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.

Want to read my Ash Wednesday sermon?

Spoiler alert: I said the word “pornography” from the pulpit!

Ash Wednesday, 7pm service, February 13th, 2013, Myers Park United Methodist Church
By Rev. Erin J. Beall

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on My holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to Me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God, for He is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him,
a grain offering and a drink offering for the LRD, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged;
gather the children, even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave him room, and the bride her canopy.

Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep.
Let them say, “Spare Your people, O LORD, and do not make Your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples, where is their God?”

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with Him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For He says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

_____________________________________________

Alright, so we’ve heard the Word of God. We’ve got our marching orders, you and me. LENT!: You’re to go home and “rend your hearts,” good luck with that, and I’m to blow a trumpet and stand somewhere between the, uh, …. vestibule, wherever that is, and the altar… and weep. Good? We all clear? Can we get our ashy crosses and get to it?

Joel says, The day of judgment is coming, black as night and terrible. …. But if you will turn back to God, our God is gracious and merciful.
God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
And Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

I know that I don’t have the hardest job in the world. I know that firemen and oncologists and teachers and mothers all have a harder time of it than I do. But can I share with you the secret that makes this job, this particular day, this particular sermon, so hard? I’m supposed to stand up here and convince you to change your lives. That’s what Joel’s trying to do, what Paul’s trying to do, what God’s trying to do. That’s why the ancient Church invented Lent—to give you and me a whole season every single year to remember to get our hearts right. Repent, return to the LORD with all your hearts! with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning! Return! Change! Be different!

But how to do this? How can I stand up here and convince you to change your life? I mean, Your life is going okay. You are doing okay. You know, I hope, that God loves you; you’ve even come to Ash Wednesday service because of your devotion to God or at least to the church. Why the heck should you change your life? What more could God possibly want … or need …from you?

Joel says, The day of judgment is coming, black as night and terrible. …. But if you will turn back to God, our God is gracious and merciful.
God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

I spend a lot of time, and maybe you do too, investing in tomorrow. Tomorrow is where I keep all my big purchases, new diets, hard decisions, and fantastical hopes. I store them there because it’s safe. It’s warm and dry there; the mundane and awful realities of today—surprise rainstorms and dental appointments and accidentally eating two doughnuts—those things can’t touch tomorrow.

I wonder what happens in the mind of a man or woman when they make the decision, finally, they make the phone call or get in the car or pack their suitcase, when they decide to become a monk or a nun. Or a missionary. What finally clicks that says, “I can’t wait for tomorrow anymore; I’m being called to something bigger than this. Something bigger than walking the dog in the rain and having a root canal and feeling guilty about doughnuts.” What has to happen, what words have to be said or feelings have to be felt, to make them say, “Today is the day.”
Joel says, The day is coming… the day when tomorrow can’t help you, when all the alarms will ring…. But if you will turn back to God, our God is gracious and merciful.
God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

So let’s say that I was able to convince you, to change your life, I mean. That the Holy Spirit swooped into your heart, like a raven gripping Her talons into you until something breaks, something bursts, and you finally say, “Today.”
What then? What would we do, you and I, if we made the decision? If we went from being a good person, doing okay, showing up to church every Sunday and, once a year, on a Wednesday night…. to doing…. more? Paul puts it this way: “Be reconciled to God. Do not accept God’s grace in vain.” Joel says, “Return to the LORD with all your heart. Fast. Weep. Mourn. Tear your hearts open just like God taught you to rip apart your clothing when you are suffering. Return to the LORD your God. And this isn’t just an individualistic thing: Joel says, Gather together, even the people in different Sunday school classes than yours. Even the people with screaming babies. Even the old people who can’t remember their names anymore. Even the newlyweds—call them back from the honeymoon and pray together.”

God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

I have a friend who has spent much of her life in another country. Her father speaks a different language. All her life her father spoke to her and to her mother in this language, never speaking English. And always his words were harsh, leaving tears and heartbreak wherever they went out from his mouth.
When she was five years old my friend made a decision. She would learn English, and she would not speak the language of her father anymore. She would not speak a language that, in her experience, was only used to wound, to cut, to tear down. Her tongue did not know that language again for many years, and her ears forgot it. She could still hear his tone but she erased from her mind the knowledge of the words.

I wonder what happened in that moment, in the mind of a five year old, to say, “I will not do this anymore. I will not give my tongue, my ears, to this way of speaking anymore. To this way of living and being in relationship that is all pain.” I wonder if it’s similar to what has to happen in our minds and hearts to say, “Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day I will turn from all the idols I’ve built in my life and return to my God.”

Listen, I know that you’re doing okay. I know that you enjoy a lot of your life and that you have known great love and that things are generally going pretty well for you and yours. Or at least, it could be worse. There are children starving in Africa, and all that. ….But I also know that you are hungry. You are starving. I know that you feel an emptiness in your heart and you can’t find anything that satisfies it. I know that you feel lonely when you’re falling asleep and that you sometimes find yourself frowning and you don’t know quite why. I know that you feel worried when you think about your relationship with God, and that you clenched your teeth and got nervous when Shane read the beginning of that Joel text—Blow the trumpet, sound the alarm, let everyone tremble because God is furious, darkness is coming. You don’t even know it, but we skipped nine more verses about the fire that will devour, the earthquakes that will rip through the cities, the anguish that will come on the Day of Judgment.

In reality, of course, you can’t skip over that part. You are going to die. You are going to die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Tremble, weep, it’s awful, and it’s inescapable. Joel says, “Truly the day of the LORD is great, terrible indeed—who can endure it?” and then without a single word of transition, without starting a new chapter or explaining at all, Joel says this, “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to Me with all your heart…. God is gracious and merciful. Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”

……….

There comes a point in our lives when we have to make a choice. Are we going to take this seriously or not? Are you going to give up chocolate for Lent, or more accurately for your waistline, or are you going to give up your power addiction, or your pornography addiction, or your great wall of silence that you’ve put up between you and God? Are you going to be “Christian but not really Christian Christian” or are you going to be one of those people that makes folks uncomfortable? One of those people that makes folks wonder what happened to you, what changed, what new life you’ve gotten and where they can get it, too?
You know, they say that pregnant women glow. I think there’s a glow about saints, too. They’ve got Christ inside them. The Word of God is growing in them and they positively glow. Don’t you want to glow? Oh, God, I want this place to shine—brighter than the sun.

This is hard. This job of convincing you to change your life is hard, but actually changing is harder. You have to learn a new language, and forget an old one. You and I speak fluently the language of fear, of unhappiness, of anxiety, of loneliness. We must forget those things, delete them from our minds and our hearts and replace them with words like joy and trust and hope and love.

Paul is teaching you the new language; he’s translating for you when he says this:
I am covered up in afflictions: hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.
But what I see in all this is opportunities to gain more purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God
In earthly terms we are dying, but look—in our language, in the language of the Gospel, we are alive.

Friends, you will die. And you will stand before the LORD on a day of great darkness and you will tremble. But that’s for tomorrow to worry about. What are you going to do today?

Joel says, The day of judgment is coming, black as night and terrible. …. But if you will turn back to God, our God is gracious and merciful.
God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”

John Howard Yoder, He Came Preaching Peace

Christians whose loyalty to the Prince of Peace puts them out of step with today’s nationalistic world because they are willing to love their nation’s friends but not to hate their nations enemies are not unrealistic dreamers who think that by their objections they will end all wars.
On the contrary it is the soldiers who think they can put it into wars by preparing for just one more….

[Christians] love their enemies not because they think they are wonderful people, not because they think their love is sure to conquer them, not because they fail to respect their native land or their rulers, not because they are unconcerned for the safety of their neighbors, not because they favor another political or economic system.

Christians love their enemies because God does so, and commands [God’s] followers to do so. That is the only reason, and that is enough.”

How I Spent My (Preaching) (Horrifying) (Weeping) Weekend

This weekend, I sat in horrified silence in front of the news for probably around 16 hours.

I sat in a hairstylist’s chair and wondered if coloring my hair meant adorning myself, which the Bible sort of frowns on. I decided that God had bigger things on God’s mind right now– communal ethics and violence against the innocent always seem a bigger deal to God than a little self-adornment here and there (see Isaiah, Jeremiah, all the prophets).

I contemplated adopting a dog, because I have love to give and lbs I need to walk off. I decided that my problems were so, so trivial.

 

I dressed up as the angel Gabriel in a Christmas pageant and told a fifth grade Mary good news: You will have a child!

 

I asked God what to preach about, and God said, “Murdered children.”

I told God that didn’t sound great, and God added, “… and the God who loves them deeply.”

 

….It was a rough weekend. But God was so, so good throughout all of it.  Did we doubt it? Maybe only a little.

 

Here’s the transcript from my sermon.

We have gathered in this safe, warm place to celebrate lessons and carols, a time of singing praise and joy to our God.  Praise and joy for the wonder that is the Christ-child. God in human flesh, the most tender and vulnerable human flesh possible—a baby.  Every year we celebrate this mystery, this miracle, this birth, just as we celebrate the birthdays of our own children.  Except that every year He is truly born again.  Because every year, every day, God chooses to come into the world, into your world, into this broken and bleeding world, to restore, and to heal, and to bring peace.

I wonder what it means today, on this day, this year, to say that God comes into our world. I wonder, in this moment of national and international bewilderment, fear, and inexpressible grief, what it means to say that God comes to us as a little child.  A vulnerable child, a child—who is not armed, who does not know war, who wants only the warm embrace of his father and the deep, abiding love of his mother.  A child who bids all people to come to Him, the shepherds and the wise men, and later the Jews, the Gentiles, the rich, the poor, the children…

This little child bids all to come to Him.  He has no security measures in place, He is not armed, He does not have a security team.  Our God is not the kind of God who lives behind glass where we can’t get at Him.  God came in the form of an innocent, vulnerable child; exposed, subject to the death-dealing sins of humanity.  And as we who know the end of the story, we know that in time He is murdered, not as a child but as a man, as the God-man.  He did not have to put on human flesh for our sake.  He did not have to make Himself vulnerable to all the terrible, messy things common to human life—birth, puberty, grief, betrayal, and death.

So why did He come?  And why like that?  And why does He come again every year?  We are tempted to despair.  We are tempted to turn on the news, especially this weekend, and say, “It didn’t do any good.”

But it did.  And it does.  God comes to us as a little child to say that God cares deeply for little children.  God comes to us as a vulnerable being to say that God’s eye is always on the vulnerable ones.  God comes to us as a peaceful being in the midst of violence and terror—for if you remember, Jesus was born into a world where a king could and did order the death of countless baby boys—to show that there is another way, that peace is possible and indeed will win in the end.  For as we who know the end of the story know, after death there is resurrection.

So as we hear this story again today, as we sing the familiar songs and celebrate with joy and anticipation the coming birth of Christ into our world, let us remember that He did not come into Eden, some paradise far off in the distance where babies don’t cry and animals sing them lullabies.  That view of Christmas is a fantasy.  Our God was born into a world of violence, of abused power, of murdered children, of sinful people.  A messy, smelly, broken, vile world.  The same world we lament today.  Jesus who saves us from death was sent into this world.  But let us also remember that He came to change this world, person by person, one repentant heart at a time.  And He’s here with us today, looking you and me in the eye– the One who was sent to the poor, and the vulnerable, and the broken, and the dying, is asking, Whom shall I send?

Will you go, friends?