Monday, April 4, 2016

Sermon: "Peace Be With You"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
April 3, 2016 – Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-31

“Peace Be With You”

By a show of hands,
how many of you have never experienced doubt in your life?
How many of you have never doubted your faith?
Have never doubted yourself?
Have never doubted other people –
their words, their abilities, their sincerity?

Now, take a look around the room and see how many hands are up.
I wanted to get that out of the way before we take poor Thomas to task for expressing doubt when he was told that Jesus had risen from the dead.

I always say that Thomas got a bum rap.
For some reason, he was not in the room when Jesus chose to walk through a locked door and show his resurrected self to the other disciples.
Perhaps they had sent Thomas out on a coffee run.
And it was just his bad luck to be stuck standing in line waiting to order 11 Grande Mocha Lattes while Jesus was making an appearance back at the disciples hideout.

And they were hiding out.
They were hiding because they were living in fear for their lives.
After Jesus was arrested and executed they were convinced that they would be next.
And they continued to hide even though Mary Magdalene had come to them that very morning – waking them up in the wee hours before dawn and babbling on about an empty tomb and a man who appeared in the garden claiming to be Jesus returned to life.

If the disciples did not doubt Mary’s story they wouldn’t have been cowering in a locked room. They’d be out telling the world.
Some of them had even poked their heads into the empty tomb themselves – yet still, they were swimming in doubt, and consumed with fear.

It took Jesus standing before them, showing them the holes in his body,
to get them to believe.
So lets not pile on poor Thomas.
He only wanted to see what the others had seen.
They all doubted –
and they all needed to see for themselves before they believed.

We all doubt.  It’s a natural part of being human.
It’s a byproduct of our being finite, limited creatures who can’t possibly know everything or know it with certainty.
Doubt is normal.
It’s what grows out of our doubt that gets us into trouble.

Doubt is healthy when it leads to questions that expand our understanding of the world we live in, our understanding of ourselves,
our understanding of God.
But doubt can be harmful when it leads us to question our self-worth,
when it leads us to distrust and disconnect from others,
when it has us cowering in fear, rather than opening ourselves to experiences that ultimately help us to grow.

The kind of doubt that Thomas experienced is often lifted up as the kind we should strive to avoid, because it’s said to be rooted in his stubborn refusal to accept on faith alone something that he did not witness himself.

Now there are plenty of things that we believe to be true in life even though we have not witnessed the evidence of it ourselves.
We may never have seen an emu in Australia, or a pygmy monkey in the Amazon, or a moose here in NH, but we believe they exist because others have seen them.

I once went on a whale watching excursion off the coast of cape cod. Before we even made it out to sea, I got so sea sick I had to spend the rest of the trip hanging onto the side of the boat forcing myself to look at the horizon.   
I never saw a single whale, but judging from the shouts of joy, and oohs and ahs coming from the other side of the boat, I had to take it on faith that there were whales out there and that they were putting on quite a show.

But believing someone when they say they saw a whale and believing them when they say they witnessed a resurrection is not quite the same thing. 
On the scale of believability, they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.

So why is it that we’re so quick to judge Thomas when he said he would only believe it to be true if he saw the risen Christ with his own eyes, and touched him with his own hands?

I propose our rush to judgment has less to do with what was going on in that locked room, and more to do with what’s going on in our own hearts.

Too often we tell ourselves that certainty is the key to a successful, happy, and faithful life – and doubt is a sign of weakness.

We tend to admire those who exude the confidence of certainty – in themselves, in their work, in their beliefs.
A good number of us are drawn to leaders and politicians who proclaim with certainty that THEY have the solutions to solve the problems of our world.

And when it comes to religious convictions, we have no shortage of faith traditions that are built on certainty – that require strict adherence to doctrines of belief and behavior -  handed down by a God who threatens to punish us if we waver in any way.

As we’ve said, doubt can arise from fear,
But it can be said that our need for certainty arises from fear as well.
The fear of not having all the answers.
The fear of being wrong.
The fear of not feeling safe and secure.
The fear of the chaos and the messiness that can result when we can’t put everything neatly in a box, label it, and file it away in an organized and ordered system of belief.

Life is so much easier when we’re handed a script to follow.
One that tells us step by step how to find a fulfilling career,
how to have a happy marriage, how to get our kids into a good school,
how to have a successful life.
One that spells out the religious doctrine we must adhere to experience prosperity, to get into heaven, to avoid being cast out of God’s grace.

In a world built on certainty, doubt is a dangerous thing.
Because it can lead to cracks in the foundation.
And when one certainty is stacked upon another, any wavering in the supporting beliefs can cause the whole structure to come crashing down.

Jesus did not reprimand Thomas for doubting.
He didn’t reprimand any of his disciples because they didn’t truly believe until they saw him with their own eyes.
Instead he said to them, “Did you believe because you saw me?
Blessed are those who believe without seeing.”

This was not a reprimand, but a blessing.
A blessing that they were to carry to those who would come later.
Those who would never see the living Jesus or the risen Christ,  
yet would still come to live out the gospel in the world,
because of what they learned and witnessed from the disciples themselves.

When Jesus appeared before his disciples – both with and without Thomas – he entered the room saying, “Peace be with you.”

He did not ask them why they had scattered to the wind the night he was arrested in the garden.
He didn’t scold them for denying even knowing him.
He didn’t question why they were still hiding behind a locked door,
even after he had sent Mary to tell them what she had seen.

“Peace be with you,” he said.
Be at peace with your weakness and fear.
Be at peace with your guilt and your shame.
Be at peace with your uncertainty and doubt.
See and believe, and then tell others and help them to believe as well,
by being living examples of God’s presence in the world.

How many of us are not at peace because we fear we’re lacking in some way?
Because we failed at something.
Because we wish we’d made better choices in life.
Because we struggle to believe – in God, in humanity, in ourselves…..
and everyone around us seems so confident and so self-assured in what they do and what they say and what they believe.

This kind of internal doubt that many of feel even has a name.
It’s called Imposter Syndrome.
It’s the feeling that we’re not as good, or as smart, or as worthy of love as others seem to be.
It’s the belief that any accolades or praise we receive is not earned,
because underneath it all we’re a fraud.
We’ve fooled people into believing we’re competent and confident,
when in reality we’re riddled with doubt and uncertainty.

Psychological research done in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves to be frauds and other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.

It’s suspected that Albert Einstein might have suffered from Imposter Syndrome.  
A month before his death, he reportedly confided in a friend, and said:
"The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”

Doubt is a normal, and essential part of being human.
It leads us to question our assumptions and expand our understanding of the world.
Doubting our faith, and doubting ourselves also seems to be an unavoidable part of our human condition, despite our desire for certainty in all things.

Thankfully, Jesus chose Thomas to stand as a timeless example of someone who doubted and yet still was not judged or rejected for seeking to believe.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus said.
Blessed are those who will see your example and come to believe in their hearts.
Go now, and tell the world what you have heard and seen.
And let God take care of the rest.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.