Lately, I’ve been thinking about salmon. Our People’s Warden, Sandra, was cooking up some salmon on the weekend and it got me thinking about the annual salmon run. You know about it, I’m sure. If you live in BC, how could you not? It happens every year. Salmon hatched in freshwater, having lived most of their life downstream in the ocean, make their way upstream to spawn, to lay eggs in rivers and creeks. We have one such creek behind us here at St Clement’s. After depositing their eggs, most if not all of the salmon die. These little hatchlings born in freshwater, who have lived their childhood in rivers and lakes, their teenage and adult years in the ocean, then, against all reason, fight their way up against the current to spawn and die.
Now, here’s the really cool part: when the salmon swim back to the freshwater where they were born, they almost always return to the exact location where they were hatched. It’s called “magnetoreception”. They use their sense of smell and these tiny sensors to feel for currents in the earth’s magnetic field and then they use those currents to navigate their way back home.
So, thinking about our gospel reading today. Jesus appears to the disciples after he’s been crucified; has died, been buried in a tomb, and now is resurrected and alive. Thomas, he missed out on seeing Jesus with the rest of the gang. Now, he's kind of hanging back refusing to believe that it’s really Jesus until he sees him for himself.
"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands," Thomas famously says, "and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
For this, Thomas will forever be known as 'Doubting Thomas,' the disciple who we can all relate to, sure, but not necessarily the one to emulate. He's representative of those who fall away from their faith or just have such a hard time believing in God without concrete proof.
"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe," Jesus will say.
Well, what if I told you that Thomas’ doubt, Thomas’ unbelief is actually a gift, a kind of magnetoreception which he uses to find his way back?
Stick with me, folks, this one’s worth it, I promise.
If you think back to being a child, it’s almost like there’s no such thing as unbelief when you’re a kid. Everything is possible. A larger-than-life figure who wears a big red suit and comes down your chimney at Christmas? Fact. The Easter bunny? Fact. Leave your teeth under your pillow so the tooth fairy can swap it out for some money? Fact.
Then you grow up, head to school with the big kids. You learn about physics, that smoke is more likely to make its way up a chimney than solid mass is to make its way down. And, your teeth, well, you want to hold on to your teeth as it turns out. Replacing them as a grown up is kind of expensive.
And, the questions you had as a child about the way things work, these are still this playground for your imagination, but it's different now that you have science and reason to back them up.
Unbelief or doubt, as a teenager, is sometimes read as stubbornness or defiance (everyone is always in a rush to get you out of bed, everyone’s always asking you what you want to do with your life and maybe you have some idea, but most days you’re just tired). But, your doubt as a teenager, actually, this is your faithful act of resistance. It’s your way of saying to the world, “Listen, I want to know the truth, and when I say know the truth, I mean not only know how things are the way they are, but why things are the way they are.”
After being a teenager, you become an adult, and eventually you become an “older person.” When you’re an older person, you start thinking over your life, what kind of legacy you want to leave. Meanwhile, the world around you continues to change. Young people have all these ideas. It’s inspiring. You feel hope for the next generation and, you have doubts. This isn’t your first rodeo. You’ve been around the block a few times. You’ve seen projects and platforms and grand ideas come and go. Maybe you start to think, “I’ll just wait to see this next one for myself before I believe it to be true.”
I've heard from some of you that in the older years, funnily enough, doubt brings you back to the stuff in life that really matters, the stuff you can see and touch and feel with your hands: the soil in your garden, the hand of a grandchild, your scars— physical and emotional—wounds that healed with time.
When salmon, in their older years, return to their natal waters to lay eggs and ultimately to die, they leave behind the most incredible legacy: “the nutrients in their carcasses, rich in nitrogen, sulfur, carbon and phosphorus, are transferred from the ocean and released to inland aquatic ecosystems, terrestrial animals (such as bears) and the wetlands and riparian woodlands adjacent to the rivers. This has knock-on effects not only for the next generation of salmon, but [for birds and] every wildlife species living in the . . . zones the salmon reach.”
Doubt is such a fickle thing. It can hinder our ability to dream or hope or feel optimistic about the world ahead and whether we're leaving behind anything of lasting value. Whether we’re young or old, doubt can make us grumpy, and let's face it, sometimes a little unpleasant to be around. But, doubt can also be the magnetoreception, the current that guides us back home to the stuff that matters most: the knowledge that there is an other side to suffering; that there is life after death; that the quest for understanding, though arduous, is worthwhile; that the God who became human even to the point of death on a cross really is alive and reigns among us even now.
Because, like Thomas, we've felt this hope with our own two hands. Because, if doubt can help us identify those things in life that are untrue, how much more can it help us hang back for those things that might just be true? Amen.
Work cited: “Salmon run” in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, accessed online on 15 April 2023 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmon_run