Doubting Thomas/Honest Thomas

This past Sunday my friends and I launched a new worship service here in Charlotte.  It was amazing– and God showed up major. Lots. (points for getting that subtle 30 Rock reference).

We had just over 40 people, mostly young adults, rocking out by lamp- and exposed bulb-light, in wingbacks and on pews, around tables and on couches. We had a candle-lighting area for private prayer, Eucharist, and a healing prayer station with anointing oil and a place to kneel. There was a spoken word/rapped prayer that riffed on the Our Father, and it was good.

There were tears, there was joy, there was laughter.  I was overwhelmed with the spirit/Spirit in that place. That, and stomach pain. I was nearly overwhelmed by a lot of intense, sharp stomach pain. But I whispered weakly to myself, like Mel Gibson’s character fighting through pain to do something heroic in every Mel Gibson movie ever made, “You can burst if you want, appendix; I’m having too much fun to care!” (It didn’t burst, my appendix is totally fine. My heroics, it turns out, are even less impressive than Mr. Gibson’s. Which is saying something.)

We sang songs about love, about hopelessness, about God’s grace. We sang about shaking the devil off your back.  I read from John 20 and preached on Thomas. Would you like to read my sermon?

The Hub- Gathering 1

The Hub- Gathering 1

A couple of thousand years ago, there was a man named Thomas. Very little is known about him, except that one day he met a man named Jesus and he followed Him. He appears by all accounts to have been a very brave man. He left his family, his home, his livelihood, and followed a total stranger. At one point in the stories, all his friends become afraid, because they realize this Jesus is going to get them all killed. Thomas is the one who says, “Let us go and die with Him.” The faith of Thomas is a witness to us. Oh, to have the faith of Thomas.

Now let me read to you the story Thomas is best known for. His friend, his Teacher, is dead; He’s been killed by the government days ago, and now all Thomas’s friends claim to have seen Jesus alive. This is the story of Thomas’s doubt. The story of his courage. The story of his brutal, heartbreaking honesty. The story of a man who would not sing of love unless he was sure it existed:

This comes from the gospel of John, in the new testament, chapter 20, verses 24 to 29.
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘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.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” (NRSV)

Reprise of Paramore’s “The Only Exception.”

Our man Thomas has got a bad rap. Doubting Thomas, that’s what he’s called. Never mind that that’s not what the disciples ever called him, or what Jesus ever called him. Actually, they called him “the twin”; that’s what Thomas meant in their language. Yet we’re never told that he had a brother or a sister… Some people believe that they may have called him “the twin” because he looked a lot like Jesus… Maybe they were teasing him for looking like their teacher. Maybe they were teasing him for acting so much like their teacher.

In any case, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the disciples allowed Thomas’s doubt to define him.

You know, this service is aimed at “young adults,” that’s what we’ve put on the signs, although all are welcome. The thing about us young adults is that we’ve got a bad rap. I’ve read a lot of books on how to reach “milennials” and the things they say about us are sort of insulting: they say we’re fickle. We’re noncommittal. We’re flighty. We come and go and never settle and can’t be counted on.
Up to 1/3 of Americans consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious, and when you look just at young adults, that percentage skyrockets.

So I guess it’s sort of true that we’re flighty and noncommittal, isn’t it? We’re the generation that invented the “maybe” RSVP on facebook. A third of us transfer colleges at some point during undergrad. I did! 1 in 5 of us identify as having switched religions from that in which we were raised.

So that’s our bad rap.

But back to Thomas. Thomas gets 4 total speaking parts, all in the gospel of John. The first is the one I already told you about, when he says with great courage and conviction to his friends, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” No sign of doubt there!

The second comes after Jesus’s statement that He is going before us to prepare a place for us, and that we will follow. Thomas pipes up and says what probably everyone else was thinking, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Let me pause to ask you something: is this doubt? Or is this a question? If you ask me, it’s not doubt. Thomas doesn’t ask if that’s possible, or if Jesus can be trusted. Like Mary before him, he simply asks how. How can this be for I have no husband? How can we follow you? We want to we believe that we can, and we believe that we will, I’m just wondering how.

The last two times Thomas speaks are in the section I read to you. ”Unless I see the nail marks… I will not believe.” And what does Jesus do in response to this doubt? He extends His hands and invites Thomas to place his hand in the wound in His side, and Thomas exclaims, in the powerful last line we get from him, “My Lord and my God!”

It’s very important, this statement of Thomas’s: at first he calls Jesus his Lord, which isn’t very descriptive. Lord could be simply the title of a man of higher social status. Lord could be just another way of showing respect to a teacher. Lord could mean master, nothing more. But then Thomas calls Jesus, “God.”

Thomas was a Jew, and for a Jew the belief in one and only one God is as essential as breathing. You don’t just go around calling anyone a god. That’s pretty much the gist of commandments 1 through 3. To say these words could easily have gotten Thomas killed. To say these words could have gotten him considered damned by everyone he knew, his father and mother, his old friends, his old rabbi and everyone in his town.

But he says it anyway, because Thomas, I want to suggest, was not a doubter– or at least not for long. Thomas, ultimately, was very brave, and very faithful.

Let me tell you the story of one of Thomas’s friends, another of Jesus’ friends, named Judas. Funny enough, some historians say that Judas might have been Thomas’s middle name, so they had something in common… Judas, you might say, lost faith, he began to doubt. He doubted that Jesus was really God in a human body. He doubted that Jesus could actually save him from his own miserable, narcissistic, self-centered life. He doubted that his life could really change. So he sold Jesus out. He took a list of all the rules Jesus had ever broken, all the things Jesus had said that made him uncomfortable, those things he couldn’t believe, and sold the body of God to the highest bidder.

And he regretted it deeply. He was not smited. No fiery lightning bolt came down from heaven, no angel showed up to make him pay. His own heart betrayed him and showed him his guilt. The gospel of Matthew says that he was seized by regret.

I wonder if you have ever felt the spindly, cold fingers of regret slice through your soul? After all, every day we sell the body of Christ for nickels. When we choose gossip, or hate, or lust, over love. When we numb ourselves with movies or alcohol or flirting with strangers instead of filling that deep chasm in our hearts with the only thing that will truly satisfy.

Judas could not handle it. Matthew tells us that he committed suicide, that he went out on Good Friday, “early in the morning,” and that he hanged himself. It is of poetic importance that I tell you this would have been about the same time that Jesus was crucified. On a cross between two thieves, God was hung on nails and wood by sinners. In a field, alone, the doubter hung himself.

I tell you this story because I believe that it, like Thomas’s is a story of doubt. Here’s a question I heard recently about Judas that I want to put to you: What if Judas could have waited two more days before he hung himself?

What if Judas could have held on for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, what if he could have made it to Easter morning? What if he stood there with Thomas and expressed his doubts, his fears, his unbelief?

You see, the miracle of Thomas’s story is that Jesus does not have an unkind word to say to him. Jesus comes to him and says, “Look, feel, see- I am alive.” He does not mock him for his doubts, or make him say any hail Mary’s or do any pushups. He answers him. Exactly what Thomas said he needed– to see the nail marks and put his hand in Jesus’s side– is what Jesus offers him.

Judas didn’t stick around to ask for what he needed. For whatever reason– fear, or embarrassment, or bitterness that he couldn’t believe what all the other disciples seemed to believe so easily– he couldn’t be that honest with his friends, and he looked for the easy way out– just to get Jesus out of the picture.

Thomas, though, he was not afraid to speak his truth: “I am having trouble believing this stuff. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, and I don’t think I’ll be able to believe until I do.”

Honest Thomas. Oh, to have the authenticity of Thomas!

Here’s what it seems to me we can learn from Thomas: When his faith began to crumble, when he could no longer feel God walking beside him, or hear God speaking to him, he did not run. He did not leave. He did not take the easy way out and just go back home where it was comfortable and safe. The story finds him in the room with the disciples. He says, “I don’t believe right now,” and yet he stays.

And not only does he stay, he asks his brothers for exactly what he needs: “I need to see the wounds, to put my hands in them.” And I think it’s because of the faith it took to stay and the courage it took to be that honest that he was given what he asked for– Jesus’s wounded hands and feet and side.

Friends, if you have come here tonight with doubts, you are in good company. Thomas stands with you, because he has been there.

Brené brown says that faith without vulnerability and mystery is not faith at all. Faith is a risk, a risk that takes honesty and courage, like Thomas had. A risk that takes fear and trembling, like Thomas had. A risk that takes everything you have, like Thomas gave. We have created this space here tonight for you to get honest with God. What will you offer Him? What if your worst doubts are worth more than your most beautiful pretenses?

If you have come here in doubt and fear, know that we, too, stand with you and pray for you, because everyone here has been there. If you are looking at our prayer stations and especially at this meal prepared with trepidation, just know this: Jesus invites to the table everyone who earnestly seeks Him. Just as he invited the doubter Thomas to put his hand in His side, Jesus invites the doubters in this room, including you, including me, to put our hands on this broken body and, by it, believe.

Amen.

Pray, Cry, or Drink: A Sermon-Preparation Post!

Dear readers,

I’m preaching this Sunday!!!!

If you recall, I once wrote a post entitled “The 12 Steps to Preaching a Sermon (A VERY Informative Guide).” Maybe you should read that post before you read this one, because this post will be something like a follow-up to, or an elaboration of, that one.
Maybe. I always write thesis statements and introductions before the actual paper/blog post so there’s really no telling if that’s going to be true or not. But if you go read that other post then my statistics go up because you’re clicking my links and viewing other pages, and then I’ll feel really good about myself. So, it’s your choice. Make my day, or be selfish.  (I really hope you all get it when I’m joking.  Love you….)

***

I solicited some advice from friends on how they prepare to preach in the day(s) and/or week(s) leading up to Sunday. Here are some of the answers I received:

“Pray. A lot.”
“Cry?”
“Go on a bender.  I’ll come over and help; I’ve got liquor.”

**Author’s note: The above were intentionally listed from best advice to worst.

I solicited advice from these same beautiful, hilarious, broken, Godly people on what to preach when you’re afraid of/distressed by/unsure about your Scripture.  Here are some of the answers, from the same respective people, and again listed from best to worst:

“Consult God, and then Barth.”
“Just go up there and preach universalism, who cares?”
“Just read Anne Lamott’s twitter feed from the pulpit. #that’llpreach”

***

As you can tell, all my non-preaching readers, preaching is hard. Writing a sermon is hard.

But it is also wonderful. You know all those things you think about saying to people– good things, smart things, funny things, helpful things, sweet things? Most people don’t ever in their lives get a public place to say them. The preacher gets that, most every week! The possibilities are endless; you can help people and bring joy to people and celebrate life and improve the world with your words.  That is the joy of preaching.

The terror of preaching is that your mind doesn’t only operate on the plane of good, smart, funny, helpful, and sweet things. You also think mean things, snarky things, ugly things, things that tear people down while masquerading as helpfulness.
One of my favorite lines on the new Taylor Swift album (stop judging me. That’s an ugly thought you’re having right now.) accuses an ex of being “so casually cruel in the name of being honest.”

***

Preachers have great power to be incredibly cruel under the guise of honesty and helpfulness.

So I get why my friends suggested I pray, cry, and drink copious amounts of, erm, unpastorly liquids.  But no matter what you do, Sunday will still come, and you will still have to open your mouth and give your people something.  It’s up to you to make sure that you’re not cruel, or dippy, or insincere, or flippant.  But the good news, I reckon, is that God can make living water flow even from a rock.  And can turn bitter water potable.

….Well. I guess this post is over on that note. Do I really have to go write my sermon now? #pastorproblems

EPILOGUE:

I’m going to take my first person’s advice: gonna go talk to Jesus and Barth, in that order.

Merton on The Hope of Results

“All the good that you do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used for God’s love….
The great thing, after all, is to live, not to pour your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion….
Our real hope… is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do God’s will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand….”

–Thomas Merton, from a letter to a friend.  Quoted by a friend from the Bruderhof Communities website. Subscribe free to “Your Daily Dig” at http://www.bruderhof.com