Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore or the speaker for that day.
So we pick up our story – you remember, the story from last week…little thing we call Easter? Well, in our scripture, it’s still the same day, just later in the evening. The disciples aren’t quite dancing in the streets with the news of the return of Jesus. In fact, they’re cowering in an upstairs room, an undisclosed location, as they say. Jesus comes to them and says – peace be with you. And this was before they learned to say – and also with you. But first he shows them his hands and side, the text says. THEN we get the story of “doubting Thomas”, who has become sort of the poster child for faithless skepticism. But wait, Jesus shows the other disciples his hands and side, too, at least according to John’s version of the story. Yet they seem to expect Thomas to believe without seeing what they got to see. There’s plenty of doubt to go around in this story, no need to hang it all on Thomas, and before we disparage doubt, let’s give it a chance.
The title of the sermon in your bulletin will NOT match what you hear this morning. Perhaps it’s better that you title this “the Miracle of Doubt” in your heads because I, like lots of my colleagues, scrapped what I had planned earlier in the week as I rushed around between here and the Capitol and various sites along the route the walkers are taking between Tulsa and OKC, always encountering the inspiring vision of teachers who have had enough. Enough of the inattention, enough of the lack of support, enough of the words with no corresponding action. Despite the promises of the legislature, they have their doubts.
So, let’s talk a little about doubt. We have a lot of it around right now. We have parents who doubt they can figure out another thing for their kids to do with another day off school. We have seniors who doubt they can get the instruction needed to pass their exams and graduate. And we have a group of legislators who continue to make the mistake of doubting the resolve of people who teach kindergartners all day, endure the eye-rolls and heavy sighs of teenagers and keep 6th graders engaged on shoestring budgets and no bathroom breaks. And all of us, I suspect, at least have moments of doubt that we can ever resolve all of the things that seem so wrong, so broken, so battered. Doubt is real. And, God knows, it is around us all the time.
But doubt is not necessarily a bad thing at all. In fact, it is a necessary part of our faith lives. After all, if we are certain about something, there’s really not much need for faith, is there? Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance in what we do not see, the writer of the Book of Hebrews tells us. It is not knowing something for certain, but trusting in something that often is not even visible to us at the time. Faith is, in one way of looking at it, confidence in the things we aren’t certain about, or deep trust in profound doubt. This is, of course, a balancing act – too much doubt can lead to cynicism, which paralyzes us, making us unhelpful to any cause for change. Too little doubt and we face the dangers of certainty, which often leads to a false sense of righteousness that is never healthy.
When we embrace a healthy sense of doubt, we allow ourselves to move beyond the overly simplistic. Doubt asks us to check our facts again, to consider another point of view and to approach things with some humility. A good, balanced sense of doubt can actually help us navigate the tricky waters of an increasingly pluralistic, diverse and often chaotic world in the 21st century. Doubt helps encourage us to seek new information and new experiences, lest we get trapped in a single story. People who live in such bubbles only get exposed to what they already know where a healthy sense of doubt gets weakened by what is a false sense of security, generated by unchallenged stories and untested assertions. Our echo chambers, safely free from doubt, don’t develop in us the sense that something beyond our own experience might also be valid. Then it is our habits, our values, our identity, culture, food, music – that gets stamped as the default. Everything else is abnormal.
This assumption, you might notice, is being challenged mightily right now, which is part of what lies at the roots of the cultural angst in which we are living. People who live in those bubbles, whose cultural norms and identities have been the default setting for so long don’t like this change. And who can blame them? It fills one with great doubt when such foundational things are threatened. And when doubt is an unfamiliar feeling you think it dangerous, when it is, in fact, quite a healthy place to be.
See, I don’t blame Thomas at all. Having just had all of his dreams shattered, his vision of a messiah come to save them lashed to a tree and murdered just like all the other ones, his glorious vision of magic resolution to suffering not only unrealized, but heaped upon with even more suffering. Of course he wants to see the wounds. Doubt has been his companion for a long time. It is, after all, the disciples whom Jesus often has the hardest time convincing. They retreat into bickering, the fall asleep when he asks them to watch, they don’t understand the parables, they abandon Jesus at the first opportunity – though they have left their lives behind to follow him, they doubt.
I have to be honest with you. I don’t know how this walkout ends. People have been asking me that all week long and I don’t know if anyone knows how this walkout ends, and we certainly don’t know when. In many powerful ways this is beyond a single event – a walkout – and has become a movement. And there have been and will be great moments of doubt about it’s effectiveness, it’s orchestration, even it’s validity. I’m sure we have all wondered, especially our teachers, if the high cost that is in place for students, parents, guardians and the downstream workers in our school systems is worth all of this. We doubt whether our legislature will act effectively, or at all. I, at times, wonder if enough legislators even care about public education in the first place, that’s how cynical I can get. But I also know this. That doubt has to birth some vision of the future. We have to be able to imagine what happens after this single thing – after the walkout, whether educators get everything they want or just some of what they want. What is next for this movement?
For regardless of what happens with education in our state, we all know where we stand right now. Yes, near the bottom in per-pupil spending for years, and no raises for state employees or teachers in a decade, but also amongst the highest incarceration rates in the nation, some of the worst health rankings in the country, second in teen birth rates, tenth in rates of suicide, and 22% of our kids living below the poverty line. All of this at a time when racism, bigotry, xenophobia, sexism and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and actions have increased, mass shootings keep happening, ICE raids are no longer just going after the so-called “bad guys”, but deporting anyone they can get their hands on, and public outrage makes it feel like things are going to explode. Is it any wonder that we have some doubt? I want God to show up. I want to see the wounds, too, to touch the side, to know that the promise is more than just an idea. Sometimes faith is like that…a shot in the dark, a trust fall, sometimes it is just like Dr. King once said, “taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
I stood on the steps of Webster High School Wednesday morning, in the cold air with friends and colleagues to send a group of teachers, parents, students and supporters off on a 110 mile journey from Tulsa to the Capitol building in Oklahoma City. They are walking. You’ve probably seen this in the media – they are being joined by our superintendent, Dr. Deborah Gist. Wednesday was also the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King in Memphis. I reminded the crowd gathered there that Dr. King fought for civil rights, but that alone was not what got him killed. He fought for racial justice, but that alone was not what got him killed either. It was when he began to draw some connections, to show some intersections between racism and poverty, human rights and a military industrial complex that the tide really turned. We must remember as we celebrate holidays in his name and post quotes on our social media sites that when he was shot dead in Memphis, he was commonly listed among the most hated people in the United States, unpopular for his years and years of advocacy and agitation. Righteousness, my friends, rarely comes with popularity and, we must also remember,
change does not come in a single event. It takes time and dedication and consistency.
When Jesus first comes to the disciples in John’s version, it isn’t just to prove something to them. It is not to assuage their doubt, even though he shows them his hands and side. It is to say to them – twice, in fact – peace be with you. And to give them a charge – “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
In other words, go do what I have done. Be like me in the world. Dedicate yourself to the Way I have taught you. Please note that his Spirit-breathed direction never says anything about making sure other people follow the rules, or being certain about your eternal life, or the golden rule as we seem to have it now – he who has the gold makes the rules. No, this is an initiation into a walk of life that offers no guarantees, trusts in grace rather than perfection and absolutely depends on trust that God is with us in all things, moving in us, growing with us and being an eternal source of creativity and light. And it is trusting in that path, even when we doubt it.
As we consider the holiness of doubt, this is why I want to take us back to Holy Week…but not to Easter, and not to Good Friday. No, I want to take us to Maundy Thursday and to the table where Jesus sat with his disciples and announced God’s purpose in the world – love and grace given away to people at a table where everyone is welcome. A table where we can’t figure out how things work, where we use this language of body and blood and it’s kind of weird when you stop to think about it. A table where the most important theological statement we might make right now, at this time, in this place, is that this table is open to everyone because that means that God is available to everyone and therefore human dignity and grace and compassion and our basic identity as children of God is available to everyone. As Christian historian Diana Butler Bass asks, why don’t we focus ourselves on that instead of the cross, which is Rome’s violent disruption of the Jesus plan?
“The cumulative narrative of the post-Easter stories,” Dr. Bass says, “is that of Jesus gathering with his friends and followers around tables. Jesus is continuing the Table story post-Easter, not re-enacting the cross.” And I offer you a metaphor this morning for this table. Public schools. This is the place in our society where teachers try to reach all the kids, even the ones we have doubts about…this is where we welcome everyone, saying to them in that action that we all matter. Teachers live with doubt all the time, the kind of doubt that allows faith to take over, directing us to places we can’t go if we guide ourselves only by data and evidence of past achievements. Teachers imagine for their kids a future. They dream, sometimes even dream on their students’ behalf, as the students learn to dream for themselves. The doubt helps fuel imagination for what isn’t there yet.
Maybe we ought to still learn something from our teachers – like the faithful example of starting to walk when you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into. We watched last night as the teachers prepared to eat their dinner in the fellowship hall at First Christian in Chandler, a doctor tending to their feet, the limps as they made their way to the buffet line, the new chants they were sharing as they prepare for another day of rhythmic walking – “rain, snow earthquake, lightning, nothing can stop us from doing the right thing!!” Yet you could see it in their eyes. They don’t really know where this all goes, they doubt they will get all the things they need, they live with the uncertainty of the path forward, with a future they cannot see. And still they walk.
“Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”