Here is what I know about this gospel story:
John was terrified of doubt.
And here is what I know about us:
We live in an era of doubt.
No, not an era, a miasma of doubt…a body bag of doubt.
Let’s start with us.
We are living through an extraordinary
tunnel of doubt
from which we cannot yet see
the light at the end.
It is a bit strange for us too,
because we have just been through
such a prolonged sense of abundance
and prosperity without a fearful external enemy
and very low interest rates to boot!
But since at least 2016
we just haven’t known what to expect
and when it will end —
the “it” being whatever existential threats
seem most threatening to us.
Of course, on one level
that is a real white, cis-male, liberal point of view
since there are a whole lot of people
who have been living on the margins
for a whole lot of time.
But there is this envelope we entered together
in 2016 and it got even grayer
And now there is even a war in Europe again.
Our institutions seem to be crumbling
under the weight of it all.
School classrooms and administrations are imploding.
Banking, courts, governments, law enforcement,
publishing, health care, religion…
It is hard to think of an institution
that is not fraying at the edges
if not crumbling from the foundation.
We don’t know how it will end
or where our place in it is,
and what, if anything, we can do about it.
That is why I say it is an era of doubt,
about what is enduring
and what is passing away in the night.
I’ll give you a very graphic example
from my own current experience.
I am the part-time rector of a congregation
that I have helped transition
from a huge historic neo-gothic building
and campus of buildings,
to a storefront church
located in a former wine bar.
It is a great story,
and too long for this sermon.
But the part I am thinking about
has to do with the congregation’s columbarium.
You see, the congregation had built a wall in its chapel
as a place for people to intern the ashes
of their loved ones.
Well, I spent much of last summer
and early fall
contacting family members
from all parts of the country
to let them know we were closing
Now whoever would expect
that a two-hundred year old church
and its columbarium
That is just not a thought
most of us would have had
before the last few years.
Big old churches were here forever,
and that was the way we treated them.
But as we know now,
those big old buildings are closing
all over the country.
That example is amplified and echoed
with other stories from schools
That is what I mean
about an era of doubt.
We just don’t know,
and when we just don’t know
it is hard to put our trust
in anything or anyone
that says they do.
Now back to John’s gospel for a moment.
John’s Jesus was not just a messiah.
John’s Jesus was in the beginning…the Word…
and the word that was with God.
John’s Jesus was cosmic
as well as enfleshed.
John’s Jesus was a really really big deal,
and I would say,
an even bigger deal
than Mark, Luke, and Mathew’s Jesus.
Mark’s gospel begins
with a full grown Jesus
who almost seems to stumble into
a radical new relationship with God,
and it ends with an empty tomb
and no ghost stories.
John has an awful lot riding on Jesus
and he is terrified of doubt.
He makes a point of saying
that everything he, John, says is absolutely true
and he knows, because he witnessed it.
Which, by the way,
inspires doubt in all kinds of New Testament scholars.
So John narrates this really weird and cool encounter
between Jesus and Thomas
in such a way as to alienate
an awful lot of 21st century folks.
You might even be one of them.
I mean, he basically says,
those of us who cannot put our fingers
in the spear-hole in Jesus’ waist
or the nail holes in his hands,
have to believe what John tells us
or we’re spiritual chopped liver.
Now that ain’t right.
John sets up a terrible dichotomy
between those who believe
what the editors of those long ago stories
want us to believe
and those of us who believe our own experience.
Most of us, I am guessing,
have not had the kind of experience
John is describing.
So he is afraid that if we doubt the stories
we will doubt his Christology
and the whole thing will unravel.
He is not wrong,
at least not from my experience anyway.
Once we start de-mythologizing
the Biblical narrative,
the way we have and are doing
with our own national history
we are left to then
a NEW narrative
that is more consistent
with our own experiences.
Those who are deeply invested
in our believing them,
and believing the way they
want us to see Jesus — or slavery for that matter —
are fearful of that process.
But I say, faith has almost nothing
to do with theology —
certainly not an institutional theology.
You see, what we often think of as faith,
is actually belief.
Beliefs are things we “believe in” or not,
but faith, faith is an experience.
I am going to try to describe
the experience of faith
but like trying to describe being in love,
I will not be able
to meet the challenge.
But I am a preacher, so
I have to try anyway.
Think of an athlete
or dancer or musician,
who enters into the grace
of the thing she or he does best.
For me it is someone like NBA star Steph Curry
when he can’t miss a three-point shot
no matter where it is on the court
or how off balance he is.
He gets into that zone and
what happens is just amazing
and appears to be totally natural.
Well faith is likewise a kind of zone we enter
in which everything just clicks and fits —
and the love
and the commitments of our lives
all feel as if they’re floating together
in a single current.
It is not a sensation that lasts very long
but when we feel it we are deeply grateful.
And I don’t mean to say
that we are suddenly without pain
or that somehow all of our difficulties
are removed. Not at all.
It is just that we know,
even for only a moment,
that we are part of something much bigger
and more magnificent,
and as small
and as insignificant
and as imperfect
as our own little life is,
we are part of this bigger flow, and wow…
all is well.
Do you know that experience?
It may be evoked by awe, as in the Natural world
or love —
but whatever instigates or inspires it
we suddenly feel the current
within which our life flows
and for a just second
we know…we know the ordinary presence of the sacred.
That is the experience,
and trusting it when it has passed —
holding onto it
when we do not feel it any more — that is faith.
So you see, faith
is not about intellectual beliefs
or doctrinal formulas.
That is religion.
The institutions of religion
seek to get the rest of us
to go along with a prescribed
set of beliefs and ideas about God.
That is what religion does.
But faith is a flesh and blood,
with the holy.
Whether it is a wee small voice
whispering to us in the dark of the night,
or a blistering dream
that shatters our previous plans,
or the warm depth of God in community
making itself known in the bread and the wine…
it is an experience
that we hold onto
even as it passes.
What I would say about faith
is that it is an actual encounter
with the presence of God in our midst —
an experience we engage in or not
rather than an idea or doctrine
we believe in or not.
If I had to boil down
this Christianity thing we do
to some manageable and digestible chew,
it would be that resurrection
is a thing we practice…or not.
I have no idea what resurrection is,
at least not in the way we talk about it in our songs
and theological pronouncements.
Really, I just don’t know about all of that.
But I do know how to practice resurrection
because Jesus told us.
“Thy kingdom come,
thy will be done…
on earth as it is in heaven.”
On earth, as it is in heaven.
To practice resurrection
is to bring forth the kingdom of God
as it is in heaven.
Now I come from Upstate New York
and I don’t mean to say
we have created heaven on earth up there.
We are as much in the body bag of doubt as you are,
and so I am not talking about utopia.
Again, let me use an ordinary personal experience.
I am happy to say it has happened more than once
but I am thinking about the recent privilege
of being trusted by a colleague
who came to see me to discuss a family matter.
But honestly, the conversation that ensued
was one in which we shared our experiences
of family and work and loss.
It was one of those moments
that I walked away from feeling
Because it was the confluence
of my calling
and my life
and a friendship
that felt like grace.
In it a little bit of the kingdom
arrived on earth
as it is in heaven.
How do I know that?
Experience. I experienced such grace before.
The experience of faith
which I trust and hold onto.
It isn’t science —
it does not require measurement
or replication in the laboratory.
It is the experience of faith
that says “Yes!” in that moment
and is able to trust it
as it recedes in the rear view mirror.
While the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven
is also brought about with justice work
and peace work
and equity work,
it also happens interpersonally
and in community,
and wherever two or more of God’s creatures
find the currents of their lives intersecting
and moving within the love of God.
Those are faith experiences
and whenever and wherever we engage them
or allow them to happen,
we are practicing resurrection.
And by the way, we need not fear doubt
because doubt is part of faith, not the opposite of it.
Doubt is a tendon within the network
of spiritual bone and muscle
that empower us to see and feel and know
the experience of faith.
Doubt is perfectly natural
and a kind of resistance training
that helps us build spiritual muscle.
We doubt ourselves
and our experiences all of the time,
and there is a utility to doubt —
it causes us to pause and take stock of the moment.
But then we take a deep breath
and recollect the wisdom of our experience
and move on.
We need not fear doubt
or give it too much power to discomfort us.
Faith is an experience
of the ordinary presence of God in our midst,
and doubt is a normal and natural part of the flow.
Personally, I have no doubt
that we will get through this tunnel of doubt we are in
and find ourselves in the midst of some kind of renewal.
In the mean time,
we can keep practicing resurrection daily
and build the kingdom on earth
as it is in heaven.
Judy Kahrl says
This sermon provides a wonderful freedom from the shackles of doctrine. It takes me back to the days at St. Stephen’s when I kept attending, even though I didn’t believe all the doctrines in the creeds, but knew that something was happening in the experience that I wanted.
Cam Miller says
Did you know I preached it this morning at St. Stephen’s? I was here (in Columbus) to officiate at the memorial for Kathy and Frank Richardson (at the Park of Roses) and was asked to preach at SS. I of course, thought of you while there. Those were some powerful days.