Sermon text put together from audio transcription software, so please read generously and with a grain of salt.
I preached this passage from the Gospel of John—on Doubting Thomas—what feels a lot longer ago that last summer, the Sunday after George Floyd died. I pointed out the particular line, that the apostles’ “doors were locked for fear of the Jews” and I wondered about all the ways that our doors are locked for fear of our neighbor, near and far, locked both metaphorically and literally. I wondered about all the ways that our fears stretch wide enough to put a blockade between us and the big scary very real world out there. I asked you—and I asked myself—to really listen to who is telling us that they are locked out, that they are the objects of our fear and what the impact of that objectifying is on them.
I preached all of this merely ten weeks into the pandemic. Ten weeks.
I read my sermon again, a couple of times even, and I thought about just preaching it again, word for word. Here’s a bit of what I wrote. I said:
We have lots to be nervous about these days, but there is a difference, I think, between seasonal agoraphobia and an abiding xenophobia. There is a difference between on the one hand, a healthy distancing—out of love—from people who I consider to be my neighbors, and on the other hand, intentionally, if even thoughtlessly, de-neighboring a particular group of people so that I needn’t behold myself to their well-being or even so that I might think that their very presence is a threat to me and my safety. This distinction is in part the story of Pentecost and it’s the story that America is writing is real time as we contend with pandemic, with uprisings and riots in cities all across America, with a political gridlock that feels intractable. Who… do we consider to be our neighbors? And who have we let ourselves off the hook of considering as our neighbors?
,,, I said that this is the story of Pentecost but I say now that it’s also the story of Easter and the story of Epiphany and Christmas and Ordinary Time and Lent and the story of this pandemic and this country and the abiding story of all humanity across time and space–from Cain and Abel all the way through to right now. Who is our neighbor? Who do we trust and who do we fear? …This… … story of neighborliness is a story that we are writing all the time; well, what have we written into that story over the last ten and a half months?
Is this country more or less trusting at the end of a year like this? Is this country more or less neighborly? Is this country more or less empathetic, forbearing, forgiving, gentle? Do we more or less fiercely fight for one another’s well being? Are we better or worse listeners? Are our worlds bigger or smaller than they were, are they more open or more closed than they were?
A few weeks ago, Steve and I recorded the second to last episode of our Lenten web series–a discussion of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny and our discussion just so happened to be on this story of Doubting Thomas. We talked at length about why doubt is a good thing, why its responsible to do your research and investigate, to have a healthy sense of skepticism, not to automatically take people’s word for things before finally realizing–and naming–that all this discourse, all this doubt, all this investigation and questioning and persuasion was happening,,, among the disciples and Thomas,,, behind locked doors. Their willingness or unwillingness to trust was inside a larger mistrust of the world. What’s belief worth when it’s secured with a deadbolt? What’s trust behind a locked door?
We might find ourselves feeling very much like the post-Resurrection apostles, staying put behind locked doors with the small numbers of people we can trust, wanting sure proof of the promises awaiting us out in the world. And it makes sense that this is how we feel. We have before us the task of reopening, but I wonder just how open our world really was when we shut down in March, I wonder just how open our reopened world will be.
Doubting Thomas is a bit of a foil for us. We are inclined to sympathize with him. Doubt is part of the story and we surely believe that. But so is trust. So is faith. Part of the story–part of our faith–is being open to things that are outside of the scope of proof, outside the scope of rationality, outside the scope of what we already know. And 9 times out of 10, the things that we encounter are outside the scope of proof, rationality, what we know,,,, are other people. What has seemed to pass lately for true encounter of the Other has looked like some hyperdistilled consumption of media, argument behind the barricade of social media, the uncomfortable tension that scratches the surface of sharing. It is one thing to secure proof from within a locked door,, it is another–and perhaps more faithful thing–to risk trust out in public.
It’s possible that we could fully reopen–structurally, economically–on the tail end of this virus and keep the doors of our hearts and minds locked to one another. We are lucky that Jesus visits us in the Upper Room, and his call for us is always out into the world–following CDC guidelines–into the gentle proximity of people who are hurting, people who are not like us, people who would ask things of us, into encounters that would change us. We may just find that we are more blessed than we thought, that stakes of our public discourse are higher for the Other than they are for us; we may just find that we have more to give. We may find that trust feels safer than proof, and isn’t safety what we all want anyways?