Doubt, in Good Measure

Today there’s no escaping Thomas. Our Gospel story centers on a particular character, Thomas Didymus, Thomas the twin, but you know him by another name: Doubting Thomas.

How do we handle doubt? This morning, I want to try and make a distinction between “doubt” as a thought process, and doubt as a posture. Doubt as a thought process, I believe, is crucial for faith. Doubt as a posture can become toxic.

Doubt as a thought process, I’ll say again, is crucial for faith. Without doubt, can you really have faith? I don’t think so. If you know something, beyond a doubt, you have certainty. The Episcopal Church is a sacramental church, which is to say, we celebrate mysteries. What happens to bread and wine on that altar? Somehow Jesus is present. “How?”, you might ask, and I’ll likely respond: “It’s a mystery.” What will happen later this morning when we baptize Mira Carol Powell? She’ll be marked as Christ’s own forever? “How?,” you might ask, and I’ll respond, “it’s a mystery.” Sacramental Christians believe in ancient signs, in tradition, in marking the time and the stages of life. And we do it with mystery.

Sometimes in our Pilgrimage classes, like the one that will start here next week, I get a little pushback. These classes are designed for folks who are new to the Episcopal tradition, or to Christianity. They’re also designed for anyone who is asking questions, exploring doubts, wondering how this faith and church stuff might work for them. I get pushback in part, I think, because much of the church has been in the business of certainty. The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican tradition where we find our roots, has had to hold too many diverse positions together to be certain about much. We’ve argued about the Bible, Bishops, the Eucharist, women, LGBT people, race, colonialism. We try and hold diverse people and perspectives together. So we look to mystery. We say our prayers together, even when we have questions, especially when we have questions. I believe this is one of our strengths as a tradition today.

The Episcopalian Madeleine L’Engle, famous for her children’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” wrote in ways that challenged her readers. She wanted them to ask questions about God, family, even the nature of the universe. Her most famous book was rejected by countless publishers before it found a home. The publishers initially told her the questions were too big, the themes were to heavy on science, for a young audience. The book went on to win the Newbery Medal.

On one of her book tours, a child asked L’Engle about her faith. She said, “Do you really believe without any doubts at all. L’Engle replied, “I believe with LOTs of doubts and I base my life on that belief.”

L’Engle brings me to the distinction I want to make about doubt. There’s a difference between acknowledging doubt, thinking through questions, looking for evidence, and adopting doubt as a spiritual posture.

Yesterday a crowd of thousands gathered in downtown St. Louis, one of many such crowds in cities around the world, to march in the name of science. One of the signs held high in the march in St. Louis was on the Post Dispatch’s homepage last night. It had a picture of a Bible and a caption that said, “This is not a Science Textbook.” I thoroughly agree.

Have you ever been disbelieved? Especially if you were telling a story that was important to you? We typically think of children in this kind of situation. A young person tells a story, and the adults all nod their heads and then someone turns and says, “but that’s not possible.” The child is frustrated and disheartened “but you HAVE to believe me,” she says. No one is swayed. Have you known that kind of disbelief? Have you been so disbelieved?

Many in our society have used the Bible as a tool for dis-belief. Scientists who have spent careers refining data, pushing the edges of discovery, almost unanimously agree about human-caused climate change. And they have been disbelieved. The Christian tradition has been used to sew doubt in the validity of science. Many Christians have taken a posture of doubt toward science. They call themselves climate “change skeptics.” Our country is making some dangerous gambles on policy enabled by this doubtful stance. Yesterday the scientists took to the streets.

Scientists would tell you, doubt in the right measure is important. You have to question your hypotheses, you have to look for the evidence, but when you’ve heard the science and you doubt anyway, that’s doubt to a different degree. These folks tend to call themselves “climate change skeptics.” But that kind of doubt, that posture of doubt, is not just skepticism it’s cynicism. That kind of doubt can be toxic to your soul.

Now many climate change skeptics, would say they are distrustful that government can do anything about the science. That is the sort of cynicism I worry can be toxic. When science and government have worked together, we’ve gone to the moon. We funded cures for diseases like polio. Government, in a democracy, is the people acting together. Cynicism would have us say: “why bother? you can’t fix it anyway.” Cynicism leads to inaction, depression, an inability to make change.

Scientists, as a whole, and I know, it’s dangerous to talk about groups of folks as a whole, but the scientists I know tend not to be cynics. Folks who spend their lives testing theories, looking for answers, they tend toward hope. They want to try and conserve our planet, or, if there’s too much damage done to save a particular system, to find ways to help us adapt and live with the change. Scientists also tend to drive folks nuts when they get down to the bare bones of what we can know. Push a scientist or a theologian too hard and they both start talking about “mystery” and they’ll have the same wistful look in their eyes.

Which finally brings me around to Thomas. You did know I would make it back to scripture. Didn’t you? In the Gospels, today’s story is Thomas’ big part. He’s been mostly offscreen, a name in a list of Jesus’ followers. No other action centers on Thomas, but he does have a couple of lines before today’s story.

Late in the Gospel, Thomas, sensing the danger ahead as they approach Jerusalem, says to his fellow disciples. “Let us go, that we might die with him.” Thomas has a sense of what is to come. A few chapters later, Jesus has said told them Thomas is right, he will die, and he’ll go to his Father and prepare a place for them. Thomas says in response, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus says to Thomas that famous line, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Thomas had given his life to this Jesus. We don’t hear the story of Thomas’ call in the Gospels, but whether he was a fisherman like Peter, James and John, or a tax collector like Matthew, we can presume Thomas gave up his way of living to follow Jesus. And his few words in the Gospels give us the sense that he’d given his heart as well. Thomas was all in. So it would make sense that Thomas was disappointed, grieving, depressed. I can understand why he might have avoided that upper room at first. He’s not ready to jump at this sign of hope. He’s been burned. So Jesus meets him. “See the scars. Know that it’s me.” Only then Thomas will say, “My Lord and my God.”

When I hear Jesus’ words, “don’t doubt, believe.” I hear Jesus imploring Thomas: “Don’t become a cynic.” Don’t let life and loss drag you to a place that is hopeless. Faith is not so much ascribing the right constellation of ideas. Faith is a posture toward life. Jesus doesn’t want Thomas to check his brain at the door. Jesus doesn’t say: “believe despite the evidence.” Jesus says, “here I am.” Jesus wants Thomas to choose life, to choose hope, to choose resurrection.

As Christians, we say we are “Easter People.” When we baptize someone we say, “you are Risen with Christ.” New life is always possible. Your life can be new today. You can lean toward that “indescribable and glorious joy” Paul talks about. The nineteenth century Episcopal preacher Phillips Brooks said, “The great Easter truth is not that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the resurrection.” How can your life be new today? How can faith help you lean, through the doubt, to new life?

“I believe with all sorts of doubts, and I base my life on that belief.” Doubt, in the right measure, is crucial for survival. If you can’t hold doubt, you can’t handle mystery, and what is life if not mystery. So doubt, in good measure. But be careful, because too much doubt can bruise your soul. When you adopt doubt as a permanent posture toward life, you can push away important data. You can push away good news. You can push away faith. Be careful.

Can you believe with all sorts of doubts? Can you, like Thomas, base your life on that belief?

Easter: Evidence for Resurrection

Did you catch the setting of this morning’s Gospel? “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” While it was still dark, that’s when Mary came to the tomb. Darkness is a theme in John’s Gospel. This morning, that phrase which starts us off sets the whole tone: while it was still dark.”

The whole Gospel story is filled with fear, confusion, and a sense of dread. “Where have you laid him?” Mary asks again and again. The tone matters. The setting matters. You have to remember, this is a community in shock. Mary, Peter, James, John, and the other disciples have given up lives and livelihoods to follow Jesus. Their hope died on the cross. They’ve watched their leader be silenced by the might of Rome. We don’t need news of Resurrection when all seems right in the world.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” The work Mary goes to do isn’t glamorous. According the Luke’s Gospel she’s headed there with spices. Jesus had been hastily buried ahead of the Passover. Under the cover of darkness, hoping not to draw attention, Mary wants to try to bring some dignity to the degradation. Instead she finds an empty tomb. She panics. She weeps.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” The question has to come twice that dark morning. Lost in her grief, still under the dim light of morning, she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Then he says her name. The world changes. Resurrection happens while we’re feeling lost and scared. “Early on the first day of the week, when it was still dark…” Darkness, sadness, fear, these set the stage for resurrection.

Modern folks have a hard time with spiritual truths like resurrection. We hunger for facts. When I was in high school, at the urging of an Evangelical friend I read a bestselling book called “The Case for Christ.” The crime journalist Lee Strobel tried to make a case AGAINST his wife’s conversion to Christianity. He looked at the Bible, the history, talked to experts and instead he convinced himself in the truth of the Gospel. Let me be clear. I’m not recommending the book, or the movie that has apparently just come out. Each of Strobel’s chapters talks about a kind of “evidence” especially for the resurrection. “Eyewitness evidence,” “Corroborating Evidence,” “Scientific Evidence,” “The Evidence of the Missing Body…” You get the picture.

I have to tell you, I find books like this interesting, but not compelling. Every so often archeologists discover a new papyrus or tablet and the media reports the “evidence” that Jesus was not resurrected. History is important, science is critical in our day, but if you need facts to prove your thesis, you’re not talking about faith. You’re not talking about resurrection. When we try to prove faith with science, we end up in some strange places. Even if you could build a case, based on 2000 year old evidence that Jesus’ body walked out of the tomb, I couldn’t tell you that was evidence for Resurrection.

Evidence for resurrection is something else entirely because Resurrection is a spiritual truth. Resurrection means that new life springs even after tragedy. Resurrection means that even when we mess up royally, God can take the wreckage and make something new. God can bring life out of death. Love can conquer hate. Goodness can win against evil. Resurrection as a spiritual truth I do find compelling. I can live my life looking for hope in the darkest places. I can live my life watching for life to spring out of death. 

You see, I do want to talk about evidence for Resurrection this morning, but not the kind of evidence in the Case for Christ.

The New Yorker this week features a short biography of Pauli Murray, a saint of our church, but not one you’ve likely heard much about. Pauli Murray was the first black woman ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Though she came to the priesthood late in life, like Mary Magdalene before her, Pauli Murray was an early riser.

In 1940, on her way from New York to North Carolina to spend Easter with her family Murray was arrested for refusing to go to the back of a segregated bus. Pauli missed Easter that year and did her time in jail, unable to pay the fine for her disorderly conduct charge. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t quite ready to organize the bus boycotts that would begin in Montgomery when Rosa Parks followed Pauli’s lead fifteen years later.

Pauli was refused admission to the University of North Carolina because of her skin color. She was frustrated, but she used her anger to fuel her path. Instead she took other steps toward integration. Murray was the first woman to attend Howard Law School, at the time thought of as the “Black Harvard.” While she was there, she wrote a senior thesis where to defend and argument she’d had with a professor. Murray argued lawyers should stop trying to prove that the black schools were unequal. The wins were too small: one school at a time. Instead she said, make a legal challenge to the “separate” part of the “separate but equal” framework of Jim Crow. Her professor called her crazy. That same professor later used Pauli’s thesis as part of the winning argument in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case which ended legal segregation.

The New Yorker article, and the recent biography on which the it is based, both profile Murray’s struggles around sexuality and gender. Pauli was born Anna, but hated the name. She shortened her middle name “Pauline,” and used it instead. Though she always used feminine pronouns, she never felt fully comfortable with her gender. She married a man, but the marriage only lasted a weekend. Pauli had deeper romances with women. While she left these stories out of her autobiography, she left behind journals and letters that described inner work to reconcile a queer identity before the language, psychology, and society caught up with her.

Pauli was ahead of her time in many regards. I’m grateful to be part of a church that eventually found the guts to ordain her, and 25 years later to declare her a saint. If you want evidence of resurrection, I submit the life of Pauli Murray. I submit the thousands who continued to stand with faith before the world was ready. I submit the witnesses, the saints, even those who are not widely remembered. On Easter morning we proclaim the resurrection with trumpets and triumph, but new life often comes before it can be fully understood. New life comes about early, while it is still dark. (That’s why we started the service in darkness this morning). Resurrection happens when the world is not yet ready. We are always playing catchup to God’s work.

I don’t know where you are on the journey of faith this morning. We say around here, wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome. Faith is a journey, and sometimes the road gets dark. Sometimes the world around can seem off-kilter. If these last months have been difficult for you, if you find yourself struggling with fear and shock, if you find yourself turning off the radio and putting down the paper out of frustration, you are well prepared for Resurrection.

God can and does make new life out of the worst of human circumstances. While all the reporting may cover bad news, there is good news today and every day. Life continues to triumph. Love continues to win. Light continues to shine, even in the darkest corners. When you look at the big picture, there is evidence for resurrection all around.

The Necessity of the Cross

I’ve given this sermon a bit of a provocative title: “The Necessity of the Cross.” As I said provocative.  I know many Christians, especially the kind of Christians that end up in Episcopal churches, struggle with the crucifixion. How can we call this “Good” Friday? How do we approach the cross? Even our liturgy has backed off a bit in recent years. For a long time, Good Friday was a three hour service, with sermons on Christ’s last seven words. Our current Prayer Book simplified matters. As I prepared this sermon, as I meditated on the cross this Lent, I decided to revive the older tradition at least in part. I won’t keep you here for three hours. Tonight I want to offer a series of interconnected meditations on words. Not the seven last words of Jesus, but three words that try to make meaning  of The Crucifixion: Substitution, Liberation, and Forgiveness.

Substitution

On Sunday, as we were preparing to read the Passion Gospel, a member of this congregation asked a question that I have heard, and asked myself many times: “Was it necessary for Jesus to be crucified?” For about the last 200 years preachers proposed an answer to this question by emphasizing an almost judicial vision of our standing before God. They preached a particular interpretation of substitution, and it took hold in many imaginations. Today we question that view. Are we “sinners in the hands of an angry God?” Does Jesus take the abuse required by a “just” God? Is that how Jesus stood in our place? If God necessitated that sort of substitution, many Christians today want nothing to do with that God.

In her recent work The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ the Episcopal priest and scholar Fleming Rutledge argues that the abusive theological equation around substitution which developed over the last 200 or so years creates a problematic separation in God. If God’s action in the crucifixion is in punishing Jesus, then the first and second persons of the Trinity are separated. This problem is intuited in the question I began with: “Was it necessary for Jesus to be crucified?” In other words, did God, “the Father,” do this to “the Son?” Ruttledge argues the theology doesn’t pan out.

Still, simply because we disagree with how substitution has been twisted in recent interpretations does not necessitate giving up the motif altogether. For two millennia souls have responded to the Good news that Christ died in our place. How can we distance ourselves from bad theology and still understand substitution?

The immensely popular series of books and movies: “The Hunger Games” begins when a young girl is chosen by lot to fight other children to the death for the entertainment of the powerful in society. When the little girl is chosen, her older sister volunteers to take her place. You can feel the power of substitution in the fictional interchange. In the Bible, all the more. Christ taking our place has been powerful medicine for souls for centuries. But in order for substitution to work, we cannot confuse the actors. God’s place is not wrathful in the sky, requiring blood. God is OUR substitute. In Jesus the fullness of God stood in our place, and suffered at the hands of powerful human beings.

Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian of the 20th century masterfully re-cast the idea of substitution in this work Church Dogmatics. He talks of the Crucifixion as “the Judge judged in our place.” God paid, in the words we’ll hear sung on Easter, “the debt of Adam’s sin.” Sin is not about human beings being “dirty or bad.” Rather the “fall from grace” came when we tried to take on the role of the Judge. We left behind the garden of perfection for the mystery of reason, freedom morality and choice. But choices have consequences. Judgement has consequences.

In the passion stories, Jesus is judged time and again by powerful human figures representing Rome and Israel. Jews and Gentiles judge the Christ. In a 1st century framework these two poles stand in for all the nations, all of humanity. The story of the Passion is this: humanity presumed to judge God, and we got it so very wrong. Into this mess, God entered. God’s action is not in pursuing punishment for humans, but taking on humanity’s verdict.

History has shown that the stakes are high. For centuries Christians blamed “the Jews” for the crucifixion of Jesus. Antisemitism is a part of our legacy as a Christian movement. Some churches today will edit John’s Gospel for their reading of the Passion. John often uses these words “the Jews,” and in this passage, it is particularly painful. John’s “the Jews” call for the crucifixion of Jesus. Some pastors will edit the Gospel and say “the religious authorities.” I have left the words because I believe we have to own our history if we are going to avoid repeating that history.

Instead we are asked to participate in the reading of the Passion. “Crucify Him!” These are hard words. This is the deep end. We want someone to stand in as our substitute on those words. We don’t want to say them. So for centuries Christians participated in an unChristian hatred of Jesus’ own people. But we can’t shift the blame if we are to know the truth. The fullness of God came to dwell with humanity. God came to us, and our society was so disfigured that we crucified God. We participate in the broken system. Unless we own our place in the mess, we cannot apprehend God’s work as substitute on the cross.

Christ stood in as our substitute and broke the chains. The invitation is to continue the substitution. When we, standing as judges, would condemn one another, when we would condemn ourselves, God stands in our place and offers mercy. When we would deepen division, God offers reconciliation. When we would hand down punishment, God steps in and substitutes love. God’s work of substitution makes the cross of shame the tree of life.

Liberation

In the first meditation on a word related to the cross, I worked to reclaim a traditional motif, substitution. In this second meditation I want to try to do the opposite. Can we reframe a common motif? This Good Friday, rather than talking about the “Salvation” can we speak of “Liberation?”

We’re used to hearing about the “salvation” offered upon the cross. But where “salvation” has a ring of “intangible spiritual benefits,” liberation has a sense of the concrete. “Liberation” as a theological term also has detractors. For some it sounds too political. Does Good Friday have a political resonance?

Ignacio Ellacuría is one of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador. He was executed by secret death squads in a government attempt to silence the church’s work with the poor. Before his death, Ellacuría argued that we cannot see the crucifixion in isolation. Jesus’ suffering is connected to the suffering of humanity. Jesus died a death that was reserved for non-citizens. (A citizen would have been beheaded). Jesus died a death that was a cause for shame in his religion. The twenty-first chapter of Deuteronomy proclaims “cursed is the one who hangs on a tree.” Jesus death was shameful and his death was political.

Ellacuría argued that Jesus’ death is specific. Christ’s passion identified God with the thousands who suffer each and every day in our world. The theologian said that we can properly speak of the “crucified people” who suffer at the hands of human injustice each and every day. If we take the message of the cross seriously, we work for concrete liberation in the here and now, in history. We organize, politically, to make change on behalf of the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised.

Reframing salvation as liberation works against the trend of individualism that crept into modern theology. We have a tendency to preach the cross as hope for individuals. The cross has been spoken of too simplistically as “my hope for my personal salvation.” Liberation would see the cross as an invitation to turn back as a society. Left to our own devices, we followed a way which leads to suffering and death for so many. On the cross Jesus opens his arms and says, “turn back.” It does not have to be like this. You can feed the hungry. You can clothe the naked. You can visit those in prison. When you do so, you minister unto me.

Liberation also benefits from sense of geography the term invokes. The story of God’s people is a pilgrim story, a story of exodus and exile. God’s people know what it is to live in a strange country. God’s people were cast out of paradise. They labored under Pharoah’s whips. God’s people were forced to wail by the rivers of Babylon. Time and again God liberated the people. Through the eyes of liberation, the cross is the ultimate signpost. Jesus points the way out of this strange country we inhabit. This world of injustice and abuse need not be so. There is a way out. We can be free. The way out is love. The way out is justice. The way out is self-offering, living no longer for ourselves. God’s kingdom can be reached. We can experience liberation.

Forgiveness

The third and final word is another different sort of. Forgiveness is a word embraced conceptually by every theological camp. Forgiveness is easy to embrace as a concept, and forgiveness can take a lifetime to learn as a practice. As the folk musician Patty Griffin sings: “It’s hard to give. It’s hard to get. But everybody needs a little forgiveness.”

The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” [A little while later] Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Peter knew what he had done. There was no “undo” button. The comedienne Lily Tomlin has said that, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” In order to step into forgiveness, we must face the truth. We must tell our stories, of how we have been hurt, of how we have hurt others. And we must take the next step. We live with the story, and we don’t let the pain we have suffered, or caused, be the end.

Desmond Tutu, in his new work The Book of Forgiving offers this: “The guarantee in life is that we will suffer. What is not guaranteed is how we will respond, whether we will let this suffering embitter or ennoble us.” Forgiveness is a choice, and God’s forgiving choice is the center of Good Friday. God does not seek retribution for the murderers. God does not repay death for death. Resurrection, new life, is the result of God’s choice of forgiveness.

The Crucifixion teaches us that there is nothing and no one beyond redemption, nothing and no one beyond God, nothing and no one beyond forgiveness.

On the cross God took the worst of human stories, betrayal, suffering, denial, death, and wrote good news into human history. We can’t undo the past, but we can build a better future. The rector of my former church, the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon once wrote: “Peter’s tears of sorrow will wonder of wonders, be made a fountain of new life. God will fashion out of this wreckage of denial a new life of grace and power. That is why we dare to call this Friday ‘good.’”

Conclusion

“Was it necessary that Jesus should die on the cross?” I am not sure I will ever answer that question. The cross remains a mystery to the best theologians. We can play the game of “what if?” We can ask, “could it have been different?” We won’t change the history. What is necessary is that Christians face the cross. The crucifixion happened. Still I hope these themes: substitution, liberation, and forgiveness can offer us a glimpse of hope. What should have been our moment of condemnation was seized by God, and made into the very location of our redemption. What should have been the end became the means of grace.