Easter 2 B
1 John 1:1-2:2
At St. Stephen’s, we are lucky to have a lot outside that accommodates our parking needs, for the most part. Oh, sure, there are the occasional concerts or large services in which we have to park on the road, and I’ve been here on weekdays when Weight Watchers and several other groups are using our building spaces, and it’s looked full, but we always seem to have enough room. I know that this is not the case in all church lots, especially those in the south and in the east. I read a story, recently, from a pastor in Florida who told this story:
“We have very limited parking available around our church which poses some special challenges for us, especially on top attendance Sundays, like Easter. We've developed a diligent and committed parking team to help with the problem, and one Easter a few years ago the parking volunteers were out in full force, wearing orange vests and carrying walkie-talkies, trying to make the process of parking seamless. The major challenge for our parking team was going to be helping cars exchange spots between services.
Well, as you might imagine, the spots nearest the sanctuary had been re-filled well before the second service was set to begin, when a parking volunteer noticed one lone car backing out of a really prime spot. He was delighted to see that the next car approaching his turn-in to the lot was driven by an older woman who was coming alone, and he thought, "Well, how wonderful that I will be able to help her get this desirable parking place on Easter." So the parking volunteer began enthusiastically waving her from the street into our lot, as you might direct a plane toward its airport gate. At first, the woman seemed a bit confused about heading into the apparently full lot, so he increased his waving and pointing, so she'd see where he wanted her to go...such a prime spot!
Well, she finally pulled in and parked, and our proud parking volunteer walked to the car to wish her Happy Easter and help her get out. But she rolled down her window, still looking a little confused, and said, "I don't go to this church! I've been a member of the Baptist church down the street for over 60 years!"”
This all to make a point about our individual beliefs, how we develop them and about how we can sometimes allow ourselves to get parked, for a time, in the wrong parking lot of beliefs. Maybe we are directed into these belief lots, just as this sweet older lady was; or maybe over time, we pick up erroneous information and develop ideas that may not be completely accurate or helpful in our faith journey. And that may cause a spiritual struggle, maybe we park there through maneuvering and carefully struggling with an oversized car in a small space. But, consider the possibility that ideas or beliefs that don’t get us anywhere may need to be examined, and perhaps driven down the road for a time so we can, with study and inspiration, come closer to the truths that God has for us...then we are ready to park in the right lot. I don’t know if this silly little metaphor works, but I’d like to apply it this morning to the familiar story of “Doubting Thomas” that we read this morning from John’s gospel. Interestingly, this same lesson comes up each and every year on the Sunday following Easter Sunday…even in our three-year lectionary cycle, there is Thomas, waiting for us, just after Easter. And that’s important.
Let’s face it, our concept of Thomas is parked in the disagreeable lot – probably a gravel lot with loads of mud puddles. We have always looked askew at Doubting Thomas, because he doubted Jesus’ resurrection, and we must not…not ever, under any circumstances, be like Doubting Thomas….right?
This morning, I’d like to continue the drive regarding the ideas about Thomas. I’d like to look at the story of Thomas and consider whether Thomas may have been mislabeled. Maybe the story of Thomas should be reconsidered prior to trying to park again.
First, consider doubt….and the notion that doubt can be a positive thing. Years ago, I, like some of you, spent four years taking EfM, (Education for Ministry.) It was a pivotal and iconoclastic course for me, causing me to have many moments of wide-mouthed ah-ha’s through deep learning and meaningful understandings. Through my readings of the rich content, and the lively and honest conversations during our theological reflections, and over the four years of weekly meeting, I think it’s safe to say, that all 7 of us developed a healthy respect and acceptance for reasonable doubt. We found ourselves looking at our own faith, our beliefs, and, guided by the Holy Spirit, we sometimes gave birth to some new truths for ourselves, or we affirmed with informed resolve, that our current beliefs were right for us. But, our doubts and wonders were often the springboard to our learning. I now believe that doubt, and the permission to question, to struggle with scripture and other elements of our faith and to examine our beliefs is the best way to deepen our faith.
Like Thomas, many of the prominent leaders of our faith have had moments – or longer – of doubt. Look at Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a revered Saint of the church. For 11 years of her active ministry, she felt absolutely no connection with God. God was silent for her and this led to years of internal darkness and doubt, and yet she continued to serve. In an article about Mother Teresa, Sr. Mary Jean Feeney, OSB is quoted with this wisdom, “Doubt is part of the human condition. We need hope. Hope is the bridge between doubt and faith.” With that, perhaps we might say that doubt can connect us to hope.
And doubt has been a part of our tradition since the earliest Christians. The story of Thomas is only found in the gospel of John. It would have been written around 70 years after Jesus’ death, which was a time of tremendous persecution of the Jewish and Gentile Christians by the Romans. Certainly those early Christians must have felt some doubt about the wisdom of their new faith. There were so many risks. So, the author of John’s gospel probably found good reason to tell the story of the very first group of followers of Jesus, who were so doubtful that they actually went into hiding. There, huddled in the upper room, locked away they stayed…and then, there is Thomas, who had ventured out when Jesus first came to the group. When he returned, he refused to believe based on what the others told him. He had to have an encounter on his own. Thomas wanted verification, and a relationship of his own. And don’t we all?
This is another aspect of doubt that we should consider. Is wanting verification a bad thing? It’s safe to say, that in today’s world, we all should answer “no!” to that. When you think of it, Thomas filled a major pivotal point in Christian faith. All the disciples before him did get to see and touch and hear Jesus in person. But Thomas, like all the millions of us who followed, don’t have the opportunity to see and touch, to hear the sound of Jesus’ voice.
I am always taken, in this gospel lesson, with the gentle response from Jesus toward Thomas. He doesn’t scold him for his lack of faith. He lets him see and touch, and he says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” This calls to us, who cannot see, verify, amass proof, and yet are invited to have faith in Jesus. And, it is always good to spend time considering what we need in order to believe. Certainly, our faith is aided by study, both of scripture and from our tradition. And, sometimes we continue the struggle and simply feel belief, thankful for the words of Jesus.
Finally, a lesson from this story of Thomas is just how important our relationship with one another is to our faith. Staying connected to our friends in our faith community, is vital. Thomas lost his faith for a time. We don’t know where he was, but he was not with his brothers during a crucial moment. However, he found his belief when he returned to the room and stood among his fellow disciples alongside Jesus. Fellowship with one another, I think, is such an important part in our faith journey. As I mentioned, that small group of learners in EfM were vital in my Christian formation. There, among my fellow sojourners, an environment of learning and questioning in a trusting environment existed. We listened to one another, responded with love and understanding, and our own belief systems grew. I certainly see that happening in the EfM group here at St. Stephen’s.
There is a story of a 97-year-old woman who, looking back, said she had learned the most important lesson of her life when only a child. She and a group of friends had decided one afternoon to climb Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Before they were able to descend, a late afternoon fog rolled in and enveloped them all in its thick, obscuring whiteness. They couldn't see the way ahead, and so they agreed they would move down the mountain very slowly, inch by inch. And they agreed they would all hold hands and they would not, under any circumstances, let go of each other. Remembering the event years later, the woman said of this experience: "Sometimes all I could see was the hand ahead of me and the one behind me. Sometimes my arms ached so badly I thought I would cry out loud, but that is how we made it at last. We found our way home by holding on to one another." 
This is a great metaphor for life in community, in how we develop and maintain our faith, even in the midst of doubting and dark times, in the times we wander off course, or circumstances beyond our control take us off course…that is when we hold up each other. Our St. Stephen’s congregation certainly knows that experience. There must have been grave doubts in 2004, when the congregation separated into two entities. It must have been easy for doubt to creep in. . . and they did, but, through the stories I have been told, you found one another and held on to each other. Like the children who descended the mountain in the fog, holding hands, our reliance on one another in faith communities nurtures us all. When we communicate honestly and openly with each other, we often know God speaking to us, in the words of those we love and trust.
Thomas, truth seeker, requirer of proof, bold questioner, doesn’t need to be parked in the lot of negativity. Thomas may indeed be a hero to us because of his audacious tenacity, and for the gifts of faith he leaves for us. Thomas reminds us that there is not much that can get in the way of God’s love for us. Not even doubts, nor closed doors, nor other hardships or darkness. Jesus calls to us, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And we are.