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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Letting Them Touch Our Wounds

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: faith, doubt, wounds

April 16, 2023    The Second Sunday of Easter

The Institution of The Reverend Richard Brooks Easterling, Jr.

Saint James’ Church    Florence, Italy

Text: John 20:27: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands.
Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’”

Ten years ago and more, I worked in an office building, and pretty much every day I drove to work. There was an underground garage beneath my building, and so I could park there and simply come upstairs to my office.

Now, for the rest of this story to make any sense to you, you need to know two things. First, my office was in Massachusetts, which is a small state surrounded by other small states. And second, pretty much all of those small states have a law that allows people who own cars to request a specific word or phrase on their car’s registration plate. Usually it can’t be more than seven letters or numbers. But you can say a lot in seven letters or numbers. These are known as “vanity plates,” because it’s something like an act of vanity to pay more money for the right to express yourself on a registration plate.

Massachusetts is a state in New England, and all of the states in New England are small and have reputations. Those reputations aren’t always very accurate, but like all stereotypes, they exist because there is an element of truth to them. 

Massachusetts is a pretty liberal, progressive place. New Hampshire is a pretty conservative, libertarian place. There is no income tax and no sales tax in New Hampshire—imagine that—so the government is pretty small. Vermont is a pretty hippy place. Connecticut is filled with insurance companies. And so on.

 One day I came to work, parked my car, and on my way to the elevator I happened to notice a car already parked near me that had a vanity plate. What it said was, “IM4GOD.” It may not surprise you to know that it was a New Hampshire registration plate.

Not too long after, parked in the same place, I walked by another car that had come in and parked before me. This one also had a vanity plate, and with a five-letter word: “DOUBT.” And by this point it will surely not surprise you to know—that license plate was from Massachusetts. 

On one occasion I saw both of those cars parked in the parking garage at the very same time, and so of course I started to imagine in my mind a scene in which those two drivers would happen upon each other, and I would ask them about their registration plates. I entertained myself enormously imagining the conversation that would ensure. But it never happened. I was a little sad that even though the two cars were parked in the same garage at the same time, they were not close enough to each other that I could get both of them into a single photograph.

Now, you might think I have told you this story—which by the way has the great benefit of being a true story—as a clever way of setting up a sermon about the gospel reading always hear on the Sunday after Easter—the story about Thomas, and his doubt, and how his doubts are finally overcome by experiencing Jesus for himself, instead of trusting the word of his friends. 

But you’d be wrong about that.

Because actually, what I want to suggest is, there is nothing contradictory about those two ideas. There is nothing essentially opposed about those two vanity plates. At least in the church I think Jesus intends for us to be, the community Christ calls us to build here, both of those ideas have a place—sometimes in the same heart. I’m for God, and I doubt. I doubt—and yet I’m for God. If your God is not big enough to encompass both of those, then your God is too small.

Thomas is for God. He’s been for God all along the journey of discipleship with Jesus. We’ve caught glimpses of him fully understanding that being a follower will mean paying a cost. Remember about nine chapters ago in John’s gospel? When Jesus decides to go visit Mary and Martha in Bethany after Lazarus has died, they all know he’s going back to a place he was just about attacked, violently, before. And it’s Thomas who says, well, we might as well go there and die with him.

So when all the amazement comes, when the incredible news comes that Jesus is alive and others have seen him, all of a sudden Thomas wonders—maybe just like we would—why it happened in such a way that didn’t include him. 

It’s not so much that he doubts; it’s that he wonders: Does Jesus still love me? Why didn’t he show himself to me?

I first visited this church in June of 2019, almost four years ago—about two months into my new ministry as a bishop. And when I did, what I found here—in a single word—was a place of doubt. Not that you doubted your faith; not that you doubted your beliefs; but sisters and brothers, I am your bishop, and I am bound to speak the truth to you, and the truth is—what I found then was a community of people who were doubting themselves. 

Doubting their possibilities. Doubting whether their future could possibly be as bright and grand as their past. 

The thing is, that doesn’t make us a community of Saint Thomases. That doesn’t put us on one side of the “Doubt” versus “I’m for God” debate.

No because we live after all of those events we heard about this morning. We live after the week after the Resurrection, we live after the Ascension, we live after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And because we live after all of that, we are not just individuals who drive one of those cars most days, and the other on Sundays; We are the church. We the Body of Christ, alive and at work in the world. 

And so when we doubt ourselves, then all we do is make it harder for everyone else out there beyond the gates who is struggling with their doubts alone to reach out and touch the risen Body of the Lord. Because that is who we are supposed to be.

There is nothing wrong, nothing unchristian, about struggling with doubt. I actually worry more about people who tell me they never doubt—because it says to me that whatever they believe is probably not coming into contact with the world.

But as disciples, we are supposed to remember that our doubt is an incentive, not an exit ramp. It’s a reason to hold on to our faith all the harder, while we wrestle with the things that weigh us down. After all, faith isn’t supposed to be proof; it’s supposed to be what holds us in relationship with God exactly when it is hardest. That man who comes seeking the help of Jesus doesn’t say, “I believe; leave me alone in my unbelief”; what he says is, “I believe: help my unbelief.”

When we do that, when we keep striving, this Body of Christ becomes more real, more solid, to the doubters and the skeptics. Then we become something they can reach out, and touch, and not deny. Because beneath all the skepticism and derision, beneath all the pretense of what one theologian used to call the “cultured despisers,” is really this longing question: Does Jesus love me? Can Jesus love me? How could it even be?

And here is a worrying truth about that: We will do the best possible job of helping others cross the gap from doubt to faith not when we are perfect, but when they can see and touch our wounds. When we do not deny them, but show that we have been brought to life despite them.

•  •  •

Hard to believe it has been just about two and a half years now since the Vestry let me know they had chosen to elect Richard Easterling as their pastor and priest. Remember Covid? Remember trying do search for a new pastor when we could barely even meet together? Remember deciding to call a priest you’d never had a chance to meet in person?

There was such excitement when Richard arrived, not least because it meant you weren’t going to have to listen to my preaching every week anymore. The preparations in the rectory, and the Christmas tree, and oh, my gosh. 

But oh, I heard it as the days drew near for the New Orleans Express to arrive: Do you think he’ll really work out? I don’t know... He’s awfully young. He hasn’t lived in Italy before. He doesn’t have any Italian to speak of. We haven’ t even had a chance to meet him.

Which really was all just a whole lot of different ways of saying, and wondering: Will he love us? Will he still love us once he gets to know us? 

I have now been the bishop of the Convocation for just over four years. I have walked alongside four of our congregations as they sought a new pastor, and right now I’m working with the fifth and the sixth. 

But today, here, at Saint James, I have the privilege for the first time of instituting a new rector in a parish. And I could not be happier, or more excited, or more thankful, that it is here, and now, and with this wonderful priest, and good colleague.

What I have seen in the years since you’ve arrived is that the doubt has diminished, and the joy has increased. The fear has subsided, and its place has been filled by the transforming power of God’s love—within and beyond this place. 

Instead of being deafened by the whispers of defeatism, we are listening anew for a different voice—God’s call to us in mission, filling us with the power of the Spirit here and drawing us out beyond the gates where people in doubt and despair are hoping to reach out and touch something real about love for a change.

You aren’t the only reason for that, Richard—but by the grace of God you have found some of the ways to unlock the reasons for that. And that is because—I testify this to all of you—he really does love you, deeply, with a pastor’s love. Whenever I see him, I hear about you all the time.

I am coming to the end, but there is one thing I think I need to get out in the open and address transparently. As I said, I am your bishop, and I am bound to speak the truth to you, no matter what. 

By now, after more than two years, this is a truth I am sure you all have come to know about your new Rector. I mean, you could hardly not know it, if you’ve been here at all regularly. Maybe it caused you to doubt. Maybe it was something you were not quite used to.

I’ll just come right out and say it: Richard is—Anglo-Catholic. You know, I grew up in the Episcopal Church, but in the church I grew up, being Anglo-Catholic was, well, outlawed. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that my best friend from growing up in the middle of America met me for coffee during a trip home to Michigan, because he wanted me to hear it from him that he had come to realize he was an Anglo-Catholic.

That was hard for me. I loved my friend; we had been so close during my growing up. We had gone on long summer trips together. But I’d never suspected he had that orientation.

It was hard for me to accept this new truth about my dearest friend.. But over time, as our friendship endured, I learned three important things about God, and about the church, from him. 

The first was that it was the truest expression of who God had made him to be, and how he finally found the true self that gave praise back to God. 

The second was that the church we shared, my friend and I, was made so much richer and so much better by being a church that was open to both of us, that included and made room for both of us.

And the most important was, nowhere, not anywhere, did Jesus ever talk at all about what the right liturgical lifestyle was. No, whenever Jesus starts a story by saying “The kingdom of God is like...,” it is never about what someone loves to wear or even what it is they believe; it is always about whether they treat other with respect, and dignity, and compassion, and care.

My old friend and I are still friends. And if you think this story is about anything other than welcoming people for exactly who they are and celebrating all the gifts they bring, don’t be so sure.

This is a place of beauty, because all God creates is beautiful. This is a place of mystery, because God, in the end, is a divine mystery. Richard, thank you for helping us see those things in your way of leading our worship. Thank you for the care and the grace and the depth of the way you love God—and love us. Teach us always to see in that mystery a way to be for God, even in our hours of doubt. Amen.