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How Do We Know?

Rev. Karen McArthur
Sun, Apr 27

Texts: 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

So, here we are on the Sunday after Easter, after the crowds of Holy Week.  I remember a friend of mine talking about returning to church after many years of leisurely Sunday mornings at home with the Sunday newspaper or at brunch.  It was one thing, he said, to attend church on Christmas or Easter – those are, after all, the big church holidays, and everyone is there.  But what was really frightening to him was thinking about attending on a “regular” Sunday.  What if his friends saw him dressed in a suit on a Sunday morning?  That, to him, would be a real “giveaway.”  A sign of real commitment.  And it led to a question:  why was he drawn to church?  What was he seeking? 

What are we seeking?  What draws us here this Sunday?  What draws us into the Easter story?  What do we know about it?  How do we know?

 I remember an Easter night conversation with a college fellowship group.  We were talking about the crowds, the double worship services and packed sanctuaries, and wondering why so many people attend church only on Christmas and Easter.  In a sense, those are the hardest days to understand: incarnation and resurrection.  Two big topics.  Two intangible, indescribable, inescapable mysteries.  Much harder to comprehend than the in-between stories of forgiveness, or healing, or grace.  You’d think that people would stay away when the theology gets difficult to understand.  We worship not a death-defying Jesus, but one for whom death was not the end.  And not only was it not the end for him, it wasn’t the end for the disciples or for twenty centuries of followers.  It’s not logical or rational.  How do we know we’re not just making something up because it makes us feel good?

 Last week, Dan spoke about the mystery of the resurrection.  When he addressed the skeptics in the room, I caught my 16-year-old son’s eye across the pews.  My son, were he here today, would say that science can explain everything.  I would ask, is there a place for mystery?  I would say that mystery is the essence of human life.  We don’t have to know everything.  The scientists among us might think differently, seeing frontiers of knowledge just waiting for us to explore and unlock those mysteries.  I found myself outnumbered 2-1 this week in a conversation with my son and a neuroscience professor.  There is such beauty, she said, in finding the scientific explanations for life, and human thought, and other previously unexplainable things.

Yet the mystery has been a part of the Easter story since the very beginning, and understanding the mystery has always been the second chapter.  On this Sunday after Easter, our lectionary reading is always the gospel story about Thomas – “Doubting Thomas.”  We were talking about the lectionary at our Stewardship Committee meeting a couple of weeks ago.  We are in the middle of what is called “Year A” in our three-year cycle of Bible readings.  The lectionary is a schedule of readings used by many Christian churches, giving us not only a rhythm in our church year, but also a connection with other Christian churches around the world.  Each year, we read primarily from one of the first three gospels: Matthew, Mark or Luke, with the stories from John scattered throughout all three years.  The idea is that by the end of three years, we will hear most all of the gospels, along with a significant part of the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets, the psalms, and the epistles.

So I found it interesting that in all three years, on the Sunday after Easter, we read these same verses from the last chapter of the gospel of John.  The Easter Sunday reading varies.  This year, it was Matthew and the angel in white and the guards and the earthquake, with Jesus looking a lot like the Messiah who had been foretold by the ancient prophets.  Next year, it will be the ever-succinct Mark, who can tell the whole resurrection story in eight verses, ending abruptly with the women running away in fear, telling no one.  And in Year C, it will be Luke’s version with the garden and the road to Emmaus, and the breakfast on the beach.  But every year, A, B or C, these stories of amazement are followed by John’s story of doubting Thomas: “unless I see it for myself, I will not believe.”  For over 2,000 years, we have been Thomas, asking the same questions, having the same doubts, needing the same tangible “proof.”  The question has had different approaches in different eras, but it’s basically the same:  What do we believe about Jesus and the resurrection?  How do we know?

This year, I’m seeing these questions through the lens of my son’s interest in neuroscience.  What is the human mind?  What does it mean to believe something, or to know something?  We visited quite a few neuroscience hallways this week … If we did one of those fancy fMRI brain scans on people the week after Easter, would we see a difference between the brains of believers and non-believers?  A functional MRI observes and measures blood flow in different areas of the brain, and gives neuroscientists a way to begin to understand which areas of the brain are active in different situations.  Would we somehow be able to measure faith or belief with a brain scan?  Or not?  Should we be measuring something else, like our hearts?  Or our souls?

I’ve just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.  I know, it was written in 2005, but it’s been a busy decade.  Gladwell has written Outliers, Blink, The Tipping Point, and David and Goliath.  I love them all.  He makes such compelling and interesting points, weaving together his topic from seeming disparate threads.  In Blink, he contrasts different ways of knowing, beginning with a story about a very old piece of art that a museum was evaluating for a possible purchase.  The experts proceeded with a very thorough and complete analysis of the statue, calling upon many experts and taking great care to evaluate it from every angle.  After more than a year, the museum decided it was most likely a genuine 2500-year-old statue and they purchased it for their collection.

However, when some art historians looked at the statue, something wasn’t right about it.  Their very first impression – a quick evaluation made in a few seconds -- was that it wasn’t genuine.  It was just a feeling, some said, that it wasn’t right.  How do we compare what we know in a few seconds with what we know from a year of thorough research and analysis?  Gladwell works to unpack this.  What did they know?  Was it unconscious knowing?  ESP?  Were they able to put together the clues that they observed without knowing that they were doing that?  Did they know it in a different way than our usual, logical, rational way of knowing?

We don’t have to be an art expert to have experienced this.  We do this all the time: first impressions.  It’s the premise behind speed-dating.  Why spend a long evening on a blind date, if we pretty much know in a few minutes whether we’re interested or not?  Those who counsel churches about church growth find that visitors to a church make a decision within the first seven minutes about whether or not to return.  Or college visits – which is how our family spent the past week – it’s all about how it feels in those first few minutes.

I remember visiting one college myself in 1977.  When we arrived on campus, my mother and aunt and I needed to use the bathroom, so we went to the library.  We found a few men’s bathrooms, but none for women.  So we decided that the college hadn’t been co-ed long enough, and left.  That college had looked good on paper, but there was something we all just knew once we got there.  First impressions.  Intuition.  Insight.

I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience at some point – where your intuition about something has trumped your careful analysis.  If anything, the amount of that careful analysis has increased exponentially in recent years.  We are living in an information-saturated culture.  If you’re my age or older, it’s very different from how we grew up.

We used to go on a trip with maps folded up in the glove compartment.  Now, our family took four smartphones, three computers, one hotspot and GPS for our four-day trip.  Anything we need to know, we can look up in seconds.  We don’t spend a lot of time not knowing.  We walk around with our brains on our hands – is that like wearing our hearts on our sleeves?  We are never disconnected from our family, our friends, the weather report, our precise location (latitude and longitude), traffic updates, breaking news, or anything we might need to know about any topic.

This information age is changing the way we educate our children.  In the past, our educational system valued the ability to remember and retain information.  Those who were good at memorizing facts and figures and spelling and grammar rules did well in school.  Now, with an almost unlimited amount of information out there, it’s the ability to sift through the data and synthesize it that has become so important.

Yet, we’re incessantly distracted.  At MIT, educators found that students had a hard time just sitting to write a paragraph, let alone an essay.  I saw an article this week about how we spend so much time skimming through so many words and images that we’re losing the capacity to sit and read a novel.  We skim the surface, but can’t go deep.  The good news is that we can get it back, if we just take the time to sit with a good novel, and re-teach ourselves to have the patience to dive deeply into the story and its characters and meanings and feelings.  But then we turn the last page and we’re back to our “real” world and its overload of bits and bytes and data.  With all of this information, are we changing our brains?  What will that mean for our faith?  Will we expect, even more, that faith is a mystery to be solved?  Will we find that God is real?  Or not?  Can we prove the resurrection?  Or not?

Thomas, back in his day, needed proof.  Not just a cerebral exercise in whether something was real – but reassurance in the midst of the terror of the crucifixion and the devastation of the disciples.  Our gospel reading begins with the disciples locked in a house because they feared for their lives.  This was long before security systems – they had barricaded themselves in a room.  The gospel of Mary Magdalene speaks of that fear: “If the authorities did not spare Jesus, how will they spare us?”  Would they come and find the disciples in their hiding place and take them and torture them and kill them too?  It’s a question that spans the centuries.  How do we overcome our fear and find the courage to claim our beliefs, to speak out for justice, to act against the violent reality of hate crimes or racism or guns, or the subtle violence of poverty or environmental disaster?  How do we know what is real?  Jesus brought proof to Thomas according to John’s gospel.  John told the story of Thomas needing proof in such a compelling way that we read it year after year to reassure ourselves of two things: that we are not alone in our doubts, and that doubts are essential to our faith and our believing.

April is often a difficult month for us – it seems that the number of tragedies are higher than average.  Whether it’s accident or intentional, the devastation runs deep.  Yom haShoah begins at sunset tonight – Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.  We remember the Marathon bombing and aftermath, or Oklahoma City, or the battles of Lexington and Concord.  Or this year, the missing Malaysian airplane, or the South Korean ferry devastating a high school’s junior class and a whole country, or closer to home, a high school junior attacked in the hallway of her high school.  And of course, the crucifixion.  How do we move beyond this terror?  How do we know, on this Sunday after Easter, that the good news of the resurrection is real?

I, for one, am comfortable with the mystery, intrigued by the mystery, attracted to the mystery.  I don’t have to know everything all the time.  Maybe it’s that flash of insight or intuition, or some unconscious knowing.  Or maybe it’s what fuels someone’s interest in neuroscience, or chemistry, or physics, or astronomy – finding the beauty.

Whatever it is, whatever moves us from tragedy to triumph, from fear to love -- maybe that’s what we know.  Maybe that journey is what Peter calls the “outcome of our faith.”  And maybe – in light of Malcolm Gladwell’s research -- maybe we know more than we think we know.

The promise of our Christian faith is that death is not the end, that God is with us always, that love conquers all.  May our convictions, however we know them, lead us to work for justice, and to share this good news – in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

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