by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
April 12, 2015
When we were young, we believed that our parents were omniscient and maybe even omnipotent. They made the sun rise and set. They created the warmth in our beds and conjured tasty, nourishing food out of thin air.
So, when they told us there was a tooth fairy, we believed them. After all, there were coins or even dollar bills in the envelope underneath our pillow where our teeth used to be.
When they told us that there was an Easter Bunny, we believed them. I’m not sure why. A huge rabbit who delivers candy is so incredibly implausible (and actually kind of frightening). We probably shouldn’t have believed them, but we did.
When they told us that a portly Santa Clause would come and deliver presents to us on Christmas eve via the extremely narrow chimney in our homes, we believed them, despite the laws of physics.
When they told us that our cheeks would stay that way if we made funny faces, we believed them. We trusted them.
But then there was that day in second grade, in the boys room at school or in our big sister’s room, where everything started to unravel.
The tooth fairy is the first to go. You catch your mom shoving the envelope back under your pillow just as you wake up. Then your sister tells you that she found all the Easter stuff in your parents’ closet. Then, alas, it’s Santa’s turn. It’s your parents! the kid in the boy’s room says, with a sadistic grin on his face.
For some, this is a gradual, only slightly disappointing progression. For others, it’s much harder. Why did my parents lie to me? What else did they tell me that wasn’t true? What about God?
Most everyone goes through this process in one way or another. Some of you were raised in non-religious homes and your doubts were actually given to you by your parents.
By the time we reach college age, things start to shift. Most of our friends have stopped attending church or synagogue, if they ever attended to begin with. This is a natural time not just to ask questions, but to leave our parents’ institutions behind (for the most part) and seek our own identities and connections.
My big rebellion was to attend a Methodist church for a year. Ooh, what a risk! The preaching was not to my liking, so by the time I was a sophomore, I was back in the congregational fold.
Others of you had a different experience. Some of you left the church and the faith completely, for years, understandably unwilling to accept its contradictions and unable to see its relevance for your life. Your doubts were real and there simply wasn’t enough there (or here) to draw you back – until you had kids and started to think about what kind of life experiences you wanted them to have.
Others had the opposite experience. My wife, Tracy, attended a college where there were actually signs posted around campus that read: It is a sin to put a question mark where God has placed a period. Needless to say, questioning and doubting were not embraced as healthy components of a spiritual journey in that place. Eventually, she left that kind of atmosphere behind, seeking religious settings that were more comfortable with honest inquiry.
This morning, I am happy to say, you walked into a church that not only accepts your questions, but welcomes and encourages them. We believe that questions and doubts give energy to faith make it dynamic. We believe that doubt gives shape to our faith. It would be very odd if we were to believe everything we were told, wouldn’t it? One cannot believe everything.
In contrast to the signs around the campus of Tracy’s college (Never put a question mark where God has put a period), the United Church of Christ, our denomination, has adopted the motto: Never place a period where God has placed a comma: God is still speaking.
That kind of thinking is scary to some who seek definitive answers, and I get that. To me, the idea that God is still speaking is liberating and opens up all kinds of possibilities for learning and growth.
When we are told that we may not question and we may not doubt, our world starts to close in on us. We start to doubt ourselves. We ask, What’s wrong with me that I can’t just accept what I’ve been told? Then come the tears, the self-loathing, and the depression.
And what about science? All of us in this room were raised to accept and understand the scientific method and the basic tenets of physics and evolution. Do we really have to choose between science and faith? I for one say, emphatically, no! We can be thoughtful people who also have faith in the Divine — something greater than ourselves and our own understanding.
And I believe that the church, if it is to survive and thrive and be relevant, has got to create places of entry into the Christian story for people who want to hold both rational science and religious faith in our minds and hearts.
I had the opportunity to take a class at Hartford Seminary, taught by a wonderful Catholic nun named MT Winter, called the Physics of Christianity. The whole semester, we looked at quantum physics and the way that this relatively new science is much more compatible with spirituality and faith than the older, more rigid and mechanical sciences are.
The truth is that doubt can drive us to ask very important questions. Why did two of the gospel writers say that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus? What about all of those miracles, like Jesus healing people and walking on water? Why does the message of Christianity seem to rest on the very difficult to believe story of Jesus’ bodily resurrection?
Why do some people say that God will heal you or your loved one if you would just have enough faith and pray hard enough or get enough people to pray for you? The problem with that message is that prayer becomes something we do to convince God to do something, rather than something we do to connect with God. And what happens when our loved one dies? Does it mean that God rejects our pleas or that God isn’t there? That’s the danger of creating a God (in our minds) that does our bidding if we would only believe hard enough. Frankly, I don’t’ believe in that kind of God.
I do believe in the God of Jesus Christ. I believe in the One who became completely real to Thomas and the other disciples in that room. Whatever you and I believe — or doubt — about the resurrection of Jesus, there is no doubt in my mind that his disciples encountered him, that they knew for certain that he was there with them.
Like many of us, it took Thomas a while, but he got there. He needed a little help and Jesus gave it to him.
How can we help each other to become true believers in the new life that God has in store for all of us in the Spirit of the Risen Christ?
This past Thursday, I began the day with a funeral. It wasn’t for someone in our congregation; someone in the community needed a pastor, so I said I’d do what I could to help. But how do I help a family I don’t even know to say goodbye to someone they love? How do I help a son say goodbye and grieve the loss of his mom? How do I help young adults make sense of the loss of their last grandparent, someone they loved and respected so much?
I did the best I could, which they said was very nice, but to me felt inadequate.
But… I ended that day visiting with a newborn baby girl and her loving parents at South Shore Hospital. And as I held little Madeline in my arms and looked at the delicate features of her face, it suddenly hit me. God gives us signs every day that, even when we can’t make sense of death and loss, new life is right in front of us if we are willing to see it.
Thanks be to God.