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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Playing with doubt

Ben Steele's playful doubt on the veracity of Thomas Kinkade's paintings
"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
II A Easter - May 1, 2011 –
The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist
Bowdoin Street, Boston
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

I seriously doubt that there is anything I could tell you about this morning’s gospel account of Jesus and the disciple Thomas that you don’t already know, or haven’t already read, or haven’t heard in countless sermons over the years about the disciple known throughout Western Christendom as “Doubting Thomas”.

This Sunday is known as “Low Sunday” – purportedly because it is such a comedown after the glory of Easter Day – but, in clergy circles, the ‘low’ estate of the day has more to do with the number of people in attendance – especially in comparison to the vast numbers of “C&E” (not to be confused with CofE) Christians who swell our ranks by coming to church only on Christmas and Easter. (Present company obviously excluded).

I doubt that it is known as “Low Sunday” because the embryonic Christian movement somehow hit a low with this story of the disciple Thomas and his impertinent question about the Resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, this Sunday is sometimes known as “Doubting Thomas Sunday”.

I doubt than no other disciple – well, none other than, perhaps, Judas – gets as much grief as does Thomas. “Doubting Thomas”, he is called. No other disciple gets a distinctive descriptive before his name. Not “Impatient, Immediate Mark” or “Inclusive Luke”.

I further doubt that many would agree with me that he would be better called “Risking Thomas”. Or, “Courageous Thomas”. Or, even, “Faithful Thomas” – but I’m not too concerned because I doubt that would ever happen.

You have also, no doubt, heard sermons about how doubt is a part of the faith journey. You have heard it said – and, perhaps do not doubt it yourself – that faith is risk, and risk wouldn’t be risk without doubt. You no doubt believe that faith that comes only after evidence is no faith at all. Maybe trust, yes, but not faith.

Faith is that daring commitment that climbs out on life’s limbs and leaps. As someone once said, faith is what leads you to have no doubt that, when you do leap off that limb, one of two things will happen: either you will land safely or you will be given wings to fly.

And what of risk and daring and courage? What has doubt to do with any of that? Well, as Piglet said, “I didn’t know I was being brave. It just happened after I panicked.”

So, whatever is to be done about this gospel story on Doubting Thomas Sunday for you, this wonderful, well-educated, faithful community of St. John's?

I know! I shall tell you a story. It’s what I do. Those who know me will tell you that of this, there is little doubt. Rain or shine, good or bad, I tell stories. You know. Like Jesus did.

Some of you know the story of how that Easter Egg got to be at the foot of the Black Madonna at the Easter Vigil. I’ll not tell you that story now. If you don’t know it, I’ll be happy to tell it to you after the service during the Eighth Sacrament of Coffee Hour. You’ll need to know THIS story in order to fully appreciate THAT story.

It’s a story about doubt and faith. It’s a story about what our collect prays that we may “show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith”. It’s a story about pushing your faith and playing with your doubts. It's a story about having faith and belief in the power of the Resurrection and the True Presence of Christ who comes to us in the midst of the torment of our doubts and unbelieving.

The story takes place just about twenty-five years ago, shortly after I had left this place as seminarian, was ordained a transitional deacon, and was serving as Ecumenical Chaplain at the University of Lowell. In those days, before there was a tear in the ozone layer, there were about 100 women who were priests and some saw, yet they did not believe. Indeed, unbelievably, some still don’t.

We were serious as a heart attack about the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, of which I had no doubt and about which I was – and am, still – very sober and somber, but as a transitional deacon there were pragmatics and practicalities to be consider as I endeavored to establish a weekly “Spaghetti Supper and Eucharist” at our home in Lowell for the University Students every Sunday evening.

Ann Fowler, a dear friend of mine, had been ordained to the priesthood and, as it turned out, had an abundance of home baked bread which had been consecrated but not used during her ordination service.

Ann asked if I would like to take it home. I was thrilled to do so, as I had been borrowing consecrated hosts from my brothers (only brothers, then) in the Episcopal Churches of Lowell – St. Anne’s, where I was to be ordained that October, and St. John’s.

My beloved Ms. Conroy looked at the three loaves of bread I was carrying back to the car and, when I told her what they were, was absolutely, positively horrified.

“What are you going to do with them?” she asked, “They certainly won’t keep for more than a week!”

“I shall put them in the freezer,” I said, cheerily.

“IN THE FREEZER??!!” she thundered.

“That’s the Body of Christ,” she said, breathlessly. “You can’t put Jesus IN THE FREEZER!”

Now, let me pause here to explain something about long-term relationships.

There comes a point when you understand that your role – your job, indeed, your bounded duty – in any sacred, committed relationship, is to torment one another.

I know. It’s not in the marriage vows. We didn’t hear William and Catherine vow to “love, honor and torment” each other on Friday. Trust me. They will. Eventually, they will.

Of this, I have no doubt.

Back to my story, then:

In that moment, I knew that Ms. Conroy had just written out, signed, sealed and delivered, a License to Torment. And, it had my name on it. I couldn't actually see it, but I had no doubt. I went home, put the consecrated bread in the freezer, and hardly slept at all in gleeful anticipation of the morning.

There she was, in the kitchen, drinking her morning coffee and reading her newspaper. I went to the refrigerator, opened the freezer door and said, “Barbara. It’s me. Jesus. I’m so cold. Help me.”

Ms. Conroy looked up from her paper, frowned, stirred her coffee, returned to her paper, and said nothing more.

And it was night, and it was morning, the second day.

Act II. Same scene. I went over to the refrigerator, opened the freezer door, and said, “Barbara. It’s me. Jesus. Behind the broccoli. It’s freezing in here. Help me.”

Ms. Conroy emitted what can only be called a low growl. I knew I had been warned, but I simply couldn’t resist.

Pray for me, a sinner.

And it was night, and it was morning, the third day.

Act II. Same scene. And, ACTION.

On cue, I opened the freezer door and said, “Please, Barbara. It’s Jesus. You have to help me. I’m so cold. I'm FREEZING!”

And I said, “If you really are the savior, help yourself!” And slammed the freezer door.

At which point, Ms. Conroy slammed her hand on the table, went over to the refrigerator, opened the freezer door, removed the three loaves of frozen consecrated bread and starting walking to the back door.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m going to feed this bread to the birds!” said she, and stormed off as I watched her from the kitchen window, chuckling as she tried to tear pieces off the frozen loaves of bread, which would have required a miracle for her to perform.

Now, it wasn’t that I doubted for a minute that Jesus was – IS – present in the consecrated bread. Indeed, I pushed that point of belief to its ultimate, albeit ridiculous conclusion.

It’s that I believed it so much, I played with any doubt that He was present, even in frozen form.

And, I think that’s the point of faith – to believe enough to play with your doubts.

I mean, do you suppose that it was Tuesday or Wednesday after the Resurrection when Peter slammed his hand on the table, looked around at the startled disciples and said, “I’m going fishing!”?

He walked right into his doubts, through his fears, and got about doing the ordinary, mundane things of life. And, in doing that, he met Jesus. And, the faith of the church was born. And the rest, as they say, is church history.

What if John is playing with our doubts in this gospel story? What if he is tormenting us with the obvious truth by setting up Thomas – with whom, some scholars believe, he had such serious rivalry as to write this story so as to shame him – to be the one who is the bearer of our doubts and questions about the Resurrection?

You know, sometimes, I think we take our faith too seriously – so seriously that we think we have to have it right – correct, perfect, "orthodox", God help us – or else we’ll get an “F” on our earthly report card and not gain entrance into heaven.

Here’s a secret. I know it because I’ve read the whole of Scripture and I know the end of the story.

Ready? Here it is: We’re all going to heaven.

That's going to get me into trouble with those who doubt that and will call me a "universalist".  That's okay. I've been called worse. Much, much worse. It doesn't make it untrue. 

You and me – yes, even me who confessed just this morning before God and this congregation that I am a sinner who torments those she loves – and a whole bunch of other people who you think are not going to be in heaven when you get there.

And, you know, they will. Be there. In heaven. With you. And, Aunt Millie who slapped you for no reason when you were nine and Uncle Harry, that no good loaf of a drunk, and your cousin Vinny who used to torment you in the third grade.

We’re all going to heaven because Jesus redeemed us on Easter Day.

Believe it or not, it’s true! As they say in 12-Step Programs, if you can't believe just yet, then believe in my belief.

Of this, I have no doubt. In fact, as they say in Philly, you can take that to the bank. Or, if you’re in Lowell, to the freezer.

Either way, here's the thing: I know that my Redeemer lives! He lives in you and he lives in me and he lives in that bread and wine we're about to consecrate - even if it gets frozen.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Christ is alive! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

And, let the whole church say, “Amen.”


Kirkepiscatoid said...

You should put a warning label on the story of "Jesus in the Freezer." You really should. I hope you know Diet Mountain Dew came out of my nose!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - Well, I hope it was a "cleansing" experience. I had a wonderful time at St. John's. As the Junior Warden, who was there when I was a seminarian, said, "This must be a realized dream for you." It made me weep. Another kind of "cleansing" experience.

the cajun said...

You have made this rather old man chuckle, feel spry, and happy this gray afternoon.

Of that there is no doubt. Ouch!

MJ said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. Your funny and moving sermon warms the cockles of my agnostic - but still Anglo Catholic heart. Do real agnostics as I have a shot at heaven? I don't think so but I'm agnostic on that.

Anonymous said...

I want to be clear. When speaking of "real agnostics" I was speaking of myself.

walter said...


It may be interesting to think of the doubts of Thomas as that constructive questioning if the Resurrection may be witnessed without the existential personal experiencing that is so well captured by the use of the verb ‘touching’. In other words could I witness the resurrection of the Christ in the Other without the lens of my personal existential Christian dimension? Thomas doubted it could be done and overwhelmed by doubt met Jesus. How wonderful could it be to believe in the Resurrection without having “touched” Jesus? In the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused, Jesus The Christ.

Walter Vitale

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Cajun - I never doubted it for a minute.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

MJ - I think we're all going to heaven.