April 7, 2024

Remember the wonderful Doctor Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who? It was fun. But the basic theme really grabbed me. Horton the elephant heard a little sound coming from a tiny speck of dust or pollen or something that had settled on a flower. He was the only one who could hear the little sound because he had such great big ears. What he heard was the sound of the mayor of Whoville letting out a big yell. Whoville was so tiny it was invisible, existing on the surface of that little speck. When Horton and the mayor became able to hear each other, they each had a problem. In Horton’s world no one could believe that there were tiny people living on a speck so small you could barely see it. Down in Whoville no one could believe that there was a giant elephant in the sky talking to the mayor. Each had a problem convincing all the others in their world of that which they alone could perceive. The kangaroo in Horton’s world put it bluntly: “If I can’t see it, hear it, or touch it, it doesn’t exist.” I thought of this old tale when I was reflecting on the story of the disciple Thomas who would not believe the testimony of his friends about the risen Christ because he had not seen, heard, or touched him himself.

Horton’s dilemma and Thomas’s disconnect raise some profound questions for you and me; for instance, what is this thing we call reality? Does it consist only of that which we can see, hear, or touch? There are, indeed, worlds so minuscule that we can’t see them, worlds that display amazing things: atoms, electrons, subatomic particles that operate with a brand of physics that makes the most brilliant particle physicist’s head spin. You and I can’t see these tiny worlds, but we believe they are there, making up all the things around us, and even ourselves. They are part of the reality that we all “know” – even though we have never seen them. We are a step ahead of the kangaroo in this regard, because we believe the testimony of those who say they have, through mathematics, electron microscopes, and particle accelerators, heard a little “who” from these tiny specks.

Not only do these invisible particles comprise part of the reality we all know, but so do things like the “fact” that the earth is round, that it orbits the sun, that human beings evolved from other species, that the universe as we “know” it sprang forth from a “Big Bang”, and that the earth is currently warming in large part due to human activity. But I ask you, do you have any direct experience to confirm these “facts”? Have you ever personally circumnavigated the earth? There are other explanations, you know, for the evidence of our eyes; for instance that the earth is stationary and the sun orbits around it. You consider such a notion to be laughable, but why? Because you have been taught to believe otherwise. You have been given the picture we all hold in our heads of the solar system and the cosmos by people you respect, and by people who have written books, and have sent rockets into space.

The truth is you and I are each creating reality every minute in our own heads. That “reality” is a composite of everything we see, hear, and touch, but also everything we “believe” to be true – things that people in authority or with many degrees after their names have told us. So “believing” is part of what we call “reality”. Problems arise when the beliefs that comprise our reality turn out to be distortions, or even outright falsehoods. It happens all the time. It happened in the seventeenth century when the Pope sentenced Galileo to house arrest for the remainder of his life for the heresy of declaring that the earth orbited the sun rather than the other way around. After all, it was obvious to everyone that the earth was stationary and the sun moved across the sky. Besides, Psalm 104, verse 5 says, “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved (NIV).” Belief so easily creates reality. And when beliefs held firmly are in conflict, then realities are in conflict. And it is intolerable for one’s reality to be shaken by someone else’s claim to reality. This is the genesis of so much hatred and so much shed blood across the pages of human history. It was at the root of what was happening all around them at the very time Thomas and the disciples were caught up in their own alternate realities. John tells us that the disciples were in their house with the doors locked, for “fear of the Jews”. And what was the crux of this fear that made them lock the doors? It was the conflict in realities that had led to violence among the zealots, the Sanhedrin, Jesus and his followers, and the Romans.

I’d like to suggest this morning that both “believing” and “reality” are not all they’re cracked up to be. Since beliefs are so often distortions or even falsehoods, and reality is so greatly comprised of beliefs, I suggest that we all hold both our beliefs and our sense of what is real and what is not very lightly, or perhaps at arm’s length. I suggest that the reality that exists outside your mind is, by definition much larger and in many ways different from the reality in your head.

If I haven’t lost you by now (or even if I have) let me put it simply: there is another kind of “believing” that is sound and dependable. It is “believing” with the heart, rather than the believing of the head. I’m using the word “heart” to refer to that undefinable, inner aspect of being that seems to reside somewhere deeper than consciousness and rationality. This “heart thing” is not a conviction about some notion, it is simply a bedrock awareness, a point of connection, if you will, to that which lies at the Beating Heart of existence – call that God if you like, and call this bedrock awareness faith if you like. But for now, we’re calling it believing with the heart. The heart doesn’t believe “something” or believe “in” something; the heart just experiences, feels, and relates.

That’s what was happening among the disciples in that room. It’s clear that the episode described in our scripture this morning involves some kind of extraordinary experience that touched and engaged their hearts. That sort of experience is not unknown to us. I have heard so many of them related: a man I know who was visited in the night by his daughter after she was killed in a car crash, a man whose image appeared on the windshield of a car on the way to his funeral service, a father who came to his daughter after his death to say that everything was alright. Those who have never had such moments easily dismiss them, as did Thomas. But when the heart speaks, it behooves us to listen, and to recognize that reality is perhaps larger than we know. It can encompass a depth of Love that itself transcends even death.

The author of the Book of Acts in our lectionary reading this morning alluded to this when he tried to put words to what happened when Christ’s Church was about to be born. As you heard earlier, he wrote, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” Apparently this “believing” thing had much to do with the heart and soul.

Frederick Buechner ( who is the author of most of our bulletin meditation thoughts) captures all this beautifully. He writes, “Thomas is called the Twin in the New Testament, and if you want to know who the other twin is, I can tell you. I am the other twin, and unless I miss my guess, so are you. . . . ‘Have you believed because you have seen me?’ Jesus asked Thomas, our twin, and my guess is that Thomas believed not because of what his eyes had seen but because of what his heart had seen.”

Buechner is right; Thomas is our twin. It is you and I who are standing in that locked room with skeptical eyes. And perhaps our own hearts could learn something from what his heart eventually saw. Not only that, but maybe Horton the elephant has some important lessons for us. One is to pay close attention – watch and listen – very closely, very carefully; you never know what different reality you might stumble upon. Secondly, hold your own beliefs and notions of reality very lightly so that when you do encounter an alternate reality you won’t be too quick to dismiss it; there may lie waiting for you glorious new things to learn. And finally, is “seeing” really “believing”? Trust your heart; it may actually be smarter than your head.

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