This sermon might not be for you –
just a head’s up.
Being religious in our world
is not comfortable for some of us.
“Spiritual not religious” is a euphemism
for a vague belief or intuition about God
alongside a very clear rejection
of historic, communal faith.
In our cultural parlance,
spiritual is good
but religious is bad.
I suspect that most of us here,
whether or not we
have been church members all our lives,
we understand the critique
implied by that difference.
Given the failures, scandals, and
egregious sins of organized religion,
I mostly I agree with that critique –
except that it goes too far
and caricatures religion as if all the same.
But today is Thomas the doubter’s day,
and so I want to give a shout out to my tribe.
Thomas is the guy who said,
“Wait a minute folks,
you’re asking me to believe what I haven’t experienced?
I ain’t gonna do it.”
Now, John’s Gospel, and the traditional
preachers and teachers of Christianity
have ridiculed my buddy Thomas for centuries.
Even so, he was absolutely right
to make that objection.
I echo it too.
Do not embrace,
and do not believe,
and do not invest yourself
in that which you have not experienced.
Blind faith is a blind alley
in which we put ourselves at risk.
A leap of faith
only makes sense
if we can see the other side
to which we have
a snowballs chance of landing on.
So, you go Thomas!
For the tribe of Thomas,
there is an insistence upon
personal participation in the narrative
before we risk our lives
for the sake of the story.
But not everyone here
is a member of the Thomas tribe.
Some of us here have a nascent ability
to walk hand-in-hand with God,
and are not troubled by
doubts, distance, confusion,
If that is you, I beg your patience
because this sermon
is not really addressed to you.
This sermon is to my Thomas buddies.
But if you listen in, it might serve
as a little sensitivity training
about how it is for those of us
who are spiritual pedestrians.
There are two things I want to say
to my brothers and sisters
who share Thomas’ insistence
that we must experience something ourselves
before we can put any faith into it.
First, if we require experiential learning,
then we need a broad and creative
definition of “experience.”
Many of us have been deformed and mangled
through a harsh indoctrination
in the leftovers of Age of Enlightenment.
We have been taught
that life and the universe
operate under the dictatorship of pure reason.
We have been taught to trust
only that which can be replicated
in a laboratory,
or that we can at least size up
with our physical senses.
So, our first task is learning to perceive
through our other faculties
in addition to the much-touted intellect.
We also have an imagination,
a glorious scale of emotions,
not to mention our tactile sense organs.
Leonardo di Vinci is a perfect example I’ve mention before.
He imagined the tank,
the hang glider,
and numerous bridges and machines
centuries before the technology
and engineering existed to build them.
It is not difficult to imagine
that Steven Spielberg
has done the same thing in our generation.
Likewise, we all know people
who are incredibly intuitive
and able to know things
about people and situations
without anything being said or done in advance
to offer up that knowledge.
On a more concrete level,
Lisa Gibson over there,
likely hears things most of us do not hear –
not only because she has the trained
ears of a musician,
but because by birth she probably hears
more than we hear even without the training.
Some people hear more, smell more,
and perceive more than other people do.
Life and biology
do not provide a flat playing field.
So what I am driving at,
is that for those of us who have difficulty experiencing
the holiness that others
seem to sense all around and within them,
maybe our problem is one of capacity.
Perhaps the problem is our need
to more vigorously exercise
one or more of our sensing capabilities.
We have all the senses we need
with which to experience the holy in our midst
but perhaps we do not use them all –
or do not use them well enough,
or do not even appreciate
all of them well enough.
I am suggesting that our problem
is not an absence of discernment capability
with which to apprehend the
wispy and impetuous presence of God,
but rather, in how much of our capacity we use.
That is the first thing
I want to offer up for us Thomas’s to reflect on.
We need to challenge ourselves to ask
how much of our capacity
to sense and experience holiness
do we actually use?
Can we build capacity
the same way we would go about building
muscle or language
or mathematical skills?
So, give that some thought,
brothers and sisters of the Thomas Clan.
Secondly, there is one sensing capability
I haven’t mentioned, and which
is a truly difficult and cantankerous one
because we have been indoctrinated
into the cult of rugged individualism.
The capacity for greater spiritual depth
requires we draw upon a communal component.
That is difficult for many of us,
perhaps all of us, to truly embrace.
Beginning somewhere in the last century or two,
human beings began to imagine themselves
in a way that was radically different
from all of our other ancestors.
We came upon the idea
that we could individually know something about God
and the spiritual nature of the universe,
that had not been handed down
through past generations.
That idea was a radical break
with all previous spiritual wisdom.
The idea that I can have my “own values,”
and that those values
are not rooted in a communal wisdom
that is older, deeper, and wider than me,
is a radical break
with all previous spiritual understanding.
It is a whacky idea
that we are loners in the universe,
radically separated individuals
capable of individually accessing knowledge about God
that is unmediated through centuries
of religious ideas and rituals and sacraments,
and that comes to us in some pure
unassociated with all former revelations.
It is a radical break
with all previous spiritual wisdom.
So, the second thing I want us to consider
as members of the Thomas clan,
is that community
is one of our sense organs.
Stop and hold that for a moment:
community is one of our ways of knowing.
Community means it is not necessary for us
to personally know everything there is to know,
holds a treasure trove of spiritual wisdom
in the same way brain cells hold memory.
And just like brain cells,
when community breaks down
we begin to lose knowledge.
There was a fascinating and very concrete
bit of insight about this
provided in the first weeks after we invaded Iraq.
In those first weeks
there was a landscape of relative peace
before the resistance kicked up,
and our electrical engineers
and power technicians
were sent in to get Iraq’s power grid
back up and running.
It was important to winning
the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign
as well as to benefit our armed forces.
But the effort was very slow
and took much longer than anticipated.
As it turned out, Iraq’s technology before the war
was terribly antiquated,
and our youngest generations
had learned their trade and honed their skills
on our more modern technology.
They didn’t have the capacity to bandage
the old back together again
because there was some rudimentary know-how
that had been forgotten.
In other words,
they could not band aid the equipment
back together again
because they didn’t have someone
like Howard with them.
We think about the Dark Ages
and wonder how whole cultures could forget
knowledge and technologies
in so short an amount of time.
But all we have to do
is consider how many of our own children
know how to survive without electricity?
What rudimentary life skills,
from making a fire to generating power,
have most of us never learned?
Community is a source of knowing
but it is a fragile source,
and requires continuity in order
for wisdom to remain robust.
Spirituality is not an individual exercise,
it is a communal wisdom
in spite of what passes for spirituality
in the culture these days.
What I want my Thomas brothers and sisters
to know, is that God
is not a commodity to be purchase.
God is not a secret knowledge
to which only some people have access.
God is not even something
to be known or had in any kind of way.
God is to be experienced or not.
So, because we are Thomas’
we need to really stretch our sensing capacities
so that we are open to knowing
when God chooses to be known.
Because we are Thomas’
we need to really stretch
our curmudgeonly resistance
to any dependence upon others
so that we can receive knowledge and wisdom
from the community.
Because we are Thomas’
we need to lower our resistance
to being thoroughly involved in community,
and move beyond our comfort zone
so that we tap into the wisdom and power
that is greater than ourselves.
To my brothers and sisters who share
Thomas’ strong, and I might add smart,
need to experience
that which we are being asked to believe,
here are the two things
with which we need remedial help:
building the capacity of our sensing capabilities,
and deepening our rootedness in community.
It is not a matter of blind faith
or a leap of faith – that is for other people.
We require more:
we require an EXPERIENCE of God
and so, we need to use our strengths
to enhance our weaknesses
to open ourselves to the holy in our midst.
We are Thomases,
so we ought to be able to do that!