Madeleine L’Engle, the Christian novelist and poet who’s best known for her Wrinkle in Time series, was once asked in an interview, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” She responded, “I believe in God with all my doubts.” It’s tempting to end the sermon there, but I’ll give you a little more…
Because this brilliant line from L’Engle could really transform the way we think about “Doubting Thomas.” Do you know that in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Thomas is not remembered as Doubting Thomas, but as Saint Thomas the Believer?
In Luke and Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus famously says, “Seek and ye shall find!” Well, wasn’t Thomas a seeker in his moment of resurrection skepticism? Maybe Thomas found a little bit later than his friends, but he sought deeper and longer, and he had the integrity not to cave into peer pressure but to discover the truth for himself.
I wonder, is Thomas’ doubt a closed door or an open door? Is Thomas’ doubt his excuse for calling it quits and breaking up with God? Or is Thomas’ doubt an invitation for God to enter in more deeply? Is Thomas’ doubt maybe an echo of that wonderful line from Mark’s gospel, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!”
I’ll tell ya, I think Thomas gets a pretty bum rap, poor guy. Thomas is remembered by us as the bad disciple, the one who didn’t quite measure up, the one with the special needs, the one we shouldn’t be like. I don’t think that this has anything to do with what Thomas said or with what he did. I think it has to do with our own feelings, as people of faith, of guilt and shame about the doubts that we carry—that ALL OF US carry, because no one is without doubts. So, I wonder if Thomas has something to teach us about living with doubt and really LIVING with it.
The health of our doubt has to do with our perspective towards it—how we feel about its presence in our life and how we then express it. When Thomas got the news about the appearances that Jesus had made, something just didn’t click for him. It’s a whale of a tale after all. Jesus, Thomas has been told, has risen bodily from the grave. But when Mary first saw Jesus, she didn’t even recognize him—she thought Jesus was the gardener. And she didn’t touch him in John’s account. Jesus told her not to. Later, Jesus seems to materialize into a room with locked doors—something Spirits are well known for, but usually not bodies. The disciples saw the wounds of the cross and had the Holy Spirit breathed onto them, but they still didn’t touch Jesus.
Thomas’ doubt is a bold statement of need. He has no self-consciousness about being public and clear. What I need, said Thomas, who had just lost a friend he loved deeply, is to touch him. If that wasn’t a ghost you saw, if it wasn’t just his Holy Spirit, then I want to touch his body.
Thomas isn’t giving up here, is he? He’s certainly not being disrespectful. He’s not going to be poking at Jesus with a stick to make sure he’s solid. Thomas is seeking way more than “proof.” Thomas seeks and he doesn’t stop seeking until he finds his own intimate connection with the risen body of Jesus.
How we deal with doubt affects the health of our entire lives. Doubt is not just something that assails us in church. Oh no. If only it could be that easy. If only all we had to doubt were the mysteries of faith, but we have our whole lives to find doubt in, don’t we? Love, relationships, vocation, self-worth, talent, happiness—we know how to doubt it all, don’t we?
I was in a relationship once as a younger man in which we didn’t handle doubt well at all. We wanted to be together, and we loved one another deeply, but, wow, the doubting that we did was destructive. It’s not that doubt is inherently destructive. Doubt is normal and healthy. But we beat each other up with doubt. We weaponized it. Rather than using doubt as an opportunity to express our needs, we used it as an opportunity to accuse one another of the shortcomings we surely felt the other person had. Instead of using doubt to invite intimacy, we used it to create distance. Instead of using doubt to pay closer attention to one another and to seek together, we used it as an excuse to turn away from one another. Eventually, burdened under our ever-growing heap of doubt, our relationship predictably collapsed and buried us.
We can heap this kind of doubt onto our loved ones, ourselves, or God. I call this kind of doubt “closed doubt.” We use closed doubt as an excuse to care less, to hope less, to try less, and to run away. But that’s not all there is to doubt. I call doubt spinning in the opposite direction “open doubt.” Open doubt is a very different animal. Closed doubt is sure of itself—absolutely not. Open doubt’s not so sure—maybe not. Closed doubt rejects. Open doubt wonders. Closed doubt says, “I’ve heard the stories, but I doubt there’s anything interesting on the other side of that old mountain. I doubt you could even get there if you tried.” Open doubt says, “I’ve heard the stories, and I wonder if there is anything interesting on the other side of that old mountain. I wonder if it’s even possible to get there. I wonder if the old stories might have a part in my life. It’s hard to believe, but I wonder…”
I once heard a colleague of mine, Rev. Sekou, preach a sermon about faith. And he told this story about two women caring for a young child who was sick with fever. They didn’t have an icebox, so they had no way to cool the child off. So, one of the women took a bucket out from under the sink, put it out on the front steps, and came back inside, and then the two women together prayed for hail. Now when she put the bucket out, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky, if I remember the story right. But God heard the prayers, God saw their faith, and God sent the hail for the sick child.
I probably heard this story ten years ago now and it’s stuck with me. Putting out the bucket and praying for hail is a metaphor for faith. But I also think about the second woman in the story. There were two women caring for the child, remember. What was she doing in that story? She didn’t put the bucket out. And maybe she thinks this idea is as crazy as I thought it was when I first heard it. But when it came time to pray, she prayed too. That I think is a metaphor for open doubt—she left the bucket out on the steps and prayed even though she maybe didn’t believe. Sometimes imperfect faith and open doubt don’t look all that different.
To be sure, Thomas is carrying a lot of emotion with him, in our reading this morning, right? He’s mourning, he’s afraid, he’s angry. Now everyone is telling him these incredible stories, and if they’re true, he’s missed the most important moment of his life because he was out doing the shopping or something. He’s exhausted. But he leaves the bucket out on the front steps, right? He sticks around for a week. God hears this as an invitation. And Jesus responds by offering up his body, his most tender places, his still open wounds, to Thomas’ touch—an honor the other disciples didn’t seek, didn’t ask for, and didn’t receive.
Wonder is a key ingredient of an open doubt, but wonder can also be the outcome of open doubt—that wonderful moment when the hail hits the bucket. The numinous, awesome, terrific intimacy of putting your fingers inside the body of the resurrected Jesus—WOW! Wow…
So, Beloved, my prayer for all of you this Easter is that you be a little kinder to your doubts and to yourselves and to all of us doubters. Doubt is a normal, healthy, and even a necessary part of faith. Doubts can be burdensome to carry, but I think that’s because we carry our doubts as our private shame—a social stigma, the reason we don’t belong, the reason we’re different than everybody else at church! But faith actually requires doubt because we don’t always have “proof.” The hail doesn’t always fall right when we need it to. But if we just leave the bucket out, open to the sky, we may be surprised by the ways that God can come to fill it.
In 1917, Rudolf Otto, who was a German Lutheran theologian and comparative religionist, published a book called “The Idea of the Holy.” In this book he invented a new word: numinous. He defined the numinous as the beginning of all religious experience. It’s an experience of that which is wholly other, totally outside of yourself, a capital-M Mystery (like God, or maybe like the empty tomb) that leaves you feeling both fascinated and terrified.
We think we like to be terrified—a little bit, some of us. Some of us like roller coasters. People pay money and wait in line to scream upside down. Some people love scary movies. Ghosts, monsters, zombies, serial killers all get our adrenaline pumping. We think we like to be terrified, but really we just like to be exhilarated and frightened a little. We like the jump scream in the dark theater, the loop-de-loop at the amusement park. We like fear packaged as entertainment. Nobody really wants to be truly terrified. Most of us don’t really want to have to run for our lives from a guy with a chainsaw. Most of us don’t really want to meet an evil spirit on a dark and stormy night. And to be honest, for similar reasons, many of us don’t really want to encounter God either.
In fact, I would say that we fear the experience of encountering God most of all. That’s why Rudolf Otto had to create a new word, numinous, even just to describe it. Because we’re so uncomfortable with the idea of acknowledging that there may be something so much bigger and so much more wonderful than us that we disrespect the very words we have to communicate about these things! --Did you remember to pick up milk? --Yes. --Awesome. Really? Awesome? --Are you free Tuesday? --Yes. --Terrific. Terrific?! What do you mean by that, exactly?
We waste the word “awesome” on mundane things and we rob it of its power to describe truly awesome, awe-inspiring, holy things. We use the word “terrific” to just mean “very good” and we forget that a terrific thing is not just a great thing, it’s a great and terrifying thing—terror-ific. We don’t want to think about that. --Can I borrow a pen? --Here you go. --Terrific. --Were you able to find parking? --Yeah. --Awesome. We don’t even want those words in our vocabulary because they might point us towards the experience we’re most afraid of—truly encountering God.
The writer of the Gospel of Mark understands this, I think. The original version of the Gospel of Mark ended right where we ended our reading this morning, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Empty Tomb. Terror and Amazement. The End. The oldest Greek manuscripts we have of Mark’s Gospel, the book ends right there.
And it just drove people nuts. It was a little too ambiguous even for the true believers. They were afraid that this deficient gospel might confuse people or turn them off. So, they added endings. They added at least three endings to Mark’s gospel in different places, including the one or two that you’ll always read in your Bible—all of them adding in bits of the resurrection stories from the other three gospels—so that if you only read Mark’s gospel, you won’t be left thinking terror and amazement is all there is to the story.
But we have four gospels in our Bible, so we don’t have to miss out. And I think we should take seriously what Mark thought the most important part of the Easter story was without covering it up with the best parts of other versions of the story. If we’re going to hear the good news according to Mark, then our Easter morning can’t just be about the amazement and joy of resurrection, we also need to make a little room for terror, to be afraid—because that’s how Mark ends the whole story—with amazement and with terror. True, profound fear.
In some ways this is the perfect resurrection story for where we are right now in our history, right? Mark gives us the upheaval of the empty tomb—all the hope, all the possibility of the promise fulfilled, but also all the uncertainty, all the doubt, all the fear. Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it’s true! Oh my gosh… I can’t believe it’s true… I mean, we’re living in similar moment of upheaval.
There was a headline in the Washington Post yesterday, “As Coronavirus Vaccinations and Infections Surge, Hope Collides with Fear.” In the article they interviewed Dr. Laura Forman who runs the emergency room in the hospital in my hometown of Warwick, RI. She told them that a few weeks back, the first time she pulled into work and saw that the refrigerated truck they’d been using as a makeshift morgue was gone, all she could do was stare at the empty space where it had been and cry. “It was the most powerful symbol of hope,” she said.
But close on the heels of hope, there’s dread: There are variants, it looks like we’re in for another surge, mask mandates were dropped too soon in some places, there are still lots of adults who say they don’t plan to get the vaccine, and what about kids—they’re not vaccinated yet. This could be a great summer of hope! Or it could be another pandemic summer. Which will it be? I don’t know! Hope collides with fear! An Easter Upheaval!
We’ve had a monumental change in our political fortunes recently in this country. Democrats control the presidency, the senate, and the house. Georgia went Blue! Can you believe it? If you lean left, you’re thrilled about it, you’re expecting big things. But a recent survey found that 2/3 of Republicans believe that the last election was stolen and invalid. There’s the looming shadow of the Capitol riot with its threat of white nationalism and domestic terrorism. Georgia has now just passed harsh new voting restrictions.
The moment of victory so quickly turns to pessimism. Are we riding high into a new Camelot or are we going to just be run over by politics as usual? Are we entering a new era of bipartisan cooperation or is the pendulum just swinging left through an increasingly polarized time? I don’t know! Sometimes it’s even hard to tell the good news from the bad news. If the democrats get rid of the filibuster so that they can push through as much of their legislative agenda as possible, is that good news or bad news? I honestly don’t know. The pathway to hope seems so narrow and so fraught.
Mark’s Easter morning story acknowledges something about good news—that all news, even good news, is complicated news. There is no good news—not even God’s good news—that will guarantee you a painless, conflict-free life. Mark acknowledges the way God works in our lives and in our world—through our faithful struggles to do right, to do good, and to do better. The good news of Easter morning is not that our struggles are over. In some way Mark’s message seems to be that Easter morning is both victory and struggle, but even in the struggles Mark promises us that the crucified and raised Christ goes ahead of us and will meet us again as promised.
We could complain that Mark doesn’t actually provide any “proof” of the resurrection! That seems to be a flaw. But maybe Mark was looking forward a hundred, a thousand, two thousand years, and he realized that whatever he might write down, nothing could ever “prove” resurrection to you or to me. Even as the other gospels record it, Jesus’ resurrection was a mostly private event—for Jesus’ disciples and closest followers only. It wasn’t televised. And so Mark chooses to end his gospel where the faith of every Christian must pick up—with the amazing possibility and the terrifying burden of believing.
Resurrection can’t be proven. You believe in it, or you don’t. If you don’t believe in things that can’t be proven, you maybe don’t believe it. But when people say that they don’t believe in things that can’t be proven, they mean proven in origin or proven in fact. We can’t see backwards 2,000 years, so we can’t prove exactly what happened in that empty tomb. And there’s no scientific evidence to support such a thing as resurrection ever happening. And that could be the end of the argument.
But there’s another way to believe, which is really more about faith (as in the way you live) than it is about belief (what you think). And it’s more about the end than about the origin. So, belief says, “You can’t prove that Jesus was resurrected 2,000 years ago.” But faith says, “I believe that the power of the resurrected Christ fulfills my life and can heal the world.” It’s more about art than it is about science. Science is about perceiving facts. Art is about expressing the truth, making it whole, making it beautiful.
If we believe that dead is dead and Jesus is dead, the world is a little less amazing. And that suits some of us just fine. We want a manageable world, a physical world, a universe free of capital-M Mysteries and capital-M Meaning, a universe that we can eventually entirely conquer and understand. A universe that will eventually run out of surprises. Where a human life doesn’t count for much, but on the upside, you don’t have to worry about how you fit into the bigger picture, if there is no bigger picture. A little less amazing, a little less terrifying. A universe where the word awesome can best describe a really good cupcake you ate and has no further application.
But if we believe in a living, resurrected Christ—that changes everything. Every particle in the universe is touched by that light. We can’t prove resurrection in origin, but if we make it a part of our faith and if we live it out as the truth and meaning of our lives, it transforms us. We prove it in faith. We prove it in action. We prove it with the world we build together. We prove it with love.
Resurrection adds WOW to our lives, but sometimes WOW is terrifying. A living Christ in everything? Suddenly we’re so much more than we thought! Everybody else is too. And simultaneously, we’re suddenly not sufficient unto ourselves anymore. We need God, we need one another. The universe has been cracked open and at it’s true center there’s not just atoms, and particles, and fields—No, there’s meaning, truth, purpose, calling. WOW! Wow…
Beloved, Easter morning is not just for us true believers. It doesn’t matter maybe if you believe in resurrection or not, or even if you believe in God or not. Mark is inviting all of us to feel the awesome, terrific possibility that we don’t know where the limits of the universe or of ourselves are set. Mark is inviting us to rush out into a transformed, numinous universe and to live as if there is Mystery and Meaning everywhere.
This photograph was taken by Joshua Irwandi for National Geographic on April 18, 2020 at a hospital in Indonesia. The body of a suspected COVID-19 victim has been sealed in some sort of cloth and plastic wrap turning it into a modern-day mummy awaiting the tomb.
We are approaching 550,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States and 3 million worldwide. For more than a year now we have been gripped in a sort-of perpetual Holy Saturday—we’re hidden away in the upper room with the doors locked and the curtains drawn. Our lives have been disrupted and devastated. We are mourning. We are afraid. We honestly don’t know if anything will ever be all right again.
And we have faith. And we have hope.
Let us pray with the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama:
Jesus of the unexpected,
for at least some of your life
this was not how you imagined its end.
Yet even at the end,
you kept steady in your conviction.
Jesus, keep us steady.
Jesus, keep us steady.
Because, Jesus, keep us steady.
WARNING: The photo in this post shows an unsanitized depiction of bodily injury and death.
WARNING: The image the image in this post shows terrible bodily injury and blood.
This photograph was taken by Carlos Gonzalez for the Star Tribune at a protest in Minneapolis on May 27, 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer. We see a drawing of Floyd hung up on a pole with two police officers in riot gear and gas masks standing on either side. In the drawing Floyd looks happy, peaceful, full of life. He doesn’t look like he’s just been crucified.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man was killed while he was being arrested for allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. The arresting officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd’s neck with his knee for almost 9 minutes while Floyd begged for his life. The entire incident was caught on video by bystanders who tried to intervene to save Floyd’s life, explaining that they could see that Floyd was in distress and that he had apparently stopped breathing. The video sent shockwaves around the world and began yet another reckoning with police brutality and racism in the United States of America.
Watching a man murdered on video is a gut-wrenching experience, but one aspect of the video that stood out to many of us as particularly devastating was that Floyd told the officers, “I can’t breathe,” more than 20 times. “I can’t breathe!” became a rallying cry once again in protests directed at the police.
Crucifixion is such a brutal execution, it’s likely that autopsies of the victims of crucifixion would reveal a range of possible causes of death—exposure, heart failure, and asphyxiation. When the strength of a victim’s arms and legs gave out on the cross and they were hanging as dead weight, it would become very difficult to inhale and exhale, and eventually the body becomes so exhausted that the crucified person can’t breathe.
From the perspective of Good Friday, George Floyd was crucified. Not just because agents of the state stopped his breathing, but because crucifixion, in the ancient world and within our Christian tradition, is the ultimate statement of the powers of death. For the Roman Empire, the ones who crucified Jesus, death on a cross was not merely a way to dispose of one human life. Crucifixion was a tool to crush the hopes of all people who refused to serve them or bow to them. For the Jewish people who believed that they were created in the image of God, crucifixion was meant to be a violent reeducation declaring that you have been made and will be unmade according to the power and the
vision of Rome. The cross was raised up like a billboard, a living-dying-bodily advertisement of power and subjugation. The crucified human being on the cross, raised before their own community to slowly, publicly suffer, became a torturous exposition of the personal and collective frailty of the vanquished. The cross was a simple, practical way of showing the world who the boss was, and the cross was the Empire’s way of celebrating its own vicious victory over the lives of those it was conquering.
Thousands and thousands were crucified as Jesus was. And thousands and thousands
more, witnessing these executions, slipped beneath the hopelessness of that overpowering statement of death—you are less than God made you to be.
We observe Good Friday not because there is any truth or glory in what is happening on
Golgotha—what is happening to Jesus, what is happening to George Floyd, what is happening to countless others. We are here today because we are called upon by Christ to see through this lie. We are called by Christ to repudiate it. And so we must say, “Black Lives Matter,” and we must fight to make the world behave like it’s true.
Let us pray the prayer written onto this picture of George Floyd:
Oh, my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls into heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy. Amen.
The victims of crucifixion were stripped naked before they were hung up to die on the cross.
This photograph was taken by Matthew Abbott for the New York Times on January 10, 2020. He took it in Bago State Forest, located a few hundred miles southwest of Sydney during the worst brushfire season in Australia’s history. We see a charred and ash covered landscape. Struggling up a devastated hill is a dehydrated and starving wild horse that looks like it’s on the verge of death.
During the nine months of fire, 72,000 square miles were burned—including 53% of the Gondwana World Heritage Rainforests and 80% of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. 3,500 homes and other building were destroyed. 34 people lost their lives in the fires, and it’s estimated that more than a billion animals were killed, including 1/3 of the country’s koalas.
The photographer Matthew Abbott said this about the forest stripped by fire: “Once a fire goes through, things are just so quiet. You don’t realize all the bugs, all the birds, all the little beings make these noises. It’s just so disconcerting to be walking through this destroyed forest and have complete silence.”
Let us Pray:
God, we ask you to cover those who are exposed, to heal the empty places, and to remain with those who have had everything else taken away. Amen.
On September 9, 2020 the largest migrant camp in Europe, Camp Moira on the Greek Island of Lesbos, was destroyed by fire. The camp was designed to hold 2,200 people, but it was estimated to have held about 13,000 people. On September 12, having barely escaped the fire with their lives, having lost what little they had, with nowhere to live, and with no way off the island, some of the migrants began to protest. Police responded with tear gas. It was a catastrophe within a catastrophe within a catastrophe—something like a third fall, I guess.
This photograph was taken by Angelos Tzortzinis for the AFP. We see a young migrant boy, stressed out and afraid, reacting to the sound of the tear gas canisters being fired. His right foot is squeezed in tension. Drool runs from his mouth. He holds his head and screams and weeps his terror and his devastation.
There are pictures in the Stations of the Cross this year that are harder to look at, but this one is the hardest for me to look away from. This boy has been pushed down, and I want to pick him up. I just want to pick him up.
Let us pray:
Jesus, you who were a refugee child, have mercy on those with no homes, no country, and no way forward. Amen.
In Luke’s Gospel, many women follow Jesus as he heads to Golgotha weeping and beating their breasts for him. Jesus turns to them and tells them not to weep for him but to weep for themselves. Things are on a worsening path, he tells them. And he asks them, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it’s dry?”
I’ve always heard these words to the women of Jerusalem as a reminder to us all that crucifixion won’t end with Jesus. We say that in Jesus’ death he took on the sin of the world. But he certainly didn’t end the sin of the world. Violence, suffering, and injustice are still with us. We all participate in these sins, they are a part of who we are and why we seek redemption. But violence, suffering, injustice, and crucifixion itself are also tools that the powerful use to remain in power.
Jesus’ words, “If they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it’s dry?” remind me of the words of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller explaining how he ended up in a Nazi concentration camp. He said, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Abandoned by the male disciples, it is the women who Jesus delivers this message to. As the labor activist Joe Hill wrote to a friend shortly before his execution, “Don’t mourn. Organize!”
This photograph was taken by Yevgeny Yerchak for the European Pressphoto Agency on September 8, 2020 in Minsk, Belarus. We see a group, mostly women, who have been separated from a larger protest by shadowy paramilitary law enforcement officials. The women had come out in demonstration against Alexander Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s last dictator,” after he claimed he had won 80% of the vote and a sixth term in office in the country’s presidential election. When I see their linked arms and when I see the look of resolve and fearlessness in their eyes, I think they must have heard Jesus’ words to the women of Jerusalem. And this is their response.
Let us pray:
Jesus, we live in a time surrounded by dry wood. Don’t let us mourn for too long. Send us into the parched world with the water of our faith. Amen.
This photograph, called “The Last Goodbye,” is by Ami Vitale and won a People’s Choice Award in the 2020 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. We’re seeing the final goodbye between Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, and one of his caretakers, Joseph Wachira shortly before Sudan’s death at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya following a series of infections and other health problems.
Northern White Rhinos were hunted to extinction in the wild by 2008. Sudan only survived because he was living in a zoo. Rhinos were hunted as big game trophies and their horns are considered aphrodisiacs, hangover cures, and status symbols in certain parts of the world. And so we’ve lost one of God’s creatures to the snake oil and vanity of the globe’s elite.
It is precisely this tendency in us for the powerful to exploit the weak that delivered Jesus to the cross. In that sense, at least, Christ and Sudan are connected—in weakness, in exploitation, in innocence, and in death.
Let us pray as Sudan’s caretaker Joseph Wachira prays:
Father, we come before your presence. We pray to thank you for the days that you’ve given us life. When you brought these animals into this world you commanded us to watch over them. You are the creator of the animals we protect. Let us live longer to watch over them. Amen.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations