for the villagers, who painted tiles for the clinic, and did countless other acts of faith and hope.
A few years later, and after a lot of glitches, the clinic is operating in the way we envisioned and hoped for. Several groups of parishioners have traveled to Uganda and seen it for themselves. And this week we received the truly thrilling news that a man from Kayoro Village – a law student at Tulane who has contacts here in St Paul, will come to St. John’s to thank us in person during an upcoming service.
Community, in fact, is a way in which we manage doubt. Speaking of the power of the Church, in all its bumbling imperfection, Bishop Jelinek wrote from Lambeth: “There are times when I have a powerful experience of God in a very direct way in my life but at other times I need to anchor my faith with the faith of the whole Church, because I know that I can never believe enough, have courage enough, and most especially have forgiveness enough to be a Christian all by myself.”
While we are not given the sensory evidence of the resurrected Jesus that Thomas is given,today’s Gospel ends by saying that what we are given is the stories, the writing, the words, the Scripture – and that we should probe them as intently as Thomas probes the wounds of Jesus. For example, I had totally missed until this reading that the fact that Jesus breathes on the disciples and gives them the Holy Spirit. What does breathing need? A set of working lungs. More “proof” that the resurrected Jesus was not an apparition? Could be.
I think that humility is also a way to manage doubt. Often our fears are based on the illusion that we have all the relevant information on which to make a decision. Almost always, this is wrong. Just because the stars are not visible by day, doesn’t mean they’re not still there. There are millions of incredible natural processes taking place each minute and we are aware of few of them. One of my favorite quotations is this one from the nineteenth-century British writer George Eliot (actually a woman): ‘If we had keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
Finally, we need to listen closely to the lessons of the heart and not use our rational mind to defeat them instantaneously.
The day before Easter I found myself on an errand in West St. Paul and when it was time to drive home from the congested Robert Street, I debated going 35W which was fast and handy, or again showing up at Curtice Street and then driving home over the High Bridge. A small bungalow on Curtice is where I lived the first 20 years of my life and where my parents lived for 60. I hadn’t made this drive since my only sibling, my younger brother, died three months ago in a freak accident. So I drove down Annapolis to Dodd Road and made the left turn onto Curtice Street.
I stopped the car and took a look. So much was different – the porch that had been closed in and now looked hideous, some over grown gardens. Almost all of the old neighbors had moved away or died.
And I realized that I was the last one standing, of my family, of my aunts and uncles, of my children’s aunts and uncles, only some remote cousins left.
But I felt an energy still emanating from that house, the spirit of our comings and goings, my own walking out of the house each day to go to school, the new cars my dad bought every few years parked in the driveway, the joy and pain I had suffered so intensely in my small bedroom with its lavender bedspread and tiny closet at the front of the house, the sunny kitchen at the back with my mom’s orange rolls on the counter…. my brother and his motorcycle and his funny, wild friends. And while it sounds corny, I thought that this hasn’t just reverted to nothing. The people are gone, but the life in this house had meaning and reality that I can still access so easily. They live in more than memory. Somehow, somewhere the essence of who they were is preserved.
Working on this sermon a week later, I came across a phrase that explained to me what I was experiencing that day. It is this: “The Resurrection is the manifestation and crystallization of the seeds of indestructibility in every human person.”
This is not rationally provable; it is a lesson of the heart that I do not – cannot– doubt. God gifts us with these insights, but we may have to brave the High Bridge instead of the free way and, as Thomas did, show up.