"It Is Okay To Doubt"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 22, 2005
Psalm 8: Matthew 28:16-20
The curious verse in this passage is “Some of them doubted.” Even though they saw him and paid homage to him still “some of them doubted.” This morning I want to discuss the role doubting plays in the lives of people of faith.
In the context of our lesson, why would the disciples doubt? They had been with Jesus for three years. They had already heard the testimony of the others who had seen him alive and now their senses and their cumulative memories were causing them to doubt.
All of us know what it is to doubt. We are more apt to trust some recognizable pattern of past experiences than we are when our senses discern that something does not add up. The power of discernment is among the gifts with which God has equipped us. Many times we use this gift to discriminate among alternatives in order to make a more informed decision.
About twice a month, I receive e-mails from people who report that they are living in one of the nations on the African continent. The authors appear very sincere and are careful to use Christian code words. They describe how they have “suffered long in Christ.” They praise God over and over again for the three “G’s” -- God’s goodness, grace and guidance. They describe how constant change in their nation’s leadership has made life very difficult and unstable. Eventually these authors get to their purpose for writing.
All of them report to have 10 or 15 million dollars in a Swiss bank account. They are careful to stress that these amounts are in American dollars. They tell me that God has directed them to seek the help of St. Matthew’s because we are a mission-oriented church. (My hunch is that such guidance is coming from our web site rather than from God.)
Since they are generally dying when they write, they want to give all the money to our church if we assist them with the cash transfer. Apparently many churches have fallen prey to such scams, inspiring copycat con artists. The catch, of course, is for our church to advance a considerable sum of money in order to process the cash transfer.
Again, we are more apt to trust some recognizable pattern of experiences in our past than we are when our senses discern that we are being asked to do something that is uncertain. What could have been uncertain when the disciples had their meeting with Jesus?
The disciples had never before encountered anyone returning from the dead. They were uncertain about going into the world baptizing and teaching without him. Their strength of spirit had always come from being with him. By being a part of Jesus’ round table, the disciples became as famous as he. The unanswered question was, “Who would they be without him?”
Many of us recall the well-known story of the gentleman who had strung a high wire across Niagara Falls. Back and forth he went with his wheelbarrow to the thrill of the cheering crowd. When he was finished with his high wire feats, he asked, “Do you believe that I can do this as often as I want without falling?” They crowd applauded in a united affirmation. Then he said, “Who trusts me enough to get into the wheelbarrow and allow me to take you across the Falls?” Not a single person volunteered.
The disciples were facing a very similar request. When we personalize life’s events, our thinking and, particularly, our emotions can become filled with doubts. Could they do all that Jesus was asking of them?
In addition to our powers of discernment, doubting can also represent a warning. Our discernment teaches us to look deeper into what is being asked of us. Our doubting can also warn us to examine more closely our commitment to trusting God’s guidance when that means trusting something over which we have no control.
This kind of faith is not a belief system based on some eternal reward. Rather it is a trust bond between God and us. It is a relationship that is always in the process of growth and refinement. This kind of faith is not easy. This quality of faith is not the kind that allows people to use their beliefs, Scriptural references or faith traditions to convince them that their lives will no longer be challenged or that their resolve to trust God will no longer be tested. Many people cling to their faith as a child does to a security blanket. Faith is about one thing – trust in God.
Back in the 1980s, a United Methodist Bishop in one of our midwestern conferences had become so concerned about the quality of preaching in his Episcopal area that he decided to hold a convocation specifically designed to address the issue. He invited the conference pastors to attend the three-day gathering so they could hear and receive instruction from some of the finest preachers in the land. The bishop had made a considerable financial investment to bring in the best.
Unfortunately, the convocation was taking place during a United Airlines strike. The bishop received a call from the keynote speaker that he could not make arrangements to fly out of Sacramento. The bishop sought counsel with his cabinet members. One of the district superintendents mentioned an outstanding preacher in his district who had been ordained only the year before. Everyone agreed. The bishop decided to ask this young pastor of promise to deliver the keynote address.
When the bishop approached him with his request, the young man was overwhelmed with doubt. He said, “Bishop, while I deeply appreciate this opportunity, it takes me a considerable time to create a sermon.” The Bishop rested his hand on the young man’s shoulder and said, “Son, this is what trusting the Lord is all about. I want you to get up there and let the Lord lead you.” The young man responded, “But I did not bring my Bible.” The bishop said, “I have one. Here, use mine.”
There was no way he could sidestep this assignment. Waves of doubt and insecurity swept over him as he tried to picture himself preaching in front of so many of his seasoned colleagues. A little voice kept saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression. The bishop is counting on you to deliver the goods. You had better not fail.”
The young man sat with the Bible and prayed. As he paged through the Gospels trying to find a passage that might lend itself to the setting, he found a set of notes in the back. They were easy enough to follow. He thought, “With a few up-dated illustrations, I think I can do this.”
The young man’s presentation was brilliant that evening. He certainly lived up to his reputation. Following the service the bishop asked, “What have you done? You delivered the sermon I had planned to preach tomorrow night. What am I going to do?” With a great deal of empathy, he sheepishly apologized and said, “Bishop, I had no idea those were your notes for tomorrow. However, I suspect you will need to listen to the advice you gave me this morning – trust that the Lord will lead you.”
Regardless of how refined our skills of spirit are, our doubts are perfect indicators of our ability to trust God’s guidance and let go. This is what Jesus was asking his disciples to do when he said; “I will be with you always.” Doubts help us discern, they help us understand how much or how little we trust God and finally, they help us to discover how large we have allowed a problem to become.
Some months ago I met a therapist at a social event and we compared notes. She told me what she does with some of her clients when they come to her with their “Woe is me” stories. She said, “I lead them through a brief mental exercise to help them gain perspective.” She asks them, “Do you have good vision and hearing? Do both of your legs and arms work? Can you digest your food without distress? Do you have a car, a place to live and are you earning a wage that provides for your needs? If they say, “yes” to all these questions, she asks, “Okay, now tell me why you have come to see me?”
Many of our problems are given birth the moment we assign blame, or the moment we choose to live by the philosophy, “If my world were only different from what I am experiencing, THEN I could be happy.” If this were true, every day would be a bad hair day for God. It is not. God radiates only loving, benevolent energy, and we have to decide how to respond to it. We never need to allow the world to dictate the quality of our lives.
It is okay to doubt. The process of doubting often helps us to remember that we are viewing life with tunnel vision. The therapist helps her clients to understand that there is so much about life to celebrate, but their focus on “Woe is me” is convincing them that life is otherwise.
They cannot see the mama bird feeding her young. They are unable to appreciate the azaleas and dogwoods this year. They often do not find joy in the laughter of children. Their perceived problem has been allowed to swell to the size of a mountain because they doubted the trustworthiness of God’s creative process. God’s guidance is never in accordance with human designs. In fact, quite often we are at the perfect place to maximize our growth potential. To hold on to some hurt is to celebrate, “Woe is me! I am a victim.”
Sometimes an act of betrayal is what helps get us to the next exciting chapter of our life. Sometimes a defeat is the very thing that enables us to grow in a different direction. Sometimes our needing to accept someone just as they are is another skill we can add to our spiritual tool chest. Before we cry “foul,” we need to remember that God does not operate according to our book of recipes for the perfect life. Who would have predicted that most of our perceived dead ends are only bends in the road?
Doubting does not mean that we lack faith. We are going to doubt. Doubting means we are discerning. Doubting is a measuring device for how much we trust God. Doubting also enables us to see how amplified our problems have become when we lose perspective on the enormous blessings we either assume, have taken for granted or can no longer see. The good news is that, while doubting is okay, God has equipped us with the ability to grow beyond them.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you gracious God for the many challenges that encourage us to develop skills that are new. Thank you for giving us the wisdom to grow in the direction our lives are bent. We confess that we prefer to travel on the familiar roads, to use responses that have endured the test of time and to please others with our helpfulness. Yet, we become less charitable with our expressions of kindness when others fail to meet our needs and expectations. We often provide others with our opinions even when they are not being sought. Keep us mindful, O God, that we represent you in the world. In the face of what troubles most people, help us to be at peace that your will is unfolding in ways we cannot understand.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Gracious God, our lives are filled with so many circumstances and dramas that test the fabric of our spirits that we are grateful for these moments together. They help us clarify who we are and whom we serve. As we attempt to find our happiness, our joy and peace in a world that is forever changing, our failures help us to remember that such qualities must first arise from within us before we can change how we perceive our world.
Today we enter our experience eager for wisdom that is different from what normally governs our lives. We come seeking a greater trust in you. We come seeking an increased ability to remain peaceful through all circumstances. We come wanting to radiate a quality of love that communicates we accept others just as they are. We come wanting the strength of being able to surrender every outcome to your creativity. We come with the desire to realize that your presence constantly surrounds us.
Awaken us, O God, if we slumber, a slumber that can postpone the growth of such awareness. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .