Sunday, May 29, 2011

The World Needs More Thomases

Baccalaureate Sermon
Wyoming Seminary, Kingston PA
May 28, 2011

Romans 12: 1-10
John 20: 24-29

I come to you today as a minister in the Protestant branch of the Christian church, but I’m aware of the multi-cultural nature of this graduating class, and indeed of the whole student body. I am not wise or learned enough to speak to each and every one of you using the wisdom of your own traditions; I can only speak to you out of the personally accumulated wisdom of my own.

I do trust and believe, however, that in each major tradition of this world, there is common wisdom; ways in which the divine reaches people so that their lives may be lived in harmony and peace. So, while what I may say to you today is informed by my life lived with the Christian Bible, I have faith that what I’ll say will have resonance in your experience.

I am proud to say that I am the parent of a student at this school. At one time, I was the husband of an employee of this school. I have also taught here, in an adjunct capacity. The times when I have taught here, I have come into contact with students who are quick, bright and sometimes even intimidating to their teacher, but graceful enough to be present in the class in body and in intellect. All of the students I have had have been eager, and have all sought to perform to the best of their abilities. They have all been involved in multiple activities which engage their bodies, minds, and talents, which I hope they will carry forward into the rest of their lives, keeping them grounded, rounded, and engaged. I am sure the same is true of all of this years’ graduates.

I want to name for you what I see as a great value to the education you’ve received here, and the environment in which the education is imparted, and for this, I would like to use a story that we in the Christian faith call the story of Thomas, or what has traditionally, but unfortunately, been called “Doubting Thomas”.

To refresh the story you heard earlier: Thomas was one of the twelve primary assistants, or Disciples, that Jesus had developed through his ministry. After the events of Jesus’ arrest, conviction, crucifixion and death, the Disciples and the other followers, assuming including Mary Magdalene, were gathered together in one place, all except for Thomas. We don’t know why he wasn’t there.
While the others were together in that locked room (they were hiding), Jesus, who had already appeared alive to Mary, appeared to them.

Well, of course, when Thomas showed up, they told him that they had seen Jesus, and he did not immediately believe. He said that he needed to personally verify what they were claiming before he would believe them, and the conclusion of the story is that Jesus did indeed return, and while he was there, stopped to prove to Thomas that he was risen from the dead, scars, wounds, and all. Only then did Thomas declare his belief in the Resurrected Christ.

In the world that you are inheriting, the world that so many call “post-modern”, there is a dire and desperate need for such people as Thomas. A life of faith, any faith, does of course require a certain amount of trust in aspects that are not empirically verifiable, of course, but with that being understood, much of what passes for faith and religion in this world would not pass muster if Thomas were to stand in front of it today and ask for proof.

Just last week, there was the latest of a long history of predictions of the parousia, which is the ten-dollar-world for the return of Christ in Christian doctrine. It was very interesting to me that there was so much attention paid to the event, as the man who predicted it had been wrong before, and indeed was wrong again.

I believe that what caught people’s attention wasn’t the correctness of his prediction. In fact, of all of the coverage I saw about it in the various forms of media, very little of it was a step by step exploration of his theory. Very little thought was given to the idea that perhaps it would be a good idea to check out what the Bible as a whole says; the traction that the story got was not based at all in a popular literacy or familiarity with the Christian Testament; instead, plenty of room, ink, radio waves, electrons, and website inches were given to fleshing out and debating what this particular pastor was saying, how it was that he saw the impending Armageddon coming. There were not a lot of people who truly explored what was said, but there was a large majority of people who kept hearing about it in popular culture. And they began to worry. It was covered up by a lot of joking and sarcasm, but there was also a significant amount of relief when it turned out that the prediction was wrong.

It was fascinating to me because the whole event did not show the power of the Bible, or of the Christian faith; it showed the power of advertising in a hard, difficult, and frightening time in our world.

One of the many authors collected in the Christian Testament, the apostle Paul, writes in his letter to the churches in Rome, in the late 1st Century CE, that the people who consider themselves followers of Christ are to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of (their) minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable, and perfect.” (NRSV)

Do not conform to this world. The education that you have received here has enabled you to be of critical mind when evaluating the news of the day and the trends of society. Be transformed by the constant renewing and refreshing of your intellect, and the reviewing of your opinions when seen in the light of new information. I truly do believe that the talents, gifts and graces that each of you have will be greatly needed in the world that you are inheriting; I truly believe that you will be of great use in the world, because of your education here. The world needs more people who are comfortable with difference, who have experienced people who are not like themselves, and have been trained to think critically and with rigor.

I believe that most of the zealotry and bigotry in the world, most of the rigidity and most of the extremism, is caused by ignorance. One cannot be blamed for initial ignorance, because someone cannot know everything upon being born. That is what life and education are for. And from living life and being taught, from traveling and from talking, for eating with and sitting on the plane or bus next to, real people, we learn compassion, we learn that the world is full of interesting and good people. And then it becomes harder to demonize them, to de-humanize them. It’s harder to see a people, a country, or a culture, or even a religion as a monolithic evil if you have known an individual from that people, country, culture or religion.

Thomas, when he was met by Jesus, declared that Jesus was Lord and God, upon verifying what it was that the other Disciples had claimed was actually true. He acted in faith for the rest of his life, according to Christian tradition, because his mind had been renewed by the information he had received.

May you go forth from this place, having faith not just in the traditions and rituals that you have been raised in according to your experience of the divine, but faith also in the talents, gifts and graces, including intellect and curiosity given to you, and trained and sharpened here.

The world needs more Thomases. Go out and be a Thomas.

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