Tag Archive | faith

An Unexamined Belief Is Not Worth Having

John 20:19-31

Today’s gospel reading is one of the best-known Eastertide gospels – that of “Doubting Thomas”. We almost never hear the name of this disciple without the label of “Doubting”. Most people, no matter how non-religious, have heard about “Doubting Thomas”.

You may be interested to know that in the first three gospels we are told absolutely nothing at all about Thomas. He is just a name in a list of the disciples (Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:3, Luke 6:15), a faceless man among the twelve. It is in John’s Gospel that he emerges as a distinct personality, but even then there are only 155 words about him. Bishop John Shelby Spong in his book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, that the writer of John created Thomas as a metaphor with a unique personality of “doubting”. His story has entered the vocabulary of the world and is even used in common conversation. People who doubt or question the status quo are called “Doubting Thomas”.[1]

Jesus admonished Thomas:

“Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27)

Jesus told Thomas to believe and accept His resurrection as true – to have “faith”.

What then is this “faith” we are supposed to have? Faith is a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. It is, from a religious standpoint, a strong belief in God or certain doctrines based on spiritual apprehension, rather than proof. Jesus goes on to tell Thomas

“blessed are those who believe and have not seen”. (John 20:29)

In fact, not only Christians, but all human beings, really, live every day by faith.

  • We go to sleep assuming by faith that we will wake up.
  • We kiss our loved ones goodbye, having faith that we will see them again.
  • We drive to the grocery store with the faith that we will return home safely with our groceries.
  • We plant our gardens in the fall with faith that they will blossom in the spring.

And most crucially, we live every day knowing at some point that we will die, and that somehow it will be alright. But we cannot prove that, nor can we understand what really happens. These are all elements of “having faith”.

But does faith mean we do not doubt?

No, surely faith does not preclude doubt. Most people, if they are honest with themselves, will admit that they are troubled from time to time with doubts about what they they’ve been taught is true. Even the Saint Mother Teresa wrote of her doubts in her diaries, saying:

“[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak “

Even this holy woman had doubts, yet her faith was strong.

Doubt is defined as: ‘a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction; a hesitancy to believe; not being certain about something, especially about how good or true it is.’

The writer, Frederick Buechner, put it this way, “If you don’t have doubts you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants-in-the-pants of faith; they keep faith alive and moving.”[2] Doubt is one of God’s most effective tools for producing mighty men and women of faith.

I submit to you that being a “Doubting Thomas” and questioning life, especially its major events or problems, is not a bad thing. We should do it. When we ask ourselves difficult questions, we get answers that can deepen our faith and provide us with the tools we need to move to a more purposeful life and a closer relationship with God.

Indeed, we can learn a valuable lesson from Thomas: We must doubt and then move beyond doubt to faith. It is all right to doubt, but we must move beyond doubt.

Jesus told Thomas that those

who believe even if they have not seen are blessed.” (John 29:29)

Certain Christian doctrines and biblical stories simply seem illogical and flawed. They confound all reason and go against much of what we now know for sure, through science and experience.

So, what if we find ourselves with serious doubts. What should we do?

  • We can accept that doubt is normal and healthy for human beings. All Christians, sometime during our lives, have doubts, questions and skepticisms. That is the way that God made us: to ask questions, to inquire, to think, to sort things out.
  • As I mentioned, doubts, questions and skepticism often lead to a greater faith. Centuries ago, Copernicus doubted that the earth was the center of the universe. Christians of his era were using and quoting the Bible to prove that the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus doubted the validity of those peoples’ interpretation and his doubting of their interpretation of the Bible led him to a larger and deeper understanding of our place in the world and the wonders of God’s creation. Galileo took this further to his own excommunication from the church, but a strengthened faith in God. Doubt often leads to deeper faith.

So, when we doubt, we begin to examine our lives to determine what is true, what is right, what is good for us. That is the human process – it leads to a better understanding of ourselves, our world, and our relationship with eternity. And each one of us must travel that journey at their own pace and in their own time.

So, is there a real purpose for doubt in our Christian faith? ABSOLUTELY!

Doubt is what enables our faith to grow. Today’s gospel passage tells us this. In the beginning of the text Jesus has appeared to the disciples and they believed. They had to share it with others. Thomas was not in the room when Jesus first appeared to the disciples, and when he heard what happened, he did not believe what they were saying. Thomas had little faith in what the disciples were saying because it was, frankly, unbelievable, and he needed more proof. Jesus was dead – he had seen him brutally tortured and murdered, he saw his lifeless body buried in a tomb.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with the others when Jesus appeared. But surely, he was despairing – the one in whom he had put all his faith was dead. Yet, today we should be glad for his doubt, for we, like Thomas, did not see Jesus appear resurrected, and our doubt is much like his.

When Jesus appeared to the disciples a second time, however, Thomas was there and declared for all to hear,

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and place my finger where the nails where, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.“ (John 20:25)

Did Jesus chastise Thomas for his unbelief? No! He understood the reason for his doubts and said:

“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:27)

And Thomas believed!

Doubting Thomas was very much like each of us, wanting to believe and still unsure that Jesus has actually risen. He wanted to see the scars and touch them to assure himself that it was really true – Jesus was alive and had overcome death. Just as Thomas doubted, we feel compelled in our doubts to see for ourselves. Just as Thomas wanted tangible proof, we, in our complex and cruel world, need to be reassured that what Jesus promised us is true – that life is eternal – that to live as He did, to follow His example of love, compassion, service, and forgiveness – this leads us to true life, here on earth and beyond – and that where He is eternally, there we will be also. Like Thomas, we all must seek, experience, meditate, and question until we come to understand, through confidence in the word of Jesus, that He is true, His promise is true, and we can believe in Him with all our hearts and minds.

I leave you with this poem, “Thomas, Undone”, by Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes:

The un-ease you feel is not doubt.
It is hunger to go deeper.
You are not done yet.

Learn from Thomas,
who, when Jesus planned to go to Bethany
where they had tried to stone him,
said, “Let us go die with him.”

You want to see the scar of your betrayal
and how love bears it.

You want to touch the wounds
and enter the heart of The One
Who Suffers for the World
and lives.

Now, more than before,
you are ready to come and die with him,
let love undo you and begin again.

Don’t belittle your restlessness.
Let it lead you.
Reach out.

Even now he is saying your name. [3]

Let us pray:

Almighty and ever living God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: grant us the faith to truly and deeply believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found doubting. Empower us to be carriers of that faith to others. Give us the ability to share it so others can know the grace of your salvation, your gracious gift of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 
 
Christ with Saint Thomas, Andrea de Verrocchio, Orsanmichele, Florence (1467-1483)
[1]    John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, HarperOne, 2014
[2]    Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, (Harper One, 1973)
[3]   Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Thomas, Undone”, Unfolding Light

Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington and Parts Adjacent, Worthington, OH; 23 April 2017

He Is Risen!!

Luke 24:34

Have you ever heard of a man named Harry Houdini? He died in October of 1926, but Harry Houdini’s claim to fame was that he was a magician and an excellent escape artist. Houdini was said to have the flexibility of an eel and the nine lives of a cat. They did all kinds of things to trap him; they would seal him in coffins and he would escape. They riveted him in a boiler and he would escape. They sewed him up in canvas bags and he escaped. They locked him into a high security, maximum prison and somehow, Old Harry still got out. He had once told his wife, when he was talking about death, “If there is any way out. I will find it. If there is any way out, I will find you and I will make contact with you on the anniversary of my death.” After Harry’s death, for 10 years, his wife kept a light burning at the bottom of his portrait. And after 10 years, she turned out the light. Death had laid its hands on Harry Houdini and he could not escape.

Death also laid its hands on the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth after an excruciatingly painful torture, He died and was laid in a rock-hewn tomb. And today, we celebrate the reality that on the third day, Jesus arose from the sleep of death and was resurrected. Jesus left those grave clothes behind and passed through the walls of that tomb.

Harry Houdini was an ordinary man; although he was an escape artist, he could not escape the inevitability of death. None of us can, even Jesus of Nazareth.

But Jesus was different – not only was He human, but He was also the anointed and enlightened Son of God. He had come into the world to teach us, to show us how to cast off our destructive and hurtful actions and choices and to live a life that will never die. He was not an ordinary man.

And because He was not an ordinary man, he could suffer crucifixion, die and YET rise from the dead. That is one special person, and He did it all for us.

What he taught and then did for us was prove that Death is not the end. There is something wonderful and beautiful after our deaths. We came from God and we shall return to God.

DEATH IS NOT THE END – His empty tomb gave hope to the world; we will not have to die into a bottomless pit, where there is nothingness.

Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? And maybe a little hard to fully comprehend.

If so, you are not alone. Lots of people, good Christians, have a problem with the concept of the resurrection. In our physical world, anyone who has been dead for three days without any embalming would begin to putrify and stink. Yet the Scriptures say nothing about that; they just say thatempty tomb

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. (Luke 24:20-23)

When the heavenly messengers first announced the news of Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24:4-5), no one said, “Praise God” or “Hallelujah,” let alone, “I knew it — just like he said!” Not a single one of Jesus’ disciples at first believed the report of his resurrection. They didn’t remember that Jesus had told them:

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. (John 2:19)

In one Gospel the women flee the tomb in terror and silence, and in another when the women do tell what they’ve seen, the men dismiss their testimony as “a crazy story.” In all four gospel accounts, it appears that the natural response to the resurrection was doubt, fear, and bewilderment.

Why were they afraid, or worse, not believing?

Living beyond death is, quite literally, incredible — that is, not believable. Resurrection isn’t simply a claim that Jesus’ body was resuscitated; it’s the claim that God created a new reality all together. Which, quite frankly, can be frightening.

Resurrection from the dead breaks all the rules we know about life. The reality that death is not the end of life threatens the powers-that-be, the authority figures. Think about it: power and authority usually exist by the fear that they can take away life. If their “victims” live beyond death, the whole power-through-fear manipulation has no effect.

I also think we have glamorized and misunderstood the nature of religious faith. While some religious leaders may expound that perfect faith conquers all doubt, biblical authors believed that faith and doubt are actually woven closely together. Doubt, questions, even downright skepticism, these aren’t the opposite of faith, but an essential part of faith. Faith isn’t knowledge; rather, faith is

faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. (Hebrews 11:1).

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, stated that resurrection seemed like a fantasy, almost too good to be true. For that very reason, it must be true, for our lives needs a better ending than the one we’ve defined as ‘death’.[1]

Poet W.H. Auden once penned, “Nothing can save us that is possible: / We who must die demand a miracle.”[2]

So, no matter what your doubts, skepticism, or hopes are about the miracle of the resurrection, you should ask yourself these question:

Does the word of God’s love overcome hate,

Does Jesus’ life and resurrection conquer death,

Does these two things give you hope?”

Does that fact that Jesus rose from the dead show us that we indeed do have eternal life in the Kingdom of God give you hope?

Do you know and embrace the love of God in the form of Jesus?

John saw and believed. Peter looked in and nothing. Mary recognized Jesus only after he spoke her name. God loves us no matter what our response is. That is the good news of this story. The empty tomb reminds us God is at work in the world doing what only God can do. God goes about God’s business and our lives and the world will never be the same again.

The resurrection is about living beyond death. Live like you believe it.

Today millions of Christians raise their voices to share in the ancient Easter acclamation,

“Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!” (Luke 24:34)

Let us all join in proclaiming:

“Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!”

Amen.

 

[1]      Rev Dr David Lose, “Resurrection Doubt”, Huffington Post, June 20, 2011

[2]      W.H. Auden, For the Time Being

Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH; 27 March 2016

Are We Going To Have Fear . . . Or Faith?

    One of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

    Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how you say, ‘Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

    While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement, (Mark 5:21-43) 

We just heard of two miracles performed by Jesus in the same day. How amazing!

We could say that a miracle is one of those times when things get out of control in a good way. God interrupts our orderly existence with something wonderful that doesn’t fit our notions of orderliness. We need those moments in our memories for when things go out of control in a bad way. For each one of us, there comes a day when we feel like our lives have been hijacked by bad news. We go along day after day doing our best. We raise our children, get our exercise, and pay our bills on time. The years go by, and we begin to think that we are in control of our lives, that everything will be okay. We just need to do our best.

Then one day everything changes; we get a cut in salary or laid off; we get some back news from the doctor. One moment we feel in control of our lives and in the next we feel trapped inside of a car zooming down a hill with no brakes.

There have been times when we have said, “I think I have lost control of my life.” We’ve heard others say it. But we cannot lose something we never really had. We know that we were never really in control, we only think we were. We cannot control what happens to us; we can only choose how we will react when the bad (and good) times come.

We heard last week that Jesus was caught sleeping while a storm was trying to swamp the boat (Mark 4:35-40). Jesus admonished the disciples, saying

    “You still don’t get it, do you? You don’t need to be afraid. You just need faith.” (Mark 4:40)

In today’s scripture, Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, falls at Jesus feet. His daughter is mortally ill – something he cannot control. He pleads:

    “Come and heal my girl so she can live.”  (Mark 5:23)

But before Jesus can get to Jairus’ house, word comes that she is dead. Jesus says, once again:

    “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.” (Mark 5:36)

Jus these two things:

    Don’t be afraid and have faith.

Let’s think for a moment about the nine people who were massacred at the Mother Emmanuel AME
Church. According to reports from the survivor, the members of the Bible Study class had to have been more scared than they had ever been in their life. But they put their faith and trust in God, knowing that He would take care of them. They had to have been afraid, but their faith in God sustained them for the few second it took the perpetrator to send them to their heavenly reward.

That, my friends, is true faith!

The other person in the Scripture is a woman who had been ill for twelve years with hemorrhaging. She had tried countless doctors–but rather than getting better, she was now worse. She was running out of options; she had been shunned by her family and friends and the village. . . she had nowhere to go. Her only hope is to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe – she knows if she can do that, she will be healed. . . otherwise she is likely to die.

These two people who had nowhere else to turn, came to Jesus.

And once again, Jesus spoke of faith:

    “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34)

He says again and again and again:

    “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith.” (Mark 5:36)

And He says this to us, especially when things happen in our lives that we cannot control. We want to control our lives and we’d like to control God. If we controlled God, we could get a miracle when we needed (or wanted) one. But these miracle stories are not about control. They are stories about what God is like and how God acts.

Mark wrote the stories down so that we would know that Jesus was no ordinary man, and God was no ordinary god. That when something goes wrong, we would have strength to carry on. Mark wanted us to know that even when Jesus was gone he still had the power to still the storms of our lives and raise us out of a living death to life again.

We have two choices: either we can be afraid or we can have faith.

We all know that being afraid gets us nowhere – except MORE afraid.

Life happens. Faith has little to do with what happens to us; faith has everything to do with how we handle what happens to us. Faith gives us a much better chance of experiencing those miracles of God’s grace all around us right now. There is power in faith. Scientific research proves that believers are happier and healthier than non-believers. Not because God plays favorites; not because He blesses some people and withholds His blessings from others.

We are all afraid at some time or another – that is being human. But, with faith we can know that things are going to get better. And there is healing power in that belief.

Amen.

 

Delivered at In The Garden, Trinity Episcopal Church on Capitol Square, Columbus, OH  28 June 2015

That Mighty Little Mustard Seed

Mark 4:30-32

Have you ever seen a mustard seed? I have one in my hand, but unless you are very, very close to me, you will not be able to see it. This little seed is one of the most mysterious seeds in nature.

It is hard to believe that from this tiny little seed, a plant that grows . . .

    and grows. . .

    and grows

until it is 8-10 feet tall. It is a woody shrub, not even a tree, and if allowed, it will take over anything in its way. It is nearly impossible to cut down unless you use a machete or chain saw; its stems grow to be about as thick as a grown man’s arm. And if you do cut it down, it regrows from its roots. The mustard plant is one of the hardiest plants on earth.

It is useful for flavoring food (think about yellow mustard), it’s leaves are edible (have you ever had any mustard greens?), and parts of the plant have medicinal properties (you might have had a mustard plaster on your chest for a cold), BUT, despite its strength, it is considered a weed instead of a shrub, and not a very pretty one at that. You didn’t dare plant it in your garden; it will crowd out all the other plants and literally and take over – anywhere it is planted it spreads like wildfire. You cannot get rid of it!

I bet you are wondering why I am giving you all this ‘useless’ information about the mustard seed. Let’s look at a little piece of the scripture about the parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 4:30-32:

    Jesus said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Notice that the scripture says that the mustard plant is a shrub. . . not a tree. It is not like the mighty sequoia in California or two-hundred year old oak trees you might see in a park. . .

    it is just a shrub. . .

    a lowly shrub.

Some of us are passing around to the tables, cups with mustard seeds in it. Pick one up . . . be careful, they are really small and can roll around easily. See how really small they are. . . can you even imagine how this little tiny seed could become a shrub twice as tall as a man, and whose stems are larger than a weightlifter’s arm?

So what is the lesson here?

Parables were stories Jesus told using common items that people often saw everyday (such as birds, flowers, water) to describe things they had never seen or would never see. No one had ever seen this “Kingdom of God” Jesus was describing, SO, He told parables to help people visualize what it was going to be like.

But, why use an item like a mustard seed. It was a small, insignificant, relatively unimportant seed. It wasn’t highly prized. Jesus chose the mustard seed for His parable because of its size. He used it because even something as small as a mustard seed can have miraculous power within it. Think about it. A seed – not much bigger than a pinhead – has within it the power to become a towering plant. Just as a small idea, a single thought, a tangible act can start you on your path to becoming a vibrant disciple of Jesus.

An example of a powerful thing starting from something small is In The Garden, which started with sack lunches and about six people. Look where we are now!

So the kingdom of God begins like a small seed inside the heart of each one of us. And once that seed takes root and begins to grow, our lives become filled with the love of God. It is watered every time we love our neighbor, or care of those in need, or visit the sick, just as Jesus commanded us in Matthew 25:36:

    Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and in prison

Each time we do this, that little kernel of faith grows in us. . . until we know the love of God and are members of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus started growing the kingdom of God with a handful of disciples. Every follower of Jesus is a part of the kingdom and that means that you and I are a part of God’s kingdom. Jesus teaches us that the Kingdom of God is the work of grace and mercy and compassion and peace with justice in the world. We are called to do the work to the best of our ability. Jesus says to us that we are to plant the seed and let God worry about the growth; our job, our responsibility, our calling, is to plant the seed and reap the harvest. God is responsible for the growth. And that little kernel of faith, which started out as small as a mustard seed, continues to grow in us. . .

    and grow . . .

    and grow. . .

until we are fully-loved and embraced members of the Kingdom of God. Just as the mustard seed cannot be killed, our faith in the Kingdom of God will not go away, only become stronger and stronger. Faith is often defined as trust, trusting that the things will turn out all right, in God’s way, in God’s time.

All we have to do is have faith,

believe in the love of God and

follow the teachings of Jesus and we can do anything.

Jesus told us:

    “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20)

We need to keep feeding that little mustard seed of faith! We are beloved children of the Kingdom of God.

Amen.