"The Peril Of Trusting Our Doubts"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - March 30, 2008
Psalm 16; John 20:19-20, 24-29
We have all heard the expression that life can turn on a dime. The same thought could also be applied to a number of our spontaneous decisions. A decision made without much thought can change our destiny.
When I was a sophomore in high school, one of my friends was John Kirkpatrick. We were both managers of the varsity basketball team and we had plenty of time to talk when the guys were practicing. John said, “Why don’t we take a course in typing?” I said, “Are you kidding me? Typing is for girls who are studying to be secretaries.” Nevertheless, both of us enrolled in Personal Typing 101.
As we sat in our first class, both of us realized that probably we had made a big mistake. We thought that the person who designed the keyboard was out of his mind. We had no idea why the letters were designed as they are. Matters became worse when the teacher told us that we could not look at our fingers or the letters on the keyboard. We both doubted that we would ever master the skill.
Our instructor stood in front of the class with a pointer and tapped on the letter we had to hit with various fingers. She watched our eyes to see that no one was looking at their fingers. What she was actually doing was helping our brains to rewire themselves to accommodate a new eye-hand coordination skill.
In the beginning, we doubted that we would ever master the skill, but we did. I have to admit that typing has been an indispensable tool in my life. I typed my own term papers at college. This skill helped me to secure summer jobs at the State Department and the Agency for International Development. During my seminary days, I worked at night at the White House as an evening secretary during the Johnson presidency.
Had I trusted my doubts, I would have closed the door on potential adventures all because I had not taken the time to learn a new skill. I can thank John for opening up a universe that would have remained invisible to me had I not followed his suggestion.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, we have the story of “doubting Thomas.” It is fascinating that Thomas provided us with a prime example of what can easily happen to us -- he trusted his doubts more than the testimony of his friends. He had not been present when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. What the others told him was so beyond his imagination’s ability to conceive, he did not believe them.
Who was Thomas? Three of the Gospels each mention him only once. His name appears among the various listings of disciples. John, however, gave readers a little more insight into his character. John mentions him seven times. For example, when Jesus preached during Hanukkah, his words evoked the anger of a crowd of listeners. They were about to stone him, but Jesus fled Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan.
It was the hostility of his listeners that delayed Jesus from going to Bethany when he received word that Lazarus was sick. The disciples were successful in delaying Jesus’ return to the area for only a while. (11:8) When they could restrain him no longer, it was Thomas who said, “Let’s all go along with the Teacher, so that we may die with him.” (11:16)
Thomas was the disciple during the last supper that asked, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” This question prompted Jesus in essence to say, “I have taught you the way, I have given you the truth and I have shown you how to live in the Kingdom. No one can come to God through any other means.” (14:6) We know from John’s Gospel that Thomas was prepared to lay down his life for the Master, he was fully informed about Jesus’ mission, but he doubted the testimony of his friends.
Thomas said, “Unless I can see and touch the scars in his hands and touch the scar where the spear entered his body, I will not believe you.” We should not be too judgmental of Thomas. Quite often we do the same thing.
We were taught this from our high school science classes. Science has taught us to test every hypothesis. Only when we can duplicate the results over and over again should we assume that a theory has credibility. Yet, the ability to test results does not apply to experiences we do not understand and cannot duplicate. This is why Jesus taught his disciples qualities such as trusting what they cannot see and having faith in what cannot be proven. Many people would rather trust their doubts than believe what cannot be tested.
A week later the disciples were together and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus appeared once more and said to Thomas, “Here I am. You wanted to touch my wounds B here they are! Go ahead and touch them. Thomas, you must stop your doubting. Do you now understand because you have seen me? How blessed will be those who understand and have not seen me.”
One has to ponder what would have happened to Thomas had he not put to rest his doubts. John captured with words this one moment of truth for Thomas. In one experience, all doubts and fears were swept away. Just as learning the skill of typing opened up a universe of opportunity for me, so did this one experience change Thomas’ life.
It is only when we read extra-biblical Christian writings that we find extensive traditions flourishing about Thomas’ extraordinary missionary work. Thomas worked in Edessa in eastern Syria, where memories of his work were recorded. It was here that the Gospel of Thomas was written close to the end of the first century.
The most colorful manuscript associated with Thomas was written in the third century. It is called the Acts of Thomas. It tells of his miracle-filled mission to India and his martyrdom. What is most intriguing is that today in Malabar located on the southwestern coast of India, there is a group of Christians who claim to be direct descendents of those to whom Thomas ministered. There are also first century Christian mosaics in India. Scholars have no idea why such works of art were created there unless the stories of Thomas are more fact than fiction.
When we primarily trust only our doubts, our reason and our logic, we limit the possibilities that exist outside of us. Our universe of understanding becomes extremely narrow. In Hebrews 11:1 we have that verse we memorized as children, “To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see.”
One of the aspects of life of which I am absolutely certain is that we do not die. I told you this on Easter Sunday. When believers have this framework through which to view all their experiences, life continues to be a remarkable adventure.
Doubting undermines our imaginations, our inspiration and reduces life only to those things that make sense. There is a lot about life that does not make sense but we can learn to enjoy every hill and valley anyway. A friend and close colleague of mine did not have this orientation. Her name was Amalia Frank. She was a pastor in the Unity movement.
Amalia was so tired of life that she told me repeatedly. “I don’t believe that stuff. I don’t need it and I don’t want it. When my life is finished, I want it to be over. Who wants to live forever?” I used to smile and say, “I’m sorry, Amalia, but that is the way God designed creation and there is nothing you can do about it. You have two choices, you can either be a willing or an unwilling participant.”
She eventually died and we held her standing-room-only memorial service here at St. Matthew’s. Apparently she told two people that if we really do not die, she would find some way to let them know. One was a gentleman who lives in Muskegon, Michigan and the other was Michael Patterson, her organist, pianist and choir director.
It was Monday soon after her service when Jim called me from Muskegon. Amalia communicated to him while he was in the Men’s Room. That was Amalia’s style. If you knew her, you would understand. Words that he did not create entered his mind. Out of nowhere she said, “Jim, I always make good on my promises. I want you to know two things. I am fine and I am not old anymore.”
On Wednesday of the same week, I had just walked in the front door of our home at 5:00 p.m. Lois handed me the phone. It was Michael. Because of his excitement he could hardly get his words out. Michael said, “Dick I had to call you. You will not believe what just happened. I was playing Scrabble with some friends (something Michael and Amalia did all the time). When I drew the randomly chosen seven tiles at the beginning of the game, the letters came up in this order: A M A L I A F. Do you believe it? She’s alive over there. This was her way of letting me know.”
If Jim and Michael had any doubts prior to these experiences, they vanished. Jesus’ words come to mind, “Do you now understand because you have seen me? How blessed will be those who understand who have not seen me.”
There is great peril in doubting God and the unseen powers that are part of creation. Doubts cannot create hope. Doubts cannot inspire. Doubts cannot stimulate our imaginations. Doubts cannot help us to dream of possibilities. Doubts cannot inspire the confidence to take risks. We have to take those leaps of faith if our understanding is to evolve. When we do, doors open that we never knew were there and we find ourselves standing in the midst of an experience that is beyond anything we could imagine.
The German poet, Goethe once wrote,
Until we are committed there is hesitancy, the chance to retreat is always present. This always produces the lack of a clear direction.
Concerning all acts of creation there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: The moment we definitely commit ourselves, then the universe moves as well. All sorts of things occur to help us that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues forth from this one decision, raising in our favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamed would have come our way.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it! Boldness has genius, power and magic to it. Begin it now!
Faith and trust are skills some of us never find the time to learn. Such faith skills often appear to lack relevancy to our familiar living patterns. A number of people underestimate the power of doubting, the power of skepticism and the power of always needing evidence and proof before basing their attitudes, their decisions and their destiny on a reality they cannot test. They are often like people who want to paddle their boats within the well-known inner harbor where the safety of the shoreline is always visible.
Thomas was very fortunate that he had his doubts proven wrong. First century traditions tell us that he went on to accomplish much. What of us? What would change about us if we positively knew that nothing could separate us from the love of God? Go back and read Romans 8:38 where the Apostle Paul taught this understanding. Are we willing to risk everything on an orientation toward life that we cannot prove? Or, have our doubts trained us to play it safe and follow only what we can understand?
Jesus gave us a map. Our guidance comes from our faith and trust. Reason and logic are useless tools for navigating in a reality that lies beyond our senses. When Columbus set sail for a new world, there was no evidence such a world existed. Faith and trust are what inspire hope. Take that hope with you this morning.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, O God, for revealing who we can become when we follow
Jesus. Jesus clearly understood the fears of humanity when he said,
"Forgive them, they know not what they do.” There are times when our
judgments are hasty. There are times when our decisions are made
without enough information. There are times when we fail to see our
perceived failures as stepping-stones. There are times when our
memories of yesterday prevent us for seeing the opportunities of today.
Just as nails never pierced the spirit of Jesus as he hung on the cross,
help us to become aware that nothing in this world can ultimately defeat
us. Enable us to trust you completely so that our fears melt into the
sand on your infinite compassion and peace. Teach us how to
perceive all events as teaching devices that offer guidance for our next
Eternal God, as our lives flow from one day into the next, how easy it is to neglect remembering the thrilling truth of Easter morning, a truth we celebrated last Sunday. With all our creativity and inventiveness, many of us have become slaves to shorter attention spans. We are a generation of sound bites and sensory overload, of cash flow needs and long morning and afternoon commutes. We are a generation with children who have demands on them that are every bit as challenging to master as our own.
Our experience is as though we awakened briefly from our slumber, celebrated the truth of our eternal nature and then gradually went to sleep again within our routines and thought patterns. How difficult it is for us to understand that life is like being on a treadmill that incrementally ratchets up the speed by which we live. We are into creating, producing, and focusing on result areas. We forget that life will go on, as it always has, when we are gone. Help us take time for ourselves to nurture peace, to relax, and to remember that life is too short to fill it with clutter that we do not need.
Jesus gave us a beautiful blueprint for transforming our lives. Help each of us to learn how to carry ourselves with a spirit that is filled with gratitude for every bend in the road, every mountain and valley and every opportunity to make a difference. Inspire each of us to be for others what we want you to be for us. We pray these thoughts through the loving spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .