April 7, 2013
The Power of Doubt
The Second Sunday of Easter
Sermon: The Power of Doubt
Texts: Acts 5: 27-32 and John 20: 19-31
In August 2004, Pastor, Chaplain, Wisdom teacher, William Sloane Coffin, from his home in Strafford, Vermont, wrote a wonderful little book, his last one, entitled, Letters to a Young Doubter. He pictured a bright young college student full of questions, doubts, problems regarding faith, difficulties in his personal life and a confusion about what it meant to live God’s will. He wrote to his imaginary young friend who was confused when his college professors were bent on disapproving his favorite proven facts. Bill answers Tom this way:
That’s what professors do, some with a little too much relish. But don’t be anxious about your newfound doubts. Doubts move you forward not backward, just as long as you doubt out of love of the truth, not out of pathological need to doubt. In searching for new truths, don’t insist on absolute intellectual certainty.
And, then, he signed his letter, Love, Bill.
The disciple Thomas really needed a letter like this. Sadly, Thomas has been given the name “doubting” Thomas, a negative title, a warning title, instead of a “praise” title that we want to assign. It is given because of the insistence, according to scripture, that Thomas needed to verify that the risen Jesus was the crucified Jesus he knew as teacher and friend. Thomas wanted to “see” to believe. It seemed a very lonely place to be.
This conversation reminds me of that lovely little story of Linus from the Peanuts cartoon. Charlie Brown tries to explain to Linus that everyone is lonely in some place or other. “Where is the place for you?” Linus asks. Charlie ponders the question for a moment, then answers, “Earth.”
Perhaps that is why we identify with Thomas and trust him this Second Sunday of Easter. Thomas was genuine, down to earth and practical. He came to faith as one who wanted to live as a seeker of truth. He wanted to clear away the weeds and thickets, in order to go to a deeper level of “seeing” to believe. But, it was probably a lonely place to be.
Faith communities still tend to want facts and figures, certainty and probability instead of the reality of “not knowing” or, in some sense, living with doubt. Most catechisms were designed with a question/answer format so that there could be some answers to those tough faith questions. We do not follow this tradition of catechism teaching in our church, but many still do and depend on the teaching method. For me, faith comes alive when I can claim the power of doubt and let that be factored in to who I am as a person of faith; what about you?
In this sermon time, I would like for us to ask ourselves if we may embrace this position and describe what it means for us to claim the power of doubt... Is it good to verbalize doubts so faith has a chance to be nurtured, a chance to thrive? Do faith struggles keep us connected and interested in faith and in knowing God in new and vibrant ways?
Coffin said to his young reader in another letter from the book: “you’re smart to decide you have to unlearn as well as learn to clear away the weeds and thickets in order to see more clearly various paths ahead. And you’re absolutely right in recognizing that religion seems to bring out the worst as well as the best in people.” (p. 22)
We are grateful for today’s lessons that remind us that we are not alone in our doubts or in our common need to go deeper in understanding this peace Christ gave to the earliest of witnesses. It was a “peace,” a “blessing,” for those who need to “see” to believe as well as those who do not need to see. It is confirming the “power of doubt” as a power that will make your faith stronger. Yes, as Coffin, suggests, doubts move you forward not backward as long as you doubt out of love for the truth.
That is the story of Thomas from what I read. He represents those who come to faith from a “seeing” approach. There are many ways that people come to faith or discern their path to God. People will describe themselves as spiritual not religious, or a little of this or that, a dash of each. Sometimes we don’t understand events that occur in our lives or the twists and turns that life takes, yet we make sense of our experience and know God is with us when we allow our doubts to keep us pondering. Jesus spoke to the first witnesses as he speaks to us, “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” This Spirit, in my experience, is still active in the world and in our personal lives. What about for you?
I have come to believe, that whatever it meant for the friends of the crucified Jesus and whatever it means for us today as followers of the Risen One, the “seeing” and “knowing” of Christ’s presence in everyday life keeps our faith alive. For all of us, Jesus lives in and through us as we plant seeds of peace and live that peace.
Jesus said, according to the early witnesses who would be carrying on the message he lived and taught, that “Peace will be with you and you are to take this peace, God’s shalom, everywhere you go and in everything you do.” In the beginning of the early church, this was the theme song and the foundation and of the structure that is our “Christian” church today. This was the message we read in the earliest history book of the Christian church, the Acts of the Apostles.
I hope it continues to be the “structure” for us as we live out the great commission to be the church at its best here at the Congregational Church of Almaden Valley, UCC. We have created many opportunities to bring God’s peace to one another in a caring, sensitive way. I know we want to be welcoming to all and grow the membership of our church; will our doubts move us forward? I say “Yes.” We go into our future not knowing what is ahead but knowing that we will indeed see God in one another and respond to what will come with God’s wisdom and guidance as our mainstay. I hope we may be able to sustain what we have envisioned to be God’s will and way for us here as we continue to be a community of prayer, worship, mission, stewardship and hospitality. A living faith invites us to speak our thoughts, our beliefs and our doubts so that the power of the gospel may, indeed, flourish in and through us and make this world less-lonely and more sensitive to being God’s “Shalom” community.
We are grateful we have chosen to follow Christ’s way and to cherish this covenant we share to be united as a church and to share the invitation with others. As we approach my installation as your new settled pastor on May 19, it will be a time to renew this commitment and to be open to what may evolve for us in terms of a new face, a new witness and new growth. I look forward to the ways we share what it means, indeed, to touch the hands of Christ and know we have seen and believe.
With all our certainty and uncertainty, our perfections and imperfections, we share a commitment to know God in new ways and trust God’s presence to make the world better through our efforts to care and care deeply. I really like the part of the book where William Coffin answers the young student regarding his decision to be a Christian; perhaps these are words you would echo:
“Sunday by Sunday Jesus became more and more real to me. I loved the way he relied on narrative and example rather than on precept and principle. What he said, what he did, struck me as words and deeds of ‘breathtaking rightness.’ In the sullied and bloody stream of life, not innocence but holiness was the option he offered. And holiness didn’t mean being upright (read uptight) but rather knowing such a joy that could absorb all sorrow, a hope that could surmount despair, and knowing that caring is the greatest thing in life (read tough minded unsentimental love).” (p 40-41)
Our call continues to allow us to express our hopes, our fears, our doubts, and our commitment to know that God is with us to help us live the holiness of life as God intended, even though “earth” can be a lonely place. Aren’t we glad we may share the journey?
May we remember to let the power of doubt be part of our faith journey so that may be humble and responsive to God leading us, teaching us and, when need be, even carrying us?
The familiar prayer-story “Foot prints” may help us remember that we are not alone and God is with us, even when our doubts arise and threaten to distance us from the core of our seeking. May we close remembering to let the power of doubt lead us closer to the Divine Risen One once more?
Last night I had a dream. I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from my life. For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand: one belonged to me, the other to the Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me, I looked back at the footprints in the sand. I noticed that at many times along the path of my life, especially at the very lowest and saddest times, there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it. "Lord, you said once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don't understand why, when I needed you the most, you would leave me."
The Lord replied, "My precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of suffering, when you could see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you." Amen.