St Thomas’ Day 2016 ~ Doubt and Disbelief in a Time of Fear
It has been a week of disbelief hasn’t it? Not so much doubt, but disbelief. St Thomas, is certainly an apt saint to celebrate today – associated as he is with doubt and disbelief. So it is that as a nation we have watched in disbelief as all the best laid plans and intentions evaporated - leading to ridicule, anger and humiliation on the other side of the channel, and of course our leader immediately fell on his sword and resigned, much more swiftly than anyone would have predicted, leaving us all in disarray. But I suppose, if you fail in your project or vision, tis better if it were done quickly. Now we do not know the future, no-one knows which way to turn, financial norms have been upturned, and we are the laughing stock of Continental Europe. And all our goals came to nothing. And that’s just the football …
I’m talking about the football, of course – and perhaps the Belgians feel the same way after losing to Wales! There is much irony to be found in the sporting debacle of Monday evening, as we came crashing out of Europe. And I do wonder which matters more to most people, Brexit or football?!
But there it is, we have experienced the worst footballing defeat in decades, and we voted to sever our bonds with the European Union. A football manager and his counterpart at 10 Downing Street resigned quicker than you could say ‘defeat’, and for sure it was de feet that let us down at football and the leader of the other party is, shall we say, up against it. So it is that this week of disbelief is in fact characterised to some extent, by defeat. Defeat leads to disbelief and doubt. Many people can’t quite believe what has happened politically – it has been a bit of whirlwind – and many are reeling from the footballing defeat at the hands – and de feet - of those bearded amateur Icelandic chaps. And Iceland is such a beautiful country and their people are so lovely, and of course, they aren’t in the EU. Time magazine described last week as the week that broke British politics. It probably also broke English football!
But then there is another defeat - effectively - that we mark this weekend. It knocks everything else into a rather different perspective. Perhaps you noted the two minutes silence around 7.30am on Friday, which marked the 100th anniversary of the kick off of the most prolonged bloodbath in modern history. Silence is of course the best response, rather than the debating about whether it was all a big mistake, or something we learned from, or whatever historical debate arises from the battle of the Somme a hundred years ago. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’, as the Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said. His brother, Paul, incidentally, was a famous pianist, who was injured in the First World War, losing his arm, an adversity which he overcame to become the world’s most famous one armed pianist, for whom Ravel and others wrote concerti. This evening’s concert here, by the way, pays homage to the Somme battle, with music by Elgar, Delius and Butterworth, who himself died in the trenches. Certainly sometimes, whereof we cannot speak we must remain silent, but at other times, we turn to music. So I commend this evening’s concert to you.
Football, war and politics have often been compared, sometimes one is seen as a substitute for the other, sometimes politics and sport get inextricably and awkwardly intertwined, and then people say that sport and politics shouldn’t mix. They say that about the church too – churches should stay out of politics, they say. Well, as with sport, sometimes that cannot be avoided, in the past we have seen sporting events boycotted, countries ostracised and so forth, because sport matters to people too. And religion, if it is genuine, engaged, honest and reflective – which it should be, is, in fact all about politics, because both politics and faith are ultimately about who we are, what we believe, what is good and right and about how we live with our neighbours. So as Christians, there is much to reflect on this week – much to test our beliefs, hopes, opinions and values, which hopefully, if we are Christians, are Christian hopes, beliefs, opinions and values.
Avoiding the inevitable truth of this, is ‘doing a Thomas’ – that is refusing to make challenging connections unless they are put right under our nose. For St Thomas something had happened that was bad, for sure – his friend Jesus had been crucified. He believed that all right. And for sure, it rocked him. And we are told in the gospel that he was not present when Jesus first appeared to the other disciples in the upper room. So when he heard that this had happened, the sceptic in him rose up – ‘no – you imagined it, you’re making it up, it can’t be true’.
Many of us can relate to this – we live in a sceptical age, and certainly, ironically, since the time of Wittgenstein, we are intellectually built to seek proofs for everything and dismiss that which is not provable or demonstrable. Thomas is a man for our season – but there is a bit more to it than scepticism. Because we can all hide behind the idea that something is illogical, impossible or unheard of, and so dismiss it. Like Mr Spock, if it is illogical, then forget it. But Mr Spock of Star Trek fame didn’t have the inherently human trait of being threatened by that which he couldn’t explain – he just dismissed it. Thomas’ problem, being human, like us too, is that it isn’t necessarily logic that troubles us, but fear. If someone says or reportedly does something that challenges our view of the world, we don’t want to accept it, so we disbelieve it. ‘I don’t believe it’ was the catch phrase of old Victor Meldrew, you might remember. ‘I don’t believe it’.
‘I don’t want to believe it’, more like. That, I think is at least part of what Thomas was saying – ‘I don’t want to believe it because I won’t be able to cope if it’s true’. ‘If it’s true, my world will be shaken to the core and I will have to rethink everything. I do not want to go there. So, I don’t and won’t believe it.’
This is not so far-fetched remember, because it is what we all say to ourselves when a loved one dies, and that is one of the huge obstacles of grief – the internal battle between the truth and the desire. I don’t want it to be true, but I have to accept that it is. It is challenging, painful and distressing. And eventually we cave in – we accept defeat in the face of truth.
Sometimes, like Thomas, we have to face the defeat of our worldview when the truth comes crashing in. It leads both to radical, externally enforced change, and it leads, as for Thomas, to a falling on one’s knees in prayer and adoration. It is a profound moment as human frailty subsides in the presence of divine love. ‘My Lord and my God’, he says, not simply overjoyed to see his Lord, but thoroughly, almost joyously defeated in his worldview.
I wonder, for how many this week has been a bit like that? Leaving the EU, was clearly a great, but surprising, joy for the small majority who wanted it. And it was a huge shock to the system of the large minority who didn’t want it. Change is now inevitable, the world will look different, and of course we do not exactly know how.
Being kicked out of Europe by Iceland in an ignominious defeat was too much for some people too. Disbelief and disappointment were evident on Monday night, just as they were for many on Friday morning. And all because, sport, politics and faith evince similar reactions. For better or worse, these things matter to us, and indeed some of them are important too.
So it is sobering, on a day when we recall Thomas, that ever so human saint, whose reaction to the resurrection we can honestly understand – it is sobering to be in the midst of footballing ignominy, political upheaval, and heavy remembrance of a battle that would kill a million men, only a hundred years ago. What would the men who died on the banks of a French river make of modern Europe? They saw the European project at its supreme worst. To call Brexit ‘Project Fear’ is a huge insult to them, who experienced fear in a way we cannot comprehend or imagine. We who do not know fear, and for whom our worries are financial or footballing. We remember and we regret, as we should – and indeed it is the best we can do. Perhaps we remain silent, perhaps we turn to music. We may even turn to prayer. Or perhaps to poetry:
The poet A.E. Housman wrote a set of poems called ‘A Shropshire Lad’. It was written after the Boer War, so a little earlier than the Great War, and these poems inspired the composer George Butterworth to write an orchestral rhapsody – which will be played this evening here, in commemoration of the Somme.
Butterworth served in the 13th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, and he and his men succeeded in capturing a series of trenches near Pozières on the Somme on 16–17 July 1916, and he was slightly wounded in the action. He was duly awarded the Military Cross, but he did not live to receive it. The Battle of the Somme was entering its most intense phase. On 4 August, his Division was ordered to attack a communications trench known as Munster Alley that was in German hands. The soldiers dug an assault trench, which they called ‘Butterworth Trench’ in his honour. There was desperate fighting overnight of 4–5 August, during which Butterworth was shot in the head by a sniper. His body was never recovered.
Hold that thought. Hold the thought of our footballing defeat. Hold the political confusion of our day in your minds. Hold the future of Europe in your prayers. Hold transformed Thomas in your spirit. And now listen to this poem, from Housman’s ‘Shropshire Lad’ which inspired Butterworth’s music.
It’s number 27:
“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?”
Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.
“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”
Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”
Yes, lad, I lie easy.
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.
And yet, now as then, life goes on – resurrection life goes on too. Thomas was transformed by recognition of the resurrection, and so can we – and everyone else be.
But it may involve some seriously challenging conversations, and some life-changing conversions. In time of confusion or frustration, or doubt or disbelief, there is nowhere else to turn, but to our Lord. For Christ is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow, and is the sure foundation of our hope and the one who will journey with us, no matter how trivial or deeply serious are the concerns we bring to him. Be comforted, be hopeful, and in all things give thanks, and pray fervently to the God who in Jesus Christ gives us all hope and promise and the assurance of resurrection life in our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 3/7/16