Facing Uncertainty ~ John 20: 19-31
Jean Reinhold’s sermon begins at the 28 minute mark.
Before I begin, I was speaking to the Pathways kids this morning, as a member of the Co-pastor Nominating Committee, to update them on our progress. I asked them to write some advice for our new Co-pastor, whoever she will be. As for preaching, they said: Don’t give wordy and seemingly endless sermons. Make them interesting, engage the audience. Make sad topics funny, no one wants to be too sad. Well, I can promise none of those, today, but I will do my best.
Please pray with me…Breathe on us breath of God, fill us with life anew.
I believe doubt has been the hinge to every important thing I have ever done in my life. Doubt can cause propulsion. Doubt can be a sign that you are loved and moving toward the right path.
But only if we follow the example of Jesus who said, “Draw near, Thomas, touch the doubt. Turn toward and not away from me.”
Doubt is often equated with fear in our culture but they are not at all the same.
Doubt has grains of curiosity in it, doubt has space for change in it, doubt is bound to deep personal truth. Doubt is tied to a willingness to grow and expand. Doubt can activate a person, it can push us forward.
Fear? It has none of those things. Fear is stifling, limited and limiting. Fear is bound to insufficient resources and vision.
Why after last week’s glorious Easter, this story of doubt?
Last Sunday at this time, I was in Idlewild Church in Memphis, Tennessee celebrating Easter. It was a grand church, a huge church, and one of the only places where white and black clergy could meet and plan together in the 1960s. Meet and plan as they were doing on April 4th, 1968, the night Dr. King was killed.
Over the last few years, I have been to Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, and last week to Memphis. I have followed the path of Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, the children in the Children’s crusade. None of these people were without doubt, yet none of these people yielded to fear.
I have prayed in the basement of the 16th St Baptist Church. I have prayed in front of the Birmingham Jail. I have prayed during the 54-mile drive between Selma and Montgomery. I have prayed crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I have prayed at the Lorraine Motel, just last Sunday. Easter Sunday.
Today, I want to tell you about one of the most meaningful places I have ever been in these trips. Dr. King’s kitchen at 309 S Jackson St. in Montgomery, Alabama.
First, I fear that, every year, my teaching colleagues and I do an injustice when we talk about Dr. King. We always talk about his “I Have a Dream” speech – where Dr. King looks indomitable, unstoppable. Doubtless, beyond doubt.
I wish we would tell them about King’s Kitchen Table Epiphany. Children need to know that even great people – especially great people – face uncertainty.
At 25 in 1954, Dr. King was called as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In March 1955, Claudette Colvin—a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl in Montgomery—refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Dr. King was on a committee that looked into the case; but the committee’s leaders decided to wait for a better case to pursue legally because Claudette was a minor. Three other women were arrested for refusing to give up their seats. Browder, Smith and McDonald.
Nine months later on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. Rosa and her husband Raymond were active in the local chapter of the NAACP; Rosa served as its secretary and had attended training for social and economic justice. This was not just the legend of a tired woman at the end of a long day – it was a Kairos moment – Rosa was going to be arrested. She was the one to lead the way.
Three days later, the bus boycott had been planned by the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Women’s Political Council and then announced in churches all across town on December 4th. Three days is all it took. Three days is all it ever takes to resurrect what is meant to be.
On December 5th, the boycott started. Dr. King, a reluctant man at age 26, was elected to head the efforts. To give you context, my good friend Seth Ungemach is about to turn 26. And no worries—I asked Seth is I could say this and he said sure. Seth said, “I’m still trying to figure out the next thing to do in my life.” But at 26, Dr. King had been crowned.
Days of the boycotting the buses passed into weeks. White Montgomery was feeling the economic pinch.
Death threats ensued for Dr. King. “Call off the boycott or die.” Calls came to the small white house I visited in Montgomery. Forty calls a day. Threatening him, Coretta and baby Yolanda, just 10 weeks old.
On Jan. 27, 1956 – seven weeks into it – Dr. King came home after a long strategy session to find his family asleep. The phone rang and a voice said, “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.”
Dr. King went to the kitchen, made a pot of coffee, then slumped into the chair, unable to drink, think, or figure out what to do. He did not want to lead anymore. Doubt surged in him. He bowed and prayed. He walked right up to Jesus and stuck his worry into Jesus’ pain. He said: “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
Then (he) heard an inner voice say: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever. (His) doubt dissolved. (His) uncertainty disappeared. (Dr. King) was ready to face anything.”*
And from that moment—when a great man placed his tender doubt in the hands of God—we had resurrection. From that moment, came a movement. From that moment, our country was given Dr. King’s strong influence on The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The Birmingham Campaign, The March on Washington, Voting Rights protests, the Marches in Selma, The Chicago Open housing movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, The Poor People’s Campaign.
When I stood in Dr. King’s kitchen, a few years ago, I wept. That silent, knot in your throat, shoulders shaking kind of weeping. I could feel – viscerally – the way the world shifted because of his willingness to admit and face his doubt. When I stood in Dr. King’s library – wall-to-wall-to-wall books – I wept because I knew the world shifted because of his knowledge and wisdom. When I leaned against the door jamb into Dr. King’s bedroom right where he stood looking down at his wife and his baby in her bassinet, I wept, because I knew the world shifted because of his love. A little dose of doubt, a larger dose of God’s presence, knowledge, and love. That combination is still changing our world.
The moral arc of the universe bent because a man faced his doubt head on. The world will change if YOU face your doubt head on.
I became an elder in this church even though I doubted my right to do so, but God said yes to me. I became a leader in my school even though I doubted my capacity to move an institution forward, but God said yes to me. I doubted if I could stand in the one-hour line to get into the National Civil Rights Museum, but God said yes to me. Doubt coupled with God’s affirmation will change you.
Let’s be clear. Thomas’s true call, your true call, our church’s true call – those can be filled with uncertainty, hesitancy, confusion, suspicion, wariness, weariness.
But if you ever doubt you can make a difference, do what Jesus let Thomas do:
Draw nearer – do not back away, Say, to God, what shall I do?
And God, who knows you better than you know yourself, whose presence never leaves you, whose love for you never ceases, will put you in the right direction.
And if anyone ever shows doubt in you – like they have tried to do with the kids from Parkland, like they have tried to do with cities and churches who provide sanctuary, like they have tried to do to countless people who are dismissed because they are poor, or gay, or brown or black, or women, or in any way something beyond the treacherous bounds of “normalcy.”
Every time someone shows doubt in you, God will say, “come closer. Come closer. Nothing is impossible with me. With me, doubt becomes empowerment, with me, doubt turns into justice.”
And what became of Thomas after his kitchen moment?
He sailed to India and established seven and a half churches, He witnessed the ascension of Mary, then left India and went to Arabia where he ordained teachers and leaders and elders. We cannot quantifiably measure Thomas’ impact on the spread of the gospel, but we do know all of it sprung from the moment in the Upper Room. “You do not believe in me, Thomas? You hesitate? Come close. Touch me.”
I know some of you sitting here today are filled with doubt. You have told me about it, we have spoken. How can there be a loving God when my children did not survive birth, or when I have been defeated by depression? How can I say I am a Christian when I am not sure about the resurrection, or the virgin birth, or all of those miracles? How can I believe in God when the world is just so messed up? When the fight for justice is so damn slow?
For those of you who have had doubt, like I have – I doubt right now that I am qualified to say this message to you – but for those of you who have doubt like me, well, let’s just try to step closer to it. Let’s try to stick our fingers right into the wounds and holes we have. God permits it. God welcomes it. If God is not worried about your doubt, neither should you be.
This is the season of resurrection and, it is my truest belief that our gospel story today is telling us that our ability to resurrect ourselves and our world, comes directly from our willingness say to God and God’s son, “I’m not so sure.”
Because that’s when God and Jesus will say to us, “But we are sure. We are sure of you. We love you and we are here to resurrect your spirit – day after day after day.” God will say, “I am sure of you, step closer.” God will say, “Come near, my beloved.”
And you – you may say, just like Thomas, just like Dr. King – My lord, my God – knowing you are wrapped in God’s love. My lord, my God – knowing you are wrapped in God’s strength. My lord, my God, knowing your doubt will always be surpassed and overcome by God’s faith in you. My lord, my God.
In the name of Jesus, remembering Dr. King, and standing with our brother Thomas, let the people say:
*Stride Toward Freedom, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.