"Never Fear Your Doubts"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 18, 2004
Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-31
As we identify ourselves with
this one episode in Thomas' life, examine how your own mind tends to
work. What happens to you when you listen to politicians
pontificating about their virtues and their words clash with your
own common sense? What do you think when you see an infomercial
featuring a sales representative in front of a glass washing machine
filled with muddy water? Into the washer tub, he dumps a cup of Oxi
Clean and within minutes the water becomes crystal clear. What are
you thinking when you see a woman in her athletic bra and tights
telling you that she lost 120 lbs. in six months by working out 12
minutes a day on a piece of exercise equipment?
Illustrations like these are
too numerous to count. We look at and listen to things that are so
far beyond our comprehension that we doubt the integrity of their
claims. Think of Thomas being confronted by ten of his friends who
tell him something outrageous, "We have seen the Lord." Most of us
would stand right with Thomas with our doubts.
Thomas responded, "Unless I
see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those
scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe." This story,
however, comes to a satisfying conclusion. A week later, Jesus came
to the group again but this time Thomas was with them. Thomas sees
and believes. This little drama inspired Jesus to say, "Thomas, do
you believe because you see me? How happy are those who will
believe even though they have not seen me."
For the sake of discussion,
suppose Jesus had never returned to fulfill Thomas' desire to touch
his nail prints? Would Thomas have ever moved beyond his doubts?
If this alternate story line had occurred, Thomas would be where the
rest of us are right now. He would have to trust the testimony of
others if he wanted to base his faith on Jesus' resurrection.
There are a number of us who
remain unconvinced until the reliability of something can be proven
again and again. The Food and Drug Administration, for example,
insists on three phases of testing before a new medication is
allowed to enter the marketplace. The Agency has not only censored
many of the claims being made by companies but it has also
successfully removed products from the shelves of our stores because
they were proven to be unsafe. Doubting the claims, hype and
promotions of such products ultimately benefits us.
The question I would
like to address today is this: Should the resolve and strength of our
faith hinge on the accuracy of stories in our religious traditions?
Think about this before you answer.
Many of us place a considerable emphasis on what we believe Jesus did for us on the cross. We place our hope for eternal life in Jesus' resurrection. Are these events absolutely essential before we choose to funnel loving energy through our spirits and personalities? Many people believe they are, even though the meaning of these two future events was never addressed by Jesus during his Galilean ministry.
Think of our parent religion for a moment. Think about the story of Joseph and how Jacob's expansive family had gotten into Egypt during the seven years of famine in the Middle East. Think about the rise of a Pharaoh "who knew not Joseph." He enslaved the Jews and slaughtered many male babies as an insane strategy for controlling their expanding population (Exodus 1:22) As a result, one infant was sent down the Nile in a basket, a basket retrieved by Pharaoh's daughter. Think of the stories of Moses who eventually liberated the Jews from their Egyptian taskmasters.
What are we to think when
researchers tell us that there is little to no archaeological evidence
suggesting that a large population of Jews was ever in Egypt. Goshen,
the fertile land given to the Jews by Pharaoh, has been scoured by those
seeking proof that the Hebrews once lived there. Nothing definitive has
been unearthed. Are we to assume that because of the lack of physical
evidence none of these events ever happened? If there is doubting among
more thoughtful people, quite often the source of it comes from the
stories of our faith traditions.
We should never be afraid of doubting. There are times when our skeptical observation has saved us from being caught by scam artists. Doubting says to us, "I need more evidence. I want to experience the reality of this for myself." It is fine to doubt even some of the major beliefs that are central to our faith.
A person can doubt everything if they desire and that is fine! There comes a time, however, when our spirits have to move beyond our doubts if we wish to evolve. How can we do this? Perhaps this thought may help. Our belief in the importance of certain historic events is not what Jesus taught. We have to understand this if some of us find it difficult to move beyond our doubting.
It is interesting that no one doubts what is essential to life. Who among us, for example, doubts the value of kindness, forgiveness, trust, tolerance, patience, generosity and character? When we make mistakes in judgment or say something that is out of character for us and others extend forgiveness instantly, is there anyone here who would resent that?
What is interesting is that these qualities do not originate from a source that can be identified. We could dissect human beings one after the other and never find the chemicals, tissue or organs that generate such loving responses. There is no evidence and yet no one doubts these responses are real and essential for a well integrated life.
Can science identify what causes one person to become a peaceful, gentle human being while others remain pensive, anxious and become angry at the slightest provocation? We create with our thoughts but the creator-spirit in us remains invisible. No one can prove the existence of a source for spirit but every day we encounter its presence as we associate with others. Before you think I am trying to distill our faith tradition into a list of pleasant personality traits, think again!
What is so amazing when we consider our beliefs is that many of the insights Jesus taught were embodied in the life of Joseph centuries before Jesus was born. Clearly Joseph was already living in a reality Jesus would later call, the Kingdom of God. No one could see the origins of Joseph's attitudes and behavior, but the results of his life have inspired people across the centuries.
Joseph instinctively understood
that God was with him and had a purpose for his life even when he was
sold as a slave into Egypt, even after being falsely accused by
Potiphar's wife of trying to rape her, and even after being forgotten by
the wine steward which left him in prison. He always bloomed where he
was planted because of what he knew. As we recall the story, Joseph
rose to become the superintendent of the prison before being pardoned..
Joseph's spirit had grown so
enormous during his time of captivity that he was prepared not only to
assume control of Egypt during the years of feast and famine but also to
forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery. For those of us who
find it exceedingly difficult to let go of or forgive hurts that have
occurred in our lives, try to imagine the inner work Joseph had to do to
become successful in defeating all his own inner demons.
Following Jacob's death, his
brothers came before Joseph, threw themselves on the ground and begged
for their lives. They honestly believed that Joseph was going to kill
them once their father had died. The author of Genesis described this
Joseph said, Do not be afraid; I cannot put
myself in the place of God. You plotted evil against me, but God turned
it into good, in order to preserve the lives of many people who are
alive today because of what happened. You have nothing to fear. I will
take care of you and your children. (Genesis 50:19f)
Joseph had developed these
powerful, loving responses to his life experiences long before Jesus was
born. There can be little doubt that the Joseph story was rehearsed
over and over again in Jesus' young mind as he was growing into
manhood. He resonated with the truth embedded in that story.
Did Jesus have concrete evidence
that Joseph existed and that these events happened in the history of his
people? No. He only knew the story. No doubt that story helped heal
his own anxieties about the Roman occupation and about the legalistic
rigidity that had calcified the faith of Israel. Jesus had learned about
the possibilities for life when one trusts God for the outcome of all
"Not my will but thine be done"
is what Joseph believed as a young boy. While there is no written
record of his ever praying these words, he did not have to. He began
living them soon after his brothers sold him to the traveling caravan of
There is plenty of room in our
minds and hearts for doubting. Our capacity to doubt helps us
discriminate between values. It helps us discern and separate the wheat
from the chaff. We must recognize, however, that doubting has its
limits. Sooner or later, we have to make a leap of faith.
We will hasten that leap when we
recognize that a greater truth always lies beyond what is known.
Germs were present long before the microscope was developed. Thousands
of galaxies existed long before the Hubble Telescope revealed their
The most powerful frontier yet to
be explored by the colony of human beings on planet earth is the world
of spirit -- that invisible world that governs our moods, hopes and
dreams. Actually, it is the only world of substance. If we do not
nourish and develop this world, we can easily be led to take many
unhealthy detours demanded by the uninformed choices created by our
logic and emotions. Clearly this is what is happening today with
many of our world's leaders. The world will never be fixed until
each individual yields to the power of their inner world.
Toward the end of his Sermon on
the Mount, Jesus described the challenge of entering the world of
spirit. He said, "The gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to
it is hard, and there are few people who find it." (Matt. 7:14) He
taught this long before he experienced his crucifixion and
resurrection. He was describing the world of spirit that Joseph had
discovered centuries before.
The faith traditions of the
world's religions clash only when the trust of their respective
believers has been based solely on the accuracy of certain historic
events. The reality is that there is only one world of spirit
that is universally accessible by all human beings. Jesus
understood such a consciousness before he preached his first words.
Many believers both past and
present, on the other hand, have focused their energy on interpreting
and re-interpreting historical events. Again, is this step of
refinement necessary before we love our neighbors? Our confusion
is compounded each time a new theory, a book or a very financially
profitable movie teases our personal belief systems with even more
Each of us has to determine for ourselves, which is more important, the accuracy of how early writers perceived our faith history or rediscovering our ability to love one another every moment of every day. Only the latter understanding will hasten the day when we stand together as one.
We can have doubts, but doubting that we can heal each other with our love cannot be one of them. The world's cultures are still fighting each other throughout the world. Many of those struggles are based on religious beliefs. Maybe it is time to doubt them. Joseph and Jesus had a better idea and stood together across the centuries as one. Do we have the courage to join them?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful God, as
we find ourselves refreshed by the sunlight of truth, surrounded by rays
of assurance that your love can never be hidden, grant us renewed
strength to remain faithful to our vision. It is easy to know truth and
not use it, to claim discipleship for ourselves while knowing our feet
are clay, to sense the deeds we could have done and all the times "yes"
would have been easy to say. As we gather such thoughts about
ourselves, help us feel the cleansing of your forgiveness. Allow our
response to your loving nature transform us into beings who radiate
light in all that we do. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Be present with us this morning, O God, in a
way that each of us can understand. Even though we find ourselves in
the afterglow of the glorious Easter message, we live with the reality
that men and women in the armed services are spread all over Iraq and
around the world. They long to be reunited with their families and
loved ones, yet the call to duty causes them to press on toward an
uncertain future. Surround them, O God, with peace.
As we enjoy these moments together, enable us
to surrender our fears, doubts and confusion over exactly what to
believe. There is no need to struggle with anything when we teach
ourselves each day how to trust you for the outcome of all things.
Fears do not serve us. Doubts limit us. Confusion over what is true
cannot enhance our ability to be kind, considerate and generous toward
others. We follow Christ willingly in order for this world to become a
more loving and peaceful place for men and women to live.
Guide our spirits today so that we uncover how to create with our thoughts and feelings as we interpret you to the world. Because we are healers and bridge builders, let us unite with each other to hasten the day when "thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven" becomes the reality everyone will joyfully embrace. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught his disciples how to pray when they say . . .