From today’s Gospel: “When they saw Jesus, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
The new pastor of Riverside Church was announced this week—the Rev. Amy Butler, currently of Calvary Baptist Church in Washington DC. The Washington Post article about her call had a section that really struck me this week:
“A mother of three children ages 16, 17 and 20, Butler went through a painful divorce while at Calvary and wrote bluntly about her own challenges and doubts earlier in her tenure. Tension had risen so high at the church that Butler hired a professional coach to help.
The coach first asked her about her own relationship with God.
“The question hit hard and deep,” Butler wrote last January in her biweekly column for ABP News/Herald, an independent news service of the Associated Baptist Press. “I immediately responded: ‘I don’t think I believe in God anymore.’ ”
The coach replied: “Don’t ever say that again. You’re the pastor, and that kind of comment is not appropriate in church.”
“I heard his message loud and clear: Church should never be a place where you ask questions, and it should certainly never be a place where you wonder out loud if God even exists,” she wrote.
“After that, I fired him.”
I don’t know Pastor Butler yet, but I like her.
I find it really interesting at the end of Matthew’s Gospel that when the risen Jesus is standing right in front of them, some of the apostles still doubt. I mean—I have doubts. But I like to believe that if Jesus were physically present right in front of me, wounded hands and feet and side and all, that would put my doubts to rest.
Not so for the apostles, it seems. These are the people that Jesus is giving the Great Commission to—to make disciples of all nations, and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit—all of which requires faith. And evidently it requires doubt as well. The church those doubting apostles founded is a place where questions are welcome—or at least should be welcome, and doubts are expected—and not just doubts that you keep hidden in your heart, but doubts that you say out loud. I hope Epiphany is a place where you can bring your doubts and be in good company.
We usually think of Thomas as the “doubting” disciple... but in the Gospel of John, where Thomas’ story is recounted, the word “doubt” isn’t actually used in Greek, as it is in today’s gospel. The gospel of John uses the word “faithless.”—Jesus literally tells Thomas when he has demanded the proof of seeing the wounds in his hands and feet in order to believe, “Do not be faithless, but believe.” Usually it’s translated as “do not doubt, but believe” but the Greek is quite clear that Jesus is saying “Do not be faithless.”
There is a difference between having doubts and being faithless.
I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but I’m going to assume that every person here brings some doubts to church at least some of the time. I do, too. There are seasons of spiritual dryness in my life, where it feels like prayers just vanish, and I wonder how I will hold on to my faith. Anything from doubt that God exists, to if God does exist, why does God permit horrible things to happen, to doubts questioning the exclusivity of the Christian promise of salvation, and doubting the inherent goodness of creation described in the reading from Genesis today. Sometimes my doubts come from experiencing the failures of the human institution of the church—I can believe in God, but I’m not so sure I believe in the church. Certainly, on Trinity Sunday, doubting the mysterious paradox of a God who is three in one and one in three. We all have doubts.
But are we faithless? No. We have faith. And we have doubt. We’ve got it all!
Back to the gospel: When they see Jesus, all the disciples worship. Some doubt. Which tells me that worship is active; it is where we bring out doubts. We lay them at the altar along with all our other offerings—our money, our time, our faith, our pain, our joy….. The moment you walk in the door of this church, you’ve established some sort of faith. Maybe it’s curiosity—maybe it’s an inarticulate longing, maybe it’s something substantive and long-held and considered. Maybe it’s faith more in someone else who has faith—a parent, a friend, whose relationship with you is worth setting aside your personal skepticism. But we are not faithless when we walk in the door to worship.
And in worship, we encounter the stuff of our doubts—Bible passages, creeds, prayers, sacraments. There is no hiding from the causes of our doubts in worship.
Take the first reading today from Genesis. Some Christians say they “believe” in it—by which they mean that they believe it describes a literal historic occurrence. I don’t have doubts about the Genesis creation stories being factually accurate… I know they are not factual. And yet.. we worship with this story, and I would say I believe in it because of what I have learned and experienced. And by “believe” I think what I really mean is “love.” I love this first creation story in Genesis. It helps me understand who I am and who God is. Here is a smattering of why I love it, and how it helps me in my faith.
“In the beginning….” There was a beginning. Could be the Big Bang; could be some process we don’t yet know. But there was a time before the beginning.
The Hebrew creation story differs from many other Ancient Near Eastern creation stories in that creation is not born of conflict between competing gods. There is one God; the earth and its creatures are not the offshoot of violence, or pawns in a divine battle, but created solely out of the will and desire of the one God. It’s almost like God is enjoying creating—each day recognizing what has been created as good.
Only God “creates” in Genesis; human beings make, form, etc… but only God is ever used as the subject for the verb that means to create. This story helps keep me humble.
The first thing God creates is light… but where does the light come from? Neither sun nor moon is mentioned in the Genesis story; they were idolized by all the other cultures, who had their Sun god and their Moon god. The Hebrew God creates light first, but doesn’t give primacy to the heavenly bodies. And even when the sun and moon are created on day four, it’s the “great light” and the “lesser light”. The story of our God is always in dialogue with other traditions, responding to them, sometimes coming up with different answers, sometimes coming up with similar answers.
Each day, God contemplates what God has created. And each day God considers it good. But good doesn’t just mean good… it also has the connotation of “usefulness.” Light, dark, water, plants, animals, humans… what does it mean for us to be good in a useful way? To me, that gets at the heart of our interdependence. So many things in nature which we consider beautiful have practical applications—the bright colors of the flowers that attract the pollenating bees and insects, the dark, rich soil of the Midwest,
Humankind is made in God’s image—both male and female. The reflection of God has both male and female characteristics, no matter what our pronouns have indicated about God for so many centuries in the church.
We have dominion over the earth—responsibility for it. Where the earth is wounded, it is for us to offer healing.
And finally, on Trinity Sunday, I do love that this story has echoes of the Trinity. In the beginning, a wind from God sweeps over the waters; and the word for “wind” and for “Spirit” is the same. We have the creator God, and we have the Spirit. Then God speaks to create—and the Word is one way in which we know and identify Jesus. Creator God, Spirit, Word. The Trinity in the beginning, doing a dance of creation.
Is that something to doubt? Absolutely. But it’s also something to have faith in. I pray that this week we will each have a chance to be honest about our doubts, and also about our faith.