A Sermon for the Feast of St. Thomas

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This is the final sermon preached at my internship congregation, as I draw my year (how quickly it’s gone by!) to a close. I am so grateful for the privilege of being invited into so many lives over the past year, in sadness and in joy and everything in between. The people of Augustana will remain in my heart for a lifetime of ministry. Deo gratias!


Augustana Lutheran Church
2 July 2017 + St. Thomas the Apostle
John 14.1-7



Unbelievable. A word which, by definition, implies something too improbable to be believed, something extraordinary, outside the bounds of what we expect to be true.

For nearly the past century, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise, founded by its namesake, American businessman Robert Ripley, has wowed audiences with tales of people and events so bizarre and unusual that leave many scratching their heads in disbelief. Some of their claims have indeed been too dubious and called into question, like the urban legend of Frank Tower, who, they suggest, survived the sinkings of the Titanic, Empress of Ireland, and Lusitania. That claim, as my limited internet research (and a bit of common sense) tells me, has indeed been debunked.

Outside of bizarre events and persons that may or may not fall under the category of #alternativefacts, the unbelievable also permeates the natural world with spectacular and breath-taking vistas — from the Grand Canyon to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to our own picturesque, pastoral landscapes here in Nebraska, many of which I have been able to see for myself over the past year.

Unbelievable, too, that my time among you this past year as your vicar officially draws to a close this morning. It seems like only yesterday that I was pulling a U-Haul westward down I-80, through the surprisingly hilly landscape of Iowa, across the Missouri River, and into midtown Omaha.

It seems appropriate, then, that this morning we commemorate St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, who gets rather a bad reputation for his own unbelieving. A picture I stumbled across last year when I preached on “doubting Thomas” shows an image of the apostle that poses the question, “Thomas, do you think Christians will ever appreciate that you were actually a person of great faith?” At the bottom of that image, we read his fictitious reply: “I doubt it.”

It hardly seems fair that this is how we remember Thomas — as a doubter — but I also don’t think it’s very accurate. Indeed, his three direct appearances in John’s gospel suggest a far more dynamic, nuanced picture of this disciple. In chapter 11, after Jesus has learned that Lazarus his friend has died, it is Thomas who boldly insists the disciples join their teacher on his journey to visit the bereaved family, a journey that would also begin Jesus’s path to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Several chapters later, after Jesus has been raised from the dead, Thomas’s infamous episode of disbelief is not necessarily a sign of complete skepticism or unwillingness to believe. Instead, I suspect his doubts come from a place of deep concern. In the Easter gospel, his disbelief could easily be attributed to his life experience, especially over the past few days: His rabbi had been arrested, tortured, and killed at the hands of a powerful empire, like so many others who dared to question the empire’s authority before him. Execution, period, was the ending to be expected. In other words, nothing about Thomas’s experience would have led him to think any good news could possibly come from this.

Then in today’s gospel, we hear Thomas’s words: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Situated in the context of Jesus’s “farewell discourse” to his disciples, after the raising of Lazarus and of course before his crucifixion and resurrection, Thomas’s deep concern and anguish over the events that were about to unfold are clear. One can imagine the questions on his mind: What’s going to happen to Jesus? What’s going to happen to us?

In contrast to popular perception, in these few verses from John’s gospel Thomas would actually appear to be an exemplar of faith — a faith which includes doubt and questions and anxiety and fear, a faith which is by no means perfect.

Thomas, I suspect, has much to teach us about the life of faith. For starters, faith is far more than pure, unquestioning subscription to a particular belief or doctrine, let alone denominational loyalty. Because, shocker, sometimes the church gets it wrong, like how the church got human sexuality wrong for many years and until only recently made it impossible for someone like me to follow my calling, serve this internship, and stand before you today.

Anne Lamott has famously written, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” To take that one step further, I would assert that as soon as we think we are certain about our beliefs, faith is dead. Instead, questions and doubt along the way are not only expected but welcomed, and likewise, imperfection is guaranteed along our life’s journey. No life of faith is lived in a linear fashion, and any example that suggests otherwise should be held with deep suspicion.

This is why I think Thomas is such a perfect example of a faithful disciple, not in spite of but because of his imperfection.

In our current social and political environment, there has indeed been much to be anxious about. The feelings that Thomas and his fellow disciples would have experienced are our feelings: fear, uncertainty, doubt, worry, lament, questioning. And these things are a natural, even permissible, part of the life of faith.

“You know the way… I am the way,” are the words of promise Jesus offers Thomas. Because the disciples knew Jesus in the flesh, they could know God and experience God’s unfailing presence.

Amid and in spite of doubt and fear, Jesus reassures Thomas that he knows the Father because he has known Jesus. So too, we are also promised Christ’s very presence in tangible signs: in the waters of baptism, in the Word of God proclaimed, in the grape and grain of the eucharist, in this very community whenever and wherever we gather. If you know me through these things, we can hear Jesus saying, you know God and you know God’s presence. These are the places where God promises to meet us in our life of faith, whether in its ups or in its downs, and these are the places in which we can take refuge.

Thanks be to God.


Hymn of the Day: “Faith Full of Doubt”
Dedicated to the people of Augustana

1) Faith full of doubt and full of fear,
faith is far more than believing.
Discord and violence all we hear
give way to worry and grieving,
asking “How long, O Lord, how long?”
pleading for God to right the wrong.
To you we cry, Lord, have mercy!

2) Thomas the twin, true sign of faith,
knew not his own life’s fulfilling.
To Bethany the path he’d trace,
to go with Christ was he willing:
“Let us go too with him to die!”
in faithful loyalty replied.
To you he cried, Lord, have mercy!

3) Among his friends one last repast,
Christ his farewell to them making.
Thomas alone was bold to ask,
e’en as his heárt was breaking:
“How can we know the place you go,
if the way there we do not know?”
Still was his cry, Lord, have mercy!

4) When the apostles saw the Lord,
risen in glorious splendor,
Thomas could not believe their word;
all his experience rendered:
“This is too much, this cannot be!
Impossible unless I see!”
To you he cried, Lord, have mercy!

5) Like Thomas we well understand
journey implies imperfection.
Certainty faith does not demand;
doubt and lament are expected.
When all around is cause to fear,
hope is resigned, hope disappeared:
The cry of faith, Lord, have mercy!

6) Claimed as God’s own in wat’ry bath,
marked on our brows the sign tracing;
ever with Christ to walk the path,
rest in God’s gracious embracing.
Let not your hearts be troubled here!
In bread, wine, water God draws near!
To you we sing, Hallelujah!

Text: Josh Evans, b. 1989
Music: KIRKEN DEN ER ET GAMMELT HUS, Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1812-1887
Text: © 2017 Josh Evans. All rights reserved; used by permission.
Music: Public Domain

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A Sermon about Faith, Community, and Subverting Boundaries

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htloop copreaching.jpg

Photo Credit: Ben Adams

This weekend, I was invited to preach at my home congregation, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago. I also had the unique opportunity to preach alongside my good friend and seminary colleague Analyse Triolo.

The video below, courtesy of Analyse, is from Sunday morning’s version, though we also preached at the Saturday night liturgy in the South Loop. In the manuscript that follows, our individual headshots denote those portions of the sermon we wrote. Analyse’s spoken parts are in green, and mine are in blue.


Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
28-29 May 2016 + Lectionary 9C
Luke 7.1-10



analyse headshotEveryone feels like an outsider at one point or another. Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the eccentric theatre geek in your high school, or anything in between, I bet that not one of us here feels like we fit perfectly into the communities in which we find ourselves. The centurion in today’s gospel reading is also an outsider. It’s clear that he cares deeply for the community he’s a part of and is deeply involved in seeing to the welfare of the people in Capernaum, but at the same time he knows that because of his vocation and ethnicity he will always be an outsider.

I remember feeling like an outsider not too long ago, back in August when I first moved to Chicago. Not only did I move away from my home state of North Carolina for the very first time, but also from First Lutheran Church, a welcoming community that had been my church home since I was 4 years old. I had left everything that was home, that was comforting, to finish my degree at LSTC. The problem was that I was only going to be here for a year. What was the point of plugging into the community? Who was going to invest time in a stranger who was just passing through? I was an outsider looking in, not only at LSTC, but also as I looked for my church home-away-from-home.

Thankfully, the LSTC community saw my desire to connect, to build relationships not only at school, but also with a church, and so I was invited to Holy Trinity in the Loop my second week here. I didn’t know what to expect that first Saturday night…but when Pr. Craig said, “No matter who you are, no matter who you love, no matter if you’re here for the first time or if you call this your church home…you are welcome here.” In that moment I heard no matter if you’re part of the “in crowd” or if you feel like an outsider, no matter if you feel lost or if you feel right at home, YOU. ARE. WELCOME. HERE. I cried. My home church’s welcome statement starts much the same way.

I turned to a friend sitting next to me and I said, “I found it. I found where I belong.”

When Jesus saw a community welcome an outsider, he was amazed. 

josh headshot.pngCommunity stands at the heart of today’s gospel, and it is deeply intertwined with faith.

The centurion, of course, is an official of the Roman empire. He knows what it means to have the authority to tell someone to do something and they do it. He also seems to recognize that Jesus has a similar but far greater authority when he says, “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” It’s a confession of faith that makes a claim about who Jesus is and from whom his authority comes.

It’s a tremendous confession of faith—but the centurion never says a word of it. Instead, it is mediated secondhand and carried by others.

Earlier in Luke’s gospel, a man who is paralyzed is carried by his friends to Jesus to be healed. In another passage, a widow’s son who has died is being carried away when Jesus has compassion and raises him to life. And in yet another story, parents are carrying their little children to Jesus to be blessed. The centurion’s friends, too, carry his faith on his behalf. Over and over, people are being carried to Jesus by their community. To paraphrase the Beatles, they get by with a little help from their friends.

The life of the church, too, is filled with carrying. When we are very young, we are carried to the font to be baptized and welcomed into the community of faith. Every Sunday, too, we are swept up in that same community to eat and drink at this table. Even when we recite the Nicene Creed in the liturgy, it is not “I believe” but “we believe.”

In a short story by Megan Mayhew Bergman, the narrator spots a gospel choir that passes by her cottage every Sunday morning, singing. The sight is enough to make her cry and yearn for their return every week, as she says, “All I needed of religion, I realized, was the beautiful sound of someone else’s faith.”[1]

When Jesus heard this faith that is vulnerable enough to be carried by the community, he was amazed.

analyse headshotThe centurion’s faith is a subversive act. James Marsters, a subversive actor and musician best known for playing the role of Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, describes an act of subversion as something that pushes back against the status quo. Subversion, he says, strips away the lies that are taught to us by society.[2] Subversive acts break down those falsehoods and say, “No! That is not how it has to be.”

The centurion’s faith, carried by the community, strips away the idea that only God’s chosen people, Israel, are capable of great faith. This Gentile’s faith reflects belief in a God who also subverts boundaries and cares for all people. And so through his friends he exclaims that Jesus has the authority to heal his servant. Furthermore, Jesus’s authority, which greatly outshines his own, is capable of doing so while simultaneously honoring Jewish purity laws. The centurion’s faith in a subversive God is so great that faith and hospitality become interconnected, a bridge is formed between ethnic groups, and for the first time this outsider truly belongs.

Jesus also responds subversively. Jesus finds the centurion worthy because the centurion declares first that he is not. The centurion’s faith alone, carried by the community, makes him worthy in Jesus’s eyes. In the historical context of this text, healing miracles were expected to require direct, proximate contact between the healer and the one being healed. And so inspired by the centurion’s faith, Jesus subverts this custom, bestowing God’s gracious, healing power upon the centurion’s servant, giving legitimacy to the centurion’s faith, and opening the community of believers up to not only Israel, but to the Gentiles as well, subverting boundaries all the way. As biblical scholar Gregory Anderson Love writes of this text, “Luke portrays faith as situated within a community of hospitality in which God and others are embraced.”[3]

When Jesus understood that God subverts all boundaries, even the one between Jews and Gentiles, he was amazed. 

josh headshot.pngFor the past three years since I’ve been at Holy Trinity, I have experienced what it means to be carried by the faith of a community that reimagines Christianity in expansive ways. Especially on days when I’m personally not feeling it, I have been able to come to this place and be communally carried by that faith.

The story about the healing of the centurion’s slave is a story about faith in community—that happens to include a healing. It’s a story about the kind of faith we strive to embody here at Holy Trinity. It’s a communal faith that transcends boundaries because the one in whom we trust transcends boundaries.

It’s a faith that finds expression in our hospitality every week and in our guiding principles.

When we bear our faith in anti-racism work and two Advents ago on the corner of Clark and Addison to declare that “Black Lives Matter,” we act with courage.

When we say every week Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whomever you love or marry, you are welcome here, we are radically inclusive.

When the mission of Holy Trinity spans peoples across Chicago, from Lakeview to the South Loop, we cultivate empowering relationships.

When a sliver of green space in our garden (at our Lakeview building) reminds us of the splendor of creation and our task to be good stewards of the natural world, we delight in God’s beauty.

When we experience meaningful, multi-sensory liturgy and are renewed for our daily life and work among God’s people, we engage with intention.

These guiding principles are rooted in the exemplar of faith Jesus holds up in today’s gospel. He commends a faith held together by the community that trusts in God’s all-encompassing grace for the sake of the world.

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed.


[1] Megan Mayhew Bergman, “The Right Company,” in Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories (New York, Scribner, 2012), 147.

[2] https://youtu.be/Qp6x-agIfhQ

[3] Gregory Anderson Love, “Luke 7:1-10 Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, vol. 3, pt. 3, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 92-96.