Sunday, April 7, 2013

Low Sunday: Are We Afraid Not to Be Doubting Thomases?

An old sermon for Low Sunday from seminary days asking fellow progressives whether they really doubt the resurrection or whether they actually fear the consequences of not doubting.  Many people certainly doubt, but I think there are also many educated folks who fear the social and intellectual consequences of believing.

*  *  *

Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe." Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, . . . but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

            For many years it has been fashionable among some preachers to portray Thomas as the romantic doubting everyman.  In my tradition's lectionary, today's gospel is the same for all years on the second Sunday of Easter.  Each year I dread what sort of homey portrayal of Thomas to which I may find myself subjected.  Or how I might be told that Thomas's doubts are like my own grapplings.

              It seems all too rare that we reflect that Saint John uses the empirical Thomas's doubt as a foil for Thomas's subsequent confession, "My Lord and My God," which is the capstone of the fourth Gospel.  Thomas's confession finishes the declaration of John 1:1 that "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."  The confession is the climax of the story, not the skepticism.

            While garden variety Thomas sermons annoy me, I recognize the reality to which they speak.  In my years at Harvard I have had discussion section with Thomas.  I have been Thomas.  Like the doubting apostle, our community is better known for what we can liberate, demythologize, and deconstruct than it is known for what we confess.  Too often, however, I question the honesty of some of our doubt.
            I do not question that many of us confess particular creeds, but I know that too often we have a reticence to speak of them.  We fear whom we might offend.  We fear who might ridicule us.  We fear that we may find ourselves on the community’s margins.

            Many of us spend evenings and weekends in convents and covens, but in our common life we seem to be afraid to transcend being clever.  We speak in the language of doubt and inquiry though many of us were brought here by faith.
            We are like Schopenhauer’s porcupines.  The philosopher tells the story of a group of porcupines caught in the open during a winter storm.  As the night progressed and the temperature dropped, the porcupines moved closer together for warmth.  As they moved closer, their quills began to prick one another.  The closer the porcupines drew together, the greater the pain.  Some, no longer able to bear the agony,  dropped our of the circle as the night progressed, but when morning came, only those who had drawn together despite of the discomfort had survived.

            We must become all too willing to risk discomfort and blood loss if we are to make our years in Andover Hall worthwhile.  We must risk confession.  Each week this chapel is the site of Zen meditation, Mass, and many other forms of prayer, but how often do we take that spirit beyond these doors and into our halls?  How often do we feign Thomistic objectivity, then confess in some upper room?  We like Thomas must engage our fellow porcupines.  Thomas did not believe the first reports of the resurrection, but he remained willing to return to the company of the disciples for a second time.
            For the most part, we have not come to Harvard Divinity School for ourselves only.  Many of us are preparing for lives as priests, preachers, advocates,  and educators.  How comfortable are we with letting our particular lights shine?  Have we hidden our lights under a basket of detached discourse or have we illuminated others?  In speaking of our beliefs, have we too often settled for being clever when we could have been clear?

            I recently reread Emerson’s "Divinity School Address."  Emerson warns the senior class of 1838 against the formalism which he feels has weakened the church.  He says:

To this holy office you propose to devote yourselves, I wish you may feel your call in throbs of desire and hope. . . For all our penny wisdom . . . it is not to be doubted that all men have sublime thoughts We mark with light the memories of the few interviews we have had with souls that made our souls wiser . . . that gave us leave to be what we inly were.

            Like poor maligned Thomas, Emmerson's contemporaries seized upon what he doubted, not the vision that he confessed.  What formalisms and etiquette do we hide behind that keep our colleagues and peers from seeing the confession behind the critiques?

            Emerson would, I think, share my impatience with the current Tommy-rot.  After Thomas's confession, Christ answers him:

Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.  

            Blessed are we when honest inquiry leads us to risk speaking from faith.  Blessed are we when we transcend being clever.

            Christians now enjoy the season of Easter, the great 50 day feast of the resurrection.  As my Christian brothers and sisters and those of other faiths celebrate the possibilities of new life in this season , I ask that we search our souls for the boldness and vulnerability in each of us that could transform our community.  I encourage you to risk the quills.  I ask that we may all overcome our crutch of detachment and liberate Thomas from the homiletic hell of doubt.