"Welcome Doubt" A Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Cheryl McFadden
Second Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 1:3-9
In the Name of God, our Creator, Jesus, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, our Sustainer. Amen
Oh, the taunts that Thomas has taken since the resurrection story was first transcribed and told. Thomas has taken such a hit that we refer to a person who need evidence to believe as a “doubting Thomas.” Our society is filled with a lot of “doubting Thomas’s” as evidenced by the need to vet people, verify circumstances, and the need prove beyond a reasonable doubt. If you doubt this claim, (pun intended) just look at the criteria for determining a miracle by the Catholic Church. I think one of Jesus’ healings would have failed their criteria. “Doubting Thomas” is such a common idiom that it’s defined in Merriam-Webster. I believe Thomas has been given a bum rap. He’s not the only one in the Bible who doubted. Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David, Elijah, Zechariah, John the Baptist, and many more yet it’s only Thomas who is remembered as “doubting Thomas.” Adam and Eve did not believe they would die after eating from from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). Abraham and Sarah doubted that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5) so Sarah took matters into her own hands. In Exodus 3 and 4, Moses was filled with questions and excuses for not obeying the call to be God’s messenger to carry out God’s purposes of deliverance. He doubted that he was the right person for the job. Elijah doubted himself in the dessert because he believed the journey was too difficult and because he felt alone (1 Kings 19:1-18). Zechariah doubted that his elder wife Elizabeth could conceive and was struck dumb until John was born (Luke 1:20). John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one to come or were they to wait for another “Luke 7:20). He “questioned” whether his cousin was the long-awaited Messiah even though he heard about a great prophet among them, and Jesus was performing miracles and healing people of their illnesses.
The good news is that Jesus had patience with doubters. What does Jesus say to Thomas and the other 10 disciples after his resurrection? “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27-27). He does go on to say that those who believe without physical factuality are blessed, but he does not ignore Thomas’s disbelief or shun him. God does not ask us to pretend or to manufacture certainty. God accepts us where we are in our walk of faith. This is a lesson that parents, grandparents, Godparents, and the Christ Church community need to teach ourselves and our children.
Thomas has even made our church hymnal but in a positive light. His doubt was not a doubt of resistance to truth, but one that desperately wants a truthful answer. Listen to the verse from Hymn #231, “By All Your Saints Still Striving,” All praise, O Lord, for Thomas whose short-lived doubting proved your perfect two-fold nature, the dept of your true love. To all who live with questions a steadfast faith afford; and grant us a grace to know you, made flesh, yet God and Lord. Let’s look at Thomas’s response after he puts his finger in the nail marks in Jesus’ palm and his hand on his side. “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). His disbelief, his lack of understanding, turned into belief and he confesses the divinity of Jesus. This is also the case of the Virgin Mary. When the angel Gabriel lays out the scenario for her, her questions were not to resist what was being told to her but to ask how it could be. We all know her response once she gets an answer to her question, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38).
I want to share an experience I had seven summers ago that illustrates that doubting can lead to belief. I was completing my clinical pastoral education (a program that teaches ministers how to offer pastoral care to people) at the VA Medical Center in West Haven working in oncology, palliative care, and hospice. It was a difficult summer as you can imagine because many of my patients died but it was also a blessing because I was with many of them and their families when the loved one entered God’s eternal sabbath rest. There was one family who I got particularly close to as the wife would come each morning and stay all day by her husband’s bedside talking with him, singing to him, laughing with him, and crying quietly for him. Although she and her husband had lived in this country for 50 years, her English was not easy to understand but her love for her husband needed no words. Every night she would reach into her bag and bring out a small Tupperware cup filled with red wine and after propping her husband up, she would offer him sips. I was scandalized and shared this information with the nurse. “Will this interact with his meds; I asked in a panic?” The nurse looked at me incredulously and said, “So what? The man is dying. If he wants to have a few sips of wine every night, so be it.” This demonstrates how obtuse I was in my new chaplaincy role.
Their four boys would come by almost daily at the end of the day to be with their father. One of the boys, the youngest, was mostly silent when he visited his father and would stand at the foot of the bed clearly grieving the father who had once been. On the day of his death, the family asked the nurse to page me so we could say the Litany at the Time of Death found in our prayer book. (Although the family was Catholic, they were perfectly fine with me using this litany.) By the time I arrived, the nurse shared that he was close to death as his breathing was very labored. As I prayed the litany at the foot of the bed, the wife sat by his bedside and held his hand close to her heart and the four boys stood two on a side. The wife repeatedly kissed the father’s hand during the litany. For a long while afterwards, the boys and I stood in silence when the most unusual thing happened as the father breathed his last breath. There appeared a mist or some substance that left the father’s mouth. I was so taken back that I leaned forward to get a better view. I looked at the three brothers whose heads were bowed and were crying quietly and met the eyes of the youngest brother. His expression was one of utter disbelief. I am sure my expression matched his expression. What was the mist, the fog, that surrounded his father’s face? The nurse came into the room, and we all moved aside so she could perform the necessary actions and record the time of death. The three older brothers escorted their mother from the room and the younger brother walked down the hallway and left the area. A few hours later, I met with the mother and three brothers and prayed with them. Afterwards, I could not get the father’s death and surrounding mist out of my mind. Did it really happen, or did I imagine it? I had never heard of a mist coming from a deceased person’s body before. I thought about discussing it with my supervisor but thought he might think I was insane. I imagined that he would contact Dean McGowan and say that they should really rethink my candidacy to Holy Orders. So, I did what I always did when I needed verification or information. I put on my “Doubting Thomas” hat, and I googled it. Sure enough, I found articles, blogs, etc. of people having similar experiences. These people included physicians and nurses, credible witnesses in my opinion. In one article, they referred to a “delicate veil or mist” that left the body of as the breathing ceased (Barrett, 2011, p. 83).
Several days later, the eldest brother contacted me and invited me to their father’s wake and funeral. I shared the invitation with my supervisor who told me that chaplains don’t attend the services of the departed veterans as they would be attending many funerals. I felt strongly that I should attend or rather needed to attend. I wanted to thank the family for allowing me to be with them and their father at this precious time and that I was praying for them. I arrived for the wake and shared my condolences with the wife and three boys. I looked around the room and my eyes met with the youngest son. He quickly hurried over to me and said in a loud voice, “You saw it. I know you did by the look on your face. What was it?” I put my hand on his shoulder and said, I believe it was your father’s spirit leaving his body and going to heaven. The son burst into tears and hugged me tightly. As we both held on to each other and cried, the son said to me, “I believe you. What else could it be but my dad’s spirit.” After a time, we let go and I looked into the son’s eyes and said, “I believe too. I don’t understand it, but I believe.” Parents and Godparents, doubt can lead to belief so allow your children to ask questions about their faith. It’s even ok to share your doubts with them.
I have never forgotten this experience and doubt that I ever will. It was for me life-changing. Even though I saw the mist or the veil, I doubted what I had seen. I sought proof beyond a reasonable doubt. What I found was my faith. What I found was truth.
I have three takeaways on St. Thomas. First, don’t beat yourself up if you or your children have doubts. Remember, doubt can lead to belief. Second, pray and ask God to help you and your children believe in the real presence of God in your lives. Ask God for a sign but don’t be surprised if it comes in unexpected ways. And third, don’t be afraid to trust your heart first. Remember the words of Psalm 56:3-4: “O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me.” I pray that we will put our trust in God so our doubt will become belief. Welcome doubt and believe. Amen.