The church looked like an octagonal barn, the wood siding weathered grey in the weak March sunlight. Nestled in the wetlands near Lake Michigan, with native prairie for a front yard, that small, round building sheltered the gathered congregation as they assembled for Sunday morning worship. This was the day that the youth who had completed the Coming of Age curriculum would be invited to sign the membership book and gain equal standing with the adults of the community.
But first, each youth had to stand in the pulpit and read an essay about his or her beliefs. To come of age, the congregation expected each youth to be able to articulate a personal statement about his or her own system of theological thought.
This was the day when, with complete confidence, I announced from the pulpit that I had seen no proof of a god that I could accept.
I don’t know how many teenagers have the opportunity to proclaim atheism from a pulpit. And for those that do, I’m not sure what percentage can expect to meet with thunderous applause at the end of it. But I’m willing to suggest that a Unitarian Universalist congregation is one of the only places where you’ll find that particular convergence of circumstances.
Our reading for today was from the Gospel of John. We heard the story of Jesus visiting the apostles after he had risen from the dead. He came to them through locked doors, showing them the wounds in his hands and his side. They rejoiced, and he blessed them.
Thomas, however, was absent that day. He would not believe the apostles’ account until he had seen and touched Jesus’s wounds himself. For this reason, he has been dubbed “Doubting Thomas.”
Today, in common vernacular a Doubting Thomas is someone who will refuse to believe something without direct, physical, personal evidence; in other words, a skeptic.
Thomas has been given the blame and the burden for doubting what he did not see for himself. He is criticized for not having “faith.” And yet the other apostles were given the same proof that Thomas demanded—only after they were allowed to see did they rejoice that their teacher had returned to them.
Faith—blind faith—if it is not first passed through the shadow of doubt and the fire of thought, is weak and untempered. For faith to have meaning, it must be grounded in reality. We know this. And Thomas knew this, too.
Because of his doubt, when his questions were answered—when he touched Jesus’s wounds with his own hands—his faith was strengthened. Because of his doubts, he came to believe.
I wonder if Thomas, apostle though he was, was actually a Unitarian Universalist. Like many of us, he questioned and asked for proof, rather than offering blind trust. He searched for truth and meaning in the only way he knew how—demanding to touch with his hands and see with his eyes.
As a teenager standing in my congregation’s pulpit, I declared that I am a person who needs to see things to believe them. Since that day, many things have changed. But not that. I am still a person who needs to see things to believe them.
I have simply altered my understanding of what it means to see.
Being able to articulate what we don’t believe is just as important as being able to talk about what we do believe. Sometimes it all gets so confusing, and there are so many interfering messages, and our eyes and our hearts are in conflict, and we just don’t know where to begin. Sometimes, the only thing we know is what we don’t know.
Sometimes, we have to begin with our doubt.
Cherish your doubt. Cherish it.
Because it is only through doubting that we come to believe.
This sermon was written for Prof. Chris Smith’s preaching class at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities as our first assignment in the Spring Term 2012. We were asked to write and preach a 5-minute sermon relating to John 20:19-31. I decided to address my sermon specifically to a Unitarian Universalist audience.