Trinity Sunday: The Doubting Faithful

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One of my friend Jessie’s many Katahdin photos.

Matthew 28:16-20

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

My friend Jessie hiked the Appalachian Trail last year. This year, she ventured to Nepal to hike. In a few days, she’s headed off to Burkina Faso to serve with the Peace Corps.

As I was hiking briefly along the Trail in the Berkshires with her last summer, I began to feel the weight of my day pack and the incline of the hill and it occurred to me: why do we like discomfort? We were making ourselves uncomfortable on purpose. In Jessie’s case, it was for the cause of walking all the way from Georgia to Maine, a venture some might say was foolish. She had some serious doubts about whether she’d finish, doubts that every AT hiker has — as they say, “no pain, no rain, no Maine” — but she did it. When she reached the base of Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail, she signed the camp log with her trail name, Thin Mint, saying “Thin Mint never thought she’d make it this far.”

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

Now a Southern Baptist youth group assembled in Alabama in the early 2000s and professed faith in Jesus. They raised their hands and worshiped Jesus, but some doubted. Fifteen years later, one of those teenagers knelt as her bishop and her community laid hands on her and ordained her. She thought she’d never make it that far.

That was me.

Now the people gathered together in South Hadley, Massachusetts, to worship Jesus. But some doubted. Some were hurting from things that were happening in their lives. Some had intellectual doubts. Some weren’t sure what they believed anymore. But they still came, even though a few of them didn’t know why.

Doubt is uncomfortable. It’s been cast down by the Church for years as a lack of faith, as dangerous to our mortal souls. Others have been shamed for it: “If you would just pray and not doubt, you would be healed.” Still others have been accused of betraying Jesus simply for asking questions.

But if we cannot ask our questions and express our doubts in church, where can we?

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. The Church in all its wisdom put this day on the calendar one week after the Holy Spirit makes its appearance in our yearly retelling of the story of Jesus.

The Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Trinity: Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost.
The Trinity: Parent, Child, and Special Effect.

The Trinity: an impossible doctrine to explain to anyone who is not a Christian. It’s just bad math, quite frankly. 3=1 and 1=3? God is one, but three, all at the same time?

My Episcopal priest friend posted on Facebook this week that she’s sick and has been prescribed cough syrup, and she was honestly hoping that codeine it would make the Trinity make a little more sense. As far as I know, she had no luck.

A favorite professor of mine in college, who taught a class on world religions, would do her best to answer our questions on religion and even theology. A faithful Episcopalian, she was the first person I ever met who claimed to be both a Democrat and a Christian. Up to that point, to quote King George in the musical Hamilton, “I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.”

This professor fascinated me, not simply for claiming what I once thought were competing identities. She fascinated me because she was the first Christian I met who was willing to say, as an answer to questions about theology, that she didn’t know.

Pastors everywhere are tasked with explaining the Trinity today. How does it work? How is God one, but also three, but also one?

I don’t know.

You might as well ask an educated anteater to explain astrophysics. Do I believe it? Yes. Can I explain it? Well, I can try, but every metaphor you try to give to the inexplicable falls apart rather quickly.

Do I sometimes have my doubts simply because there’s no perfect way of explaining or understanding an infinite and inexplicable God? Of course. And I think it’s about time we got more honest about that — I’m no better at this whole faith thing than you are. In fact, I have had the privilege of being the pastor to countless people who have far more faith than I do. I just happen to be okay with the discomfort of leading and doubting and following all at the same time. And to be honest, I never thought I’d make it this far, but here I am.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

This weekend, while many of you enjoyed the nice summer weather, Bob, LauraLee, and I ventured to Springfield for synod assembly. There was someone there from LEAD, an organization within our denomination that provides materials for study and spiritual formation. The presenter said that the biggest thing standing in the way of people being active in their churches, of talking about faith with their neighbors, and of serving is this: they don’t feel confident enough or articulate enough to explain doctrines. Like the doctrine, I suppose, of the Trinity.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

Some doubted. We don’t know who. Could’ve been any of them. Could’ve even been most of them. Matthew didn’t say it was only a few.

But all of them received the charge and promise that followed: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This is where it occurs to me that if Jesus had wanted to single out the doubters and send them away, he would have. He didn’t.

Instead, the doubters get sent with everyone else. Go, doubters. “Preach faith until you have faith.” (1) And remember: I am with you always, to the end of time. Jesus draws no lines between those who are certain and those who doubt on that day, and neither do we. We draw no lines between those of us who can accurately explain and expound upon theology and those who just know there’s something about this Jesus guy that keeps them coming back, but for the record, I’m in the second group.

Doubt is uncomfortable. Faith is uncomfortable. This whole church thing is uncomfortable. And maybe you think you could never be a leader, but I can tell you that there’s at least one person in this room — me — who’s felt the same way. But here I am. And here you are.

When my friend Jessie finished the Appalachian Trail, she wrote, “So many people have told me that they themselves couldn’t do a thru hike or something like it; that it’s unattainable for them. The point I’d like to drive home is that I am not exceptional, and this hike, while difficult in certain ways, does not make me special. The hardest thing about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for me was deciding to go; after that it was no more dangerous than walking down the street in Atlanta. …When it came down it, all I did was walk for my allotted number of hours each day, stubbornly. Anyone can do this, and they have. Sometimes when I was unhappy with how my walking was going I would remind myself that blind people and 4 year olds have done this.” (2) 

We all have doubts. We have doubts about whether we should be here and whether we’re faithful enough and whether we believe hard enough. But the truth is that all we have to do is show up, and even when we don’t do that, the Holy Spirit still has a way of finding us. So don’t worry if you’ve got doubts. Look around. You’re not the only one.

Doubt is uncomfortable, but discomfort is how we accomplish things and it’s how we grow. It’s the only way Jessie got from Georgia to Maine — a stubbornness and a willingness to just keep walking and a high tolerance for discomfort.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

May God bless you with both doubts and the assurance that you are not alone. I’d like to leave you with a Benedictine blessing posted on Facebook by a friend this week:

“May the Creator bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you will live deep in your heart.

May the Son bless you with anger
at injustice and oppression, and exploitation of people and the earth, so that you will work for justice and peace.

May the Spirit bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer, so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them.

And may God almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you with foolishness
to think that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do all the things which others say cannot be done.” (3)

Discomfort is part of doing difficult things, just as doubt is part of faith. But take heart, my friends: discomfort has its own advantages, and doubts or no doubts, we are all loved, we are all called, we are all sent: doubters too. Amen.

(1) Quote attributed to John Wesley, founder of Methodism.
(2) You can read more about Jessie’s adventures here.
Traditional Benedictine blessing, lightly edited for Trinity Sunday.

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