The Importance of Uncertainty, Old First Sermon 04.03.16

The Importance of Uncertainty, Old First Sermon 04.03.16

It’s Easter still!
Therefore, doubt boldly. Doubt courageously.

The story of Thomas, of course, it’s not just a story about Thomas. It’s also a story about disciples who are overwhelmed, shut down, scared, locked up in their own situations. In fact, when Thomas’ story happens, they’re hid behind locked doors.

And who can blame them? They’ve just witnessed their Teacher and Lord, the one they confessed as God’s Messiah,
betrayed by one of his own followers, tried and convicted by both religious and civil authorities, and then brutally executed by the Empire. Capital punishment for crimes not committed.

They’re probably expecting — at least fearing — the authorities’ next step would be to round up and do the same to Jesus’ followers.

But when Jesus shows up, their fear disappears and is replaced by the joy and hope of his victory and continued presence. This, I think, is the way we, church, should assume faith works: We’ve all got our doubts and questions,
our struggles and fears. But when we can find God in the midst of them all… or better still when we recognize the presence of the risen one..

…So that the limitations are no longer all you see, and instead, you find joy and wonder to accompany your challenges, as Jesus finds us where we are and walks us where we need to go… We are greeted by some faith you can touch and even hold on to.

Think about how it works with Thomas. He doubts. He questions. He disbelieves. He’s not satisfied with second-hand reports and wants to see for himself. And I’ll say it again, who can blame him?

After all, he not only saw his Lord and friend mistreated, beaten, and then crucified. Everything he’d organized his new life around was destroyed. And I guess, as is often the case after the death of a loved one, afterwards he’s kind of disoriented and lost in some new and foreign territory. Can’t we imagine, Thomas has spent the last 3 days
pulling the broken pieces of his life back together and trying to figure out what to do next. In fact, maybe he wasn’t with the disciples because he’s already out and about on this what’s next. Or because he was too afraid.

So here’s what I’m wondering a week after a joyous Easter service: are we, church, making enough room for the Thomases among us? I’m not going to guess at percentages, but don’t you think some number of the swelled Easter crowd wasn’t quite sure? And what about the Thomas within each of us? Do we allow enough room for him and ourselves in church?

Thomas, we are told, is a twin, but we never meet his other half. As Elsa suggested here on Good Friday when she offered that the disciple whom Jesus loved could just be a placeholder for where you and I plug into the story…
could Thomas’ unidentified twin be you and me with our doubts and insistence that we too need first hand
resurrection experience — to see with our own eyes — in order to believe?

I promise you as a pastor, any of you who fear and worry that you and Thomas are the only ones ever with doubts,
you’re wrong. Rather, I bet, there are probably almost as many people who know significant doubts as there are doubts… Even among those who worshipped with us on Easter, or any Sunday really…

Interestingly, when you really think about it, you could say that Thomas never really comes to believe, If faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see. Rather, Thomas sees Jesus for himself. He encounters the risen Christ. And after that first hand experience, he not only assents or consents to the witness of his peers. he actually makes the most profound confession of faith contained in the New Testament, calling Jesus,
as we ourselves will in a minute… Thomas called Jesus”my Lord and my God.”

John’s story about Jesus therein begins and ends with among the Bible’s clearest claims to Jesus’ divinity. In the first chapter, John’s prologue, remember… John writes the word that always existed has now become flesh. And that the word is not only with God, but is God. Here at the end, John quotes Thomas as professing that Jesus is his Lord and God.

But, church, pay attention here: all of that comes after he has been given an opportunity to voice his doubt.
I think that’s how faith often is. Or maybe better, how God often is. Sometimes we need to be left alone
with our own questions and doubt — our own struggle — before we are really open to God’s presence.

And Lord help us, if you have the faith to move mountains, but have never known the unanswered question
or the nagging doubt that keeps you humble enough not think too much of yourself, and willing to serve others…

You might be surprised to hear a liberal pastor say this but it is my hope and prayer that each of us uncovers or stumbles upon some first hand resurrection experience. Certainly, the church is about being a repository of a multitude of folks’ faith stories, so that we may lean on others’ faith and witness when our well is running low.

But I’d hope that each of us has some experience we’ll never forget. That groundrock. When we were touched and turned. Something that happened and we knew. That which will never be forgotten. Can never be taken from us. That no one will ever be able to argue us out of it…

Maybe Jesus materialized — walked through a wall one time, or right here this morning. Or you will hear or once heard a voice. Or saw a blinding light.

Or maybe it won’t be quite so literal, your encounter with Resurrection. Beloved, I’ve never had those kinds of experiences — visions of Jesus before me, the sound of his voice. even a thunderclap. And yet I know first hand
that Jesus lives and resurrection is real. I see it all the time in you all. In the church. Here on Sundays. And often when you are far from these 4 walls. I’ve experienced resurrection when I’ve witnessed the fresh starts you all sometimes encounter in your lives and in this church.

I don’t want our faith to be some disinherited words on paper, even less would I want our faith to be some rote recitation of some creed without any irrefutable personal experience backing it up, or grounding it.

I believe that much more often than we realize, there is personal experience of resurrection available almost all the time. Even the other disciples all got the personal experience of getting to see Thomas and his tactile encounter of resurrection…

To tell you the truth, I have no idea what the other disciples thought of Thomas’ initial skepticism. Maybe they were scandalized and offended — after Jesus had gone to his death for them, here was Thomas demanding yet one more sign. Or maybe they sympathized — at least he had the courage to say what they were too fearful to voice.

Further, I suspect that John’s whole point in including this story in his Gospel is to affirm the faith of his community, a group of people who “had not seen yet believed.” And maybe also, wise pastor the 4th Evangelist was, to make room for the doubts too.

This Sunday and every Sunday in our community — and in the UCC as a whole — I think it’s important and right to make space for us to admit and be honest about our dates. They are ironically parts of our faith. Indeed, I think that if you don’t have any doubts, you are probably not taking the story seriously enough. I mean, really – think about what we confess when we come together: that the Creator of the vast cosmos not only knows we exist, God knows us intimately, better than we know ourselves. And not just like a scientist examining us under a microscope,
but as a God whose concern is inalienably wed to our well-being. That confession is, quite literally, in-credible (that is, not believable).

And yet we come together and in hearing the Word and partaking of the Sacraments and by being joined to those around us through prayer and song, we come to believe. We believe alongside of, in spite of, perhaps even because of our doubts. For some it’s easier than others. For some, hearing the testimony of Scripture is enough — the story is almost at once a self-evident explanation or articulation of what they seem already to know.

For others, they need something more personal and direct. A feeling. A personal blessing. Or that contradiction — where it doesn’t make sense. Where they can’t find an easy answer. Where they are left waiting on God.

For some, I think often, what is needed is life itself, how it confounds us and humbles us, right alongside of blessing us… Many of us, in some prodigal way, just need to really live before the Gospel of abundant life truly opens up for us.

Church, it’s permission-giving as much as exhortation: it’s okay to have questions. Indeed, l commend them to you as a blessing. For these questions by God’s grace can accomplish so much. Because questions and wonder
and doubt and even skepticism are signs of interest and curiosity and these, quite often,
are the soil in which real faith is born or forged.

You all received from the ushers today, as you came into the Sanctuary, a 3×5 cards. I want to invite you to “an offering of doubts” this morning: write down one thing (or more than one thing) you have a question about regarding the faith and place the cards in with the collection, as part of this morning’s offering.

No need to sign them. But unless you indicate otherwise, next week’s E-pistle will have a collection of the doubts that accompany us, form us, confound us, push us… Grace offers space enough for them too.

Are questions will be things we’ve wondered about for years. And things that will be answered in next week’s readings. Some of them will be trivial — why do fingernails and toenails grow, even after we die? Others could be monumental — why does someone I live have to endure so much suffering?

No matter what the question, or how big the doubt, simply by giving it respectful space, we begin to take ourselves and God more seriously. Make room for our real lives and create the space for an authentic encounter with God. (I’ve invited this exercise before, and I have been humbled and amazed at the seriousness of the questions
and the insight they yielded into people of faith and the church.)

Thomas comes to faith because he first has the chance to voice his doubt and questions and then experiences Jesus for himself.

Perhaps the opportunity before us this week, Dear Ones (as Esther calls us), Is to look for the same freedom and trust for the many Thomases sitting in our pews and living in our hearts.

Or maybe it’s in our doubts that we’re really giving God a chance….