Sunday, April 11, 2010


Today's sermon is based on John 20:19-31.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Last week, in this pulpit, I talked a fair amount about faith, definitely a good subject for an Easter Sunday.

For those of you who just might have been elsewhere, I mentioned that living a life based on faith requires holding values that are sometimes foreign in our world, values like kindness and forgiveness; courage and tolerance.

I talked about how a life of faith is based on things hoped for and not seen, and comes by hearing with all our heart and all our mind for the living God who is right here among us, who loves us with no strings attached; who loves us especially when we feel we have little or no faith at all.

Today I want to talk about another dimension to this life of faith.

To live a life of faith sometimes requires living with doubt, and making doubt into a tool of faith.

Yes: Doubt is a tool of faith.

To fully live into a life of faith is to be out on the edge, asking the greatest questions a human being can ask.

By honestly acknowledging doubts we can come face-to-face with faith.

The best way I can explain this is to give you examples – two examples of people who changed my life.

Let me back up: During my training to be a priest, I worked for a summer at a big urban hospital undergoing the rite-of-passage known as “clinical pastoral education,” or “CPE,” working as a student chaplain.

I got to know two patients especially well that summer. One was a drug addict. She was 40ish, and her liver was giving out. Her name was Cathy. She had grown up in the suburbs and worked in professional positions until the drugs took over her life.

The other was a 92-year-old man, and his body was simply wearing out. His name was Ben.

Neither would regain their physical health. I preached at both of their memorial services before I became a priest, the first two of many I would do.

What I am about to tell you I mentioned at both of their services with their respective family’s permission, so I am not violating any confidences.

Cathy and Ben, as I found out, were Episcopalians, or had been, as both had become very alienated from the church of their upbringing. When I met them, neither had darkened a church door in many years.

For Cathy, it was about feeling judged by the chorus of boos about how she had lived her life, and truthfully, she was dying an early death because of how she led her life. She made no excuses.

For Ben, his alienation was deeper than just the church. His alienation was with God.

As a young man, Ben had become an Episcopal priest, and I came to find out, he was the United States Navy chaplain at the terrible Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942 and 1943. The horror was more than he could bear, and when World War II was over, he quit being priest. He was done.

That summer I saw Ben and Cathy nearly every day, and I continued to see them for many months after my chaplaincy was officially completed at the hospital.

Both talked bluntly about their doubts and fears. Somehow, both Cathy and Ben found a way in their final days to work through their doubts.

For both of them, faith was a struggle that went to the deepest core of their being, and they never let go because it was that important.

They both found a way through the muck to find the living God who had been with them all along. There was not a single moment of revelation, but many moments along their path, and it was my privilege to walk with them for a time on that path.

Both died quietly in their sleep, and each left me a gift. Cathy left me the gift of her smile. Ben left me his Bible, the same Bible he had used at Guadalcanal.

My bishop used this Bible at my ordination as a priest.

I sincerely believe both of them found a sense of spiritual health in their final days because they had found a way to express their doubts.

And through the expression of their doubts, Ben and Cathy found a deeper place of faith – a relationship with God – that was all their own, springing from the rubble of their doubts. I only wish the church had welcomed their doubts sooner.

Doubt can be a tool of faith by propelling us to ask hard questions and compelling us to not settle for easy answers.

Today we hear an extraordinary story that goes straight to the point, the story of “Doubting Thomas.”

It is a story about the power of doubt.

In the days following the crucifixion, Jesus appears to the disciples, but Thomas is somewhere else whenever it happens. “I want to see it,” he proclaims. “I want to touch Jesus’ wounds.”

So Jesus comes to him and shows him.

The image of Jesus in this story is haunting. Jesus enters a locked room. He comes in physical form, yet he is beyond physical, as if he is from some other dimension of time and space.

Notice that no one – none of the other disciples, not Jesus, not anyone – judges Thomas for saying what surely others outside the room must also have felt. They give him the benefit of the doubt.

Giving the benefit of the doubt can break down walls of isolation and create islands of kindness so that each of us can grow, as God would have us grow.

Jesus tells Thomas that it is blessed to believe without seeing. He tells Thomas to doubt his doubts, and Thomas does, and by so doing he comes to a new understanding of himself and his own walk of faith.

For Thomas it begins by proclaiming openly his doubts.

Communities of faith that leave no room for the expression of doubt can become hollow and stale – or worse, self-destructive cults.

The tools of reason, inquiry and analysis are gifts from God, and can yield truths beneath surface readings of religious texts and doctrines.

When we put those tools of the mind with the tools of the heart through prayer, we can grow in faith beyond anything we can imagine, both individually and as a community of faith.

The story of doubt and faith does not end in the closed room for Thomas. The door opens; Thomas goes into the world different, changed, somehow new from his encounter with the Risen Christ.

Nor does the story end for us today. The doors here will open, and we will go forth from this room today different, changed, somehow new from our encounter with the Risen Christ.

And it begins by asking questions, openly and honestly; and bringing all of our trust, all of our prayers, all that we know and all that we doubt – truly all of our being – on this walk of faith, and then watching anew for the Risen Christ coming among us.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Photo above: Japanese airplane wreck, underwater in Iron Bottom Sound, Guadalcanal.

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