There is always more than one sermon sitting in a particular passage of Scripture. Last Sunday, I preached on Matthew 28:16-20. I love that the literal translation is NOT, "Go therefore and make disciples," as though people were play dough we could mold or widgets mass produced on an assembly line. Rather, the invitation is to "Go therefore discipling." It is a verb. It is a way of being in this world God so loves. But I also really love that line of the disciples a few days after Easter worshiping AND doubting. So, I am sharing a second sermon I wrote on this passage with you. I pray you sense more than a trace of God's grace in it. Grace and peace ~
Several years ago, I visited Hannibal, Missouri birth place and home of one of my favorite author’s, Mark Twain. I remember I took in all the tourist attractions. I saw Twain’s childhood home, the steam boat park near the Mississippi river, ate at Mark Twain Dinette where you too can enjoy a Mississippi Barbeque burger, and I remember we went spelunking, exploring a cave just as the characters in Tom Sawyer do. The guide told us all kinds of stories about how Twain himself had been in that very cave. We went deeper into the earth, darkness and dampness surrounded us. It was hard to keep your footing on the slippery rocks and the slimy walls of the cave. Never knowing when you might encounter God’s mistake in creation that we call bats. Seriously mice should not fly. At some point, the guide came to a chalk-drawn arrow. There were the proverbial two paths. One to the left and one to the right. But which way to go? He told a story that Twain always forgot which way lead him out of the cave, back into daylight. But was the arrow true and to be trusted, or was it a rouse by someone who had a sarcastic sense of humor and might just draw the arrow the wrong way to throw you off?
A Spelunking Faith
In some ways the scripture passage today is like that arrow. This story happens right on the heels of the very first Easter. The women have been to the tomb, experienced its emptiness, encountered the resurrected Christ, ran and raced back, told the disciples to go to Galilee, a word that means circle, because poetically the disciples are returning full circle, right back to where they were called by Jesus, right back to where the ministry began and life forever changed. It is as poet T.S. Eliot said, “After all our exploring we will return to where we started and know that place as if for the first time.” So, the disciples go home. They go to one of the mountains. Matthew isn’t interested in pinpointing the exact location, we can only guess for there are several mountains in Galilee. Know that Galilee is not just the name of one place but a region the size approximately of Chicago. And what I love is one verse in particular, the disciples worshiping the resurrected Jesus and some doubted. Now, usually, we don’t see doubt and faith as compatible or necessary companions. We see faith and doubt like that moment in the cave, you can either go in the direction of faith or toward doubt, the choice is yours. We have made faith and doubt in tension with each other, sometimes even shaming people in the church who dare to raise questions or disagree. But here in Scripture, Matthew’s last words, the lingering image he wanted to leave in telling the story of Jesus is that they worshiped and some doubted at the same time. Now the Greek word here for doubt is distazo. That is a great word. Distazo. And it is found in only one other place in Scripture and it is in Matthew’s gospel. Remember when Jesus walked on water at night, and the disciples are in a boat, they think Jesus is a ghost or a bad dream, but Jesus bids Peter to come and walk on water too. He does. He is surrounded, steeped in the sacred, buoyed by this holy moment. Then. There is always a “then”. He also sees, feels the wind, the chaos. And he thinks, as I would, what in the world am I doing out of the safety and security of the boat? He starts to sink. Jesus catches him by the hand…another great image. And says, why did you distazo, doubt? Within our faith, there are times of worshiping and simultaneously distazo, doubt, because like Peter we see both the beauty and brokenness. To be in this season after Pentecost, is a time of concurrently worshiping and distazo, doubt, because like the disciples in the passage this morning, we experience both joy and fear, both awe and concern. To be clear, distazo is not cynicism or always being skeptical. Distazo is not be argumentative for the sake of it or a contrarian. Distazo is moments when we waver or hesitate. It is times when we hold two distinct, differing opinions. Makes me think of the great words of Fredrick Buecerner who said that doubts are the ants in the pants of faith it keeps us moving awake. Or Rob Bell says that doubts are proof that your faith has a pulse, is alive, that you have not gone on autopilot or fallen asleep. So, unlike that arrow, you can actually have faith and doubt coexist, be intertwined in beautiful ways. To distazo is a willingness to go to the places where we are uncertain and unclear carrying with us whatever parts and pieces of faith we can. I pray that in this season after Pentecost, the next twenty-six week, this time in liturgical language we call ordinary and take us all the way to the door step of Advent next November, we would be open not only to worship, but also to exploring and spelunking within our faith. That we would ask questions, refine and reframe our questions, let them sit there. That we would know the truth of poet Maya Angelou who said, “I am taken aback when people walk up and tell me they are Christian. My first response is a question, Already?” This pathway of faith has moments of confidence and certainty as well as times when the questions loom large with no good response. Because I know you might be curious, Twain wasn’t fooling, we followed the arrow and I am proof that we made it out okay. So, as we hold together faith and mystery and questions that have no easy answers, I want to offer a poem:
Stripped by God by Cynthia Langston Kirk
What would happen if I pursued God -
If I filled my pockets with openness,
Grabbed a thermos half full of fortitude,
And crawled into the cave of the Almighty
Nose first, eyes peeled, heart hesitantly following
Until I was face-to-face
With the raw, pulsing beat of Mystery?
What if I entered and it looked different
Than anyone ever described?
What if the cave was too large to be fully known,
Far too extensive to be comprehended by one person or group,
Too vast for one dogma or doctrine?
Would I shatter at such a thought?
Perish from paradox or puzzle?
Shrink and shrivel before the power?
Would God be diminished if I lived a question
rather than a statement?
Would I lose my faith
As I discovered the magnitude of Grace?
O, for the willingness to explore
To leave my tiny vocabulary at the entrance
And stand before you naked
Stripped of pretenses and rigidity,
Disrobed of self-righteousness and tidy packages,
Stripped of all that holds me at a distance for you
And your world.
Strip me, O God,
Then clothe me in curiosity and courage.