On the Courage to Ask
April 24, 2022
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Today’s sermon is titled On the Courage to Ask.
Thomas is one of my favorite characters in the Biblical narrative. It’s unfortunate that his name has become a familiar idiom; “doubting Thomas” is never meant as a compliment and yet I think we can learn a great deal from Thomas. Thomas has the courage to ask for the proof he needs before he can believe that his Friends have seen Jesus. It is short-sighted to characterize Thomas as a doubter; Thomas is a seeker and so are we. We are here, learning together, after all. And I hope that we are also like Thomas in that we are not willing to go along with what others tell us is true if our hearts and minds are telling us otherwise. I hope that we, like Thomas, are discerning and persistent seekers of the truth.
Thomas is clear about what he is looking for. Thomas wants to see with his own eyes. He wants to feel with his own hands. Thomas wants what we call empirical evidence. Empirical evidence is defined as “information that is acquired by observation or experimentation.” Empirical is a beautiful word; its root, empiric, is derived from the Greek empeirikós, meaning experience. Thomas must experience for himself in order to believe and we are no different.
One point we must not miss is this: Thomas placed himself in a position for the truth to be revealed to him. This is part of the story I have never before noticed. Thomas is not with the disciples the first time Jesus, as the Christ, appears to them on a Sunday evening as they faithfully gathered, following their instructions to break bread together and share the cup in remembrance of their teacher. Thomas was not there that Sunday, but he was there the next. He wanted to know. Thomas had the courage to ask for assurance and then he showed up at a place and time most likely to receive what he was asking for.
Thomas did not just go about his life thinking and wondering and feeling, as I would, that he had missed out on what would surely have been the greatest experience of his life. He came back, just as Jesus had asked them all to do, he came back to break bread and share the cup with his Friends. He came to remember his teacher, to remember the teachings, and we know what happened next. Jesus returned, again, as if just for Thomas. Thomas did his part, though. Let’s not forget that he was there. And we are here, in much the same way, and I thank you.
We show up here, either in-person or through the miracle of technology, and by doing so we place ourselves in a direct line to receive the assurance that God is moving in our world, still. I have a story about intentionally placing myself at the right place at the right time. I was in my twenties and in Hawai’i on the Big Island, spending the winter with friends in the off-months between seasonal work for the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest. My friends lived in a remote area of the island where we could walk to a small black sand beach and in those days I was a very strong and fearless swimmer, willing to swim way out off-shore, especially if the dolphins were playing. With goggles for my eyes and fins for my feet, I could swim out to where they were, in what we called the “deep blue,” and if they were in the mood, they would slow down and let me and my friends swim with them, sometimes for an hour or more, sometimes until we were so exhausted we left them to return to shore. This happened way more times than I could count each winter and then again, year after year. We would often hear humpback whales singing underwater, but I had never seen a humpback whale underwater while swimming and that desire grew and grew within me until I began to scheme.
I spent hour after hour up on the cliffs above the beach watching the whales with my binoculars. I took notes. I learned, from observation, that they most often swam by the bay in the same place. It was way out there. I timed how long it took them to travel from one side of the bay to the next and when I was confident I had enough information, I decided that when the conditions were favorable I would be on watch for whales coming into the bay and I would swim out to be in a place they would most likely pass by. My friends thought I was crazy; perhaps I was.
The first time I tried it, I missed them. I could hear them singing so loudly it made my bones vibrate but I could not see them, neither above water nor under it. It was weeks after that when I tried again. I could not hear them that time and I thought surely I had missed them again. I started to swim back, just trying to enjoy the colors in the water and not think about how far I was from shore when, from behind me, a massive whale came into view, swimming quickly down, diving. Suddenly I had no breath and had to come up for air. I dove down again just in time to see its gigantic tail, as wide as the length of a pick-up truck, wave once before the force of the water pushed me back to the surface. Just like that, it was there and then it was gone, but I could never, ever forget it.
I dreamed of seeing a whale. I studied them, then I placed myself out in the deep where I would most likely be in their path. Friends, in my experience, empirically, it is the same with seeking God. First is the desire, then the commitment to pay attention, to direct both mind and heart, and then be willing to go into the deep waters of life where we are most likely to encounter the force of goodness we call God. The deep waters of our lives can be anywhere where we are truly vulnerable, either by choice or by accident; either will do. Sometimes we find ourselves in the deep waters and sometimes we have to make ourselves get out there, leaving the safety of shore. We can do this by questioning, by being willing to change, by being willing to forgive or willing to ask for forgiveness. We may find ourselves in the deep water through illness, through grief, in fear, or in remorse. When we are genuinely vulnerable in these processes, our chance of encountering the grace of God is extremely high.
As I write this, my good Friend is in the hospital. I imagine she is fighting for her life because I want her to fight for it. I do not want to lose her, but who am I to want to hold her if her body is not able to sustain her? So, I don’t really know what to do or even how to pray, exactly. I find myself in deep water, not knowing, questioning, searching for direction, searching for answers. And through the locked doors of my fears there is something that I can only call God, whispering messages without words, sending thoughts, and placing a desire in my heart to create a place where we can bring our prayers and our good wishes for a beloved Friend. God dwells in such spaces; if we go there, we will know.
In closing, there is so much I do not know, so much I can not know, but, Friends, I do know this. There is a love that connects us, one to another, and it is fantastic, truly. In the darkest, deepest despair, it is there. In the brightest joy, it is there, shining even more brightly. All we can do is place ourselves in the path of it, be willing to experience the intensity of it, and know that wherever life takes us, we are not alone; God is there. Love is there. So be it. Amen.
Source of Love that we call God, we try to name you although you are nameless; we try to interpret you, even though you are unfathomable. Help us, Holy One, to be at peace with your vastness that can not be named and your message of unconditional love that includes us all, each and every one. For those who are ailing, we pray for comfort. For those facing death, we pray for peace. Through your strength and grace, Lord, given to us through the Holy Spirit, help us to extend ourselves as disciples of your love. Empower us to make choices that consider the well-being of the earth and the well-being of our brothers and sisters. In all things, remind us of the power of prayer, especially this prayer, that Jesus gave to his disciples: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the book of Ephesians, chapter 2:
“May God grant you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in deep knowledge. May the eyes of your mind be enlightened so you may know what is the hope of his calling.”