- Parish House
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter
The Rev. Scott Walters
Many years ago I was at a bad Mexican restaurant with my brother and parents. And my brother asked the waiter for sour cream. We’ll give the poor guy the benefit of the doubt and assume he was new at his job and a little nervous. But when he returned from the kitchen, he said, “I’m so sorry. We don’t seem to have any sour cream. But here’s some mayonnaise.”
I’m not sure why I remember this little exchange after what must be 25 years. Maybe it’s the visceral reaction many of us have to the idea of dropping a dollop of mayo on one’s burrito. But it was the story of Thomas and his doubts that finally gave me a little sympathy for that waiter. And, just in case the reasons for this aren’t obvious to you, here’s why. For most of us there have been times in our lives when we’ve felt like that waiter with regards to our faith. We feel like what God wants from us is sour cream, but all we’ve got is this mayonnaise. God wants belief, but all we have is doubt. It’s just not the same stuff. It just won’t do. Or at least that’s what we think.
There are a few familiar places to go with the story of Doubting Thomas for us modern readers. Let’s face it. People tend to be more tolerant of doubt in a tradition like this one. So Thomas can be a kind of hero to us by default. But maybe there are different kinds of doubt, or maybe different ways of doubting. And maybe one of the story’s lessons is that the honest and open hearted doubt of Thomas was the best he could could manage to bring to the table. It wasn’t what Jesus was after. But it was enough, if it was all that Thomas honestly had. And it was enough. So maybe the key to the story for us is not an unqualified embrace of all doubting, but an inquiry into what might have made Thomas’s doubt ultimately so life giving.
Thomas’s most famous line, of course, is, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” I’ve always assumed a tone of defiance in that line, I think. But belief isn’t an action like, say, doing the dishes. It’s a very different kind of thing to say, “Unless you eat an entire burrito slathered in mayonnaise, I will not do the dishes.” It’s different because doing the dishes is a decision one can make at a particular point in time, even if some other hard but doable thing is required, right?
But belief is more like a symptom of other things. So even if we trust the story and see Thomas’s disbelief as a lack, as something that kept him from experiencing the hope and excitement of the community of Jesus’s friends, belief just isn’t something you can will yourself into on the fly. Mustering up belief is one more bootstrap pull, a physical and emotional impossibility. Belief us something that has to build up in us, whether gradually or in a flash, out of experience.
So it’s qualitatively different to say that unless these things happen, I won’t believe. And so maybe what Thomas was really doing was just being truthful. Not defiant, just truthful. “I’m sorry, friends, but belief just hasn’t happened in me and I don’t think it will until something else happens to me.”
If that’s so, then what Thomas was doing was being honestly present, refusing to pretend, not refusing to believe. He was entrusting the people around him with what he really felt and thought about the world.
There are plenty of reasons not to be fully present to people about what we really think about things. Sometimes we’re scared of being belittled or rejected. Sometimes we’re just being kind to someone we don’t think will like what we think. But whatever our motivations, and however appropriate it may be in a moment not to say the wild or horrific thing that’s actually on our mind, not telling the whole truth is always a distance between one person and another. To be clear, I’m not a proponent of telling every last human being every last dark thought you’ve ever had. But there’s got to be somebody you can tell about those dark thoughts, those crazy ideas. We’re not made to keep our distance from everyone.
So what if Thomas’s doubt was his way of reaching toward Jesus with whatever he had? If it was, it was a conspicuously different thing than the religious leaders who were forever trying to trap Jesus or trip him up. They were doubters too, but they didn’t doubt in good faith.
And it’s Thomas’s changed mind after his encounter with the body of the risen Christ that shows us he was willing to see the world for what it was. Even if he was proven wrong in the process. Thomas’s changed mind is what proves his doubt wasn’t the doubt of someone trying to stay safely aloof and apart. Quite the opposite. His doubt meant that he was all in. Pretending was out.
Thomas is called “The Twin” in John’s gospel. And there’s a lovely poem by Denise Levertov in which she imagines Thomas seeing the father of the boy possessed by an unclean spirit in Mark 9 as his true twin. This is the man who came to Jesus asking for his son’s healing, and says, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
In the poem,Thomas sees something entirely familiar in, as Levertov puts it, “a man whose entire being/ had knotted itself/ into the one tightdrawn question,/ Why,/ why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,/ why is this child who will soon be a man/ tormented, torn, twisted?/ Why is he cruelly punished/ who has done nothing except be born?”
In the poem, Thomas empathizes with a father for whom belief comes hard because of the suffering of his son. It’s doubt that’s wrapped in heartbreak and confusion, not arrogance and defensiveness. And that’s how Levertov sees Thomas’s doubt. Not as that of someone too proud to be gullible. But heartbroken, honest doubt that he doesn’t know what to do about.
But here’s how her poem ends:
…when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unraveling,
all things quicken to color, to form,
not answered but given
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.
It’s a beautiful image. Some essential knot unbinding itself in Thomas as Jesus invites his touch. There was no “scalding pain” or “shame for his obstinate need” but light streaming in. His truthful, but open hearted doubting was enough. It was what he had to offer. And for Jesus it was enough.
This makes great sense to me. Being a skeptic is no great achievement. Being truthful about our doubts and open hearted enough to let them be undone truly is. I recognize too much of the mind of the Pharisees in myself. I can wield my doubts and questions as weapons, and even if I lose the always reductive argument I seem to be having, I quickly rationalize my wrongness away. The distance between me and my opponent grows only larger as my wounded ego pushes back hard. What I want is to doubt like Thomas. Learning to offer what I truly think and feel and believe to God and to the world as a genuine part of my interior self, and struggling to stay open to be changed, knowing well enough that a changed mind comes very very hard in this life. A changed heart, even harder. Even in the face of a resurrected body.
The good news is that, as the poem put it, our knotted up interior can be unraveled if it’s offered up. Things can quicken to color, to form. Our questions may not be answered, but they can be given their part in an unfolding design lit by a risen sun. Put another way, if our honest and open hearted doubt is all we have to offer, it’s enough. If we offer it up, even to each other, not in defiance and at a distance, but as a truthful reach out toward the people we trust, that is enough. God can meet us there. Even our doubts can find their place in the sunlit world once again. And our hearts, in the encounter, may even be changed. Amen.