On Doubt

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Saint John, the forerunner, doubter, and prophet. 

Matthew 11:2-11

You’ve probably heard it before, whether in your upbringing or on TV or somewhere else: doubting is a sin. 

If you hear me say only one thing today, let it be this: doubting is not a sin. Doubting is biblical.

Jewish people have always known this far better than Christians. Their faith, more so than ours, is built on a long, long relationship between God and the Hebrew people, rather than the God-and-me relationship that Christians usually think about when we think about faith. 

Christians, quite frankly, have a lot to learn about faith from Jewish people, especially when it comes to the struggle that is a life of faith. 

As an example, a tweet from this past week on Jewish Twitter: “Atheists raised Christian [often claim]: ‘All religion is based on obedience and fear.’ Meanwhile Jews are like “last Tuesday I had a fistfight with [God] at 3am behind an abandoned Arby’s.” This person continued, “I pray because I believe. I pray for myself, for the present, not because some punishment is waiting in the next life. One of the reasons Judaism has survived as a religion for so long is because of the Jewish sense of community. Do we understand God? Absolutely not…. God left us on ‘read’ from 1939-1945. But we’re in this mess together. 

For those of you who don’t know, to leave someone on “read” is to read, yet not respond to, their text message. And it’s true: the Jewish people have been through it, throughout history and still today. Just this week in Jersey City, a Jewish grocery store was attacked. Violence against Jewish people is alive and well. They have had to ask as a people, more than most of us, “Where is God? Why did God allow this to happen?” 

Doubt is a necessary part of their existence. It is part of any healthy faith. If you don’t doubt, you’ve either had a long long journey with God and come to peace, or, alternatively and most likely, you’re not thinking hard enough. 

Another case in point: John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel reading, sends word from prison to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

It’s pretty easy to gloss right over that, but back up. 

John is in prison for ticking off the wrong people while he preached about Jesus. And he, John the Baptist, sends word just to make sure that Jesus is really the Messiah. 

You can’t blame him, really. I mean, if I were in prison because I thought someone was sent by God, and then I was still stuck in prison after that, I’d probably have my doubts too. And John did. 

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The Jewish people were still oppressed under Roman rule. And John himself was still sitting in prison. It’s a reasonable question. If Jesus is indeed the one who is to come, why hasn’t anything changed?
That’s not unlike the questions we may ask ourselves, if we dare, two thousand years later. 

Has Jesus really made any difference in the world? The church has certainly made some negative differences, but has the Jesus message really made a difference in history?

We can’t be blamed for doubting. Many of us grew up in Christian traditions that made us feel bad for having any questions or doubts. Christian traditions around the world today are caught up in campaigns of hatred today, looking to be in competition with other faiths, to have LGBTQ+ people imprisoned or worse, and many other atrocities. It’s enough to make some of us occasionally want to abandon the label “Christian” — there’s just too much bad PR. 

Even when I tell people I’m a pastor, I feel immediately obligated to tell them that I’m not one of those pastors, as if they don’t already know by looking at me. 

In her book Searching for Sunday, late author Rachel Held Evans decries the abuses of the church, each with the liturgical refrain, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.” 

But then. 

She begins a list of thanksgivings for the times that we, as a people, have gotten it right. 

“For Ambrose, who defied the Roman Empire by blocking the door of the church until Emperor Theodosius had repented of his violence, we give thanks. 

For the desert fathers and mothers who fled the violence and excess of the empire to inspire generations after them to live more simply and deliberately, we give thanks.

For John Huss, who spoke out against the church’s sale of indulgences, protested the Crusades, and was burned at the stake for obeying his conscience, we give thanks.

For Pedro Claver, the Jesuit priest who devoted his life to serving the black slaves of Colombia, especially those suffering from the leprosy and smallpox brought by their conquerors, we give thanks. 

For Anne Hutchinson, who knew that it was illegal for women to teach from the Bible in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but did it anyway, we give thanks. 

For William Wilberforce, who channeled his evangelical fervor into abolishing slavery in the British Empire, vowing, ‘never, never will we desist until we have taped away this scandal from the Christian name,’ we give thanks. 

For Sojourner Truth, who proclaimed her own humanity in a culture that did not recognize it, we give thanks. 

For Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in the place of a Jewish stranger at Auschwitz, we give thanks. 

For all the pastors, black and white, who linked arms with Martin Luther King, Jr. and marched on Washington, we give thanks. 

For Rosa Parks, who kept her seat, we give thanks.” 

For all who did the right thing in Jesus’ name, even when it was hard, we give thanks. 

In response to John the Baptist’s doubts, Jesus responds not with a rebuke, but with this: 

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” 

Right after that, Jesus goes on to defend John, the same one who had just sent word asking him if he was for real, as his messenger. 

If doubts disqualified you from service, the church would be empty. 

Go and tell people what you hear and see: love is here. Community is here. We are not perfect. We screw it up all the time. 

And though we do not understand God, not even a little bit in most cases, we are in this mess together, and we believe, even though we might fight with God, that God is here with us, too. 

Faith is not individual, and it’s not about never doubting. Far from it, in both cases. No, faith is about us being here, together. Struggling together, doubting together, and occasionally, every now and then, stepping up and doing the right thing together. 

And ultimately, it’s about us meeting God, every week at this table, together. And it’s about God, not about us and our shaky faith, bringing in the ultimate victory when all is said and done.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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