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God With Us
April 15, 2012
04-15-2012 Sermon We are gathered this morning with the cloud of all those throughout time who have been gripped in clutches of doubt. Those whose circumstances have led them to ask the tough questions and to rethink every sacred cow they have ever banked on. Those for whom everything is now at stake or up for grabs. Those who have sought the face of God and have come up empty. Those, like the disciples gathered in that locked room so long ago, huddled together in the shadows of grief and shock.
The opening of this morning’s text stands in sharp contrast to the overwhelming joy of last week’s Easter Sunday celebrations. A day marked with lilies, brass, shouts of Alleluia, and those startlingly white cloth accents that seem to revel triumphantly against the darkness and dirtiness of death. We greet our friends, those remaining eleven disciples in a locked and shadowy room.
We imagine them huddled together in fear, hardly chancing a whispered discussion between them about what their next move is. This doesn’t make sense to us. The announcement of Jesus’ resurrection had surely reached them by now. Shouldn’t they be celebrating, partying in the streets, proclaiming this raising of their Lord with bouquets of flowers, trumpet blasts, new clothes, and hot crossed buns? This is Easter for goodness sakes! This is no time for gloom and fear! Jesus has risen! Death is defeated! The Easter bunny left you a basket full of candy eggs at your doorstep! Come on people! Get with the program! But for those first disciples, the fullness of what had occurred had not yet sunk in.
As we imagine these remaining disciples sequestered up in their safe house, we see Thomas, antsy with cabin fever, pacing the room. Clearing his throat, we hear him announce to the others that he is stepping out for a moment to clear his head, get some air, to take a walk. Thomas walks along the darkened streets of Jerusalem. The questions come like a swarm of gnats in his mind.
How could this have happened? Weren’t we just getting started? Why didn’t he resist? What happened to the mission? But the question nagging in the deepest part of Thomas’ soul commands our attention. “Where is God now?”
Imagine the shock on Thomas’ face when he walks back through the door of that upper room. The smiles, the laughing, the excited voices. The disciples round on Thomas, talking so fast that their words become a blur. “He was here” “Just appeared out of nowhere” “talked” “walked around” “it was really him” “I saw him breathing” “Peace be with you” “Holy Spirit”. Silencing the ruckus, Thomas shuts his eyes and tries to make sense of it all. He tries to understand, to believe the words of his friends, that Jesus was really alive and had been here, in this very room. But Thomas had seen too much. He had seen the lashes cut into the sides of Jesus. He had seen his friend carrying that wretched cross through the streets. He had heard the jeering of the crowd and the hammering of nails in the distance. He had seen the spear in his side. He had seen the limp body of Christ carried into the tomb.
He had seen death, and death it seemed, was all too convincing. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
It is here in the story when we all breathe a sigh of relief. Whew. Thank heavens that someone else isn’t buying all this. I thought I was the only one. It is all too appropriate that on the Sunday immediately following Easter, that we take a moment to recognize that many of us, and if I were a betting man, the majority of us, have experienced the same degree of skepticism that we see in Thomas. Oh Thomas. We love Thomas, the patron saint of the thinking Christian – the defender of righteous doubt. It seems that our human nature comes standard with this fundamental ability to question, to doubt. Our ability to doubt didn’t start with Thomas, and it certainly didn’t end with him. Serene Jones recounts how we have seen glimpses of our doubting human nature throughout history. In the early church, doubters questioned whether God, as eternal and divine, could die and still be God.
Later, Medieval scholars depicted Thomas’ doubt as logical, putting in this mouth the question “Is resurrection metaphysically and analytically intelligible?” For the mystically oriented, doubt is described as the “dark night of the soul” where, in the midst of unbelief, belief germinates in the shadows. More recently, Enlightenment theologians used rational, empirical arguments to craft their brand of Thomastic doubt. When they asked, “Who has actually seen the dead rise?” they turned the resurrection of Christ into a mere symbol of our misguided human hopes for a life after death. I secretly love perusing the magazine racks at HEB the week before Easter. It seems every year there is a new Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, or Discover Channel special trying to unpack the complications of the resurrection or someone trying to wheedle their way around Jesus’ actual death. I remember watching a special on TV a few years back that gave a bunch of other possibilities of how Jesus could have come back from the dead… or in this case, never really died in the first place.
They speculated that due to the lack of advanced medical practices, Jesus could have simply lost consciousness on the cross, had such a faint heart beat that the soldiers couldn’t detect it, then in three days regained consciousness and bounced out of the tomb good as new. They even brought in an organic chemist to explain how the mixture of sour wine offered to Christ on the cross could have contained a powerful substance that temporarily made his heart beat undetectable. I love this stuff, as silly as it seems, because it points to our inherent desire for proof, for an explanation, for a way around the impossible. But at the end of the day, we can recognize all we want that we are creatures predisposed to doubt, but it doesn’t take away the pain that doubt causes.
For some of us, doubt comes at those tragic moments in our lives. The loss of a loved one. A natural disaster that wipes out entire groups of people. The witnessing of starvation, genocide, war, and sickness. The question overwhelms us, “Where is God now?” For others, the doubt comes on more subtly.
In those dark, silent moments, laying in bed awake, wondering if all this is truly real. Looking up into the stars and thinking about how small and insignificant we are – wondering if there really is a God out there. Reading the scriptures in light of scientific discovery and questioning if this is all just a big fairy tale told to children to make them behave in church and obey their parents. Now I wont ask for a show of hands here, but think to yourself about a time when doubt consumed you. It is a difficult task, especially here in church. As a teenager, I was constantly plagued with doubt. I often would feel miserable about going to church, wondering if it was real or not. The thing that kept me in the Presbyterian Church was that I came to realize that my doubt was validated, something to be recognized, to be worked through, to be taken as a normal human experience. I realized that the church, throughout history, was full of people who doubted, who questioned, who didn’t take things at face value.
I still experience doubt from time to time, but what has changed is that
I don’t feel as bad about it. In fact, I feel closer to those around me in the church who embrace me, who carry me through. So to all those out there this morning wondering if this is a safe place to question, to doubt, we resoundingly answer, we are with you. And, as our Gospel illustrates, so is God.
We return to our disciples in that upper room, poor Thomas, still pacing, frustrated, anxious, doubting. A noise perks his ears and he turns around. Jesus stands before him, hands outstretched, cloak pulled aside. Wide eyes. Sheer silence. Carpenter’s kind face. Peace be with you. Hands trembling. Permission given. Thomas sees. “My Lord and my God.” Belief.
It is in the conclusion of this story that we understand how God meets us in our doubt. We realize that this story has never really been about Thomas. This story is really about Jesus. It is here that we find the real point of the Gospel story – the story about God’s coming to us, wherever we might be, in whatever state we find ourselves in.
We see this in the otherwise unremarkable detail of the locked door. Instead of depicting a Jesus who knocks, opens the door, walks up to Thomas and starts to argue with him by trying to answer his rationalist queries or trying to scientifically prove how he did it, we see a Jesus who is determined to reach this skeptic right where he is. It is a Jesus who refuses to let dead bolts or chains block the movement of love toward the one who lacks faith. We hear Jesus’ first words to Thomas, “Peace be with you.” We find that Jesus does not offer a logically argued response to his questioning faith, but a surprising proclamation of peace and touching love that is stronger than even death itself. In the end, the story doesn’t even say that Thomas touched the wounds of Christ. Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” We are given to think that it is the mere fact that Jesus was once again with him that brought him to faith. It is this act, God with us, that pulls us from our unbelief. It is no mental exercise, no running blind into self convincing arguments, no empirical proof that reaches out. Rather it is the presence of Christ that brings us home.
In his Easter Vigil sermon, Ted Wardlaw recounted the story in Tom Long’s new book on theodicy, “What Shall We Say.” Tom ends the book by reflecting on John L’Heureux’s story, “The Expert on God.” The protagonist, a Jesuit priest, has spent a lot of his life plagued by various doubts having to do with various articles of belief. Apparently, he has chosen one doubt after another by which, for a season, to be plagued—for a while, the Trinity, and then Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and then the virginity of Mary, and then the divinity (and later humanity) of Christ—all of these things he has doubted, always one at a time. Finally, though, the priest develops a doubt that will not pass: he begins to doubt the love of God. The love of God! In spite of prayers for faith, and then for hope, nothing comes, so the man settles simply into the rhythm of his duties—teaching, preaching, saying mass—pretty much devoid of any real faith.
But then, one bright, clear day, after saying mass at Our Lady of Victories, he is driving home to the Jesuit house, marveling in his ironic and doubtful way over the absence of God in the world, when he comes across an automobile accident. A young man lies dying in the overturned car, and the priest works to free the man from the wreckage, and finally, with holy oil from a vial in his pocket, to anoint the dying man. “I absolve you from all your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
In spite of this action, nothing happens other than the young man’s helpless, shallow breathing, and so the priest begins to pray every recited prayer and every other rote prayer he can think of. Then come the final lines of L’Heureux’s story, as the priest wonders what to do:
“What would God do at such a moment, if there were a God? ‘Well, do it,” he said aloud, and heard the fury in his voice. ‘Say something.’ But there was silence from heaven.
“…What could anyone say to this crushed, dying thing, he wondered. What would God say if he cared as much as I?…The priest could see death beginning across the boy’s face. And still he could say nothing.
“…The boy turned—some dying reflex—and his head tilted in the priest’s arms, trusting, like a lover. And at once the priest, faithless, unrepentant, gave up his prayers and bent to him and whispered, fierce and burning. ‘I love you,’ and continued until there was no breath, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’”
Tom Long then ends his book with these words: “L’Heureux’s character of the priest can be understood in two ways. Either he is finally the secular man who at last rids himself of the burden of his failed mythology and acts lovingly on his own, or—and this is my own wager—he is a converted man, a man who moves from a childish faith to a mature and hopeful one.
In this latter view, the priest gives up his immature idea of a God who comes when we whistle to make everything all right in favor of a God who is at work in suffering as the hidden and loving warrior, summoning the faithful to join their actions with God’s, calling them to be in the present world of pain and what all humanity shall be in the end: those whose righteousness shines like the sun in the victorious love of God.”
Friends, hear the Good News of the Gospel: when God comes, we will recognize God’s presence in those moments when peace is offered, in those moments when life’s most brutal violence is honestly acknowledged, and when, in the midst of this bracing honesty, we realize that we are not alone but have, in fact, been always, already found. The point of our story this morning is not that Thomas doubted, for that is unremarkable and all too common. The message is that God is with us, wherever and in whatever state we find ourselves in.
In those dark nights of the soul, in those moments of intellectual override, in those doubting moments of pain, tragedy, and even in the face of death, God is with us, whether we realize it or not, offering peace, and whispering the profound and abiding truth in our ears, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”