Sermons by Katherine Ragsdale

Occasional Sermons by Episcopal priest, Katherine Hancock Ragsdale.

Location: Massachusetts

you can always google me at "Katherine Ragsdale" OR "Katherine Hancock Ragsdale"

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Doubting/Faithful Thomas

Easter 2
St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

You have, no doubt, noticed or learned, by now, that the Church operates on a three-year cycle for our Eucharistic readings. Each year in that three-year cycle we hear a different Gospeler’s version of the Passion on Palm Sunday, and of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. But, oddly enough, each year, on this second Sunday of Easter, we hear the same reading from John; the same account of Thomas’ first encounter with the Risen Lord.

That, all by itself, should be enough to catch our attention; to signal to us that there’s something going on here that the Church considers very important. And if that doesn’t suffice to make us take notice there’s the fact that a figure of speech has developed from this story. It is this story that gives us the phrase “doubting Thomas.” Thomas said, in effect, “I don’t believe he can have, or has, risen from the dead and I won’t believe it unless and until I see it for myself.” And for that he has picked up the epithet of “doubting” and a reputation for a lack of faith.

I think Thomas got a bum rap. Let’s think about what else we know about this guy. This is the same guy, who spoke up in the Gospel reading from the week before Palm Sunday. Jesus has received word of the death of Lazarus and he makes plans to return to Jerusalem to deal with that. The disciples ask him if he’s lost his mind. “Rabbi,” they say, “we were just there and they were threatening to stone you. Why would you go back there?” But Jesus is adamant; he’s going back. Thomas says, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Not, “Hey, he’s Jesus, he knows what he’s doing. It’ll be fine.” No Pollyanna confidence, just a deep commitment to the rabbi he followed. “If he is set on doing this thing that will surely get him killed then let us not abandon him. Let us go and die at his side.”

And why didn’t Thomas see get the opportunity to see for himself at the same time as the other disciples? And let’s be fair and remember that the thing Thomas asked for, a chance to see for himself, was exactly what the other disciples had already had. Jesus came to them while they were hiding in fear behind locked doors. Thomas, like the women but alone among the men, had, apparently, found the courage to leave the hiding place. He was out when Jesus first appeared. Upon seeing for himself he immediately proclaimed his belief and his allegiance.

So, this raises the question – what is most indicative of faith, what we say, what we believe even, or what we do? I am reminded of the parable Jesus told of the father with two sons who said to them one morning – over a hearty breakfast, I’m sure. I’m having visions of Ben Cartright and the boys. “Sons,” he said, “there’s a lot of work to be done today. I have a field that needs tending.” And, says Jesus, one of the sons said, “Certainly, Father. Whatever you say.” But he never showed up at the field. The other son said, “Sorry, Father, but I have other plans and no interest in the field, anyway.” Yet this son did go to the field and worked hard there all day. Which son, Jesus asked his disciples, did the will of his father? Which son was faithful?

You see, faithfulness is not about having no questions. It’s not about having no doubts. It’s not even about always being willing to do what we’re called to do. Faithfulness is about doing it in spite of our questions, our doubts, and our unwillingness.

And this is a good thing. For doubts are ubiquitous and it would be a pity if having them made us faithless. There are, I suppose, some people whose faith is so strong and pure and deep that they never question, never doubt. For the most part people like that scare me – too often their lack of doubts extends to how the rest of us ought to live out our own faith. But there are, perhaps, some who have this deep, unshakable, un-agitatable faith in their own hearts and lives. And more power to them. But most of us, I think, have doubts and questions from time to time. Fortunately, we are in good company and have good role models. Abraham and Moses, the Psalmists, Mary, the Samaritan woman, Peter, Thomas – even Jesus himself who prayed, “Must this happen? Can this cup pass me by?”

Faith is not about having no doubts. Faith is about living out our commitments even in the face of doubt. It’s about fulfilling our Baptismal covenant even when it seems fruitless and unwise. In that covenant we promise to be regular in our attendance at “worship, in the prayers and community and breaking of the bread.” It is not unfaithful to find sometimes that the worship doesn’t speak to us or that we cannot find God here. Faithfulness simply requires that we keep the promise, trusting, even when we can’t feel it or see how it could be true, that the community our presence helps to build is for us, too, and will feed us, too.

We promise, in our Baptismal covenant to “work for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.” Our faithfulness is found in our commitment to doing that even when the world’s cutthroat version of success seems more attractive. In fact, during those times, most of the time, I hope, when we see clearly that nothing of value can be bought at another’s expense, that mere things will never satisfy us, that only in our connections to one another and to our God can we ever hope to find peace or joy – in the times when we can see that, it takes no great faith to respond accordingly, to follow the laws and directions of God that we can see will lead us to our greatest joy. It’s precisely in those other times, the times when we can’t see it, the time when the world’s temptations are so tantalizing and promise so much, and we can’t see through the deception – it’s in those times that our faithfulness is tested and called forth.

Thomas, I think, is a very model of faithfulness. When he saw nothing but death and disaster before them, he still stood firm in his commitment to his teacher and set forth to die by his side. When, for all he knew, his fears had been fulfilled and all hope lay entombed, he was still out in the streets. Thomas, a man of questions and doubts, was faithful to his commitments, and to his friends to the end.

I want to share with you something written by an old friend and colleague of mine, the now Bishop of Maine, Chilton Knudsen. In a homily at the funeral of a deacon from that diocese, Chilton said:

Janet’s love affair with God was all-consuming, ecstatic, intimate and real.

Like all genuine love affairs, it had stormy moments, feisty pushings and pullings, seasons of disillusionment, and the fullest, most absolute fidelity of which we flawed humans are capable, responding to the total fidelity of God.

Janet taught us that passionate God-lovers are not sweetly pious people driven by the need to keep everyone happy, to compulsively smooth every ruffled feather…God-lovers are not always nice, but they are

Faithfulness is about being real – honest about our doubts and tenacious about our commitments. May we have the strength and commitment, the faithfulness, of Thomas.

Easter, 2005

St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

Today’s reading from Acts is an interesting choice for this most major of all the Feasts, Easter Sunday. You may have noticed that we’re halfway through that reading before we get to anything about the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. The first half of the reading is about an argument. We’ve talked about that argument before. It was part of an on-going fight between Peter and Paul – two of the great leaders of the Church. It was an argument so intense that it threatened schism. Imagine that, schism within the Church!

Peter and Paul were fighting about rules. What were the rules for someone wanting to join this community of the followers of Jesus? Peter said that anyone could join, even those not born Jewish, as long as they were willing to become Jews – to convert and conform to Jewish law. Paul opined that maybe God was doing such an incredibly new thing that all the old rules were up for grabs. Paul thought that God was calling into this community even goyim as goyim. Even those who didn’t become circumcised or keep kosher could be welcomed. Peter was more than willing to let anyone become “one of us” as long as they were willing to become like one of us. Paul wanted to throw open the doors and welcome people in their own uniqueness. So they fought and one suspects that those around them at the time wondered if the community could withstand that fight.

So maybe this story does fit in with our Resurrection narrative of the day. Because this was a fight about who the Resurrection was for. Before we can decide if we care about what God is doing today it helps to know who God is doing it for. Does what we celebrate today matter to me? Is it for me? Am I included?

The fight told about in Acts ends with the words that start today’s reading. Peter has a dream – a vision from God – after which he says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Peter came to agree with Paul that the Good News of God in Christ, the gift and grace of the Resurrection, is for Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. It’s for circumcised and uncircumcised, gay and straight, kosher and tref eater, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, those who strive to know and follow the rules and those who fling themselves forward in faith – all of us.

This day is for all of us.

So, given that what we celebrate today is for us, matters to us – what is it that happened; what is it that we celebrate?

Today was the first day of the next week – the week after everything fell apart and hope died. Jesus had been executed.

It was inevitable. He had been standing up to the Empire and people were starting to listen. He was saying that Empire would not, could not, can not ever, survive. He said that starving the poor to fatten the wealthy, trampling the weak to protect the powerful, subordinating all things to the ambitions of Empire, was not only immoral, it was untenable. It could not work for long.

Rome couldn’t ignore that. He had to be stopped – he had to be crushed, as an example – so they executed him. Jesus’ friends and followers went into hiding. They locked themselves in, hoping to avoid the same fate that had befallen their leader. They sat out the Passover, the Sabbath, in hiding.

And on that first day, while the men still hid in fear, the women gathered their oils and perfumes and other supplies and set out to tend the body of their dead friend. Not prudent, perhaps, to be seen, in broad daylight, tending to the body of an executed insurrectionist, but sometimes we all need to let our hearts lead us places our heads know better than to go.

So, off they went to the tomb – and they found it empty. They must have been outraged as well as grief-stricken. The authorities had removed the body to keep it from becoming a rallying point. Without a by-your-leave or even a by-the-way to the family, they had taken even his corpse. All things, even common decency, had been made subservient to the needs, or fantasies, of the Empire.

Except they hadn’t.

He hadn’t been removed; he’d been resurrected. He had Risen.

Now, this is the point where I always expect to lose some of you. I’m sure there are at least a few folks in the room who are saying to yourselves right now, “Well, that’s a lovely story. Very sweet. But surely I’m not expected to actually believe in the Resurrection – that someone rose from the dead. It’s all a misunderstanding or a manipulative fiction.” So, should you be one of those people, let me say to you that you’re in excellent company. There are many people, respected scholars, faithful church-goers – bright people of strong faith and good conscience who don’t believe in a literal Resurrection – as there are bright, faithful people who do believe in it. Good, bright, faithful people who disagree. So, either way you go, you’re in good company.

And thinking about whether the Resurrection literally happened or not can make for an engaging academic exercise – but it’s not the point. There’s a danger of becoming so obsessed with the facts that we lose sight of the truth.

Here’s what’s true:

Out of dust and ashes – utter defeat – God created something new and beyond our imaging. And 2000 years later it still shapes our world. Those fear-filled men came out of hiding to proclaim what they had come to know – the power of Resurrection. And, as they had feared, some of them were killed for it. Some of them were killed horribly. And they did it anyway. Because the power of the Resurrection was too intense to be ignored.

Resurrection – those amazing times when things work out, not in spite of all that has gone wrong but somehow through, even because of, the very wrongness.

We know some of the times the Bible tells of. We know of times of living in happy complacency, occasionally wondering, perhaps, if there’s something missing, if there’s not more than this, but mostly just glad of our blessings and contented with our lives.

And we probably also know the times of yearning for more. Times of despair and hopelessness. Times of frustration. Times of loss and pain and bewilderment. And we know how those things pass and life goes on and gets better and all is, eventually, well again.

But, if we pay attention, we will also, every now and then, know the amazing miracle of Resurrection – when all our pain and loss are not erased, not negated, but transformed. When, against all reason, all logic, all possibility, our wounds become our strength, our loss becomes our victory, our pain becomes our triumph. We are re-born. Everything is new. We are new. It doesn’t just get better – heal with time. Our lives, and we, are transformed. Our trials are redeemed. We are Resurrected.

At Easter, we are called to celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection – and our own.

Christ is Risen and so are we. Risen to new life – new work, new responsibilities, new possibilities, new joy.

We are followers of the Risen Lord; how can we expect anything less than Resurrection for ourselves?

Alleluia, Christ is Risen.

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