Sunday, April 12, 2015
Many, if not most, weeks my soul aches in anticipation of trying to put to words that which presents itself to me to be said. It is not that I am being bombarded from outside. There is a process that happens in me that I can only describe as a struggle, at best a creative discipline to be meaningful engaged with my faith in God, my faith tradition, and the everyday world.
I read copious amounts of professional literature about any week?s Scripture story. It is nearly insane how much material is available to pore through in any given moment. I?ve never gone to Wikipedia for source material for a sermon but Wikipedia is a great case in point. Every day the online encyclopedia of knowledge adds not 100, not one thousand?every day 12,000 pages of edited material is added to that site. For those of us who love information, we live in a gifted time in history. But, of course, how we make applicable what we know is most probably of great importance.
I literally read hundreds of pages of material about the Apostle Thomas this week and his doubting ways. Thomas is the focus in the lectionary cycle every year on the Sunday after Easter. The man takes a beating and has taken a tremendous pounding for twenty centuries for being the best example of what it means to doubt a truth that others find seemingly so obvious. Amy Jill Levine, who spoke here at First United a couple years ago, is the Jewish New Testament professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is known for saying many things, but one of them is that labels matter. How we label someone or something often lingers, and the labeling can come to be what someone is known for more than what is true.
Labels are phenomenal at creating distortions. I have so enjoyed seeing and hearing the now forty-year-old Monica Lewinsky as she is seeking to be known, defined as her full self, rather than simply the narrowly characterized woman in the blue dress or the slut. We have in our society practiced horrible labeling and bullying behavior toward Lewinsky and she was undoubtedly used and abused by our then President of the United States, and though many tried to resist it, we let the labeling happen. We are still struggling as a society to understand and to demand clear accountability, openly and with transparency, concerning how power works and to hold those who have the most power to greater responsibility for what they do to those who have less power.
We must teach ourselves, no matter our age, and we must also teach our children that with power comes great moral and ethical responsibility and that just because we can do something certainly does not mean we should. We have to demand greater accountability for our use of power as parents, in our offices, in our University structures and our local, state and national governing bodies. There are great numbers of privileges that surround those of us with power but none of those of privileges are greater than our need to be responsible to those that we are called upon to serve from our positions of power as parents, presidents, or pastors.
So what has this to do with Thomas, the one that we know in our popular vocabularies as Doubting Thomas? He didn?t believe, so the story goes, that Jesus physically resurrected and wasn?t going to believe until he stuck his hands in Jesus? wounds. That is sort of creepy when you think about it.
I am so disappointed in my peers in those hundreds of pages I read this week that they all used very literal interpretations of John?s Gospel?s treatment of Thomas and not a one told the greater truth that most of us were taught in our seminary educations. There is a general belief among clergy that our congregations or parishes can?t handle the truth about Christianity, our origins and history. One truth is that there has never been one agreed upon Christianity. There has often been one majority held belief about Christianity that has sought to bully all others, successfully, and label us as heretics. There has always been tremendous diversity of thought and belief, no matter that one group has owned the main microphone and speakers for a majority of the time. And, what some would assume to be pivotal thoughts and beliefs have often times been based upon some very weak foundations that are certainly not crusade-worthy standards.
Our story this morning about Thomas is chief among the examples of absolutely horrible Bible fact telling. John?s Gospel is not telling an accurate story about Thomas but is reprimanding those that followed Thomas?s teaching in the years following Jesus? death. John?s Gospel is at best a piece of historical fiction with some very biased points to create.
If I am going to lay bare my soul or encourage you to do the same in the service to a religious truth, you and I both deserve to know as much truth as is available to be had.
There is in existence a well-published Gospel According to Thomas. It is an enjoyable book to read if you like to do comparison shopping in the field of Biblical literature. It is not considered to be a text that those who maintain the majority views of Christianity and sell the Christian beliefs think you need to read. Traditional Christianity says that The Gospel of Thomas encourages heresy, and those who find it meaningful are heretics.
You can find the book of Thomas online. The first actual copy of it was found in 1945 in Egypt, buried with an ancient Coptic Christian monk. This method of hiding not just the Gospel of Thomas but many other so-called books of heresy occurred because of an official sanction to destroy all so-called Gospels that did not make it into our Bibles.
Not everyone in Jesus? inner circle of early believers believed the same things about Jesus?including the same beliefs about his resurrection. Thomas was one of those. He had a tremendous following and his followers did not believe, among other things, in the physical resurrection of Jesus? actual body, and some even believed that Jesus as God escaped the cross by slipping out of his body and some poor sap was crucified in his place. According to those who wrote the narrative about the meaning of Jesus? life?the death and resurrection that most of us have been told since we were children?people like Thomas and his followers were sincerely sinful doubters.
So, those who wrote the Gospel of John wrote narratives to prove their point. The Gospel of John has some fantastic theology. However, it was written not in some historical/factual fashion but rather in a fictional narrative to establish some normative orthodoxy. Thomas? gospel got buried for nearly 2000 years and was referred to by the church?s leaders as ?the fictions of heretics,? while John?s Gospel made it into print and duplicated ad-infinitum. John?s Gospel has Thomas submit to believing the official lines. The Gospel of Thomas does not and nor should we submit our intellects and common sense to narratives that do pass our well-seasoned and reasoned demands of faith.
Thomas, if he were a doubter, was like all the others. Not a one of them expected a resurrection, a blooming forth of a new faith from the lips and lives of illiterate, drastically poor, disenfranchised men and women of 1st century Palestine and mainly from Galilee. That belief was as fantastical as believing that any good can come out of people from Lawrence County and Bedford, or Dolan or Rossville, and heaven forbid from Morgan County and Martinsville.
Doubting is essential to good faith and moral development. When I hear that yet another unarmed black man has been shot by police, I doubt the official narrative and will continue to do so until those of us who are white and privileged openly acknowledge the deep racisms that exist deep in our learned behaviors. It remains vile and deeply disturbing that black men need to run for their lives in 2015 America. It is not a sad reality, it is a despicable and hateful reality.
I have the greatest privilege in the world to preach weekly to a group of people who can significantly help to change the cultural/societal narrative concerning what people the world over believe about those in the GLBTQ community, about all the varied racism in our land, about sex trafficking, about HIV, about the abuse of children, the continuing abuses of radical white patriarchy in our state, and environmental dangers, just to name a few.
Someone is going to ask, ?What was that sermon about, anyway?? Here it is from my perspective, ?Doubt the dominant narratives to any story in which people or animals or the environment is put at risk for the benefit of a few.? You are amongst the most gifted people in the world who communicate now with thousands?use your voice, use your writings, use your teaching and your politics to bring the hope of God, the essence of resurrection faith to bear upon every issue of our time that seems nearly undefeatable. As true Easter people we are called to be leaders of the coming reality of God that makes all things new.
We are the ones who are called to serve the needs of our world with our faith that if God were in charge, great things are still very possible. Let God be God, and lure you to where you never thought possible. It is what resurrection faith demands.