Sunday, April 3, 2016
Those who have not seen
Preached on April 3, 2016 Scripture Lessons: Acts 5: 27-32 and John 20: 24-31, NT page 115 Sermon Title: Those who have not seen Some names are easier to live down than others. Johnny Cash sings a song about a boy named Sue. Me, I went to school with a girl people called Cornbread. It’s true, and it’s awful, but kids can be mean, so this poor girl – in third grade someone caught her eating the leftover cornbread off another student’s tray in the school cafeteria and the name stuck, but not just through the rest of our third grade year, this girl was known as “Cornbread” until the year we graduated as Seniors in High School. One event – one miniscule event – that marked Tawanna Jones’ life (and at least as long as high school lasted branded her as Cornbread). The same is true of Thomas. What do you know about Thomas? Chances are, you know this one event, this one morning when the disciples told Thomas that the Lord had risen from the dead but Thomas, he doubted and the name stuck. Doubting Thomas. That’s who he is, that’s who we know him as, the name stuck and there’s nothing that he could do about it – but the thing about a nickname is that, like in the case of “Cornbread” sometimes these nicknames are meaner than they should be, but also, in the case of Thomas, there’s more to the story than what you may have heard – but to hear the rest of the story you have to do more than scratch the surface. That’s the case sometimes too. As we were driving to Charleston, SC last week we passed a place called “Hard Labor Creek.” Now there must be a good story behind that name, and when I saw the sign I wished I knew the Bob Duncan of Charleston, SC so I could ask him for the story behind the name. And not too far from Charleston is a place called Ibo’s Landing - this small place in St. Simon’s Island, GA – where I’m sure that there are plenty of people who like the name but have never had the courage to ask anyone where the name came from – that’s how a lot of people are – but once I read that the name comes from an event during the time of slave traders, when a slave ship was trying to bring her cargo to shore, but rather than walk to the shore the enslaved members of the Ibo tribe were said to have taken flight and flew right back to Africa. Now isn’t that a wonderful story. I’m sure that too many have never thought to ask and so many others were afraid to, and that’s one of the other things about a name – sometimes there’s a good story behind the name but in order to hear it you have to be brave enough to ask someone who knows. Thomas is like that. While we know one story about him very well, there are others. There are many others, but to get to those stories you have to be bold enough to go looking. Now if you look him up on the internet, you’re more likely to pull up articles about Thomas the Train, but if you dig a little deeper in the Gospel of John you’ll read that the first words that he speaks in the Gospel of John are in the 11th Chapter. A group of Jews are already plotting to stone Jesus if he returns to the region of Judea and while the other disciples advise Jesus not to go, Thomas is bold enough to say, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Based on this story we might call him Courageous Thomas because he was bold enough to follow Jesus when the other disciples were afraid, and in chapter 14 when Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself so that where I am, there you may be also.” You know these verses, because they begin nearly every funeral held in this sanctuary, but these verses are mysterious – how will we get there, where is he going, what is Jesus talking about you may have wondered. In these wonderments you are not alone, but what good is wondering if you only wonder and never get closer to an answer? In verse 5 Thomas puts our questions out in the open, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” If any here have ever longed for a man bold enough to ask for directions, here is your man – the Disciple Thomas – a man who asks questions, yes, but more precisely, a man courageous enough to ask the questions that we all want to ask, a man willing to speak openly the questions that others would only whisper, a man who is willing to boldly claim ignorance without thought to image or pretense. Does he lack faith as his nickname “Doubting Thomas” would lead us to believe? Or would a better name be something that celebrates this man who is courageous enough to ask questions that are on his mind? Maybe you know what a good quality this is. Certainly I do. The subjects that I struggled with the most throughout school were languages – Spanish in high school and college, Greek and Hebrew in Seminary, never did I show any great aptitude for translation or memorization and so embarrassed was I to not catch on to what I was supposed to be learning and what my fellow students were learning more quickly than I was that I was tempted not to ask questions for clarification when I was confused, but was often tempted to pretend that I knew what I was doing, to pretend that I understood when I didn’t, and rather than raise my hand I often chose to keep my pride and my ignorance intact. Think about what happens to people who ask questions in class – when he raises his hand the smart kids groan and roll their eyes, “Here he goes again – when is he going to get it?” The cool kids in the back of the class snicker a little bit wondering why he cares so much about learning all of a sudden. Maybe there are more students in the class who are struggling with the same question but are too afraid to ask because what I am saying here is true – it takes courage to doubt sometimes. It takes a willingness to subject yourself to some funny looks to ask a question that might make you appear dumb in front of the smart kids who already get it and that might make you seem like a loser in front of the cool kids who don’t care, but you know who will be impressed with your questions? Do you know who will be glad that you asked? The teacher. While I can imagine that Thomas would be scolded for his inability to trust his friends or that he would be lectured for his skepticism – for not just believing something he might never be able to know for sure – instead Christ enters the room and says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas then speaks what is known as the strongest statement of faith recorded in the Gospels: “My Lord and my God.” Here is an important lesson – when Thomas is honest about what stands in the way of his faithfulness – when he is honest about his doubt, Christ gives him exactly what he needs to believe. Sometimes we are so different – embarrassed that we don’t know already we sometimes choose instead to pretend that we do believe when we don’t, to understand when we still have questions, or that we don’t care about the answer when we do. If that’s the case, then we hide from Christ as the other disciples were hiding. Did you notice that? While Thomas was out the other disciples were present to see Christ the first time he came in our first scripture lesson because they were too afraid to go anywhere. The door was locked and the disciples were hiding behind it, but Christ walked right in to get to them. Always Jesus is seeking us, and always some of us are hiding. The disciples who were hiding behind the locked door are found – and Thomas, who must have been tempted to hide his questions is bold enough to speak them out into the open. “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.” Do you know what that is like? When everyone else seems to know and understand by you don’t – do you pretend to know or do you speak? Did Thomas choose to keep his pride and his ignorance intact? No – he was bold to reveal his ignorance, his humanity, and when he spoke of the faith in him that was fragile - the Lord made his faith stronger saying to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” I wonder – do we have courage enough to do the same? Some do. Back in February Monty Williams, Assistant Coach for Oklahoma City’s professional basketball team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, spoke at his wife’s funeral after she died suddenly in a car accident. He spoke not as a man with a lot of answers so much as one with a lot of questions, but he chose to speak at the funeral nonetheless. He said, “During times like this, it’s easy to forget that because what we’ve gone through is pretty touch and it’s hard and we want an answer. We don’t always get that answer when we want it…” Still he said, “All of this will work out. As hard as this is for me and my family and for you, this will work out. I know this because I’ve seen this in my life…back in 1990, at the University of Notre Dame, I had a doctor look me in the face and say, “You’re gonna die if you keep playing basketball.” And I had testing done. Test after test, shipping me all over the place trying to find a way for me to play, and it didn’t work out. And I kept that from Ingrid [who later became my wife]. She knew I was having some tests done, but she didn’t know the severity of the situation. So, my career was over at the age of 18, and we had a press conference, and I left the press conference by myself and I went to her dorm room and I told her what happened. And the very next word out of her mouth after we probably cried a little bit, she said, “Honey, Jesus can heal your heart.” Now the lesson that I learn from that story is the same lesson that I learn from our second Scripture lesson from the Gospel of John – the important thing is not whether or not you know all the answers, the important thing is whether or not you have the courage to turn to the one who does. Because we cannot comprehend cancer. Rarely, if ever, is there a good explanation for tragedy. I cannot understand heartbreak, debilitating poverty, injustice, slavery, kidnappings, human trafficking, or casual lay-offs. I don’t know why life can be so hard, death can come so fast, or illness can last forever. So what do we do? We pour out our questions, our doubts, and our struggles to the one we can be honest with when we have no way of understanding on our own. We Christians have been labeled as ignorant and afraid by the world, but we have such strong examples of faith to follow – one who in his not knowing was courageous enough to kneel before the Christ in hopes of finding an answer. If we are those who have not seen but might still believe, then let us be like Thomas – taking our questions, our humanity, our feeble minds and doubting hearts all to the Lord in prayer.