“Fear and Doubt”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
April 28, 2019: Easter 2
The gospel lesson today presents us with two prominent themes that make an appearance in the course of our lives almost every single day. The two themes are ‘fear’ and ‘doubt’ and today I want to think with you about how doubt may just be the thing that will save us from fear.
Fear is the disciples’ immediate response to the news that Jesus’ tomb is empty. John says that on the evening of Easter the disciples were huddled together in a room where the door was locked for fear of the Jews. We need to take some time to unpack that statement. Since Jesus’ resurrection, “For fear of the Jews,” has been used by governments and religions to persecute God’s chosen people. “For fear of the Jews,” is the foundation of doctrine and theology that blames Jesus’ death on the Jews as a whole people. Believing that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death inspired pogroms against the Jews in imperial Russia, the ghettoizing and ethnic cleansing of the Holocaust, and skepticism of Jews in public life that still exists today. “For fear of the Jews,” has inspired groups like Jews for Jesus to con and lie their way into Jewish homes where they evangelize with a Christian message that destroys family traditions and religious and ethnic heritage. It has even, just as recently as yesterday, inspired domestic terrorist attacks on Jewish houses of worship in our country.
What we need to realize today as we read this portion of John’s gospel is that none of this was John’s intent; John, and a vast majority of his readers, were Jewish after all. What we have here is a classic example of how language is imprecise and how quickly imprecise language can spiral out of control. John’s comment has nothing to do with Jews as a distinct ethnic and religious group of people. John is talking about the Jewish authorities who abandoned their integrity and moral power during the trail and execution of Jesus. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were powerful and they could inspire a lot of fear in the people from their lofty place in the temple. The disciples had just watched the temple leaders stir up the crowd to the point that they called for Jesus’ death and the release of a known criminal. Whether they were Jewish or Hindu or of another religion doesn’t really matter. What matters is that these leaders had power, they misused it, and the disciples were afraid of how they might use that power on them. The fact that they were Jewish has no bearing on how we should read the text today.
It is simple enough to clear up that little complication in the text. John was writing about the Jewish leaders who had abused their power—he was not calling for a religious war against Jewish people. But this part of the text raises an issue for us to consider today and that is the fear that is induced in our lives by imprecise, and sometimes simply untrue, language. Take for example how during our current immigration debate how often someone will cite the number of Americans killed by immigrants living here illegally. While it is true that illegal immigrants have killed American citizens, it is also true that the recent disease outbreak in romaine lettuce killed more Americans than illegal immigrants. But when you isolate certain facts and remove them from context, it becomes tremendously easy to characterize a group by the actions of one or two. The thinking then goes that we should close our borders for ‘fear of the Mexicans,’ or ‘for fear of the South Americans.’ Or, take for example, something I heard this week that all Republicans are racists. That was startling for me to hear considering the majority of my family members are registered Republicans, most of whom are working to understand how to become actively anti-racists. Are there racists in each of America’s political parties? I think so. Does that mean the whole party should be characterized as such? I don’t think so.
Or, if those examples don’t strike you, take for example how this week I was at the grocery store and someone recognized me as, in their words, ‘the liberal Presbyterian pastor.’ There was a split second where I thought about saying, “No, you have me mistaken for someone else.” But even before I could answer, the person said, “You think its OK to be gay, don’t you, but the Bible says it’s a sin. I’d never come to your church.’ Before I could even offer a response, the person had walked away to pick out apples. That person was actually right on one thing: I do champion the dignity and value of the LGBTQ community inside and outside the church. But I also enjoy mowing the lawn. I like to cook and be hospitable to people, I love the Bible, I love reading to my son at night, and I love the ways Jesus pops up in our everyday lives. But will they ever know that? No.
Here is the issue: fear is easy. Fear is easy to conjure up and fear is easy to hold to. Ignorance is even easier. Instead of using the tremendous brains God has packed into our heads to understanding and question and become wise, we so often take the easy route of fear and ignorance. Neurologists confirm that fear releases the same pleasure hormones in the brain as a good meal or sex. Imprecise language, statements that are simply not true, generalities—these things stoke fear and feed it until it becomes and uncontrollable monster. The sad truth is that while fear may feel good, it is so terribly destructive. It destroys our relationships. It tears at the fabric of human society. It alienates us from our communities and from God, all the while making us feel that we are safe and secure. Fear causes us to fail in seeing issues for what they really are and it causes us to stumble terribly in finding solutions. More than all of this, fear of this sort is not compatible with Christian faith. Fear based off of misinformation, fear that is stoked by lies or broad-sweeping generalities, fear that causes us to harm ourselves or other people stands in direct opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Have you ever wondered what Thomas was doing when Jesus appeared that first time to the disciples? The gospels don’t have a lot to say about who Thomas was or what he did prior to following Jesus, but we do know that he was all-in for Jesus. In the gospel of John, Jesus and the disciples learn that their friend Lazarus has died several towns over. Lazarus’ sisters beg Jesus to come and do something, but he instead waits a few days in order to teach a lesson about faith. Eventually, Jesus announces that it is time to go and wake up Lazarus, but the disciples are afraid because the town where Lazarus lives is swarming with religious folks who want to stone Jesus to death. Jesus doesn’t have any worries about going to Bethany, and Thomas doesn’t either. While the disciples hem and haw about going, Thomas says, “Let us all go, that we may die with him.” Stones or not, Thomas was all-in.
Maybe this confidence in Jesus had him out preaching or teaching or feeding the hungry on that first Easter morning. Maybe Thomas was out doing the things Jesus had taught the disciples to do. To be sure, whatever he was doing, he wasn’t hiding in the upper room with the other disciples. Thomas’ doubt saved him from the fear that gripped the disciples and locked them away from the world. Thomas had to see, he had to touch and experience, he questioned in order to find the truth. But poor Thomas has been called The Doubter for all of Christian history. He has been lifted up as the example of someone we should not be like. Christian traditions have looked down on Thomas as weak, ignorant, faith-less, all the while lifting up the other disciples who hid away and kept the door locked. What about Peter—we aren’t nearly as rough on him as we are on Thomas. What about Matthew and Levi, the Roman extortionists? It has always been Doubting Thomas. But Thomas was not held back by a locked door and he was not shackled with fear. Did he have doubts about what the disciples had to say? You bet. If you don’t have some doubts about the Easter story, you need to read the story again. The very fact that Thomas was not locked in the upper room invites us to consider how some doubt in our lives might save us from fear.
One of the greatest influencers in my life has been Dr. Carl Schmidt who taught Music History at Towson University where I attended music school. Dr. Schmidt and his wife, Betsey, along with being world-class pianists also spent their lives cataloguing the music of American composers such as Aaron Copland and Randall Thompson. Dr. Schmidt was the sort of professor who would sit at the table at the front of the room, or on the piano bench, and lecture about Beethoven and Mendelsohn and Schubert without notes or books or PowerPoint. He just knew everything and we all knew that he knew everything. I received my first failing grade from Dr. Schmidt. He read my paper on the music Hector Berlioz and saw it for what it was: an ill-prepared, written-the-night-before, middle-school-level book report that only had one goal and that was to meet the required word count. That F was big and red at the top of the front page.
But over the course of two years studying with Dr. Schmidt he taught me about more than just music. The final paper I submitted to Dr. Schmidt at the end of my senior year on how the piano developed structurally during the time of Beethoven received the highest grade he had given all year: a 98.5. Dr. Schmidt said to me, “Andrew, you have everything you need in order to be successful. If you want to play music, simply read the books and learn the notes. But if you challenge what you read, if you ask questions of the knowledge you are gaining, if you are respectfully skeptical of the art, you won’t just play music…you’ll be a musician.” I mean, wow. I can remember exactly what I was wearing and exactly how I was feeling when Dr. Schmidt said that to me. If you want to play music, simply read the books and learn the notes. But if you want to be a musician, challenge, ask questions, seek deeper understanding.
Think about how that applies to our lives as followers of Jesus. If we want to be religious people, all we have to do is read the books—or The Book—learn the steps, move through the sacraments routinely, serve a meal here or there, pray a little bit. But if we want to be Christians, which I believe is why we are all here today, we must bring a little Thomas with us into everything we do. With a little bit of Thomas, faith is exciting. Think about the Saturday Manna program here at the church. Yesterday, Manna fed 79 hungry people—that’s double and nearly triple some of the most recent Saturdays. Everyone left with a full stomach and hopefully a full heart. Serving the meal is our answer to a direct command from Jesus. But with a little Thomas in the mix we start asking some questions. Why are there so many hungry people in Enid? Is there more we can do to meet the needs of our community? What can we do to connect Manna guests to the other service offered in Enid? These questions propel us out beyond the walls of the church to use our faith to do even more good than we are already doing. And in it is in the doing that our faith grows and strengthens.
Thomas can help us to grow and be strong in other ways, too. The cacophony of messages and tidbits of information and viral soundbites that bombard us at every moment is louder now than ever before. The most important thing politicians and social groups and clubs and even churches want is actually not your money…its your heart, your mind, your allegiance. To gain our hearts, our minds, our allegiances, there is no threshold for what might be said or done. This means that we must approach everything with a little doubt and a few questions. When you hear that all immigrants are murders, rapists, and drug dealers, check it out for yourself—seek out someone who has immigrated here from another country and check the facts. That’s what Thomas would do. When you hear that all Republicans are racists and that all Democrats are socialists, find one of each and seek the truth for yourself. Stop towing the party or denominational line, not because its necessarily wrong or evil, but because God has given you power to know and decide and gain wisdom and using that power for the good will bring so much delight to God.
We’ve been taught that doubt and questions and skepticism and even criticism are bad, signs of weakness, not things that good Christian folks do. One of my favorite writers, Anne Lamot, says it perfectly: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; certainty is.” My brothers and sisters in Christ, there are many things we can be certain about. God is love and God loves each one of us unconditionally. Jesus is risen from the dead. The Holy Spirit is animating and inspiring us at all times. Jesus wants us to show and share his love with the world. The church is a broken and beautiful collection of God’s broken and beautiful people. The Bible brings us into a closer knowledge of and relationship with God. Baptism and the Lord Supper are our front row seats to God’s abundant love on display. Really, outside of these things, its up for grabs. We should ask questions of everything else; we should wonder why things are done the way they are done; we should never stop searching for deeper truth and wisdom; we should never be content with what we have found so far. This is how we build and sustain our faith and this is how fear will be fully and finally put to death so that we can walk the path with God to abundant life.
So let’s begin today. When you arrived today you should have received a 3x5 index card. In the next several minutes, take time to think about some doubts and questions you have right now. They don’t have to be about God or the Bible or the Church, though those doubts and questions are certainly allowed. Think about something that is gnawing at you, that you want to know more about, something that could use a bit of God’s clarity. Write it down, fold it in half, and when the ushers come around to collect the offering, place your card in the plate. At the Prayers of the People I will pray over them. I will not read them out loud. I will pray over them, asking God to give us the clarity we are seeking. If you would like for me to think with you about your doubts or questions, write your name on your card and I’ll be glad to spend some time with you. I might not have an answer, but it would be my honor to search for one with you.
May God give us courage to proclaim with the disciples that Jesus is risen from the dead. And may God give us courage to doubt as we seek to see it for ourselves. Amen.