"Even Doubters Live"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 20, 2003
What makes beliefs such a fascinating topic is that each of us must develop our own, and they can be quite different. We tend to perceive people, events and truth differently. Those who hold similar beliefs have been labeled by society as, "conservatives," "liberals," "fundamentalists," "agnostics," "extremists," "United Methodists" and so on. Yet most labels are more for the convenience of communication than accurate descriptions. Not only are our beliefs different, we often develop a passion about them.
When Lois and I spent seven weeks on the East Bank in Jordan, working at Tel Heshbon, we were told very specifically not to discuss politics or religion with our Jordanian counterparts. We were asked to speak only about tasks related to our archeological mission. We were told that people in the Middle East can become quite adamant when discussing their beliefs. Many of us become quite passionate about what we believe. We find this true on nearly every level of life.
This morning we celebrate
the resurrection of our Lord. Those of us who no longer need to
debate or question the reality of this event have realized that our
understanding fuels nearly everything we do. This one belief that
we do not die enables us to be more intentional about feeding our
spiritual growth, deepening our relationship with God and providing
ourselves with levels of hope beyond that of people who believe that
life ends at our physical death. Belief in the Easter message
has a creative, energizing power to it that is beyond any other
What happens to those who doubt, who need proof and who cite the differing traditions in the Gospel texts as evidence that Jesus' resurrection was not experienced the same way by all people making such claims?
For example, there is a lack
of clarity about Jesus' form. If Jesus could walk through walls,
could he also eat fish and be touched by the disciple, Thomas?
According to one account, when Jesus appeared, the disciples were
not sure it was he. What do we believe about the resurrection of
It is very important that we examine our beliefs and do it regularly. They determine how much power we have over our fears, our doubts, our understanding of God and the ability of our consciousness to continue its infinite expansion. Beliefs can also enhance our spiritual decay. We can unwittingly give great authority to assumptions that have the power to unravel our lives quicker than anything in creation. Not all beliefs fuel our growth nor do they motivate us to soar beyond the known horizons.
There is good news! The way
God created the universe is independent of what we believe about it or
how any religion has tried to define it. Creation is extremely
objective. This is one of the reasons why Jesus taught that God
sends the rain on the just and unjust alike. Creation simply
provides the matrix where our particular life form has the opportunity
to learn and grow.
God created everything there is and has done it in a fashion that keeps its truths hidden until they are discovered. We learn this every year as our beliefs and assumptions about the universe change. The process of discovery is like peeling an onion. The more our world's courageous explorers unravel the mysteries of the universe, the more rapidly our beliefs about it change.
If the universe does not depend
on our faith, our thoughts or beliefs for it to be what it is, then all
sorts of people, including those who doubt, will remain a vital part of
God's created process. Perhaps we would understand creation and God's
intense, unconditional love of us with greater clarity if we used our
Once there was a community of water bugs that lived on the bottom of a large pond. Each of them sought and developed its own duties and responsibilities for the good of the community. Some gathered food, some were in the service of the queen, while others worked to expand the habitat of their group.
Many of them noticed that every
once in a while a number of the colony would grow listless. They would
lose interest in the work of the community. They would go off by
themselves and could be seen clinging to the stems of water plants. It
was observed that the bugs who clung to the stems eventually began to
climb them. After their ascent, they would disappear and no one would
see them again.
This was a great mystery that perplexed the minds of the most brilliant and learned among them. Finally a group of them gathered to discuss their various perspectives about their observation. The issue was hotly debated because each brought to the gathering his or her own beliefs about what was happening. The meeting ended with no resolution. Some professed agnosticism; they simply did not know. Even though their thinking made no sense, others thought their true destiny would be revealed as a result of their climbing the stems of the water plants.
However, they reached consensus in one area.
They made an agreement with each other that the next time one of them
was overcome with this malaise and climbed the stem, they must promise
to return so that the others could learn where everyone goes and why.
It was agreed.
It was not long before several of those who had attended the meeting began to withdraw from the rest. They sadly said to the others, "The condition is happening to us. We feel very confused, detached and uncaring about the welfare our community. We have lost our will to produce." They slowly began the climb up the stem through the murky water and, like all the rest, they disappeared.
Once on the surface, they were bathed in a brilliance of light they had never experienced. The climb had made them so weary that each of them fell asleep on the top of a lily pad. When they awakened, they found themselves miraculously transformed. To their complete disbelief, each had developed two sets of wings. They felt the uncontrollable urge to flap them. As they did, they soared into the sky and breathed in deeply a reality that was virtually indescribable. Each of them had become a dragonfly.
As members of their community waited patiently below the surface of the pond, the dragonflies suddenly remembered the promise they had made to the others. Each of them soared toward the pond's surface as fast as they could. They had such beautiful news to share with their family and friends.
When they impacted the water's surface, they hit with such velocity that they were stunned and dazed. They made several attempts but soon learned that they could no longer re-enter the water. A great barrier they could not explain had been placed between their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
As each looked at their reflection in the water they reasoned:
Think about what we would say to a fetus still in its mother's womb. How would we describe this world to a life form that only knows the sound of its mother's heartbeat and the warmth and comfort of its surroundings?
God has provided for all of us whether we believe it or not. So many of us engage in discussions about God's justice, about "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord," about Heaven and Hell, about God's grace, and how "the wages of sin is death." We speak as though we know all about creation and what is in the mind of God.
Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that God was not created in an image our words can describe, nor was the truth about the universe capable of being accurately portrayed by writers who were composing thousands of years ago. We always adjust some of our fundamental assumptions when new experiences demand that we must.
According to the Gospel of John,
for example, no one was anticipating or expecting the resurrection of
Jesus. Mary Magdalene saw the stone had been rolled away. In
communicating this discovery to Peter and John, she said, "They have
taken the Lord from the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid
him!" The two disciples raced to the tomb. After finding this to be
true, our lesson says, "The disciples went home." It was only after
they experienced Jesus being alive that their beliefs changed.
We resolve very little when we
debate with one another armed with our beliefs. What is the point? We
tend to be like that colony of water bugs trying to make sense of a
process we cannot understand. What we can do is trust that the God who
provided for the water bugs to become dragonflies and for caterpillars
to become butterflies is more than capable of taking care of us.
While belief is not essential for God's creation to be what it is,
trust and belief in God's love gives us a peace nothing else can.
When Mildred Demkowicz was dying at the Arundel Medical Center, I went to her bedside. We chatted about a number of things. I asked, "Do you remember a young mother in our choir whose name was Pam Brophy?" She said, "No, I don't believe I do." I said, "She died of breast cancer three weeks ago. Do me a favor. When you get over there, would you look her up and tell her that Stetler said, 'Hi'"? She said, "That will be my first order of business. Consider it done. Please have your prayer, Dick, then I'm out of here." What a spirit! Fear of the unknown was non-existent for her. Within a short time, Mildred was gone.
Having the understanding that God will always provide for us is one of the most peaceful thoughts we can hold. Such a belief is at the heart of what allows us to creatively detach from the things of this world. Survival is guaranteed. Forgiveness is automatic. Love is a constant.
Personally, I have an understanding that our final destination was assured long before we were born. Free Will only gives us the choices of what roads we will take. All roads have consequences and thus they can serve as guides to us. We do not all learn at the same pace. Our loving God has provided for that.
Jesus would want us to know:
Thanks be to God for this unspeakable gift. It is the truth. We do not die. Christ, the Lord, has risen indeed!
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
O God, how often
it is that we enter the experiences of life with resurrection faith in
our minds, but the doubts of Thomas in our behavior. Like the disciples
of old, we hear the words, "He is risen!" but continue holding onto our
fears. Help us this Easter morning to walk away from the tombs that
often imprison us: hearts that cannot forgive, hurts we cannot
surrender, envies we cannot overcome or power struggles we must win.
Help us understand that resurrection can also be for the living. Open
our minds today to a future that is lived in the sunlight and filled
with hope. Jesus left his tomb and bid us to follow him, so may we find
the trust in you to do just that. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Eternal God, what a joy it is to be here today, surrounded by loved ones and friends. As we sense the beautiful symbols of nature that adorn the altar, we celebrate once again the marvelous truth that Jesus lives. The cross of death yielded to a greater awareness for all witnesses to behold. As we ponder our promised inheritance, we do so with wonder and gratitude.
Today a number of us have needs. While some of us celebrate this day with family, others of us will be alone. While some of us rejoice with life's blessings, others of us face very fragile moments of loss, separation, and events we simply do not understand. Some of us have found the pearl of great price and are at peace; still others of us remain restless, unable to name what is missing from their lives.
Touch us today with your spirit. Open our minds and hearts so that we can release our distracted spirits and come forth into the light of a new day. Bring healing to every troubled heart, to everyone who is navigating in uncertain waters and to those who have missed getting to know you. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .