To hear this sermon, as preached from perched atop a rock in the parking lot of UCJ, press play below…
During the year of exile, I obeyed a kind of a creaturely need to burrow. The space that felt most my own, was the basement where, as the long plague winter dragged on, I occupied myself with the task of gathering the beloved junk most becoming to my soul — the stuff that gets more beautiful in the perpetual half-light — my poetry books, a blackboard for teaching, a sheepskin rug for my cold toes and even one of those heaters that looks like a fake fireplace to complete the den-like scene by casting, hither and yon, the warm illusion of flame. The combination of isolation and cold weather had this effect on me — transforming me into a hibernating creature of instinct whose sole purpose was finding a crevice in rock in which to find comfort and safety.
But Saturday morning all my burrowing instincts evaporated before the irresistible advent of Spring whose intoxicating promise of wide skies, budding branches, and the flitting of black-capped chickadees, refused to be ignored. Grabbing my laptop, I sloughed off the gathered accoutrements of my winter hibernation and, in one mad dash, fled the basement for a folding chair beside our backyard firepit, where, by previous arrangement, I had plans for a late morning tete-a-tete with a certain sermon.
My sermon, naturally, was tardy showing up, (though I’d been quite clear about the time in my invitation) so… in an effort to get the gray matter moving a little bit I took to raking up the leaves (you know the ones) that had eluded me last fall and spent the winter under snow.
The thing about the story of doubting Thomas — the one I just read to you, is that, like all well known stories in our religious tradition, it has a traditional interpretation that one’s mind jumps to when one hears it.
If you know me, you know that I tend to avoid traditional interpretations. It’s more edifying and fun, I think, to do a little bushwhacking and find new paths that have not been worn down through the ages. I like the way these roads less travelled can lead to surprising theological vistas.
But the trouble with this story — the problem that made me take to raking the backyard — is that it has a simple plot structure that lends itself to an inevitable conclusion — and this inevitable conclusion leads us, in turn, to the traditional interpretation…
It goes like this:
Thomas, for some unexplained reason, was not present when Jesus made a post-resurrection appearance to the disciples.
When the disciples tell him about Christ’s miraculous appearance, Thomas is dubious. He, like everyone else, saw Jesus die in a very public and gruesome way. Thomas declares in a quite reasonable way (if you ask me) that he’s not going to buy the story he is being told unless he is provided with real evidence.
A week later, Jesus shows up and provides Thomas with evidence that he requested.
His doubts resolved, Thomas “believes.”
Jesus concludes the episode by saying shaming Thomas.
“Have you believed because you have seen me? He asks. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Since the thing that Thomas was doubtful about — the appearance of the risen LORD — and the thing that he came to believe — that the LORD had indeed risen — both depend on a willingness to believe in Christ’s divine nature, we, who hear this story, are led to the conclusion that our doubts too can be resolved if we follow Thomas’ example and “believe.”
Belief, in this story, is what happens when uncertainty is resolved.
This story establishes “belief” as the state of mind that extinguishes that other state of mind that we call doubt.
That’s nice. The message is that doubt is to be uncertain and to believe is to be certain…
Certainty is good…
This is what I was thinking when I unleashed a tidal wave of leaves all over the chickens…
Let me explain…
I used to drag my raked leaves out to the woods, but then one day I realized I could give them to the Chickens, and this has become one of my favorite things to do. It makes sense in terms of the economy of my backyard, because the dead leaves that were unsightly in my flower beds are a joyous boon for the hens who immediately go to work spreading them about in search of tasty bugs. Once they are done, the scattered leaves create a bed of organic matter in the chicken run, that, in the long term, decomposes into rich soil that they will use for their dust baths in midsummer. Best of all, I get to watch the vaudeville show of these feathered biddies barreling headfirst into a pile of leaves, shoveling great sprays of detritus backwards with comedic one-two thrusts of their spindly legs.
My sermon had arrived.
The hens, thus employed, helped me to think about the big ideas at stake in the story of doubting Thomas.
It seems to me that this story is concerned with three states.
The state of doubt.
The state of belief
And the state of faith.
In the narrative, Thomas is transformed from the state of doubt, to the state of belief. Jesus, at the end, suggests the possibility of a state of faith.
But what is doubt?
What is belief?
What is faith?
Because the traditional understanding of this passage seems to suggest one way of understanding these terms, and my chickens are suggesting another.
The traditional view is the one that we assume — the one that occurs to us before we bother to think about it. It goes like this:
Doubt is bad. It is uncertain.
Belief is good. It replaces uncertainty with certainty.
Faith is best. It suggests that belief does not depend on doubt.
Industrious hens are interested in bugs. They are motivated by uncertainty — if they do not move quickly, one of the other hens will get the tasty treat. Doubt animates their wonderful vaudevillian dance.
Like chickens, we move from place to place, seeking, but never finding a resolution to doubt. We are taught (especially in the West) to fear doubt — to try to eliminate it. We think that doubt makes us less powerful, less in control.
But doubt is not necessarily a weakness. It can be viewed — like chickens foraging in a pile of leaves — as a motivation. It can be manifest in the human intellect as curiosity. The desire — like Thomas — to know. It can manifest in the human soul — again like Thomas — as an intuition for compassion: the need to touch with the physical evidence of human suffering.
I do not think that doubt is bad. I do not think Thomas was bad because he doubted. That may be the traditional view of this story, but my chicken theologians are helping me articulate a different view.
Doubt could be a motivation.
Doubt can lead to curiosity and compassion.
And belief — what is belief?
Is belief, as the traditional view would like us to think, the absence of uncertainty?
If this were so — if my chickens were 100% certain that they would get the tasty bug, they would take their time.
No comical dance.
And also, I’m afraid, no bug.
There’s nothing like being certain your going to get the bug, to ensure that you won’t get the bug!
Belief cannot be synonymous with certainty.
As I have said time and time again from this pulpit (such as it is) religion is about mystery, it’s not about fact.
And where there is mystery, there is uncertainty.
Where there is uncertainty, there is the necessity of inquiry.
Where there is inquiry, there is human ingenuity, inspiration, beauty, meaning and life.
“Belief” cannot be the absence of these things. It is the celebration of these things!
So belief – if it is a human state — must exist within the realm of uncertainty.
And finally, faith — the idea that Jesus introduces at the end of the story:
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
It’s worth noting, before we conclude, that these words from Jesus are the only moment in this story when Jesus makes a value judgment concerning doubt or belief or faith. It’s clear that the story moves from doubt to belief to faith — but not until this moment does Jesus intentionally point to something and say that it is “blessed.”
Who is blessed?
“…those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
When you hear Jesus say things like this, you understand why many scientists have a hard time being religious.
If you look at this purely on its surface, you can’t imagine a more unscientific thing to say.
And yet, as I say (and I’ll say it again) religion is not about observation — its about mystery.
And faith, is a state of being that acknowledges that mystery, and calls it good.
I suppose, if you wanted to, you could look at mystery and call it evil. Their is evil in the world.
But there is also good.
We know, based only on faith, that in the great pile of leaves that is God’s creation, there are some delicious bugs to be found, if we only scratch around a bit.