Sermon: Seeing is not believing

Seeing is not believing
John 20:19-31
April 23, 2017

In 1910 a girl was born in Skopje, Albania named Agnes.

Agnes was baptized the day after she was born and she considered that her real birthday.

At the age of 5 and a half she received communion for the first time and fell in love with Christ.

At age 12 she committed herself to religious life.

When she turned 18 she left home Albania for Ireland to learn English.

By the age of 19 she was teaching in Calcutta, India.

After nearly 20 years of teaching she heard the voice of God call her in to a new ministry, serving the poor. She heard the voice of God three times, the first on a train and another time around a communion table, calling her to work with the poor. The voice of Christ spoke to her and said I want you to be the “fire of love amongst the poor, the sick, the dying and the little children… come, be my light

She began this work in 1948 as an individual, but over the next 50 years the organization she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, grew to include more than 4,500 nuns who to this day run schools and orphanges and health centers and care for people with every condition from leprosy to AIDS.

In 1979 she received the Nobel Peace Prize under her religious name, Mother Teresa. At her Nobel speech she said: “It is not enough for us to say, ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor…God [made] himself the hungry one–the naked one–the homeless one.” Jesus’ hunger, she said, is what “you and I must find” and alleviate.

Mother Teresa is one of my heroes, one of my role models, I want to be a missionary in the way that she was.

But at the same time that she created and led a mission that would become one of the most notable in the world, she lived in spiritual darkness.

Mother Teresa was born with a great love of God and dedicated herself to mission service. She heard the voice of God calling her in the late 1940s. But after that, the voice went silent.

She prayed and heard nothing in return.

She yearned for God and found emptiness.

She sought the union she once experienced and felt alone.

Only a few months after receiving the Nobel Prize, she said to her spiritual director, “Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me–The silence and the emptiness is so great–that I look and do not see,–Listen and do not hear.

What amazes me about Mother Teresa is that while she had this crisis of faith, she remained faithful. Even when she felt as if God didn’t hear her prayers, she continued praying for others. Even when she no longer felt the touch of God, she touched others. Even when she felt abandoned by God, she stayed in accompaniment with others.
For 50 years, Mother Teresa had a darkness in her soul and yet she brought light in to the world.

Image result for mother teresa helping
Mother Teresa doubted. In her journals she openly wondered about the existence of God and heaven. She doubted, but she remained faithful.

If we are honest, many of us have doubted. I have met a few saints in my life who haven’t doubted. Their faith has been solid every day of their lives and they have never had a moment of questioning.

For me, I have had doubts. I struggle in understanding how a good and loving God can tolerate injustice in the world.

The good thing about being at the Church for All People is there is room for both. If you are someone who has never had a moment of doubt or who questions all of the time, you are welcome here.

We might feel as if something is wrong with us if we question or doubt or struggle, but today those of us who fall in that group find ourselves among good company.

When it comes to doubt there is one person who we think of most, Thomas.

Thomas, Doubting Thomas.

I believe Thomas gets a bad deal. We don’t put adjectives in front of the names of the other disciples. We don’t call Peter “Impulsive Peter”. We don’t even call Judas “Betraying Judas”. And yet, for some reason we label Thomas as doubting.

I think this is unfair for several reasons.

First, he isn’t the first person to doubt. In the gospel of Luke when the women return from the tomb and tell the disciples about the resurrection, the scripture says that the “words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” None of them believed, they all thought it was fake news, but it is only Thomas who is called doubting.

Second, it is unfair to call Thomas doubting because it doesn’t give the full story of this scripture. When Jesus appears on the 8th day, and Thomas sees the wounds and holes with his own eyes he proclaims, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas is the first person to call the Risen Christ, God.

The third reason it is unfair to call Thomas doubting is because it reduces his entire life work to one event. Thomas was a faithful disciple. Like Mother Teresa, Christian history and tradition state that Thomas carried the good news as far as India and created churches that are still in existence today. Perhaps, it is because of his time of doubt that he received the strength to become such an amazing evangelist. It is often the times of our lives when we struggle and doubt and fear that we grow the most. They are difficult times to live through, but when we come out the other side our faith has grown from facts we have been told to believe in to truths that ground us and shape us and make us who we are.

This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Blessed are those have not seen, and yet believe.

Like many of the beatitudes, I find myself on the wrong side of the equation on this one.

As the people of the Church for All People we are lucky. We are lucky because we get to see it. I have seen God move and act more in my two years here than I have at any other time in my life. We touch grace every time we shop in the Free Store or the Fresh Market, we can see it when we drive up and down streets like Carpenter and see all of the rebuilt homes, we see it in the face of babies when we celebrate First Birthday parties.

And yet, in its own way, maybe that can set up its own expectation when we are so accustomed to seeing God work on a big scale that we can be left feeling wondering where God is in our personal lives.

We often speak of a divine economy of abundance, but what do you do when your checking account is overdrawn?

We can come to church and hear others speak of answered prayers, but what do you do when you feel as if your prayers are bouncing off the celling?

We can talk about accompaniment and living in this community of faith, but what about when you are alone in a hospital bed?

What do you do when you can’t see it or touch it or point to it?

The lesson of Mother Teresa is that even in those dark moments, even when they last a long time, we keep pressing forward. And when we are able to do that, we discover why Jesus calls people who believe without seeing blessed, for it is in those moments that our faith is not just about when we can see or teach or hear it, but it is a deeper trust in God beyond our feelings.

Mother Teresa and Thomas were not the only people who experienced doubt. In the 1500s there was a man named John of the Cross who wrote a poem called the Dark Night of the Soul where he described his own struggles with the absence of God.  Even Jesus cried out from the cross, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, quoting the psalm written by David.  Last week Kendrick Lamar released a new album and on it there is a song called FEAR. That begins with the words, “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle/Why God, why God do I gotta bleed? Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet.

Doubt is not something new. From Mother Teresa to John of the Cross, from Kendrick Lamar to Thomas, people have doubted.

The same thing happened to the founder of our Methodist tradition, John Wesley. Wesley had a period of his life where his faith felt dry and cold. He questioned his own salvation and even wondered if he should continue preaching. And then he shared his struggle with a Moravian missionary named Peter Bohler. Bohler told him to continue on, to preach faith until he had faith, to continue on, and that in practicing faith he would find it.

Wesley kept at it.

The next thing he did was to sit with a prisoner on death row named William Clifford. Wesley visited with Clifford and prayed for him. As a result, Clifford found salvation and forgiveness and redemption and peace. And it was through bringing this prisoner faith that Wesley found faith himself.

We are familiar with Jesus teaching to ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. But the English translation of that actually does the original Greek a disservice. The scripture should say, ask and keep asking, seek and keep seeking, knock and keep knocking. And in continually asking and seeking and knocking we will find faith.

During the offering, Sam sang a song called Anyway, recorded by Martina McBride.

This song is actually based off of a poem that hung on the wall in Mother Teresa’s office. The original poem says:

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered,
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives,
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies,
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow,
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable,
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight,
People really need help but may attack you if you help them,
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth,

May we be the ones who practice our faith, anyway.

Even when our prayers fall silent, even when we doubt, even when our kindness is not returned, be faithful anyway. In practicing faith, we will find faith. A faith deeper that mere belief, a faith that will give us the strength to continue on, even when we can’t see it or touch it or feel it.

Be faithful, anyway. In doing so, we will be the ones who discover what it means to blessed, when we are the ones who believe, even when we don’t see it, anyway.



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